Mesachie Man

Posted: February 28, 2019 in Uncategorized

wilderness1

Trevor shifted the Jeep into third gear and accelerated. “Pass those beers around, bitches! We are officially off-road now!”

The road to Port Renfrew was a paved public road, but technically it was also a logging road, which created a grey area where the law was concerned. They could still get busted for drinking and driving, but the odds of meeting a cop out there were next to nil.

The Tall Trees Music Festival didn’t start for another three days. By leaving early, they planned to avoid the traffic and inevitable police presence on the normally deserted road. They would lay claim to a prime camp spot and be all set up by the time the crowds arrived.

“This is going to be sweet! Three days of music, sunshine and partying!” Cassie handed Trevor a beer and taking a second one for herself. Cassie’s best friend Nina Charlie was in charge of the refreshments. She sat cross-legged in the middle of the back seat, between her boyfriend Gordon and a cooler full of beer. The cargo space of the Jeep overflowed with camping gear. Coolers were stacked in the space beside Nina for easy access.

The road from Mesachie Lake to Port Renfrew wound through nearly sixty kilometres of scenic wilderness. There were no houses, stores or gas stations, and limited amenities in the tiny towns at either end. Every year, thousands of hipsters converged on the small seaside community of Port Renfrew to listen to live music and “commune with nature” at the Tall Trees Festival. “Communing”, for some, consisted of getting wasted on drugs and alcohol and passing out in their own filth. Paramedics were on-site around the clock and the first-aid tent was well-equipped with overdose kits.

The musky aroma of cannabis drifted from the back seat.

“Pass that up here, Gordo!” Cassie said, turning in her seat to take the joint from Gord. She inhaled deeply and then held the joint to Trevor’s lips. He sucked a lungful of the sweet smoke and then sputtered, trying to keep from coughing.

“Zmooth,” he croaked. The four of them busted up laughing. Everything was suddenly a lot funnier.

They crossed a bridge over a deep ravine. A jade-green river snaked between the cliffs below.

“Gosh, it’s so pretty,” Cassie said, looking down. “Hard to believe nobody lives out here.” She had lived in the city all her life, and had never seen any place so utterly unoccupied.

“This is the real deal, baby! Real Canadian wilderness. I promised you an adventure, didn’t I?” Trevor reached over to caress the front of Cassie’s blouse, then leaned in for a kiss. The Jeep swerved, and Cassie recoiled with a gasp.

“Hey! Watch what you’re doing!” she slapped his shoulder lightly. “Keep your eyes on the road and your hands off my tits!”

“I got it. Don’t worry, I grew up driving these roads.” Trevor gripped the wheel and glared at the road, embarrassed at being spurned in front of their friends.

“Fuck! How do people get here without a truck? This is crazy rough!” Cassie said.

“Most of them come from Victoria. The road through Sooke is better. That’s where most of the crowds will come from. Only us redneck types take the back way,” Nina told her.

Trevor jerked the wheel to the left and veered off the pocked pavement of the main road onto a narrow gravel road.

“You guys are going to love this. We have two days to kill and I’m going to treat you to one of Cowichan’s best kept secrets. There’s a little lake up here where we can camp, rave, fish and swim, and best of all, we’ll have the whole place to ourselves.”

Nina and Gord high-fived each other and whooped.

“Sweet!” Nina squealed. “I haven’t been to Lost Lake in forever!”

Trevor laughed. “See? My girl Nina knows what I’m talking about!”

They were climbing now, and the road had degraded to the gravel equivalent of a moguled ski hill. Trevor downshifted and put the Jeep into four-wheel drive. The vehicle bucked and bounced, turning their beer to foam.

“How much farther?” Cassie asked.

“Shouldn’t be long now,” Trevor said, steering around an outcropping of rock. “Pretty soon you’ll see a little slice of paradise.”

The Jeep bucked down the road for some distance, then the front wheel dropped into a large pothole with a loud BANG. The force of the impact hurtled them forward. An avalanche of tents and sleeping bags buried the occupants of the back.

“Ow!” Cassie rubbed her chin, which she had bumped on the dash. Luckily they hadn’t been traveling very fast.

Trevor killed the engine. “Everyone okay?” He turned to see Gord and Nina emerging from a pile of camping gear.

“Yeah, bro, we’re cool. But that didn’t sound good. Sounded like something broke.”

“Yeah. Gonna check it out now.” Trevor got out of the Jeep and Gord followed. The girls joined them.

“Looks like a broken axle.” Trevor and Gord squatted beside the front wheel, which twisted sideways at an impossible angle.

“What does that mean?” Cassie asked, “Can you fix it?”

“It means we’re fucked,” Nina said.

“Yep,” Gord agreed. “This beast needs a tow truck.”

Cassie rushed to the vehicle to retrieve her phone.

Trevor chuckled and shook his head, glancing up at the treetops. “Oh, honey, you’re so cute. There’s no signal out here.”

“WHAT? No, there has to be some bars somewhere. We’ll take a walk until we find a signal.”

“There’s nothing.”

“What about at the festival grounds? We can’t be that far from there. We could walk.”

“We’re about halfway. It’s about thirty clicks to civilization in either direction. Plus, we’re another five or six from the main road”

“So we can walk it if we have to.”

“Yes, but not now. It’s going to be dark in a couple of hours. You do not want to be out here in the dark.”

“But somebody’s bound to come by. What about the festival crowd?”

“They won’t start coming through here for at least another day or two. And they will be on the main road. Nobody’s going to come up this way. Besides, we will have gotten a tow truck by then.”

Cassie shivered, realizing the truth of what he was saying. They were stranded in the middle of nowhere, at least for the night.

“Your call, friendos. Do we hike to the lake, or camp here?”

Gord and Nina were already pulling camping gear out of the back of the Jeep.

“I vote we hike to the lake,” Nina said. “We were going there anyways. Might as well go ahead with the plan and enjoy our adventure, we came this far. At least we’ll have plenty of water there.”

“Seconded.” Gord looked at Trevor. “Bro?”

“Yeah. I’m up for a hike. The lake is way nicer than the side of the road.”

Cassie huddled close to her boyfriend. She was nervous about leaving the relative safety of the vehicle, broken as it was, but it was obvious she didn’t have a say.

They stuffed their backpacks with camping supplies, which included as much food and booze as they could carry, leaving the coolers behind. They set out down the dusty road, laden like pack mules.

The four friends arrived at the lake within the hour. The setting sun painted the treetops with majestic golden hues, but down below darkness crept over the forest floor. Cassie fought panic with every step, but there was no turning back. Finally they stepped out of the woods into a small clearing surrounding the glistening green gem that was Lost Lake.

“It’s so pretty! she breathed, in both awe and relief at being free from the creepy forest.

The group shrugged off backpacks and began to unpack.

Gord tossed a tent to Trevor. “We might as well set up right away. We’re here for the night.”

Trevor nodded. “Yeah, we are. We can walk out to the main road in the morning and catch a ride to call a tow truck. There won’t be time to fix the Jeep, but with any luck we can borrow something else to drive and still make the festival.”

* * *

The four friends sat around a crackling fire under a starry, moonlit sky. With the abundance of beers and joints, it felt almost like a regular camping trip. If they’d reached their destination as planned, the scene wouldn’t have differed much, except they would have had the Jeep and its booming stereo to scare away whatever lurked in the darkness.

Cassie had never been camping before, except for road trips in her parents’ RV. Those trips had always been to campsites with showers and electrical hookups. Sometimes even swimming pools. She couldn’t understand why her friends seemed so comfortable in such rustic surroundings.

She’d had to pee for hours, and didn’t know what to do about it.

Nina stood and pulled a small flashlight from her pocket. “Back in a minute. Gotta use the ‘facilities’.”

“Wait!” Cassie said. “Can I go with you?”

Nina shrugged. “Sure, c’mon.”

Cassie followed Nina away from the campsite, into a small grove of trees. She wondered what happened next.

Her eyes widened in horror as Nina squatted next to a tree, then pulled some tissue from her pocket.

She couldn’t possibly… but there were no other options.

Noticing her hesitation, Nina said, “You want me to wait for you?”

“Yes, please. It’s so dark out here. You got any more of that tissue?”

* * *

The girls were almost back to camp when a bloodcurdling shriek pierced the darkness.

Cassie grabbed hold of Nina.

“What the fuck was that?”

“You promise you won’t freak out if I tell you?”

“No. Yes.”

They walked back into the safety of the firelight and Nina grabbed two fresh beers from her backpack.

“Did you guys hear that?” Cassie asked.

“Sounded like a cougar,” Gord said. “When they’re mating, they sound almost human.”

“No way! That was – wait – there are cougars out here?” Cassie’s terror refreshed and rose a few levels.

“And wolves too. Actually, Vancouver Island has more cougars per square kilometre than anywhere in Canada. You didn’t know that?”

“It wasn’t a cougar,” Nina said.

Trevor met her eyes. “No, I’ve heard cougars, and they don’t sound like that.”

“Well, if it wasn’t a cougar, then what the fuck makes a noise like that? Jesus, it sounded like someone got murdered out there.”

“Light a joint, Gord. You guys up for a story?” Nina’s dark eyes glinted with a hint of mischief.

“Is this one of those tribal tales from your family?” Gord asked.

