Curiosity – James Wise

There was a time I thought my life was all it’d ever be. Attended by many careful hands and kept in a sterile room, I was loved, monitored, nurtured and protected.

So it was quite a shock when they put me on top of a massive rocket and fired it into space. I drifted for a million miles before bouncing to an unceremonious stop on this remote world.

Now I wheel slowly onwards, tilting my dusty face to a bronze sky, a distant peak, to peer at the rocks. I see no one else and never will. I take selfies.

 

 

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JAMES WISE has been writing most of his life, with poems published in local Oxford anthologies Hidden Treasures and Island City, alongside Tom Paulin and Paul Muldoon. With an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, James has had short stories featured in MIROnline and Issue 14 of The Mechanics’ Institute Review.

 

Image: Skeeze via Pixabay

 

 

Yellow – Barbara Lovric

She was yellow with fear. Cold Piss ran through her veins instead of hot down her leg. This was no super hero Marvel movie where she could sprout wings and loop the fuck out of there. Though she wished it was. Wished it was. Wishes are fishes. Fishes are wishes.

“Fucking cop on yourself already for feck’s sake,” Jimmy hissed, breath steaming like the train which had just left the station.

“That’s the last train.” Mandy’s voice trembled. They had missed it by seconds. Some fella with a belly of one too many pints and a heart attack waiting to happen had tried to stick his hand in the gap to hold it open, eyes big as his belly. He knew. Oh yes, he knew.

Jimmy ignored the display blinking NOT IN SERVICE. NOT IN SERVICE. “It fucking isn’t.”

But they were alone on the platform.

“It’s like that movie. Warriors. Warriors. Come out and play. Remember, Jimmy. Remember?”

“Yeah, I wish homicidal gangs were our worst problem.”

Mandy wrapped her piss cold arms around herself. “There’s no way out now.”

Jimmy put his arm around her as the red tail lights of the train disappeared around the tunnel bend. “Doesn’t matter. Where the fuck they gonna go, anyway?”

“End of the line. End of the line for everyone,” Mandy giggled.

Jimmy dropped his arm and for the first time looked at her like a liability.

“Don’t you leave me, Jimmy Murphy. Don’t you fucking leave me.” Her voice rose with every syllable. She could see him weighing his options. It only took a second or two. Didn’t matter they’d been together for five years, an abortion, his brother’s suicide and a trial. None of that mattered now. Nothing mattered…”

He grabbed her hand and pulled “Come on. I know a way out.”

“But where we gonna go, Jimmy? Where we gonna go?”

He didn’t answer, just ran. She had no choice but to go with him.

They made it to the surface and darkness. It was quiet as a nightmare before the monster pounces. The alarm clock of Mandy’s pounding heart wouldn’t slow down. They’ll find us now. Find us for sure.

But the streets were empty as a Christmas dawning.

No more Christmases. Not ever. Ever. Can’t go home. There were no homes any way. Only cells. They were gathering them up, slamming the doors and throwing away the key. Mandy felt the window eyes watching. The curtains twitching. Was it better to be locked up waiting for the food to run out? For everyone to turn on each other? For mothers to eat their young?

What would you do, Mandy? Would you eat Jimmy? Would ya? Huh?

“I know where there’s a boat.” Jimmy said as they crouched behind some bins. Where were the rats? Surely, they would inherit the earth along with the cockroaches?

“We’re too far from the water, Jimmy. We’ll never make it.”

“Bullshit,” Jimmy said and they started running.

It was late or early or somewhere in between and the air slap dashed against their faces as they ran through mist that had either fallen from the charcoal sky or risen from the ground like huffing and puffing corpses dragging themselves from hell. It’s a nightmare, right? All just a nightmare. I’m gonna wake up, Jimmy by my side and we’ll have a smoke and laugh about it. He’ll tell me I’m a psycho and better lay off the drugs but I stopped that shit years ago so what the fuck is this now?

“Mandy.” Jimmy panted and heaved but his voice was full of something both had forgotten. Hope.

The pier was empty. Not a sail boat, yacht or cargo ship in sight. Maybe the mist had swallowed them whole.

“Are we dead, Jimmy? Is that it? Are we dead and just don’t know it yet?”

Jimmy laughed. “You edjit. Look.”

She followed his finger to the dinghy lap dancing against the pier. The tide was high and all they had to do was step into it and push off.

Thank Christ. She’d never believed in God but someone or something was looking out for them. Drawn Jimmy through the fog to the pier. Saved a boat, a small boat but big enough for the two of them to hold hands and sail into the sunset. There’s no sun, stupid. Haven’t seen that fucker for ten days, ha ha days, ten whatever the fuck, now.

There was no motor so Mandy lay back while Jimmy did the rowing.

“Is it getting warmer, Jimmy,” she said five minutes or five hours later. Hard to tell in unshifting twilight.

“You fucking joking?” Jimmy said, sweat lashing from his forehead. “You laying there like a princess and me killing myself here.”

“A princess you rescued. I love you, Jimmy.”

Jimmy grunted.

It was then Mandy noticed the water. “We got a leak, Jimmy. Oh fuck. The boat’s got a leak.”

Jimmy drew in the oars. “Look for something. Something to bleeding shove in the hole.”

But there was nothing.

“Jesus, Jimmy. It’s like bath water. Like a sauna. Like a lie down after a hard day’s work and someone’s rubbing the job out of your muscles and I’m just going lay back in it for a bit. Float like. Jimmy?”

But Jimmy was already lying next to her. Steam rising from him like a train through the night. If only we’d caught the train. If only…

Mandy started leaking. What harm? Everyone pissed in the sea. As the water turned yellow like spices in a soup, she felt herself fading, eyelids going down like a sinking ship and luxuriating in the warmth.

Christ, Jimmy, I can’t remember the last time I felt this warm. This good. Jimmy?

But Jimmy was a thought. A memory through a sieve as Mandy cooked in the hot water. He was her last thought and it was a good one.

She never even felt the spear pierce her flesh.

