• Dzama

Foxes

Sunday was special for the whole family. They rode the horse-drawn wagon down a rutted, bumpy road to the old fisherman’s cabin by the sea. The father carried their weekend bags into the bedrooms while the children pedaled around on wooden trikes the fisherman had carved in the old days. Mother put tea on and opened all the windows. By the afternoon the kids would be exploring, sometimes up by the abandoned lighthouse, sometimes in the second floor crawlspace. The dog, a blue-eyed Australian sheepdog, would either be along for the adventure with the children or sitting at the hearth, presiding over the cabin.

Today was no different from any other Sunday and the family was spread out when the storm came in. The little boy and girl were up top the lighthouse, lying on their stomachs telling rude stories. The mother rested in the cabin with a book on the daybed by the window. The father was using one of the fisherman’s ancient scythes to cut some grass by the back shed and the dog lay nearby.

The sky turned an ugly violet and then almost black before unleashing massive torrents of rain. The father made a run for the house, arriving at the front door soaked to the bone, holding his dripping scythe. They put wood in the stove and lit all the candles, waiting for the children. The dog kept vigil at the front door, growling. What are you on about? It’s just Mother Nature, said the mother.

God’s angry about something, said the father, tamping his pipe with a pie-nail. Don’t say that, said the mother.

Why shouldn’t he be? There’s a lot to be angry about, the father said, walking through a cloud of his own pipe smoke on the way to the front door. What’s all this?

On the lawn outside the front door, in the rain, there were maybe fifteen or twenty foxes, bedraggled, all sitting and staring in at them. The dog’s growl didn’t let up. Just then there was a terrific thunderclap and the father jumped, his pipe falling and breaking on the wood floor. Marty! the mother called, rushing to stand behind him. The rain poured down and it became suddenly dark as night outside.

I’m going up to the lighthouse, the father said. I’ll bring the kids back. But he didn’t move from where he stood. We’ll go together, the mother said.

You stay dry, the father finally said, pulling on his mackintosh over a heavy coat. I’m taking this, he said, picking up the scythe. The dog followed him out into the night and the mother stood alone by the door, her eyes straining to see into the blackness. There was lightening and a powerful thunder blast and she saw the silhouettes of the foxes still there. Go away, she whispered.

Soon the foxes were scratching right at the door and howling with terrible, shrill, almost human voices. The mother backed toward the kitchen and took a long blade from the knife block. To get away from their howling she moved into the back of the cabin and finally up the ladder into the crawlspace. She lay up there, trying not to doze off, holding the knife to her breast and listening to what sounded like a hundred babies crying outside.

Her eyes closed and she dreamt of waking in the morning when the storm had moved on. In her dream the windows of the cabin had all been smashed, leaving wet puddles and broken glass. Her dream self walked up the stone path to the lighthouse and entered the stone building. All the way up the winding stairs she called the names of her husband and children.

When she got to the circular lantern room she found her family surrounded by the foxes in an odd tableau. We’ve become friends, the father said, his hand resting on the withers of a large fox. The children giggled, staring at her strangely. The dog lay with its head down, eyes following her movements. GET THEM OUT OF HERE, she wanted to say but she’d lost her voice. She went to lift the scythe but she found it was much too heavy for her. As she struggled with the scythe she was pulled out of her dream by her real-life husband shaking her by the shoulders. Wake up, the children are waiting outside in the wagon, he said. There’s another storm coming so we’d best leave now.

Dawn was just rising as the horse drew their wagon up the hill and out of the valley. A lone fox watched the family depart as once again the drops of rain started to fall.

 

 

 

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The Artisan

The artisan appeared small in the middle of the giant mosaic, face almost touching his work, moving an inch an hour across the courtyard. The princess watched him from her balcony as he crouched down, laying out the tiny tiles in an abstract pattern. He was like a hunched animal grazing on a field of green and blue squares.

Once she threw down one of her diamond earrings just to see what would happen. He continued placing tiles even as the second earring pelted off the rags on his back.

Why are you watching him? one of the ladies-in-waiting asked from the doorway.

He’s meticulous, she said.

He’s an animal, the lady said. Come have tea.

I won’t.

