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  • Andy chose a dark restaurant. Because of course he would. It made Elizabeth surer than ever that she’d made the right choice.

    She waited until they’d been served their main course before she dropped the bomb on him. “Andy, I think we need to start seeing other people.”

    Andy put down his knife and fork, and folded his gloved hands. “I can’t say I saw this coming.”

    “That’s part of the problem, Andy. You are oblivious to what’s right in front of your nose.”

    “That’s part of ninjutsu, Elizabeth. The training. I’ve told you. We pay attention to things that others don’t, but then we sometimes miss other things. Things you may think are obvious.”

    She cut her meat while trying to frame her words in the least harsh way. “Maybe you don’t see it, maybe you choose not to. It feels like that’s how you answer every one of my concerns. ‘It’s part of our training.’ If that’s true, then maybe the training isn’t good for you. Maybe you should stop.”

    “How will I ever advance without ninjutsu? That’s, like, so backward.”

    “It’s like you’re not even there anymore.”

    “See? It works! Why are you holding my progress against me?”

    Elizabeth thought back to the first time she’d met Andy, when he appeared out of nowhere to help her into her apartment when she’d forgotten her keys. He’d seemed so alluring, so adventurous. He’d say, “A ninja is all I want to be,” like a little boy. There was a spark of mischief in his eye, but that spark had died long ago, replaced by the dull sheen of someone thwarted in his ambitions. In the time since, he had let himself go, gotten thick around the middle. She’d begun to suspect he wore black less to become one with the shadows and more because it was slimming.

    “Andy, listen. It’s just becoming too much. And on top of it, I don’t want to turn into a ‘ninja wife.’ It sounds worse than being an Army wife. All anonymity and no day-drinking.”

    “It’s not that bad.”

    Elizabeth objected, “Really? How many ninja wives have you even met?”

    He paused thoughtfully, then was proud to remember, “Two. Although they were also sorceresses, so they had their own thing going on. But I don’t see that for us.”

    “What do you see for us?” she asked accusingly, putting a bite of steak in her mouth.

    “Well,” he stammered, as he tried to gather his misty thoughts together, “I see us with an apartment downtown for a while. I’d sneak out for work in the morning while you showered, sneak back home for a nice night in, with carry- out food and Netflix. We save up and buy a house with a yard, and I sneak out every morning to drive downtown with all the other breadwinners. On our vacations, we can go sneak around the Appalachian Trail together . . . ”

    In frustration, she swallowed too much wine and choked a bit. “See, that’s one big problem right there, Andy. All the sneaking. What do we tell the neighbors? ‘Oh, this is Andy, he’s invisible for a living.’”

    He got defensive at this. “Don’t scoff at my work. What about the assassinations?”

    “I guess that makes it better. ‘He’s invisible and assassinates people.’ And tell me, when was the last time you lined up an assassination?”

    “That’s not how it works. We don’t have some tally board. This isn’t Glengarry Glen Ross. You just have to be ready when your shogun calls.”

    “Andy, we live in Cincinnati. There’s not a lot of demand for assassinations around here, now, is there?”

    “But you don’t just walk right in to top management! You have to pay your dues in the regional dojo. Ancient hierarchy? Hello? I thought you understood that.”

    Andy leaned his head down and pinched the bridge of his nose. Andy had many good traits, she knew, and he was wonderful at hiding little gifts around the apartment. But other questions never left Elizabeth’s mind: how could she take him to meet her parents? What about kids? How long could she deal with him freaking out the cat?

    He was taking it hard, but she knew this was the right thing to do. She touched his hand and told him to remember the good times, that someone new will sneak around—all the standard lines. Finally he said, “I’m not ready to give up on us, Elizabeth. How do you know I won’t come around in the night, just to see how you’re doing?”

    She stiffened and inhaled sharply. “Number one: Ewww. Number two: I’d call the cops, even though you always brag about how easy they are to avoid. Number three: I’d play K-pop at low volume all the time, just to mess with your ‘super sensitive’ hearing.”

    He took a deep breath and wiped his eyes. “I guess you’ve made up your mind, then. This is really heartbreaking, though. I want you to know that. Aw jeez, I have to go to the bathroom a minute, to get myself together.”