 

 

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BARBARA LOVRIC is originally from America but living in Ireland some 20 years. Recently long listed for the Bare Fiction Short Story Prize, Barbara was also shortlisted for the 2017 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year award. Twitter: @BALovric

 

Image: StockSnap via Pixabay

 

 

Trap Street Irregulars – Peter Haynes

A man came to me as I was locking up for the night. He brought in a gust of cold air, hugged himself warm on the bench by the donations box. The high crackle of tyres on wet tarmac screened out as I closed the door.

“This isn’t a church where I come from,” he said. His face was familiar though I could not place him, covered as it was in a layer of dirt.

“Are you hurt?” I asked. “Hungry? I can call the hostel. They usually have beds.”

“How long has this been your god’s house?” he asked.

“This has always been a place of worship. Are you lost?”

The man laughed. “Is that him?” he asked, pointing at the crucifix with an expression of less-than-sacramental amusement.

“It is. An equal part of him anyway.”

“Then I’ve met your god,” the man said. “He drinks at the Bricklayers Arms on Warren Road and he’d find this behaviour puzzling. Do you have a Warren Road here?”

“Listen, friend. It’s late -”

“I found a map,” he continued. “Of where I live, only different. I found it here, in the basement of this building. On a bend in Willow Street it showed a path I’d never seen before. I went there and turned — just a little to the right, or was it left? — and here I was. In this city, not mine. Cursed by curiosity!”

“Can you show me this map?” I asked. “Perhaps you will remember where you live?”

The man stood — taller than me by a hand — and took out a folded sheet of paper. On it I could see my city’s streets, the familiar blocky representations of shopping centres and car parks. I felt confident we would find his way home. The longer I looked, however, the less the map made sense until all that remained was a jumble of oblique corners and patches of static. All, that is, except one name, dissipating where the collector roads of estates danced in jagged scintillations.

Trap Street.

I don’t know how long I stared but at last I was forced to sit and hang my head from dizziness.

“Doesn’t make sense, does it?” he said. “You don’t belong there anymore than I belong here.”

“What do you want?” I demanded.

“Have you ever been invisible?” he asked. “I have learned in just a few days that you can become…unreadable to a place as that map is unreadable to you. ‘Awful to lose your home,’ I’ve heard some say. ‘Terrible luck, but perhaps if he didn’t drink so much?’ And the headaches, the stumbling. You feel it.”

My mind was swimming in disconnected junctions and overlapping slip roads. I tried to get to my feet but there was a weight in my bones keeping me down.

“Look, I don’t think I can help you.”

“I think you can. See, not everything is different here. Take this building: mostly the same but with different furniture.” He gestured to the altar pieces shining with the day’s last light from high windows. “This is a place of shelter in my city.”

“As it is here,” I heard myself say.

“I need to look in the basement,” he said. “I promise I won’t hurt you. Please?”

He offered a hand grimed by nights lost in streets he could not navigate. I took hold and he led me to the basement door, flicking on lights as he went.

“After you,” I said. I could lock him in maybe? Make a call and have someone pick him up. I had all of the numbers but none of the courage.

“Can you manage?” he asked, looking down the stairs.

“If I trip, you’ll break my fall,” I said.

In the basement, stacks of broken pews awaited repair. There were paintings propped up here and there of miscellaneous holy figures. The stranger identified them as we passed: that one, his next-door neighbour; there, the man who runs the off-license; the young paramedic who came when his mother had a fall; that doctor who never minded the clock running over if it was serious.

Their names and deeds were all known to him. To me: strangers.

We found the map in the elasticated pocket of an old leather suitcase. It showed my city, though a half-century older. The streets and buildings were smaller, more crammed in. “See for yourself. I can’t look at it,” he said, and busied himself tidying the clutter while I searched.

It couldn’t really be there, could it?

What I found was impossible to deny. Our Trap Street was near to where the river ducked into concrete culverts beneath the industrial parts. I led him down and through that decaying district to the plain brick wall of an abandoned factory where no such road existed.

“How does this work?” I asked, but before he could answer, the ring of a bell. I stepped back from the approaching cyclist, looked again but the stranger was gone.

Could I really say all this happened, if following my natural inclination for the truth? I do not know and anyway who would ask?

What should I say, then, about those who wander by choice? The curious; those who cry against the slow crawl of the day or sing to themselves in empty rooms? Easy to deem them artefacts of folly to be removed completely from sight. Perhaps only when we can turn — to the right, or was it the left? — and see from slantwise vantage the prisons in which each of us is incarcerated will we see it is the other that proves this world true.

Could ours not also become a city of saints?

Perhaps the stranger would destroy his map. Would he expect me to do the same?

I could not and it waits there now amongst the junk and sacred icons, left to dust and darkness until needed.

 

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PETER HAYNES lives and writes in Birmingham, UK. His work has appeared in Unsung Stories, Reliquiae Journal, Litro USA, Spelk Fiction, Hypertext Magazine and elsewhere. In 2016 his writing was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association award in short fiction. You can find him on Twitter @ManOfZinc.

 

Image: Hnyja via Pixabay

 

 

Where Night Lights Tremble* – Clio Velentza

They met at the empty café, where gravity gave in to the occasional glitch. As he waited, his tea parted briefly in two. He gathered the sugar granules with a fingertip. The coffee maker gurgled. Outside, snow kept piling on red sand.

She slid into the opposite seat.

“You broke the world,” she said. “And failed to fix it.”

The table hovered for a moment, and the tea froze into a golden orb. He peered through it. “I thought I could make things right.”

Her upside-down reflection shook its head. A feather flattened itself against the window, its vane slick and blue. She touched the glass.

“Perhaps this was someone we knew.”

Hot currents carried the feather off. Snowflakes swirled, mingled with clumps of ash. The neon signs cast their last words across the desert.

She gestured at the sky, and a star followed her hand like a moth. “I thought the end would be grime and gloom. But it’s splendid. Like when it all began.”

“Like when we put it all together.”

“When it seemed this Time would be the one to stick.”

They exchanged a smile. Above them Aurora Borealis sighed, billowed and sang. The eager star blinked in sudden surprise, as if recalling something important. It wavered and fell, and crashed into its mates.

