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?
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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.
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.”
Once, in the gloomy and perpetually rainy City of Alphabet, there was born a girl who was said to be the living embodiment of love. From the doctor’s first slap, the girl giggled instead of crying and flushed the neighborhood of all its gray. Her smile was a bottomless thing, its roots branching up from her soul, and it beamed so brightly as to cause blindness if it caught you unawares. Her large jade eyes radiated an innocence so pure it momentarily took your breath away. Given her birthright, she was destined to have but one mate throughout her lifetime and that person would live a charmed life ever after.
Or so the story went.
An urban legend to most, Tyrone, son of William, believed the girl existed and based on the age of the story’s telling, surely had to be an adult now. He also was convinced it was his mission to locate the girl and put an end to love, once and for all.
Tyrone worked fingers to the bone for years and all the wealth he amassed was spent on all the matchmakers who claimed to have an in with the living embodiment of love. Most were scammers, of course, the rest were simply delusional and bestowed the honor upon the wrong women. Only one woman was genuine. She knew the embodiment’s true identity and so deep was her jealousy that she gladly agreed to arrange a match if it meant obliterating the anomaly from the face of the planet.
When Tyrone met the matchmaker in a single occupancy room off Delancey Street, he thought of all the people he had ever encountered, this woman was the flipside of the living embodiment of love’s coin. Emaciated with a rat’s nest for hair, her features were packed together tightly as if God had pinched her face when she was born and left it to set that way.
“Your fee has been paid in full. Why have you not set up the introduction?” Tyrone asked.
“You are not ready.” the matchmaker spat the words like a cawing crow. “As long as you wear your true intentions like armor, she will dismiss you outright.”
“If I pretend, she will spot the ruse instantly. I am sure she has developed the ability to detect friendly facades. I will approach her as a man scorned, which is the truth, and win her over from there.”
“Interesting. And how do you mean to kill her?”
“Those were not my words. I mean to put an end to love.”
“The difference being?”
“I intend to woo her, make her love me, and when she is at her happiest moment, I will argue with her, break her heart with harsh words and hurtful actions. And I will not let her leave, and I will not stop, not until the shine dulls in her eyes and the smile becomes a rootless tree, and even then I will continue until she withdraws, from our relationship, from her happiness, from the world.”
“That will take years if it ever happens at all.”
“It will. I am patient.” Tyrone said.
“But I doubt you are strong enough.”
“Then refund my money. I will find her on my own.”
The matchmaker leaned in closer and eyed Tyrone head to toe. His nose was full of her scent, decaying food left to stew in its own rancid juices.
“A deal is a deal,” she said. “So we are clear, I will make the introduction and my part will be done. Should you fail in your attempts, there will be no returning of the fee paid, understood?”
Tyrone nodded and she led the way out of the room on Delancey. Under the cloak of night, they dipped down into a subway station marked, Closed For Restoration. Past the turnstile and empty platform onto the train tracks. Tyrone masked his apprehension as he gave the third rail a wide berth and occasionally peered over his shoulder at the sound of distant train rumblings.
Between stations, they encountered a society of people, homeless and long abandoned by the surface world, who barred their path. Tyrone thought he would have to fight his way through, but the matchmaker had things well in hand. She mumbled something at the leader, a password perhaps, and pulled a tin of potted meat from her handbag and placed it in his hand. They carefully waded through a field of displaced people’s bedding and cooking stations until they finally reached the service passageway that led to a room not much larger than the one they just left.
In the room were two chairs that faced each other. The matchmaker sat in one and gestured for Tyrone to sit across from her.
“If this is some sort of trick…”
The matchmaker waived off the threat. “She will be here, I promise.”
“Why here?” Tyrone asked.
“There is an interesting story behind that.” The matchmaker cleared her throat and spat a gob of phlegm to the side. “It seems the gift of unconditional love that Arianna was born with — that is the name of the woman you seek, Arianna — the gift that flowed freely from her, the gift that touched everyone within her sphere of influence and filled them with ecstasy, proved too much to bear for most people.”
