• Dzama

The Eye

Oil seeped from the motorcycle engine as Pete lay on his back under it, running his hand along the seams. There was a thud over by the workbench. Pete pressed his finger against the crack in the metal. Martino? What’s happening out there? he said without looking. Another thud. Pete finally glanced over but couldn’t see much from his low angle. Something crashed to the ground and a wrench came sliding across the cement floor, almost to where Pete lay. He pushed himself out from under the bike. He didn’t see anyone but the area around the shelving appeared wavy as though he was seeing it through heat distortion. One of the toolboxes that had been on the shelf was now on the floor, contents strewn from the impact. He got up and as he walked slowly over, the distorted, wavy field seemed to move in an arc toward him.

He felt a sensation like that of a cold hand reaching into his chest and tearing through his internal organs. He gasped. He reached out and was surprised to feel something solid in the undulating haze. An invisible mouth closed on his in a kiss. He tried to pull away but ice-cold arms pulled him closer.

 

Later he found himself on the floor. His chest appeared to have been ripped apart and he hugged himself, squeezing ribs back together over heart and lungs. He lifted his head and his face sagged until he pressed hanging flesh back onto his skull. The floor was bloody but the blood was frozen and even showed the white snowflake patterns of frost. His own hands were white with cold. He struggled to his feet, fighting to hold his skin together. He fumbled with his phone and it spun out of his hand and dropped, skidding across the cement floor.

 

The front office manager arrived and stopped short when she saw him. The fluorescents reflected in her glasses, hiding her eyes. Pete… she said. She took a few steps back in her high heels, almost slipping on the icy blood, her hand landing on the counter to steady herself. Near her hand on the counter rested what looked like a human eyeball. Pete tried to say something to her but only guttural sounds came out. Then he picked up the eyeball and held it out, as though offering it as explanation. When he moved closer to her she grabbed a crowbar from the pegboard and swung it at him. She made contact with his shoulder and his whole body shredded with the impact. He landed in a pile of flesh and bones on the frozen blood floor.

She then bent down and took the eyeball from his bloody hand. She looked at it, then placed it carefully in her purse. Soon her car could be heard peeling out of the parking lot.

The shop got quiet again except for the sound of nails falling one by one off the top of a tall galvanized shelving unit. Each nail rolled off of its own volition and bounced down onto the concrete floor. When there were no more nails to fall, the shop was silent.

 

 

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King Frog

Stadely drove his ‘69 Pontiac down a dirt road through the trees. After an hour of bumping and dipping over rocks and potholes he pulled into a clearing on the edge of a muddy ravine. Hundreds of naked bodies writhed and twisted in the gorge below to a pounding bass line. Stadely grabbed a rifle from the seat beside him and got out of the car. For a minute he rolled a cigarette with the gun rested in the crook of his elbow. He watched the young women and men move below, mud covering the faces and beards and breasts. Well, well, well… Stadely heard someone say. He turned to see a motorcycle cop wearing reflective sunglasses. The officer put his gloved hand on Stadely’s shoulder.

Stadely looked down at his rifle then back to the cop, seeing his own spidery reflection in the silver lenses. I’ll be in and out quick, Stadely said. He looked back down at his gun.

That’s what you told me last time, said the cop.

But the policeman didn’t follow as Stadely walked over the bluff toward the ravine.

When Stadely got to the edge, he took off his clothes. Soon he was slogging into waist-high mud, careful to keep the rifle raised above. He smeared mud over his face and shoulders and was then lost in the crowd, no one paying the rifle any heed.

At one end of the ravine was a giant cleft in the side of the sloping wall that the mud river appeared to be flowing out of. Stadely moved toward this hole, feeling muddy girls’ fingers touching his shoulders and back and hair as he went. The music got louder the closer he got, violating his eardrums with abrasive, electronic pounding.

When he entered the cave he raised his rifle to his shoulder, pointing it into the shadows ahead of him. The crowd thinned in the darkness and now the music was accompanied by the breathless gasps and cries of an actual orgy in progress. Stadely continued on deeper into the darkness until the sex noises faded and even the music was faint. Eventually he trudged up a slope out of the mud river and onto a slimy cave beach. A torch hung up on the rock wall beside a wooden door carved with ornate patterns. Stadely stood muddy and naked, his rifle leveled now at the door. Bartholomew! he called out. I’ve come back!

