Roulette

 

2015-06-13_00.41.54

This story contains adult themes. Reader discretion is advised. 



“There are two kinds of secrets: those we keep from others, and those we keep from ourselves.”

– Frank Warren

 

It was a den of sex, lust, and sin, or as close to one as they could create. The music seemed to flow through the house like a current, trailing smoke from a dozen cigarettes behind it, and moving from room to room as easily as the cottonmouths did in the river behind the house. The bass flowed like a living thing, sinuous and lithe. She was a huntress from the darkest of places, pulsing in a synchronized madness. She surged through the veins of those too drunk to fight her, and throbbed in the temples of the willing wicked in the many hidden places the house could afford. It was a welcomed chaos, one that Sean Sabine thrived upon.  

He tossed back the last of the fiery liquid in the shot glass he carried, throwing the glass against a distant wall, and threaded his way through his house. Friends and classmates caught up in the moment passed before his eyes, each one little more than a sum of the whole. The alcohol burned its way down his throat, adding to the spreading numbness that started in his midsection and was working its way outwards. It was a familiar inebriation, purring as gently as a kitten when he started drinking but raging like a lion the next morning. Still, something was missing.

Like a doctor seeing patients, he wandered the halls, filtering in and out of the various rooms before he could decide on a prognosis. The outcome was grim. It was terminal and unless treated, the party would be dead before midnight.

The beginnings of a plan begun to form the moment his eyes settled upon an uncomfortable looking boy in a corner. He wore a tweed blazer that looked like it was a size too big and a mop of unruly hair. Beneath a pair of wire-thin glasses burned the eyes of a soul who wanted nothing more than to talk to someone, but feared the interaction. Sean didn’t remember his name, didn’t remember inviting him, but he would do.

“You there,” He pointed, “Boy. Come here.”

He looked like he wanted to return to his corner and continue gathering dust, but Sean knew his type. Call out the quiet ones where you see them and they’ll always obey. It was like a rule built into the introverts that made them easy targets. When he came near, Sean snatched the red cup from his hands and sniffed the contents.

“Water?” Sean asked. He scowled and threw the drink across the room eliciting a scream. “Are you fucking serious? We have enough alcohol to drown a fucking elephant and you’re drinking water? What’s your name again?”

“I…Sam,” He began.

“No. Go get yourself a real drink and follow me to the den,” Sean said, pushing him towards the kitchen. “And bring a girl with you if you can.”

It was a start. He felt a triggering release as he set things into motion, a tension that once uncoiled would lead to a night no one would forget. He still didn’t have a plan, but already things felt right. He grabbed another boy as he walked, someone with dark hair slicked to the side, and pulled him behind like a rip tide.

“What the hell man,” the boy protested when he pushed him into the den.

“Tyler, right?” Sean asked.

The boy was smaller than he’d thought, barely a buck fifty even if he’d been dropped fully clothed into a river. He was the kind of kid who’d drown before he’d be seen without his shirt. The kind of kid more worried about whether his clothes matched his shoes than how he felt. Cold blue eyes stared back at him, waiting for an answer, but for all his posturing, Sean instinctively knew he wouldn’t do a thing to defend himself.

“Chill,” Sean said. Tyler let out the breath he’d been holding in; his hand fluttering to his chest.

Sean waved in two of Tyler’s friends who’d been waiting at the doorway. “I just wanted to show you guys something.”

“Great party, man,” Ryan said, pulling his girlfriend Amanda behind him.

“Well that was the idea,” Sean grinned. “Last big fucking thing before summer. Our senior year should be special, right? At least that’s what they keep telling us, as if we’d fucking somehow forget. You two most of all should be living this shit up.”

“And why’s that?” Amanda asked.

“Marriage. Babies. College,” Sean said. “Maybe not in that order, but you two are kind of expected to have your shit together. No pressure.”

“None taken,” Amanda said, rolling her eyes.

Sam entered the room holding a shot glass, looking like he once more wandered into an adult conversation with nothing to say. Behind him was a girl squeezed into a black dress with her hair pulled up in a bun. She grinned when she saw the others gathered. Unlike Sam, she looked like she knew exactly where she was going and how to get there.

“Krista,” She said.

“I don’t remember inviting you either,” Sean said.

“Never said you did,” Krista said. She took the shot from Sam and tossed it back, handing the glass to Sean.

“Sam, lock the door behind you,” Sean said, never taking his eyes off of Krista. He waited until he heard the door latch before motioning for the others to sit.

“Nice room,” Krista said. “Your father’s obviously since you don’t look like you’ve read a book in your life.”

“Sheath your claws, kitten,” Sean said. He sat at his father’s desk and removed a bottle of vintage scotch from the bottom drawer. With it he set out six shot glasses and poured a drab into each. “There’s a reason I invited you select few in here.”

“Are we toasting something?” Sam asked, dipping a finger into his glass.

“What? No. It’s for your nerves,” Sean said. Only Amanda refused her glass.

While the others drank, Sean went to a cabinet recessed into the wall and opened a latch. From there, he punched a code into a nine digit keypad and swung open the door. Within the cavity was a small machine with cables strung in coils and a glass container like a candy dispenser.

“No fucking way,” Ryan said. He drank his shot and set the glass on the table face down. “Is that what I think it is?”

Sean grinned plugged the device into the wall. It hummed to life, the display flashing before falling silent.

Mnemosyne,” Sean said.  

“It’s a mood machine,” Tyler said, forgetting his discomfort.

“Nemesis,” Amanda said.

Sam cleared his throat, drawing everyone’s attention. “Well, mood machine is a bit of a misnomer, isn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t draw upon your mood alone, does it?”

“Our bespectacled friend -”

“Sam,” Sam interrupted.

“- Is right,” Sean grinned. “Easy to use, they say, but hard to put down. It draws off of a memory and an emotion both. After all, what’s the fucking point of watching someone hang-gliding if you don’t get the same thrill from it?”

“Can we, like, try it?” Ryan asked. He sat the edge of his seat, ignoring Amanda who pulled at his jacket sleeve.  

“That’s the point,” Sean said. “But there’s one caveat. We’re going to make some real memories here, boys and girls. We’re on the cusp of freedom here, slaves only to ourselves, and only the truth will set you free. To watch the game, you’ve gotta play the game. Presence implies participation.”

He didn’t wait for a reply. Instead, he filled up the remaining shot glasses and poured the rest of the liquid on the ground at his feet. The bottle he placed in the center of the room and spun in a lopsided circle. It came to rest on Amanda.

“No fucking way I’m strapping that thing to my head,” She said, getting to her feet.

“Baby, you gotta do it,” Ryan said.

“You probably won’t get another chance,” Tyler said. “My father works for a distributor and even he’s never seen one in person yet.”

“It’s a breach of privacy,” Sam said.

“It’ll be cool,” Ryan said, pulling on her hand like an impatient child. “Please?”

“What do I have to do,” Amanda said, stepping forward and strapping the device to her forehead. She sighed while Sean punched in buttons on the display, twisting the edges of her oversized pink cardigan in tight circles.

“Easy,” Sean said, flipping a switch. “Tell me your darkest secret.”

“But I don’t have one,” She frowned. The device disagreed and spit out six identical pills in a clear plastic coating. Sean handed out one to each person while Amanda gingerly sat down next to Ryan.

“Fucking wicked,” Ryan said, holding it up to the light. “So it’s like I’ve got a little piece of my girl right here in this pill.”

“And we each take one?” Sam asked.

“Like a vitamin,” Sean said, placing his on his tongue.

It wasn’t even her baby, but she cried the first time she saw it. It was little more than a squirmy, chubby little angel with rolls so fat you could butter them up and serve them for dinner; useful for absolutely nothing and yet she wanted nothing more than to hold it and smell it and just breathe it in. The little boy had blue eyes and couldn’t have been more than a month old. She was amazed something so young could look so old all at once.

Then the baby was pushed past and out of sight and a little part of her broke. She could feel the pieces jangling around in her chest where her heart had once been; a perfect little baby sized hole in its place. She thought she’d known everything by then. Every step. Every option. Her life spread out before her in a homemade spreadsheet, but then came that damned baby. It wasn’t even her baby…

 

“Obviously, she cheated,” Krista said. “Liking a baby is not a secret”

Amanda said nothing, glaring at Sean over crossed arms as if it was his fault. Only Tyler seemed to have understood the drama unfolding and waited until Ryan was fully withdrawn from the hold the pill had over him.

“Babe. I thought we talked about this,” Ryan said.

“We’re doing this now, Ryan?” Amanda shot back. “Really?”

“It’s not a big deal. She likes kids. You obviously don’t,” Krista said. “In the grand cosmic scheme of things, it’s probably for the best you two don’t reproduce.”

“At least they have a chance of getting laid,” Tyler said.