“Yessir, it is. But Trevor should know it too. His family has history here too.”

“You’re talking about the Mesachie Man, aren’t you?” Trevor said.

Nina nodded. “When the white people first settled this area, they chose to build their towns and mills at various spots around the lake. One settler, by the name of Frank Green, chose Mesachie Lake as the site for his mill. When he found the spot, he fell in love with it – pretty little place in the mountains, nestled between two lakes. He couldn’t believe nobody had already settled there. Not even the local tribes had claimed it. My grandfather liked to tell us kids the story. Apparently, the reason my ancestors didn’t use the land was they believed evil lived there.”

“Frank Green?” Gord said. “That’s your last name, Trevor.”

Trevor nodded. “I’m named after my great-grandfather, Trevor Green, who was Frank’s son.”

“So you know this story?”

“I know it well. It’s part of my family history as well as Nina’s. Frank settled the area, built a mill and a small town sprang up around it. Not much, just a church, a school, and about sixty homes, owned by the mill, where the mill workers lived. Frank’s wife, Louie, they called her, was curious about the area, and why the natives never lived in the area or even fished in the lakes. She talked to the locals, and they told her a story of a horrible man-beast that lived in a cave nearby. Rumor had it, the thing escaped from a ship that ran aground on the reefs outside Port Renfrew. It was said to have been part man, part ape and was en route to a freak show in San Francisco or elsewhere up the coast. Most people nowadays figure it was just an ordinary gorilla on its way to a zoo. Anyhow, they believed it found the Robertson River, remember that bridge we crossed?”

Cassie nodded, remembering the dark green river in the ravine.

“Well, legend has it, this creature followed the river inland and took up residence in a cave in Mesachie Mountain, which overlooks the town of Mesachie Lake. That’s where we turned off the main road toward Port Renfrew.”

Cassie remembered turning at a flashing amber light – away from the last inkling of civilization.

“So what was it? Did anyone ever find it?”

“No, but if it was a gorilla, it would have died at some point,” Nina said. “The stories from my family go way back to the early 1800s, as far as we know. And there have been reported sightings of something throughout the 1900s, as recently as the 90s. Whether or not it’s the creature from the legend or just a bear is impossible to know, but if it is the same thing my ancestors saw, then there had to be more than one of them.”

“Did anybody ever find the cave where it lived?”

“Nobody knows. There are plenty of caves in these mountains. It could have been in any one of them.”

“Come on! You guys are just fucking with me! Trying to scare the city girl with Bigfoot stories!”

“No, I swear, this is real history from my family and Nina’s,” Trevor said, putting a protective arm around Cassie’s shoulders and pulling her close.

“And there have been a lot of unexplained disappearances over the years. People have just walked into the woods and never returned. Like that guy years ago who took his dog for a walk and disappeared.”

“I remember that,” Gord said. “The dog came back but he didn’t. His remains turned up eleven years later, in a place far outside the search area. It didn’t make sense for him to have gone way up there.”

“The thing was,” Trevor added, “He was something of a legend in these parts. A serious outdoorsman. He knew these woods like his own back yard. The kind of guy you would call to help search when someone went missing. Not someone who would ever get lost out here.”

“What about that old woman last summer? They say she had dementia and drove onto these back roads and got lost. But when they finally found her she was eleven kilometres from her car. How does a woman in her eighties hike that far into the wilderness?” Nina said.

“And that other guy. They found his vehicle running on the side of the road with the driver’s door open, wallet and cell phone inside the vehicle. They also found blood in the vehicle and in the trees nearby. They searched for months, but when his body was finally found it was miles away in a place nobody would have looked.”

“Did they say what all those people died from?” Cassie asked, trying to hide the tremor in her voice.

“Nope. The cops are always very hush-hush about these things, for the privacy of the families. They said there was no foul play in any of the cases, but they all sound fishy as hell to me. I mean, what makes anyone just drop what they’re doing and make a beeline into the deep woods? Where were they trying to get to?”

“Or away from.” Nina said. “One reason for charging blindly into the woods is to escape from something.”

“Stop it, Nina! That’s not funny.” Cassie said.

“I’m not trying to be funny, just stating facts. Panic makes the illogical seem logical.”

Trevor saw the terror on Cassie’s face and leaned down to give her a kiss. “Don’t worry, babe. I’ll keep you safe from the Mesachie Man.”

The shriek echoed through the night again. It sounded closer this time. A wolf howled in the distance, as if in reply.

* * *

 

WOMAN RESCUED AFTER THREE-DAY ORDEAL IN WILDERNESS

A confused and dehydrated woman found wandering on Pacific Marine Route has been unable to offer police any answers. An abandoned vehicle and nearby campsite was found, but police have confirmed the vehicle was not registered to the woman.

Foul play is not suspected. Police believe the campers may have been en route to the Tall Trees Festival in Port Renfrew when their vehicle broke down. They are being sought for questioning at the festival.

The unidentified woman was admitted to hospital and treated for dehydration and minor injuries. She has been detained for psychiatric evaluation.

Anyone who has further information regarding the whereabouts of the woman’s alleged companions is asked to contact police as soon as possible.

 

* * *

 

“I need you to take this patient. I think you could make better progress with her than I can.” Dr. Phillips handed Cecily a file.

Cecily read the name. “Cassie March. What do we have here?” Cecily wasn’t a psychiatrist like Dr. Phillips. Her specialty was counselling victims of rape and other violence.

“Female, twenty-three years old, catatonia due to post-traumatic stress.”

“The source of the trauma?”

“That’s just it – we don’t know. She won’t talk to me. In fact, I can’t even enter the room without putting her into hysterics.”

“Does she react the same way to everyone? What about the nurses?”

“No, she seems ok with the nurses. It’s just me she has a problem with, or men in general, though the physical examination didn’t indicate sexual assault.”

“What were her injuries?”

“Aside from dehydration, just bruises and abrasions. The sort of thing you’d expect from someone who was lost in the wilderness.”

Cecily peeked through the observation window.

A young male orderly was in the room, putting fresh towels in the bathroom. The patient seemed undisturbed by his presence. The patient sat quietly on her bed, muttering to herself.

“What’s she saying? Has she said anything intelligible?”

“She just repeats the same phrase: ‘Mesachie Man’, over and over. I think someone may have done something to her, but I’ve made no progress because of her obvious fear of men.”

“She doesn’t seem bothered by all men, David.” Cecily nodded toward the fresh-faced orderly. “Maybe there’s something about you specifically that bothers her.”

Dr. Phillips stroked his bushy beard, remembering that he was overdue for a trim.

dysfictional 3front

“Hmm… I wonder what it could be?”

 

Copyright © 2018 Mandy White

Published in Dysfictional 3

 

Advertisements

The Dark Side of the World

Posted: February 21, 2019 in Uncategorized
Published in WPaD’s sci-fi anthology, ” Strange Adventures in a Deviant Universe”:
~*~*~*~
Snippets of conversation and laughter drifted through the brisk air. The shadowy figure observed from a distance as the small family huddled around the fire. The stranger had been watching them for what felt like days, scavenging their scraps for survival, hesitant to come out of hiding despite the group’s benign appearance. Things were not always what they seemed on an unknown planet.
The ship had exploded following the crash, destroying the navigational equipment and anything else that might have provided a clue as to where this place was. It was a stroke of luck to have escaped the wreck alive, and landed on a planet with a breathable atmosphere.