After a minute, the door swung open. A giant frog stood there, wearing a golden crown and a crimson robe. Stadely stumbled backward. His hands shook as they gripped his rifle. The frog advanced, opening its giant, toothless mouth. Inside the huge mouth floated the disembodied head of a beautiful woman. The woman’s dead eyes stared and Stadely felt his bones go cold. The frog closed its mouth and swallowed the head. Friend of yours? the frog finally asked. It then grabbed Stadely by the neck and squeezed. Stadely was forced to drop his gun. He had to use both hands to pry the slimy fingers back.

That—was—my—wife, Stadely said, between gasps. The frogs eyes laughed. You should have told her to stay out of the ravine, it said. Its mouth opened again and closed around Stadely’s head. Stadely reached up and jammed his fingers into the monster’s eyes and held on as the frog flailed back and forth. Finally his head popped out, dripping with gooey green fluid. He fell to the ground, holding his neck. Then he rolled over to grab his gun and fired up at the thing’s chest, emptying all fifteen rounds. The frog king fell forward, crown toppling, hissing and whistling its final breaths before it splatted down on the mud.

 

When Stadely climbed up out of the mud river, the motorcycle cop was still waiting. He watched as Stadely brushed off as much of the mud as he could before pulling his clothes back on. He said nothing as Stadely walked past and got into his Pontiac.

The music was still thumping as he pulled away. He could hear the bass a mile or so down the road as the wind dried the mud in his hair. But fresh tears streaked down through the dirt on his cheeks. He cried all the way to the Turnpike. After he merged into the speeding traffic he felt a deep sense of peace. He hummed to himself until all coherent thought dissipated and his mind was finally blank.

 

 

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Real Dreams

Mal bit the side of her cheek to stay awake. As the rhythmic noise of the subway shuddering down the tracks lulled her, she bit and felt the sharp pain of her teeth grinding her own flesh. But just as her eyes closed again there was a terrible squeal and an explosion of glass as giant, papery arms burst through the windows, cutting down passengers at random with blue laser beams firing from twisted, writhing fingers. Mal stood and almost slipped on the rushing river of blood. She took hold of one of the giant monster arms and tore at the paper skin with her nails, ripping holes in it. The monster’s gelatinous blue blood sprayed on her white blouse and her face. She half-expected it to melt her skin but it didn’t, and the little that had landed on her lip tasted like cupcake frosting. The arm she’d torn then swung and knocked her off her feet. She landed hard on one of the benches then tumbled down to the bloody floor.

The train screamed to a halt at 14th Street. Firemen and police had arrived on the station platform but the creature made mincemeat out of them- severed body parts bouncing in every direction. The bulbous head with its six rotating eyes jammed in through the broken subway window, searching for Mal. She was now trembling in the gore, crawling away sideways like a crab. The thing then burst into flames and the platform and subway car filled instantly with black smoke. Mal sprang up and felt her way toward a broken window in the back, stepping over slippery body parts. Just as she climbed through the window the subway lurched forward again and she landed hard on the platform.

 

When her eyes opened in the darkness she saw a beam of outside light filtering down through the haze. She could just make out the half-dead monster writhing back in the shadows. She got to her feet and stumbled toward the light. The staircase leading up to the street was littered with laser-cut arms and legs but strangely no torsos or heads. She stepped gingerly over the appendages, some which were still clutching police-issue firearms, and finally reached the light of day. A few young paramedics rushed past her, back down in the tunnel. That won’t do any good, she whispered to herself.

Even outside the air smelled toxic but everyone on the street went about their business as though nothing had happened. Mal stepped into a nearby pizza joint and wiped blue monster blood off her face with a handful of napkins. Take it easy on those! the unshaven man behind the counter said. Two—she started, finding it hard to talk. Two cheese– and she had a coughing fit before she could continue.

Just then a monster arm smashed through the back door of the pizzeria, spinning lasers cutting through stacks of cardboard pizza boxes. When the pizza guy’s head tumbled off his shoulders Mal took off running, not stopping until she was ten blocks away, running up the stairs of her grandmother’s brownstone. She pounded on the door. Let me in, she screamed, her voice hoarse. Finally she heard the chain slide and locks clicking.