Ryan ignored both and again pulled at Amanda’s hand. “We agreed on this. College first. Then after we have our careers going, we think about having kids. Are you getting cold feet on me already?”

“It’s just a fucking kid, Ryan,” Amanda screamed. “This is exactly why I was keeping it a secret. God help me for being so fucking backwards as to want to have children and be a mommy over anything else. I guess I’m just not progressive enough for you or my mother.”

Ryan squirmed in his seat, glancing towards both the door and Sean who sat at the desk with steepled fingers and a wide grin spread across his face. Sam was the only one not to speak, sharing curious glances with his drink and the floor in turn. He seemed to regret being in the room and looked like he would melt into the wall if he had the ability.

“Babe…” Ryan began, breaking the silence.

“Don’t you fucking babe me,” Amanda said.

Ryan turned to Sean. “Maybe Sam was right. This does seem like a bad idea. Sort of invasive.”

“No you don’t,” Amanda said rising to her feet. “Presence implies participation. You wanted to do this. So let’s do this.” She picked up the device and handed it to Ryan who stared at it like it was going to bite.

Sean pushed one of the remaining shot glasses forward. “For courage, if you find yourself lacking.”

Ryan placed the device on his head. “So all I have to do is think of a dark secret?”

“Oh no, mon ami,” Sean grinned, flipping the switch. “I said your darkest secret. The one thing you’re most afraid of letting go. Besides, you don’t get to pick. The machine does it for you.”

“That’s bullshit,” Ryan said, but before he could remove the device, six identical pills were dispensed from the bottom of the machine. Each one were tinged pink in a clear plastic container.

“This should be good,” Amanda said, placing it between her teeth and biting.

 

He was still erect. His breath returned slowly and his heart raced in his temples to find its rhythm. Had that actually happened? Ryan wanted to believe that he’d only imagined it. That the rush of sex and emotion had been something he dreamed up in the middle of the night, but the warm body next to him said otherwise. Had it been magical? He searched himself waiting for an answer, but nothing echoed back up to him and the only thing he felt was a hollow disgust.

How many did this make? Eight? Nine? He thought he was happy with Amanda. Everything and everyone told him he should be, but there was always an emptiness inside; a wanderlust that kept him going from flower to flower looking for the elusive thing he couldn’t even hope to name. He was empty. He was searching. He didn’t even care that he cheated again. It was only the serpent of doubt coiled in the darkness that tormented him the most. He didn’t know what he wanted and he’d never figure it out.

“Hey Tye,” Ryan said, shaking his friend awake. He stirred uneasily, shrugging off the bed sheets and exposing a bare chest. “You should probably go, bro.”

“Yeah, sure,” Tyler said, rising to his feet.

Ryan could see he didn’t want to go, but surely he realized the mistake this had been. A part of him felt dirty, though he couldn’t explain why. He waited until he’d gathered his clothing and dressed, standing at the door before saying something. “Maybe don’t tell anyone about this, yeah? I don’t want people thinking I’m a fag or anything.”

“Yeah,” Tyler said, hesitating at the door. “Sure. I understand, man.”

 

Krista’s laughter rang out in the small room, echoing off the books and trinkets lining the shelves, while Ryan hid his face in his hands. An uncomfortable silence greeted them while their heads cleared, one punctuated only when Sam shifted in his place. Before Ryan could say anything, Amanda stood up and slapped him. The action was so sudden, that even Krista held a hand over her mouth.

“You damned hypocrite,” Amanda said, her anger overpowering her disappointment. “You don’t think I knew you’d been sleeping around on me? That my parents forced me to stay with you because you were going places? I’m not mad at you for cheating. I’m not even mad at Tyler. I feel so sorry for you.”

“Sorry for me?” Ryan shouted, rising to his feet. “You have no drive, Amanda. No ambition. You’re content to just sit around letting life pass you by. You’re going to end up with three kids still in this dead-end town working at a diner and wishing you still had a chance at life.”

“At least I know what I want,” Amanda said softly. “However dull you might find it, I have a soul. You’re empty inside and that terrifies you more than anything else.”

Ryan said nothing, returning to his seat without meeting either Amanda’s or Tyler’s stare. The music filled the void, the distant bass beating a staccato on the walls, broken only by the sound of laughter and cheering.

“I’m so sorry, Amanda,” Tyler finally said, rubbing at the corners of his eyes. “I never meant to hurt you.”

Amanda nodded, but said nothing.

“Well, I’ve certainly learned a lot,” Krista finally said.

“Krista, don’t,” Sam said from his corner. He turned to Sean, “This has gone on long enough don’t you think?”

Sean laughed. “No I don’t Sam. We still have four more to go.”

“Speaking of which,” Tyler rose from his seat, placing the device on his head. “How about we get the full story? You ok with that bro?”

 

Mother had always been supportive. Shy and sensitive were just keywords for sexual preference rather than having had anything to do with an uncertain son. Rainbow flags were in as well as books and literature for the social mask she wore around her drinking friends. After all, nothing was as cosmopolitan as having a gay son.

“You just be whoever you want to be,” She would say while tucking him into bed, the alcohol still strong on her breath, “And whenever you’re ready to decide, I’ll be right there for you.”

Every action he made only added more weight to her argument and cemented a decision she was sure he’d make for himself one day. After all, isn’t that what mothers were for? To support the decisions of their children? To know what’s best for them especially when they can’t see it for themselves? Not like her mother who was so conservative that it would make a southern Baptist tell her to ease up.

After his mother dropped him off in front of the school, he decided it was time to finally come out. He dressed in his Sunday best, even though mother never liked going to church, with a handful of daisies he pulled from the neighbor’s garden. They were meant for a special someone, the one person he’d had his eyes on for some time. Crushes were like that; you watched them from afar, their every decision weighed and balanced until you either gained the courage to say something or faced the prospects of never knowing. He decided to take the chance. After all, you could be whomever you wanted to, right?

The shove came out of nowhere and sent him to his knees. One moment, he was upright and confident and the next sprawled on the floor with the sun in his eyes. He scrambled to his feet, picking up his flowers where they fell and looking for the offending thing that had tripped him. He only saw a young boy he’d seen before in class grinning at him.

“Sorry man, I didn’t see you there,” He said. “Who are the flowers for?”

“How dare you!” His mother answered for him. “What are you? Homophobic? You think it’s nice to pick on a little boy just because he’s gay?”

She appeared out of nowhere and she’d seen what she wanted to see; that of a bully picking on her shy and sensitive son. A boy with no real identity of her own. He realized she must’ve remained parked nearby to watch him offer his token of affection to his crush. What’s worse; she was drawing a crowd with her screaming. At least this time she was sober.

“Is this the kind of kid you’re teaching at this school? Bullies and homophobes?” She screamed when a teacher finally appeared. Then she turned to her son, “Be brave. You hear me? Don’t let anyone stop you.”

Already embarrassed, he picked up what he could salvage and handed the entire bouquet to the first boy he saw, a kid named Freddy in the grade above him. Then they clapped; two dozen boys and girls uncertain as to what they’d just witnessed save for the bravery it took for a young boy to finally come out. Even his crush was clapping, the look in her face telling him he’d never stand a chance more than just a friend.

“You’re not gay,” Sean said. It wasn’t a question any longer, but a statement. They’d all felt the same crushing defeat, the certainty of emotion, and the embarrassment.

“I don’t understand,” Tyler said. “This was supposed to show my side of things.”

“Are you arguing that it didn’t?” Krista asked. “It was pretty damned certain from where I was standing. I didn’t think anyone could be that pathetic.”

“Dammit, Krista, would you have some compassion?” Ryan asked.

“Like you did when you used him just to figure out it wasn’t what you wanted?” Krista asked. “Did you ever stop to consider that maybe it’s really fucking pathetic to be something you’re not? To not stand up for yourself for so long?”

“I’m sorry, Tye,” Ryan finally said. “I didn’t know…”

“How could you?” Tyler asked. “How could I? I mean, it’s not like I was given a choice in the matter. Hell, I just might be gay, but shouldn’t it be my choice? You took my virginity and I wasn’t even sure it’s what I wanted.”

Ryan opened and closed his mouth, but no words emerged. He collapsed inwardly instead, his head resting in his open hands, shutting off the world around him.

“I was never given a chance to explain myself. I can’t hold you accountable for that…I’ve seen you have your own problems to attend to after all,” Tyler said. He turned to Sean. “Sam is right. This is wrong, forcing people into this kind of thing. What did you hope to accomplish by it?”

“Accomplish?” Sean laughed. “You guys come here and drink away your problems like you can just piss them out the next morning. Well you know what? It doesn’t fucking work. I’m tired of watching these shadows of themselves flutter around like everything’s ok in the world.”