darkside2

It was an eerie land, cloaked in twilight, with sunlight visible on the horizon. The stranger had been walking toward the light when the ramshackle settlement came into view. Why did these people choose to live out here in the darkness, instead of closer to the light? The question needed an answer, before further travel in that direction was attempted.
The stranger strode into the camp.
***
Aaron pinched his sister’s arm. “I saw that. Quit hoarding the protein pods. I want some too!”
Lucy squealed and slapped his hand away. “Stop that! I wasn’t done yet!”
“Both of you stop it!” their mother scolded. “We do not fight over food.”
Preoccupied with bickering, none of them noticed the stranger in their midst until the crunch of gravel underfoot caught their attention.
Donna’s eyes widened at the sight of the shadowy figure. She scrambled backwards, shoving her children behind her.
The stranger reached a hand into a jacket pocket, withdrew a small device and aimed it at Donna.
“Please don’t hurt us!” she pleaded. “Take whatever you want. We don’t have much, but it’s yours if you spare our lives. Please! Kill me if you have to, just don’t hurt my children!”
The stranger lowered the device and removed the battered helmet from her head. She smiled at Donna.
“Looks like I won’t need this thing,” she said, placing the translator back in her pocket. “I’m not going to hurt you. I am lost on this world and in need of help.”
The woman’s age was difficult to guess; she looked middle-aged, yet her athletic, muscular physique gave her a youthful appearance. She wasn’t pretty in the conventional sense, but no less striking. Tattoos snaked up her neck, over her cheek and one side of her half-bald scalp like alien tentacles. Silver hair cascaded to her opposite shoulder. Metal rings glittered in her nose, ears and lips. A thick lens covered her eye on the bald side, held in place by metallic bands embedded in her flesh.
“Go and get your father,” Donna whispered to Lucy, shooing her toward the cluster of tents and shacks.
Aaron knew it was rude to stare, but couldn’t tear his eyes away from the fascinating stranger.
Donna’s fear evaporated when she recognized the woman’s military uniform. “Come and warm yourself by the fire,” she offered. “You must be cold, traveling out in the wasteland. I’m Donna, and this is my son, Aaron.”
“I am Vista.”
“Where did you come from?”
Vista pointed toward the Dark. “I have been walking since my ship crashed. I don’t know how far or how long. The darkness… it’s confusing. I kept moving, toward the light.” She pointed toward the bright horizon. “I saw your fire, but didn’t approach at first. I didn’t know if you were hostile. I have been watching you from a distance.”
“No, what I mean is, where are you from? How is it we speak the same language?”
“I am from Earth,” Vista said, “As I assume you are.”
Lucy returned with her father in tow. Her eyes widened at the sight of the woman seated beside the fire.
“Donna, are you all right?” He held a flashlight in his hand, and he shone the beam in Vista’s face, revealing rough, twisted scar tissue beneath the tattoos. The lens on her eye made a whirring sound as it adjusted to the light.
Donna stood and gave her husband a brief embrace. “Yes, we’re fine. Darius, this is Vista. She is from Earth. Her ship crashed near the Dark Line. She was traveling to Summerland when she came upon our camp.”
“Summerland?” Vista’s brow furrowed. “What is Summerland?”
Aaron pointed toward the horizon. “Summerland. Land of the Light.”
Donna scowled. “Land of the Deviants, you mean.”
Aaron shrugged. “Well, that goes without saying.”
“What do you mean?” Vista asked.
“First, you explain some things to us,” Darius said. “How can you be from Earth, if we have never met?”
“I think you just answered your own question. Have you met everyone from Earth? I haven’t.”
“What I mean is, you didn’t come here on the ship with us.”
“No. My ship crashed. I don’t know where I am, only that I am far from home.”
“You’re military?” Darius asked, indicating her attire.
“Yes. North American Air Force. Captain Vista Daune.”
Lucy sat on the bench beside Vista. She reached up to touch the tattooed, marred surface of her face.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Lucy!” Donna scolded, “Don’t be rude!”
“It’s ok.” Vista put an arm around Lucy. “You’re not rude. You’re direct. It’s a good quality to have. Don’t ever lose that, sweetie. I’ll tell you, as long as it’s all right with your parents.” She looked at Donna, who nodded her consent.
“When I was younger, I worked at an amusement park. A low-budget little place, way out in the desert in Nevazona. It featured low-tech, cheesy attractions, enhanced by spraying the patrons with a mind-altering drug while they stood in the lineups. Anyway, to make a long story short, there was a malfunction on one of the attractions, a train ride that was supposed to mimic time travel. Riders started disappearing. They’d get on, but when the ride returned, it was empty. We asked our bosses to shut the ride down until we could find the problem, but they refused. One day the train returned with a single rider on board, and he was freaking out, bad. He’d had a reaction to the ride drug, and he insisted he was from the past. I tried to calm him down, but he was trippin’ balls somethin’ awful. He accused me of being part of a conspiracy. I gave him the antidote to the drug and sent him on his way, but apparently he didn’t swallow the pill. He returned later, still in a psychotic state, and threw a jar of acid in my face. Turns out the amusement park was actually a military experiment. They were testing mind control drugs. The idea was, use a drug to make subjects suggestible to whatever reality they chose to feed to them.”
Lucy gasped, clapping her hand over her mouth. “That’s awful!”
“It’s not so bad.” Vista pointed at the lens. “The optical implant is better than a regular eye. I can see things really far away, even in the dark.”
“Cool!” Aaron said. “I want one!”
“Well, first you need to find a sharp stick…” Vista joked.
“You must be hungry,” Donna said, offering her a wrapped package of food. She shot her husband a stern glance, and Darius passed Vista a bottle.
“Thank you.” She took a sip. It tasted sweet and fruity, some sort of wine.
“After the accident, the military wanted to keep me close, because I knew too much. They offered me a job. I enlisted in the space program where I worked as a mechanic.”
“What year did you leave Earth?” Darius asked.
“I left in October, 2048,” Vista replied.
“But that’s impossible! You couldn’t have! The planet was long – ”
“Destroyed? Yeah, no it wasn’t. That’s just what they told all of you to convince you to evacuate. I know the story. A giant asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, extinction level event, blah blah… everyone needed to evacuate or they would die.”
“Yes, exactly. And after we were off the planet, we watched it hit. We all watched Earth being destroyed on the screens, from the safety of the ships.”
“What you saw was fake. Spectacular special effects, staged for your benefit. They just wanted to be rid of you.”
“Who?”
“The ones in control. Governments.”
“What makes you think so?”
“I worked for them. I helped build the ships that brought you here, and countless others who ended up who knows where in the universe.”
“I don’t know,” Darius shook his head. “It all sounds pretty far-fetched. Not to mention coincidental that you ended up here, the same place where we landed.”
“It’s quite logical, when you think about it,” Vista said. “The ship I came in was built with the same technology as yours, though a bit more advanced, being a newer model. But both were built with the same type of navigational system. They’re programmed to seek out habitable planets. The difference is, yours landed safely. My landing gear was damaged during the flight and I crashed.”
“Assuming what you’re saying is true, why did they send us away?”
“As you probably remember, Earth’s governments were run by the wealthy. Every high office in the world was for sale to the highest bidder. The Elites wanted the planet to themselves. They’d tried genocide in the past, but then they realized it wasn’t race or religion that was the problem, it was population. The masses of non-wealthy were taking up space they felt they were entitled to and cutting into their profit margin.
“So they made up a lie to make us leave?”
“Yes. What better way to get rid of a problem than by shooting it into space? They’d been doing with their garbage for years: out of sight, out of mind. And then they took credit for cleaning up the planet. They did the same thing with what they viewed as human refuse. Anyone they decided was a burden – basically anyone who was in the wrong tax bracket – was sent into space like so much trash.”
“How did they decide who was a burden?”
“Anyone with a bank balance of less than a million dollars was immediately disqualified. After that, the heads of the nations met, and each came forward with a list of those they deemed worthy. The chosen ones were informed. Everyone else was told the planet was about to be destroyed.”
“I remember.” Donna said softly. I was only sixteen years old. My life was just beginning. They told us we were going to die. I’ve never been so afraid in all my life. Before that day, my biggest problem was getting the boy I liked to notice me. In an instant, my whole world changed. Everyone’s did.”
“And the bastards let you all think you were going to die. For weeks they fed you a mixture of doomsday bullshit and false hope. Their ‘brilliant’ scientists were working on a solution, they said. And then, two months after the news of the asteroid, came the big announcement. Humanity was saved! Everyone would escape the doomed planet onboard a massive intergalactic cruise ship, with a chance to find a new world somewhere out there. Tickets were free, of course, but passengers had the option of buying upgrades – private quarters, individual stasis pods – all stuff that made no difference in the long run, but the Elites never failed to grab an opportunity to make a buck. Billions of people blasted into space in every possible direction. Some were doomed to die; some are still out there cruising, locked in stasis until their ships find a livable planet. Some got lucky and found a place to land.”
“We got lucky, I guess, if you can call this lucky. My family signed up right away. But my grandparents refused to go with us. They preferred to stay and die in their home. I wonder what happened to them?” Donna sighed. “I miss them. I wish we could go back.”
“Actually, no, you don’t. After the evacuation, the Elites tried to starve out the squatters by making life as rough as possible for them, dangling the promise of food and shelter aboard a cruiser. A lot of them gave in and finally left, but some refused to take the bait. The survivalists fared the best; many had been stockpiling for Armageddon since the turn of the century. Those who were unprepared just starved.”
“But there must have been some chosen ones who didn’t agree with the plan!” Donna said. “What happened to them?”
“The penalty for non-compliance was execution. They couldn’t risk putting them aboard a ship with the masses once they knew the truth. The secret had to be protected at all costs. A few chosens met their end that way, but not as many as you’d think. Wealth and corruption go hand in hand.”
“Why did you leave?” Aaron asked. “Were you sent away too?”
“No. Military was exempt. They didn’t want to be left without defenses in case of attack. The Elites didn’t trust each other. They were so worried about being betrayed by one of their own, they overlooked the real threat.
Once the Elites got rid of everyone, they didn’t have the planet to themselves for long. Hostile aliens landed and took over. Our guess was they intercepted one of the evacuation ships and tracked it back to Earth. Our weapons were no match for them. Most of our armed forces were wiped out. As a mechanic, I never saw the front lines, so I survived. The Elites lost everything. They were forced to live in squalor, slaves to the new alien overlords.”
“Serves them right, the bastards.” Donna threw a bundle of sticks on the fire with more force than was necessary and it erupted in a shower of sparks.
