The Europa Virus

Subject number 03198 was administered water about two hours before the adverse effects started to surface. This was the longest stretch of time yet without any sign of symptoms and Dr. Norton was feeling confident about this one. She hoped that she finally made water safe to drink again. But just as her hopes were rising, so was Subject 03198’s fever.

The subject was in a padded room with a large observation window. All the subject saw was his own reflection but Dr. Norton could see right into the room. Around Dr. Norton were a collection of different machines all reading different data: body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, all the essentials when you’re fairly convinced that you’re watching a person die. Dr. Norton was in the room alone when Subject 03198 started showing symptoms. She reached down and turned off the communication microphones and speakers between her and the subject. She never liked hearing their screams.

She often thought it was cruel that the subjects had a mirror in the room with them. As the symptoms got worse, the subjects watched themselves more. They would first start looking into the mirror to see the sweat dripping off their faces as the fever got worse. Look up every once in a while when they start coughing. The first time they noticed the blood on their hands, they always look up at the mirror, as if they’re looking through and staring directly at whoever was in the booth, asking, “What the fuck did you do to me?” The first time they vomit they look into the mirror to see if any if left on their faces on got onto their clothes.

When the vomit turns to blood, it’s like they don’t stop looking into the mirror. As the blood vomit gets out of control, they only ever seem to stare at the floor. The vomit stopping is the worst sign and Dr. Norton almost wishes the vomit wouldn’t stop until they’re dead. But every time the vomit stops, the subject looks into the mirror, and their eyes start to throb. They last thing they see is their own reflection as their eyes pulsate more violently and finally pop like week-old zits. The screaming is always worst by this point. Sometimes they scream for hours. Sometimes they scream right up until their bodies finally give and they die lying on the floor. And that’s why Dr. Norton always turns off the microphones and speakers.

Subject 03198 was no different. All the same symptoms, all the same reactions, and the same end result. Another dead person lying in the observation room.

Dr. Norton didn’t even have time to pull her eyes away from the window when Dr. Edwards came into the room. “Jesus Christ!” he blurted out. “Not another one! I thought we had this one figured out. What happened?”

“Same symptoms,” Dr. Norton said. “Same order, same reactions, just started a lot later. This one didn’t show fever until two hours after introduction to the water sample. We are making some sort of progress with this –”

“Christ on a fucking stick!” Dr. Edwards interrupted. “How the fuck is it being delayed? It’s a virus. It shouldn’t be delaying. It either goes or it doesn’t. How is it delaying?”

Dr. Norton took a minute to review the notes she made while watching the subject before answering Edwards, whose fuming temper was warming the room hotter than the subject’s fevers. “It could be that there were fewer virus cells in the sample. That could delay the reaction. But judging by the symptoms and how quickly Subject 03198 is currently decomposing, the virus replicates at an enormous rate once introduced to the human digestive system. This shoots down any theory that humans could have an immunity to a small number of cells. It’s not the number of cells, it’s the virus itself.”

Dr. Edward and Dr. Norton both looked into the observation room and saw that Subject 03198’s decomposition was like all the rest: a week’s worth of rotting and stench in a matter of minutes. Dr. Norton looked down at the body temperature readouts and saw they were just as high as all the rest. Like the bodies were so hot inside that it was melting the flesh right off their bones and speeding up all the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Like leaving meat out in the sun on a hot summer day.

“In any other case, most bodies drop temperature once all life signs cease,” Dr. Norton pointed out. “This virus is completely different. Like the other samples, subject 03198’s fever temperature is persisting post-mortem. Almost 110 degrees. Hottest still was 112, I don’t think anything will break that record. But still, it’s inhumanly hot. It must have felt like they were being boiled from the inside out.”

“They probably pray for death,” Dr. Edwards said. “I know I fucking would. There are fates worse than death and any kind of pain like we’re seeing from this virus for any longer than a few minutes and they should drop dead just to stop the agony. Funny, because of how quick most subjects die after symptoms begin, this may be the most humane virus there is. It’s agony, but at least it’s quick. Funny how that works.”

Dr. Norton knew there was nothing humane about this virus. Dr. Edwards rarely stayed while any subject was in the observation room. He never had to hear the screams and see the agony in people’s faces. He never looked into their eyes before they exploded in their sockets.

“Any progress in eliminating all virus cells from the water samples?” Dr. Edwards asked.

Dr. Norton shook her head. “The virus doesn’t react the same way to conventional sanitation and decontamination methods. Fluoride and chlorine do nothing to the virus cells, electromagnetic radiation only makes the virus replicate faster, even when we try to distil the water, the virus cells latch on to the hydrogen and oxygen molecules during vaporization. I’ve never seen anything act like this before.”

“So we can’t altogether get rid of the virus,” Dr. Edwards began. “And the human body can’t withstand any exposure to it. Our investors aren’t going to be happy about this.”

Billions of dollars had been poured into what was being called Operation Europa. With the deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere, weather patterns became more erratic, then altogether stopped existing. Cloud formations became minimal and the total precipitation on Earth over the past few years had been equal to a single spring in Arizona. Water was depleting fast and it was Operation Europa’s job to find a suitable substitute for the naturally occurring water that used to fall from the sky and that all life on Earth still needs to survive.

The biggest investor was Albert MacFarlane, who was a billionaire philanthropist constantly giving to every needy charity on the planet. At least, that was his public persona. When a person gives that much money to help stop the spread of Ebola in developing countries and provide winter jackets to homeless people living through harsh winters in northern climates, you tend not to question where the money came from to begin with. Everyone working on Operation Europa was under strict orders to not question where MacFarlane’s money came from, but be grateful it was coming in.

“When’s the next shuttle set to launch?” Dr. Norton asked.

Dr. Edwards looked around briefly, and then spotted a computer sitting on a table. He leaned over and started typing and scrolling. “Next week,” he answered. “They’re planning on extracting twice as much water on this mission as the last. According t schedule, we should have made the water safe by now.”

“We’re just going to have to tell MacFarlane that the water won’t be ready for public consumption,” Dr. Norton said. “We just need more time to better understand the virus in the water and how best to treat it.”

“Which one of us will be explaining this to Mr. MacFarlane?” Dr. Edwards asked.

*****

Albert MacFarlane’s age was showing more and more every day. Murmurs were that the stress of trying to fund Operation Europa was putting deep creases into his botoxed face. His temper was getting shorter and shorter the more he heard about the water contamination. Like a child who wasn’t getting what he wanted right away and his tantrums were getting louder and more violent.

“Ms. Norton,” MacFarlane began. “You do understand that the public unveiling is in a matter of weeks. The next trip to Europa is meant to fill the glasses of all the investors and all the politicians behind Operation Europa. Fresh, clean water for the world. I don’t understand how water, simple water, can be killing so many people.”

Dr. Norton shook where she stood. She looked down at her pale, frail hands and realized that she was in the room alone with Albert MacFarlane. She knew his reputation of violent eruptions. She was terrified as to how drastically he would explode at the prospect of cancelling the cocktail party where the operation he heavily funded would save the world.

She tried to speak, but MacFarlane leaned forward and put his index finger in front of his mouth, shushing her before she could get a full word out. “Please, keep in mind Ms. Norton –”

“Dr. Norton,” she blurted out.

“My apologies,” MacFarlane smiled. “Please keep in mind, Doctor Norton, I’m not a sciency kind of guy. So try to explain this to me in a way that I can understand.”

Dr. Norton took a deep breath, trying to slow down her jackhammering heart, and began. “All water has microbes and small organisms in it. They’re not bad for us, in fact a lot of the microscopic life in water is essential for humans. The water we’re extracting from Europa is similar in that way, only the microscopic life in the water from there is killing whoever drinks it.”

MacFarlane squinted, his hand on his chin. Dr. Norton could tell that he was listening, but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Well, why would this micro-whatever in water that usually helps us live kill us now?”

“We think it’s because the water is coming from a different planetary source altogether,” Dr. Norton continued. “Europa formed around Jupiter, and Jupiter is a mass of gas almost entirely composed of hydrogen with some helium and sulfur. Where Earth has a lot of carbon, and all life on Earth is carbon based. We think that the microscopic life in the water from Europa is evolved from hydrogen, or even sulfur, rather than carbon, and so when it’s introduced to our bodies, our bodies completely reject it, like an abomination. Things mix that shouldn’t mix and create a chemical reaction that heat the body from the inside out and completely destroy it.”

MacFarlane leaned back in his chair. “And there’s absolutely no way to destroy this virus? No cure? No medicine? How am I supposed to tell all the people who invested billions of dollars into this and all the big players passing bills to support this that it’s all a waste now?”

“It hasn’t been a total waste,” Dr. Norton replied. “Life forms evolving from anything other than carbon was completely theoretical up to this point. This is actually a huge discovery if we’re correct –”

“It doesn’t mean shit unless I have water to sell!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m not funding this for the sciency mumbo-jumbo bullshit! I’m funding this to get some water back on this planet, sell it to everyone, and get my name down in history as the guy who saved the fucking world! And I’ll tell you what I’m starting to think. I think that you’re making these results up and pretending this water is making people sick so that the lab can stay open, you can Edwards and keep your jobs and keep playing scientists with my money!”

“Sir, I can assure you,” Norton’s voice was shaking, her hands were trembling, and she was holding back tears for the sake of staying professional looking. “The biological threat that this water is imposing—”

“Threat nothing!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m serving this goddamn water at the party straight from the fucking plant and without any of your science-bullshit! And when you see everyone drink it fine, you’ll be fired and I’ll sue you for every paycheque of yours that I signed!”

*****

The worst part has always been watching people die. Norton knew that was obvious. If it ever got to the point where they could talk about the experiments and how people had been reacting to Europa’s water, the first thing she always knew she would say would be that watching people die was the worst.

The second worst was always the clean up. The funders behind Operation Europa were more than happy to supply the lab with a bio-waste disposal suit. Its metal armour and mechanical gears moving every joint in sync with its pilot’s body was built for cleaning out massive waste deposits on warfields. It could lift twenty human carcasses at a time and still be able to walk as if it was carrying a bag of groceries. Norton knew a bio-waste disposal suit like this was overkill for such a small lab. She heard that the team even had some difficulty getting it into the building at first. The suit was already in its place by the observation room by the time she was hired to be part of the research and experimentation team. She asked Edwards about the suit and why the heavy precaution. Edwards explained that the investors were worried about airborne pathogens coming out of whatever virus was infecting the test subject. The bio-waste disposal suit was the best tool for such a messy and dangerous job.

Norton climbed into the suit, slid her arms and legs into the padded opening through each of the suit’s limbs, used the suit’s arms to close the chest plate and fasten the safety mask and helmet. Norton adjusted the smell blockers, an addition she made to the suit after the smell of cleaning the subjects’ remains became too unbearable, and walked into the room smeared with fluids. Norton could have sworn the walls were still vibrating with the sounds of subject 03198’s screams.

Inside each of the arms of the suit were a set of control, small notches and buttons for each of the suit’s sanitation functions. It took Norton some time to get used to all the controls and remembers which function could be found with what. But she was a fast learner.

She moved through the room, mapping out how would be best and most efficient to clean what was left of subject 03198. She moved her right arm inside of the padded tube, found the switch to turn on the hot water power-spray, and started soaking the room. The tiny red bits of person smeared on the walls and along the floor moved easily. Nothing would settle on the coated walls and floors specifically designed to withstand the kind of mess drinking Europa’s water causes.

She soaked the room and moved all of the human remains into a single pile in the middle of the floor and thought about how all these small bits of mess make a human. A complete human laid in front of her, all the pieces were there.

*****

Norton and Edwards continued the experiments as scheduled, hoping to god they find something before the cocktail party when the psychopathic philanthropist pours the toxic water in hopes to out-gustoing their research. The weeks passed with no progress made. They watched the shuttle launch knowing that it was the shuttle that would bring the deaths of a few hundred people. They watched the shuttle return like the four horsemen come to bring the end. And still, they found nothing to slow down the virus that lives in the ice found on the moon Europa.

The cocktail party was held in the same facility as where all of Operation Europa was conducted. The shuttle and exploration teams used the upper floors, the science and research departments were in the underground floors, and the main floor was reserved for the massive reception area with water fountains, gold plated steps, and a reception hall.

Norton and Edwards both attended the party in full formal wear. They looked around hesitantly, not sure if they’re more terrified to watch a room full of people die, or see them live and know that every penny they will ever make from that moment forward will go right back to Albert MacFarlane. They knew their science was solid, but MacFarlane was ruthless. Norton half expected that MacFarlane would fill everyone’s glasses with the last of the Earth’s water, just to prove a point and save face.

They watched the servers hand out the crystal glasses of water. The guests all held their glasses by the dainty tips of their fingers. MacFarlane stood up to the podium and started making a speech. Norton wasn’t listening. She was watching the guests.

“Did we ever test a subject without any pre-emptive sanitation process?” Norton asked Edwards.

“The first ones, yeah,” he answered. “All the same results. We burned the bodies right away because we were afraid of contamination.”

“What do you mean you burned the bodies?” Norton asked. “They completely decompose in minutes. What’s left to cremate?”

Edwards stared out silent for a minute. Then answered, “Those ones didn’t decompose right away. We didn’t wait long enough to see what would happen. We were so scared about contamination, we just burned the bodies within minutes. Do you think we missed something?”

“We’re about to find out.”

MacFarlane finished his speech and everyone applauded. He held up his crystal glass and took a long drink of water. As he finished swallowing, he stared out and locked eyes with Norton.

Norton held her gaze in MacFarlane’s eyes for a moment, then looked out into the crowd, to catch everyone just as they swallowed. The sounds of joyous amazement filled the room, like a crowd who just witnessed a magician pull off an amazing trick. They smiled and laughed and mingled amongst themselves. Norton and Edwards kept staring out, observing and wondering what was going to happen next.

There were a few moments where it almost looked like MacFarlane might have actually filled everyone’s glasses with Earth water. The mingling kept going, MacFarlane’s icy cold stare jabbed at Norton and Edwards every time they looked in his direction. Norton wondered if he would have gone that far just to make them look bad and himself look good.

The first person at the party started vomiting about five minutes after the toast. It was an older man in a pinstripe suit. He tried covering his mouth and running out of the room. But his insides were spilling on the floor before he could make it anywhere near the hall’s exit. People were shocked, they stared at him with disgust. Then the second person started vomiting, this time an older woman in a golden gown. She keeled over, holding her stomach, and spilled herself right where she was standing. She didn’t even bother trying to move, like she knew there was no point.

One by one, all the guests were getting more and more sick. All except MacFarlane who stood on the stage looking down with wide eyes at everyone dying in front of him. He exhibited no signs. Norton knew right away that every guest had water from Europa, but MacFarlane gave himself Earth water. He was too much of a coward to drink it himself.

The shrill screams of everyone in the hall all dying at once filled the room like a television tuned to white noise. “Why are you just standing there!” someone screamed at Norton and Edwards. There was nothing anyone could do to help these people, and Norton and Edwards knew that. So they continued to observe, because there would no other good that could come of this situation except for maybe a better understanding of how the virus progresses in people. This was no longer a banquet and these people no longer had any hope. They were simply the next batch of subjects in this ongoing experiment.

A hand grabbed Norton by the shoulder and she looked back to see MacFarlane with a frantic and panicked look on his face. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, leaving long streaks of fear along his face. “Why didn’t you tell me the water was this dangerous!” his voice screeched through his teeth.

“We did tell you,” Norton answered. “You didn’t listen.”

The putrid smell of rot was already filling the room. It was no different from the other subjects. All the same symptoms in the same order and the same reaction from everyone suffering from the virus. It was a quick death, but the pain and anguish that accompanied it must have made it feel like a thousand years of suffering.

“I’ll call for sanitation and clean up,” Edwards said.

“No, wait,” Norton stopped Edwards. “You said you destroyed the bodies almost immediately last time someone was administered completely untreated water? I want to see what the bodies are like after an hour. I want to see if untreated water acts differently post-mortem than treated water.”

“Why?” Edwards asked.

“The virus acts the same in a living host, but what if treating the water actually does make a change, but the change isn’t prevalent until after the body dies?”

“What will that prove?”

“That the treatments are doing something. That all of our efforts didn’t leave us empty handed. And if it acts differently post-mortem, then there has to be a point where the virus acts differently while the host is still alive.”

Norton knew where her brain was heading with this idea, but she wasn’t sure if Edwards saw it too. He stared at her in silence, barely blinking, like his brain was trying to process what he just heard but couldn’t come to any sort of logical reasoning of his own. He was lost in Norton’s idea and completely froze trying to get it to make sense.

“Trust me,” she tried to assure him. “This will bring some progress.”

The acrid smell of rotting flesh started to bother Norton. She coughed into her sleeve, trying to keep down the contents of her stomach. Her instincts told her to get out of that room before she becomes violently ill. But she knew she couldn’t miss any minute. This was crucial.

Forty-five minutes passed and the bodies were almost completely liquid. Even the bone melted with the flesh and all that was left of the banquet guests was a puddle of human remains. Norton pulled her phone from her pocket and started taking photographs. She looked around as she was snapping photos and noticed that MacFarlane was nowhere to be seen. The sounds of screaming echoed through the hall and caught the attentions of both Norton and Edwards. It sounded like MacFarlane’s shrill, panicking voice.

Edwards tried stepping in the direction the sound came from and stepped directly into the liquefied human. The hiss of a burning acid sang out from under his foot and steam rose up, reeking of burning hair and melting rubber. He quickly jumped back and pulled his shoe off and threw it to the ground. The hissing and steaming continued as the shoe completely dissolve in front of them.

Edwards slipped off his other shoe and touched the gelatinous mass that once was a room full of people. The hissing rose up again and his other shoe dissolved as quickly as the first. He threw it to the ground and examined the bit of ash left.

“Corrosive,” he said. “Extremely corrosive. Some of Jupiter’s sulphuric atmosphere must be in this water as well. It’s mixing with the hydrogen of the water and the carbon and oxygen in the people. The pH levels are probably comparable to sulphuric acid, but this is like a much stronger dose.”

“Why isn’t it dissolving the floor?” Norton asked.

“These floors have the same coating as in the observation rooms,” Edwards explained. “A synthetic poly-ethylene plastic coating. Whatever this bit of mess is, it must only damage organic cells.”

Norton noticed that the mass of liquid corrosive human was crawling along the floor, spreading out like a droplet of water on a table going through osmosis. She tapped Edwards on the shoulder and pointed to the crawling threat and the two walked out of the room and headed back down into the lab.

*****

The first thing that Edwards ran to once the two made it into the lab were the binders of research notes. “If that keeps spreading,” he said. “It could coat the whole facility and burn up every piece of organic material in here. We’ve worked too hard to understand this much of it so far. There’s too much else left to learn about it and there’s no time to backtrack. Save every piece of record you can. If it’s paper, grab it and keep it safe.”

There were notes all over the lab. Norton grabbed for everything that she could see. From the scribbled covered notebooks to the small post-it notes stuck to the walls, she moved in a fury to grab everything she could. She handed a massive handful of notebooks and loose paper to Edwards, who looked at the pile from Norton and looked at everything he had gathered thus far.

“We need to start moving this out,” he said. “There was plenty of floor space left upstairs, and the mass was moving slowly when we came down to the lab. Stay down here and keep collecting everything you can and keep it in a single pile. I’m going to run this stack outside and into my car. It will be safe in there until we can get the rest out.”

Before Norton could get a syllable of objection out from between her lips, Edwards was already out of sight. She darted form one side of the lab to the other, picking up every sheet of paper she could see. She opened drawers, stood on chairs to reach top shelves, scoured every hidden space in the lab for anything. Once she gathered what she believed to be every sheet of paper in the lab, she noticed that Edwards still wasn’t back. She checked the clock on the wall and saw he had been gone for almost an hour.

She walked through the lab’s hallways and found the stairwell that led back up to the main floor. She called out for Edwards with only her voice echoing up the stairwell being her response. She stood still and waited, waited for Edwards to reappear for the next set of paper to carry upstairs. But there was nothing.

Then, a small drip started pouring off the top step. Norton watched it with curiosity. Not sure of what she was looking at, she grabbed a post-it note with a message that read “Call Mom,” and reach up with it to the top step. The paper touched the small drip trickling down and started smoking and hissing.

In a panic, she dropped the paper into the small puddle that was gathering on the next step. The paper burst into flame and was reduced to ash in a second. A heavy section of the mass then toppled over the top step as the corrosive human remains started pouring rapidly over, like a tower made of champagne glasses.

She ran back into the observation room and rummaged through the papers. She tried to read the notes as quickly as she could, trying to prioritize what would be most important to save. But she knew she was running out of time before she would have nowhere she could move to. She threw down all the papers back onto the desk and peeked out into the hallway to see the mass crawling its way down to the observation room.

She looked around for a window, an air vent, anything she could crawl through to get to safety. All there was around her were grey walls and fluorescent lights. She knew the stairs were her only exit, but there was no way she would get through the hallway now. She walked forward and touched her toe lightly to mass and her shoe instantly burned up. She kicked off both shoes and moved back to the observation room.

Standing just beside the doorway was the bio-waste disposal unit. It moved slowly. She never tried to walk up stairs with it before. But the metal armour was coated with the same poly-ethylene plastic to protect it from bacteria growing on it. She would at least be safe in the basement if she couldn’t get up the stairs.

The suit was already open and Norton just had to climb in, secure her limbs, and close the chest plate and helmet. Once secure, she began walking through the mass. Each slow, thudding step dispersed the mass under its heavy foot. The mechanical sounds of each limb moving as she walked along seemed louder than any time she cleaned out the observation room.

She made it to the steps, which were now soaked with corrosive human remains. The liquid poured along like a never ending fountain. She lifted her foot and stepped onto the first step. She could feel the foot slipping from under her. She tried to steady herself, but she was quickly losing control. The foot finally slipped out from under her and she fell back in the bio-waste disposal unit and landed directly on her back.

Her body seized up. The pain of the landing shot through her whole body, which refused to move despite any command coming from her brain. She laid flattened, staring at the ceiling through the helmet. She could see the liquid dripping out of the vents and through the fluorescent light fixtures. It dripped slowly down and landed on the helmet’s view screen, clouding Norton’s sight.