There, there, her grandmother said, pulling her into a tight hug. I seen it all happening then I just closed the blinds, love. Sometimes you just need to close the blinds and pray when they get you it’ll go quick.

Mal sat down to a plate of her grandmother’s spaghetti and budget cola. There was a comedy on TV about clownish Nazis. She wanted to whistle along to the show’s theme song but she found herself nodding off. Screams from down in the street faded as her real dreams finally took over.

 

 

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Pappy’s Legacy

Fulbertin came down the staircase, one hand on the bannister, one hand pressed tightly against a gaping chest wound. I’ve been shot, Margaret, he told his sister. She’d been reclining on the couch in a nightgown and now set her plate of breakfast eggs on the cushion beside her. Then she turned toward the kitchen. He’s finally done got himself shot, Mama! she belted out. Fulbertin leaned against the newel post and his whole body sagged.

Mama came to the doorway in her apron, rolling pin in one hand. Blood dripped from Fulbertin’s chest to the hardwood floor. We need the police, he said in a weak voice. Police? exclaimed Mama. What has police ever done for us?

Nothin’ but put our sweet ol’ Pappy behind bars! said Margaret.

No, we ain’t callin’ no police! We ain’t goin’ through all that again! said Mama.

Fulbertin slipped off the post and lurched toward Mama. She knocked him in the head with the rolling pin and he hit the floor. Pappy would have wanted it that way, she said. When you wake up, honey, you’ll understand.

Just then a tall figure appeared at the top of the staircase. His eyes were inset and feline beneath a black homburg. His mustache was thin and sharp. In his gloved hand was a Colt .45. I suggest you bury him in the backyard, he said. Where no one will see.

We only bury dead people around here Mister, Mama said. And Fulbertin ain’t dead. He’s restin’ ‘til he comes back round to his senses. There was a terrific blast and the tall man tumbled headfirst over the bannister. He landed in a bloody heap at the foot of the stairs. Mama looked down and saw Fulbertin on his side clutching a smoking Smith & Wesson. Fulbertin then crumpled forward, the gun dropping from his bloody hand. A cocker spaniel tore in from the kitchen and hopped onto the couch to eat the remaining eggs off Margaret’s plate. Mamma glared at Margaret.

It ain’t my dog, said Margaret. It’s Petey’s dog.

 

Later that night they dragged the bodies out into the back. Margaret went rooting through the closet for a shovel. Mama came downstairs. We gonna need more lime, she said. There’s another one up there.

 

The next morning was Sunday. Margaret and Mama sat at the picnic table on the back patio. They were dressed for church and each had a plate of bacon and eggs in front of them. They ate in silence, gazing out at the three fresh mounds of dirt in the backyard. Occasionally Margaret tossed a piece of bacon down to the dog. Time for church, Mama said, pushing her half-eaten breakfast away. Yes, it certainly is, Margaret said.

They got up from their chairs. After they’d moved into the house the spaniel jumped from a bench onto the table. He looked up for a minute when he heard the car pull out of the gravel driveway, then lowered his head and licked their plates clean.

 

 

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The North Woods

Sharp edges inside the helmet cut into his temples and he could barely see out the eye slit. His face was slick with sweat. He stumbled down the path, swiveling his head back and forth just to see. What he saw were black tree trunks and dry leaves. Occasionally his metal boots slipped in the mud and he’d flail around to grab a tree for support.

Eventually he made it to the river, breathing hard. Beyond the trees a large slab of white rock extended into the dark water. He stepped cautiously onto the slab, pivoting his head around to make sure he was alone. With some effort he got himself down to a seated position on the rock, his metal armor clanking and grating. He aimed his eye-slit at the water and saw his reflection- he looked like a stack of rusty tin cans. There was a dark hole in his breastplate on the left side of his chest, still encrusted with dried blood.

He remained seated like that for a long time, his breathing gradually becoming more regular. Soon he could hear the river flowing. On the opposite shore a fawn bent down to drink. There were butterflies. He closed his eyes and saw crimsons and violets swirling like molten lava. He found himself feeling very tall. He felt like he was growing bigger, rising higher and higher, towering over the trees.

