departure point

short fiction by alex lit

Violence, Pt. 1 – a Love Story

1988

When she was a child, Dana lived in a small house where every empty space had been filled with knick-knacks on shelves and boxes of old sepia photographs nobody had bothered to look at for years, framed war medals hung above a television that often ring-ring-ringed with the sound of daytime quiz shows and excited hosts asking “what do we have for her, Johnny?” a glare on the screen came in through yellowed curtains, video cassette surrogates Cinderella, Bambi, Winnie the Pooh nearby on a shag carpet spotted with cigarette burns and loose fabric like the peeling linoleum in the kitchen, collecting dust and dirt and dead insects who travelled through the browning lawn and over a driveway covered in oil spills, beguiled like tourists by the open garbage can in the kitchen overflowed with sweet smelling Coke cans, McDonald’s wrappers, and empty Jiffy-Pops. She always kept the window open in her room, indifferent to the wind that picked up the curtains and the pages of books she checked out from the library, California travelers guides full of color pictures of the blue Pacific, green palm trees, San Francisco’s Chinatown, Los Angeles. A cassette of the Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me played as she studied every picture in the book, enchanted by the idea of all those metropolises so different from her small town so close together, trying to imagine what the food in the pictures might taste like, and wondering if the people who looked so happy in the pictures might actually be different than the people she had grown up around.

She heard voices then becoming louder over her music, disrupting Just Like Heaven, pulled off the headphones and a few hairs with it and heard her mother in the next room arguing with boyfriend Tommy and quietly left her room, unsure of what she meant to do. He stood across from her in the living room, bone-thin in his wife-beater, yellowed teeth and dirty face lined with wrinkles that made her think of cartoon characters outlined with thick strokes, spitting vitriol at her mother, Amber, even skinnier than Tommy like she was on a death-camp diet with the bags under her eyes, flat chest, and even the crushed pack of menthols stuffed in her bra next to a cross on a gold necklace. Sometimes seeing Dana calmed them both down, Tommy would leave for a smoke and Amber would have one in the kitchen, but there was already smoke billowing up from the two burning in the ashtray and nobody reached for one. Her mother told her “please go to your room Dana, I won’t ask you again.”

“You’re one classy whore,” said Tommy all Alabama-like.

“Don’t you talk to me like that in front of my daughter!”

But Dana stuck around for some reason and watched Tommy slap her mother, noticed the track marks on his arm and ran back to her room, eyes watering, and Hobo chased after, Tommy screaming “don’t tell me what I do, bitch,” behind them.

She turned the volume on the cassette player as loud as it would go and hugged the german shepherd who seemed, at least to her, to understand, even sympathize. She drowned out the sound of screaming and breaking glass and porcelain in songs she had every word of memorized and a confession to Hobo, “one day I’m going to leave this place, I’m going to be famous and everybody is going to love me and that’ll show everybody, you’ll see.” She opened the book again between her crossed legs and showed the dog, “I’m going to go there, California, and you can come with me too, Hobo.”

*

The cassette played through until the tape ran out and it automatically popped open, waking Dana up, shivering she closed the window and found Hobo had helped himself to the free space on the bed. She put the book on her desk and sat down, a light moved across the bedroom wall, lighting up the March Bengal’s eyes on her calendar with a wild cat for every month before it stopped on the hollow door with the punched-in hole and disappeared, she looked outside and saw Tommy’s Camaro, then heard a knock on the door. Her mother came into her room suddenly and said “Tommy’s coming over so I need you stay in your bedroom for a little while, alright? Actually, just stay in your room for the night.”

Dana heard her mother lead Tommy to the bedroom and put her headphones back on, but could still hear her bed banging against the paper thin walls a few minutes later over the music, she couldn’t tell if her mother was in pain. The banging stopped and Dana realized she hadn’t ate anything that night and hoping her mother and Tommy were asleep she crept quietly to the kitchen, found the fridge light burnt out and mostly empty inside anyway, the cupboards full of snacks with loud packaging, she eyed the Lays when a door opened in the hallway and Tommy stepped out in his briefs and noticed her in the kitchen, “what the fuck are you doing here?”

Amber came out of the bedroom still naked and found Dana like a cornered animal, quiet and afraid opposite Tommy, “I told you to stay in your room, Dana! Can’t you understand me retard?” And again Dana ran off crying, this time screaming apologies as fatherly Hobo trailed her and another argument started in the kitchen. She looked out her window again, felt a cool breeze, imagined freedom lurking somewhere further west, and then noticed shadowy figures around Tommy’s car, she was paralyzed by fear and indifference and watched as one of them pulled out a tire iron and started smashing the windows and another struck a match and flicked it into the driver’s seat, a fire suddenly erupted from the car, spread quickly and reached high. She heard Tommy’s racist words and saw him outside in his briefs swinging a Louisville slugger at nothing and her mother came into her bedroom again screaming “call the police you idiot! You’re on that damned thing all day, I know you know how to use it! Chrissakes, Dana!” But Dana didn’t pick up the phone, she just stared at the orange flames and felt as if she was losing something, that part of her that believed in Disney movies and hoped the world wasn’t full of Tommys and shadowy men, a feeling she thought to be death, but was actually the birth of apathy and a wilful disconnection from reality, a total indifference towards ethics and love and other lies, and eventually did call the emergency response before her mother could scream at her again, and sent them to the wrong address.

West Coast

A great blue shark rolled down Interstate 80, the bright western sun hung over Dana, one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cigarette at the window, all grown up and beautiful in heart-shaped sunglasses, blonde hair whipping around her and Alex Greenwald narrating ‘California here we come’ on the radio. She drove as far west as the road would take her, past tall palm trees and Spanish and Chinese shops until she felt the cool ocean breeze inside the car, parked by the beach and stepped out into the heavy heat. She kicked off her worn flip-flops, felt the hot sand under her feet and walked to the water, a cold wave swallowed her feet, she looked down and saw her red toenails, Hobo’s dog tag around an anklet, it was all real.

She still felt the shock of being there after she left the beach and started up and down the busy streets into cafes and diners looking for work, her southern drawl sticking out like a sore thumb as she tried to plead with rejection after rejection “a’ll work for food and y’all won’t regret it none,” but finding San Francisco wasn’t looking for an antebellum waitress, there were enough people stuck in the past still bumpin’ Pac on the coast, wearing bow ties and thick-rimmed bifocals like those pesky Japs might be coming across the Pacific in their zeros, middle-aged men and women who never checked out of the Hotel California all in desperate pursuit of the next festival, concert, wine tasting, anything to keep the last fifty years of momentum still moving forward.

Dark clouds started to loom, she realized she would have no luck that day and took off in the shark again. Golden arches rose high above the highway, lit up like a great monument in the last embers of day, her mouth watered and her flat stomach ached in Pavlovian response and she took the next exit, ordered off the dollar menu in the drive-thru, then drove out to a quiet spot outside the city. The cheeseburger tasted like home, reminded her of Alabama, memories of childhood that invaded her thoughts in blurry pictures, the radio was strange too, foreign and yet familiar, different djs, same commercials, different frequencies, same songs. She opened her wallet, there was barely a few hundred dollars left and the tank inched closer to empty, she put it away and snuggled up to a pillow, forgot everything else and fell asleep still dreaming of California.

*

She woke up shivering, toes wet by the fogged window cracked open just an inch, to the sound of nearby traffic roaring seeping in and the faint sound of raindrops on the metal roof, the chemical scent of McDonald’s cheeseburgers still lingered in the air. She sat up and had a sip of yesterday’s coffee turned cold, spat it out and brushed her teeth, turned the radio back onto the country music station and groggily started along the highway in search of more diners and taverns, and found that they weren’t interested in her either. She saw a sign on the road advertising a nearby flea market, and decided to check it out.

There was a certain quality she saw in people from California she’d never noticed in people she knew from Miami, New York, Toronto, a deadhead quality like so many of them had decided all at once to hit the pause button sometime in the 60s and never gave it another thought, she saw it all over the flea market in tye-dye shirts hung above flavored rolling papers, new age healing jewels and books on spiritual well-being next to genuine shark’s teeth and whale bone sculptures displayed on the same table by an aging, overweight woman, behind her tent, food stands overflowed with boxes of alfalfa sprouts, tofu, wine grapes, Italian capers, and another tent that divided the men and women into two lines that read ‘beer’ and ‘wine’.

She was all smiles as she strolled past tents of familiar-looking homemade knick-knacks, hotel room paintings of what California looked like a hundred years ago, cardboard boxes full of old books on Paris and London, the dreams of more sophisticated valley girls with more than beat-up old sharks at their disposal. Dana picked up the book on Paris and flipped through it, but it was nothing like the books she used to check out on California, the book in her hands was about a world that was out of reach, thousands of miles in another direction, no different from the Star Trek novels in the next box. She walked deeper into the flea market and found an apocalyptic looking man selling foreign weapons and survival supplies and picked up a Sterno stove, and felt enthusiastic about her upcoming first campout.

The sunlight hit her heart-shaped sunglasses as she stepped out of the tent, then time slowed down when she saw him in the crowd, a cigarette hanging from his lips and an uninterested look in his eyes, James Dean pompadour, torn sleeves revealing arms covered in colorful tattoos, everyone else seemed to blur around him. She stood frozen as he approached her, caught in the moment, he smiled and said “hey, you know how to use that stove? I have the same one, there’s a trick to those Sternos.”

“Oh this sorry thing?” asked Dana. “I never got to go camping with my daddy.”

“I can show you, if you’d like.”

“I’d like that.”

Dana led him back to the shark, he opened the box and set up the stove on the grass, stood the grill, showed her how to start the fire and told her “I’m Bobby, by the way.”

“I’m Dana, pleased to make your acquaintance, Bobby. Thank you so much for your help, I don’t think I’d ever have figured it out.”

“Think nothing of it. So you going for a campout?”

“No, not exactly.”

“New in town?”

“Something like that.”

Bobby laughed, “sorry I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I should get going anyway.

“Well thanks again for your help Bobby, it’s nice to meet a true gentleman.”

He hesitated a moment, then started “if you’re not too busy tonight…”

But Dana was, “I’m sorry, maybe some other time?”

He smiled, walked back to the flea market and soon disappeared into the crowd. Dana packed the stove and took off again, made a few tight purchases at a Safeway and headed for her spot outside the city. She lit the fire just like Bobby showed her, heated up a can of beans and ate them looking up, somewhere beyond the city lights on acid she could make out familiar constellations in unfamiliar places in the sky, it started to sink in that she was far from home. In spite of her thinning body and wallet, of being completely alone among millions of strange people, she was happy, she felt a freedom she had never known.

*

She woke up aching from the car seat, fingers smelling like a canister of cooking fuel and dirt starting to collect under her nails. She remembered a truck stop she noticed on the highway and drove out, bought a shower, changed her clothes, redid her makeup, and bought a miniature American flag for the rearview mirror on her way out, fucking happy to be there as she saw it hanging past bookstores and Apple stores, Spanish barbeques and Korean grills, McDonald’s and Michelin Star restaurants she drove by, believing in the dream. She pulled over and thought about wasting another day looking for work, remembered the flea market, and ignored her dwindling funds in a way only someone with years of experience in blocking out the world could do.

She wandered down the same aisles, the same music played on all the portable radios hanging in the tents “and stick around ‘cause we’ve got a classic from Sublime coming up after a word from our sponsors, don’t go away!” she saw a cardboard box full of mewing black kittens and an apathetic mother marked ‘free to good home’ in thin sharpie strokes, a group of joggers in Cyndi Lauper colors and slouched socks ran past in a hurry. She turned as the joggers passed and almost couldn’t believe the sight of Bobby behind her, looking at sunglasses, she approached him and let her hand rest on his arm, “Dana?”

“If it ain’t Bobby, you come ‘round here often or you been following after me?”

Bobby laughed, “I live nearby, what’s your excuse? Cook up anything good last night?”

“Boy did I ever, I set up the stove just like you showed me and grilled me a steak, had myself a few beers, mmm, better’n a steakhouse chef.”

“I’m getting hungry just thinking about it, I’d love to try some of that southern cookin’ sometime.”

“Treat me good Bobby and I’ll be fixin’ to cook you a steak and bring you a beer real soon.”

“Well I wasn’t going to say anything, but it just so happens I have an extra ticket to the Giants game this afternoon, if you’re not busy that is.”

“I’d like that very much, Bobby.”

*

After the game, Bobby led Dana out of AT&T park, packed almost to capacity with an afternoon crowd. They headed back to his car, she was full on beer and a hot dog, but enjoying herself more than she had in years. She asked “so Bobby, do you like to party?”

“Depends,” said Bobby, sinking the key into the ignition. “What sort of parties do you like?”

Dana leaned in close and whispered “the worst kind.” So Bobby drove her to a bar in Oakland where nobody would recognize him and they got drunk on Mexican beer. Later that night she invited herself to his apartment above a Spanish grill. He flicked the lights on inside, the apartment was spotless, barely any decorations were out or hung on the walls, he invited her to the balcony with him and she looked with awe on the blurry lights of the city. Bobby lit a joint and passed it to Dana, she hit the California homegrown and started to feel light, her hands began to wander on Bobby’s chest and slip under the belt buckle. He led her back inside and threw her on the bed, she grinned as he crawled on top after her and slipped inside, they fucked to the music of a Mexican band downstairs, car horns, and a loud argument in Spanish.

Dana fell asleep in Bobby’s bed, but he stayed up watching her flat stomach rise and fall with every breath, her skin stretched tight over her bones, the freckles dotted along her face, chest, and pale breasts, he looked on the almost inconspicuous tattoos like the fairy holding a wand under the anklet, the rose petals falling from her hip, and when she turned, the crimson elephant looking over from her shoulder blade. The city calmed, had mostly turned in for the night, started to smell more like bleach than barbeque and felt airish, as Dana had put it earlier. He slipped under the sheets next to her and ran a finger through her hair, she turned away, Bobby fell asleep.

Icon

Bobby’s car pulled up next to Dana’s shark in the empty flea market lot, he told her “feel free to stop by sometime,” and drove off. Dana found everything in the car as she had left it, did her makeup in the mirror, sat the folder with her resumes on the passenger seat and started again in search of the ever elusive California job. Bobby watched her car pull out of the lot and onto the highway, and followed after her.

The shark came to a stop on a busy street and Dana stepped out carrying a folder, Bobby parked across the street, bought a newspaper from a stand and kept the same lazy pace behind her as he had after they had parted at the flea market. She spent the morning stopping at different shops, mostly restaurants, bought an apple for lunch and ate it with a bottle of water out of her trunk, drove to another part of the city, tried again, Bobby stayed close behind her. She stopped at a post and studied a paper for a moment, tore off a piece and kept walking, Bobby examined the paper a minute later, an ad for an open casting call nearby, he took the paper and stuffed it into his pocket. Dana walked into a pawn shop and came out a few minutes later and didn’t notice him as she walked back to her car. Bobby entered the pawn shop.

“A woman came in here just a minute ago, did she sell you anything?”

“Son of a bitch, she didn’t steal it from you, did she?”

“No, no, nothing like that, I just recognized her is all.”

“Oh alright, in that case yeah, she sold me a diamond pendant on a silver chain.”

“Can I see it?”

He showed Bobby the pendant, he examined it, felt the chain against his palm, “I’ll give you whatever you paid for it, plus a hundred.” The cashier didn’t even bother with the paperwork. Bobby stuck the necklace in his pocket next to the casting call address and headed back to his car, saw that Dana’s shark was gone. He looked at the address on the torn paper and started the car.

*

A woman called Dana in from the hallway, she stepped into a plain room, three people sat at a table and handed her a paper with some lines, told her with Hollywood grins “don’t stress, just let it flow naturally and give it your best shot,” so she tried to play it cool as she read a woman’s dialogue from a scene on a date, but it came off forced and everybody in the room could feel it. The man in the middle stood up and cut her off “stop, stop, that’s enough, thank you!”

“So what’d y’all think?”

“Listen sweetie, you want some free advice? Take an acting class, lose the accent, fix up those teeth if you want to make it out here, otherwise go back to whatever armpit of a town you came from.”

She thought nothing of the harsh words, politely thanked them for their time and left, for some reason to Bobby’s apartment. He was surprised to see her knocking on his door, seemed cold to her, distant, she followed him in and noticed a pendant on the coffee table in the living room, picked it up and played with it. “You know, I had a diamond just exactly like this one when I was a little girl.”

“Do you like it? It’s your’s.”

“Oh I couldn’t possibly.”

“Please, I found it a few weeks ago, put an ad on Craigslist but nobody ever answered, at least show me what it looks like on you.”

Dana tried on the necklace, a natural fit, Bobby smiled and offered to make drinks, she nodded and followed him to the kitchen. They sat together drinking caesars and looking outside, the city was quiet during the day when most people worked, picked up again later during the evening rush, by then they had moved to the living room, both tipsy, feeling comfortable around each other. “So Bobby,” started Dana. “I don’t know the first thing about you, what do you even do out here?”

“Nothing really. My dad was a director and an author, he wrote a lot of those old science-fiction novels you see in boxes at garage sales, and directed the movies you find in the one dollar bins – you know those awful, old b-movies where you can see the strings and the aliens look like they’re made of styrofoam?” Bobby laughed, topped both glasses. “He actually made a lot of money with all that, died years ago, but left me enough that I don’t have to work. But look at me go on, what about you? All I know about you is you’ve never been camping.”

“I’m just a small town girl in the big city, but let me tell you a secret Bobby,” said Dana, feeling the alcohol warm her blood, and drunk enough to think Bobby might have useful connections. “I’m going to be famous someday.”

“Ah, an actress.”

“Oh I do it all, I act, I sing, I get down and dirty, I’ll do whatever it takes to get to the top. I won’t let nobody or nothing stand in the way of my dreams.”

“What about before that though? Before you came to California, tell me about that.”

1989

A year had come and gone, the burnt frame of Tommy’s car still sat in the driveway. He had grown his hair long and found God after a stint in prison, told people he was cleaning up his act but still smoked and drank and beat on Amber. Dana picked up a habit of sneaking into her mother’s room when she fucked Tommy and stealing the lighter out of his jeans, and playing long into the night with the small embers, starting fires and quickly putting them out on everything in reach, doll hair, loose threads of the carpet, a rope she had found outside, a coloring book her mother had given her, losing herself in the fire, watching it eat everything she set it on. She soon started stealing cigarettes too, realizing either her mother and Tommy didn’t notice, or didn’t care, then she had cigarettes and lighters of her own and started to look like her mother used to before the drugs and the passing of time beat the shit out of her face, but Dana didn’t plan on waiting on life, she had a bag packed and the resolve to move on before it caught up to her.

One day when Tommy was over, she held the lighter under various objects in the house like the couch, the curtains in the kitchen and the living room, and the sheets on her bed. She made a quiet phone call, “my mother’s boyfriend is trying to kill me,” and didn’t make any mistakes about the address. She took Hobo outside and waited in a hiding spot, soon her mother and Tommy were outside, barely dressed and panicking, sirens in the distance neared as the firetruck approached. Dana waited for the paramedics and police before she ran to them crying, showing the self-inflicted cigarette burns, scars and cuts on her arms.

Paparazzi

“I was in and out of care homes for a while after that,” Bobby could hear her from the kitchen as he took a bottle out of a cabinet, slipped a rohypnol pill in her drink, and handed it to her in the living room. “I stole the shark and took what sorry money I had and just drove, and well, then I met you, Bobby.”

“And soon you’re going to be famous.”

“Uh huh.”

“Do you really want to be famous?”

“More than anything.”

“That’s what you want? You’re sure?”

“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

Bobby leaned in and whispered “I can make you famous.” Dana laughed, finished the drink and felt a little funny after. “Come outside, I want to show you something not far from here, it’ll be fun.” She followed Bobby outside and into the car, figuring it was the alcohol making her dizzy and hoping fresh air would help, but passed out as streetlights flew past the window above her.

The car stopped on a lonesome stretch of road by a forest, quiet but for the river running nearby. Bobby shut off the engine and walked around to the trunk, rummaged through, the noise woke Dana up, afraid now, a little more aware of herself, a little less numb. She saw Bobby in the rearview mirror and felt a panic, her breathing quickened, she stepped outside and asked “where are we?” but he didn’t answer. “Bobby? I don’t like this, can you take me back to your apartment?”

His dark silhouette walked closer, she saw the tire iron in his hand but couldn’t react, he bludgeoned the side of her head, careful not to fuck up her pretty face, without a word. Dana fell to the ground, a fracture on her skull, bleeding from her ear, she grabbed at the earth, handfuls of dirt and grass, crawled to a tree trunk and tried to climb, but Bobby hovering over clubbed her back next, she fell to her stomach gasping for air. She laid against the tree struggling with half-breaths and coughing fits, she saw Bobby walking away and reached for her cell phone, tried to dial, a sharp pain banging in her head she was barely aware of what she was doing, then noticed the blade in his hand reflecting the moonlight and dropped the phone, Bobby picked it up, tossed it in the air and swung at it, laughing to himself. Dana begged him as the blade moved closer in the darkness, started to scream for help, Bobby screamed over her “see? Nobody can hear you out here,” as he kneeled beside her and drove the blade through her heart. “You’ll be famous just like I told you.” She choked on her own blood, staring into Bobby’s cold, dead eyes.

He wiped the knife clean with a rag and tossed it back into the trunk along with the tire iron, returned to Dana’s body, stripped her clothes, tore off the anklet, grabbed a rope and made a few knots around her wrists. He carried her body and tossed it in the trunk, then drove back to the city and pulled over on the i80 above Embarcadero, a few passing cars didn’t notice him playing with another rope by the ledge. He tied both ends of rope together and threw Dana’s body over the bridge, leaving her hanging for all to see, thinking to himself she looked like an angel as he drove off into the night.

The next morning Bobby was out at a restaurant eating breakfast by himself, reading the news on his tablet when he came across Dana on the local news, saw that police were putting her face on TV and asking for any help or information, calling it a tragedy that nobody knew who she was. A woman noticed the article he was reading and said “I read that this morning, terrible, isn’t it? Probably another small town girl who just wanted to be famous.”

“This sort of thing is the reason I don’t understand people who want it so desperately, but maybe that’s just me, I don’t know how I’d react to fans and paparazzi.”

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Doctor Asshole of Planet Coca-Cola

 drass

Anarcho-Capitalism: A political philosophy which advocates the elimination of the state in favor of individual sovereignty, private property, and open markets. Anarcho capitalists believe that in the absence of statute society would improve itself through the discipline of the free market. In an anarcho-capitalist society, law enforcement, courts, and all other security services would be operated by privately funded competitors rather than centrally through compulsory taxation.

a Brief History of Planet Coca-Cola

Year 1: Avro 2 lands on Kepler 442b carrying 1,000 Commonwealth and American pioneers. New Washington City is founded and Kepler is renamed the Republic of New Earth. The democratic Republic collects taxes to provide services, placing an emphasis on education, health, sciences, and strict government control of new resources.

Year 12: Spacehipster lands on New Earth carrying 1,000 Cascadian pioneers. New Van City founded.

Year 18: Casimir crashes outside New Washington, 1,000 Polish, Russian, and Chinese pioneers die. Crash site is preserved as a cultural heritage site, national day of mourning is observed.

Year 100: First Centennial celebrated on New Earth. Population roughly 150,000.

Year 122: Whopper lands on New Earth carrying 100 private entrepreneurs and 350 mechanized construction units. Robots begin building Burger King restaurants in New Washington.

Year 123: McVoyager lands on New Earth carrying 50 private entrepreneurs, 120 mechanized construction units. Private entrepreneurs begin buying and claiming free land. Spacebucks lands on New Earth carrying 20 private entrepreneurs, coffee beans, farming equipment, McDonald’s rejects lease offers for farmland from Cascadian neo-nazi farmers.

Year 124: After much lobbying, government of New Earth announces subsidies and tax breaks to help foster growth of new and developing markets.

Year 148: Tiffany’s, Apple, British Petroleum, Google, Disney, KFC, Coca-Cola, have arrived on New Earth.

Year 230: New Van land is bought out by Starbucks, renamed Starbucks City, buildings are torn down and converted to farmland. Family-operated working community quickly grows to over 9,000 and declares independence from New Earth. New Washington introduces tax to cover cost of building and maintaining a military force. Disneyland opens outside New Washington.

Year 232: New Washington forces invade Starbucks City and are defeated. Starbucks City citizens democratically agree to a system of centralized power with an armed population, and are denounced by New Earth.

Year 240: New Washington forces attack Starbucks City in an unprovoked shock and awe campaign. Starbucks City is annexed by New Washington. Four day war claims 2,800 Starbucks City citizens, 996 New Washington soldiers, thousands more are injured.

Year 250: Bicentennial celebrated. Mass protests and demonstrations are held in Starbucks City against New Earth rule and government corruption. Burger King operates 28 restaurants, KFC operates 6 restaurants, McDonald’s operates 13 restaurants and owns roughly 20% of New Earth land, Coca-Cola is sold in every restaurant and private business on New Earth and is the exclusive beverage of Disneyland. Population roughly 1,000,000.

Year 300: Third Centennial celebrated. New Earth faces a budget crisis, partly due to abuse of government subsidies and assistance programs by large companies, and maintenance of a largely purposeless military force. Coca-Cola President of Intergalactic Affairs Peabody runs for President on a platform of austerity, further tax breaks for businesses and the wealthy, and wins. President Peabody dismantles New Earth military, cuts government funding for education programs, assistance programs, health services, and sciences. Taxation of wealthiest citizens dropped from 45% to 20%, middle-class bracket taxation raised from 10% to 20%. Radical new laws are passed, including the Government Reclamation through Voting Act, which restricts voting to citizens 25 years of age and older who have lived on New Earth 10 years or more and earn at least the median bracket with no prior convictions or judgments against them, and the Safe Streets Act which, though vague, makes it illegal for more than ten people to organize for any reason on government property. Demonstrations and protests are organized throughout New Earth and are followed by substantial arrests. Population roughly 1,500,000.

Year 308: Sponsored media reports landslide victory for Peabody’s reelection campaign (although more than 80% of eligible voters left ballots empty, and more than half the total population could not vote due to Government Reclamation through Voting Act), Peabody strengthens policy of austerity with further cuts to government services, extends subsidies for growing businesses to large businesses, and introduces new subsidies for private military forces and defense. McArmor Private Security company is founded by ex-McDonald’s executives, offers private security services and solutions to government officials and businesses. Disneyland is abandoned by Disney, citing declining business and poor prospects, vagrants take over and form a cooperative state with aid from Starbucks City.

Year 346: New Earth government declares bankruptcy. Coca-Cola offers to pay debts in exchange for exclusive beverage selling rights to New Earth schools, hospitals, and all government buildings and public spaces, and guaranteed access to resources and land for future expansion. Movement within Starbucks City nicknames New Earth ‘Planet Coca-Cola’. New Washington accepts sponsorship offer from Tiffany’s, nicknamed Tiffany’s City.

Year of the Playstation Q (Year 413): Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Apple, and others, employ more than half the population of Coca-Cola and control most of it’s economy, collude, threaten to leave Planet Coca-Cola if demands for lower taxation policies, further subsidies, more austerity aren’t met, government protests but agrees to changes, and many (including Burger King, Pepsi, Martian Motors) leave anyway. New Earth Standard Calendar is dropped in favor of Sponsored Quarterly Business Calendar, beginning with the Year of the Playstation Q. Population roughly 2,750,000.

Year of Kikkoman Soy Sauce (Year 426): Government collapses, riots in Starbucks City and Tiffany’s City, mass panic ensues. Government buildings stormed by McArmor, McDonald’s President Croc declares himself King of Planet Coca-Cola. Dismantles remaining government, declares Coca-Cola a free libertarian capitalist state with no government interference or influence.

Year of the Sony Telestream Viewer (Year 476): The gap between the rich and poor has been rapidly growing, inequality is at its highest recorded levels. Revolts are fought back with extreme violence, public property no longer exists, wages have steadily declined every year, worker’s rights advocates and unionization attempts are met with aggression and threats, education is privately owned and operated and largely only accessible by the super rich. McDonald’s owns an estimated 40% of the land, Coca-Cola owns an estimated 45%, the rest is owned by private citizens and businesses (most of which are subsidiaries of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola). Disneyland has grown to roughly 20,000, the cooperative state, though poor, appeals to many.

Year of the Big Mac (Year 880): Coca-Cola is a de facto an-cap state. Dangerous and deadly products are common on the free market, unsafe work conditions are a harsh reality usually ignored by employers, indentured servitude is a common practice, and many have turned to vegetarianism due to the rising price of meat products and fears over constant outbreaks of E. coli, botulism, listeria, and salmonella, mostly due to a completely unregulated beef and pork industry. McDonald’s principal source of income is now earned by selling McArmor security solutions.

I

the Golden Age of the Golden Arches

McHeist (Part 1)

“Hey Bird, check this out,” Blanka reaches into his army surplus jacket and holds out an antique glock pistol.

“The fuck you need that cannon for?”

“Found it at the Trader’s Emporium, jealous?” Bird rolls his eyes. “If the gun doesn’t impress you, I found this, too,” Blanka holds out a grenade.

“Fuck, have you had that in your pocket this whole time?”

“Yeah,” chuckles Blanka. “It’s just a smokey though, old one, from Earth, so says the alien, anyway.”

High above a rusty plasma engine roars in the empty space, bright stars fade to dark blue for the driver of the cargo ship as he steers it into Coca-Cola’s atmosphere, a long tail of exhaust trailing behind. A familiar blue sun rises behind Tiffany’s City and reaches beyond the shipping yard, light seeps over great steel and glass skyscrapers that light up and reflect so bright it can be seen even during the day from the moon, Vanilla Coke, flooding the city, swallowing all but the ads atop the tallest buildings by design. Bird counts two McArmor guards on speeders escorting the ship onto the yard, two more following close behind, all slow down and descend together. He hands Blanka the digital binoculars, “look, they’re here.” Under artificial white light, a cloud of steam rises around the ship, accompanied by a mechanical sigh as the ship branded McDonald’s touches down on the bleached concrete pad.

Blanka holsters his gun and tosses the binoculars back up and says “last one down gets breakfast!” as he lets go of the metal pole high above the radio tower, and begins hopping down the metal skeleton. Bird, the older of the two by almost thirty years, calmly swings over to the ladder and slides down to the ground.

Blanka stumbles as he lands on the ground and looks around for Bird, who brusquely passes and asks him “try not to kill any of these idiots this time.”

The McArmor guards, or Knights as they often call themselves, park their speeders by the warehouse building and walk away lighting cigarettes and talking about Budweiser Beach, the driver in the cab shuffles some papers in his hands while Blanka follows Bird closely across the yard. Blanka approaches the speeders and mumbles “Benzies, damn,” to no one, and pulls a large magnet out of his back pocket, continues “it’s time for your date with Mr. Magnet, bitches,” as he drags the magnet over the on-board computer, screen, and motor for good measure.