“It’s not your place to decide that for others,” Sam shouted, surprising everyone. “You can’t just go around trying to fix everyone.”

“Who said I’m trying to fix anything?” Sean asked. “I’m just the guy sitting in the stands waiting for the wreck to happen.”

“Can’t you see the pain you’re causing them?” Sam said, pointing to Ryan and Tyler.

Sean grinned. “Of course I can. Now who’s next?”

“No one’s next, Sean,” Sam said. “We’re leaving. You can sit there and play with your toy if you want to, but you can’t force anyone else to go through with this psychotic game.”

Sam turned to leave. He made it as far as the door when the click froze him in place. He’d recognized it before; the sound of a hammer being cocked back and it only took a glance to see the silver barrel pointed at his back. The others in the room had cleared a path before him, all of their troubles having vanished at the mere sight of the gun.

“Presence implies participation,” Sean said softly.

“You’re a sadist,” Sam said, staring down the barrel of the gun. “You somehow get off on seeing others suffer, don’t you?”

Sean shrugged and pointed to the device. “Seems to me like the quietest people always have the most to hide. Shall we see what dirty little secrets you’ve been hiding from the group? It’s only fair, Sam. I certainly didn’t see you complaining whenever it was someone else’s turn.”

Sam said nothing. He approached the desk and placed the device on his head, staring Sean in the eyes while the machine dispensed six identical pills. Sam passed the pills around, placing his own condensed memory on his tongue before swallowing. It didn’t take long.

The air smelled of pickles. Sam found it to be a brief ray of humor in an otherwise dark place that his dying grandmother would smell like the one food she hated the most. Turtle dicks, she called them, as if somewhere out there was a group of castrated turtles who’d paid the ultimate price for the sake of cuisine. If his grandmother saw his smile, she said nothing. The steady beeping of the heart monitor the hospice worker left behind told him she was still alive, even if her face said otherwise.

“Sammy,” She called out. He inwardly groaned, knowing her dosage must’ve worn off. “Sammy, where am I? Where’s David?”

“David…” Sam began, his voice catching. His grandfather had been dead for the past fifteen years, but no matter how many times he told her, she kept asking the same question.

“You’ll see him soon,” Sam lied.

He glanced down the hall, knowing if he left her there, she’d disconnect herself and have to be reattached once more. The nurse promised she’d be out for another hour at least. Plenty of time for her to run to the office and pick up some paperwork she wanted them to look at, but Grandma was tougher than she looked and lived on her own schedule. No amount of pain kept her confined for long. Some mornings, he’d find her curled up on the floor, crying from the pain she was in. They kept her sedated while his social life was consumed along with hers. No one liked coming over when there was a woman screaming for her dead husband the next room over.

“Sam. I want to go home,” She said, sighing and lapsing back into a blessed sleep.

A part of him felt sorry for her. He made his way to the kitchen, removing her pain med’s from the fridge and a syringe from the drawer next to the silverware. She’d already had her morning dose, which meant he couldn’t give her the afternoon dosage for at least another hour. That meant an hour of bickering, chasing away the shadows of her old friends and family, and keeping her restrained in bed.

He plunged the syringe into the bottle, withdrawing her standard dose. Then he doubled it. His hands began to shake. He tripled it, knowing he’d push the extra back into the bottle. This much would not only put her to sleep, but kill her. He remembered the hospice worker telling him that at this stage of her health, they dosed her as much as she needed. Pain management was the key phrase she’d used and wasn’t grandma always saying how much pain she was in? He stared at the syringe, wondering when the dark thoughts would pass, but they didn’t.

She was still sleeping when he came into the room, feeling like he was death come for her soul. He slid the needle into her IV, his thumb hesitating over the plunger, sparing her one last glance. She stared back at him, her eyes open watching him work.

“Sammy,” She began.

He depressed the plunger, emptying the entire contents into her bloodstream. Hot tears washed down his face as she smiled and fell asleep. He waited there next to her until her heart stopped beating, but it wasn’t loss he felt. It was freedom.

 

“Well, I’m impressed, Sammy,” Sean laughed. “I always did wonder why you walked around like you were guilty of something. I just figured we’d catch you jerking off into your mother’s underwear drawer.”

“It’s not like that,” Sam protested.

“Oh thank Christ,” Krista said, her hand fluttering to her chest. “Because for a moment, it looked like you murdered your grandmother.”

“He was easing her pain,” Amanda said, finally breaking her silence. “We may have taken the same pill, but we saw different things.”

“So you didn’t see him inject her with three times her dose? That was easing her pain?” Krista asked.

“She was dying,” Amanda said.

“Well Sam made sure of that,” Krista said, laughing. “Besides, you can’t tell me he did it for her. I felt the same thing you did at the end. He was doing it for himself.”

“She’s right,” Sam interrupted. He slumped to the ground, pulling his legs up to his chest. “She’s right. I was doing it for her, but it was more for me. I was tired to taking care of her. Tired of watching her suffer. In the end, I killed her so I could be free but I’m still suffering for it. I’ll never be free of my guilt.”

“Is that why you’re so cautious all the time? So restrained?” Amanda asked.

Sam ignored her. “So you got what you wanted after all, Sean.”

Sean nodded and turned to Krista. “Not yet.”

“If you think I’m going after Doctor Kevorkian over here, you’ve got another thing coming,” Krista said. “What kind of game do you think this is?”

“No you’re right,” Sean said. He flipped open the cylinder and removed six rounds, placing the side by side next to the shot glasses still filled with alcohol. Then, he placed one round back in the cylinder and spun it in a circle, flipping it back into place. “Now we have ourselves a real game.”

“You fucking wouldn’t,” Krista said, challenging him.

Sean pulled the trigger. The empty click rang out in the room, eliciting a scream from Amanda who cowered next to Ryan. Even angry, he wrapped an arm protectively around her while Sam watched with wide eyes from the floor next to the desk.

“Your odds just dropped,” Sean said. “Shall we play again?”

“Go to hell, you sadist,” Krista said.

The hammer fell again and this time, Krista flinched.  Sean cocked the hammer back a third time, staring her in the face while his finger inched over the trigger.

“Fine,” Krista said, placing the device on her head. “Prepare to be underwhelmed.”

 

The cat’s neck broke easily in her hands. A quick jerk and it was over. She stared at the place where it scratched her feeling the pain of the injury, but nothing else. Then again, what did she expect from a feral animal? The laceration would need to be cleaned and she’d have to bury the animal, but it wasn’t anything she hadn’t done before.

She stared down at where the cat lay, its hind legs clawing needlessly in the dirt behind it. A puddle formed beneath it.

 

“And you called Ryan a hypocrite?” Sam shouted, rising to his feet. “You’re the worst of all.”

“Excuse me? You killed your grandmother, Ryan raped his best friend, and Sean just tried to kill me. But I’m the worst of all in this room?” Krista asked. “It was just a cat.”

“But you felt nothing,” Sam said. “You’re a psychopath, Krista. You’re the kind of girl you read about in the paper who kills small animals and then graduates to killing people.”

Krista shook her head, pointing an angry finger at her chest. “I wouldn’t get caught.”

She glanced around the room, finding only five uncertain faces staring back at her. It was the perfect moment to storm out of the room save for the gun in Sean’s hand. He spun the barrel in quick little circles, caught up in his own thoughts, but unashamedly displaying the power he held over them. The only thing that was still a mystery was his end game. She didn’t know what he expected to get out of this little display, but she recognized someone who was near crashing and burning when she saw it.

“You don’t know how hard it is to be like this. To feel nothing. Do you think I want to be this way?” Krista asked. The question snapped Sean out of his thoughts.

“I think you do,” he said. He grinned and shook his head as if chiding a child. “I think that’s exactly what’s going on. You feel nothing. You desire nothing. You’re empty inside and you kill to feel anything but that hollow place in the middle of your soul. Sam was right about you: You’re the biggest hypocrite of all.”

Krista’s smiled which spread into a grin. She shrugged her shoulders and spread her hands. “Guess you caught me. Turns out I’m a heartless bitch after all.”

“You’re sick,” Tyler said.

“At least I’m honest with myself,” Krista said. She turned her attention to Sean. “So it’s still your game after all. You still have a loaded pistol and no one’s gotten the bullet yet. You going to finish the game.”

“The game’s over,” He said. “Get out.”

“Oh no you don’t,” Krista said, her smile returning. “We still have one more person who hasn’t gone.”

Sean slumped in his chair, the color draining from his face. He picked up a half loaded shot glass, seemed about to bring it to his lips and then threw it across the room. The glass bounced off the wall and spilled to the floor.

“The game,” Sean shook his head, “What you don’t understand is I already took the bullet. I already lost.” He attached the device to the temple and let it flash to life.

