Category Archives: Pop-Culture

Jesus works in a Coffee Shop

“Will that be French-press or drip?” the son of god asked. I almost forgot my order. Not because I was standing in front of the second coming of the messiah. But because I could see crumbs in his beard. He was eating a scone as my wife and I walked in the cafe.

“Uh, drip,” I answer. “And I need a cappuccino as well.” My wife was sitting at the table. It was hard to find a seat at this cafe. Not because Jesus himself was making the coffee. But because it was in a trendy part of town, the only cafe that served fair-trade coffee, and offered almond milk as a cream substitute.

“You got it,” he smiled, punching in my order. As he told me my total, I noticed the praying hands tattoo on the side of his neck. Most of his tattoos were bad, but I thought that one was too ironically self-referential.

The image of Christ from church growing up popped into my head as I carried the coffees to the table. Every painting and dramatic re-enactment always had a pasty-white, blue-eyed, and sometimes blonde guy. But as I looked back to the man who just made my coffee, I realized how wrong those images were.

His long black hair was pulled back into a greasy ponytail, his deep brown eyes were barely hidden by his thick round rimmed glasses, and the black outlines of all of his tattoos still showed despite his natural dark complexion. The sleeves to his flannel were rolled up, showing off the prison-drawings of crosses, wings, halos, and sheep on his arms.

“Oh, how funny,” my wife chuckled as I handed her the cappuccino. I looked into her cup and saw our holy barista drew an Our Lady of Guadalupe in the foam. I was always impressed when the other baristas drew flowers in the foam. There was even one who could draw a sailboat. I had seen images of the virgin Mary in cups of coffee on click-bait articles my evangelical aunt shared on Facebook. This was the first time I had seen an intentional virgin Mary in a cup of coffee.

“Kind of, I don’t know, cheeky, don’t you think?” I asked my wife.

“Cheeky?” she looked up at me and laughed. “Are you an old British man now?”

“You know what I mean,” I blushed a little. “Like, he thinks he’s so cool and wants everyone to pay attention to him. But he works in a coffee shop.  If he’s so great, why isn’t he off saving the world?”

“Last time he tried that, they nailed him to a fucking tree,” my wife sipped her cappuccino. “Probably has some residual resentment from that.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, staring back at the son of god as he took another bite of his scone. “Or maybe he was a little overhyped and all the miracles he performed were just like, you know, drawing shit in the foam.”

My wife took a long sip of her cappuccino. “Yeah, but his coffee is nothing short of divine. The baristas here are good. But no one makes a cup of coffee like Jesus does.”

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An Open Letter to Kevin O’Leary

Dear Kevin O’Leary,

Just… Don’t…

Just… Fucking… Don’t…

Just… What the fuck are you doing? Seriously… What the fuck… Just… Fucking Don’t.

Okay, now that’s out of my system, I can get into my rhetorical analysis of you framed as the start of a dialogue that I know you’ll never actually respond to.

Have you seen the show Ascension? It was broadcast on CBC, the channel that made you (in)famous through its Dragon’s Den reality series. And I stress that it was Dragon’s Den that propelled you into the public spotlight, and not Shark Tank for two reasons. The first being your rivalry with Arlene Dickinson, which has apparently followed you into your new political life. The second being, and I may be going out on a limb with this, no American who watched Shark Tank still has any idea who you are or what you do. And I focus on CBC because the typical conservative of your ilk tends to believe that the CBC needs to be defunded and shut down.

I bring up Ascension as an example of a Canadian version of something that simply doesn’t measure up to what we typically consume for media produced by our southern neighbours. The show sort of starts out like CSI in space, but does move into some interesting territory as the mini-series progressed. It doesn’t have the cult following that similar shows like The Expanse has, and many would point solely to the fact that Ascension is a Canadian program as to why it didn’t perform as well as it could have. Even being broadcast on Syfy didn’t bolster the show the way other space operas (and in my opinion, sub-par space operas) like Killjoys and Dark Matter have been. There’s something about Canadian content that feels like Canadian content and we automatically assume it isn’t as good because it’s Canadian content.

Kevin-O (can I call you Kevin-O? I going to stick with Kevin-O.), are you at all worried about being the Canadian content equivalent of the current state in American politics?

I mean, the comparisons are obvious. You’re a venture capitalist eyeing politics with the messaging that strong business practices are what could save the country. You practically stole the speaker notes (which apparently is also becoming common political practice). Many Canadians are furiously flocking to social media to stress that we are not Americans and we shouldn’t do things like Americans. The problem is, we keep trying to copy Americans, as seen in much of our Canadian content. And when we try to copy Americans, that’s when we tend to fail.

Even you, Kevin-O, are actually far from the archetype of the American tycoon. Your net worth is much less than most Wall Street bankers, which might be part of it, but your attitudes I’ve always found different. Yes, you’re a hard capitalist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think the outward image you conveyed on Dragon’s Den at all reflects the real Kevin-O who goes home at night. While drafting this letter, I literally had to look up the company you co-founded (software developers SoftKey), but I could rattle off all the charity and philanthropic work you do. You’re big into entrepreneurship and financial education. You actively helped look for solutions to reverse climate change with Discovery Channel’s Discovery Channel Earth. Think about how many American politicians don’t think climate change is even real. Think about how many American politicians don’t trust the data from scientists who have been studying the effects of climate for decades. You literally worked with television’s biggest science channel to address the realities of climate change and look for solutions.

This is the Kevin-O who needs to run for public office. Smart business practices are important but when it comes to government, serving the individuals is far more important than balancing the books. Government is such a different industry from hard business that not all of hard business’ practices translate. This isn’t a simple transition from one to the other. You will have 35 billion people riding on your decisions, not just a board of investors.

If we look at the trend in modern Canadian politics, we can call Stephen Harper our George W. Bush, and Harper’s national isolation tactics and fear based (and frankly racist) domestic policy ideas are what caused him to fail. We can look at Justin Trudeau as our answer to Barrack Obama and even I will admit that Trudeau is starting to shit the bed a bit in public opinion. Was Jean Chrétien our Bill Clinton? I would argue that Bill Clinton was America’s Jean Chrétien and that Chrétien was Canada’s last truly great Prime Minister because he was distinctly and unapologetically unlike anything else going on in politics at the time. He followed no trends and the Canadian vote wasn’t a reaction to what was going on anywhere else. Canada needs to stop comparing itself to other countries and following the leads of others and instead look at itself, look at the world, and logically decide what’s the best course of action.

If we look at the case of Ascension or Heartland or Republic of Doyle or any of the other CBC programming that causes a chorus of groans from regular television watchers, we get a sense that Canadian content copying American content doesn’t really work. When we look at cases like Orphan Black, Kids in the Hall, Degrassi, Kenny versus Spenny, Are you Afraid of the Dark¸ and even Mr. Dressup, television shows with strong cult followings and set new standards for what content can do, you fully understand that Canadian content is at its utmost best when it stops trying to copy American content.

The Canadian political landscape is no different. We are at our best when we stop trying to take cues from south of the 49th parallel. I’ll agree that when Canadians describe themselves as “not American,” it cheapens the Canadian identity and experience. But at the same time, the Canadian identity is such an obscure construct that outside of waxing philosophical, it’s hard to describe. All you can do is look at the reality of the 35 billion people who call this set of borders home, look at how we can help things on the international front, and strategize from there.

So when I say, or rather beg (or maybe groan in frustration) to “Just fucking don’t.” What I mean is, don’t be that guy that so many Canadians expect you to be. Don’t be the guy south of the border, don’t be the guy howling at bad investment ideas. Be something better. You want to be an alternative? Be a real alternative. Don’t just copy what you saw work on TV. Work from a stronger and smarter plan. Don’t spew rhetoric about bad business and putting Canadians first. Explain reality and do what the best politicians always did best: help the greatest number of people. Period.

Don’t be the cheap Canadian version of something going on elsewhere. Set the standards and be something better.

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On Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Address

It’s not often that I want to chime in on current affairs that already have a deafening amount of noise surrounding them. But it’s that level of noise that actually made me want to chime in. It seems like this is one of those scenarios where everyone wants to yell something, but everything being yelled is being muddled by the collective uproar on both sides on the controversy. By this line of reasoning, it seems apt to use this forum as a means to express a few more ideas about this scenario while hopefully cutting through the noise and having a clear message make its way through the chaos.

