Evan Quinlan

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

I Had the Strangest Dream

In Drabbles, Fiction, Short Stories on January 27, 2015 at 6:33 pm

Yesterday morning you told me about all about your dream, but I didn’t listen. I tried to pay attention, but coffee beckoned. You said something about poison…? A conspiracy…? Superheroes, and how you had to fake your death. That was enough; I didn’t need the details, so I nodded and went into the kitchen.

People say about mirrors, maybe that other world is real, but it doesn’t scare you because you know.

…I don’t have much longer; I heard feet landing on the roof. It might be Superman, or Spider-Man, or any of them. They’re all here, and they’re all after me.

It’s been two weeks. The details are complex; the plot in which I am embroiled cannot be described on a single used napkin.

They’re coming. I need to escape. Or I need to make them think I’m already dead.

I wish I’d listened.

Better to Know Where It Is

In Fiction, Short Stories on January 16, 2015 at 1:11 pm

A face in the window is one of the quintessential fears. To have a pair of eyes—especially a malicious pair—looking into your home, the place where you’re supposed to be safe, triggers some of the deepest, most primal reactions humans can have. You’d think anything would be better than having an evil face staring at you through your bedroom window. But then you get used to it. Night after night, day after day, it’s there. You go outside to look but there’s nothing; it can only be seen from the inside. It never says anything, never moves. And that has changed my opinion on faces in the window. Because now I’ve come to realize that, far from wanting the face to disappear, I think I would fear nothing more than to look out my window one evening and see that it’s gone.

The Missing Email

In Fiction, Short Stories on July 29, 2014 at 1:43 am

The Queen returned from supper to find that her bed had been removed from her chamber. The job had been quick; a thin line of dust on the floor still traced the perimeter of the missing item. The first thing she did was to shut her door. This caused one of her handmaidens to become stranded in the hall, but no worry, that one would become useful later. She walked briskly to the spot where the bed had been, turned, and faced the door. Her handmaidens, well trained, stood still, favoring inaction over incorrect action.

The Queen’s reasoning went thus: No one could have removed my bed without permission. Thus, somebody gave them permission. However, this person did not send for my permission or consent, so they wanted me to discover the missing bed myself. Surely this person expects me, then, to seek them out and inquire about the missing item.

She clapped her hands. “Dress me for sleep,” she said, and her commands were realized. While hands worked at her garments, she ruminated upon her resolution.

Do not do as expected because someone else expects it.

The Queen lived by that rule; she would die by that rule. Debt, her father had told her, is an expectation of payment by another. It follows logically, then, that to gain wealth one must propagate the reverse, which is to cause all others beside yourself an unexpected loss. The Queen had become Queen in this way. She had risen above her father’s station in this way, even caused his death in this way. Never did she do what others expected because they expected it; no one would cash in on bets placed at her expense.

This person will come to me. And with that conviction, the debt had been reversed. Another would pay, but not her.

And so it came to pass that at around midnight a handmaiden opened the Queen’s chamber door and admitted the King, alone. He observed his wife through cautious lids, tipping his brow carefully to catch her expression. The Queen wore a mask of stone, she knew; the King would not break it. He did not have to: he had already come to her, which meant he knew he had already lost value. That he came so quickly spoke volumes. What could he want so badly?

“I had your bed removed,” he said.

“Is that so?” the Queen replied. “I was sure something had gone missing. And here I’ve been, getting ready to sleep and having no bed in which to do it!”

“I have come with no advisers, no councilors, no wise women, no friends long unseen. I come only as a man, this time, you see?”

The Queen squinted.

“I have come as a man comes to his wife.”

“And how is that?”

“Humbly.”

“Humbly! By that you mean humble thievery? Or humble sabotage?”

“You know well I cannot steal nor sabotage, for everything is mine to do with as I please.”

“You are like the visage of Humility herself.”

The King gestured to the handmaidens, not a sweeping gesture but a series of personal allowances. “May we have privacy?”

“No need to ask the property to leave,” said the Queen. “Why not call back the men who removed my bed?”

The King said nothing more until the rustles of soft shoes had disappeared down the corridor outside, then he spoke.

“I have truly come here in humble form,” he said, “though you don’t yet know it.”

“Prove it.”

The King nodded. “Very well.” He moved to sit on a short chest of drawers, found it an awkward height, and stood again. He cleared his throat. “I had hoped… you might share my bed tonight.”

The Queen met his gaze, which soon fell to the flagstones. He told the truth; winning her to his bed was the only thing she could think of that would cause him to act so rashly. She let down her guard, easing her posture. The King caught this slight motion in his periphery and looked up. She allowed a trickle of softness to bleed through the wall between them, which had been erected by months of prideful bickering and unintended harms. For all that the Queen lived by her father’s rule, she did not want to include the King among the party labeled “all others”. However, circumstance, as of late, had necessitated as much.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “I can’t come to your bed. You haven’t figured out how to call me there.”

“I’ve sent you flowers.”

“Many.”

“I’ve written you poems.”

“Lovely as butterflies.”

“I’ve gotten down on my knees and pleaded.”

“Hyperbole, but accurate enough.”

“So I thought I would try this one last, desperate attempt.”

The Queen shook her head sadly. “At least you know it’s desperate. There must be a hundred other beds in the castle I could requisition at a moment’s notice. What makes you think that without my bed I’d choose yours?”

The King waved his hand. “Oh, the bed has little to do with it.”

“Then, pray tell, to which desperate attempt do you refer?”

“It’s something new I’ve decided to try. A habit that could use forming, especially in this time of war. I don’t mean between us, you understand, but out there.” He gestured toward the window.

The Queen shook her head expectantly.

“It’s listening,” the King said. “And I know I haven’t done it before.”

