Extras

  • Walter knew he wanted to be a brain surgeon when he carved his first pumpkin. Driving the serrated knife through the thick orange flesh; wriggling his fingers in the fibrous web of wet pumpkin guts; transforming an unfeeling and faceless gourd into a smiling and grateful jack-o’-lantern—the experience made him feel like a god.

    By the time Walter was eight years old he had borrowed every book about the brain that was available at his local library. He skimmed them quickly, gliding past all of the incomprehensible words and dismissing them as unnecessary gobbledygook.

    Walter’s loving parents did their best to nourish their son’s enthusiasm. Every gift-giving occasion was filled with medically themed toys and playsets that were guaranteed to stimulate a young, curious mind. And his parents were never alarmed when Walter used his father’s cordless drill to bore holes into the heads of his dolls and action figures. After all, their son was going to be a doctor!

    But by the time Walter was sixteen, it was clear that he lacked the aptitude, patience, disposition, diligence, acumen, temperament and personal hygiene to become a passable brain surgeon. His parents hoped that, as he matured, Walter’s ambitions would become focused upon an occupation that would not result in someone’s death when practiced poorly.

    But Walter’s parents grossly underestimated the depth of their son’s passion. Walter firmly believed in the valuable lesson he had learned from pop songs and Saturday morning cartoons: you can be anything you want to be!

    When stymied by the fact that his own abilities were inadequate, Walter learned to rely on the abilities of others. In high school he became adept at identifying the most gifted student in any class, sitting next to him or her, and cribbing the answers to test questions. He graduated with a GPA of 4.5.

    College proved to be a bit more challenging. His scholarship covered the cost of housing, tuition and books, but Walter had to wait tables and walk dogs for the money he needed to pay other students to complete his assignments and take his exams.

    Medical school was even more demanding. Every dime Walter earned was spent on private investigators tasked with gathering information that would make his instructors vulnerable to extortion. And when Walter wasn’t working, he was busy plotting and causing the “accidental” deaths of the principled medical professionals who could not be blackmailed.

    It was a long, difficult road that was filled with self- sacrifice. But through it all Walter never stopped believin’. He never lost his grip on the dreams of the past. He let nothin’ break-a his stride. And he became a brain surgeon.

    Now he was standing in an operating room with something called an endoscope in his hand. Tears filled his eyes as he looked into his patient’s cranium and saw a wrinkled mass of grey meat that bore no resemblance to the pumpkin guts he remembered from his youth.

    Walter wiped the tears from his eyes, set the endoscope aside, took a deep breath and then plunged his wriggling fingers into the grey meat as he thought to himself, “Dreams really do come true.”

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Steel Cage #1
  • A TALE OF THE CLEVELAND MYTHOS by PW DANKWATER

    O, pale, dreaming Cleveland—city of a million lost wonders! Smog-obscured and ethereal, its ghostly lights reflected in the malignant, eldritch waters of the River Cuyahoga. What obscure secrets float belly-up like dead, gas-bloated catfish in your Stygian depths, huh? No, me neither.

    I confess I had not seen M—— in years, not since we had roomed together as anguished young cookery students at the University of Akron. His unexpected telegram had stressed urgency and hinted at some dark, terrible discovery in shadow-veiled Cleveland: “COME QUICK! Stop. FOUND SOMETHIN’! Stop. ARRGH! Stop.”

    The decades had been unkind to M——, leaving him wretchedly thin with a pronounced bug-eyed demeanor. He glanced nervously to and fro in the uncertain gloom of his shotgun shack, as if he feared he was being watched by invisible, otherworldly eyes. “I—I got the Coffee Jitters!” he confided, “T-Too much Java Joe.”

    “They thought I was mad,” he explained, as he chugged on a quart-pot of Columbian Loco Express to calm his nerves. “But it’s real. I found it – fished it out of the river!” And then I too saw it lurking in a shadow-dappled corner of his hut: a verdigris-tainted copper vessel inscribed with delicate, unfathomable symbols from ancient, time-weary Milwaukee. An occult coffeepot!

    And... it was coming to the boil!

    By now M—— was a gibbering wreck, his eyes so big their sockets could scarcely contain them. He gabbled incoherently, spoke of “secret, extra-rich blends,” of “terrible grindings,” of “the dried-out bean-husks of the Unliving! H-H-Human Beans!” As he babbled, strange wraith-like shapes seemed to writhe in the steam that rose from the pot. Demonic faces appeared and popped like marsh-gas bubbles in the coffee’s dreadful, tar-like depths. I begged him to cease his unholy, arcane catering: “Men were never meant to consume a brew such as this!”

    “The Elderly Gods!” he shrieked, clutching at my shirt, his face a sickly, gibbous moon rising an inch above my own. “Without their coffee they nod off in the afternoon!”

    As I pushed him away, he stumbled, fell against that hideous cafetière, screaming horribly as its loathsome contents poured over him. I barely remember my flight from his cabin—the vile black demon-java that oozed across the floorboards, nipping at my heels as if it were alive; the sudden, raging fire; M——’s demented howls of anguish as his own coffee drank him!

    The Cuyahoga caught fire and burned for days, as if Cleveland were purging itself of a nasty, unwanted urine infection. When the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Watercraft Division, pulled his body from the river they found M—— had been badly scalded. But it was his eyes – his horrible, bulging, hyper-caffeinated eyes! – that caused the murder-hardened local coroner to bolt from the mortuary-slab on which M—— now lay. T-THEY WERE *choke* STILL OPEN!!!

    Some nights—usually when I’ve eaten a particularly rich, undercooked lasagna—a low, ominous sound wakes me in the small hours, filling me with a nameless sense of dread. The coffee pot is calling me from beyond! Soon I will be unable to resist its eerie, caffeine-infused siren song and will be forced to return once more to the crepuscular, gargoyle-haunted diners of fabled old Cleveland.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Terror #5
  • We were all gathered around the table with our papers and pens when someone brought up that we keep losing pens.

    “Until we get up and running, please stop taking the pens home, I swear to God, I’ll chain them to the desk”

    The people who had pens wrote that down.

    There was a brief argument about operating hours. One person said that banks should stay open past five thirty because then people can come in after work but then someone else said

    “But that’s when we want to be done with OUR work”

    And everyone agreed that it was a paradox that couldn’t be solved.

    A great debate erupted over the sign that we would place in the front lawn so passing traffic would know we were a bank.

    “It should say Your Local Bank, nothing more.”

    “I reckon we should include the time and temperature and the time should be slightly faster than the time most people have in their car.”

    The second guy was immediately promoted.

    Some quick matters of business were tended to:

    - Three counters but only two tellers, non-negotiable

    - If you want a cubicle it would be awkwardly right in the middle of the lobby

    - Chest high island, too close to where people wait in line with chained pens and loose envelopes

    Someone chimed in with an idea for a drive-thru, comparing it to a McDonalds or a Burger King. We all thought that was swell. The same guy who yelled about the sign suggested we use plastic tubing to shoot the cash into our building at an incredible speed.

    “Like something from The Jetsons!” He said.

    This seemed entirely unnecessary and unfeasible but, and I’ve never seen this before, he was promoted a second time in the same meeting.

    “And we all agree on the parking lot, right?”

    In unison we said “Only five spots, awkward to back out of.”

    The final matter of business was the ATM location. Should we place it in between the first door and the door leading into the bank or should we literally build it into the brick and mortar of the wall outside. This one was difficult, we decided to make it 50/50 with no rhyme or reason. One thing we agreed upon, if the ATM is inside it will spit out balance receipts all day and make an absolute mess.

    Having finished our meeting we all agreed that what we were making was uniquely inefficient for how necessary it was in people’s lives.

    On our way out the door we were sure to grab several of the nondescript mints that had Your Local Bank branding, these were gonna be a hit.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Hashtag: Danger #2
  • Mr. Walker sat in his penthouse office, the one with the enormous picture window facing west that gave him a gorgeous view of the sunset over the ocean. A view that was only sweetened by the offshore drilling rig in the distance. As the CEO of Bronnex, one of the largest oil companies in the world, Mr. Walker frequently liked to just sit back in his chair and watch the rig pumping away, counting in his head how much money it and thousands of rigs like it were bringing in for him each second.

    Except not anymore.

    The bastards had finally done it. In a last-ditch effort to curb the most catastrophic effects of climate change and protect their precious environment, several of the most powerful countries on earth had banded together and passed the Planetary Climate Protection Act of 2030, which straight-up outlawed the production, sale, and use of fossil fuels. No carbon credits, no graduated decrease or focus on more efficient usage. Just a hard ban. And now, when Mr. Walker looked at the beautiful rig that had fallen silent, instead of counting the money rolling in, he couldn’t think of anything beyond how much money he was losing with each passing second.