 

*Andreas Kalvos, from Fifth Ode; To The Muses

 

 

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Image: via Pxhere

 

 

Lucinda – Christie Wilson

forecast: clear and windy

data: conclusively inconclusive
in reference to explorations

Lucinda stands tall by the river
waders wet, muddy drops
decorating the grass

inside the sunshine,
artificial of course and no longer
present since the requisite
year has passed,

they found traces of
pure gold
leading Lucinda, test tube in hand
to the now gray and murky shores

forecast: windy and not so clear

data: consumption decreases clouds
in the minds and fields

water samples passed to gloved hands
Lucinda stands dripping at their doors
face a portrait of a face
all utility
naked, save grace

under covers, behind tented walls
her sister and the sisters of others wait

forecast: cloudy, chance for rain

data: gold in the light, pyrite in the water

holding their bags, hoisting their children
over barbed barriers and sinkholes
of sticky mud, Lucinda brings the women

in half, they are divided
ten swallow this, ten swallow that
then back over the drenched and dying land

forecast: rain

data: default toward hope
symptoms shift to improved

tented roofs hold
out the water and in the noise
smiles when the screaming stops
and echoes of splatters recede

Lucinda sits marking the graphs
a delicate script she will transport
swimming through the field they walked

forecast: cloudy

data: people precious
threads binding the earth

Lucinda brushes her sister’s hair
makes a path through the others
promising a return she knows
she might not make

clothes at her skin
puddles off her brow, Lucinda slips
data through slots for the now sleeping
to review

shakes hope off like distraction
trudges, new supplies in hand
back into the seeping darkness

 

 

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CHRISTIE WILSON lives in Illinois. She is currently writing a collection of short prose. Her work appears in Atticus Review, apt, CHEAP POP, and New World Writing among other places. Visit her at www.christiewilson.net or follow her @5cdwilson. 

 

Image: Martina Sarkadi Nagy via Pixabay

 

 

Hangers On – Steven John

In my dream I hear the whip-lash of firecrackers. I feel bones being broken on a butchers block. I see a boy throw paper screws of gunpowder onto the pavement from a coned paper bag. My head bolts round on the pillow, currents of electricity shock up and down my neck. I stare my ears into the dark.

Awake now, I still hear the cracks, and laughter. Every night, prowling packs of them, high on vapour, waiting for their freenet ration to come online. I lay listening in the green hue from the clock. 3am. Another four hours before any freenet. Another four hours before these ferals feed, snouts blue in their screens, gobbling it up. My thoughts glitch. The firecrackers and caterwauls aren’t from the street outside the window. The noise comes from behind where I lay in bed with my wife. They come from the rear of the house.

I get out of bed, cross the room to the window and touch the translucence pad on the glass. The pane changes from black to clear. The street outside is empty. Spots of rain fall in the sodium glow from the few streetlights that work. Cars and quik-shaws parked, charging up on the patchwork of tarmac and mud. Sewerage burps up from under the manhole covers. Luminous graffiti painted on the charging posts, scribbles down the street like fireflies.

“What’s that?” My wife wakes, still groggy from the hypnonoise in her earplants.

“Sounds like drunks, or vapunks, with fireworks. From the backyard.”

I put on a gown and walk into the empty back bedroom, our daughter’s childhood dolls propped up on the pillows, their black eyes reflect spots of white light. The firecrackers are louder now and I make out voices. The window glass is on permanent translucence. The repair-men never come. I look down into the yard. There’s a group of young people on the decking, some standing, some lying on the loungers, exhaling clouds of colour, white, green, purple GM weed. The laserbarb fence around the yard is intact. They must have accessed through the path at the side. The alarm has packed up again, or the housecomms would have spoken. My wife stands naked beside me. One of the males raises a bottle.

“Great tits lady. Join the party”.

My wife swipes at the opacity pad on the window.

“It doesn’t work”.

“I’ll call the police.” She leaves my side.

Two of the females start to have sex on a lounger. Their legs are no more than bones, full tattoo cover, green and yellow snakeskin, shaved genitals, grey with disease, open wounds. I turn on the housecomms, press ‘garden’.

“If you don’t leave now we’ll call the police.”

“Call away shithead. We party right here.”

My wife returns to the bedroom in a robe. I hear holding music on her phone.

“999. Wait time ten minutes, go to website or call back. Call’s in a queue.”

“Wait.”

One of the males squats to defecate on the grass. Black liquid squirts. The one with the drink throws a firecracker.

“Fuck off Janus. Can’t I shit in peace?” Bowels cleared, he pulls trousers over black stained legs. The females have stopped their sex but haven’t re-clothed. They sway their skeletal bodies to an unheard beat.

“Infected. Antibiotic resistant. All of them”, my wife says. “We can’t go outside”.

“We don’t know they’re resistant. Could be they haven’t got money to buy the new strains.”

Some are missing fingers, hands, feet, limbs; frayed stumps waiting for an auto. A girl’s rusted alloy-leg doesn’t respond to her chip, it’s bent at the knee, she walks on tiptoe. A virus infested headchip.

Someone has answered my wife’s call. She hands me the phone.

“This is 999 sponsored by Angel Globenet, Bluelight Response. My name is Laverne. How may I help you?”

“Police please”.

“Before we proceed I need to take you through security. Your account number, date of birth and postcode please.”

I hear sounds of cooking in the background; plates and pans, children arguing, a baby crying. Out-sourced phone response. A cheap emergency contract. All we could afford.

“You’re through security Mr Hughes. May I call you Vaughan?”

“Just send the police. I can hear you’re busy.”

“We need to know the nature of your call Vaughan”, I hear a door close, muffling the background noise.

“Vapunks in my backyard. They’re infected, need antibiotics”

“Have they used or threatened violent behaviour or are they causing any criminal damage to your property Vaughan?”

“They’ve been throwing fireworks and smoking tobacco. They’ve had unsafe sex on my garden furniture and shit contagion on my grass. They’re trespassing on my property. It’s 3.30 in the morning. Is that enough?”

“Under the terms of your contract Vaughan, none of what you’ve said is covered for police response.”

A child in Laverne’s house whispers. I hear the child over the phone. I hear someone retch.

“Daddy’s got blood on his shirt”, a child’s voice.

“What are my options?” I ask Laverne.