The Queen shuffled, waiting for more words, but none came. Of course, she thought, he’s ‘listening’ now.

“Darling,” she said, “I do appreciate this gesture. But listening is a process, not something that can happen in the span of an evening.”

“But what if,” the King replied, “I could prove to you that I’ve been listening for longer than you think?”

“I did already make known my predilection for proof,” she said.

“Alright, then. If all my machinations tonight had nothing to do with your bed, but I still surreptitiously removed it from your chamber—why would I do such a thing?”

The Queen shrugged.

“Might it be,” the King continued, “because in order to gain something you want, you must cause all other parties involved to lose something unexpectedly?” He smiled, then, a last, desperate smile.

And the Queen smiled back.

“Now that,” she said, “is a start.”

“A start is better than nothing.” The King shrugged, a gesture she’d not seen since the early days of their courtship.

The Queen crossed the room and kissed her husband. “If my father were here, he’d point out that, if a start is better than nothing, it follows logically that nothing is worse than a start. So be careful what you ask for.”

A Swift Lesson

In Fiction on July 19, 2014 at 1:03 am

There’s not a cloud in the sky. It’s a bit windy.

A bird flutters by, looking lost.

“What’s wrong, little bird?” I cry, but it doesn’t hear me; within moments it’s out of earshot.

They say swifts never land; they eat, mate, and do everything else in the air. Could I learn to live like that? I wonder what it’s like to look at that plain of Earth stretching beneath you for your whole life and not want to land on it. Humans want to fly; why don’t swifts want to walk? Perhaps it’s the unyielding nature of stone compared with the nearly incorporeal touch of air. Solid ground is a law; thermals are gentle suggestions. By that rule of thumb, the world has gone full anarchic.

Good luck little bird, I think. If you’d ever wanted to land, it’s too late now.

I look again at the sky, though I have little choice. It’s above me, beneath me, beside me, everywhere. I wonder where the Earth went. I wonder why there’s still a sky. But mostly, I wonder where, oh where, I’m falling toward.

I’ve seen others, falling like me, but I don’t know how to reach them in this ocean of air. I suppose that, like the swift, I’ll have to learn.

Jacques and the Bean Pod

In Fiction, Short Stories on November 20, 2013 at 11:59 am

Jacques' mother dyed her hair gray to make a point. The first thing Jacques saw each morning was the silhouette of its bun, silver-lined against the eastern window, perched on her like an old parakeet that refused to die. Every time he saw it Jacques gritted his teeth. That was how he started every day.

"Good morning, mother," he'd say, crossing the shrubby floor of the hut to the bathroom. She'd answer with an mm-hmm and keep staring through the window across the fields. In the bathroom Jacques would do his business then slather himself with clammy, liquid garment until he was decent. Then he'd wander back into the living room and stretch, feeling the clothes start to dry against his skin. He wished he could spend all day naked but there was a farm to work and there was his mother.

She spent each morning on her social profile posting photographs. To Jacques' augmented eyes they swirled above her head, a publicly-shared gallery of color images she'd snapped with her contact lenses during the night or the early morning while Jacques slept. Each photo depicted something Jacques had failed to fix around the farm: a gap in the wall of the hut where the photosynthetic vine mesh had withered, an unwashed eating utensil, or perhaps a reopened scab on one of the cows. This was her "good morning" to Jacques, timed so he would see the photos as he came out of the bathroom each morning and be reminded that he was being watched, judged, and publicly shamed for his shortcomings. Jacques couldn't imagine, though, who read his mother's posts. He supposed there was always someone. Let them see, he thought; he had long ago numbed himself to that particular embarrassment.

Jacques' mother dyed her hair because she said she should look as old as she felt. Jacques supposed that, once upon a time, all people had looked that way when they got old; now that only happened in storybooks. Now, nobody ever died unless they went outside the walls of the city-state. Inside, nobody died except the cows and they didn't much care.

He found them where they always were, giant, egg-shaped lumps of flesh kept alive and fresh by hearts that pumped away merrily without a care in the world. No brain, no problem, that's what Jacques always said. It seemed cruel that once people had slaughtered thinking, feeling animals for food; then again, they'd had little choice. Jacques walked to each cow and checked the collar around its non-neck; the indicator glowed green if things were good and yellow if things were bad. The complicated science of organic meat farming. Yellow could mean a fungal infection that would kill the cow in 48 hours but they had antibiotics for that. Jacques rolled each cow a couple of meters, checking that the symbiotic ants had grazed the grass beneath during the night and marched the bits they tore away into each cow's neck-hole. It took a lot to keep a supra-bovine metabolism sated between mealtimes. Jacques could still see some of the ants marching around on the dirt; that was good, it meant no early warning signs of a fungus. His inspection done, Jacques would pump a gallon of fallow mash into each animal then tenderly wipe its neck-hole. He'd stand, surveying his work, say "Looking good, girls," and breathe the scent of wet meat and musty dung. That was the smell of a mediocre living at the edge of New York City-State, in the small town of Arden-once-Delaware. It was a life with few joys. On the northern horizon, the skyscrapers of Philadelphia-once-Pennsylvania loomed.

In the house, breakfast would have already grown cold. Jacques' mother would have moved from the window to the table, bowls and spoons laid out, her eyes aware of him but fixed on some empty point above the recycler. Jacques would sit in front of his porridge bowl and eat without even looking. It wasn't organic meat and produce but synthetic nutrients (we don't eat the merchandise, was his mother's rationale, but Jacques knew differently; she liked hating what she ate). Then came the chores, checking the walls, laser-mowing the weeds in the garden, and other busy work while his mother stayed inside to think, or brood, or whatever it was she did. Day would empty into night and silent meals would soak up the time in between. At night or in early morning Jacques' mother would take her photos of his failures. It was a life Jacques tolerated only by keeping his head empty.

