Blind Trust

Posted: November 27, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

This year, Gina’s gift to her husband would be extra special. It had been years in the planning; an interminable waitlist, clandestine phone calls, hasty arrangements with the help of her sister when the time finally came.

Keeping the secret from Stuart had been agonizing; usually, they told each other everything. Conveniently, he was away on business when Gina and Maxine boarded a taxi for the airport. She told him her sister was recovering from surgery and needed an extra set of hands around the house for a couple of weeks. It was a half-truth; she did stay with her sister in Boston, but it was Gina who was recovering from surgery.

Gina had spoken to Stuart on the phone several times while she was away, but hadn’t told him she was returning early. He wasn’t expecting her for another day. The surprise would be perfect. His birthday wasn’t for another week, but she would give him his gift as soon as he arrived home that evening.

The sunset faded from orange to purple as the taxi pulled up at the curb. Gina stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes after getting out of the car, savoring the view.

The first thing Gina did when they reached the house was remove Max’s harness. She wouldn’t be needing it anymore, but she had left it on for the flight so Max could fly as a guide dog and not as a pet. The German Shepherd gazed up at her, puzzlement in her amber eyes. Gina reached down to stroke her head.

“It’s ok, sweetheart. As of now, you’re retired from active duty. Let’s go inside and get some dinner, shall we?”

Gina brought her suitcase into the bedroom. Though previously accustomed to navigating in darkness, she now noticed the dimness of the room with the curtains drawn.

She clicked the switch on the lamp and gasped. She saw its beauty with her own eyes for the first time. In truth, she was seeing it through someone else’s eyes; those of a young man killed in a motorcycle accident, whose family had generously donated his organs.

The lamp was one of Stuart’s creations, handmade in his workshop. His art took many forms, mostly jewelry and small figurines carved from hardwoods – yew and walnut, he told her. He had a process for curing the wood that hardened it to almost a porcelain consistency, except much stronger. The lamp was one of his finest pieces.

He had made the lampshade as well, from soft calfskin leather, scraped thin in places to create an intricate design of tree branches, which would light up when the lamp was turned on.

Even though she couldn’t see it, for years she had felt the design with her fingers and formed a picture in her mind’s eye. The base of the lamp formed the trunk of the “tree”. dysfictional 3frontThe curve of the wood mimicked a tree trunk perfectly, right down to its graceful curve and non-uniformity of its shape. On the surface he had carved a heart with their initials inside. Tiny bumps covered the surface of the trunk, each painstakingly carved by her husband. It was a Haiku, written by him and inscribed in Braille for her:

 

Sun may fade from sight

Love for you burns ever bright

My eternal light

 

Now, for the first time, Gina saw the lamp in all of its glory, and it was exquisite. The glow of the lampshade projected the intricate tree branch design on the walls, giving the illusion that she was surrounded by forest. Gina caressed the shade, which she had felt hundreds of times, but now she could see what her fingers felt.

What unusual leather, she thought. It was unlike anything she remembered from the days before she lost her sight. She had expected it to be more of a tan color, but this was a pale cream shade with a pinkish hue. A muted floral design decorated the edge of the shade. The trunk looked different than she had expected as well. She had always envisioned it being the deep brown of walnut, but it too was a light cream color, almost white.

Stuart was a true artist. She wished he would give up his sales job and focus on his craft, but Stuart insisted that the things he made weren’t worth selling.

“I do this because I enjoy it, dear. Nobody wants to buy a bunch of homemade junk. Knowing that you like them is enough for me,” he had told her.

* * *

After feeding Max and making some dinner for herself, Gina contemplated calling Stuart to find out when he would be home, but resisted the urge. She didn’t want to ruin the surprise, but the anticipation was too much to bear. She paced nervously, stopping to stare at herself in the hallway mirror every time she passed. She had been born with blue eyes; now they were brown. She compared her reflection to the wedding photo of her and Stuart that hung on the wall next to the mirror. It was hard to tell the difference from the photo, but she found it unsettling nonetheless.

Gina turned on the TV but couldn’t find anything interesting to watch. What to do? She could take Max for a walk, but it was dark out. She chuckled. Too dark! Darkness had never been a problem before. Maybe she could take Max out into the yard at least. She hadn’t looked at her garden yet. She shoved her feet into her shoes and slipped into a light jacket. It was late spring, but a chill lingered in the air. She called Max and opened the sliding door to the backyard. Max stayed by her side at first, waiting to be harnessed. Once she understood that her mistress didn’t require her assistance, she bounded across the yard and busied herself sniffing all the nooks and crannies.

The tulips were in bloom near the shed Stuart used as a workshop. Their colors stood against the darkness, bathed in a glow from the window. That was odd. He must have left a light on.

Or perhaps it wasn’t odd at all. Gina knew nothing about the methods he used in creating his art. Maybe part of the wood-curing process required light of some sort. She didn’t know because she had never seen. She had never even been inside his workshop.

I shouldn’t. I should wait for him to show me. It didn’t feel right to snoop, as curious as she was. She would ask Stuart to give her the grand tour when he came home.

Maybe just a little peek. What harm could it do?

Gina tried the door. It was unlocked. She pushed it open a crack and peeked inside. A curtain hung in front of the door, obstructing her view of the inside of the shed. She pulled the curtain aside and entered her husband’s workshop.

Something tickled her hair and she jumped back, startled. Eerie shadows danced on the walls. A string swung next to her shoulder. She brushed it away and looked up. The string was connected to a chain, which was attached to a dangling light fixture. The swaying bulb was the sole source of light in the workshop.

The workbench was cluttered with tools and debris from partially finished projects. A bit of wood here, a scrap of leather there. A pale stick of wood was clamped in the vise, a work in progress judging by the half-worn sheets of sandpaper and fine layer of dust on the bench below. She caressed the graceful curve of the piece with her fingertips, wondering what it was going to be. It always amazed her; the way Stuart could create such elegant contours from an ordinary chunk of wood. She couldn’t wait to watch him work.

A large barrel sat in one darkened corner of the room. Curious, Gina lifted the lid to peer inside. A powerful odor assaulted her nostrils. The barrel was filled with some sort of dark liquid with a strong chemical smell. Things floated inside the liquid, but she couldn’t see what they were. She wasn’t about to poke around in that nasty stuff. Her toe bumped against the barrel, causing the liquid to slosh a bit. Something floated to the top. A recognizable shape, but no – it couldn’t be that – it had to be a trick of the light. Gina used the pull-cord to swing the light bulb in the direction of the barrel. Back and forth it swung. Light splashed over the barrel, then dark. The thing disappeared between the surface of the liquid. She kicked the barrel again and swung the light.

Light. Dark.

Light. Dark.

Light. The thing came into view again. The light swung, revealing the shapes of skeletal fingers.

Gina screamed.

The bulb swung another arc, illuminating the far corner of the room. A wooden crate came into view. It overflowed with sticks much like the one currently clamped in the vise. Now she saw that they weren’t sticks at all, but bones.

Human bones, she was certain. What else could they be?

She stumbled backward, scrambling for the door. She ran outside and tripped over Max, who had heard her scream and come to her rescue. She landed face down in the grass. Max whined and rushed to lick her face.

She heard vehicle approaching and headlights flashed across the driveway. Stuart was home. Gina ran to the house with Max close on her heels. She dashed inside and ran to retrieve the Max’s harness from her bag. With shaking hands, she slipped the harness on the dog and fastened it in place. She dove onto the couch and managed a few deep breaths to appear calm before the door opened and Stuart walked in.

“Hey, beautiful! You’re home. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow. Why didn’t you call? I could have picked you up at the airport.”

She took care to look past him rather than at him to maintain the illusion of blindness. But she did see. She didn’t miss the dark splotches of red on his grey t-shirt. He looked like he’d been in a fight.

And won.

“I wanted to surprise you. Besides, I know how busy you are. I didn’t want to bother you.”

“You’re never a bother, sweetness.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek.

She smiled and kissed him back, keeping her eyes downcast for fear he would see that they were different.

“I’m going to take a shower. Have you eaten yet? We could order pizza,” Stuart suggested.

“Yes. I mean, no, I haven’t eaten. Pizza would be fine. I’ll call while you’re in the shower. You want the usual?”

“Whatever you like, my love.”

Gina couldn’t fathom eating, but she knew she needed to keep up appearances. She couldn’t let him suspect anything was wrong.

* * *

A week passed. They celebrated Stuart’s birthday with dinner at a nice restaurant and she gave him a watch as a gift. She maintained her façade of blindness, kept Max harnessed and allowed the dog to guide her everywhere she went. Max knew something was different, but Gina’s secret was safe with her.

She wracked her brain to devise a way to escape her predicament. Leaving Stuart without an explanation didn’t seem like a viable option. She was afraid of him now. A homicidal monster lurked beneath his kind and loving exterior, and she had no idea what it would take to trigger his wrath and turn that monster on her. She needed to know more about what motivated him to do the things he did.

She waited patiently and watched his daily activities. Soon a pattern emerged. Monday through Thursday he was home for dinner, but on Fridays he worked late. Or so she had always thought.

One Friday night she looked out the window and noticed the light was on in the shed. Stuart was out there, and yet his van was not in the driveway. Gina slipped out the front door with Max in harness and walked around the block, where she discovered Stuart’s van parked in the alley behind their house. It seemed he was parking in the alley and sneaking in through the back gate. He didn’t want her to know he was home.

As she watched, a truck pulled up behind his van. A strange man got out and the two of them unloaded a large plastic-wrapped bundle and together they carried it through the back gate and to his shed.

A chill ran down Gina’s spine. She didn’t have to think very hard to guess what was inside that bundle.

Who was the man? Stuart had an accomplice? She tried to get a look at the license number, but it was too dark.

What was she to do? Call the police? With what evidence?

She didn’t even know what kind of truck it was. She couldn’t tell a Ford from a Dodge because she had never seen different types of vehicles up until now.

Gina realized she had a long way to go in acclimating herself in the sighted world before she could be a reliable witness to anything.

Gina spent the following week studying everything she could to fill her brain with visual information – books, websites, and just going for walks with Max and taking in the sights in her neighborhood. She had sworn her sister to secrecy about her sight restoration. The neighbors still believed she was blind, and it was easy to fool them as long as she wore her dark glasses. She could carry on conversations while studying the minute details of a person’s face, clothing, and immediate surroundings and no one was the wiser.

She spent hours in the attic, searching through old boxes, some of which had been there prior to their marriage. The house had been in Stuart’s family for generations. She found old photos of his parents and grandparents and marveled at the resemblance he bore to them. Another box held photo albums from a more recent era, from Stuart’s childhood through to adulthood. She pulled a white album from the bottom of the box and gasped when she saw the photo on the first page. It was a wedding photo, of Stuart and another woman. He hadn’t told her he’d been married before. Why?

Then again, it wasn’t the only thing he hadn’t been honest about.

She flipped through the pages, studying the woman’s face. His previous wife was in other albums as well; vacation photos, mostly. There they were standing in front of the Grand Canyon, and here on a beach in Mexico. His ex-wife had a nice figure for a bikini, curvy but not quite plump, and had a lovely floral tattoo down the length of her thigh – some sort of delicate vine with little pink flowers on it. What kind of flower was that? She was sure she had seen it before, recently. It had to be recently, since she had only had her sight for a few weeks.

* * *

One afternoon Gina gathered the courage to take another look in the shed. She let Max run loose in the yard. Stuart wasn’t due home for hours.

The sludge barrel was empty. It smelled foul and strong. No hands or feet to be found. The same crate of bones sat in the corner. In the daylight they somehow didn’t look as ominous. What should she do? Take some of the bones to the police? That would probably be the best way to proceed. She crouched beside the crate and reached toward it.