“Vaughan, we can offer you a remote police response with e-mailed status and action report within the hour for £350, or a professionally written complaint to the police for £175.”

“We’ll have the remote response with email.”

We go downstairs into the kitchen. My wife pours two small measures of sterilised water and puts out pills. I turn a window to clear. The one called Janus and a girl put their faces to the glass. My wife takes pictures. Janus has vampire teeth implants that protrude over his lower lip. The girl’s few remaining teeth are stained purple from GM weed vape, her face aflame with spots, some bleeding, some gangrenous, her face being eaten.

I shout, “Leave us alone. Fuck off”

Janus speaks “We don’t like hangers-on old man.”

My wife says, “don’t antagonise them. They’ll break in, infect us.”

“They’re not going to break in. They know they’d be shot. They want to be arrested, taken to a life-seekers camp. Free food, medicine, vapes.”

From over the rooftops we see flashing blue lights. A police drone. The vapunks cheer and wave at it like a rescue.

The drone, silhouetted in blue, hovers silently at roof height above them and points down its weapons. Pinpricks of white from the underside of the drone coalesce into one iceberg of daylight. The geiger-paint of the vapunks hair, their tattooed skin, their vape clouds, all turn shades of grey, diminishing them to a black and white photograph. A camera with a single red eye scans over them, a blade of blue medi-data light slices through each one in turn. The light searches out modified weapon capabilities on their auto limbs.

A she-bot voice from the drone. “A complaint scene video, identification and medi-reports have been uploaded to police headquarters for analysis. Any new complaint of criminal behaviour will be met with an immediate armed response.”

“Arrest us you FUCKERS”, Janus throws his bottle in the direction of the drone. The drone ascends two meters higher.

“Throwing litter incurs a fine of a one year freenet ban. We advise you to desist and recycle waste according to the manufacturer’s instructions.” The drone raises its weapons, ascends into the dawn sky, and scuds back across the rooftops.

My wife asks “what happens now?”

“Open our emails.”

In the sitting room we turn on an i-panel. There’s an email from Angel Globenet, Bluelight Response with a vidfile attachment. We read the e-mail.

Subject: Complaint of unsupervised firework display, tobacco smoking, unsafe sex, fouling private property, public nuisance and trespass.

Police Priority: less than 5%

Advice: All personnel identified by remote police response unit. Low risk of criminality. Four identified personnel terminally infected. Life expectancy – less than 26 days. Eight identified personnel – 86% antibiotic resistant. Do not approach. Angel Globenet recommends precautionary dosages of antibiotic versions 684/674/ah-f/9, available in 1 hour from Amazon Drone.

Action: 21-28 days to arrest, subject to higher priority incidents.

We watch the vidfile; an aerial view of our decking. We see our geriatric faces at the window, our shreds of grey hair, our stooped backs, my arm holding up my 120 year old wife. The auto walkers fused to her pelvis have broken. The repair men never come.

‘Hangers-on’ they call us. With luck our National Death Service euthanasia will come through soon, although if this carries I know where to find a quasi-legal clinic. She’d go tomorrow. I’ll hang on a while longer.

 

 

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STEVEN JOHN lives in The Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, UK and writes flash fiction, short stories and poetry. He has had work published in writing group pamphlets and on short fiction and poetry websites including Riggwelter Press, Reflex Fiction and Fictive Dream. In December 2017 Steven won the inaugural Farnham Short Story Competition and has won Bath Ad Hoc fiction four times. Steven has read from his work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, Stroud Short Stories, The Bard of Hawkwood and The Flasher’s Club. Twitter: @StevenJohnWrite

 

Image: StockSnap via Pixabay

 

 

Your Guide to 22nd Century Bird Watching – William Gilmer

1. You’re not going to find anything indoors, so get your respirator and head outside.

2. Don’t feel bad when no one in your bunker cares about your pictures of Amazons. Birding is supposed to be risky, so a species made to deliver packages simply isn’t going to impress.

3. Always assume an unfamiliar specimen wants to kill you. While the most dangerous models are on the borders, that doesn’t mean a random family or business didn’t buy one in vain hopes of safety.

4. They’ll never get tired, so if you are spotted, hide don’t run.

5. Internet forums are the best places to gloat about your latest sighting. Expect non-birders to go glassy eyed when you start talking about the rarity of MXR-110s.

6. In the unlikely event that you see an actual bird, evacuate the area immediately and report to the nearest Avian Flu Control Office. There’s a reason we live in bunkers.

 

 

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WILLIAM GILMER is a writer and poet living in Michigan where Fall never lasts long enough. Over two dozen of his pieces have been published in places like Speculative 66, Moonsick Magazine, Empyreome Magazine, and The Sunlight Press. Keep an eye out for his monthly articles in Enchanted Conversation: A Fairytale Magazine, and if there isn’t enough going on in your feed, follow him on Twitter @willwritethings

 

Image: djedj via Pixabay

 

 

Debt – Cass Francis

It’s ridiculous how fast the world changes—like something out of a song, where a twist of phrase leads you into a totally different place, where before you know it you’re starting to wonder whether it’s even the same song anymore. @isaac_almeida24, with sandy hair & a broad chin had to walk away, reset, & drive home. He runs a hand through his hair. Still wears the gold wedding band, though it’s almost been a year, the weather too warm for the season. No snow. No ice. Not even much rain—more like a dry fall than a winter. Except it’s flu season & of course his youngest, sitting in the seat next to him with a paper mask over her mouth—her baby pink lips—her makeup, inexpertly applied, smeared—got sick. Terribly so. But no matter because he managed to walk away, reset, & save her. & they sit next to one another in the car, him driving because he still can’t get used to the self-controlled-car thing—neither of them talking much.

“We must have run across someone with the flu,” he says, pale blue eyes scanning the road. “You got sick.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she says, pushing a strand of black hair from away from her mask. Her tone is huffy—normal for her age, so @isaac_almeida24 doesn’t press it.

“Of course, you didn’t, baby. But it happened all the same.”