 

He’d been looking for the good alcohol his father kept locked away when he came across the Mnemosyne machine. The password to the safe had been easy enough to figure out, but staring at the device only raised more questions than he had answers to. For one, how did his father manage to come across one? The only place he’d seen them is on TV or in news reports.

Along with it, came a half dozen boxes filled with crystal clear pills. He wondered if they were the kind of pills that came along with the machine, like a flavor you could try to get an idea of how it worked. Of course, the only way to tell would be to try one.

He picked out a small box labeled ‘Sarah’ and slipped it on his tongue…. 

 

“That’s it?” Krista asked.  

“You didn’t see what was in them,” Sean said, his voice breaking. “You didn’t see her….her f-face when he…”

“That’s why you did this,” Sam said. “You trying to feel something other than what you saw in those little boxes, aren’t you?”

Sean shook his head, and then nodded. “Stop trying to fix everyone, Sam.”

“But it’s true,” Sam continued. “I know what I did. I have to live with it and myself. You didn’t down whatever you saw in those boxes but you’re holding onto that guilt as if you did.”

“What choice do I have?” He asked.

Tyler cleared his throat. “You be true to yourself. A lesson I haven’t quite learned yet, but I’m going to try.”

“If I do, my life is over anyway. If I say something…show anyone what I saw, he’ll go to jail. My mother will be broken. I…”

“You’ll figure it out,” Ryan said. “We all will eventually.”

“You told us,” Amanda smiled. “That’s gotta count for something, right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Sean smiled. “But it’s not enough.”

He raised the pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger. The click rang out in the room, eliciting screams from those gathered around him.

“There’s got to be a better way,” Sam begged. “Please don’t do this. We can find you help.”

Sean spun the barrel and pulled the trigger again. The barrel fell, striking an empty chamber.

“Sam’s right,” Krista said. “I may be a bitch, but even I know the value of human life. You obviously like games, how about we play one now?”

She rose from her seat and almost melting across the room. Sean’s eyes never left her but neither did his finger fall to the trigger.

“A game?” Sean asked when she was close enough.

“You get one last free spin. If you die, you take the secret with you and you have our word that what happened in this room stays in the room.” Krista sat on the edge of the desk, the split in her dress exposing the length of her leg.

“And if I live?” Sean asked, his eyes dancing up her exposed leg.

“You tell the police about what happened,” Krista grinned. “About your father, I mean. We still stay a secret obviously. Most of us have enough dirt on each other to keep quiet anyway.”

Sean spun the chamber and placed the barrel against his head. “I was wrong about you, you know.”

“How’s that?” Krista asked.

“I think there’s a good person hiding somewhere in there. You may not want to admit it, but there’s hope for you yet,” Sean said. “Either way, I’m done playing games.”

He pulled the trigger and the hammer fell.

 

 

 

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Last Chance

Office Cat

Picture attributed to Mackenzie Molina via Flicker Creative Commons

It wasn’t one of the tallest buildings in the city, but large enough that staring towards the top required Chance to crane his neck. Seeing the top, knowing that in a few minutes he’d be somewhere up there talking to the members of a board for a job interview he was sure he wasn’t even supposed to have gotten, made the knot in his stomach coil even tighter.

“Now, are you sure you want to do this?” Bailey asked, also staring upwards. “You know as well as I do they probably got your file mixed up and think your a cat.”

Chance shrugged. “Thanks for the confidence.”

“Hey, man. You know I’m only looking out for you,” Bailey said.

“I don’t know. I feel like I have to do this,” Chance said. He smoothed out the suit he’d rented for the occasion. “I mean, there has to be something on my resume that stood out. Maybe I’ll knock it out of the ballpark?”

Bailey hesitated. “Well, if you’re going to do this, you gotta keep a few things in mind. First, keep the panting to a minimum. Dog’s pant. Cat’s don’t. You ever see a cat pant? You’re going to have to walk the walk if you want to get in here. Second, don’t forget you’re a dog. Don’t do anything…dog like.”

“I’ll be fine,” Chance said.

“If they even let you in. That buster at the door with the stripes has been eyeing us for the past ten minutes.” Bailey said.

“Well, let him then,” Chance said, staring back. “His boss is expecting me. Now how do I look?”

“Like you rented that suit,” Bailey laughed. “I’ll be over by the hot dog stand when you finish.”

The interview room was set up like an inquisition. Six cats with perfectly manicured fur and suits that made his look like he’d pulled it from a pawn shop bargain bin stared back at him without a shred of emotion passing before their faces. The ginger furred one seemed to be in charge, but he was also the one who said the least. While the other’s asked him questions, he only stared through two half-lidded eyes; his tail twitching endlessly behind him.

“I noticed a lapse in your employment history between September and December of the previous year,” A white tabby said. She adjusted the spectacles perched on her nose, glancing at his resume to be sure. “Would you care to explain this?”

Chance cleared his throat, mindful to keep his tongue in his mouth. “I was between jobs at that time. I had just graduated college and with the economy being what it is…”

“We’re fully aware of the economy, Mr. Barker,” The Ginger cat finally spoke. It’s voice was like an aged cheese. “I think the issue my colleagues are batting at is the fact that you are standing in a rather prestigious organization that’s been around for at least four generations. The Von Puss family has a long standing in this community and you’re…”

“A dog?” Chance asked. His voice rang out in the cathedral sized room louder than he expected.

“Indeed,” The Ginger cat grinned. “Now I’ve got nothing against dog’s. In fact, some of my best friends are dogs, but let’s be honest with each other here. You’re a dog trying to apply in a traditionally cat run industry. Why do you want to work for a bunch of cats?”

Chance hesitated.

“Thank you for your time…” The Ginger cat began.

Chance ignored him. “I know there was probably an error in hiring, but you must’ve picked me to come in for a reason. I may not have the best history, but I have the skills to do wonderful things here. You seem to be a man of business Mr. Von Puss, otherwise why would you be where you are? You know as well as I do that the bottom line should be held in a higher esteem than breed. If you take a chance on me, I can promise you that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You won’t find a better worker.” Chance finished talking.

“Well, now,” The white tabby said, smiled nervously. “Thank you for coming in Mr. Barker. You can expect a call from us in two to three business days.”

“I’m called Chance for a reason,” He said, staring at the Ginger cat. “Thank you for your time.”

Bailey was waiting for him, his tongue lolling perilously out of his mouth. He grinned when he appeared, circling him twice for any obvious injuries.

“You look like you’re in one piece, although you smell like burned tuna,” Bailey said. “So how did it go?”

Chance sighed. “Ruff.”

Water Moon

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Coming soon!! Cover is finally done and the title has changed. Editing continues. So many words…

Dark and disturbing, this collection of seven short stories calls back to the good old days of American nostalgia. However, life wasn’t all sweet tea and apple pie as anyone in these stories can tell you. Sometimes, things can go very wrong. This is the side of Americana you haven’t seen before, where the dust hides more than just the memories of the dead.

This book features stories such as:

‘Wildfire’ – A young girl named Arizona moves in with her grandmother following a wildfire that claimed their home and discovers a dangerous family secret that’s been buried for decades.

‘Catfish Run’ – A preacher man decides to confront sin at the crossroads after the latest wayward son returns to his congregation with stories of his deal with the devil.

‘The Wanting Jar’ – When Hattie Wilson hears from her neighbor about a string of burglaries plaguing their sleepy community, she discovers things aren’t all as they seem.

A Thousand Dead Voices

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My book is finished!

Tentatively titled Americana Dreams, it features a collection of short stories with elements of Fantasy and Horror written in an Americana theme. Some of those stories I’ve posted here, so the book, once completed and as soon as I can get a cover, will be released for free.

In the meantime, here’s a short science-fiction story about a Captain trying his best to avoid a war.


There was no asteroid field in existence that proved to be more perilous than the floating wreckage of a battle waged in space. Nor were than any greater riches to be found if one was daring enough to risk Captain and crew to salvage what was left behind. Often times, we found ourselves hung precariously between the two latest warring clans to claim this sector of the universe, which was ironic to me because if there was one thing we had in abundance, it was space.

I’d discovered this fact on my first engagement in a war no one remembered when our captain threw away the lives of everyone on board for what amounted to little more than a dirty ball of gas no one would’ve wanted on a bad day. The fact that the enemy had claimed it made it an offense worthy of the lives of three thousand souls to fight over. Nowadays, no one even remembered the name of the General whose back had been broken near that small sun. No one save for me.

“Bring her in close,” I said softly, though there was no need.

Our latest discovery looked like an old cruiser whose guts had been spilled and left to die. She was a class of warship greater than the parts I’d pulled together, though in actuality, what I’d managed to salvage was now pieced together from so many extra parts, I didn’t recognize it myself. Still, any extra water or batteries she held would’ve made this excursion into once enemy space worth it. By the time anyone recognized us, we’d be little more than distant memory.