The fog from her breath condensed inside of the helmet, leaving it wet and smelling like rotting food. Her limbs began responding her commands and she tried moving the suit to stand back up. Gravity was not on her side as she began feeling like a turtle turned upside down on its shell. She was able to move the mechanical arm and wipe away the accumulating mass clouding her vision. She looked around and noticed on the far side of the lab from the observation room a small window. Small, but just big enough to crawl through.

Unable to get up still, Norton began kicking out her legs and flailing her arms, pushing the suit across the floor towards the window. She grabbed onto walls and kicked at corners, moving the massive metal body across the floor. After some hard pushes, she finally made it to the window.

The walls around the window still had no liquid on it. She knew she pull herself up through the window and pivot herself against the wall to get out of the facility. But she had to get up to reach the window first.

She opened the chest plate and helmet to the suit. She pushed one of the doors to the chest plate as far open as the hinges would allow, then pushed it further to pop the hinge and let the door swing from the other side. She stood up with her feet inside the suit where he back usually is and stepped out onto the open door and pushed herself up the wall and through the window.

Once outside, she walked directly to where Edward’s car is usually parked. There was no sign of Edwards or his car anywhere. All there was in the parking spot where his car usually is was a single piece of paper. An observation that she wrote during 03198’s brief time as a subject. She didn’t even remember scribbling down “this is hopeless” on the paper, but it’s how she felt while watching 03198.

She looked back to the facility and saw the liquid seeping through the doors. It crawled along the concrete and into the grassy area. Smoke billowed up to the sky and the sound of its hiss was louder than the traffic on the nearby highway.

She watched the grass burn and pictured what it would do to the trees, forests, jungles, how it would spread all over, burning up every piece of organic material on the planet. She wondered if Europa was once a forest moon, full of life and growth and potential. Until someone drank the water.

Too Much TV Will Make Your Eyes Fall Out

It’s Saturday night and you know you’re up well past your bedtime. But if you don’t tell your parents, then neither will I. For tonight, it’s just you and I and all the greats who gave us scares. I’m Count Spookenstein and this is Chiller Television. Don’t adjust your set, this is not a test. You’re now receiving signals from my lair and together we’re going to have a smorgas-morgue of fun. At midnight local time, we’ll be watching the 1942 Bela Lugosi classic The Corpse Vanishes. At two a.m. local time we move forward to the 1963 movie that launched one Jack Nicholson’s career as he co-starred with monster legend Boris Karloff in The Terror. But first, make sure your doors are locked and your windows are boarded up. We kick off tonight’s fun with the movie that started it all. The film that defined what a zombie was for generations to come. Judith O’Dea stars in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Don’t touch that dial, if TVs are even made with dials anymore . . . Don’t change the channel because Chiller Television has only just begun and we haven’t finished until goose-bumps run across your skin and your blood runs cold.

Gillian sat close enough to the TV in the living room to climb in and stand next to all the horror icons she watched every Saturday night. With a bowl of fresh popcorn neatly tucked between her knees, a tall glass of soda on the coffee table behind her and a pillow and sleeping bag ready for when she’s inevitably going to fall asleep before The Terror starts, her Saturday night was set and she was ready for whatever chills and scares that Count Spookenstein had ready for her.

Count Spookenstein and Chiller Television was Gillian’s favourite part of the weekend. In fact, outside from staying up to watch scary movies on Saturday nights, Gillian didn’t do much with her weekend. All the other girls at school spend their weekends at the mall, spending their allowance money on small cups of soda that they sip while sitting in the food courts talking about who wore what to school that week and what boys they think are cute.

Gillian knew she was the butt of a lot of their gossip and jokes. She didn’t dress like all those other girls did. She let her dark hair grow straight that she let hang in front of her face when she went to school. She wore loose sweaters with logos and artwork from her favourite scary movies. Her mom wished that she would start making friends with the girls at school and spend more time trying to look as pretty as they all were. Her dad, though, got it. Gillian’s dad loved all the same scary movies that she loved and bought her the sweaters that she wore to school every day. Her dad had only one rule: the sweaters couldn’t have anything too gruesome . . . well, at least not until she was in high school.

Gillian could hear her mother come in from the other room. Her high heel shoes clicked with each step she took. She had another date tonight but didn’t bother with a babysitter. Gillian was getting old enough to look after herself. And besides, she was going to spend the whole night in front of the TV anyways. What would be the worst that could happen?

“Gillian, I hope you’re not going to be watching zombies all night,” her mother said. “There are some great family comedies on channel seven. Why don’t you watch a few of those?”

The family comedies that Gillian’s mother was referring to made Gillian want to start throwing up. Every family on those shows were too perfect: mom and dad were still together, brother and sister got along like best friends, and Rover always brought back the ball he chased to play fetch. Gillian already figured out that life wasn’t like that: parents got divorced, some kids were only children who never got a dog, and sometimes thing don’t always wrap themselves up in a neat package at the end.

“That’s ok, mom,” Gillian replied, trying to be as polite as possible. “Count Spookenstien is playing some really good movies tonight. I’ll be fine. Have fun on your date. Hope this one is a real winner and the proverbial Mr. Right.”

“Why do you always have to be so condescending while you’re here?” her mom snapped back. “I bet you’re never like this at your father’s house.”

Gillian never tries to be condescending. Her monotone voice and diction already a few grades ahead of where she should be just gives her that tone anytime she talks. She really was hoping the best for her mom. Though her mom will always think Gillian has some vendetta against her.

“Anyways, I got to get going,” her mom said as she adjusted her dress. “How do I look?”

Gillian looked her up and down and said, “Like you would make a suitable mate for a potential suitor.”

Obviously flustered and giving a heavy sigh, Gillian’s mom reached into her purse shaking her head, “I don’t even know why I ask you sometimes. I just wanted a daughter to share these nice things with. I feel like I have nothing in common with you.”

With absolutely nothing to say, Gillian just stared at her mom for a minute, then refocused her attention back to the graveyard scene on the TV. Gillian’s mom walked in to the room and started stroking her daughter’s hair. “I’m sorry honey, I’m just a little nervous about this date. You know, he could actually be the proverbial Mr. Right. If this goes well, he might even be your step-dad.”

The zombie chasing the brother and sister through the graveyard on TV was easier for Gillian to deal with than what her mother was saying. She talked to her father a few times about her mother’s dates and how she didn’t know how to feel about them. Her father always said that she should just be happy that her mother has been able to move on. And even if she couldn’t be happy, it was her duty to pretend to be happy and supportive so that her mother could be happy. Things were so much easier with Gillian’s dad. He never dated, he never expected her to comment on what he was wearing, he never got frustrated when Gillian didn’t understand what the big deal was. They had monster movies and that’s all they needed. Gillian didn’t understand what anyone needed anything else.

“Well, there’s leftover pizza in the fridge if you get hungry,” her mom started walking towards the front door. “Don’t stay up too late, and please don’t watch TV all night. Too much TV will make your eyes fall out.”

As Gillian’s mom went out the door the commercial break started and then, the whole reason Gillian stays up this late on the weekends, Count Spookenstein came back onto the screen:

Oh my, Barbara’s in trouble now. That ghoul in the graveyard cracked her brother’s skull on that tombstone and now Barbara’s hiding with a few other survivors in that abandoned house. I wonder which of the first survivors will be the first to snap. But first, how about a few facts about this terrifying thriller? Even though colour film was the norm by the time Night of the Living Dead was filmed, director George A. Romero still decided to film the picture in black and white anyways. And that’s the topic of tonight’s first quiz question:

Why did George A. Romero film Night of the Living Dead in black and white? Was it, A, because filming in black and white would be cheaper, B, because he wanted a classic horror ambience, or C, because the black and white camera was the only one he had access to?

We’ll have the answer to this question later on in our program. But for now, but to the guts, gore and glory that is Night of the Living Dead.

A wolf howls in the background as Count Spookenstein faded off of the screen. Gillian popped a couple of kernels of popcorn into her mouth while the movie came back on, opening with a shot of a wandering zombie eating a slimy piece of meat.

Gillian looked at the piece of meat hanging from the zombie’s mouth and looked down at her own legs, wondering what part of the body that was supposed to be. It was probably a turkey leg, Gillian figured out. She knew how low budget of a film this was and figured the director wouldn’t have the money for decent special effects, so he probably just took the turkey leg off of the lunch tray for the actors.

Gillian knew all of these movies well: Count Spookenstein knew them better of course, but the Count always shared all of his knowledge every Saturday night. Every weekend, Gillian learned something new about the movies she loved. She figured, after watching enough of Count Spookenstein’s shows, she could one day be the painted up ghoul on the television screen every Saturday night. She would dress similar enough to Count Spookenstein: she would wear his trademark top hat, paint her face like a skeleton face all white with black outlines around her cheekbones and eyes, she would wear the same black cape and white shirt and she would live in the haunted castle and have her own laboratory. Just like Count Spookenstein.

There was another commercial break then Gillian’s hero came back on the screen:

We’re back and things are only turning for the worse. The young lovebirds went up in flames and a cloud of smoke, the family is read to tear each other apart and Barbara is practically comatose. Can Ben told them all together and make it until morning when hopefully some help will arrive?

But now, back to tonight’s question. Why did director George A. Romero decide to film his 1968 zombie-defining film in black and white?

Gillian looked up at the screen and blurted out, “It was the budget! It was an independent film and they had to keep the filming costs down!”

Sorry boils and ghouls, I couldn’t quite hear you, you’ll have to speak up. Why was it again?

Gillian felt a little stupid yelling at the TV still, but she couldn’t resist Spookenstein’s charm, she had to answer. “It was to keep filming costs down!”

That’s right Gillian. It was the filming costs. This was Romero’s first picture and because it was an independent film, Romero had to cut costs wherever he could. Good job my dear.

The popcorn that Gillian had thrown into her mouth dropped out and back into the bowl as she hung her mouth open listening to Spookenstein talk back to her through the television screen. She couldn’t figure out how this was possible. Was she just hearing things? Was Spookenstein really talking to her?

Spookenstein smiled down through the screen and if Gillian didn’t know any better, she’d swear he was staring right into her eyes.

You know a lot about horror movies, my dear. Possibly more than me. Why don’t you join me here and we can find out who knows the most.

The Count extended his hand forward, and then through the television screen and it approached Gillian with an eerie glow around it, outlining every vein in his decrepit hand following the shape of his long, cracked fingernails. His fingers spread and his palm opened up, inviting Gillian to take his hand and follow him. She reached out and felt the dry leathery skin on Spookenstein’s hands as he pulled her into the TV, then through, then into Spookenstein’s haunted laboratory.

She stood up close and looked into the cobwebbed beakers, ran her fingers over the smoke pumping out of the cauldron and flicked a small switch that made an electric sound off in the distance. Most people acting the way she was would have been in Santa’s toyshop; but, Gillian was somewhere better: Count Spookenstein’s haunted lab.

“Well my dear,” Spookenstein called out from behind her. “It’s time we found out who knows the most about classic horror films, shall we? For every question you get right you get one step closer to being my new assistant in my lab!”

Gillian’s smile shined brighter than an entire neighbourhood of jack-o-lanterns. She clapped a bit and spun in excitement, trying to take in all that there was to Spookenstein’s lab as quickly as she could.

“But,” Spookenstein’s tone quickly dropped. “For every question you get wrong, you will be one step closer to a worse kind of doom than Karloff, Lugosi or Chaney ever met. Three wrong answers, and you will be finished, for good. Are you ready to start?”

Gillian looked around the lab and thought about how much better everything will be once she’s here to stay. There was no way Gillian could possibly lose this game. She knew all the monsters, all the scream queens, all the writers and all the directors. She had this in the bag and in no time at all she would be Spookenstein’s assistant.

“The first question,” Spookenstein blurted out. “Who was the first actor on film to play Frankenstein?”

A trick question right off the start, Gillian thought to herself. She figured Spookenstein would think that she thought he was talking about Boris Karloff, who was the first to play Frankenstein’s monster. A common  misconception. Frankenstein was the doctor who created the monster, and she knew exactly who played him.

“Colin Clive,” Gillian answered. “Colin Clive was the first to play the good doctor Frankenstein.”

Spookenstein nodded happily. “Very good, you caught the first part of my trick,” he said. “But, not all of it.”

Suddenly, a round wooden plank shot up from behind Gillian. The plank had four sets of braces, two on the top and two on the bottom. Gillian had seen this kind of torture device before on many different movies where the victim spins attached to the piece of wood while the monster throws knives at them.

“You see my dear,” Spookenstein explained. “You forgot about the original Frankenstein, the 1910 version, what’s commonly referred to as Edison’s Frankenstein, named after the manufacturing company that filmed the picture. And the doctor was played by none other than Augustus Phillips.”

Spookenstein pointed to a screen at the other end of the lab, the very screen that Gillian went through to find her way into the lab. The image of her living room suddenly faded and clips from the 1910 version of Frankenstein started playing. Spookenstein was right and Gillian was getting worried.

“Second question my dear,” Spookenstein began. “And I’ll make this one an easy one. Name three actors who have played the monster Dracula.”

I know this one for sure, Gillian thought to herself. She didn’t love any other monster more than she loved Dracula. The Prince of Darkness himself. There wasn’t a single Dracula movie she hadn’t seen, even the new terrible ones. She thought about naming Max Schreck, the mysterious man who played Nosferatu in 1922, but that wasn’t technically Dracula. He’s never called Dracula in that movie. Gillian was on to Spookenstein’s games.

“Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee,” Gillian hesitated for a moment. “And Gary Oldman.”

Spookenstein’s face dropped and his eyes widened. “I’m impressed,” he said. “You avoided my trick with Nosferatu, well done. You may make a perfect assistant yet.”

Folding her arms and nodding confidently, Gillian was proud of herself in that moment and she hoped she could keep up her winning streak.

“Third question now,” Spookenstein began. “Name three monsters played by Lon Chaney.”

Gillian thought for a moment about what could Spookenstein’s trick be this time. It didn’t take long to find the key she was looking for.

“Lon Chaney Senior or Junior?” Gillian asked.

Spookenstein smiled. “Senior, my dear.”

“Easy,” Gillian prematurely blurted out. “Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and…” Suddenly, Gillian couldn’t remember the third monster’s name. She had only seen clips of this lost and fabled film, it’s legend was as large as its start. But, did the monster have a name? “The… The… Monster from London After Midnight.”

Spookenstein laughed heartily as the picture of Gillian’s living room faded once again and clips from London After Midnight began playing on the screen. “Oh my dear, you were so incredibly close. The monster in London After Midnight did have a name. He was Inspector Edward C. Burke. And he dressed as a monster to solve a mystery. The monster was known as The Man in the Beaver Cap. And that’s two wrong answers.”

Suddenly, something pulled Gillian back and she was pressed against the plank, the shackles binding themselves against her wrists and ankles. She could feel the plank start to rotate slowly. She couldn’t get this next question wrong.

“Alright my dear,” Spookenstein walked up to Gillian, placing his hand on the plank and gently rocking it back and forth. “One more question and your doom is sealed. Here’s your question. Name three films where Vincent Price plays a doctor.”

Gillian was terrified but she was able to steady her breathing to think slowly about this. Her father’s favourite actor was Vincent Price. They had watched all of his movies together. She remembered sitting on the couch with her father while Price’s haunting voice carried over them.

“The Bat, The Lat Man on Earth and…” Gillian hesitated. “The… The Abominable Doctor Phibes.”

Spookenstein was silent for a moment, still rocking the plank. Gillian could feel her hair running along the floor. “I underestimated you, my dear,” Spookenstein finally answered. “One more right answer, and you will be free of these shackles and you will become my assistant. One more wrong answer and you will suffer a fate worse than Vincent Price ever did in any of his films. Your last question, and I highly recommend that you take your time thinking about it. Name three classics that were remade in the 1980s.”

Gillian didn’t know much about movies from the 1980s. Spookenstein never played those movies. But she heard about how some of these remakes were even better than the originals. She thought about the movies her father told her he watched in theatres when they first came out.

“The Fly, The Thing, which was originally called The Thing from Another World and…” Gillian tried to think of a third. She remembered the first time her father told her about Donald Sutherland. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

With a heavy sigh, Spookenstein looked down on Gillian. “So, so close,” he began. “And you would have made such a good assistant. Oh well, rules are rules. For you see my dear, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made in 1978, not in the 1980s. I’m sorry my dear, this is where it all ends now for you.”

With a heavy cackle and flick of his wrist, the plank started to spin and Spookenstein walked over to a briefcase on a table, and pulled out a collection of large knives. “Hope this has been educational my dear!” He yelled out with a laugh.

Gillian felt the plank shift as she spun. With a kachunk the plank dropped and began rolling toward the screen, just missing the first knife Spookenstein threw. The plank rolled and hit the screen, launching Gillian through and back into her living room landing on the bowl of popcorn and sending kernels flying all over the couch.

And then she heard the front door open.

“Gillian I’m…” Gillian’s mother walked into the living room. “Gillian! What are you doing? Look at the mess you made. I’m going to have to get the vacuum and…” And Gillian’s mother hesitated for a second. Gillian looked up to see her mother’s glare glued to the television. “Is that Jack Nicholson?” she asked. “I love Jack Nicholson. What movie is this?”

“The Terror,” Gillian responded. “It was one of his first major roles. He got to star alongside Boris Karloff.”

“I can see that,” Gillian’s mother replied. “This looks really good.” And Gillian’s mother sat herself down on the floor, cross-legged next to Gillian.

The front door opened again and Gillian could hear steps in the front hallway. “Oh, that’s my date,” Gillian’s mother explained. “He’s coming in for a quick cup of coffee and heading home for the night, I think you’ll really like him.”

“My dear, where are you?” a familiar voice called out.

“In the living room!” Gillian’s mother called.

That’s when a man stepped into the living room. His leathery hands removed his top hat as he peered into the living.

“Hello my dear,” he began with a smile. “You must be Gillian. I hear you like scary movies.”

The House and the Dare

The house was on the edge of the town, just beyond the factories where most of the town’s parents worked and just before the highway that would take families to the city on the weekend. It was an old house, the kind you would see on those late Saturday night movies where the man in a mask would be hiding around the corners waiting for the teenaged girls. The window shudders were hanging by their hinges and would squeak anytime there was a gust of wind. Dust was caked onto all the windows making it impossible to see in. Cobwebs lined the front porch and the porch swing held on by only on chain hooked into the overhang.

Roy and his friends would ride their bikes through the industrial area of town, daring each other to go a little further in toward the house. They had all seen the house when their parents drove them into the city, but none of them had ever seen the house outside the safety of their parents’ car windows.

“My brother said he spent a whole night in that house once,” Roy bragged. He always looked up to his brother. He thought his long black hair and leather jackets with the spikes sticking out were cool. Roy often counted the years to sixteen when he could grow his hair long and have his own spiked leather jacket. “I bet I could do it too.”

All the other boys jeered and scoffed, saying that Roy would never have the guts to stay in that house even for a minute. Just as the other boys started to turn their bikes around to head home, Roy piped up.

“Not even a minute? I’ll do that right now,” he called out.

The other boys looked back at him, their mouths hanging out, then looked at each other hoping someone else will be the first to say something.

“I’ll go in that house right now and stand in there for one minute,” Roy continued. “And when I come out, one of you has to buy me root beer.”

Roy had been challenged with some bold dares before. He never backed down from a dare or a double-dare or a double-dog-dare. He had eaten more worms than any of the other boys at school, even ate a spider one time. Roy had swung a rope around the gym’s basketball net and climbed up to the rim once when he was called chicken. Roy prided in himself of his bravery. He would run home and tell his brother all about how brave he was. His brother would let Roy sit in his room, listen to his CDs with the loud screeching guitars and screaming singers anytime he was impressed with the dares Roy conquered.

Roy could only imagine how proud his brother would be for going into that house.

The boys rode their bikes over, further than any of them had ridden before. They passed factories and warehouses and read the names as they flew by. Yellow and brown leaves crunched beneath the wheels of their bikes as they drove down the empty streets. It was almost totally dark outside and a cold wind started blowing behind them, as if some invisible force was pushing them towards the house.

The boys stopped their bikes with a screech in the middle of the road as they looked up to the enormous house. It was twice the size of any of the houses on their block. The house loomed over them as if the upstairs windows were giant, dark eyes staring down at them waiting for them to answer the dare.

Roy hopped off his bike and rolled it up on the sidewalk and dropped it on the overgrown lawn, covered in burnt coloured leaves. He looked back and saw his friends still standing back. They wouldn’t even come up to the sidewalk. One of Roy’s friends hid behind a tree holding a stick he pulled from one of the branches and standing up on one of the roots protruding out of the ground.

“All right, I’m going in!” Roy yelled out to his friends. He looked down at his watch. “I got my watch, you guys watch your watches, and when one minute hits I’ll come out of the house. Hope you guys brought your allowances, I’m not kidding about the root beer.”

The house seemed like it was looming even closer to Roy now. Gusts of cold wind blew by like it was the house’s cold, dead breath blowing against Roy’s face. Roy took his first step onto the first wooden stair leading up to the front door. The creak under his feet echoed through the front porch and out into the street. Roy stepped carefully the rest of the way up, afraid that the old rotted wood would crumble under his feet. As he walked up slowly to the front door, he peered over to the porch swing hanging from one chain, creaking and squeaking as it swayed to and fro. Roy could hear the shutters above him slapping against the house, each new slap louder than the last.

Even before his hand landed on the doorknob, Roy could feel the heat coming from it. He tapped his finger against the doorknob and even that little touched singed his fingertip like the time he pressed his hand against the top of the stove while his mom was cooking. Roy slid his hand into his sleeve and quickly slid his hand along the knob and swung the door open quickly. The door swung with a loud wreeeeeeeeeeeeek before whamming against the wall behind it.

Hearing his friends chatter behind him, Roy looked back and smirked at his friends before lifting his foot and kicking the front door back shut.

