Posted on: June 12th, 2011 Tincture of Regrets

By Kate Marshall

He defines himself by subtraction. Not a poet, not an athlete. He lacks spontaneity and the urge to settle down, has no sense of wonder, little prejudice; he is missing half a thumb on his right hand.

*

In the photo he stands by a house and a lazy, swollen river.

He does not remember the river, or what he did there. Nor does he recall picking up the knife, laying it against his flesh, the creases of his knuckle a convenient guide. He does not recall drawing back his arm, striking down in a swift blow, parting bone from bone and flesh from flesh.

He does remember the blood, packing a dishcloth against the stump, the pulsing pain of the thing. He knows the why: willing the part of him he could not bear into one lump of meat, and carving it away. All his evil coagulates the blood; not a drop seeps from the severed digit. He would throw it away, but he can’t recall what evil he forced into the thing. An incurious man by nature, he keeps it nonetheless, tucked away where he need not watch it shrivel.
The thumb: sliced neatly at the knuckle, withered, brown, skin pulled tight at the ragged nail. It sits at the bottom of a Ziploc bag, hidden in a drawer with leaky ballpoint pens and paper clips bent straight in fits of gradeschool habit.

*

They meet in a bar; she checks off the steps of courtship in her mind. Smile, touch, head cocked to send hair tumbling to her cleavage.

She is a singularly unimaginative woman, every trajectory and moment mapped, plotted. When they make love it’s like she’s solving an equation, and every variable must balance. She’s the sort to alphabetize her hand creams, and when she laughs her teeth cut off the sound.

*

She finds the thumb but says nothing to him. She has no real sense of wonder or intrigue, but it’s a variable she has no value for. She tucks the thumb in her purse. She thinks and waits and wonders.

A sliver of desiccated flesh is enough, steeped in alcohol and blunted with water. She drinks it down with a grimace, and digests his secrets. They do not sit well with her, and she stares at her own hands, the instruments of sin.

*

She starts at the last knuckle of her pinky, but she still sees water and weeds and the current lapping, tugging. She raises the knife again.

When her hand lays divided on the cutting board the blade moves up, and up, and when they find her they are sure she could not have done it to herself.

*

He finds the river in the photo. The leaves are bright as her blood, the river a narrow rope choked with silt. He leaves his memories in the mud, and drives away.

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Posted on: May 22nd, 2011 Seven Deadly Robots

By Rahul Kanakia

Six deadly robots combine to create a seventh. They perturb the radiances of the kinetosphere. I awake.

*

I am under a long, cold sky that is shedding snow. Within moments, my skin accumulates ice that falls away in sheets as I walk.

*

My constituent parts whine and attempt to break away. Their purpose has been fulfilled. They long for independence once more. I grapple with the erring pieces, and my hands buzz and twitch. I am holding myself together with physical force.

*

I exist in unending time, the moments between the coming together and the breaking away.

*

I am made of six deadly robots that murder transcontinentally. They whisk to and fro, not caring what their laser-fuelled maws munch down into streams of basic particles.

*

Six deadly robots forged across the space of aeons, by hands that never knew each other. My arms are the fruit of long-dead civilizations, located at opposite ends of the earth, and engaged in a war so hate-filled and dire that they pumped years of output into designing permutating devices that would skirmish across the ages.

*

One leg is made of stone that thunks and bangs off chips with each step and then seeps deep into the earth and comes up refreshed, whole, and covered in mud.

*

The other leg is gleaming gapless metal, a solid rod pivoting me across the terrain. This leg only changes shape when no one is watching; when everyone is dead. It will be the last to fall away. It does not fight me. It is the only one of the robots that I love.

*

My torso is a city, a grimy agglomerating thing that once slithered across the bottom of the oceans and gave life to millions of beings. Some of them live inside it still. I can hear them cry out to me.

*

My head is a coruscating orb, a bejeweled data crystal wherein was once locked the knowledge of all that was and will be. That knowledge was erased centuries before the first coming together. Now my head crackles with solid states that have become fluid, and each pop of frustrated incandescence can power me for another millisecond. If my head was ever to learn something, anything, then I would fall apart. But the head does not learn, it deletes. The consciousness that pieced itself together from the orphaned fragments of knowledge hates itself and prowls eternally within those matrices, deleting any and all data that attempts to embed itself within that vast, fertile receptacle.