But one night, Jacques' head was full. He dreamed of the Moon. He had never seen the dark lunar forests except in tourist ads, but in his dream he bounded through them, leaping from tree branch to massive tree branch. He climbed a tall ash until he could no longer see the ground beneath, but then an enormous serpent was slithering up the trunk after him, eyes burning with the fire of stars. Jacques tried to jump away but the serpent caught him in its jaws, and as he struggled to breathe in the slippery darkness, fighting for air, he felt himself dissolving into nothing.

When Jacques awoke, his heart beat furiously in his chest and his neck ached. His eyes alighted upon the gray bun of his mother's hair, and for the first time in fifty years, Jacques did not feel angry. Rather, he felt something else.

He did not walk to the bathroom but instead pushed through the hanging front door of the hut and out into the morning, naked. He walked around the hut, letting his fingers brush the leafy vines that wove the outer wall, until he came to the east window. Through it, he saw his mother's face, wide eyes gazing from the other side.

"Good morning," Jacques said cheerfully, pulling the window open.

"You don't have clothes on," his mother said. It was the most Jacques had heard her say in months.

"True," Jacques replied, "and I've decided not to get dressed at all today. In fact, now that I've gotten some fresh air I'll be returning to bed."

"But what about the cows?"

"Today it's up to you."

"I can't do it myself."

"It's not quantum physics, mother. Green light good, yellow light bad. Roll them like you'd roll a barrel."

His mother's eyes glazed over, acquiring the sheen that meant she'd decided to defy reality.

"It's my farm and you'll do as I say," she commanded.

"It's my life and I'll do as I please," Jacques replied, and shut the window.

He wandered back through the front door and stepped around his mother on his way to the bathroom, ignoring her protests. After finishing his business he climbed back into bed, pressed his thumb against the medicator and let it fill him with a dangerously large dose of soporific.

"Goodnight, mother," he said, and closed his eyes. Take me, he said to the serpent. I'm not afraid this time.

Jacques awoke, stomach twisting with hunger. His mother sat by the window posting her photos to the social networks. Jacques checked the time on his contact lenses: nearly three days had passed and nothing had changed, which meant he'd won: the farm had continued on without his constant, unappreciated labor. He sat up, stretched, and rubbed his eyes. His face felt warm and puffy.

"Good morning, mother," he said, and visited the bathroom. He dressed and pushed through the door into the living room. That's when he saw the pictures swirling above his mother's head: large, egg-like shapes, a field of them, pale green and dead-looking, topped with a sprinkling of carrion birds.

The cows.

Jacques cried out and ran through the front door. Wings flapped and dark shapes rose into the dusky evening expanse. With a thought, he commanded the house computer to release the brightbugs and the swarm poured from its kennel, a red glow diffusing across the entire field. The cows were dead; although they hadn't moved much in life, now they were still as stone. The air stank of death and Jacques had to cover his nose and mouth to get closer. Black streaks ran down the bloated corpses from where crows had torn ragged holes in the flesh. Every collar blinked yellow, on and off. A forest of white fuzz had grown beneath the neck-hole of each cow. A fungal infection. But why hadn't his mother simply administered the antibiotics? He turned and saw her standing with hands clasped serenely.

"You let them die?" he asked.

"It's your job to tend the cows."

"But you could have saved them!"

"It's your job to tend the cows."

Jacques' blood boiled.

"You would rather let us die of hunger—"

"I?" she asked, voice trembling, "I would rather? You abandoned me!" Then she began to cry. "We have nothing left and now we will starve!"

Jacques wanted to hit her, to rip her apart, but the sound of her sobbing cooled him, as it always did. Poor, pathetic woman. He nearly told her then that they would never need to starve, that they could live comfortably in the soup stalls in the city proper, but he knew his mother would rather die. And she would, if only to spite him. Although he knew the feeling was unjust, guilt stirred in Jacques' stomach and began to inch up his gullet.

"I'll take our savings," he said, "and go into town."

"And buy what?"

"Perhaps I can pay to have new calves grown, only three or four but enough to restart. I'll take samples for them to copy, that's cheaper than commissioning them from scratch."

His mother only continued to cry. She would stand there, Jacques knew, until he left.

It was a short ride from Arden-once-Delaware to Philadelphia-once-Pennsylvania and Jacques' taxi left him at the edge of Starr Garden, a small, ancient place with trees as thick as his cows had been. Here, woody archways led deep into a maze-like root system where a clever shopper could find the best deals in the region. Consumer protection laws didn't apply in the Root District except to written and verbal statements so merchants tended to say very little; that was the down side. The up side was, goods sold there were tax-free. Mostly the things one found in the root stalls were rarities, items unique enough to draw shoppers away from the security of the surface bazaars. Quality could also be a concern but Jacques felt confident he could find the service he needed at a price that suited him.

Jacques ducked under the Northwest Arch and his world became a narrow path lit by phosphorescence. Stalls stuffed with wares opened into the earthen walls on both sides of the tunnel. Soon other hallways crossed the first and Jacques let himself wander. Now and then some item would dance into the aisle or some near-irresistible smell would turn Jacques' head. Sometimes it was food; sometimes it was just a synthetic odor designed to get his attention. At last he found what he was looking for: a biogeneticist, her stall filled with cages draped in opaque cloths.

"Excuse me," Jacques said to the merchant, "I'm looking for a clone job."

The woman shook her head but pointed Jacques down the hall to another stall with a collection of turtles whose shells doubled as lock boxes. The merchant took a sledgehammer to one as a demonstration.

"That's not why I'm here," Jacques said. "I'm looking for a clone job."

A discussion ensued and the merchant made an offer. The price, though, was far too high; Jacques could only buy two calves and the man wouldn't guarantee their survival. He continued his search, trying every stall known to dabble in genetics, but every conversation ended the same: Jacques couldn't afford the job. He had underestimated the price.