Roy felt a shiver in the house after the door slammed shut. He inspected the doorknob to see what burned his hand. There was nothing on the inside doorknob. He reached to touch it and it was icy cold like how the streetlights get when it’s thirty below outside.

My imagination’s just playing tricks on me, Roy decided as he walked into the middle of the front foyer. In front of him was a wooden stairwell covered in an old dusty green rug leading upstairs. To his left was a room with a couch, chairs and lamps all covered in white blankets with grey and yellow stains. To his right was a room with an old wooden desk and wooden chair. There were still pens and papers on top of the desk and old books on a bookshelf hanging above the desk.

The house was quiet. So quiet, Roy’s ears began ringing with the sounds of his own thoughts. This minute couldn’t move fast enough. Bored, Roy decided to sit down at the desk. He walked in the office and ran his fingers along the top of the desk and then the starting touching each of the books resting above as he read out each title, each name stranger than the last:

“Murders in the Rue Morgue and other Short Stories; The Dunwich Horror and Other Strange Tales; The Lair of the White Worm; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Roy didn’t know any of the books on the shelves. They just seemed like strange tomes from a different time. He sat down at the desk and began fiddling with a pen, his eyes still locked on the books hanging above him. An open book lying on the desk caught his eye and as he peered down at the book he noticed that there were no typed words on the page: only a single sentence, just three words, scribbled across in black ink so fresh it was still running down the page. It was three words enough to send chills down even the bravest of spines.

“Get out now.”

A bad of ink from the page pressed against Roy’s finger as he stood up from the desk, trying to distance himself from this message of warning. He looks down at the ink on his hand and he sees it running along his finger tip, like he was pressing a fountain pen against himself. But there was no pen in his hand and the ink kept spreading, covering his finger and running into his palm.

Roy ran through the hose, looking for the kitchen or the bathroom or the first room with a running tap he could find. He find the kitchen in the far end of the house on the other side of the stairs. He runs to the sink and twists open both faucets, but nothing comes out. The tap starts vibrating, then gyrating, then shaking, then convulsing and then starts spewing what Roy thought was black ink, until the black ink started crawling. Suddenly Roy found himself covered and surrounded by spiders.

Roy screamed and ran through the house back towards the stairs and up the steps with a clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp until Roy’s leg fell through one of the steps, hwith the splinters of the shattered, rotted wood scraping against his leg. He pulled himself up and made it to the top of the stairs, out of breath, and he heard a tapping coming from the room at the very end of the hall.

Roy walked slowly through the hall, letting each of his feet land gently against the floor beneath him, each step letting off a creeeek . . . creeeeeeeeeek . . . as he continued forward to the door at the end of the hall.

A cold breeze ran through this hallway and each door that Roy passed gave off a small jingling noise, like someone on the other side was trying to turn the handle. As Roy got closer to the sound of the tapping, the tapping grew louder and louder, until it became a banging Banging BANGING BANGING BANGING! The door shook more with each harder banging that hit it. The hinges on the door began loosening, screws began falling out and rolling along the floor, and Roy turned to run as the banging led to a crash and the door behind him flung open with a loud ROARING noise coming up from behind him. Roy had no idea if the noise was a monster, a ghost, a demon, or a wind strong enough to tear the house off of its foundation, but Roy just kept running. He could hear each of the doors that he passed swinging open and smacking against the wall behind them as he ran passed.

Roy made it to the stairs, jumped over where he fell, slid along the banister until the landed at the front door and swung it open.

Just as he saw his older brother reaching down for the handle.

“Whoa, didn’t take long for you to get spooked,” Roy’s brother smiled as he adjusted his leather jacket. He turns and looks back at Roy’s friends and yells out, “Hey, I told you guys your parents are waiting for you. Get home or I’ll run you over with my car.”

One of the boys chimed up, “No you won’t.”

Roy’s brother took a step down one step and looked down his nose at the boys. “Is that a dare?” he asks.

The boys rode off for home and Roy’s brother looked back at the brave young man and said, “Took some guts to go in there. Too bad you were only in there for like ten seconds. I saw you closing the door just as I was pulling up.”

Roy couldn’t believe he was in the house only a few seconds. He thought for sure, between the ink, which disappeared off of his hand, the spiders and the doors upstairs he must have been in there for five, maybe ten minutes. But no, as Roy checked his watch he realized that he was only in that house, for a few seconds.

“Put your bike in the back of my car, I’m going to double check in here and make sure you didn’t break anything,” Roy’s brother took a few steps into the house as Roy walked down to the station wagon Roy’s brother bought with the help of their parents.

Roy’s brother walked into the house, leaving the front door open. He moved the black hair out of his face as he began peeking into each room. He looked over the room with the books and the desk and smiled. “We had some fun, but not tonight. Another night maybe.”

He walked into the room and looked down at the book open on the desk with the fresh black ink running along the page which now said, “I Dare You.”

Old Books by Dead Authors

The librarian shushed Laurie as the heavy book dropped against the table. It wasn’t her fault that the book slipped from out of her hands and slammed against the wooden surface, echoing throughout the library like the sound shot out from underneath the book and travelled up along the walls and bounced off the roof again.

The other kids sitting at the table coughed and tried fanning the dust that was dancing in front of their faces. Laurie could hear the other kids asking how old that book was and why is she reading it.

Compulsion and curiosity, Laurie wanted to answer the other kids. She wanted to tell them that all the secrets of the universe, the keys to life and death, the meaning to our very being here at this very moment were etched neatly in 8 point, Times New Roman font along the pages of these books. She wanted to tell them that, but Laurie decided to keep it to herself.

She sat down and started to run her fingers along the indents of the book’s front cover. The title and author of the book were etched in, as if imprinted or cut in precisely, along the red leather that had become dry and worn with age. She read the title over and over, even mouthing the words a few times, taking in the full essence of the tome she was about to envelop.

A backpack plopped on the table and Laurie heard could hear it zipping. She looked up to see Jonathan pulling out his science textbook. She had forgotten that she was supposed to be tutoring Jonathan. IF only he picked somewhere else to study that didn’t temp Laurie so much every time she walked in. The mall food court would have been perfect, Laurie didn’t care about anything going on in the mall. But the library was somewhere that Laurie could get lost in for hours, thumbing through books and discovering new sections all of the time.

Jonathan smiled. He took off his baseball cap and threaded his long, dusty blonde hair through his fingers, moving the few rogue strands back into place before sliding his cap back on. “Sorry I’m a little late,” he said. “Coach wanted to have a stern talk with me about my grades. Thanks again for helping me out. This is the only class I’m having any trouble with but even on failed class and I won’t be able to try out for the baseball team during the spring.”

“It’s no problem,” Laurie replied, barely looking away from the book that she was looking forward to reading. “Statistically actually, October is one of the hardest months for schoolwork, be it for grade school or even college. The material starts getting harder but the students haven’t quite caught up because they’re still in a summer break mentality. In November, grades start to pick up, then December and January is final project and exams season.”

Jonathan kept smiling and nodded his head. “So I guess I’m not the only one who needs a tutor right now then? That’s reassuring. How do you know all that stuff about when students do the worst in school anyway?”

Laurie noticed a smudge on her glasses and pulled them off before wiping the lens on her open plaid shirt. She still didn’t make eye contact with Jonathan. “I read a book on the psychology of students in post-secondary education. I was hoping it would help me get into the right mindset before college. It was the only book that analyzed student activity in the whole psychology section on the library.”

“Is that it right there?” Jonathan asked pointing to the book sitting in front of Laurie.

She looked down at the book and re-read the title hoping that would help her find the right words to explain the book. “Um, no,” she replied, still searching her brain for the right explanation. “It’s just some fiction. It’s really old though. I’m actually really surprised they have this here.”

“Sure doesn’t look like any fiction book I’ve ever seen,” Jonathan said.

“Well, this is far from some sappy, mass-market vampire romance,” she replied. “Your average teenaged girl sure wouldn’t read something like this.”

Laurie thought about reading the book once she got home, but knew that she already had too many books taken out from the library, all of them late of course. By the time the two finished studying, she would have to head right home, so there was no point in holding on to this book and having it occupy her mind while she’s supposed to be helping Jonathan study.

“I’m going to put this book back before we start,” Laurie said. “It’ll be just a second.”

“I’ll come with you,” Jonathan replied. “I’ve never really walked around here before. Might be good for me to know where I can find some good fiction for when I get sick of the vampire romances.”

The early and classic literature section was on the opposite side of the library from where the study tables were. In fact, the section was on the opposite side from where everything was: the front desk, the front doors, and all the windows. The fluorescent lights above hummed and a couple blinked, but Laurie wouldn’t need any light to navigate her way through this part of the library because of how much time she spent going through all of the books in this area.

She found the shelf that the book belonged on and noticed one of the librarians on the far end of the same shelf. He was knelt down, emptying a cart of books onto the shelves one at a time each. His brown corduroy pants were covered in dust, his round thin rimmed glasses hung down at the end of his nose, and the front part of his combed back hair hung in front of his face.

“What’s back there?” Jonathan pointed to the very far end of the library. It was a section that Laurie had never even noticed before, let alone explored. The entrance was a dark arch that had a sign in front of it that said, “Close for Renovations.”

“Closed for Renovations?” Laurie curiously read. “This place was renovated when we were in kindergarten. Why’s that area still closed?”

“I can explain that,” the librarian walked over. “That’s where we keep the really old books.” He held up one of the books from the early and classic literature section. “Don’t get me wrong, these books are pretty old. Maybe 70 years old or so. But over there,” he pointed. “That’s where we keep the books that are hundreds of years old. Some of those books have been in there since this library opened back in the 1860s, even before this area was established as a town. We tried renovating it at the same time we renovated the rest of the building, but we realized there was too much risk to those books. So it’s been that way ever since.”

“What kind of books are in there?” Laurie asked.

“More of the same really,” the librarian answered. “Just a lot of old books by dead authors. Nothing fancy really and nothing you can’t find in a newer edition out here. They’re just considered historical and some collectors would pay ridiculous money for them, so we need to keep them safe.”

The intercom system called for help at the front desk and the librarian politely excused himself and headed back to the opposite side of the library. As soon as he was out of sight, Laurie headed straight for the Closed for Renovations sign. Jonathan followed closely behind.

“What are you doing? We’re obviously not supposed to go back there,” Jonathan said.

“I need to know what’s back there,” Laurie answered. “Besides, the librarian never said we weren’t allowed back there. Just that the books are old and we need to be careful.”

Laurie and Jonathan snuck past the Closed for Renovations sign and made their way into the hidden part of the library. The books weren’t visible right away. The two had to walk down a long hallway whose only light came from the entrance way behind them. Laurie pulled out the small flashlight she kept for reading at night and clicked it on, shining a dim, orange light in the direction the two were headed. The walls and roof were arched and lined with what Laurie guessed were the original cobblestones from the 1860s. Between the stones grew a few weeds and other plant life. The whole hallway smelled of moisture, mould, fungus, and old books.

They reached the end of the long hallway to an open room with shelves of books lining the walls and a large, thick, wooden table with two chairs in the middle of the room. Laurie’s dim, orange light was the only thing illuminating anything in the room. She shone her light on the spines of the books lining the walls. She couldn’t even read the names. Some looked like English letters but not in any sensible order to make out words. Others had symbols that Laurie had never seen before.

“Aren’t these amazing?” she asked herself, forgetting that Jonathan was even in the room.

“What are all these?” Jonathan asked.

“I have no idea,” Laurie replied. “And I won’t know unless I open them up.”

She grabbed one of the books that had the symbols she’d never seen before. The book was even heavier than the one she was looking forward to reading before. The cover had thick ridges running all over, like veins in a wrist. Laurie traced some of the ridges before finally opening up the book to a random page near the middle.

Only to discover the pages were blank.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “There’s nothing here.” She flipped through a few other pages. “There’s absolutely nothing in here.”

She looked up to see Jonathan’s reaction and as soon as she looked down she saw lines on the book. And the lines were moving, filling the pages of images. Laurie started to make out the images of skeletons, churches, fire, and, horrible monsters with horns and hooves. In terror, she dropped the book, breaking the binding on the side of the book. A cloud of smoke rose from the book and then dissipated into the air. Jonathan and Laurie stood stunned, barely noticing the voice that came from under the table.

“Oh my, look at what you’ve gone and done,” it said. It walked out from under the table and Laurie noticed it was dressed exactly like the librarian. He was much smaller than the librarian, though. He was standing perfectly upright when he walked out from under the table and put his hands on his hips and shook his head as he looked at the broken book. “This is why I told the administrators to keep people out of here. But do they listen? No. What do I know after all?”

The little thing looked perfectly human. His feet looked much too long for his body. He adjusted his bowtie and then began cleaning his glasses.

“Is that an elf?” Jonathan blurted out.

The small man looked back at Jonathan with a puzzled look, like Jonathan just asked if he were a pickle. “Elf?” the man asked. “What makes you think I’m an elf? I’m much too small to be an elf. In fact, most elves are taller than humans. I don’t know where you got the idea that I’m an elf.”

“You’re a hobbit,” Laurie pointed out. “Just like in the books.”

He nodded his head. “That I am. And thank you. But more than that, I am the curator of this collection and it’s supposed to be my job to take care of these books. You came in at the worst possible time. I was just cleaning up after supper and just about to get my dinner ready and in my distraction, I must have missed you coming in.”

“Aren’t supper and dinner the same thing?” Jonathan asked.

“Supper and dinner the same…” the hobbit stopped as if he lost the words to try and understand what Jonathan just asked. “Much like how hobbits and elves are the same thing? If I had the time to, I’d teach you a thing or two. But right now, we have bigger issues.” He points to the book on the floor. “Of all the books you could have picked up while my back was turned, why did it have to be that one?”

“I didn’t know what it was,” Laurie explained. “I couldn’t read the name on the spine, so I just opened it and…”

“You couldn’t read it,” the hobbit interrupted. “Because it’s in a dead language from more than half a century ago. If you could read it, you would have read, and I quote, ‘DO NOT Open this Book for it has within it Trapped the Darkest of all Evil.’ And you just let it out.”

Laurie’s eyes began to fill with tears as she thought about what she must have juts unleashed onto the world. “I’m so sorry,” she said holding back tears. “I had no idea. Can you fix it?”

Maybe,” the hobbit replied. “I haven’t read up on this in a while. When most people release this guy, they don’t break the book he’s in. They usually just watch the drawings finish.”

“So, this has happened before?” Jonathan asked. “When was the last time?”

“A few years back,” the hobbit answered. “The last time the demon made a good mess of this entire library. To cover up what happened they wound up renovating the whole place. Aside from here, of course. I thought the books would be safe here under my watch, help keep suspicion low. It went pretty good too. You two are the first to wander in here since the renovations.”

“So wait, this has happened recently?” Laurie asked. “So you know how to fix it then?”

“Like I said,” the hobbit pronounced slowly. “I can fix it if he’s let out from the drawings finishing. You broke the book, though. This was his cage and now all the bars are broken.”

“Will he destroy the whole town?” Jonathan asked.

“No,” the hobbit answered looking down at another book. “This library was built specifically to house these book, including some nice failsafes that keep out on the loose friend indoors. The demon can’t leave the library, but there are enough people in here that he could do some serious harm if he wanted to. So, objective number one is you two finding our demonic friend. While you find him, I’ll fix the binding on this book. Hopefully that will keep him in here.

“What does he look like?” Laurie asked.

“It’s different every time,” the hobbit answered.

Lurie and Jonathan walked back through the long hallway and back out into the main library area. They looked around for anything that would possible be a demon: all they saw were the librarian emptying out more kids, a little kid skipping through the library aisles, more kids from their school walking around, parents picking up their kids go home for dinner, nothing that looked demonic.

They walked through the library and just saw more of the same. Neither Laurie nor Jonathan knew what they were looking for.

“I have an idea,” Jonathan spoke up. “He can’t leave the library, right? Let’s wait for the library to close. Everyone has to leave by then. Whoever doesn’t leave we know is the demon.”

Laurie agreed that this was a good plan. It was a school night, so it wouldn’t be long before the library closed. Laurie and Jonathan didn’t want to disturb the hobbit as he tried to fix the book, so they hid out in the dark hallway and waited for everyone to leave and all the lights to shut off.

Closing time came quickly and at the first sign of total darkness and quiet in the library, Jonathan and Laurie starting looking though the library for any sign that someone was still around. They peered through the aisles and made it half way across the entire library when they finally heard it.

Footsteps. Small footsteps. Small, quick footsteps. And then a giggle.

The giggle was high pitched and playful. Like that of a child. They weren’t sure if they were looking for something that exactly looked like a young kid, but it sounded like a kid.

Following the sound to the front of the library, Jonathan and Laurie stopped at the front desk and still saw no one. But then heard another giggle coming from the studying tables.

“It’s just playing with us,” Laurie said.

“Even if we find it, corner it or whatever, what do we do then? It’s a demon. Do we try to catch it? Is there a special way to trap it?” asked Jonathan.

“I don’t know. The hobbit just said to find it. Maybe we just keep track of where it is for when the hobbit’s finished fixing the book?”Laurie added. “All I know is that if that thing is allowed to run rampant, it’ll destroy the library.”

They both ran for the tables and started looking around. Laurie bent down on her hands and knees looking under the tables. She crawled from table to table until she spotted two small feet run across. Laurie’s head popped up and she spotted Jonathan in the opposite direction that she saw the feet. “It’s running again!” she called out. “Headed towards the back of the library!”

They ran back to the far end of the library and looked down each aisle in each section until they came across the early and classic literature section again. At the back of the aisle, trapped by a wall between to shelves of books sat what looked like a young boy, no older than four, dressed in jeans, a white button down shirt, and wearing small white sneakers. Laurie remembered seeing him skipping across the library when she and Jonathan came out of the hallway after meeting the hobbit. The boy sat there on the floor with a book in his lap, open.

“Well, there you are,” the hobbit came up from behind and started walking down the aisle holding the book Laurie broke. “Clever disguise this time. It really was. But you’re not fooling me.”

“He’s just a little boy,” Laurie said. “How much damage could he possibly do?”

The hobbit looked back at Laurie like she just tried to convince him frogs taste like chocolate. “No, he’s not a little boy,” the hobbit said. “He’s a thirteen-hundred year old demon who’s angrier and has a worse temper than a hive of bullied wasps because he’s been locked in a book for a few hundred years and every time he gets out a certain hobbit always finds him.” He turns back to the little boy. “I sometimes fear we’re destined to do this forever.”

“Well, if that isn’t what he looks like,” Jonathan began. “What does he actually look like.”

The hobbit turned and opened the book to a page with a drawing of an immense beast with long horns, hooves for feet, a long snout, and a gold ring pierced through the middle of his nose. “Here’s your adorable little boy,” the hobbit said. “Or as I like to call him, Ornias. Something of a trouble making demon who likes changing shapes.”

The three looked back and saw the little boy flipping through pages violently, the expression on his face began contorting and his became redder and redder. “Come on you stupid book,” he said through gritted teeth. “There’s got to be something in here about getting me out!”

“Afraid not,” the hobbit said. “You especially won’t find anything you’re looking for going through a vampire romance like the one you’re holding.”

The boy looked up and suddenly the horns that lay in his demon head began showing much clearer. The boy stood up and his hooves clicked against the floor. “I’m not going back into that book,” the demon’s voice boomed out from his snout. “You’ll have to kill me hobbit. And I’ll burn down this wretched place!”

The demon’s palms began to engulf in flames and Laurie and Jonathan both ducked. Just as they hit the ground, a bright light shone out, and Laurie saw that it came from the book that the hobbit was holding. The light burned and only grew brighter, until suddenly it was gone and the book dropped down to the floor. There was no sign of the hobbit or the demon. Laurie picked up the book and where once was simply deep ridges in the cover of the book, now the ridges made out a face. The face of the hobbit.

Laurie and Jonathan put the book back where it belonged in the dark room blocked off by the “Closed for Renovations” sign. As they walked back to the front door, Laurie thought about that broken book whose bindings could only be fixed by a hobbit, who now lives in its pages holding a demon at bay.

The librarian in the corduroy pants was walking up the steps to the front door when Laurie and Jonathan were about to pass through.

“Oh great,” the librarian said. “How long have you two been in here for?”

“Long enough,” Jonathan said as he left and walked down the stairs. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow!” he called out. “Maybe we can study at the mall food court from now on instead.”

As Jonathan walked away, Laurie looked to the librarian and asked, “So, do you know much about hobbits?”

The librarian smiled and answered, “Little people with big feet and eat a lot of meals? I know a few things. Did you know they’re really good at binding books?”

Talking to Stiffs

The bar doors swing open and shut with a slow pattering across the floor. His shoes are barely tied and he almost trips over his laces but finds balance against the side of one of the booths. If someone were sitting in that booth, he’s sure they would stand up and try to take a swing at him, like everyone else does at these kinds of places. That’s why he gave up on stopping in during the evening. People are friendlier in the afternoon.

The bartender stares down at the stumbling man with the poorly laced shoes. He tries to pull himself onto a stool while the bartender wipes the rim of a pint glass. The stumbling man has to balance himself on the edge of the bar and firmly plant his foot on the ring around the legs of the stool to even see over the bar, let alone get onto the damn thing.

“Been drinking already, Roger?” the bartender asks with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, well, you know how it is. Hair of the dog and what not” the small man retorts. “Just a glass of the usual, my man. Just a glass of the usual.”

The bartender sighs and shakes his head, like he doesn’t normally deal with guys having fun earlier in the day. “I don’t know, Roger. Seems to me like you’ve had enough already.”

“Come on, man. Not like you’re getting a lot of business right now anyways. I see more life during my day job,” Roger belligerently snaps back. “Come on, just one pint. For the road.”

“Fine, one pint,” the bartender answers back pointing his index finger to Roger. “But promise me you’re going to stay off the road.”

“Scouts honour,” Roger replies with two fingers in the air.

Roger was never a boy-scout.

*****

Six in the evening rolls around before Roger finally gets out of bed. Maybe that last pint at the bar wasn’t the best idea. He has no idea how he got home or where he left his car. All he knows is he’s got to get going. He’s on the night shift this week. His clients aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, except a little sour and smellier, but his boss still doesn’t like it when Roger’s late. The moody prick.