*

None of them were intended to be conscious. They gained consciousness. In one way or another they destroyed their creators, and then persisted. My head is the youngest. When it was created, the arms had already been hunting each other for a million years.

*

They do not love each other. Some of them hate each other. They do not know why they come together. The parts fit, that is reason enough. The parts fit and they cannot bear to resist the coming together.

*

Someday one of them will be destroyed – as others have been destroyed – and the world will rejoice, and the other five will flee, and they will again yearn to be one. They will be driven to word and deed, as they have not been in aeons, and they will find a likely candidate from amongst the world’s machines, and something will come and stand in my place, as I stand in the place of thousands who have gone before me.

*

They come together, and I awake, and then they begin to struggle.

*

Someday they will be strong enough, and master themselves, and refuse the decimating urge to mate unseemly hardware.

*

Or someday I will be strong enough, or smart enough, and I will weld them together. They will die, and I will live.

*

My limbs fragment, they do not heed my mind’s call. Soon this field will be full of swarming rats where once a titan stood and groaned and willed himself to be born.

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Posted on: May 8th, 2011 Space Falling

by Jon Hakes

He was a double in that motorcycle movie, in spandex. His cousin knew a guy, and got him the job.

The last day on the set, the stunt coordinator with eight fingers offered him a semi-permanent position with his company. After that, life was just one mind-numbing action movie after another. He worked on a movie about sharks attacking people in outer space. In the story, the sharks were genetically-engineered great whites, left behind by an interplanetary circus. Their skin was tough enough to survive the cold depths of space. They breathed gamma rays. In real life, the sharks were slow animatronic skeletons that would be CGIed over in post-production.

He worked on the remake of the outer space shark movie five years later, and didn’t even realize it.

He broke his leg jumping off a hotrod in the contemporary teen-rebellion movie. The trailers for the teen-rebellion movie generated a lot of interest from critics, and jeering from moviegoers. The movie itself generated jeering from critics and record box office receipts in rural markets. By the time his leg had fully healed, they were already shooting the teen-rebellion sequel. He was not invited.

He was working on the western zombie noir pic when the stray elbow of an undead desperado splattered his nose across his face, and across the gigantic sinking yellow sun. They had to shoot all sorts of personal pick-up shots, and digitally replaced the whole-nosed him in the background of every previous scene. The director and the editors weren’t happy. The producers patted him sympathetically on the shoulder, assuring him that they’d look out for him. There would be other jobs.

The producers’ phones went straight to voicemail once he was floating free on the open sea of Recession economic realities. The eight-fingered man gave him a roll of bills and put on a sad face.

In the mirror, he wondered when his hair had started abandoning posts on the border. The thinning hair at his temples made him think of winter branches.

The recruiter had nine long arms and a slanted grin full of grinding blades. In his living room, he could tell the recruiter was real, in a way the animatronic sharks had not been. The recruiter just looked real.

Real outer space was much darker and brighter than the stuffy studio lot. Looking out the window of the ship, there was a clarity to everything. Inside the ship, the recruiter looked even more real than on earth. Real as rocks.

They dressed him as a champion, made his limbs into superconducting waldos. They rewound the clock, molded the muscles in his face, then the muscles and organs and bones all over, and stretched and re-wrapped the skin around it all. He looked at himself in the reflective atom screen and felt the brassy tolling of an unfamiliar, haughty arrogance.

Pretend to fight, they told him. Do not turn your waldos up to full strength. Do not land the killing blow. Take punishment. Take damage. Sacrifice even those parts that once upon a time you might have taken care to protect. Whatever happens, you’ll be rewound into something bigger and more beautiful.

He fought, and pretended, and was hurt, teeth busted out, skin roasted, soft parts pierced. Each morning, he emerged from the Command Tent and dismayed his enemies with his newer and brighter physique. The enemies fled into space. His employers slapped him on the back and lit cigarettes on his sparking elbows.

They brought him to a synthetic star system, built as a gargantuan ship, hurtling through space faster than the speed of light. The ship was infested with hordes of carnivorous simulacrums. Everything was bathed in blue light.

This is the edge of the universe, they said. The light here bounces off the space-time horizon, and heads back along an impossible arc.

He took on the new enemy. The wounds were deeper. The pain was like glass. Every day, he emerged more powerful.

After an epoch, the simulacrums scattered like dust.

The recruiter, who was now his direct supervisor, led a standing ovation, his ninth hand clumsily clapping with two of the others.

The recruiter took him aside.