He thinks of her health, so different from the pro-reset hour before—he can still picture her in the backseat puking into a grocery sack, shivering with fever, pale as the winter moon. He can almost still smell the sourness of the vomit, even though he isn’t completely sure it still counts as something real—something that existed—now that he has reset. Now that he broke all the rules and ignored all the warnings left by his late wife telling him that messing with the linearity of time is dangerous.

She would have done the same thing, he tells himself.

She would have done anything to keep her youngest child alive. & she would have done it again & again if need be, damn the danger, he tells himself.

His youngest points out the window. “The glass,” she says.

He follows her gaze—all the windows of the buildings they pass are screens shimmering with digital ads for bright & gleaming goods & services, some of which make @isaac_almeida24 blush—though his youngest seems unfazed, even amused, rather than scandalized. The usual holograms play around the buildings & business signs—a smiling bearded mechanic cartoon climbing up the sign for an auto repair shop—but the window ads are new, something that must have slipped through the break in time during the last reset.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” he mutters to his daughter.

“It’s like we’re in the future.”

@isaac_almeida24 chuckles, trying in vain to match her light mood, her innocent fascination with the changing times.

She lay defenseless & shaking on a hospital gurney, her body raging with fever as if she was being burned alive from the inside out. Doctors swarmed. Nurses pushed him from the room. & then later after hours or what felt like hours of pacing and hand-wringing, a doctor came out & squeezed his shoulder & told him the bad news. “I’m sorry,” the doctor said, & @isaac_almeida24 felt weak, sick, dizzy. He didn’t even think—just numbly took his wife’s contraption, the Spinner, from his pocket, pressed the button & spun backwards in time, until before the flu, before his youngest daughter got infected, before all the tragedy that seemed to be destined to take her reached up again to grab her and steal her away from him.

& then he thought of his wife, & his whole body stiffened with guilt & shame.

He thinks of her on the drive home, his hands tightening around the steering wheel. He thinks of her with guilt & shame because deep down he knows that she wouldn’t have done what he did—break time & reset it so that their youngest child wouldn’t die. He knows she wouldn’t have because she didn’t. She chose instead to walk away without doing anything. She believed that nature was important to preserve, important above all else, & breaking the laws of nature was like taking out a loan or buying something on credit. Breaking time, breaking the laws of nature, meant you were building up more & more debt in the world—& before long some force more powerful than you will come collect.

@isaac_almeida24’s daughter has died six times—twice before her mother left & four times within the past year.

*      *      *

How would experiencing death this way affect them, his daughters? @isaac_almeida24 worries that they’ll never understand it the way others understand it—with permanence, as something final & not meant to change. As something meant to be respected. With every reset, his youngest becomes sweeter, more innocent, believing that everything always works out for the best. On the other hand, his oldest—@LuLuSea—becomes darker. She seems to not understand the tragedy of it—that destruction is permanent & leads to sorrow & mourning. @isaac_almeida24 fears that she has lost respect for life.

At home, he stands in @LuLuSea’s bedroom doorway. “Good,” he says, “you’re already packing. We’re going to head out to the cabin for a few days.”

“Not me,” she says.

She’s throwing clothes into a suitcase without folding them—a sign that she’s more interested in making a point than actually going anywhere. She has @isaac_almeida24’s own sandy hair & his wife’s matter-of-fact stubbornness. “What do you mean, not you?” he says.

“I mean I’m not going to the cabin. I’m not going anywhere with you.”

She knows that he reset, @isaac_almeida24 realizes. He doesn’t know how she knows, but she’s always been a smart one—always used to tag along with her mom to classes & the lab, & so probably picked up some ideas there. Maybe she can tell from small changes in the technology surrounding them. Maybe she just notices a flicker of light, a change in the wind. “Where are you planning on going, then?” he ventures.

“Like you don’t know.”

“Where?”

She throws down a bundle of socks and slams her mother’s left behind notebooks on top of the pile in the suitcase. “I’m going to find Mom.”

@isaac_almeida24 shakes his head, has to swallow & look away down the hall. She takes his hesitation as either skepticism or a challenge & puts her hands on her hips, defiant, chin out. He shakes his head again & can’t meet her gaze—what good is a father who can’t even look his child in the eye? “Honey,” he says, “we talked about this—your mother. She’s dead, & there isn’t anything we can do about it.”

“She’s lost,” says @LuLuSea, “& you’re too much of a coward to go after her.”

He ducks away into the hallway. “Get packed for the cabin.”

“& you don’t care.”

“Get packed. I’m not kidding around.”

As he heads down the hall, he can hear her groan & zip up her suitcase in a frustrated huff. He goes to the living room, wanting to turn around & scream, “Your sister just DIED,” but instead he closes his fists & swallows again to diffuse the anger, the pain. No tears in his eyes. Instead, strangely—madly—he wants to laugh. He holds that in too, making it to the quiet of the living room.

The windows of their house are also digitized, & the screensavers cast eerie pink & green pixelated light across the beige carpet. He’s sure he can change them to a more natural curtains or blinds, or even plywood, but he doesn’t know how & doesn’t have time right now to fool with it. His youngest is sitting on the couch, running her fingers through her black hair. She seems so much more delicate than @LuLuSea—who’s older & therefore bigger but also just seems more powerful, more volatile. His youngest is a candle flame. His oldest is a wildfire. But maybe his perceptions are off because he has so recently seen his youngest so sick, her eyes sunken & her face flushed & her skin clammy gray as if she was about to turn to dust right in front of him. Beside her packed pink suitcase on the couch, she’s sitting with her legs folded underneath her, her head leaning back and her black hair fanned out around her like a thrown-back veil. She’s not wearing her mask. “We don’t have to go,” she says.

“I’d feel better if we got away for a few days. Just chilled for awhile, you know.”

She looks like she wants to say something else. @isaac_almeida24 waits for the words. “Is she really dead?” she finally whispers. “Like gone forever?”

He sighs. Nods. “What matters is that we’re together. Getting out of town for a few days will help, I promise.” He makes himself busy by going to the window & pressing his finger to the glass until the alternating green & pink changes to white blinds that ripple a bit, as if real & pushed by a cool breeze. “We can talk about it, though,” he says, “on the drive. It’s good, sometimes, to talk about these things.” His mouth is dry, his heart pounding from the lie. “It’s healing.” He turns around. “Where’s your mask?”