“Right? It was kinda beautiful, to be honest. Anyway, I escaped, stole a ship and got the hell out of there while the rich idiots had the aliens distracted, demanding rights and fighting to keep their country clubs. I didn’t know where I was going; just set the autopilot and went into stasis, hoping whichever world I landed on would be less corrupt than the one I left.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Darius said, “but it isn’t.”
“What? I left only fifteen years after the evacuations. How could anyone fuck things up that quickly? You got some kind of Lord of the Flies thing happening here?”
“Some kind of. I don’t have much basis for comparison, to be honest.” Darius reached for the bottle and Vista handed it to him.
“We left aboard a ship called the Aldous, four months after the doomsday announcement. Donna and I were teenagers, traveling with our families. We didn’t meet on the ship; everyone went into stasis shortly after takeoff. We met here, after we landed.”
“And what is “here”? Does this place have a name?” Vista inquired.
“We named the planet Xterra.”
“I get it. Ex-Terra. Kind of a clever play on words. It was also a model of car, if I remember correctly.”
“Apparently, yes. I don’t remember, but that’s what someone told me.”
“Where are the rest of you? That ship had a capacity of five hundred thousand. Are there more settlements like this one?”
“Yes, there are more like this, but not everyone is out here. The rest live in Summerland.”
“And why aren’t you there as well?”
“Because,” Darius said, passing the bottle back to Vista, “Summerland is only for the Uppers.”
“What the fuck is an Upper?”
“According to what you’ve told us, a lot of people who considered themselves Elite didn’t make the cut. They took what they believed was their rightful place. As for the rest of us…” Darius gestured at the surrounding camp.
“So you live out here in the dark, while those entitled assholes get to live in the sunshine? How do you survive? Where do you get food?”
“Why we work, of course. For the Uppers. And for the record, this isn’t the Dark. This is the Twilight Zone. The Dark Line is still a great distance from here.”
“You live in the Twilight Zone? You can’t be serious.”
“Of course.”
Vista shrugged. “Sure, whatever. Suitable, I guess. What’s this Dark Line?”
“Xterra is different from the planet we came from. Remember how Earth rotated on an axis? I mean, I assume it still does.”
“Xterra doesn’t rotate?”
“Yes, it does. The way my father explained it, this planet turns so slowly it travels around its sun faster than it makes a single rotation. On Xterra, a day is longer than a year. On Earth we had short days and nights, seasons, cold places and warm places. This planet has those as well, but the dark and light move very slowly.”
“Your father sounds pretty knowledgeable.”
“He used to work for NASA.”
“And yet they sent him away.” Vista shook her head in disbelief, even though she already knew most of Earth’s scientists and scholars had been evacuated.
“Yes. Their loss, Xterra’s gain.
“I’d like to speak to your father.”
“So would I,” Darius said, hanging his head. “My father died, a few years after we landed.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“He was sick. Cancer. That’s why he retired from NASA. He wasn’t expected to live more than a year when we left Earth. He beat the odds, survived a deep space flight and helped colonize a new planet. He completed his life’s work and died happy, given the circumstances.”
They passed the bottle between the three of them in silence. Finally Vista spoke.
“Tell me more about Xterra.”
“The sides closest and furthest from the sun are inhospitable. The Scorch burns everything in its path. The Dark is frozen, like deep space. In between, are the regions where we live. Summerland is the ideal place to live. The sunlight is warm but not too hot, and the constant light is great for growing crops. We plant crops at the edge of the Twilight Zone, and by the time they reach the Scorch Line, they have matured and been harvested.”
“You must have water here, then.”
“Yes. The Dark is covered in ice, like Earth’s poles were before the climate change. As the sun advances, the ice melts and flows toward the warmth. The Scorch evaporates it into clouds and it rains and snows, just like it used to on Earth.
“Which explains the atmosphere. But your homes must also get scorched. What do you do, move the camps?”
“Yes. We move the camp as far as we can into the Twilight Zone, so we don’t have to move as often. It’s dark and cold for a while, but it gets warmer and brighter as the Summer approaches.”
“But what about the people who live in Summerland? They must have to move as well. Do they come out here too?”
“The Uppers? Oh, hell no. They would never leave the light. Moving them is a constant process. It keeps all of us working. Those who aren’t tending crops, working in the city or serving in the homes of the Uppers are on Moving duty.”
“You mean they move the tents and camps for the Uppers?”
“Tents! Ha!” Donna chuckled, opening a fresh bottle of wine. “I’d love to see an Upper sleep in a tent!”
“But how do you move them, if they don’t live in tents?”
Darius said, “We build. And dismantle. And rebuild.”
“Let me get this straight. You take apart entire buildings when the heat gets too close, and rebuild them where it’s cooler?”
“Yes.”
“And you’re ok with that arrangement?”
“Yes. We earn our food and whatever else we need, and everyone is happy.”
“Are you?”
“Happy? Yes, I’d say so, considering the alternative.”
“But why can’t everyone live in Summerland? Like you said, it’s a huge planet.”
“Because the Uppers won’t allow it. They don’t want crowds of Workers cluttering up their space.”
“Just like fucking Earth,” Vista muttered.
***
Vista accepted the family’s invitation to stay at the camp. They provided her with a tent and some necessities. Getting a job wasn’t a problem. Everyone worked, and the Uppers didn’t question who was who as long as the work was being done.
Vista couldn’t wait to get a look at this Summerland civilization.
Crews worked around the clock on Xterra because Summerland was daylight all the time. With no discernable day and night to guide them, they relied on Timekeepers to notify them of shift changes. The few remaining functional timepieces from Earth were used to create calendars based on Earth years, to give them a relatable way of measuring time. Shift changes were announced by the ring of a Timekeeper’s bell.
Vista was scheduled to start a shift on the next bell.
***
Aaron accompanied Vista into Summerland for her first shift. He was also scheduled to work at the next bell. Darius and Donna had finished their shifts and were at home asleep.
During the walk to the city, they chatted.
“How old are you, Aaron?”
“Mom says I’m about thirteen, in Earth years.”
“And you work? Don’t you go to school?”
Aaron laughed. “School? That’s only for the Uppers. They go to classes in the church. We don’t have to. Our parents teach us all we need to know.”
“Church? Seriously? They’re still flogging that old horse?” Vista laughed and shook her head. “Some people never learn.”
“All the kids work, as soon as they’re old enough.”
“Even your little sister Lucy? What is she, about eight years old?”
“Seven. Lucy works with my mom, on the Cleaning crew.”
“Cleaning?”
“The Uppers like everything clean and polished.”
The sky grew lighter as they neared the city, and the temperature warmed by several degrees, like an ordinary sunlit morning. People came into view, other Workers, all walking in the same direction, toward a small building that looked like a toll booth.
A bell sounded in the distance.
“We’re almost there. We’d better hurry up and punch in.”
“Punch in?”
“You punch in at the gate when you get there. Keep your card with you and don’t lose it. You’ll need it to punch out at the end of the shift.”
“The card keeps track of our pay?”
“The card is your pay. It’s a voucher. You collect vouchers, and then you can spend them in the marketplace.”
“Huh. Cut out the middleman. It’s so simple, it’s almost brilliant.”
They had reached the toll booth.
“Where do you work, Aaron?”
“Here.” Aaron took his place inside the booth, relieving a youth of about the same age. He punched a card and handed it to Vista. “Remember to punch it again when you’re done, or it will be worthless.” He beckoned to a man standing behind Vista. She recognized him from the encampment. “This is Carl. He’ll show you what to do. You’re both on the same Moving crew.”
Vista tried not stare as she entered the city of Summerland. She intended to keep a low profile, but her jaw dropped in awe.
Shining towers rose all around, connected by raised, enclosed walkways, like a giant above-ground ant colony. Workers moved about the streets at ground level, while figures in flowing white robes traveled through the walkways.
“What is that made from?” she asked Carl, pointing at the towers. “It’s so shiny!
“Gold, mostly. And some copper.”
“You’re kidding!”
Carl shrugged. “We use what is available. The Aldous came equipped with plenty of tools, and seeds to grow crops, but not a lot of building supplies. We mined the planet’s minerals and smelted the metals. There happens to be a lot of gold available. There are other materials, but the Uppers prefer the gold.
“Of course they do.” Vista shook her head at the absurdity of it all. “So you have gold towers with thatched roofs?”
“Mostly, yes.”
“And I thought Earth was fucked up.”
***
With Carl’s guidance, Vista survived her first shift without asking too many questions. She turned a few heads, but transfers from other shifts weren’t uncommon and nobody questioned her presence.
The crew was in the process of dismantling a mansion-sized home on the hot side of the city. Each building, she learned, had a duplicate next to it, which the occupants lived in while the other was being moved. Once the first home was rebuilt on the cool side of the city, crews went back and dismantled the second. And so on… building by building, until the entire city had been moved. Half of all buildings in the city were unoccupied at all times. And yet the people who did all the work were living in tents in the darkness! Vista fumed as she worked. The job never ended. As the city moved, the sun advanced.
Vista pondered what the Uppers would do if they had nobody to move their city for them.
The Uppers did nothing for themselves. Household servants prepared meals, cleaned their homes, shopped in the market for them and brought them everything they needed from the outside.
All buildings were connected by walkways, allowing Uppers to travel anywhere in the city without coming in contact with the ground. They were obsessed with cleanliness; their shoes never touched dirt and they wore spotless white garments. All the Uppers Vista saw were overweight, some morbidly so. The place was like a country club for obese germophobes.
They even had an above-ground golf course on the roof of the marketplace, with live sod planted over a fabric membrane. The marketplace was like a gigantic open-air shopping mall, with vendors of every description gathered under a roof like a giant parking garage.
One shift, while transporting materials to the cool side, Vista caught sight of something shiny. She zoomed in with her implant. The Aldous! The magnificent ship that had transported them to the planet sat a few miles outside the city, past the farmlands.
An idea formed in her mind.
***
Later, in the encampment, Vista and Darius were seated at a table in the tent that served as a pub.
Vista asked, “What happens to the Aldous during the move? Do they move it as well, or does it stay in one place?” She had to speak loudly to be heard over the chatter of voices in the busy pub.
“In the past, Captain Samuels would fly it deep into the Twilight Zone,” Darius explained, “as close to the Dark Line as possible. But he was old. He died recently, and the person who took his place doesn’t know much about the ship. On the last flight, it had a rough landing and now the engines won’t fire. We have nobody who knows how to fix it.”
“Yes, you do.” Vista grinned.
“You?”
“I spent my entire military career working on that propulsion system. I know it well.”
“The ship should be moved if possible,” Carl said, “We don’t know if it would survive the Scorch and the Dark Freeze.”