Suit yourself. The lady was gone. The princess took a gold coin from her purse and threw it down so it landed right in front of the artisan. By the third one the artisan stopped laying out tiles and picked the coin up with his dirty fingers. It glinted in the sunlight. He turned his head and looked back over his shoulder, up at the princess. She stared down. They stared at each other, frozen for minutes. Eventually the princess rose and withdrew back into her chambers.

This scene repeated itself every day for weeks. As time passed the mosaic turned from an abstract color study into a giant portrait of the princesses’ staring face. But when he got to her neck the tiles turned blood red with her elegant fingers clutching her throat. There were drips of blood laid out in tile staining her tile dress. That’s horrid, the queen said. I won’t have it. We’ll have him executed.

No, we won’t, the princess said. But the queen was gone, and the artisan was overpowered by all the king’s men and dragged to the dungeon. The princess left her room for the first time in weeks and went down to the courtyard to see the unfinished morbid masterpiece up close. Some unused tiles were scattered along with the artisan’s tools. She picked up the trowel and ran her fingers over the blade. Then, with a sudden motion, she drew it quickly across her throat. The ladies all came running as blood sprayed from her neck. Their gowns soaked in crimson as they lifted her from her knees and dragged her bleeding to the king’s physician, who tried to stanch the blood.

For days the princess lay in recovery, neck wrapped in bandages. The king had the courtyard paved over with cobblestones. At night the princess walked to her balcony and stared down at the empty courtyard, her face pale and gaunt. One night she stole down the stairs and continued all the way to the south tower where a long hallway led to the dungeon. She moved quietly down the hall, her bare feet on the cold stone, blood-stained bandages trailing behind her. When she reached the door she stopped and pressed her face against it, listening. Someone’s breath rasped on the other side of the thick oak. Suddenly there was a scream from inside that sounded demonic and the princess started, almost falling. But she went and fetched the keys from the jailer’s hook and twisted them in the lock all the same.

When she opened the door she could just make out a figure in the darkness, crouched and staring up at her. They locked eyes and the princess remained motionless as the figure rose to his feet. She could see it was the artisan but he was scarred and bearded now with a strange fire in his eyes. He stood before her in his dirty rags, his hair wild.

You and I will rule this kingdom, she said in thin voice. Come with me. She turned and he limped after her, down the hallway and up the stairs to the royal chambers, stopping only to get his sharpened trowel along the way.

 

 

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No Talking

My brother-in-law’s parents were driving us back to their house and my wife Cheri was trying to fill in the empty spaces with conversation. What was most awkward was talking around my brother-in-law’s disappearance, and my wife’s sister’s strange behavior. We’ve been doing a lot of gardening lately, my wife was saying.

We sure have, I said.

We’re growing cabbage, Brussels sprouts, carrots, marigolds…

Squash.

Yes, squash. Tons of squash. It’s kind of taken over.

If you want any squash… I offered.

Oh, no, the dad said.

Are you sure? I asked. Because–.

Oh, no, we don’t eat squash, the dad told us.

What Monty means is he’s got a health condition that prevents him from eating… What are those types of vegetables called? Come on, Monty, it’s on the tip of my tongue!

Gourds? I offered.

I don’t like them. I don’t eat that, he said.

Well, that’s okay, you don’t have to, I said. We actually have many other vegetables that you’ll love. We have…

I don’t eat vegetables from someone’s garden, Monty said.

He doesn’t eat vegetables, the mom said. You never have, right Monty? Since you were a boy?

When I was a boy I ate them. I did a lot of things then. That sure doesn’t mean I do that now. That quieted down the car for a while. We were all lost in thought. I cracked the window.

Have you always lived out here in East Texas? my wife asked. But the silence continued. Finally the mom said, Monty, she asked you a question. When he didn’t answer she shook his shoulder. Then we started hearing these odd whimpering noises. I didn’t know where they were coming from, mainly because I couldn’t picture them coming from him. Then he drove onto the shoulder and we bumped along for a while before he came to a rough stop on the side of the highway. He’s taken this real hard, the mom said.

William is not missing, he said. I would have liked to see my face when he said that. At this point I was imagining grabbing my wife’s arm and us taking off across the cornfield.

He’s not missing. We took him back, Monty said.

You did? I asked.

Texas did.

Texas did?

Get out of my car.

Okay, I said, looking to my wife. But she stayed seated.