There’s coffee still in the pot but God knows when it was made. Fuck it, there’s a microwave, and you can’t taste the staleness once you Irish it up a bit. Roger fills his travel mug and picks up his keys from off the table. Beside his keys is a Scrabble board with words scattered across. Wonder what the guys are up to, anyways. Last time they tried to play, they argued over the word “fibula.” Roger insisted there was an “H” at the end of that word. He’s not sure if he actually believed that or if he just wanted the three extra points. Watson finally got fed up, took all of his letters off of his tray and spelt out “alienation” on the board, declared he was the winner, and walked out of Roger’s tiny bachelor apartment.

Roger left it on the board. Could never figure that word out.

*****

“Well look who finally showed up,” the moody prick declared as soon as Roger walked in through the swinging doors. “Nice of you to join us. At least you remembered your lab coat this time. We won’t waste another fifteen minutes having you wander around the building looking for one.”

Asshole. Roger shuffles through the lab with his coffee in hand, up to his step-stool. His first client of the night already lying in front of him, awaiting inspection. Roger takes a sip of his Irish concoction and pulls out his Dictaphone from his lab pocket.

“Caucasian female. About age thirty. Bruising along the neck and around the jaw-line.” He places his coffee down and wraps his tiny hand around her jaw; just like her assailant would have wrapped his hand. “Jaw’s broken.” He gently pulls open her mouth. “Missing teeth along the front of her mouth. Five along the bottom. Three along the top.”

Roger tries to lean in forward to get a closer look but his weight shifts the wrong way and he tumbles to the ground like glass shards from a bottle thrown against a wall. Roger lies stiff on his back for a moment, trying to catch his breath. He looks at one hand. His Dictaphone broken in half but still recording. He muddles out a raspy “fuck.” He looks at his other hand which is still holding a bottom jaw missing five teeth along the front. He smacks his head back against the cold ground squeezing his eyes shut and gritting his teeth. “Shit, fuck, damn, goddamn, fuck, shit fuck.”

He opens his eyes to see the moody prick standing over him. His hairy arms jutting out like two sideways “V’s,” his fists firmly planted on his hips, his black and grey checkered tie hanging off of him like the pendulum of a clock.

“Jesus, Roger! How fucking Irish is your goddamn coffee?”

Moody prick.

*****

Roger hates being put on cooler duty. But after the fiasco with his first client and what’s left of her bottom chompers, he understands. The cool air sobers him up usually. Just fucking boring. No one to talk to.

Sifting through recycled organs wasn’t what Roger had signed up for. Stiffs always fascinated him and he liked to explore things. You know, taking things apart to see how they work and then putting them back together. It started with an old walkman he had back when he was in elementary school. Stiffs aren’t like walkmans, though. You can’t take them apart to figure out what’s wrong with them and then put them back together to see if they still work. Well, at least not in Roger’s line of work.

Roger’s been in the cooler for about twenty minutes. The job’s simple enough: check the dates that the organs were dug out of the stiffs, if it’s been so many months, then they’re no good and it’s time to toss’em. One thing Roger has a problem with, though, is that the dates are all numerical. Roger’s never been good with numbers – or putting them in logical order. That’s why he likes biology: science with words. He looks at the random numbers on the organ’s labels, counts on his fingers to figure out the months, and then realizes that he was looking at the day. Or maybe the year. Month, day, year? Year, month, day? How the fuck does this work again?

The cooler door pops open and Roger looks over to see the moody prick walking in with a clipboard under his arm. He hopes it’s a new assignment but knows we never get anything that we want in life.

“Roger, what the fuck is going on?” he asks looking down at the clipboard. “I can’t take any more of these screw-ups. Last week it was forgetting to drain the fluid before making the first incision. Goddamn stain still won’t come out of the roof. The week before it was breaking your scalpel and losing the broken piece while making an incision in a subject’s neck. Now this. Do you just hate working here?”

“What? No? I love it here!” Roger stops to examine his current surroundings. “Well, not in here here, but I love it in the lab.”

“Well, I’ve let this go on long enough. You know our policy here. Can’t be three-sheets-to-the-wind, even if you are on night shift. Either get some counselling or you’re fired.”

*****

She crosses her legs all coy, pretending she doesn’t realize that Roger has been staring at her porcelain white legs since he walked in. She’s pretending she doesn’t realize her appendages are a pair of sensual satin sex-magnets. She stares across to Roger from over her thick, black rimmed glasses.

“Roger,” she continues. “I asked you about your childhood. Please, tell me what was it like.”

“What’s there to tell,” Roger shrugs. “I got picked on all through grade school, I turned invisible in high school, I hoped university would be better. It wasn’t. What else do you want to know?”

She scribbles on her pad and looks back up to Roger. He feels a sudden surge of blood through his veins when her soft, blue eyes peer back towards him. Those eyes were like ice, the kind of ice that you would skate on just before Christmas dinner. They were welcoming and kind and made Roger think of happier things and happier times.

“What about your parents?” she questions.

“My folks? They were alright. Well, my mom was. Dad bailed when I was young. Like seven or something. Mom remarried when I was in high school. Dated the guy for a long time too. Good guy, but I never called him dad.”

“Did you not feel close to him?” she tilts her head.

Roger can tell she’s interested in him. Maybe as much as Roger’s interested in her. Her voice got a little higher too, not as monotone as the last few questions. Roger got the sudden urge to tell her that his step-dad was a heavy drinker and the first to give him a sip of hooch. He has the urge but also has no intention of telling her.

“I did but he never felt like a dad, y’know? More like a buddy. Like the neighbour who’s a little older and really cool.”

She tilts her head the other way and taps her chin with her pen. “Was he a drinker?”

Damn, Roger has to tell her now.

“Well, yeah, but no more than any other drinker. A bottle of beer when he got home, bottle of JD on the weekends. Normal stuff, y’know?”

“Did you ever drink with him?”

Roger knows she already knows the answer to this. Why is she making him say it? Roger tries to stay quiet for a second. He knows he’s becoming a bad stereotype, a textbook case of a functioning alcoholic. He wants to prove he’s different, but if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…

“Yeah, almost every weekend until he died,” the thought of his step-father’s death always made him uneasy. Roger’s trying to hold back the tears thinking of watching the doctors pull the plug on the man too young to have a liver as damaged as it was. He was only in his fifties when he died, but he looked like he was eighty. The doctors always told Roger that it was liver damage that did it, but that explanation was never good enough.

Roger must not have been holding back his tears well enough, because she pipes up. “We don’t have to talk about this anymore. Let’s talk about your job. Why did you want to start doing this?”

Roger sniffs and wipes his eye, feeling the wet residue welling up in the wrinkles underneath. “Biology. It was the only subject in school I was good in. Well, English too, but not as good as biology.”

“So, why not work in environmentalism? Or with marine life? Why in a morgue?” the icy eyes continue to pry.

“People are more interesting than plants or fish.” Roger wishes that this session would just fucking end already.

*****

Roger grabs the cold face lying in front of him and moves it side to side, inspecting the perpetually open eyes. This one’s still fresh. The neck hasn’t stiffened up yet and all the limbs are easy to move like the joint of a G.I. Joe from the ’80s. Roger inspects the whites of his client’s eyes and leans forward to move its hair off of his client’s forehead. “Well, my friend, what happened to you exactly?” he questions as he inspects.

He moves to the rectangular, metal plate with his array of tools and his thermos of Irish coffee. He takes a sip of his coffee before reaching for his scalpel and shines it in the light, looking for smudges and fingerprints. Reading the medical charts only makes him question the cold body’s predicament even more. The only thing that makes sense on it is the name: Anthony Vito. No physical signs of what went wrong. “Well, Tony,” Roger puts down the medical chart, “Let’s take a peek inside and see what your squishy bits look like.”

The scalpel slides across Tony’s bare chest, evenly parting the diamond shape hair and following down the treasure trail to his navel. Roger moves the scalpel back to the top of Tony’s chest and slides the blade along his collar bone, again down at the bottom of his belly, and opens the flaps of skin like the arching doors of a church.

“Well, pal,” Roger continues. “Your ticker looks alright. Lungs are in good shape. Kidneys and liver looks like they should. Huh, and I thought my problems were bad.” Roger reaches down, deep into Tony, and feels around for that loose bit that will let him take his liver out. The squishing noise, like squeezing Jell-O between your fingers, got louder and louder the more Roger moves his hands around. “I’m sitting here, griping about my therapist, trying to figure out if she’s interested because she’s interested or because she’s getting paid. And here you are, lying cold and slowly getting stiff for seemingly no reason. I hate these ‘unknown causes’ cases.”

The liver feels like a wet steak left on the counter for too long. It slides around in his hands, but he’s able to keep a grip and lobs the organ down onto a chrome plate. He breathes heavy from his ordeal, wiping the sweat off from his brow and leaving a bloody streak across his face.

“I know what you’re thinking, buddy,” Roger continues. “She’s my therapist, of course it’s only because she’s getting paid. But I don’t know man, these past three weeks with her have really been something else. It’s like she knows me better than I know myself. I can tell her anything and she just gets it. And I’ll tell you another thing, Tony m‘boy, I bet she wouldn’t get pissed and storm out of my apartment like a little bitch if I cheated at Scrabble.”

Roger leans over his chrome plate and starts cutting off small pieces of Tony’s liver. He makes the incisions slowly, working in silence and nodding his head while he takes glances back up to the cold body lying in front of him.

“You know, man, I should just tell her, shouldn’t I? What’s the worst that could happen, right?” Roger pats Tony’s cold shoulder, “Thanks for the talk, man. We should have guy-talk more often.”

*****

“Excuse me?” she asks, her blonde eyebrow rises as if Roger just told her he’s into bestiality. Probably just to save face and keep the professional facade.

“I really mean it, I do, I can’t stop thinking about you, nobody listens like you do, no one gets me like you do, I need you in my life,” Roger explains.

“Um, thank you. Thank you, Roger, for your honesty, but, don’t you think that maybe this is just a manifestation of a bigger issue?” She acts like she’s trying to analyze him, but Roger knows she’s just looking for the best way to tell him the same back.

“I don’t think you get it,” Roger pleads, digging for a straight answer from her. “I know what’s going on. You can tell me. I only have like two more required sessions. We can be together.”

She takes off her glasses with a huff and crosses her legs. Her face is stern enough to make a drill sergeant uncomfortable. “Roger, I hope you trust me when I tell you that this is actually a very common reaction in patients, especially ones in your predicament. Let’s talk about this and try to understand where this is all coming from.”

Roger leans back in his seat and breathes slowly, trying to comprehend why she’s rejecting him like this. Is she just trying to keep her job and denying herself the happiness that Roger knows only he can offer. “But, the things you say. The way you understand me. I only want to make you as happy as you’re making me.”

She shakes her head. Her hair tied back bobs back and forth like the swinging tail of a golden retriever, only she doesn’t look as happy as the retriever would be. “Roger, I’m married, I have children, I have a whole life. Those are the things that are truly making me happy right now.”

Roger’s breathing gets heavy and the pressure in his eyes are almost unbearable. “But… But… I don’t think you understand. I… I… I don’t think you really get it.”

She leans forward, her face with the fake compassion that she’s been displaying during all the other sessions looking up at Roger. Her eyes were like the kind of ice you fall through and drown under. “I do get it, and it’s okay, Roger. You could have this kind of happiness too. With someone else, of course. As long as we keep up these sessions, we’ll get to the root of your issues and you’ll be able to have a happy life in no time.”

Roger wishes this session would just fucking end already.

*****

Still with no logical explanation, Tony lies in a cooler, baffling all the scientists in the lab. Roger walks up his stool snapping his latex gloves on and picking up the medical chart.

“Well Tony,” Roger begins. “My colleagues have found nothing off with your liver, your kidneys, nothing odd in your blood, and virtually no reason for you to be lying here. What’s up man?”

Roger opens the flaps on Tony’s chest to see an empty inside. All of his organs had been removed and his ribcage juts out like a couple of freshly blown bubbles.

“Can you fucking believe how she rejected you?” A voice asks Roger. Roger peers away from Tony’s torso to his face, but sees no movement. Roger looks away to grab his thermos and when he looks back, Tony is propped up on his elbows, looking at Roger, with a smirk on the right side of his mouth and his eyebrows high enough to reach his hairline. “I can believe it. It’s how all women are. Give them everything, have your heart broken, it’s like they don’t get that guys have feelings too, right?”

Roger tilts his head like a dog being given a command he’s never heard before. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t know. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that to a woman.”

Tony shakes his head and gives a low chuckle. “Yeah, well, that’s just the nature of women, man. You were probably too soft. She wasn’t getting it.”

Roger shakes his head quickly. “No, she told me she gets it.”

“Well then, my friend,” Tony continues. “You probably just projected yourself wrong. She probably thought you were just another yahoo looking for love in all the wrong places. You need to show her how serious you are.” Tony reaches across the table and hands Roger his scalpel. “You know, they’re not going to notice one missing utensil. Get your point across, nice and clearly. You deserve to be happy, after all.”

*****

The glare of the evening sun stings Rogers’ eyes as he stumbles across the field and bumbles into some of the stones. He thinks he remembers how to get to his step-father’s stone. Something about a tree on the west side of the cemetery. He continues across and tries to balance himself on one of the stones with his forearm. He looks up as sees the tree just a few feet away. He lifts his bottle and takes another swig before launching himself off the stone with his arm, almost losing his footing.

He stops underneath the tree and looks up to it, the sun glaring between its branches and into his face. He walks across the aisle of stones, tapping each one on the top and counting out loud until he hit five. Number five. Larry Lucero.

“Beloved father and dear friend,” Roger reads out as he stares at his step-father’s stone. “I fucked up big time, Larry.” Roger takes another swig. “I really fucked it up this time.”

Roger plops down next to the stone and leans his back on the side, looking down to where his step-father is buried. “Goddamn bitch. Fucking told my boss that I wasn’t getting any better. I only saw her for like, what, six weeks? Maybe seven? What the fuck does she know?”

Roger raises his knees up to his face and lays his head down on top of them. He wants to hold back his tears and look like a man in front of Larry, but thinking about her blonde hair and the ice in her eyes made him weep worse than when he watched his step-father take his last breath and stare into nothingness.

“She just didn’t fucking get it,” he muddles out between sobs. “We could be so happy together. I need her. I could be such a better person if only I had her.”

“Quit crying you fucking baby,” Roger hears a voice from underneath him. The ground starts to thrust upwards like a volcano is about to erupt underneath. The soil breaks apart and a hand reaches up, plants itself back onto the ground, and pushes up the rest of its body. First the shoulder, then the head, and Roger realizes who it is that’s crawling out of the ground.

He’s still in the same blue suit and white shirt. His hair is messy and has bits of soil embedded into his scalp. His brown tie hangs while he tries to brush off the dirt. “You going to give me a swig of that whisky, shorty, or you just going to sit there with your mouth hanging open?”

Roger looks down to his bottle and hands it up to Larry.

“That’s the stuff,” Larry comments after a mouthful of the golden liquid. “Now, what the hell are you griping about?”

Roger sits for a moment without the words to answer his step-father. He has to remain still and process the words before he can give an answer.

“My, uh, my therapist,” Roger begins. “I told her that I loved her and she rejected me. And now I’m out of a job.”

Larry plops down next to Roger shaking his head. “Hah! Leave it to women to fuck with your head and leave you for dead like she didn’t do nothing wrong. I’m tellin’ ya, if it weren’t for booze, women would have been the death of me.”

Roger gives a quick chuckle before Larry hands him the bottle of whisky and takes a small sip. “Yeah, well, I’m totally fucked now. And you know what’s the worst part? I don’t even care about the job that much anymore. Any idiot can find some work. I just wanted her.”

“Well, did she know how much she meant to ya?” Larry asks.

“What do you mean?”

“That scalpel that Tony handed ya.”

“How did you know about that?”

“Not important. What’s important, there shorty, is that you get your point across. Women love it when a man is assertive. And they really love it when a man tries and tries again until he gets what he wants. No woman wants a pussy little whiner who cries into a bottle of whisky after a rejection. You just need to go back there and get your point across that much louder. She’ll appreciate it and be in your arms like you’re Humphrey Bogart.”

Larry always knew how to put things into perspective.

*****

The candlelight illuminates the small table in the bachelor apartment. Silhouettes of Roger and his guest creep across the wall like projections from an old film reel. Two places are set for dinner and Roger is smiling wider than the horizon.

“I’m so glad that you finally agreed to have dinner with me, Becky,” says Roger. “I hope you like your meal. I wasn’t sure if you were a vegan, or a vegetarian, or if you like chicken, or beef, but I’ll tell you what I figured. Pasta. Everyone loves pasta.”

His dinner guest at the other side of the table stays quiet.

“Is everything alright dear?” Roger asks. “Is your food alright?”

Another moment of silence from his guest.

“I know what’s wrong.” Roger stands and walks over to his date. He gently wraps his hand around her chin and tilts her head back. He examines the stitches across her neck and runs his fingers along the pathway. “Nope, all that’s all alright. I know, you need a drink, right? Sorry, there’s no booze in the house. I don’t touch any of that stuff anymore. I can make you a cup of tea if you like?”

He walks to the kitchen, letting her head drop to the side and her eyes roll down to stare at the floor. “You know, I’m so happy now. Sorry, I just need to say that, I’m just really happy now, and it’s all thanks to you.”

Roger peers around the corner from the kitchen. “If you want, we can play Scrabble after dinner. I got to warn you, though, I can be a bit of a scoundrel and cheat a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

THE SUIT

Vvvvvp… Vvvvvp…

Rorschach’s eyes crack open only to be introduced to a pitch black room and the glow of his cell phone sitting on his bed stand. It’s three in the morning.

Vvvvvp… Vvvvvp…

Serves me right for leaving my cell phone, he thought. If I turned off my ringer, I could just sleep but still know who called.

Vvvvvp… Vvvvvp…

“Ugh… Hello?”

“Rorschach! You gotta get over here, quick!”

He recognizes the voice on the other side of the call. That raspy, old voice that you can only get from years of smoking cigars and drinking bourbon.

“Herschel, do you have any idea what time it is?”

“No clue at all, kid. But seriously, get over here, quick! You gotta see this!”

He wants to go back to sleep but Herschel sounds worried. Not that this isn’t a usual thing for him, seems his neuroses is only getting worse with age. But he sounds scared – really scared. But, I’m not getting up this time, Rorschach thought. These middle of the night phone calls are getting really old really fast. I’m done with this. No more.

“K, I’ll be right over, Herschel.”

*****

Rorschach gets to Herschel’s apartment about fifteen minutes after the phone conversation ended. It’s dark and damp outside; the fall rain has been relentless this past week. Rorschach steps into Herschel’s condo dripping wet; luckily he was able to walk right in, Herschel never locks the door when he’s expecting company. Rorschach walks through the hallway and into Herschel’s living room, which doubles as an office. There are books scattered all over the floor and the bookshelves have been pulled away from the walls. Herschel’s desk chair had been moved to the kitchen and all the files from his drawers have been pulled out and thrown all over the place. Sheets of paper are still swaying down like oversized confetti. Herschel’s been looking for something.

After about ten seconds of standing in astonishment at the mess, Rorschach finally spots Herschel in the doorway to the kitchen. Herschel still has his sweater and slacks on: he hasn’t even tried to sleep yet.

“Alright Herschel,” Rorschach begins with a flabbergasted sigh. “What did you call me over to see?”

Herschel takes Rorschach by the arm and leads him to the only thing in the living room that doesn’t have paper products pedantically plastered all over it: Herschel’s desk. Herschel juts both arms forward to present Rorschach with the empty desk, like Rorschach should see what Herschel sees.

“I’m… I’m lost,” Rorschach says. He tries to read the old man while determining which mental health facility to bring him to. “What am I supposed to be looking at? What do you see that I don’t?”

“It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see, kid,” Herschel blurts out with his index finger pointing to the much taller young man standing next to him. A few seconds of silence pass before Rorschach finally shrugs and looks down at the crazed old man. “It’s gone! It’s gone! Can’t you see that it’s gone?!”

Rorschach nods his head in agreement staring at the empty desk. “Yep, knew it all along. Your mind is finally gone.”

“Quit being a smart-ass,” the sharp old man snaps back. “My computer, you schmuck! My computer’s gone!”

Herschel walks towards his desk rubbing down his moustache, then adjusting his thick rimmed glasses. He places fingers on his desk and taps it twice before continuing. “I left it here before I went to get cigars. When I came back, it was gone. I checked all around the place for signs of forced entry. The door was fine and still locked when I got in. The widows hadn’t been opened and were still locked from the inside. Nothing else is missing, nothing else is broken, just my computer!”

How Herschel could tell nothing else is missing in this chaotic mess is beyond Rorschach’s comprehension. Rorschach looks around the room from right to left trying to briefly confirm Herschel’s observations. He looks back down to the tiny old man with a shrug. “So, what happened then?”

“I’ll tell you what happened, kid. It’s the goddamn feds!” Herschel declared with a point of his finger and a stagger to the front window. “I know it’s them. It’s gotta be them. How else could someone have gotten in and out without any trace? They got ways, y’know! They tried pulling this same shit in ’56 under that putz, McCarthy, putting me on a goddamn black list. I doubt they ever stopped watching me!”

Rorschach walks over to the window, with his hands in his pockets digging for his keys. He’s had enough of this conversation.

“OK, that was 50 years ago. The government doesn’t black list or follow anyone anymore,” Rorschach tries to reassure Herschel, knowing his efforts are useless and he’s just setting himself up for another rant.

“Like hell they don’t! Since they passed that Patriot Act nonsense, they’ve been all over me like Newt Gingrich on a cheap hooker with a corndog. Look, there’s one of them suits right there,” Herschel points out the window at a shadow behind the giant oak tree in the front yard. The shadow has no form, let alone resembles the shape of a human, and stretches across lawn under the light of the streetlamp overhead. The shadow is completely still and gives no hint that it was alive or conscious. It just continues to lay there.