The controversy I’m jotting down ideas about is Meryl Streep’s address at the Golden Globes. But, not so much the address itself as the public backlash that followed. Some are cheering loudly. Others are resorting to pointing out her age and physical features as a means to under credit her stance. What I want to know is why is there a backlash at all? And further, much of the backlash has to do with the fact that Ms. Streep is an actor and that celebrities should leave politics out of their public appearances. This also seems to only be an argument used when said celebrity seems to disagree with your political stance. So, why should celebrities be barred from using their public platforms as a means to direct political messaging, even if the message can be boiled down to something as simple as, “please be decent to each other.”

I have to wonder if Ms. Streep were a writer, would she be receiving the same backlash? Obviously, it’s a writers job to perceive, interpret, reflect, develop ideas, and share those ideas through language. Many of those ideas being shared have to do with the political sphere, and as such it’s a generally accepted view that part of a writer’s job is to comment on the politics of the day, especially if they are columnists or essayists for publications with a focus on politics. But it’s even generally accepted that fiction writers use their craft as a means to reflect society and the politics that help shape society. We generally accepted this from writers such as George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and even JK Rowling. The question remains, if Ms. Streep were a writer, would her comments be more accepted as a legitimate political stance?

There is some difficulty for me separating actor from writer. They have vastly different jobs on the surface, and there is a very odd preconceived notion that actors are generally very dumb people, but when you boil down what both creative professions do, you simply land on what the role art has to play in the world. Actors have to create characters, convey those characters, and place themselves in situations that generally they have never experienced before. Those characters they are larger reflections of society, including the political sphere that influences society, and as such create connections with the viewers. This is why we find movies and television entertaining. We see ourselves in the characters portrayed by actors. In much the same way we identify with stories and arguments put forward by writers, we identify with character, which gives them their reflective weight as an entertainment medium.

With that being said, it takes the same skillset of perception, interpretation, and reflection that a writer exercises to be a good actor. It’s the same understanding of people and what influences people to act and react that helps an actor create a believable character that reflects and connects with us. Therefore, we can accept that to be an actor, especially an actor of the calibre as Ms. Streep takes a great deal of intelligence.

So, if we can accept that an actor like Ms. Streep is intelligent, why not use her public platform as a means to convey her political ideas? Many of the current celebrities who do support the current political direction that the United States is taking aren’t often told to keep their political opinions to themselves from either side of the debate. Those who support actually encourage those celebrities to keep expressing their favour for the 2016 election results. Those who oppose simply express their opposition and may even go as far as to boycott the celebrities’ products. But it’s rare to see an argument from that opposition that would suggest the celebrity shouldn’t use their status to convey their ideas.

This is also something often seen in the current political correctness backlash. The argument is often made that “PC culture” has gone too far and that it’s a part of freedom of speech to be able to say objectionable things. This is true. But it’s also part of freedom of speech to be able to call out those who say objectionable things and point out why they’re objectionable. It’s not a form of censorship. It’s a dialogue. It’s exercising that freedom of speech has to be able to go both ways and that those who say objectionable things need to be accountable for their words and subsequent actions that those words may spur.

If we accept freedom of speech, we have to accept celebrities using their status to convey political ideas on any side of any argument. We can then respond to their opinions and if their opinions are highly objectionable we have the ability to boycott as a means of protest. But this is how dialogue is created and it’s through dialogue that collaboration is created, which then feeds into activity. This is why some governments fail. They refuse dialogue. They hold themselves to ideals and labels and refuse to collaborate and negotiate. This was clearly seen during the last American administration when the speaker of the house decided that his entire purpose as a politician was to block any motion set out by the President. All that does it creates an ideological stalemate, which in the end benefits nothing except the egos of the individuals.

What I found most curious in much of my reading around this topic is the inherent hypocrisy of many of those who criticized Ms. Streep. Many either actively voted for or expressed some support for the new American administration, which is headed by a celebrity who used his status to gain the highest office in the United States. Yet this fact seems to completely escape them and they turn their fury instead to the other celebrity who dared challenge their belief system.

Meth Mouth

“You know, there’s only one way to really appreciate this marvel of modern science,” he said, smiling through his crooked yellow teeth. I never realized how bad his teeth were until that moment. There’s a nickname for the way his mouth looks: meth-mouth. His gums have deteriorated exposing a good chunk of the few teeth he had left lining the front of his mouth. The teeth that were missing either left gaping black hole embedded into his gums or were broken at the root, leaving a small nub of a tooth still sticking out of his rotting gumline. I was so fascinated by how bad his mouth looked I completely forgot his name. To this day, I can only refer to him as Meth-Mouth. If he knew this is how I still refer to him, he’s either laugh heartily and agree with me, or stab me. More likely the latter. After all, he didn’t wind up with meth-mouth because of gingivitis and loss of enamel. It was meth. Meth’s fucking gross.

At this moment, though, he wasn’t offering me meth. In the name of total honesty and transparency, yes, I’ve done meth. Once. And I hated it. I dug drugs that mellowed me out. Relaxed me and helped me sleep or made sex feel better. Meth didn’t do any of those things. The high reminded me closer to the one time I did crack. Again, just one time, never again. But that weird buzz like you just swallowed twenty shots of ultra concentrated espresso just wasn’t fun to me. That wasn’t an experience that opened up my mind and helped me reflect on my own existence or helped me appreciate how awesome Pink Floyd or Salvador Dali is. It wasn’t my bag and I always tried to make sure Meth-Mouth knew that. So whenever I went to buy LSD or Molly from him and he tried to introduce me to something new, I asked a lot of questions about what he was telling me to snort or shoot or drop or smoke. And he always fed me that fucking line about modern science. Fuck modern science.

“Don’t give me that shit,” I told Meth-Mouth. “Seriously, what the fuck is that shit? What kind of high does it give you?”

“It’s your bag man, I swear,” Meth-Mouth nodded, his greasy hair brushing back and forth along his shoulders. The weird sores on the top of his head started to gross me out too. I swear one was open and pussing out while I was talking to him. At this point, I decided it was best to finish this conversation without looking at him. I looked over my shoulder, back and forth, and tried to make it look like I was looking out for cops. No cops every came through this neighbourhood, though. I had no idea if Meth-Mouth knew that, but he didn’t seem to pick up on that I thought his face was fucking disgusting. Someone really needed to take a shovel to that fucking face. Would have done it some good.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “That’s what you said about the fentanyl. I was in the hospital for a week after that shit.”

“You can’t deny it was a good high,” he said. “And that shit was your bag, man. I bet you never slept better than you did when you took the fentanyl.”

“That’s cause I was in a fucking coma,” I spat back. “I’m surprised no one’s tried fucking ending you for selling off that shit as a mellow stimulant.”

Clicking. Around some of the buildings we were standing in front of I heard clicking. In this part of town, that’s the last sound you want to hear. The clicks come from the doors. Lookouts. They watch over the pusher in case there’s an unruly customer. You hear the clicking, you knew that doors were unlocking and being opened a crack. That was your first warning. Your second warning is the red laser dot, usually on your shirt. Sometimes on your forehead. Sometimes on your arm if they want to make you suffer. I had a red dot on me once. I got the message really quickly. I haven’t had a red dot on me in a long time now.

“Alright, anyways,” I mellowed out, making sure that the lookouts knew that no red dots were required. “What’s this new stuff do?”

“Buddy, you want to talk about mind expanding?” Meth-Mouth started to get excited. “You’re going to see shit you never knew existed. I swear to god, one guy told me he saw a colour he had never seen before. Couldn’t even described it to me. Said it wasn’t on the colour spectrum. I had no idea what the fucking guy was talking about. But he seemed to love it. He’s like you, into all that weird shit. The books and fucking shit.”

The flicking of a cheap lighter told me Meth-Mouth was lighting a cigarette. This was the procedure Meth-Mouth went through. Every time. Step by step. You asked for your PCP or H or whatever, he tells you about what new product he has, gets you interested, lights a cigarette, then tells you the price. Every time.

“Alright, how much?” I asked.

“For you?” he blew out a cloud of smoke that danced past me like a stripper looking for a dollar. “First hit’s free. You’re a repeat customer, I knew you’ll be back for some other product, even if you’re not into this new shit, I like you, and really, you’re probably right about the fentanyl. It was a dick move. You got off easy, though. Had a few kids OD on that shit. Damn shame. They bought a lot of grass. High markup too.”

Meth-Mouth never gave anything away for free. Somehow, this shit was different. He was acting different. I should have said no, I didn’t know anything about this shit. But it’s hard to say no when it’s free.

“What’s the shit called?” I asked.

“Dalek,” he said.

“What the fuck does that mean?” I asked.

“No clue,” he said. “Some people said it’s some combination of letters from the periodic table. The mix of chems or whatever. Some people said it was some sci-fi shit. With all the books you read I figured you would know.”

“Nah,” I said. “Don’t really like sci-fi. Not believable. No metaphors.”