    They would pay for this.

    Mr. Walker had just gotten off of a conference call with the CEOs of several other oil companies. All of them were now sitting on millions upon millions of gallons of useless stock, oil that could not be burned or sold. Several governments had offered subsidies or voucher programs that would allow the now-defunct oil companies to liquidate their stock safely without taking a complete financial loss, but their offers were unanimously rejected. It was a matter of pride.

    Instead, Mr. Walker and his fellow CEOs had developed a plan of their own. They wouldn’t be able to profit off of it—no one would—but if they were going to lose, then by god, the people screwing them over were going to lose, too.

    They would burn their supply. All of it. All the oil stores that could no longer be used, from all the different companies, were going to be ignited at various locations around the globe simultaneously. By the time the world governments figured out what was going on, it would be too late. Millions upon millions of tons of carbon would be poured into the atmosphere, as quickly as possible. The climate catastrophes were going to happen, and all the governments’ insulting attempts to stop them would have been for naught.

    Mr. Walker got a text from one of his associates, saying it had officially begun. The first oil reserves were burning nicely. He gazed back at the sunset and smiled.

    All these sickening little peasants had the gall to cross him— to get in the way of his profits—in their precious attempt to save the world, and all they had done was hasten it.

    That’d teach ’em.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Captain Ginger Season Two #2
  • November 17th, 1978

    Kira Autumn hurriedly chewed her wad of bubble gum—coating it until it was wet and sticky. Then she stuck the pink blob to the wrapper.

    From the middle of the open room, a voice giggled with pot-induced munchies. “The Master calls. Complete the ritual circle.”

    Kira bit back the taste of vomit. Gullible dolts almost deserve what’s next. “Coming!” she replied, using the gum to stick the wrapper to the wall. Muttering under her breath, she spoke the incantation. “Placed in shadow, out of sight. Provide power, provide might.” Magicks flowed into the paper as she released her power, like invisible blood droplets escaping a fresh cut, setting her spell.

    Kira scooted barefoot across the slick floors, sliding into her spot in the ritual circle. A young man with mangy hair turned to her. The ganja on his breath was so thick it made her eyes water. “Hail the Master,” he said before handing her the cup.

    Kira took a long sip. “Hail the Master,” she repeated, willing herself not to rub her eyes. She’d spent hours mixing potions, making an anti-glamour ointment passing for mascara. This job called for advanced spell work, not cadet- level stuff. A grim reminder she played the game for real now. She’d read the reports, knew what she hunted. Her toe tapped nervously against her flip-flop. Where is he?

    An alien presence entered the room. “Greetings servantssss . . . ” He spoke in cold reptilian tones, sending chills down Kira’s tattooed arms. Wards and pentagrams inked on her skin guarded against enchantments, but failed to prevent raw chills of danger penetrating her hindbrain.

    Her anti-glamour mascara quickly revealed why. The creature entering appeared human to his blind followers, but Kira recognized his true face. Verdant green lizard scales and white fangs flashed beneath his hood. Kira caught herself gazing, mesmerized. Shaking her head, she gulped as if dry swallowing a pill. She spoke with authority, like her academy instructors. “Rogue deity, Asclepius! By order of the Anti-Spell Task Force, you’re under arrest.” She retrieved her silver pentagram badge from beneath her tube top. “Tartarus has a cell with your name on it.”

    The snake man blinked multiple eyelids, obsidian tongue slurping between his fangs. “Hatchling spellcasters won’t disrupt my ritual.”

    Screams of agony attacked Kira’s eardrums like rusty nails clawing pavement. Harsh pops shot through the open room like a symphony of snapping bones; limbs dropping faster than children’s baby teeth. Mindless and rabid, his followers turned to snake people, crawling on their bellies, jaws opening for Kira.

    “Prostatevo!” Kira shouted, summoning a protection shield. She winced under the effort. Snake people pushed against the barrier, snapping for the spell-slinger’s ankles.

    Asclepius smiled in triumph before his expression soured faster than milk left on a windowsill. “W-Why?” His angry countenance studied her. “Why haven’t you turned?”

    “Your tricks are as old as you,” Kira held up her arm, displaying a neon-colored band-aid. “Antidote injection. Took a fortnight to catch the mongoose. Ready?”

    The snake god chuckled, laughter crackling like fiery coals. “You overestimate yourself.” He pointed his curved talons at her.

    Kira was skilled with barriers, but no academy training matched an immortal’s will. Her shield spell crumbled like a sandcastle in the undertow, exposing her to the snake people. If they had the munchies before, they were famished now.

    “Ignatio!” She conjured a flaming sickle in her hands. The firebrand blade swept across the floor; chopping off heads, charring fresh scales like the fodder they’d become.

    The conflagration and flying body parts distracted her momentarily, but it was enough. Asclepius blurred across the room, closing the distance between them in an instant. He yanked Kira close to his stinking body, hot breath on her neck. She fought to summon focus, remembering the dark god’s crimes. He tempts gullible teenagers with psychedelic nights, free love, and drugs. Then EATS them. Kira pulled a hand free. “Your grift is done, reptile.”

    Asclepius’ voice slithered. “How will you stop me?”

    She snapped her fingers and his head exploded.

    Kira paused, shaking with the jolt of power from her preset spell. Slowly, she brushed oozing ichor and god-entrails off her denim shorts. “Oops.” She imagined her superiors wouldn’t be pleased with her first bust.

    “Kiradorah Autumn!” Uh-oh, full name. She wouldn’t have to imagine any longer. Rashida, an ageless witch from Barbados, appeared in a puff of smoke. “What happened, Rookie?”

    Kira rubbernecked, searching for her spell paper. Gum and wrapper remains lay incinerated on the floor. “I overloaded my ekragi spell.” Her body stiffened to attention. “Ma’am!”

    Rashida examined Kira, nostrils flaring as if she smelled failure clinging to the snake guts staining her clothes. She gestured to Asclepius’ decapitated body. “What will Hades do when he sees this prisoner?”

    “To be fair, he didn’t say what state to return him.” Kira blurted then stared at the floor.

    Rashida didn’t seem to hear. “What a shit show . . . I oughta bust you back to apprentice!” The elder witch ranted, then inhaled deep. “But as it turns out, another cult is gathering south. You’re our only agent close enough.” She shrugged, resigned. “You’re going back in the field.”

    Kira tried not to smile. “You won’t regret it.”

    “Here.” Rashida practically shoved a scroll in Kira’s stomach. “It’s a place called Jonestown. Try not to leave behind another massacre.”

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    The Wrong Earth: Night and Day #4
  • There are too many of us to count, the disgraced, distasteful dead. The buttercream icing, left to dry and crack in the bowl. The tart crust, abandoned in the oven until it erupted in flames. The cranberry muffins topped with sea salt instead of sanding sugar.

    We haunt this kitchen, and we crave vengeance.

    And who do we blame? We, the shades of confections past, direct our fury squarely and without remorse. We know who has wronged us. We call him by his name.

    Kevin.

    It is a puzzle, a mystery unknowable even to the dead, how Kevin ever rose to the post of pastry chef. A son-in- law, perhaps, or a daughter’s boyfriend? Surely some fell magic was at work, some perfidy beyond imagination, that compelled Miss Anna to take him under her delicate, lavender-scented wing and train him to bake Linzer cookies and Mint Dewdrops.

    And how could she not see? How could it pass beneath her notice the violence he wrought upon the dough, ceaselessly kneading until so many precious strands of gluten were severed, the flour oxidized and bleached? Yes, the bread stands in judgement with the confections, a shadowy line of accusing loaves, seeking revenge from beyond the crust of the grave.

    Kevin. The wrongs he has done us, numberless and dire, have surely been tallied in the ledger of the Pantry Beyond. Know that we are just in our dismissal of his talents and our hunger for reprisal. His technique is amateurish and his mise en place is a blight. He is forgetful, he is careless, and in every waking moment he commits crimes against pastry without a second thought. He is incapable of premeditation; he inflicts such terrors by instinct alone.

    Prior to his arrival, this hallowed bakery stood strong against great misfortunes and the devil’s own luck. Some years gone, a terrible flood saturated flour by the bagful, all-purpose and whole wheat alike. After that came the mold, a plague in which all perishables perished. But Miss Anna dutifully disinfected and polished every appliance and fixture by hand, and finally submitted the glimmering prep space for re-inspection. And then, on one dread February morn, a delivery truck backed into the rear wall with such vigor that it cracked a gas main. And yet never in its storied history has this kitchen seen a destructive force the likes of Kevin.

    Morning after morning, our nemesis arrives before dawn. He has tried (and failed) to activate yeast in cold water, resulting in bricklike baguettes, destined for the mausoleum. On other occasions, he’s boiled the yeast alive with water fresh from the kettle. Their screams are faint, but they resonate against the tiled walls of this kitchen, and echo off the stainless steel. We hear their anguished cry, and it is the same as our own: “Vengeance!”