“Are you telling me people fell too much in love?” Tyrone asked.
“To the point of delirium. It drove them mad. Imagine the feeling when you have loved someone or something in your life, more than anything else in the world, loved it so much that it hurt. Now multiply that by ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, even. Never any hatred, or indifference, only a love for everything that increases exponentially the longer you remain in Arianna’s presence.”
“I never considered that.”
“Most do not.”
“So what happened?” Tyrone leaned forward in his seat.
“Nothing like a good story, eh?” The corners of the matchmaker’s mouth curled slightly. “Arianna’s parents, immune to her gift, fearing for their daughter’s safety as well as their own, moved in the small of the night to parts unknown, somewhere far removed from society at large, and remained in seclusion.”
The matchmaker stopped talking. Tyrone waited, thinking she paused for dramatic effect, but after nearly ten minutes of silence, asked, “Is that it?”
“All the true bits. The rest is apocrypha. I figured that would not interest you.”
Tyrone shrugged, his disinterest unconvincing, “Since we are here…”
“Well, the way I heard it, the family managed to get along fine. True they were isolated but they were also together and safe and Arianna’s constant state of happiness helped the situation be less stressful. Their lives remained uneventful… until the day their daughter reached puberty.
“On the twenty-second day of the seventh month of her fourteenth year, Arianna began growing distant, her once innocent eyes darkened and the luster faded from her smile. The gift once thought to be good was slowly transforming from its former sham and ruse into the corrupt curse it truly was.”
Tyrone’s brow knotted. “So she is not actually a child of love?”
“Why would you think that? Arianna is the physical embodiment of love. At birth, she was the love that was new and innocent and when she entered womanhood, she became the other side of love, the dark side none of us admit to feeling or acting upon.”
“Whichever side she represents when I make her mine, I will cause it to wilt away to nothingness.”
“Do you have an alternate plan?”
“Should she find out what you are attempting, is there a fallback?”
“The only way she would find out is if you tell her…”
“Oh, I will not have to tell her anything… you already have.”
It took Tyrone a few moments to piece together her meaning. “You are… ?”
The matchmaker spread her arms wide. “The genuine article.”
“But you are…”
“A hag? Not at all what you expected? It is the only bit the urban legend got wrong. I was born an ugly child, but people viewed me through the eyes of unconditional love, so my looks did not matter.”
“You tricked me!”
“How? Hello, Tyrone, I am Arianna, pleased to meet you. Consider yourself introduced. Now, live up to your word.” Arianna said as she moved from her chair and sat on Tyrone’s lap. “Woo me and put an end to love. I dare you.”
Tyrone wanted to push her off, but perhaps he hadn’t really wanted that at all. Up close, Arianna wasn’t that horrible to look at. Her mottled skin was actually clear and smooth. Her nose once bent and crooked, appeared aquiline now. Her lips, full and delicious. Her build, athletic.
“Something the matter?” Arianna asked.
Tyrone’s heart beat in his throat. “What are you doing to me?”
“Giving you a taste. I can control the power now. Love, hate, passion, jealousy, to greater and lesser degrees.”
Tyrone tried to scowl but his face wouldn’t cooperate. “What are you going to do to me?”
“Offer you the opportunity to become my mate,” said Arianna. She climbed off his lap and drew her power back into herself, allowing Tyrone to see her in her true form again. “If legend is to be believed, a charmed life awaits you.”
“And if I decline?”
“Then you join the loveless.” Arianna gestured toward the door.
“You mean the people we passed… ?”
“Men and women, not much different than yourself, unable to deal with heartbreak or rejection. Selfish people who, being denied love, sought to prevent others from experiencing it.”
“Why do they mill about below ground so lost?” Tyrone asked.
“They were unable to fulfill their supposed heart’s desire of removing my influence from the world and refused my offer of companionship. Once you turn your back on love, what else is there?” Arianna drained the dark room entirely of love and let him ponder the notion as he sank deep into loneliness and wallowed in abandon and despair.
After an eternity of brooding silence, Tyrone spoke up, “I… accept your offer. I will become your mate.”
