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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.
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.
My monotony needed twisting yesterday, so I went for a stroll, sans iPod. You know, breathe in a bit of city fresh air, clear some cobwebs, that sort of deal.
There I was walking down the street, mind-sifting through character conversations and scene settings when I looked down at the pavement and realized that I was traipsing through what looked like the aftermath of the Great Worm War of 2021. The sidewalk was a battlefield littered with the corpses of thousands of earthworms that coated an entire city block.
Logically I knew how this could have happened. I knew they came to the surface either during the heavy rains–but it’s been dry weather for the past week–or to pair off and mate only to get caught on things that are hard for them to crawl across, like sidewalks and subsequently fry on the surface from sun rays–but that normally occurs during spring.
So, what then? Had there actually been a battle? Warring clans pitched against one another over territorial disputes? Factions in conflict over the claiming of a throne? Families locked in a deadly dispute over an unholy union?
Or was it a warning?
As I stood there, staring at their dried remains, curled into runic shapes, I wondered if they had been somehow gifted with a vision of the approaching apocalypse and had sacrificed themselves in an effort to warn us in the only language they knew. The last Germanic language spoken to them by man before the two species went their separate ways.
At that moment I felt like Indiana Jones in the passageway to the Grail chamber, trying to decipher the worm cadavers’ possible portents of doom, only without the aid of a diary or Sean Connery whispering something about, “Only the penitent man will pass.” or like John Nash without an ounce of the mental code breaking ability.
And I stood there. Longer than I’m comfortable admitting. Frustrated by the limits of my linguistics. Finally, I forced myself to move on, but not before making a promise:
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.
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.
My secret self—the bit of me that hides in plain sight just behind a corner of reality—has been wandering my memory palace of late, searching for an empty room in which to steal a bit of solitude for I sometimes need to swaddle my internal dialogue in silence when even the quietest place on earth can offer me no rest.
You might have surmised correctly that I’ve been met with very little success.
Oh, there are rooms aplenty in which I enjoy the occasional lounge-about, each filled with bric-à-brac I’ve accumulated along the way. Items or concepts or vagueries that may or may not find their way into a story, plot germs that piqued my interest for one reason or another, displayed neatly on shelves beside those things kept precious, but each of these pieces of me gives off unique vibrations that assault my mind’s ear like anamnestic tinnitus.
A few of my unused characters who can afford the steep rent have made the suggestions that I either choose my favorite among them to room with or take turns bunking with every one of them for short periods as not to overstay my welcome.
But that really isn’t my style. I like the idea of knowing where characters are so that I might visit them and engage in brief social interactions when I’m in the mood, and leave them to their own devices when I’ve had my fill. And although I am quite capable of being alone in a crowded room, I cannot find solitude with people around, not even the people in my mind, the ones that I have breathed life into.
My irritation at not being able to claim residence in a place that I have been constructing since childhood is beginning to infect other areas of my life. My current location annoys me. My inability to write annoys me. The presence of other people annoys me. The sameness of the day annoys me. Even my annoyance at everything annoys me.
And so Sunday comes ’round and I am attempting to build a new foundation for the memory palace extension on the lone and level sands of ground-down ideas, in a new territory where the old housing rules may not apply. Eventually, when my hoarder nature reveals itself and this section of the palace becomes filled with miscellanea most likely better left forgotten…
I’ll repeat the process. Search for my own patch of solitude. Light a candle and still curse the darkness. Build another room. And fill it with possessions that squeeze me to the point of eviction.