“Look, you need to get some sleep. Go to bed, and we’ll talk about this in the afternoon,” Rorschach starts to walk towards the front door. “Meet me at the diner on fifty-third and third. 4pm. Don’t worry about it, Herschel, there’s no one there.”

And with that salutation, Rorschach is out the door and walking to his car. Herschel, still standing at the window, continues to stare at the ominous shadow on the lawn, waiting for it to move, waiting to confirm his beliefs, not seeing Rorschach walking to his car, which is parked two doors down. And not seeing that across the street from Rorschach’s car is a man in a black trench coat, smoking a cigarette, standing in the cold fall rain in the middle of the night.

Rorschach stares at the man from over his car for a curious minute. The man drops his cigarette on the concrete and stamps it out. He looks up and spots Rorschach staring at him from across the street. The man gives a tip of his fedora before sauntering off down the street in the rain down the opposite direction of traffic on the one way street. Rorschach gives his head a quick shake at the thought that he may have believed Herschel for even those few seconds.

*****

I think he’s finally losing it, Rorschach thinks to himself. The crazy old man probably hid the computer on himself so he could call me over. What’s gotten into him lately?

It’s been months since Herschel has written anything let alone had anything published. Rorschach continues thinking about how he’s going to deal with his dear mentor for the rest of his drive home. Rorschach knows Herschel’s normally on edge and has that permanent anxiety-like energy to him, but he normally sleeps and he’s usually really neat and tidy. What’s going on with him?

Rorschach gets back to his apartment and quickly realizes Herschel’s got him all wound up. No chance in hell he’s getting back to sleep now. He sits on my bed and peers across to his bookshelf. He reads all the spines off all the books down all four shelves from left to right until he finds it. Third shelf down, six books in. Keeping Enemies Close by Herschel Bernstein. The first book he ever read cover to cover. The book that made him interested in reading and writing. The first time he realized he connects better with fictional people than real people. Some people consider this book kind of lowbrow because it reads more like pulp magazine stories than it does like “real” literature. But it’s so much better than any other spy or detective story he’s ever read.

I’ll start reading this one again, he thinks. That book always calms him down. I have to finish my column for the New Yorker tomorrow. Along with meeting with Herschel for what I know will be a long coffee-chat, I know tomorrow’s going to be a long day.

*****

Herschel paces around his condo for another half-hour after Rorschach leaves. He doesn’t want to leave the living room/office a mess, but he doesn’t have the energy to pick it up. So he leaves it and heads up his stairs to his bedroom.

Sitting down on his bed and pulling off his slippers, Herschel looks over to his dresser and sees an old journal he hasn’t looked at since he bought his computer. He knows there are empty pages in it still, so he picks it up and pulls a pen from his shirt pocket. He remembers the days when he’d spend hours with his nose in a journal, frantically writing like he wanted to keep up with every thought before they were obliterated by the next. Every thought was worth the space on every page, he didn’t want to miss a single iota of an idea.

The journal opens to a blank page towards the back of the book. He clicks his pen and hesitantly presses it to the page. But his hand doesn’t move, just keeps pressing down harder and harder. Frustrated, Herschel throws the book against a wall and shoots back out of his room and down the stairs.

Back in the living room is an old typewriter on a shelf next to his desk. It’s the typewriter that Herschel wrote all of his earliest published stories on: essays for The New Yorker, features for Vanity Fair, memoirs for Playboy. The golden years. Herschel places the typewriter on his desk and threads a blank sheet of white paper through it. With a ka-ching he cracks his knuckles and tells himself he’s got this.

He stares at the white sheet. He breathes slowly, blinks, and stares. His mind begins to wander and he thinks about his old magnum that he used to carry with him when he lived in Hell’s Kitchen. All his neighbours were mob kids. Not hot-shots, but kids. The kind of kids who would whack anyone walking just to prove he was a tough guy.

He looks across from his desk chair and spots the old gun on the shelf that he pulled the typewriter from. He reaches over, picks it up, opens up the cartridge and sees there are still bullets in it. Damned if he knows if the bullets still work.

I don’t need to do this. This is what the feds want, isn’t it? Herschel thinks to himself. See what old Herschel’s going to type up this time. Find something new to prosecute him for this time. Well, sorry fellows, but not this time. Fuck this paper, fuck this typewriter, and fuck you suits. I got fighting years left in me and I’ll fight ya with everything I got.

You wait and see…

You wait and goddamn see…

*****

It’s quarter after four when Rorschach arrives at the diner. It didn’t take him long to find where Herschel was sitting, all he had to do was follow the smell of cigar smoke. He always smokes before he sits to eat, or sits to write, or sits to have coffee. Rorschach finds him sitting at a far corner booth playing with coffee creamers, trying to stack them on the table. The smell of the open kitchen overpowers Herschel’s cigar smell as Rorschach walk by. The smell of hot cooking oil, deep fried breading, and sizzled meats float through the air. The sounds of clinking utensils, cash registers printing up receipts, and cooks yelling “ORDER UP!” fills his ears as he continues his walk over to the booth with brown upholstery, covered in blue and purple polka dots. The table doesn’t even look like it’s been wiped down yet. Herschel probably didn’t wait for a waitress to walk him to a seat, just helped himself to the furthest corner he could find. It’s sunny for a fall day, light peers through the window behind Herschel creating streaks across the table.

Rorschach sits opposite to Herschel at the booth in the far corner of the diner. The coffee-creamer tower Herschel had been constructing for the past fifteen minutes waiting for Rorschach topples over like a sandwich board in a wind storm the second Rorschach sits down. He’s late and Herschel always hates it when he’s late.

A waitress with hair red like a Merlot, a blue blouse with white lining around the buttons and collar, lips that naturally match the colour of her hair, and a label pinned to her blouse letting everyone know her name is Dorothy stops in front of the gentlemen’s booth. Her bust shakes as she pulls her notepad from her apron and clicks her pen, asking for the two gentlemen’s drink orders.

Both men order coffee, but before Rorschach can get any words out from his mouth, Herschel leans forward and points across the restaurant.

“You see, take a look at him,” Herschel whispers like a spy from one of his novels. “I swear to God that suit’s been tailing me all day.”

Rorschach goes to turn and look to where Herschel was pointing. He got about half-way when Herschel shot his arm across the table and grabbed Rorschach’s shoulder.

“Don’t be so obvious you goddamn putz,” Herschel whispers through his gritted teeth and scrunched up nose. Rorschach thinks about what his next move is going to be for a second, then stretches his shoulders like he’s a sixteen year old on a movie date then twists his back and yawns wide enough to see last night’s popcorn kernels still stuck in his molars. He looks behind himself to see a man in a black trench coat and a black fedora hat sitting three booths behind facing the two curious gentlemen. The man in the coat and the hat is reading a newspaper and has a plate of French fries and garlic toast in front of him. While Rorschach continues his exaggerated stretch, he sees the man fold and put the newspaper down on the table, pull out a pen, and start to write on it. Maybe Herschel’s paranoia was contagious, but Rorschach could almost swear it was the same man he saw outside of Herschel’s house the night before, smoking a cigarette in the rain. But, Rorschach wasn’t about to add more sugar to Herschel’s diabetes-inducing cookie mix.

“Herschel, just because a guy’s in a suit doesn’t mean he’s a fed,” Rorschach tries to reason with Herschel knowing the stubborn old man is only going to snap back.

“I know that kid,” the old man begins. “But everything about that screams something wrong to me.”

“Everything about you has been screaming wrong to me for ten years, yet I still hang around.”

“I thought I told you to quit being a smart-ass,” Herschel’s eyes suddenly widen and his eyebrows rise as he stares past Rorschach. “That fed is talking to that cute red-haired waitress and pointing at us.”

Rorschach raises an eyebrow and slowly turns to see the Cabarnet-haired waitress walking from the suit’s table and towards the gentlemen. Herschel picks up a napkin and starts tearing at its edges while Rorschach continues to stare down the waitress as she walks closer and closer to the table.

“’Scuse me, gents,” she declares as she reaches behind Herschel and closes the blinds behind him. “How’s the coffee situation here?”

Both men assure the lady that their coffee is fine and she continues making her rounds around the restaurant. Rorschach watches the waitress as she turns a corner and leaves sight. He turns his head slowly to face the old man, sitting red-faced with a shredded napkin in his hands. Herschel drops his head and sighs deep.

“Maybe you’re right, kid,” Herschel says at the tail-end of his sigh. “Maybe I am going koo-koo. God, I’ve been writing this shit for so long I think I’m living it now. I guess that’s what happens when you’re a washed up old man.”

Rorschach reassures his old friend that everyone goes through things like this every once and a while and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Herschel reaches for his coat and pulls out a pack of cigars. He pops one in his mouth and lets Rorschach know he’s just having a quick puff and he’ll be back in a minute.

Herschel slides across the booth, getting ready to stand up, and spots the suit getting ready to leave as well. The man looks right at Herschel from across the aisle and tips the brim of his fedora to him with a smile from only one side of his mouth. The man turns and heads toward the door. The curious writer in Herschel couldn’t help but stop at the suit’s table and peer at what he was writing on his newspaper. Herschel sees the page open to the crossword puzzle, and all would have been fine (hell, he would have finally started to believe that no one’s been tailing him) if he hadn’t decided to peer in closer to see what the man had filled out.

11 Down: R-O-R-S-C-H-A-C-H

Herschel’s eyes almost pop out of his head as he reads his friend’s name on the suit’s crossword puzzle. He pops his head up and peers through a window to see the suit walking away from the diner.

This cocksucker isn’t about to get away from me, Herschel thinks. He runs down the aisle, through the front door, and into the parking lot and peers around for the man in the black suit.

Herschel runs through the parking lot in the direction he saw the suit saunter off to. He almost can’t believe that he was right all along.

This guy has been tailing me and has a vested interest in not just me but in Rorschach as well. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.

He slows down his pace and continues walking down the sidewalk trail, trying to imagine which way the suit would have walked off to. The concrete is dry now and covered with brown and orange leaves that crunch as he walks across them. He stares up at the red brick buildings as he passes them, wondering if the suit has jumped into one of them.

He comes across a break between the old apartment buildings and spots the suit leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette, in the alleyway. Herschel continues across and hides against a building just outside of the alley, trying to peak in to see if he’s about to run off. Herschel slows his breathing and exhales away from the break between the buildings; he doesn’t want the steam from his breath to give away his position. From around the corner, he can see the black-suited-fed-bastard still leaning against the wall, one foot raised and planted behind himself. The suit continues smoking his cigarette slowly as he lifts his sleeve to check his watch.

Herschel figures the suit must be waiting for someone. Probably more black suits. Probably a whole car load of them getting ready to ambush him.

“Well, not today buddy-boys,” Herschel quickly says to himself. If he’s going to strike, he knows the time is now.

After two heavy-breaths Herschel quickly turns and start power walking into the alleyway. He calls out the smoking suit who’s looking down at his shoes. He finally catches his attention and he looks up at Herschel with a curious raised eyebrow.

“Why are you following me?” I ask him. You’ll never goddamn believe the answer.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir,” he replies with a slow shake of his head. He looks honest enough, but Herschel know better. It’s always the honest looking ones who’ll stab you in the back first.

He’s stalling me, that’s all. The longer he can act confused and keep me explaining myself, the sooner his carload of buddies can arrive and take me away. Well, fuck that and fuck him, because I got his number. I already knew he’d try to pull something like this. I knew it, I fucking knew it.

Herschel pulls old faithful, which he tucked into his pants behind my back. She’s been loaded for fifty years, time to figure out if she still works. His arm stretches out and he takes aim, dead set at him as Herschel slowly walks forward. Now the suit’s scared; Herschel can tell he’s scared. He has his hands jutted forward as if he were trying to push Herschel back, his shoulders are slouched and his chin is pressed against his collarbone, his eyes are wide open and he’s shaking his head, begging. These fuckers never beg. Herschel knows he’s got his fucking number.

“Please sir, I don’t know what you want. Just, please, don’t,” he begs like a goddamn coward. “Do you want money? I have money, take my wallet, please sir.” He reaches towards his back pocket, trying to trick me into thinking that he’s going to give me his money, but Herschel knows better. The suit’s trying to pop Herschel before he gets the chance to pop him. Herschel’s not going down so fucking easy.

Bam!

Bam!

Bam!

And the prick hit the floor before he had a chance to pull one on Herschel.

*****

Rorschach get to the alleyway just after he hears three shots. Most people would turn-tail at the sound of gunfire but he knew Herschel was in trouble and he wasn’t about to abandon his friend. He takes two steps forward to see Herschel standing, arms to his side with an old six-shooter in his right hand, and on the cold pavement in front of him is the man in the black suit from the restaurant. Rorschach’s old friend looks up at him with tears in his eyes, like he just realized what he just did.

“I had to, kid. He was after us,” Herschel says as he looks down to the gun in his hand. “Can’t believe this fucking thing still works. Fuck, I didn’t know it worked to begin with. I’ve owned this thing for fifty fucking years and this is the first time I ever shot it.”

Rorschach hears the sirens in the background. He has no clue who this man is lying dead in front of him, his blood running across the concrete like a spilt glass of milk. But he knows that Herschel will never get away with saying that he was threatened by this man. This may very well be the last time Rorschach get to stand next to my dear friend.

Herschel gives a quick chuckle and says, “This would make a great story, wouldn’t it, kid?”

The Meat Freezer

The warm feeling of my breath against my frozen hands was what woke me up. My eyes were barely cracked open before I heard the screams. The blood curdling type of screams that immediately sends your body into panic mode. The adrenaline surge from my flight-or-fight instinct got me wide-awake and immediately assessing my situation.

I was handcuffed and the cuffs were wrapped around a steel bar that usually holds meat hooks. Between me and the next hindquarter hanging, there were two support beams that ran from the freezer’s floor to the roof, giving me only a small range to slide the cuffs across. My feet were barely touching the ground.

The sound of more loud screams pierced through the walls. I leveraged myself on the tips of my toes and started sliding the chain of the cuffs back and forth as hard as I could, hoping some steel on steel friction could get me loose. The scrams got louder and closer, and I started rubbing harder and faster. I didn’t know who that butcher was taking care of next but I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing me trapped still.

The chain of the cuffs snapped and I fell to the ground, knocking the hanging cow carcasses that surrounded me. The carcasses continued to sway as I stood up and noticed that the screaming stopped. And it was too quiet.

The freezer door clicked as I pushed against it and slowly slid it open. I peeked through the crack, checking to see if anywhere was down here with me. The room was dark, but the stairs leading back up to ground level were illuminated still by one small, glowing orange light.

My foot slipped as I took my first step out. I didn’t fall, but it was enough of a slip to catch my attention. A long red streak ran from the freezer door right to the stairs. I followed the trail and saw more smears along each step. When I finally made it to the ground level where the butcher shop front was, I found the butcher and his two employees.

One employee was sliced open from his collarbone to his groin. His chest was opened up like a book and his ribs protruded out like stalactites in a cave. His intestines were pulled out and wrapped around his throat and then tied to a longhorn hanging above the meat’s display case. He swayed back and forth like the hindquarters in the freezer.

At first, it looked like the other employee only had a screwdriver punched through the back of his head. The back of his skull fragmented and mixed with the brain and blood and matted all through his hair. As I got closer, I could see the screwdriver came out the other side and lodged itself into the butcher’s chopping block. He guy had both of his hands stapled to the butcher block with two of the longest knives in the shop. This was an execution.

I found the butcher by the cash register. When he was alive he was easily four-hundred pounds and had a belly that practically hung to his knees. The belly was split open like a cantaloupe. His legs and shoes were drenched in a blood and fat soup mix that has the consistency of a thick mud that stuck to the bottom of your feet. Both of his shoulders had knives stuck into them that popped out the other side and stuck into the wall behind him. There was also a pair of garden sheers stuck into his mouth and opened up. The sides of his lips wrapped around the blades started splitting and bleeding where they lay against the metal, looking like a large jester’s smile.

This was a slaughter and all I could think was that either whoever did this was still there and waiting for me, or bolted and left me to take the blame.

I ran for the back door and kept running through the town’s industrial park and ran into the first payphone I saw. The sun was about totally set and the shadows of the warehouses and factories loomed over me while I crunched myself into the glass box and picked up the receiver.

I called my editor.

“Jumping fucking Christ, Harmond,” he said to me. “You sound like you just saw a dead body.”

“Three actually,” I replied, barely catching my breath. “The butcher and his two staff. Fucking slaughtered, man. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Holy fuck.”

“Shit, you’re fucking serious,” he muttered back, sounding like he barely believed what he was saying let along what I was saying. “Who the fuck… Just fucking… It wasn’t you, was it?”

“Christ no!” I yelled back. “The fat fuck locked me in the meat freezer. Handcuffed me next to hanging beef carcasses.”

“How the fuck did you wind up there?” he asked.

“The butcher didn’t like me snooping around,” I answered. “Got really mad when I asked about his daughter’s disappearance. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in a fucking freezer with a killer headache.”

“Wait, did you say you were handcuffed?”

“Yeah.”

“Either this guy’s got some freaky fetishes or the cops know what he’s doing,” he sighed hard. “Careful with these fucking small towns. Everyone knows everyone. This butcher probably played football with half of the police force. If he was responsible for anything, the cops probably know and are trying to cover it up as much as he is.”

“Do you think one of the cops could have killed the butcher?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Just be fucking careful. Look, I’ll wire you some money. Whatever you need. Just get the fuck out of that place.”

“Do I really want to gamble with having that psychopath wanting to follow me back home? What if he’s hunting me right now? He didn’t kill me back there, but what if he was waiting for me. What if he’s watching me right now?”

“Get a fucking hold of yourself!” he yelled. “What if he didn’t know you were in that freezer? Besides, staying in that shit-hole town isn’t going to help.”

“But if I do have this psycho’s attention, at least it stays here and doesn’t follow me home,” I checked my pockets for any semblance of money other than the change that butcher didn’t take out of my pocket. “Well, my wallet’s gone, which means no money. Even if you wire it over, I’ll be fucked. The hotel room’s paid for the next few days. I’ll try to lay low there for a while and nothing happens in those few days, I’ll head back.”

“Does the car work still?”

“Knowing my luck, the butcher sunk it into the bottom of the lake. I have no idea where it is.”

“Alright. I’ll drive in. Just lay low. No cops, they’ll think you were responsible, or worse, try to finish what the butcher started. Don’t talk to anyone until I get to town, then we’ll get the fuck out of dodge. Alright?”

“Ok, thanks Sam.”

“A dead writer is no good to this magazine, Harmond. Don’t do anything fucking stupid.”

Sam hung up before I did and I heard the phone click. The wind picked up and blew hard against the glass box I was crunched into and was the only sound I could hear.

The walk back to the hotel was long and it was only getting colder outside. My breath hung lingered in front of me and the fog got thicker the further I walked. I could feel myself stepping against the concrete harder with each step as I hurried to back to the motel, jumping at every shadow that moved and every branch that rustled in the wind. It felt as though every street light I walked under, there was a second shadow just steps behind me. Like in every shrub there were a set of eyes watching me as I walked by.

The motel was one of those two storey roadside stops where out of town businessmen stopped at to strangle hookers. My room was on the second floor, and as I walked up to the door I could see through the window that there was a light on. I stood close to the door, tried to hear any voices inside, when the door swung open and there stood a brunette with hair that waved down just beneath her shoulders. Her green eyes were hidden behind a pair of round glasses. She had one of my black button-down shirts on. The tops three buttons were undone.

“Fuck, is this your room?” she said to me. “Look, the door was unlocked, I’m just hiding out here from a john who decided to bring a rope and some chloroform to the party.” In one smooth motion, she pulled out a switchblade knife, the blade clicking out just as it reached the front of my face. “I cut his balls off and I wouldn’t hesitate to cut yours off too. But you don’t seem like the type to try and hurt someone for kicks. You actually looked damaged. It’s the normal ones you gotta look out for.”

I pushed my way back into the room and shut the door behind us. “How long have you been hiding in here?” This was my only gauge to know how long I’d been out for.

“Just a couple of days,” she replied. “No one’s come knocking. Place was a fucking mess though. You gotta keep better care of your stuff. This was the only shirt that wasn’t on the ground and stepped all over.”

No one came knocking because they had already been by even before she got into the room. At least two, maybe three or more, days that I had been out. No wonder Sam seemed so excited on the phone. I usually check in with story progress every day. I was only supposed to be there for a day, maybe two. I wasted a week trying to track down the fucking butcher, spent three days locked in a meat freezer, this story was way more trouble than it was worth.

“Hey, what’s your name,” the girl asked.

“Harmond,” I answered.

“Oh, you’re that writer guy snooping around about Grace’s disappearance.”

“What?”

“Small town. Everyone knows what everyone is doing everywhere and all of the time. Probably not used to that in the city where you came from. But once the population drops below a ten thousand, you’re at the scrutiny of all your neighbours, and all their friends, and all of their family.”

“So you know about me being locked in a meat cooler then?”

“Shit,” her eyes bulged and her head tilted. “I knew Maurice had a temper, but that’s over the top.”

“The fat fuck was going to kill me.”

“No he wasn’t,” she stood pointing her index finger at me. “He was probably trying to scare you, but he could never hurt anybody. Be it a nosey reported or his own daughter, he could never kill anyone.”

Then I remembered what I just ran from. She didn’t know. And now I had to tell her.

She didn’t take it lightly. She sobbed so hard I could barely make out what she was saying. I guess he was a customer once or twice. He actually treated her decent. I guess that’s rare when you’re in her business.

Against my better judgment, I left the room to get some ice and a couple cans of soda. The ice machine grinded like a table saw about to fall apart. The pop machine shot out cans that were actually hot. I had to wait a couple of minutes before I could pick them up.

Then I heard it again. The screaming.

I dropped the ice bucket and ran back to the room. The door was open when I got there and I looked in to see the top-half of the brunette lying on the bed, her arms spread and her eyes still open. Her bottom half was on the floor beside the bed. Her legs were crumpled, like a cripple’s when he falls out of his wheelchair.

