Not that I have a snobbish attitude toward them, anything that gets the creative juices flowing and entices a person to write is okay in my book. Hell, I’ve even participated in a few hashtag games on Twitter, but none of the suggested prompt words, sentences, paragraphs, or pictures ever truly inspired me.
Until I stumbled upon the Noriyoshi Orai artwork shown above.
Blindsided by an idea, I began scribbling notes of an alien invasion futuristic war that keeps pushing its way further and further into Earth’s past with the intention of creating a zugzwang (a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage) story using a fairy tale twist.
Why a fairy tale?
Because the old ones are replete with heavy messages, drenched in the misfortunes of the world, and yet faith, perseverance, and sometimes sheer luck, can turn the tide in overcoming life’s trials. I wanted to present it as an old story, told in archaic language, laced with a subtle message still relevant to the modern world.
If you ever want to hear your muse laugh, tell her your lofty goals for a story before you’ve actually written it.
“Rise of the Fallen 722nd” began life as a story examining patriotism, loyalty, ingenuity, and the enduring human spirit in the face of the ultimate no-win scenario. The outline wasn’t difficult to put on paper. The story itself? That’s a different matter altogether. This little darling of mine went through the draft mill forty-nine times, each revision drastically different from the one before. Only one patch of dialogue survived from the original piece.
Futuristic war? Check. Progressing forward into the past? Check. Zugzwang? Double check. Fairy tale twist? Not so much. The fairy tale elements weakened the integrity of the overall structure and sadly had to be put down like Old Yeller. Still, it’s been fun (and frustrating) to write. And I’m not done with it. They say the fiftieth time’s the charm, right?
Today is isogoles, which is the monthly day of pay for everyone who lives on Europa, no matter what your profession, no matter how old you are. And we’re not talking about money because Europa has no currency, per se. People are paid off, each according to their needs. Some are paid in food while others are paid in services or clothing, or one of nearly a hundred things that serve as some sort of commodity here.
Since my family has the ability to grow our own food and my children are adept at creating clothing, we accept water as payment, as our village is far removed from the sea and a trip there and back would take nearly three weeks to complete and that’s only when conditions permit.
Today also marked the arrival of Denpa to our village, which caused the usual amount of excitement. Denpa is an envoy that travels from village to village delivering messages from other communities both near and far.
He’s the Europan version of e-mail, equipped with an audiographic memory that can store and recall spoken messages at will in the same voice, tone and inflection of the original person who spoke it.
Production in the village stops whenever Denpa appears as locals crowd around to hear if they’ve received a message from distant loved ones. I’m always excited when my wife gets messages from home and though I know it’s silly, I secretly pray that Denpa has a message from my mother and father. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind hearing from my older sister at this point.
Like I said, silly, but you have no idea how hard it is being the only one of your kind, even though I’m surrounded by the kindest beings in existence. I am so very far away from my home, and at times I feel every inch of that distance.
So, if you can hear this transmission and you have the ability to broadcast, please try to send me a message, a ping, anything.
Until next broadcast, this is Captain Edwards, signing off.
Forgive the brevity of this broadcast, but I’m really tired after a full evening of shig’umfu, which means interesting world of another and is a brand of documentary qik’climajh in which your neighbors must tell the story of your life as presented to them in casual conversations. It’s important that the exchange be casual. Purposeful family exposition is frowned upon as it comes off as braggadocio, which will most assuredly be included in the story your neighbor tells.
The most interesting thing about the ritual is the closer you get to shig’umfu, the friendlier your neighbors become. Now, don’t get me wrong, Europans by nature are a pretty inquisitive and sociable lot, but come shig’umfu, interest in your family, your life and even your day to day misadventures increase tenfold.
Also fascinating to note, equal importance is paid to the subject matter as well as the telling. Families put forth their very best experiences, both positive and negative, hoping to present layers of interesting source material. The teller is then responsible for arranging the events as to present a story replete with happiness, sorrow, triumphs and defeats, births and losses, because everyone knows the best tales take you on a journey through a full range of emotion.
Careful attention to detail must be paid because there’s nothing more shaming than to have the family whose story you’re telling correct you, though, in polite society that almost never happens. Still, most can tell by the expressions on the family’s faces whether you’ve gotten the story right.