“I see I’m not the only one with a secret,” Stuart said behind her.

Gina screamed and leaped to her feet. She stumbled backward, tripping over more bones.

“How long, Gina?”

“I – don’t – know what you mean,” she stammered.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Why would you hide it from me? Jesus, Gina, you can see!” Tears shimmered in his eyes. “It’s a miracle, and the biggest event of your life – of our lives – I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t share it with me.”

“I’m sorry. I meant to tell you. I wanted to surprise you, I just – I didn’t know when to tell you, and then I found… I found…” Gina looked down at the scattering of bones at her feet.

“I guess I owe you an explanation. I should have told you. But it was easier to let you think I was crafting with wood. People find bones a bit creepy, even when they’re just animal bones.”

Animal bones?”

“Of course! Gee whiz, Gina, what the hell did you think they were?”

“But I came in one night, and I saw… in that barrel… it looked like…” Gina looked down at her hand and spread out her fingers, then looked back up at Stuart.

“A hand? Is that what you thought it was?” He laughed. “I think I understand now. Sweetie, have you ever seen a human skeleton? Or an animal one for that matter?”

“Well, no, I guess not,” Gina admitted.

Stuart put his arm over her shoulders. “Come with me, darling, and I will show you. I think we can clear up this whole misunderstanding.”

As they walked back toward the house, Stuart hugged her close and leaned in to kiss her cheek. “I can’t believe you can see! I want you to tell me all about it!”

Gina’s heart warmed with renewed love for her husband. He had already forgiven her lie and suspicion. She beyond embarrassed that she could have suspected he was a murderer.

Back at the house, Stuart sat Gina in front of the computer and showed her pictures of bones on the internet.

“You see? This is a human hand, without the flesh. Does that look like what you saw?”

“Yes, actually, it does.”

“Now look at this. This is a bear paw. Do you see the resemblance? Once the flesh is removed, the toes actually have a finger-like appearance. Could this have been what you saw?”

Gina hung her head. “Yes. The lighting was poor, and I only saw it for a few seconds. It could just as easily have been this that I saw.”

“Just for comparison, this is a fox, this is a wolf, and this – this is the fin of a whale. All mammals share the same characteristics in their skeletal structure.”

“Who was that man I saw you with? I saw you and another man carrying a bundle into the shed.”

“That was Lars. He’s one of the hunters I work with. He brings me carcasses after he’s stripped them of meat, so that I can clean the bones and make things from them. That was a bundle of moose bones we were carrying. I almost have enough for a matching pair of rocking chairs. I wanted to try my hand at building something larger.”

“That sounds amazing.” Gina hung her head, her shoulders shaking with sobs.

“Hey,” Stuart said, taking her in his arms, “Don’t do that. What’s the matter?”

Gina sniffled. “Being blind most of my life, I’ve always had these pictures in my mind of what I thought things looked like, but now that I can see, everything is so different! I feel like I’m in an alien world, and I don’t know what to trust anymore.”

“Shh,” he said. He held her against him, stroking her hair. “It’s ok. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. Just tell me what you need so I can be there for you.”

“I have everything I need. I have you.”

She felt ashamed for thinking he could be capable of anything so unspeakable. Her husband had an odd hobby, granted, but his art was beautiful and she couldn’t have been more proud of him.

She decided not to mention the old photo albums and wedding photos she had seen. Whether or not he had been married before was none of her business unless he chose to tell her. It was a conversation for another time.

* * *

Later that night, after a romantic candlelit dinner, Stuart led her upstairs, where they made love by the dim glow of the handcrafted lamp. Along the edge of the lampshade a faded design was visible

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Ernest sat up in bed. “ You hear that?”
Louise looked up from her book. “What’s that, dear?”
“There it is again! It’s the basement door. It’s those damn zombies.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing. Just the wind.”
“Wind my ass!” Ernest muttered, glancing at the shotgun leaning against the wall in the corner of the bedroom. These days he kept both barrels loaded, just in case. “It’s zombies, I tell ya! I thought I told you to get rid of those fucking laundry pods.”
The door rattled again. Ernest had installed sturdy new locks, but they would never give up as long as what they desired lay on the other side of the door.
“Dammit, Louise! This is your fault!”
Louise peered at him over the rims of her glasses. “Seriously, Ern? And what do you expect me to do with them? Just throw them away? I paid good money for those, and I can’t buy them anymore. I’m not going to throw away perfectly good products! Besides, they get the laundry so clean and bright!”
“Clean and bright isn’t worth risking our lives.”
Louise gave him one of those looks reserved for naive children and simpletons. “Isn’t it? Stain-free clothes are worth a little risk. Don’t be a coward, Ernest.”
Ernest opened his mouth to argue, then closed it. He knew when he was licked.
“Ok, fine, use them up then. How many are left?”
“I bought the Mega Pack from Costco. I got in on the sale just before they pulled them from the shelves. It was one of the last ones, and I was lucky to get it. People are so rude. Fighting, clawing, just to save a few dollars.”
“Isn’t that the same thing you were doing?” Ernest pointed out.
Louise shrugged. “Well, I got them, so I’ll be damned if I’m just going to throw them away.” She sighed. “I’m sure going to miss those things. They get the laundry so clean and bright.”
* * *weirder tales poster
What had started as a stupid YouTube stunt turned into a disaster of epidemic proportions. The idiots who ate Tide laundry pods experienced unfortunate side effects from the chemicals contained in the detergent. Brain function slowed. These individuals, clearly short on brains to begin with, became shambling, babbling shells of their former selves. (one still might argue that it was an improvement) The other, more disturbing effect was the hunger. The Pod People craved the colorful packets of toxin and would go to any lengths to obtain them. They possessed an uncanny ability to sniff them out. Stores stopped selling the detergent after the first few weeks of the epidemic to stop the looting. Citizens were ordered to turn their Tide Pods over to authorities. Anyone found with the pods in their possession would not be eligible for police protection in the event of zombie attack. Attacks were the biggest concern, because bites were the way the plague was spread. And Pod People were bitey little fuckers. They were faster than they looked, in spite of their shuffling gait, and inordinately tenacious when focused on something they wanted – that something being Tide Pods, of course. A bite from one of the Pod People would transfer the toxins that flowed through their veins. Victims of bites began to crave laundry pods, overcome with an irresistible urge to eat them. If not apprehended and incarcerated, they wouldn’t rest until they found and ate some of the detergent. Over time, brain damage set in, transforming them from desperate junkies into shuffling, mumbling zombies. Pod junkies were more dangerous than full-fledged zombies because they still retained some of their (albeit limited) intelligence and still looked like regular people, aside from their desperate, pod-craving behavior. They were also contagious; a bite or scratch from a pod junkie was all it took to spread the addiction.
* * *
And now someone was trying to open the basement door, attracted by the scent of those godfucked laundry pods Louise was so bloody insistent on keeping. Ernest hoped it was just a zombie and not a junkie. Pod junkies were crafty enough to find a way past a locked door. Zombies just bumped against the door like a trapped Roomba until something else caught their attention. Either way, Ernest knew he was in for another sleepless night. He checked his guns to reassure himself they were loaded, and prayed the locks would hold.
* * *
The next night Ernest awoke sitting in his recliner, where he’d dozed off while watching TV. He heard a sound in the laundry room downstairs. He raced to the bedroom to grab his shotgun. The locks hadn’t held after all. One of the bastards had gotten in and from the sound of it, was in the laundry room chowing down on Tide Pods.
A fucking pod junkie.
Ernest cussed silently and crept toward the sound, shotgun at the ready. The hunched figure in the laundry room had its back to Ernest. He raised the gun and clicked the safety off. The junkie stopped munching and turned to face him, streaks of blue and orange running down its chin.
“Clean and bright!” Louise giggled. “Yummy! And they make everything clean and bright!”
Louise wiped an arm across her mouth and Ernest saw the deep red scratches on the underside of her arm. The scuffle at Costco had yielded more than just a bargain on detergent.
“Join me, Ern. It’s Heaven! Heaven, I tell you!”
“Stay back, Louise. Don’t make me – ”
Louise lunged at Ernest and he squeezed the trigger.
 
Copyright © 2018 Mandy White
(Published in Weirder Tales by WPaD)

Sitnalta

Posted: August 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Peter had always wanted to see what lay beyond the gate, but it was forbidden. Venturing beyond the iron barrier meant certain death, they were told. Having lived all his life within the walls, he had to rely on the stories related by the elders, whose parents and grandparents had once lived on the outside.

The tales spun by the fireside at night told of wondrous things: gleaming silver castles that rose to the heavens; of magical devices that flew or sped along the ground at a breathtaking pace. At one time, people lived without walls and could travel anywhere they wished. They had even flown to the stars themselves.

That was before IT happened.

The land was tainted, he was told. Tainted by a mysterious force that swept the planet after a collision with a gigantic asteroid. The blow disrupted the Earth’s magnetic grids, changing the position of the axis and forever altering the face of the planet. Strange radiation emanated from the impact site, traveling along the lines of longitude until it enveloped the planet. The electromagnetic frequencies on the planet began to change; weakening and mutating into a new energy that was not compatible with biological life.

Areas where the new frequencies were strongest became ‘dead’. The old frequencies were too weak to support life in those regions anymore; vegetation died off and surviving humans were forced to move. Collecting seeds, plants and livestock in an attempt to preserve themselves and as much of their old world as possible, people migrated in a series of mass exoduses to the few regions left on Earth where the old magnetism remained strong. Several ‘power spots’ on Earth that had mystified humankind for centuries became safe havens in the face of what had the potential to be an extinction-level natural disaster.

Pockets of surviving humanity now clustered near Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, several temples of Mayan and other origins, Easter Island, the Hawaiian Islands and the newly located North and South Poles. Because of the polar shift, the planet’s ice caps had melted and refrozen in the areas surrounding the new poles. The movement of the ice and change in magnetics also caused the oceans to reposition themselves. Ocean floor became dry land and the sea swallowed entire chunks of continents, including the southern half of North America.

It was in one of these former ocean floor regions that Peter lived. He was born there, just as his parents were. Neither he nor his parents had ever ventured beyond the walls of the city of Sitnalta, located in the center of what was known as the Bermuda Triangle. The two thousand or so survivors who colonized the site did not erect most of the buildings; the place had been a city once, long, long ago. According to ancient legends, the city was part of a continent that had sunk into the sea. The ruins were remarkably well preserved and served the residents well after a bit of rebuilding. The new citizens of Sitnalta built a massive wall around the majestic city. A large iron-barred gate sealed the only path to the outside world. The Mayor of the city had the only key, and he opened the gate for no one.

Peter knew the wall was for his own protection. Although the magnetic energy was strong and healthy in the middle of the Triangle, it weakened as one moved away from the site. ‘Out There’ was where the bad energy was. Peter could never go Out There because he would die. His grandfather told stories about early explorers who ventured Out There and never returned. Others had made it back to the safety of the city but they were weak and pale. They were also insane; babbling in frantic, disconnected words, unable to form coherent sentences. They died soon afterward.

The land outside the city was dead, and it was common knowledge that all who ventured Out There would die as well. The exact borderline between safety and death was unknown, therefore the law decreed that all citizens stay inside the walls.

Just the same, Peter longed to explore beyond the gate. From the roof of the temple, the city’s tallest building, he could glimpse parts of the world outside the city walls. It was a magical alien landscape filled with colorful rock formations, the remnants of what had once been a coral reef. Pink and white seashells covered the sparkling sand as far as the eye could see, scattered like forgotten treasure. In the distance, on the other side of the reef the mast of a ship could be seen. It begged to be explored and it was close enough to the city that it had to be safe. He dreamed of being a brave explorer, even if he couldn’t venture far from the walls.

