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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.”
My mother warned me to guard the things I held precious by keeping them hidden inside me. The only thing I held precious was her and I found it impossible to place her inside my body. I was too young to understand she was talking about love. Too young to save the best parts of my mother’s love in my heart. Too consumed by the hate caused by her leaving me on my own. Too young to accept that death comes to us all.
It was hard to hold onto her love. Hard because I watched her body decay and rot away to nothingness. I watched to see the precious things she kept inside her and where she managed to hide them so I could do the same. I never found them. I watched as I picked vermin from her flesh and fought away carrion from her decaying form, until the day she was unrecognizable to me.
In particular, I watched her heart. Who knew what was inside there but I knew it was fragile because my mother spoke many times about how it had been broken. She said, “Sometimes you have to break a heart to find out how strong it really is.”
But when her heart became visible, I couldn’t see any cracks. I watched it as it bruised like an apple and disintegrated away. Nothing inside it but emptiness. I was hoping to see love—even though I had no idea what love looked like—or at least be privy to some secret that would explain the world to me. I found none of those things.
Her heart was a chamber for maggots. That was what my mother kept precious. Little disgusting creatures that fed off her body. They were everywhere. Stripping my mother of her beauty.
It grew harder to remember her face. I tried to recall the last time I saw her eyes or her smile but that memory was too distant in the past, lost in the forest of forgetfulness.
Occasionally I dreamt of my mother, standing in a room somewhere I had never been but yet felt so familiar to me, her face was a storm. Clouds roiled where features should have been. When she spoke, her voice was a swarm of black bees the drained the life of anything it touched. The bees blotted out the room and ate a pet dog I only had in dreams and never in real life, before coming for me.
I would run from the house and through the trees, down a dirt path that led to a black pond of brackish water. The water called to me and I was torn for the water was frightening, but so too were the bees who devoured trees on their way to eat me.
No real choice at all, I dove into the pond and discovered the water was actually tar and I was being pulled in, just as other creatures foolish enough to make the same mistake, the same fear-based choice as I had.
My nose and mouth filled with hot thick liquid, bitter molasses that scorched my insides, and melted me like butter on the griddle.
I woke alone in the dark, choking for air, my chest weighted with the heaviness of fear. My breathing was a thick, wet noise like someone sloshing through mud — or tar! — and I no longer felt safe in this world, so I did the only thing I could think to do.
I crawled inside the remains of my mother’s body and wrapped her tight around me so that I could be the thing she kept precious.
I burned my soul to ash but the pain paled in comparison to the terror that struck my heart like a match, anticipating her arrival and the tirade she would carry in tow. An unwarranted fear, as she was calm when she saw what I had done. Calm and nurturing. Soothing my pain with herbs and aromas, and each early morning during the hour of the wolf, she laid an ear on my back and listened as my soul mended itself.
She never spoke the words of disappointment aloud but it registered in her eyes. Although residing within my body, this wounded thing, this unwanted soul, did not belong to me. She had laid claim to it many years past, and in my despondency, I had taken liberties with her property and attempted to destroy it. Again.
The first time, I threw my soul into a sinkhole and allowed the ground to swallow it whole. I made her acquaintance when she plucked it from the soil like a tattered tuber. “I saw what you did,” she said. “And since you would so recklessly toss this precious thing away, it is no longer yours, but mine, agreed?” I nodded and she handed my soul back to me for safe keeping.
I honored our pact for a few years, caring for it within my limited capacity, but during a particularly nasty bout of depression, I tied heavy stones to my soul and pushed it off the sea wall. For a second time, she appeared, fishing my soul from the waves and scolded me, “You are charged with protecting this thing that is mine, do you understand?” Again, I nodded. Again, I lied.
“Why do you want this worthless soul when it has been crushed by the earth? Why do you want it when it has been drowned in the sea? Why do you want it when it has been set aflame like so much tinder?” I searched long and hard yet found no answer in her silence.
During the day, when she thought me preoccupied, she secreted herself in the shadows and slept. One day I followed her into the darkness and watched her body twitch from dreaming and listened as she muttered,
One more soul, once buried deep.
One more soul, in ocean steeped.
One more soul, by fire burned.
One more soul, of air returned.
Under her care, my soul grew healthier and it frightened me. I was pitilessly plagued and badgered by the phrase, One more soul, of air returned, that repeated in my mind’s ear until it turned dogged and cacophonous. But she was unaware of my inner torment, in fact, she was in an exceptionally good mood today, her voice almost a song, “I know you don’t see it, but you are a gift, you are. You have no idea just how special.”
Today was the day. I felt it in my marrow. Something was destined to happen, something I most likely would not survive. I should have embraced this eerie premonition, for it was no secret that I did not want to continue in this manner, broken, detached and alone. But the choice of how and when I departed this wretched life was mine to make and mine alone. So, I stalled by distracting her with trivialities. “May I have more broth? Have you seen my shoes? No, not that pair, the other ones? Can we go for a walk?” If she knew my plan, her expression never showed sign. No request was too large or small on this day. She granted them all.