“And will you woo me, make me love you, and when I am at my happiest, will you break my heart and make me withdraw from the world?”
“That I will indeed, even if it takes the rest of my life.”
“Challenge accepted.” Arianna shook the man’s hand firmly.
Contract sealed, he put his plan into effect by telling the living embodiment of love his story. Of the woman he loved, that he did nothing to deserve but was blessed with nonetheless. Of their happiness together. Of the sharp knife of cruel fate that cut their time short. Of the anguish that swallowed him whole the instant her body was committed to the ground.
And when his tale was through, Tyrone, son of William, pulled her into his embrace and kissed her with every ounce of his intent and Arianna was forced to admit she felt a slight tingle. They battled for years in this game of hearts, each giving as good as they got, and if he actually succeeded in putting an end to her, it was with kindness. Despite the competition that continued to their dying days, the couple wound up living happily ever after.
Oh, and they had one child, who was said to be the living embodiment of peace… but that’s a story for another day.
In the beginning of what most believed in their heart of hearts to be the End of Days, there was The Distant Signal. It came in the form of a definitive and verified multi-language message broadcast to all the countries of Earth simultaneously.
What should have been a moment of joyous acknowledgement that we were not alone in the universe, was tainted by a subliminal signal that triggered an automatic flight response in all the various and sundry life forms on the planet.
Dubbed The Great Terror by the media, it opened the door to speculation about the global impact alien contact might have on world governments, organized religions, stock markets, and most importantly human existence.
Then came news of the one person on the planet unaffected by the subliminal signal.
His business card was made of carbon-fiber reinforced thermoplastic. Laser etched in red on the back was his phone number, four digits, no area or country code, because it wasn’t needed. The number could be dialed from anywhere in the world, toll free. The front of the card delivered the most accurate message any business card ever had. It told the bearer exactly who he was in two simple words:
Normally slang that referred to either the government, an authority in a position of power, or a drug dealer — which he had no issue with, as he had allegedly been all those things in his youth — it currently served as a term of respect and praise.
The Man had no official credit rating, never owned a bank account, and his fingers never knew the texture of cash. His currency was the Boon License, a service performed, payable by a service at his behest.
The Man never advertised his services, and thanks to a universal binary code, he wasn’t searchable on the internet. His legend was viral, spread word of mouth from those who benefited from his services. The downside of this Chinese whispers campaign were all the old wives’ tales that attached themselves to his accomplishments like gossip remoras:
He was incapable of telling the truth and he gained supernatural powers by winning a bet with the Devil in a liar’s competition.
He thrived on the broken hearts of virgins after he stole the purest form of love from them.
He was born without a soul.
He was a genetic engineering experiment using stem cell materials that hasn’t been able to be duplicated.
He was born with one hundred percent brain capacity and as a result has all the information stored on every computer and the internet in his brain.
He averted World War Three by winning the jackpot in a poker game with the world’s superpowers.
For a person who bartered in boons, how could he resist collecting favors from the entire planet? But when The Man accepted the offer, he scoured governments, both domestic and foreign, for help, with absolutely no success.
Once The Man signed the contract, he was elected to make first contact, and the world leaders resigned from their posts and contingency plans were underway to build underground shelters. He could not find a government, nation, country or individual to stand by his side.
The final extraterrestrial message contained a set of coordinates for the rendezvous point. Although no one would stand by him, he was able to call in several favors to arrange transport to one of the remote volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean, Tristan da Cunha.
The alien armada arrived like a meteor storm, ships of shifting geometrics burned through Earth’s mesosphere and parked themselves in the stratosphere around the entire planet so that they blotted out the sun.
Plunged into darkness, The Man stood his ground as a lone, illuminated craft, smaller than the other ships, descended to the rendezvous point and touched down on the soil light as a feather.
The ship altered its form and peeled itself away from its passenger and repurposed itself into a ramp. The alien glided forward. It existed on the outer fringes of humanoid description but The Man found its features and its form somehow alluring.