All this may sound like a silly waste of time to you, but it’s really educational in that you get a glimpse at how your neighbors view you and your family. Tonight, it was my family’s turn to reenact our neighbors’ lives, all eighteen generations, so I’m sure you can see why I’d be tired.
But it was fun.
Until next broadcast, this is Captain Edwards, signing off.
You’re not going to believe this, but we’re in the middle of a lemonade boom on Europa. I guess that needs some explaining, doesn’t it? Okay, well, the cultural exchange in my house goes both ways. Usually, I learn Europan culture as my children learn it. My wife is a patient and excellent teacher. But at the same time, I try to sneak in a few Earth facts along the way, and my children love it.
One time, when they were curious about what I did when I was their age, I told them about how my mom helped me build a lemonade stand in front of our house when I was a kid. They went nuts over the concept and begged me to help them build one here on Europa.
I know what you’re going to ask and the answer is, No, Europa does not have lemons. So we improvised by using a sweet mineral root from the tree that grows in our backyard. I even taught them the English alphabet, or enough of it so they could spell the word LEMONADE. I offered to make the sign but was vetoed. They wanted to write the word itself which came out looking like “JBWQNADB” but they were so proud of themselves that I couldn’t bring myself to correct them.
At first I thought they had set themselves up for disappointment, as passersby only offered their lemonade stand the queerest looks, but my youngest, Nes’Tim bless him, started calling to them, “Hey, come buy our lemonade stand!“
Soon people flocked around as my kids poured cups of lemonade and told the story of how my mother and I created this custom on Earth. Again, I didn’t have the heart to correct them in the middle of their sales pitch. People stayed, listened to the story, drank the alien concoction and invited others to join. I’m sure they stayed for the novelty and not for the lemonade. Although made from sweet root, that concoction was the most bitter thing I’ve ever tasted in my life.
The next day, when I thought that the lemonade curiosity had passed, I stepped outside to see a crudely built lemonade stand on each of my neighbors’ doorsteps. But there was no competition in it. Everyone visited everyone else’s lemonade stand and listened intently as the stand owner related the tale of how I discovered lemonade. Apparently, they thought that the telling of the story was the key part of the transaction and that the drinking of the lemonade itself signaled the end of the story.
Weird, but funny. And I have to run now. I’ve drank more than my fair share of lemonade today and I think I’m going to be sick.
Until next broadcast, this is Captain Edwards, signing off.
It’s that season again, the time of year when all the families in the communities are asked to bring their egami in for routine physicals. What’s an egami? I hear you asking and the simple, though not totally accurate answer is, they’re mineral-based creatures primarily used for family transportation. Seemingly mindless and docile, the egami require very little care and are virtually inexhaustible. Normally, on Earth, creatures like these would have been enslaved and abused, but here, Europans go through an extensive interview process and accept the humble beasts of burden into the family structure to the point where they dine and sleep together.
My family is fortunate in that we live so close to an egami clinic, which means Rocky, our pet (it feels so weird referring to him that way, but I simply don’t have a better word) is always amongst the first to be seen. Yes, I think of our egami as a male, though they are gender non-specific, and yes, I was in charge of choosing the name. I just wish there was someone around to get the joke. Sometimes being the only one of your kind can be a lonely thing.
Naturally, there are those who grumble that lotteries should be drawn each season to rotate the order in which the egamis are seen, but these complaints usually come from the hermits who live on the fringes of the community and they are easily ignored since they generally tend to moan about everything.
The physical is more like a spa day for the egami. After their vital signs are checked, they are basically pampered for the day. Another function of physical season is to offer families the ability to trade in their egamis if they’re unhappy with them, which is extremely rare, but has been known to happen.
My family is quite pleased with Rocky, although sometimes my daughter wonders if he would have been better off living in the wild. The problem with this suggestion is, once you’ve domesticated an egami, very seldom do the wild herds accept them back into the fold, so most wind up dying from what is believed to be either loneliness or lack of affection.
Which is a horrible way to die and who would subject a family member to that?
Until next broadcast, this is Captain Edwards, signing off.