On the wall above the bed, in red smears painted on with that looked like a pallet knife, was written, “Tag, you’re it.”

With barely enough time to finish reading what was on the wall, I could see the red and blue flashing lights coming through the window. I ran to the bathroom, but the window wasn’t big enough for me to jump through. Two officers were already in the living room when I stepped back in. Their guns were drawn and my hands were up.

I got down to my knees as the one cop started to cuff me. He laughed when he saw the cuffs with the broken chain still on my wrists.

This wasn’t my first time being arrested. Hell, it wasn’t my first time being arrested for something I didn’t commit. Comes with the territory I guess. I write about crime, I wind up walking in on crimes, I wind up getting blamed for crimes. I wonder if this happens to other writers who do what I do.

I knew the routine well. They read me my rights and I chose to shut up. When they asked about a lawyer, I said not yet. It always looks bad when you lawyer up right away. It’s right up there with refusing a breathalyser.

The room they stuck me in was a touch bigger than a broom closet with a single table in the middle of the room and two chairs on either side. Two detectives, one perp, one lawyer. Made sense. The fluorescent light fluttered a bit every few minutes. The walls were painted a flat white, like an insane asylum.

The detective came in and unzipped his blue track jacket. He sat across from me and started reading a file, flipping papers, trying to look like a ton of ground work was done before he even got there.

“What are you reading?” I asked. “And be honest.”

He sighed. “The Sunday comics. I keep them on me when something gruesome comes up. Around here though, we don’t see much of this. Dead animals, for sure. Hunters killing off season, maiming animals’ bodies for kicks. But murders….” He sighed even heavier. “I’ve never actually had to investigate one.” He looks up at me. “You’ve had to look into a lot of these. They usually this brutal?”

I shook my head. “Nothing I’ve ever written about has been this… creative, I guess. Usually gang wars, drive by shootings, some sort of surface explanation as to why it happened. These have absolutely no rhyme or reason.”

“Except that you were at both scenes when they happened,” the detective interrupted.

“I was…” I dropped my head, hoping the detective wouldn’t see me getting choked up. “What… what was her name?”

The detective looked up at me like I just asked him where’s Santa Clause. “Who? Oh, the girl in the room? Grace something or other. Well-known hooker in town.”

Grace?

“Sir, how well did you know Maurice the butcher?” I asked.

“Uh, I dunno, not that great. Most of us working on the force here only arrived when we got our jobs. This is one of those towns where the population is so small that the province actually sends police from other towns to full the precinct. I’ve only been here six months or so. You hear some crazy shit, but I don’t let if faze me.”

Sam wasn’t usually wrong about things. But he was way off on this. The butcher came at me when I asked about his daughter because he knew exactly where she was and what she was doing. He had no ties to police, and you can buy handcuffs anywhere. Sam had me thinking so much about this town and a looming conspiracy that I had no time to think about the murders happening around me.

“The way you’re talking to me gives me the impression that I’m not being charged with anything,” I pointed out.

The detective nodded his head. “Witnesses at the scene say they saw you by the ice machine when they heard the screams. And there’s no way to place you at the butcher shop either.” He smiled at me. “Getting one hell of a story out of us, aren’t you Harmond? You came here for a missing girl case and now you’re sitting in a town where the murder rate just shot up four-hundred per cent. I gotta ask, what was so interesting about this case? The missing girl?”

“I wanted to look at the effects crimes and tragedies have on smaller communities,” I explained. “I’m always writing in the bigger cities. Murders there are as common as popping zits. I wanted to go somewhere where losing a life still had meaning.”

The detective nodded his head. “You came to the right place.” He stood up and adjusted his belt. “Well, like you said, you’re not being formally charged with anything. I’ll get you your release papers, I’ll need a couple of signatures from you and you can be on your way.”

The detective left the room. I could see him stop for a moment in front of the door. There was a small window in the door at about head length. I could see the detective’s head through the window. He nodded a bit, then there was a pop and all I could see on the window was a large, red smear.

The lights started to flicker and then we were cloaked in black for a second. Then the emergency power generator kicked in, lighting everything in crimson. I walked up to the door and saw that someone drew two eyes and a smile in what was left of the detective’s brains.

Peering through the doorway, opened just a crack, I could see that no one was in the hallway: alive or dead. Another red trail smeared along the white floor made a map of where the detective may have been dragged to. I started following the map when I heard another scream and saw a woman running towards me. She wasn’t in a uniform. She wasn’t armed. She was crying and screaming as she ran, coughing and losing breath.

She stopped and grabbed me. “They’re all fucking dead!”

She looked over her shoulder and kept running. Down the hall where she ran from, I could see someone walking toward me. Tall, broad shouldered, dressed in a black jacket, black gloves, and his face was covered with a simple, plain black mask off of a Halloween costume. He had a gun in his right hand that he raised and pointed at me.

Click Click…

Like a robot processing a simple command and not moving his head, he threw the gun to the side and drew a knife from a belt holster and continued walking towards me.

Someone grabbed my arm and I turned.

“Run mother fucker!” screamed the woman who ran by me before.

We start running. I peer over my shoulder and see the tall man in black is still just walking, his knife swaying with each step he took.

“There’s a… back door… just down… this hall,” she huffed out. “My car’s back there…” And she started coughing again, losing her footing and falling. I stopped and grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up. And we kept running.

We made it to her car and I jumped into the passenger seat. She kicked on the ignition and started driving toward the parking lot’s entrance. Standing there was the tall man in black. Standing completely still and waiting.

And she sped up. “Not today, mother fucker!” she yelled as she floored the gas pedal, hitting the man in black straight on. His body exploded like a water melon with a stick of dynamite stuck into it. Blood smeared her windshield and I could hear his head rolling across the roof and smack the back windshield where his mask got caught on her roof rack.

She pulled over. “Ha! Nailed that son of a bitch!” she blurted out as she stepped out of her car. She walked to where the mask hooked onto the roof rack. “Let’s see who this cocksucker is.”

She pulled off the mask to reveal the detective. His head wound was still fresh and bits of the skin off of his head flapped as she slipped the mask off. The head dropped and hit the concrete, splattering more of his blood and brain on the ground and leaving trails of hair as it rolled.

I was too busy staring at the detective’s head to notice her dropping her lunch on the concrete with a cough and a heave. She was wiping her mouth with her sleeve as I looked back. “Holy fucking Jesus Christ what the fuck is going on,” she sobbed. “Was detective Ramirez that psycho?”

“No,” I replied. I walked over and tilted his head to show the gun wound that opened his head up like a split cantaloupe. “He was dead well before you hit him. I have no fucking clue how he got him to stand there like that.” I reached down and picked up the head. There was a metal wire embedded into the back of his head, like a sculptor would use for a life-size piece. “When the fuck did he get time to do that?”

Her steps clicked slowly as she walked up behind me. “What the fuck is going on?”

“I have no idea,” I replied. “But I feel like I need to call my editor now.”

We start driving to a near-by payphone that she knew about. On the way, she told me her name was Sandra. She only just got hired this police station a few weeks ago. She was working on the police website.

I called Sam and told him everything that happened in the police station.

“You have to be fucking kidding me,” he said. “And you saw all of it?”

“Saw it? I had to fucking survive it!” I yelled back. “What the fuck did you get me into sending me to this goddamned place? I’m being stalked by a guy now who likes turning dead bodies into action figures.”

“Are you sure he’s a guy?” Sam asked.

“Broad shouldered, tall, walks slowly, a little bit of a limp. He as hunched over a bit too,” I explained.

“Either a guy or one butch woman,” Sam laughed.

“I’m not fucking laughing, Sam,” I snapped. “Are you still coming into town? I don’t think I can take this girl’s car to get out of here.”

“Be there in a couple of hours,” Sam answered. “Meet me at the elementary school. The doors should be open. No one locks shit in a town like that. Stay inside, stay safe and I’ll drive up to the front door.”

“You know the elementary school here?” I asked Sandra.

“Yeah, everyone who grew up here went there,” she answered.

“That’s where my editor is picking me up,” I said. “Can you drop me off?”

She agreed, saying that the school was only a few blocks away.

We get there in about ten minutes. Orion Elementary School is written in bold letters above the front door. Every window is dark and the trees rustled against the chain linked fence lining the schoolyard. The wind was getting colder and flakes of started floating by.

“Alright, thanks for the ride,” I said. “I don’t know what you should do, but I really need to meet my editor. He’s going to get the fuck out of here…”

“You think I’m just leaving you?” she interrupted. “Nu-uh, whoever the fuck that was in the freaky-ass mask probably knows who I am. Everyone knows everyone in this town. He’s probably in my house now waiting to cut me up. Until this gets figured out, or I find another police station where everyone isn’t dead, where you go, I go.”

We walked into the school together. Sam was right; the doors weren’t locked. The two of us walked through the hallways and peered at all the class photos hung on the wall.

“So, you didn’t grow up here then?” Sandra asked.

“No,” I replied. “Grew up in the big city. My graduating class in high school was more than two-thousand kids. Nothing like these thirty kids in a class.”

“What got you writing about murder and all that?” she asked. “Have some traumatic childhood story where your work is helping you deal with some emotional scarring?”

“Believe it or not, I grew up completely normal,” I answered, reading a class photo. “I write because people will read it. People thrive off of fear. It helps move the economy. People are scared of bad men, so they buy houses in suburbs far from where the bad men live. They buy home security systems to help them sleep at night. They buy dogs to bark whenever strangers walk by and they buy food to feed those dogs and keep its loyalty. Fear is the oldest human emotion and it drives the market. And people need to remember what to be afraid of. And that’s where I come in.”

“Awfully cynical, don’t you think?” She asked, and I doubt she was actually looking for an answer.

“They’re paying,” I replied. “And so long as they’re paying, I’ll keep writing about gunned-down drug dealers, missing teenage girls and slaughtered humans. It sells magazines, it sells ad space and lets me live a certain lifestyle I do happen to enjoy.”

“Really? How do you deal being around death every day? Day in and day out you live in the utmost worst in humanity. Aren’t you scared you’re glamourizing it a bit? Doesn’t it ever get to you?”

“They’re subjects, that’s all. You can’t get invested in it. You can’t even recognize they’re human. That’s when you start losing sleep. You start worrying about every dark corner you have to turn. I just keep it out of my head when I don’t need it. But even I have my house in the suburbs and my dog and my home security system.”

I started walking down the halls of the school as Sandra kept looking out the window, waiting to see who would pull up. I scanned by the class photos, each from ninth grade, the last grade any of these kids spent in this school. I noticed a familiar name as I scanned by: Samuel Gibson, my editor. I had no idea that he was from this town. He never gave any indication that he had any connection to it at all. It might be why he was so adamant that I check out this story about the missing girl. My beat was usually inner city crime, murders and drugs and gangs. This was the first time I investigated a small town crime like this. I guess Sam thought this would be a good entry point for me to start writing about it. Get the people in the suburbs scared too. Get them upgrading their security systems, buying property in the gated estates, and most of all, get them buying magazines still. Remind them that there are things to be afraid of all over.

A couple of photos over from Sam’s was another face and name I recognized instantly: the fucking butcher. Sam knew him, went to school with him, I wondered if they were close. I kept scanning through and placing faces with people I met throughout the town: the butcher’s assistants, Grace, even Sandra. They all went to this school, they were all connected. One photo bothered me the most. It was a name I didn’t know, but a face I knew but I couldn’t place. He left this school the same year as Sam and the butcher. I was inspecting the photo closer when I heard Sandra yelling for me.

I ran to the front door and saw through the window a black car pulling up. Only the car didn’t stop, it sped up. Drove right for the front door. I grabbed Sandra by the waist and pulled her back as the car crashed through the front door. One of the larger blue metal doors slammed into us as we tried to run back. Bits of stone wall and ceiling dust covered us as we dug our way out from under the door. The car’s door opened and out came a man dressed all in black. I was almost too panicked to notice that he was walking straight, no limp.

He pulled out a gun from behind his back and aimed it at us. He started laughing as he pulled his mask off. I knew the face right away. This is the third time I’ve seen it now: the first time was in the motel when the girl was slaughtered, the second time was on the graduation photo. The one fucking cop in this town who grew up here turns out to get his rocks off hunting and slaughtering people.

He didn’t say a word. Just aimed and smiled. I had to distract him, even for half a second.

“What, no knife? No theatrics like the rest?” I asked him.

He started breathing heavier, like a panting dog waiting for a stick to be thrown. “I got some theatrics for ya,” he answered. “Got some nice metal bars in the back of this car to put the two of you on display once I’m done here, like two little dollies who never had a chance when big brother came by to cut off all their hair and take apart their limbs. I got a special pose for the two of you.”

From outside, someone starting yelling, “Harmond? You in here? What the fuck is going on?”

With his head turned for that half second wondering who’s yelling, I kicked out the back of the cop’s knees and he crumbled to the ground, dropping his gun on the way down. The gun rolled toward Sandra while the cop pounced on top of me with his hands around my throat. He pushed down against my trachea, he grip was only getting tighter and I started trying to push him off me, kicking out my feet and pushing against him. I was losing air fast and losing strength when I heard a bang and my face was suddenly soaked. His grip loosened as he toppled over and landed on top of my face. I pushed him off and scrambled my way back onto my feet and looked back at Sandra, holding the cop’s gun. I coughed while wiping his blood out of my eyes and looked down to see a tennis ball sized hole in the back of his head.

“Holy fuck, what the fuck happened here?” I heard from behind and saw Sam walking in through the rubble. Sam looked up at me and his jaw dropped, practically hitting the floor. “Christ man, is that your blood?”

“No,” I coughed out. “His. She’s a good shot. You got here quick.”

“Yeah, traffic was light,” Sam replied. “Is that who… uh, you know… has been killing…”

“I guess so,” I answered, still trying to catch my breath. “This is how the guy in the police station was dressed. He talked about putting us up on display with metal bars, just like the detective.” I considered my next words carefully. “Uh, apparently you know this guy.”

Sam walked slowly over to the body and turned it over. “Roger Bates. Haven’t seen him since high school ended. He was pretty fucked up while we were in school. Was the type who shot BBs at birds and when he killed one, would tie a rope around its neck and hang it from a tree. I heard he got counselling for that shit but I guess it takes a lot more than that to fix a psychopath.”

“You knew the butcher too,” I blurted out.

Sam looked back at me. “Yeah, I did.”

“And you weren’t going to tell me that you grew up here. That you were connected to all of this?”

“I was worried it would compromise the story. Small town crimes can be really juicy and I’ve never had one fall into my lap before. Seemed too good to pass up.”

“And you had me accuse the butcher of killing his daughter even though you damn well knew he wasn’t capable to killing anyone. He was violent, but he didn’t have it in him to kill.”

“It’s the whole reason you’re alive,” Sam chuckled. “Whatever, you’re alive now, we’re sitting on a gold mine of a story. Seriously, first hand survival of a small town serial killer. This magazine is going to sell insanely. Especially once you write down all those juicy details in that beautiful style of yours, horror movies won’t be half as scary or gory as this. It’s going to be great.”

“You misdirected me the whole time,” I said. “This was the only cop who had any ties to this community. The rest all come from different areas and are assigned here. You grew up here, you knew that. Why did you have me paranoid over the cops like that?”

Sam looked around for a moment, as if having a sudden urge to go down memory lane. I had no idea how long it had been since Sam had stepped into that school. But he just kept looking around, then back at me. “I was just scared, that’s all. We’ve never been this closely tied to a story. I just wanted to make sure you’d stay safe. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Sam walked past me and back toward the broken through the front door. I watched his walk.

“Sam,” I called out to him. “How long have you had a limp for?”

Sam stopped and turned back to me. That’s when I noticed he was wearing all black, including gloves. He wiped some sweat off of his brow with his wrist then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a nine-inch blade, the kind that could slice a man’s gut open, spilling it all over his legs and shoes.

His eyes were fixated on me, he gripped the knife’s handle like a white-knuckled driver in a road rage fit, and bore his teeth as he started heaving heavily. He took one step towards me when I suddenly remembered that Sandra was still standing beside me, and she hadn’t dropped the gun yet.

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! 

Sam took five slugs to his chest and fell back, thudding against the ground like a dropped sack of potatoes. I walked up to Sam and saw his eyes staring out into nothing. The knife was still in his hand, he was still gripping it like he was still on the hunt.

I reached down and gripped his wrist, trying to get him to let go of the knife, he his other hand hit my throat and wrapped around. He rolled me over and got on top, the holes in his chest dripping on my like loose faucets. I kept my grip on his wrist, keeping the knife away from me, but he grip on my neck was too strong.

I could hear clicking and Sandra crying realizing the gun was only a six-shooter.

“What do I do?!” she screamed. “What do I do?! What do I do?!”

Sam started bleeding from his mouth and it dripped, drooling like a mad mastiff. His eyes bulged and he heaved like he was fucking out of hate.

Then his grip loosened. He toppled over. He was still breathing, but he was weak.

I coughed and gagged, threw up a little blood, when I looked over at him and looked at my fist, drenched in his blood. The bullets were finally taking their toll. Sam laid there, his chest bouncing with each breath, and then with one gasp, finally stopped.

I felt the bruises on my throat and looked back at the black car, still running. I walked to the driver-side door and saw it was still open, the keys were still in the ignition and there were six metal bars in the back seat, just like the ones in the detective.

Sandra walked up to me. “Are you ok to drive?”

“Yeah,” I spat out a bit of blood. “I’ll drop you off at the cop station, you can figure out if there are any cops left in town. I gotta get going. I got a story to write.”

Stack Three

The lab’s airlock pops open and Dr. Curtis walks through the doorway, each step harder than the last. His arms swing while he moves forward in perfect rhythm with his walk. He stares down Hunter through his thick brow and heavy eyebrows, snearing out of the side of his mouth.

“Hunter, what the fuck is happening here?” he barks out.

“Air-exhaust three is malfunctioning, Dr. Curtis,” Hunter replies. “I think there’s something clogged in the vent.”

“Well, whatever it is, get it the fuck out,” the high pitch raspiness of Curtis’ voice came out.

Hunter knows that glare and snarl all too well. His first week in the lab he mixed up Petri dishes and wound up cloning ten-thousand extra stocks of celery when he was supposed to be cloning oranges. Curtis’ snear went high and his brow drooped over his eyes, like the madder he got the more that brow dropped down.

“What are we going to do with all this extra celery?” his voice was like blocks of compressed snow rubbing against each other that day. Made Hunter cringe every time Curtis opened his mouth. He got used to the raspy snear and whine over time, but that first week Hunter couldn’t believe what he got himself into taking this lab job and prayed to God it would finally rain.

The air exhausts are located at south-west side of the complex, the opposite side from where the food is grown against the east wall. Hunter, who was by the computers monitoring the air exhausts that ran along the north wall of the lab, starts his jog, the equivalent of five city blocks from where he was standing. Ait exhaust three was the furthest south and furthest west of the seven erect tubes in two rows: air exhausts four to seven ran along the outside wall on the south-west that ran diagonally along, giving the complex a triangular shape. Air exhausts one to three ran between exhausts four to seven, like soup cans stacked on their sides to make a pyramid.

When an air exhaust, or stack as their sometimes called, has a clog, there’s no computer algorithm to fix it – it has to be done manually. The air travelled from the three-cloning plantation through thick vents with fans to push the air out. Each stack also had a side airlock door on them in case anything was to fall into them. The best way to fix a clog is to cut off the air flow to the stack, climb in, reach into the vent and find what got stuck. This had to be done quickly, the Last Continent depended on all seven stacks for its air production, to lose one stack for even an hour would completely throw off the Last Continent’s air mass and pressure, enough of a change and people would start exploding. Their bodies were used to a certain air pressure. Any sudden changes in that air pressure, like losing stack three, and people would simply combust, and the more people die the more the Complex Corporation loses money.

Cloning plants for air and food didn’t come cheap. People bought fruits and vegetables each week and paid a monthly air-fee, it took up most people’s paycheques. Work was becoming scarce on the Last Continent. Most people used to work in the Nuclear Corporation facilities, but those weren’t on where the Last Continent sits now. Technically, where those sat isn’t anywhere now. Nuclear Corporations mostly made bombs. One day, they all went off. Poof went everything, except for the Last Continent, at the time called Australia. All those other countries gave up on nuclear disarmament, figuring one of them would eventually want the others’ non-renewable resources. And besides, there was big money in big fear and big weapons.

The Nuclear Corporations didn’t like that Australia wasn’t manufacturing weapons like they all were. To see a country take a pacifist’s approach was bad for business. So, they did what any major corporation would do if someone threatened it business; they tried to sue Australia, and when that didn’t work, they increased their production. So much so they needed to hire new people. Unfortunately, inexperienced people. One woopsie – and boom, goodbye everywhere.

Australia was far enough away that none of the blasts affected it, until the radiation started travelling and killed all the plant life. Before all the naturally occurring plants died off, a few scientists saved a few plants and started cloning them. They cloned enough to sustain the air mass and some food once the last bush had withered and stopped reproducing cells. Australia was mostly desert terrain to begin with, so the plants didn’t take long to die, but at the same time, people were used to not having a lot of trees around. You noticed a huge difference towards the coastline, those certain parts of the country that had forests filled with cute animals like koala bears (now completely extinct except for the few kept in the Complex Corporation’s lab to study how a lack of animals affects plant life), so most of the population began moving inland, where it was most dry but also where the Complex Corporation lab had been built. Seemed like a smart idea, be next to where the air is coming from.

A few years later, Australia renamed itself the Last Continent, as a reminder about how smart it was not to join the nuclear production fad. Most people worked normal jobs, opened stores and fixed people’s houses. Complex Corporation started buying all those jobs, and then fired everyone who worked them. Some people were outraged but knew there wasn’t much they could do: after all, Complex owned the means to let them live.

Hunter was lucky to get a job as a stack-technician, basically someone who makes sure all the stacks are working right, and when they aren’t, to fix them before anyone explodes.

It took all that exposition for Hunter to finally reach stack three. The airlock door pops open and he reaches into the main air vent, hoping he doesn’t have to climb in to find what he’s looking for. The vents are about two feet off the ground and four feet in diameter, so it’s no problem for a person to crawl in. Take some guts though, you can’t have claustrophobia and you have to not mind winding up with wind-tunnel hair.