Defeated, Jacques wandered back toward Starr Garden, following the blue line his eyes laid out for him. He wondered what he would say to his mother when he returned home.

Then a hand thrust itself toward him out of a dark corner and Jacques jumped aside. He excused himself and continued to walk but the hand's owner overtook him again.

"What do you want?" Jacques asked. The merchant was cloaked and hooded in black, her face disfigured as if it had partially melted. The woman did not answer him but only thrust a scarred hand into his chest and opened her fingers. Instinctively Jacques caught what fell out: a clear packet of small, yellow seeds.

"Hey," he protested, "I don't want—"

"These will bring you great fortune," she said. Her voice sounded surprisingly normal. "Plant one seed and I promise you it will become the most valuable object in New York."

Jacques only stood, open-jawed. The woman smiled, the dried cracks in her skin widening.

"Pay me all the money you intended to spend here tonight and they're yours," she said.

A protest formed on Jacques' lips but then his brain caught up with what was happening.

"Wait," he said, "you guarantee I will possess the most valuable object in New York? Like, monetarily?"

"Yes."

"And you know that, down here, verbal guarantees still count as—"

"Yes."

Jacques smiled. Clearly this woman was crazy but if he made a monetary transaction with her and her promises went unfulfilled he could sue her for twice the amount. He'd heard of such cases going through in a matter of hours. In a few days' time he'd file a complaint and then he'd have enough for the calves he needed. This was, perhaps, Jacques' best available course of action and fate had dropped it right in his lap. So he said, "Sold!", made his trade, got confirmation that the woman's DNA had been attached to the record of sale, and left the Root District with a bounce in his step. He strode through the front door of the hut with a grin on his face and held up the bag of seeds for his mother to see. She took the news stoically but when Jacques awoke the next morning the seed packet had vanished from his bedside. His mother sat at the table in front of a single bowl of steaming porridge.

"Mother, where—?" Jacques began.

"I threw your seeds in the composter," she interrupted, and smiled.

Naked, Jacques bolted outside and around the hut. He threw open the lid of the composter, nearly tipping the rain barrel beside it, but saw none of the small, yellow seeds when he peered inside. Frantically he found a shovel and scooped the contents of the bin onto the ground. He sifted through the warm, green mush for half an hour, eyes wet with tears of frustration, until he pounded the dirt and screamed at the top of his lungs. Without the seeds he had no evidence of fraud.

His mother had ended their lives a second time.

For three nights and three days Jacques lay in his bed, sometimes awake, sometimes asleep. His mother, ever constant, sat by the east-facing window and posted pictures of the cows and the seeds over and over again. Jacques wondered, again, if anybody subscribed to her updates. He felt bad for whoever did.

On the third afternoon since the disaster Jacques grew restless. He got up, slathered on some clothes, and went out to wander among the stinking corpses of the cows. After that he walked the perimeter of the field, brooding. Now and then he would glance at the luminous buildings of Philadelphia-once-Pennsylvania on the horizon and wonder how the woman in black had spent his savings. His walk took him back to the hut from the south. The small living space was self-sustaining, using photosynthesis to power its basic functions, but anything beyond the most menial tasks required extra energy he could no longer afford. Goodbye, showers.

Then Jacques noticed something new: where he'd piled the compost, a plant had grown. Jacques' pace quickened. A stalk had risen from the ground, thick and fleshy, and at its end a wide seed pod more than two meters long rested upon the earth; a green bean that could feed a giant. Jacques stepped around the plant, wondering what valuable prize it might contain, when the pod snapped open. A shrubby smell assaulted Jacques' nostrils and he nearly gagged. When he looked inside the pod, it was empty.

Empty meant his plan had worked; the seeds he'd been sold were worthless.

"Mother!" Jacques called, whooping, "We're back in business!" He knew she wouldn't answer but he didn't care. Dizzy with elation, Jacques stuck his head into the pod, not minding the smell. In fact, he inhaled. A sweet, tantalizingly tart odor hung in the back of the pod and something about it tickled his memory. Images began to swirl in the blackness. And sounds. And tastes and smells and feelings. Someone was calling him. Was it mother? No. Come in, it said. Come in and sleep. Was it written on the back of the pod or was he hearing it spoken?

"Hello?" Jacques said. His own voice filled his ears. He climbed all the way into the pod and pressed his ear against the slick, black wall.

Hello, it said.

And snapped shut.

At first the pod only squeezed him so tightly he could not breathe or scream, then the burning began. Agony drenched him and Jacques would have given anything only to be able to writhe. His feet and hands melted, his eyelids and eyeballs melted, then the pain stopped when all his skin had sloughed away and his brain, too, drowned in the constricting chaos.

The next Jacques knew his father had swept him off the ground and tossed him high in the air. Jacques' stomach surged and his whole body tingled. His father caught him and Jacques sang a squeal, again! And up in the air he went once more, higher this time. Sitting next to his father sat Behemoth, tail wagging and long snout bobbing with the bouncing child, and when Jacques laughed Behemoth barked once, twice, and then a sliver of light sliced Jacques' father in half as the pod reopened and light once again touched Jacques' eyes.

He tumbled forward into dirt, screaming. His skin burned. He gasped for breath and air returned to his lungs. White light faded into treetops; his heartbeat slowed. The fear melted and trickled like sparkling water down his spine into his toes.

He sat up.