Bird meanwhile had snuck up the passenger side of the ship, laser gun drawn he gently taps the window, motions the driver to roll it down, who in his surprise and confusion reaches for the shotgun under his seat. An energy shot beams out of his gun, chewing a perfect hole through the glass window and the roof of the ship, the driver keeps one hand up and starts rolling the window down slowly. “There’s a good boy, now. Have you ever been in this situation before?” He shakes his head, Bird makes a popping sound with his mouth. “Lucky you, well, here’s how it goes, first you slowly take the company gun out of your ankle holster and leave it on the seat there, like that, good. Next you step out of the ship, and if you’re smart, you hit your head hard enough on your way out that they just might believe you completely forgot what happened here.”

“And what if I don’t?” asks the driver, thinning hair becoming wet with perspiration.

“Really? Well, you’re a pretty heavy guy, so I can’t be carrying your corpse around very far, then there’s the smell, have you ever smelled a corpse? A big, fat, nasty-ass corpse like your’s? Even in pieces you’d be a pain in the ass to bury.”

Blanka sees Bird still negotiating with the driver and drags the magnet over the next speeder, “oh no, please, stop, I can’t take that much – oh yeah baby, Mr. Magnet is gonna wreck your-”

“Hey you!” a man’s voice echoes through the narrow pass between the warehouses. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Blanka looks up and sees two McArmor guards closing in, warns “Bird! Time to go!” and tosses the smoke grenade as he turns and runs for the ship.

Fed up, Bird shoots the lock on the metal door and lets himself into the cab, ordering the driver “fuck out my ship!” He struggles to open the door, Bird kicks at his stomach, angry “fuck’s sake, hurry up you fat bastard,” as the door swings open and the driver falls out, his face smashes the concrete hard, a wave ripples through his body. Bird starts the transport back up, a current feeds the machine and it slowly begins to lift, Blanka appears in the passenger side just in time. The McArmor guards find their speeders non-responsive and instead draw their guns, they hear a boom and see the ship rise above the white smoke and begin speeding away, holding their fire they run forward and stumble upon the driver, blood pouring from his head. Blanka, the teenager, plays with the loose door inside the ship, when the lock doesn’t connect he throws it open and shoots the hinges with his laser gun, the door falls onto a warehouse roof below, a loud, chill air whips through the cab and Bird turns to Blanka, gives him the quintessential paternal look, and sighs. Only moments later the ship lands on the other side of the docking yard, an Intergalactic Parcel Service courier was waiting with a tablet in his hands and a salesman’s grin painted on his face.

“Bird, Bird, Bird – always good to see you. What have you got for us here then?”

“Needs to get to Disneyland, today would be nice.”

“We’ll get it wherever you want. Say,” he shoehorns it in with a smile, “any chance you can pay up front?”

“Yeah,” Bird hands the courier an envelope. “It’s all there.”

He stuffs it into his pocket, walks around the ship, examining, “what happened here?” Blanka shrugs at the missing door. “Don’t worry guys, it’ll get there before you do.”

“Thanks, brother, stay positive.”

The courier punches some information into his tablet and walks toward the IPS building, Bird and Blanka calmly leave the docks, headed for Tiffany’s City. “It’s barely 7,” says Bird, “you feel like McDonald’s breakfast?”

“Aw yeah.”

“Good, you’re buying.”

a Glutton for Punishment and a Punishment for Gluttony

Dr. Asshole sips a glass of water and quietly studies his office, atrocious shaggy carpet, wine stained wainscoting – is that blood, too? the ugly beige wallpaper peeling and dust collecting in the pocket, plants browning at their tips, and his patient Khryss on the couch looking up. He slumps into his chair and crosses his legs, he’s working on a sketch and tapping his pencil between defining the lines, after a moment he adds large breasts to the woman and looks out the window again, somewhere beyond that fucking lawyer’s neon sign is Tiffany’s City, baptised in blue and off to work for the day.

“Doc?”

“Hmm?”

Khryss sits up on the sofa, turns, and asks the doctor “so what do you think I should do?”

“Well Khryss, as you’re well aware, humans and sereans can’t engage in romantic relationships, it’s not a question of perseverance or winning her over as you’d like to believe, she may very well want this as much as you do, but you must keep in mind she’s designed to kill you. Now while it’s true we don’t know much about the sereans, we do know they evolved to hunt and kill apes.”

“I,” he lays back down. “I think that’s sexy.”

“She’s literally toxic.”

“So what should I do?”

“As a therapist I can’t answer that question for you. As a friend, I think you need to forget about her for a while, try to go out, do something fun, have a good time. If you’re looking for,” he pauses, clears his throat. “Companionship, try a strip club, if alien girls are what you like there’s plenty here in Tiffany’s that don’t pose any serious threat to you.” He closes the notepad and walks over to a cabinet, grabs a handful of joints and hands them to Khryss. “I recommend you smoke one of these tonight and save the rest for New Year’s, but keep away from your serean Juliet, there’s never a happy ending there for anybody.”

Khryss pockets the joints and heads for the door, “thanks Doc, as always. I’ll let you know how everything goes.”

“Don’t worry about that, just try to enjoy yourself, loosen up. And Khryss, try to give some consideration to leaving this planet for good, I feel like you could really benefit from a fresh start, just give it a bit of thought.”

“I will, doctor, thank you.”

Ms. Miracle smiles at Khryss as he departs the office, “see you next month.” Dr. Asshole follows and finds the waiting room empty. “Your next appointment called while you were with Khryss, he’s gonna be running late.”

“That’s typical.”

She shrugs “what can you do?”

“So how’s life?”

“You know how life in Disneyland is.”

“Oh, how are those talking posies I got you on your last Sponsorship Day doing?”

“Oh I just adore them, doctor! Did I tell you they’re forming complete sentences now? It’s so cute! And I haven’t seen any bugs in my shack since I moved them inside.”

The doctor smiles “I’m glad you like them.”

“They’re a botanist’s dream! That reminds me, too, since we have some free time,” she grins and digs through her purse and tosses the doctor a bag of weed. “Care to step outside?”

Dr. Asshole opens the bag, a rich aroma fills the air. “Mmm, let’s go.” He grabs a bottle of water out of the mini-fridge and a pipe and leads Ms. Miracle upstairs to the roof. Taller buildings reach up around them, the sound of IPS couriers zipping by echoes up the alley, the grey concrete glows blue, feels warm. Ms. Miracle’s glasses darken, she kicks off her old, thin flip-flops and hops on the ledge, lights the bowl with a match, the doctor leans over and looks past the Lionel Hutz-esque lawyer’s sign, As seen on telestream! Berkowitz Law Firm & Lemonade, Klondike5-LEMN, orphan earth cats who adjusted well to Coca-Cola’s lower gravity stalk alien bugs the size of rats below.

“You remember that Martian kush I grew a few summers back?” asks the secretary, passing the pipe to her left. “I tried it again last summer, but I got a few male plants, so I figured what the hell, let them be, they ended up cross-breeding with some Coca-Cola kush clones I bought a while back, and this here,” she exhales. “Is the intergalactic love child.”

“You’re an artist, truly, this is delicious. How long have you been growing now?”

“Five years, maybe six.”

“So a little after high school?”

“Well, after basic school, as you know, I accepted a sponsorship from Miracle-Gro, back when I lived in Starbucks City. I did some secondary school, found it was really expensive, and tried to make up the difference by selling from my personal stash.”

“Except you got busted.”

“Bingo. You make better money selling weed anyway.”

“You ever think about what life would be like if you had become a botanist?”

“Don’t we all? I mean think about how things might be. I’m happy with how everything is right now, things are good, you know? Disneyland might not be Tiffany’s City, but I’m free to do whatever I want there, I have a good job here, things are good, you know?”

“You’re stoned.”

Ms. Miracle laughs, her glasses slip and the doctor catches them, he takes her hand and helps her back onto the roof. They descend the steel ladder back to the waiting room and talk for a while longer until the clock picks up again. The phone rings and Ms. Miracle answers, “that was your next appointment, he’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“Alright, I’ll be in my office then, show him in when he gets here, would you?”

“Of course, doctor.”

Dr. Asshole steps back into his office and slumps into his chair again, he picks up the notepad and adds glasses to the woman in the drawing before scratching it out and crumpling up the page. Outside an iCar 8 with all the bells and whistles, the sort of frivolous purchase that stiffens the cocks of salesmen and car dealers, lands on the driveway and a man in an expensive, but fake, notices the doctor’s keen eyes, Gucci suit steps out. The doctor shuts the notepad, hears Ms. Miracle greet the man and invites him to the La-Z-Boy when he steps into the office a moment later.

“Sorry I ran late today doctor, I had a situation to deal with this morning at the docks.”

“Please, it’s no trouble. I hope everything is alright.”

“Far from it, fucking pirates, same shit as always.”

“You’ve lost another cargo transport.”

“They crippled two of our speeders, too – I hate these fucking computer-enhanced, smart machines, all it takes is one asshole with a magnet. And the worst part is, we know where the cargo is, there’s cameras all over the yard, the bastards ship it Intergalactic right under our noses, it’s not like they’re going to ask any questions.”

“Most of us are familiar with life in an an-cap state though we had no choice in the matter, you, however, chose to come here.”

“Oh I know, fuck, believe me, I know.”

“I’m sorry Bhraiyghdhenne, I didn’t mean to upset you. How is life outside of work?”

“It’s not great, I can tell you that much. All this shit seeps into my life, keeps me up at night, it’s all I can think about. I got word from Earth the other day that these losses are starting to affect the company’s bottom line, guess who gets the chop if stockholders find out we’re bleeding money on Coca-Cola? They collectively shit their pants whenever a new KFC or Starbucks opens, do you know what that stress is like?”

“I can only imagine. Are you still self-medicating?”

“Listen, Asshole, my wife is cheating on me with some jerk-off actor and you know what? I don’t even care, it’s probably my fault anyway. I’m never around, and I’m always pissed off when I am. My kids don’t know me, hell, even the hookers act like they’re doing me some kind of favor lately. I work my dick off to provide and what do I get? Pirates and lawyers, thieves, a thankless family, a company that won’t hesitate to fire me – you’re asking if I’m still self-medicating? Yeah doc, I’m still self-medicating.”

“Bhraiyghdhenne, can you remember the last time you were happy? I’d like you to tell me about that.”

“I,” he sighs, pauses. “I don’t know. How pathetic is that? I remember I was happy all the time growing up on Mars, my sister Ashghleighy-Lynnegh and my brother K-Lb, we were so close then… Jesus, how long ago was that? I’m almost sixty, I can’t remember the last time I was truly happy – that’s not normal, is it?”

“For what it’s worth, in my experience there’s no such thing as normal, especially on this planet. Besides self-medicating, what are your plans? How are you going to deal with everything, your family, the pirates, yourself.”

“Well we hired a mercenary a few days ago, supposed to be the best at what he does, we’re going over a few ideas. We worked out that it’s too expensive to hire professional mercs for every shipment, but the stockholders won’t let us pay the McArmor guys enough for them to give a shit either, it’s hard to find that perfect balance, I mean, fuck, a few shipments gone and that’s it, we lose some money, stock value drops and you can kiss my ass goodbye. Maybe I shouldn’t be too optimistic, but I like this guy, he worked with Starbucks for a while, they seem to be doing well, anyway, he’s got a plan, a good plan.”

“You seem confident.”

“Like I said, I should probably put the kibosh on that enthusiasm until we have some results, but this guy, he’s got this arrogance to him, and that’s important in this business. He wants to ambush them, thinks we can lure them in with a light escort and surround them. If we can take them out quickly and quietly, it’ll be back to business in no time.”

“That’s a clever plan, suppose they anticipate a trap though? What if they escape?”

“We don’t anticipate that happening, doctor.”

Nurse Benadryl Goes to Disneyland

The pearly white walls of the Apple iCare Hospital are spotless, meticulously cleaned twice a day, they emit a white glow more energy-efficient than light bulbs and fluorescents. The former industrial building, a Nike Li’l Athletics sweatshop turned care center now employs a unique team of doctors, researchers, insurance brokers, lawyers, and pharmacists among many others. Apple had hired China’s most reputable feng-shui consultant to redesign much of the building’s interior but not the reception, which had been designed not to evoke a feeling of harmony, but to quickly admit customers who were able to pay for care and remove those who couldn’t, a window by the exit and another by the entrance to emergency care offered what Apple called iNsurance. iNsurance sales had afforded Apple the means to buy out a Martian bioengineering firm and relocate the employees to the 12th floor of the iCare Hospital where they produced perfect organs, studied alien diseases, and most importantly, patented medicines.

Dr. Pfizer is on the 4th floor, maternity wing, beads of sweat pouring from his forehead soaked his dark hair as he reassured the woman delivering the baby “you’re doing great, the head is through and she is beautiful! Just a little further now. Nurse, how are we?”

“All good, doctor.”

A few moments later the newborn girl’s cries fill the room, the mother, exasperated, lays back and draws a slow breath of relief. Dr. Pfizer tosses his latex gloves aside and examines the order form, “nurse, this customer ordered the Baby Max, is the shot prepared?”

“Got it right here, doctor.”

Nurse Benadryl calms the crying baby and injects the Baby Max growth hormone, a recent Apple patent which claims to aid in quicker development of stronger and smarter babies, though most customers realize that claim doesn’t need to be supported by any science on Coca-Cola’s laissez faire market. The baby girl’s cries become whimpers, then silence, as Nurse Benadryl wraps her in a blanket branded with pink toymaker logos, Barbie, Disney, Fisher-Price, and others, the blue blankets marked Ban-Dai, Tonka, Hot-Wheels, sat neatly folded in another pile. She hands the baby to her mother and asks “have you decided on a sponsorship yet?”

She cradles her newborn, the father stands over them, proud and watching protectively, “we have a contract with Lego until she turns twelve.”

“Well she is going to be a very happy little girl,” smiles the nurse. “I was a Lego girl before I went to medical school.”

“We’ve heard a lot of good things.”

“Well congratulations on your healthy baby and best of luck to all of you,” she pokes the baby’s nose and laughs, then, exhausted, follows Dr. Pfizer out of the delivery room. She heads straight for the staff room, puts on her thrift store leather jacket and heads out. Outside, she turns on her iPodXC-S2-3 and thumbs over to her classics playlist, 36 Chambers comes on, she turns up the volume. A baby blue Vanilla Coke drifts listlessly in the sky, alien constellations barely visible past brightly lit skyscrapers demanding her attention guide hitchhikers and robots and lovers of poetry, create an uncomfortably lost feeling for Earth expats only partially offset by the unnatural white light of the street lamps.

She heads down cracked tile steps to the hospital subway access, her passcard immediately activates the personalized ads on the hallway telestream viewers and ads for genuine Food by Monsanto, Martian silk summer-wear, and the latest best-selling mystery novels fill the empty space of the long tunnel, drown out her already quiet footsteps. Her iPod starts playing a commercial and she pulls out her headphones without much enmity, the iPod, sensing a difference in the pressure around the earbuds, automatically pauses the commercial. An old, outdated subway car waits as she descends the final escalator, bought at a steal after New York City upgraded to a Japanese style bullet train system, they even managed to ship that old-world charm via worn out seats and graffiti tags, though nobody knew who or what a Banksy might be.

Nurse Benadryl stuffs the iPod back into her bag and pulls out her iReader, she flips through four pages of ads before the reader turns to the bookmarked page and reads for all of the half-hour trip to the outskirts of Tiffany’s City, the end of the line, naturally tuning out the commercials that precede the announcements, “Disneyland, last stop folks. Why not try the new whale-size Beluga Burger at McDonald’s with a cool, refreshing Coke? McDonald’s is Happiness and Love.”

A barbed-wire fence on the surface separates Disneyland from Tiffany’s City, the guards allow free passage into the former amusement park, but access to Tiffany’s City is restricted to those few who can produce company approved work vouchers. The park had originally been built as a tourist destination for the families of visiting businessmen, as the years wore on and the harsh reality of Coca-Cola’s future, a lawless free market became clear, ransom kidnappings, violence, robberies became common occurrences, customers no longer wanted to ride the dangerously under maintained attractions, security became an expensive burden, and near slave-wages for employees ensured an environment that fostered the development of drug dealing between workers and customers, poor hygiene in the food stands, sex trafficking in the dark alleys of Main Street USA, and a general feeling of malaise throughout the park that, unchecked, develops into apathy, anger, and hatred. Once Disneyland became unprofitable, the park was abandoned and the squatters built a city of tents, in spite of their poor living conditions, they thrived, and eventually created an autonomous cooperative mini-region within Coca-Cola.

The turnstile clicks as Nurse Benadryl passes through, Vanilla Coke is sinking nearer the horizon, dimly burning out a dull blue, the stars becoming clearer as she strolls the cobblestone road. Homeless humans and aliens drink together in empty buildings on either side of the road, the smell of marijuana is always drifting in the air, the chatter of drunken conversations, escalating to arguments and the mews of begging street cats bring Disneyland to life. Far from the clean white walls of the hospital, the empty streets of Tiffany’s City, the constant harassment of advertisements, she feels at home, happy and safe.

She finally arrives to her tin shack home under the Star Wars ride. She tosses her bag onto the bed and starts a hot shower, a relief coming over her as she undresses and steps into the rusted iron tub and stands quietly under the water. Completely alone, naked and free, she watches the water flow down her breasts and trickle off, a warm mist rises around her, fogs the mirror. After her shower and still in the nude, she eats a dinner of crackers and cheese product in front of a telestream viewer, watching early morning programming until the daylight starts reaching through the curtains. Tired and yawning, she pulls a bottle of sleeping pills she stole from the hospital out of her nightstand drawer, takes two and knocks herself out for a night of well-deserved rest.

You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine

On a rainy night, Vanilla Coke’s faint blue spills onto the neon signs littered throughout the Tiffany’s City red light district that point the way to clubs and bars, showcasing each one’s respective sponsorship, the Viagra Gentlemen’s Club, Hustler’s Hos, Budweiser Beach, and Absolut Nudes are the brightest on the unimaginatively named Sex Street. Fenced in and beyond seedy, the porn theaters screen different films every quarter-hour, and afterwards auction the actresses to the highest bidders, homeless and drug addicted vagrants gather and beg for spare credit outside and often turn up dead, littered on the sidewalks next to high-end escorts, battered and bruised at the hands of third-rate lawyers and impotent salesmen living out power fantasies. The blue and red neon sign outside Absolut Nudes slowly revolves, beckoning passersby inside with a sexy silhouette of a woman on each side, one human, one alien. Dr. Asshole hums a tune to himself as he walks ahead of the line and stops to speak with the doorman, an old Russian military man, and a former client.

“Doctor,” says the doorman with a crude accent.

“Vadym, how are you? You crazy bastard! Busy night, eh?”

“Yes doctor, very busy.”

“Have you seen Blanka tonight?”

“No Blanka, doctor. Lexus inside,” winks Vadym.

“Thanks Vadym,” the doctor holds out a credit bill as he steps into the club, Vadym stuffs it into his import Levis and turns his attention back to the line.

A loud, hellish music echoes in the tall ceiling of the club, a brilliant mixed-color light bounces off a diamond chandelier, bathes the naked women on stage in all colors, credit bills float around the stage, topless waitresses walk around delivering drinks and vices to the back room where wealthy men play cards and smoke clouds linger over poker tables. On many nights Absolut Nudes also hosts entertainment, intergalactic touring bands, porn stars, comedians even, most other nights the usual girls take the stage and work the bar. The doctor slips through a crowd of rowdy humans and aliens, sifts through the glowing hairstyles of bright blue, green, and red, until finally he spots Lexus’ golden strands and approaches her with a cautious hand on her hip. Lexus turns, hand conditioned to slap reaching out but suddenly realizing it wasn’t another drunk asshole, but her Dr. Asshole, and lets him in closer instead, although carefully discreet with public displays of romantic love, especially at work where it was commodity, not to be handed out to freeloaders. She takes his hand in her’s and leads him to an empty back room, sits him down on a sofa and mixes two drinks before cutting through the silence between them with an honest “I’ve missed you,” as she sits on his lap and they drink.

“I’ve missed you too,” admits the doctor.

The alcohol on Coca-Cola is different, tampered with by so-called men of science who pushed the boundaries of boner pills, perfected the taste of hamburgers, cured baldness, and solved the ‘dead-eye dilemma’ of sex robots, it’s engineered to be stronger, work faster, be less severe the morning after, and as such, demands a steep price. Dr. Asshole and Lexus become intoxicated almost immediately, she reaches out and holds his head with her thin, bony fingers, leans in for a kiss and takes off her top, her naturally large breasts drop and the doctor dives right in, blood flowing now to his throbbing cock. The look she gives him as she kneels in front of him and takes him in her mouth, emphasized through dark mascara, does more for him than the feeling of her tongue, her teeth, or her lips wrapped tightly around him.

They match the rhythm of the music blaring in the club, imported Martian techno and classic Earth house. Somewhere over the years of secret liaisons, the feeling they substituted for love evolved, and nurtured, flourished between the two in spite of the cash flow between them, the other people they each fucked, and the uncomfortable, always present knowledge that there was nowhere else for them to go, no house with a white picket fence in the suburbs of Coca-Cola to run away to, no golden retriever named Rover, or Iams more likely, waiting for them, no conversations over coffee before heading off to work in the morning to be had, nothing they could do but capture that feeling in the back room of the club Absolut Nudes, if only for a few short moments, and clutch it tightly.

Lexus’ hand runs slowly up and down the doctor’s chest, her other holds her flat stomach, a part of him still inside her. They always embraced after they made love, the music faded, their hearts beat louder, they saw things differently, the reflected glint on an empty martini glass like her grey eyes, the ochre of rusty door hinges like his orange hair. Then, as it always does, gravity starts to pull harder, a knock on the door as the volume cranks up again, “there’s two people here for Dr. Asshole,” says the voice on the other end and he reaches for his pants somewhere on the dark carpet.

The doctor, looking decent now, sits down at the bar, Lexus hands him a drink and mixes two more before kissing him on the cheek and leaving the room, Bird and Blanka walk in. They sit down together and help themselves to the full glasses at the bar, Bird hands the doctor an envelope marked 16/32/Big Mac in surprisingly exquisite handwriting, he doesn’t bother to count it, leaving the bills folded in whatever careless manner they end up stuffed in his jacket pocket.

“I know something you don’t,” starts the doctor.

Bird leans in, “what’s that you know, doctor?”

“It’ll cost you more than our usual arrangement.”

“If it’s worth it, we’ll pay.”

The doctor empties his glass, “they’re planning an ambush, next delivery.”

“How many?”

“Why didn’t I think to ask him that?” ponders the doctor sarcastically.

“What are we gonna do?” asks Blanka.

Bird finishes his drink, thinks out loud “bring more guns, maybe another guy. They’ll have IPS blocked off no doubt, we’ll have to ship it ourselves.”

“How?”

“There’s the underground network, it’s risky though.”

“You mean the subway tunnels?” asks the doctor.

“There’s a much bigger network than just subway tunnels down there. Disney built most of them once upon a time when they wanted all roads to lead to Disneyland, some actually say building those tunnels is what bankrupted them on Coca-Cola.”

“You’re pretty well informed.”

“Used to know ‘em like the back of my hand when I was a teenager. Used to steal jet-bikes and race ‘em down those tunnels – shit, it’s been a long time.”

“You’re not that old,” says the doctor, standing up. “But if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you two to it. Oh, and Blanka,” the doctor’s fingers probe past the envelope and find a bag of weed. “I almost forgot, enjoy.”

McHeist (Part 2)

A chill breeze high above the radio tower bites at their fingers as they pass a joint back and forth, perched like vultures in their usual spots. A heavy haze rises, kisses the sky, Blanka flicks the roach, off on the horizon the first embers of daylight are burning up the sky. He fingers the metal rings around the grenades at his hip, they were better prepared this time, had called in favors, created new debts, and watched now for signs of life. Bird glasses two speeders through his binoculars first, the cargo ship follows a moment later escorted by four more, white light floods the dock in scheduled anticipation. Blanka, eager, holds the electromagnetic grenade, Bird lifts a hand and says “wait, take another look.” He looks again, sees a dozen or so speeders hanging back, waiting.

“Blanka – party of ten.”

“Hey, don’t fuck around on this one. We’ve got one minute to kill between the EMP and the on-board computer resetting itself, if we’re not gone by then, we won’t be going anywhere.”

Blah, blah, blah, Blanka nods and hops down the metal rungs, friction pulls on his palms, cold air whips at his face and picks up his hair. Steam hisses, rises around the cargo ship as it descends, Blanka squeezes the grenade in hand, tosses it and looks up, reaching for his laser pistols, the cargo ship scrapes the concrete as it suddenly drops the last few feet, speeders start to fall to new earth. Bird dodges the falling hover-bikes as he charges behind two smoke grenades, an antique kalashnikov pointed forward, more hissing, more smoke, the golden arches becoming clearer as he approaches the ship and fires into the cab without hesitation, then climbs up and lets himself in, a body slumps out. His fingers twitch over the start button, the timer on his watch counts 42, 43, 44… “hurry up, Blanka.”

He stops the timer after 60, the seat beside him still empty, he can hear shots ring out from the McArmor standard issue mini-uzis, but there was no way of telling how many times Blanka’s laser pistols had been fired, if at all. He punches the start button and hears a thrashing at the door, points the long barrel out the window and sees Blanka hanging desperately on to it, blood pouring from his chest. He hops down and empties the clip into the fading smoke, gives his friend a push into the cab, the ship’s computer is waiting, McArmor closes in.

The ship whirs awake and starts to rise, Bird steers it away from the docks in a hurry, crashing through the radio tower and speeding over Lake Vitamin Water into the old industrial district, “guess we won’t be waiting in our usual spots next time, will we?” Blanka coughs up a mouthful of blood and in spite of his lethargy, leans out the window and tosses the last of his smoke grenades behind them, another cloud of smoke starts to rise. The ship veers away from the water, skillfully maneuvers through chemical plant smoke stacks, for a moment the cab is filled with the aromas of cheeseburgers, french fries, pizza, fried chicken. “This might hurt,” warns Bird, the ship smashes through a brick wall into an abandoned factory, he follows a rail track into a dark tunnel.

“Just hang on buddy,” Bird looks over, Blanka’s eyes are receding, he reaches across the seat and slaps him. “You gotta stay awake, we’re going to a hospital, I’m gonna find you a doctor with a good sponsorship, nothing less than Israel.” Blanka manages a nod, clutches his chest. “Look, there’s Earle, we’re almost there, don’t you die just yet.” The ship slows and touches down, Earle waits by an iCar 4 under the intersection that might have been Union if the Coca-Cola business giants didn’t hate that word so much, somewhere in a pile of rusty metal beams, abandoned equipment, and out of date computers, an old, dusty sign in the long deserted station read Pepsi Presents Junction Station.

“What happened?” asks Earle as Bird jumps out of the cab.

“The fuck’s it look like? Are the explosives set up?”

Earle tosses Bird a remote trigger, “right where you asked.”

Bird thumbs the button, a loud explosion roars through the concrete tube, shakes the foundation, a section of the tunnel caves in behind them, claiming street and sidewalk, a passing olfactory scientist, and a Starbucks. He helps Blanka out of the cab and into the iCar, Earle drives off in the cargo ship towards Disneyland, the iCar moves towards the iCare Hospital, Bird begs Blanka “just hang on,” blood starts to stain the white rhinoceros leather seat.

II

the Year of the MoneyMart Payday Loan

the New Year’s Eve Massacre

The queen of spades is usually a bitch, but he doesn’t mind seeing her face in the river, he peeks at his cards again, a queen and a three, unsuited, and looks at the men at the table around him, the one who had dared him with a large bet hid behind dark sunglasses, tapped his fingers impatiently on the green felt, the other had folded and watched now with the gathering crowd. Lexus starts offering drinks at the crucial moment, Lexus who knows them all and has seen them all play. The doctor lights a cigarette and goes all in, the other man hesitates a moment and tosses his chips into the pile, they flip their cards together – a pair of aces against the doctor’s triplets, dealer calls it while Lexus bends low offering cheap strip-club champagne and glances down her loose corset to the losers.

“Good game, boy-o’s,” says the doctor, plugging his credit chip into the table, the winnings transfer instantly and the dealer soon finds himself alone with the loser, collects the chips and offers him a private dance on the house. Lexus follows the doctor to the bar, her corset and g-string decorated with credit bills, the tip cup empty. She dodges wandering hands and mixes the doctor’s favorite drink, he toasts “the Year of the MoneyMart Payday Loan!”

Her eyes distant, she holds up her glass and says “I have a bad feeling about this year, like it’s going to be a bad year.”

“They’re all bad years,” muses the doctor.

“I mean, like, I dunno,” she tries but her honest valley girl heart is caught somewhere between playing stupid for space bucks and being kind enough not to seem condescending to the disgraced doctor.

Down the street from Absolut Nudes, the large crowd gathered outside the Big Mac City Center to run out the last moments of the Year of the Big Mac is all smiles and laughs. A giant telestream viewer plays McDonald’s sponsored media, news of recent terrorist activities in Tiffany’s City and was McDonald’s the next target, and if so what could the average person do? weather predictions, a panel discussing the dangers of worker’s unions, then finally, much to the crowd’s content the anchorman and his cocksucker’s smile fades and the countdown begins, 90, 89, 88… The crowd, drunk on elation, good cheer, and engineered alcohol start calling out the numbers as one, the music dies down at Absolut Nudes nearby, dancers among the crowd now except the few still handing out champagne glasses. The commotion outside picks up, grows louder until screaming becomes uncomfortably clear.

Bullets chew through a panicked crowd at the Big Mac City Center, drunks who don’t understand try to keep the pace behind designated drivers running for their lives, McArmor frantically calls for help while immediately around the lone gunman, dreams of a good Year of the MoneyMart Payday Loan are silenced, blood spills onto the plaza, bodies start to hit the floor. His face betrays no emotion, he wields two stolen mini-uzis and fires into the crowd, moving forward at a slow pace, the fallen beneath him suffer thrice, eating his bullets, a stampede of expensive designer shoes, then eating it again when McArmor swoops in behind a storm of bullets. Nobody remains standing once the speeders land, bodies are strewn about the plaza, the air is smoky and smells like iron and gunpowder, the gunman drops the uzis as he collapses riddled with who-cares-to-count-how-many bullets, and looks up at the sky, fireworks shoot upwards and light up the sky with colorful displays of McDonald’s value meals, with the last of his strength he pulls a trigger in his jacket, a bright flash erupts outwards.

Absolut Nudes becomes chaotic, Lexus hears only a deafening ringing as she pushes and shoves through gaping mouths, scared looks, a falling chandelier, then the ringing fades, she starts to hear screaming, finds the doctor’s orange hair in the crowd, takes his hand and leads him through a back room to an alley behind the club. “Get in,” she says in front of a white pill-shaped, featureless vehicle, “we’re going to my condo.” The iCar 8 starts itself, rises high above the building and she starts towards the downtown core, the doctor sees bodies now littered all over the plaza, a small building was missing, the monumental telestream viewer of the Big Mac City Center had crashed and lay ruined in pieces. McArmor speeders continued arriving at the scene, unable to control or comprehend the true face of anarchy.