Life wasn’t fair; he was fifteen years old – practically a man – and yet he was unable to choose where he could or could not go.

Day after day, Peter made the trek to the gate to peer through the bars, hoping to catch a glimpse of something new. Each day the same view greeted him: rocks, sand and coral. He knew that the gleaming white bones to the left of the gate were part of a massive skeleton, from a creature called a ‘whale’ that had once lived in the water. He wanted to touch the bones to see if they were as smooth as they looked. The seashells beyond the gate looked the same as the thousands of shells found within the city walls but Peter was convinced they would somehow be better.

One day, on his visit to the gate, he noticed something unusual. The iron barrier sat at a different angle than before. On closer inspection, he discovered that the gate was ajar!

How? More importantly, who?

Maybe it had come open on its own. He inspected the lock. It was well oiled and appeared to be functional. No, the gate had been opened by someone with a key. The only person who had a key was the Mayor. What would the Mayor be doing outside the gate?

Peter hesitated, hand on the gate. This was it. Here was his chance. Did he dare?

He took a deep breath and then swung the gate wide and stepped through to the other side.

“I won’t go far,” he whispered under his breath. “Just enough to see. Just to the other side of these rocks.”

Well, maybe he would go as far as the whale skeleton, but no farther. He could touch the bones and maybe take one of its teeth as a souvenir.

His legs shook as he took first one step, then another. He saw footprints in the sand leading away from the gate. They had to belong to the person who had opened the gate. They led past the rocks, away from the whale skeleton.

Just a quick look, then I’ll turn back, he thought.

He followed the footprints past the rocks and another larger group of rocks loomed in front of him. The footprints led into a narrow crevice between the rocks. He had to follow if he wanted to see what was on the other side. He looked back. The whale skeleton was getting smaller in the distance and he considered turning back. Yes, he would definitely turn back now. Just as soon as he saw what was on the other side.

Peter eased through the narrow path, trying to step softly as his feet crunched on layers upon layers of tiny seashells that had accumulated between the rocks. The path twisted and turned and became almost completely dark. Once again Peter considered turning back but then he saw a sliver of light up ahead. He pushed forward and the path widened until he stepped back out into the sunlight.

The footprints continued past an outcropping of rock. Peter followed. A flash of color up ahead caught his eye. As he drew closer, he saw a small red flag, planted in the sand. As he followed the path further, he saw another flag, then another. When he rounded the corner of the rock formation, he froze.

No!

It couldn’t be.

Peter stood before another wall, much like the one that surrounded his city. Set within the wall was another iron barred gate, just like the other.

What did it mean?

As Peter approached the gate, he saw that it had a sign on it. He stopped once again when he read the words on the sign:

Danger!

Point of No Return

Peter stumbled backward and rushed back toward the crevice in the rock. He’d seen enough. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to be back within the safety of Sitnalta’s walls.

“Young man!” A stern voice spoke. “What are you doing out here?”

An old man stood near the wall, holding a strange device.

Peter stammered, “I… I just… I’m sorry!”

“I was finished anyway. I will walk you back,” the man said. “What’s your name, son?”

“Peter.”

“Well, Peter, you need to understand this is no place for you to be. There is a reason you are confined to the city.”

Peter nodded. “I’m sorry. I was on my way back. I just wanted to see…” he gestured toward the wall. “What is this? Another wall?”

“Yes. And beyond that wall, there is another.”

“What? Why?”

The old man sighed.

“I suppose I should introduce myself. I am Professor John Davenport. I am a scientist. I work for the Mayor.”

“The Mayor… he has the key.”

“Yes, he is the Keeper of the Key but that is not to say that he is the only one who uses it. I have clearance to venture outside to do my work.”

“What are you doing?”

“The same thing I’ve always done, and my father before me and my grandfather before that. I am the Monitor. My job is to monitor the electromagnetic levels, the only way possible. This device was designed by my grandfather. He lived in the old world, before IT. He remembered the old technology and the way it worked. This Gizmometer is the only means we have of measuring the energy levels to determine where it is safe and where it is not.”

“So, is it? Safe, I mean. Around here.”

Professor Davenport shook his head sadly. “No. It is not.” Seeing Peter’s panicked expression, he touched the boy’s arm in reassurance. “You are not in any immediate danger, don’t worry. But, one day in the not-too-distant future this place will be dead, just like out there.” He nodded toward the gate.

“What are those?” Peter asked, pointing at the flags.

“Markers. They mark the spot where the energy begins to drop. As you can see, the weakness has already advanced into the second circle.”

“Second circle?”

“Yes. Remember, I told you that beyond this wall there is another? At one time, that was the wall to our land. Your ancestors could move freely about this area, just as you now do within the confines of the city. That was the first gate. As the weakness spread, our magnetic safe zone began to shrink. My grandfather advised that another, smaller wall be built to ensure that everyone remained well within the healthy area.”

“The safe zone shrunk?” Peter asked, alarmed.

“Come.” Davenport beckoned and walked back toward the gate. Peter followed hesitantly. The Point of No Return sign made him nervous.

“It’s ok. It’s still safe at the gate… for now. The levels are just beginning to drop in this area.”

They reached the gate and Peter stood beside the scientist to look through the bars. The boy gasped at what he saw. The meaning of it hit home all at once.

Flags.

Hundreds of them, as far as the eye could see, gradually advancing from some distant place to the gate where they stood, and beyond.

“Each flag marks the new border of the safe zone. Most of the ones you see were placed there by my father, then by me. When the red flags reached this wall, we had to pull back and build another one. The third wall was built about twenty years ago. In your lifetime, you will witness and likely participate in the building of another.”

Peter followed the professor back down the path toward the crevice.

As they passed the last flag, the scientist paused.

“This one,” he said, pointing at the flag, “I placed here today. The one before it, less than two years ago. It is accelerating. The smaller our circle gets, the faster it shrinks. We build the walls to keep everyone safe, but also to keep them from knowing the truth. We don’t want mass panic on our hands.”

Peter’s heart thudded in his chest. “What are you saying?”

“Isn’t it clear, boy? Our safe zone is shrinking. ALL of them are. The planet is dying and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. Sitnalta will continue to shrink and we will be pushed closer and closer together until there is no more room to move. No more room to build walls. There will be no escape.

When it reaches that point, it is written that the Keeper of the Key will open the gate and we will be locked in no more.”

 

 

Copyright © 2012 Mandy White

(Previously published in Dragons and Dreams by WPaD)

 

 