You mean he’s not missing? You know where he is? she asked.

I don’t. I have no idea where my son is. But Texas knows. Texas doesn’t let go of her children. She keeps ‘em. He locked his fingers together.

I opened my door. Okay.

A state, even a state like Texas does not take people or keep people, my wife told him.

Come on Cher, he asked us to leave, I said.

What? And be stranded out here in the cornfield? she asked. No, put the car in gear, Monty. You’re going to drive us back to civilization. NOW! Go ahead! Start the car!

Start the car, honey, the mom said.

I re-shut my door and it became more quiet. Then I heard the engine start up and we were rolling again.

He dropped us in front of an old drugstore in town. Then they all hugged each other but I hung back. Alright, let’s find a phone with service, I said when their car was gone. The clerk at the store looked just like our missing brother-in-law. You know, you look like someone we know, I said. My wife gave me a cold stare.

I get that a lot, he said. I’m a familiar face. He laughed.

Then I was with my wife out front sitting on the curb drinking sodas like I used to do as a boy in front of our store in Jersey. This tastes good, I said of the sugary soda. It actually tastes good for a change.

She had a cigarette going but she put it out. I don’t want to talk anymore, she said. Okay, I said. No talking.

We didn’t say anything as morning traffic picked up right in front of us. But a big smile widened on my face. It widened and widened until I finally felt good again.

 

 

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Frankie’s Take

But I thought I could have three of them, Sally said, shifting and tilting her head slightly. Three. She held up three fingers. There was a quiet as the mist rose up over the graveyard.

No, I never said that. Frankie looked at her and then back to his sandcastle made of dirt. No, it’s always been two. Sally raised her shovel over his sand castle. Don’t do that, he said.

I will, she said. She felt her mouth stretch into a grin. You never helped me, Frankie! Never! She toppled dirt spires and flattened dirt parapets. Frankie stood and watched her, getting sprayed with dirt as she swung the heavy shovel wildly. Then he took hold of it but she was ready for him and they wrestled, both gripping the shovel tight. They pushed and pulled until she slipped and Frankie was over her, forcing the handle toward her neck. You always make me overdo things, he said.

The wood of the shovel was just touching her throat when at the last second she gave him a vicious kick to the leg and twisted the shovel out of his grasp. She yanked the shovel free and gave his head a sound whack with the blade. He slipped and fell right down into the open grave. As he lay there she shoveled and shoveled furiously until he was covered.

As the sky took on light she was still shoveling, finally patting down the mound when the 8:15 could be heard blowing its whistle on its way into the city.

Sally was on the next train, her dirty hands deep in the pockets of her coat. When the porter asked for a ticket she said, No, ma-am, I have no ticket. But I have lots and lots of money. How much you want? And she grinned her grin, holding out a handful of Frankie’s take. The porter glanced over his shoulder before taking the whole handful.

Can I have your ticket please? he asked the next passenger, further down the car. Tickets please!

 

 

 

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The Wires

The wires around his wrists cut into his skin, kept him awake, and glowed at night. Raccoon was still out in the hills, watching him and the others probably on an old iPad taken from one of the original species. He could just see Raccoon now, tracing the trails left by the little green dots on the screen and tapping with her chipped fingernails on the cracked console. Marty’d been wearing a heavy, lead helmet and a lead neck brace but he could still feel her tracking him and he was sure it was through the wires.

When he got to the stream he disrobed and pushed off into the cold water. It tasted metallic. The wires on his wrists were still glowing, even underwater. He tried to swim deep down and drown himself but each time he tried he floated right back up and popped out, sputtering, into the daylight.

Why didn’t you follow me? It was Scout. He saw her reflection in the water but her actual body was invisible. You could have still made it. He dunked down and tried to reach the bottom. Again, up, and coughing out the dirty water. Scout was gone but there was a white dog on shore sniffing around where he’d left his clothes. The dog bit into the cotton and dragged the pieces off. Hey! Marty shouted. HEY!

By the time he got to shore the dog was gone and there were only a few torn scraps left of his garments. He sat in the gravelly mud and scanned up and down the beach. There was one of the abandoned turrets at one end and he strode off in that direction, stark naked.