Soon the iCare Hospital is overwhelmed. Nurse Benadryl can’t bear to see the bodies, listen to the shrill wails of the dying, or watch when Apple Security begins throwing out customers without iNsurance plans and pointing guns, “you don’t have iNsurance – go die somewhere else!” Following procedure, the hospital calls for more security first, then the cleaners, then Dr. Pfizer, Nurse Benadryl sees him rushing into the hospital while grabbing a bottle of heavy sedative, they both know they’ll be playing the role of executioner tonight.

the Disneyland Quarantine

Morning’s light floods Lexus’ posh, downtown condo through frosted windows lighting up the white plastic cabinets with chrome handles, imported faux-fur throws on top of decorative pillows with the names and silhouettes of cities she’d never been to, a library of Woolf and Kafka and the doctor’s product review magazines, a closet door opened to skimpy outfits and smart suits, a telestream viewer tuned in to news of the attack. She wears a sheer tank and nothing else when she walks into the bedroom and finds the doctor still asleep, “breakfast is ready, wake up there’s going to be a big announcement.” Groggy, hungover, he limps slowly out of bed, stories below he sees McArmor in full force, a city on lockdown, then he smells the bacon, the butter biscuits, the coffee in the next room. Lexus pours him a cup, stirs it for him, prepares another for herself while he sits opposite her at the counter, they don’t speak as the telestream viewer displays amateur photographs and videos of bodies, the Big Mac City Center in ruin, chaos at the iCare Hospital. The anchorman announces the King of Coca-Cola who approaches a podium before the official flag, based on an old design of stars and stripes, but covered in company logos.

“My fellow citizens, my friends, my brothers and sisters… I was in Starbucks City last night, enjoying an iced caramel maciato when I heard the news of this despicable attack. I almost dropped the sweet, tasty drink, then I told my McArmor boys to get Air Coke One ready, we were going to Tiffany’s City. I spoke with first responders, the brave men and women of McArmor private security, the best money can buy, all heroes in their own right, and found that, like many of you – we were devastated, confused, angry. I visited the iCare Hospital next and spoke with the doctors and nurses, victims and their families, all the while one question kept coming up in my head – who could do such a thing to innocent people? Why? I realized, like most of us, that this was not a random attack, this was no sick, lone gunman, but a deliberate attack on our libertarian dream, our an-cap ideology, our very freedom – this was an attack on you! In coming to terms with this, we must ask ourselves, how do we, a people with no army, no government, no code of laws but our morality – how do we respond to terrorism? Well, I would like to ask that we voluntarily observe a national Day of Mourning today. Let us reflect not just on yesterday’s attack, but remember the ineffectiveness of every attack before it, let us remember Coca-Cola has always risen stronger, and let us also set aside a thought for those lost to us.

“I want you to know I called a meeting this morning and I have spoken with leaders representing our most prosperous businesses and industries, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Tiffany’s City Transit, and others, and we have reached a general consensus – we need more security in Tiffany’s City! My fellow citizens, we have let you down, we believed ourselves to be safer than we truly were, we strived to improve our city when we should have strived to protect it, we cannot make amends for our failures, we can promise you swift and decisive action beginning with more private security protecting your interests and new citizens watch groups. In cooperation with McDonald’s investigation, Tiffany’s City Transit will be voluntarily restricting access to streets and subways and shuttles leaving Coca-Cola will be grounded until further notice.

“Though we cannot say much with total clarity yet, we do know beyond the shadow of doubt that the attacker originated in Disneyland. As King of Coca-Cola, I would like to make you all aware that Tiffany’s City will quarantine Disneyland until further notice, entry into Tiffany’s City will henceforth be restricted and a volunteer security force is currently being organized to enforce the quarantine as we speak, I urge you all to do your part! These are trying times, I know, but we have seen worse, we have warred with the ugly faces of communism, socialism, and democracy, we have fought back takeovers of our industries and businesses and even then, like now I assure you, we were victorious! Our resolve unbroken, our artists unafraid, our economy stronger! As we reflect on our loss today, let us also be optimistic that our free state, our free market, our free hard-working laborers, scientists and citizens be they human, alien, alive or dead, are what make us strong! Let us also spare a sympathetic thought for those who would seek to take that away from us, those underprivileged who hold you responsible for their failures, for their laziness, for their poverty, for their hunger, let us not forsake them but take pity on them-”

Dr. Asshole stands up and turns off the viewscreen as the King reaches for a sip from the Coca-Cola bottle on the podium. He sighs, staring at the blank screen for a moment, Lexus asks “are you alright?”

“I think I need to take a walk,” says the doctor. He dresses himself in the clean clothes Lexus always keeps spares of, picks out a book on World War 3 from her library, grabs a UV umbrella and tells her “I’ll be back soon.” Outside the sunlight is warm, the streets uncomfortably empty and silent, loners in suits gather in Starbucks and McDonald’s restaurants and talk about how ‘those damned slummers are at it again!’ in between bites of Big Macs and sips of cappuccinos, feeling like their purchase might really make a difference. Silhouettes on balconies high above watch the lone body walking against McArmor, an umbrella held up, a thick book at his side, a mind without a thought.

Barely a mile away from the condo, the doctor arrives at the Nature Valley Nature Valley, a Tiffany’s City park that offers the shade and comfort of fake plastic trees, the refreshing mist of tea-scented Nestea Cool-Air at the touch of a button, and complementary Nature Valley trail mix bars. He feels weighed down by something as he leans back against the polystyrene tree trunk, the grass feels real to his fingertips, it’s illusion enough for most and can easily fool those who have never known the true feel of limp blades, seen them give in to the wind, or picked apart the dirt sanctuary of worms and ants and other unwelcome pests. He opens the book, blue light warms the paper in spots that shine through the leaves, and perhaps reflecting a passive numbness, a physical wearing out, that unnamed, uneasy feeling everyone who came to Tiffany’s City eventually knew and killed with entertainment, food, sex, and drugs, opened the book and started reading without giving it any further thought.

*

Nurse Benadryl shuts off the telestream viewer with mixed feelings, Blanka lays beside her under fresh linen, more certain of his anger towards the accusations on his friends and family. His wounds are better, though he had been given little attention on the night that came to be known as the New Year’s Eve Massacre much to the disappointment of Starbucks who had lobbied the King to publicly call it the New Year’s Eve Massacre of the Year of the Big Mac. She spares him as much time as she can, changes his bandages, brings food and drink, sees to his needs without worrying about cost, Bird had seen to the hospital bills. “This isn’t good,” she says, opening the curtains, brightening up the room.

“If you think about it,” starts Blanka, sitting up. “All of this was to be expected, you know? The attack, the response, it’s like a really fucking bad movie.”

“Don’t strain yourself Blanka,” says the nurse, easing him back down, blue light like a halo behind her ears, juxtaposed against the dim hallway outside, quiet, dead except for the cleaners. Security at the hospital had relaxed that morning though there were still bodies to be removed from hospital premises, there was no volunteer group organized to move them, there was no private charity to help the helpless. She runs a hand through his dark hair and kisses his forehead, “I need to go home, I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“I know,” sighs Blanka, holding her hand.

“Take care of yourself, ok? Eat what the doctors give you, keep drinking lots of water, and try to keep the telestream viewer off, it’s only going to upset you.” She lets go of his hand, “I hope we see each other again, I really do.”

“Be careful out there.”

“Always am,” smiles the nurse, leaves the room and signs herself out for the day, unsure when or if she’d return. She bids a sad farewell to her coworkers and starts walking home, the miles-long walk is quiet, the air feels heavy, poisoned with ash and dust, a contempt for the have-nots, she joins the exodus that began after the attack, Disneylanders returning home and bitter Tiffany’s City natives who want to support the cooperative they had heard about. A crowd of Coca-Cola loyalists taunt the slummers, shout accusations of terrorism, ill-will towards free society, hopes of death and destruction on their perceived enemy, the very worst of society called upon by its elite to do its bidding, protect its interests, fight for it and die for it, then be discarded like trash and yet somehow live entire lives as the only ones oblivious to it.

As she nears the Happiest Place on Coca-Cola she notices security is tighter than she’s ever seen it, a faceless militia hides behind tinted helmet visors in front of giant steel statues of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, while the volunteer quarantine enforcement group keeps guns pointed at the crowd, some who tried to fight their way out lay still where they had died. Aside the entrance a second barbed-wire fence was being erected by another group of volunteers who had bought in to the belief that their best interests were truly at stake, that those same elite who had refused them higher wages, brutally enforced company law with no regard for life or ethics, ignored pleas to create safer workplaces, met suggestions of worker’s unions with violence and threats, were somehow allied with them, that those abject poor beyond the metal links of the electric fence were a threat to them, their families, their beliefs, to be stopped by any means necessary.

Nurse Benadryl turns and takes a final look at Tiffany’s City, the blue glow of the glass buildings seemed duller, the ads that had annexed every open space felt less welcoming, then a gun shoved in her face urges her to “get moving, scum.” The turnstile clicks, she has become part of the injection into Disneyland, a heavy dose of discontent and sympathizers of terrorists, an infection that unchecked will turn to anger, hatred, action. Deep within dark alleys and underground passageways, arms were being distributed, revolutionary literature was being handed out, someone was preparing an army for war, an army that unfortunately couldn’t afford the luxury of time to consider the fact that Disneyland didn’t have the means to produce the arms or print the literature, that some other, unknown force had been silently preparing for this moment, an invisible power that had just now begun to tug at Disneyland’s strings.

Blood Turns Wine When it Leaks for Police

The Day of Mourning had passed, the transportation lockdown was still in effect, Dr. Asshole finds the streets outside his office largely abandoned as McDonald’s continues its investigation. Subways gather dust below him, high above a blue light shoots unimpeded through empty skyscrapers, even the beggar cats have seemingly left the city in search of a better life. Lexus’ book still in hand, bookmarked barely a few pages in, he heads to his office hoping just to get some hash out of the medicine cabinet and then head back to the condo. As he turns a corner, Ms. Miracle sees him and jogs toward him, her arms waving “doctor! You need to leave, now!”

“What’s going on?”

“The showed up this morning,” she steps ahead of him, he sees two McArmor speeders in the parking lot. “They forced their way into your office, said they were conducting an investigation of suspected terrorist activity. They’ve been going through every folder in the cabinets and file on your laptop, everything.”

He creeps to the window, indeed faceless McArmor men inside his office were throwing papers about, emptying drawers, killing plants. Ms. Miracle meanwhile looks to the rooftop with longing, wondering if those days are behind her and if it’s time for a long vacation in Disneyland, time to go away for a while and ‘ride this thing out’ as she’s seen the doctor do before under different circumstances. He takes her by the wrist and pulls her out of view, “give me your cellular.” She unrolls the cellular screen and hands it to him. “I’m transferring some credit to your account, we’re both overdue for a vacation, wouldn’t you agree?”

“What are you involved in, doctor?” asks the secretary, a genuine misgiving cracks through her voice and triggers some dormant primal feeling within the doctor, the sort of feeling that appears when there’s no time for love or relationships or family, he kisses Ms. Miracle who holds him tight, both quickly realizing this is a kiss goodbye.

“I have to disappear for a while. I’m going to miss you, I hope you know that.”

“I know doctor,” her cheeks flush, her eyes start to water. “What should I do?”

“I wish I could tell you.”

He keeps hold of her hand, feels heavy as if he was drowning in the deep blue of her eyes, as if something was sinking, becoming bereft of him, someone he had shared a mutual love with, someone who could read the silences between the words that no one else on Coca-Cola could. His thoughts flashed quick in blurred pictures and he struggled to find the words, he was still lost in her, didn’t hear the footsteps as one of those McArmor assholes turned the corner, saw him and drew a handgun. Without a word or another thought, the doctor bolts, leaving Ms. Miracle empty-handed, but she had read it in his eyes, everything he couldn’t say and watched him run away from her, watched a bullet tear through his calf and the book fall out of his hands as he dropped. She dives after the book, stalling McArmor for just the moment the doctor needs to pick himself up and awkwardly stumble away. “You stupid bitch,” curses the military reject before calling for backup and following the trail of blood around the corner.

Dr. Asshole stops for a moment, leans against a brick wall, his right leg in searing pain and losing blood, unable to keep on keepin’ on. He leaps ahead to the sewer entrance in the alley, just barely lifts the manhole cover and gets his good leg on the ladder as McArmor appears and gains quickly. He loses his balance in a moment of panic and falls backwards into the sewer, a splash of piss, shit, and Tiffany’s City’s purged excess cover him, he thinks he heard a bone crack in the fall, too, but it’s the thought of infection that really worries him. He lifts himself against the dusty walls and creeps along slowly, hiding in the shadows, he hears one of guards say “he’s as good as dead down there,” then the scraping of iron on concrete, and the last bit of light turns dark.

There are scarier things in Tiffany’s City than an egomaniacal private security force with unchecked power, like the thugs, drug addicts, diseased whores, and gutter-rats that live in the all-too-often-conveniently-ignored sewer system. The doctor pushes himself forward, hopping along on one leg in spite of the pain, he loses track of time quickly in the dark tunnels, starts to wonder if he’s hearing things or imagining them and what’s that he just stepped in? He follows the smell of something burning, something different than the sludge he’s wading through until he sees a faint light. An old man smokes a metal pipe by himself under a sewer grate, it doesn’t smell like marijuana or even tobacco, it just smells like burning.

“Help me,” begs the doctor.

The old man pulls his pipe away and leans in to examine the doctor’s leg, “what’s the matter with you, iNsurance run out?” He laughs, the doctor sighs and falls back against the wall, the old man offers his pipe, “here, this won’t cure ye, but it might help a bit.” The doctor takes a deep hit of the pipe, a harsh smoke that tastes like plastic, toxic, burns in his lungs, a numbness follows shortly after.

“Where,” a coughing fit seizes him, “doctor?”

“Welp, whores ‘round here go to Disneyland when their cunts need to be looked at, but you don’t look like no whore to me,” the old man pokes the doctor’s leg. “Hooo, that’s a nasty hole, almost sort of looks like a bleedin’ cunt, maybe you can get help in Disneyland after all.

“Which way?”

“Don’t ye know nothin’? Where do you think all this city’s piss and shit flows?” he laughs again, the doctor looks up at his dirty face in the faint light and wonders where the line between crazy and high might be drawn, or if indeed there even was such a line. “Just follow the yellow shit road.”

*

Miles from the sewers, deep within the fortress walls of white plastic under warm blue, Blanka picks at a vitamin meal that tastes suspiciously like cornmeal and little else, “it’ll help your cells replenish themselves,” the doctors had told him, or was it “it’ll help your muscles recover”? He hadn’t been listening, he didn’t trust them, he had been thinking about Nurse Benadryl, her black hair, dark eyes and skin, the quarantine that had claimed her, that had condemned Disneylanders without mention of things like like the contracts with them McDonald’s had never honored, the people outright murdered through unsafe work environments, the mysteriously vanishing union leaders – was it really so easy to convince the buffer-class that poor people were the enemies of society? Well obviously, he reminds himself.

He flips through the channels on the viewscreen, worthless anti-intellectual media brought to you by Apple, McDonald’s, Starbucks, the line between entertainment and advertising grotesquely fused as one, those two different forms, it might almost be a work of art in its own right, as repulsive as a Schiele painting, and yet on the surface seeming as innocent as Hitler’s Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich, and likewise preoccupied with things, completely disinterested in people.

The door swings open, Bird cautiously steps in and closes it behind him, stalks to the window and peers out, shuts the curtains and asks “you feel well enough to walk out of here or do I gotta carry you?”

“I think so, what’s going on?”

“Asshole called, McArmor apparently ransacked his office, good chance they’re onto us, too.”

“Guess we might owe them some credit,” says Blanka, straining to get out of bed, the gauze and bandages on his chest coming loose, tearing at cracked skin that starts to bleed again. “Maybe they’re not so stupid as we thought.”

“No credit due for following orders,” answers Bird. “Come on, keep quiet.” Blanka follows Bird down the glowing halls of the casualty ward, they make their way downstairs, bypass the discharge lounge and the Apple thugs in white armor patrolling for those poor bastards without iNsurance. They pass through the maintenance wing, Bird helps Blanka down the tunnel that connects the hospital to the sewers and warns him “there are bodies down here, just so you know.” The stench of rotting corpses, piss and shit swarm on them like locusts, Blanka’s vitamin meal stages its own escape into the low-flowing yellow shit road. “Just a little further,” Bird walks ahead, a few dead bodies later they come upon two speeders and fly quickly away from the hospital.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” asks Blanka. “What’s happening in Disneyland?  What about the quarantine?”

“It’s scary, to tell you the truth. Lots of new people and they’re all angry, I don’t like it, they’re not interested in the cooperative, they didn’t come to farm or work, bunch of useless fucking Tiffany’s City kids who don’t even know why they’re angry.”

“Not the first time this has happened, but that doesn’t sound too scary to me, if they don’t fit in, they’ll figure it out sooner or later.”

“It’s not just that, someone’s arming them, they’re being recruited. It’s Bob, back from the dead, handing out guns he’s getting from who-knows-where like its fucking Winter Coca-Cola Holiday, telling them to prepare for the revolution.”

“Revolution sounds nice, actually, but I bet most of them don’t even know what that’ll mean for them.”

“Not like that’s ever mattered. There are pamphlets and booklets and posters on every street and building, calls to action and all that other shit, even the bums are getting in on it, but if you ask me, Bob’s just a puppet. Tiffany’s City must’ve seen this coming for a while now – I’m even starting to think the New Year’s Massacre was a set up, an excuse to try to contain it, come out looking like the good guys no matter what.”

“So, someone’s betting hopelessness against commercialism then, hate to say it Bird, but I might put some chips down on that one.”

“We,” stresses Bird, “might just keep our gorgeous heads down and our chips in our pockets for the foreseeable future if we hope to hold onto them.”

Saint Benadryl

The Main Street USA Market is busier than usual, evokes thoughts of a lively bazaar more than the purported golden age, excepting of course the armed hordes of rowdy middle-class teenagers and middle-aged Tiffany’s City rejects who never did manage to find their way in the big city, and lately had been getting out of hand. She strolls up and down the aisles as she often had, picking through offerings of locally grown Captain’s Bananas and produce, stolen Food by Monsanto and frozen McDonald’s patties and fries, all freely available to her for paying into the cooperative almost all her iCare income. She drops a loaf of bread in the basket along with some fruits and vegetables, watching the new influx and wondering how many of those refugees have worked a day in their life, gone without food, watched a friend die? Food stocks are running low, the signs are there in higher prices, understocked displays, lineups, she notices a fat teenaged girl ahead of her holding a stack of McDonald’s patties and decides to take less than she needs, no one else seems to have noticed the children begging around the stand, nobody but Nurse Benadryl.

She packs the food into her bag and leaves the market, she notices the distinct smell of marijuana has returned to Main Street USA and sees dried alcohol-vomit in the blue light, but it’s not just the usual bums and Tiffany’s City burnouts, it’s these greedy assholes stuffing their fat faces walking past them, carefully wary not to notice them, but she does notice them and offers what she can, apples and bananas none of the refugees wanted, and then notices a new face among the congregation, someone who isn’t hitting the pipe being passed around, his orange stubble stands out, a haggard, disheveled look on his face, his stench rises above the usual smells of the vagrants, then she sees his leg, crusted blood around a black, festering hole. She approaches the man and asks with legitimate concern “can you walk?” He barely looks up, but there’s nothing unusual about that to her. “Listen to me, I’m a nurse, I can help you. My shack is just a few minutes that way, if you can’t walk, just wait for me here a few minutes, I’ll be right back.”

All of a sudden he grunts, he’s clearly in pain as he staggers up, Nurse Benadryl offers herself as a crutch and helps him hop along back to her shack, in spite of his rancid stench and the possibility of inviting some unimaginably horrible infection in with him. Her petite body struggles with his weight pushed against her with every forward thrust he leaps, a bag of food heavy in her free hand, conversations go on around them, there are no offers for help, there’s hardly a batted eye.

She helps him through the makeshift door, no more than a screen, into her tin shack and offers her bed to him as she makes haste to gather clean water from her rain water distiller and sharp metal instruments, and gets to work. She gives him a heavy dose of sedative first, heroin freely bought and sold in Disneyland, from Russia with love, the doctor feels the pin prick, then his arms and legs start to feel heavy, a few minutes later he can barely lift them, his heart starts to slow, he can see Nurse Benadryl but he can’t feel it when she digs into his leg and starts scooping out maggots and dead flies, he doesn’t react when she pours the best antiseptic she can get her hands on, dirty bathtub moonshine, over the wound. He’s somewhere between a dream and reality when she steps back to finger through a cabinet of stolen medicines, gauzes the leg and tells him, unsure if he can even hear her to be thankful, “it only grazed the bone, it’ll hurt, but it’ll heal.”

The days are longer after Nurse Benadryl sees to him, he drifts in and out of consciousness for a week, a month? he lost track of time before he even arrived in Disneyland. She brings him tea and tries to get him to eat, walks around the shack naked in the late evening, during the day he sees her with children treating scrapes, burns, cuts, and who-knows-what-else those kids have got themselves into, then finally one day he feels able to try the crutches she left by the bed. He hasn’t bled through the gauze in days, the pain is duller, he can manage a smile through the anguish. She watches him hop around the shack on the crutches, takes a good look at the leg and says “I don’t think there’s any more I can do for you, but you’re welcome to stay for a while if you don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Thank you, I owe you my life, my leg at the very least. I was sure I’d lose it.”

“It’s what I do,” smiles the nurse.

“I hate to ask, but do you by any chance have a cellular?”

She hands the doctor her company issued iCell 3 and makes herself scarce as he steps out, lights a cigarette and dials a friendly face. She washes her hands in the kitchen sink while he talks, not feeling any sort of pride or honor, but a sincere happiness for her patient, former patient, she happily thinks to herself, former patient who’s out there walking again. The doctor steps back inside and hands her the cellular, “I’ll be back in a little while?”

“Of course,” says the nurse.

The doctor lights another cigarette, they all smell like shit but it’s barely noticeable once he starts hopping down Main Street USA, his pockets empty, his name isn’t on the cooperative ledger either, but at least the bums won’t recognize him with a clean, fresh shave, that must be worth something. He flicks the cigarette onto the street and sits on a bench, leg sore, Bird appears a few moments later down the paved brick road, Blanka by his side.

“It’s good to see you two,” says the doctor.

“Likewise,” answers Bird, sitting down. “What happened to your leg?”

“Some McArmor cocksucker shot me.”

“Hey, welcome to the club,” says Blanka, pulling up his shirt and showing off two patches of blotchy skin where bullets had passed through him. “Hope you got him as good as he got you.”

The doctor shakes his head, “wish I could say I did.”

Bird pulls an envelope out of his jacket and hands it to the doctor, “this is your’s.”

He’s genuinely surprised, “thanks, I, uh, had completely forgot.”

“What’d you call us for then?”

“Wanted to ask what was going on in Disneyland, I’ve heard some stories and seen some things I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.”

“Well it sounds like you heard right,” says Bird. “Bob’s army is growing every day, he seems to have an infinite supply of guns, every one of these idiots around us here is packing one.”

“They have legitimate grievances,” interrupts Blanka. “There’s more than enough to be pissed off about.”

“I don’t disagree,” returns Bird. “I’d just like to know where all these guns are coming from is all.”

“Who cares? The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?”

“Alright, alright, cool it guys, we’re all friends here. I brought some smoke, let’s light up and figure out where to go from here.”

“Where to go? We can join Bob or get left behind, we’re like animals in a cage here just waiting for something to happen, our food won’t last forever.”

“Sounds like one of you is already decided.”

“So what if I am?”

“So nothing, Blanka, I’m on your side, remember? I’m your friend. I just don’t share your optimism in Bob is all, I see someone feeding a bunch of pissed off kids guns, I question it, I don’t trust these kids either,” the doctor points at a fight breaking out in front of the market, “is that who you want next to you in a war?”

“They’re doing more than we are.”

Bird takes offense at that particular comment, the doctor can read it plainly on his face. He sighs, “I’m sorry you feel that way. Hey listen doctor, I need to be going, it was really good to see you alive, and Blanka, come talk to me before you do anything rash, will ya?”

“Don’t worry about me, Bird.”

Dr. Asshole watches Bird disappear into the crowd, stuffing the roach into his pocket. “So, which way you headed?” Blanka points towards Nurse Benadryl’s shack and the doctor picks up his crutches.

“Were you at the iCare too?”

The doctor shakes his head, “local woman found me, drugged me up, cleaned my leg and bandaged me.”

“You catch her name?”

“I caught her sponsorship, I don’t know her name, why do you ask?”

“A Nurse Benadryl patched me up at the iCare, dark hair, pretty eyes, voice soft like an angel. Haven’t been able to get her out of my head.”

Dr. Asshole insists Blanka “come by the shack with me, I’ve got something for you.”

Blanka agrees to go along, expecting a bag of weed, certainly hoping for one. He follows the doctor past the screen door and finds the nurse inside, legs crossed on the bed flipping through channels on the telestream viewer. She sees Blanka and jumps out of bed, ecstatic, and hugs him, considerate however, of his wounds, the doctor says nothing, feels strange, good for a moment. Nurse Benadryl pulls out plastic lawn chairs and asks the two to sit down at the small plastic table while she grabs dirty plastic cups and the best food she has, apples, crackers, and warm Coca-Cola, “none for me, thanks,” says the doctor.

“Are you feeling alright?” asks the nurse.

“I’m feeling great,” says the doctor with the confidence of a man who’s just made an important decision. “I need to be on my way though.”

“Where you going?”

“I need to get back to Tiffany’s City.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” says Blanka dryly, “we’re under quarantine.”

“You wouldn’t know it in the sewers.”

“What’s so important in Tiffany’s City?” asks the nurse.

“Loose ends to tie up, I also don’t want to be here when Bob gives the order for those kids to start shooting.”

“Hold on,” says the nurse and offers him a glass of water, she prepares a doggy bag for him and packs food and painkillers, liquor and weed. She wishes him well and Blanka offers his hand as he leaves the shack, sewer bound once more, one awkward step at a time. Blanka and the nurse finish the crackers and coke talking long into the night, soon forgetting about Dr. Asshole, Bob, and revolutions.

Death, by Monsanto

The neon light outside Absolut Nudes is off, still, collecting dust, the vagrants found usually around the club are gone, dead, or stoned or drunk somewhere far from the McArmor patrol routes. Vadym watches over a red velvet rope and little more, the blue sun burns the sky as it descends and the familiar smell of rain is in the air, threatening clouds loom in the night. He hears an awkward stepping down the street and barely recognizes Dr. Asshole limping forward on crutches, an unusually dirty face and torn clothes. “Doctor!” says the Russian, “come, come, Lexus in club, very worried,” the doctor doesn’t have the time to despise his cadence.

Inside, the club is empty, aside from the missing chandelier there are no girls on the stage, or at the bar, no cards being dealt, the ashtrays are clean, the telestream viewers are off, he sees the girls divided in small human and alien sororities throughout the club, passing time without a hint of concern. Lexus notices the doctor in spite of his derelict new style and doesn’t hesitate to take his hand, kiss him, and lead him to the back room again, she doesn’t mix a drink or sit on his lap though, she sits him down and asks “do you know how worried I’ve been about you? And what happened to your leg? Do I even want to know?”

“I just got shot is all, don’t worry about it.”

“Were you in the hospital?”

“No.”

“Why didn’t you call? I could’ve paid the iNsurance.”

“McArmor was looking for me.”

“Well don’t worry, I won’t ask,” she leans in, kisses him again and holds him. “We need to talk, something big is going to happen.”

“I was just about to tell you the same thing.”

“No, listen to me, two days ago some McArmor guys stopped by the club, they didn’t notice me taking my break in my car, I stayed low and watched them through the camera. One of them was talking about a rebel force in Disneyland and the other said they were going to wipe it off the map, then the other one said there was already a team organized inside Disneyland sabotaging them. They were worried about war.”

“I don’t think a war can be avoided now.”

“Wait doctor, it gets worse, I kept listening, after a few minutes another one showed up, he must’ve been the captain or something, and he was saying it would be stupid for McDonald’s to kill their workforce and customers, but that soon, thanks to Monsanto, the rebel problem would be taken care of once and for all.”

The doctor considers the information for a moment, “I have to warn my friends in Disneyland.”

“Doctor,” her eyes watering, “I’ve saved a lot of money and I know a pilot who can fly us to Vanilla Coke, we can get on a ship there and go somewhere else, just me and you. We can go tonight, I’m already packed, I’ve just been waiting for you, but once this war starts, I can’t stay.”

The doctor reads her worry like a book but doesn’t answer, instead he reaches out, clutches at her pale skin, pushes the hair out of her face, kisses her soft lips as she sits with him, mindful of the bandaged leg. She wonders if it’s the last time she’ll see him as he enters her, there’s no music in the club this time, no noise at all but her breathy whimpers and his mixed groans of pain and pleasure, there’s no time to let gravity gently slip away or find desire and love in every little object, there’s nothing at all but Lexus and the doctor, it’s no different than their other liaisons. His fingers run over her nipples reaching up to her neck, she can barely feel his heartbeat past her breasts as she leans into him, but it’s there, quick and steady, followed by a rush and she lets herself drop. He tells her he’ll be back before the war starts, but not to wait for him if he isn’t, he promises her everything she wants to hear before he hops out and leaves her still naked and alone, wondering if this is the last time she’ll feel him, but believing every word he said.

*

Nurse Benadryl, the benevolent, feels different today, happy to be back to work, but the white walls of the iCare seem less pearly, more clammy, even though most of the massacre victims are long gone, it still doesn’t quite feel like her usual shift. She reads the work order on her last customer of the day, serean burns, deep cuts, Cyrano should leave this one for Christian, she thinks as she finds him laying down, in pain, but smiling. “Let me guess,” begins the nurse, “you’re in love with a mermaid.”

“She’s beautiful, doc.”

“I’m not a doctor, and you’re certainly not the first human under a serean spell. Tell me, what is it about those mermaid girls?”

“She’s sweet as jam.”

Nurse Benadryl helps him to his side, pricks his ass with a needle, lays him back down. “Now I know I wouldn’t be the first to tell you to stay away from her, would I?” He shakes his head. “Well, just in case your paths should cross again,” she makes a few quick notes on his work order and hands him a few antidote vials.

“Oh I can’t afford this.”

“Don’t worry,” says the nurse, “Apple can.”

She leaves the room, the glowing halls are empty, hardly anything is happening in the hospital, so why does that feel like a bad thing? Dr. Pfizer calls to her from down the hall, “Benadryl, over here.” She follows after him. “Word came to Apple from McDonald’s, turns out, according to their investigation the actual purpose of the New Year’s Eve Massacre was to spread a disease, thankfully it doesn’t seem to have spread very far yet, but nobody wants to take any chances with this sort of thing, we’ve had some strange people in since the quarantine, there’s definitely something going around.”

“I don’t have a choice, do I?”

“Not if you want to keep your job, you don’t.”