He could no longer see the hut, only trees. He turned. Behind him, a large rock face loomed. This was not the farm. Feeling dizzy, Jacques tried to stand. When he put his hand on the ground it hurt. Looking at it, he saw it was red and blistered. In some places the skin looked almost as if it had begun to melt. His sleeve was torn and frayed. And then the memory of the deformed woman came back to him. Jacques gasped, hands flying to his face. He felt shallow contours like scrapes from a tumble on pavement but nothing like the extremity of the woman who'd sold him the seeds. But he knew immediately that this was what had happened to her. And it'll happen to me, too, if I ever get back in that pod. He swore that he would not.

His job now was to get home. First, he checked the pod. How had it moved? It appeared to be rooted into the ground. Had it walked? Flown? Burrowed? Something about the way the pod looked bothered Jacques but he didn't know what. He gazed through the branches at the sky above. Jacques lived only a few kilometers west of the Delaware River; walking east would either take him to that river or to the ocean and he would certainly hit some houses before reaching either. How far could he have gone? It seemed to be getting darker, which meant the brighter sky was west. Jacques began to walk. After only a few minutes the trees parted and Jacques saw he was on a hilltop. The City-State of New York sprawling before him, its huge wall running Southeast to Northwest as far as his eye could see.

And Jacques was on the other side of it.

He was in the wilderness—the Reclamation, serious people called it—where the laws of the city-states did not reach.

Terrified, Jacques almost made a dash for the city walls. There was a chance he could get there before anything found him.

But then he stopped.

Jacques was a man in a predicament, a man with a mind attuned to valuable things, so before the panic could make him run screaming he stopped to think. Nobody could leave or enter the city-state carrying objects that matched a staggeringly long list of banned genomic sequences and chemical compounds. The entire point of the city-state was that it was a refuge for what some people called "classic humanity," the kind of civilization Earth had enjoyed before the excesses of the genetic revolution—before the Reclamation. Someone coming back into New York from the outside was usually subjected to a full scrub-down and confiscation of everything down to clothing if they even breathed the wrong kind of pollen while outside. But Jacques had somehow left the walls without passing even a single checkpoint. He was outside, wasn't he? And he had his clothes, ruined as they might be from the journey. Perhaps, then, he could return home the same way? He knew from documentaries that the Border Patrol was formidable. If he had found a way around them… Plant one seed and I promise you it will become the most valuable object in New York. This could be his ticket to greatness. Or it could be his ticket to prison.

Jacques turned his back on the city and returned to the pod. Again he checked the roots, looking for a clue as to its method of locomotion, but there was none. This isn't the same pod, he realized. The plant hadn't moved; Jacques had. He remembered the feeling of being dissolved, of melting. Somehow he'd been transmitted from one plant to another outside the walls of the city-state, undetected. But it was an expensive journey; his skin still itched and burned and he realized with horror that bits of clothes now stuck to his flesh. He pulled skin and cloth apart while gritting his teeth and blood dripped down his arms.

Jacques would have to make this trip count; he would have to go deeper into the Reclamation and find something worth bringing home, if he had to go through the pod again to do it. He gazed up at the cliff. Then, fighting the pain, he started to climb.

As Jacques' feet scrambled to find holds in the rock face, an otherworldly apprehension tugged at his primal instincts: every centimeter brought him farther from the laws of classic humanity. Jacques had seen the horrors and wonders of the Reclamation documented on the internets; the space between city-states held an equally diverse number of ways to prosper or die. Here, people too old for the tameness of civilization had reworked themselves and the world around them, recarving nature to suit cryptic purposes, and the progeny of those shapers still wallowed in the deep etches they left.

Above the cliff the forest looked much like it did below. Somehow that surprised Jacques. He walked due West, looking about warily. He half-expected to meet a dragon or a wizard but all he saw were chipmunks and flies. He walked for maybe ten minutes, not daring to hum or whistle. He would have played some music through his audio implants except when he reached out for the network it wasn't there. That frightened Jacques more than anything, perhaps even more than the thought of being ripped to shreds by some terrible creature.

What Jacques first took as the tinkling of a brook resolved into the wild pluckings of musical instruments. He slowed his pace and doubled his vigilance, listening closely as he sneaked nearer to the sound. Before long the trees gave way to a shallow gorge in the center of which towered a stone needle encircled by dark windows. Jacques' breath caught as he saw, standing upon a balcony jutting from the tower, a tall, golden figure of a woman, her fingers dancing upon the strings of a harp. Not many instruments, Jacques realized, but one instrument playing an impossible melody. The cacophonous solo blanketed the valley. At the base of the gorge, campfires burned low. Jacques lengthened the focal length of his eyes and nearly yelped when he saw what slept next to them: large, half-human, half-animal forms. Thropes, the documentaries called them—self-bred, animal-human organisms that thrived on fear, rage, dominance, and submission.

Jacques looked at his hands, still cracked and bleeding from his journey in the pod. He had to make this trip count, whatever the cost. Keeping as quiet as he could, he crept past the monstrous, unconscious forms until he reached the entrance to the stone spire. Then he slowly ascended the narrow, winding stairs, until he arrived outside a brightly lit room from which a deep rumbling issued. Was that snoring? If so, the creature making the noise would have to be the size of his hut. Jacques passed the half-open door to the room and walked, instead, to the balcony. He emerged in daylight facing the golden harpist. She was only a meter tall, and Jacques saw with surprise the harp was not separate but part of her body. Was she biosynthetic or mechanical? Then Jacques realized he hadn't considered what the harp would say when he appeared. Quickly he tried to calm her.

"Hello, my name is—" Jacques began, but the harp put a finger to her lips.

"Silence," she sang, words weaving into the melody, "my keeper sleeps within, sated by my lullaby. Wake him and you'll die upon his horns. Take me from this place and I will play you sweeter songs than you might dream of."

Jacques needed no more convincing. He tucked the harp under his arm and descended the dark stairwell until he stepped once again into the cool evening air. The harp still played and nothing in the camp stirred.