“That just means you read shitty sci-fi,” he said.

“And what fucking sci-fi have you read?” I asked. “You don’t come off like the book reading type.”

“You’d be shocked,” he said. “I was super into Dune during the ’80s. Loved the idea of the spice. Control the spice, control the world. Or whatever the fucking line is. It’s a pusher’s mantra.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t figure dalek’s from Dune,” I said. “Anyways, how do you take this shit? Do I need a sober person to watch over me?”

“Nah,” he said. “Do it in a room by yourself. Preferably an empty room. Not even any furniture around. Totally empty room, place one dalek on your tongue. Close your eyes. And you’ll be in a totally different world.”

Following the advice from a guy dubbed Meth-Mouth might seem insane. Well, typically it is. You’re literally taking advice on how to best get high on something you’ve never tried before and you have no idea what’s going to happen to you or your body when you take it. But, at least when it comes to getting high, Meth-Mouth is pretty trustworthy. He explained to me one time that if he screwed over his customer, gave him a bad high or caused him to OD really bad, it would be bad for business. Either the customer would be pissed and not buy from him ever again (and frankly, would probably try to beat the shit out of him, he only ever had protection when he was pushing; the rest of the time, he was as fair game as anyone else), or they would be dead and wouldn’t be buying anymore. So it was in his best interest to give good highs. I honestly believe he didn’t mean to give me a bad high with the fentanyl. But still, the damage was done and I was apprehensive.

“OK, I’ll take one tonight and let you know how it is,” I said. “I hope this shit doesn’t kill me.”

“No kill guarantee,” he said, smiling. I looked back over to his face and it was even worse than I remembered it those few moments ago when I looked away. He was in his 40s, or so he said. But he looked closer to 60. Meth will do that to a person. “I can one hundred per cent say no one who has tried it has died yet. As harmless as a joint.”

Back at my apartment, I didn’t exactly follow Meth-Mouth’s advice to the fullest. I moved all the furniture out of a room, but I wasn’t alone.

Earlier that day, I got the last voicemail I would ever get from, well, I’m not going to use her name. In the case of Meth-Mouth, I honestly don’t remember his name. In her case, though, she doesn’t deserve to have her name written or spoken or thought or anything. As far as I’m concerned, this is her fault. If she didn’t leave that voicemail, I wouldn’t have been willing to try something from Meth-Mouth that he was giving out for free.

“Curtis,” the voicemail said. “This is the last time I’m going to try and get a hold of you. You’re avoiding my calls, but you knew this was coming. This weird perpetually 22 years old thing you have going on isn’t healthy. And you refuse to see that or try to grow or see things any other way. You can’t be in a relationship, a real serious relationship, if this is how you’re going to act. Especially at your age. You throw away so much, so many opportunities, and why? I don’t know. You don’t think it’s legit? Or something? I don’t know. But I don’t want to be around it anymore. I’m changing my number after this call. I’m moving to a friend’s place for a while. I’m not saying who. I’m not giving you my new number. You and those gross people you hang out with and buy drugs from scare me. I don’t want this. I’m done. Goodbye, Curtis. Deep down you’re a decent person. And maybe one day when you realize that and you grow up a bit, maybe then you can have a really great relationship with someone. I know you’re better than this. And that’s why I’m done. Goodbye.”

That last part hurt the worst. It’s her way of trying to make me feel good or motivate me to do something she wants me to do while still driving in there’s no fucking hope for us anymore. Whatever. Fuck her. I’m not changing for her. Never will.

Which brings us back to the room. No, I’m not alone in there. And no, her dead body isn’t lying in the room with me while I get high. I’m not a completely sick fuck. Though, it might make for a more interesting story. But no, she’s alive and well. As far as I know at least. Couldn’t tell you if she’s been hit by a bus or anything like that. One can only hope, though.

I had a few extra bucks after I scored from Meth-Mouth. And, well, narcotics aren’t the only thing that’s easy to find in that part of town. I mean, I already mentioned that the drugs I take make sex far better. If this new thing Meth-Mouth gave me was going to be my thing, then a few hours (full disclosure, probably more like minutes) with a hooker would be magical and help get rid of all my troubles. Or at least forget them for a bit.

Though she wasn’t keen on leaving her part of town. With good reason. Once you left this little slice of criminal heaven, every street corner for the next hundred kilometres in every direction had CCTV cameras set up. Wonderful selective security surveillance. Can’t say it doesn’t work. Pretty much all the crime stays in one area now. The one area with no video feeds to law enforcement and government agencies. Easier for everyone to manage.

Can’t say I remember much about the hooker. Teased bleached blonde hair. I remember that much. I think she had sunglasses on too. Probably coming down from her own decent high. I knew she needed the money for her next fix. She had track marks all along her arms. Fresh ones too. She was a regular user and would be easy to drag out of the shady area of town and back to my place. I was only ten blocks away. And the amount I walked in and out of that part of town, I still haven’t been questioned or arrested for anything. No one’s paying attention to me and no one’s about to. She finally shut the fuck up and followed me back to my place.

She wasn’t too sure while she watched me move all the furniture out of my bedroom. I didn’t have much in there, a bed and a bookcase. But she watched me with a constant expression that read, “What is this fucking weirdo doing? What the fuck is he into? What the fuck did I get myself into?”

We’re lying on my floor and I’m working my pants open. She told me it’s extra for her to take her clothes off. I figure I don’t need her to go that far. All I really wanted was a blowjob anyway. I’m lying on my back and she’s sitting up, leaning to one side and watching me get my pants open and pulled down. I tell to her to wait a second while I popped the dalek. It was a small pink pill, but it wasn’t grainy like ecstasy. It was really smooth and I could see through it, like a round pink ibuprofen. I popped it on my tongue and waited for it to melt.

I closed my eyes, waiting for her to start working me so I could find out what the body sensation was like. My limbs started feeling dumb, like when I take PCP. And the ground felt like it dissolved from under me, and I was floating in mid air. Then, like when you have a dream that you’re falling, I felt a sudden drop and the shock through my body when you have that sleeping sensation. Only I’m not waking up. The shock keeps running through my body and all I can think about is how fucking Meth-Mouth fucked me over again with another bad high. I couldn’t even feel the hooker. It was a total waste. I thought I might have been convulsing.

But I’ve had seizures before and I know you’re not cognizant enough to wonder if you’re having a seizure when you’re having a seizure. This was something else. For a moment, I thought I might actually have been falling, like the hooker threw my doped up body out my window so she could rob me. But there was nothing around me. No room, no light, nothing. Just black and falling.

“And… and I think he’s coming around,” I heard a voice say. “DK112 is coming to. Mark that on the charts at 3:08 a.m. He’s been out for a while.”

Shit was blurry. I couldn’t make out where I was. I knew I was lying down still. But I definitely wasn’t in the same room I started out in. And the hooker definitely wasn’t around either. My vision started to clear up and I saw two guys in white coats, each of them holding a clipboard and writing things down on them. Beside me were medical machinery. I recognized some of the same machines from having my tonsils out when I was a kid. None of that weirded me out; it must have been a pretty bad high. Maybe the hooker called an ambulance when she noticed something wrong. All of that would have made sense, except for one small detail. Well, pretty big detail. I was in completely different clothes. It wasn’t even as if I was in a hospital gown or even something else I recognized from my closet. I was in completely different clothes. I was in a fucking tuxedo. I’ve never worn a tuxedo in my life. Not even at my high school grad (mainly because I didn’t go). What the fuck was I doing in a tux lying in what I could only assume was a hospital bed?

“What day is it?” were the first words to finally escape out of my mouth. I don’t know why I asked that. I knew the time, it was around three in the morning (the one guy in the white coat just said that). But asking what day it was just seemed like the right thing to ask. Like it was the first step to figuring out why I was in a tux.

“Thursday,” the one guy in the white coat said and smiled. Perfect white teeth. This guy probably never even had a cigarette before in his life. He was clean shaven, his dusty brown hair hug just over his eyebrows, his glasses were a thin wire frame. The guy must be a doctor or something, I figured.

“Thursday?” I blurted out. “I bought that shit on Monday. Holy fuck, I lost three days!”

“Oh, you want to know in relativity to how long you’ve been, well…” he stuttered and shrugged. “Well, put it this way, it’s August now.”

I bought that shit in May. “Three months!?” I screeched. “I lost fucking three months?! How the fuck does that even happen?!”

The doctor guy put down his clipboard and walked over to me. “Ok, I know this seems scary, but I can explain and it will all make sense soon,” he said. I didn’t really believe him. I knew he wasn’t lying, but the way he told me he could explain I didn’t believe. He said it like everything was about to make perfect sense. Nothing about losing three months of your life will ever make any sense.