The other day a qik’climajh — translation, translation… uh, I guess they would be considered the Europan version of storytellers — acted out the Tragedy of Nes’Tim, the famous surface whale whose fossilized remains rest at the highest point of Pwyll.
Once the most revered being on Europa, the spiritual prophet Nes’Tim was slain by the heretic tribe, Sel’Tab, during the height of the Glacial Wars. Meis’lo, a relative of my wife, is the only surviving witness to the tragedy. He was a child at the time, and foolishly wedged himself between the heretics and Nes’Tim. He was lucky to escape the confrontation with his life. He bears the scar of the puncture wound over his second heart.
The Sel’Tab, not above slaying a prophet, apparently had qualms about murdering a child. While I wish I could have met Nes’Tim, I’m glad that Meis’lo was not the one killed during that skirmish. Despite his nearly 600 years of age, he is a great history buff and I love talking about Europan history with him.
Back to the qik’climajh, a term that actually covers both the person telling the story and the act of storytelling (it sounds complicated but you can tell the difference when the word is used in a sentence). The ritual of the qik’climajh is that everyone in attendance takes turns telling a story.
I, unfortunately, am not much of a storyteller, so when it came to be my turn, I chose to talk about one of my favorite classic comedy shows, The Honeymooners. I tried to explain the concept of television and quickly abandoned it when I sensed the crowd getting restless.
As I retold a few of the episodes I remembered best, the ones with the chef of the future, Carlos mambo lessons, and rubber marshmallows, I watched their faces knot in confusion. At first I thought it was my fault. As I said, I’m nobody’s first choice for a storyteller, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was the concept of KramdenRalph, as they referred to Mr. Gleeson’s character, they struggled to understand. In fact, his character was so perplexing to their Europan mindset, it sparked a great debate amongst the elders, who couldn’t find the logic of how and why everyone tolerated the portly bus driver.
After many hours of serious debate, the consensus was that NortonEd and KramdenAlice should have stripped KramdenRalph of all his possessions and exiled him from the village of Bensonhurst, armed with only a Handy Housewife Helper and a can of KraMars Delicious Mystery Appetizer.
Now, I’m actually looking forward to next week’s outing because I can’t wait to get their take on Seinfeld.
Until next broadcast, this is Captain Edwards, signing off.
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Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that was removed and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.
The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, as patient as the lamb she was in life.
She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that was mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.
Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure — she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture — getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in heaven.
While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little of the time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.
Finally, an angel arrived, tall and thin with black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he no longer needed. A remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.
The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the uns — undertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.
“Hi, I’m Modestine.” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.
Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.
Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you…” and she tried her best to match the noise he made… but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.
Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”
Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?” she asked.
“Heavens no,” Phil replied. “That’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”
“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”
“I’m here to take you to class.”
“Oh, okay.” Modestine followed behind Phil, a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.
Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.
“Here you are.” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.
“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”
“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh look had a sting.
“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”
“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.
“Oh, no… no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”
“It’ll come to you as you need. Heaven’s cool that way.”
“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”
“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”
“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.
The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”
Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.
“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”
The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.
The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several icebreaking games before the class broke for recess.
As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.
“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.
“Just Modestine, and, yes… ?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.
The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”
“You’re not? Then who… ?”
“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”
Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch… what is it you want?”
Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”
“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”
“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”
“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”
“And do my superiors know you’re here?”
“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”
Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.
“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”
“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may ask me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”
“Just Modestine, and why me?”
“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you.” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat and read the agreement more thoroughly. Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word “No”. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.
His job made Joseph MacDonal II, Joey Mac to his pals, the enemy of the world and a target for assassination. He was one of the few people on the planet trained and licensed to butcher unicorns and prepare their meat for consumption. This also put him at odds with PAUTU (People Against the Unethical Treatment of Unicorns) who accused him of unicorn genocide.
The thing that stuck in everyone’s craw, more than selling unicorn steaks, chops and burgers, was the butchery aspect, though that was the bit they all had gotten wrong. Yes, Joey was technically a unicorn butcher, but the proper definition was:
/ˈbo͝oCHər – NOUN
A person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop.
which he did. What most folks failed to understand, though it was a matter of public record, was that his license hadn’t included or even allowed the hunting or slaughtering of unicorns or any other animals. In fact, Joey never killed a thing in his life. Insects that crossed his path were the subject of a strict catch, relocate and release system.