Sphere

Posted: August 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Lola almost turned back when she saw the darkened street filled with abandoned buildings. Love for her sister and a desire for a better life for both of them spurred her toward the address given by the woman on the phone.
48 Egasuas Ave. There it was. The building didn’t look like much; it appeared deserted, except for the freshly painted white door and intercom. Lola paused before pressing the button. Last chance to turn back.
Footsteps scuffled in the alley. A thin, hunched figure was approaching.
Shit. A junkie. Just what I need.
Lola slid her hand into her purse and felt for the smooth round security of her pepper spray canister. She jabbed the intercom’s call button.
“Yes?” A woman’s voice crackled over the speaker.
“Lola Cooper. I called on the phone. Can you let me in please?”
“Of course, Ms Cooper. One moment please.”
Lola wanted to scream that she didn’t have a moment. The junkie was only a few yards away and probably seconds from mugging her.
A buzzer sounded, followed by a metallic CLUNK and the door swung open.
Lola dashed inside and tried to push the door shut behind her, but it was automated and inched closed at an excruciating pace.
Fuck. Fuck. He’s going to get me.
“Hello? she called, “Is anyone there? I need some help here.”
The junkie was right outside the door. Lola heard his raspy breathing.
“Wait! Hold that door!” he said.
Not on your life, asshole, Lola thought. The door clicked shut and she slumped against it with a sigh of relief.
The intercom buzzed.
Seriously? He’s a persistent one.
Lola heard the muffled sound of the woman’s voice over the speaker outside, and then the buzz and CLANK as the door opened for the junkie. Lola backed away from the door, unsure of where to run.
“Help! Somebody! Help me!”
Footsteps echoed from somewhere and a door opened. Light spilled from the doorway, around the figure of a woman dressed in white.
“Ms Cooper. Sorry to keep you waiting. This way please.”
Lola scurried over to the woman and ducked through the doorway into the safety of the light.
“Thank you. But we need to hurry, there’s a – ”
“We just need to wait a moment. There is one more person joining us.” The woman held the door open for the approaching junkie. “Mr. Benson, welcome. Come this way, please.”
Lola’s cheeks flushed and she ducked her head to hide her embarrassment. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might not be the only one arriving at that time.
The young man who stepped through the doorway wasn’t more than a kid; maybe twenty years old, but his sunken cheeks and gray complexion told a story of a hard life and probably addiction, as Lola had suspected. He was part of this too? Lola realized it made sense. An offer of a large sum of money to participate in a scientific experiment was bound to attract a lot of desperate people. And nobody was more desperate than an addict.
“If you’ll both follow me, please,” the woman said.
Lola almost had to jog to keep up the brisk pace. She focused on the tight blonde bun above the collar of the woman’s lab coat, to avoid meeting the eyes of the junkie.
The woman stopped at a closed door and entered numbers on a keypad. Another CLUNK and the door opened.
The glare of fluorescent lighting reflected off of every surface in the room. Everything was white from floor to ceiling, even the furnishings. Small tables with chairs occupied most of the floor space. It was a cross between hospital cafeteria and futuristic nightclub.
“Please have a seat anywhere you like,” the woman said, “The others will be here shortly, and then we’ll begin. Can I offer you some refreshments?” She pulled a remote from her pocket and pressed a button. A section of the wall slid back, revealing a fully stocked bar, coffee machine, and a glass-front fridge filled with beverages. “Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll be back shortly.”
Lola knew better than to eat or drink anything offered by strangers who kept hidden lairs in old buildings.
The addict made his way to the bar and rummaged, probably in hopes of finding something besides liquor. He finally settled for a can of Pepsi.
He leaned against the wall across the room from Lola, arms folded, scratching himself every few minutes.
Some time passed and then the door CLUNKED again. The woman in white returned, leading three people: The first was a large bearded man who might have come directly from a taping of Duck Dynasty. He was dressed in camouflage clothing from head to toe, from his boots to his baseball cap. The other two were a couple, judging from the way they squabbled. The woman wore heavy makeup and her hair was teased into a jumble of red on top of her head. Part of a faded blue tattoo peeked over the top of her hot pink tube top.
“Lola Cooper and Josh Benson, please welcome our newest arrivals: Bradley and Becky Modine and William Worth”
“Naw, nobody calls me William, sweetheart,” Duck Dynasty drawled. “It’s Billy, but everyone just calls me Bud.”
“Very well, Bud. Why don’t you and the others get acquainted and help yourself to some refreshments. We are waiting for a few more to arrive, then we’ll begin.”
Lola wasn’t sure if she wanted to acquaint herself with any of the others. She remained silent and stayed in her seat.
Becky wandered around the room, searching for something.
“Where’s the ashtrays?”
“Sorry, there’s no smoking in this part of the building,” the woman in white told her.
“What? That’s fucking bullshit! I didn’t sign up for…”
“Shut up!” Bradley shouted in her face. “Don’t start your shit right now, woman. Why don’t you make yourself useful and go find me a drink.” He planted himself in a chair and put his feet on the table.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Becky said, making a beeline for the box of Merlot on the counter. She poured a generous glass of wine for herself before opening the fridge to look for beer. She grabbed a can of Coors and gave it an extra shake before tossing it to Brad.
Lola heard the crack of the can being opened, followed by a string of cuss words as beer foam spewed over Brad’s hand.
“Fucking bitch! Be more careful next time!”
“How ‘bout next time you get your own fucking beer?”
***
An hour later, the room was filled with men and women ranging in age from approximately twenty to forty years. Many stood due to lack of seating.
A man walked into the room. Like the woman, he wore a lab coat.
“I am Dr Lawrence Hughes. You have already met my associate, Dr. Kathleen Welch. Thank you all for arriving on time.”
Junkie Josh raised his hand. “How much longer is this going to take?” Sweat glistened on his forehead.
“Not long. We will get started with a brief meet-and-greet. After that, we will proceed to the next room, where we will begin the experiment.”
“And then we can get our money and go?”
“Unfortunately, not all of you will be accepted for our program. Those who don’t meet the requirements will be paid a thousand dollars each for their time, as a thank you for taking the time to answer our ad. We will need to see identification from all of you. Please have your I.D. ready for Dr. Welch to inspect.”
Wallets and purses opened and everyone produced identification for the blonde doctor to inspect. Except for one – Billy-Bud Worth, aka Duck Dynasty.
“What if I don’t show I.D? he said. “Not sure I’m comfortable whippin’ it out for a bunch of strangers.”
“Then you won’t be accepted for the program. You will leave and collect a thousand dollars, no strings attached.”
Josh waved his hand. “Hey Doc! I’m out. Got no I.D. I’ll take the thousand and get out of your hair.”
“That’s too bad. Ok, if you’ll just bear with us – ”
“Nope. Now. I have to leave now. Give me my fucking grand and let me out of here.”
Dr. Hughes gave Dr. Welch a nod and she led Josh from the room.
Bud pondered for a moment, then sighed and pulled out his wallet, which was attached to his belt by a chain. He slapped his driver’s license on the table.
“When I call your name, you will follow me to the next room. Those of you whose names do not get called, thank you very much for attending. Dr. Welch will see you out and give you your thousand dollar payment.”
Hughes began calling names, and those called followed him down a hallway. The rest remained in the room, waiting to be escorted out by Dr. Welch.
The next room was white as well, but with slightly different décor.
Rows of white psychiatrist-style couches lined the room. On each couch was a clipboard with a document attached and a pen.
“Take a seat, everyone. The document you see is a release. This is your last chance to change your mind. You can choose not to sign, walk away right now and collect a thousand dollars. If you sign it, you give consent to participate in our ground-breaking sleep study. It will also release our payment to you. As promised, you will receive one million dollars in cash, or electronic bank transfer if you prefer. If you choose bank transfer, please include the email address you use for online banking. The security password will be “payday”. We will transfer the funds and you can see it deposited in your bank account before we proceed.”
Mutterings rose across the room, along with a few laughs as everyone scoffed at the idea of accepting anything other than cash.
Bud’s voice boomed over the others, “Yeah, right. Like I’m gonna use any o’ that online shit for money. Y’all know that’s how the hackers git ya. I’ll take mine in cold, hard cash.” He signed the document with an illegible scrawl.
Hughes leaned over and pointed at a line on the document. “Be sure to add your next of kin, Bud. In case anything happens to you, we need to know who to give your money to. Just a precaution, of course.”
“Ain’t got none. If I don’t come outta this, I want my money to be buried with me.”
“As you wish.”
The rest of the room followed suit. All opted for cash except Lola. She chose the bank transfer option because it seemed wise to have a paper trail. She also had little confidence in her ability to tell the difference between real cash and a good counterfeit. She doubted anyone other than a banker could know for certain and the room seemed to have a distinct shortage of financial experts.
True to Dr. Hughes’ word, Lola accepted the transfer and then checked her bank balance on her phone. The new balance was one million dollars higher than it had been moments ago.
“Holy shit, it’s real,” she whispered. She hoped this was worth it, whatever this was. If anything happened to Lola, her twin sister Lisa had access to their joint bank account and the money would become hers.
Once everyone had signed and been paid, Dr. Hughes allowed them a few minutes to examine their briefcases full of money. Lola had never seen a million dollars in cash before, but didn’t dare ask anyone for a closer look. The paranoid glances that flashed from one face to the next warned her to keep her distance.
Dr. Hughes cleared his throat.
“It’s time to get started. If you’ll all please lie back on your couches and relax, we will get this over with quickly and then you will be free to enjoy your wealth.
They obeyed with some reluctance, not wanting to let their money out of their sight. Twenty-nine people lay on couches, clutching briefcases to their laps. Lola lay briefcase-free, her arms by her sides.
The lights dimmed until only shadows remained.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to make history. You are pioneers, about to take part in the creation of a brave new world.”
A murmur of excitement rippled over the room.
“Listen to the sound of my voice. Relax. And when the lights return, the experiment will be complete.”
The ones closest to the walls heard a faint hissing sound as colorless, odorless gas filled the room.
***
Bright light filled the room, accompanied by the rustle of movement, the rasp smokers’ coughs, and yawns.
Lola faded back to consciousness. It took a few minutes to remember where she was. Gradually the memories returned; the doctors, the million dollar payment, the Craigslist ad that started it all:
Volunteers wanted for sleep experiment. Payment in cash. Substantial monetary compensation for the right candidates. Call for more information.
When she called to inquire, the woman, presumably Dr. Welch, conducted a brief interview over the phone. Some sort of psychological questionnaire, judging by the odd questions:
“What is your favorite dinosaur?
How old is the Earth?
Who was the first man to walk on the moon?
Who was responsible for 9/11?
Is the Earth round, square, or flat?”
And so on… simple questions any fool would know how to the answer. A week later she received a call saying that she had been accepted for the experiment, and the payment would be… WHAT?
“I’m sorry, could you please repeat that?”
“One million dollars.” You will be paid one million dollars in cash,” the voice on the phone said.
Lola was skeptical, as was her sister Lisa. They had made the phone call together, via speaker phone. Lisa answer the questions, even though it would be Lola who showed up for the experiment. She didn’t agree with Lisa’s answers, but she never argued with her sister. Lisa needed to feel in control whenever possible. Her disability didn’t allow her that luxury very often.
“But what if it’s for real? We need the money.”
Lisa rolled her wheelchair closer to Lola and reached for her hand. “I need you more than I need money. Let’s pray on it. The good Lord will guide us with His wisdom.”
Lola tolerated the prayer like she tolerated the rest of Lisa’s eccentricities: her obsession with chemtrails, her membership with the Flat Earth Society, and of course her religious beliefs, which bordered on fanaticism. But all quirks aside, Lisa was her twin, and she loved her. Lola knew she was going to go, regardless of what Lisa thought God wanted.
She didn’t want to upset Lisa; her faith was her life. But Lola lived in the real world. Prayer didn’t pay medical bills. Lisa’s insurance didn’t cover the cost of her treatments, and as her illness progressed, the mountain of debt grew ever bigger. God wouldn’t have given her sister MS. God wouldn’t have buried them in debt they couldn’t pay. Fuck God. But maybe science could bail them out. She left Lisa a note asking her forgiveness and promising to return, then made her way to the address given to her by the caller.
***
While the rest of the room yawned and stretched, Bradley and Becky were already arguing.
“Gimme one of them!”
“Get your own damn smokes, woman! I only got a few left.”
“You ain’t gonna have any nuts left if I don’t get a smoke right now! Gimme!”
“Keep sassin’ me and you’re gonna get a fat lip. Here.” Bradley threw a cigarette at her.
“Gimme a light.”
He lit a smoke of his own, rubbed the lighter on his crotch and then flung it at her. “Stupid bitch.”
“Aw, real mature. Dickhead.”
Bud opened his briefcase to look inside, then snapped it shut again, as if worried that his cash would escape.
“Hey! Anybody know where a guy can drain the lizard ‘round here?”
A murmur ran through the group. Several others had the same idea.
“Over here!” A blonde woman in a leopard-print dress and stiletto heels clip-clopped toward an open doorway with male and female restroom signs on either side.
Other members of the group followed, forming dual lines in front of the bathroom doors, all clutching their briefcases of money. Bud drained the lizard one-handed, keeping a firm grip on his briefcase with the other.
The group milled around the room, exploring their surroundings. It wasn’t the same room they were in when they fell asleep.
A large TV screen hung on one wall with bland yet comfortable looking couches and plush armchairs arranged in front. Lola noticed one oddity: all the seats were equipped with seatbelts. A blind covered the opposite wall. The third wall accommodated the restrooms and the fourth held a set of double doors that led to a large open kitchen with booths and tables, all bolted to the floor like a fast food restaurant. Like the TV room, the seats had seatbelts.
“I still can’t find no ashtrays. Maybe I can open a window and ash outta that.” Becky strolled over to the wall opposite the TV and pulled on the blind. “Let’s see what’s behind here.”
The blind rose, revealing a large window. The room fell silent.
Space.
Blackness with stars stretched before their eyes.
A small tube was attached to the window. Becky saw the word TELESCOPE printed on the side of the tube. “Anyone know how to work this thing?”
Lola joined her at the window and examined the telescope. Astronomy was a hobby she kept secret from her sister, who didn’t believe in space or anything scientific. The telescope’s mount was a collapsible accordion-style thing. She pulled it away from the window and then expanded the telescope.
“Dang! Ain’t that nifty!” Becky said, breathing a lungful of smoke over Lola’s shoulder.
“Please, would you mind blowing that somewhere else? I don’t smoke.”
“Whatever, snowflake.” Becky huffed, moving back a few paces.

Lola ignored the remark and peered through the telescope. After a few seconds of searching, she found what she was looking for and confirmed her suspicions. A tiny blue planet with an even tinier moon could be seen in the distance. She adjusted the magnification on the scope to enlarge it.
Earth.
And they were not on it. In fact, they appeared to be moving away from it. But to where?
“Now what?” Becky said.
As if in reply, the TV screen flickered to life.
Dr Hughes was on the screen.
“Greetings everyone! If you’re watching this, then the sleep experiment was a success. Congratulations! Feel free to help yourself to refreshments and use the facilities at your leisure. You will be arriving at your destination shortly, and you will be notified prior to landing. When you hear the landing announcement, we ask that you follow instructions and remain seated with your seatbelts fastened. It’s just a precaution, of course. We anticipate a smooth landing, but in case the opposite occurs, we can’t have you hurtling around the cabin.”
“Cabin? What fucking cabin? Are we on an airplane?” Brad said.
Hughes droned on. Apparently they were watching a pre-recorded video.
“I’m sure by now you are wondering what your destination is. Let me start by saying that you are the first humans ever to set foot here. You are making history. You are pioneers in every sense of the word.”
Blondie stomped over to the screen and shouted at the larger-than-life image of Hughes. “I demand to know where you are sending us! This isn’t funny! I have an appointment tomorrow, and my manicurist will flip her shit if I have to cancel! You don’t even know…”
Voices rose across the room.
“Where are we?”
“You sendin’ us to one of those A-Rab countries? This better not be no Eye-Rack, or you gonna hear from my lawyer!”
“What the fuck kinda plane is this, anyways?”
“Hey! Quiet! Maybe we should listen to the rest of this!” Lola shouted over the crowd and pointed at the screen.
The TV screen had split into two panes. One continued to display Hughes, and the other, an image of outer space. A large reddish sphere filled most of the screen.
“What you see is your destination. The Red Planet, also known as Mars.”
“What? Fuck outta here with that bullshit.” Bud said.
“Yeah,” another voice piped up. “Y’all know that shit ain’t real.”
Dr. Hughes continued in the background. “You good folks have the honor of being the first humans to set foot on Mars. You will be the leaders of a new colony that has been decades in the making. We have sent numerous missions to Mars, manned by robots, which have constructed the domes and various structures that make up the colony. All that remained was to introduce a human population. You have all been carefully selected to be that population.”
Lola scanned the faces in the room. It looked like a trailer park block party. She had nothing in common with these people. How was it that she was chosen?
And then it hit her.
Lisa.
The questions.
Lisa had answered the questions, which were carefully selected to screen out everyone except science deniers, conspiracy theorists, Creationists… Flat Earthers…
Hughes droned on.
“You are all very fortunate to be part of this group. Your group is the only one to recieve a large cash payment for participation. Our financial backers cut our budget immediately following our payout to you. They felt a million dollars was too extravagant and that we should select test subjects with less… financial motivation. So you not only have the honor of being the first humans on Mars, you will also be the most wealthy.”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ bout!” Bud whooped, waving his briefcase. “Rest o’ them assholes can suck it!”
“To be honest, we didn’t think you’d get this far,” Hughes said. “Our previous test subjects didn’t survive the hyper sleep. And then we thought; why not kill two birds with one stone? This can be an experiment in education as well. So we chose individuals who would be most resistant to the idea of a space colony. Non-believers, if you will. Well, I predict that if you survive this experiment you will emerge as believers. How can you not believe in space or science, when you’re in space, making scientific history? And anytime you feel homesick for your beloved “flat” Earth, you can gaze at your home planet through the telescope and bask in its beautiful spherical glory.”
The screen switched and the image of Mars filled the screen again, but Hughes’ voice continued to narrate.
“I’ll ask you now to please find a seat and fasten your seatbelts. The ride might get a little bumpy from here. Best of luck, we’re all rooting for you. If you survive the landing, you can rest assured that your colony is going to grow. We have already dispatched a second shuttle filled with death row inmates to keep you company.”