“So, you’re familiar with the drug’s name, right?” he asked.

This was the first point when I realized that the dalek I took and this guy were somehow deeply connected. I realized I wasn’t in a hospital, but a lab. I realized I wasn’t a patient; I was an experiment. “Wait, you made that shit!?” I spat. “What the fuck was that shit? What did it do to me?”

“I know you have a lot of questions,” he continued. “But, again, I have to ask. Do you know the name of the drug you took?”

“Dalek,” I answered.

“Right,” the doctor smiled. “Do you know what a Dalek is?”

“No,” I shook my head

“Well, Daleks, the drug’s namesake, aren’t real,” he explained. “Have you ever watched Doctor Who?”

“What the fuck is that?” I asked.

“Longest running science fiction show in history,” he said. “Been on the BBC in some form or another since the 1960s. Anyways, I wasn’t expecting you to know this reference, so far none of the subjects have. In short, Daleks are one of the main bad guys in the show. The show’s namesake is a time traveller, he comes from a race of time travellers, and one of the only other races in the show that are known to time travel are the Daleks. Please, bear in mind, this is a very gross over-simplification of a very sophisticated show.”

“Uh huh,” I grunted. “So, why the fuck is the shit I took called dalek then?”

“I’m getting to that,” he said. “So, well, we developed a drug that works within the brain’s pineal gland to actually stimulate a whole other gland that we didn’t even know existed. We don’t even have a name of it yet. With any luck, we’ll call it the dalek gland. Anyways, when stimulated, different people do vastly different things. The typical reaction to this gland being stimulated is seeing things that aren’t particularly there. It’s why when we released it to public commercialization, we marketed it as a hallucinogenic –”

“Released it for commercialization?” I sat up. “You gave it to some drug pushes. You’re using junkies as guinea pigs. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“I know this can seem very bad,” he stammered. “But believe me, we’re on the path to something really fantastic. The next stage in human evolution. I know this all seems quite trite, but believe me, you got to be a part of something very important. Especially because your reaction to dalek was categorized in the anomaly group.”

“How am I a fucking anomaly?” I grunted.

“Of our one hundred-fifty international subjects, so far only one per cent have exhibited your same reaction,” he said. “Transcendence of time and space.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” I scowled.

“It means, you travelled in time and through dimensions,” he said, smiling. “Like a fucking dalek.”

It sounded like some shitty sci-fi b-movie, but there was something in this guy’s voice that told me he wasn’t messing around. I just lost three months of my life and I needed to know where the fuck they went and what happened to me in those months. Things around me made less and less sense and I didn’t know whether to believe this guy or whether to chock this up to a bad trip I would wake up from soon. But I wasn’t about to wake up from anything. I was stone cold sober at that point. All I could do while lying on that bed was keep asking questions to try and make sense why all of this was happening and how I fit into it.

“So, uh…” I had no idea how to ask this. I just went for it. “So, where did I go?”

“What do you mean?” the doctor asked me.

“Well, if I travelled through time and in like other dimensions over the past three months, I obviously went somewhere,” I said. “Where did I go?”

“Oh…” the doctor stammered. “Oh, I see, well…”

“You kind of just wound up here,” the other guy in the lab said. He was a lot bigger than the doctor that first spoke to me. He was tall, big all around, had a bushy beard, thick glasses, and a hooked nose. I got the impression that this guy wouldn’t be as polite or excited as the first guy to talk to me. He seemed more annoyed that I was in his lab. “Typically, our one per cent of experiment subjects remember where they wind up when they travel in time and space. The fact you just woke up screaming about losing three months tells me you just jumped from whenever you dropped dalek right to here. Which is odd.”

So all I did was jump three months into the future. I think. They didn’t exactly specify any actual year or anything. Now that I think about it, I probably should have asked that. I probably should have asked a lot of things while lying there. Your brain does odd things when it tries to process things like… well, however the fuck you would categorize this. Shit you never knew was real, I guess? I guess this is what they mean when people talk about having your mind blown. But I never imagined there would be this much panic to go along with that feeling as well.

“So,” I tried to get my next question in order. I had a lot on my mind. I decided to try and keep my questions simple, knowing there won’t be a single simple answer. “Where am I?”

“Our lab, of course,” the first doctor said to me.

“Obviously,” the second guy said.

“OK,” I nodded. “But where is your lab? What city am I in? What country? And who are you guys?”

“Ah,” the skinnier guy hopped up. “All very good questions. All great pieces of information that my associate and I tend to forget to tell people who wind up here, even though they’re probably the most basic building blocks to understanding everything going on around you. I’m Doctor Douglas, and my associate here is Doctor Ericson.”

“I figured you both for doctors,” I said.

“Why?” Doctor Douglas asked.

“The lab coats, I guess,” I shrugged.

“What an odd thing to assume,” Doctor Douglas said. “I’ve had this same lab coat since I was an undergraduate, years from my doctorate.”

“Mine’s pretty new,” Doctor Ericson shrugged. “And I do feel more doctory in it.”

Doctor Douglas gave a long sigh. “Anyways, to pull us back from our tangents, you are in our lab. Our lab is located in Hammerfest, Norway.”

“Where the fuck’s Norway?” I asked.

“Seriously?” Doctor Douglas’ eyebrow shot up. “Northern Europe. The Scandinavian region. Next to Sweden and Finland.”

I had no idea where the fuck this was. I could put together what generally this country was probably like, log cabins and giant beer steins and bar wenches with giant tits. Neither of these guys seemed to be the types to wear those goofy yodeller outfits. “None of you guys have accents,” I said. “Why here?”

“Killer research grants for one,” Doctor Ericson chimed in. “And Hammerfest sounds totally metal.”

“But mainly the research grants,” Doctor Douglas interrupted. “Plus it only has a population of around seven-thousand, which means our cabin laboratory on the mountain remains quite undisturbed.”

“OK,” this, sadly, was about as normal as our conversation would get. “You said, only one per cent of people who take dalek actually travel through time. What happens to the other ninety-nine percent?”

“Mainly they just see stuff,” Doctor Ericson said.

“Not just stuff,” Doctor Douglas piped up. “They see things not of this dimension. You see, the pineal gland that dalek stimulates actually helps the brain to perceive a sort of doorway to other dimensions. Or, more simply, they see into that other dimension. I haven’t heard of anyone seeing beings or creatures or anything like that. Most just talk about all the colours they see and how they can’t really describe them. Which is why most people chock up dalek to being just a strong halluncinogenic. But, those rare and wonderful people like you, can actually walk through it. And once you enter in, time actually flows differently for you. It’s quite marvelous in fact. It’s like being next to a black hole. All of relativity becomes completely warped. It’s just fantastic!”

“But most people who fall into this category actually remember walking through it,” continued Doctor Ericson. “Either it was so traumatic for you that you don’t remember a thing or, and this is the more likely answer and remains my quasi hypothesis about you, you actually walked straight through from wherever you took dalek to our lab. Which, like I said, is odd.”

“Does everyone who takes dalek wind up here?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” Doctor Douglas answered. “For the ninety-nine per cent, we just monitor the online chatter. You’d be shocked at the number of social media groups already forming to talk about what it was like to take dalek. With no consideration for putting all over the internet that they’ve been taking illicit and, from what they can tell, hallucinogenic drugs. Humans are fascinating, aren’t they?

“But, the one per cent-ers,” Douglas continued. “Well, we didn’t discover dalek first. The first thing we discovered, which spurred all of this research, was that.”

Douglas pointed to a door. It looked like a completely normal wooden door. But as I looked at it I realized that the door was in the middle of the door. I could see either side of the door. By my own eyes I could see that the door kind of went to nowhere. But just looking at the thing made me uneasy. Like I was staring at a face that had all been rearranged. It just wasn’t right. My brain kept trying to put it together and make sense of it. But it just wasn’t right.

“What’s through there?” I asked.

“We have no idea,” Douglas said. “Not exactly. I’m part of the ninety-nine per cent group. But Doctor Ericson here is part of that majestic one per cent. He’s walked through that doorway. If I tried to walk through that doorway, even if I was on dalek, I would just walk through. When Doctor Ericson, and evidently when you walk through, you wind up somewhere else.”

“What did you see when you went in?” I asked Doctor Ericson.

“Just colours, actually,” he said. “Blinking colours. But not normal colours. And not just random blinking either. Every colour blinked in a succession of prime numbers. One, two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen, and so on. Those are all very specific numbers. It wasn’t happening by accident.”