We strolled along the pathway in the park that led to the duck pond, a place we visited often during my convalescence. Picked, naturally, as not to arouse suspicion as I searched for the proper diversion in order to make my escape. But I was so wrapped in my own thoughts, I failed to notice that she was walking slower than usual today. “Can we rest a moment?” she asked as we neared the benches. “I am a little short of breath.”
Her breathing became a labored and raspy thing before it hitched and became lodged in her throat. When her face went dusky blue and she slid off the park bench, I panicked. The opportunity had presented itself and there I stood like an idiot, frozen. Entangled in the decision of whose life to save, or more accurately, whose death I could live with.
There was no real choice.
Her breathing was a trembling, liquid sound as I pressed my mouth to hers and exhaled, but instead of me breathing air into her body, I felt her sucking air from my lungs, and not just air…
I tried desperately to pull away but her thin, vise-like hands clamped down on the nape of my neck and held me firm in a kiss that was collapsing me. My hold on life became dim and futile, but before I slipped away into emptiness, I noticed the oddest thing: her belly began to swell.
Every fiber of my actuality was drawn into her, and my soul, the object I had forever been so reckless with, was systematically being stripped of concern, of negativity, of identity. I fell further and further into a darkness that pressed on me from all sides. So tight, so constricted. I was still unable to breathe but the sensation was somehow different now.
At the very moment when it seemed the darkness was about to claim me for eternity, there came a burst of light so bright as to cut my eyes. Thankfully something soon blotted out the light – a face, slowly coming into focus but I knew her before I saw her. From the moment I heard her soft cooing, “You are a gift, you are. You have no idea just how special.”
About Of Air Returned: Delusion can be a scary thing, but it can also be wonderful at the same time. This piece was written in the early part of 1988, during a period when I swore I could do no wrong—it’s fine, you can laugh, I’ll just cringe quietly in the corner. I was heavily into both science and speculative fiction and had recently rediscovered the works of The Brothers Grimm, so I was determined to create my own collection of fairy tales for the—then—modern age.
Applying fairy tale rules, I could introduce the fantastic or the bizarre into any story with little or no explanation, and have all the characters in the tales accept everything as normal. Wishes as deus ex machina. Love as the ultimate cure-all. All the good stuff without all the fuss. Genius, right?
It would take the better part of six months for me to discover I wasn’t the groundbreaker I imagined myself to be. On the plus side, I followed my then idol, Harlan Ellison’s advice and was able to churn one of these puppies out a day.
Of course, most of them are unreadable. This one teeters on the edge. I kinda like it and it kinda embarrasses the hell out of me, but it was one of the three Rhyan Realm tales–yeah, I created my own sub-genre name for them, what of it?–that actually saw print… after 10-some-odd rejections.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss a few minutes goodbye.
The Centria planted its feet atop the announcing mound and parted its lips slightly, a hairline fracture in a granite face that could not easily have been identified as either female or male, yet the sound it released rang out, dominating the mesonoxian air. The melodious octave, a tone lower than any being of flesh could detect unless at the precise moment of their birth or death, spread across the fields drowning out all other sounds. It was not merely a song though, it was an experience of music, one that incited a childlike fascination and curiosity within the listener but unlike a siren song that was an alluring appeal, The Centria’s aria was a command to be in attendance.
However, one tiny essentia who had named herself Umoja, declined to go to the ceremony. On outward appearances she was simply sitting in a field, plucking recall-me-not flowers and braiding them into a wreath. Internally, it took every iota of will to resist The Centria’s call. She strained her newly acquired imagination into picturing a giant hand of stone reaching from the ground and holding her as tight as it could, anchoring her to her favorite spot beside the ruminating pond. She did not appreciate being made to do things, especially things that brought her no pleasure. Truth be known, she did not much care for the gathering as she was not competitive like the others and with such a large crowd she was certain she would hardly be missed. So engrossed in her thoughts of rebellion, she hadn’t noticed the arrival of Custodian.
“Did you not hear The Centria calling for you, Umoja?” Custodian’s face, androgynous like The Centria, was pleasant and its tone gentle as always. No one had ever seen it be otherwise.
“I-I-I,” Umoja endeavored to hold onto her rebelliousness, but it evaporated in the presence of Custodian’s warmth. “I am not needed there.”
“Not needed? Why would you think that?”
“I am never chosen.”
“You are in pending status.”
“It is another way of saying not yet. Never is an infinite word and is inaccurate in this case. You should have said I have not yet been chosen.”
“And I never will be.”
“That word again,” Custodian chuckled softly.
“I am not good enough or strong enough or loved enough.”
“Do you actually believe that?” Custodian took a knee, wrapped arms around Umoja and pulled her close. “Everyone here is equally good and equally loved. And as for being strong, you resisted The Centria’s call. I cannot remember anyone else in history ever doing that and my memory is long and infallible.”
