• Dzama

Lakeside

Samantha lay out on the old wooden platform that floated on the lake. It bobbed with the tide, chained to its position. She had full face-makeup from the concert still- silver stars around her eyes, black lightening bolts on her cheeks. Her hair splayed out from her head onto the wood boards, thick and twisted like a pile of platinum blonde snakes. She had on silver hot-pants that were still wet from her swim from the shore and was topless except for one remaining silver star pastie. Her upper chest and arms were tattooed with a myriad of skulls, the newer ones still outlined with dark black, the older ones having faded to a dull blue. A dragon tattoo encircled her bellybutton, blood dripping from its vicious grin.

On the shore stood a girl all in white- short white dress, white flowing robe that trailed on the ground. Her hair was black and her eye makeup made her eyes look like black bullet holes. Her legs were long and pale. She stared out at Samantha, not moving.

Time passed. Samantha’s body lay heavy on the wood as the platform pitched with the tide. The other girl stood ghostly on the shore. The sunlight faded to evening and as the trees behind her darkened, the white of the girl’s clothing appeared to glow brighter.

A motorcycle arrived, ridden by a boy in an open leather jacket with no shirt underneath with a girl in short shorts behind him. The police followed, one car after another, and soon a small crowd formed behind the girl in white, all of them staring out at Samantha rocking in the waves. One of the officers raised a bull-horn. You have the right to remain silent, he started. Just then her body rose up like a wooden puppet pulled by strings. She leaned forward and twisted to an awkward standing position. She gave an ugly grin, blood dripping down from her mouth. One of the officers raised a pistol and fired a shot high over the lake. The explosion echoed back across the water. Samantha walked forward across the platform. The police aimed their guns. It got quiet except for some police radio static. She stepped off the platform into the water and dropped down, disappearing below the surface.

Minutes passed. Then gradually she rose up, out of the water, first her blonde head, her hair half-floating in the water, then her black skull-covered shoulders, then her breasts with the single pasty, then the blood-mouthed dragon. She walked slowly up the dirt beach out of the water, her steps jerking and unnatural. The air exploded with gunfire, bullets piercing her skin only slightly til her body looked like a kind of bullet pincushion. She brushed the bullets off and they plinked into the shallow water, blood dripping from the shallow holes in her skin.

She went straight for the girl in white and strangled her. The crowd widened their circle and the police reloaded their weapons. When the girl in white collapsed, Samantha advanced toward the crowd, straight into another volley of bullets. The holes were deeper now and each bullet had to be physically pulled out with her long nails. She did not attack, she simply walked through the parting crowd, pulling out bullet after bullet as more and more bullets stuck into her. Eventually she stopped pulling them out and simply continued on into the trees, a bloody mess. The police moved in and tried to grab hold of her but she tore at their throats when they got close, taking four or five with her before she finally fell down face-first onto the dry leaves, bleeding.

The girl in white had managed to get to her feet, her neck raw and torn. She moved to where Samantha lay on the dark forest earth. Don’t come back this time, she said to Samantha. Sam’s bloody, destroyed face turned, the silver star makeup perforated and gory. Go to Hell, she said, then closed her eyes, blood pouring from her mouth.

The boy and girl had moved closer. She dead? the boy asked. The girl in white looked at him. Do your worst fears ever die? she asked. No, they just wait until you’re weak and they rise up from their shallow graves. The girl in white turned then and disappeared like a moth into the woods.

The boy stared down at the bullet-riddled corpse. She’s just trying to scare you, a young officer said. Go home an’ hug your girl tight until you forgit any of this ever happened.

The police stuck around for a while, waiting for someone to remove the body. The boy and the girl got back on their motorcycle and tore up the dirt road. The roar of their engine got fainter and fainter as a light rain fell on the police vehicles. The crowd of cops waited quietly in the dark, smoking.

 

 

 

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The White Void

Jermeld stood alone in front of a painting. He wore his signature ivory-colored dinner jacket with some jeans and dark-framed glasses. He’d wandered into a side room in the museum and stood, transfixed. That morning he’d left his wife and his world had been torn to shreds, leaving gaping holes that he intended to fill with art. The piece he stared at was an explosion of white paint and wax, littered with glued-on wooden matches. Small animal bones had been bleached and epoxied into the swirl. Looking at the piece he felt like he was falling into an abyss and spinning. Or like he was being lifted off the ground. He imagined porcelain hands reached out from the painting and pulling him in. Stand away from the art! the goateed security guard said. Jermeld stumbled backwards, blood rushing to his face.