Copyright © 2018 Mandy White

New Reality

Posted: July 20, 2018 in Uncategorized

Sweat beaded on Saul’s forehead. Being summoned to a meeting with the executives seldom meant good news. After thirty-seven years in the business, one would think he’d be used to it, but he’d never managed to shake the sense of impending doom he felt before every meeting. His fingers closed around the small cylindrical container in his pocket and resisted the urge. Xanax would dull the panic, but he needed to remain sharp when meeting with those piranhas.
* * *
Zorn reminded him of a bullfrog on Botox. His closed mouth, thin-lipped smile stretched impossibly wide across a face much too smooth for a man his size. He overflowed his chair like Jabba the Hutt crammed into an Armani suit. Saul half expected a long tongue to zip out of his mouth and snatch up a fly.
I’m that fly, he thought with a shiver.
His partner, Tang, was no less intimidating in spite of his slight frame. His hollow cheekbones and gaunt jawline displayed the lines of his skull beneath his taut grey skin. His dark eyes spoke no compassion, only cruelty.
“First of all,” Zorn began, “We’d like to congratulate you on the best rated season in history. You’ve really outdone yourself with this new leading man you’ve cast. Half the viewers love him, and half the viewers despise him, but nobody can stop watching him. He’s caused riots, violence between viewers and even some deaths. It has been…” Zorn paused to wet his lips and Saul shuddered. “Utterly delicious,” he finished. Tang nodded in agreement.
“Th-thank you,” Saul stammered.
Zorn silenced him with a wave of his pudgy hand. “Save it. I wasn’t finished.” He leaned back in his chair and stretched, testing the seams of his already-stressed jacket. “That said, we will not be renewing the show when the last season finishes.”
“What? Why? I don’t understand. You just said this was the most exciting season in history!”
“Exactly. The show has reached a plateau. It has nowhere to go but down from here. We are currently in negotiations to launch a new reality show elsewhere with a new cast. We are considering that Russian actor for the lead role.”
“The one from my show? But he’s practically an extra! The only thing that even put him on the map was his relationship with our leading man. The one I cast personally. My guy is a star. He’s the reason the show is number one worldwide.”
“We aren’t disputing that fact, Mr. Levinstein. You brought us a winner when you cast him, and believe me, we had our doubts in his abilities. His acting is dreadful and he’s come dangerously close to revealing our secret on numerous occasions with all his rambling about ratings. He really needs to watch his tongue. You are aware, of course, what will happen if viewers learn our show isn’t real.”
Tang’s eyes sparkled like chips of obsidian and the corners of his mouth twitched with a hint of a smile at his partner’s implication.
Saul stared at his shoes. If the viewing public discovered their secret, the only option was immediate cancellation. Not of just the show, but everything. Every damn thing.
“I understand, sir,” Saul said. “I promise I will have a word with him. There will be no more slips of the tongue.”
“No, there will not be. The next will be his last.”
“What if I promise you someone even better next time? Would you renew us for another eight seasons?” Saul knew he was grasping at straws, but straws were all he had left to salvage his career… his very life.
“Of course. But we know for a fact that you can’t. You will never find a candidate to top the one currently in office. In fact, we’re willing to bet on it ”
“Then place your bets. I will deliver to you the most dysfunctional presidential candidate the world has ever seen. The current star will look ordinary by comparison. If not, then I will retire from the reality show business forever and you can take the show in a new direction with the cast of your choice. Do we have a wager, gentlemen?”
“I do enjoy a gamble, Mr. Levinstein,” Tang said, “Even one I am confident I will win. What say you, Mr. Zorn?”
Zorn nodded. “It’s a bet. Eight new seasons against your directing career. But if you lose,” he waggled a bulbous finger in Saul’s direction, “You will retire not only from the reality show business, but show business altogether. You will never direct anything again. Not movies, not game shows, not even fucking traffic! Got it?”
“Got it.” Saul knew the consequences of disobedience. But he’d had a long and prosperous career. It was worth the risk if he could make this last shot count, and he had a plan.
* * *
After Saul left the boardroom, Tang scratched his chin, loosening the taut skin before sliding his face over the back of his head. Zorn followed suit, removing his human mask to reveal the reptilian head beneath.
Zorn stretched his jaw. “Damn, these things make me sweat. Don’t think I’ll ever get used to them.”
Tang regarded his partner, translucent eyelids blinking sideways over vertical pupils. “The Russian, Zorn? Where the hell did you come up with that one? We both know the guy is only an extra, and will never be more than that.”
“I have no intention of using him. But we’re only halfway through our biggest eight-season run in history and it wouldn’t do for our star director to panic and blow the whistle on the whole operation. We can’t change directors halfway through without risking ratings. He has chemistry with the leading man, and lord knows that guy needs someone who can rein him in.”
“And when he loses the bet, then what?”
“We cancel and move location. I already have scouts on several possible planets. We’ll observe while this show runs its course and choose the one with the most unstable population.”
“Who do you think he’ll come up with?” Tang asked.
“I’m thinking he’s got nothing. But I’m curious to see how it plays out. Maybe our friend Saul will surprise us.”
“Do you think this planet would even survive another eight seasons?”
“Not likely. We’ve depleted this rock. When we vaporize it we’ll be doing it a kindness.”
“Not that it matters. He will never find anyone to top our current leading man.”
* * *
Walking to his car, Saul pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and placed a call.
“Saul Levinstein, Central Casting here. I have the opportunity of a lifetime for one of your guys. Who do you have currently on death row?”

Copyright © 2018 Mandy White

The Pit

Posted: March 12, 2018 in Uncategorized

#ShortStorySunday

I was an avid outdoor enthusiast who loved everything outhouse-oldabout being in the woods: trees, fresh air, campfires and best of all, peace and quiet. Dirt, wildlife, tents, and pit toilets were all part of the experience. I’ll admit that having to use rustic restroom facilities were not my favorite part of camping but they never bothered me that much; that was, until I encountered the thing in the outhouse.

I stumbled down the path half-asleep one night sometime around three am, flashlight in hand in hopes that I wouldn’t trip and do a face-plant in the dirt. I locked myself inside the tiny wooden house and avoided looking into the hole beneath the seat before and after doing my business. I mean, who would want to see what was down there? Everybody knows what’s down there and it’s not pleasant.

When I was finished, I discovered to my horror that the lock was stuck. I set the flashlight on top of the toilet paper roll so I could use both hands to jiggle it loose. It really was stuck. The rusted bolt began to inch back slightly as I worked it back and forth. It was then that I heard a noise coming from behind me… or more specifically, below me.

I froze, holding my breath so I could listen carefully. Was there a wild animal outside the outhouse, waiting for me to free myself from one predicament just to stumble into even greater peril?

Silence.

Then I heard it again. A wet, sucking sound, followed by what sounded like a wheeze – laborious breath drawn into a congested pair of lungs.

I reached a shaking hand toward my flashlight, afraid to take my eyes off of the black hole I knew was the toilet pit. I fumbled and the flashlight fell to the floor with a loud THUMP. Then the light went out.

I froze again, listening for sounds from below.

Nothing.

I squatted, groping around on the floor for the flashlight. I bit back a scream when my hand touched something soft and wet.

Please let that be a slug or some mud! I begged inside my mind.

My fingers found the smooth metal cylinder of the flashlight, and I nearly wept from relief. The bottom had popped off and the batteries had come loose when it fell. I found the bottom and put the flashlight back together. I pressed the switch and it worked.

Do I even want to look?

I had to look. I knew I had no choice. If I was going to spend the night trapped in the shithouse, I at least needed to know whether or not I was alone in there. I shone the light into the pit.

The sight I beheld was the usual thing one might expect to see in the pit of an outdoor toilet – a mountain of stuff most foul, with bits of tissue embedded here and there. As nasty as it was, the sight comforted me because it was normal. Nothing moved and all was quiet.

Relieved, I once again turned my attention to the stubborn door lock and managed to work it loose. I opened the door a crack and peered out cautiously. I swept the flashlight beam across the path. If the noises hadn’t come from inside the pit, then whatever had made them might still be out there, waiting… I envisioned a Grizzly bear, sitting behind the outhouse, licking his chops as he waited for me to become his dinner.

Slurp. Suck. Wheeze.

There it was again! The sound had definitely come from behind me. I turned to face the toilet pit once again, keeping my foot braced against the door to prevent it from swinging shut. I leaned over and tentatively shone my light into the hole, preparing to look in again.

Whatever was down there didn’t like the light, from the frantic slapping, slopping noise it made. If I didn’t know better, I’d think someone had thrown a live trout down the hole.

I leaned over and looked. I saw nothing at first, then caught slight movement at the edge of the hole, near the base of Mount Feces. I followed it with the light as it burrowed into the muck. The thing was about the size of a toddler, plump and pink-bodied with a long ratlike tail. Some kind of hairless mutant sewer rat? It was too big to be a rat. It was probably a stupid idea, but I needed to see. I stamped my foot on the floor to get its attention. It stopped burrowing and turned to look up at me, face and… hands? covered in filth. The tail was where its resemblance to a rat ended. The face was rounded, almost human looking, with a scowl to rival the fiercest gargoyle. The thing withdrew from its burrow and, making that slappy-sloppy fish-out-of-water sound, it scuttled up the side of Mount Feces, toward my light.

I knew I should stop shining the light on it and get out of there. Somewhere in the back of my mind, logic screamed at me to run away as far and as fast as possible, but my body refused to listen. I stared, captivated, as the thing crouched on top of the shit-pile and raised a pale, bony arm. It reached toward the top of the hole as if hoping to grab the edge and pull itself out. The pit wasn’t full enough; it still fell several feet short of touching the edge of the toilet seat or possibly giving someone’s ass an unexpected tickle.

It wheezed a wet, whistly breath and then it spoke. The words were barely audible, but I swear it spoke to me.

“Feeeed meee,” it whispered, stretching its hand upward, long spidery fingers grasping but unable to reach.

If I hadn’t already used the toilet I probably would have done so right then and there.

Instead, I ran.