Custodian nodded. “You should try being less hard on yourself. You are still forming and are not nearly what you will one day become.”
“And you know what that is?”
“How could I not? Your destiny is written all over your beautiful face.”
Umoja sprang to her feet, ran to the pond and studied her reflection. “I do not see anything.”
“Because you have not developed that sense yet and despite what you currently believe, I doubt you will remain here long enough to see what I see.”
The essentia spun back to Custodian, wide-eyed, “What does it say?”
“What does what say, dear?”
“My face! What is written on it? Please tell me! Please?”
“You have positioned me between the things I must say to you and the things I want to say. Sadly, I will not reveal your writings for one should never know their fate.”
“But what if I do not like my fate? How can I change it if I do not know what it is?”
“It would be foolish to attempt to outwit the plan you were destined for.”
“If we are to continue this conversation,” Custodian interrupted. “It will have to be at a later time because I do not know about you, but I would rather not have The Centria vexed with me, so I am heading to the Choosing Field. Will you join me? I would appreciate the company.”
Umoja still did not want to go but Custodian had been so nice it would have been rude to refuse, so she nodded and placed the recall-me-not wreath on her head. Custodian scooped Umoja up and folded itself around her. They flew over the sea of emotions, past the knowledge trees and through the imagination mountains. She held on as tight as she could manage, occasionally nuzzling Custodian’s essence. She had never been this close to anyone before, felt this safe. She would not have traded this moment and wanted it to last forever, but the problem in a place where time has no meaning, where eternity is equal to an instant, is that treasured moments disappear within the blink of an eye. No sooner had Custodian lifted Umoja, they arrived at the Choosing Field.
Self-doubt played across Umoja’s face as she looked up at Custodian who was now surrounded by a light so bright one had to squint for risk of being blinded by its radiance. But within that light, there existed a warmth and comfort that Umoja wished she could take with her. Custodian leaned down to adjust Umoja’s recall-me-not headdress and smooth her rough patches. Her essence no longer fit her properly, it felt loose and saggy in places as if she had shrunken too small to fill it all the way. Every rejection seemed to take a bit from her and if things continued this way soon she would be little more than a husk.
The land was packed with preborns, essentias like herself yet uniquely different, as far as the eye could see in any direction. With a gentle nudge from Custodian, Umoja made her way down the aisle and squeezed in between a row of preborns, settling for a spot in the center of the crowd instead of taking a place in front which was her right. This gathering was her twenty thousand four hundred thirty-ninth which made her the oldest preborn in attendance, something that many of the essentias never failed to bring up. They questioned why Umoja had been overlooked so many times for so long. The inquiries weren’t born of malice, the new arrivals were merely curious but being the focus of unwanted scrutiny and speculation was never easy for her. Sometimes it was downright painful. But she bore it with all the grace she could muster, offering shrugs and smiles as answers.
The Centria’s song continued at a lower pitch, fading into the background when Custodian moved to a position before the crowd and began her speech.
“We are here to acknowledge and celebrate you magnificent preborns and the journey some, perhaps most, hopefully all of you are about to take. For the chosen, you are about to enter a new world filled with things beyond your imaginings. Some wondrous, others less so. Know that you come from a place of love, a place of hope and your arrival will be the cause of much joy. It is important that you keep within you, tucked away deep, the knowledge that you are not nor ever will be truly alone. You will not understand the importance of this yet, but I ask you to have faith especially when faced with adversities you cannot even begin to fathom as of yet.”
The preborns nearest her watched in amazement as Umoja silently mouthed the words as Custodian spoke them. “You are life. You are the keepers of the secret knowledge of the universe. As such, it is expected that you will not speak of this place or this process. For most this will not be an issue since you will be unable to properly communicate upon arrival at your new homes. You must learn how to operate your new body which has an extensive learning curve as well as learn the language which is different from our form of communication. By the time you have fully acclimated, the knowledge of this place will reside in a place not reachable by your conscious mind. Since there are exceptions to this rule, we ask that should you remember, please respect our rules and keep the secret from those who might sabotage our way of life.”
Speech done, Custodian asked the first row of preborns to line up in front of The Centria, who began singing a different tune, more complex, covering a vast span of notes in rapid succession. That was Umoja’s problem, the reason she had been held back. She studied the notes and practiced them repeatedly whenever her schedule was not occupied with other important matters, but she found it impossible to change notes swiftly and seamlessly, unlike the first row of preborns who had not struggled even slightly as they sang along with The Centria matching notes until they were in perfect harmony. One by one they faded from this place, transported to their new homes. Row by row the preborns took their places before The Centria and blended their voice perfectly with the melody and departed.