    He pushed himself away from the table and walked to the back. Elizabeth was hurting through this, too, but somebody had to do what was right. She finished her meal and signaled the server for the check. Finally, Elizabeth smiled, at peace that it was over, knowing she could always count on Andy to do one thing:

    Sneak out on the bill.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Black's Myth #3
  • As Greg Sampson awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself with a tremendous hangover. He’d been drinking with his students after his last lecture. One of the girls (Gabby? Genevieve?) had been flirting with him, touching his arm every time he made a joke, which only made him want to make more. He remembered implying something about what the F in F. Scott Fitzgerald secretly stood for—but the rest of the night was a blur. Greg stumbled out of bed, straight to the fridge, and guzzled cold water.

    That’s when Franz Kafka crawled out from under the refrigerator.

    At least, he had Kafka’s face, the thick brows and piercing eyes, although his mouth was bracketed with mandibles. His arms, protruding from torn shirt sleeves, had extra elbows and hairy spines.

    “Hello,” said Kafka, like chewing on tinfoil. “I believe you are familiar with my work.”

    “Yes,” said Greg. “I mean, absolutely. I’m a big fan.”

    Greg hoped Kafka wouldn’t notice the state of his apartment: the dirty dishes, dust bunnies, and stacks of student assignments waiting for his red pen. Then Kafka started licking grime off his arm-spines, and Greg felt a little better about it.

    “I have so many questions!” he said. “How was Amerika supposed to end? It was published as an unfinished work . . . ”

    “I left so many things unfinished,” Kafka sighed. “That’s why I’m here.”

    Greg scanned a bookcase, heaving with hardcovers, until he found a battered copy of Kafka’s complete works. He took it and held it out like a sacred object. “This is almost everything. Everything you wrote.”

    Kafka took the book and ate it. “Tell me,” he said, scraps of paper falling from his mouth, “are you familiar with the name Brod? Max Brod?”

    “Of course!” Greg was almost offended. He was a literature professor, after all. “Max Brod was your friend. You left your work to him when you died . . . ”

    “To be burnt. To be destroyed.” Kafka reared up; his antenna scraped the ceiling and knocked a dangling globe, causing shadows to skitter around them. “And what did he do?”

    “ . . . He published it?”

    “That is right.”

    Greg took a step back and collided with his couch. His mouth was dry, his tongue clumsy. “But he made you famous! There’s a word—‘Kafkaesque’—that’s all because of you!”

    Kafka reached out, plucked a dictionary from the bookcase, and opened it to the Ks. “Kafkaesque,” he recited. “Characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.”

    “People use it all the time!”

    Kafka tore the dictionary in half and let the pieces fall to the floor. “Yes. It is a nightmare, isn’t it? The world has read my work before it was ready . . . ”

    “Well,” said Greg, treading eggshell carefully, “Max Brod is dead, isn’t he?”

    “But you’ve read it, too.” They were standing close now, eye to eye, mouth to mandible.

    “You can’t . . .” Greg swallowed and tried again. “You can’t kill everyone who’s read Kafka. That’s insane.”

    “Is it oppressive? Nightmarish?”

    “It’s more just kind of terrifying,” said Greg. Then he lunged across his desk and grabbed up a wad of papers. “Look! These are student essays. Some of them are about you! Your work! Go and kill them first!”

    (Sorry, Gabby or Genevieve.)

    Kafka took the papers and tucked them away somewhere in his carapice. “I will,” he said. “Thank you.” He turned to leave, and Greg saw the vestigial wings on his back, emerging from his jacket. They glistened with slick rainbows.

    Kafka stopped before he reached the door. “Although,” he said, “you did say I leave things unfinished . . . ”

    He pinned Greg’s hands with two of his arms, tore open his clothes with another two, and ate him like he was a cheap paperback.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Second Coming: Only Begotten Son #4
  • When he was seven years old, Bryant loved two things above all else—semi trucks and bears. After his friend Colby told him there was going to be a new show on TV that night about a long-haul trucker and a bear, Bryant was filled with electric, anticipatory excitement. Adding to his thrill, the show was called BJ and the Bear. Bryant’s middle name was Jonas; he himself was a BJ!