Thankfully, Hunter was able to find what he was looking for at arm’s length in the vent. Whatever it was, it was soft, still a little warm, and heavy to pull out. Hunter has to reach with both arms, grab a handful of fabric that surrounded the soft warm thing, and push back with his foot to finally pull out what was lodged in there. It only moved in a small crawl until it reached the end of the vent, when it popped out like a champagne cork, pushing Hunter and causing him to fall on his back.

It takes a second for Hunter to realize the stuck thing landed on top of him. The t-shirt it was wearing tore and Hunter still had a bunch of the fabric in his hands. It was lying on his face and Hunter turns it over to find out it’s a person that was stuck in stack three. But that wasn’t the disturbing part.

The person lay with his arms around himself, like he was hugging himself while he crawled through. But what he was holding against himself was a bit of a tree. Hunter doesn’t recognize the breed of the tree, it’s not one that’s in the lab, so there’s no way this person broke in, stole the plant, and crawled through the vent to stack three as an escape.

Hunter picks up the plant and examines it. It’s strange, because it has prickles instead of leaves, but it isn’t a cactus, like what used to grow in the deserts. He and the corpse have to get out of the stack quick and turn back on the airflow, so Hunter drags the body by the underarm and around his shoulder, tosses him out the side door, thumping against the ground and tossing up the dust around it.

*****

Curtis paces around his office in a huff, trying to put his arms around his back like a great genius thinking about the great conundrums of existence, only his arms don’t reach all around. His arms flop to his side as he plops down into his chair and swivels back and forth breathing hard.

“Alright Hunter, no one can know about what you found,” Curtis barks out.

“People get stuck in those stacks all of the time,” Hunter replies, and he’s right. A small group of neo-environmentalists, similar to the ones that surfaced in the ’90s (who, in turn, were just imitating the ones that come out of the ’60s (so I guess these would be neo-neo-environmentalists or post-neo-environmentalists)) began protesting the Complex Corporation, saying that the plants should be liberated and growing naturally. They didn’t realize that the only decent soil that could grow plants to begin with became so radioactive that nothing would ever grow in it, let alone something that humans would want to eat from or breathe. Post-neo-meta-environmentalists have never been much for facts, just yammering garbage about the energies and mother earth – little did they know that mother earth left us all orphaned.

“I know, and the public usually never has any problem when we tell them we pulled another dead hippie from a vent,” Curtis continues. “But none of them have ever been pulled out holding a plant we’ve never seen before. Who knows where he got that from? I want a full investigation but keep your goddamn mouth shut.”

*****

Hunter remembers the first time he heard about the environmentalists. He was young, doesn’t remember exactly how young, but young enough that he wasn’t sure what to make of these people trying to say that the people who his dad worked for were evil people.

This world, with the Complex Corporation, constant desert everywhere, life constantly manufactured and synthesized by a single entity, was the only world he knew.

His parents talked about the days before the Last Continent. They both wanted to travel but never got the opportunity to. He’d listen to his parents talk back and forth about magazines they’d buy, looking at faraway lands and imagining themselves walking through exotic forests, romantic cobblestone streets, and dining at restaurants where they couldn’t read the menus. They’d talk, they’d laugh, but then mother would start crying. She missed the world. In a sense, Hunter missed the world too. He missed a world he never knew every time his mother cried. He wondered what he was missing out on.

It wasn’t long before his mother vanished. One morning, Hunter got out of bed and walked into his parents’ room and found nothing. He stood, alone, in a room he used to find so much comfort walking into. He wondered if this was how his mother felt when she thought about before the Last Continent.

He wandered through the house and found his father at the kitchen table, holding a piece of paper, crumpling the ends between his fingers and breathing heavily. He crushed the paper into a ball and threw it against the ground before storming out of the room. He’d stand on the front deck for the rest of the day, just staring out, not saying a word.

Hunter picked up the paper and uncrumpled it and tried to decipher what was on it. He was still too young to read but recognized his mother’s handwriting. Hunter never asked his father what the note said.

To this day, he still doesn’t know.

*****

The tree perplexes Hunter. He tires studying the strange, prickly plant that he found held by the corpse in the vent, but he doesn’t even know where to start. He had already studied its cell structure: rigid walls just like the other plants the factory grew. He inspected its thorns and found them to contain collagen, just the same as the factory cloned plants. Finally, he experimented with its ability to photosynthesize energy and food for itself. Again, much the same to the other plants in the factory.

Hunter becomes curious about how the strange plant will be affected by seasonal changes. He uses some of the cells in the plant to clone a full tree, small in stature, but mature enough to exhibit all the signs of any tree that would have been found in the wild.

The seasonal simulator is a long, cylindrical glass tube with an air locked section that rises to place vegetation inside of it and test the effects seasonal changes. This device came in handy when the Complex Corporation first started cloning trees for air and food, deciding what plants were most resilient and how to manipulate their genetic code while cloning to create vegetation so resilient that seasonal changes would not cause them to wilt or hibernate.

The tests begin and the plant is subjected to a rapid changing of seasons in a contained environment that tricks the plants cells into thinking that the seasons are changing normally. Spring to summer to fall to winter to spring again saw little change to the strange plant. None of its prickles fell, it never changed colour, it never wilted or hibernated. Exploring the original source plant again, Hunter found no dramatic genetic changes, no chemical boosters, no synthetic collagen to prevent the plant’s seasonal life cycle. It simply endured. Naturally endured.

******

There’s a bar that Complex Corporation employees go to once their shifts are over. Only the low level employees go there, in fact, none of the employees know anything about the board or the upper managers, or at least, who they assume are a board and upper managers. Fact of the matter, they don’t even know how the hierarchy at Complex works. The person above them hires them – and that’s about it.

The bar has the usual drinks, your cheap cloned water, the pricey natural water that Complex produced but didn’t give a discount to any employee (after all, almost everyone was a Complex employee, how did they expect to make any money giving out discounts?) and for the excessive indulgent, the bar serves cans of pure oxygen.

Hunter sits at a table towards the back. The waitress with long straight black hair and wearing a tight black tank-top with the Complex Corporation’s circular logo across her chest comes by and lets him know there’s an oxygen special on today. Just great, Hunter thought, in about half an hour everyone in this bar is going to be high enough to try and crawl through some of the stack’s vents themselves. All Hunter wants is a cloned water. He throws his few Complex dollars onto the table and asks for a tall glass of the cloned stuff. The waitress shrugs, like she’s surprised he didn’t take her up on the oxygen deal, grabs the money with the swipe of her hand and walks off to the front.

Looking around the bar, Hunter sees people talking, laughing, spilling water and sucking on cans so hard they collapse before the person stops to exhale. They usually cough and laugh once they let that breath out. The sound around him is like a wall, encasing him and leaving him feeling deaf. He tries to listen in on conversations, but it all comes out as noise. He has no idea what anyone is talking about, but judging by the way people suck on cans and spill water, he figures it’s nothing important.

A body drops in the chair in front of Hunter and starts talking. He’s talking loudly but Hunter pays no attention until this new being slaps the table hard and yells, “Hey buddy, do ya hear me there?!”

Hunter looks at the man and figures he’s had at least a dozen cans of oxygen. His smile causes his eyes to squint hard to where it looks like the upper half of his face is collapsing, like if you grabbed the top of a can and slowly rolled it on itself.

“No, sorry friend, I must have missed that,” Hunter finally lets out, not even sure why he’s talking back.

“I heard you’re on that case! The fuckin’ hippy dippy in stack three!” He slaps the table again and starts laughing, his chest bouncing as he heaves and gasps for air. “Did you fuckin’ know he ain’t even the first?!”

“Of course,” Hunter replies. “This has been happening for years, but…”

“And I know why this one’s so fuckin’ special!” he screams out. “You think he’s been the first found with a fuckin’ plant in his arms?! The only reason why you’re investigating this is that you should have never found him! Ha! Never should have found that fuckin’ hippy. Now Complex needs to keep you busy, make you think you’re finding something new! They’ve known for fuckin’ years!”

“So what? I’m on some kind of goose chase then?” The waitress comes by and places Hunter’s water in front of him. Hunter watches her walk away.

“Ah. You like that piece of tail, don’t ya?!” His high man’s black hair falls in front of his face, covering his forehead and hanging a bit of his eye, dripping with sweat, obviously from the euphoric excitement. “I’ll tell you what, I bet Complex is paying her to listen in to our little talk here friend.”

“What makes you figure that?”

“Cause I’m supposed to be the guy watching you and making sure you don’t get any smart ideas about that new plant. Hell, they’re considering offing you already for that unauthorized experiment you did in the season-simulator. I had to talk them out of it. Take this as a warning pal, quit nosing around. Come up inconclusive with your findings, forget you ever saw that prickly-fuckin’-thing, and go back to work. The more you shut up the better it is for you.”

Hunter can’t tell if this guy in front of him is so high that he’s making up all this garbage, or if he’s so high he just blew his own cover. A dozen cans of oxygen do funny things to a guy.

*****

The bar’s closed but Hunter stands outside by the back entrance. His hands are in his pocket and he leans against the wall next to the door, staring out into the night sky watching the stacks pump out air. He breathes deep and wonders what it was like before the Last Continent, before Complex, and wonders where his mother is.

The waitress comes through the door and walks to opposite way from Hunter. He runs up behind her and catches up, grabbing her arm gently at the elbow. She turns quickly.

“Who the f.. oh,” she begins. “My only cloned water of the night, and he didn’t even tip. Look, I don’t know why you hung around or what you were expecting, but I’m not that kind of waitress. Complex doesn’t pay me enough for that kind of shit.”

“Were you listening in on my conversation?” Hunter asks.

“What the fuck are you…”

“I need to know. If Complex is looking to kill me then I ought to know everyone who’s watching my every move.”

“Listen pal, I’m not part of your paranoid delusion or the O-2 case’s euphoric fantasy…”

“Just answer the question.”

She stares at Hunter for a minute and breathes slow. Her head spins left and right before she grabs Hunter’s hand and walks him around the corner and down a dark street.

“Where are you taking me?” he asks.

She stops in front of Hunter’s apartment building. Hunter looks up the steps and then back down at her. “So, you know where I live. Paranoid delusion, right?”

“Shut up for a second,” she blurts back. She stares at the doorway, then grabs Hunter’s arm again. “Run.”

Before Hunter has a chance to react, the door bursts open, splinters fly past his face, and Hunter starts running closely behind the waitress. Hunter can hear heavy steps running up behind him, but he doesn’t look back. Just keeps running forward, trying to stay ahead.

The two come across a bus at the end of the block. “Get in,” she commands.

Hunter hops in the side door, the waitress hops through shortly after, and a voice from the front yells “Hold on!” before the van takes off with guns shots coming from behind them, shattering the back windshield.

Hunter tries to catch his breath, and looks at the waitress. “Paranoid delusions.”

*****

The van suddenly stops and Hunter realizes he fell asleep on the drive out. He looks through the broken glass of the back windshield to see the city’s lights glowing in the distance. The side door opens and standing in front of the old warehouse the van’s parked in front of is a face with sweaty black hair hanging over his forehead, just covering his eye.

“Bet ya missed me,” he says, smiling wide.

“Should you have been driving after all that oxygen?” Hunter asks as he crawls out of the van.

“Had you going there, didn’t I? My best performance yet,” he replies, putting out his hand. “Name’s Leo, and no I don’t actually work for Complex, and no I’m not here to watch your every move.”

“But Complex is trying to kill me.”

“The big bad business isn’t the only one with spies kicking around.”

This shocks Hunter because he’s always been told no one has ever infiltrated the environmentalists. But at this point, he wonders why he’s taking anything Complex has told him seriously. “Spies, huh. That’s how you guys figure things out?”

“Well, living spies for the low level stuff,” continues Leo. “It’s easy to get an entry level job and report back basic findings. You know, lab techs, waitresses, easy stuff. The good stuff comes from those who are no longer with us.”

This is the point that Hunter realizes that both sides have been setting him up. “The guy in stack three. What you had a tracer on him? I was always supposed to find his body? Who was he?”

“Well, kind of, um…”

“The reason he had a plant in his arms was that he was a Complex spy,” the waitress steps in. “When we figured it out, we planted him with a mic and tracer and let him grab the plant and run off. He was crawling through the vent to get in and report back.”

“Why didn’t he…”

“What? Walk through the front door?” the waitress interrupts. “Number one, he was dressed like one of us. And secondly, because low-level guys like you aren’t supposed to know about these little operations. Hell, if the public found out,” she shakes her head. “People are ok with being controlled so long as it’s not in their faces and obnoxious. They’re okay with paying for air but spies are apparently still going too far.”

The waitress starts to walk towards the warehouse when Hunter grabs her elbow again. “Wait, thanks for helping me back there.”

She nods slowly. “My name’s Annabelle.”

“I guess you already know my name,” Hunter responds. “But why help the guy who got your bug into Complex? I served my purpose in your plan, didn’t I?”

“Let’s just say there’s something I like about your eyes,” Annabelle responds.

******

Hunter notices a few scratches along his face while he stares into a mirror. The men’s bathroom is on the opposite end to the front entrance of the warehouse. Hunter walked through taking in the hoards of people, standing around and talking. No one wore a uniform from Complex, in fact, Hunter only just notices he’s still wearing his as he stares into the mirror. He wipes some dust and wood fragment’s from under his collar and runs his fingers along the embroidered Complex logo over his heart. He pulls his pocket comb from his back pocket and combs back the dark hair that was sticking up every which way now. Part on the right, comb to the side, still keeping to Complex standards.

Hunter steps out of the bathroom back into the large open room that housed those who don’t believe in paying for the air that Complex provides them. They don’t realize that the only reason they’re alive is because of Complex and that they should be grateful for what they have. He hears conversations about what some other countries were like, the kind of food they made and all the exotic places they explored before the Last Continent. Always looking back and never looking to the future or paying attention to what’s happening now. Hunter starts to wish that he just went home and was killed already so he didn’t have to stand among these useless, post-neo-meta-hippie-environmentalists. If they didn’t exist to begin with then none of this would have happened. There would have been no issue with stack three, there would have been no unfamiliar plant, and Hunter would be sitting in his apartment right now huffing oxygen and staring at his walls like he did most evenings. That’s what everyone did in the evening. Was that so bad?

Hunter wasn’t about to give up his life for some flakey ideals. Through a window back where the front entrance is Hunter could see the city’s lights and knew it wouldn’t be a far walk back. With one step forward he tries to make his march back to his old life. Two steps in he looks to the side and sees a face, wrinkles setting in and frames by dark hair hinting to silver. Her eyes look over and Hunter stops mid step feeling his heart stop and his stomach climb. She smiles and tears fill Hunter’s eyes. She walks towards him, smiling still, her green eyes fixed without blinking.

“I was hoping you’d find us,” she says in almost a sing-song voice that Hunter remembers from his lullabies as a child.

*****

Hunter’s father worked the same job that Hunter works now; in case you forgot, Hunter monitors the stacks and makes sure that everything runs smooth and nothing’s blocking the air. There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that Hunter would wind up working the same job that his father did. Hunter wasn’t very good at many things, but then again most children weren’t. They city’s children were bred to eventually work for Complex, be it in the factories or building and fixing the buildings and houses that Complex owns. One parent’s pride and joy was Complex’s future employee investment. People were given food and allowed to breathe so that Complex could continue making money for generations.

Most boys ended up with their fathers’ jobs, but rarely did their fathers ever move up in Complex. Promotions were scarce and only employees that demonstrated a unique skill or a higher than average intelligence ever moved anywhere. Hunter’s father was intelligent but he never flaunted it. At home Hunter’s father would read books that he’d kept from before the Last Continent and he’d create large mathematical puzzles for himself to solve.

When Hunter started training for his position, he asked Curtis what he thought of his father. “He did what he did,” the supervisor replied. “Not very bright, I could tell that. He didn’t talk much and was always modest about his skill set. He would just stare at the stacks’ readings, clean something out if he had to, and went home. Nope, not very bright at all, because I can tell bright people, and your dad wasn’t one of them.”

Hunter wondered if Curtis’ supervisor said the same thing about his father.

*****

“How long have you been here?” Hunter asks.

“I left a little after you turned five,” she replies.

“I know that,” Hunter interrupts. “But, I mean, how long have you been associating with these kind of people.”

“That gets a little complicated,” she continues, staring at the concrete ground and swinging her arm. She stares up, through her shaggy bangs and smiles. “I’ve always loved your green eyes. So bright and vibrant.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Hunter barks. “These people ruin everything, we have it so good back in the city, why are you here? Why do you want to ruin everything?”

“I’m not trying to ruin everything, I’m trying to save everything,” she barks back harder and louder. “You don’t know the world that I knew. You never got to hike through the Amazon or explore the African Jungles. You never got to see snow covered mountains or feel a tropical rain. None of these things I’m saying means anything to you and yet even when I say them I remember the smells, the tastes and I miss it so much, Hunter.”

“I used to miss it too, but then I missed you.”

“I’m sorry I left, and I wish I could have brought you along, but I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just had to leave and find… something. Anything that wasn’t cloned or manufactured.”

“So when did you wind up here?”

She looks around the warehouse and stares up at the scaffolding overhead. She smiles as she stares into the fluorescent lights overhead and stretches out her arms like she’s introducing Hunter to the world. “I found this place.”

People from all around started walking close and sitting down, staring up at her as she continues her story.

“I wandered out of the city, it was early still, I left before sunrise to make sure I still had time to write a note. I walked through our front door and I walked and just walked until I was out of the city and then I walked some more. I thought that if I didn’t find anything out here, that it was all barren waste, that at least I would suffocate and die out here. I wouldn’t have to die in that city. I walked for hours and I kept breathing, but the air felt so different. Like it wasn’t just chemicals I was breathing in, like it was simply life. Before the Last Continent, before Complex, we used to have real food that was grown from the ground, not in labs. Breathing that air felt like tasting that food again.”

She takes Hunter by the hand and walks him towards the door opposite from where he came in. It swings open and they step outside. Hunter feels his blood slow down and feels himself take a deep breath as he stares out into the field where hundreds of trees, all with the prickly leaves that he hadn’t seen until what he found in stack three, scattered out and growing from the ground, looking stronger, thicker, and greener than anything he had seen in the lab before.

Hunter takes another deep breath and holds it like he would with a can of oxygen at the bar. He feels the pressure pushing out from his lungs as he holds the breath, but he still holds it like he never wants to let it go, like he may never breathe again. She puts her hand on his diaphragm and he exhales slowly, feeling the blood move through his veins, like he was just born and this was the first breath he ever took.

“The Earth always finds a way,” she says, looking to the sky.

A smell hangs past Hunter’s nose, like the smell that arose when he put the plants through their photosynthesis cycle, but it was like if a thousand plants were all being put through the cycle at once. So potent and strong.

The air swings by Hunter’s face and he wipes the sweat from his brow with his hand, only his sweat is cold. That’s when he hears the plink plink plink around him. He looks up and sees tiny droplets of water falling from the sky.

“Complex never wanted us to know about this,” she says, Hunter barely listening as he feels the water against his face and his arms. “It’s why the city stopped expanding. They knew years ago. They only wanted to start doing something about it now.”

Hunter walks around the warehouse’s perimeter and finds himself looking back in the direction of the city. The lights of the building glow leaving a yellow ring surrounding the arc the city creates in the distance. Hunter can almost see his apartment building from where he’s standing. He thinks about his job, his couch, his television set, all the Complex run programming that would be on at that moment, the food that’s left in his fridge distributed to him by Complex, and who’s at the bar still and if the special on oxygen is still on.

Even as he stands, soaking wet and breathing deep breaths, he still feels an urge to take a step forward and start walking back.

Things I Figured Out While Going Through my Books and Getting Ready to Move

  1. I don’t like poetry

Nor am I particularly good at it either. I’ve been a part of a few poetry groups, bought a lot of poetry books, written more poems than I’ll ever have the time to transcribe out of my chicken-scratch vandalized notebooks and into a word processor to make some sense out of whatever I vomited onto the page, yet I’m always finding myself shrugging at so much poetry, thinking to myself, “I don’t really get it.”

I know I’m not a philistine, and by all means I can definitely appreciate poetry as a genre and a craft in and of itself, but I don’t connect with poetry like a lot of the poets who I’ve hung out with. There was a long span of time where I wanted to connect with poetry so bad and I wanted to be passionate like so many poets, but I realized that it’s not the kind of thing you can force. You either get it and it resonates with you, or you don’t and you’re left trying to make sense out of incomplete sentences that are supposed to carry some sort of weight you just don’t feel.

And this is how I’ve figure out I’m a terrible poet. I’ve broken it down and called it the Bukowski test. It’s like this:

In all the poetry groups I’ve been a part of and with all the poetry fans I’ve shared my poems with, I always get the same response:

“It’s very Bukowski.”

Problem number one: I don’t like Bukowski’s poems. His prose is some of my favourite ever. I read Factotum in one evening. I read Pulp over a drive home from the Okanagan Valley. Hot Water Music was my favourite book and my favourite band at the same time. But I just don’t like his poems. This probably just falls back to point number one: I don’t like poetry (but apparently I like colons).

Problem number two is that everyone who has ever told me that my poems remind them of Bukowski, did not like Bukowski. In fact, a lot of them hated Bukowksi. A few even despised Bukowski. Yet, “It’s very Bukowski,” was meant to be a compliment.

So, when people tell me that, “It’s very Bukowksi,” what they’re really saying is, “You’re kind of bad at poetry, I think you’re kind of dumb, your face is unpleasant to look at, you write entirely literally and in layman’s terms, but I find you kind of funny and kind of charming in that off-putting awkward I’m afraid of what you’re going to say next sort of way. I admire your courage for putting yourself out there like that.”

Very Bukowski.