“I can answer at least half that question. The Aldous was built for intergalactic travel, which means it was designed to withstand extreme temperatures. Yes, it would definitely survive the Freeze. That’s equivalent to the temperature of space. As for the Scorch, I’m about fifty percent certain it would survive that as well. Though the ships weren’t designed to fly into something as hot as a star, they are well insulated, in case of landings in harsh environments. I don’t know enough about this planet to say for sure. I don’t know how hot it gets. But that’s irrelevant, because we aren’t going let it get trapped in the Scorch. We want that thing accessible and operational, and I’m going to make it happen.”
“Vista, what are you plotting?” Darius asked. “If the Uppers find out…”
“Then what? Tell me, WHAT will happen if the Uppers find out?” Vista’s voice rose. “What will they do?” She gestured around the room. “What can they do to any of us that they haven’t already done? Is there some sort of punishment I don’t know about? Public beatings? Executions? Prison?”
“No, nothing like that! But they could cut off our rations,” Carl said. “Without the crops, we’d starve. We need access to Summerland to survive, and the only way to do that is to work there.”
“And what if you didn’t? What if none of you did?
“What are you saying?” Darius asked. A murmur rose across the room. Vista had the attention of other tables besides theirs.
“What would the Uppers do if everyone refused to move their damn houses for them? Would they pick up the tools and do it themselves? Of course not! They wouldn’t know where to begin. I’ve worked over a dozen shifts and haven’t seen one of those pricks set foot on the ground.”
Vista stood and addressed the room.
“Don’t you people realize you’re the ones with the power, not them? I say fuck the Uppers! Let them burn when the Scorch comes! We’ll survive, because we have tents and know how to move them. We know how to plant crops. Who would feed the Uppers if we didn’t harvest their crops or serve them their food?”
“Fuck the Uppers!” came a shout from the crowd.
More voices joined in until it became a chant.
“Yeah! Fuck the Uppers! Fuck the Uppers!”
Vista turned to Darius and said, “That, my friend, is what we Earthlings used to call a strike.”
***
Word of the strike spread through the camps, along with instructions that everyone was to work their normal shifts until told otherwise.
Vista traded shifts with one of the farm Workers. The first chance she had, she slipped away, to the Aldous.
Walking onto the bridge of the old ship was like coming home. Vista blinked back tears. If she forgot about the messed-up civilization outside, she could almost pretend she was back on Earth, back at her old job, before everything went to shit.
The Aldous was easy to fix; just a loose connection caused by the impact of a rough landing. She completed the repair, then accessed the ship’s navigational system and reprogrammed it. If this strike went the way she expected it to, the Aldous would take care of their problem for them.
***
Workers gathered in the wasteland at the edge of the settlement where they awaited instructions and answers to their questions.
Vista did her best to alleviate their fears.
“In our old lives back on Earth, we were used to working for someone else. We all had Uppers to answer to. It’s natural to want to continue what we’ve always known. It feels safe.”
Several heads nodded and voices murmured in agreement.
“The rules have changed. This is a new world, and you have the power to write new rules. The Uppers are playing by the old rules. Their power lies in your willingness to obey. Take that away and they have nothing! If nobody shows up for work, the Uppers will be afraid. They will be in a position to negotiate, and we can ask for whatever we want.”
“But what if it doesn’t work? What if the Uppers won’t negotiate?” a voice in the crowd asked.
“We have the Aldous. We will threaten to leave, and tell the Uppers to take care of themselves. Believe me, they’ll negotiate.”
“We could actually leave this place?” another voice asked.
“I think that’s a question we need to ask.” Vista addressed the crowd, “Would you want to leave on the Aldous, and take your chances in space? There’s always the chance the ship’s navigation system doesn’t locate another hospitable planet, or that the one it finds is inhabited by a hostile race.”
A woman spoke up. “I think I speak for most of us, when I say, we don’t want to leave. This is our home now. Our children were born here. We want to negotiate better living conditions for ourselves.”
The crowd voiced its agreement.
“Ok, it’s settled, then. We will leave only as a last resort. We are going to demand equal treatment for everyone. The Uppers will have no choice but to share Summerland and all its luxuries with us.”
“How long will it take? What if we run out of food?” someone asked.
“There’s nothing stopping us from helping ourselves to the crops in the fields. Nobody goes there except us.”
The chatter of voices rose. Apparently nobody had considered the obvious.
“Just give me three shifts. You all have enough food to last that long. Three shifts. I promise you, we’ll know the outcome by then.”
A cheer rose from the crowd, followed by chants of, “Fuck the Uppers! Fuck the Uppers!”
***
When the next bell rang, all Workers went home, but no new shifts took their places. Even the Timekeeper left.
The Uppers woke from their clean white beds to find no clean robes to change into. Their breakfast wasn’t made. Their household servants didn’t arrive with fresh goods from the marketplace.
An eerie silence had fallen over the city. The constant sound of construction was absent. No Workers bustled in the marketplace. No Timekeepers’ bells marked the shift changes.
Nobody did anything at first; they just waited for their servants to arrive. After the second sleep with no meal, they ventured out of their homes.
The Workers had vanished. Only Uppers were left.
They raided the marketplace, stripping it of anything edible. When the food was gone, what would they do? Nobody knew.
There was plenty of food in the fields, but with nobody to harvest, how would they get it? With nobody to run the bakeries, who would make the breads and cakes the Uppers loved to eat? More importantly, who was going to move them away from the Scorch? They were going to burn to death!
Panic gripped the city.
BONG! BONG! BONG!
The Timekeeper’s bell sounded in the courtyard.
The Workers were back! They were saved! They rushed to their windows.
A lone figure stood in the courtyard. A strange looking woman nobody had seen before.
“Uppers! We need to talk!”
***
The meeting with the delegation of Uppers went as expected.
Vista studied the row of ponderous, balding old men, lounging in their overstuffed armchairs. She recognized a few of them as former politicians from Earth.
“I regret to inform you, that as of this moment, all work in the city will stop, unless our demands are met,” she told them.
The room erupted in laughter.
“Get back to work!” A man who looked like Colonel Sanders dismissed her with a wave of his hand, as if swatting a fly. “Everyone needs to get back on the job, right now. There’s work to be done!”
Vista joined in their laughter.
“What’s so damn funny?” Sanders demanded.
“Suddenly I have a craving for Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she giggled.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Just a moment, gentlemen, before we get down to business, I need to take care of something.” She withdrew a small aerosol can from her pocket and covered her mouth and nose with a cloth. She sprayed the air above the men’s heads.
“What is that?” one of them asked. He looked like an aging Cabbage Patch doll.
“Just a precaution. A little disinfectant for your protection. I came from outer space, remember? I don’t want to expose you to any deadly space germs.” When Vista stole the mind control drug from the amusement park, she never imagined she would use it on an alien planet one day.
Their eyes clouded with confusion. The atmosphere in the room changed from belligerent to complacent as the spray took effect.
“Thank you,” Cabbage Patch said.
“Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Sanders said.
“I was from Kentucky, once,” a voice drawled. The owner of the voice resembled 500 pounds of sweaty melting wax. “Senator Roy Gubbles.”
“I remember you, Mr. Gubbles.”
“Senator Gubbles,” he corrected.
“Whatever, Gumby. Actually, you were only a senator on Earth. Here, you’re just… I’m not sure what you are here. Jabba the Hutt, I think. Such a shame your colleagues didn’t choose you to stay.”
“What do you mean? Nobody stayed. That planet is dead. Destroyed by the asteroid.”
“Vista grinned. “Oh, no, dear Gubbles. That’s what they wanted you to believe. The sad truth is, they chose the ones worthy to stay and blasted the undesirables into space. You, sir, did not make the cut. Did you piss anyone off, by chance? Money troubles, Senator?”
Gubbles hung his head and she knew she had nailed it. He’d fallen into financial trouble and his cronies were tired of bailing him out.
“Why should we believe you?” Sanders barked.
“Because I was there. Long after you all got kicked off the planet, I remained, along with your old golfing buddies. If you don’t believe me, I have a little video you might want to see.”
Vista clicked a button on her implant and turned around. An image projected on the wall in front of them. It was the phony broadcast shown on the ships, of the asteroid destroying Earth. Except this video wasn’t on a ship’s screen. It was displayed on the giant screen in Times Square, with a giant party of New Year’s Eve proportions in full swing below. Billionaires from around the world cheered and celebrated. Champagne corks popped.
The Uppers watched in stunned silence.
“Sorry guys. Hate to break it to you, but there was a big party, and you weren’t invited. They celebrated after you left. You were duped. Thrown away by your own kind.”
“But… what…?” Sanders sputtered.
“Chicken butt!” Vista giggled. “But seriously, boys, if I were you, I’d be pissed off. I’d want revenge! Those bastards took everything you had! Your jobs, your property, your money!”
“Those bastards!” Cabbage Patch repeated.
“You know what I’d do if I were you? I’d go back there and take back what was mine.”
“But we can’t! The ship is broken!”
“Not necessarily.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, I can fix it. I can program a course for Earth and send you on your way.”
The Uppers murmured amongst themselves.
“Think about it fellows! The assholes who sent you away will be long dead by the time you get to Earth. But you – you’re still strong and… erm… healthy. You could take your families back home and take your rightful place on the planet of your birth.”
“What do you want in return?” Gubbles asked.
“Why nothing, really. Just leave this planet, this pain-in-the-ass, useless, always-having-to-move planet, to the less fortunate. The Workers have no place to go. You wouldn’t have to take them with you to Earth. You’d have the ship all to yourselves.
***
It didn’t take the Uppers long to reach a decision.
Vista moved the Aldous closer to the city in preparation for boarding. The Workers built a walkway for the Uppers, leading from the city to the gangplank, and loaded their belongings, most of which were made of gold. Hopefully the alien overlords of Earth liked gold. Maybe they’d be able to bargain for their lives.
The new citizens of Summerland gathered to watch the massive ship and its equally massive cargo rise into the sky, and then in a flash, it was gone.
Donna gave Vista a huge hug. “I don’t know how to thank you. I can’t believe you convinced them to leave. How did you do it?”
“Let’s call it the power of persuasion.”
***
Summerland thrived. Everyone did their share of work, and everyone shared in the benefits. The ridiculous golden towers were left to melt when the Scorch came, and the city was replaced with more practical, easily movable structures to suit the Summerlanders’ nomadic lifestyle. Aaron and Lucy grew up and had children of their own.
Even though Vista was old and blind in her real eye, she was not blind to the trend she’d seen developing in the younger generation. Some citizens stopped doing their share of work, opting to saddle others with their workload in return for goods or favors. As the lazy ones increased in number, the working class was pushed toward the edges of the city. One day she overheard someone suggest they move the workers out of the city, into the Twilight Zone.
Vista’s fingers caressed the spray can in the pocket of her robe. Some people never learned.
“Here we go again,” she muttered.
Copyright © 2017 Mandy White
All Rights Reserved