At this very moment, Joey sat across from a field news reporter undergoing makeup in preparation for the live broadcast. He found her cute in a cable news presenter sort of way, and probably would have been more attracted to her if she hadn’t had that I’ll make my bones off this story hungry look in her eyes.
She ignored him completely, even brushing off his initial “Hello” until the cameraman counted her down. When the station anchor threw to her, the field reporter beamed a smile so unnaturally white, it would have stood out in a blizzard.
“Thank you, Sylvia. I’m here with noted unicorn slaughterer, Joseph MacDonal,” the field reporter said, finally locking her predatory eyes on him.
“Actually, I’m a unicorn butcher…”
“Same difference, isn’t it?”
“Actually, there’s a big dif–‘
“What made you decide to embark on this horrible profession?” she interrupted.
The economy had been in the crapper since before God talked to Moses and Joey hadn’t worked in forever. And even though he was one of the fortunate ones who managed to do what analysts suggested and set aside six months worth of salary in a high yield account before he was made redundant at the meatpacking plant, now going on his tenth year, all that money was little more than a distant memory.
A Christian in name more than practice, it had been years since the soles of his shoes touched the floor of a church and that time was his best friend’s wedding, a wife twice removed. To say Joey was out of practice with the proper act of prayer would have been an understatement. His first attempt came off as more of a bitch session, with him blaming his parents for his rotten upbringing and lambasting society for its prejudice of gingers, which, he reckoned, was the chief reason for his being kept down by the man. Surprisingly, he saw no results.
His second attempt at prayer was akin to a letter to Santa, in which he listed all the positive things he’d ever done in life and expected a little compensation for his good behavior. Again, results were not forthcoming.
Third time was the charm, however, when he realized that he should have admitted his sin, expressed thanks for the things he had and humbly requested the one thing he needed most: a job.
He put no expectation on the prayer and went about his normal daily existence, when, a week later, he received a phone call. Seemed that a friend of a friend knew a guy who knew a guy who had a roommate who was related to a woman who owned her own business was looking for someone in his line of work.
Joey arrived at the interview, résumé in hand, and launched into his well-rehearsed spiel when the business woman waived him off and ushered him into a small kitchen area.
“Show me what you can do,” she gestured at a section of the animal carcass, a shank, by the look of it, that rested atop a butcher block countertop.
Joey inspected the meat before touching a utensil. Not beef, nor pork, nor lamb, the texture was something he had never encountered before. A grain like beef, yet soft to the touch like flan, and it shimmered without a light source as if it were bioluminescent. “What is this?” he asked.
“Are you interested in the job or not? I don’t have all day,” she drummed her fingers on her crossed arms.
Joey sighed, selected a knife from the butcher block and approached the slab of meat, much in the same manner a sculptor would a block of marble, envisioning the cuts before blade touched flesh. With no idea what type of animal he was dealing with, there was no way of telling how this woman expected it to be prepared, so he simply followed his instincts and let the meat talk to him. And in a way, it did.
Every time the stainless steel edge portioned the strange meat, Joey thought he heard a high-pitched tone, like the sound of a moistened finger running along the rim of a crystal goblet. A sound that broke his heart. But in the aftermath, when the tone was just about to become inaudible, he heard a voice inside his head. It said two words:
and he felt a permission granted. This had not relieved the wave of guilt that flooded over him but it gave him the desire to do something with his own life worthy of this unknown animal’s sacrifice.
When he was done, the business woman nodded her approval, “Every bit the professional you claimed to be.” And it was a professional job. Every cut was perfect, none too generous, nor too small, and there were absolutely no scraps. He utilized every last bit of the meat.
“I’m curious, what type of meat is this?”
“Unicorn,” she said very matter of factly.
“You heard me.”
“I don’t get the gag,” Joey inwardly chastised himself on his tone. If his dumb mouth cost him the job, he’d…
“I’m quite serious,” the woman took him by the upper arm in a grip tighter than he was comfortable with and led him through a maze of stairwells and corridors, down, down, so far down beneath street level that he expected to see passage markers scratched into the walls by Arne Saknussemm.