“Daddy,” she groans.

“Put it on. We’re not taking any chances.”

*      *      *

The girls sit in the backseat as they drive up to a gas station—the last one on the way to the cabin. The youngest picks at her mask. @LuLuSea keeps her arms crossed, a stony expression on her face. The windows of their car don’t play any digital images—either their car is too old a model for that, or there are laws about that sort of thing being a distraction for drivers. The girls can only watch the countryside rolling by and listen to the music through their implants. @isaac_almeida24 can only watch the road. He pulls up to a pump & gets out, makes accidental eye contact with the guy on the adjacent pump and nods guardedly, & says to the girls, “Wait here.” As if they’re going to go anywhere. As if they have anywhere to go.

“He hasn’t said a thing, not the whole trip,” @LuLuSea says as soon as her dad has closed the door & is out of earshot.

“He’s just tired,” says her little sister, picking at her paper mask, snapping the elastic. “& probably scared.”

“Of course—he’s always tired & scared. He’s never going to tell us about her. about what happened. Never. He’s too much of a coward.” @LuLuSea looks over at her sister, who stares out at the gas pump, numbers scrolling higher & higher & a celebrity news video playing on the screen. “You should press him again—he listens to you. He can’t say no to you. You should ask—we deserve to know.”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“I have—he doesn’t listen to me.”

“I don’t want to make him mad.”

@LuLuSea sighs, disappointed & letting it show. She doesn’t say anything for a moment or two, though, instead watching out the window. Her father is a nervous man, glancing up & down the road & at the strangers coming & going to the gas pumps & the convenience store. He’s small & scrawny with boring sandy-colored hair—like her own. “She isn’t dead,” @LuLuSea says. She doesn’t know whether she just can’t hold in her frustration any longer or whether she wants to screw up her goodie-two-shoes little sister or whether she’s angry at her father for never listening or whether she’s desperate to get her mother back. “She’s just lost,” @LuLuSea continues when her sister doesn’t say anything. “Lost in time. & every reset when Dad breaks time, he creates more loops, & it makes everything more complicated. He makes it harder for Mom to find us & for us to find Mom.”

“Dad says she’s gone. Gone for good.”

“He’s lying. Or he just doesn’t know. But I’ve read the journals. I know & I think he does too, somewhere deep down, & that’s why he gets all pissed—”

The door opens. Chirping birds. Rustling leaves. Passing cars.

@isaac_almeida24 climbs into the driver’s seat. The girls are quiet.

*      *      *

The truth is that he will probably start bawling, talking about her. After all, sometimes he starts bawling making coffee, walking into the backyard, picking up a can of beans in the supermarket. How could he get through some speech about her to his daughters, to her daughters? There is no way to explain the truth behind it, anyway—the truth that she wasn’t a good person, wasn’t a caring person. Wasn’t a good mother & might have loved them—might have loved him—but in the end didn’t care enough to not leave. To put them before work, before ambition. He will start bawling. Then he’ll start ranting, & the girls, or at least the youngest, will start crying. & no doubt it would turn into some argument between him & @LuLuSea.

A few days ago, he overheard them together in the bathroom, @LuLuSea straightening her sister’s hair & saying, “You know, he posts stuff on social media using her accounts, like as if nothing happened. It’s severely weird & creepy. Kind of pervey, too. He’s acting like she’s still alive. Like he knows that she’s still alive, & he’s waiting for her to come back.” @isaac_almeida24 became teary, hurried from the bathroom as if fleeing from the scene of a crime.

It’s true. He posts as her sometimes. As @Sierra, so that her followers out there in the world, all the strangers who only know her as a name & ideas & passion about knowledge think she’s still here. Think she’s still alive.

@isaac_almeida24 is compelled to do this the same as he’s compelled to reset to keep his youngest daughter alive. He doesn’t know if it will really mean that he’s perverted—corrupting the laws of nature & putting himself & his family, his entire world, in danger. He doesn’t know what he owes nature, given that it has stolen so much from him & is still hungry, still trying to take more.

He does owe them an explanation, though. His daughters. She was their mother.

They deserve to know that she loved them.

Or loves them?

Or will love them?

He doesn’t have the words to describe this situation just like he can’t tell you how the windows display digital video, how the Spinner works, how & why his daughter keeps dying & why he keeps having to save her. He’s not like his wife was. He’s not smart. He’s not particularly curious. He doesn’t have eyes that shine with burning suspicion at every question that claims to have no answer.

“I don’t know what happened to your mother,” he admits suddenly, as if alone in the car, as if alone & feeling the tears coming & desperate to keep them at bay—to keep his mind & vision clear, to make it where he’s going. “I don’t know,” he repeats.

They’re about five minutes from the cabin, weaving down an unpaid road through the campgrounds. The girls weren’t expecting him to speak, so he feels their surprise and hesitation to say something that would put an end to his speaking mood. But he has to tell them something, even if it’s wrong. “I can tell you about her, though. That’s one way to keep her here with us—to talk about her & remember her.” He swallows.

He begins to speak.

*      *      *

Your mother used to get up at eight o’clock every morning, sharp. She did everything with a schedule. If it wasn’t on the schedule, she couldn’t do it.

Late at night, @LuLuSea and her sister tromp through the woods, headed for the lake in the center of the campground.

@isaac_almeida24 is in the shower when they sneak out, his mind numb and reeling from the events of the day, replaying what he said about his wife as the water ran lukewarm across his skin. The drain makes a tortured choking noise. He can smell the girls’ strawberry scented shampoo and his own mountain fresh scented body wash. He turns off the water & listens to the silence broken only by crickets chirping outside & water dripping from the showerhead. He pulls back the curtain, steps out of the shower, dries with a towel, preparing to go to bed.

She’d get up at eight. Breakfast at eight-fifteen—always with one cup of black coffee. At eight-thirty she dressed—always jeans & a plain t-shirt. On weekdays, she left the house by nine to go to the lab or her office until class—made it to campus at nine-thirty. She usually taught on Tuesdays & Thursdays at ten, one, & five, & on Mondays & Wednesdays she had lab classes. The rest of the time she was working in her lab or in her office, working all the time on her research. You remember. It was pretty much around the clock there for awhile. But she’d be home by six, unless she had a night class. I always cooked, kept the food warm for her.