The nurse follows the doctor to a staff room and gets in line with the rest of the hospital staff, after a few minutes she’s given a shot and sent on her way. She punches her timecard and heads for the subway tunnel, happy the painted, rusted cars are in service again, and soon arrives at Disneyland Station. The blockade outside the entrance has been lifted, there are still guards but she isn’t met with the barrel of a gun this time, she passes without hindrance and makes her way down the empty road, wondering where those revolutionaries might be, did they already give up and go back to the familiar comfort and perceived safety of Tiffany’s City?

She makes it home and finds Dr. Asshole inside slumped on the bed and lazily flipping through channels on the telestream viewer, Blanka paces around the shack, anxious, distraught, “you’re ok!” he says as she walks in.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Maybe you better sit down,” warns the doctor. “I got some information in Tiffany’s City, some McArmor guards were talking a few days ago, saying McDonald’s was working with Monsanto on something to take care of the Disneyland rebels once and for all. Now that’s pretty much all I know now, but I think it can mean two things, a chemical attack, or a biological one.”

“It’s biological,” says the nurse with sudden clarity, feeling her heart skip a beat as her dark face blushes, forehead starts to glisten with sweat. “I was given a shot at work today.” She sits down feeling weak, beat harder by the revelation of a corporate sponsored final solution than the virus itself.

“I think we might be able to help you,” says Blanka. “If Bob’s revolt succeeds, we’ll have access to the antidote, right? They must’ve made an antidote!”

“It, it doesn’t matter,” says the nurse. “It’s probably too late, you two might already have been around me long enough, I need to quarantine myself.”

“Don’t,” begs Blanka. “Don’t do this, look you’re still fine, it’s not too late.”

“I can’t risk infecting more people, you two need to leave, like right now.”

“I’m afraid she’s right, Blanka, right now we need to find Bob and warn him about what he’s marching into.”

A tear rolls slowly down Blanka’s cheek, he tries to hold Nurse Benadryl but she fights him, starts to cry as she shows him out and hangs the screen behind him and the doctor leads him away. She pulls the bandage off her arm, studies the innocent looking red prick with emotions she usually bottles up, betrayal and anger, so this is how wars are fought, she thinks and looks to the screen again, but Blanka and the doctor have disappeared.

Further down an empty-looking Main Street USA, the doctor asks “so how do we find Bob?”

“I know where Bob is.”

“Do you now?”

“Yeah,” admits Blanka. “I know where he is, I guess now’s the time to tell you I’ve been working with the rebels for months.”

“Months?”

“Yeah, months, look, if you or Bird don’t want to be part of it, fine, but this it’s happening whether we want it or not. I have to pick a side.”

“I suppose you do.”

“You know, doctor, I wonder, have you picked a side? You seem to have a lot of friends in Tiffany’s City.”

“That’s true, I do, but tell me this Blanka, have you ever considered that there are never just two sides to a war?”

III

the Revolution (Sponsored by Starbucks)

Bob Does Tiffany

An uncomfortable silence hangs over Disneyland, there’s nobody buying the produce at the Market, no smell of grass in the deserted streets, doors are locked, windows are shut, Main Street USA looks less like a scene from Beaver, reminded Dr. Asshole more of an old Romero flick he had seen once years ago. He and Blanka come out through an underground tunnel, propaganda posters on either side of the tunnel urged them to rise up and recent immigrants to do their part to take control of Tiffany’s City. The rebel’s center of operations is under the old It’s a Small World, After All ride, there Bob had raised his army, renounced his sponsorship, his slave name, and taken up a name he felt better represented his old-Earth ancestry and culture, had fed guns to eager Disneylanders and Tiffany’s City refugees hungry for change, there he had won his first victory, the Battle for Disneyland.

A rebel grunt lets them pass upon recognizing Blanka and they continue through the skeleton of wooden old-world machinery. The air underground is humid and heavy, tastes like dust and smoke, the doctor has to wipe his forehead, Blanka is used to it. The tunnel opens up to a concrete chamber with a high ceiling, torches burn, lanterns sit starved of oil on scratched up wooden desks and Bob looks up from a map, New Earth printed at the top and places marked the doctor and Blanka don’t know, New Washington, and what are nazis? ponders Blanka noticing the word under New Van. Bob’s hard face is dim in the firelight as he salutes one of his promising recruits, but who’s this with the cane and pretentious swagger?

“Blanka, very good to see you, though I must admit I’m surprised you’re here.”

“Surprised, Bob? Why?”

“I gave the order to move out an hour ago.”

“Then it’s too late,” says the doctor. “Can you call them back? You need to call them back if you want them to come back alive.”

“I’m afraid it’s out of the question.”

“They know you’re coming, they won’t fight you. They’re releasing something into Disneyland, some sort of chemical or biological weapon, they want to decimate the population.”

“Of course they have some sort of horrible plan to deal with us in some atrocious way, I expect no less from them. Now while I appreciate your concern, this is a matter of timing, with the quarantine lifted I saw our best chance to throw everything we had at them, no better opportunities were going to come about. Our options were attack or sit around and wait to die slow deaths.”

“Even if they live, there’s a good chance they’re going to bring something very deadly back with them.”

“I suppose we should hope we find the antidote then.”

“I suppose you should hope not to fail.”

“I don’t think I like your tone very much, but rest assured I have nothing but the utmost confidence in our numbers, it’s not just us out there anyway, I’ve accepted a sponsorship from Starbucks on behalf of Disneyland as you may have already heard, they provide guns for our troops and added security as they fight their way into the downtown core, and in return we let them build a few cafes in the park.”

“They’re not fighting for us,” cuts Blanka. “We’re being used.”

“Perhaps I’m using them as much as they’re using me. Do you really think they care who the King is? Does it make a difference to you if it says McDonald’s or Starbucks or Trojan Condoms on that big telestream viewer downtown? This war isn’t even the beginning, the war will begin long after I’ve crowned myself King of Coca-Cola, our real enemies aren’t on that battlefield, they’re in boardrooms and mansions deciding our futures and getting fat from our labor. I merely saw an opportunity to start a fight for my people, my family, and I took it.”

“And what about disease, famine?” asks the doctor. “What if you lose?”

“What if we lose? Most of us are out there fighting because we’d rather die on our feet than beaten down in chains, hungry, thirsty, and dirty. If it takes a sponsorship from Starbucks or Apple or even Coca-Cola to improve our chances of survival until the day we’re not slaves anymore, then that’s my decision to make.”

“Are you going to at least look for the antidote? Are you going to storm Monsanto?”

“No, they’re not on our radar at the moment, though I promise I’ll look into the situation.”

“What is on your radar? Isn’t it important the people you’re fighting for live?”

“Right now McArmor is my first priority, winning them to our side and eliminating those who pose a threat to the new world. Now, you two must excuse me as you’ve caught me at what some might call a bad fucking moment, and I do apologize but I have a train to catch. Feel free to grab a rifle and join the fighting on your way out.”

Two guards approach Blanka and the doctor, their shiny gun metal out of place under torn, dirty shirts. “This way,” orders the taller of the two and they lead them back to the tunnel.

The doctor starts to laugh as they start through the darkness again. “What the fuck’s so funny?” asks Blanka.

“I can tell you right now how this is all going to end.”

“I’m starting to see where this is all headed.”

“You can’t see a damn thing, Blanka, and it’s not just because it’s dark in this tunnel. You know how this is going to end? McDonald’s isn’t going to fight a war, they’re not here for ideological reasons, they’re not about to help or support anything but their own bottom line, and let me tell you brother, wars are expensive, and unless you’re selling guns it’s not good for business. Think about that for a minute, you think there’s anything compelling them to stay?”

“You really think they’d just abandon everything they have here? Just like that?”

“I wonder if in another time, there was another idiot like me and some other disillusioned teenager like you walking through this same tunnel, having the same conversation, wondering if Disney would just abandon the planet, just like that.”

“There’s an interesting thought,” says Blanka, and doesn’t speak again until after they leave the tunnels and arrive again at Nurse Benadryl’s shack. Dark clouds are gathering above, the sound of raindrops is loud on the tin roof, picking up as they take shelter inside, then it’s quiet, Nurse Benadryl lays on the bed, still, mouth open, skin paling, Dr. Asshole steps outside and lights a cigarette, Blanka sits on the bed next to her, pulls the blanket over her head and sobs. He exits the shack a few minutes later, the doctor hands him a smoke.

“I need to get to Tiffany’s City, I’m leaving Coca-Cola.”

“What you got a flight booked or something?”

“Yeah, something like that, listen kid, why don’t you come with me?”

Blanka pulls on the cigarette, “and what?”

“And anything you want. To hell with your wannabe king and his Starbucks revolution, what’s left for you here?”

“What if he’s right though? What if he can do some good for Disneyland? For all these people here?”

“I’m gonna tell you some harsh truths about the world – these people don’t need a king, they don’t need Starbucks anymore than they need McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. Bob can revolt his ass off and it won’t ever make any difference, you know why? They don’t understand what they’re revolting against, they don’t understand how the system works, they don’t know a fucking thing about economics, or politics, or running a government, shit most of ‘em can barely read and do basic math. You know what upsets these people? When the store runs out of Coca-Cola, when the telestream feed lags, when the train is delayed – you wanna try explaining to thousands of people like the true cost of a $1 cheeseburger? You think they care? Democracy doesn’t work in mental institutions, Blanka. Look kid, I’m not saying they’re bad people, they’re good people, they’re such fucking good people, but that doesn’t change the current situation here.” The doctor sucks the last bit of life from his cigarette and tosses the butt. “These people need books and education, not guns, they need to understand what’s wrong with the system before they attack it, they…” he sighs, feeling defeated already.

“Alright.”

“Alright?”

“Let’s go.”

The doctor leads Blanka, wondering to himself if he understood what he had said. Could he even? Did he just see him as another authority to follow? The park felt dead as they left, the second fence outside was abandoned and largely unfinished, there were no signs of life around them. They heard gunshots from inside Tiffany’s City, an explosion echoed through empty streets, but Blanka thought only of Nurse Benadryl, the way he had looked down at her, lifeless, as she had surely once looked down at him, and envied her gift for medicine, the compassion that was unique to her and her alone, the doctor meanwhile only hoped Lexus was still waiting. They pressed on.

*

Some miles into the city, Bird carries a heavy assault rifle like a club down the Rolex District, Bob had given him command of six teenagers after he had reluctantly agreed to join the effort, realizing he could benefit from a friend or two in high places once the dust had settled, but they had all gotten separated after a skirmish with some McArmor guards. The midday sun beats hard and unforgiving, the glass skyscrapers and steel skeletons drive the temperature still further up, soon he passes into a suburb district, the houses on either side look abandoned, he’s unsure if they fled afraid of the fighting or to aid Bob’s cause and decides to keep a low profile anyway.

He finds a house with the door open and hearing nothing inside, lets himself in. He’s surprised to see how the middle-class lives, the people he thought so different have the same bottles of Coca-Cola in the fridge, the same McDonald’s wrappers in the trash, the same telestream viewer, the same La-Z-Boy. It has its own smell, cleaner maybe? but he can’t find much else different, he starts to wonder what he harbors against the people that live here he had so long perceived as nothing but a buffer class, the golden child of the elite – did they really believe the news media without a further thought? Did they really have an undying faith in the system?

There’s a rustling sound upstairs, he turns and sees a teenage boy and girl who make no effort to hide themselves, they descend the stairs and beg him “please don’t rob us, the McArmor people already took everything.”

“No, no,” says Bird. “I’m not here to rob you, where are your parents?”

They shrug together, the boy says “we don’t have a dad, our mom said to wait until she came back.”

“Well why don’t I stay with you until then? Is that alright with you?” The boy and girl nod together, move closer to Bird, he notices their clothes are torn, ragged, shoes worn from overuse, not unlike his own, “how long have you had those shoes?”

“They used to be my brother’s before he left for Disneyland,” he looks down at Bird’s shoes, much the same as his. “What about you?”

“I’ve had these for a long time, too.”

He finds the kitchen cabinets mostly empty, the electricity cut, as night comes on he starts a fire in the fireplace, keeps fresh logs on it as humidity turns to chill. It starts to become apparent late into the night that the kids’ mother won’t be back, it’s too dangerous to travel the streets at night, so he decides to stay.

“So why did your brother go to Disneyland?”

“He hates how we live,” says the boy.

“Why not speak out about it? Try to climb the company ladder?

“You’re not from this planet, are you? People who speak out against the big companies disappear, and people like us don’t ever get promoted, promotions are for friends and family of the owners.”

Bird listens to the boy, plays with the rifle in his hand, starting to question what he’s doing in Tiffany’s City, what had he hoped to gain? What was the point of being here? He thought these kids weren’t very stupid, after all, they seemed to understand better than even Blanka that the machine that holds them down cannot be defeated, not with an army, politics, an olive branch or a bayonet. They ate the same crumbs he did from the same table, they kept their mouths shut and held tightly the crumbs they were given, they adapted. “I think I might stay tomorrow, too, maybe go look for some food for us,” he says, unloads the rifle and puts it down. “If you don’t mind that, of course.”

The kids have been wondering when their mother would return, if she would return, but are happy to hear Bird will be around a little longer. The girl says “we don’t mind, if you wanted to kill us, you would’ve done it by now.”

“Why do you think I’d want to kill you?”

“Isn’t that what armies do?”

“Some, yeah, but I’m not with McArmor, I’m…” who was he with? Bob? Starbucks? Bird didn’t know anymore.

“What difference does it make who you’re with? If they tell you to kill, you have to kill, right?”

*

Every rushed step Dr. Asshole takes sends a pain rushing through his leg, he and Blanka sprint down the airstrip, a small cargo ship is parked in a small hangar surrounded by barbed-wire fence, Lexus stands waiting outside, her summer dress dancing to the same tune as her hair. She sees the doctor gimping and runs to him, “doctor!” she says, arms wrapping around him holding him close, kisses him. “I was afraid you weren’t going to make it.”

“There was some fighting not far from here, everybody’s heading towards the McDonald’s headquarters. What about you? Is everything ready?”

“I’ve been ready all my life, doctor.”

“Well let’s go.”

A man in a grey suit emerges from the ship, “that’s him,” says Lexus. “Jawn, this is Dr. Asshole.”

“A pleasure,” says Jawn, holding out a hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you, there are a lot of jealous men whenever this one says your name.”

“Oh?” laughs the doctor, wrapping an arm around Lexus.

“Now, you won’t exactly be riding shotgun, I hope that wasn’t your understanding.”

“I’ll put on a dress and lipstick if that’s what it takes, let’s just get the hell out of here.”

Jawn laughs, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and two more men appear from the back of the ship, Jawn points at them. “The Vanilla Coke port authority boys have already been bribed and they’re expecting us, but you’ll have to hide in storage boxes until they clear us for entry, they have to at least pretend like they didn’t notice anything unusual.”

Blanka sighs, Lexus and the doctor hop inside without a word and try to find a comfortable position in the small, carbon boxes. Jawn and his crew snap the lids on the boxes, “it’s about a three hour trip to Vanilla Coke, so sit tight and think happy thoughts and we’ll be there before you know it.”

The back door shuts and it’s silent, dark, the ship starts to rumble and ascend and soon they’re weightless inside the boxes. The doctor hears Blanka’s muffled voice, “hey doctor?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve always wanted to ask, I’ve never heard of the Asshole company, is that like a medicine company or something?”

“Actually, I don’t technically have a sponsorship, anymore.”

“So why is your name Asshole?”

“Well, if you have your practicing license revoked, a company will pass a judgment on you and give you a new name, mine was Asshole. I can still work without a sponsorship, but I have to use their name or else bad things start to happen.”

“Oh, so what’s your old name then?”

“Well before that I had a sponsorship with a company named Bayer.”

“I meant your real name.”

“Oh…” the ship quietly rockets through cold, empty space. “I don’t know.”

the King of Coca-Cola

His heavy boots echo in the long hallway at the top of the McDonald’s headquarters building, decorated with portraits of men with white hair and exotic plants he’d never seen from far away worlds, two Starbucks security guards follow close behind him, guns ready at their hips. Bob pushes through the president’s office and finds it empty, the two guards take positions by the tall, frosted glass doors. The sleek, cherry wood desk is empty, the shelves and filing cabinets just skeletons, a McDonald’s screensaver plays on the computer screen, McDonald’s is Happiness and Love. Bob steps to the window and looks below, he hears a loud mechanical whirring coming from somewhere above, his army has secured downtown, his men and Starbucks security are pouring into the building. The guards open the door behind him and a throng of men in dark tailored suits barge into the office offering sponsorship deals and assistance from all the businesses on Coca-Cola who’d like to hold on to their preferred status with the King.

Starbucks security guards keep pouring in and seize McArmor guns and speeders well into the night, lunchrooms start to fill with troops and smell like food again, shouts turn to laughs, more men in suits are waiting for him, making appointments, drawing up contracts, leaving business cards and complimenting each other ‘it even has a watermark!’ The men talk about fallen friends and rumors start to go around, ‘I heard Bob is already selling off all the McDonald’s land to different companies. Isn’t that great?’ and ‘Yeah? Well I heard Bob was actually working for Starbucks the whole time!’ That night, Bob stands in the board room wearing a really nifty new suit, a tailored grey Louis Vuitton, “and don’t you forget your new friends,” winked the old man who delivered it. He checked the time on his new Rolex, another gift, his revolutionary garbs had been incinerated, the guns of his revolution reclaimed by Starbucks, many of his own men had started filling up Tiffany’s City Transit trains and heading home in a parade, he was soon left with Starbucks men he had never met, and though he held more power and influence now than ever before, he had never felt so powerless.

The next morning, he watches the sun rising over Tiffany’s City from the board room, the city is still, so far below him. The tall doors are kicked in, Bird is escorted in by Starbucks guards, he doesn’t fight them. They leave him by the giant, round table and exit the room without a word. “I’m sorry about that,” says Bob, helping him up.

“It’s fine, you could’ve called.”

“Starbucks is insisting I get used to commanding their security.”

“Alright, well why did you bring me here? I’m not interested in politics or kissing anybody’s ass.”

“They didn’t leave much when they left, I thought you’d like to know I found a few important looking documents,” he drops a file on the table. “Did you know McDonald’s has been spying on you for almost a year?”

“A year?” Bird opens the file, he reads notes on himself, on Blanka, finds photographs of him stealing a McDonald’s cargo ship. “They must have cameras on the ships, in the docks, too.”

“That doesn’t explain everything that’s there, keep looking.”

Bird keeps flipping through the papers in the file, more photographs, aerial shots of Disneyland, his shack by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, a copy of Blanka’s hospital bill, more notes on Dr. Asshole, Nurse Benadryl. “They could’ve taken me out any time they felt like it, but-”

“Why didn’t they? Yes, that’s a good question, you know I’ve been thinking about it all night. There’s a file on Blanka, too, if you’re interested, not much on that gimp doctor friend of your’s, though. The more I thought about it, the more it confused me, then it came to me all at once with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, I think I’ve realized the same thing they seem to have realized ages ago. You know what that is, Bird? You provide an invaluable service to the community, to the company and the city – did you know that? Because of you, McDonald’s gets to have it any way they like, they profit from having all the reason they need to sell more McArmor as you were always a constant threat to innocent cargo ships and independent businessmen, that kept the people of Tiffany’s City thinking Disneyland was the enemy, nothing but thieves and terrorists, they didn’t need any sort of marketing campaign to prove it, you did all the work for them. But there had to be more to it, I had to really think about it, it’s so much more than selling security services, it’s about keeping a system intact, protecting the status-quo of Coca-Cola. Think about it, they can’t just hand out charity to the poor and destitute and risk fostering a dependance or a jealous reaction from the middle class of Tiffany’s City, but if they let you get away with a cargo ship every once in a while, well Disneyland stays just above the breaking point, Tiffany’s City stays in constant fear of the Disneyland boogeyman, and everybody’s eating McDonald’s. It’s brilliant isn’t it? I stand here in awe with admiration.”

Bird slumps into the chair, it seems to make sense. “You brought me here to tell me you admire McDonald’s?”

“You know those old machines in Disneyland? How every once in a while someone seems to get one working for a bit, but it never really works for very long? They always break again, don’t they? Meanwhile the turnstiles, the pipes, the things we never touched, they never seem to have any issues. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Disneyland, it’s if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and what I’ve found here is a system that ain’t broke. It looks broken, it looks like it won’t last, but you just can’t argue with the last five hundred or so years of history. I want to make things better for Disneyland, don’t think I don’t, I just want you to understand that the revolution is only just the beginning, our contraband will be books, our disobedience will be ignoring the sponsored media. We have an obligation to our people to share with them the secrets of this system as I’m sharing it with you now, and that’s going to be a very slow and very painful process.”

“So what do you want from me?”

“So glad you asked, Bird, first I want you to take some time off, then I want you to find Blanka and get back to work. Right now what I need is for things to look as if it’s business as usual while I work out some ideas on how to proceed, there’s a lot to be done, a lot of unwilling people to bring along, probably kicking and screaming and fighting us, a very thick foundation to start slowly chipping away at.”

“You know Bob, I owe you an apology, I really had you figured all wrong. I tagged along with your revolution for selfish reasons believing you were doing the same, and I’m sorry. I didn’t take you for a revolutionary-”

“Please, I barely took myself for a revolutionary, I’ve been questioning my own arrangements with Starbucks all the way, but we’ve made it here, we’re standing on the edge of a new world, about to take the first steps into the unknown, those people down there won’t even realize, won’t be thankful or grateful. I had considered, briefly, after a conversation with some Sony guys, taking up their offer to put a telestream viewer in every home in Disneyland, I could be their saviour, but I have to keep giving them the same meager rations, schools that don’t teach them shit – they’re going to hate me, Bird, I’ve realized this. But there’s just no way to help these people without them fighting me.”

“Can you honestly tell me all of your reasons are honorable?”

“Bird, our future is more important than the selfish wants of a select few, happiness shouldn’t come down to owning a telestream viewer, or a Playstation, or a Rolex, or an iCar. Humanity is the laughing stock of the universe, don’t you think we’re better than that? Well, I should be asking, can you share my optimism that one day we might be better than that? Imagine a future where we pour our creativity, our knowledge and ingenuity into more than commercial jingles and destructive weapons. Just imagine us learning the secrets of the universe instead of plundering it. You know Bird, I look down at these people and I feel like a new man, like I’ve been given something really special by accident.”

Bird stood up and walked over to the window beside Bob, for the first time in his life he could see past the ads, road tolls, monument buildings and see Tiffany’s City clearly.

“It’s no so ugly as I once thought, we humans built this shithole of a planet after all, just imagine if we worked for the benefit of all of us.”

Gehenna

Fallen Leaves

An unsteady static filled the shack, Andrew played with the dials on the stolen receiver, listening for a sign of life, a state announcement, anything but German voices, but hearing only the static like so many days turned his attention instead to his cat Beethoven laying on the edge of the wood bench, who preferred the calm static to the erratic chaos of the record player. Andrew held out a hand and the cat bobbed its head under, he sighed in relief, no news was always better than bad news. Outside the shack, a chill air was draped over St. Julien by the approaching grey sky, a mild summer surrendered to a cold autumn, the colorful leaves hung dry and browned and gave with the slightest gust of wind.

Andrew pulled his motobecane out of the shack, locked the door behind him, and headed towards Rossey. The calm river St. Jansbeek ran along the narrow road, it carried stray shrubs and fallen leaves in its shallow stream, on the other side, a field of winter barley swayed with the wind. He watched the water as it rippled over sharp crags and swallowed the wind’s offerings, then he noticed something unusual caught on some rocks. The bike dropped as he hopped off and ran towards it, the figure of a woman became clear, he swam over in a panic, cradled the body in his arms and carried it to the shore.

The woman’s body was young, or had been, twenty-something by Andrew’s best guess, it appeared she had drowned, but the details didn’t agree, her throat offered no signs of asphyxiation, she had no marks or bruises to indicate a fall or a struggle. He sighed as he held her head up, his police pedigree taught him to study her as a whole so he looked her over, she had thick auburn hair, her pale skin had turned a sickly mix of yellow and green, she had well-kept nails and fat fingers, smooth hands, pierced ears but no jewelry, she didn’t match the torn, ragged clothes she had on, she was no farmer’s daughter – that little he knew.

The silence was disturbed then by a bicycle approaching down the road, Andrew turned and recognized Albert immediately, St. Julien’s oldest resident. Albert slowed as he approached and stopped by Andrew, almost falling off his bike as he saw the girl in his arms.

“My god,” sighed Albert.

“I found her in the river, just a few minutes ago.”

“That’s Georgette Lantier!”

“Lantier,” thought Andrew. “They’re not a rich family.”

“No, her father Vincent was a stonemason,” Albert added.

“I remember now, her mother stopped by the station, maybe two months ago, everybody thought she had run away from home. So many young women have run away-”

“It’s the war,” interrupted Albert. “You and I might be taken prisoner if the Germans invade, well, you might, I wouldn’t be any use to them. A girl like Georgette though…” Albert sighed. “They don’t want to be here when they attack.”

“These are uncertain times,” added Andrew. “I’d like to take her to my house for now, I’ll have a carriage take her to the morgue in Rossey from there. Would you mind watching her for a few minutes while I fetch my wagon?”

Albert only shook his head, running his fingers through Georgette’s damp hair. Andrew returned a short while later, a long wagon trailed behind his bike. They loaded Georgette onto the wagon and covered her with a sheet, Andrew had brought the one with a floral pattern for her. They didn’t speak on the trip back, the bicycles creaked and the river flowed, further beyond the barley fields a fog advanced, a light rain began to fall.

*

Grey sky hung over the Rossey market street, it had been drab for months, the vendors forced smiles upon worried faces, their customers found themselves with less good news as the threat of invasion became more real, the gossip on everyone’s lips was about Rossey’s resident senator and his mistress, Rossey’s ruined reputation with the neighboring towns. Albert strolled down the street eyeing the market goods, old wooden stands stood on either side, their paint peeling, advertised farm goods. The air on the market street was warmer and delicious, it smelled of fresh baked bread and butter croissants, dried meat, herbs, and harvest vegetables. He stopped at Yolande’s stand as he did on most days and picked up some eggs and milk.

“How are you Albert?” asked the old, buxom widow.

“Not very good,” he answered quietly, Yolande noticed a difference in him.

“What’s gotten into you?”

“You know the Lantiers? An officer found their daughter today in the St. Jansbeek, I happened upon the scene on my ride into town this morning. It seems she drowned in the river.”

“That’s terrible, Odette and Vincent will be devastated.”

“I’m sure of it,” Albert stopped, put the milk bottle away in his canvas bag and continued, “I should be going.”

“Will you be alright? Would you like me to stop by later?”

Albert thought for a moment and said “I would like that very much Yolande.”

She walked around the stand and held him in her thick arms, “I’ll stop by after market.”

Albert picked up his bike and rode to Rossey’s main street, he stopped outside the Rooster and Fox restaurant. A bell rang on the door as he stepped inside, a few scattered people were breaking fast, nobody looked up. Charles sat behind the counter with a book, finally noticing him he held a hand out and greeted him, “Albert! My friend, how are you? Louis and I have something very special for you today, we think you will like it very much! Come, come!”

Charles and Louis had bought the restaurant at a steal from the city of Rossey after its original owner had abandoned it and fled the town a year ago, it had originally been named the Rooster’s. They spent months secretly digging out a basement by cover of night and reinforcing it with stone, anticipating the war and the rationing and prohibition that always accompanies it, they stocked up on alcohol and tobacco through connections back home in France, and now operated Rossey’s only thriving business, the black market.

Albert followed Charles to the back room, through a trap door and down the stairs to the hidden basement. Louis looked up from his desk as they entered and stood up to shake hands with Albert, he knew his customers, he knew Albert enjoyed the small pleasantries.

“Albert, you old devil, how are you?”

“Not so bad, Louis. To be honest I’m a little excited, Charles told me you have something special today.”

“Something very special!” said Louis, unlocking a drawer in his desk and pulling out a bottle. “A rare cognac from France, well aged, let us have a sip,” he offered, taking out a second bottle and pouring three glasses. “We brought in a few for ourselves, but we wanted to share a toast with our favorite customer.”

Albert held up the glass and swirled it, the aroma was a subtle vanilla and hinted at spice and nuts, he sipped it finally, letting his tongue swim in it, it was the best drink he had had in years. “Magnifique,” he complimented, “I’ll take it, with the rest of my usual.”

Charles and Louis smiled as they gathered his tobacco and brandywine and boxed them alongside the cognac bottle. Albert paid them an extra tip and walked out the back door of the restaurant through the alley back to his bike and set off for St. Julien, thinking Yolande should be happily surprised at the cognac later.

*

Genevieve’s makeup ran, she held her husband’s letters in her hands, all of them addressed with love, with longing and lust to Elise, the high ceiling echoed her sobs to no one. She stood up, her heart raced, adrenaline seized her body as rationality abandoned her like so much else, a deep, sharp pain gave way to anger as she paced down the long hallway to the main hall, she found Jules sitting opposite the stone fireplace, sipping wine and smoking a cigar. Without a thought or a word, she dropped the letters onto his lap, stone-faced, a feeling she couldn’t name held her composure for the moment. Jules was unmoved, he flipped through the letters and puffed his smoke, looking up at Genevieve without a hint of remorse or sorrow, the kindling of the fire popping felt deafening.

“How could you do this to me?” she finally said, raising the temperature a degree. “Look at me!”

Jules put down the glass and stood up, turning his attention away from her, her eyes now glassy and tearing up.

“Talk to me!” shrieked Genevieve, her voice cracking. Her weak heart pounded against her small chest, her hands shook, her legs weakened. Jules turned with his arm out suddenly and slapped her, the force threw her forward onto the floor. Sobbing, she crawled away, seeing only hell reflected in the fire in his eyes, the room fell silent again, save for her cries.

“What do you want me to say, Genevieve?” scolded Jules. “Hmm? When was the last time we made love, my dear wife? When was the last time you cooked a meal? Where is the son you never produced?” His huge body towered over her, she cowered against a wall.

“You’re drunk!” Jules didn’t answer her, turning away instead as she picked herself up. “Keep your whore you bastard,” she muttered at last as she reached for the door, she felt the weight of his hand on her shoulder and his fingers dig into her, he turned her around and slapped her again.

“Look at you!” he shouted.

“Look at me!” she echoed. “You fucked me up! Just kill me now! Do it tonight, I don’t care, I can’t take this Jules! Just fucking kill me before I kill you!”

“Kill me?” laughed Jules, lurching towards her. Genevieve shrieked again as he picked her up with a firm grip on her neck.

“Do it,” she begged, her emotionless eyes watching him. Jules let her go, she fell to the floor, he turned again. Genevieve acted only on adrenaline now, without thinking she ran for him and wrapped her skinny arms around his neck as tight as she could, he punched back and missed, he then ran backwards, slamming her into the wall. As Genevieve fell and struggled to breathe, cold thoughts raced through her head, she considered the letter opener on the desk behind them, the wine glass, his weak balls, the gun in the drawer on the stand at the other end of the room. She ran for the desk, but felt his hand again, pulling her back, the letter opener laying just out of reach.