The alien handed him a card with strange markings and upon contact with his skin, the card pricked his thumb and took a DNA sample. The markings changed, cycling through alphabets until it hit his native earthbound English. When all the letters were in place, it simply read:
“That kind of relationship is doomed before it even begins,” her mother warned. “His type… they can’t be faithful, it isn’t in their genetic makeup.” But Alison paid no heed and fell headfirst in love with the living embodiment of a daydream.
She thought she’d made the right decision. What did her mother know? And in the beginning, Alison felt vindicated because he was always there for her, never once realizing that was the normal way daydreams functioned, recurring whenever the mind was idle.
The daydream held her in bed and distracted her with his essence so that she drifted off to sleep without the usual brain clutter that triggered her chronic insomnia, and made sure he was the first sight Alison saw when she woke up. He never slept. What use would a daydream have with sleep? He simply watched her and waited until she began her cute pattern of soft snoring, before taking a stroll through her mind.
He never spoke. He preferred instead to flash images in Alison’s mind. Naturally, he knew exactly what he was doing. Knew he owned the keys to her heart and soul and, as often was the case with the person in control in a relationship, he doled out his attention and affection in small doses. She tried, really tried her best not to be greedy and not to demand more, but that, like most things, was easier said than done.
Then one morning, after he laid her head on the pillow to rest the night before, as he had done numerous times, he was gone. No note that indicated where he was off to or when he would have returned.
Then began the dark times. Seconds, minutes, hours stretched into the forever period of withdrawal, where Alison was crushed beneath the pressure of constant craving, when her heart sat within her chest like so much dead weight.
And after the craving stage had crept along at its snail’s pace, along came the self-examination stage to fill the void. What had she done wrong? Was she too needy? Smothering? And when she grew weary of guessing, of trying to rewrite the past as if that would have somehow altered the present so that he was still here with her, Alison tried to find a place for him in her past. A drawer or compartment where he could have remained tucked away until such time as she was stronger and more capable of dealing with the memory of him.
Forgetting him might have been much easier if not for the images he filled Alison’s head with, the stories weaved through pictures. They remained and were strongest when the dawn approached. That must have been when he left.
When her mother visited, she asked, “Why can’t you look me in the eye?”
“I don’t want to do the whole I told you so thing, Mom.” Alison replied.
“When have I ever done that?”
“You don’t say the words, but I can see it in your eyes.”
“That’s a lie and we both know it,” her mother said. “The truth is you don’t respect me, maybe rightfully so.”
“Respect you? You’re a drunk, Mom. I’m sorry, there’s no other way to say it.” The words were out of Alison’s mouth before she could stop them.
“I’m a recovering alcoholic…”
“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. I mean, why would I take advice from a woman whose life is a shambles? Your drinking didn’t only wreck your marriage, it destroyed my family! So, how are you wiser than me when it comes to affairs of the heart?”
Her mother exhaled slowly. “I understand more than you realize. You think you’re the only one who’s ever gone through what you’re going through, and that’s not necessarily your fault. When you’re young, you always feel that way.
“But I’m here to tell you, kiddo, you’re not the first or only person to fall in love with a daydream. Not only did it happen to me, but I convinced him to marry me and we had you.”
“Yeah. You think your father left because I drank, and that’s my fault because I should have explained it to you, but I didn’t know how. The truth is I started drinking when I felt him slipping away. I tried to hold on the best way I knew how but the inherent problem with a daydream, even a recurring one, is that they’re never meant to stay in one place for very long. They’re born to stray.”
“Oh. Mom… !” Alison hugged her mother as tightly as she could. She hoped somehow her mother could feel just how sorry she was about everything that happened between them over the years.
Realizing what a fool she had been, and instead of living in a past relationship and trying to hold her life together with spit and string, Alison chose to work on rebuilding the relationship with her mother, a woman who was stronger than she ever realized.
And every now and then, when there was that familiar twinge in Alison’s heart, a fast but powerful thought of her wild one, her mother helped her collect the stories in a scrapbook of daydreams. But Alison hadn’t done it for herself, she did it for the little one who would be arriving any day now.