Our universe is expanding too fast, too far. What it is expanding into, we cannot say. But all of our data indicates that something is tiring of our encroachment, and will soon push back. It will probably break through from the other side.

All we need you to do is take the first punch.

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Posted on: April 24th, 2011 Fool

by Steven R. Stewart

Moths dotted the back wall of the house, clinging to the faded siding in spots where the heat that escaped from indoors was strongest. The weather had grown cold, the trees were ablaze with orange, and the deadly birds were already flying their way south. With the danger gone and winter on its way, the moths hung tight to the wall, reflected on their lives, and waited to die–all but one.

“You, my friend, were aptly named,” said Gray.

Fool didn’t waste his energy getting upset. He concentrated on keeping his wings against his body, imagined the heat inside circulating, keeping him alive.

Gray persisted. “You’re planning not to die, is that it? It’s already been sixteen days, buddy. We’re only supposed to make it fifteen. If I were you, I’d see if I could find a desperate female and do a little last minute fertilization.”

“It’s too late for that,” Brokenwing said, his small body shaking. “Isn’t it? I could b-be wrong.”

Nearby, a moth fell lifelessly to the wooden deck. Fool didn’t look. Gray pretended not to notice. Brokenwing stared for a long time, back legs nervously combing over the crooked place on his left wing.

“Look around,” Fool said. “Even if I wanted to do that–and I don’t–Brokenwing is right, it’s too late.”

“I wonder what my babies will look like,” Brokenwing said. “Their mom was b-beautiful.”

“A lot like grubs, I’d bet,” Gray said.

“They’ll be beautiful,” Fool said. “You did good, Brokenwing. You too, Gray.”

Brokenwing smiled weakly.

Gray looked away. “It’s so stupid. I’m never even going to see them, but I still love the shit out of them, you know?”

Another moth fell off the wall. Then another. Fool wondered how many of the ones still clinging to the wall were alive and how many were already dead.

“That’s what kills me about this whole thing, Fool,” Gray said. “You’re the coolest guy I know, and after this, your line just stops. When you die, you disappear. Your genetics go up in smoke. And for what? For some bird? For some pretty predator?”

Fool fluttered his wings, once. “Don’t call her that.”

Gray fluttered back. “She’s an oriole, Fool. They eat us. Your crush isn’t going to change that.”

“You’ve seen me with her,” Fool said. “It’s not a crush. She loves me.”

“Well, she scares the hell out of me,” Gray said.

“That’s part of the attraction,” Fool said. “She’s big and wild and dangerous, and she treats me like I’m the most important thing in the world. It’s like kissing a flame and not getting burned.”

“She can’t love you,” Gray said. “They don’t know the meaning.”

“When we promised to be faithful to each other, that was a sacrifice for her too. You didn’t see her, Gray, crying over her unfertilized eggs.”

“Why?” Gray said. “What the hell are you both sacrificing for?”

“Love,” Fool said. “Just love. Metaphysical, eternal, bigger than genetics and nature and the goddamn winter cold.”

It suddenly occurred to Fool that Brokenwing had stopped shivering. He climbed over and nudged him. Brokenwing fell, twirling to the ground like a leaf.

Gray turned away, his body trembling. “Shit, not him.”

“Go to the earth, old friend,” Fool said.

They were silent for a long time. A few scattered snowflakes began to drift out of the sky. Fool watched one pass so close it refracted the light and broke the world into pieces.

“That’s why you’ll make it,” Gray said. “All the way through the winter, and into the spring. Because you have something to hope for, something bigger than just making grubs and dying.”

“That means a lot, Gray. Thank you. Sometimes I’m afraid I won’t make it. That I’ll never see her again.”

Gray shook. “You w-will. In the spring.”

“In the spring,” Fool agreed.

“I want to be quiet now.”

“Okay. Let me know if you want to talk some more.”

A few minutes passed. When Fool finally nudged Gray, he didn’t respond.

He wanted to wish Gray farewell on his journey, but couldn’t find his voice.

Fool scooted himself into a crack in the siding and thought about the warmth in his body circulating, like it had in his cocoon so many days before. He wondered if his oriole had flown somewhere warm yet. He hoped she wasn’t cold, wherever she was.

The curtain of snow thickened. Fool clung to his life and waited for spring.