“She’s broadcasting on all channels,” Haley said.

“As well as she should be, but pay no attention to it,” I said. “It’s merely her death rattle. No one will be responding any time soon.”

I turned to the First Mate, a dour looking man who was missing half his face. I’d found him on a ship in a sick bay pod with vitals still pumping through his system, despite having half the ship exposed to the void. The better part of me convinced myself to keep him and see if he could be saved. He survived, though we’d had to make do with a composite rather than any advanced cybernetics. If he objected, he’d never once complained and he’d proven himself more than once earning my respect.

“Make it happen, John,” I said. He nodded and pulled three men with him for the mission.

“Their AI is still active, Captain,” A voice chimed seeming right next to my ear.

I sighed. “John, Rose is telling me their AI is possibly salvageable as well. See what you can do, ok?”

“Got it,” John said and I could tell from the tone in his voice that he was grinning.

“This is the last one Rose,” I said for the hundredth time.

Rose was the Original AI, the computer through which everything functioned on our ship and the sole reason I was still alive to tell my story. She nursed me back to health in the crippled bowels of my old ship, leaching off of systems to keep me alive while I pieced something space-worthy back together from the dead parts of my fleet. As such, she was more than a piece of technology to me and whenever she said an AI was more than just circuits, crystal, and energy, I believed her. I’d seen for myself the madness that a machine can experience all alone in the depths of space.

“We have survivors, Captain,” John’s voice cut through my thoughts. “A male and a female. Looks like they’d crammed themselves into an escape pod. We might be too late.”

“Bring them in,” I said. While we had AI to spare, our human crew were lacking as of late. I didn’t think I had enough for the extra mouths but their skill and knowledge should make up for that. Besides, I knew I couldn’t just leave them out in space. Not with my own experiences still decade’s fresh. The man howled like a devil when he was resuscitated.

“Kill me!” He begged until we’d juiced him with enough sedatives to lull him back into unconsciousness. His female counterpart simply stared at me from her bed past large eyes as if trying to decide if I was a real or not.

“Are we dead?” She asked.

“You are now,” I grinned. “I’m sure all hands were shown to have went down with your ship. You died an honorable death with full military honors.”

She nodded. “She was called the Silent Death, you know. We called her Sid.”

“Sid. Nice name for a dead ship,” I said. “It’ll look well carved upon a wall for all to see. Personally, I’ve never found much use in a name.”

“You have no need for one. Everyone knows who you are,” She said softly, tears forming at the corner of her eyes.

For a moment, I was taken aback. Certainly I’d never gotten close enough to ingratiate myself or the lives of my crew in so silly a matter as a war. That anyone could know who I was had to be an outright lie, but her eyes showed me her conviction even if I held none for myself.

“Tell me then who it is you claim I am,” I said.

“Death. The Black Raven. The Vortice. Every crew has a name for you. We’d heard the stories of your black ship on the edges of detectable space, waiting like a spirit to carry the dead home. We could hear the screams of a thousand dead crews picked up on our AI, ghosts of ships that we once knew to be dead and those we’ve never heard of,” She said, becoming silent. “We picked you up at the height of our battle; a thousand voices of once dead ship systems screaming at us for rescue, others telling us to flee. Our Captain hesitated and that’s what killed us. Our enemy didn’t even bother to wait for confirmation. They fled like the devil was after them and now we’re a part of your crew of the damned.”

I laughed as she blushed crimson. “Crew of the dead? Though I must admit I rather like the idea of the Black Raven, we are none of what you speak. I’ll have to get Rose to quiet down those damned AI’s she’s been collecting. You see, she has them running everything from the coffee maker to the toilet. We have a battle cruiser operating the door leading into and out of this room. Needless, perhaps, but entertaining. I’m sure they’d rather be doing that than left in space, after all.”

“So, I’m not dead?” She asked, her tears now flowing freely.

I shook my head. “Not quite, though I’d recommend staying dead until your war is over. Unless you fancy going back and being put into the grinder again? That would mean becoming a part of my dread crew of dead men if you’re willing.”

“And my friend?” She asked.

“Well, I think he’s seen enough to keep the story of the dead ship alive. We’ll jettison him in his pod in a place someone will find him,” I grinned. “Welcome aboard.”

A Minor Enchantment

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Image by Kienan Bjorklund

The Witch sat at the other end of the sofa, nursing a half-empty glass of bourbon. Or half full, if you were the optimistic type, which I’d never been. It came from my finest stock; a bottle of Yamazaki bourbon old enough to be the daughter I’d never had and expensive enough to fund her first year in college. Perhaps there was a bit of irony there, but if she noticed it, she never said and if there was one thing I’d learned about Sam in my time with her, it was that she had a tongue sharper than folded steel.

“18 years?” Sam asked.

“No,” I said. “It’s been about 21 since we made our arrangement. College, remember?”

“I meant the bourbon,” Sam snorted.

I nodded while Sam took another sip. She wasn’t an unattractive girl, but neither was she my type. When one invoked images of a Witch, you always envisioned something shriveled and worn, like a hairy raisin beneath a pointed hat, but the truth was far stranger. She was an ordinary girl wearing knee-high boots and leggings, looking for all the world like a soccer mom who’d gotten off at the wrong floor. Never before had I heard of a blonde witch with a pixie style hair cut, but I guessed all the old shriveled raisins had to start somewhere, right?

“Mmm. Smooth finish. It sort of dances on the tongue there at the end doesn’t it?” She asked. She swirled the amber fluid in her glass, holding it up to the light. “Hints of berries and oak. And am I picking up a touch of chocolate?”

“You’re avoiding the issue,” I sighed. “It has been twenty one years.”

Sam set down her glass and crossed her arms. She had the kind of piercing gaze that reminded me of a school teacher, the kind who wanted to be mad at you but somehow always understood. Perhaps in some ways, Sam was my mentor. After all, it was her who’d secured my wealth and with it the power that’s cousin to it. I could’ve lived for a dozen lifetimes before I’d spent what I’d been given, but it still didn’t sit right in my gut that I couldn’t uphold my end of our bargain.

Not wouldn’t. Couldn’t. She used to joke halfheartedly that I was intentionally avoiding women to make sure my firstborn didn’t end up her ward. I’d never considered such an option before then, but when even her indirect intervention failed to turn up any results, we were both stumped. It wasn’t that I was unattractive. In fact, I had enough money that even the most prudish woman or man would’ve seen it within their hearts to overlook my flaws. Life just didn’t work that way, however.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in you Jonathan,” Sam sighed. “It’s just that maybe you could use a little help.”

“After all this time? Boy, where do I sign up?” I said with all the sarcasm I could muster. “You don’t think I’ve been trying? And what were you doing between now and then? Cheerleading?”

Sam ignored me. “I mean, I thought we had it in the bag with what’s-her-name…”

“Alexis?”

Sam frowned. “No. The other one.”

“Emma?”

“Is she the one that looked like a librarian?” Sam asked, taking another sip of her bourbon.

“No,” I said. It was my turn to frown. “That was Sophia. You mean Zoe?”

Sam snapped her fingers. Instantly, my potted chrysanthemums wilted and dropped all of their petals. “Yeah. Zoe. You two got really serious for a while there. What happened? You had it in the bag with her, man.”

I shrugged. In truth, we just weren’t compatible. She was like every other girl I’d seen come through my door; high heels, a tight fitting dress, and wearing enough makeup to spackle a hole in the wall. They all had cutesy names that sounded more and more like precious gemstones the more desperate we got. By that time, I’d had enough.

I sat next to Sam with my own glass, staring at the contents within. At this point, I wasn’t sure how much longer I had before I hit my mid-life crisis and stopped being able to have kids. Were there still dad’s in their forties or fifties? I still had time. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.

“How about I give you some advice? I could teach you some of the things I’ve picked up,” Sam said. “Maybe you’re just not approaching women the right way. Tell you what. Pretend I’m a girl at the bar. You’ve just walked in. Hit on me.”

I shrugged and sighed. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“God, no wonder,” Sam snorted again. “Try again, but this time, try to smile.”

I stared at Sam, noting for perhaps the first time that her eyes were gray. Not the kind of color you could mistake for blue or a light green, but true steel gray. How many years had passed before I had the courage to even look her in the face? Sam was intimidating and she knew it. Perhaps the old adage was true; familiarity bred contempt, but was it contempt I was feeling or something else?

“You have pretty eyes,” I said. The words escaped my lips before I could reign them in.

“I know,” Sam said. “Now buy me a drink.”