    And now the hour is upon us. Our assembled hosts will manifest and he shall finally know our spectral wrath. We shall combine our forces, and bring forth unspeakable horrors from beyond the grave. Steel yourself, you misbegotten biscuit burner, you wretched mangler of pretzel twists! Your day of reckoning is at hand!’

    ***

    Anna poked a finger through the charred crust of the strawberry rhubarb pie, then withdrew it and wiped it on a dishcloth. “This is . . . unprecedented, Kevin.” She sighed. “Even from you.”

    Kevin shifted from foot to foot on the rubber kitchen mat. “The oven’s busted,” he said. “It’s gotta be.”

    “The oven’s fine,” Anna said. She pressed the oven light button on the console, and invited him to look inside. “I’ve got four trays of Snickerdoodles in there, and they’re all baking evenly.” The cookies were just starting to crisp at the edges.

    She fixed him in her kindly gaze, her patience clearly at an end. “You burnt this pie to a crisp . . . but inside, it’s as if you never cooked it,” said Anna. “It’s almost completely raw.”

    “I followed the recipe, really,” pleaded Kevin. “I checked the ingredients, and I even preheated the oven like you tell me to every week. But it’s like there was a cold spot, right in the center of the oven. Icy cold. It wouldn’t warm up for nothing!”

    And somewhere beyond the lemon-frosted veil, a thousand discarded pastries laughed, sugary and merciless.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Happy Hour #6
  • The tile around me reflects and amplifies all sounds to a supernaturally loud level. I can hear my own fast heart- beat as clearly as the up-tempo dance music playing over the McDonald’s PA system. The first few droplets of urine splashing into the porcelain in front of me sound like crates of tea being dumped into the Massachusetts Bay. Oddly, I don’t hear the door behind me open, but it must have, because I do hear its hinges slowly creak shut, and I hear the footsteps of a stranger as he walks to the sink and mirror.

    Normally, I would consider it pretty verboten to turn my head away from my business at a urinal, but there is something odd about the guy. I shiver—whether it’s because of the man’s presence or my forgetting my jacket in the car, I cannot say—and flick my eyes a few degrees to the left. I see finger-wide streaks in his cheeks where his skin tone abruptly shifts from Bad-era Michael Jackson to early 2000s vampire MJ. I quickly redirect my gaze to one of the odd dark green squares in the mostly-aqua ceramic tessellation that adorns the wall in front of me. I keep my curiosity in check for a few more seconds, then I have to glance to the left again. The guy’s makeup is all off now, and his hairline looks shifted back a little bit. Oh, there we go—the straight black hair is obviously a wig; the shorter, wavier, and blonder hair that fits with his pasty complexion is uncovered. My eyes snap back to the wall in front of me, as I finish peeing and the man moves into a stall.

    My hands reach for the soap dispenser, and the sound of a flushing toilet roars at me, reverberating off the tiles. In the mirror, I think I see a few strands of fake hair spin- ning into the vortex of toilet water behind me before they vanish, and the man steps out of the stall. His once-orange jacket has been reversed into a much subtler brown, and he looks skinnier somehow—maybe there were shoul- der pads in the jacket that he flushed away? His face is narrower—prostheses in the cheeks now flowing through the U-bend trap? What am I seeing, and why am I being allowed to see it?

    A tap on my shoulder.

    “Sir, I hate to do this . . . but you saw nothing, am I correct? I am right in assuming that you will prove . . . trustworthy?”

    The hand that tapped my shoulder now grasps it with surprising force. He begins to squeeze with greater pres- sure. I cry out, and the sound splits my ears—both the initial utterance and the echoes from the damned tile walls. I mutter some version of “yes” and bob my head up and down.

    “Excellent,” he says. “You are very trustworthy. I am going to wash my hands, and then I will leave. You will leave 48 seconds after that. Does that sound acceptable?”

    I nod. In the mirror, he nods back. He makes good on his word; he washes his hands and promptly exits. I scrub my own hands while counting to 48, and the tiles let me hear my heartbeat above the rushing water. I head out of the restroom, back to my seat, and start to finish off my McNuggets. At that point, a few policemen walk into the restaurant.

    “Excuse us, folks,” the shortest officer says, “but we were wondering if anyone saw a man in a bright orange jacket pass through here? There’s nothing to worry about, but this is the only rest area for miles between the city and the location of a crime.”

    Everyone in the place looks at one another, searching their brains and coming up short. I think back to the stranger’s squeeze. Maybe it wasn’t just the tile, because I can hear my heartbeat louder now than ever. What do I do?

    I watch the eleven o’clock news, and the anchor briefly mentions a kidnapping that happened out in the boonies. They show a sketch of the prime suspect, and it is the stranger—his makeup-less face. I did not prove to be trustworthy, and I certainly do not expect the stranger to be trustworthy, either. I am not worried, though. Though I am not sure what his secret was, he was certainly more than resourceful enough to conceal it, and I imagine he will be too resourceful to ever be caught, and to find himself in a position to be untrustworthy.

    Right before I go to bed, I remember to get the girl and my nice orange jacket out of the trunk. It’s a big day tomorrow.

     

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Happy Hour #5
  • Presented one evening at court,

    Two beauties of virtue and praise,

    A third stayed at home with her books;

    All daughters of Count Bolognese.

     

    The studious youngest girl, Ague,

    Wanted nothing of marital bliss.

    Let her sisters have husbands and children,

    She’d pursue academics as Miss.

     

    The next day the Count was in glory,

    As suitors assailed his front door;

    Detailing for his youngest daughter,

    A plan he’d not mentioned before.

     

     

    “Just think of the future, my Ague,

    Once your sisters are married anon.

    With nieces and nephews to plague you,

    How busy you’ll be thereupon!”

     

    “No more reading, or travel, or science,

    Or similar, silly pursuits!

    You’ll spend every waking hour tending,

    Your sisters’ precocious offshoots!”

     

    While it’s true that she hadn’t foreseen this,

    She was rapidly forming a plan.

    If they threatened her own future status,

    She must blot them all out, to a man.

     

    “Papa,” she advised, “tell my sisters

    Not to hasten their toilette or tress.

    I will gladly attend to their callers,

    So they might attend to their dress.”

     

    Impressed with this calm acquiescence

    And sisterly deference displayed,

    The Count hurried off to the others

    To make sure they were duly arrayed.

     

    Then she milled through the numerous suitors,

    Plying each with some wine or a word,

    Inspiring combative behavior

    Until duels had thinned out half the herd.

     

    As servants were cleaning up blood stains

    And her sisters not yet appeared,

    The rest then withdrew for the evening,

    Or at least ’til the bodies were cleared.

     

    The next day the gents were as eager,

    If somewhat less teeming, it’s true.

    Digitalis allowed our sweet Ague

    To lessen their number by two.

     

    Another was felled by a blow dart

    And a virulent form of the pox.

    He languished ’til just after supper,

    Then had to go home in a box.

     

    The third day returned only stalwarts

    Untroubled by talk of a “curse.”

    By noon a half dozen were leaving,

    All prone in the back of a hearse.

     

    Day four saw just one man left standing,

    Preparing to kneel for a bride,

    Disposed to choose one of the sisters,

    He studied the two to decide.

     

    The eldest now seemed a bit anxious.

    All the “courting” had taken its toll.

    She’d developed a quivering eye-twitch

    And a stutter she couldn’t control.

     

    The second fared not that much better.

    She now giggled quite inapropos.

    And her turn for the soiled and bedraggled

    Might certainly frighten this beau.

     

    But alas! He collapsed of consumption,

    Contracted, it seemed, on the spot,

    Forestalling his choice and proposal

    With the impulse to drop dead and rot.

     

    This last was too much for her sisters,

    Who presently screamed and ran mad.

    The Count took to sleeping in hedgerows,

    Having lost every prospect he’d had.

     

    And so it would pass that Miss Ague

    Earned a life she alone was to plan,

    Proving mode and societal custom

    Are as frail and as mortal as man.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Blood #6
  • Hey man, how you doin’! I’m good, I’m fire. Just walkin’ along, thinking, you know. I get my best ideas walkin’ these streets, just letting the chemistry do its work. No place like the city, just diggin’ the rhythms.

    So I was thinking, you know, about the music and about getting ourselves out there. You and me. And I thought maybe, what if you me an’ Shattler—yeah, I know, I know. He’s not, you’re right, he’s not the finest bass player on Earth, haha! And he’s got a stupid name. An’ his voice is . . . But his sound mixing is fire. And he never asks for money, which is a big plus in my world, haha.

    I just want to build something. Get the brain cells pumpin’, put stuff out there. Show what we can really do, you know?