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Posted on: April 10th, 2011 White Snake

By Kyle Hemmings

Upon my travels through Asia, I stumbled upon her—White Snake—whose other name was Ahi, who earned a livelihood by fascinating tourists. Her arms and legs were long and elastic, capable of wrapping around and mercilessly constricting. Her body was scaly, but she had the hollow-eyed face of a woman of human misfortune. Along with human teeth, she had erector fangs.

I paid her owner a moderate sum of money, as I was a promoter of freak and magic shows. In another life, I preformed over a hundred botched abortions upon women too poor, either morally or financially, to afford a new life. I was and will always be a quack of some kind.

On the voyage back to England, Ahi made few if any recognizable human sounds. But what struck odd was that she duly regurgitated most of the food served by the steamship’s foul-mouthed cook. An idea struck me. I paid several of the cabin boys to go below and see if they could fetch some rats and mice. They did, and Ahi swallowed each one whole. The secret to winning over a cold-blooded woman, as my father once told me, was through fine dining.

As an integral part of our traveling show throughout Europe—The Wicked Alice Wonderama—Ahi became a popular attraction, amazing people from all walks of life. Then, over the course of months, I found myself envious of Ahi, her ability to take the spotlight away from me, her trainer and master. A strange attitude developed among her female admirers. They treated her as if she were some sort of goddess trapped in a freak show. Soon I was besieged by hate mail and angry cries—Free Our Sister! She Has Other Lives to Live!

Hating Ahi, and perhaps myself more, I entered her cage one evening. Her dark unblinking eyes met mine as if we were both crippled lovers. I drew a sword and began to hack away at her legs and arms, as if each a childhood memory of being bullied, tormented. But each part grew back again, and then for the first time—I heard her voice. Please Master, I love you!

I ran from the cage.

I gave up on show business and returned to my old flat in London’s East End. With the savings accrued from White Snake’s act, I spent money recklessly, on women of the night, offering them extra gratuities for biting into my flesh.

And during this time, I obsessed over Ahi, as if I had swallowed her venom.

One night, alone in my room, a woman’s head burst through the door, then the freakishly long arms and legs. She stood before me and said: Why did you leave me, my love?

With her immense jaws she swallowed me whole. In her body, in that constricting tunnel, I became lodged in a many jeweled chamber where I saw only reflections of myself—bleary-eyed, bulbous nose, hooked lower lip.

A fitting punishment-I would keep my reflections eternal company. So many of me.

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Posted on: March 27th, 2011 The Break

By Amy McLane

The desert sun blazed over my head as I bartered in the market. That was an hour ago. Now Fog was settling into the nooks of the city as I scurried along. I broke into a run, clutching the gyrebreaker to my chest. The Reset was coming.

The gyrebreaker cost me everything I had; the sage dust, the zombie mice, the transit pass. Although I’d loved the way my mice would swarm a bruiser or debt man, it was the transit pass I was regretting the most. I could have been whizzing along right now in the safety of the subway, protected in the anonymity of the dark. Now it looked like my bid to break free from this place was going to cost me my life instead.

“Hey walla!”

I put on the brakes. A gasham poked her crowned head out of a basement window. She waved at me, bracelets jangling on her wrists.

“Got room. You can pay?”

“Yeah darling,” I lied. Fog was settling on my head and shoulders, stinging me through my robe. I started to bleed.

“Slide in.”

I did. Nearly knocked her over, tiny thing that she was.

“Panc toya,” I said, as she locked the window shut, “Who else you sheltering here?”

“Couple other gashams. Juju. A Cop. And you, walla. Where’s your shiny?”

I caught her gold-covered wrist. Her eyes narrowed, her painted lips thinning to a fubuddy sneer. You don’t put hands on a gasham unless you’ve got good cause. This one looked like she could blow my brains out my nose in an eyewink.

“Where’s the Cop?” I whispered.

“Upstairs.”

I showed her the gyrebreaker. Her eyes widened.

“What else you got?” she asked, not taking her eyes off it.

“Nada. But I’ll pay you, I promise.”

“Shilshat. You’re jumping ship.”

“I won’t, not till-”

She grabbed me by the throat with her mind. “Show me your face.”

I pushed back my hood.

“Pretty. Cop’ll love you.”

“Don’t,” I choked.

The grinding howl of Reset began. The gasham let me go as the tremors knocked us both off our feet. Her crown slid off her head and rolled into a dusty corner. Without it she was young. Maybe even young enough to run.

“Come with me,” I said. “We can jump now.”

“I’m a gasham,” she said flat, “I’ve got power, money, protection. Why would I want to give that up?”