I packed my camping gear and drove away without waiting for sunrise. I was unable to explain my hasty departure to the group of friends I had been camping with, except to say that something urgent had come up. I warned them to stay away from that particular outhouse, using the excuse that I had seen a wasp nest in there.

As I drove down the highway into the dawn, I did some calculations in my head. The campground had about 150 sites, all occupied because it was the start of Labor Day weekend. By the end of the weekend, all of the pit toilets would be in dire need of pumping, but the truck probably wouldn’t arrive until midway through the following week. Plenty of time for the creature, whatever it was, to reach the rim of the hole and pull itself out.

I might camp again, someday.

But only in a campground with proper plumbing.

 

Copyright © 2014 Mandy White

 

Of Peach and Pigs

Posted: February 27, 2018 in Uncategorized

This is my entry to the Evil Squirrel’s Nest Annual Contest of Whatever:

Georgia hadn’t planned to run away. At first, she’d just planned to take off for the weekend to spend it with her boyfriend, Louie. When her mother caught her, things escalated.

Her mother disapproved of Louie.

“He’s too old for you! He isn’t even a high school graduate! Is that what you want? A future with a plumber?”

“Oh, you’re a fine one to talk, Mom! You dropped out of high school and eloped. With a mechanic! How did that work out for you?”

“Don’t you dare insult your father! He was an honest, hardworking man!”

“Yeah, until a Buick dropped on his head.”

Georgia felt the sting of the slap before she even saw her mother swing.

“You watch your mouth, Missy. Your father loved you.” Tears welled in her mother’s eyes and her tone softened. “He loved you so much. He called you his little Georgia Peach. That’s how you got your nickname.”

“I know.” Peach was her father’s special nickname for her. Most of her friends just called her Georgie. Georgia hugged her stuffed dragon, Yoshi. The toy was the last birthday present he had given her before his death. She had come home from school to find a bright pink box on her bed.

* * *

“Open it, Princess.” Her father stood in the doorway, grinning.

Georgia carefully untied the bow and opened the box. A green plush toy nestled in the pink tissue paper. She picked it up and hugged it. “He’s adorable! Thank you, Daddy!”

He nodded toward the box. “There’s more.”

 

She pulled back the tissue to reveal another, smaller box. Inside was a gold necklace set with a glittering gemstone. She held it up to the light and gasped at the shades of pink and gold reflected through the facets.

“Oh, Daddy! It’s gorgeous! What is it?”

“Topaz. Your birthstone. It’s called Imperial Topaz. I saw the color and thought you’d like it.”

“It looks expensive. You shouldn’t have.”

“Nothing is too good for my Princess Peach. Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

 

***

smash-luigi-peach-640x360

That was before. When life was perfect. Before a malfunctioning hoist crushed her father under a ton of metal. Before she met Louie.

 

Louie was a bit rough around the edges, much like she imagined her father must have been when her mother met him. She couldn’t understand why her mother didn’t like him, he should have reminded her of Daddy. Perhaps that was why. Her mother expected more from her daughter than what she herself had achieved.

None of that mattered now. It was her life, not her mother’s. How dare she tell her how to live it?

Later that evening, after her mother was asleep, Georgia packed a bag with a few extra clothes, makeup, and Yoshi, then slipped out the window into the night.

***

Her romantic rendezvous with Louie fell flat when she walked into his apartment to find him in the arms of another. His boss from the plumbing company, to be exact. Mary, aka “Hairy Mary” had a mustache to rival any of her male counterparts, not to mention a cavernous plumber’s crack. And there was Louie, in bed with her.

Georgia shrieked with fury and stormed out.

“Baby, wait!” Louie called after her, but he didn’t follow.

She set out alone, hitchhiking down a dark highway to who knew where.

She considered going home, but she wasn’t ready to face her mother yet. She needed to find a place to rest, and think about her next move.

The sky lightened on the horizon as dawn approached. The countryside was unfamiliar; desolate except for a few scattered farms. She noticed a large barn and wondered if she could take shelter inside. She hoped it was the kind of barn with a nice soft hayloft and not the kind filled with animal poop and rusted farm equipment.

Jackpot. It was the hayloft kind.

Georgia climbed the ladder and nestled into the hay, hoping she wouldn’t encounter any mice.

The Topaz on her necklace twinkled with an eerie light as she fell into a deep sleep.

* * *

Peach awoke, refreshed but somewhat confused about her surroundings. She could have sworn she had fallen asleep in a barn filled with hay. Now, she found herself in a sunlit green garden filled with strange trees and flowers. Odd structures dotted the landscape here and there; random clusters of bricks, ramps and upright pipes that didn’t seem to go anywhere. She approached one of the pipes and peered inside. Darkness swirled around her and she felt herself falling.

“Help!” she screamed.

“I’m coming, Baby! Hang on!” Louie’s voice reached her in the darkness.

“Oh, no you don’t, Luigi!” Peach recognized Hairy Mary’s gravely voice. “You ain’t goin’ nowheres! Now git yer lazy butt back here.”

Her fall ended in a gentle landing. Brick walls surrounded her. It looked like some kind of dungeon. Thirsty, Peach slipped her backpack off her shoulders and groped inside for her water bottle. Something squirmed.

She screamed and jumped back, dropping the backpack. A small green head popped out.

“Hellooo!” Yoshi squeaked.

“Yoshi? You can talk?”

“Of course! What are we going to do first?”

“Well, first I think I’d like to get out of this place.”

“Follow meee!” Yoshi said, his voice trailing off as he disappeared into the nearest pipe.

Peach had no choice but to follow. Darkness swirled again and she felt the falling sensation again, only this time she landed in a colorful place, beside a road. Yoshi sat behind the wheel of a car, waiting for her.

MKWii_Yoshi

“Let’s go!” he said.

Peach hopped in and Yoshi drove down the twisty road at blinding speeds, occasionally bumping strange creatures out of the way. They approached another car from the rear.

“Woohoo! It’s Mario and Luigi! We got ourselves a race!” Yoshi shouted over the noise of the cars.

Mary drove like a fiend, her unibrow furrowed and her mustache thicker and fiercer than Peach had ever seen. Louie said nothing. He looked scared, gripping the dashboard like his life depended on it.

Yoshi overtook their car, only to get bumped out of the way.

They crossed the finish line in second place. Mary, aka Mario, jumped out of the car and did a crazy little victory dance, whooping and waving two middle fingers at them. Luigi gave Peach a sad look and shrugged his shoulders.

Peach responded with a middle finger of her own.

“C’mon Yoshi. Let’s get out of here. Who needs these losers?” She walked toward the nearest pipe and jumped in without waiting for Yoshi to follow.

The darkness swirled, then changed to a warm, bright light. Pinkish gold, like the stone in her Topaz necklace. Strong arms wrapped around her.

“Princess Peach.”

She recognized the voice.

“Daddy?”

“What are you doing, sweetheart?”

“I don’t know. I just needed to cool off. I was mad at my boyfriend.” Peach fell into her father’s arms, sobbing. “I thought he’d be more like you, but he’s just a jerk.”

“I was a jerk at that age too. You should set your sights a little higher.”

“I miss you, Daddy.”

“I know. I miss you too, sweetheart. But your mother needs you. Please go home and take care of her for me. Remember that I always love you.” His words faded to a whisper and he shrunk until only Yoshi the stuffed toy remained in her arms. The light faded to a tiny glimmer, emanating from her Topaz necklace.

* * *

Peach sat up. Bits of hay stuck to her hair and clothes. Sunlight filtered through a window high in the loft. Voices conversed in the barn below. Something about bathing hogs.

“Hello?” she called.

She descended the ladder.

A woman in overalls stood beside an old cast-iron bathtub. A man, presumably her husband, was inside the tub with a pig.

“Um… hi there,” Peach said. “I’m sorry for trespassing. I just took a nap in your hayloft.”

The woman glanced up, busy opening the cap on a bottle of shampoo.

“Ain’t no matter. Y’all wanna give us a hand bathing these hogs? There’s room if ya wanna jump right in. That is, if it ain’t too weird for ya.”

“Thanks, but I need to get home. And by the way, this isn’t even the weirdest thing I’ve seen today.”

This is my entry to the Evil Squirrel’s Nest Annual Contest of Whatever! Check out the rest of the entries here!

Holocaust

Posted: February 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

The survivors called it The Holocaust.

Some disapprove of our using that word but the truth is, it’s just a word. Nobody owns a word. There wasn’t a better name for what happened; it was beyond all reason or comprehension.

It happened suddenly. One moment we were safe in our homes, under cover of darkness and the next moment a blinding light came, burning our skin. We were torn from our homes and thrown into a cramped space. Dozens of us thrashed against each other in confusion. It was chaos; up was down and down was up. We could feel the earth moving beneath us but had no way of knowing where we were headed.

That was just the beginning of the horror.

Those who died were the lucky ones.

When the earth stopped moving the bright lights came once again, searing, scorching those unlucky enough to be exposed. We tried to scramble for cover beneath the writhing masses of our neighbors’ bodies but not everyone made it. One by one we were plucked from the relative safety of our prison to endure even further horrors.

Some were never seen again.

Others were returned to the prison maimed and dismembered, telling horrific tales of our kind being skewered on sharp hooks and then discarded into the depths like so much garbage. Some of the amputees survived but the memory of their torture was forever etched into their minds.

When the ordeal was over we had lost many family and friends. Those of us who remained were set free; not to our original home but in a new land where we were able to start anew.

We will never understand…

We worms will never understand this fascination humans have with fishing.

 

 

Your Heart Will be Mine

Posted: February 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

valentine

~ You twist through my heart ~

~ Like a bolt through a nut ~

~ I am a nut ~

~ Think twice before you bolt ~

~*~

Megan wept, curled on her side in the tightest ball she could manage. She had been curled up in the fetal position on her bed for hours – days, actually, doing nothing but cry. Barely moving except to use the bathroom and drink a bit of water. She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep and the ache in her chest wouldn’t go away no matter how many painkillers she took.

 

 

So this is what a broken heart feels like.

She now understood why they called it heartbreak. What she felt was beyond sadness; it manifested as a tangible physical pain in her chest that radiated down into her belly. It was the most horrible sensation ever, and it was all HIS fault. How could he have been so cruel to her when all she had done was love him? She didn’t know where she had gone wrong. She had given him everything; waited on him hand and foot and catered to his every wish but in the end it wasn’t enough. He took her heart and tore it to shreds and then walked out the door as if the last two years had meant nothing.

She wanted to die.

If I died, you’d be sorry! You’d have to live with it for the rest of your life, knowing that YOU were the one who drove me to suicide!

Died of a broken heart.

That would show him how much she loved him.

Nobody else will ever love you the way I do! You’ll see! One day you will come crawling back to me with your heart in shreds, then you’ll know how you made me feel. And then I can kiss you better. We can heal together.

No, she would not end her life. Life was worth living as long as there was a chance of winning him back.

She would get him back.

Or die trying.

Richard tried to leave her several times during the last year but each time she convinced him to stay. She begged and pleaded and promised to be everything he wanted in a woman but he became cold and aloof nonetheless. He didn’t want intimacy anymore. He participated in sex when she was persistent enough to make his physical urges overcome his mental reluctance but his lack of desire was obvious.

She was willing to accept his lack of enthusiasm in their relationship as long as he didn’t leave. They could work things out. She would make it better. She just had to make him see how much she loved him and he would know they were destined to be together.

The pregnancy changed everything.

The one thing that should have cemented them together forever was the catalyst that ended their relationship. He was willing to stay for the sake of the baby. He even agreed to marry her after much pleading and cajoling on her part.

It would be the perfect wedding. She had already chosen her dress – a high-waisted design that would look stunning even with the bulge in her belly. She booked the church and hired the caterer and sent out invitations. It would be the beautiful fairytale wedding of her dreams. Afterward, he would take her in his arms and carry her over the threshold and make love to her, tenderly and passionately the way a husband should. Their life together would be picture-perfect.