I kissed her instead. It was so unlike me, I couldn’t tell you why I did it. After all, what man truly knows what he’s going to do before he did it in a moment like this? A part of me wondered if she would turn me into a tadpole for my boldness, but then her lips yielded to my own and the kissing turned into a mutual affair. I heard her set down her glass and felt her other hand running through my hair. A murmur began in her throat and worked it’s way upwards, ending at my own lips. We clung to each other that night like we were starved, waterlogged, and adrift upon the sea and in the morning, she was gone.

It wasn’t two months later that she showed up unexpectedly in my bathroom, defeating all of my security. I stepped out of the shower to find her crouched over the toilet, emptying the contents of her stomach into the porcelain basin.

“Listen here, fucko,” She managed before she started anew.

“I take it our arrangement is complete?” I grinned. A part of me enjoyed the delicious, unplanned irony of the situation. Another part of me wished only to see her more comfortable.

“How about I get you something with ginger in it?” I asked.

A very pregnant Sam nodded, puking once more into the toilet.

Kindred

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Picture courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/lblasco/ under Attribution license.

Even from the outside, the bar looked like a small girl squeezed between two large men in suits on a loaded train from Dublin. The pale gray bricks of one wall merged noisily with the bright red bricks of another and yet the only indication a business existed in the uncomfortable space between spaces was a dirty white sign with faded black numbers. A nondescript door adorned the front of the business and it was through this door that Charlie entered, wondering if he were in the right place after all.

The hallway led only a short distance before transitioning into a proper barroom setting, complete with copper handles upon glass doors and a neon sign that cast the room in a dizzying glow. It certainly wasn’t enough to fall asleep in, but warm and safe from the rain that threatened to fall for the third time that day. Besides which, neon lights concealed away any multitude of bodily functions that must’ve been present as he walked. Yet, as he passed through the glass doors, greeted by the distant sound of a game on the Tele, he was stopped from going any further by a strong hand on his chest.

“You lost?”

Charlie followed the hand to an arm roped in muscle. That arm was attached to a man with a mess of curly blonde hair that was tied back in a samurai knot on the top of his head and a short braided goatee. He wore a plain black shirt with the word security printed on the front and a small pink bow over his chest.

Charlie shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m looking for someone. I’m here about a party?”

The bouncer grinned. “You see any bouncy castles here? Though there might be a clown around here somewhere.”

“No. That’s not what I mean –“

“I know it wasn’t,” The bouncer said, losing his smile. “You really think I believed you were here for a party? That the management was going to squeeze an actual bouncy castle complete with little puppies wearing bow ties into an establishment such as this?”

“No, I’m sorry,” Charlie said, backing up.

“Now don’t go running off, either. The boss would skin me if I drove away a paying customer,” The bouncer said. “I only meant there aren’t any parties here. Leastwise, none that would cater to a man of your distinction.”

Charlie got the feeling he was being sarcastic again, however, a cursory look around the room proved the man was right. He was overdressed, save for the bartender, and the party he’d been surprisingly invited to didn’t exist.

“They told me eleven sharp,” Charlie sighed.

“Got stood up, did you?” The bouncer said, clucking his tongue. His expression softened as he took in the defeated man. “It’s a good day for it, i’ll tell you.”

“Leo, will you cut it out and let the man in?” A woman said from across the room.

Both men turned to watch as the girl who spoke slid out of the chair she had been occupying and walked across the room. Walked, hell. She moved like a slow burning flame until she was standing in front of both men with an impatient smirk on her face.

“A party huh?” Leo smiled. They watched the girl return to her seat, smiling as if she expected the company. Tit for tat, after all, but as he stepped forward, he was again stopped by Leo who this time pulled him in close enough that he could smell the licorice on his breath. “You’re going to buy me a drink later so we can have a chat. Understand?”

“Just name your poison,” Charlie said, his eyes drifting back to the girl. Perhaps the night could be salvaged after all. She smiled in return and he was drawn to her as if he hadn’t any other choice.

“Anika,” She said, leaning back in her chair as he approached.

The small movement was calculated, pulling up her dress just enough to expose a shapely leg and upper thigh. Charlie noticed the way she was sitting in her chair, making it look as if she wasn’t just seated, but occupying it as if it was not a simple thing made of wood but a throne and she a queen.

“Charlie,” He said, trying to stare at anything but her legs or pale blue dress.

“I’ll take a jack and coke,” she said, “and tell Ray to go easy on the ice.”

He ordered two. The bartender said nothing but handed he his drinks with raised eyebrows and a smirk when he saw Anika. Charlie began to believe he was once more the butt of some joke, but the smile Anika gave him when he handed her the drink was worth it.

“I never asked what we’re celebrating,” Charlie said.

“Life,” Anika said. She appraised the drink, swirling it in her hand before taking her first sip. “The pursuit of happiness. Noon on a Thursday. Take your pick.”

“I was supposed to meet with some friends,” Charlie said. “I think they stood me up.”

“Their loss,” Anika shrugged. “Listen, don’t let Leo push you around. He roars like a lion, but he’s really just a pussycat.”

Charlie nodded and stared at the table between them. He wondered how many others had tried burying their sorrows in this very spot, how many whispered secrets and confessions had been muttered through numb lips and thick tongues. He also wondered how much grief he was going to get from the boys in the office come Monday or whether there really was a party somewhere out there where they were laughing at poor Charlie looking for a place that almost didn’t exist.

“Even so, thank you,” Charlie said. “I’m sure he means well enough, but I’m sure I could’ve handled it on my own.”

“Oh I’m sure of it dear, but then you never would’ve met me,” Anika said, “And our meeting was providence.”

“Providence?”

“Fate,” Anika shrugged. “Destiny. I’ll show you, darling.”

Charlie nodded, eager to finish his drink and leave now that it was obvious why a woman as pretty as Anika was sitting by herself. Maybe Leo wasn’t that bad a guy if the point of buying him a drink was to get him alone and warn him away. He seemed gruff, but maybe that was just his way of helping. Still, she was good enough company so long as you didn’t drink the kool-aid.

He watched her reach into her purse and remove a small flask which she used to spike her drink. Then, tossing back the drink in a practiced motion, she grunted and slapped her hand upon the table. Charlie said nothing.

All at once, his drink began levitating above the table. Both cups, in fact. The edge of his tie followed suit. Then both cups dropped from their perch, clattering to the ground and spilling his upon the floor.

“Destiny,” Anika winked, rising to her feet. She picked up the glass and settled it in front of him. Within his glass, she poured a drab of clear liquid. “Drink with me if you want to learn more.”

Charlie stared at his cup for some time before remembering to exhale. He glanced around the room, wondering who else noticed, but no one seemed interested. With no customers to serve, Jay kept his attention upon the game while Leo seemed not to have noticed the dropped cups. Perhaps such a thing was common enough in a bar that it didn’t warrant attention, but the levitating.

He picked up the cup, checking it for strings, but he’d felt it pulled out of his hands whenever it happened. No trick there. Had it been the girl? Had she really done it with a simple swig of drink?

“Bottoms up, dear,” Anika smiled, flashing teeth. She was pretty, sure, but dangerous.

He thought about the boys back in the office and then thought about lifting them in their chairs, pantomiming them in cruel sexual positions. Wouldn’t that be worth it?

Anika smiled when he tossed back the drink. Immediately it burned, trailing fire down his throat like a snail coated in napalm. He gasped and dropped the cup, fighting for breath despite his assumed tolerance for alcohol, but this was something different. Through his pain, he focused on the nearest thing to him, watching with equal parts horror and excitement as his glass lifted up and shakily hovered before him.

“How…” He groaned.

“Destiny,” Anika shrugged. “The drink helps awaken whatever dormant thing is within you. I knew from looking at you that we were the same. We’re kindred. It’s no simple accident we’re both here at the same time.”

Charlie lept to his feet and ran for the door. Anika called out behind him, but he pushed past Leo and through the glass doors. Outside it was raining, but none of that bothered him. He laughed, knowing life would forever be different from now on. No one would ridicule him. In fact, they’d want him at their parties. Good ole Charlie. Watch what he can do with a salt shaker and a pint. It’s magic, i’ll tell ya.

He yelped and pushed off into the air, pointing his fist upwards as all the super hero’s must’ve done. Then he was away, rain streaking past his face. He might not have been as quick as a rocket, but he was rising of his own accord albeit as shaky as a fledgling. He was doing it. Then he was falling, the River Liffey rising to greet him like a dear old friend.

“Again?” Leo asked, shouldering past Anika. “This is the third one this week and Jay wonders why we don’t get customers anymore. If he heard you was dropping them in the drink, he’d have those pretty little lashes nailed to his bar.”

“Sod off,” Anika said. “I can only stretch it so far and besides, it looked like he was enjoying himself. Besides, you see the look on his face when he came in? The man needed it.”

In the distance, they could hear Charlie surface, sputtering water and splashing like a dog in a pond. He was laughing.