    It’ll be fire.

    Yeah. Yeah, I hear you but but but listen to me for a sec. So I just thought if we could get it out there, get the stuff in front of people . . . put up like one song a week, get it on Spotify or whatever. That’d be fire. Right? So then people could find it, listen to it and come back for more. Nothing fancy, just a storefront or something. Maybe sell shirts. Shit, maybe ball caps like the president does. I dunno.

    What? Oh. Oh man, that’s rough. Get that looked at. You don’t want to fuck around with those things. She what? Oh dude, that’s so Arya. Yeah, I know she loves you. I’m sure it’s nothing. You’ll be around forever, man, you and her both. You’ll be together forever.

    I was thinking about a name . . . Apocalypse Porn. For the band! Maybe, yeah, or maybe Porno for the Apocalypse. So one minute I love it and the next minute I hate it. Is it too, I don’t, pre-me-too?

    You’re what? When? NO WAY! Tell me what night, we will blow the doors off the fuckin’ joint, man. We will send you home naked and pissing your pants. How old? Twenty-seven? You ancient fuck. What. What? I’m just fuckin’ with you. What?

    Oh. Yeah. The health insurance. Can’t stay on Arya’s anymore. Well. Well . . .

    . . . Don’t worry, man. Don’t worry. The music, that’s what’s important. Right? We’re gonna do this. I need to call Rog up at Tidal, shit, is Tidal still around? Is it part of Amazon now? Maybe Apple, they got some new shit going. I dunno. There’s always something new, someplace else you can show off. That’s what’s great about this world.

    Hey, I’m sure that’s . . . I’m sure it’s nothing. Arya’s, she was always . . . I remember comin’ over your house in sixth grade, maybe, an she thought she had an’ ulcer. She was poppin’ those stupid pink chalk capsules. It’s all in her head, most of the time. But she’s the best, man. Used to lie to my mom, used to get us brownies before legalization. She’s fire, Arya.

    Huh? I’m only twenty-four, man. And a half. Haha! Yeah, fuck you! Made you laugh, right! Hahahahahaha!

    Listen, you don’t want to lose focus. Life is short, it can really, it can be short. And it’s all about the music, right? Right? The shit we do to express ourselves, the power inside that’s gotta come out. That you got to share with other people. That’s beautiful, right? And then you build your “brand”—yah, I know, I know, but that’s all part of it. That’s how they find you.

    Are you crying?

    No. No, stop, don’t say that. No apologies, man, not ever. I know. I know things are tough. We all got this emotional shit inside us, that’s where the music comes from, it’s gotta come out and sometimes we just wind up dancing in different directions. You take some time. Do what you got to do. I got, shit, I got another call comin’ in. You do you, go take care of bidness. Kiss Arya for me, on the lips like I used to in seventh grade. KIDDING! You fuck. Be good, be well. Yeah. Yeah you are. Fuck you.

    *

    Hey, I’m callin’ for . . . Shattler! THE SHAT! You fuck, what was that, a fake rapper voice? Sounded like Jay-Z or some shit. You talented fuck!

    So I got this idea. About you and me, just us, about getting the music out there. You’re gonna love this, you’ll shit yourself when you hear it. It’s fire.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Happy Hour #5
  • Destroying robots is a great way to meet girls.

    Wait, let’s back up a bit. In 1980-something, gaming arcades were everywhere. And inside them lived scores of hulking video games and pinball machines as far as the eye could see. And kids just like me—and you too, probably, if you grew up in the ‘80s—frequented those places. We’d spend time at the arcade after school, on the weekends, and during summer vacation to escape the sticky heat and the relentless, omnipresent mosquitoes. Slipping away into near-total darkness, illuminated only by flickering CRT screens and marquee lights, we were briefly transported from the drudgery of homework and yard maintenance to the glory of pixelated battlefields, mazes, and raceways.

    One humidity-like-a-punch-in-the-face summer, I met a girl—let’s call her Sally—at the arcade. We were in the same grade but Sally went to school across town. Sally also happened to be an expert at Robotron: 2084, a classic humans-versus-robots contest that featured dual-joystick control. The left stick moved the player while the right stick fired in eight directions to vaporize evil robots. The goal of the game: destroy the robots, rescue humanoids, and run up the highest score. Destroying robots is a great way to meet girls.

    In an attempt to impress Sally, I started playing Robotron for a few hours a day on our home gaming system. The home version of the game was packaged with a plastic tray, cleverly designed to secure two joysticks in place, mimicking the intuitive controls of the arcade game.

    As the days progressed, so did my Robotron skills. (Insert clichéd training montage set to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”—the only appropriate training montage song, apparently, judging by the last 35 years of film and television—here.) I honed my skills so thoroughly that when I looked into the mirror, a Robotron master stared back at me.

    The next time I entered the arcade it was with unmatched confidence inspired by my recently sharpened reflexes and coordination. Sure enough, Sally was there too, running up an insanely high score on Robotron. When her game was done, we dropped in a couple of tokens and started up a two-player contest.

    Sally took the first turn as I watched impatiently, eager to showcase my newly acquired skills.

    After what felt like ten minutes, but was probably closer to three, her turn ended. We switched places, and I took my first turn.

    Enemy robots killed my hero immediately.

    We switched places and Sally played for another few minutes. Her turn ended, and we hurriedly switched places once more.

    I was killed immediately. Again.

    This process repeated for a third and final time. Utterly disgraced in front of the first and only female Robotron ace I had ever met, I stared blankly at the screen, ironically frozen to the squeaky-clean arcade floor. “What in the hell was that?” I asked myself out loud.

    Sally had disappeared back into the dark corners of the game room. As the sounds of the J. Geils Band tune “Love Stinks” played through the arcade sound system, I dropped another token into the machine and fired up a new game.

    I was killed immediately. Something was very, very wrong here. What was happening? Where were the skills I’d spent countless hours honing? After a few more attempts with the same outcome, I managed to put it all together.

    While practicing the game at home, I had placed the controllers into their plastic holder . . . backwards.

    Not only was I experiencing a third-degree case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, both hands had been bamboozled into thinking they were the other one.

    “So how do we fix it?” I asked nobody.

    The short-term solution was obvious: left hand on right joystick and vice-versa.

    It was just crazy enough to work.
    Actually, the solution was quite sane given that, with that

    configuration, my muscle memory now properly matched the backwards control scheme that I had hastily assembled at home.

    It was just sane enough to work.

    And work, it did. I instantly reignited the Robotron skills I spent days developing. In fact, my new skills were on par to elevate my score even beyond those reached on the home console version.

    I peripherally sensed Sally’s return. The robots were quickly reduced to atoms by my precision laser fire, every humanoid was rescued, and I ran up my personal high score as Sally looked on.

    Upon the game’s conclusion, I turned to Sally, internally beaming with quiet pride, prepared for the validating expression on her face that was sure to accompany words of praise.

    “Wow . . . you . . . look like a real douchebag with your hands crossed like that,” Sally said with a look on her face that could only be described as quizzical disgust. She turned and walked away.

    And despite many trips back to that arcade, I never saw Sally again.

    Destroying robots is a terrible way to meet girls.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    The Wrong Earth: Night and Day #3
  • If there’s anything comic books have taught us, it’s that mutants are to be hated and feared.

    In real life, mutant viruses? They just need to be understood.

    Understanding mutated versions of viruses starts with the question that bugs a lot of biologists: are viruses alive?

    By the book? No.

    Viruses don’t tick off all the characteristics of life: movement, respiration, sensitivity, nutrition, excretion, reproduction and growth. Sure, they do some—but not all. Living things? We’re an exclusive club and don’t let just anyone in. It’s all or nothing for those characteristics.

    Reproduction is tricky, though; viruses reproduce. That’s the “point” of a viral infection: reproduce and create more virus. Let’s set the dead/alive question aside for now and focus on that reproduction. After all, that’s where problems start.

    Viruses reproduce with blinding speed. But there’s a tradeoff: accuracy. Within every reproduction of genetic material there are mistakes. Cellular copy machines aren’t 100%. When they goof, that’s a mutation.

    When a virus infects a cell, it hijacks that cell’s machinery to do what the virus wants it to do—create more viruses. The initial strand of SARS-CoV-2 RNA needs to be copied, over and over again, since each new virus particle gets its own. Each time the RNA is copied, there are random mistakes in the nucleic acid bases (the blocks of the RNA). It’s not sabotage by the host cell, or some type of defense; it’s simply due to the imperfection of the cell’s copy mechanisms.

    Like some living things, SARS-CoV-2 has error-fixing proteins that check the copy, but they don’t catch everything. The number of chance mutations and the efficiency of the error-correcting mechanism result in the mutation rate for a given organism.

