Undersea Landscape
Danielle Strle via Creative Commons

No matter how long Huang stayed above the waves, he could not get used to the sharpness of everything. Below, the infinite blue blanketed the smooth, living edges of every surface. Even debris that came from above quickly had its sharpness coated with comforting moss and rounding lichen.

Up here, it was all angles and hardness: concrete upon glass upon jagged metal forged into squares and boxes. They stacked them and lined them in rows, lacking any serenity of open space or collective clustering. Huang kept his eyes down in the city. He’d asked for this life, begged the whalelord to grant his wish. If only he’d anticipated how grotesque he would find the deliberate order these air-breathers insisted upon.

The reflective cliffs looming over the street crowded him. The sun burned his flesh. He missed the colors of his kin, even the dull grays of slick-skinned murkers would be preferable to the ceaseless shades of brown and pink, masked by skins from other creatures, draped by plants processed into more order and shapes.

It was repulsive and Huang lived in regret. He tried to fight another shudder, and turned his eyes down, dreaming again of the sea.

Suitcase
Eric Smith via Creative Commons

Eight years with Jamie began to feel like a relationship with a child’s talking doll, just a series of catchphrases repeated regardless of context or appropriateness. Priscilla thought she might have a clean getaway, but she couldn’t find her cat or her keys and the latch on her suitcase refused to snap. Jamie came home early, saw the pile of belongings.

“You’re leaving.” Jamie made it into a half question.

“Yeah.”

“Do I get to ask why?” Catchphrase. “Did I miss something?” Catchphrase.

Priscilla picked at a fingernail. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Little late for that.” Those green eyes looked flat, painted on.

“You weren’t supposed to see.”

“I think I’d have figured it out.” Jamie stood. “I don’t get it. Didn’t I give you everything? Everything you wanted?” Catchphrase. The catchphrase. An arm reached for Priscilla, “Cil—“

“No!” she withdrew. “Not everything! Of all the times you asked me that, did you ever bother to find out from me what I wanted? You gave me everything you thought I wanted.” Tears fell.

There was a pause. “That’s not the same thing, is it?” Jamie asked.

“No.”

Jamie said, at last, the phrase Priscilla had waited to hear.

lock
Donald Townsend via Creative Commons

Ah, there you are. Come on, sit down. Sure, anywhere is fine. Shoo the cat if you need to; that’s it, just move that stack of papers. Not sure why I hang on to all that old stuff anyway. Pardon the dust, we don’t get many visitors here. Tea? Biscuit? Water? No?

Now. Then. Let’s see it.

Mercy, where are my manners? Forgive me, I’ve waited so long… Please.

Oop! Careful there. Yes. Unwrap it slowly. I know it feels solid and sturdy, but it’s surprisingly delicate.

Ah.

Oh, there I go. I’m dreadfully sorry. I—

For heaven’s sake, I’m such a mess. Excuse me, it’s just a handkerchief I need, please give me a moment.

All right. Do pardon me. I hadn’t expected to be so overcome. But it is beautiful, isn’t it? I haven’t seen it in so long. Such… a long… time.

Well, that’s quite a question! Might as well ask my age, mightn’t you? Never mind when.

What’s that now? A reward?

Ho ho ho. Yes. Haruum. I think we can find something… suitable.

Give me one moment.

Ha! Found it.

Oh no. Don’t try to run. The door is locked, I’m afraid.

Now.

Hold still.

ABAC Myrtle Beach Christmas
Judy Baxter via Creative Commons

White latex gloves on a steering wheel, a cigarette burning close to the off-white wrinkles. Hugo “Hug” Kinson grinned for no reason and ignored the occasional stare from the passing Saturday traffic. A body in the trunk, Steely Dan on the radio, Gerorgetown in the rearview, freedom down the line. He shifted his considerable weight to one side, passed gas. Hug laughed. What a day.

It got weird when Donald Fagen changed the lyrics. “You’ve been tellin’ me you’re a genius, Hug, but you forgot the bag. The cash is sittin’ on the table for anyone to find. Sucks to come so far just to find you don’t have what it takes. Them Broad River angels won’t have pity for your kind.”

Hug snapped off the radio. The chili dog sat badly in his gut, extra onions licking flames up into his chest. A generator-powered road alert sign read, “A neighbor heard the gunshot.” He chewed the inside of his lip.

Flicking the butt out the window, he startled and swerved when the GPS’ silky voice piped up, “In ten miles, you’ll realize you’ll never get away with it.”

Hug kept driving.

fall sunrise rays 2
eric lynch via Creative Commons

She was eleven years old and read books college professors found taxing, but she had never spoken a word. She looked out the window.

A gleaming metropolis, edged by a sprawl of neat lanes with freshly planted trees, each lined with a customized, uniform house. Beyond are smaller townships and people with affectations of rural life: practiced drawls and feigned luddism. Further still, a few genuine farms run by overall-strap corporations and straw hat multinationals. A patch of genuine wilderness. Fences around rock formations.

The machine works on assumptions. Belief powers the cogs and the cogs automate the daily grind. Assume the sun won’t click off. Believe the ground won’t fall away. Predicate existence on the low-sample-size status quo. Talk about short-sighted as if the long view ten year forecast were not mathematically indistinguishable.

Devastation is measured by the consumer. Tolerance for extinction is dependent upon public relations, and the girl saw it all. More than data, she saw connections and referential interactions folded back on themselves.

She placed a hand on the window and felt the warmth of the day.

“Here it comes,” she said. It was momentous. No one heard. She began to hum.

Cork
Niklas Morberg via Creative Commons

The hole opened behind Pieter’s head on April 1st, which made everyone guess it was an elaborate April Fool’s Joke. He assured them it was no joke. At first, he rather enjoyed the attention. But as days faded into weeks, the novelty wore off. It hovered there, six inches behind him,  invisible unless he looked into a mirror. It made sleeping difficult.