Further Attempts at Romance…

Posted: February 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

As I always say, I’m not a romance writer. When I try to write romance, terrible things happen and people die. This is one of my early attempts at failed romance, and also one of my favorites, which is why I post it every year. #ShortStorySunday

valentine

Your Heart Will be Mine

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.

 

Copyright © 2012 Mandy White

People tell me, “You should write romance! It’s popular… It sells well…”

That sounds great in theory, but the truth is, I’m not that kind of writer. The stories I write are murderous, disturbing, or just plain weird. When I attempt to write romance, something terrible is bound to happen…

Prairie Passion

The verdant sea of prairie grasses rippled in the ever-present breeze; the spring greens had not yet made the transformation to summer’s golden hue. The lone rider in the distance might have been a mirage, shimmering against the endless blue horizon. The girl had been making her short pilgrimage for several weeks, slipping away as often as possible to ride across the plains to the spot near the creek where she had first sighted the boy.

Sarah could shirk her chores without fear of punishment because not much was expected of someone in her condition. Her sisters and cousins glowered at her, jealous at being left behind to do chores Sarah skipped in favor of riding her horse, Sable.

Sarah ignored the scornful looks and whispers as she rode through the settlement. The other teenage girls were hard at work scrubbing pots and hanging laundry.

“She rides that horse with no saddle! How barbaric!”

“She does not look ill. I think she is pretending.”

“No bonnet! Positively shameful!”

In spite of their derision, the other girls were grateful Sarah kept her distance. Nobody wanted to be near her, for fear of contracting her disease. Sarah was content in her role as village pariah; she played in the sunshine without wearing her sunbonnet, rode her horse bareback and exhibited a host of unladylike behaviors without reprimand.

The doctor back in Philadelphia told Sarah’s parents she wouldn’t survive past her teen years, which rendered her useless. Nobody would marry a woman incapable of pulling her weight, who would not survive long enough to raise children. What man would want a wife doomed to die from consumption?

Hard labor aggravated Sarah’s condition. Any strenuous activity triggered a violent cough and rendered her breathless. According to the doctor, fresh air and gentle activity for the remainder of her days was the best thing for her. Sarah was capable of doing light work like sewing but her parents didn’t force work upon her. What was the point? Any time spent teaching valuable life skills to a girl who would soon be dead was time better spent elsewhere.

They had joined several other British families in a northbound wagon train, leaving the city in search of a new life in a new land. The vast fertile plains of Canada offered a wealth of opportunities. After a slow, tedious journey, the Worthingtons and their companions made their homes in a tiny settlement on the plains, in a region that would later become known as Saskatchewan.

Sarah first encountered the boy in early April when she stopped to rest at a pretty little stream during one of her rides. Sable was first to detect a strange presence. The mare was drinking when suddenly her head sprung from the water. Her body stiffened and she spun around, making a whuffing sound through her nostrils. Her ears pointed forward toward the source of the new scent, so much that the tips nearly touched.

“Shh…” Sarah whispered, “What is it, my dear?”

She tied Sable to a nearby bush and went to investigate on foot.

A small hill obscured her view. Sarah crept to the top, staying low to the ground and using the talls grass for cover. As she mounted the crest of the hill she heard the sound of water splashing. She lay in the grass and peeked down the slope.

The creek widened into a small pool as it flowed against the base of the hill. A small grove of trees stood their ground at the water’s edge. A flash of white in the water drew her attention. A horse, mostly white with rust-colored splotches stood chest-deep in the water. The animal wore no saddle or bridle, and appeared to be alone. As Sarah watched, bubbles appeared beside the horse and then a glistening black head bobbed up, breaking the surface with barely a ripple. A person had swum under the horse’s belly while it stood calmly, playing in the water as it drank.

Sarah stifled a giggle at the paint’s amusing antics. The horse submerged his nose in the water all the way up to his eyes and blew bubbles, then tossed his head high, splashing his owner and curling his upper lip in a comical horsey sneer. The boy laughed and dove beneath the surface once again, this time emerging on the opposite side of the horse.

He was the most beautiful boy she had ever seen. His waist-length raven hair and bronze skin told Sarah exactly what he was. He was an Indian, or ‘Injun’ as her uncles called his kind. The government had assured them the savages were under control, confined to sections of land reserved especially for them. The rest of the region was ready for new settlers. Sarah wondered if her father and uncles knew the Indians were in such close proximity to their new home. She watched the boy for as long as she dared, then scurried back to her horse before her fickle cough could betray her. She mounted Sable and rode like the wind back to the settlement, checking over her shoulder several times to ensure she wasn’t being followed.

Sarah didn’t tell her family about the boy. She was afraid her parents would forbid her from riding away from the settlement again. She couldn’t erase his image from her mind: his rich brown skin, so different from her own; the longest, sleekest, blackest hair she had ever seen. She wanted to see him again.

She returned several times to the spot where she had seen the boy but saw no sign of him save for a few unshod hoofprints in the mud of the creek bank. Then one day, he was there. She sneaked to the hillside as she had before, trying to be as stealthy as possible but this time Sable betrayed her. The mare was in season and resented being left behind when she could smell a potential mate just around the bend. Just as Sarah reached the hilltop, Sable let out a shrill whinny, pawing the ground with her front hoof in frustration. The paint horse whirled toward the sound, head high, ears at attention. The boy looked around fearfully, as if expecting an attack.

Sarah knew the best thing for her to do was flee.

Instead, she stood and waved, trying to look as friendly as possible.

The boy looked nervous but clearly relieved to see the intruder was just a girl.

Sarah’s heart thudded in her chest as she approached, descending the gentle slope one tentative step at a time. If she was to be captured by savages, so be it. It was too late to run away now.

Sable neighed again. The painted stallion jerked away from his distracted owner and bolted toward the sound and scent of the mare.

“Sable!”

Sarah turned and began running back to her horse, unsure of how she was going to defend the mare against the advances of a stallion with one thing on his mind.

The Indian boy followed, shouting commands at his horse in a strange language. By the time they reached the horses it was too late; the stallion had already mounted Sable and she wasn’t objecting in the least. It was best to let nature take its course. Sarah turned to the boy, who now stood beside her.

“Forgive me… my horse…” she gasped, gesturing helplessly at the horses. She was unsure of what to say but decided a greeting would be the best way to start.

“Hello,” she said, though she didn’t expect him to understand.

Her jaw dropped in shock when he replied in English.

“Allo.” He grinned, revealing a brilliant mouthful of white teeth. His eyes danced, glittering like twin beads of obsidian beneath thick dark lashes. The boy’s dusky beauty stole Sarah’s breath more than her illness ever had. The elegant lines of his face and high, sculpted cheekbones were unlike any man she had seen. With no sign of facial or body hair, his age was difficult to discern but he had the lanky, lean-muscled build of a young man about sixteen years of age.