Finally, it was her turn. Her place in line put her directly in front of The Centria which only made her already anxious heart beat faster. Just behind the vessel of the sacred song, Umoja saw Custodian, in violation of the rules during the ceremony, offer her a secret smile. Her anxiousness began shifting to excited hopefulness. She could do it. Custodian had faith in her and perhaps that would be the little push that helped her go all the way this time. The Centria began the song and Umoja’s first note was so off key it drew stares from the preborns in line with her. If she returned their stares, she would have been done. This would have been her latest, her greatest disappointment and perhaps her final opportunity. How many more chances would they have allowed her before giving up completely?
Instead, she closed her eyes and thought of her deepest desires. The desire to have a home. The desire to belong to a family. The desire to be loved. The desire to build a life that demonstrated just how thankful she was to have been selected and given a chance to make a difference in the world beyond this world. Umoja opened her mouth and instead of forcing herself to hit the notes in unison with The Centria, she sang her own song which tasted sweet on her tongue yet made tears fall from her eyes. Suddenly it no longer mattered whether she could mimic the birthing song, all she wanted to do was sing her song forever, feel the happiness that was born of a sorrow that was now understandably necessary. She had finally accepted herself and her place in the workings of all things.
She opened her eyes and was prepared to stand off to the side to make way for the next row of preborns when she made eye contact with Custodian who also had tears rolling down its cheeks. Custodian mouthed the words, “Outwit your fate” as it beamed the brightest smile Umoja had ever seen and gave two thumbs up. Umoja was confused by this but returned the thumbs up only to notice her hands were turning translucent then transparent.
She had done it! Somehow she managed to sing the birthing song correctly. She wanted to run up to Custodian to give it a big hug and thank it and tell it that she loved it but it was too late. She was completely vanished.
The transition was a bizarre one. She could feel numerous types of sensation entering her presence. She was about to be born. She closed her eyes and prayed to be placed in the body of a girl. There had been stories of preborns that were birthed into bodies of genders in which they did not identify and the difficulties that resulted from this. Umoja had always identified as a girl and she wanted ever so badly to be placed within a girl’s body, so she made the biggest wish she ever made and closed it with the chant, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.” But soon into the process, she realized this was not the case. There was an oddness to her new body that she could not identify outright but she somehow knew that she had been placed into the body of a boy. And for a moment there was a twinge of disappointment but it was short lived. She was successful in her endeavor to be born and she felt healthy and she would make the best of the situation with nary a complaint and live the best life possible for all involved.
But in the back of Umoja’s mind, a tiny voice chanted, “I am a girl. I am a girl. I am a girl.”
About The Choosing Field: This story was a quickie one off warm up writing exercize that was inspired by something I heard in Vanessa Roth’s Netflix docu-series Daughters of Destiny, about the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a pioneering school for the children of Dalits, members of the lowest group in the oppressive caste system that still shapes Indian society. In the first episode, they introduce the belief that our destinies are written on our foreheads at birth and the school gives the lowest caste children the opportunity to outwit their destiny. It stuck with me so I jotted down this story. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday to finish it or maybe I’ll incorporate it into another project. The important thing is I committed the idea to paper so it won’t be lost to me forever.
Oh, and if you get the chance, check out Daughters of Destiny. It runs four episodes and is absolutely worth your time.
There was no denying it all went wrong the day she met The Antisocial. Her marriage, her life, her reality. He stepped into the confidence of her world and slowly altered her polarity, molecule by molecule, turning her into the world’s biggest human misery magnet. How could she have been so blind? He was a super-charged lightning rod of suffering and unrest and she jumped in feet first and grabbed the rod with both hands.
How? The Burning Bush chiseled this question into the stone tablets of her grey matter. How and why? How had it happened with such severity? And, why The Antisocial? He was nothing she had ever been attracted to in her life. He was slight and pale and short. Three things she couldn’t stand in her men. And when they met, she was married. Very married. Endlessly she would extol the virtues of her Husband of the Round Table who sat in the Siege Perilous.
She and The Antisocial even began on the wrong chord. Their first conversation was over the phone. An argument. A full-fledged war of words and attitudes, waged on the fiberoptic battlefield, with no quarter asked and none given. Hatred festered between them, growing like mold on stale bread, infecting whole city blocks at a time.
Then came the inevitable: the first meeting.
She was geared for the worst, armed with a wit-sharpened tongue and poison-dipped fingernails. The Antisocial tricked her. His subterfuge included tactics of kindness and depth. She wasn’t stupid, she kept her guard, but The Antisocial had existed for centuries and knew how to ply his trade well. Exorbitantly, he picked the locks of her defenses and let himself into her heart. She was still Very Married.
The Antisocial never used ordinary tactics. He would insult her, then apologize with poetry. Something her husband had never done. He would put the boots to her during weak moments, and when she retaliated, he simply walked away. She threw herself at him, and he stepped aside. She showed him the knife he drove into her heart, and he twisted it. She threatened to walk out on him, and he opened the door. Crafty, crafty, was The Antisocial. Unprepared, unprepared, was she.