  1. All the first books I ever read all the way through were written by celebrities

The first book I read cover-to-cover, understood the whole way through, and didn’t have to read as a part of a class, was David Cross’ I Drink for a Reason. The second was Lewis Black’s Nothing’s Sacred quickly followed by Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob Speaks. I love these books. I think they’re funny, insightful, tell a great story, and are written without any pretension. They’re accessible and meant to be consumed, laughed at, enjoyed, and revisited when there’s nothing on TV.

I came out of a university program where people were reading David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen for the sole challenge of it. I’ll admit, I even bought a copy of Infinite Jest that has been sitting on a bookcase, doubling in size from dust collections since I brought it home. It’s seven-point font and entire-book-in-itself of endnote as part of the narrative (no, not references like endnotes in other books, this is fiction and you have to read the endnotes otherwise you just don’t get the book) has been an open challenge since the name first started getting kicked around my classrooms in first year. I’ve tried starting Infinite Jest, along with The Corrections and Freedom multiple times, and I’ve always landed on the same conclusion about ten pages in.

I don’t fucking care.

Yes, the writing is dense as a brick and the craft is something to marvel at like Renaissance Art. I understand the appeal of Franzen’s and Wallace’s technical skills as writers. But the writing is so fucking long-winded I can’t get through a sentence without losing my train of thought and de-railing thinking about books I’d much rather be reading right now.

This is probably something typical of a reader who grew up on TV and comic books as their first choice in medium up until college. Again, the first book I ever read cover-to-cover that wasn’t as part of a class was I Drink for a Reason and I was well into my 20s by the time that book was released, and even further into my 20s when I actually read it. That book did ignite that interest in me to look further into non-fiction well beyond journalism, which was my first writing medium of choice in my adult years, and was the start of that slippery slide that led me to stop caring about poetry and over-academic wanking and start finding books I can actually get into.

  1. At one point, I wanted to be a comedy writer

Then that horrible realization hit: I’m not funny. I think I might be quirky, and I’m neurotically over-analytical, and that worked well for Larry David and Louis CK, but they also know how to frame their quirks and analyses to be relatable, and therefore, funny. I lack those skills.

I’ve lucked out a few times hitting notes that people could relate to and getting a few chuckles, but I think my Bukowksi-charm wears out quick.

In addition to David Cross, Lewis Black, and Kevin Smith (all funny folk), I used to read a lot of David Sedaris (to be fair, I still often read Sedaris, but I went through a specific phase where I tried so hard to write like him) and my favourite comic book character was Deadpool (the comedic, pop-culture referencing, fourth-wall breaking mercenary whose yellow and white narrative boxes speak to him). Based on these influence, I wanted to bad to be a comedy writer.

I started looking into script writing and seeing what writers for SNL were like and I got into sit-coms that I felt like represented my generation. But then I ran into that problem.

The “my generation” thing.

As part of wanting to be a comedy writer, I really wanted to write the book that would be the millennials’ On the Road and Big Sur. I wanted to define the millennial experience through my unique perspective on storytelling. But the more I said that to myself, the more I fucking hated myself.

There’s an obnoxious pretension for wanting to “define your generation.” Especially with a piece of art. This is why I can’t stand Lena Dunham and Girls. It was a novel idea to start with, but the older I got the more her quirks and over neurotic analyses started to bother me. Self-awareness is a sign of intelligence. But hyper-self-awareness is a sign of narcissism. And narcissism’s novelty wears off quick. I can’t deny the show’s popularity so Dunham must be doing something right, but the drive to define your own generation doesn’t appeal to me. I seriously doubt Jack Kerouac went so far out of his way to try and define his generation. He just wrote cool stories about crazy shit he did.

Kerouac didn’t start out that pretentious. He wound up that pretentious. His fans are pretentious. Those who try to copy what he did are pretentious. People who over use the word pretentious are pretentious. People who think they’re funny for over using a word and pretending to be self-aware of over using that word are pretentious. Especially if the word is pretentious. Or a pretentious word.

I know that wasn’t funny. You don’t have to tell me. I know I’m not funny.

  1. I’m really bored with super heroes

Comic books are the reason I started reading, they’re the reason I kept picking up reading throughout my life, and remain one of my biggest influence when I write anything. Especially now that I’ve found my comfort zone playing with genre fiction, comics play a huge part in how I approach any story.

I still spend more money on comic books than I do on rent. But I’ve noticed how far I’ve strayed from the big comic publishers and the traditional comic characters. They’re more popular than ever thanks to their extra exposure in cartoons and in summer blockbuster movies, and I’m really happy that they’re so successful right now. My movement away from super heroes is actually very organic. I literally just looked through my comic collection and realized how few of them were super heroes and how many fall into either hard fantasy or hard science fiction categories.

I don’t know if I have a larger point with this point. Just an observation I guess. I still like super heroes, but I guess I know the format of sequential art to tell stories is capable of so much more than familiar franchises.

  1. Elf Quest is a very feminine comic book

I literally just figured this out over this weekend. I bought a few issues while at free comic book day because I’ve been looking for some decent fantasy and I know Elf Quest is a long standing title with a good following that is now being published by Dark Horse Comics (one of my favourite publishers).

There’s nothing wrong with it being feminine. Again, the format of sequential art is capable of a lot and this absolutely proves it. I have no larger point with this one either. I read through all the issues of Elf Quest that I bought and though I didn’t enjoy them I know there’s some solid storytelling going on. Just not my deal, nor does it have to be.

  1. Harvey Pekar made me want to be more honest

As part of stepping away from super hero comic books I got really into Harvey Pekar. American Splendor did a lot for comic books and for non-fiction. Reading American Splendor, Quitter, Our Cancer Year, and Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me was like nothing else I ever experienced before.

Most of all, it made me realize why I’m not funny and why I fell so short as a comedy writer. I’m not honest with myself. I tried to use comedy to hide from my own shortcomings and to point out the shortcomings of others. That can work to a point, but you always need to be willing to make fun of yourself first. I wasn’t ready to do that. So it didn’t work.

But reading Pekar’s work slapped a kind of sense into me that I wish was slapped into me years ago. He’s easily my biggest influence on the non-fiction side of my writing. I even hear his voice narrating along as I write these odd few essays every once in a while that I eventually publish on my blog which is regularly read by about twenty people. At least they’re reading.

As I box up my comic books, and look through the collection of novels and story collections and poetry collections I’ve gathered over my years of trying to figure this whole writing thing out, I realize how every one of these pieces of paper has somehow affected the way I write, and the way I live.

The lifestyle choices I make, the media I engage with, even the other books I get into are all influenced by whatever I’m reading at the time. And as much as this list is about things I’m not a big fan of, the piles of boxes that clutter my office floor remind me I have a lot to be stoked about too.

I should dig through my books more often.

Limited Space

There are so many small specks of light in front of me that I can’t stand back far enough to hold a complete picture. Millions and millions specks of light, so many unexplored, so many only leaving questions, so many whose existence can’t even be confirmed by looking at them. Their very presence is deceitful as time and light move at different intervals and the distance of these specks of light is immeasurable by conventional units used to gauge length of time. It disturbs me that I’ll never be able to touch each of these lights. To explore their mysteries and give each a name. But I still have to try.

The ship is the size of a relatively large apartment. When it was built, it was recommended that no more than three or four people travel in it for any extent of time. They warned of the enclosed limited space that the ship offered coupled with a lack of privacy and personal space could lead to significant conflict and possibly even a lapse in sanity.

There are two sleeping quarters on the ship. Our crew of four took turns on shift piloting the craft and analyzing data gathered from systems we passed through: two were on shift while two rested. The sleeping quarters are located toward the back of the ship and are next to the two bathing waste disposal facilities. The front of the ship is the main hull, an open space with three large windshields: one in the front and one on either side. The main pilot’s seat is situated in the middle of the hull. It’s a single seat with computer navigation systems in front. The pilot needs to see out the windshields and use the navigation computer to properly steer the ship.

The analyst’s computer is to the left of the pilot’s seat. It consists of a desk, chair, and onboard computer system with three large monitors: one that assists with navigation and direction, one that gives planetary read outs, and one that constantly analyzes the solar system the ship is in for any sudden changes or immediate threats.

Each member of the crew were trained for both piloting and analyzing, this way tasks during shifts can be changed to keep things fresh in the crew members’ minds. When someone does the same task for too long, it becomes automatic and they stop paying attention. When you’re in a crew of four, you’re thousands of galaxies away from your home planet, and there’s no guarantee of civilized life (let alone habitable planets), paying attention to everything is of the utmost importance.

I don’t know what happened in the last galaxy we travelled into. It seemed like a normal enough system: it had a star at its centre that acted as its sun and had five planets orbiting around it. The two furthest planets from the sun were gas giants and the two closest were inhabitable because of the immense heat and radiation from being so close to the star. But the planet in the middle showed signs of water and vegetation. It was the first planet that we encountered similar to our home world. We had been travelling for four years, which meant that if there were no established or intelligent civilizations on this planet, it could be colonized, our planet’s population and pollution issues could be resolved, and the crew on this ship could finally go home.

We approached this new planet, but stayed out of its atmosphere. We had no know what the plants were breathing before we could risk the ship and ourselves. I was manning the analytics at the time. Preston was piloting. We got up to wake up Daniels and Mackenzie to show them the planet.

“Roberts! Roberts!” Preston yelled out as he escorted Daniels and Mackenzie into the hull. “Tell them what you just told me! Show them the analytics!” Preston was smiling, but he was sweating too. He put his arms around Mackenzie and Daniels, smiling and talking about how we’re finally struck gold. Preston wasn’t blinking. His eyes were beat red like they were just blasted with sand.

“The planet definitely shows signs of water and vegetation,” I said. “But we still don’t have an atmosphere or planetary gas read. For all we know, as of now, this planet has a minimal atmosphere and the water and vegetation are feeding on radioactivity. I’m going to need a couple of hours for a full read out before we can even enter the atmosphere, let alone land and explore.”

Letting Preston know that it will be a while before we know if our mission is complete hadn’t hindered his excitement. We passed through what felt like hundreds of different galaxies, analyzed planets with surfaces too cold to sustain life, radioactivity that could melt a human in seconds, and surfaces submerged in liquids with PH levels of hydrochloric acid. No life, no growth, no habitation, just rocks and gas-balls floating in nothing, sustaining nothing, and revolving around nothing.

“Seriously, Roberts,” Daniels said as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “What do you figure are the chances that this rock is the rock we can land on and eventually haul half of our planet over to?”

The data readouts looked promising. I had only been monitoring them for a few minutes. Protocol read that we had to wait at least two hours before we were allowed to land. There was an incident where another crew found a planet with some of the most promising readouts in the history of our organization. It was almost four months before we found their transport ship, still floating just outside of the planets near damn-perfect atmosphere.

The crew took their miniature transport off to the planet. Once the crew landed, they immediately started sending signals back to their main transport to record their landing and exploration. The recordings from the ship told a story of the crew noticing something funny about the rock they landed on. It was soft. Almost like a sponge.

You could hear the crew start to panic when their miniature transport started sinking into the ground they landed on. The dirt and grass swallowed that transport like a headache pill. When the rescue excavated the crew’s main transport, the readouts showed that while the air had the right mix of nitrogen and oxygen and the atmosphere held off enough of the close-by star’s radiation so that the rock wasn’t a floating nuclear reactor in space. Unfortunately, they didn’t wait enough to read the planet’s air pressure and ground density. It was like a brick landing in pudding and then pulled under like it was being drug to hell.

“So far so good,” I replied back to Daniels. “We have another hour and a bit before we can load up and land. I’ll keep an eye on the readouts. If anything funny comes up, I’ll holler.”

“Stuck in the middle of nothing and we have to rely on silence for reassurance,” Daniels said.

Daniels and Mackenzie made their way back to the sleep quarters and passed Preston who was making his way back to the navigation chair.

“This is it, this is it, I know it!” Preston rambled on.

I kept my eye on the readouts, looking for even the slightest off readout that would make trying to habitat this planet difficult. Nothing. I even faked the time readout and got an extra half-hour of readouts. Nothing. Preston was still sitting in the navigation seat, rambling on and on and on.

“So, what’s the word, Roberts?” Preston asked. “Are we packing up and dropping down?”

I kept staring at that screen. It was a perfect planet. Every other planet we encountered had some flaw or some reason that it wasn’t quite right. I looked out the main navigation window and stared at the perfect planet. Not a thing wrong. Like god was handing it over to us in a silver platter. Even though we’d been travelling for so long and working so hard to find a planet like this, now it almost seemed too easy. Too perfect.

“I guess it looks alright,” I replied. “Still doesn’t feel right though.”

“It doesn’t feel right because we’re not down there yet,” Preston laughed. “Just think about it. Think about how many people we could fit on that rock. All the things we could build. The cities we could develop. I bet there’s some amazing tropical islands, untouched by people. No pollution or over-population like what happened in the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands. You’ll actually be able to get a spot on the beach and be able to lay out your towel comfortably. Shit, I don’t think those beaches have been that clean since the twentieth century, or even earlier.”

I remembered going to those beaches as a kid and wondering why so many people flocked to them. All along the horizon, you could barely see the sun or the sky or even the water. Just people and umbrellas and beer vendors everywhere. I felt like I didn’t have room to breathe. I was scared that every time I moved my arms I would hit someone I was walking past. I was scared that the people around me were feeling as enclosed as I was, they would be mad that my arm hit them when I walked by. I didn’t know how they would react. I was scared all the people around me. Even in this ship with only three other people around me, I was scared of getting in their space. God knows how someone with such limited space would react if you got into their personal bubble.

Preston was still staring off, probably imagining all the things we could do with a blank slate of a planet, when we heard the screeching from the sleeping quarters. It was like screaming and choking and vomiting all at once. Preston and I ran back to the sleeping quarters to see Mackenzie on top of Daniels. Mackenzie’s arms were pulsating to where we could see the veins clearer than we could see the pigments of his skin, his jaw was shattering, the sweat was pouring off of his head, and the drool was slipping off of the side of his mouth and dripping onto Daniels.

Nothing Mackenzie said made any sense. He gritted his teeth and growled out at Daniels while he pushed down against his throat. Daniels was kicking his feet, trying to throw Mackenzie off of his body. Daniels’ face was turning blue by the time Preston and I got into the room.

Preston and I pounced on Mackenzie and pulled off of Daniels and drug him onto the floor. Mackenzie kept fighting, swinging at us and clocking me across my jaw before Preston finally thrust his fist down into the middle of Mackenzie’s forehead. Mackenzie’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he stopped struggling. Daniels behind us was still coughing and throwing up.

“Did you kill him?” I asked while rubbing my sore jaw.

“I don’t know,” Preston answered. “If he isn’t dead he’s probably concussed pretty good. He won’t be getting up anytime soon.”

Preston checked Mackenzie’s pulse, looked up to me and nodded. “He’s still alive. Barely. We better figure out something to do with him before, or if, he wakes up.”

Preston and I drug Mackenzie into the bathroom and latched the door from the outside so if he woke up he wasn’t getting out. Daniels was sitting up on his bed, still coughing a bit and wiping sweat off of his head.

“I don’t,” Daniels coughed. “I don’t know what the fuck happened there. I was sleeping. I wake up and Mackenzie is on top of me. I don’t know what the fuck happened.”

Mackenzie was fairly quiet this entire mission. He shone brightest while he was reading reports. He was very logically minded and loved reading through numbers and understanding data. You could tell he was most in his element while he was running data. He seemed like he was actually relaxing while he was running data. Everywhere else you could see how tense his shoulders were. We could all tell he wasn’t comfortable being with other people this close all of the time, but he never complained and he was never aggressive before. He was always polite but brief.

Preston started pacing the floor, wondering what we should do if Mackenzie woke up. Preston knew that we couldn’t land with one member of our crew losing his mind for seemingly no reason. This was probably sending Preston even more over edge. I wasn’t sure how long he could hold his anticipation for landing.

“You know, we could always leave him while we head down,” Preston suggested.

“We can’t do that,” Daniels replied. “If he’s hurt really bad, we need to help him. If he’s ok and wakes up and figures out we all left him alone on this ship, who knows how he’ll react. It could send him even worse over the edge. He could fly the ship off and leave us on this planet. And god knows how long we’ll last if he leaves us…”

“You’re wrong!” Preston barked out. “We’d be fine down there! We could probably last years until the rescue finds us. You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about!”

“Calm down, Preston,” I stood up. “We’ll get down there soon enough. Don’t worry. We just need to know what to do about Mackenzie first.”

Preston turned and marched over to the bathroom where Mackenzie was locked. He opened the door and looked down at Mackenzie. “He won’t be waking up. He’s not our problem. Taking care of him isn’t our mission. Finding that planet is our mission. And the sooner we get down there, the sooner we can head home and start developing. If this piece of shit is the only thing stopping us I’ll make sure he’s out of the way.”

Preston lifted his boot and stomped down onto Mackenzie’s head. With a single stomp, Preston’s foot made its way through Mackenzie entirely and landed back on the tiled floor. A piece of Mackenzie’s skull rolled out of the bathroom and slid across the floor, landing in front of my foot.

Preston’s face was soaked, either in sweat or in tears or in both.  “What the fuck happened? How did I do that? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What the fuck happened?”

Preston stumbled out of the bathroom. I put my arms out to him, trying to get him to sit down. He shoved me back and I fell onto the data readout controls, crushing some of the circuitry underneath me. Preston paced, heaving heavily and wiping sweat from his mouth and off of his face.

“Get packing, we’re fucking landing,” he said through clenched teeth. “Be ready in one hour. You hear me? One fucking hour and we land on this mother fucker.”

Preston marched off to the sleeping quarters. Daniels was standing next to me, help me back to my feet and checking the damaged controls. “Asshole’s lost his mind,” Daniels said. “We gotta get him to calm down. And if he doesn’t calm down, we need to tie him down or something. If this planet’s no good, our mission is already fucked, we can’t read shit anymore. We deal with Preston first, clean up…” he swallowed hard and his lip trembled. “We clean up Mackenzie, and we figure out a best course home. We’re useless out here now.”

The door to the sleeping quarters flung open and Preston came marching out, his eyes fixated on Daniels. “Is that what you think?” he gritted his teeth and his face burned red. “You think we’re just going to turn this puppy around with its tail between its legs? Is that what you think mother fucker?”

“Preston, calm down,” Daniels tried to reason. “We’re still going to land, we’re still going to explore. You just need to mellow out a bit man, you’re acting crazy.”

“You know what’s crazy?” Preston spat out. “You assholes don’t want to succeed. You obviously don’t. Otherwise we would have landed the minute we found this place. God just handed the Garden of Eden to us on a silver platter and you assholes don’t even want to land. All of our planet’s problems can be solved with this rock. Why the fuck are we still sitting here?”

“Because you goddamn just murdered Mackenzie, that’s why!” Daniels yelled back. “Mackenzie just needed a few minutes to calm down. The anxiety of this place was probably just getting to him. You had no fucking right to…”

“That asshole was probably a vegetable after we had to fight him off of you,” Preston stepped to Daniels, staring him down like a dog fighting for territory. “Keep in mind, you’d probably still be gasping for air and turning blue if we hadn’t fought him off of you. We did what we had to do. He was compromising the crew and the mission.”

“He was part of the crew!” Daniels yelled.

“He stopped being crew and became a liability the minute he snapped,” Preston yelled back.

“If Mackenzie was a liability, what’s our contingency plan then with you?” Daniels stared back and buffed his chest like he was ready for a fist fight.

“The only contingency plan here is surviving and making it back home with something to report,” I piped up. “Our controls are destroyed and we’re going to kill each other if things don’t calm down. None of us are in our right minds right now. We should all just rest for half an hour, do something with Mackenzie’s body, then try to land.”

Preston looked to me and with a complete straight face and monotone voice, he said, “Let fucking Mackenzie rot where he is.”

Without a second breath, Daniels reached back and smoked Preston across the jaw, sending Preston toppling to the floor. Preston wiped the blood from his mouth and tackled Daniels, both landing on the navigation chair, damaging the controls. The ship started moving while the two kept fighting. I tried to fix the navigations and get the ship to stop, but it had already set its course and none of the override controls were working. I looked over to see Daniels on top of Preston, both hands around his throat and pushing down just like Mackenzie had been only minutes earlier. Preston reached beside himself and found a piece of a broken computer and lodged it into the side of Daniels’ head.

A blank stare immediately overcame Daniels’ face, like he was seeing the light to the afterlife glowing in front of his face. Daniels then fell over, stopped breathing and bled across the floor.

Preston sat up breathing heavily, brushing dust off of his t-shirt. “Well, two down,” he said staring up at me. “Do you want to make it three, Roberts? Or are you going to shut the fuck up and get us on that planet?”

I looked over to the navigation controls and looked back to him. “You broke both the data readouts and the navigation controls. Nothing works anymore. There are no overrides. The only thing still functioning is the autopilot with a destination.”

“Well where the fuck are we going then?”

“This galaxy’s star.”

Preston huffed and stared up out the window. “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“I’m not. In about twenty minutes, this ship will fry.”

“What about the transport? Does it still work?”

“Probably.”

“Well why don’t we get the fuck in there and save our sorry asses?”

“And land where!?” I yelled. “Onto that perfect planet!? That has no pollution. No ozone depletion. No man made problems killing every living thing on that world. You want to land there and start all over again? And just keep doing the same old shit? Fuck you, Preston!” I walked over to the hatch leading to the transport and slammed the emergency launch, sending the transport floating off into nothingness, with nothing inside and direction set.

Preston shook his head. “You fucking idiot. You worthless fucking idiot. We were so close. So fucking close.” Preston stood up and walked into the sleeping quarters. He didn’t close the door when he pulled out a revolver from underneath the bed. He looked out at me and held the gun to his head, splattering what was left of his mind all over the bedding and the walls.

He toppled to the ground, his legs crumbling beneath him like a marionette whose strings were dropped. I walked into his room and all I could think about was how surprised I was that no one had gone for the gun earlier. I guess we all still tried to be professionals. That got us far.

I still don’t know what got into Mackenzie. It won’t matter though, I’m sure the outcome would have been the same one way or another.

I wanted to name all of the stars I saw when I looked outside. Touch each of those lights in the sky. But I realize that the universe doesn’t want us. Nor, do we deserve it.

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