There was just one small detail:

She wasn’t pregnant.

Megan thought she was pregnant, without a doubt. Even though the pregnancy tests (three of them, to be exact) were negative, she assumed it was too early for them to be accurate. She experienced all the symptoms – the missed period, tender breasts, bloated belly, and irritability. She even felt sick in the mornings. When her period arrived late, it was easy to hide it from him since he showed no interest in her physically. Since their engagement Richard had become even more distant, never meeting her eyes and only speaking to her when necessary.

It didn’t matter that the pregnancy was a false alarm. She would be pregnant by the time they got married; she would make sure of it.

She managed to convince him to have sex once during the following month but it did not result in pregnancy. Panicked, she redoubled her efforts to seduce him, but the harder she tried, the less receptive he became. When they did try, he couldn’t sustain an erection long enough to finish.

Four months passed. Then five, and still she wasn’t pregnant. She faked the symptoms, pretending to get sick in the mornings and eating like a horse so she would gain some girth and appear pregnant. The wedding was just six weeks away and she only needed to keep up her charade until after the minister declared them husband and wife. After that, she could fake a miscarriage and he would be there to comfort her and they could try again to start a family.

She began to wear padding under her clothing to keep up the appearance of an advancing pregnancy

* * *

She didn’t hear him come into the house that day.

The past few months, he had been moving around the house like a ghost, silent, never speaking unless spoken to. On that particular day, he came home from work early. Megan wasn’t expecting him. She stood in front of the bedroom mirror; trying on the next size pillow she was going to bind to her belly to make it look thicker.

She had no idea how long he had been standing there, watching her in silence.

He said nothing, but his eyes spoke the rage in his heart.

He refused to speak to her, no matter how she cried and pleaded. He started packing immediately and left that night, taking only the bare necessities. She clung to his leg, begging him to stay but he peeled her off of him in disgust. He walked out of her life without giving a second thought to their future together, leaving her blubbering on the floor.

Megan was not only heartbroken; she was humiliated. He told his family and all of their friends about her deceit and his reason for leaving. Nobody would speak to her.

She was alone.

* * *

A year later, Megan still sobbed herself to sleep but not as often. The pain in her chest had diminished to a dull ache but it never went away altogether. They said time heals all wounds but she knew that in her case it wouldn’t. She still loved Richard heart and soul and would never stop. They were meant to be together. He was hers and no amount of time or distance would ever change that.

She wasted her Saturday afternoons wandering through the mall, gazing at the gowns in the bridal shop, the sexy lingerie in Victoria’s Secret and the endless displays of adorable children’s clothing. From infant to toddler to preschooler… there were too many cute outfits to choose from. She should have been buying clothing for her own child – for their child. Instead, she could only look and dream.

She wandered toward the food court to feed her craving for sweets. She had been living on junk food and had gained a considerable amount of weight. It didn’t matter because she had nobody to stay thin for. At that moment, Cinnabon called to her.

A baby stroller blocked her path as she navigated through the tables to get to the food counters. She edged around it, pausing for a moment to admire the baby, a little girl about three months old, dressed in an adorable pink outfit. The parents, engrossed in conversation, giggled and shared an intimate kiss.

Megan froze.

No.

It couldn’t be!

It was him. Richard.

Her Richard.

Judging from the age of the infant in the stroller, he hadn’t wasted any time after leaving her. He might have already been seeing that woman behind her back! That would explain his lack of interest in Megan. The slut had already tired him out before he got home.

Rage boiled inside her when she saw the engagement ring on the woman’s finger – a large, stunning diamond solitaire. Nothing like the cheap little band he had grudgingly given her.

“YOU BASTARD!” Megan roared, sweeping the food and beverages off the table onto the couple’s laps.

“YOU DIRTY CHEATING MOTHERFUCKER!”

“Richard?” the woman said, her voice fearful. She pulled the baby stroller away from Megan.

“You stay out of it, slut! I’m talking to my husband. You’ve done enough already!”

Richard finally spoke up. “Get the hell away from my family, you crazy bitch.”

“YOUR family? YOUR family?” Megan sputtered. “What about OUR family? The one you couldn’t even give me because your dick was always limp!”

“I never wanted you, Megan. I never loved you. You were a mistake. The biggest mistake I ever made.” Richard’s tone was calm. He spoke the words without emotion. How could he not feel anything after sharing his life with her for two years?

Richard’s bitch had taken her child and moved away from the table. She was talking to the clerk at Cinnabon and a security guard was making his way toward them.

“You think you’ll be happy with her?” Megan yelled. “She’s nothing! You and ME! WE were meant to be together! Nobody will love you the way I do. Nobody!”

The security guard stepped between them.

“I’ll have to ask you to move away, ma’am. Leave these people alone.”

“Fuck you!” she spat, leaning around the uniformed man to make eye contact with Richard once more.

“You can’t escape fate, Richard. You’re mine! One day you’ll come crawling back. You love me. I know you do.”

Two more security guards came from behind and took her arms, leading her away from the food court. They demanded that she leave at once or the police would be called.

Megan left. She had said her piece.

Richard knew the truth.

She would make him see the truth.

* * *

Megan’s outburst with Richard energized her; freed her from the shackles of depression. She felt electrified, filled with new hope. She had a purpose again: Richard, and her future with him. She just needed to take the place of the baby-making whore in the food court and everything would be perfect again.

She would win him back. His heart had always been hers; he just didn’t realize it yet.

Having been banned from the local mall, Megan’s Saturday shopping trip took her to the streets and a new neighborhood where she had never been. Her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder made it difficult to deviate from an established routine. As a result, she seldom visited new places. Occasionally change was forced. This time she found it refreshing instead of disturbing. Her therapist, whom she hadn’t seen in more than five years, would have called it “a positive step”.

The weathered red brick buildings offered a nice change of scenery from the icy-smooth grey concrete downtown. The new neighborhood featured a wealth of second-hand stores, a few hippie bong shops and some dusty-looking used bookstores. It was in one of these bookstores that she found it.

The tattered brown binding of the book caught her eye and immediately she reached for it.

The Joy of Spellcasting.

She chuckled at the silly title.

It sounds like a cookbook. Why not? It could be fun. Megan purchased the book and walked home with a spring in her step.

She opened the book to the table of contents and quickly found what she sought.

Love Spells – page 131.

She noticed handwriting at the bottom of the yellowed page. The ink had blurred over time but was still legible. Megan held it up to the light to make out the words.

“Be warned, ye who goest here. Think ye long on what thou desirest. The spells contained within be those most powerful. What thou desirest, thou shalt receive.”

Megan smirked. It sounded like something out of a low-budget after-school Halloween special.

Good to know. Let’s see if it’s true.

She turned to page 131 and began to read.

There were several love spells and potions but most of them looked complicated. They contained ingredients she had never heard of and took too long to yield results. They ranged anywhere from six months to three years to complete a spell. Megan wanted results now.

She settled on the One Moon Love Charm. It claimed to return a lost love in one month and she had all the ingredients to make it work:

 

A container made from wood or metal.

A likeness of your lost love. OR

An object belonging to your lost love, OR

A sample of your loved one’s blood or flesh.

 

Write on a piece of parchment exactly what you desire.

Seal with your own blood or flesh to bond with your lover’s flesh for all eternity.

Bury the container three feet deep in dark soil under the light of the full moon.

Stand over the burial site and turn around three times and then say the incantation every night for one month. When the moon reaches its next fullness, the object of your desire will come to you.

 

Megan selected a heart-shaped wooden jewelry box Richard had given her when they first started dating – back when he still knew he loved her. The box held no jewelry except the engagement ring she no longer wore. She had been using it to store her favorite photos of Richard, all carefully cropped with a pair of scissors to a heart shape.

A likeness of your lost love.

What better likeness than an actual photo? She left all of the photos in the box.

OR an object belonging to your lost love.

Richard had left most of his belongings behind when he left, so why not add that as well? She selected a watch she had bought him for Christmas that he always seemed to forget to wear and his razor, which he had left in the bathroom.

OR a sample of your loved one’s blood or flesh.

Technically, the razor already had that covered, since it contained beard stubble and probably skin cells as well. She wanted to add as much punch to the spell as possible. More would be better, right? She cleaned the bathtub drain, extracting a slimy hairball made up of both his hair and hers. That covered both samples of their flesh.

On a plain white piece of paper, she wrote the words she had chosen:

 

Richard Cole, I desire your heart and nothing else.

 

She folded it neatly and placed it in the box.

She sliced her index finger with a razor blade and let the blood drip over the contents of the jewelry box.

Under the full moon she stood, on the fresh mound of dirt beneath which the box was buried. She turned around three times and then recited the incantation, which she had memorized:

 

“By the Earth below and the moon above,

You will be my one true love.

Bound in blood and sealed in Earth,

Waiting for our love’s new birth.

Empowered by the Law of Three,

Richard’s heart will come to me.

Three times Three.

So mote it be.”

 

She repeated the incantation two more times just for good measure. If the Law of Three was a real thing, then it made sense to do everything three times to amplify the power threefold.

The following night she repeated the ritual, chanting the incantation three times. After a pause, she recited it three times more.

She couldn’t stop the pattern once it had begun. Richard had hated her OCD but it was one of the things that made her organized and precise in everything she did. Every night she added three more repetitions to the incantation. When she reached the 29th night she recited it a total of 87 times. When she went to bed at night, the rhyme played over and over inside her head until she fell asleep.

The moon had reached the first day of its three days of fullness. It would be at its fullest the following night. Megan snuggled happily into her bed, confident that Richard would be with her soon.

* * *

“Jenkins! Get in here! You gotta see this!” Ralph Anderson shouted to his assistant.

Jenkins wandered through the double doors of the morgue, stuffing the remains of a tuna sandwich into his mouth.

“I’m still on break. Couldn’t you have waited another ten minutes?”

“No, I need you to see this. You gotta tell me I’m not crazy.”

Jenkins approached the table where his superior was conducting a routine autopsy. The ribcage was splayed open, revealing the inside of the stiff’s chest.

“So what’s the deal? You find an alien in there? Looks pretty normal to me.”

“Look again. Tell me what you see. More specifically, what’s missing?”

Jenkins leaned over the corpse to take a closer look, licking mayonnaise off of his fingertips.

“Yeah, so it looks like you’ve already removed the heart, and—”

“But I haven’t,” Anderson said, almost in a whisper.

“Sure you have. It’s not in there.” Jenkins looked around at the empty stainless steel trays that surrounded the autopsy table. “So, where’d ya put it?’

“I’m telling you, it wasn’t in there when we got him.”

“So, what is this then, a serial killer case?”

“No. Probable heart attack. Sudden death, cause unknown.”

“So, where’s the heart?”

“That is the question, isn’t it? There was no incision in the body, no sign of hemorrhage inside. It’s just… missing.”

“We gonna record this?”

“Who’s gonna believe us? I’m closing him back up and labeling him a coronary.”

* * *

Megan woke the morning of the thirtieth day, feeling well rested and energized. Today, Richard would return. She would take a nice long bath and put on something pretty and fix him a nice dinner. It would be the perfect day – one for which she had worked very diligently.

She stretched and yawned, rolling over to caress the pillow where Richard would lay his head that night.

Her hand touched something wet.

Something rounded, about the size of her fist.

It was warm, and pulsed with a steady, rhythmic beat.

 

e¯f

 

Copyright © 2012 Mandy White

Vegan Meat

Posted: February 6, 2018 in Uncategorized

Something silly I cooked up for WPaD’s #ShortStorySunday challenge.