When he opened his eyes a tiny hummingbird hovered a foot away, right at eye-level. Its wings were invisible. Its green and red body gently bobbed up and down. You must go to the North Woods, the humming bird said in a high-pitched voice. The Woods of Death. Before the knight could reply the bird was gone. The sky had darkened and an evening breeze blew through his eye-slit, cooling the sweat on his face. Come back, Bird! he growled. I ain’t goin’ to no Death Woods!

He pushed himself up and almost lost his balance before pitching forward and trudging along the slab of rock down to the edge of the water. He gazed into the blackness and saw schools of little white minnows swirling around.

 

A dark shape floated down the current toward him. As it neared he saw it was a boy in a wide-brimmed hat, paddling a small boat. The boat grated against the rock right in front of the knight until it came to a stop. The boy’s face was pale and his eyes were dark voids. All aboard for the North Woods, the boy said, his teeth red with betel nut. The knight stood there, immobile. The boy poked him with an oar. Tink! Tink! Tink! Anybody home?

Before long the two of them were floating together, drawn downriver by the ebony current. Bird sent you? asked the knight. Yes, the boy said, paddling first on one side then the other.

What’s going to happen when we get there? he asked the boy. Nothing, said the boy. They floated in silence. The knight closed his eyes. He remembered a tune his mother used to play on the lyre. It was a beautiful melody with one wrong note. He’d never been sure if it was supposed to have a wrong note or if his mother was playing it incorrectly. Either way, thinking about it took him back to the pig farm and the smell of stew cooking in their small kitchen. He saw his sister leaning in the doorway, smiling her lopsided smile.

When he opened his eyes again it was pitch-black night. He could hear the paddling and the water going by but the boy was invisible in the darkness.

When they arrived at the North Woods the knight had fallen asleep sitting up. The boy struggled to drag the knight’s sleeping body off the boat. Finally the knight lay on the shore, snores muffled by his helmet.

The boy pushed off with an oar and floated away down the river. The knight went on dreaming about his sister. Wake up! she kept saying to him. But he stuck his fingers in his ears and squeezed his eyes shut tight. I’m never gonna wake up! he told her. Never!

 

 

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Other Orders

Pushing past some teenagers in winter coats Rainer collapsed onto a bench at the Zug train station in Switzerland. She lay there, face white, eyes wide and staring. The sound in her head was overwhelming and terrifying, a mechanical squealing and grating that rose in volume until she felt like her brain would tear apart. Then she heard the familiar whispering voice. She sat up, her black hair in disarray, trails of mascara down her cheeks. The pointed blades taped to her long fingernails were stained with dried blood…

Two weeks earlier she’d been on a plane. Drawing in a little white book. Pages and pages of bodies intertwined. The man seated next to her was a city councilman. When they carried his body off the plane she was long gone.

Two weeks before that she’d been hiking in the woods not far from Bremen with her sister. The authorities later come across a naked man, covered head to toe with long, matted hair, with elk antlers strapped to his head. His teeth were sharpened to points. He lay there, having apparently bled to death.

Two weeks before that she’d had a long phone conversation with her father. Her father had been drunk and somewhat loopy. His voice sounded almost feminine in his old age. Pops and crackling could be heard from whatever he was frying on the stove.

And before that several men in black helmets with face shields chased her into a New York subway station. The train came screeching in, a rush of hot wind hitting her face. She watched the men push into the rush-hour crowd but as the train doors closed she left them behind.

Back at Brienz by the lake she untaped the blades from her fingers. She made a big pile of weapons under a maple tree. Relaxing on a hammock in her underwear she called her sister but no one answered. She paged through a children’s book about a large animal with an injured paw. Sammie brought her a drink. You know, Rainer, he said. They found you. They actually tracked you down this time. Her grey eyes watched his facial muscles twitch. I saw the plane come in. They’re not far. What are you going to tell them when they knock on your front door?

Rainer took a long drink. She turned and rose from the hammock. She lifted an antique scaling knife from the pile by the tree. Tell them to come back here.

Sammie stared at her. You know you can’t do that this time, he said.

Just then a man grabbed Sammie from behind and two more dropped down from the trees behind Rainer. Three more men with black helmets and visors rose up out of Lake Brienz.

 

Sitting in a makeshift prison Rainer scratched crude images into the walls. But after thirty-six hours she was released out to the streets, due to a technicality.

 

Wake up, Sammie! Wake up!

What? Who is it?