When she first started dating The Antisocial—convinced that she was still Very Married—she was a strong and proud princess of unshakable faith and optimism. The world catered to her whims. Whatever words she spoke became law, and she enforced those laws on everyone around her. Everyone obeyed the princess — except The Antisocial. That was the beginning of her ruin. He had planted the seeds of self-doubt. He confused her with contradictions, battered her with male logic and left her alone to wallow in the mire.
What confused her most were the contradictions. He claimed to love her strength, then proved that strength to be a lie, just to teach her how to be strong. Where was the sense?
The Antisocial also worked on her morality, dragging her down the path of decadence. Once she had assimilated, and even grown to like it, he turned cold and led her back up the path to friendship. What good would simple friendship do her now? She had already begun peeling away the facade of her Very Married home life, hacking rifts into the armor of Husband of the Round Table, besmirching his character so that the Siege Perilous was no longer a safe seat. What good was going back to the old fractured lie that was her fabled life? What good were rose-colored glasses in the pitch dark?
The Antisocial laughed. He knew these truths to be self-evident.
Her life with The Antisocial became a long list of Could-Nots:
She could not talk to him unless conversation was pleasant.
She could not be in his company unless she was happy.
She could not ask him questions that angered him.
She could not ask him why he was angry.
She could not see him while he was angry.
She could not try to take the anger away.
She could not expect anything from him.
She could not make demands on his time.
She could not interrupt his solitude.
She could not experience his personal side.
She could not include herself in his plans.
She could not discuss their future.
She could not coax him to make love to her.
She could not display intense emotions around him.
She could not ignore the things that made him happy.
She could not share the things that made her happy.
She could not talk to him about anything relevant.
She could not love him anytime he did not love her.
She could not take it any longer.
The Antisocial could not have cared less.
She would have left, but it was too late. He had destroyed her, tainted her to the point where no one else wanted her. He had taken her like a lump of mud and molded her into his ideal mate. There was no more of the original her left. She ate the loneliness he fed her and wore the sorrow overcoat he bought her. After a while, answering to the name Mrs. Antisocial had no effect.
They say there was someone out there for everybody, whether that’s true or not, she found her niche… loving The Antisocial.
About Loving The Antisocial: I write copiously daily. I’ve learned that if I don’t write regularly with some sort of goal, my writing becomes stale and disinteresting in the process. My current writing regimen, at minimum, is five thousand words every day.
I’ll start a story off with great ideas, excitement, and plans for some sort of magnum opus. The ideas and prose flow along at a satisfying pace until it doesn’t. Then I’m often visited by the bane of my existence, my old pal, writer’s block.
To beat my nemesis into a bloody pulp, I write. Doesn’t matter what, as long as I keep my fingers peck-peck-pecking on the keyboard and them cute little letters keep dancing across the computer screen.
I write silly nonsense and observations, science fiction dogma, horror rhetoric, humorless jokes, movie and television rants or whatever else comes to mind. Just as long as I keep things moving forward. It’s my writing calisthenics. This story was the result of a question:
What does a person do when their significant other begins doing things that are completely out of character?
There was a knock at Tim’s front door. Impossibly, there was a knock on a day there shouldn’t have been one. Not that it was a big disturbance, it had only interrupted his woolgathering. He began reading a book hours ago and somewhere along the way his mind drifted off to the point where he wouldn’t have been able, even with a gun pressed to his temple, to tell which page he was on or what part of the story he last read.
The knock again. Tim placed the book open face down on the side table. Next to it was the handheld trigger for the silent alarm which he picked up and let his thumb hover over the panic button. Should he press it or simply answer the door? Smart money was on activating the alarm but he had always been a slave to curiosity so he pocketed the remote, rose from his comfy chair, exited the living room and padded across the hardwood foyer floor on the balls of his feet.
The closer he got to the door he heard some sort of commotion going on outside and as his hand landed on the doorknob he drew in a deep breath and held it for a long moment to quell the anxious feeling hatching in the pit of his belly. Tim hadn’t realized just how unaccustomed he was to answering his own door, it had been so long.
As he turned the knob a thought crossed his mind, perhaps the person on the other side of the door, the lawbreaker, was a deranged lunatic or religious fanatic who saw it as their duty, their purpose, their God-given right to put an end to what they viewed as an abomination. He knew that wasn’t the case, though. The knock was far too polite. They were all so damned polite, the knockers. Lightly rapping on his door all day, all night, in any weather, even on holidays. Especially on holidays. The only time they didn’t knock was on Sunday, his sanctioned day of rest.
He opened the door to shouts and protests. A crowd of people clustered on his front porch began forming a semi-circle behind the woman who stood in the doorway directly in his face. They accused her of jumping the queue, shouted that what she was doing was illegal, and warned/threatened her with the prosecutable penalties of her actions. And the discontent was spreading along people of all ages, ethnicities, male and female alike who gathered in a line that ran the length of his front walk to the pavement, down the block, and most likely around the corner, who were waiting their turn for an audience. But all the chatter came to an abrupt halt the moment they caught sight of Tim.