“Where are you going, my love?” Jules taunted, spinning her again. She struck him between the legs with all the strength she could muster into her knee, as he dropped and clutched at himself she ran for the desk and grabbed the letter opener. Jules writhed on the ground as she approached with the blade, Genevieve dropped and struck it deep into his back, as she withdrew it a cloud of red stained his white linen shirt. Jules turned over with a deep scream as Genevieve lifted the blade again and caught her arms before she could bring the blade down again, she kneed him instead and managed to free herself.

“Come back here you bitch!” called Jules as Genevieve darted for the door, dropped the letter opener and ran.

*

Odette watched from a partially drawn curtain as Andrew parked his bike by the front steps to the old, dilapidated house. The rustling of leaves under his feet announced him as he approached and knocked on the door. Surrounded by the quiet forest, he looked around, the sky was still grey, the sun still hidden, it should be about midday, he guessed as a breeze rang through the spokes on the bicycle wheels. The door opened slowly, Odette let him in, her flushed cheeks and glassy eyes seem to suggest she already knew why he had stopped by.

“Is Vincent home as well? I’m afraid I need to share something with both of you.”

“Vincent?” called Odette as she walked over to the living room. “There’s an officer here to talk to us.”

Vincent followed his wife to the kitchen and sat down opposite Andrew as she put a pot of water to boil then sat down.

“We found Georgette’s body today,” began Andrew. “It would seem she drowned in the river, but we cannot confirm this yet. I’m very sorry, I can’t imagine your grief.”

A tear rolled down Odette’s plump cheek, Vincent swallowed hard and took his wife’s hand, bringing her closer, she let go and held her face instead. Odette sobbed as Vincent tried to console her but was rejected every time, a tear slipped past his eyes then, the teapot whistled, Andrew moved it off the burner and sat back down.

“I have some questions about Georgette, but I can come back at another time if you’d like.”

“Thank you, officer,” said Vincent. “But that won’t be necessary, I’ll answer your questions, if it helps.”

“I’m sorry,” sobbed Odette.

“Please, there’s no need,” answered Andrew, pulling a pad and pencil from his satchel. “Was there anything out of the ordinary with Georgette before the disappearance? Anything out of place or unusual? A new friend, a strange behaviour, anything.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary,” said Vincent. “When she disappeared, we were questioned, I’m sure our memory was less foggy then.”

“Absolutely. I was hoping only something had maybe dodged your memory.”

“I’m sorry officer,” shrugged Vincent. “She was like any other young woman, she enjoyed going to market and reading books, she made friends easily, we gave her the best we could afford and hoped one day she might find a good young man.”

“Of course,” sighed Andrew.

“Her best friend was Aline, Claude’s young wife, perhaps she may be of some help, but I’m afraid we have nothing new to offer you.”

Andrew snapped the notepad shut and glanced around the kitchen, Odette wiped her tears and stood up to prepare the tea.

“Thank you,” smiled Andrew, accepting the English black. “Have you changed her room at all? May I see it?”

“It’s as she left it,” said Odette, who had hoped to one day find her inside it again. “Please, it’s just upstairs, follow me.”

Andrew followed Odette, old steps creaked as they ascended, Odette opened a door down the hall and said “I’ll be downstairs.”

“Thank you,” replied Andrew.

Georgette’s bed was neatly made, warm blankets waited for her while Odette and Vincent shivered below. A naked tree gently rapped the foggy glass window, Andrew sighed and sat on the bed. A dresser and vanity sat clean and empty, Vincent’s handiwork he guessed, a few scattered books on the nightstand collected dust, Alain-Fournier, Rostand, and Leroux, a candle to read by she had clearly used often, the box of matches sat by the candle. He stood up and looked in the closet, a shoebox sat under her thick coats, inside it some porcelain dolls, handwritten notes, and sepia-toned photographs, he fingered through the coats and felt something hard in one of the pockets, pulling it out he saw a locked diary, he took a quick look at the door and stuffed it into his satchel.

Andrew descended the stairs and found Odette and Vincent still in the kitchen, silent, the tea untouched. “Thank you both very much for your time, if there is anything we can do for you, anything, oil, blankets, we’re here to help.”

“Thank you,” said Vincent. “Truly, but none of that will be necessary.”

It was less bright outside, the clouds thicker, the air colder. Andrew picked up his bike again, looking back he felt the sadness in the old house, and sped away. He could hear the empty branches rapping at the windows until he was back on St. Julien’s only main street, as it fell silent again he thought of the static on the radio, and hoped only to hear it again the next morning, if only for Beethoven’s sake.

First Snow

The Church of Our Lady was built in the 15th century by the Romans, torn down hastily by fleeing Dutch soldiers in the 18th, and finally restored by Rossey locals in the early 19th. A mural of the Madonna and child had been commissioned by the town, but remained unfinished after the local artist, Jean Belrou, died unexpectedly of a heart attack inside its stone walls. The artist was buried in the crypt alongside Roman soldiers and holy men. The building stood solid near the town centre, the street parallel to it hosted the town hall and led to the market, the courthouse stood opposite the church on the intersection that divided God’s justice from Man’s.

Deep below the church, through hidden passageways lit dimly by torches, past the bones and cobwebs that littered either side of the walk, Augustine worked in his makeshift laboratory. Rotting cadavers lay in a gruesome pile of arms and legs, cut up corpses rotted on an antique bench, behind him fresh bodies lay on stretchers, a fierce stench of death filled the room. Augustine muttered something to himself, muffled through the cannister of the gas mask, then slowly pried open the mouth of one of the corpses and released a foggy gas onto it, watching carefully through smudged goggles. After a moment he turned it over and sheared through the back, his gloved fingers pushed carefully through the muscle, pushing aside the spine as cold, thick blood seeped slowly from the incision. He removed a lung slowly and examined it on another table, holding a candle over it, his face turned to anger beneath the mask, he slammed a fist on the table, knocking over beakers and medical instruments, then turned and left the room.

Augustine emerged surrounded by trees and silence, the property of the church ran for half a mile into the forest. He unbuckled the gas mask and fell to his knees, drawing a breath of cool, fresh air, “thank you, Lord,” he coughed. He removed the bloody apron and tossed it aside, looking up again at the solid grey sky, the sun bled faintly through the thick clouds, “forgive me Lord, I have failed again. Please. Please give me the strength to save this town.” He kneeled and held his rosary between his hands, and said a prayer.

*

Andrew’s motobecane cut through stiff mud, a cold air bit at his naked hands as he approached a small apartment on Rossey’s main street. He parked the bike and found Claude’s family name on the mailboxes, apartment 4, then headed up the dark, narrow stairway. Aline twisted a grinder of coffee beans in the kitchen, Claude held a French newspaper at the table when they heard the knock on the door. Claude sighed and walked to the entryway, Andrew stood outside, without a word Claude stepped aside and made way for him, greeting him, “please officer, you’re just in time for coffee.”

“Thank you,” said Andrew, hanging his coat on the rack, and following Claude into the kitchen.

“I know why you’re here,” Aline said as the men entered the kitchen and sat down. “I already told the police everything I know when she disappeared.”

“Yes I’ve read the report,” answered Andrew, curtly, an aroma of coffee began to fill the room. “I’ve also read Georgette’s diary, I’m actually here to talk to your husband.” Aline turned away and focused on the coffee pot as Claude put down the paper again and stared out the window. “I’ll get right to the point, I want to know the nature of your relationship with Georgette.”

“She loved him,” interrupted Aline.

“Apologies Aline, I was asking your husband.”

“Like she said, officer. Georgette and Aline worked together at the cafe on the main street, or at least they used to before it closed down, they were close friends, I met her many times. She knew I was a married man, yet she made advances on me, she started to follow me home some nights, I didn’t want to tell Aline, to spare her feelings, you understand? This went on for about a month until Aline found out, there was a fight, and Georgette disappeared soon after.”

“Officer,” began Aline, serving two cups of coffee. “You must understand, as I’m sure you read in your report, it was no secret Georgette had been talking about leaving Rossey for years, she dreamt of Paris and Moscow, when the war began, like all of us, she was afraid, she thought she could convince my husband to leave with her, but she ended up leaving by herself. Until I heard the news this week, I had been happy for her, I forgave her, I told myself she had made it to Paris,” Aline stopped, her eyes reddened and watered, “that we might meet again there some day.”

“Perhaps, officer, you should be investigating the fog outside Rossey,” suggested Claude. “She suffocated, did she not? That’s the word at market, Albert says he was there.”

“There’s nothing unusual about fog.”

“It’s the Germans,” said Aline, wiping a tear.

“It’s been about a month, some nights its less dense, almost misty, it forms a wall and blocks the forests, always the next day everything it touched is dead, birds, deer, even the grass. Just the other day the old farmer Leonard lost a dog after it chased a rabbit into the forest, I heard he had to shoot it out of mercy.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said Andrew, sipping the coffee.

“You should see it for yourself,” replied Claude.

“Perhaps I should instead be calling the town to arms,” pondered Andrew.

“This town stands no chance against a German invasion.”

Andrew quietly finished his coffee and thanked Claude and Aline “very much. Now I must head back to the station immediately.”

“Good luck officer,” offered Claude, walking him to the entryway and handing him his coat. “Most of us are preparing to save ourselves, perhaps you should be too.” Andrew’s footsteps faded as he descended, Claude shut the door behind him and sat down at the kitchen table again.

“Do you really think the Germans can overwhelm us so easily?”

“Aline, dear, have you heard about Jules and his wife, Genevieve?” Aline shook her head. “I heard from a cop at the market, she was reported missing two days ago. The way he tells it, she apparently found his dirty letters to his mistress and, in a fit of jealousy, drove a knife into his back while he drank wine by the fireplace.”

“How terrible,” sighed Aline.

“That’s not even the half of it. The police searched his property, looking for clues, according to this cop they found a few things, German documents, a passport in his name, papers for a woman named Elise, nothing on Genevieve however, as if she had never existed.”

“Do you think he has been cooperating with the Germans?”

“I’ve no doubt that’s exactly what the fat, selfish bastard was doing.”

“What are we going to do?”

“It’s already taken care of, I meant to tell you this evening anyway. I have a friend with French connections in Marrakech, he will help us get into Morocco, we will wait out the war there.” Claude pulled a paper out of his jacket pocket and unfolded a map of Europe on the table, it was covered in notes. “Fortunately, the only difficult part will be reaching Brussels,” he pointed at the map. “We will have to travel by horse, but I’ve already purchased a fine Percheron, he is old, skinny, and won’t travel very fast, but he will make to Brussels. From there, we will take a train to Paris, we can visit the Louvre before we keep moving south, and cross into Spain here, Irun. My friend will be waiting for us in Madrid, he will have new documents ready for us, we will travel to Gibraltar together and cross into Morocco by barge, he will take us as far as Casablanca.”

Aline teared up again, torn between happiness and grief, “do you think we will ever come home again?”

Claude took Aline’s hand, “home is with you, Aline.”

*

Louis was crouched, his hands hovered over some wood planks, feeling for air, he stood up and looked for cracks then, but the fresh hardwood blended perfectly, as if no basement had ever existed beneath the restaurant. He struck a match and lit his cigarette, drawing the smoke he took a final look at the empty restaurant before leaving, locking the iron bolt behind him. A cold air whipped at his face, it was still dark, a cloudy sky blocked the stars, his cigarette glowed a faint red as it burned leaves to ashes. He paced slowly around the building, taking his time, the dirt beneath him stiff to his worn, thin shoes, he held a hand out to the cold, rough bricks as he strolled and looking up, he saw the first snow, a solitary snowflake gently fell to the frosty earth. He looked up and saw winter fast approaching, he flicked his cigarette, it slowly disappeared under the fresh snow.

“Charles!” called Louis, emerging onto the main street.

Charles sat quietly, mounted on a horse burdened with leftover contraband, enough to buy their way back into France. “I see it, my love,” he said with a smile.

Louis mounted the other horse and together they began a slow trot west towards Brussels. A few miles outside of Rossey, as the sun rose behind them, they kicked their horses to a gallop and disappeared into the fading night.

*

As he did most nights, Jules found himself in a solitary meditation before the fireplace, a glass of red wine in his left hand, a burning cigar in his right, the smoke billowed above him as it had for years, staining the high ceiling tiles a dirty yellow and coating the glass chandelier a rusty ash. Jules watched the flames with no thoughts, no emotion, flames that had seen his hands wrinkle and his hair gray in the few years he had served as a senator. He stood up eventually to poke at the logs and add fresh kindling, as he tossed on a new log the great doors behind him opened, Elise stepped in and interrupted his perfect quiet with an angelic French voice, “my love, there’s someone here to see you.”

Albert stepped through the tall, oak double doors. “Julian,” he said as he walked over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a glass of brandy. “We need to talk.”

“Elise,” called Jules. “Leave us.”

Albert dragged a chair to the fire and sat down by Jules, he held his glass up to him before having a drink. “They found another girl in the St. Jansbeek, about an hour ago.”

Jules turned away, “there’s dozens missing, what difference does it make now anyway?”

“People are scared, they’re starting to talk, about you.”

“People always talk.”

Albert took another swig of the brandy, “when was the last time you spoke with the Germans?”

“I don’t remember, a month or two ago.”

“They’ve been gassing the forests outside the city, this is too close to home. They said no chemical weapons, we all made a deal.”

“There is no deal,” muttered Jules. “They will do as they wish, when they feel like it.”

“And what happens then?”

“I suppose those of us with German documents will be spared, hopefully they keep their word on that at least, the rest, I expect will have to arm themselves.”

“And?”

Jules raised his shoulders and took another drag from the cigar, and looked to the fire again. Albert rose and stood between Jules and the fire, his face darkened, he seemed ten feet tall for a moment, a deep, dark voice boomed from his tired, gaunt body, “I’ve had about enough of you! You have forsaken this town to save yourself! You have ruined our once close relationships with our neighbor towns – and for what? Your French whore? You sit here sipping your wine and smoking your cigar while the Germans advance! I thought cooperation could save us, but you’re only in it for yourself! I’m through being silent!”

Jules jumped out of his chair, his fingers quickly found Albert’s neck and closed tight around it as he thrust the old man forward to the mantle and threw him down, keeping his head near the fire with a boot on his neck. “You old fool, don’t forget your place – little mouse! You want to be a rat, fine then, you’ll die like a rat!”

Flames reached for Albert’s thinning hair, sweat poured down his forehead as he clutched at Jules’ boot with his weak arms. Suddenly he heard footsteps charge into the room, Elise shouted “let him go! For god’s sake Julian, don’t kill him!”

Albert gasped for breath, forcing air through his tight neck as Jules’ boot lifted. He rolled over, spitting blood as he hacked and coughed, barely able to stand up he stumbled towards the doors, catching the bronze handle as he fell again. He then heard a loud smack and turned to see Elise falling to the floor as Jules sat back down, calmly picking up his glass again. Albert stood up, still wheezing for breath he found his footing and ran from the mansion.

Rossey

A grey sky hung over St. Julien, as Rossey, as it had for days. A light snow fell and sat undisturbed on Albert’s property, a perfect white against the old, red bricks of his house, the peeling paint curled on the front door, the wood tiles rotted under a layer of snow on the roof. Andrew stepped past the police barricade and through the snowy walk, a pungent stench greeted him at the front door. He noticed a streak of blood and followed it down the main hall, the irony smell surrounded him as he entered the living room and saw the pool of blood, Albert’s dead body hung in the center, naked, covered in blood, still dripping onto the pool, the word ‘TRAITOR’ was scrawled in blood on the wall behind. His eyes stared at Andrew, forced open with a toothpick through each eyelid, two streaks of bloody tears ran down either side of his cheek. Saliva rushed Andrew’s mouth, he struggled to maintain his composure by looking away, but then noticed the organs strewn about the pool, the intestines in a pile, the liver and heart in pieces lay where they had fallen, the spattering on the walls above them seemed to suggest they had been thrown against it. Andrew’s stomach retched, he raced outside and threw up on the snow, his cheeks flushed, his head spun, one of the officers handed him a handkerchief, Andrew thanked him as he kicked snow over the vomit.

Andrew forced himself back into the house, masking his nose and mouth with the clean part of the handkerchief. He tried not to look at Albert, he knew Albert was looking at him. He searched the house for something that could help him understand, the books on the shelf had spatters of blood on the spines, he could hear flies buzzing over the white noise of a radio in the kitchen, red streaks across the cabinets. He shut off the radio and looked around, then he saw something out of place, a large iron bolt on the basement door, pried open and left ajar, he picked up a lantern in the kitchen and descended the stairs. The stench of death rose around him, at the bottom of the stairs, another door, iron, was open, he walked through and saw Gehenna on the other side – mutilated bodies of young women rested discarded in piles, some hacked to bits, some a fresh, sickly pale, their dead eyes reflected the lantern’s fire and seemed to look up at him.

Andrew dropped the lantern, the glass shattered on the cold, concrete floor, his hands shook as he tried to grab the railing behind him and run back up the stairs. He was barely out the front door when his stomach retched again and he threw up violently, even as he felt his stomach drained, his body heaved for what felt like an hour, until finally, it stopped. He coughed as he picked himself up, a sickly taste of acid clung to his teeth and on his breath, he asked for water and walked away from the house.

*

“I just don’t understand it, father.”

Andrew sat in a pew with his head bowed, Augustine sat next to him, ahead of them behind the altar, a giant crucifixion cast a shadow over the pews as the dawn burned red through the stained glass.

“It defies explanation,” tried Augustine.

“It’s hard to keep faith, father. I don’t know that I can separate people from evil anymore. The investigation is ended, yet I dwell on it still, trying to find a reason. What made him do those things to those girls – the fear of invasion? We’re all afraid. Maybe it’s a sickness of the mind? Is it justified to kill him then? Should he have been imprisoned instead? Do you suppose God would forgive that? To condemn a man for being the way He made him?”

“God didn’t make that man.”

“Do you truly believe that, father?”

Augustine turned to Andrew, held his shoulder with his hand and said “God left this place a long time ago. We have been stuck in limbo, but for how long I do not know, maybe a few months, maybe longer. I have tried speaking to God, but it doesn’t do any good anymore.”

If Andrew was surprised at Augustine’s words, his face didn’t betray it. He looked up at Christ, his eyes sad, looking forward, he remembered Albert’s dead eyes, the bloody tears, the stench. They heard a desperate knocking on the door then and turned together, a group of people were at the door begging for sanctuary. Augustine turned away and bowed his head, held his hands in prayer and closed his eyes. Andrew ran over to the doors and flung them open, a frenzy of panicked people rushed past him, outside he saw the dawn had turned to fire and blood, dark figures in freakish masks ran ahead of a fog that slowly swallowed Rossey’s main street, the dark figures held torches to the buildings and trees, stabbed the fallen with their bayonets, headed towards the gates of the Church of Our Lady.

The townspeople crowded inside the church, Augustine stood at the altar leading them in prayer, the light of hellfire glowing bright behind him, images of the Madonna, of Christ, Saint Piatus and Alena burning as if life had been breathed into the glass. Andrew jogged to the gate to see, anticipating German troops, some of them looked like men, faces covered with plastic masks that drooped in a trunk, a red fire burning in their goggles obscured their eyes, but others were skinny and ran on four legs, stalking the slower ones, children and elderly left behind, gnashing into them when they caught them, tearing flesh from bone with sharp teeth. Andrew’s neck tightened, his chest held back as he choked on the gas, he ran back to the church and closed the doors behind him, doom moved forward.

*

Jules sat watching the fireplace, holding his vices close. He didn’t budge when he heard the commotion outside, he kept his attention to the fire he had become obsessed with, then he heard a loud crash behind him, the room began to light up, the temperature rose. He turned and saw the fire spreading, scaling the walls with ease and haste, he dropped his wine and cigar and ran for Elise’s room at the end of the hallway. A wall of fire at her door trapped her inside, he heard her then, agonized shrieks, a burning pain pronounced thoroughly in her once angelic voice as smoke stabbed at her vocal cords. Jules turned to run and saw a horror rising from the shadow, a grotesque figure like a burned man, its dead eyes indifferent, its charred skin peeling, bleeding, thin, long fingers reached out for him, he fell and turned on the floor, crawling until he could stand again, trying desperately to keep ahead of it.

He closed the great oak doors behind him, the fire raged now throughout the mansion, indiscriminately claiming everything in its path, but all Jules could hear now was Elise’s tortured screams. Something was banging on the doors, he knew the locks would give. He poured himself a new glass of wine, took the handgun from the drawer and sat back down on his chair, sipping the French red, he listened for the fire again but heard only the screaming. The doors crashed and footsteps approached, Jules raised the gun to his temple and delivered mercy, his body dropped, blood rushed from the gaping wound, as life exited his body, the sound and sight of fire greeted him once more.

Heima

Life Like Weeds

Bilme fell out of step behind his father Mahn, tripping over himself in the snow that reached over his knees, weighed down carrying the bulk of the hunting gear, pans, sharp knives, and extra arrows. He was six when his father had begun taking him hunting, he recalled vividly his first lessons in tracking game by identifying tracks in the winter, droppings in the summer, the simple traps for rabbits he had been taught, the shrubs the elks would most often frequent. He was nine now and finally growing into the fur coat his father had given him then, but still he had trouble keeping up with him, trying to keep the clanking behind him silent as he waded through the snow.

Mahn slowed down and held a hand up behind him, Bilme stopped and waited. “Wolves,” cautioned his father, walking forward to a bloody mess of guts and fur in the snow ahead. Bilme sidestepped the remains and stood by his father, the sight of the corpse sending a cold chill through his warm body. The organs were mostly gone, the flesh had been hacked at by sharp, hungry teeth, the blood lay strewn in all directions, all that remained was a head and some spare bones centered in the mess. “Poor fox,” added Mahn. “Perhaps we should turn back for today, they may not be far off.”

Bilme looked up at his father and pointed back at the path, “I bent twigs along the way like you said to.”

“That’s a good boy. Come on, we can make it home before nightfall.”

The hunt was over, a cover of silence less crucial to them Bilme kept up a quicker pace behind his father, the iron pans clanking behind him without concern as he hopped through the snow. The Orran Woods otherwise knew only a dead silence, the ancient trees and fauna had seen fire, war, and famine, had given life and had taken it. The woods had remained quiet since the last great war, now men kept to Orran, elves kept to Heima across the river, but both woods kept souvenirs of those times Mahn had taught his son to be observant of, long scrapes in the bark, unnatural tundras that still remained in some parts of the woods, and often a sword or dagger with a long-forgotten name engraved on it.

“Bilme, stop,” said Mahn suddenly. “Drop your bag, climb a tree – now!”

Bilme dropped the pack and ran under cover of a nearby pine tree, its close branches made for an easy climb. Near the top, he crawled slowly along a branch and peeked his head through the curtain of green needles, below he could make out four red bodies, timberwolves, closing in on his father. He remembered his bow, laying in the snow under him while the wolves began closing in. Mahn unsheathed a long machete and turned his back to the tree.

“Bilme!” called Mahn.

“Dad!”

“Whatever happens, stay up in that tree.”

Bilme didn’t answer, wouldn’t answer, he was already descending the branches again for his bow. He could hear the wolves howling in the distance, their growls growing louder as they approached. The snow was almost flat under the tree, the parasol of sticky pine offered good cover while he stalked slowly towards the bag.

“Do you hear me, Bilme?”

Bilme didn’t answer again. He dragged the bag under the tree, freed his bow and quiver and ascended the branches back up to his vantage point, the wolves were closing in on his father, a perfect clockwork of moving gears. Bilme took aim at the nearest wolf, the bow twanged and missed, the wolf snarled at the tree, aware now of the danger looming overhead. He pulled another arrow and again released, this time planting the arrow in the wolf’s shoulder, it wailed and snapped at the arrow with its jaw, its leg left bloody and crippled. Three other wolves pressed forward, Bilme held an arrow steady but lost sight of them, he father below kept a steady vigil, after a moment he turned back to the pine tree and too late noticed the red blur leaping out at him, he fell back and the wolf bit down on his neck, pressing its teeth like knives into him with a firm, determined fury. Mahn swung his giant blade and struck the wolf’s side, cutting open its stomach whole, killing it almost instantly. Bilme jumped down the branches quick as his short legs could carry him, he could hear his father gasping for air beneath.

“Don’t worry,” choked his father. “They will retreat for now.”

“Dad, the bandages-”

“It’s too late for me, son,” Mahn hacked up blood as he tried to speak, spat it on the earth by Bilme. “You must take care of Katerina, take her to Orran,” he coughed again. “Find work there, watch your baby sister, it’s just the two of you now.” Blood flowed freely from his neck, his pulse slowed as his body surrendered to the frigid cold of the Orran Woods, he reached out and held Bilme. “Remember all I’ve taught you, and whatever you do, stay away from Heima, do not cross the river, do not enter the elven woods,” he wheezed a rattled breath, “go now, before they return.”

*

Katerina stood up in her crib when she heard the cabin door creak open. Bilme stepped inside, looked at her with sad eyes, she wouldn’t understand, couldn’t. He started a fire in the pit and sat his baby sister down across from it, he fed her a cup of milk, kept an eye on her while she drank as he packed for the night, a flask with water, a sharp knife, a spade by the door. When Katerina was tired again, he put her back in her crib, recalling fondly his father’s lessons on mortises and dovetails. Bilme covered his baby sister, tucked the heavy blanket and whispered “I’ll be back soon.”

The midnight air outside the rustic cabin was crisp, the wind howled sharp and piercing, stars shone overhead like diamonds, familiar constellations and friendly guides no more, instead forming a map to death and sadness he followed back to his father’s body. Under the pine tree he lit a torch, stabbed it into the earth and dug until the morning light, tiring his weak muscles thoroughly, occasionally stopping for rest and laying by his father’s cold, lifeless body. Once he was satisfied the hole was deep enough out of reach of wolves, bears, and other opportunists, he rolled the body into it and covered it forever. “Goodbye, dad,” he said as he turned away, tears freezing in place on his flushed cheeks.

Katerina was awake when he entered the cabin again and cried for food, Bilme fed her more milk and crushed carrots. While she ate, he packed as much as he could fit into his father’s satchel, flints and a pan, two flasks of whiskey and a large canteen of water, small jars of dried apricots, blueberries, elk meat and fresh carrots and leeks, two sharp knives, some rope and twine, lastly he packed his father’s pipe and leaves, the old man’s favorite things. He picked up his baby sister and put her in a sling, took the bag on his shoulder, stepped outside and bolted the iron lock behind them.

*

Bilme stayed near the river as he strode through the Orran Woods, the water kept the snow shallow and the path easy. He watched the passing trees and shrubs intently for tracks, droppings, any sign or warning of life. The sun shone a faint light behind a grey sky, the river roared, a blanket of snow kept the earth frozen and still, another day was ending and he was alone, there were no words spoken, no sounds but his footsteps, no signs of life but for Katerina’s soft breathing. A gentle snowfall began as the sun dipped below the horizon, Bilme focused his attention on finding shelter.

Further down the river he noticed a small camp and approached cautiously, watching keenly for signs of a recent tenant. A fire pit was centered in the camp, host to cold, dry tinder that hadn’t been tended at least since last snowfall, under a large rock high overhead, however, Bilme found the sign he had been looking for, jarred foodstuffs, an empty flask, bones. He dug around the bones and found the last remains of a man, long dead. Feeling at ease, he buried the bones out of sight again, the second time he had done so in as many days. He slipped Katerina out of the sling, wrapped her in spare fur and left her in the alcove with a snack while he cleaned out the firepit and searched around the camp for dry kindling.

Bilme wandered the open tundra beyond the camp, anything that could be of use was buried under the white blanket of snow, he ceased his thoughts of fire and warmth. He was walking back to the camp when the ground shook beneath him, behind him he heard the cracks and booms of logs and trees snapping, overhead he saw ravens and snow owls fleeing the woods. He panicked and sprinted for the camp, picked up Katerina, then he saw the giant advancing towards the camp in slow, but long, tenacious strides. Bilme clutched Katerina close to him, ran for the river and hid behind an embankment, he peeked his head out and watched, the giant was now following his tracks in the snow.

Bilme kept still and quiet, his heart racing as the giant neared the embankment, every step coming down a furious thundering that shook the earth. The giant loomed over the embankment for a long minute, then finally turned and walked away, Bilme breathed a quiet sigh as the giant disappeared, released Katerina from his tense grip and started to step down but lost his footing and fell back. Katerina began to cry, Bilme wrapped his coat around her, muffling her wails as delicately as he could, but the giant had heard them, had started back to the embankment. Bilme ran now down the path, the giant chased behind him and swung a fat arm to pick up the boy and his baby sister, but missed them only barely, knocking them instead far into the river like one would flick an insect away.

It was cold suddenly, a frigid water embraced Bilme, cradled Katerina with icy arms. He swam for the surface, shivering as he broke through, he saw the giant pacing up and down the shore, unaware apparently that he had thrown them into the river. Bilme lifted Katerina over the water and looked to the other side of the river, Heima, the forbidden woods, he weighed his options, death and a likely death. He paddled across the river, keeping his baby sister above it as best he could, and made landfall on the Heima shore.

Bilme tore his soaking furs off, unwrapped his baby sister, the cold air would be more forgiving than the icy wet clothes. He held her as close to himself as he could, she was now laboring to breathe, coughing and whimpering. He ran naked through the forest and called for help, his shaking legs and cracking voice casualties of the sub-zero temperatures, only the adrenaline coursing now through his body giving him the energy to keep moving, Katerina holding him tightly giving him the will.

“Halt, boy,” called a sharp voice behind him suddenly. Bilme turned and found three elves towering over him, pale, sober faces behind long, light hair and pointed ears poking through. Three bows were aimed at him, the leader asked “why do you trespass on our land?”

“Please help my sister!” Bilme held Katerina out. “We were thrown into the river by a giant, she’s cold and not breathing well. I’ve heard of your healers and medicines. Please, I will leave, but take her!”

The elves whispered among themselves, then one stepped forward, took Katerina and darted back through the woods. The two remaining elves approached Bilme and spoke, “come with us boy, we must take you to Lornde.” One of the elves held out his hand and took Bilme, he felt warm in spite of his light attire and pale skin. He carried Bilme through the woods, then Bilme saw a bright glow on the horizon growing, a small town emerged through the oaks and pines with houses of wood and stone in neat rows below, and above he stared with awe at the network of towers and paths carved into the tall trees. The elf ascended a winding stair and into a small chamber, offered him some clothes, then led him into a guarded quarter at the apex of the town.

A regal elf sat on a modest throne inside, expectantly. He was decorated in elk furs, long, silver hair flowed down to his chest and blue eyes pierced through, behind him proudly displayed was a rich library of ancient tomes. Bilme was left alone with him.

“You have come to us for help,” began Lornde.

“Yes,” said Bilme, shyly.

“I am sorry, child, your sister is beyond our help. There is nothing we can do for her.”

“No,” sobbed Bilme. “Please, sir, I’ll leave the woods, I’ll-”

“It’s of no use,” Lornde shook his head. “We can comfort her, ease her, but that is all.”