    But that night, as Bryant watched in disbelief, it became apparent that BJ and the Bear did not feature a bear at all. Instead, the “Bear” was a silly chimpanzee! It was a major rip-off.

    Thirty-odd years passed. Bryant was now a veteran trucker. He still enjoyed bears, but rarely thought about them. Then, one day, while traveling across Oklahoma with a truck full of fruit leather, he saw a billboard—“Wild Sun Bear Next Exit.” Without hesitation, Bryant took the exit.

    For the first nine years of his life, the sun bear ate plants, bugs, and fruit between long naps in the branches of comfortable trees twenty feet above the forest floor. After being kidnapped by humans, he spent his days eating tasteless “bear chow” and pacing the dirt floor of his 10’ by 10’ cage. The bear wanted to bite the two humans who kept him in the cage. Their butts were nice and fatty. No bones. That was where he planned to start the biting.

    A new human approached the bear’s cage. This happened all the time. Humans stared at him all day. Unlike some, this human seemed friendly. He jabbered at the sun bear in low, calming tones. He said “Griff” several times. Humans said “Griff ” a lot. It must have meant something important.

    In a cage, under a cheap banner that read “Griff, the Deadly Sun Bear” was the most impressive bear Bryant had ever seen. Griff was about five-two, with a short, silvery snout, and black fur. A light orange, semi-circular crest adorned the upper chest, adding a unique, stylish touch to its bear-appearance. It was a high-quality bear.

    In a rush, Bryant’s childhood disappointment with BJ and the Bear flooded back into his heart. “It should have been about a trucker and a bear,” he mumbled to himself. It was unfair. As unfair as a beautiful bear being kept in a tiny cage in central Oklahoma. Once again, without hesitation, Bryant made a bear-based decision. He was going to set this bear free and take it for a ride in his truck.

    “Jesus Marie! Griff bit Jake’s butt off!!!” The bear wasn’t sure what the human female who kept him in the cage meant by this. But he had just bitten the butt off of the human male who kept him in the cage, so he guessed it might be about that. The sun bear swallowed a chunk of gluteus maximus. It tasted much better than bear chow.

    The friendly new human had opened the cage and let the sun bear out. As he did this, the new human kept talking and pointing at something like the human wanted the bear to follow him. But the bear, once free, had been focused on butt biting.

    The woman who kept him in a cage held a long, shiny stick in her hands. “BANG!” The ground near the sun bear exploded. Startled, the bear ran toward the friendly human standing by a large cage on wheels. The cage was full of fruit! He could smell it. Humans tasted pretty good, but fruit was even better.

    As he raced along I-44, a liberated sun bear devouring fruit leather behind him, Bryant felt incredibly good. Griff obviously liked him and enjoyed trucking. Bryant realized he had, without even knowing it, been missing a piece of his soul his entire life. And now, after meeting Griff, that missing piece had been supplied. Trucking with a bear was Bryant’s destiny. In fact, he was no longer “Bryant” at all. From this day forward, he was BJ.

    The next several days were confusing for the bear. For instance, the friendly man had insisted the bear put on human clothes that resembled his own. As the man had struggled to put a pair of pants on the sun bear, the bear had grown annoyed and bit off a small piece of the man’s ear.

    The sun bear hadn’t meant to hurt the man. He didn’t really have anything against most humans. The bite had been a reflex. Now, sitting in the passenger seat of the rolling cage, fully clothed and sporting a trucker’s cap, the sun bear considered his situation. This cage was definitely better than the last one. He would travel with the friendly man and try not to bite him again . . . until he saw some other sun bears. Then he was out of there.

    BJ could tell Griff loved being a trucker. True, the sun bear bit off a chunk of BJ’s ear when he was getting it dressed for the first time, but that wasn’t a big deal. The bear probably didn’t understand that it needed to pass as human in order for the duo to stay out of trouble. If anyone asked, BJ decided to tell people Mike Tyson bit his ear off. That would get a good laugh.

    Everything was going perfectly. Tomorrow, he would begin giving Griff driving lessons.