“Just stop dying,” @LuLuSea says, half joking, as they march through the woods.

“I can’t,” says her sister. “I don’t do it on purpose.”

@LuLuSea carries the Spinner, careful not to press the button yet. “I know,” she says. “It’s like fate.”

“Yeah.”

“You have to die.”

“Everyone dies.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Sticks snap, leaves crumple, & acorns burst under their feet. @LuLuSea worries that their father will hear & come racing after them with a shotgun, but she smiles a bit at the irony of him accidentally shooting her sister. But then @LuLuSea imagines the pain & blood & she sickens. Tries to walk quieter. “It’s sad, though, & kind of unfair that you keep dying & making it harder to find Mom.”

“I don’t want to make it harder.”

“I know,” @LuLuSea tries to soften her voice—tries to communicate to her sister that she doesn’t mean to accuse, that she means to comfort. That she just wants things to turn out right, that she just wants things like they were before their mom left. @LuLuSea looks over at her sister hurrying along in the too-heavy coat, no paper mask, her lips baby pink & her cheeks flushed in the chilly air. “I don’t mean it’s your fault. I mean it isn’t your fault—that’s why it’s unfair.”

She showered at ten & was in bed at ten-thirty. Read or did other stuff, kept herself occupied until midnight, when she’d turn out the light & try to get some sleep. At first, the schedule was so annoying. I mean, at first, when we were dating, I thought it was charming & eccentric. Then we got married & I thought it was maddening. But after years I guess I grew used to it & started depending on it, & realized I guess since she left how much it meant to me, how I had grown accustomed to that—to having that control over time…

They stand at the edge of the lake, the dark sky spotted with stars & wispy gray clouds that floated in the reflection on the surface of the water. The reflection of the clouds looked like smoke suspended in the shimmering blackness. The girls stare, frozen as if staring at the edge of the world. Crickets, leaves, wind. The Spinner spins in @LuLuSea’s hand, & both girls breathe plumes of frosty air & the cold water trickles against the muddy shore.

“I’m scared,” says @LuLuSea’s sister, her voice so frightened that it’s almost all breath.

“You’ve done it before.”

“It feels different this time.”

@LuLuSea knows what she means—there’s something about the dark & somber peace of the lake, the woods, & the distant cabin that makes this moment seem different from all that has come before.

Her sister takes the first step forward into the water, her jaw locked with determination.

*      *      *

@isaac_almeida24 howls when he makes it to the lake, sees the water lapping his youngest daughter’s small body against the shore. He tries to revive her. He tries to reset. But the Spinner is missing and the air won’t go into her lungs and stay there and it’s no use, it’s no use at all, and by the end of it he’s sobbing like a child. He carries her back to the cabin, lays her on the kitchen table, & calls the police. & then he doesn’t speak—he won’t say a word to them. He won’t say a word to anyone. The police take him in for questioning. They suspect him for awhile, but can find no proof. The girl’s death is ruled an accident, and her sister probably ran away, not knowing what else to do. The police cannot locate her. They send @isaac_almeida24 to a hospital, where he stays in the psych ward for a few weeks, then is transferred to a facility out in the country, somewhere safe, somewhere quiet, somewhere peaceful. He talks rarely, but he posts online regularly.

“Death is natural, but nature is a cycle,” he posts as @Sierra. The doctors monitor his accounts carefully, looking for clues about his condition. “For every ending, nature owes us one beginning.”

Other than that, he spends the days staring at the doors as if waiting for them to open.

He stares at the windows as if waiting for the pixelated light to flicker.

Stares at the clocks as if he’s waiting for the time to change.

 

 

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Image: via pxhere

 

 

One Boot – Steven Carr

Nelson believed that sometime in his life he had been abducted by aliens and was experimented on. Sitting on the side of the highway surrounded by sun burnt yellow prairie grass he gazed up at the star spattered night sky watching for spaceships. He licked his parched lips, savoring the last flavor of salty pretzels and stale beer that clung to them. From out in the prairie the barking of coyotes sounded almost melodic. He wondered, Do coyote eat humans?

He lay back in the grass and with his arms behind his head he inhaled the prairie aromas of cow and buffalo manure, dying grass, and sun scorched earth, carried by the steady, hot breeze. After a few minutes of trying to ignore the flying insects that buzzed around his head and used his prominent nose as a runway, he sat back up and swatted at the bugs, even though he couldn’t see them. In the darkness the only thing around him that he could see very clearly was his white sock. He wiggled his foot.

On the other foot his green snakeskin boot was entangled in a clump of grass. It took several tugs on his lower leg to free it. With his sock and boot lying side by side at the end of his outstretched legs, he thought, How did things get this out of hand?

Standing, he scanned the dark highway, and seeing no headlights in either direction, he stepped out of the grass and onto the pavement. Surprised to find his brown Stetson stuck on a bit of tar, he picked it up, brushed it off, put it on, and began walking toward home. In the otherwise quiet of the night his boot clomping down on the concrete with every other step resounded like firecrackers being set off in a cemetery.

He kept looking back to make sure no aliens were following him.

*   *   *

Beams of sunlight were breaking through the thick, gray early morning clouds as Nelson hopped on the booted foot up the long gravel driveway to his house. The stones crunched beneath his boot. His foot with the sock hurt too much to lower it, so he held it up like a horse with a lame leg. His two dogs, Scrapper and Bigboy, both mutts, came around the house, barking, and ran up to him, their tales wagging frenetically. There was an engorged tick attached to the space between Scrapper’s large brown eyes. Bigboy’s long black hair was matted and coated with prairie dust. Both dogs smelled of dead gopher.

Hopping toward the steps leading up to the porch, he patted both of the dogs on their heads, and said, “I feel as mangy as you look.”

He jumped up onto the first step as the front door of the house was thrown open.

Stepping out onto the porch in her pink bathrobe with both hands on the butt of her 44 Magnum revolver and her finger on the trigger and aiming at Nelson, Cathy said, “You come up one more step and I’m going to blow your head off.”