“Where is she?”

“In the matron’s quarters below, I will take you shortly. First I must ask where your parents or your masters are?”

“Dead, sir,” answered Bilme.

Lornde sighed, he stared at Bilme pensively and asked “what is your name?”

“Bilme.”

“How old are you, Bilme?”

“Nine.”

“Come with me, Bilme.”

Lornde wondered to himself what could be done with the lost boy as he took his hand and led him through a hall and downstairs. They walked into the small matron’s house, a fire reached up from the pit at the end of the room, torches lit up the beds in rows on each wall, at the end of the hall an elf turned and noticed them. Lornde offered Bilme’s hand to her as she approached them, she led him without a word, he found Katerina wrapped in furs on a bed at the end of the room, she was warm again, breathing softly. “I’ve given her a tea of poppy,” said the elf woman. Bilme sat down beside his baby sister and sobbed, his sobs quickly became cries, Lornde took a seat and watched over the boy.

Katerina soon became cold, her breathing stopped overnight. When he saw that she was gone, Lornde stood up and walked over to Bilme, who looked up at the tall lord with glazed, sad eyes and took his hand again. “I have decided,” began Lornde. “I will permit you to stay in Heima, there are two who will accept your burden.” He led Bilme down a dirt road and they arrived at a small cottage, two elves waited outside, Lornde introduced them, “Bilme, this is Torri and Bilo.”

The two elves picked up Bilme, sympathetic of his loss. He refused their offers of food and drink, went directly to the bed instead and laid down. A stranger in a strange land, Heima meant home to the elves, but not to him, he turned his gaze out the window, even the stars had been unfriendly. He could hear voices through the door speaking a foreign tongue, even the scents in Heima were foreign, he felt afraid and alone. He fell asleep quietly sobbing into his pillow, thoughts dwelling on his father and sister while outside the wind calmed, the snow and glass reflected the evening light into the room, it was quiet again.

Made in Heights
20 Years Later

Bilme surveyed the blue and red flowers on the Heima shore, glanced up at the familiar sky, the summer sun beat down a sweltering heat on the woods outside the town, the river soaked it up and returned a heavy humidity. He wiped the sweat of his brow and turned his attention back to the handsaw on his bench, further into the woods, Mal was chopping at young saps and humming an old, elven melody. They banked a pile of logs by the river for a new addition to the matron’s house, they would send the logs down the river back to Heima later. As the sun began to dip, a cool air rose up around them, Mal looked back at Bilme and plunged his ax into one of the oaks, then interrupted the buzzing of the woods and declared “well I’m done for one day.”

Bilme looked to the horizon, saw the setting sun and agreed, “let’s send these logs home.” He took a spade in hand and started rolling the logs into the river, sending them floating downstream, a flashing memory of Orran often appeared in his head on work days and he found this one was no different. A heavier log resisted him, he picked at the dirt under it but found it still wouldn’t budge. “Hey Mal,” he called, “help me out here.”

Mal dropped the canteen of ale he was drinking from and walked over to Bilme. They stood behind the heavy trunk and pushed, the trunk gave and rolled into the river, sinking deep and coming back up with a huge splash before continuing down the river again while back on the shore, a bright glint in the dirt drew Bilme’s attention. He saw something of silver and glass reflecting the late afternoon sun, fell and dug with his hands, revealing a strange, round silver trinket with a glass cover and some numbers along the outside, it read c–io and hung from a short, silver chain. “What do you make of this?” he asked Mal, holding the trinket out to him.

Mal took the trinket and studied it while humming to himself, “strange piece,” he finally said. “Could be a valuable treasure you’ve found, I’ll bet Lornde knows what it is.” Bilme nodded and reached for the trinket again.

Mal strode ahead, sipping often from the canteen and tossing it back behind him to Bilme who was too busy fidgeting with the trinket. They kept up a quick pace together down the river, but stopped when Heima came into a view, a thick, dark smoke was rising above the town. A deep worry and fear swept over them, they exchanged scared looks and sprinted back to town.

Bilme and Mal dashed through the woods, the familiar orange glow of fire lit up the twilight sky and and an intense heat and smoke welcomed them through the trees. The Heima elves pumped water from the river to the houses in the trees above and sent it raining back down over the blazing houses below as panicked horses abandoned their stables, strained voices called for help in between held breaths and warned that down at the other end of town behind the spreading fire, a fallen star lay smoldering between a house and the dirt road.

Bilme sprinted down the dirt road through the fire and flames, sweat pouring now from his brow again, focused only on his home up ahead. When he arrived, he found the house already ablaze, the struts had given and the roof had fallen in on the hall, he picked away at the debris, desperately looking for his adoptive parents but found only charred oak and smoldering hot stones. He felt a hand on his shoulder, turned and saw Mal who asked “are they ok?”

“I don’t know,” shouted Bilme, throwing aside more burning debris. His arms were burned, the skin wilted, his hands were blistering and turning black, Mal saw the blood dripping from his palms and pulled him back.

“Come on, maybe they weren’t home. Let’s help the rest of the town.”

Bilme nodded, he was wounded, bleeding, weak, his lungs were burning, he coughed and wheezed for breath and collapsed on the road behind Mal. Looking up at the sky which was now so familiar to him, he gasped again for breath and blacked out. Mal stopped and turned back when Bilme stopped answering him, saw him lying on the dirt road and carried him beyond the reach of the fire and left him by the river, then returned to town to aid the rest of the townsfolk. The fire raged on most of the night until finally the last flames were extinguished, a wake of carnage previously unknown and unfamiliar to the Heima elves scarred the town and the woods, bodies were piled, Torri and Bilo were among the dead.

*

Bilme woke up in the matron’s quarters, all around him lay dead, dying, and damaged, all casualties of the meteor made in the heights of the sky they had named Scourge. A foul stench of burning flesh and wood hung over the room, the elves around him were coughing, wheezing, moaning. His throat felt scratchy as he forced a breath through, he found his hands wrapped in bandages, a bloodstain seeping through, dying the bandages a dark burgundy, he could feel his blisters popping under them, dry skin scratching against the gauze, he wanted to crack his knuckles but found the pain too much. As he stood up, his head swam in a daze of nausea and sickness, a hand sat him back down again, he saw Lornde.

“How are you feeling, Bilme?”

“Like the butcher’s meat,” groaned Bilme. “Torri, Bilo?”

“I’m sorry, Bilme.”

“No,” Bilme sobbed, “no, no.”

“Scourge took a lot from us, Torri and Bilo were among our dead.”

“What happened?”

“A meteor, though some have taken to calling it a fallen star, crashed into the northern end of town, a terrible stroke of misfortune. A wildfire spread through the streets shortly after, it took many homes and lives before we were finally able to put it out. Mal tells me you took your injuries trying to save them.”

“I-I don’t remember,” stuttered Bilme. “The house was destroyed, I couldn’t breathe well.” He looked to his bandages, “I couldn’t save them, either.”

“You mustn’t blame yourself, Bilme. We are all sorry for your many misfortunes, but you must know you showed a great courage in trying to save them, your wounds will heal but the scars will remain for life, wear them with pride.” Bilme stared on, hardly moved, a vacant look upon his face, empty emotions Lornde had seen before. “Come, take a walk with me, Bilme.”

Outside the matron’s house, elves were piling debris by the river and building makeshift barges to transport the waste and dump it in the southern end of Alafoss’ continental sea. A bitter sorrow hung in the air, had embedded itself in the faces of the passing elves who hummed no melodies, sang no songs, spoke no words. A thick coat of ash covered the dirt road, blotched their leather shoes as they walked, blackened the undamaged houses, from the shore by the river the black soot gave in to the wind, strew itself with the breeze, still scattered what remained of Scourge around Heima. Bilme walked alongside a stoic Lornde, who neither wept nor frowned, kept his strong regal look and led him down the road.

Bilme saw his bandages dripping blood as they walked and hid them in his pockets, he found the silver trinket again and took it out, stopping Lornde and offering it out to him, “I found this while Mal and I were chopping wood yesterday.” Lornde took the trinket and examined it for a moment, then handed it back to Bilme who eagerly asked “do you know what it is?”

“We can look at it later, come.”

They arrived together at Heima’s north end, an elven priest stood behind an altar and beyond him buzzed a scorched earth and rows of pyres rising above it. Lornde guided Bilme through the rows of dead, never betraying his detached emotion and stopped after a moment, behind him Bilme could recognize Torri and Bilo, now just charred bodies, sleeping eyes on emotionless faces. He looked down upon his adoptive parents and realized he was again without a home, a sadness crossed Lornde’s face, breaking his demeanor for an instant.

“We will honor our dead tonight, you will send off Torri and Bilo.”

Bilme nodded. Nightfall arrived late, an otherwise welcome sign of a long, happy summer, it was now a trying delay of pain while the dead awaited the afterlife. The sky above Heima glowed orange again as the pyres were lit by the surviving. Bilme held a torch under Torri, then Bilo, his thoughts strayed back to his father and Katerina and he was overwhelmed again to find Heima a new memory of suffering, like the abandoned cabin, like the Orran Woods.

Lornde presided over the funeral ritual as Lord of Heima, offering condolences and help to all, assuring his people that Heima would be rebuilt and in a slight lapse of character, considering that other meteors may have fallen on Alafoss and encouraging survivors to reach out to Orran and the other neighbouring cities and offer whatever aid they may. Later, as a bright, full moon reached its peak, Lornde found Bilme again and walked with him back to his quarters above Heima, stairs creaking as they ascended them. Though Lornde had mostly remained stoic throughout the night, his thoughts had dwelled on Bilme, a lost boy before him all over again. He took a seat in his study and eyed the counter overflowed with elven tomes and books, scrolls and spells, ancient wisdom, he had read and studied them all, and now satisfied he had a solution, he offered Bilme an elven wine.

“May I see your trinket?”

Bilme reached across the table and handed the trinket to Lornde, his hand ached for every muscle he strained.

“I am sorry Bilme,” began Lornde, fingering the trinket. “ I’m afraid yet again, I cannot help you. However, I do know of someone who can. She is a far journey away, I think you should seek her out.”

Bilme sipped the sweet red wine, a flavor of cherry and oak ran down his throat and dyed his lips and tongue a deep purple. “I want to help rebuild,” he answered.

“I think it would be best for you to seek out Aryne, Bilme, and I’m afraid I must insist on this. I will provide a horse and what gold we can. You will ride to Port Alafoss and seek passage on a ship to Alafonn, from there you will need to find a caravan to escort you across the desert, Maraan awaits on the other end of that land.”

“The Maraani elves.”

“Yes. Distant friends, but friends to us nonetheless. Find Aryne, she is older and wiser than even I, she will know what treasure you have found here.”

Bilme’s head was still dizzy, a pain in his hands lingered in spite of the elven ointments, he accepted the trinket back from Lornde. He felt a strange relief in being able to leave Heima, to put a distance between himself and the woods. Lornde offered him a cot in the hall once the wine had begun to numb him. An odor of smoke and ash drifted through the room while Bilme slept that night, an elf woman sang an old, elven song of sorrow in elegant soprano on the road below, Lornde shed a tear to himself as he listened and watched her disappear into the heavy fog.

The next morning, Bilme noticed immediately the ointments had hastened the healing of his burns, had numbed his hands though the muscles still ached, the skin was no longer dry and cracked or bleeding. He found Lornde waiting for him outside at the stable by a black horse loaded with bags of foodstuffs and Mal beside him. They wished each other well and prayed for brighter futures, then Lornde offered Bilme a final gift, another trinket, a brooch with rubies and sapphire on gold, a fine work of art by the revered elven jewelcrafters.

“Show this to Aryne when you arrive in Maraan, she will know it to mean we are in allegiance with you, should she have any doubts.”

“Thank you, Lornde.”

“And Bilme,” he stopped the horse. “Be mindful, keep your eyes open, you will find what you’re looking for.”

Myths and Maps

Alafoss was an ancient city, its first dwellers lost to the ages, their secrets buried alongside so much chaos, it had been built, destroyed, rebuilt, had fallen to conquerors and reclaimed again. It was an important avenue that led to all cities on the Alafoss continent, a large port for ships importing exotic spices, textiles, tea and smoking leaves from its twin continent, Alafonn, across the sea. Its dull grey austere houses were a sharp contrast to Heima’s verdant log houses that Bilme now called home, its loud, arrogant human occupiers a far cry from Heima’s happier, sing-song elves.

Having sold the black steed at a stable outside the Alafoss city wall, Bilme now paced slowly down the cobblestone streets, a wintry fog held the port city hostage, a reminder of Scourge to Bilme, a common sight otherwise to the human inhabitants of Alafoss who had known no calamity in a hundred years. He found the port and stalked its high-rising wooden platforms, face shrouded by a hood. Great wooden ships made up the traffic on the docks, sails and colored flags giving away their home cities, none of which were familiar to Bilme who knew little of the world outside Heima and Orran. The cold air clung to him, even on hot days in Port Alafoss the tide brought with it chill winds, hungry pelicans and seagulls, rising waves and sometimes floods. He stopped at a ship with the red and white Port Alafoss flag and called to a man loading some crates “excuse me, how do you do? I seek a passage to Alafonn.”

“Seek somewhere else,” said the man without turning to Bilme. “We’re full.”

Disappointed, Bilme tried another ship and was turned down again, he tried the ships with foreign flags next and found the eclectic Alafonn southerners even less welcoming. He was nearing the end of the docks when he came upon a dark-skinned man sawing, two others on the deck of the ship nailed planks, the words Munt de Mel were painted on the back of the ship.

“Beg your pardon,” called Bilme. He thought of a new tactic and approached the man, “perhaps I can be of some assistance?”

“We’re fine,” grumbled the man.

“I’m skilled with hand tools, I was taught by elven woodsmiths.”

The man frowned at Bilme and asked “what do you want?”

“I seek a passage to Alafonn, I offer gold and my services.”

A man who had overheard their exchange stood up on the deck and whistled to the man below and called out “Ramir! Send him up!”

Ramir turned a sour face to Bilme, “go ahead.”

Bilme smiled at Ramir and jogged down the dock and up the stairs. Another dark-skinned man greeted him on the deck, he was portly with a long, dark beard and short hair. “What did you say about elven woodsmiths?” he asked.

“I was trained in Heima.”

The man studied Bilme, internally scrutinizing his thin fur coat, his flush skin, could see him shivering. He had never heard of a human trained by elves and doubted his story, yet still he always saw opportunity in desperate men. “You seek passage to Alafonn?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Why are you going to Alafonn?”

“I’m looking for my father’s brother,” said Bilme, cautious not to say anything to indicate he would be worth robbing.

“I can take you for thirty gold pieces. I have no bed to offer but you may sleep in the hay pile. What do you know of working on ships?”

“I’ve built boats and barges, a few canoes. I’m skilled with the hand tools, I don’t doubt you’ll find use for me. Thirty pieces though, that seems a steep price, doesn’t it?”

“My ship is full,” shrugged the man. “Thirty gold pieces to Alafonn is my offer, you may accept it or get off my ship.”

Bilme saw himself failing to barter a better price, and agreed to the steep price, reached into his satchel and handed over his ransom.

“We sail tonight, take this time to bring anything you’ll be carrying aboard.”

Bilme smiled, “just me, sir.”

“Sir,” chuckled the man. “My name is Gerhard, I’m the Captain of the Vaixell de Animes Perdudes.”

“But the deck says Munt de Mel,” corrected Bilme.

“Aye, she is a recent acquisition, I’ve been meaning to fix that.”

“Well then, Captain Gerhard of the Vaixell de Animes Perdudes, I’m Bilme,” said Bilme, holding a friendly hand out to Gerhard.

*

A thick smoke slow-danced out of Mahn’s pipe, Bilme exhaled the elven smoking grass while fierce waves crashed against the Munt de Mel’s recently reinforced hull, deep below sea monsters watched the ship hovering on the surface, waited patiently for a bigger ship with gold to plunder and bury deep to hoard forever. Heavy footsteps behind Bilme grew louder as Gerhard approached, a flash of light and the sound of a striking match followed him, then a denser, darker smoke annexed the waltz. Gerhard smoked a black desert grass cigar, a smile on his face.

“So what are you doing here?” asked Gerhard.

“Going to Alafonn.”

“I’m not entirely convinced you’re telling me the truth,” said Gerhard, his thick desert accent betraying his ornate captain’s jacket, fine leather boots and gold jewelry. “What is it you’re looking for, eh?”

“My father’s brother,” shrugged Bilme coldy, eyes to the sea.

Gerhard studied him quietly again, then said “I’m sorry. I mean no harm, my crew are my friends, if you need help in Alafonn, I might be able to help.”

Bilme fingered the trinket he called cio in his pocket, cautious not to clink the silver chain against the glass. A friend was always useful, he thought, then turned to Gerhard and opened up, “he’s in the desert oasis.”

“Aye, unfortunately those caravans do favors for none, even a captain like me. They speak only the language of gold.”

Bilme chuckled, “doesn’t everybody?”

“This is true enough. Still, you should be wary of the desert people, they tell stories that say we can smell gems and gold,” he paused. “Like in your pocket.”

Bilme let go of cio, for a moment fear gripped him.

Gerhard laughed, “you are a stupid young man. Now I know you carry something of value, you should be thankful I have no interest in whatever it is you’re hiding there. Do not fall for a trick like that again, the wandering nomads prey on the naive.”

Bilme recomposed himself, angry at himself for falling victim to such a stupid trick. He tried to save salvage some of his pride and said “I’ve heard those stories, you never know which ones are true. Until recently, I had thought the sea monsters were only fables.”

“I suppose there is a truth in your words, a truth that often mocks even the most fantastic stories.”

“She is a spiteful bitch.”

Gerhard laughed again, the black grass had begun intoxicating him, he felt friendlier and saw a lost boy in Bilme. He offered up some advice, “sea monsters aren’t the only tales that are true. If you mean to travel the desert, I would advise you carry an antidote potion, though it may cost a king’s ransom, it may save your life, should you encounter the cursed dead of the Alafonn Desert.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

“No, I’m afraid I can only offer second-hand advice. I’ve heard they rest in great crypts, buried deep and forgotten under centuries of sandstorms and pillaged by graverobbers. It’s not the dead themselves you need to worry about, but the curses on their swords, the snakes and scorpions that call their tombs home.”

“Can they not be killed the same as any man?”

“Aye, surely they can, but at what cost? There is nothing of value left buried in their crypts, nothing but the trouble and suffering buried with them.”

Bilme tapped the ashes out of his father’s pipe on the deck railing while Gerhard leaned over it with him, above them in a clear, foreign sky he saw familiar constellations in new homes and took comfort in them, he was moving as well.

the Alafonn Desert

Two days after the newly renamed and christened Vaixell de Animes Perdudes made landfall on the Alafonn coast, Bilme found himself again a refugee, awaiting any of the desert bound caravans to return, a long wait for someone with few thoughts left to dwell on. He had walked the sandy dirt roads and explored the markets, found his woodworking skills were of no use to the desert men of Alafonn, who had few trees to work with and instead built their houses with limestone, and sand and mud as necessary. An unforgiving sun constantly found him wherever he sought refuge, after selling his furs he realized his purse was quickly depleting and took to weathering the harsh days by sleeping under the docks, and fishing the harbour by night, surviving on the catfish who came near the shore then to eat the algae that overran the docks and selling whatever extra he could fish up to the market vendors. He eventually saved enough to barter for an antidote potion and a short, jagged dagger common to Alafonn he now kept hidden under a loose cloak.

The third night after landfall, he was frying a lucky catch of a fat catfish when he heard a commotion in the town. Bright lights from the desert approached the town, bedouin mercenaries led the caravan on camelback, making no effort to conceal their curved kilij swords, behind them torchbearers lit the night for the rest of the caravan, a rich assortment of august southerners and their servants, Alafoss men of opportunity, doctors, and desert monks on pilgrimage to Alafoss, their final destination the far west island cradle of their Kinto religion. He knew the caravan wouldn’t stay long in Port Alafonn before departing again and he meant to buy his way on the next trip out as soon as possible.

Bilme followed the mercenaries into a tavern on the market street and found it quickly filling up as the last of the caravan arrived in Port Alafonn. He ordered himself an arak, the milky white anise drink of choice for the desert people, and surveyed the bar for a table, but found none. He sipped the strong drink by the door, watching the stock deplete behind the counter as the mercenaries drank to another successful journey. He noticed subtle differences between them and the men of Alafoss, most noticeably the darker skin, host to hairier bodies, many of them also wore long, thick hair in unkempt dreads under hemp canvas cloaks that hid their eyes and revealed only their larger jaws and dark, yellowed teeth. He finished the arak and walked back to the bar for another when he noticed a dark woman watching him across the room, long, determined curls protruded her hood, bright, blue eyes pierced through him as they exchanged a look, she was absolutely beautiful.

She walked over to Bilme and spoke with a soft voice, “I didn’t notice you on the caravan.”

“I wasn’t on it,” answered Bilme, cooly.

“But you are a traveler,” she said, noting his strange accent, unknown to her.

“You are with the caravan?”

“Aye.”

“I need to get to Maraan, when do you depart again?”

“Early in the morning, we take no breaks. Nobody travels to Maraan anymore though, we go as far as the Kinto Temple on the oasis.”

Bilme tried to think about how this new information would alter his plans, tried contemplating the journey from the oasis to Maraan by foot, but found his attention sailing on the woman’s voice, lost in her soft features, his eyes drifting along every curl of dark hair. “How much is the passage?” he asked.

“The traveler’s fee is forty-five gold pieces,” she answered.

Bilme had arrived with twenty-five gold pieces in his purse, added some silver to it by selling catfish, but had nothing else but the two trinkets to barter with. For a moment, a thought entered his head to trade them for the fee just to travel with the woman, he shook it off and said “I have twenty-five.”

“It would seem you come up short,” she answered. A look of helplessness betrayed Bilme’s thoughts, the woman misinterpreted it. “Where are you from?”

“Orran.”

“You don’t speak with an Orrani accent,” she said curtly.

“I can see you won’t be made a fool of, I am from a woods outside Orran, I’ve made my home with the elves since I was a child.”

The woman laughed, though Bilme could not tell if she was laughing at him, and said “the elves are not known to adopt human orphans.”

The word orphan cut into him, he was lost again until the woman smiled. He saw so much he couldn’t put into words in her smile, stories and songs he didn’t know that somehow felt familiar, a warmth he had never felt before, a rush that was unique to her alone. He insisted he was telling the truth, “well, that’s my story.” He stepped away and returned with two more cups of arak, the woman watched him return with keen eyes, accepted his drink with a soft, thin hand.

“I think I want to help you, traveler,” said the woman. Bilme leaned in to her. “The men often try to rob me, or worse, once we are out in the desert, yet this is still better than whoring. I can sneak you into the caravan and take you as far as the oasis.”

“Why would you do that?”

“As I said, I could use protection of my own,” she lied, hoping the stranger across from her was as naive as he looked. “I can see you are armed, the elves are known masters of hand combat, you watch out for me, and I’ll make sure none watch out for you.”

“Very well,” said Bilme. “I accept your proposal, may I ask who would I be watching?”

“Nadia,” she answered. “May I ask who would be watching me?”

“Bilme.”

“Very well Bilme, stay with me tonight, I will arrange for you to join us in the morning. Let us drink to our arrangement!”

“Aye,” answered Bilme, noticing the world outside Heima had begun rubbing off on him, and he didn’t care at all.

*

The voice in Bilme’s head wished for the caravan to keep going, to hear Nadia’s voice another night, she had plucked a zither in the islander style while he banged a drum during the cold desert nights. Between the lines, he had read her clearly, they had shared the nights and mornings in embrace, spent their days out of sight, but as the oasis now came upon the horizon, he knew she would not be there that night, not the next night or the one after. He had shown her Lornde’s trinket, given serious consideration to bartering it away and staying with the caravan as a rider, even of going back to Port Alafonn to live a fisherman’s life, she had convinced him to continue to Maraan.

Nadia had warned him there was no drink at the oasis, save for what the caravan brought with it, the Kinto monks kept it a peaceful and neutral sanctuary for all, since they had erected their temple, not a drop of blood had been shed, not a sword unsheathed nor an arrow fired. Bilme and Nadia stood in the temple’s shadow on the east side of the oasis, hiding from the setting sun while the rest of the caravan carried on unloading supplies. Her hands clasped around his, she reminded him, “Maraan is still four suns away, there will be no more sanctuary until you reach the eastern sea. I will arrange for a horse to run away to ease your trip. Ride fast, do not stray, follow the sun east, and I will be waiting here when you return,” she pulled him closer, kissed him goodbye.

Bilme set off on a brown horse packed with canteens of fresh water before the caravan could notice it had run away. Nadia had commandeered him a strong, fast beast he now rode swiftly, but it was a quiet night, there was no singing, no music but the horse’s brisk trot.

Three days had passed and beyond every dune Bilme saw only more endless sand. He had finished his water that morning and rode parched, he dreamt of Nadia by a pool of fresh, cold water when he noticed a thin stream further ahead, he spurred the horse forward and came upon a small lake seemingly just waiting for him.

Bilme dropped from the horse and ran to the oasis, as he approached the water it receded away from him until only a pit in the sand remained of the mirage, mocking him. Optimistic in spite of his circumstance, he saw a cool shelter from the sun only a couple meters below and dropped into the pit. A strong, decrepit odor met him beneath the sand, a long tunnel ran further ahead. He followed the narrow hall and beheld a great crypt opened up before him, tall stone statues stood watch over mummified dead opposite each other, a stone stairway led further underground at the end of the hall. His footsteps echoed loudly, bouncing off the ancient walls of the tomb. He stopped suddenly, hearing a sound down the hall and noticed it was a familiar dripping – water, giver of life. He picked up a long stick from a firepit in the room, wrapped his shirt around it, struck a match and used the makeshift torch to light his way.

The fiery glow from the torch bounced off the walls revealing cobwebs, urns, and mummified dead in crevices along the walls, abbots to ancient gods he guessed from their elegant burial attire. He kept attentive to the dripping sound and followed it down the stairs into a rotunda, a dark hallway at the end of it led the path further, otherwise the room was empty but for a library already picked clean long ago. A drop ahead of him reflected the fire as it dropped, he looked up and saw a wetness pooling in the ceiling stones, water was seeping through. He propped his canteen under the wet spot and fingered through the books that remained in the library, they were written in ancient runes and strange characters he didn’t recognize. On top of a short shelf by the hallway his attention was drawn to something uncomfortably familiar, he walked towards it while he fingered his pocket for the cio trinket and held it out to compare, the piece on the shelf was entirely similar.

“Why didn’t anybody loot you?” he asked himself.

Bilme stepped back, suddenly he heard slow, clumsy footsteps approaching. He kept quiet for a moment, the advancing stride was broken momentarily, then pressed on again. Bilme held his torch out to the dark hallway and saw the fire reflected in dark eyes at the end of the hall, he dropped the torch in a panic, unknowingly he also dropped the antidote potion he kept on his belt, and fell back. As he crawled along the stone ground, trying to regain himself, he felt the kiss of cold steel behind his knee and tripped over himself trying to stand up again. He managed finally to roll himself away from the second strike and pick up the canteen as he retreated, he turned and caught a glimpse of the dead soldier he was struggling to keep ahead of, a walking skeleton with milky pale decomposing meat still hanging to it, a stench he would never forget.

He staggered back to the entrance as fast as his crippled leg could carry him. At the entrance in the sand he had so eagerly volunteered himself to he twice fell back trying to scale the sand before grasping a rock on the third try and forcing himself over it, leaving a pool of blood as an intimate memento behind him. He strained to lift himself onto the horse and spurred it hard with his good leg, the horse took off towards the sinking sun, dripping a trail of blood behind it, a warning the desert would erase in a day or two.

Paradise

The scar on Bilme’s leg ate through the skin and muscle indiscriminately, the blood had dried on his leg a deep carmine red. He had only started to feel the pain that night after the adrenaline had died down, saw the evidence of it in the morning light. He gave up looking for the antidote overnight, not feeling it on his belt or in his cloak, he thought it lifted quietly from his pocket somewhere between Port Alafonn and the oasis. He felt his strength forsaking him, had lost the feeling in the stricken leg and begun contemplating taking the dagger to the leg entire. The desert offered up no sanctuary, sand continued to expand in every direction.

As the sun moved into its highest position, he saw salvation on the horizon and rode ahead, wary of the desert’s tricks, he did not believe the lush forest until the air cooled in the shade under the trees as the horse penetrated the green thicket dividing trees from sand. He kept riding, anxiously looking for a waterfall, a river, any kind of stream and found only the air getting colder and an unfriendly wind picking up around him, then suddenly there was nothing but the sea, all sound ceased but the waves crashing onto the shore. The horse halted its trot and he fell off onto the beach.

The sand clung to the blood on his leg, embraced his face, he coughed a dry heave, tried crawling to the shore and found he had no strength left. He rolled himself onto his back and reached for the dagger in his cloak, he decided to amputate the leg, but found he couldn’t even grasp the dagger meaningfully, he tried stabbing it into his leg and couldn’t manage even to break the skin, he released the dagger. Bilme looked up again, a clear blue sky extended forever, his thoughts dwelled on Nadia, on a future lost to him and a journey all in vain, he wheezed a rattled breath as his eyes closed, the scourge of the dead blade slowly evicted what life remained in his body.

*

“He’s awake,” said a voice. “Aryne, he’s waking up.”

Bilme forced his eyes open, a sharp light struck him, everything was a blur for a long minute while he adjusted and focused his eyes. He was laying down, above him he saw oak beams along a log ceiling, for a moment he thought he was in Heima. He struggled to ask “where am I?”

“Don’t strain yourself,” said the voice, the accent was different from the Heima elves, it spoke in a quick mumble he could scarcely understand.

An elf held a cup to him and he drank, the sweet salvation of cold water, he could feel it run all the way down his throat and into his gut, managed to force out a labored “thank you.”

“Sleep for now,” said the voice, and he closed his eyes again.

*

Two days later Bilme awoke again, he could now breathe freely without straining his throat, he found strength in his arms and hands again, remembered the affliction on his leg and dreaded removing the fine linen sheet, but pulled it aside and found his leg still black. A feminine voice said to him “it will heal, in time.” Bilme saw a woman sitting opposite the bed, she had a soft, pale face, long, dark hair and bright green eyes, he knew it was Aryne as Lornde had described her. She spoke again, “you should be thankful, they are few who encounter the cursed dead and live to speak of it.” She held out Lornde’s trinket to him and asked “how did this come into your possession?”

“Lornde gave it to me, in Heima, in case you didn’t believe our alliance.”

“Lornde,” began Aryne. “That was very wise of him, my people meant to leave you for dead until they found this in your cloak. Tell me, why does Lornde send a human to my woods so far from Heima?”

“I found a treasure in Alafoss,” said Bilme, laying back down, unable to hold himself up anymore.

“You had no other treasure on you.”

Bilme reached for his cloak and noticed for the first time the Maraani elves had changed him out of his blood-stained clothes. “Where is my cloak?” he asked.