“We think the colours blinking are a form of communication,” Doctor Douglas continued. “It’s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky guess on our parts, but right now it’s our best guess. Whatever exists on the other side of that doorway may not be a physical form like we understand it. We have five sense to perceive our surroundings and communicate with each other. This other dimension may not actually exist in a physical space the way you and I understand physical space. Doctor Ericson even talked about how he wasn’t even sure his body was wherever the doorway took him to. And when the dalek wore off, he was back in the lab.”

“So why out dalek out on the streets then if you just want to figure out what’s in that doorway?” I asked.

“So we can get more people to walk through it,” Doctor Douglas answered, shaking his head like I just asked a dumb question. “Why do you think we’re telling you all this? Seems like a pretty big dump of information if all we wanted to do was get you kind of high, don’t you think? Obviously we want you to go through there and let us know if your experience in any different from the others.”

The others. The idea of there being others was suddenly all I could think about. I looked all around the room, got up from the table and started wandering around, looking everywhere I could. It was only three of us in the lab. The entire lab was only a one room cabin, rounded in shape with the freestanding door in the middle of the room. I could see through every window to outside, where all I could see was snow.

“You said there were others,” I said. “Where are they?”

The two doctors looked at one another. Neither spoke. Neither blinked. It was as if they were playing a mental game of paper-rock-scissors to see who would continue the conversation.

“They walked through the doorway,” Doctor Douglas said. “And they didn’t come back.”

My mind raced to try and keep up with the information being thrown at me. I thought about how if dalek makes you travel through time and space, then how do you walk through a doorway after you take it? I thought back to my experience taking dalek, that feeling of weightlessness that started to take over and was the last thing I remembered before ending up in that lab. Were those few moments of the drug taking effect enough time to walk through that doorway and enter another dimension? Or were these two simply playing with something they had no clue about and were just throwing as many guinea pigs into the hole that they could find just to see what would happen?

This is when I decided I would perform my own experiment. I wasn’t about to be some lab rat for a couple of mad scientists. But I had to make sure they thought I was going along with everything.

Doctor Douglas dropped another dalek into my palm, but this one was blue. I asked if there was any difference between this blue one and the pink one I dropped before. Doctor Ericson laughed as he stood by the doorway, saying something about how I took some of the old stock and that this new batch was a lot more potent.

“Really gets that pineal gland moving,” he said, as he typed a few things on his laptop. He was standing by one of those ergonomic stand-up desks, peering up occasionally to look at the door they were expecting me to walk through.

I took stock of the room as I prepared to drop some of this new batch of dalek. My eyes peered between all the pieces of lab equipment, the computers and monitors all showing graphs and stats and wavy lines. Finally, I spot it. It was right behind me on the far side of the lab. Another door. The only other door I’ve seen. The way out.

I popped the dalek into my mouth, and then I turned and ran for the door out of the cabin, away from the door into the other dimension containing who knows what kind of nightmares for me. I could hear both doctors shouting at me, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I was just running for that door.

Then the door swung open. Someone was coming in. All I saw on the other side though was a mirror. I caught a quick glimpse of my reflection as I started to feel that weightless feeling again. The dalek was kicking in. And it was in those couple of moments I realized that my reflection looked shabbier, beaten down like he had been lost in the woods for weeks. I thought this may have been what I looked like now, seeing as I was missing at least three months of my life. But my reflection wasn’t running either. He stood there, and stared at me. He was watching me run. And it felt like I was a single step away from his face when my surroundings all around me completely changed.

It was quicker than a blink. Like a camera cutting from one scene in a movie to another. My brain adjusted to the surroundings and immediately, simply processing that now I was standing by a creek on a sunny and warm afternoon. Part of my brain knows I was just in a cabin in the middle of Norway with nothing but snow outside. But now, I was watching the water flow past through a few smooth rocks and listening to birds chirping and the wind rustling through leaves as if I had always been standing right in this spot.

Running alongside the creek was a trail. Dust floated in the air as if someone had just walked across it. I wasn’t sure if these were my own forgotten footsteps, for all I knew I had wandering around these woods for hours and only just now started really perceiving and understanding my surroundings. Or, was this dust kicked up by someone else who just walked past or away from me? I looked in either direction down the trail and decided to follow the trail to the right, where the dust was still dancing highest.

The sound of my own footsteps drowned out any footsteps I may have heard ahead of me. I kept looking all over, peering between the trees and staring across the creek, trying to find any semblance of another person who may be nearby. As I continued walking, I noticed the trees were changing. Changing colour? I think so. Were they getting darker? Maybe. It’s hard to piece together what I was seeing. I know the trees weren’t the typical spring green I remembered from walking through woods when I was a kid. I stared at the trees, tried to give a name to the colour I was looking at. I thought back to the wooded area behind the house where I grew up, where I would walk on my own for hours on end, thinking constantly because there was no one else to talk to. I could grasp what colour those trees from my childhood were. That bright popping green. Fresh and alive looking. These trees? The ones in this new woods I found myself in, following a trail next to a creek. I wish I could say what colour they were.

“Hurry up!” a voice echoed out. I couldn’t tell from what direction. I looked back out across the creek and noticed the water was moving differently. It was flowing in the opposite direction now. Before, the water flowed in the same direction as the path I was walking down. But now it rushed the other way. It looked like it was rushing harder and faster too. Like the water was panicking and running back where it came from before it was too late.

“Come on! Keep going!” the voice echoed out again. It still had no direction. It was like it was being dropped directly over top of me and surrounding me all over. I didn’t know which way to look to follow the sound and I just kept looking all over as the trees and the grass continually changed colours around me. All colours I had never seen before.

“Curtis, let’s go!” I heard her voice. It was coming from directly in front of me. Suddenly, the forest was gone and I was in her apartment. She was staring at me. No, glaring at me. That look she gave, when I was thinking about something and she just wanted me to say something or go somewhere or do something, that look that told me how little patience she really had for me, that was the look. It was definitely a glare.

She was wearing a dress. A black slip. I remembered the last time she wore it. I remembered how her freckles looked along her shoulders, sticking out between the black straps. I remembered the cut she had on her shoulder from the glass vase that fell off the top of her fridge and broke on her. She was trying to get it from the shelves above the fridge and it slipped out of her hands. She was too short to reach it. I was tall enough, but didn’t bother offering to help. She was lucky that the cut on her shoulder was all that she got. It could have been so much worse.

As I stared at her glaring back at me, looking at her dress and thinking about that last time, I saw the cut on her shoulder. The same cut. Still fresh. Not bandaged, it had healed up enough to leave open. But still as red as her hair. I wasn’t remembering the last time she wore this dress, this was the last time she wore that dress. I was reliving it.

“What were you thinking about?” she said. “Whenever you get lost like that you’re always thinking about something. What was it?”

“I… uh…” I tried to remember what I would have answered then. And whether it was the right thing to say. And if I could fix it. And how if maybe I said the right thing now I maybe could have saved whatever we had. Maybe then she wouldn’t have left me with only a voicemail. Maybe this time, she’d have the decency to leave me after a face to face conversation.

“Are you high again?” she said. I realized that I was thinking about this for way too long. “I thought you were done that shit!”

I don’t remember if I was high during this situation. This second time around, I knew I was high. I was still reeling from the effects of the dalek. Part of me wanted to tell her I wasn’t high, I was just thinking, that’s all. But I would have been lying. In either case, or point in time, or time this happened, or however the fuck you rationalize living out the same moment again only on a different drug this time. And maybe lying was the worst thing I could have done at this moment.

“Yeah, I am,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”

“No you’re not,” she said. Her tone dropped. Monotone and defeated. “Whatever, let’s just get going. Try to act fucking normal. This is important to me.”

I don’t remember where we were going. This was important to her. But apparently it wasn’t that important to me. At that moment, I never felt more like a shitty person.

We walked to the door and it wasn’t the same door I remembered in her apartment before. Her door was white with a peephole too high for her to see through. It had a chrome handle that she hung a vintage cafe sign from. I loved that sign. We found it together at a small town antique shop. I don’t remember what town or if we bought anything else from the shop. But I always remembered that sign. And it wasn’t there.

The door was plain and wooden. At least, my brain registered it as wooden. It wasn’t the colour of wood I had ever seen before, at least not since I took dalek. And as we walked closer, I recognized this door. It was the door from the lab. The one that Dr. Ericson walked through to that other dimension. The one where so many other people on dalek walked through and didn’t come back from. I wasn’t about to go through at door.

“Why are you stopping?” she asked. “Seriously, are you having a bad trip? Today, of all days?”

I stood petrified, not moving and not speaking and I don’t even think I was breathing. All I knew was I wasn’t about to walk through that door.