Balanced on the booted foot, Nelson removed his hat and slapped it against his leg. “You dumped me on the side of the highway when I was drunk. I could have been eaten by coyotes.” Or taken into space.

“Coyotes don’t eat people,” she said, keeping her gun aimed at him.

Well, now I know, he thought. He lowered his socked foot and bit into his lower lip. He was certain he felt the blisters on the sole of his foot burst. The foot in the boot felt as if it had swollen several sizes.

“Put the revolver down before it goes off accidentally,” he said. “One of these days one of your stunts is going to kill me.”

Giggling, Cathy lowered the gun and put it in a pocket in her bathrobe. She leaned against the porch railing and with her left index finger twirled the curled end of a strand of her long brown hair. “What happened to your other boot?” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said, then began up the steps, wincing with every step.

*   *   *

Sitting on the window seat, Nelson watched a small herd of buffalo slowly cross the border of his property. The breeze that came under the partially raised window was scented with rain, although the night sky was clear. A screeching hawk drew his attention away from the buffalo. He heard it but couldn’t see it. When a gleaming white stripe flashed across the sky and disappeared beyond the Badlands formations, he shuddered. I wonder who they’ve abducted, he thought.

Cathy came into the bedroom carrying a cup of tea. “How are your feet?” she said.

He held the bare foot up and showed her the bandages he had put over the blisters. He kept the booted foot raised on a pillow on the window seat. “My ankle is so swollen I can’t get the boot off,” he said.

“That’s too bad,” she said. She carried the tea to him and handed it to him. Steam curled up from the dark brown liquid. She sat on the edge of the bed, watching him intently.

“Thank you,” he said, then raised the cup to his lips and blew on the tea, then took a sip. “This is good,” he said.

“I have something to tell you,” she said, twirling the end of a strain of hair. “I’m pregnant and I put poison in the tea.”

She’s insane, he thought just before he passed out.

*   *   *

Rain pelted the kitchen window as Cathy poured milk on her bowl of oatmeal. She let it set for a moment then scooped spoonfuls from the bowl to her mouth. The ticking of the clock on the wall above the refrigerator was slightly louder than the rain. As she ate she flipped the pages of a calendar, counting the days until the baby was due.

Nelson entered the room with his hands on his head. His skin was pale. “What did you put in the tea?” he said.

Cathy looked up and said, “Does it really matter?”

“I guess not,” he said as he sat down at the table and propped his booted foot up on a another chair. “Being poisoned was something different. You haven’t done that to me before.”

She put a spoonful of oatmeal in her mouth. “It wasn’t actually poison,” she said with a large grin.

He put his crossed arms on the table then put his head on them. “Are you really pregnant?” he said.

She put her finger on the January 19 square of the calendar. “I wouldn’t make something like that up,” she said.

I thought the aliens rendered me infertile, he thought.

When the scratching at the back door began, Nelson and Cathy remained seated. They were each waiting for the other one to get up and go to the door. After several minutes and knowing Cathy was capable of ignoring anything she wanted to for as long as she wanted, Nelson got up from the chair and shuffled across the kitchen to the door and opened it. Scrapper was sitting on the top step, dripping wet, with a forlorn look in his eyes.

“Why aren’t you in the barn?” Nelson said.

Scrapper barked and turned his head toward the open prairie.

“Where’s Bigboy?” Nelson said.

The dog barked again, then ran down the stairs and stopped in the mud, his nose pointed in the direction of the Badlands formations. Nelson closed the door and returned to the table and sat down.

“Is everything okay?” Cathy said.

“Bigboy is in the Badlands,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to go look for him later on.”

“That would be the right thing to do. That dog has no sense of direction and won’t get home on his own,” she said. “Watch out for rattlesnakes while you’re out there.”

And alien spacecraft, he thought.

*   *   *

It was late afternoon before the rain stopped. Nelson sat on the edge of the bed changing the Band Aids on his foot while Cathy sat in the window seat writing baby names in a small black notebook.

“How about Waldo?” she said.

“Good Lord, no,” he said as he covered the last busted blistered with a Band Aid.

“Mandrake?” she said.

He slid a clean white sock over his foot. “No,” he said.

He attempted again to get the boot off but his foot was still too swollen. He stood up and looked down at the contrast of the white sock and the green boot. For a moment he considered putting another boot on the socked foot, but it gave him the vague feeling he would be betraying the missing boot. He crossed the room and bent down and kissed Cathy on the forehead.

“If I don’t come back, look for me among the stars,” he said and left the room.

As he went down the stairs he tripped over fishing line that had been tied to the bannister at one end and tacked to the wall at the other. He tumbled over six stairs before landing on his buttocks at the bottom on a throw rug. He looked up. Cathy was standing at the top of the stairs with a huge grin on her face.

He got up and went out the front door, called for Scrapper, and got into the truck with the dog in the passenger seat and drove off toward the Badlands.

*   *   *

With the windows down the wind blowing in carried the aromas of wet earth and prairie grass. Twilight cast gold and purple light across the limestone formations. Scrapper had his head out the window with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out and flapping in the breeze. Nelson drove slowly on the narrow road that wound between two walls of rock. Intermittently he would slow almost to a full stop and call Bigboy’s name. Just when he was about to quit looking and return home, he spotted Bigboy sitting on top of a formation and looking up at the sky.

Nelson pulled the truck to the side of the road and he and Scrapper got out. Together they climbed the formation and reached Bigboy just as the sun set and stars began to freckle the night sky.

“What are you doing, you crazy dog?” Nelson said to Bigboy.

The dog continued staring up at the sky.

Nelson sat down next to him and Scrapper sat down on the other side of Bigboy. All three looked up at the sky.

There was a sudden flash of light above them and an object fell out of the darkness. Nelson’s missing boot hit him on the head.

I knew it, he thought.

He put on the boot and looked at both boots, side by side. Once again he felt complete. He climbed down the formation with the two dogs and got in the truck and drove home.

 

 

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STEVE CARR, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over a 120 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012966314127 and Twitter @carrsteven960.

 

Image: Beate Bachmann via Pixabay

 

 

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