Dangerous Game

14596525340_915ef055c8_bThere’s a stillness that fills the air when two predators are near each other. Some days it feels as if the world watches with bated breath for the outcome, knowing one life must be forfeit. Such are the rules of the hunt which I pitted myself against each October and it was a game I played well.

I’d been tracking her for more than three days over some of the toughest wilderness I’d ever been through, long enough that I knew her paw prints by sight and had a basic idea for her routine. Eat and move. Bears as big as her focused primarily on food, storing as much as they could for the upcoming winter, and I could already feel the bitterness in the air that told me she didn’t have much time left. The nights had grown colder and the leaves looked like they’d just begun to have been touched with the painters brush.

I had hoped to catch up to her by the middle of the third day and had already given the bear a name; Caitlyn, after my ex-wife. Somehow it made my kills more therapeutic and when I took that final shot, I could almost feel the tension being released from the world like a coiled spring.

I had always seen the similarity between the hunt and life. The sharp report of the rifle signaling a coming change, the moment of truth when fate was unavoidable, and then the inevitable impact. Destiny, like the trajectory of a copper-jacketed bullet, was often difficult to change and when a life was being given up, the world sighed. It was the same emotion when I finally removed my finger from the trigger. It was destiny set in motion.

Thus, I was perplexed when I noticed her tracks change. Instead of her casual gait, her prints began to spread out as if Caitlyn went from a walk to a dead sprint. This didn’t bode well for me since a healthy bear could run for almost sixty kilometers before they got tired. If she ran too far, I’d lose her for good and there just wasn’t any more time left to pursue her. Had she caught wind of me?

I followed for a few more miles, watching with a sinking heart that she never seemed to let up. Then I noticed something odd. A second set of prints following the first except these looked like they belonged to a barefoot man.

Not just a man, a child.

I studied those prints for what felt like an hour, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. There was no doubt the child’s prints overlapped that of the bear. Both were recent and I could sense the bear was panicked. She didn’t rear up at any point. She just ran and inexplicably, the child followed. Not just followed; hunted.

I almost turned back then.

A running bear could never be caught in time, I thought, but I knew it wasn’t true. I could catch her but what about the child? What was someone that young doing out here where even men feared to venture too far? This was true wilderness and not even I went barefoot.

I followed, partly motivated by a smoldering curiosity and partly from the stubbornness that cost me my marriage. It was a vice and virtue in one, two sides to a tarnished coin. Still, no matter how hard I pressed, the tracks never let up. No man could keep pace with a bear and yet it appeared that was exactly what happened.

Then I saw her in a clearing. She was as beautiful as I imagined; nearly 400 pounds of muscle and fury contained within an auburn coat. I brought my rifle to bear, squinting through my scope for signs of trouble and yet all I could see were parts of her flank concealed behind a large tree. Worse, I saw blood.

My instinct kicked in and fearing for the safety of the child, I shot once. It wasn’t meant to be a kill shot, merely a warning to wound the bear away from whatever fool wandered too far into these dangerous woods, yet the bear didn’t react. Worse, the wound didn’t even bleed.

I crept closer to the clearing, my heart threatening to escape through my chest. At best, someone had poached my kill, but the alternative was unthinkable. I expected a tangle of pale skin, glassy eyes staring accusingly up at me, but I only found Caitlyn. Her stomach was open and the sheen of sweat told me she had been running hard. Not hard enough. Neither were there any sign of my barefooted prodigy. Either way, it was time to leave.

It was only when I calmed my nerves that I recognized the hush in the air, as if the world was holding its breath. A few paces back the way I came confirmed what I had suspected; a small set of bare footprints matching my own. Once more, the spring was coiled and I knew by the end of the day, another life would be forfeit. Still, I knew the rules to this game and I would not prove to be such an easy catch.

Elsewhere

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I met the kid at the park, after all there was no need to dazzle someone who likely couldn’t pay me what my time was going for these days. I saved the frosted glass door with my name inscribed upon the outside for the grieving spouses who’d lost someone close or those looking for trouble. It seemed everyone was looking for something. Guess it had to be someone’s job to be the one to find it.

He was waiting when I got there, dressed in an old pair of jeans and a tee shirt that made him indistinguishable from any other young adult in the world. Perhaps the only thing that set him apart were his eyes. They were still full of life, something I no longer noticed whenever I looked in the mirror. It made me pause, wondering why someone so unsullied by life could find their way to my doorstep.

“I don’t come cheap, kid,” I said.

I sat next to him, an old tactic I sometimes used to build trust. It told them I was on their level, just a buddy sitting next to each other staring out across the park, instead of across from him like an enemy. Negotiations were done across from each other. Deals were made side by side. Maybe it still worked. If it didn’t, I never noticed.

“I can afford it,” He said. His eyes told me he wasn’t lying.

“Then tell me your troubles,” I said. “What brought you to me…Jack was it?”

“It’s my mother,” He nodded. “She went missing a long time ago…”

“Whoa, Jack,” I stopped him mid-sentence. “I don’t do cold cases. That’s more a problem for the local detectives than me. Now, you got a girl cheating on you? That I can do. You want me to find someone who went missing a month ago? I can do that too, but your momma walking out when you were just a pup would probably cost more than you can afford. Besides, some people just don’t want to be found.”

“But they said you were the best. They said you could find anyone,” Jack said.

They were right. In fact, I’d made a career out of it like a moth in a cocoon, sheltering out the entire world and sniffing out trouble wherever it lay. I could find a cheating spouse half a continent away. I could sniff out the most cautious embezzler. I could’ve probably even found Jack’s mother given enough time. I could find anyone. Everyone but her.

I’d first seen her in the woods while I was out pursuing the foolishness of youth. She was sitting next to the lake staring at it like she expected to capture every motion of the surface as it was agitated by the wind. There was something about her that made me stop in my tracks, as if she were a creature I’d never seen before and my slightest motion would startle her away from me. I watched her feeling like I’d been holding my breath.

She had brown hair, or perhaps it was chestnut, and a face that looked like it could’ve been chiseled from marble. Still, there was something fragile about her that belied her nature and I found myself wanting to help her. She looked lost. A child in the woods, but this was no child and her smile warmed me when I sat down next to her. But what does one say to someone like that?

“I can’t help you, Jack,” I said.

I could see the desperation returning to his eyes and his tongue struggling for the right combination of words that could make me stay. He’d never understand that his mother wasn’t coming home. I told myself I was only saving him heartache down the road, that some people just didn’t want to be found, but he still had a flicker of hope burning within himself. Truth was, I didn’t want to be the one to snuff out that fire. Maybe I was going soft after all these years or maybe I just saw something of myself within the kid. Something I didn’t want to see. Hope made you weak.

“Can’t or won’t?” He called after me.

The office was empty when I returned. With only my wounds to entertain, I flipped the sign to close and took the rest of the day off, hoping the silence would help cleanse me. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it felt like only the smooth embrace of liquid forget-me-not could ease the burden of her passing. On days like these, my fingers itched for the bottle.She was strongest when I wasn’t expecting, sweeping into my head like a bitter old friend. If the kid was smart, he’d keep his money and stop looking, but I knew his type. He’d keep on searching like I did. You never did stop looking. One day, if he was truly unfortunate, he’d find his mother in a hotel off the beaten path, strung out on whatever it was that drove her away that night long ago. If he was lucky, he’d never find her.

“Keep looking, kid,” I said out loud to an empty room. “She’s just gone Elsewhere.”

Elsewhere. That’s where she first said she was from. Not from here, but Elsewhere. The name had stuck and I didn’t question it. It was like seeing life for the first time through her eyes. Everything was new. That’s why she’d been staring at the lake when I came across her for the first time. She explained she’d never seen water that color before.

“What other color would it be?” I asked, playing into the game. I always made it a point to kiss the sides of her neck while we talked until she was a squealing mess begging me to stop.

“Oh, many different colors!” She’d laugh. “Just never blue. You have a peculiar world here with your water the same color as your sky.”

“And I suppose things are different Elsewhere?” I asked. Another flurry of kisses forced her to her feet and she began to run. I pursued.

I’d gotten lost in this memory before. In reality, we’d chased each other, her never running too far ahead while I never gave up too much ground. Then we collapsed in a heap in the sweet summer grasses, our bodies mingling not for the first time. Back then I’d been a different person, a stranger compared to the man I found in the mirror. Now whenever I thought about it, there was only a hard knot in the pit of my stomach. It turns out hindsight was nothing more than a bitter old woman whispering sweet little lies. I couldn’t get too lost in the fantasy because I knew how it ended.

She’d come to me one day telling me she had to leave. No explanations, though perhaps simply telling me was a small enough grace. Then she just left. Back to Elsewhere or wherever she laid her head. I never believed she was truly gone until I started looking. I pursued, but this time I couldn’t catch up to her no matter how good I became. Truth be told, I was still looking.