Then he was out by a fountain in the museum’s courtyard. A dead Coi fish floated in the water, staring up at him. He found a few coins in his pocket and pressed them between his fingers, concentrating hard on a wish. The wish was that his wife would have a perfect life without him. He threw the coins into the fountain.

In the men’s room his face didn’t look like his own. It looked like a rubber mask loosely epoxied to a lopsided armature. He rubbed his chin and stared.

He looked at his phone. He’d deleted any sign of his now-former wife but he continuously unlocked it to see if something new had come in.

He sat for a while in his car in the cement bowels of the parking structure. The air smelled of exhaust. His tongue pressed on a chip in one of his teeth. He closed his eyes. He focused on an imagined white void like the one in the painting he’d seen. In the end he determined he needed to see more art.

 

It was at a modern art gallery that he met his next wife. The place was completely empty except for the woman working there, Marla McKenmille, 32, from Rhode Island. She had on an olive turtleneck and a white skirt. They got talking and before long she was leading him on a walking tour of the gallery. They went upstairs to an installation piece that included a large white bed, about twice the size of a king-sized bed. Beside the bed were bedside tables and lamps, equally oversized, all white. A giant, white alarm clock rested on one of the tables. You’re allowed to get on the bed, the woman said. Really? Jermeld asked.

Yes, go ahead. That’s part of it, she told him. Jermeld cautiously pulled himself up onto the huge mattress and sat on the edge. Hmm. Comfortable, he said.

She laughed. Don’t just sit on the edge! Really try it out! He lay back, his hands behind his head. I like this! he said.

Oh, come on! she said. Don’t be shy! She swung her legs up onto the bed and kicked off her heels. Then she jumped up and down on the white bedspread in her stockinged feet. She lifted one of the huge white pillows and heaved it right at him. Hey! he said. Soon they were swatting each other with pillows and laughing, goose down floating around them like snow. So, people come in here and do this every day? Jermeld asked.

No, actually, she laughed. This is the first time.

Jermeld stopped his pillow in mid-swing.

This is actually my last day, she said, with a serious look. I was fired this morning! She laughed. Before Jermeld could respond he was hit squarely in the face with a giant pillow. He swung his in retaliation, knocking her off her feet. She lay face down on the bed. He knelt beside her. Are you okay? She sat up suddenly and pulled him towards her. Her hands went all over him, sliding under his clothes. He glanced around but they were still alone.

Suddenly the giant alarm clock beside the bed went off. They stopped and stared at it, sweaty and panting. Then they laughed.

They were still going at it when they heard voices downstairs. They hid under the huge duvet, giggling like school kids.

 

Their first son was conceived that afternoon but instead of becoming an artist he installed storm drains for work. He supplemented his income with a side business selling cocaine. When he went to jail they divorced and Jermeld found himself in front of the original white painting once again, standing there motionless for hours. The same goateed security guard waited a few yards away to make sure he didn’t get too close.

 

 

 

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Guitar Joey

Black gantry cranes rose up above the miles of containers stacked by the docks. Joey sat on an old broken chair under a corrugated awning. He strummed his guitar and watched the big ships, a one-eyed dog at his heel. He sipped coffee out of a tin cup and the dog gnawed an old bone. The sun took forever to rise, finally floating brightly over the grey world and leaving an orange trail in the water. At 10:25 Cammer came walking down, stepping over the old ropes in her army boots. She sat beside him on a stack of tires. When they comin’ in? she asked. Today, he said, strumming and picking an intricate tune he had just come up with.

What do you have? she asked. I got this, he said and showed her some silver knives wrapped in canvas and a tall jar of rusty liquid. This is supposed to work on them, he said. You dip the knives in this stuff. Cammer knodded. They heard some seagulls call. Barges rumbled by. The guitar notes carried over the water.

You’re good at that, she told him, indicating his guitar. Why don’t you just play music and make people happy?

Joey grinned. Then looked out at the water. I think I hear one, he said. He set the guitar down and reached back for one of the knives. Keeping his eye on the water, he unscrewed one of the jar lids and dipped the knife in. When the creature hurled itself up out of the water he was ready. He leapt forward and stabbed and stabbed the green flesh, its nine-inch claws scraping his shoulders. The one-eyed dog alternately barked and whimpered from a safe distance. Finally the monster’s fanged mouth ceased snapping and the claws tightened in rigor mortis. It dropped back down and sunk deep into the dark water.