It’s me!

Who?

They let me out.

Before long the two were climbing a path up into the mountains, passing a kirsch canteen back and forth and singing religious country songs. When it got dark the whispering voice came back but she just sang louder, I saw the light, I saw the light! Soon she held Sammie’s face and kissed him. The squealing and grating noises returned but she ignored them this time, the bitter almond kirsch taste in her mouth as she closed her eyes tight.

 

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Visitors

The three of them headed up through the trees that night without speaking. Each one had a heavy weight to bear- Hans a chainsaw, Maggie an old doctor’s bag, and Jeff 7 carried the dead dog. An iridescent mist trailed behind them. When they reached the crest of Farmer’s Ridge they rested, gazing down at the valley below with its confetti of lights. Look at all them little windows, Hans said, waving the chainsaw to indicate the whole valley. Inside one of them houses someone’s getting fucked, meanwhile in another someone’s taking their last breath.

Highly unlikely, said Jeff 7.

Unlikely? Which part? Hans looked at Jeff 7, his chainsaw still raised.

Both things. I sense a deep yearning from the people of this valley. An unrequited longing for something they don’t yet have.

You and your Spidey senses. Just a bunch of simple humans down there. Your simple, average humans don’t yearn for anything. They eat, fuck, and die. In between they give each other a hard time.

At this point Maggie had claimed a large boulder for a seat and removed a flask from her bag. She took a long drink before twisting closed the silver cap. Shut up, Hans, she said. What do you know about humans?

Hans inadvertently scratched one of his pointy ears. He looked at Jeff 7. See what I have to deal with? he said.

Let’s go. There’s not much time, said Jeff 7.

 

When they arrived at the pulsating spacecraft they stopped. Any last words for planet Earth? Jeff 7 asked. Hans? …Maggie?

Good luck, idiots, said Maggie. She carried the doctor bag up the ramp into the blue saucer.

Hans? Jeff 7 waited.

No, I guess not. They’ll all figure it out themselves eventually. Hans started toward the spacecraft.

I disagree, said Jeff 7. I don’t believe they will ever figure it out. Hans stopped and looked at him. What are you saying, Jeff 7?

I’m saying we leave the dog, he said, setting the inanimate dog down on the dry leaves of the forest floor. We make it alive again and fill it with messages to spread to all the humans. Everything we think they should know.

No, we need to bring that dog BACK with us, Jeff 7! Møstroh said to.

Screw Møstroh. There’s an entire race of sentient beings down there that could really use a hand. I mean look at how they behave with each other.

Screw Møstroh? Are you serious? Hans stared.

I’m leaving the dog, said Jeff 7.

Well good luck bringing it back to life. I ain’t helpin you. I ain’t gettin’ banished by Møstroh to the Corynthian Galaxy again. No-siree. Hans headed up the ramp, swinging the chainsaw.

Has Interstellar Interface really made you that callous? Jeff 7 asked.

Yup, Hans said before disappearing into the ship.

Jeff 7 sat cross-legged in front of the dog. He waved his six-fingered right hand in circles over the dead animal. He murmured some incantations. The beast did not revive. He glanced back up at the ship. The ramp lights were now flashing and there was an urgent beeping noise. He saw Maggie look out from one of the portals for a second before disappearing from view.

You’ll spread the message to these beings, he told the dog. Then he went into his incantations again with a manic intensity. The dog appeared to stir for a second. Jeff 7 went on intoning magical phrases as fast as he could while behind him the spacecraft ramp was being raised. He laid his hand on the dog’s fur as the ship commenced spinning at a blinding speed. Leaves and branches were whipped into small twisters. When the ship shot off into the starry sky, Jeff 7 was still talking to the animal.

After the leaves and branches of the forest had settled, a lone human came stumbling down the path. What you got there, a dead dog? The human asked, swaying with inebriation.

Jeff 7 remained cross-legged, eyes closed, his humanoid form gradually dissipating. As Jeff 7 faded, the dog jerked to life spastically, like a marionette. Its eyes glowed. Don’t… Be afraid, the dog said to the human observer. I.. Come… In… Peace?

 

 

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The Writers

The old man held up a piece of typing paper. This blank, white page is like a whole mirror covered with cocaine to me! He shouted. It’s like the slope of a Swiss mountain after it snowed. A perfect white slope of powder just waiting for me to destroy it!