The woman in front of him, the illegal knocker, had a familiar face but her features were too average, too face-in-the-crowd, to recall outright, Tim had to flip through his mental rolodex and play the association game. He twigged her face was connected to some sort of event that would have revealed a location that eventually would have produced a name. Taking a deep breath, he relaxed his mind and softened his focus and let his gears spin a bit until he came up with:
Fundraiser ~~> community center ~~> Dick Cole
This woman was a friend of Dick Cole. Linda something-or-other. Rhymed with seed. Greed? Mead? Plead?
“Linda Reid,” Tim smiled, more at the swiftness of the connection than the pleasure of seeing the woman. “It’s been a while. A couple of years, I think.”
“Settle down, everyone,” Tim addressed the throng beyond the woman. “You know I’m not allowed to accept appointments today so she’s not cutting in line ahead of any of you. She happens to be a friend.”
Tim gestured for Linda to step inside which prompted the grousing to recommence but he merely closed the door to let them vent amongst themselves.
“Sorry for causing a commotion,” Linda said, smiling a bit too much. “And for not keeping in touch. Things have been so hectic down at the center with budget cuts and understaffing…and other things, that I don’t socialize much anymore. And you’ve got a lot on your hands at the moment—”
Tim waved off the rest of the sentence. “No worries,” he said, leading her past the empty administrative desks and into the sitting room.
“Awful lot of furniture crowding your foyer,” Linda said.
“That’s for the staff, doormen, greeters, admin assistants, all government appointed. They see to visitors. There are also bodyguards posted at each of the house’s ingress and egress points but they all have the day off because it’s my day off.”
“I suppose that’s another thing I’m sorry for.”
“I don’t get many non-work related visitors so this is a welcomed change,” Tim said, gesturing for Linda to take a seat. “Can I get you anything? Water? Juice? Or I could put the kettle on?”
“Do you have anything stronger?” Linda asked sheepishly as she sat down.
“I don’t imbibe, I’m afraid. Rules of my employment and all.”
“Yes, of course, how foolish of me. Water’s fine, then.”
Tim popped into the kitchen and returned with two glasses and ice water in a silver pitcher dotted with dew-like condensation.
“Not to fret,” he said, sitting opposite Linda and filling her glass. “Most people never consider it when they drop by.”
She took the water glass and swallowed two gulps. “I–um–I think I have a slight confession to make.”
“This isn’t a social visit, is it?”
“I can explain.”
“Explain what exactly? That you’re a lawbreaker and you seek to make me complicit in your crime? Is this a trap? Did the organization send you? Are you here to test me? Well, I’m not having it so you can go back and tell your bosses that I don’t cut side deals to pocket a little extra cash. We made an arrangement and I’m honoring it to the best of my ability!”
“So, how does this go? Do I have to fill out an application? Sign a legal document? Do you need proof? I didn’t think to bring any with me but I can get whatever it is you need.”
“If your request is granted, you’ll need to sign a few documents, including one that absolves me of any blame should the outcome fail to have the desired effect,” he said automatically.
“Naturally, without a doubt,” Linda answered, a bit too eagerly.
They’re always so eager at this stage, before the harshness of reality sets in, Tim thought. “But for right now, all you have to do is tell me what brings you here.”
“Um, okay,” she adjusted herself in the seat and wondered how her breath could so suddenly get caught in her throat. “It isn’t for me, you understand, I’d never come to ask for myself.
It’s my fiancé, Dick, you’ve met him, in fact, he introduced us at a fundraiser two years ago.”
“Yes, I know Dick. What’s wrong with him?”
“He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” Linda said in a quiet voice.
“Lou Gehrig’s disease.” Tim’s stomach turned over. He didn’t need her to elucidate further.
She nodded, her eyes fading down to the throw rug, absently tracing patterns. “It’s in the late stages now. I would have come sooner, but it’s taken me some time to talk Dick into this. He doesn’t think it seems right. Not what you do, that’s fine and he thinks you’re a saint for doing it. He doesn’t think it’s right asking you for help, especially this kind of help. Dick doesn’t want you or anyone else taking pity on him. He’s never taken a handout in his life and he can’t help but see this as charity.”
“Yes,” Tim said, not bothering to hear the rest of the pitch. That’s what they were, pitches. Not simple requests or implorations, these were stories designed to pull at his heartstrings. But who ever bothered to listen to his story? Not one of them. Not a single person among the many that crossed his threshold ever bothered asking him a personal question. As if he wasn’t human, as if he wasn’t allowed his own tragedy.
“What? I don’t understand.” She set the glass down on the nearby table, missing the coaster by half an inch. Tim either hadn’t noticed or decided not to comment.
“I’m saying, yes.”
“Yes, you’ll help?” Linda blinked and met the man’s gaze as a hopeful smile began to split her face.
“I — I don’t know what to say,” she was on her feet before she knew what was happening, moving in for a hug. “I — thank you, Tim!”