    Months passed. The sun bear was slowly learning how to move the rolling fruit cage. He needed to turn a wheel with his front paws and push on three things with his back paws. Plus, there was a stick he occasionally had to move with a front paw. This was complicated. He often bit the turning wheel when it frustrated him.

    But today, the sun bear finally seemed to have the hang of it. He was moving the cage smoothly and quickly down the road as the man slept in the chair next to him. The sun bear kept his eyes peeled for other sun bears. He expected he would see some soon.

    Blue and red lights appeared behind the rolling cage. A loud siren began wailing. The bear pushed the thing you pushed to make the cage stop. He was curious about the colorful lights.

    The trucker disguise had worked. The police thought Griff was a man. Unfortunately, the bear didn’t have any identification. And, according to the officers, “the hairy little guy” looked “sort of foreign,” so now Griff was in an ICE detention center with hundreds of other detainees.

    BJ didn’t have anything in particular against ICE. Actually, he thought the name “ICE” sounded pretty tough and cool. But he wasn’t entirely sure what ICE did or exactly what the acronym stood for. (He was pretty sure the “I” was for “immigrant” and the “C” was for “catching.”) But none of this mattered; BJ was getting his bear back.

    The food in the new cage was even worse than bear chow. The human prisoners in his cage ate their portions with sad resignation. These humans seemed scared of him; they kept their distance from the sun bear. The cub humans pointed and said things like “el oso!” The bear wondered if these humans would help him take off his pants. They were itchy.

    But then, something exciting happened. The large, rolling fruit cage came smashing through an outer wall of the building! The rolling cage moved through the warehouse and crashed into the new cage. Upon impact, the cage collapsed. The sun bear and the detained immigrants poured out into the facility.

    The immigrants, thinking BJ was there to rescue them, climbed into the back of his truck. And, after biting off several ICE butts, so did Griff. BJ sped away into the night. The immigrants were incredibly grateful, and BJ liked the positive attention. He decided, since they were now fugitives from the law, that he and Griff might as well try to help more immigrants. Griff seemed to like the idea.

    And, for many years, that is what they did. BJ and the sun bear helped thousands of undocumented immigrants escape from government authorities. The inseparable trucker and bear duo quickly became folk heroes. BJ couldn’t have been happier. And he knew Griff felt the same way.

    The rolling fruit cage took the sun bear many places and he met many humans. Some of the humans were friendly and some got their butts bit off. Other than that, the bear had no idea what the hell was going on. While traveling, the bear always kept his eyes peeled for other sun bears, but never saw any. The movements of the rolling cage gave him stomach aches, he hated wearing pants, and the man said “Griff ” too much. It was getting annoying.

    The sun bear decided to ditch the man and run into the next forest he saw.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Snelson #1
  • Amid the break of the morning sun, he rises from the royal chamber, his majestic mattress covered in a mixture of soils: cola, wing sauce, and urine—the marks of a life lived to please no one but himself.

    He rises, for there is so much to be done.

    Taking his place in his spin-chair throne, his lip turns upward in disgust as he reflects on the day’s business ahead.

    That movie was terrible. Sure, it looked good. The actors did fine. But that story didn’t play out at all like he assumed it would in his head. What foolery on the part of the writer and director! That’s not what he wants to see! Why would anyone make something unlike what he wants?! Millions wasted. Wasted. Unbelievable. He would demand his money back for such swill, had he paid to see it. That torrent site should be ashamed for even allowing that disappointment to sully its servers. Booting up the Royal Crier that is the internet, he comes to a conclusion. The only thing to do: rate it poorly everywhere. Rage against such an abomination wherever he can for not bringing the vision in his own head to life. Doing his part to save the poor other souls from the disappointment of seeing something that can never live up to the brilliance of what he was thinking, which would have been so much better, he can assure you.

    His majesty turns his attention to the comic book he read last night. Awful! It must be torn to shreds! There’s no room in this world for things beyond that which he does like. Away! To the internet he returns!