Life is a series of punches, I’m not going to lie to you, the old man continued. Before a boxer goes in a ring they tell him he might get hit. Whatever they tell you won’t prepare you for what you get. Life is a big factory that manufactures broken toys! So that’s why you sit down in front of a white page and start punching back!
 
The old man’s interviewer stared out one of the giant windows at finches arguing on a branch just outside. His tape recorder hummed away beside him. Then he looked back but the old man was gone. The monster of a typewriter remained, with a blank page fed into it, ready to go. The interviewer glanced around and then commenced typing:

The ancient clutched the boy’s hand and hissed, Life is a big factory that manufactures broken toys! He released the boy’s hand and collapsed back into his chair. Grandpa? The boy said. But the ancient was gone.
 
Days later the ancient was being lowered into a deep hole in the Warburshon Cemetery.

So you’ve already killed me, have you? The old man said, suddenly behind the interviewer, reading over his shoulder. Well, let me show you something! He lifted the typewriter with both hands and, with a violent swing, knocked the interviewer in the head with it, sending the younger man toppling to the ground, unconscious.

The old man set the typewriter back in its place and began pounding the keys:

The ancient threw the lid off his casket, refusing to be lowered into the ground. Cemetery workers, clutching the straps that supported the coffin, stared, frozen in disbelief. You won’t get rid of me that easily! The ancient shouted, leaping out of the box and running through the trees toward the gate.

 Harry! What have you done? The old man’s wife stood in the doorway in her nightgown. They both looked down at the interviewer, who now lay now in a small pool of blood. The old man stood up from the typewriter, flustered. I just wanted to teach him a lesson. I didn’t–.

You taught him a lesson all right! His wife said. She lifted her hand to clutch the doorjamb. So much blood… she whispered.

Just then the young interviewer sprang up and lunged at the old man, grabbing him by the neck and throttling him with both hands. Blood dripped down one side of the interviewer’s head. The old man fell back against the typewriter. As they struggled, the old man’s hand reached back, finding a ballpoint pen on the table. Swinging his arm forward, he repeatedly stabbed the interviewer with the pen until they both collapsed to the ground. The wife moved into the room and stood over them. When she could see they were both dead she sat down at the typewriter and typed: 

The cemetery workers watched as the ancient ran out through the cemetery gate.

What do we do? one of the cemetery workers asked.  

They told us to bury him! The other one said. So we bury him! 

They caught up with the ancient in the parking lot. Where do you think you’re going? The first worker asked. He brandished a musket, aimed directly at the ancient. The ancient raised his hand. Now be reasonab— BANG!  

But it was the cemetery worker with the musket who collapsed to the ground. The second cemetery worker lowered a small pistol, smoke curling from the muzzle.

The old man’s wife paused. I did not see that coming, she said quietly to herself. She glanced down at the two men in their death embrace on the carpet. The sky outside the great windows had turned scarlet with the setting sun. A flock of crows flew by, their ugly voices sounding like laughter. When the sun finally dropped behind the ridge the sky became blue and then black. The old man’s wife remained seated at the typewriter, making no move to light a candle as the whole scene was lost in darkness.

 

 

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Last Day

James drew four boxes on a page of graph paper and connected the boxes with some lines. Then he drew some more lines in light blue ink, and some circles. He took a fine, gold-tipped fountain pen from the pocket of his brown dinner jacket and drew a small seahorse inside each box, the fourth one with a unicorn horn. The 87 Pacific clattered by outside the window, sounding a shrill whistle. There was also a woman’s voice calling something. James thought he heard his name. He set down his pen, heading to the window. He drew open the blinds and pushed up the sash. The world outside was humid and green. A woman stood below the window, face glowing in the twilight. Her grey dress was decorated with a pattern of purple and red orchids. She extended her bare arms up towards him. Quickly! she said, with a glance back in the direction the train had gone.

James reached out the window and took hold of her small, moist hands. He held tightly so she wouldn’t slip out of his grasp. Her hands in his, she stepped her high heels against the stucco below the window until she reached the top. When he’d gotten her inside she dropped down into his chair. Who drew this? She asked, looking at the lines and boxes and sea horses. You?