Tim put his hand up, stopping the woman in her tracks. “Don’t thank me yet. There are still a few things you need to realize before you accept my offer.”
“It doesn’t matter. Anything! And I mean anything!” Interest colored her face.
“Please calm down for a moment and listen to me. This thing you’re asking of me, this gift of blood, it may not solve your problems and could possibly worsen matters for you.” Tim traced his finger around the rim of his glass.
“I’ll take that chance… we’ll take that chance!”
“Listen to me!” Tim brought the glass down on the table, just hard enough to startle and capture her full attention. At the cost of a wet sleeve and the water stains that would surely mark the cherry wood. “Ever since scientists discovered the curative properties of my blood, tests have been run. Mostly successful, I’m a match for all blood types, and my white blood cells haven’t encountered a disease it can’t cure—”
“Which is why I came to you. I did my research and you cured other ALS patients before—”
“The problem isn’t my blood,” he interrupted. “It’s Dick’s immune system reaction that’s the danger. If his body rejects my blood and tries to attack parts of it, there won’t be a second chance. He instantly becomes a non-match. On the other hand, if his body takes the transfusion, in a few month’s time, his white blood cells will resemble mine and he’ll automatically be enlisted in the same line of work as I am.”
The weight of Tim’s words slowly settled on Linda. “You mean, he’ll—?”
“He’ll never know another moment’s peace for the rest of his life. People will hound him, pleading for themselves or family or friends, day and night, night and day. Nonstop. Some gentle, others less so.”
“But why is that necessary?” Linda asked.
“My white blood cells can’t be synthesized. Top minds have tried and failed time and again. And although my blood can be stored, the white blood cells lose their miraculous properties over a period of thirty-six hours outside my body.
“I would have been strapped to a table in a laboratory for the rest of my natural life if I wasn’t for my brother. Hell of a lawyer. Fought his ass off to petition the quality of life rights that allow me the tiny bit of freedom I have. The stipulation is I must share my gift, triage the world, help the sickest among you. There are restrictions, legal hours when people have the right to approach me, but no one listens. How can they be expected to follow the rules when they or their loved ones are dying?
“I used to fight it. Turn people away when the established workday was through. Dealt with the angry mobs and the death threats. Then I asked myself, “Why?” Why fight my fate? If I’m meant to help people, why shouldn’t I do it when it needs to be done and not only when I want to do it? And there’s a selfish reason if I’m honest. You see, if I help enough people, if enough of the populace possesses my blood, I won’t be special anymore or alone in all this. Maybe then, when there’s enough blood to go around and my bit for the world is done, the price of my gift paid, maybe then I can be left alone to die in peace.”
Linda hesitated. She shook her head and turned to leave. “This… this is… “ She stumbled over the words, not knowing how to express her thoughts.
Tim realized too late that he said too much, chose the wrong person to unburden himself on. He regretted his action instantly. “It’s a lot to process, I know. Why don’t you go home and discuss it with Dick? You can contact me if you decide to go through with it.”
From his shirt pocket, he fished out a solid white business card, imprinted only with a faint phone number that had to be viewed at the proper angle in order to be seen. “A direct line, please don’t share it with anyone.”
“I won’t,” Linda muttered as she shambled to the doorway. “I — look, I know you can’t talk about the other people you’ve seen, but can you just tell me if anyone has ever turned down your help after you’ve explained everything to them?”
For a moment, Tim didn’t respond, he just watched as the hope drained from her face. “More people than you might imagine.” He noted she found no reassurance in his answer. He turned away, unable to look upon her sorrow any longer. He had his own to contend with.
Over his shoulder, he said, “Be sure you tell Dick everything I’ve told you, and if he refuses, try to understand. Sometimes there are worse things than death.”
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.
As Amantha carefully diced the spleen, she caught herself. Lost in the preparation of the meal, she absently sang a song under her breath. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem but she was doing it in her native tongue, a dead language that might have revealed her true identity, had anyone heard it. Not that they’d have been able to pinpoint what she was exactly, but they would have sussed she wasn’t what she appeared to be.
She bit the inside of her cheek as she marinated the kidneys, the pain and the coppery tang of blood in her mouth served as a reminder to be more cautious. The head that had been severed and chilled on ice overnight to preserve its freshness, was placed in the stewpot to dissolve in a broth that smelled faintly of sulfur. She would have to remember to do the same with the hands and feet and all the other body parts that couldn’t be disguised as normal cuts of meat.
Anal to a fault, Amantha arranged all the innards neatly on the countertop and went to work on deboning the torso and limbs, the bones of which would join the head in the liquefying broth. She knew she had plenty of time to get rid of the evidence, but she also wanted time to get dressed and made up before Onathan arrived. It was their one year anniversary and she wanted the meal to go without a hitch because she suspected he was going to propose tonight.
“He’s going to propose tonight,” she let slip aloud as she slit open the intestines to clean them. If only she had studied the language better, none of this food preparation would have been necessary.