 

Cammer had first seen her brother kill a supernatural creature when they were kids. It started with pounding stakes. She’d followed him into an insane asylum one day, walking down between the bunk beds to where an old man lay under a thin, lime green blanket, eyes closed. Without hesitation Joey had held a stake over the approximate location of the man’s heart and pounded with two powerful, swift blows until the demon hissed, showing impossibly long canines, and dissolved into dust. It always disgusted Cammer to see him kill, even if it was the evil undead or a disgusting sea-monster.

 

Sooner or later they’re gonna get you, Cammer told him as she watched him wrap the holy dagger back in the canvas. Some day you won’t have your poison, or your stakes, or your silver bullets. They’ll get their retribution. And you’ll never have played a club, or looked down from a stage at a million cheering fans.

Joey smiled again, staring straight ahead. But when she left he gazed out after her for a long time. Her walk had the same rhythm as when they were kids in the Bywater. The one-eyed dog trailed just behind her, leaving Joey alone at the docks. When the next sea creature rose up out of the water Joey just stared at it, strumming his guitar quietly in the shade. It let out a wretched shriek and flailed around, finally clawing its way down the dock and up the road towards civilization. Then another came, and then another. Joey just watched and strummed. When the sun had burned off the morning haze and was high and powerful in the sky, Joey rose and took his guitar with him. He walked slowly along the dock, picking and humming, leaving the canvas-wrapped knives and poison behind, set under the old broken chair.

 

 

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Timner’s Jays

Timner sat still at his heavy oak desk and listened. The noises of blue jays and large trucks going by carried in through the open window. But there was another sound, almost like tiny, electronic bells. He tilted his head this way and that to determine the source. He glanced around at the other empty desks and over to the closet door. But the more he listened, the more he became sure it was coming from his own desk. He slid open the top middle drawer but found only pencils and a wooden ruler. The top right drawer was pink notepads and tins of snuff. But when he opened the next drawer down a strange blue mist was released. In the haze a small robot insect stood staring up at him and vibrating. Timner leaned in to get a better look and the robot insect launched itself at his neck and sliced away with razor-sharp pincers. With some effort Timner ripped the thing off, blood spraying from his neck all over the blotter on his desk and completely covering the picture of his fiancée. Just then Maerti, one of his sales team, returned from lunch. She stopped in the doorway and stared. Timn! Maerti cried. Timner looked up, the whirring robot still in his hand. Then he threw the robot out the open window. He collapsed forward onto his desk, spewing blood. Maerti came and stood over him. Don’t die, she said.

As the room darkened Timner made out a small crowd staring at him from the doorway. He could also hear people outside the window. Check those bushes and around that tree, he heard someone say. The blue jays screamed and cried. He felt a burning pain in his neck but was unable to move from his slumped position. Maerti leaned in. I found this, she said, holding up a silver, bloody gadget. In your neck.

Timner was unable to reply. He watched as she crossed to the group by the door, holding up the metal piece. She then rushed with them down the hall and he was alone. He could hear movement outside, below the window, but no more voices. The jays got louder. One was so loud it could have been perched on the windowsill.

Finally he willed his arm into motion and pressed his hand against his neck, where the bleeding had slowed. He pushed himself up and stumbled over to the window. On the lawn below bloody corpses were strewn about, some with heads severed from their bodies. He saw the blood-stained robot insect hovering in one place like a humming bird, about five feet above the ground. He pushed away from the window and lurched across the room to the closet door. He had just gotten himself inside and pulled the door closed when he heard the sound of electronic bells and mechanical buzzing inside the office. He waited, slumped inside the closet against the wall. The buzzing got close to the closet door and he imagined the robot insect hovering there, it’s spinning pincers opening and closing. But then the noise receded and he heard what he understood to be the robot flying back out the window. The buzzing got fainter and fainter. Timner leaned back, his head resting against some cardboard boxes and stacks of index cards. Then the blue jays started up again, louder than he ever heard them before. He closed his eyes. The blue jay screams rose to a crescendo and then went silent. Timner waited in the dark, listening to nothing for hours.

 

In a dream the insect robots descended from above and he shot them, one-by-one, from an anti-aircraft turret. Maerti came over to where he stood by the turret and put her hand on his shoulder. She was naked except for a strange leather mask with a zipper. Don’t distract me, Timner said. But as he continued destroying robots with rapid gun blasts he felt her cold hands encircle his neck from behind, squeezing.

 

He woke in darkness, not one-hundred-percent sure if he was actually still alive. He turned his head slightly and stabbing pain issued from his neck.

When he closed his eyes again he felt pulled by a strong current down an endless river of darkness. The blue jays called and called but this time he could no longer hear them. He floated away, his dreams dissipating.

 

 

 

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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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