    For he could write better than this in his sleep! And one day he’ll do just that. Once he decides the world is ready, of course. Yes, once it’s ready. These feeble-brained audiences aren’t ready for the sheer brilliance that one day, maybe, when he’s ready, he will put to paper. Yes. And the art! Wait, there’s art in there too? Well, he’s sure he could do that too when he wants to. Though he’s sure this world wouldn’t even give his genius a chance. Why wouldn’t they, sight unseen, at the mere prospect of such wit and pathos?!

    But wait. The flashing blue light pierces the darkness. The television news is on.

    He doesn’t quite care for what the meteorologist is wearing. What else can be done? Knuckles cracked, the fingers crash against the keyboard with lightning speed. This injustice must be exposed! A pithy email to the local news station! That’s what’s needed! Alert Elle! The Times! Vanity Fair! How could they overlook such a surplus of fashion expertise just sitting behind his keyboard in this upstate town?!

    Like nectar of the gods pouring into the chalice, the fizzy Coke flows into the stained coffee mug. The day has begun! So much more to do to right the wrongs of a society upside down—a world only he can see clearly.

    For he is the Critic, King of Opinions! And he knows better than us all.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Black's Myth #2
  • My word, this is just—this is just such a surprise. Hand to God, I didn’t prepare at all for this. Not a lick. I even had a moment last night where I was like: “Should I prepare something just in case? Like, on the off-off-off chance that I win?” But I dismissed the thought almost immediately. It was getting late and I was still a little bit drunk from the afternoon and I thought—no bullshit here, I really thought this—I thought: “Who’s going to give me an award? Little old hapless, goofy, off-beat moi? Never in a million years.” And so instead of writing anything down I just put the kids to bed while nanny supervised before swallowing one of my special melatonins and blacking out.

    I almost didn’t even show up here today I was so sure I wasn’t going to win anything. No joke—I almost stayed home! My husband had to actually carry me here, fireman style, after he and the children dressed me like I was one of my daughter Serafina’s American Girl dolls. He and our limo driver had to drag my semi-conscious body down the red carpet between them Weekend at Bernie’s-style to get me here, my stilettoed feet drifting behind me like a child’s beach toy through the sand. Seriously! I’ve been told by my publicist that there’s footage of it.

    And Lord knows I wasn’t expecting to hear my name called when they announced the winner! Certainly not when I was up against so many talented people. I mean, I straight up wasn’t even in the room when they called my name! You all know. You were there. That camera cut straight to my empty chair. You all had to watch like five or six solid minutes of the emcees trying to fill dead air while the cameraman wandered frantically through the theater trying to hunt me down. I was so shocked when he finally found me, out back by the dumpsters trying to bum a smoke off a security guard, and told me I’d just won, I didn’t believe him! Not even when the security guard showed me that I was trending on Twitter. Incidentally, what’s a hot mess? Somebody tell me after.

    I thought the whole thing was a gag. I took my sweet time, as you might remember, making my way up to the stage— finished my cigarette first and everything! But when I finally got in here and saw my name on that screen next to the word “winner,” I swear you could have knocked me over with a feather. Turns out you didn’t even need a feather, really, as those couple glasses of wine with dinner had gone straight to my head and I took a fairly significant nosedive on my way up those stairs—to the point that I’m actively bleeding pretty badly right now. True story!

    I know I have so many people I need to thank for getting me here tonight, but the thing is, I don’t actually remember most of their names. It’s not even just that I forgot to write them down—it’s that I was so utterly, completely convinced that I’d never get this award that I never bothered to learn their names in the first place. I remember a man with a moustache and a pen who seemed to be coming in and out of my trailer a lot. And there was that woman who would bring me coffee, and the other one with the makeup bag, and then a whole bunch of folks holding all those cameras. Also I spent a hell of a lot of time with that one guy who was in the majority of my scenes with me, the one from the movie poster? That one’s bugging me, actually, I’m pretty sure I know that one. The second I’m off the stage I’m gonna be like, “Oh, Billy, duh!” But not Billy. Something like Billy. It’ll come to me.