“Seriously, what’s wrong?” she said. But she wasn’t her anymore. And as I looked to her to try and answer, I saw that she wasn’t her. But brain tried to hold on to the idea that it was her. But it wasn’t. It was my mom now. And we were sitting at my family’s kitchen table. Like we always used to. For family dinner. I locked eyes with my mother, her eyes were so light blue they almost looked silver. She shook her head as she spun the spaghetti around her fork. “You’ve been staring off into nothing since you sat down. What’s going on inside that head of yours?”

She’s smoking still. She hadn’t lost all of her hair yet to the chemo. She even had her wedding band on still. This must have been a really long time ago. Judging by the giant black box of a TV I could see while I peered into the living room, I’m guessing this was back when I was still in high school. Or maybe earlier. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to where in time the dalek was taking me.

My best guess was that it had something to do with whatever thought came across my mind at any given time. When I was back to that time I was stoned and about to go out to that very important thing that I still can’t remember, I was thinking about my mom and how her nagging kind of reminded me of her. And then there was the voice that voice calling out to me in that forest. The voice sounded like her voice. But I was having trouble placing where that forest was. Where in my timeline was that forest? When would I have been wandering around the woods like that? I’m not exactly a nature loving type. I tried to think about what I was thinking about while I tried to run out of that research cabin. I remembered seeing myself. And how odd it felt to look at yourself. Not a reflection, but another version of you, stepping in front of you and staring into your eyes. It feels incredibly weird.

“Curtis, I swear to god!” my mom belted out. “Are you stoned? You’re staring out into nothing like you’ve never seen your own damn kitchen before! What’s gotten into you?”

I was getting really sick of people asking, or rather accusing, me of being stoned. I mean, I was stoned, I had no idea how long the dalek was going to run through my system for, so I guess it was fair to ask or accuse me of being stoned. But it didn’t feel great. People always judge that kind of shit. They need to shut the fuck up. It’s no worse than eating shitty food or not exercising.

“No, I’m fine,” I finally answered. “Sorry, just a long day I guess.”

“Hm,” she grunted as her attention moved away from me and back down to her plate of spaghetti. As she rolled some noodles around her fork, I continued trying to place that forest. It started to feel like somewhere important. Like I should have known it. Like when you watch a cartoon that you saw when you were a kid. Part of you remembers seeing it, and you start to remember the house you grew up in and the couch that was in the living room and even what the spoons were like when you ate cereal on Saturday mornings. Everything around it comes back, but the specific thing that brought on all these memories and emotions kind of eludes you. The cartoon itself isn’t very important, you’ll probably forget about it again by next week. But everything around it feels so right.

“Hey mom,” I decided to break the silence. If anyone would remember something happening in a forest, it would be her. “Did we ever visit a forest while I was growing up? Like for a picnic or something?”

She continued spinning her spaghetti. Like she didn’t hear me. Like I wasn’t even in the room anymore. Just kept spinning and spinning.

“Mom,” I barked over to her. “Hey, Earth to mom. Over here.”

Part of me thought she was trying to teach me a lesson about zoning out by zoning out herself. But then I looked at her fork. The wad of spaghetti wasn’t getting any thicker. By now it should have been huge. It started to remind me of a CD skipping. My mom’s head nodded as the noodles wound around her fork, in a perfect hypnotizing rhythm. But it was just the same motion over and over again. Like an endless loop of a single insignificant moment.

I looked down at my own plate and noticed that most of my noodles were being eaten by maggots. They crawled all over my plate, squirming in the sauce and I could have almost sworn I heard them making noises. Not just the noises of their movements. But almost like cries or screams. The sound filled my ears and made me nauseous and I was ready to puke right there. I covered my ears and closed my eyes tight, almost feeling like I was screaming too.

Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and there was Meth-Mouth. Looking more like a rotted corpse than ever before. Standing in the same alleyway he always stood in. By the same windows he always stood by. He looked at me, but it almost seemed like only one eye was moving or looking at me. The other floated, staring off into nothingness.

“You okay pretty boy?” he asked, chuckling at his occasional nickname for me. “Coming down from a good time?”

“That shit you sold me,” I said. “That new stuff. It’s really fucking me up.”

“Which?” he crooked his head. “The fenatyl? I haven’t even sold it to you yet.”

“No, no,” I shook my head. “That other stuff. That dalek stuff. It’s got me all whacked out. I think I’m time travelling.”

He chuckled a little bit more. “Maybe I shouldn’t sell you the fenatyl,” he said. “Looks like you’re right fucked up already. I don’t think you need it.”

“Seriously,” I snapped back. I waited a moment, for me to calm down and to make sure no red dots were about to appear anywhere on me. It seemed ok, Meth-Mouth looked more worried about me than he did scared or angry at me. Odd, a dope slinger with a conscience. “The last time I saw you. You sold me something called dalek. It was something new. A psychedelic or stimulant or something. You said it was new and that I would like it.”

“Did I?” Meth-Mouth scratched his head. “Never heard of anything called dalek. You sure it was me? You sure you’re not buying from anyone else? If so, I’d be real sad about that. Loyalty means a lot to me, y’know.”

Loyalty meant a lot to Meth-Mouth. I may not still be able to remember his name, but if I know anything about this pusher, it’s that loyalty is important. He doesn’t like competition, mainly because he’s convinced everyone he sells to are his friends. And if his friends are buying from other people, in his eyes he sees it as the buyer not taking the friendship seriously. Which Meth-Mouth takes personally.

I nervously shook my head and repeated over and over, “No, man, I’m not buying from anyone else, I promise. I swear man.” Meth-Mouth wasn’t hearing it though. He raised two fingers, like he was giving the building behind him the peace sign. Then two red dots appeared on my chest. Just before I took the two slugs to the chest, I wondered if my changing how this simple drug deal went would change how all the rest of these things turned out. I know things seem like they started when I tried the dalek, but really they started when I bought the fentanyl. That’s when I lost control. That’s when she left me. That’s when I went back to tell off Meth-Mouth about the fentanyl, ultimately leading me to trying dalek. Maybe these two slugs to the chest would be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Despite how traumatizing it probably is to be shot, I don’t remember what the bullets felt like. I remember feeling like I got pushed back, hard. Like a hard shove right in the centre of my body. I kind of always imagined bullets burning as they tear through your skin. I don’t remember feeling that. I remember feeling pushed, falling back, and landing on the concrete. I only had a second to process lying on the concrete before I blinked and found myself lying in some overgrown grass.

Sitting up felt good, like I just had a long nap in the sun. The fresh air that hung around me was cool and the smell of dew wafted through my nostrils. I was back in that same forest. The same one I was in when I first ran through that door out of the lab.

The creek was directly in front of me. It was rushing in one direction. No more changing and flowing every which way. Just smooth elegant, flowing like how nature intended it. I stood and walked to the creek to get a closer look. What I saw told me exactly what I needed to know about where I was. Where in time, at least. That the reason I don’t remember ever being here before is because I never was. This is the first time I stepped through to the future. What would will be, or had will be, and would should be, or something like that. But some iteration of my future, whether I had taken the dalek or not.

How did I know this was the future? Because she was there. She was in the creek. Bobbing, somewhere just below the surface of the water. Her eyes were open, but they weren’t looking at anything. They were frozen open, constantly staring in one direction. This was her body, but she wasn’t there anymore.

I don’t know if I just didn’t see her in the creek the last time I went through the forest or if me taking those two slugs in the chest somehow changed this future moment, leading to what I can only assume is me killing her and dumping her into the creek. Either way, despite what I might think of her since she decided I wasn’t worth the effort anymore, she didn’t deserve this. And I needed to change this.

Without even me blinking, I felt the icy wind blow past me and I was in the middle of a snowy field, with nothing but white all around me for as far as I could see. In the distance I could see the side of the mountain and a small brown spot. I walked toward that small brown spot. I knew what it was and that’s where I wanted to be.

The wind blew harder and it cut through me and I felt sharp pains all through my body. I couldn’t stand this cold anymore and so I ran as fast and my freezing legs would take me through the snow. My body wanted to collapse but I pushed it as hard as I could. My back seized and my arms stiffened, but I kept pushing. I knew there was a better future for her and I wanted to give it to her.

The brown spot grew larger and larger and finally I could tell it was the same cabin I was in before. I finally made it to the door and threw it open and caught a glimpse of my own face. It was the me that first took the new strain of dalek. And as quickly as he was there, he was gone again. But it wasn’t just him that was gone.