As Jacques tiptoed around the sleeping forms—some clawed, some horned, many with gold and silver jewelry looped through beaks or hanging around tails—Jacques noticed a crudely built pen in which sat a small flock of headless geese. With surprise he noted each of them was perched upon a nest.

"Do those lay eggs?" Jacques asked. All headless livestock in New York were infertile; replacement stock could cost years' worth of savings. Natural reproduction so far had proved inviable. But if Jacques could breed his own animals…

"Yes, they do," the harp sang in response to Jacques' question, "but we must go."

"I need one," Jacques whispered, "for the farm."

"How will you carry us both?"

Jacques had no answer to that. So he continued walking on tiptoe, the harp pointing the way, until they'd ascended the valley wall and stolen into the forest.

"Now go," said the harp, its fingers leaving the strings, "for soon they'll wake without my song to lull them."

Jacques ran, all the while keeping a close watch for the cliff edge above the pod. It came up fast.

"Hold onto me," Jacques said, and solid arms wrapped around his neck. Jacques climbed as fast as he could but carefully enough to avoid a long drop to the ground. Just as his feet touched the cliff bottom a symphony of bestial cries carried over the precipice above.

"Hurry," urged the harp, but Jacques had already climbed into the pod and laid flat. The pod seemed to talk to him again.

I missed you, it said, and snapped shut.

"This may hurt," Jacques said, and then the pain began and Jacques and the harp were screaming.

This time Jacques did not see his father but the serpent from his Moon dream. It slithered toward him until the heat of its eyes charred the hands Jacques threw in front of his face and in its mouth, where teeth should be, were harp strings.

Then Jacques felt soft compost beneath him and despite the searing agony that wrung his flesh into knots he laughed because he was home again.

The liquid garment remover Jacques applied to peel his clothes away burned like fire and Jacques screamed as it ate at the parts that had merged with his skin. His mother, in an unprecedented act of maternity, poured cool aloeplastic on the gashes. Jacques' entire body grated upon itself and he felt if he put his full weight on his legs they might snap. His vision blurred, his fingers and toes bulged plumply, and spikes of pain shot up his spine when he walked. Jacques' mother led him to his bed, laid him down, and questioned him.

"I went outside the walls," Jacques croaked, voice hoarse. "And I've made us rich."

His confession met with disbelief until he bade the harp to play its music. The harp, having recovered quickly from the journey, struck out a song much different than the one it had played in the thropic settlement. The notes floated through Jacques' skull and wrapped around his brain and the fibers of his nerves and muscles twitched and vibrated with the song. Jacques' mother sat in her favorite chair and he watched her head loll as she fell asleep. Soon, the song overpowered Jacques as well and he slipped into his own deep sleep.

A string of insubstantial memories followed. Jacques would awaken, empty of anything except the warm, sexual contentment left by the harp's aural kiss, then roll over and sleep again until he'd done so a thousand times. At last he rolled out of bed, hit the floor, and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet.

"Mother," he called.

How much time had passed? Days? Longer than that?

He found her still sitting in her favorite chair by the window.

"Mother," he said again, but she did not answer. She's asleep, he thought, like I should be, and he nearly laid himself down again but a voice in the back of his head spoke up. Open your eyes, Jacques, it said. That's a clever boy. And then Jacques was flying at the harp. He clapped his scabbed, gnarled hands upon the strings and shouted, "Enough! Enough!"

The harp protested but Jacques grabbed a blanket and wove it between the strings so she could not play. Then he walked to his mother and leaned down to inspect her, dreading what he would see. Her face shone pale in the morning sunlight; her cheeks had sunk and bags hung under her eyes. Dead, Jacques thought, until she lifted a hand to rest upon his arm.

"Oh, mother!" he cried. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" He raced to the kitchen area and squeezed the porridge dispenser but what came out was watery thin. Jacques glanced around the hut and saw the vine mesh walls had shriveled and dried, uncared for and no longer producing energy from sunlight. Jacques fed his mother the sorry meal then rested his head in her lap and sobbed. He had made the wrong decision, he knew: he should have taken the headless goose and left the toxic harp behind. And now he was too broken to return to the forest.

"I've killed us, mother," he spoke through his tears.

"I know," she whispered, and stroked his hair.

But when his mother's hand fell away and he saw that she had fallen asleep, Jacques dragged himself to the bathroom and opened the medical chest. Inside he found two portable medicators of adrenaline intended to counter allergic reactions in the livestock. But Jacques would need them for himself now if he ever wanted to have any livestock to tend again. He slipped the vials into a satchel hung over his shoulder. Besides that he was naked. He would not merge with any more clothes.

Outside, the pod snapped open and Jacques' tears dripped into the black interior. He did not want to go in. But what choice did he have?

Come inside, said the pod. I want to taste you.

Jacques did not scream this time and he saw nothing in the space between the pods. When he opened his eyes the familiar cliff towered above him once more. Jacques pressed his thumb on one of the adrenaline medicators and his brain buzzed. He started the long climb. As he worked, dull pain bit at him. He made the top in five minutes then ran through the forest, driven by hormones and urgency. When he arrived back at the camp he peered into the gorge but saw only ashes and the crude woodwork that sheltered the livestock. The thropes must have left, but why? To hunt? To make war on another tribe? It didn't matter; Jacques had his chance.

Adrenaline seemed to slow time so that the short scramble to the goose pen seemed to take hours. Tiny rocks bit at his bare feet but he hardly felt them. Finally Jacques stepped over the rickety fence of the goose pen and made his selection of the headless animals. He chose one of a medium size, small enough for him to carry beneath his arm, but the weight of it surprised him as he hefted it. The warmth of the feathers and the beating heart beneath felt good, though. It reminded him of the cows.