It began to move.

By June it was three inches behind him, a two-inch gap in reality, distorting the world at its edges like a tiny drainpipe pulling in bathwater. In October it touched Pieter and he felt the pull against his scalp in a constant, silent vacuum pressure. The doctors and scientists found it fascinating and promised test results, but Pieter stopped returning their calls.

On Christmas morning it started to grow and engulf. The news cycle passed over and Pieter was forgotten. A year after the opening Pieter’s head was no longer visible. Physicists said it existed somewhere, but it could not be retrieved. Months later the hole stopped around Pieter’s shoulders, the edges looking stretched. It was good, they said, the hole might have kept growing. Pieter corked the bottle and saved the world.

Gal with Gun Backlit and Contrasty 02
Rafael Mikaelyan via Creative Commons

Ashley Kline
652 Ten Pine Avenue
Ouensten, WI 54936

Work History:

Contract Employee For Zume O’Brien
Worked From: 9/12 to 5/13
Title: Private Security
Duties: Stand around nightclubs while employer drank vodka and fondled club girls.
Reason For Leaving: Contract terminated after shooting employer in the shoulder following an incident of sexual harassment. It was a hostile work environment.

Frank’s Bail Bonds
Worked From: 6/09 to 7/12
Title: Receptionist/Bondsperson
Duties: Responsible for answering phones, filing receipts, posting bounties, training new clerks, tracking, acquisitions.
Reason For Leaving: Frank was arrested and bonded bail through his own company by forging some paperwork. Accepted (self-assigned) the bounty to track him down when he failed to appear. Was forced to shoot him in the hip to prevent flight. Was fired as a result.

Skills:

  • Capable of quickly identifying anagrams and backwards-spelled words
  • Highly observant and able to distinguish minor components of scents

Qualifications:

  • USPSA High Master
  • Hapkido 5th Degree Black Belt

Personal Note:

Because it comes up in every interview, please understand: in spite of recent employment history, candidate does not have a history/habit of shooting employers, it is mere coincidence. All charges have been dropped.

The distance between the Altar of Recompense, where the Troll-Lord Kinevel prepared his apocalyptic sorcery, and Tishara’s cozy cottage, where Yuro warmed her bed, was a journey of one hundred days. Dawn stalked the forest on the twenty-fourth morning, and Tishara rested her cheek on her shield, reluctant to rise.

Dawn
Kotchka Images via Creative Commons

Groundling’s Mother had been insistent, persuasive. Her talk of destiny and glory, of a reprieve from disgrace, so inflammable to Tishara’s long depression a month ago, had faded. The stinging Will-o-the-Wisp bites and the festering infection on her shield arm from absorbing the Dreadjiant’s mighty club helped dull the sense of pre-ordained purpose. Seventy-six more days through unforgiving, hostile country to face, alone, a foe capable of felling armies. She scoffed and sat up.

It was a day of decision. If she pressed on, Mother’s prophecy might be fulfilled. Tishara could be a Swordmistress once more. Yet if she turned back, her total travel time would be no greater than even the halfway point on Mother’s suicidal quest. Kinevel might destroy the world, but she would have two months of Yuro’s hot kisses to console her, at least.

She stood and started toward home.

Earbuds 1
Michael Jordan via Creative Commons

“Zach, dude, take those headphones off while we’re robbing this bank.”

“They’re earbuds.”

“Excuse me?”

“These aren’t headphones, they’re earbuds.”

“I don’t care what they’re called! Take them out of your ears before I slap them out.”

“How do you even know they’re in? You can’t seem them through the mask. (Do you have the bags?)”

“(Yeah, right here.) Look, I can see the white cord. Just shut up and do as I say before you get us both arrested.”

“Fine. Here. Happy?”

“Ecstatic. What are you always listening to, anyway? And don’t you dare say ‘Justin Bieber’ or I will shoot you in the face right now.”

“Books on tape.”

“Books?”

“On tape.”

“You listen to books?”

“Why? Is that weird?”

“Yes. Yes, it is weird. (Watch this guy. Don’t let him near the alarm trigger.)”

“Books ain’t weird.”

“(Here, put this bag by the door.) They are weird because no one walks around listening to books all the time.”

“I do. (Here, give me the other bag.)”

“What kind of books are we talking?”

“Crime fiction.”

“Liar. You’re lying! I can tell!”

“Okay! Fine. It’s Danielle Steele.

Not a fucking word, Jace.”

“C’mon. Let’s go. I hear sirens.”

Christian Kadluba via Creative Commons

The viral marketing campaign rode waves of jesting, revolted incredulity. Marketing imagery was all spatters of ketchup like blood, bleeding burgers flanked by sinister utensils; fast food prepared by sadists. “The joke is,” said CEO Geoff Ferelis on an investor call, “what we really kill are expectations. The only thing leaving a Murder Burger restaurant dead… is hunger.”

The first in-store death attracted the inevitable attention of the smirking irony beat. That quarter, revenues blew away expectations: lines stretched out the door, people defying the urban legend. Groups of friends would dare each other to sit through a whole meal. They laughed on the way out at how silly they’d been, and remarked at how good the food was. Marketing ate it up.

The second death occurred just over a year later, statistically within the realm of coincidence. Numbers were down that quarter. Ferelis released a video on Facebook assuring customers their worry was unfounded, the restaurants were safe. People remarked, “There’s something strange about his eyes.”

By the time the government intervened, the “free switchblade promotion massacre” was a national tragedy. 62 deaths in 24 states. The blades were supposed to be plastic replicas. The rage remained unexplained.