Their destination was a room designed to look like a field, complete with grass, trees and rocks. Had he been blindfolded and dropped here, Joey would have sworn he was outside. The room was so vast, he couldn’t see the far wall. The only telltale sign this was, in fact, an indoor facility were the track lights that provided sunlight, positioned incredibly high overhead, but even they were mostly obscured by the clouds of the room’s self-contained weather system. But as fascinating as all this was, by far the most mindblowing thing were the unicorns grazing in the field.
“They’re real?” Joey asked.
The woman couldn’t suppress her chuckle, “Our organization, as advanced as it is, isn’t able to manufacture live unicorns.”
“But how is this possible?” Joey took a cautious step into the room and felt the spongy grass beneath his shoe. He moved slowly as not to spook a unicorn no more than ten feet away. The unicorn paid him no mind.
“Some trapper with an overabundance of dumb luck caught the last pair in existence by accident. Fortunately for him, and us, they were a stallion and mare. We made him a very wealthy man in order to breed them in captivity.”
“For food?” there went his tone again, but this time he didn’t care.
The woman shrugged. “There’s nothing else we can do with them. You can’t ride them. Young, old, virginal, virtuous… it doesn’t matter. They simply won’t allow it. Utilize the horn for its magical properties? It’s only magical for the unicorn, there’s no transference of power. Grinding down the horn and ingesting the powder for immortality? Turns out the human body is unable to digest the powder.”
“Then why not let them go?”
“Not until we recoup our investment. And we can’t risk one of our competitors getting hold of them and creating a revenue source we haven’t managed to think up ourselves… yet.”
“This is going to sound strange,” Joey said. “But I don’t know if I can do this.”
When the delivery truck pulls up outside the shop, neither of us look out the window ’cause we know exactly who it is. 12:15 pm on the dot means Department of Tissue Waste Removal. Light load today. Driver only schleps in one body bag.
“You’re up, Mickey.” Jhonni nods my way. “Snag ‘n tag salvageables and dip the rest.”
Mickey. Only other person to ever call me that was my pops. I hated when he did it and I damn sure hate that my boss somehow exposed that raw nerve. He only does it to get a rise outta me, but I ain’t bitin’ so I let it slide this time. My mistake? Tellin’ baldilocks here I prefer bein’ called Michelle.
Snag ‘n tag means I gotta dissect the corpse for salvagables, which are any organs that ain’t completely shot to shit and dip whatever’s left over in the chemical vat for DNA repurposin’ — usually either cosmetic skin grafts, lifelike mannequins for movie stunts or some other bioengineerin’ bullshit I don’t really understand.
I sigh, chuck the rest of the deck onto my game of solitaire — cards weren’t cooperating, no how — and walk over to the body bag. I ain’t squeamish about dead bodies or puttin’ the blade to ’em, but I do have one hangup…
I hear myself mutterin’ before I have a chance to stop it, “Don’tbeadudedon’tbeadudedon’tbeadude…” and when I unzip the bag, guess what? A dude. So’s we’re clear, I gots no prob flaying a man, it’s just that chick thing that does me in. You gals know what I’m talking about.
Every man a woman meets, she sizes him up and decides if she’d break him off a piece. Sex, I mean. Young, old, fat, skinny, short, tall… alive or dead, you rate ’em. Would you do ’em, could you do ’em and under what circumstances? A dare? Boredom? For the story? Only me, I got this vivid imagination, see, and when I come across a mutilated dude, I see myself having sex with him. And no, I ain’t no nekkidphiliac, they’re very much alive in my scenarios, just all banged up, pardon the expression.
This one, Ethan Garner, by the toe tag, was tore up from the floor up. Anythin’ worth savin’ would be an innard and not one that’d bring high market value, either. Somethin’ nickel and dime like an appendix, spleen, or some shit.
The fluorescents buzz overhead and sweat breaks out on my forehead as I hear Ethan groan beneath me in my mind’s eye. Think of a dude I know, think of a dude I know. No good. Where’s my iPod? I need a distraction.
The cause of death is listed as Industrial Misadventure which meant poor old Ethan was mangled by machinery, probably one of them press and fold jobbers. His body looks like a bedsheet fresh out the package, tucked up all tight into a tidy square. How the hell am I going to get inside to harvest organs?