It’s based on an idiotic rant I saw on the internet in which someone (probably in jest) claimed pigs were a hybrid of muskrat, bobcat, and hyena. Ah, the internet… such a source of horsefuckery and inspiration.

Vegan Meat 

~*~

“The cow and pig are not even natural animals. Tell me, where in nature can you find a cow? A farm is man-made and cows and pigs are hybridized animals. A pig is cross bred between a muskrat, bobcat and hyena! So you’re eating muskrat… just let that sink in!”

bacon

The man on the TV screen continued to rant, struggling against the police officers, who cuffed him and wrestled him into the back of the cruiser.

Sinead sipped her lukewarm coffee, too engrossed in the newscast to pour a fresh one.

 

Sinead knew the crazy man. She also knew he wasn’t as crazy as he looked.

* * *

Scott Parke was a former co-worker of Sinead’s, back in the early days of their careers. Fresh out of university and bursting with optimism, Sinead eagerly accepted a job offer from a large corporation. It all sounded so environmental, so save- the- planet perfect in her idealistic young mind. Even the name sounded environmentally friendly: Evergreen Research. She didn’t learn until later that Evergreen was owned and funded by Monsanto.

 

Those early days in the laboratories were filled with excitement and discovery, and it was there that she met Scott, also fresh out of university. Sinead truly believed she was making a difference, developing things that would change the world for the better. It wasn’t until reports of the negative effects of their work began to surface, that Sinead realized perhaps her employers weren’t the saints she thought they were.

 

 

When Sinead made the decision to part company with Evergreen, they demanded she sign a document bearing the Monsanto logo. It was a gag order, which prohibited her from divulging any information about the work conducted in their laboratories or using knowledge obtained therein to profit herself or others. She had no interest in what went on in those laboratories. She signed the document and moved on, eventually finding employment in genetic research for disease prevention.

Scott stayed on with Evergreen for a while after Sinead left, but she heard through a mutual friend that he had been fired for “ethical differences”, whatever that meant.

* * *

Five Years Later:

Sinead’s contract expired, and the company opted to not renew it. She decided to take some time off and enjoy a much-deserved holiday in Mexico.

One tequila-soaked night in Puerto Vallarta, Sinead spied a familiar face in the nightclub: Scott. He whooped when he saw her, and pulled her into an off-balance bear hug that nearly landed both of them on the floor. He slung an arm over her shoulder and sprayed her cheek with saliva as he shouted into her ear over the music.

“You gotta come see what I’m doing! I made a breakthrough like you never seen before. Makes those ashhats at Monshanto look like kinnergarten! This shit’ll revolutionize the food innustry. It’s gonna be huge! As shoon as the patents go through, I gonna be a billionaire, and I ain’t talkin’ peshos!”

Sinead wiped her cheek and adjusted her balance to counteract Scott’s drunken sway.

“Sounds interesting, but I’m on vacation. Taking kind of a hiatus from work.”

“Thass even better! I’m gonna need a partner when this shit breaks. I’m gonna be so busy. I’m sherious. You’d be perfect for the job. I’ll let ya in on the ground floor.”

“I admit I’m curious. Give me your number and I’ll look you up when I get back home.”

“No, you don’t unnerstand. It’s here. My lab. I live here now. Can’t do this in the U.S. Too many regulations. It would take years to get where I am now.”

“Your lab is here, in Mexico?”

“You betcher sweet ass, baby!”

“Then how can I say no? For old times’ sake.”

Scott raised his glass. “For old times’ sake!”

* * *

Scott’s “lab” was the second bedroom of a two-bedroom rented condo. It didn’t look much out of the ordinary, save for the occasional bug-hunting gecko. A row of mismatched refrigerators lined one wall of the room.

“I can’t wait to hear what you’re working on here,” Sinead said, peering into the room. She nodded toward the fridges. “I can’t imagine what those could be for.”

The effects of the previous night’s drinks; lingered in the dull throb behind her eyes and parched throat. Scott looked worse than she felt.

“I’m dying of thirst. Got anything to drink?” she asked.

“I got orange juice. He pointed at the kitchen. In the fridge.”

Sinead wandered into the kitchen, where she found a package of Solo cups on the counter next to a bottle each of tequila and gin. She poured a cup of orange juice and then added some tequila. What the hell, I’m on vacation, she thought.

Scott followed her into the kitchen and poured himself a similar drink, with both tequila and gin. Instead of returning to the lab, he went into the living room, where he plopped onto the couch with a weary sigh.

Sinead followed and took a seat at the opposite end and sipped her drink, waiting for him to talk.

“I don’t know how much you might have heard, but I left Monsanto due to some irreconcilable differences,” he began.

“I heard you were fired.”

“Same thing. Potato, potawto. Best thing that ever happened to me. I learned a lot working there, but of course you know we’re not allowed to talk about that.” He gave her a knowing wink.

“We’re also not allowed to apply any of their research in other projects.”

“I believe the gag order specifies that we’re forbidden to use knowledge gained while in their employ to further the exploits of other corporations… or some shit like that. Basically, it means we can’t divulge their trade secrets to their competitors.”

“But what does it say about becoming a competitor yourself?”

“Well, you can’t do that either, per se. Meaning that you can’t start a company and employ their knowledge in research and development of products similar to theirs. And of course, with all the regulations in the U.S. and FDA approval and all that shit, there’s no way you could do anything without the big M finding out.”

“But you aren’t in the U.S.”

“Bingo! I’m also not a competing corporation. I’m just a guy doing science projects in his back bedroom.”

“But what happens when you try to bring… whatever this is back into the U.S? You can’t get a patent based on someone else’s research.”

“I’m not. This is all mine. Yeah, I learned a lot working in those laboratories, but they can’t regulate what’s inside my head. I developed this all on my own, and none of it resembles anything those assholes are doing.”

“Somehow I think they’d find a way to claim it if they wanted it.” Sinead drained her cup. “Enough with the suspense. Let’s get to the part where you tell me exactly what you developed.”

“To put it simply, it’s food. I have developed a line of revolutionary new food products. Trendy stuff. Vegan, gluten-free, all that shit. Not processed, but grown. The granola crowd will go nuts for it, pun intended.”

“Like what?”

“Bacon seeds, for one.”

“Fuck off.”

“Seriously. C’mon, I’ll show you.”

Scott led the way to the lab-bedroom, where he opened a fridge at the far end of the row. Shelves with rows of fluorescent lighting filled the interior of the appliance. Sinead realized that it wasn’t being used for refrigeration, but as a sort of green house. Trays of small seedlings covered the first two shelves, and larger plants were housed on the lower racks. On closer inspection, Sinead recognized the leaves.

“Corn? You’re growing corn in a refrigerator.”

“Not just corn.” Scott closed the door and opened another, a couple of fridges down the row. Inside were cobs covered with a substance Sinead couldn’t identify. She looked at Scott for clarification. He grinned.

“I give you…” he tapped his fingers on the door, simulating a drum roll. “Bacon on the cob!”

“Bullshit.”

“I shit you not.” He removed one of the cobs from the shelf and held it up to the light. “It grows just like this. All you have to do is cook it.”

Tiny pale rolled-up buds covered the cob. He took one in his fingers and unrolled it, revealing to Sinead what appeared to be an ordinary slice of bacon. The grain of the meat, the fat, the color – all nearly perfect. It was perhaps a bit too uniform, like the vegan fake-bacon sold in stores, but it looked close enough to pass for the real thing. Sinead slid her fingers over it and gasped at the greasy texture.

“It feels real!” she whispered.

“It is real. Pretty cool, huh?”

“It’s edible?”

“Hell yeah! Just like the real deal. It’s delicious, low in calories, high in protein. Gluten-free, too. It’s grown, not raised. Nothing gets slaughtered.” He chuckled. “Except for the plant, of course.”

“So it’s vegan, too.”

“As vegan as a corn cob. Sure, I had to make a few modifications, and maybe there is some pig DNA in there, but that’s science. Ever wonder why vegans always seem so angry? I know I’d be pretty miserable in a life without bacon. They taste this, maybe they won’t be so angry, huh?”

“Wow. This is amazing. If it’s as good as you say, and it gets approval… you could be sitting on a gold mine here. But what if the FDA doesn’t approve it?”

“They will eventually. I’ll start growing it here. Americans will get wind of it after a few thousand tourists get a sample. Get the right billionaire to back it and badda-bing! Suddenly the FDA won’t have a problem with us bringing it into the U.S. And of course they will want it produced there, to corner the market.”

Scott moved to another fridge. “The Bacorn is just the start of it. I also have KFG, but still working the bugs out of it.”

“KFG?”

“Working title. Stands for Kentucky Fried Garbanzos. Modified chick-pea with eleven herbs and spices bred in. But it’s a magnet for fruit flies. Like I said, still working the bugs out.”

Sinead peered into the fridge. Pod-shaped crispy golden brown clumps hung from scrawny vines. A cloud of small black flies rose toward her face and as she waved them away her nostrils caught a delicious savory aroma.

“It smells like…it’s already cooked!”

“Yeah, I think this one is going to be a winner, but it’s not ready yet. We also have the Hamkins, which will require a bit more growing space than I have here, on account of the vines.”

Sinead concluded her tour of Scott’s refrigerators with a promise to consider his offer. She accepted his business card, which simply read: Scott Parke – Innovations in Eating, and an email address.

As much as she hated to admit, his offer was tempting. She’d spent all her professional life working for others, following instructions. This stimulated both her scientific and creative sides. Breaking new ground by designing never-before-seen products… it was why she had become a scientist.

This had endless potential. It could end world hunger, if the plants were hardy enough. If she took Scott’s offer, she could make him see the big picture. If plant-based meats could be engineered to grow on barren land, entire countries could be saved. Appeasing angry vegans was merely a bonus.

* * *

In the end, Sinead dodged a bullet. Her decision not to join Scott’s research “team” turned out to be a wise one. Scott did not get FDA approval for his products. It turned out people had an aversion to eating genetically engineered meat, even if it was grown organically. Supposedly “health-conscious” people preferred to eat substances processed in factories from unknown ingredients than something they could grow in their own gardens.

Stymied by legal channels, Scott brought his products into the U.S. illegally and grew them in secret. The problem was, he couldn’t mass-market any of it without giving up the secret of their origin. He marketed the stuff as manufactured corn-based products and sold them at hippie festivals and farm markets, but eventually the FDA caught up with him. When they raided his greenhouses, the scandal broke internationally.

What they found… Sinead wasn’t surprised, given Scott’s mental state at the time of his arrest.

There were the Hamkins he’d mentioned, growing on vines like pumpkins. They looked like a whole pig, minus the innards. The torso was solid, smoky meat.

The KFG had evolved from fried chicken pods into whole pre-seasoned chickens, which solved the pest problem by feeding on the bugs. The disturbing part was the “chicken” had the head of a gecko.

There were other things, the media declined to mention all of them, but Sinead heard through a source in the scientific community that beef and lamb had been involved as well.

The public was outraged, and of courts the ethical argument made headlines: Were they plant or animal? Did they have consciousness? More importantly, was this food truly vegan? Scott argued that it was, since it was plant-based.

Sinead was shocked when they announced the charges, which weren’t what she had expected.

Scott was charged with two offences:

The first was violation of FDA regulations by creating and selling unapproved food substances. For that, he received a fine and probation.

The second was more serious, and it involved a lawsuit levied by their previous employer, Evergreen Research. Scott was charged with theft of intellectual property and breach of the gag order he had signed upon his departure.

Evergreen accused him of stealing the formulas for his products from their company. Their lawyers stated they were prepared to provide proof in a court of law that those products had been created in their laboratories several years earlier.

 

~*~

Copyright © 2018 Mandy White