“Daina,” called Aryne, a young girl entered the room. “His clothes,” she commanded, the girl nodded and left the room.

The servant girl returned a few moments later with the clothing Bilme had been wearing. She piled the clothes on the bed by him and he searched the pockets, hoping and praying he still had it, then he felt the familiar chain and clasped the cio. He held it out to Aryne and flatly stated “you missed this one.”

Aryne took the cio trinket, looked back at Bilme and cracked a smile, the smile became a snicker until she was laughing uncontrollably. Her glee eventually died down, she wiped a tear from her cheek and said “but surely, you jest.”

Bilme’s expression turned sour, he brusquely answered “no, Lornde could not identify it. He sent me to find out what it is, from you.”

“This is rubbish. I have no doubt Lornde knew this was an antique timepiece of trivial value, and nothing more. Why should he send you out to hear it from me?”

Her words struck Bilme like a shield’s blow. “Timepiece?” he asked. “Why would Lornde send me here for nothing?”

Aryne got up and sat on the bed next to him and pondered aloud, “Lornde is a wise lord, it is not my place to question his motives, but perhaps he didn’t send you to find out about the timepiece at all. Perhaps he sent you out to find something else.”

Bilme turned his attention out the window, he could hear the waves still crashing on the shore again and recalled his final thoughts, remembered Nadia would be waiting, then the realization hit him all at once, Lornde had sent him out to find home, to find himself. Aryne had realized it immediately, but it had taken him two continents, a sea, and a desert to realize it. “I think,” he started, “you may be right.”

“Have you found what you were looking for?”

“Yes,” smiled Bilme. “I have.”

Plateau

Morning

My arms reach out, away from me, I roll over, the light finds the crack in my eyelids. The static on the TV became a white noise sometime after I passed out last night, the birds interrupt it with the traffic and steal my attention. Outside, the pavement is already sweating, daylight reaches out and finds much of the west coast already at work, cops shuffled into their Crown Vics, baristas grinding the morning coffee, street vendors refilling, but not cleaning out their condiment trays and perched high above, seagulls watching and waiting for the scraps of a city on eternal speed rush. It’s a beautiful day.

The alarm buzzes and the radio starts, I stand up and trip over my clumsy feet, the room is still spinning. I fall back into bed clutching my gut, my stomach is evicting an order of curry. My room is a mess, I’m a mess, everything is a mess. Like most of my generation, I have a general dissatisfaction with life, I have a manic depressive disorder and my hands jerk involuntarily, making it hard to smoke. I’ve been looking for a Plateau, but all I’ve found is swimming pools of liquor and Joy Division cassettes. I force my eyes open, it’s still a blur but I make out the red blinking light on the answering machine.

I know who it is. Click.

“Hey, it’s mom, just wanted to see how you were doing. Did you forget your brother was in town? He said he couldn’t get in touch with you. Anyway, your father and I wanted to know when you were going to come visit? We miss you, ok? Love you, hope everything’s fine, see ya!”

I sigh, now I have to call you back… I lift the heavy receiver and dial out to Minnesota, it rings twice, they don’t have an answering machine, I hang up. I need to wash yesterday away, I need to look better than this.

After cleaning myself up and putting on my dirty and torn clothes, I head outside, it’s hot, it’s muggy – I hate Seattle. I walk the same direction every morning, Occidental down to Main, the trolleybus runs straight downtown and then it’s a short walk to Groove, the music store I manage. I need food and water, my body is telling me it’s hungry and dehydrated, and I know just the guy. He’s on Occidental and he pays his bills by opening his kiosk for the early birds, and dealing coke and weed on the side, he’s an ugly man and he looks like scum, to a certain degree, he is scum, but I like Bill.

“Got your coffee ready,” says Bill, he anticipates me most mornings and waits with a crooked smile. It’s hard work averting my eyes from his mouth, he’s obviously never been to a dentist.

“How are ya’, Bill?” I ask, accepting the coffee and letting my parents’ Minnesota accent slip.

“On a beautiful day like this? Just gorgeous!”

“Good to hear, Bill!” Maybe if you’re lucky, some high school kids will come around for your coffee and soaked, overpriced dimebags.

I hand Bill a dollar for my coffee and make like I’m in more of a rush than I really am, it’s hot and that’s about as much of Bill as I can politely stomach on a nice day. The subway takes me downtown, it’s busy there, there’s always people, there’s always crazies, and often enough, I’m here, too. My skeleton key turns the iron lock Gabe installed in the 60s, the wood door creaks as I push it open, peeling some more of the green paint in the process. My satchel drops to the corner behind the counter, I mentally hold on, today is going to be another rollercoaster.

*

There’s a cardboard box in the back office waiting for me, new releases to be catalogued and displayed. A box cutter I lifted from the hardware store down the street comes in handy, makes easy work of the tape, what have we got here? Guaranteed sells, of course, new offerings from the Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, then there’s other guaranteed sells – the headbanger crap, Sepultra, Anthrax, Metallica. I’ve recently learned it’s a bad idea to stick the metal near the back, out of sight, too many teenagers think they’re a lot better at stealing than they really are.

I’m sipping my coffee when an early customer enters the store, I don’t say anything, it’s Suit Guy. He stops by the store often, looks through the CDs and leaves. He bought a Queen Greatest Hits once, but never said anything, and I like that. We exchange a quick look and he’s gone again a few minutes later, I grab my cigarettes and follow him outside. Suit Guy turns a corner down the street and disappears, I light a cigarette and watch the passersby.

I flick my cigarette and notice Ella down the street, we exchange a nod and she quickens her pace.

“Hey Alex!” she says, I open the door and let her in. “So are we going down to the tennis courts or what?”

“I just started my shift.”

“Nuts to your shift, hang up the ‘back in 5 minutes’ sign, we need to talk.”

Ella doesn’t need to twist my arm very hard, I hang up the sign and lock up behind me. The day picks up around us, the sun higher up, people rushing and traffic slowing down. Beyond a thicket of oaks, the tennis courts emerge, deserted as usual. Ella and I sit down on a bench, she finds a joint in her purse and lights it, passes it to me, I take a couple drags and pass it back.

“You remember the night Tyler died?” asks Ella.

“How could I forget?” It hits me, it’s the time of the season. “Was that today?”

“Yesterday.”

“Shit, sorry Ella, nobody else mentioned it. What’s it been, five years?”

Ella nods, passes the joint back and starts, “this is going to sound weird.”

I wait for her to continue.

“I saw Tyler yesterday.”

“You visited Tyler, you mean?”

“No, let me explain. I was at home reading a book, it was late, I heard a noise in my kitchen. So I put down the book and slowly start walking to the kitchen, but the noise is in the hall now, it sounds like footsteps. I get to the hall, and it’s quiet. The noise stopped, I was a bit freaked out so I go to my balcony for a smoke, and then…” Ella stops. “I see Tyler walking through the courtyard. I grab my sweater and run after him, but he’s gone when I get outside.”

“Well,” I begin, “that’s weird.” But not that weird. In between Ella’s Anne Rice and Stephen King novels, dark makeup and Doc Martens, I’ve developed certain expectations from her.

“If you think that’s weird, take a look at these,” says Ella, fingering through her purse again. She takes out a few polaroid photographs, I can make out footsteps in the pavement under a light, foggy rain. “If it wasn’t for the rain, I might’ve believed I imagined the whole thing.”

I ash the joint and flip through the polaroids, “maybe you did see Tyler.”

“I don’t have a doubt about it.”

“I’m sure there’s nobody else he’d want to visit, that’s for sure,” I say, trying to sound warm, hoping I’m not sounding like my usual sarcastic self.

“So yeah, that was my night. You got any plans for the weekend?”

“My parents want me to visit, well my mom does anyway.”

Ella gives me a sad look, she knows better than anyone, I hate going back to Roseburg.

“Don’t worry, I don’t think I’m going to go.”

“You should come hang out with us later then, I’m having a get-together with some friends from the school, you should stop by, bring that guy you work with.”

“Miller? He’s off late tonight, but sure, he might be up for it.”

“We’re not even meeting up ‘til 7-8 anyway, come by after 6 or whenever.”

“Sounds great,” I say, genuinely meaning it. Ella gives me a big hug and we walk away in opposite directions. I love days when she works early, when she has time to stop by the store. I miss the old days.

 

Someone’s waiting for me in front of the store when I get back.

“Hey! I’ve been waiting almost ten minutes!”

If that’s the worst thing that happens to you today… “Sorry about that,” I say. I open the store and let him in, I head straight for the back, I never put the new albums out, he can look for it for a few minutes.

“I was looking for the new-”

“Cannibal Corpse?” I ask, holding up the CD.

“Cassette?”

“One second.”

I hand him the tape, ring him out and send him on his way. The store is peacefully dead again, I turn on the radio and grab a book out of my bag, get comfortable and ride out the high.

Afternoon

I’m always happy when Miller gets to work, happier when he’s on time. He’s dressed grunge, but he doesn’t care much for music, he’s stoned all the time, he’s happy all the time. He’s holding two cups of Starbucks and croissants for the two of us.

“Got your usual,” he says, smiling.

“Oh my god, thanks Miller,” I take the coffee and sip, it’s much better than Bill’s crap. “How was your weekend?”

“I saw that Silence of the Lambs movie Saturday night,” starts Miller.

“Cool! How was it?”

“Fucking awesome! You should definitely go see it.” He has an almost childlike happiness and calm to everything he does, he’d be just as happy telling me he sat in a waiting room playing cards by himself all weekend, I envy that constitution.

“Did you take Lana?”

“Well,” he stops and takes a bite out of his croissant. “I went alone, actually, couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone.”

“Oh,” I say, sipping my coffee. “Is everything alright with Lana?”

“I don’t know, kind of? We’re reaching a point I guess, I don’t think either of us expected to get this far, a beauty queen and a stoner, and it’s not like we’re going to get married and have kids or anything. I think we both just feel like it’s started to run its course.”

“Has she said anything?”

“Nah, neither have I.”

“I’m sorry to hear,” I say. “Hey, did you want to come to a get-together with me and Ella tonight? She invited some friends from her school I don’t know, it would suck a lot less if you were there.”

“Like right after work?”

“Yeah.”

“Sure, I don’t think I’ve got anything going on, if it was important, I’d remember, right?”

I snicker, he has a point. “Remind me to leave you the address before I take off tonight.”

“No problem. So what are we going to do today?”

Work, obviously, is the least desirable option. I shake my head.

“We should head over to the video store,” says Miller. “Let me just sneak out and have a quick smoke in the alley.” Miller heads out through the back door, I add a 1 to the sign and hang it back up, ‘back in 15 minutes.’

Miller and I cut through another alley to the video store, the black cat that wanders around here is laying on a wood fence, it barely notices us. I offer my hand to the cat and he accepts the pet, I don’t even know who’s cat this is, but I’ve seen him almost every day for five years now. By noon, the video store has only just opened, Miller and I take advantage of the free popcorn and start wandering the aisles, we’ve spent too much time wandering here.

“I know what I’m getting,” says Miller, grabbing the last Edward Scissorhands VHS behind the box. “You find anything?”

I hand him a copy of Child’s Play 2, Miller laughs. We pick up soda, candy, and more popcorn, then head back to the store.

I’m sweating when we step back into the store, the ceiling fan runs too slowly, looks like it’s going to collapse. I stick the popcorn in the microwave, Miller steps out for another smoke and I pop Edward Scissorhands into the VCR behind the counter. Miller gets back, a strong, familiar odor follows him, I put a bowl of popcorn on the counter and we sit down for the movie together.

I shove the popcorn bag into the microwave, Miller steps out for another smoke and I pop Edward Scissorhands into the VCR behind the counter. Miller gets back, stoned and happy, I put a bowl of popcorn and a bowl of candy on the counter and we sit down and enjoy the show.
Halfway through the movie, a customer walks in. Hopefully just a looky-loo, I think, nope. He steps up to the counter and asks for help. I pause the tape and walk around the counter, Miller sneaks out the back door again.

“What were you looking for?”

“Where’s your foreign section?”

“Just on the other side, here,” I point. Our foreign music section is a joke, hopefully he has a sense of humor for the two rows of Santana, the random tango and that French guy the owner got really into during his vacation in Brittany. He quickly flips the CDs and looks back at me, “nothing Canadian?”

Canadian? “What exactly were you looking for?”

“Tragically Hip?”

And you looked in the foreign section… “Oh, we just have them under rock, most people wouldn’t think to check the foreign section.”

“Of course, sorry about that.”

It only takes him a moment to find the Road Apples he was looking for, I ring him out and sit back down to the movie, but Miller is still gone. It’s a slow day, after he gets back, we finish the movie and have a smoke, then we pop in Child’s Play, it isn’t interrupted. The clock hits 4, I tell Miller I’m going to grab liquor for the shindig, write down the address for Ella’s apartment, and take off for the night.

Evening

There’s a forty of rum weighing my satchel down. I stop by my apartment to change, notice the answering machine on my way out, and dial Minnesota again, no answer. I make for Ella’s apartment and arrive late, as usual. There are already people I don’t know at the get-together, playing scrabble and handing out beers and party favors. I hold out my bottle of rum as an offering, and I’m welcomed into the group. I chat with Ella on the couch for a short while, then the group decides to head outside and smoke a few joints, I agree, even though Miller hasn’t arrived yet.

We all stop at an old park bench across from a high school familiar to Ella and I. The slide and swings, my favorite places, my favorite person, I put on my headphones while the group starts passing a couple joints around, my favorite music. I try not to think of Mom expecting me, knowing I probably won’t show up, Dad saying “I told you so,” and chain smoking. It’s difficult dealing with sick people, sick parents are worse, if only for knowing they passed it on to you… my fingers fidget without a thought, my hands ache as I crack my knuckles, I should be happy here, but I’m not.

One of the guys passes me the joint, I take my drags and keep it going, focusing only my music. It hits me quickly, I don’t smoke much anymore, it makes me too content with everything, is that your secret, Miller? Just not dealing with any of it? I notice a small light in the sky before anybody else, it starts to pulse and come near, I pull my headphones down around my neck and point it out to Ella, asking “do you see that?”

Ella notices and points it out to the rest of the group, “what is that?”

The light gets closer, pulsing more erratically until it’s hovering above us, whirring and emitting a kind of warmth while blue and green lights flash, it’s beautiful. The guy passing the weed out has quickly ashed the joints and put them away, he seems to be in a bit of a panic, but I’m still, lost in wonder, gazing at the sky.

“Hey Alex!” a voice calls out. “Alex!”

The light quickly fades, I feel like I just woke up from a good dream. “Please tell me you’re all hearing that,” I beg the group, unsure, then I notice Miller down the walk.

“I stopped by the apartment but nobody was there,” he laughs. “Smells good out here, mind if I light one?” He doesn’t wait for anybody to answer.

“Did you see that light?” I ask.

“What light?”

“It was like, a UFO or something, weird, colored lights, they sort of flickered and pulsed, came near us and hovered above – you all saw it, right? It was there for a few seconds then disappeared.”

“I saw it,” Ella says. “It was definitely a UFO, we saw a visitor tonight.”

The group has been talking and reached a consensus while I smoked with Miller. “So we’re heading down to the pub, we’re thinking it might not be a good idea to stick around here.”

“I think,” I start. “I’m going to the bus terminal.”

“You’re going to Roseburg?” asks Ella.

I nod my head and turn to Miller, “sorry I dragged you out here.”

“It’s cool,” he smiles, not phazed in the slightest. “Mind if I walk you? I don’t really drink that much.” Go figure.

Miller and I part ways with the group and head to Seattle’s main artery, Union Station.

“You never talk about Roseburg much,” says Miller after I buy my Greyhound ticket.

“Not much to say, I suppose.”

Miller wraps an arm around me, tucks my long hair back. He’s warm, he smells like cigarettes and weed, I smile up at him.

“Why don’t we do a movie when you get back?”

I nestle my head into him and nod. He lets go as they call out for Roseburg and I get in the queue. The bus driver punches my ticket and stops me, “if you’re travelling alone, young lady, feel free to move my backpack and sit up front.” I thank him and find a seat on the bus, the lights switch off as the engine kicks into gear, and I watch the lights as they start to pass by outside.

Comedians of Mars

the Man with the 22” Dick

Malcolm Dawes is an American voice actor from Seattle, Washington. He is best known as the English voice of Sushi on the popular Japanese cartoon Chef Yamaguchi.

A- I caught up with Malcolm Dawes in the Little Green Men Studios building in the McDonald’s District of New Columbus, Mars. He’s inside watching a cartoon on a screen and recording vocals. We sit down by a mixing table, he offers me a glass of water as I take out my antique tape recorder.

So how does one go about becoming a voice actor?

Dawes: Quite by accident actually. I suppose you could say I started back in my college days, though I didn’t know it then. It was the 20s, I was in law school in Boston, I had this friend, Mason Tucker, and he used to do these drawings, these cartoons, they were a riot. There was one character, most people know him as Prax the Martian Invader these days, but back when he was just a sketch in Mason’s notebook, he was Prober the Intergalactic Asstronaut, and he didn’t have his sidekick mutt back then, he had a dildo probe with an artificial intelligence, just as good. I used to read the comics to my friends, I’d do different voices for the characters, everybody thought it was hilarious.

Well, eventually I dropped out of law school, it just wasn’t for me. A few years passed, I had just about completely forgot about Mason’s characters, then one day, out of the blue, I get a phone call from Mason. He tells me he’s in a studio on Mars, he’s got a friend there, and his friend wants to turn the sketches into fully animated cartoon segments. His friend was Trey Yardie, and he started the first adult entertainment network on Mars, Green Dick Studios, about twenty years ago. He wanted some short clips to run in-between programs and thought Mason’s sketches were funny. So Mason asked if I was interested in doing the voices for the characters, I blurted “of course!” I was really excited, I didn’t think twice about it.

So you went to Mars?

Dawes: I couldn’t get there fast enough, and it takes four days in a shuttle. I met Trey, he had a lot of ideas for Green Dick back then, he didn’t just want to operate a smut network on Mars, he saw the market for Martian porn on Earth, real, true, honest-to-god porno from another planet, he was a smart guy. He wanted to use Mason’s characters as mascots for the brand, Prober helped sell the entire idea of alien porno, even though we were producing the exact same scenes you’d find in any porno, fucking isn’t that complicated. Of course though, as Trey often stated, this was a premium product, a lot of money poured into the enterprise, people wanted returns, you know? You couldn’t just fly a girl to Mars and send her back home on the bus to Earth, it took a lot of money to start that studio.

This is where I came in. Trey and Mason knew each other from law school after I dropped out, they were both in media law and they were very good at what they did. That’s where Mason’s characters were born, the voices, and the idea for Green Dick, not to mention a lot of the early funding. The network was called MARSE by the way, I loved that, I think it was channel 288 on early Martian sets. They ordered 10 five-minute shorts from us, they wanted Prober.

We had a lot of fun writing all the scenes, we had an animation studio in Vancouver do the work, but we did all the audio recording and mixing on Mars. It looked bad at first, like a cartoon from the 20th century, we weren’t sure what to expect. We were surprised when the show blew up, even the reruns were seeing a lot of viewership. There was maybe half a million people living on Mars then, and a lot of the infrastructure for speedy internet wasn’t in place yet, hell even cell phone towers were rare. Most of those people living on Mars didn’t even own TVs, they were just grunts who came to Mars for the asteroid belt mining ventures, who never bothered to settle in, so it was very impressive that we were seeing tens of thousands of viewers, of course the porno itself regularly averaged three or four times as many viewers.

So after our initial success, Green Dick ordered more Prober, this time we were on contract for 20 shorts, and Mason had a lot more freedom to do what he wanted with it then, Trey just let him run wild with it, there was nothing Green Dick and MARSE wouldn’t let us do. And anyone who’s ever been a fan of the characters will say this is either where the show started getting interesting, or started its downward spiral. It wasn’t just a show about an alien on a mission for sexy alien girls anymore, Mason just nuts with it. We started including more violence, and drugs in the episodes, there was one or two where Prober eats the strange mushrooms on new planets, there was another, he found a planet made entirely of weed. The alcohol became a staple of the show.

Were there any episodes in particular that were especially memorable to you?

Dawes: So many, it’s hard to remember they were so short, we could do all the audio work in a few hours. There were a few though, the Big Gangbang Theory, we actually got complaints when that one aired, the Thrust Chamber, the Asstrophysicist, the Asstrophysicist 4, How to Ride a Rocket. Those were good days, we were just friends getting paid to tell dirty jokes.

Did you bring your own personality to the characters? How much are the characters influenced directly by you? Are you influenced by the characters?

Dawes: There was definitely a lot of influence from Mason and I. A lot of the stuff in the original sketches actually happened to us in some form or another. (Dawes laughs) There was this one episode, Dwarf Planet, Prober discovers an uncharted planet and it’s full of sexy dwarf girls – that sort of happened to us. We were out drinking in Boston, Mason and I with a couple friends from the school. We bar-hopped for a while, then we see this strip club and decide to go in. Well it must’ve been a theme night, and the theme must’ve been dwarfs because the whole club was overflowing with them, stripping dwarfs on the stage, dwarf porn on the TVs behind the bar, dwarfs getting drunk and belligerent – and there we were. That was the inspiration for the Dwarf Planet episode.

There was another time, we were out drinking again, I think in Toronto that time, Mason and I, we did that a lot back then, we were in law school after all. We’re approached by these three smokin’ hot babes at the bar, they were maybe in their 40s or 50s, we were just 20-something students. They invited us back to a hotel nearby, they didn’t need to ask twice. We called a cab, Mason and I thought we hit the jackpot. We were all talking and drinking for a while, then they wanted to tie us up, you know for fun, we agreed, it was fun, at first. After we were tied up for a bit though, they robbed us and left us in the hotel room, and it wasn’t until housekeeping came knocking the next morning that we got some help, we spent the night talking about life, love, god, in a weird way it was one of the best nights of my life – it was also the inspiration for the Mach Speed MILFs episode.

So to answer your question, yes, we had a lot of influence over the Green Dick Studios characters, and likewise, I think they had a lot over influence on us. It’s an interesting question, it’s difficult to say whether it was the environment, working in a smut studio, or the characters – we would drink,  party with hookers, do drugs, a lot of the same things Prober was doing on TV.

Can you tell me about how Prober became Prax?

Dawes: Well, it actually had a lot to do with those asteroid mining companies I mentioned earlier. They started finding diamonds, iron, titanium, Mars really started to boom, it brought in a lot of new people. This should have been a good thing, but unfortunately, this was a few years later, Trey was no longer with the company, he took a good offer in Old Tokyo, it might’ve been New Edo by then. We had a few people come in and try to take control of the company, they didn’t all like Mason’s cartoons. There was no one event that caused the company to eventually collapse, it was horrendously mismanaged, it was corrupt, we didn’t stand a chance when two new adult entertainment enterprises from LA set up shop on Mars, and started killing us in the ratings, we were just lambs to the slaughter. Green Dick Studios had to declare bankruptcy and liquidate its assets, Mason’s characters got sold to some company in France and that was it. All of a sudden, I was out on my ass, I thought it was the end of my career.

What happened next?

Dawes: I certainly couldn’t stay on Mars anymore. With the influx of new people, cost of living doubled, tripled in a lot of places, food got more expensive, taxes went up as they started building the Martian infrastructure to support all the new people, and I just lost my job, Mars didn’t exactly have an audio production industry.

So I moved back to Seattle, I wanted to stick to voice acting, but Mason wasn’t interested in doing cartoons anymore, he had built a strong client base by then and was making good money. I had a resume though, and I knew a few things about how the business worked now, not just porn, but animation, audio production, marketing, I didn’t just do the voices, I loved getting involved in every aspect. Unfortunately, in spite of all that, voice work was a very difficult profession to get into, especially now that the Americas have four official languages (Author’s note: English, Romantic [comprising the dialects Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian], Mandarin, and Russian) most of the work available to a voice actor was dubbing foreign films, Asian cartoons were the most popular. I finally got an offer from a Japanese company called Toy Shogun doing English dubs for anime cartoons.

I was with Shogun for about a year, I think just less than that, then the company went under. They were counting on selling a lot more toys, but there were problems with the factory I think, there’s always problems somewhere, that’s one thing I’ve learned in this business. So Toy Shogun tanked, fortunately during my time there, I had become good friends with Amy Lee Takashi, she was a marketing coordinator for Shogun, after the company folded, she told me she had a contract with another studio, they have a show that’s been wildly successful in Japan and the Asias, Chef Yamaguchi, it was a light-hearted comedy about fish in a restaurant, Amy got me an audition and I got the part of the fish, Sushi.

Most of my acting career was voicing Sushi. I did that throughout my 30s, I had other offers I’d take as often as I could, but they were mostly independently produced art projects by up-and-coming students, these kids could afford actors, their parents had deep pockets, you had to if you wanted a chance at getting into the entertainment industry. I enjoyed working with them, of course sometimes it was just impossible too, what really surprised me is how many of them told me they loved the old Prober cartoons, that they used to watch them on the internet when they were younger.

So finally, many years later, I think it was around 2150, I remember the Martian bicentennial was happening around that time, I get another call out of the blue from Mason, he explains what’s happened on Mars since I left. It happened that after Green Dick collapsed, the rights to his characters ended up with a French company, but they had no interest in producing cartoons about a Martian with a 22” dick who just went around fucking other aliens, they syndicated the show in the European Union and just sat on the bank, that was all they were interested in. Eventually, that company went bankrupt too, and Mason’s characters were up for sale again. This time they were picked up by a new Martian start-up, Little Green Men Studios, they wanted to focus on producing strictly Martian features with Martian talent. Of course this meant Prober had to clean up his act, they weren’t exactly aiming for family friendly, they just wanted to put a recognizable Martian on TV and computer screens, but by then Martian media regulation was an unfortunate reality.

Was it a difficult transition for Prober?

Dawes: He was renamed Prax, but it wasn’t as difficult as you might think. You’d be surprised how easily transferable the jokes were to a more youth-oriented program. Most of the smut we just replaced with dick and fart jokes, so it wasn’t even all that different at the end. I found it funny actually, Little Green Men kept telling us they could only produce Prax if we took out the sex and drugs, nobody had a problem with the violence though. Prober has vaporized entire planets, like in one episode, Violent Venusian Vixens I believe it was called, the only way for Prober to escape was to kill the entire planet – he killed the shit out of it, there was green blood, red blood, bullets, dismemberment, gore, and what bothered the studio was the purple tits, go figure.

So where does Prober, or Prax I should say, go from here? What does the future hold for Malcolm Dawes?

Dawes: Last year Little Green Men produced the first full-length Prober/Prax feature, Prax the Intergalactic Explorer, which was something of an unexpected success on Mars, they made a lot of money off it, money they used to produce other Mars-centric features and documentaries and establish their brand. They contacted me again a few months ago, they now want to turn it into a trilogy, so here I am recording for the sequel. I’m on contract for one more which we’ll start filming early next year, and after that I plan on retiring – I miss Earth, I miss Seattle, home is always going to be home.

A- I smile and tell him that’s about all I need for my article. He thanks me for stopping by and offers me a drink from his secret, hidden fridge, I ended up staying at the studio for a couple hours longer drinking with him, playing with audio equipment and learning about audio production before we both had to depart.

A Painting of a Sad Clown

Michael Quimby is a children’s entertainer from Mars, best known for his character, Quimby the Clown who briefly appeared on the Martian Broadcasting Company channel.

A- I wasn’t sure I had the right address, I drove up and down the Coca-Cola District in New Columbus for a bit before I found the run-down apartment. Quimby seemed hostile initially. He insisted on more money, I had to call the magazine who settled with him before I could continue the interview.

A- Quimby’s apartment is a mess, there are empty food boxes in the kitchen, an overflowing garbage container and a small mountain of empty beer cans, there are bongs and pipes laying around and I can see some needles as well, it stinks, I’m uncomfortable and only stay because the magazine has expressly told me to.

I’ll start with the obvious question, how did you fall into the clown gig?

Quimby: I was a kid, something like 16, I was temping at MBC, the Martian Broadcasting Company, it was just a summer job, I loved it. I was mostly fetching coffees and sandwiches, unpaid intern stuff, still fun to me. I had a good time then, everybody at the station was getting along so well then, it was a different environment. They used to run the early show in the morning, then the children’s programming followed, I was usually in the studio by then. I’d come in, make the coffees, hand them out, and I’d mostly stick with Robert Islington who used to do the ‘Robby and Bobby’ puppet show with Robert Angelo, he was always early, always smiling. He was very friendly with me in particular, we had a close friendship, I don’t want to say any more than that.

A- Quimby lights a cigarette, fills the room with smoke and odor.

Quimby: I’d sometimes make fun of his character around the staff when he wasn’t around, it sort of evolved into me making jokes for the kids in the audience, I would just clown around. Robert didn’t like that very much, he asked me to stop, he was an angry guy, had a bad temper. He died unexpectedly my second year there, it was an accident – you know those low-orbit speed racers they have here on Mars? Rich boy sport, yeah, well, he miscalculated an orbit, crashed right into an empty field, left pieces of himself and his racer on some poor farmer’s field, and nobody ever missed that son of a bitch.

So anyway, after Robert died, the network needed something to fill the slot after the morning show and before the soaps, a kid’s show. Word got around about these characters I would do on set, and I got invited to interview with some of the higher-ups at the network and they loved the characters. I now realize they loved that I knew nothing about the business, could overwork me, underpay me, and I wouldn’t know any better, and that’s exactly what happened, I didn’t know what was happening and didn’t see what was ahead of me.

We produced fifty episodes of Quimby the Clown to start, and it was a success for MBC. I was making alright money, I was living well, dating a lot, having a good time, people recognized me, I was a celebrity, man!

I remember watching Quimby the Clown as a kid, I used to think about how much fun it must have been working on that set every day.

Quimby: Things were looking up then! I started slaying my demons, I thought I did anyway. I got engaged when we started producing the second season – Carmen, the model. Carmen the hot fuckin’ model.

A- Quimby ashes his cigarette and keeps his head down for a moment. He gets up and grabs two beers from the fridge, hands me one and sits back down.

Quimby: Carmen died before we could get married, and that was too much for me. I didn’t want to do the show anymore, but I was on contract, I had obligations, I couldn’t just abandon it. It started feeling like work, it wasn’t fun anymore, I think most of the people at MBC could see a difference in me. I used to drink on the weekends, I started drinking after work to forget about it, I started drinking before work to make it more bearable, then I was drinking at work, I had a flask I would drink from when no one could see me, when I thought no one could see me.

When did the network decide to cancel Quimby the Clown?

Quimby: Everything went to hell so fast, I was always drunk, a lot of what happened then is a blur. I wasn’t really talking to anyone at the studio anymore, they didn’t know much about what was going on with me, and I’m good at hiding those things because I’ve been abused. So when did the network decide to cancel Quimby the Clown? A few months after Carmen died, the MBC president invites me to his office, and I could just see it coming from a mile away. He tells me they’re going to cancel Quimby, then he hands me this pamphlet, fuck I’ve got it somewhere here-

A- Quimby gets up and fingers through some papers in a file cabinet, he hands me a pamphlet for a rehab center in California.