I put a little elbow grease into it, dig my fingers into a crease — an armpit, maybe? — and try to pry it apart. Bones creak and skin pulls apart from skin with the sound of moist velcro. I’m sweatin’ buckets now, cause in my head, Ethan is givin’ me the workout of a lifetime, only I can’t see his face so it’s like doing it with a Hot Pocket with a hard-on. Focus, Mickey! Focus! Damn, now that bastard’s got me doin’ it.
With the back of my blade I scrape away the dried blood, which there’s plenty of, and I find a seam. That’s right, a goddammed seam! Now, I wasn’t exactly top of my class in Biology, but I’m kinda certain the human body don’t come equipped with seams. But I’m curious about this so I make my first cut along Ethan’s unnatural hem.
My fingers move into the cut and part skin. I tilt the swing arm lamp to get a better view and the light catches somethin’ that makes my stomach hitch. Whoever bagged this on scene fucked up big time, which I suppose is kinda sorta understandable, given the unusual nature of the cause of death, but if I reported it, it’d probably cost that slob their job. The Office of Forensic Affairs forgives a ton of infractions, unfortunately body count ain’t one of ’em. This was incorrectly listed as a single, when Ethan here, is wrapped around a whole other body.
The second body’s a smaller one, a girl, judging by the tiny pink-painted fingernails, and in the middle of a splatter of brain matter is a child-sized tiara, pressed between them like a flower in a book. The sex visions with Ethan stop instantly and my stomach heaves as I try not to hurl.
My jumpsuit is dripping with sweat and it clings to my clammy body to the point it makes my skin crawl. And then my trusty dusty brain, with its wonderful imagination, kicks into overdrive and I play the story of their final moments.
Ethan works — worked — works in laundry services. It’s bring your daughter to work day. Maybe he’s a weekend dad that doesn’t get to spend enough quality time with his baby girl and he fights the court order and pushes for this until he’s able to negotiate terms.
So he brings her to his job and she insists on wearing the little princess halloween costume, the one with the tiara, and he can’t say no because she is his little princess. Things are going great and he tells her to be careful and stick close to him, but he gets distracted for a moment, maybe by his boss about special instructions on a rush job or somethin’.
The little girl tries to be good and listen to her daddy, but curiosity gets the better of her and she climbs on a piece of machinery she shouldn’t be climbin’ on and Ethan’s dad-alarm goes off and he spots her, losing her balance and he runs for her… runs and dives with no care for his own safety and he manages to grab hold of her but it’s too late and they both fall into the machine before his coworkers can hit the shut off switch.
So, Ethan does the only thing he knows to do… he wraps himself around the little girl and folds her in his love, as the machine does what it’s designed to do.
It probably ain’t even in the same neighborhood as the actual events, but even though my story is most likely bullshit, it’s still real to me. it’s what I choose to believe.
And it breaks my heart ’cause that’s how I wish it was with me and my pop, but after moms died, we can’t be in the same room for ten minutes without it breakin’ into some big production. I know he means well, but who the hell is he to give me instructions on how I should live my life? Holder of the Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition Lifetime Achievement Award, is who.
I carefully harvest the tiara and clean body residue out of every nook and cranny. Then I place the plastic jewelry on a towel and carefully fold it into the best presentable package I can manage.
“Fuck’re you doing over there, Mickey?” Jhonni says over his shoulder.
And suddenly I can’t do this anymore, not just Ethan and this nameless little girl, but any of it. I peel the sopping wet jumpsuit off me and throw it at my boss. “Quitin’ is what I’m doin’.” Correction, my ex-boss.
I take the tiara package over to the phone and search the directory for Forensic Affairs. “And it’s Michelle, by the way, you fat piece of garbage. Call me outside my name again and somebody’ll be unzippin’ you from one of those bags.”
I expect a response, an argument, a something… but he just sits there and takes it quietly. Makes me think this isn’t the first time somethin’ like this has happened.
I dial the number. Do I feel sorry for the person about to lose their job? Sure, but fuck ’em. There’re more important matters at hand. There’s a family that needs reunitin’.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make another call after this one. It’s been a while since I spoke to the old man, after all.