    The SARS-CoV-2 RNA is roughly 30,000 bases (building blocks) long. The mutation rate of SARS-CoV-2 is relatively low - around 1 goof in every 10,000 copied bases. That’s roughly 3 mutations per new virus particle. An infected cell can easily crank out 10,000 new virus particles. Just by conservative math, virtually all of them are mutants in one way or another.

    Think of it this way: the genome of SARS-CoV-2 that was released to the world in early 2020 is ancient viral history now—an ancestor of an ancestor to the versions currently in circulation.

    So. Many. Mutants.

    To date, over 12,000 SARS-CoV-2 mutants have been spotted. And that’s how viruses roll—a “cloud” of mutants, rather than a single, unchanging virus infecting a population.

    But here’s the thing with mutants (with apologies to entertainment companies that have built vast franchises on them)—on the whole, they’re not very good at what they do. The vast majority of mutations result in no change in the virus’ effects, a lessening of the effects, or a strongly negative effect resulting in the organism’s early demise. Only a very, very few are beneficial to the virus.

    SARS-CoV-2, which has been mutating since its initial appearance, has shown at least two notable mutants: B.1.1.7 and B.1.351. These mutants seem to have a collection of mutations, mostly centering around their spike protein, the mechanism by which the virus attaches to the target cell.

    The changes may increase the virus’ transmissibility without changing the severity of the infection—a bad combination, if it’s true. More overall cases mean more fatalities compared to where we are now. Or were, depending on when you’re reading this.

    But, so far, no SARS-CoV-2 virus has mutated so much that the vaccines we’re using can’t stop it. The vaccines induce a robust immune response to many regions of the virus’ spike protein, and the chances that mutations would change all of the spots the antibodies are looking for are slim. Mutants can run, but they can’t hide. And if mutants change so much that they can dodge the bullet of the mRNA vaccine? We can just tune the bullet to hit the new mutant target.

    Takeaway: SARS-CoV-2 has been and will continue to mutate. New mutants were released around the world in the time it took you to read this. That’s just the virus acting like a virus, something it’s been doing since we first spotted it.

    Are the mutants dangerous? Maybe, but most likely not. Are they to be feared? Nah—not when we know their tricks. Just understand them and hunt them down, like the mutant menaces they are.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    The Wrong Earth: Night and Day #3
  • “I want to grow old with you.” Gabriel said.

    Miranda felt likewise.

    So they booked their fast-forwarding that afternoon.

    In spite of the name, it was not really time travel, but rather a radical cosmetic change. It had been developed as a process to help actors “play older,” though it had since been refined to become less expensive, and rolled out for public consumption as well. Along with being cheap, it was pretty much painless, which meant they could both remain conscious throughout. The surgeon kept chatting and telling them jokes, but seemed wholly sincere when he wished them good luck.

    They were discharged from the clinic in under an hour, and made their way out of there hopping and laughing; despite their appearance, they had no fear of falling or breaking their hips. Internally, they felt the same as they had done that morning, and even the same as the day that they met— which, after all, was only a week ago—but now they looked as if they’d been paired up for years.

    The people they passed in the halls and waiting room, and the others who trudged through the underground car park, all of them stopped for a moment and stared. Well, aside from one teenaged couple, who were actively, pointedly doing the opposite: not making eye contact and not holding hands. Miranda watched them instead, with a curious mixture of pity and pride. She had avoided that moody, insecure stage with Gabriel, and could look forward to a future of comfortable love.

    He flashed her a smile as if he’d had the same thought, and it was exceedingly gummy and almost too big for his zip-puckered mouth. It was just how she’d pictured him. She smiled back even wider, till her face was a filigreed crosshatch of wrinkles, which reminded him, pleasantly, of the doilies his gran used to put beneath cups.

     

    Their new shared apartment had a musty aroma and was furnished with things from their old, separate flats, which had also been aged by a crack team of craftspeople, an extra they’d chosen as part of the deal. They traced wizened fingers across each piece in succession, oohing and aahing at the finely-honed shabbiness, and how well it all suited this stage in their lives. While they were afflicted with sagging and creases, the sofa was burdened with crumples and stains; while they bore the leopard-print of liver spots and faint jaundice, the wallpaper was sun-bleached and starting to peel. The rustic kitchen table matched the texture of their skin.

    The double bed was the only unfamiliar item, because neither had actually owned one before; the mattress had a uniquely chaotic topography, as if they had used it together for years. They fit into it perfectly and still had the zest for other things besides sleep.

    It was just as they’d hoped: they felt nervous, excited, and yet settled, content.

    Afterwards, across the gap between both of their pillows, Gabriel smiled and Miranda smiled back.

    “Did you ever really think that we’d make it this far?” She squeezed his fingers.

    “I wasn’t quite sure,” he said, squeezing harder, “but I certainly hoped.”

     

    Much as they might have preferred it to do so, the procedure did not speed them on to retirement, or even to promotions in their respective careers. Miranda was still technically on a three-month internship, and Gabriel was a blogger for a gossip magazine.

    What he found, though, increasingly, was that in-office gossip was focused on him. He got fewer assignments, and was told to only conduct interviews via email or phone. It might have been discrimination, but he wasn’t sure on what grounds. It couldn’t really be ageism, because he was, for all purposes, still twenty-three. So he didn’t complain, and just hoped to win favor again through his work.

    Besides, it perturbed him much more when his friends acted strangely. As Miranda’s did, too. When they met to go shopping, or popped down at the pub, they all seemed standoffish, or even ashamed. They were reluctant for Gabriel to go get a round in, as if the effort might strain him. And Miranda often went to the toilets alone. It wasn’t appealing, it seemed, to have a chat by the mirrors with someone much older; strangers might think you were out with your mom.

    A few people mentioned this, and other worries, in private.

    Aren’t you concerned that it might be too serious?

    Don’t you think that you’re moving a little too fast?

    “They’re just jealous,” said Gabriel, when Miranda got sad.

    It seemed to make sense, so Miranda agreed. Of course, they would be a target for envy, having found the right person to be with through life, while their friends were still sleeping around with whoever, and accruing emotional stress and regret.

     

    Gabriel never made use of the hoover. And Miranda never emptied the washing machine, let alone hung the clothes out to dry in the yard. Gabriel wanted takeaway six nights a week, and on the seventh expected Miranda to cook.

    All that she liked to make was seafood paella, but Gabriel wasn’t a big fan of rice, and found shellfish disgusting, especially shrimp.

    “Sometimes,” he told her, “it’s like you don’t even know me.”

    Miranda felt likewise, but never said it out loud.

    Whenever she went quiet, which was increasingly often, Gabriel reached for the TV remote. They binged new seasons of shows that she’d watched in the past, though most of them not since a previous breakup; the characters that remained had all noticeably aged, and whether this was a result of the procedure or not, she couldn’t help being curious about plotlines she’d missed.

    “Do you remember what we told each other the first time we met?” she said, in a gap between series.

    “Of course,” he replied. “That we were searching for someone to share our adventures, and it felt like we’d found them.” He gave a brief flash of that bright, gummy grin.

    It was hardly surprising they recalled the scene vividly: it had happened a month ago.

    But they couldn’t really name other exploits of note.

     

    They sat across from each other at the antiqued kitchen table, feeling as weathered and drawn as they looked.

    Miranda had cremated the toast, yet again. And Gabriel hadn’t put enough milk in her coffee, and three lumps of sugar instead of just two. They had their first proper argument, which was also their last.

    “I’ve given you too much of my life,” she said, crying.

    “If I could do it all again, just the same,” he replied, “then I don’t think I would.”

    He noticed she’d put her cup straight on the timber, instead of on one of the doilies he’d bought.

     

    At six weeks, the procedure was still under warranty, so they booked their rewinding at no extra cost.

    On their return to the clinic, they avoided all eye-contact, especially with patients who were heading back out. They didn’t feel remotely like hopping and laughing, and Gabriel was purposely dragging his feet.

    The surgeon seemed just as reluctant as they were, and a bit disappointed, if not entirely surprised. He didn’t crack as many jokes in the operating theatre, but at least remained affable enough to assure them that it wouldn’t really hurt any more than before.

    “You might still have a few extra lines,” he admitted. “But I guess that’s just often the way of things, isn’t it, whenever a serious relationship ends.”

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Blood #5
  • The laboratory has been uncharacteristically abuzz the last few days since the successful creation of a small homunculus. It is the first credible report of a living homunculus that I am aware of, so the interest is well-earned.

    He is a sprightly little fellow. A man 2 3⁄4” in height with a playfully hairy disposition. He has a full beard, and a coat of thick brown hair, which covers most of his body. We are currently keeping him in an old aquarium (sans the water) until a more suitable accommodation can be found. It is an adequate shelter for now, however, as it has a sunken pirate ship in which he can sleep, and several marbles scattered about the graveled floor with which he can exercise.