Stepping into the cabin wasn’t what I was expecting. I expected the machines and equipment and the two doctors still working and possibly curious and excited about my arrival. But they weren’t there. No one was there. Nothing was in that cabin. Nothing except for the door. It was still standing in the middle of the room. I walked around it, looking at it from both sides. Everything about it told me it was a simple door. But there was a reason why it was the only thing that was left in this room. And it scared me.

I had a second thought about going through the door. I looked around the room to find anything I could bring in with me. Just in case. Just to have some piece of the reality I know in my hands while I walked, or floated, or existed, or whatever it was I was about to when I went through that door. As I looked around, I noticed that the door I walked through to get back into the cabin, the from door that led outside to the frozen mountains, was gone. As I thought about my hesitation, I realized my choices that this point were either go through the door or spend an eternity sitting in this room, alone, until I died. Or if I ever died. For all I know, those rules around existence and reality had totally changed.

But then I thought about her. I thought about her face under the water in the creek. Her eyes staring off into nothing. And how wrong it felt to see that. And how she deserved better. And how maybe my no longer existing in this plane of reality would help her to live a normal and fulfilling life. Something she almost completely lost being with me and something I know I can never have anymore. Not after taking dalek. Not after all that I had been through since taking it.

I stepped up to the door, grabbed the handle, and twisted it. The door swung away from me to open. It looked only black inside. I wanted to stop and look in before I took my first step, but it was as if my legs were reacting to a reflex I never knew I had. I immediately stepped forward into the darkness. And I could have sworn, for a moment, I could see stars.

“You know, there’s only one way to really appreciate this marvel of modern science,” I heard a voice say before I knew where I was. And I immediately knew. It was even the exact same smile as he was giving me before. Seeing his crooked yellow teeth. Having that moment of realization as to how bad his teeth were. Everything about this moment was the exact same. Even as I didn’t answer him and just stared at him, not knowing what to do next, like a perfectly timed script, he continued. “It’s your bag man, I swear.”

The same alleyway, the same drug deal, the same crooked yellow and rotting smile. I wondered for how long I was going to be repeating these points in time. I wondered when the dalek was going to finally wear off.

 

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Maps of the Stars

I’m always a little sad

That I can never see the stars at night

There’s always cloud cover and street lights

And even on the clearest nights

The sky never seems to have those bright lights

I keep maps of the stars in my pocket

I hold them up to try and see what I’m missing

Find the planets and the constellations

The satellites constantly circling

Match the names to the ones I hear

From people with telescopes and star atlases

Cutting through the cloud cover

And disregarding the street lights

Pinpointing the source of those bright lights

Those lights that take years to reach our eyes

Questioning whether what we can see

Is actually still in the night sky

Or just an image from thousands and millions of years before

Of something that isn’t there anymore

I want to see these things

See them with my naked eye

Before we ever know

If the lights in our sky

Are actually still illuminating the night

Or if it’s just a trick of the light

Fooling us into thinking

That our night skies

Aren’t actually completely empty

And we’re all that’s left

Circling alone in the darkness

Circled by satellites

Staring into a sky that’s empty

Anders went too far

A single fist punched through Brant’s door and quickly pulled out to reveal a deplorably ugly face peeking through. Its lower jaw jutted out and its bottom teeth sat atop its top lip. Its small eyes were shadowed by its heavy brow, though Brant could tell it was looking directly at him and it wasn’t happy to see him.

Behind Brant, Calder was running through the house in a panic, screaming about never seeing anything like that before. Brant tried his best not to be terrified and not to let his fear and panic overtake him, but when its second fist came through another part of the door followed by its foot kicking down the door off of its hinges, he knew that if there was ever a time to panic over anything, this would be more than a suitable time.

“Why are you kicking down my door?!” Brant shrieked. “What are you doing?!”

He wasn’t sure why this thing was breaking down the door into his house. His house wasn’t anything particularly grand to marvel at. It was a typical house for Delswynn, a town that Brant had spent his entire life in. He grew up here, worked his first job on one of the farms fields, watched as more and more of the small cottages began popping up all over town accompanied by men selling goods all along Delswynn, and mostly in front of the taverns. Brant wondered if he had ever encountered this behemoth beast at one of the taverns, maybe said a sentence or two wrong to upset the intruder. This often happened to Brant, but he normally paid for it with a swift hit to the face or (in the most extreme circumstance) an arrow to the shoulder.

As he looked closer at the beast, he realized he never encountered it before. He would remember something this ugly. And large. Quite large, really. The beast almost had to duck down to walk into Brant’s house. This made Brant think of his roommate and how he often would have to duck down a bit to walk through the basement. Then he realized he didn’t hear Calder’s manic desperate shrieks anymore. This worried Brant a bit, but not enough to try and run from the slightly green-hued skinned monster now standing only a few feet away.

“Why did you do that to my door?” Brant continued wailing.

“Where are they?!” the beast growled back.

“Where’s what?” Brant tried to reason. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

From behind the beast came a cloaked figure, which Brant at first mistook for a man. The figure removed the cloak and Brant saw its pointed ears and its sharp-edged eyebrows. Delswynn didn’t see much of any race that wasn’t a human. The odd few ugly men (and some women) were often mistaken for trolls. But Brant was looking at two, bona-fide non-human creatures. Both were in his house and both had a look about then that told Brant he may not live through to see the end of this day.

“A couple of items you stole,” said the one with the pointed ears. “Our employer wants it back. Where are they?”

“I haven’t stolen anything,” Brant continued to wail. Brant would hope that his tears would either be hidden from his assailants or that his tears would look more like the brave tears of a fierce warrior about to face his death. Sadly, he brushed his cheek with the side of his hand and felt how soaked it was. He knew he was bawling. He tried convincing himself he didn’t feel the dribble out of his nose either. But it was clearly there.

“I found them!” the beast yelled and pointed toward Brant’s table. It stomped forward and picked up a cloth that Brant had bought from the market earlier that day. The beast then picked up Brant and carried him outside in his hand that wasn’t holding the cloth. He was carried outside and dropped a few feet outside of his house. He looked up to see a man (a human man, Brant told himself to try and comfort his racing thoughts too no success) wearing a black robe with gold markings all over that Brant didn’t recognize.

“I found them!” the beast grunted. “He had them.”

“Very good,” the man said. “But where’s the other?”

The beast tilted his head like a dog unsure of a command form his master. He looked at the cloth in his hand and then looked back at the man again.

“Anders, there’s only one there,” the man continued. “There’s a second. A lavender coloured one. I need that one too.”

Anders looked at his hand again at the turquoise cloth and back to his apparent employer. “There’s two here,” he said.

“Yes, but it’s actually only one,” the man enunciated slowly. “It looks like it’s been ripped. Did you rip it, Anders?”

Anders shook his head.

“Then go back inside, bring this little one with you, and find the lavender coloured one as well,” the man said, leaving Brant feeling a little insulted being referred to as, “this little one.” If there wasn’t a giant beast he, Brant may have scolded this man quite thoroughly. Brant thought about it further and decided that he probably wouldn’t have actually scolded the man. He wouldn’t know how.

Brant felt himself lifted off of the ground again and carried back into the house. He was dropped on the ground and saw Calder underneath the table, hugging one of the legs, and crying much worse than Brant had been crying (or so Brant hoped).

“There’s a second cloth you stole,” the one with the pointed ears pressed on. “Where is it?”

“We didn’t steal it,” Calder bawled. “We bought it at the market today, we swear!”

Anders growled low. “You’ll take us to where you’re keeping it!” he yelled. “And you’ll bring shovels with you so you can dig your own graves and if you’re lucky I’ll let you kill yourselves before I leave you there to rot!”

“Whoa! Anders!” the pointed ears one interrupted. “Too far!”

At this point, Calder was crying so hard and loud that it was hard to tell what he was saying, but it sounded something like, “In the forest… In a cave… Don’t kill us… We didn’t steal… I’m so sorry… Where’s my dad…” over and over and over again.

The two intruders began talking between themselves and didn’t notice Calder slip off. When they looked back, Calder was back by the table with something in his hand. The two were startled and both reached for their sheathed weapons but stopped when they saw what Calder was holding.

“We don’t have any shovels,” Calder mustered out between sobs, his right hand shaking as he held out the small garden trowel. “We have one of these though! Please don’t kill us!”

Still sobbing, Calder and Brant escorted the two to the small cave where they hid the lavender cloth. It was maybe two or three miles outside of the town and easily found along a small trail that had been walked along many times before.

The cave itself was actually kind of large. The opening stood about ten feet high and fifteen feet wide, but was also quite shallow. So it didn’t take long for Brant to notice the two lurking figures inside of the cave.