The turret was mossy stone, with the barrel of its gun aimed out over the water at the memory of enemy armadas that used to come down from Hedden. Marty pulled a rusty metal ring attached to the turret door and it swung open. There was a rush of cold smoke. Marty stepped inside but immediately the wrist wires heated to the point of burning and he shouted, RACCOON! RACCOON! Take your damn wires! But no one was in there and the door slammed shut behind him.

From outside the turret banging and scratching could be heard. The white dog walked by and sniffed the slit under the door. Finally the noise quieted down.

 

When it was night Raccoon came down from he hills in her Jeep. She jumped out and took an M-16 from the Jeep’s rear storage compartment. She leaned her shoulder against the wooden door. You ready, Marty? He was quiet. Ready?

She unclipped a small plastic box from her belt. She slid open its cover and pressed a red button. There was a shout from inside the turret. Then Raccoon kicked the door in. When the smoke cleared there was Marty, naked, standing still and looking at her with piercing red eyes. Wrists glowing. She aimed the M-16 at his stomach. You coming? The white dog was back and looked in at Marty.

With some karate he knocked the gun out of her hand. But the white dog leapt and tore through his supple neck. After an ugly struggle Marty lay on the floor bleeding and the dog limped away. Raccoon had her gun again and aimed it down at Marty’s temple. You coming, Marty?

She had to shoot him though in the end and she hoisted his corpse into the back of her jeep. The white dog pulled itself up into the seat beside her, licking at its wounds.

As Raccoon drove back up the hill, Marty’s eyes popped open. The electric current spiked from the wire on his wrists and he convulsed. He sat bolt upright. Raccoon looked back and their eyes locked. Marty asked: What would you like, Master?

 

 

 

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Sabotage

Stahne slid into the missile compartment and pulled the titanium panel closed. Red numbers flashed by on a display directly in front of his face. There was the smell of gunpowder and Indian curry. He suspected Markil had been enjoying curry in the missile before being dragged out by the Teltas.

The timer appeared to speed up when it got to the single digits, and once it reached zero everything exploded, blowing the launcher to hell.

Why the missile never left the turret was anyone’s guess. The detonation was partial- Stahne was roasted, but alive. When the Telta creatures found him he lay face down on the burnt metal, plastic melted into his skin. The plastic had welded metal shards to his arms and legs and head, giving him the appearance of a spiked monster and as he lurched to his feet the creatures drew back.

He made it to the decontamination doors, pressed a few buttons before the burnt skin of his back was punctured by a thousand tiny arrows. The Telta creatures didn’t like anyone employed by the government and, even though he was just a Necturus worker, he qualified.

You poor dear, Maximussa cooed, gliding from the outer office in tight grey overalls as he staggered toward her, his mouth welded shut by plastic. She closed the decontamination doors with a tap of her nail before the next volley of tiny arrows tinked on the glass and clattering to the ground just outside. Lousy creatures, she hissed at them. Where are your manners?

Stahne fell, in slow motion, crashing and double-bouncing on the slick metal floor. When he landed bits and pieces of shrapnel shot off in all directions and Maximussa covered her eyes.

He was out cold for the next several hours and she carefully picked out the broken metal and plastic shards, cutting some away with an X-Acto knife. There was minimal bleeding and soon a naked slab of a government employee lay before her.

Why… he started, coming back to life.

Why did I help you? Well, darling, it’s the least I can do. After all, it was your father who developed the plans for the first manned Necturus missile launch and without him we’d all still be in the rainforest with the bamboo and the bad monkeys. Frankly, I couldn’t be more grateful to your father and your brothers, and, by extension, you.

She stood over him, watching as his eyes found hers. I’m a wreck, he said.

I know you are.

He got to his feet and she helped steady him down the hallway. I don’t know what went wrong, he said. The timer? The osphometeric?

It was me, Stahne. I stopped it, she whispered. You? he tried to pull away but she held him fast.

Yes, I didn’t want you to blow up with that bomb. I wanted you for myself. And for Russia. His bare feet slid on the metal, his skin a network of scars and gashes. He wrestled her back against the wall. I think I love you, he said. And they kissed, neither of them hearing the gunfire or the dull thumps of explosions in the distance.