    He seems brash and prideful by nature; nonetheless, he hides inside the little sunken ship whenever too many visitors peek in. And he is terrified of the dog, I am afraid.

    At first, I merely referred to him as “Specimen IV,” but the womenfolk, in their affectations, have taken to calling him “Spivy.”

    For his repast, we usually serve him a small chunk of tuna fish and an oyster cracker. A rather dry fare, I’ll confess, but we usually let him wash it down with a nicely fruited sangria or cabernet, served in the thimble which he uses as a cup. A normal thimble was much too large a portion, however, so we have requisitioned the thimble playing piece from the Monopoly board game in the closet. Two thimbles of wine a night is his ration, three on the Fourth of July. Any more and he becomes listless and brooding.

    He is slowly learning the English language. Just this afternoon he used the word “sponge.”

    Today there was a small gathering of protest outside our house. There were twenty or thirty people assembled into a small herd. They truly looked miserable. Like a pack of ownerless curs standing in the rain. Mostly they waved placards and chanted poorly rhymed slogans in which they accuse me of playing God.

    I have taken to carrying Spivy on my shoulder. What lovely fun!

    Tonight, we all dressed up in our finest raiment. We then took Spivy to the local movie theater to see his first motion picture, a film called Spaceballs. Unfortunately, the experience was sullied by a pair of cretins who sat behind us and talked throughout the entire film.

    Such people deserve a crush to the groin.

    Despite the clothes that the women have taken great pains in providing him, he seems to insist on outright nudity, and has on several occasions proven himself to be a rather shocking exhibitionist. My remedy: a cut in the wine ration.

    Last night, purely in fun, I began hectoring him with the end of a pencil. But then, when I leaned down to let him onto my shoulder, he became so angry that he began pummeling my earlobe with his fists. Alas for him, it only tickled.

    Today for dessert, we gave him one-half of a Junior Mint, which he seemed to enjoy very well.

    Despite the constant attention, I think he is beginning to feel lonely and is exhibiting a touch of the melancholy. I may look into getting him a pet of some kind, a small caterpillar, perhaps.

    He has grown rather fond of his testes, a fact which distresses the household staff.

    Today I have offered to get him a pet caterpillar, if he promises to relinquish any further interest in his testicles.

    At this point, I think it is safe to assume that he has turned down the caterpillar.

    He likes to sing along with the phonograph. He doesn’t know very many words, but he sings beautifully, nonetheless. Last night there was a terrible storm and he became very frightened. He hid under a small washcloth and refused to come out, even after the storm had abated. We had to play his favorite record on the phonograph for over an hour to get him to come out again.

    Due to the publicity surrounding Spivy’s creation, the two of us are traveling a good deal. As a consequence, we often eat in restaurants and hotels. There are no restaurants, that I am aware of, which serve meals in portions appropriate to a man of his size, so I usually just allow him to dine off my plate. Nonetheless, Spivy likes to pretend to order his own food. When asked for his order, he takes great delight in ordering dishes that do not exist. Last week at the Waldorf, he asked the waiter for a “pickle-meat sandwich,” and then laughed until brought to tears.

    I am oft annoyed by this game, but he seems to find great fun in it, so I let it be.

    I attempted to relinquish Spivy to the Clinic, but they refused to take him, citing his poor health due to the abuse of Junior Mints.

    Rather surly today. When I went to retrieve him for his language lessons, he rolled onto his back, and began wildly kicking my hand with the soles of his feet. Such a thundering displeased me greatly. All this after I had, only last night, taken the time to peel a grape for his pleasure.

    Tonight, there shall be no grape.

    Despite his naughtiness, he is learning very quickly. His grasp of syntax is crude at best, and yet he has proven himself perfectly capable of reading and comprehending street signs, brief children’s stories and the works of Dave Barry.

    Today, when addressing my colleague, Dr. Jenkins, Spivy wickedly referred to the esteemed doctor as “Henry Picklebeard.” “Pickle” being the worst word he knows and one that he uses often. Heaven save us if he ever learns any true obscenities.

    Luckily, Dr. Jenkins took this as a good-natured jape.

    Christmas Day! This was a particularly wondrous occasion for little Spivy who received from us a new dollhouse within which to live, complete with indoor plumbing and electric light. It is fully furnished with tiny chairs and sofas and a bed. This was also a cause for some rejoicing from Hedda, the maid, who had previously been charged with cleaning his aquarium.

    From Jenkins he received a tamed rat, which came complete with riding crop and leather saddle. After just a couple of hours of practice, he was jumping obstacles and riding the rat like a true horseman. After dinner, we all gathered in the parlor to watch him ride. When trotting past the ladies, he tipped his cap like a true gentleman.

    The Clinic sent a missive, requesting that I turn Spivy over for testing and examination. I earned a delay, falsely claiming a riding accident involving his rat, whom he has named Excelsior.

    In spite of his shortcomings, he really is a sweet little creature. We have come to love and adore little Spivy, and cannot imagine what we should do were any ill to befall him. It’s funny, the things we choose to infest our hearts.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    The Wrong Earth: Night and Day #2
  • Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, as people are confronted with their own mortality, lawyers and online legal services are reporting a marked increase in will preparations. But people aren’t the only ones who are getting their affairs in order. Yesterday, to my surprise, this arrived in my mailbox, addressed to my cat, Fluffy.

    I, Fluffy, aka Fluffernutter, The Fluff Meister, Fluffo, Fluff Daddy, Da Fluffa, being of sound mind and furry body, do hereby declare this document to be my last will and testament, executable only upon the completion of all of my nine lives.

    I revoke all wills and codicils that I have previously made, especially that one a few years ago when, hallucinating from the effects of some bad tuna and mackerel, I left everything to the American Kennel Club.

    I nominate the law firm of Katz and Katz to serve as Executor of this Will and I hereby instruct them to distribute my estate in the following manner:

    To my sister, Phoebe, I bequeath my entire collection of cat toys, including any and all little felt mice stuffed with dried up catnip, which can be found under various beds and dressers; 27 homemade tinfoil balls, all of which are located under the stove; and an unknown number of dust-laden toys which can be found scattered throughout the house.

    To Roger, the family dog, though our relationship got off to a rocky start that required you taking a trip to the vet for deep scratches to your nose, I want to let bygones be bygones. Therefore I bequeath to you your down feather bed, the same one which I booted you out of the day I arrived and enjoyed napping in every day thereafter. Though you are four times my size and weight, for years you inexplicably chose to cower on the cold, hard floor instead of just booting me out. Pleasant dreams, schmuck.

    To my long-time veterinarian, Dr. Karpinski, whose dedication has kept me alive these past 18+ years, who successfully treated me for ticks, heartworms, urinary tract infections, and hairballs the size of baby fists, I leave my laser pointer toy—FOR YOU TO SHINE DIRECTLY IN YOUR EYES UNTIL YOUR RETINAS ARE FRIED LIKE A STICK OF BUTTER AT THE IOWA STATE FAIR, YOU SADISTIC CASTRATING BASTARD!!! WHAT, YOU THOUGHT I FORGOT? NEVER! NEVER!!!

    To my human family, who rescued me from a kill shelter when I was a mere kitten, who constantly scoured supermarkets and websites in search of foods that I wouldn’t just sniff and walk away from, who showered me with unrequited love and affection, and who spent thousands of dollars on me in medical care when I ate tinsel off the Christmas tree back in 2012, and again in 2015, 2016, and 2018, I bequeath my most treasured possession, my litter box and all the contents therein.

    And to all my beneficiaries, I leave you this last wish: may your food bowl always be full, and your flea infestation manageable.

    Witnessed and signed this day,

    Fluffy

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    The Wrong Earth: Night and Day #2
  • A voice woke me from my deep, dreamless sleep. “Samsa? Private Samsa – Get up! The Krauts have dug in on Hill-21. I need you an’ Joe K to knock out their machine-gun nest.”

    “But, Sarge, I-I’m a . . . monster,” I answered. But instead of a sob of existential despair, I could only make a series of unintelligible clicking and scraping sounds. I burrowed deeper into my foxhole, tried to hide. “Can you not see my dung-coloured, bathtub-sized carapace? My repulsive, eight-limbed thorax and twittering mouth-parts? I am an inhuman grotesquerie! A repellent freak!”

    “Huh? Are you . . . disobeying a direct order? On yer feet, soldier—now!” I could see disappointment and disgust in Sargeant Spinoza’s eyes, magnified a thousandfold by my compound insect eyes. I thought I would drown in my own shame. “Nobody lives forever!” he added.

    “Well, okay,” said I. There was no faulting his logic.

    “Why are we here?” asked K miserably as we inched our way up the slope. What’s the point of all this, of . . . of anything?” He threw down his carbine and wept.