“Y-you speak English?” she stammered, nonplussed but pleased nonetheless.

The young man nodded, the playful smile never leaving his face.

“How? You’re a… a…”

He laughed. “I am savage? I still speak. I am like you.”

Sarah blushed. “Please forgive my poor manners. Of course you speak. I just didn’t expect you to speak my language. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sarah Elizabeth Worthington.” Conscious of her manners for the first time in her life, Sarah bobbed a small curtsy and offered her hand for the gentleman to kiss.

The boy declined to take her hand and laughed heartily, making Sarah’s cheeks flush an even deeper shade of crimson.

“Sare,” he said. “Very nice. I am called Erod.”

“Erod? Is that an Indian name?”

He shook his head, still smiling. “No. Your words. Not Indian. I am Cree. In my words I am called Ka-nen.”

His thick accent reminded Sarah of the way the Dubois family spoke. The Dubois’ were a French family that had joined the settlement a few months back. Sarah had found it difficult to understand them at first, until she became accustomed to their strange pronunciation of English words. This boy spoke in a similar fashion, but the accent was different from that of her French-Canadian neighbors.

“Please forgive my horse,” Sarah said, “It is her time.”

The boy nodded, then shrugged in resignation. “‘Orse… will be ‘orse.” Sarah joined him when he laughed, trying to conceal her embarrassment at the intimate nature of their horses’ activities. She liked the idea of Sable having a foal the following year, especially one as pretty as the Indian (Cree) boy’s horse.

They left the horses to their own devices until their coupling was finished, then Sarah brought Sable to the grove of trees beside the pool where she could watch her.

The two teens sat facing each other on the grassy bank. Sarah, with her legs stretched to one side in a proper ladylike pose and the boy, cross-legged in the style of his people. Sarah was relieved to be off her feet, for she was beginning to tire and didn’t want to succumb to a spell of coughing in front of her alluring new acquaintance.

“Allo, Sare,” the boy said, tilting his head slightly as he appraised her with his eyes. His hair fell past his shoulder in sleek black wisps, brushing the tips of the grass blades where he sat.

“Hello… Erod. Tell me, how is it that you speak English?” she asked.

“L’ecole… school.” He shrugged. “Dey take us away, put us in school. Bleck-robe teach us English. Teach us God and give us new name. Now I am older, school finish and I sent back to family, but family in different ‘ome now.”

“Black robe? You mean a priest?”

“Yes, prrreest.” He rolled his R’s the same way Sarah’s French neighbors did.

“And the priest named you Erod?”

“Yes, from Bible. Hhh – erod.” He struggled to pronounce the H sound. “Bleck-robe say, ‘For even de savage must ‘ave name’.”

“Herod! Truly? That is the name he gave you? How barbaric!” Sarah tried to imagine what it must have been like for those children. Taken from their homes, separated from their mothers and fathers, given different names and forced to learn a new language. It was the complete opposite of what she had been told about the “savages” who had inhabited the land prior to her family’s arrival.

It sounded positively brutal, but she believed him. Even though she had just met the young man, Sarah did not feel that he was capable of lying to her.

“And what shall I call you?” she inquired, “I much prefer your other name. Ka-nen?”

“Den, you call dat.” He beamed, more stunning than sunlight, deep dimples pitting his smooth brown cheeks. Sarah longed to touch his face, to see if his skin was as soft as it looked.

Sarah spent the rest of the afternoon with her new friend, talking and laughing as they lay on the carpet of lush spring greens at the creek’s edge. There was no awkwardness between them and no barrier in communication, even with his broken English.

She stayed as long as she dared, then galloped home as fast as Sable’s hooves could carry her. She hugged the horse tightly with her knees, then dropped the reins and spread her arms wide, pretending they were wings. She felt light as a ball of dandelion fluff, drifting on the wind. She had a secret; one she could not share with anyone. Sarah had a secret new friend whom she planned to see again, very soon.

As spring gave way to summer and the sun’s heat transformed the prairie from green to gold, every fair day saw Sarah mounting Sable to ride away across the plains. The other teenage girls glared at her over their daily chores, spiteful comments passing between them. None of the other girls were her friends; even her sisters barely spoke to her. Their jealousy that Sarah was free to do nothing but play every day overshadowed any pity they may have had for her illness and inevitable early death.

Sarah didn’t care that she didn’t have a close friend in any of the settlement girls. She didn’t need them. She had Kanen. He was her best and only friend. He had become her entire world.

One day he became even more.

As the summer sun’s intensity grew, swimming became a regular part of their ritual. Sarah wore nothing when she swam for fear of alerting her mother to the fact that she had been in the water. Swimming was a forbidden activity because Sarah’s mother believed it was dangerous. Holding her breath underwater could trigger an involuntary coughing spell and cause her to drown. When it came to forbidden territory, Sarah was already well beyond the point of no return, so what was one more broken rule? She felt healthier than she had since she could remember. With regular exposure to the sunshine, Sarah’s skin lost its sickly white hue and developed a healthy brown glow like Kanen’s, though not as dark. She didn’t feel shy around Kanen, who spent most of his time half-naked anyway.

It was just a matter of time before their relationship made the natural progression from friends to lovers. Sarah met Kanen at every opportunity, shedding her clothing as she skipped down the hillside to their secret meeting place beside the creek. He was always waiting, as if he knew exactly when she would arrive.

Every rendezvous was a ritual in passion. She splashed into the tepid pool, falling into his lean, muscled arms. The two devoured each other’s bodies with insatiable hunger, each exploring every inch of the other. Swimming forgotten, they fell to the water’s edge in a tangle of arms and legs, coupling with the urgent fervor of youth in love. For hours afterward they lay, fingers entwined, soaking up the sun’s glorious rays with their unclad bodies. Time stood still for the lovers as they talked and basked in the glow of their union.

Sarah now had an even bigger secret, and it made her feel deliciously sinful.

* * *

It was late August. The hairy tips of mature wheat stalks brushed Sable’s belly as they shooshed through the golden sea at a leisurely jog. Sarah was as eager to meet her friend and lover as Sable was hers, but she held the mare at a slow pace to keep her from overheating in the stifling temperature. They were later than usual and Kanen had probably been waiting for a while. Sarah looked forward to a refreshing dip in the water even though the creek was almost dried up and their swimming hole was little more than a large mud puddle.

When they reached the base of the hill just before their secret meeting spot, Sable raised her head, pricking her ears toward a distant sound. Her trot slowed to a nervous, hesitant walk. Something wasn’t right. Sarah listened. She detected the faint sounds of men shouting and dogs barking. She jerked the mare to a stop and threw the reins over the bush before racing to the top of the hill.

Sarah’s hand flew to her mouth. Eyes wide, she bit her lip to stifle the scream that threatened to escape.

She had suspected a few days earlier that someone was following her but had dismissed it as nothing more than imagination. Now she knew her instincts had been correct.

She recognized the group of men below. They were her uncles and cousins. Her older brother Seth was among them as well. The men gathered around a carcass of some sort, letting their hunting dogs rip and tear at it. The men’s shouts projected a mixture of rage and glee as they rained relentless blows upon their victim. Seth drew his knife from its sheath and swung it down in a forceful arc. Sarah glimpsed bronze skin, then an angry splash of red as the knife cleaved a piece of flesh from the lower body and tossed it to the nearest dog.

She screamed and screamed at them to stop, but her lungs failed her. Her voice was absent. Nothing more than a wheezy whistle issued from her lips.

Seth’s knife swept downward once more and his arm moved in a sawing motion.

Sarah found her voice, then lost her breath as her wail of agony turned into a spastic coughing fit.

Her brother stood, triumphant. His bellow of laughter echoed across the plains. Seth raised his arm above his head in a proud display, holding his dripping, bloody prize by its long raven locks for all to see.

Sarah didn’t remember mounting her horse, and the frantic gallop back to the settlement was but a blur in her memory.

* * *

The cruel prairie wind whistled and moaned around the lone horse and rider as they made their weary trek across the whitening plain.

Sarah’s rough, phlegmy cough worsened by the day. She knew her time was as short as the breaths she struggled to take. She would be fortunate if she survived long enough to give birth to the child that squirmed within her swollen belly. The mare was becoming heavy as well, from her encounter with the paint stallion. Sable would experience the joy of motherhood long after the consumption robbed Sarah of hers.

Even though she had committed the most damnable of sins, Sarah never thought her family would turn against her.

The insults stung like stones flung from the smug lips of the settlement girls, even her own sisters:

“Filthy, unclean whore!”

“Defiled by Satan!”

“Take your cursed spawn away from us!”

She was driven from the settlement into the frozen November wasteland, exiled to die alone on the plains. She was going to die soon anyway, they surmised, so they sent her away before she gave birth to the abomination she carried in her womb.

Sarah’s exile was a blessing in disguise. Living the remainder of her days in the settlement would be a far greater hell than she would experience dying alone on the prairie, near the place where she had last seen her life’s one true love.

She had only one destination in mind. One option.

She prayed and prayed to the Lord Almighty, begging Him for forgiveness for her sins. She prayed they would have mercy on her; that they would see fit to accept his child after what had been done to him.

She spoke to him in her head as she had done so many times since his death.

“Kanen, give me strength. Please ask your elders to have mercy on me. I throw myself at their feet.”