 

 

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Elated

When I got older living in a radiation shelter out West my mother took to visiting me. But it wasn’t my mother now, it was my mother when she was fifteen, my 1950’s mother. When she still wore makeup and had her hair done. She rapped her knuckles on my metal door and the sun burst in when I opened it. She was slight with intense eyes and coal black hair. She’d sit and play the piano while I made myself a drink, watching the radiation levels rise and fall on the various readouts. I’d offer her a soda and she’d give me an odd look, fingers still moving on the keys.

Last Tuesday when my young mother went to leave I gave her a science fiction paperback- one that I remember her reading to us when we were kids. She took it and laughed, dropping it into her leather purse. I’d never seen my mother with a purse or anything made out of leather. I guess she’d shed those things later. I closed the door gently and heard the gravel crunch under the tires of her car as she left.

When I was fifteen myself I remember waiting outside the house of my future daughter, me smoking a cigarette, hung over. I wore steel-capped boots and the same exact plaid shirt every day that I’d taken from my father’s storage in the attic. I finished a bottle of beer, set it beside the steps, and rapped on the metal door.

She wasn’t home yet so I sat and waited. Her dog, a big, fierce-looking three-headed mastiff, rested all three of its heads on my thigh and stared up at me until I scratched behind its ears.

When my adult daughter returned in a convertible with her new husband and some loud friends I lost my nerve and slunk back down the porch, crouching behind an Adirondack chair as the merry group bustled into the house.

But when I left I found myself feeling elated -just at seeing her having such a good time. I strolled down the dirt road alongside the cornfield, bobbing my head to punk rock on my headphones and thumbed a ride all the way back to the city.

 

 

 

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Some View

There’s a book called “How to Stop Crime in Your City” –you should read it. It was one of the cornerstones of my early political ambitions. Royhde crossed to the door. There are certain patterns that become self-fulfilling prophesies.

Thanks, I’ll have to read that one. Maybe on the plane.

No, don’t read it on the plane. Read it now. Tonight. Your people are being locked up for no reason. They are being attacked and robbed for no reason. They need to be more… Relaxed. Get control of your city.

I’m just a figurehead.

Don’t say that. Bruce Lee wasn’t a figurehead.

He wasn’t a politician.

What have I taught you about politics in what, how many years? Forty? Thirty? Politician are street fighters. Politics is an arcade game and each year in office is another quarter you play. You get four quarters. Or in your case, one. I stared at Royhde. Maybe he was right. How many people would be killed or made miserable in my city tonight? Could I be Bruce Lee?

I can’t be Bruce Lee, I told him. I just can’t.

Then your city will break like a stick! He took one of the plastic hotel pens and snapped it in half, getting some ink droplets on his hand. I turned toward the window and looked out over the spires and shining squares of light. There had been sirens going all night in my city but they were gone now and there was only the drone of the hotel air systems. Read it, he said, pointing at me with his ink-splotched hand. Then he was gone.

I walked over to the bedside table but instead of reading “How to Stop Crime in Your City” I pulled the drawer and lifted out the Gideon’s Bible. Just then there was a gunshot and I fell forward onto my knees and then onto the carpet, bleeding all over the pages. While I convulsed, a masked teenager stepped over my body and went to the balcony. Check this out, he said to an accomplice. He’s got some view.

 

 

 

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Out in the Woods

Branches scraped against the outside of the car and some dry leaves blew by. Jam and Mal sat in the back, each close to their own window, staring out and waiting for Mom and Dad to come back. There was what looked like a white wolf sniffing around the car but Mal said it was probably just a dog. All the doors were locked. When did Mom and Dad say they were coming back? Jam asked. For the tenth time, TWENTY MINUTES. Mal picked twenty minutes because she thought it sounded like a long time. But they really hadn’t said. Mom had said something like, Stay right here and don’t leave the car. And then their parents had left, locking the car with the keys that they took with them.

Did the wolf go away? I don’t see him.

Jam! I keep telling you, it’s a dog not a wolf! There are no wolves here!

But did he go away?

If you don’t see him, he probably went away. The sun seemed brighter as it sunk closer to the ridge and the leafless tree branches became black, spindly lace against the sky.

I’m gonna open the door and see if he’s still out there.

You better not, Jam. They said do not open the doors.

No, they did not. They just said to stay in the car. Jam unlocked his door and pulled the inside door handle.

JAM!

I’m just going to shut it right away if I see him! Jam said. Mal slid over and pulled the door back shut. Mal, you’re an asshole.