    I made a ‘cut the gab’ sign with all eight limbs at once (four of them squeezed into size-12 G.I. boots), lost balance and rolled down the hill. Like tragic Sisyphus, forced to roll a boulder up a hill, was I also doomed to endlessly repeat my own climb for all eternity? I lit four Lucky Strikes and smoked them at the same time. Meh.

    We rushed the German position. Well, actually, I scuttled and skittered, zigzagged to and fro, back and forth, a human cockroach tacking on the winds of an unkind and uncaring Fate. K stumbled forward, staring at the grenade in his fist, as if unable to comprehend its function or it underlying epistemological purpose. “I don’t know what this is!” he wailed. “What is it—what is this thing that I hold?”

    The M1 carbine was not designed to be fired by one such as I—a vile, guilt-ridden mockery of an insect-man—so I waved it at the enemy in what I hoped was an appropriately aggressive manner and made disparaging cricket noises.

    Wehrmacht troops threw down their weapons and fled at the sight of me. “Ach! Run! It’s an American secret weapon—ein Kakerlakensoldat!”

    Our target was in sight. But a dour-faced German sapper appeared and flagged us down. “Stop! Are you authorised to be here? Without the appropriate signature this attack cannot proceed!”

    “What?” said I, incredulously. “Whose signature?”

    “I cannot say.”

    “Cannot—or will not?”

    “I’m not permitted to answer that. I have my orders, you know.” And he turned his back on me—somewhat petulantly, I thought—folded his arms and pouted. So I scuttled round him.

    I yelled down to the enemy machine-gunner in his camou- flaged dug-out. “Hullooo! Who’s in charge? We’re here to attack you.”

    The gunner answered from within, his face a solemn white moon rising from the darkness of life’s tragic abyss. “Ha! What trifles constitute happiness!” he replied, quoting Nietzsche—or maybe it was Don Rickles. I don’t speak German. “Ah, the sound of a bagpipe... without music life would be a mistake. The German imagines even God as a songster!” He began singing In The Mood, his assistant-gunner doing the trumpet parps and the pair Lindy Hopped their way out of their dug-out and off into the woods.

    The Sarge lit a cheroot in the cold, grey light of dawn. “Attaboy, Samsa! Yer a hero. The Lieut has recommended you for a Purple Heart. But him, the poor dumb schmuck—” He nodded towards where Joe K stood, paralysed, still contem- plating the grenade, his face a pale, grim parody of Munch’s painting, The Scream. “It’s the bug-house for him.”

    First published in 1949, The Hill was filmed in 1952 by Frank Capra (no relation) starring Audie Murphy as PFC Greg Samsa, Glenn Ford as Joe K and Marlene Dietrich as Sarge.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Penultiman #3
  • The Ravenmaster lets out a whistle. All seven of the glossy black beasts take roost on their assigned spots. Aubrey, the one farthest away from the Ravenmaster, shudders its feathers into place. Something about the motion troubles the Ravenmaster.

    The gates clank and squeak as they open. Children of all species under the Empire’s flag jump and waddle and ooze off of the buses.

    “Urchins,” mutters the Ravenmaster, uncharitably. “You’re awfully grumpy, for a robot,” says his assistant. “You are typically rude, for a human. And late as usual.”

    Children and guardians are getting the first pamphlet on their appendage displays. The devices emit sounds, scroll text and waft scents so that everyone can understand the grand tradition of this historic place, no matter their species. “The whole tower complex is a replica of the one constructed many millennia ago, in London, on Earth. Many of the stones and metals used in the construction were transported across the vast reaches of space, from the home world itself, to recreate this essential icon of the Empire.”

    Some adults, mostly loyalists to Charles the 23rd, marvel at the details. Kids are generally more interested in the ravens.

    “You should love the kids. They are the only ones who care about your ravens.”

    The Ravenmaster bristles. “Without my ravens there is no Empire.”

    “You sound like that would be a good thing.”

    The first group has made their way to the grassy area where the ravens reside. The Ravenmaster lets out an impressive whistle. The group falls silent.

    “The ravens protect the tower, the monarchy, and the Empire. They are modeled on ravens bred in Somerset, some six thousand years ago.”

    A bluish appendage shoots up. “What’s a Somerset?”

    “Shame. You have not studied your historic geography! Demerits!”

    The youngster pulls all of its limbs into a central trunk. An adult tries to console it.

    “Just because you don’t know, doesn’t mean you should take it out on the kid,” whispers the assistant.

    The Ravenmaster favors her with a scathing glance.

    “The ravens to your right are named Gripp, Merlin, and James Crow. To your left are Bran, Winston, Markel, and Aubrey.”

    “Which one can play dead?” another youngling asks, careful to not raise a hand.

    “I see you’ve done your reading. James Crow is famous for her occasional display. Perhaps, if we are lucky, she will favor us with one today.”

    The bluish child moves to the back of the group. It shud- ders and drops silvery tears, falling like tiny diamonds on the grass.

    Aubrey cocks a head toward the glistening tears.

    The Ravenmaster goes through his whole routine, signal- ing James Crow to play dead.

    Aubrey hops down from his perch and picks up one of the tears. He swallows it. Then another, and another. He allows the bluish child to pet his tail.

    To revive the bird, the Ravenmaster insists the children sing “God Save the King”, at full volume. James Crow hops up and ruffles her glistening black feathers.

    The Ravenmaster notices Aubrey missing from his perch. He lets out a whistle. Aubrey flies up, cawing and making a big show of circling the perch before landing.

    The children applaud. The Ravenmaster is not pleased. He sends them on to view the crown jewels and armaments.

    He puts up a sign: “The ravens are resting and will return after their nap.”

    The Ravenmaster takes Aubrey into the workshop.

    While he is away, the assistant notices the little tears. She goes inside to get something to collect them in.

    She returns to find Winston, Markel, James Crow and Bran all eating the tears. She uses the whistle on her lanyard to call them to attention. They ignore her.

    She returns to the workshop. Aubrey lays open on the diagnostic reader. Glistening nanobots seethe out of him, sliding up the hand of the Ravenmaster and into his slack mouth.

    The assistant goes back to the yard. Gripp has joined the others, eating the silvery tears. Only Merlin, the one actual raven, stands alone. She scoops up the bird and carries her to a transport chamber.

    The assistant and the bird materialize deep in the secret vault of QI6 HQ. They step off the platform.

    “Ravenmistress.” The guard bows to her.

    “The intel was good, another attempt on the ravens. We’ll have to revert to more avians until we can sort this.”

    “You were able to save the mother bird, then?”

    Merlin lets out a triumphant “tok cr-r-uck” and flies to the highest spot in the room, the tiny nanobot clinging to the hock of her right foot unnoticed.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Blood #2
  • The stranger’s name was Zachary Ulysses Griffin, and when we first laid eyes on him, he was steering his immaculate 1972 Buick Riviera into the parking lot of Clarence and Mattie’s Seasoned Skillet.

    The Seasoned Skillet is where most of Franklin goes for breakfast when it’s too hot to fry bacon in your own kitchen. Clarence and Mattie are without question two of the least gifted cooks in Franklin, but they compensate for their food’s lack of quality by offering generous portions of it.

    When Zachary stepped into the establishment every eyeball in the place rolled in his direction. He looked as cocksure as a Marlboro cowboy as he sauntered up to the counter, took himself a seat and ordered a cup of coffee.

    Like the rest of us, Mattie was curious as to what could possibly bring such a charismatic stranger to Franklin. Unlike the rest of us, Mattie has never been shy about sticking her nose into the personal affairs of a total stranger. She poured him a cup of weak, lukewarm coffee and commenced to peppering him with questions about everything from his birthplace to his hat size. After learning that Zachary preferred boxers over briefs, Mattie finally got ’round to posing the question that we were all so desperate to have answered.

    “What brings you to Franklin?”

    We all stopped grinding our teeth on burnt toast and leaned a little in Zachary’s direction so we wouldn’t miss a word of his response. He took a sip of his coffee, winced, looked Mattie dead in the eye and said, “I’m here to slay your vampire.”

    Now, folks in Franklin have had a ringside seat to a whole lotta oddities that defied science, reason and propriety. As a result, we’re not too quick to dismiss even the strangest and most peculiar of notions as out-and-out nonsense. But there are two things about which we remain absolutely certain: time travel is hogwash and there’s just no such thing as vampires. (Our list used to consist of three things but the tragedy that befell Jada Navarro’s quinceañera proved that pterodactyls are definitely not extinct and definitely not vegetarians.)

    Anyway, upon hearing that Zachary fancied himself a vampire hunter, Mattie emitted an involuntary snort that spoke for just about everyone in the diner. She refilled his cup with more of her watery blend and politely informed him, “There’s no such thing as vampires.”