Quimby: He hands me this pamphlet, and begs me to get treatment.

Did you?

Quimby: Part of me wanted to get better, but it wasn’t just the alcohol, I still don’t want to talk about everything else. It was a nice building in California, swimming pools, tennis courts, there was just one problem with staying clean in that building.

What was that?

Quimby: There were more drugs and alcohol in that rehab building than a Chicago crackhouse. The drugs were expensive, don’t get me wrong, but accessible, hell yeah. I mean, it’s already easy enough getting your fix in California since they declared independence and legalized all drugs, but this facility was something else.

So you relapsed?

Quimby: No, I wouldn’t really say that, I never really stopped.

A- Quimby seems apprehensive to my questions. I consider telling him I have enough material, he lights another cigarette.

Do you suppose, maybe if you cleaned up, the network might consider reviving Quimby the Clown?

A- Quimby cracks a smile and laughs for the first time.

Quimby: Haven’t you been listening to me? It was never about Quimby the Clown, they can produce Bozo the Clown next, Fucky the Clown, hell who’s on the network now? What’s his name?

A- I shake my head at Quimby, he ponders for a moment and gives up.

Quimby: Well, who gives a shit anyway? The point is, those bastards just need programs to fill slots, and they’re good at doing it on the cheap. They’ll prime another stupid kid blinded by the studio lights, let it run its course, pocket as much as they can, rinse and repeat. You wanted to know how comedy works? That’s how it works.

A- Quimby ashes his cigarette, I feel as if he’s quietly asking why I’m still in his apartment while he eyes me. I tell him I have enough material, wish him luck and leave.

Spread Love, It’s the Brooklyn Way

David Ovitz is better known by his stage name, Dave Ovi. He is a stand-up comic from Brooklyn, and head writer for the Martian talk show Late Night Life on Mars.

A- The train ride from Union in New Columbus through the Western Mars Territory is surreal. I arrive in Lake Okazaki, Ovitz is waiting for me. We drive back to his posh house, I’m very happy to be here.

What was the first joke you ever wrote?

Ovitz: The first joke I ever wrote, hmm, I would’ve been a child. I grew up in the Brooklyn slums, we were just another poor Jewish family in New York. I think I know, I was young, seven or eight. My father was always distant, but my mother, she was overbearing, I used to love playing pranks on her. I should explain first, in an observant household, you don’t mix meat and dairy, it’s in the talmud, and my mother was observant. One day, I heat myself some leftover kreplach, that’s like a dumpling, and I take these eraser shavings and I put them inside an empty parmesan cheese container. I sat down at the table and waited for my mother to walk into the room and notice the parmesan shaker (Ovitz laughs) then I smile at her while I shake the eraser shavings onto my kreplach. She started screaming as soon as I picked it up, “what are you doing!” It was very funny to me, I loved pranking her.

What was it like growing up in the Brooklyn slums?

Ovitz: Just imagine being hungry, now imagine there’s lots of drugs around, lots of violence, guns, that sort of thing. There was very little opportunity for people like me, after high school I ended up making friends with some small-time criminals. Those were bad days, we would break into rich people’s homes, steal guns and sell them on the streets. It paid us well, we had to eat.

How did you go from robbing people, to stand-up comedy?

Ovitz: Well, they say if you don’t plan to escape, you plan to get caught, and we never really did have exit strategies. We were just stupid twenty-year-olds, there was so much thrill and excitement then, we couldn’t count our money before we spent it – we were making too much noise, attracting unwanted attention, we got caught. I was sentenced to a five year term, I served four in Cheyenne, I was actually one of the first people to serve time there after it got converted to a prison.

My options after jail were very limited, as you can imagine. I was always tempted to go back to crime, I tried though, for my mother, I wanted her to be proud of me. I took a job with the first place that was willing to hire me, some small, then unknown, comedy club in Brooklyn, the Break. I was a custodian there for a while, but I got to know some of the guys who did stand-up there, they were a lot like me, after their set we’d often have drinks at the bar, get stoned, all that fun stuff. They thought I was a funny guy, I used to get excited for after work. I started writing jokes in my spare time, I was just trying to impress these guys, but they loved the jokes, they were really encouraging. I kept working on those jokes and spending my nights with those comics, soon they were letting me do short sets on slow nights. Eventually, one day, it was Fat John, asked me to open for him, that was my first real gig. There’s not much more to it in stand-up, you just keep at it. Then, one day, Fat John’s name was under mine.

Did that change any of the relationships you had with other comics?

Ovitz: There was one, one or two I think who didn’t like it, who got jealous, but you can’t please everybody. I took Fat John with me on my first tour of the Northern Americas, we never really spoke much after that. I became friends with Chris Kincade later, he was another popular comic on the New York scene then, we stayed very close, he’s one of my head writers now.

What’s the difference between writing jokes for a stand-up audience, and writing jokes for a talk show audience?

Ovitz: Why it’s practically the same! Tony Ferraro does what we do, he gets on the stage, tells a few jokes, makes a few comments on current events, it’s hardly any different. We like researching the guests, trying to find interesting questions to ask, questions that open them for a joke or a good anecdote, that’s the only real difference.

A- Ovitz’s wife, Sandra Ovitz, enters the room, she offers us both food and drink, and we happily accept. I have a few bites of her homemade cookies before I realize I’ve left Ovitz hanging.

I’m sorry. Can you tell me about your current projects?

Ovitz: The network won’t let me say much, but I can say a bit. There’s a new sitcom we’re working on, pretty standard fare, nuclear family, comedic situations, this one’s set on Mars though, I’m currently working out some script ideas with a couple other writers for it. I’m also doing a movie, it’s a small role, but my agent asked me about it and I was really interested, it’s a biopic about the internationally famous and renowned superstar of the late 20th century Al Yankovic. It’s a serious movie about his chaotic love life, his infamous sex scandals and many mistresses and children, he was a beast, man! I have the role of one of his close friends in a few scenes, and the movie was written by the Zooker Brothers, it’s a great script, I’m really excited to be a part of it.

A- Ovitz excuses himself to an office in the next room and returns with a script, Portrait of a God – the Weird Al Yankovic Story.

Ovitz: I’ll let you have a peek if you promise not to tell.

A- I find it hard to refuse that offer, I skim through the pages, it really is a great script. I put it back down on the table and notice a book on the Library of Ashurbanipal.

Assyrian History, eh?

Ovitz: I’ve been reading about Ashurbanipal lately, he was a very interesting figure. The library, Nineveh, it’s all amazing stuff. I really love history.

That’s fitting, I usually end by asking what the future holds.

Ovitz: Hopefully some time to read.

A- We have a laugh. His wife Sandra returns and insists I stay for dinner and meet their two children, unfortunately I have to catch a shuttle to the Hague province next and Ovitz drives me back to the train station.

Quarks

Dr. Stefan Müller is first and foremost a Martian scientist in the physics field, he is well known for his comic strip Quarks, which appears daily in the Martian paper Red Planet.

A- Oxford, in the Hague Province of Mars reminds me of Earth the most of all the places I’ve visited so far. Müller meets me outside with his pet german shepherd, Chi, and invites me into his home office, it looks like a twister swept through the room.

What a mess, doctor! How many projects do you have on the go right now?

Müller: Too many. I always have a lot of projects on the go! As soon as I start one, I have an idea for another, so I start on it before I forget the idea.

Is being a comic-strip artist a demanding job?

Müller: It could be, I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s demanding, as you put it, if you’re interested in it, if you enjoy doing it, you’ll be able to write the jokes. Of course, you won’t always be interested in it. I like to keep a good stack of comic strips ready in advance, I don’t always have the time or patience to sit down and do it, it’s not always so enjoyable. I like doing the holiday strips though, those are always a lot of fun for me, we have all our own holidays on Mars, Conquest Day, Martian New Year, the First Martian Birthday, we love our holidays, and I love writing jokes specifically for Martians.

Did you always write jokes, or were you always a physicist first?

Müller: I have always been more interested in educational pursuits, science has always been my one mistress. To be honest, I never really cared for comedy, most of it that I had seen felt very low-brow to me, it was uninteresting, I used to think I was a lot smarter than I really was. And the arts, I never very much cared for that either, didn’t understand most of it, didn’t care to, now science, physics, mathematics, that I can understand, I can see the beauty in that.

So how does a physicist with no humor end up writing a humorous comic strip?

Müller: Well, it happened that one day I wanted to try painting. I had a lot of ideas, or rather, pictures and images in my head that I wanted to express, but couldn’t. So I started taking some lessons, I wanted to show people those images, I wanted to express that which I couldn’t in words. It turned out, I was a miserable failure as an artist, but I enjoyed drawing simple sketches. I got alright at drawing cartoons, I liked drawing those, I would make jokes about my coworkers through my comics, I poked fun at my university and the sciences in general. It helped me think, it was a break from work.

Well, as you can no doubt tell, most of my work ends up somewhere in this mess. One day, a friend of my wife’s, Tara Schrieb, she’s the editor for Red Planet, is over to see my wife, they’re old friends. My wife Julie wanted to show Tara something I was working on at the time, I don’t recall what it was now, and she found some of my cartoons lying around my office. She reads a few and she thinks they’re quite funny, she asks if she can print them in the paper, and not thinking much about them, I tell her to feel free, I give her as many comics as I can find, and I forgot about the whole silly thing.

It turns out she got great feedback on the comics, apparently people loved them. So she printed some more, and soon asked me if I was interested in turning it into a weekly contribution for their Sunday Edition, which included a pull-out with comics in it. I figured I still had a bunch of comics laying around I could keep giving her to keep her for a while, so I agreed. Then about a year later, she’s back, she wants me to start making a daily contribution now, and she makes a good offer, my wife really wanted me to take it, but I just didn’t have an interest in it. I had started running out of comics I could give to Tara, and she started complaining too, they wanted some kind of continuity, people enjoyed it, she said, but they wanted to make it more accessible, whatever the hell that means.

A- Müller’s cat surprises me, appearing out of nowhere, it hops on the couch and sits on his lap.

Müller: I kept putting off talking to Tara for as long as I could, but of course, one day my wife invites her over again, I couldn’t hide from her anymore. I had spent the last while sifting through all my old notes and journals, finding any comics I could give her, and I had a small folder full of them when she stopped by that day. I gave her all the comics I had, I told her it was a gift to her, she could do whatever she wanted with them, but I had no interest in producing them daily.

A few months after that, Tara pays another visit, Julie was getting jealous by this time, Tara was stopping by to see me more often than her. Tara tells me that’s it, she has a week of comics left to print, and then she has nothing left, and has to stop printing Quarks. She brought some letters too, from people who had written into the paper about how much they loved the comic strip, fan mail I guess you could call it, she leaves these with me and asks me once more to just do the damn comic. So I finally decide, I’ll just do the damn comic, if only to keep Tara from breaking balls anymore. I wrote as many comics as I could that night and spent the next morning throwing out the ones I didn’t think were as good as the others, then I went to see Tara, she was ecstatic!

From that day, I just did it. It’s not always work, but sometimes it feels like it, but I still do the drawings for myself, so a few more here and there isn’t really a big deal. People like the strip, that means a lot to me, but I must admit, I certainly never set out to be a comic strip artist.

Do you think you’re good at making funny observations because you’re a scientist, or that you’re good at making funny observations in spite of being a scientist?

Müller: I think we should all learn to laugh at ourselves, not just in science, it’s hard to take most things seriously for me. We’ve conquested Mars, yet we can’t stop kids from killing each other in Brooklyn, we ship food to Mars and diamonds from the asteroid belt back to Earth, we preach religion and still we can’t seem to feed our own poor, in our own countries – it’s all one big, bad joke. I like to think scientists understand this more than most people, we often must first acknowledge how little we do know. A smart man knows that he knows very little, humor is a way for all of us to deal with the realities of life.

Do you think God could be a comedian?

A- Müller lets a laugh slip.

Müller: Probably the best one there ever was!

A- I must get going, Müller offers to walk with me and brings Chi. As we part ways, he warns me not to take any wooden nickels, laughs, and turns back with his dog.

Swimming Pools, a Pokemon Fanfiction

Swimming Pools (Part I)

The high diving board twanged on the ricochet as Misty dove beneath into the pool, the light bent and she could see the teeming life in the water, a passing school of goldeen, a horsea and poliwag teasing a sleeping staryu, the magikarp keeping to themselves, and above, sitting poolside clutching his aching head, her psyduck. The short yellow duck watched as Misty climbed out of the pool, and nervously backed away as she approached with a raised arm, knowing she expected him to dive in after her and begin learning to swim when the doors to the Cerulean Gym were thrown open behind them. Misty quickly turned a smile to the two men in dark suits who had started walking down the narrow path that bisected the pool, and whispered “you’re one lucky duck,” to the psyduck before turning to meet the men.

“Misty?” asked the taller of the two men.

“That’s me, how can I help you?”

“Our boss called about the lapras.”

“Of course!” said Misty, remembering the phone call earlier that day. “Can I see it?”

The shorter of the two men reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved an onyx black case with pokeballs inside, he picked one and tossed it by the pool, releasing a lapras. Misty was stunned, noticing first the odor from its shell and then the pale skin, a sickly green aqua, she noticed scars around its long neck, she checked under its fins and found callouses, all the signs of a neglectful owner.

“Is your boss aware that owning lapras is now illegal?” asked Misty.

“Save it,” said the tall man. “Boss just wants it back in fighting condition, can you do that?”

“Can I do that? This pokemon is clearly being neglected!” Misty looked up at the sickly lapras, a sad face looked back.

“She isn’t gonna do it,” said the tall man. The shorter man sighed and picked up the pokeball at the edge of the pool and recalled the lapras. The two men turned to leave.

“Wait just a minute!” cried Misty, grabbing the taller man by his arm and trying to hold him back. “This lapras needs care!”

The taller man swung his fat arm around, knocking Misty’s face and sending her flying back into the pool. Misty collected herself as the doors shut behind the men and chased them outside, dripping a trail of water as she ran. The two men entered a white cube truck together, Misty slammed her fists against the door and window until it rolled down and the shorter man puffed a cloud of smoke in her face and the truck drove off, kicking up another cloud of petrol fumes and dust. Misty caught her breath after a few coarse coughs as the dust settled behind the truck and it disappeared on Route 5, headed south towards Saffron City.

A Tale of Two Cities (Part I, Celadon and Saffron)

Chelsea showed little interest in the pokedolls, admittedly her favorite item in stock at the Celadon Department Store, while she organized them neatly next to the pretty stones, fire, leaf, thunder, water stones in wicker baskets marked ¥2100. Behind the counter, she returned to her magazine, Pokemon World (Kanto Edition), a monthly pokemon interest journal, and to an article by Sabrina, Saffron City’s gym leader, on the difficulty of raising and nurturing the psychic type. Chelsea glanced at the clock above the stairs, barely after eleven and bored, she looked outside, warm sunlight glistened off the fountain in the center of Celadon City, poliwag tadpoles dove and swam in the water and Chelsea watched, thinking of the rooftop of the giant store, and a cold lemonade waiting.

Later, after lunch, the day slowed down. On a good day, the department store was burst with customers, usually pokemon trainers in town to challenge for Erika’s Rainbowbadge, and seeking an extra edge, often find themselves in the store buying x-attack and x-accuracy. Some days however, were slow, drab, and she’d spend her time organizing stock, cleaning the store and selling flowery mail to girls younger than her who still enjoyed that sort of thing. Chelsea rang out another customer and looked outside again, the blue sky had turned grey and brought with it a light rain, a boon for the poliwag who jumped with excitement, not so much for Chelsea, who didn’t have an umbrella and loathed Route 7’s underground tunnel.

The day ended and Chelsea put away the cash, punched herself out and locked the store behind her, sighing at the sound of the rain just beyond the door. Chelsea first ran for the hotel across the street, and had to readjust her shirt in the shelter, she was almost soaked. Chelsea decided to wait out the rain and ran for the Game Corner Slots, inside, she sat down at a row of nickel slots and ordered a drink, she was feeding the slot nickels and sipping her tea when she heard a commotion by the door, two men in dark suits were arguing with a third, who looked to her like a pokemon trainer in traveler’s garb, their argument got louder until one of the staff asked them to “please take it outside,” and they left. Chelsea could see the rain had slowed down as the door opened, and decided to leave as well, keeping a quick pace all the way to the underground tunnel.

Chelsea’s footsteps echoed loud inside the empty tunnel. She played a game on her cell phone until she heard angry voices at the end of the tunnel and pocketed it, creeping slowly down the winding path, the voices got louder and she could make out the two men from the Game Corner Slots again, standing over and kicking the third, bloody and beaten on the ground. Chelsea was instantly struck with a terrible fear and backed away as quietly as she could, until she felt safe running and raced back out to Celadon City, to the Celadon Condos building.

*

Stripe, the young growlithe sat up, attentive to a knocking on the door, but felt no hostility when his owner Sean, opened the door and let old friend Chelsea inside the apartment. The fiery puppy pokemon ran up and sat with her on the couch, sensing an anxiety in her voice after Sean asked “what happened?” while putting on a pot of water in the kitchen, that gradually faded as she told him about the men outside the Game Corner Slots and in the underground tunnel while digging her fingers through his thick, warm fur.

“I’m just glad you’re safe,” began Sean, sitting down with two cups of green tea. “Honestly Chels, one of these days you’re going to get in a lot of trouble.”

“I know,” said Chelsea, only half-emphatically. “What should we do now?”

“Well, obviously you need to talk to the police, they’ll probably want you to fill out a witness report or something, and they’ll probably want it tonight.”

“You’re right,” agreed Chelsea. “Do you think you could come with me? I’m just a little shook up.”

“Of course,” said Sean, smiling at Stripe. “Want to go for a walk?”

*

“That should just about do it,” said the police officer at the kiosk. “Be sure to let us know if you remember anything else!”

Chelsea and Sean stepped out of the Celadon City police station, the rain had calmed down, leaving behind a moist, cold air, a perfect night to see the rare ice bird, Articuno, flying above, hidden in the thick clouds. She emerged with Sean and Stripe at the east end of Route 7’s underground tunnel, in Saffron City feeling relieved. The two stopped in front of her condo building when a white cube truck drove by on the street in front and Chelsea almost choked, screaming “that’s him!” to Sean, who turned to see the truck pull into a gas station at the end of the street.

“Let’s follow him!” said Chelsea.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, these guys seem pretty dangerous.”

Sean’s voice faded behind her as she darted for the building and ran up the stairs. Inside her messy apartment, Bulba, her fat bulbasaur was picking leaves off her plants, again. Chelsea picked up the heavy, green pokemon, conscious of the sensitive flower bulb growing on its back, and carried it downstairs where it greeted Stripe like an old comrade. The white cube truck was nowhere to be seen.

“Where did they go?” asked Chelsea.

“Route 6,” answered Sean, pointing south. “Must be headed to Vermilion City.”

Rocket Inc. (Part I)

A light rain kept the air frigid in Vermilion City, Chelsea and Sean kept warm and dry in their jackets behind Stripe who led, hardly aware of the temperature, and Bulba relaxed in a pokeball on Chelsea’s hip. They walked up and down the empty Vermilion streets for a while and decided eventually to check the docks which usually played host to passing cruise ships. Chelsea recognized the white cube truck parked by the shore, and down the street from it could make out two men in dark suits unloading crates from a barge and talking amongst themselves. The shorter of the two men lit a cigarette after a while, and the two strolled down the docks, Chelsea and Sean quietly approached.

Chelsea could hear sad whimpers and cries become louder as she approached the crates with Sean. Inside the crates they found scores of trapped pokemon, clefairy, vulpix, machop, and eevee clawed and pried for freedom, Stripe sympathized with a trapped growlithe. Chelsea slowly walked onto the barge and saw larger, barred cages with bigger pokemon, ponyta, electabuzz, magmar, and pinsir, sitting lonely and hopeless. The pokemon fell silent suddenly and Chelsea could sense something was wrong, she turned to find the two men were fast approaching the barge again.

“You kids need to go home, right now,” said the taller of the two men.

Stripe growled at the two men while Chelsea, hand anxious on her hip like a gunfighter, finally decided to release Bulba. The two men exchanged a knowing glance and reached for their pokeballs, releasing a pidgeotto and furret onto the barge who eyed the growlithe and bulbasaur, all awaiting their masters’ orders.

“Let’s make this quick,” said the tall man to his pidgeotto. “Kick up a whirlwind!”

The great bird responded, flapping its wings, picking up sand and dust in a twister. Stripe ran forward as Sean called “use your agility!” and darted through the twister.

“Now!” commanded the shorter man to his furret. “Use a quick attack!” The speedy ferret struck the growlithe, ending its advance.

Chelsea watched Stripe drop, and called out “leech seed!” to Bulba, who’s bulb erupted and sprouted life-stealing seeds onto the furret. “Now put ‘im to sleep!” A thick cloud of smoke blew out of the bulbasaur’s bulb and sank over the barge, swallowing up the furret and sending it to sleep. The short man withdrew the furret.

The pidgeotto still lurked over the barge, doing a feather dance over the bulbasaur and growlithe. Sean waited until the pidgeotto was directly over Stripe before shouting “flame wheel!” Chelsea withdrew her bulbasaur to safety as the growlithe spun in a circle and the air around it caught fire, he sent the flaming wheel upwards, scorching the pidgeotto, who collapsed onto the barge. The tall man withdrew the bird, Stripe growled at the men again.

“Alright kids,” began the tall man. “You win, fair and square, we’ll just be leaving now-”

“Not so fast!” said a sharp voice down the street. A red-haired young woman stepped into view. “I’ve been looking for you two!” Chelsea immediately recognized her as Cerulean City’s gym leader Misty from her contributions to Pokemon World.

“Where is your boss hiding?” asked Misty.

The two men laughed, not afraid of Misty. Anticipating their response, Misty simply tossed a pokeball and released Starmie. “Get ‘em with your confuse ray Starmie!” The starfish pokemon fired a bright ray from its ruby red core at the two men.

“I’ll ask again,” said Misty. “Where is your boss hiding?”

“Boss?” answered the tall man, feeling drunk from the effects of the confuse ray. “He’s on the island, of course. You know, the mansion.”

“What mansion?”

“You new recruits are always forgetting, I’ll tell you one last time: you sail west from the Seafoam Islands, past Cinnabar, keep west and you’ll see the island, you can’t miss it.”

“Thanks!” said Misty, patting him on the head. “You’ve been very helpful. Now,” she turned to Chelsea and Sean. “That was pretty impressive for a bulbasaur and growlithe.” Misty crouched over and pet the two pokemon.

“We’ve got to get to that island!” said Chelsea.

“Hold your horses!” said Misty. “A Rocket hideout is a dangerous place, and besides, you probably don’t even have any water pokemon, do you?”

Chelsea’s hand hovered over her hip again, Bulba’s pokeball hung alone. Misty hopped onto Starmie’s back and turned to Chelsea and Sean, “I’ll be ok!” Starmie hovered over the water and sped west, kicking up a wake behind it. Alone again with Sean, Chelsea jogged up and down the docks and saw an unattended fishing boat roped to a nearby pier that upon closer investigation, had the key waiting in the ignition.

Swimming Pools (Part II)

A faint glow from Starmie’s jewel core shone through the mist and fog, Misty watched keenly ahead and past Cinnabar Island, saw the enormous white mansion on the lone island. Starmie rode up to the shore, Misty hopped off and took a look around the island, the green field was brimming with wild roaming pokemon, even at night, bulbasaurs eating the shrubbery, dashing pikachus, oddish and bellsprout camouflaged among the greenery and beyond the field an enormous granite fountain that hosted its own plethora of pokemon, horsea, poliwag, slowpokes and vaporeon. Misty ambled towards the front door while on the shore, a fishing boat anchored and Chelsea and Sean disembarked.

Chelsea and Sean wandered through the yard in awe of the great mansion, the yard rich in pokemon and berries, the granite fountain, and were drawn to a large set of windows. The two peeked through the windows and saw an enormous private gym for pokemon battles inside, two men were presently on opposite ends, and eyeing each other in the center, a rhydon and a typhlosion. The island shook as the rhinoceros pokemon struck the ground near the fiery badger, unleashing a dangerous earthquake attack, Chelsea felt the heat from the fire when the typhlosion responded with its flamethrower. Chelsea, Sean, and the two battling Rockets were caught off-guard when Misty dashed into the gym and Starmie hovered behind.

“We don’t have to do this the hard way!” said Misty.

Both men ordered their pokemon to attack the Starmie, who was waiting with its hydro pump and soaked the two giants beneath, knocking both out. The two trainers withdrew to the mansion and Misty recalled her exhausted Starmie.

Chelsea and Sean wandered further beyond the gym windows, past a hedge at the end of the mansion and inside through a service entrance into an empty kitchen inside, stocked with pokemon treats, rare candies, irons, proteins, pretty stones neatly organized on shelves. Chelsea and Sean walked through the kitchen and into the main hall where waves reflected off the stone tile floor, an aquarium dwarfed the room, playing host to a private collection of dragonair, wartortle, croconaw, dewgong, seadra and a lone lapras resting quietly away from the rest.

“How did you get here?” called Misty, stepping down the stairs carrying loose papers and an organizer.

“We found a boat,” said Chelsea.

“Well, the good news is we know who he is, his name is Ruben,” began Misty, Chelsea and Sean waited for it. “The bad news is, he’s gone.” Misty flipped through the organizer. “And now we know he works directly for Giovanni, so I’m guessing he might be headed for Viridian City.”

“You mean you’re guessing we might be headed for Viridian,” corrected Chelsea.

“Right now we need some rest,” began Misty. “I have a friend in Pallet Town who can take the lapras, but that’s as far as we’ll get tonight.”

A Tale of Two Cities (Part II, Pallet and Viridian)

The light broke through the thick-paned windows of Professor Oak’s laboratory, easing Chelsea awake, she nudged Sean out of his slumber and they both got up out of their makeshift beds. They walked down the library, overflowed with pokemon books, and made their way outside, where Misty sat on a bench by the shore with Professor Oak and the rescued lapras. “Morning!” called Misty, noticing them walking towards the shore.

“Sleep well?” asked Oak.

“Slept great!” answered Chelsea.

“Yeah,” said Sean. “Ready for another day.”

“I hope so!” said Oak. “I have something I think might help, won’t you come back inside?”

Professor Oak led Chelsea and Sean back through the library inside the laboratory, Misty hung back with the lapras. Men in white lab coats smiled at Chelsea and Sean as they passed, Oak stopped at the end of the hall and opened the door to his pokemon nursery outside.

“This is where I take care of sick and abandoned pokemon. I watch them until they’re ready to go back into the wild or I find good trainers to adopt them.”

Chelsea couldn’t hold back her smile as Professor Oak called a few names and four pokemon ran to him from the yard, a charmander, a pikachu, a jigglypuff, and a mudkip. Oak picked up the pikachu and said “I think, from what Misty’s told me, you two would make great trainers for these pokemon.”

Chelsea bent over and picked up the jigglypuff without a second thought. Sean hesitated and the charmander approached him, Oak smiled, “looks like the charmander picked you.”

Misty walked back into the laboratory and sat at the computer, saying “I almost forgot I wanted to send this stupid psyduck back home.”

After Chelsea, Sean, and Misty ate breakfast with Professor Oak, they departed for the Viridian Forest maze.

Rocket Inc. (Part II)

Misty stood before the door to the Viridian City gym, the only gym in Kanto she had never been invited to, the gym was run by Giovanni, leader of Rocket and ground-type master. Misty was happy to swing the doors open, surprising two men inside, she recognized Giovanni as he turned and ran for the door, while the other man, Ruben, didn’t recognize her, and instead released a cloyster in the center of the gym, Misty responded by calling for her freshly rested Starmie.

Without hesitating, the cloyster emitted a supersonic wave at the starmie, confusing it. Misty watched, feeling helpless as the cloyster dropped toxic spikes around the vulnerable starmie.

“Quickly Starmie, use your swift attack! Watch for the spikes!”

Starmie rapidly spun around, evading the toxic spikes and striking the cloyster between its shell. “Drown it with your hydro pump!” commanded Misty, and a wave rose behind Starmie, who charged ahead, gliding over the gym and knocked out the cloyster, while the falling wave buried them both. The water receded, the cloyster lay fainted and Ruben withdrew it, he then released a poliwrath.

“Your water won’t hurt my poliwrath,” said Ruben.

Misty felt a tug on her arm, “let me do this,” said Chelsea.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” asked Misty.

“Bulba can do this!”

Chelsea tossed the pokeball into the ring, the bulbasaur sprang out and was caught unexpected by poliwrath’s heavy hands as it double-slapped. Ruben chuckled to himself, expecting an easy battle. “Submission!” ordered Ruben, the poliwrath picked up the bulbasaur and dropped it on its own weight, taking out most of its energy.

“Remember your growth!” called Chelsea. Bulba focused all the energy he could muster into the bulb on its back, turning an emerald green, growing stronger and feeling more energized. “Razor leaf!” The bulbasaur’s bulb opened and a swarm of small, sharp leaves puffed out, dancing with the air and at last shooting out towards the poliwrath, scratching deep chlorophyll wounds onto the poliwrath’s stomach swirl and arms, knocking it out.

“No! No!” stammered Ruben, not having another pokemon to call, defeated.

An aura grew around Bulba, Chelsea ran towards it, concerned, but was held off by Misty, who happily said “he’s evolving!” The bulb on his back opened up, dropping a new set of leaves around the remaining orange bulb, the newly evolved ivysaur ran to Chelsea and groaned happily, proud of its new bulb.

Swimming Pools (Part III)

Chelsea looked up at the clock above the stairs, the day was almost halfway over. She looked back down at the new issue of Pokemon World, a special edition sent to her specially featuring an article written by Misty about the illegal pokemon black market, an activity the Kanto police force had lately been putting more resources towards ending.

Chelsea’s cell phone rang, “hello?” she answered.

“Hey Chels,” said Misty on the other line. “I was wondering if you wanted to stop by my gym later today?”

“Of course!” said Chelsea.

*

After work, Chelsea quickly swung by her home in Saffron, Bulba was eating her plants as usual, while a new face, the jigglypuff, hopped around the cramped apartment, a sharpie in hand, singing at the mirror, at the annoyed bulbasaur, out the window, to anybody or anything that would listen. Chelsea took both pokemon and headed for Cerulean.

Inside the Cerulean City gym, Misty sat cross-legged opposite the psyduck, locked in mental battle, until she finally shouted “why won’t you learn to swim you stupid duck!”

“Hope I’m not interrupting,” said Chelsea, releasing her bulbasaur and jigglypuff.

“Oh hey!” said Misty. “How are you?”

“Good! You?”

“Great! I wanted to ask you if you were interested in a job.”

“A job?”

“One of my trainers had to leave for Goldenrod in Johto. With a little help, I think you’d make a great water-type trainer! What do you say?”

“Of course!” answered Chelsea, excitedly.

“Great!” said Misty. “You can start by teaching psyduck how to swim!”