They were fairly large creatures. They had to duck down to walk in and out of the cave. They were even uglier than Anders was. They both carried clubs that fit nicely in their hands but were about the same size as Calder and Brant were. The creatures noticed Brant, Calder, and their two assailants fairly quickly as well. One of the beasts stepped out of the cave and nodded towards Anders.

“Thems those kids,” the monster grunted. “They hide it in here. We want it. Give us kids and you live.”

Calder wailed hard enough to grab Brant’s attention. Brant looked over and saw a small puddle building up around Calder’s feet from the steady trickle that ran down his leg. Anders’ gaze didn’t shift from the enormous brute that was approaching him, but the one with the pointed ears (whose name was Neville, Brant later discovered) stared at the growing puddle and crooked an eyebrow before taking a large step back from Calder.

“What makes you think we’re going to let you live?” Anders shot back.

The hulking beast chuckled. “You so little,” it said. “You no match for us. All five of you going to die unless you give us those kids.”

Anders looked behind himself and back to his challenger. “There are only four of us,” Anders said.

The behemoth’s brow furled, this simple math obviously had him very confused. “It no matter,” it continued. “You too small to fight us.”

“Your mom didn’t think I was too small,” Anders said as he unsheathed his sword and readied for a fight.

This was the point when Calder passed out. Brant thought it may have been from dehydration. Calder lost a lot of bodily fluid through the leg of his pants the past few minutes.

Brant peered back up to see what Anders’ next move was. But all Brant saw was a rock being hurled at him. It was a relatively small rock, or at least Brant had assumed. A larger rock would have killed him. This rock only knocked him unconscious long enough that when he awoke, he was being carried by Anders in one hand (Calder was slumped over Anders’ other shoulder) and Brant quickly realized there were no other beasts in sight.

“Ah, he awakes,” Anders said. Brant looked up and saw Anders smile a bit. “Those two were big but threw rocks like tiny humans. I could have killed you with a rock half that size.”

“Where are we?” Brant muttered.

“A fair distance from your home,” Neville replied. “Despite poor throwing skills, they still got away with the lavender cloth. We can’t return to the town, our former employer will have our heads for losing that cloth. You and your friend can’t return, our employer will be waiting for you as well and will probably kill you solely out of sport or frustration or small laughs. We figured our safest plan would be to get you and ourselves as far from there as possible.”

“Why did he want those cloths?” Brant asked. “I was going to use them to dry dishes. The turquoise one, at least, the lavender one shimmered weird, so we hid it in cave just in case it was about to do something crazy.”

“Good instinct,” Neville said. “All we know about them is that they both have some kind of magic engrained into their threads. We don’t know what. It wasn’t our job to ask. Our employer knows, that’s for sure. He’s typically not one to want something without knowing quite a lot about it.”

“Wait, why are you doing this?” Brant blurted out. “Why not just leave me and Calder to be murdered by your boss? Why carry the extra weight?”

Anders shrugged. “I felt bad. Especially the digging your own grave part. I went too far.”

“So, then, what’s the plan from here?” Brant asked. “Where are we heading and what are we going to do?”

“Not sure,” Neville said. “I think there’s another town with a decent tavern about a day’s walk in this direction. From there, Anders and I are looking for work. You and your friend? You’re on your own from there.”

Brant nodded slowly and thought about all he had been through in the last few minutes (or hours, he still wasn’t sure how long he had been knocked out for). He knew this was the best course of action. His home was gone now because some greedy eccentric decided he wanted a couple of cloths that Brant and Calder bought at the local market for barely the cost of a pint. He also knew he and Calder would be useless trying to continue following these two adventurers. They lived in a completely different world than where Brant and Calder live in. All he and his friend could do now was make a new home in a new town and try to build their lives again.

“You’re handling all this well,” Anders commented.

“I don’t have much of a choice,” Brant said. “How are you going to explain this to Calder? I mean, he pissed himself. He apparently doesn’t handle stress well.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Anders said. “On the bright side, I doubt he could smell any worse than he does now. Believe me, he didn’t just piss himself.”

Atticus ate my Headphones

I had a hard lesson re-taught to me not too long ago: if it’s on the floor, the puppy will chew it. This reminder came as I got ready for bed one night, excited to relax, listen to a podcast or some music, and slowly drift off to sleep. I reached under my bed for my headphones. My wonderful, beautiful sounding, comfortably fitting, $100 Sennheiser headphones (don’t get me wrong, I know $100 isn’t actually that expensive for headphones considering I’ve seen some go for a few thousand dollars, but that’s a lot of money for me). Well, I found one ear plug, then a bit of chord, then one of the rubber bits that slide onto the ear plug for comfort, then looked under my bed and saw my chihuahua puppy Atticus with a little piece of black chord hanging from his mouth.

Puppies chew everything, and I should have known this by now. I grew up with dogs all my life and they have chewed plenty: from baseboards to homework (yes, I had a dog once actually eat my homework, but I didn’t bother bringing that excuse to my teacher and instead just took the detention, figuring one lost lunch hour was easier to deal with than literally trying to argue that my dog ate my homework) to even my Dark Vader action figure, puppies chew everything.

Why did I just go on for almost 200 words about this? Well, I tend to be hard on people for what I perceive to be not thinking. I pride myself in having a lot of foresight and taking the time to see any and all possible confrontations, complications, confusion, and consequences. This sometimes makes a decision as banal as picking out soup at the grocery store an extended chore, but I can firmly say I have never regretted a single can of soup. But, despite my own hubris into my own foresight and my disdain for those who don’t demonstrate this same skill, even I forget something as simple as puppies will chew anything and everything left on the floor. I’m not perfect, despite my occasional excessive vanity, arrogance, and narcissism.

This imperfection illuminated especially bright recently when I was laid off from my job. I won’t go into where my job was or any of the specifics about my job, but I will say I worked in communications (fancy business way of saying a writer) for a university research department. In short, I was assured that my position being dissolved had nothing to do with performance and was only a result of some issues with research grants and workloads. My supervisor even offered me a reference before I asked for it and went on to say that working with me was a pleasure. Part of me felt like it was sincere and just crappy circumstances and the result of being bottom of the totem pole. But part of me also felt like if I was good at my job, this wouldn’t have happened. It was a blow to the ego and one that I’m having some difficulty recovering from.

I spent some time with my future mother-in-law who’s a certified life coach to help me with some job interview skills and sprucing up my resume. The career coaching session quickly turned into more of a therapy session where I explained a lot of the anxieties I have been experiencing since losing my job. She referred to these anxieties as Gremlins for the way they constantly hang around and start pinching and nudging us when we start to feel good. The best thing she told me was that having Gremlins, especially after getting laid off, was completely normal. Accepting I’m not perfect suddenly became a little easier: I’m not perfect, I’m human.

A lot of what my future mother-in-law said echoed a lot of the things my therapist has been telling me as well. I started seeing a therapist back in August after I noticed my work-life balance turned more into haunting anxieties. As I’ve been going through sessions, I realized two things: first, I should have started this a lot sooner, and secondly, I’m obsessed with control. From my day to day work to social situations, I want to control everything. Everything has to be perfect. This isn’t healthy.

In fact, I discovered that a lot of what I was trying to control in order to save or preserve it was causing significantly more damage than any good. My control issues even rooted into why I avoid a lot of social situations and even have a difficulty in meeting and connecting with new people sometimes: my guard is up, I don’t feel like I can control how things are moving, so instead I completely cut it off. It’s not a good way to operate and I’m slowly learning to let things go and move how they move. But it’s been difficult. I’m making progress and I take some solace in that. But I’m also trying to make sure I don’t become controlling over how I’m not trying to control everything anymore. It’s been really difficult.

Of all the things said to me the past while, one thing has struck a particular chord that’s ringing true to me. My future sister-in-law said, “Progress over perfection.” Really simple. But it encompasses everything I’ve been struggling with. Not everything will fall exactly where I want it, but at least I’m working to get it closer. And that counts for something.

I find I’m getting less angry at people all the time. I’m not frustrated when I hear stories about silly or dumb things people do and how they clearly didn’t see what was coming. I shrug now, laugh a bit if it isn’t too tragic, and realize people have all kinds of things on their minds all of the time. Living day-to-day isn’t easy. And sometimes you just don’t see what’s in front of you.

I didn’t get mad at Atticus for chewing my headphones. I gave the headphones their proper burial in my garbage and thought about all the awesome stuff I listened to on them. I had a pair of backup headphones, not nearly as nice sounding as my Sennheisers, but they do the trick until I get a new job and am able to afford another pair of higher-end headphones. I thought about my Darth Vader action figure and my homework from when I was a kid, early victims of the family poodle. And I laughed. And I’d like to say I haven’t left anything on the floor since.

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.

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.