She had followed the creek upstream from their meeting spot, the place where the horror of horrors had taken place, and found the faint trail leading away from the water toward the Indian reservation. Thin tendrils of smoke rose in the distance.

She had arrived.

 

 

Copyright © 2012 Mandy White

(Previously published in Passion’s Prisms by WPaD)

 

 

Hibernation Holiday

Posted: December 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

The season loomed, as it inevitably would, but this year the approach of the holidays filled me with more dread than usual. Having finalized my divorce earlier that year, I would be spending Christmas alone for the first time ever. My kids had lives and families of their own, and both lived closer to their father than me, so it didn’t take a genius to guess where they would be gathering for the obligatory annual feast.tinseltales2front1800x2700.png

Alzheimer’s had claimed my mother to the point where I was no longer able to care for her at home. Three months previously I’d faced the heartbreaking decision of placing her in a care home. She had deteriorated to the point where she needed constant supervision, something I was unable to provide when I worked full time. I visited her every day after work, but she seldom remembered who I was. When she did, she regressed into the past, talking to me as though I were still a child.

Thanksgiving came and went. My son and daughter both phoned, but neither had time to visit. I assured them I was fine; that my work schedule didn’t allow for socializing or cooking fancy meals.

More and more often I found myself sitting at the kitchen table, gazing out the window at the bleak landscape that was now my back yard. It had once been a happy place, filled with the activity of my children and their friends. Now, the garden was overgrown and the swing set hung rusty and unloved, anticipating my grandchildren’s next visit. No children would visit this year. No misshapen snow people would populate the lawn. No warming little red noses and chilled fingertips with steaming mugs of cocoa.

Not even Mom anymore.

Just me.

I flipped open the brochure for the thousandth time; the people at the care home had given it to me, suggesting I give it consideration before it was too late. She wasn’t too far gone, they told me. Science was making great strides in Alzheimer’s research and a cure might be a reality in just a few years. After all, they had already perfected cryogenics to the point where it could now be offered as a viable solution in cases like that of my mother.

Freeze my mother.

It sounded so barbaric when I thought of it that way, but it was the bald truth, no matter what fancy name they wanted to slap onto it. Her life insurance policy could be used to pay for the cryogenic process, which had about a twenty percent risk of failure. Not everyone survived. There was a chance I would be signing my mother’s execution order in an attempt to save her life. But if I chose the alternative, which was to do nothing, she was destined to die. A slow, miserable death, which I would experience with her, moment by agonizing moment.

The more I thought about it, the more rational my plan seemed.

December first, I arrived at my appointment at the cryogenics place. I listened to their orientation, which was more of a sales pitch, and signed all the necessary forms and waivers. After that, it was time to find out how well the process would work.

* * *

Voices. I heard the sound of many voices.

They were singing.

I recognized the song, but what was the name of it again? Oh, that was maddening! I’d heard that song numerous times. It was… I hummed the melody in my head until the words came to me.

“Auld Lang Syne…” I joined in the chorus, but my singing voice was terrible. It came out as a raspy croak.

“She’s awake!” someone said. I knew the voice.

The singing stopped and excited conversation broke out.

“Grandma! Are you awake?” a child’s voice this time. My granddaughter.

“Haley?” I whispered. I struggled to open my eyes, but my eyelids felt swollen and heavy.

“Give her time,” a strange voice said. “The effects will wear off slowly. Carol? Can you hear me?” A finger lifted my eyelid and a bright light flashed in my eye for a second.

“Ow!” I squeezed my eyelid tighter against the invasion of the light. “Fuck off! That’s bright.”

Laughter filled the room.

“That’s Mom, all right!” my daughter’s voice said. “She’s back!”

I managed to open my eyes; just a sliver at first, until they adjusted to the light, then eventually opened them all the way.

“What…” Words escaped me.

I was in a strange room, similar to a hospital room but the décor had a homier feel. My family surrounded my bed. My son Mark and daughter Nancy, along with their spouses and children, all crowded into the room.

“What are you all doing here?”

Mark explained, “We had been planning it since September. We weren’t going to let you be alone at Christmas. Nancy and I collaborated and all four of us managed to schedule vacation time for December. We wanted to surprise you. Turned out we were the ones who were surprised when we showed up to find you weren’t home. We called your workplace and your boss said you’d taken the entire month off for health reasons.”

Nancy chimed in, “Mom, how could you do this without telling us? Do you have any idea how worried we were when we couldn’t find you? It was your neighbor, Helen, who told us. You’d given her the key and asked her to water your plants because you were going away. She said you’d given her a phone number to call if you didn’t return by January fifth. We called the number and it was a… whatever this place is. I still don’t fully understand it.”

“Cryogenics,” Mark said. “You froze yourself. But I’m not sure I understand why.”

“I just wanted to skip it, you know? The whole damn thing. I knew you kids were too far away to visit, and Mom…” a sob caught in my throat at the mention of my mother. I felt guilty for abandoning her, even though she didn’t know the difference. “I did it for Mom, too. I wasn’t just being selfish. They gave me the brochure, the people at the care home. We can put Mom into Cryo-sleep until they have a cure. I wanted to discuss it with you, but thought it only fair to test it myself first to make sure it worked. I didn’t want to do anything to her that I wasn’t willing to do myself. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to cause her any pain or suffering. I mean, they say it’s just like sleep, and now I know that’s true, but I needed to know for sure.”

The room had fallen silent since the mention of my mother.

“Do you all understand what I’m saying? It works! It really works! We might be able to save your grandmother if they can find a cure for Alzheimer’s!”

“Mom, there’s something you need to know,” Nancy began.

“What?” A cold weight formed inside my gut. “Is Mom ok? Have you checked on her?”

“She’s…” Nancy’s voice choked.

‘Mom,” Mark said, “Grandma passed away the day after Christmas. We spent it with her because you were asleep. Natural causes, they said. She died in her sleep.”

“No,” I whispered. “I shouldn’t have left her.” Tears filled my eyes. “At least she went peacefully. She didn’t know the difference anymore.”

“She asked for you.”

“She did what?”

“Christmas Day, when we all gathered to visit her at the home, she looked around at all of us and asked, ‘Where’s Carol? She usually visits me every day. It’s so strange that you are all here but she isn’t’. We tried to explain to her where you were, but she didn’t understand. She just kept commenting how strange it was that you weren’t there.”

 

Copyright © Mandy White 2018

 

Yuletide Wishes

Posted: December 10, 2018 in Uncategorized

Yuletide Wishes
By Mandy White

We are in the business of granting wishes.
We come from a realm invisible to your eyes, but you are quite visible to us. From where we are, we can see it all. It would probably give you the creeps to know that someone is watching you and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. All the same, a fact is a fact and the fact is, all of you are being watched by all of us all of the time.
To what do you owe this intrusion?
Why, you summoned us, long, long ago. Since that time, our two races have become dependent on one another.
Your wishes hold the key. Wishes from your reality shoot into ours like rockets of desire, where they burst like brilliant fireworks. Some wishes flash bright and clear like the most glorious sunlight while others are muted by greed, malice or uncertainty. We are drawn to your wishes like moths to a flame, seeking out the brightest, clearest wishes to grant.
Ours is a symbiotic relationship of sorts; each party benefits from the transaction. You, the wisher, benefit from having your wish granted, prayer answered or desire fulfilled… whichever way you happen to perceive it. We gain nourishment from the energy that you have poured into the wish. A sincere, passionate wish provides the highest level of energy. After we feed on the energy that is your desire, we return the wish to its sender in tangible form.
Who, or what, are we? You ask. In one way, you might say we are Karma personified because we give back exactly what you put out there. We are, as we said, in the business of granting wishes. We have been called by many names throughout your history but the one you are most likely to find familiar is the Jhinn, or Genie, as we are referred to in some of your children’s fairytales. You wish, we feed, and then we show our gratitude by granting your wish.
Sadly, the number of bright, pure wishes has been dwindling as of late. At times we are forced to feed on some of the lower quality wishes. When this occurs, the result is usually… unfortunate for the wisher. Because of this, our kind has gotten somewhat of an unfavorable reputation. Your folklore depicts us as devious and untrustworthy but please believe that we mean you no malice. We can only return your wish exactly as it was wished, with no changes made to the formula. It is you who creates the formula.
With the increasing shortage of clean wishes, my race has been forced to take a more proactive approach to finding enough energy to sustain us. We now harvest your wishes to minimize the number of sub-par ones we consume. We only harvest once a year so as not to deplete the supply.
Every December we deploy the troops to your dimension, disguised as humans. Our red and white uniforms beckon to your young, drawing them in droves to our operatives, strategically placed in shopping malls and other places children are known to congregate. We prefer the wishes of children to those of adults because the wishes of the innocent tend to be of higher quality. Tirelessly we sit, listening to wish after wish until harvest season is over.
* * *
It seems our quota has been reached, so we bid you farewell. Please enjoy our gratitude in the coming year as we send your granted wishes back to you. If you find that your wish was not granted, then perhaps it was rejected by us for lack of purity. Do not be disappointed; if we rejected your wish, it was in your best interest as well as our own. Do not despair, for you can always try again next year. And… at the risk of sounding cliché… we must remind you:
Be careful what you wish for!

Copyright © 2013 Mandy White

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

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