    It looks like they’re telling me to wrap it up. There’s a lady with a headset who has been gesticulating wildly at me for about ninety straight seconds, and I can see behind her that there’s a stretcher and a couple of EMTs in the mix as well, which feels like a smart call. Hopefully next time you give me one of these awards, I’ll be better prepared.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Second Coming: Only Begotten Son #3
  • The skies were blue. The sun was high. Puffy white clouds dragged their lazy shadows across fields of bright green grass. The day of the funeral could not have been more beautiful.

    Of course, every day in Shai-Lahn-Yo was this beautiful.

    It was programmed that way.

    Word of Richard Angstrom’s death had spread quickly—through email chains, chat windows, text threads. His third stroke in as many years had robbed him of any chance at recovery, ending his life behind the wheel of his ’07 Altima while stuck in rush-hour traffic.

    In Shai-Lahn-Yo, Richard Angstrom was better known as Gesh Edgerbáge, a teenage mage of the highest order from the House of the Ascending Plume. In Cincinnati, he was better known as Dick Angstrom, a middle-aged real estate agent from the house of RE/MAX.

    Angstrom had logged well over 9,000 hours as an active citizen of Shai-Lahn-Yo before his avatar went idle for what the mourning members of his sept logically assumed would be its last time. How strange to still see his username on the leaderboards; how awkward to receive in-game prompts encouraging them to invite him along on time-sensitive double XP raids; how sad to walk past the banner that hung from the rafters of Cliffstone Keep in honor of Gesh Edgerbáge’s record-holding kill-streak on the shores of LunaSea Cove.

    It just didn’t feel right.

    So, when Q’Lonna Erthrite (née Lindsay Rutt) managed to haggle a maker of customized Shai-Lahn-Yo goods into selling her a gorgeous casket crafted using Gesh Edgerbáge’s signature colors (gray and green) and emblazoned with his chosen sigil (a raven with blood dripping from its talons) for only 14,000 chits, she and the rest of Angstrom’s sept decided to bid farewell to their noble mage with a proper House of the Ascending Plume send-off.

    Gleem Lightfoot (née Tony Larson) was, despite his initial reluctance, able to access Dick’s user account. It felt slimy, sneaking into the profile of a dead man through a digital back door, but everyone agreed that without the presence of Gesh Edgerbáge’s body in the casket, the gesture would be an empty one. Gleem vowed to cancel Angstrom’s account the moment his avatar had been put out to sea aboard the SS Crestbreaker.

    Logging into Angstrom’s account was one thing—reanimating the dead by manipulating his avatar was another. Tony crossed himself no less than 13 times as he navigated Gesh Edgerbáge from his bed chambers, down the grand staircase, through the castle courtyard and into the waiting casket. He laid Gesh down and lifted his shaky hands from the keyboard. He crossed himself one last time while Q’Lonna closed the lid of the casket. Tony turned to his other com- puter and sprinted to the front of the castle as Gleem.

    “It’s beautiful,” Tony said into his headset. “He’d love it.” “I think so, too,” Lindsay said.

    And so...

    The skies were blue. The sun was high. Puffy white clouds dragged their lazy shadows across fields of bright green grass as 27 avatars watched the casket arrive at the Cliffs of Tomorrow, pulled by horse and buggy. Zi’Leene (née Sheila Patel), a seven-foot-tall elf, stood at the front of the gathered group—a quiver of arrows across her shoulder and a quiver in her voice as she began to lead the service.

    “It’s hard to believe it now, but there was a time when the hallowed fields of Shai-Lahn-Yo were virtually unpopulated. A time when the angry seas were awash with graphical glitches. When a spell cast by a young mage was more than likely to bring the very world around him crashing down. I speak, of course, of the Time of Beta Testing. And in thosedarkdays...”

    Sheila’s voice cracked. Zi-Leene stood awkwardly beside the casket as Sheila blew her nose loudly into her headset. An anthropomorphic frog in the third row wept openly before muting his own mic.

    “Sorry about that,” Zi-Leene continued. “When I think of Gesh standing atop these cliffs all those years ago and imagining what this land could become, I—”

    A thrown spear lodged itself into the elf’s shoulder and her health meter dropped suddenly by twenty-five percent. The members of Gesh’s sept spun in panicked circles, seeking out the source of this sudden affront.