Just then Mermachree burst through the door. Did you hear anything strange? Mermachree asked. We heard some things. From the train! There was somebody out back. Did you see anything funny? James looked over at his desk. The woman had disappeared. Maybe she was hiding behind it? I heard, James started. I heard… heard, uh… a whistle.

The whistle of the train. Of course. But any voices?

Well, I suppose I heard voices, probably people in the dining car.

You wouldn’t have heard that. Mermachree glanced at the drawings on the desk. Who drew those?

I’m not sure… I—

What do you mean? Mermachree paused. I was just about to praise the artist. Hey, relax James. It’s Friday. He patted James on the shoulder. But then Mermachree coughed and spat and collapsed right there on the floor. The woman revealed herself from the shadows. She placed a bloody butter knife on James’ desk.

James looked down at Mermachree. He dropped down on one knee and turned Mermachree’s body over but it had gone cold and stiff. Blood spread on the dark hardwood.

I’m taking these, the woman said, lifting the drawings carefully from the desk and folding them into squares. Then she was gone out the door.

James stood and pulled some tissues out of a box to wipe Mermachree’s blood off his hands. He pulled his cell-phone from the charger and entered 9-1-1. But before he got through to a dispatcher he’d put down the phone and was climbing out of the window, lowering himself down to the gravel by the train tracks. Another 87 Pacific train moved slowly past. At just the right moment he jumped half onto a flatbed train car. He swung his legs up and held on as the train accelerated. The whistle blasted, sounding like an alarm. Lying on his back he took a nail and scraped Mermachree’s blood from under his fingernails. When he was satisfied he’s gotten all the blood off he closed his eyes. The train rattled on, taking him further and further away from his usual desk and the cell phone that wouldn’t stop ringing.

 

 

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Mud

Stattin wore a yellow raincoat to protect what was left of him. His face was puffy and bleached but under his mac his body was bones and gore- fatty tissue and knotty intestines barely hanging on. To see him walking through the woods you just thought, There’s a guy wearing a yellow raincoat, maybe a fisherman. But there’s no place to fish in these parts anymore- the rivers have become mud and in the middle of what was the lake there is a wide mucky hole that goes down for miles into the earth.

I used to think I heard woodsmen cutting with chainsaws out in the trees- a common sound when I was a boy- but the industrial grinding was Stattin- that’s how his ruined voice came out. He’d make those horrible noises and slap his limp hands against the tree trunks, dragging his rubber boots through the dry leaves.

One day Stattin had a friend- it was a girl, a beautiful girl. He sculpted her out of mud and clay and river muck and shaped her body so it looked like she was resting on Sunset Rock. She was truly a beauty. Her lips were red, colored by poisonous berries pulled from brambles. She had a mysterious smile that cast a hypnotic spell on anyone who looked long enough. Stattin looked and looked and dropped to his jagged knees in front of her. She’s the one who would tell him to do things.

 

Later, after all the bloodshed I thought back to those evenings as the sun was setting when I’d see Stattin silhouetted, kneeling there before the sensuous mud goddess, listening, listening to a beautiful velvet voice soothe him and command him.

 

I was only about fourteen when I went into the woods alone to see the mud girl up close. I stood beside her, nearer than I’d ever stood to any girl. I asked her, What did you tell Stattin? What’s he gonna go do for you? And she stared back at me, grinning. I closed my eyes and felt her soft fingers stroke the sleeve of my jacket. I heard a soft voice whisper just like the hiss of a snake.

Then I took off running, tearing down the hill, sharp tree branches ripping at my face as I got lower and lower into the valley, not stopping until I was at my own doorstep and could smell stew and cornbread cooking on the other side of the front door.

With my hand on the door handle, I glanced back over my shoulder at the dark hill with its thin branches silhouetted against the blackening sky. Then I slipped into our house and bolted the door behind me.

In the middle of the night I heard that terrible grating chainsaw-wail and looked out the window to see an unnatural glow up by Sunset Rock. I could just make out the shadow of Stattin returning, dragging a heavy sack behind him.

When the glow finally faded the cicadas lulled me into a half-dream where I imagined myself dancing with the mud girl. I kissed her stained red lips and tasted the poisonous juice on my tongue, all the while listening for the terrible sound of Stattin returning, an unfortunate lump in a dirty burlap sack dragging behind him.

 

 

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