Onathan’s mother was an important figure in his life, more a best friend than a parent, and he wanted to include her in the anniversary celebration, which Amantha had no problem with because she enjoyed the old woman’s company, she just wished he had phrased his wish differently.
His exact words were, “Do you mind if we had Mom over for dinner? It’s a special night that I want to share with her. Since Dad died, she’s been alone in that house and it’s not good for her.”
“Of course I don’t mind,” Amantha answered, playing the question over and over in her mind. “If you’re sure that’s what you want.”
“You’re amazing. I can’t believe how understanding you are.” Onathan pulled her into him and gave her the biggest kiss. Surely, she had gotten it right this time. The kiss made her confident that her first interpretation was accurate.
Amantha called Onathan’s mother over late last night after he had gone to bed and she came without question or hesitation. Either she was the most selfless person on the planet or she truly was lonely in that big house all by herself. This would be a good thing.
No stranger to the procedure, Amantha treated her hopefully soon-to-be-late mother-in-law to refreshments laced with a two-part toxin. The first substance was mixed into the pâte sucrée and would have passed through her system harmlessly, had it not bonded with the chemical placed in the sherry. Death was instantaneous and painless.
The phone rang not a few seconds later. It was her mother. When Amantha relayed the news and what Onathan asked and what she had done, there was silence on the other end of the line.
A chill ran down Amantha’s spine. Before her mother said a word, she knew she had gotten it wrong once again. English was such a bastard of a tricky language.
“These humans, they’re not like us, Ammie,” her mother said. “Relatives do not sacrifice themselves for celebration feasts nor do they feel pride in eating kin.”
“But what am I going to do, Mother?” the rising panic made her body quake.
“Are you sure she’s dead?”
Amantha prodded the old woman’s arm with her shoe. “No doubt about it. I followed your recipe to the letter.”
“Looks like you have no choice but to tell him the truth.”
“The truth? I can’t do that! Hi, honey, remember your mother? I killed her by mistake last night, sorry. He’ll never marry me now!”
“Then play ignorant,” her mother suggested. “Human females do it all the time.”
“And what about the body?”
“It isn’t a body anymore, it’s evidence. If you intend to live a lie, you’ll have to get rid of it.”
“I can’t move the body, somebody will see me!”
“Who said anything about moving the body?” her mother said nothing further, waiting patiently for her daughter to catch on.
“You mean cook her?”
“You were going to do it anyway.”
“I–I can’t. That would be wrong.”
Turned out she could. After hours of playing out scenarios in her head, she decided she couldn’t live without Onathan and he wouldn’t want to live with her if he found out the truth.
The difficult part was hiding the body until Onathan left for work in the morning. Amantha thought she had tipped her hand when she rushed him through breakfast and out the door. One of his mother’s earrings was on the kitchen floor, right beside his shoe! It was so close that if she made any move to retrieve it, he would have noticed.
But all that was behind her now, as she opened the refrigerator to get the older woman’s eyeballs to mash into a jelly topping for the dessert. But they weren’t there. She searched everywhere she hid body parts, everywhere they could have rolled but there were no eyeballs! She distinctly remembered plucking them out of their sockets last night.
How could she have misplaced them? Amantha knew she had to find them before Onathan came home in two hours. She threw herself into overdrive and tore the house apart, all the while cursing herself for not being more careful. The last thing she wanted was to have Onathan accidentally stumble upon one of the elusive orbs. He might not recognize it as one of his mother’s, but at the end of the day, it was a human eye and while she didn’t completely understand human culture, she was sure finding random eyeballs in your house wasn’t a common practice.
Amantha finally found them, yes, in the refrigerator. They somehow managed to roll off the saucer and landed in the crisper. She breathed a sigh of relief… until she looked at the clock; Onathan was going to be home in less than an hour, and she not only hadn’t finished dinner yet but now the house was a complete mess.
She prepared the dessert in record time then hopped on the massive chore of tidying up the house. Just as she put the finishing touches on her makeup, the doorbell rang.
Amantha sat on pins and needles the entire dinner. What if he recognized his mother’s taste? A silly concern but it plagued her nonetheless.
Onathan seemed nervous as well, his eye constantly checking the wall clock or shooting over his shoulder to the front door. It didn’t stop him from enjoying the meal and he ate everything placed before him. At the end of the meal. he accidentally knocked his fork on the floor. Amantha was about to comment on how clumsy he was when he came up on one knee with a ring in his hand. “I was going to wait until mother arrived, but I feel now’s the perfect time, after the perfect meal.”
And that was all it took. The dam of emotions she tried to suppress all evening burst wide open and Amantha began to cry uncontrollably.
“D-did I do something wrong?” Onathan said, confused. “I thought you wanted this?”
“No, no, I do want this,” she said, her breath hitching. “Just not this way.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s not you, you’re fine. Really, really fine. It’s me. I have something to tell you.”