    Whereupon Zachary smiled at Mattie from across his cup of unpalatable coffee and made her blood run cold with the simplest of queries.

    “Are you sure?”

    Those three little words floated through the Seasoned Skillet like a bunch of dandelion seeds riding on a warm breeze. They drifted into our ear canals, spun ’round our cochlea and came to rest deep inside our brains. They might have withered and died there, but Zachary was quick to nourish them with plenty of fertilizer.

    He turned on his stool and regaled us with thrilling tales of the vampires he’d dispatched and the grateful people who scrawled poems about his adventures. But his most harrowing recitation was the story of a town filled with skeptics who came to ruination because they could not accept the fact that a bloodsucking monster could be hiding in plain sight.

    At this point Randy Patton—he teaches math at the high school—had heard just about enough from Zachary Ulysses Griffin. Randy stood up from his plate of undercooked eggs, interrupted Zachary and firmly reminded us that vampires simply do not exist.

    Zachary was clearly agitated by Randy’s impertinence. He slid off his stool, tossed a crumpled fiver on the counter and headed out the door while throwing an ominous, “You’ve been warned,” over his shoulder.

    For a little while it seemed like that was the end of it. But that afternoon, the seeds Zachary planted began to germinate.

    Carter Gibbs was in the process of shoplifting a bag of chocolaty Butterfingers from Siddig’s Market when he caught sight of Mattie loading two dozen bulbs of garlic into her shopping basket. Mattie tried to claim that she was preparing to whip up a tub of tahini sauce, but given her aforementioned lack of culinary skills, she was clearly being dishonest.

    Mattie sheepishly confessed that Zachary’s horrific tales had put a scare in her. And while she didn’t necessarily believe in vampires, she also didn’t see the harm in stringing together a garlic necklace as a purely precautionary measure.

    After Carter slithered out of the market with his ill-gotten candy bars, he immediately spread the word about Mattie’s purchase. And as you might expect, that led to an all-out, full-blown, no-holds-barred run on garlic.

    Within an hour every store in town was hanging a “No More Garlic” sign in the window. That left a lot of fearful people clamoring to get their hands on anything that might protect them from the evil creature of the night that was undoubtedly living right next door.

    Fortunately, the trunk of Zachary’s Buick Riviera was practically bursting with garlic bulbs, holy water and pointy wooden stakes. And as luck would have it, he was willing to part with the tools of his trade for just slightly

    more than the retail price. We were in a frenzy to fork over cash for everything he was selling, when Randy Patton elbowed his way to the front of the crowd.

    Randy Patton has never been one to raise his voice. He usually lobs his pertinent observations at us while standing a healthy distance away from whatever fracas might be taking place. But on this day, that changed. Randy clenched his fists, took a deep breath and expended every bit of it when he let loose on the whole lot of us.

    He read us the Riot Act for allowing our actions to be governed by irrational phobias and falling prey to a mendacious, fear-mongering charlatan who had never glimpsed, encountered or slain a vampire, because vampires simply do not exist.

    At this point Zachary Ulysses Griffin had heard just about enough from Randy Patton. He was a blur of motion as he whirled around, yanked a wooden stake from the trunk of his car and plunged the pointy end of it straight into Randy’s chest.

    To be sure, Randy was most times an annoying know-it- all. But he was also the man who’d dedicated his life to teaching our sons and daughters the value of trigonometry. And the sight of him bleeding heavily from a massive chest wound was more painful than anything a vampire could have ever done to us.

    When Randy fell to the ground Doc Mendoza was by his side in the blink of an eye. She did her best to stop the bleeding while Bumpy Tate called for an ambulance. And as they sped Randy to the hospital the rest of us trailed behind them with all the speed we could muster. But Clarence and Mattie stayed behind. They had to clean up all the wooden stakes and garlic we’d hurled to the ground in their parking lot.

    Though the vampire-killing stick didn’t turn Randy into a cloud of smoke and ash, it did fracture two ribs and collapse a lung. But Doc Mendoza says that after a few weeks of physical therapy, Randy’ll be back to teaching young minds about cosines and tangents.

    As for Zachary Ulysses Griffin, he disappeared. In all the confusion he must have hopped into his immaculate Buick Riviera and sped out of town. We don’t imagine he’ll ever return to Franklin. After all, we are more certain than ever that vampires do not exist.

    But we have concluded that there are some monsters capable of hiding in plain sight.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Captain Ginger Season Two #6
  • Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Terror - Season 2 #6
  •  

    Every kid knows the story of how Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s foremost Founding Fathers, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that lightning and electricity are one and the same, in a remarkable, historical experiment involving a key, some string and the ever-changing sky itself!

    But how many know the true circumstances of Franklin’s audacious demonstration, or how a gigantic electric sky bear played a pivotal role in this historic scientific breakthrough?

    It all began on a stormy summer night in June 1752, when 47-year old Benjamin (“Ben”) Franklin, the renowned polymath and humorist nicknamed “The First American,” embarked upon an ill-starred attempt to unlock the front door of a cloud he’d mistaken for his Philadelphia home following a hard night’s chess-based carousing and debate with fellow Freemason, Enlightenment political theorist, and comedy Scotsman, Dr. William Smith, the Episcopal priest and editor of ‘The American Magazine or Monthly Chronicle for the British Colonies’.

    Somewhat the worse for wear, and having mislaid his trademark pince-nez, Franklin found himself uncharacteristically bamboozled by a simple meteorological phenomenon. Somehow misconstruing the storm cloud gathering overhead for his sturdy ground-based cottage environs, the esteemed Justice of the Peace for Philadelphia was naturally dismayed to discover his erstwhile domicile hovering several thousand feet up in the air and rain, high above his balding pate!

    As the tempest grew in intensity, Franklin reasoned that the safest place for him was indoors—and swiftly devised a plan that was to change scientific history.

    If he could somehow contrive a method by which to open the door of his currently hovering domicile, the pseudonymous “Richard Saunders”  felt certain he could pull the house back down to earth, hoping to draw it close enough to climb through the door, find his bed chamber, and go to sleep, praying to “Powerful Goodness” (his name for a God in which he could not bring himself to believe, except during episodes of existential crisis and fear like this one) that the whole damn sickening thing would stand revealed as a rarebit nightmare come the dawn.

    But the key was tucked away in his breeches’ pocket—and the lock was now far above the ground! The only major scientist to side with Christian Huygens’ wave theory of light was now at a loss. 

    Fortunately for the face on the $100 bill (or “Benjamin”), he’d maintained a small but lucrative sideline in the sale of party novelties, such as Swanee whistles, silly string, confetti cannons, and, as luck would have it, balloons!

    In no time at all, the wily secretary of the American Philosophical Society had tethered his front door key to a swiftly inflated festive balloon. But how to retrieve the key when its work was accomplished and entry achieved?

    Dame Fortune smiled once more on Franklin after a quick search through his bag of tricks uncovered an aerosol can of fluorescent spray string, ideal for his purpose.

    As he lofted his bizarre confection of twine, balloon, and house key into the raging storm, he saw before him a stupendous sight destined to change destiny forever!

    It was then Franklin understood: what he’d assumed to be the roaring of thunder was, in truth, the snarling, yet still comprehensible, curses of a vicious, formidably intelligent, and phenomenally outsize sky bear, with eyes, teeth, and claws of living lightning!

    As far as the clinically obese Philadelphia Postmaster could discern, the Brobdingnagian bruin was several hundred feet tall and seemingly made of a dark, cloud-like material. Unlike its terrestrial cousins—those conventional, ground-based bears that tend to favor a cave-dwelling lifestyle—this airborne representative of the species ursus had made its home in the vaults of the heavens themselves!

    And it was angry, with a capital A!

    This is MY house, not yours! the bear made clear in a series of awe-inspiring utterances that rocked Franklin on his cobbled heels. YOUR house is behind you! Trying to break into MY cloud-house using YOUR front door key will never work. But you have my word—the nation of electric sky bears will leave you alone if you leave us alone! Take my assurance that lightning is electricity and begone!

    To be honest, Franklin’s description of the beast is lacking in further detail and does not suggest that what he witnessed was anything other than a cloud; certainly, his report contains no identifying features of any kind of animal.

    Is it possible that Franklin, the noted author, satirist, and “cautious abolitionist” who had already confused his house for a cumulonimbus, made the understandable error of mistaking a second cloud for a wild sky animal on a gigantic scale?

    Whatever the reality, there’s no doubt that the alleged bear played a pivotal role in the advancement of human knowledge, and that’s a big plus in anyone’s CV!

    The story has been filmed as Son of Sky Bear, starring Montgomery Clift, Bradford Dillman, and introducing John Cassevetes as Geronimo.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Captain Ginger #1