To Jacques' relief the camp remained still and quiet. But as he stepped back over the fence, the goose slipped from his arm to the ground, bounced, and let out a loud squawk. Headless animals normally didn't make sounds but Jacques barely had time to process that thought because from the tower above him a roar issued, echoing in the tiny gorge. Jacques' blood ran cold. Quickly, he picked up the goose and made a dash for the slope from which he'd come, taking a moment to look back over his shoulder.

An enormous, bipedal shape bound out of the doorway of the stone needle. It was black-furred, tall, muscled like a god, and when it spotted Jacques it roared again and pointed at him accusingly, its long, white horns catching a ray of sun. Jacques did not look again. He was scrambling back up the steep rise when the hand of the terrible thrope closed around his leg but he managed to wrench free and the creature slid away on loose rock, bellowing with rage.

Having scaled the slope, Jacques sprinted through the forest, angry hollers close behind. As he approached the cliff he realized with horror he had not factored the climb down into his escape; he would never be able to make a careful descent with the threat of death so close behind.

That left only one choice.

Seven steps before the precipice Jacques' thumb found the tip of the second adrenaline medicator. Three steps before he felt the prick of the dispenser. Then he was in midair, falling, his only thought that he must not land on the goose.

Something cracked as Jacques hit the ground but it did not hurt, then he climbed into the pod.

I'll save you, it said to him. Now the voice was easy to hear and understand. I love swallowing you, Jacques.

"Just get me—" Jacques began but then his words became cries of pain and melted, along with the rest of him, into the pod's acid.

"Didn't I tell you?" the hooded woman from the market said. She sat across from Jacques and wore her hood back. Her face, once scarred and twisted, offered Jacques a charming smile.

"Yes," Jacques said, and sipped his tea. "But only half of it."

"I didn't want to ruin the other half," she said. "More fun that way."

"Did you get rich, too?" Jacques asked.

"As rich as you."

"I wonder if the goose will lay eggs for us," Jacques wondered.

The woman shrugged. "Even if not, you will always have this," she said, and lifted her cupped hands. Jacques leaned forward to look into them.

"Water?" he said, but instead of an answer the woman laughed and flung the water in Jacques' face. As he spluttered he watched the woman laugh so hard that her mouth split wide, opening at the seams and belching white light. Jacques blinked against the harsh glare as it resolved into the morning sun. He was lying on his back, on the farm, with his mother standing over him.

"Get away from that plant," she growled. Her face appeared a haggard blur as Jacques' eyes adjusted.

He sat up, looked wildly for the goose, then saw it trembling next to him. Laughing, he picked it up. Blood dribbled from his mouth down his chest as he spoke, but he was just happy to be alive.

"Mother, a goose!" he proclaimed, but his mother had not heard; she was hefting the golden harp into the bean pod.

Jacques hadn't even heard it screaming, but now he heard it call his name, pleading for him to stop his mother from sending it back to the forest. But as his mother was about to force the harp inside the pod, the flesh of the plant snapped shut. Jacques' mother pounded on it, commanding it to open, but it did not. Instead, it began to deflate. It shrank until it had all but lost its cylindrical shape and lay like an empty balloon on the grass. Then, as if becoming filled with water, it began to regain its shape.

"Is someone coming back with you?" Jacques' mother asked him.

This one is big and juicy, the pod said in his mind.

And then it dawned on Jacques what was happening.

Panicked, Jacques stood, ignoring the pain that racked his entire body.

"An axe!" he shouted, spinning in a circle. "I need an axe!"

His mother looked confused.

"We don't have—"

But Jacques had remembered the laser mower under his bed. He raced around the hut to the front entrance and darted inside, tripping on the threshold and sprawling face-first into a chair. Trailing blood, he crawled to his bed and yanked item after item from beneath it until at last his grotesque hand emerged gripping the laser mower. He kicked the override as he ran back outside and around the house where the pod had swelled to three-quarters its full size.

"Stand back!" Jacques shouted, stood the mower in front of the bean stalk, and switched it on. Light sheared the stalk in half and a bright yellow liquid fountained out of the stump, burning Jacques' skin and causing both him and his mother to yelp and leap away.

Why, why, why, the pod screamed, and its voice trailed into nothing as it leaked its mysterious fluid onto the grass, which smoldered and smelled like urine as it dissolved.

And then the pod split open and the greasy, half-formed figure of the gigantic thrope spilled onto the ground, unfinished, eyeballs hanging from its skull and muscles leaving wet, red streaks on the grass. It looked at Jacques and bellowed a gush of intestines. Then it crawled toward him, arm outstretched, visible muscles shifting and pulsing with every hateful movement. Jacques only backed away, eyes wide, until, with one final heave, the thrope fell face-first onto the ground and lay still.

The harp screamed and vomited gold.

Jacques turned to his mother.

"You know, in some ways," he said, "that thrope kind of reminded me of you."

Hours later, Jacques learned who subscribed to his mother's social networks. The Ministry of Food and Drugs arrived with photos of unregistered bioforms including an anthropomorphic instrument and a giant, podded plant with unrecognized phenotypes. They were also shocked to discover the corpse of an exodenizen, as serious people called things that lived outside the city, mangled and sprawled on Jacuqes' mother's property (and it was, after all, her farm, as she had always been so fond of reminding him). Many questions were asked and in the end Jacques had to undergo quarantine and sterilization. His mother, on the other hand, went to the courts. Jacques felt confident that she would have a brand new place to wallow in self-pity, except that place would have bars and a bevy of public servants paid to do just what Jacques had had to do for the last fifty years: keep his mother alive, for some reason. Some time apart from each other would be good for their relationship, he decided.

For the time being, Jacques' life had new meaning. Although he could barely walk at times he felt he had a new lease on life. The adventure outside the city walls had energized him in a way nothing had for as long as he could remember.