“You never gave me a chance to explain,” Jack said from the open door. I gritted my teeth, wishing I’d remembered to lock it. I guess I was going to be the one to snuff the hope from his eyes after all.

“You don’t know what you’re asking,” I said.

“I’m not looking for my mother,” Jack said, taking a seat opposite to me. “I’m looking for my father.”

“You said…”

“I said she went missing, but she came back. She met my father around the same time,” Jack said.

Hope flared to life within my chest. Was it possible? I knew there was something familiar about his eyes, but perhaps I’m wrong?

“Jack, uh…where’s your mother now?” I asked. I stayed facing away from him, instinctively knowing his answer, hoping he wouldn’t see the trembling in my fingers if I was wrong.

Elsewhere,” Jack answered.

Bog Man

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To Maja, the angry voices coming from her father’s barn were more terrifying than anything the darkness hid. It meant even more scared people from the village arguing over futures they could not imagine. Their presence lent legitimacy to the growing threat of war and to the possibility of everything she knew changing all at once. As she listened from her hiding place, she could hear the tones of their voices were lined with fear and desperation. It was the same tangible fear as the time the crops failed or when the boy Teodor went missing, but as bad as that night was, this was worse. At least with Teodor, they could blame the Bog Man. War was different. War had no face.

“We strike north,” Bruno said. “Towards the Baltic.”

“And beyond that? I suppose you believe the Germans are afraid of the water?” Her father asked.

“It’s better than sitting here waiting for them to knock on our doors,” Bruno said. “Towards the Baltic, I say, and then onwards.”

“We should stay and fight,” Another man said. Maja recognized the voice as belonging to Kasper, a single man who often helped out on their farm. “This is my home and I won’t surrender it so easily. We could fight back.”

“Who said anything about this would be easy?” Kasper asked. He hammered his knuckles against something solid. “I have a family to worry about and so should you.”

“Which is why we’re here,” Her father said. “We’re caught between a bear and a wolf and none of us can agree on the best way to avoid either.”

“If we stay, we die,” Bruno said. “The Germans are coming and won’t be stopped by a bunch of men with pitchforks. Whether you choose to face it or not, war is here. It’s on our doorstep.”

“We may die if we stay, but the same could be said if we leave,” Kasper countered.

It was all too frightening to imagine for even as Maja considered each opinion, she realized that no matter what they did their lives would be forever. She hadn’t known that would happen when she heard about the stranger who rode through town on a half-dead horse. Ariadna told her she saw him when he stopped and heard him telling everyone he was fleeing the Germans. Even he didn’t know where he was going, but he turned out to be just the beginning. Throughout the day, more people came. Each told the same story of bombed villages burned to cinders and ash, of family members gone missing and a desperate flight to somewhere safe. Unfortunately, everyone had different ideas of what was safe.

“South, to Budapest,” Istvan said, adding fuel to their argument.

The Germans were coming, she thought. War was here.

 

The conversation continued long into the night with nothing agreed upon. Of all the things discussed, only the fact that their country was now at war remained the truth. It was an uncomfortable new facet to her life, one that kept her awake until her papa returned home.  When he did, it was to flashes of jagged light that blossomed at the edges of the world and distant peals of thunder.

“We must go,” He said pushing her by the shoulders. “Now.”

“But the storm?” Maja said, peering out into the sky. “Won’t we get wet?”

“That’s not thunder,” Her papa said, pushing her once more. “Grab what you can, but we have to leave immediately.”

As they gathered outside, papa set the animals free from their pens. Though the night was calm, there was a tension in the air that flowed across the landscape like an ill wind. The distant flashes had given way to an orange glow that filled the horizon and the stillness drew tight like a coiled snake. It seemed to Maja that Germans hid in every shadow and around every tree. She spared a single glance at what had been her home, wondering if she would ever see it again. A part of her felt like a great jagged hole was being forced from her chest and nothing would fill it again. Other families joined theirs and for a moment, she believed they had finally come to a decision to all leave together. More likely, she realized the bombs must’ve scared them too.

“Come, Maja,” Her father said.

They walked in silence towards the marshes, towards a place she never would’ve found herself on any other night without at least a pinch of salt to carry with her. h each distant flash and bang, a cry went up through their small group like a litter of mewling kittens. At least the light helped mark their way.

Her foot sunk up the ankle in the soft loam. She groaned and shook herself free as another thump sounded in the distance. It was closer this time. She focused instead on the marshes. She’d only been through here twice before; once with Ariadna and again with Teodor. With Ariadna, they’d rocketed across the landscape, propelled on wings of fear and exhilaration even in the full light of day. They threw salt each time they stopped and Maja carried with her a small jar full of fresh cream just in case. Though she felt eyes upon her everywhere they ran, they never saw the Bog Man.

Maja.

She cocked her head, pulling her hand free from her fathers. The voice sounded like Ariadna. Had she decided to join them?

“Ari?” She called out, only to be shushed by an angry woman.

Maja, over here.

                She stepped into the forest, feeling a familiar creeping terror dancing up her spine. The second time was the worst. Back then, it had been Teodor who’d taken up their game, chasing both girls through the woods. It had only been a game, but by the time they noticed he was no longer chasing them, it had been too late. She always thought that maybe he’d just stepped into a soft spot and sunk past his neck, but they never found his body to be sure. It had only been a game, but she’d never gone into the marsh since. Not until tonight.

“Ari?” She half whispered.

It wasn’t like her friend to wander off. Not since Teodor. If Maja had been scared, Ariadna had been terrified. She claimed to have seen it pulling Teo into the bog, but then again, she always claimed to see things no one else could. Now poor Teodor was trapped here with the Germans and the Bog Man. She wasn’t sure which she feared more.

She scrambled over a fallen tree, landing on her feet on the other side. She paused to listen, feeling foolish that she’d allowed herself to stray so far. As she was about to turn around, she caught sight of movement just ahead in a dark place between the trees.

“Ari, stop playing! We have to leave!” Maja hissed.

Maja. This time, the voice was right next to her.

She’d never seen the Bog Man before, but this one was just as Ariadna had described. Black mud covered every exposed part of its body while bits of twigs and leaves clung to the rest. She could see bugs twisting in and out of the ichor, seemingly enjoying the experience, but it was his face that terrified her the most. Where there should’ve been eyes were only two black pits, darker than the darkest of nights set below a row of pointed teeth that looked like they’d been carved of stone and tree bark.

“Maja,” It said to her through crude approximations of human lips.

She wanted to run, but she’d already been running away from the Germans and instead breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t the Germans after all, but did this only make things worse? Somehow, she felt a twinge of recognition at seeing the Bog Man. It was a familiar evil unlike the faceless German she’d been hearing behind every tree.

“How foolish to be caught out so late in the night without even a pinch of salt to protect you. Do you not even carry a crust of bread or a bit of milk? Have you so strayed from the old ways, child?” It asked.

“We didn’t have time,” She said. Then a thought formed in her head. “Are you leaving too?”

“Leaving?” It finally asked. “And where would I go?”

“America, I guess, though papa says anywhere is better than here,” She sighed at the thought of leaving everything behind. “The Germans are coming you know.”

“Are you not scared of me child?” It asked quietly.

“I am,” Maja admitted, but that fear seemed small compared to everything else going on. “But I’m more scared of the Germans.”

“Curious,” The Bog Man sighed. When he did, the air seemed to let out of his body and he shrunk by degrees until it was only his head poking from the swamp. “I should like to meet these Germans.

Maja glanced back to the flashes of light. “You won’t have to wait long.”

The Bog Man rose slightly, coming to its full height though she was never sure how much of it was left beneath the loam. It regarded her with its hollow eyes, as if deciding what it should do with her, before sinking once more. Its toothy smile grinned back at her and she felt like if she blinked, she’d lose sight of it for good.

“They’re monsters, you know,” Maja said. “Are you going to come with us?”

“Would you carry me in your pocket, girl?” The creature laughed, bubbles rising from the marsh. “Besides, they’re not the only monsters in this world, child.”

Maja hesitated. Was it letting her go? Would it let Ariadna go as well? Another thump sounded somewhere close by followed by the shriek of metal. She heard the whirring of aircraft overhead, wondering how they could’ve come so far in such a short time.

Go, child,” the Bog Man said, “Your friend is looking for you.”

Maja began to run, then paused. “Will I see you again?”

“I won’t be long,” The Bog Man whispered. “Run.

Maja ran. It was a strange feeling to know your world was coming to an end. She realized she’d even miss the Bog Man, but she promised herself that wherever she ended up, she’d bring his memory with her. He was familiar at least, and perhaps her last connection to this life. That would have to wait, though. The Germans were coming.

                War was here.