They want us inside here for a reason!

I wasn’t going outside.

You better not be. They sat quietly for a while, looking out. The car was some two hundred yards from the road, in the middle of the trees.

I think I see him over there, Jam said. Where? Jam pointed at something white out among the bare trees. It seemed to be coming toward the car. They both sat side-by-side and stared. It didn’t move like a dog or a wolf. It seemed to drag lightly on the brown leaves, floating just above. The sun was lower in the sky now, touching the ridge, burning orange.

When did you say Mom and Dad were coming back? How many minutes? Jam sat completely still. Mal re-locked Jam’s door. They heard something that sounded like an animal alternately whimpering and growling very close to the car.

Mal leaned up into the front seat and opened the glove compartment. She found a corkscrew and opened it so its sharp tip pointed out. She gave it to Jam. He took it in his little hand and aimed it at the thing out his window. He watched as it hovered and slowly dragged towards them. Mal went back through the glove compartment and dug through a manual, tissues, and some pens. Then she went through the door pockets. She felt under the seats. Hey, she said. Jam looked at her without moving his head. Look what I found. She held up a small black pistol from under the driver’s seat. She smiled at Jam and he gave a weird half-smile back.

The animal noises were getting louder. It sounded like it was under the car. The sun was gone now and everything was dark grey. The tree bark blended into the leaves covering the ground. The white thing now just hung suspended in the air about twenty feet from the car. It seemed to have a white head shape and wispy fabric flowing underneath. Mal held the pistol with both hands now. She aimed it through the glass. Roll down your window, she whispered. Jam looked at her with wide eyes. Roll it down just for a second. She cocked the gun. With one hand still tight on the corkscrew, Jam rolled his window down a crack. As soon as it was about a quarter down Mal fired and it sounded like a bomb had gone off. Now the white thing was right up against the car, undulating folds all around them, streaked with blood, and there was a dull banging on the roof. Roll it up! Mal shouted. He rolled the window up but the glass had a spidery crack going through it now. The thumping got louder on the roof.

Then it felt like the car was moving. It bumped around and they heard the wheels breaking twigs and branches as they rolled. Mal tore the tissue from the glove compartment and they both stuffed pieces in their ears. Then she and Jam huddled together. She fired the gun up at the roof where the pounding was coming from. BANG BANG BANG!

The white fabric blew away from the windows and it was now just black night outside. A dark liquid dripped down from the bullet holes in the roof. The car radio began to play a commercial jingle. But something didn’t sound right about the commercial. The singing gave way to a hacking cough and then barking and snarling and static. We’ll go out and find where Mom and Dad went, said Mal. They stared at each other, neither one moving. Then she took Jam’s hand. He held his corkscrew in the other.

Mal unlocked her door and they stepped out onto the dry leaves together. Don’t worry Jam, Mal said, holding up the gun. I know there’s more bullets left. The dry leaves crackled as they walked. They headed in the direction of the road.

 

 

 

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Mortals

It’s about these brothers- one is a priest, one is a rabbi, one is a Muslim. They all end up working for their other brother who’s a scientist. Together they come up with a way to live forever. In order for it to work they need to have sex with a different woman every day. The rabbi goes home to his wife and says, From now on I’m going to need to study late at the Temple every night. The Muslim says to his wife, I’ll have to pray late at the Mosque every night, and the Christian priest says, I’ll need to stay at the church to prepare my sermons late every night. None of the wives believe them and after a few months they are all divorced.

But the scientist brother says to his wife, I’ll have to sleep with a different woman every night in order to live forever. His wife, who happened to be a Buddhist, kills him.

 

So what’s the punch line?

There is no punch line but the funny thing is the Buddhist wife ends up marrying each of the other brothers, one by one, and then later shooting them all to death, one by one.

 

That’s not really funny. That’s actually sick.

Not to me. That woman was my mother.

Your mother? (coughs) …So which one was your father? Rest in peace.

None of them. My father was a surfer. He didn’t have any strong religious or scientific conviction one way or the other. He was just mellow.

 

How about you? What do you believe?

I take after my mother.

Your mother? But wait—what is that? A GUN? STOP!!!

BANG BANG BANG!!

AEEIIIIIIEEEEEIIIII!!!!

 

 

 

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