The police never found the woman who sold Jacques the seeds; somehow the DNA attached to the transaction matched nothing on record. Jacques wasn't surprised; he was sure his DNA wasn't the same after traveling through the pod four times, either.

Since the reproductive goose passed inspection, the Ministry returned it to Jacques when he left quarantine. A day later he got a phone call from a private bioagriculture firm interested in purchasing the goose for more credits than Jacques could ever spend. Devoid of his cows, Jacques had formed a sentimental attachment with the goose, so he settled on letting the firm borrow and return it a week later for half the price.

Although not the richest man in New York, Jacques had plenty of money. He moved out of the farm to downtown Philadeliphia-once-Pennsylvania to a penthouse apartment overlooking Starr Garden, but not before he'd found something wonderful on the farm where the authorities had neglected to look. Remembering the dream where the scarred woman had thrown water in his face, Jacques had checked the rain barrel next to the composter before he left the farm for the final time.

"Disappointing evening?" A hooded man asked a forlorn-looking woman leaving the Root District by the East Tunnel.

"Yes," she said, "But I'm not interested in whatever you're selling." Then she saw beneath the farmer's hat and drew back from his severely disfigured face.

"I think you'll find this will bring you great fortune," the farmer said, producing a small, yellow seed in a clear bag.

"What would I want with those?" the girl asked, wrinkling her nose.

Jacques smiled.

"Trust me. Plant this seed and it will become the most valuable object in New York."

Undermine

In Drabbles, Fan Fiction, Fiction, Short Stories on April 5, 2013 at 1:24 pm

This is part of a series of 27 drabbles inspired by Kyle Johannessen’s upcoming short film Devil May Care, currently accepting donations. Contribute and be part of the magic!


“So,” said Death, “You live in the basement of a vacant church.”

“That’s right,” said Lucifer.  “Home sweet home.”

“Does it hurt?  Can you even touch the walls?”

“Actually,” replied Lucifer, “I find this place quite comfortable.  For two reasons.”  He held up two fingers.

Death just looked at him.

“Guess,” Lucifer said.

“Alright.  The first reason is… spite.”

“Usually, yes.  But not now.  I’m trying to be good.”

“Okay, then.  You like things that have fallen from faith.”

“Bingo.  And second?”

“You feel at home living far below God.”

Lucifer thought.

“I was gonna say ‘no landlord,’ but… yeah.”

Homeless

In Drabbles, Fan Fiction, Fiction, Short Stories on March 18, 2013 at 9:23 pm

This is part of a series of 27 drabbles inspired by Kyle Johannessen’s short film Devil May Care, currently open for funding at indiegogo.com.


On Earth angels and demons walked free and Lucifer found that a bother.  Earth made him feel closer to Heaven, for which he longed, but Heaven was closed and Hell wasn’t home so Lucifer made do with Earth.  But he needed a hideaway.

At first he felt a pull toward the homeless, thinking they’d understand.  But the homeless made poor cohorts and he toyed with them more often than identified with them.

Home.

“You live here?” Lucifer’s date asked.

“Yes.  Come in,” he said.

So the woman stepped through the door into the basement of what had once been a church.

Cutting Losses

In Drabbles, Fan Fiction, Fiction, Short Stories on March 12, 2013 at 11:20 am

This is part of a series of 27 drabbles inspired by Kyle Johannessen’s short film Devil May Care, currently open for funding at indiegogo.com.


“Spare change?”

The girl held her hand toward Lucifer.

“What constitutes ‘spare change’?”  Lucifer asked.

“Um… you don’t want it anymore.”

“Ah.  Then you and I are spare change.”

The girl looked perplexed.

“But,” said Lucifer, “I’m going to fix two problems at once.”

He produced a check for $6.16 million.

“I’ll give you the spare change you want.  Then society will want you.”

He handed her the check.

“Now give me your blessing, mortal.  I need points upstairs.  Trying to change.”

But the girl walked away.

“Hey!” Lucifer called, but she turned a corner.

So he shrugged.  And took her soul.

The Devil May Care

In Drabbles, Fan Fiction, Fiction, Short Stories on March 8, 2013 at 9:24 am

This is part of a series of 27 drabbles inspired by Kyle Johannessen’s short film Devil May Care, currently open for funding at indiegogo.com.


Hell hasn’t existed forever.  Many think it’s the Yin to Heaven’s Yang but that’s mixing mythologies.  There is a Yin; it’s called Eternal Darkness.  But it never became Hell until Lucifer arrived.  It will revert when he leaves.

Make no mistake: Hell is a punishment devised by God for a single angel and it follows him everywhere.  Everyone knows he can’t escape it.

But not poor Lucifer, who wants so badly to return to Heaven.

Don’t cry, Lou.  You don’t mean to be evil.  It’s just your punishment.

Put down that man’s head, Lou.

You’ll sooner die than be forgiven.

On the Rocks

In Drabbles, Fan Fiction, Fiction, Short Stories on March 7, 2013 at 11:30 am

This is part of a series of 27 drabbles inspired by Kyle Johannessen’s short film Devil May Care, currently open for funding at indiegogo.com.


“Needless to say, the Almighty Father crushed my little rebellion and banished me to eternal darkness.  I made it work for me, but ruling over hordes of miserable people gets old.  Now I seek to return home, to Heaven.”

“Wow,” says the bartender.  “That’s some shit.”

“Yeah.  Now comfort me,” says Lucifer.

The bartender mixes him some comfort.

“This is delicious,” Lucifer says. “What’s it called?”

“A Little Piece of Heaven.”  The bartender winks.

Lucifer’s eyes glow red.

“Are you… kidding me with this…?” he says, voice escalating.

The glass shatters.  The bartender screams.

“DO YOU THINK”—Lucifer stands—”THIS IS FUNNY, MORTAL?”