    At the edge of Wellspring Grove stood one of Shai-Lahn-Yo’s most notorious Trolls—Agogg. His in-game presence was so toxic he’d been the recipient of more than two dozen formal complaints to admins, all of which he’d so far managed to dodge. With the throw of another spear, Agogg let loose a war cry that found the woods behind him teeming with other Trolls and Barbarians, including the infamous Throck, who despite having the nasally voice of a child (because he was a child), struck fear into the hearts of all who crossed his path.

    “Have some respect!” Gleem shrieked. “We’re having a funeral!”

    A barrage of hurled boulders blotted out large portions of the sky. One of the outsized rocks crushed the crying frog, instantly depleting his health bar. Another struck a corner of the 14,000-chit casket, splintering it and launching Gesh’s body straight into the sky. His loose limbs pinwheeled erratically as he descended and landed like a flung squid, splayed out on the grass.

    This image had been horrible. It had distracted each member of the House of the Ascending Plume from the incoming onslaught. Shocked them. But when Gesh suddenly lurched to his feet and ran for the safety of Cliffstone Keep, the ensuing volley of screams caused everyone’s headphones to rattle with clipped static. Not that any of them could hear it—they were too busy screaming themselves.

    Gesh’s cape flapped wildly as he ran in an erratic, zig-zagging pattern across the field.

    Tony—his right hand battling as Gleem with frantic clicks of one mouse; his left hand shaking violently as he tried to navigate Gesh to relative safety—did not feel well. His breath hitched in panicky sobs. His right eye twitched closed rhythmically, robbing him of depth perception every second-and-a-half.

    Throck loomed behind Gleem, his face and chest covered in the blood of fallen foes. He raised his Level 49 axe, squeaked out a simple instruction (“Eat my butt!”) and levelled Gleem with one strike.

    Tony cried out as one of his computer screens turned bright red. A pop-up window declared: “You Are DEAD” and an hour-long countdown began ticking away the minutes until Gleem Lightfoot could return to the fray.

    With his right eye now tightly clenched shut and his heart palpitating wildly in his chest, Tony turned his full attention to Gesh Edgerbáge’s view of Shai-Lahn-Yo. He watched as Zi’Leene was dragged beneath the spiked wheels of a rampaging battle wagon. As the corpse of his own avatar, Gleem, suffered the indignity of being trod upon by Agogg. As the funeral for Dick Angstrom devolved into an utter massacre.

    And that’s when Tony looked at Dick’s stats. God, but they were incredible. His mana reserves alone could keep a host of mages casting spells for ages.

    But there were no other mages to be found.

    There was only the once-dead form of Gesh Edgerbáge.

    And suddenly, Tony had an idea—as well as a sharp pain in his armpit.

    He scanned through Dick’s list of available moves and found exactly what he’d hoped to see: Apocalypse. This was a spell so divisive that the developers, rather than remove it, had increased its cost to 4 million chits and slapped an even costlier drawback onto its usage—a complete depletion of a user’s mana for three full months. Tony tried to smile as he mumbled the most epic line of his life:

    “What have the dead got to lose?”

    As Gesh, Tony quickly rebuffed the living members of his sept with a five-second window of invincibility, scrolled the mouse wheel with surgical precision, called up Apocalypse and...CLICK!

    The blue skies turned red. The sun sunk low. Black clouds of death rained lightning bolts that set the fields aflame.

    With his staff raised in righteous fury, Gesh Edgerbáge stood—immobile—at the edge of Cliffstone Keep after the dust had settled and the bodies of Agogg and Throck and the rest of the decimated invaders had been pushed aside. And there he stood for no less than seven days, a testament to his own miraculous act, protected from any ill will by his growing legion of followers. Until finally, one day, he blinked out of existence and was never seen in Shai-Lahn-Yo again.

    This was, of course, the same day that Tony’s body was finally found and his power was shut off, terminating his internet connection.

    In related news: the funeral for Tony Larson will be in three days, not far from the site of The Edgerbáge Miracle.

    Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Happy Hour #3
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Originally Appeared in:
    Issue Appeared In:
    Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Terror - Season 2 #6

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