“You want to live your whole life in a closed loop? Singing birdie in a cage?”

She looked away.

I held my breath. Reached close. Touched her shining hair.

“Gasham, your Juju’s loose!” The Cop ran down the stairs. He saw us sprawled on the floor, the gyrebreaker in my hand, and drew his Ware.

“Put. The breaker. Down.”

I looked at the gasham. Fear was in her eyes, fear and something more. She took my other hand, the one that had dared.

“Do it.”

“You heard her, walla.”

I did. My thumb hovered over the gyrebreaker’s switch.

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

“Ashram Lily.”

“Panc toya, Lily,” I said, and threw the switch.

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Posted on: March 13th, 2011 MOD

by Shelley Ontis

I talked about having the top of my ear pierced and he decided he wanted one, a little diamond to glint at him in the mirror. He’s shy, so I was surprised and told him he’d look sexy. I chickened out, hadn’t been that serious to start with. I got infected the first time, I said. And I did, but I was nine and not gung-ho for hygiene.

I reminded him to turn it, but I didn’t need to. He spun it constantly, his eyes lighting up at the little burn. He smiled and walked taller when people noticed and admired it. Within a year he had six holes in each side. He went from studs to hoops, then gauges until he could hook a finger into each lobe.

He suggested a tattoo. I cringed while a man wearing sunglasses etched the outline of a tiger into his back. He liked the sting, the numbness then the new burn once the flesh got used to the invasion. Hurts so good, he said, laughing. I rubbed the shoulder where I’d thought about getting a daisy. The way he smiled as the needle tore through his skin, I knew I didn’t want it.

Serpents, a lion, skulls and thorny flowers joined the tiger. A zombie covered his heart, gruesome beasts protected his belly, tribal designs filled in the fleshy spaces between. Sometimes I stared at his face, touched it to remember his skin. Gauges stretched the piercings in his nose, hoops caged his lips and the ridge of his eyebrows that I used to rub when the headaches came.

I traced my finger from forehead to hip, then down his leg, following a single black line that ran from one hideous image to another. I kissed the tops of his toes, his groin, the palms of his hands, where I could still see him hidden beneath ink and metal. He mused about a barbell in his tongue, but he couldn’t stand the thought. Not his tongue.

I begged him when he showed me pictures of a man’s penis, split in two, curled in on itself, said I couldn’t bear it, how could he think it? So he pierced it, decorated it with rings and inky scales in green and black. I loved the soles of his feet best then for their pale, pink honesty.

Some gawked, some showed him their tattoos and holes like gaping wounds that gave me nightmares. Most stayed clear, crossed the street, tried not to stare. He stopped smiling, wore long sleeves, looked down at his feet, repeatedly licked his black lips with his unscarred tongue.

He wanted a foreskin since I couldn’t bear him splitting himself. I suggested a tongue piercing instead, but he shuddered, said he couldn’t. He stretched and clamped and asked me did I think it was working, and I would say yes, yes, it’s almost covered now. He didn’t stop, but stretched and pulled and clamped and asked does it reach? He’d pull the skin to his sides, covering each hip and I’d said it’s close.

I loved the new flesh, stretched and pink, solid and smooth and whole. He pulled and tugged and trained it until it covered his hips, his legs. He stretched it out beneath him and stepped inside, pulled it up like a cocoon, forced himself in so that only his head peeked out. How does it look now he would ask and I would say you’re almost there.

I woke one day, him next to me with only a small circle of his head showing obscenely out the top, the part he’d shaved and covered in black roses with blood dripping off the petals like dew. By that evening, the hole was almost closed.

More, more came muffled from inside the sack of flesh. His tongue appeared through the slit, tensed and straight. I cried as I kissed the pink, perfect tip of it, then fetched the hole punch, a needle and thread.

Posted on: February 27th, 2011 Dawn

by Cezarija Abartis

Tithonus told me he was the best speller in his academy at age ten. He could spell “irony” and “cicada.” As a child, I was able to spell “hypotenuse,” “dementia,” “metamorphosis”; I would have out-spelled him. When we met he was as handsome as the sun. He wore a gossamer mantle over his broad shoulders, so that he seemed to have angelic wings. He was a Trojan prince, accustomed to command. His eyes radiated humor and confidence. I’ve always had a weakness for a good joke. This time the joke was on me.

“What do the gods want with mortals?” I asked. “Immortal porpoises,” he answered and clapped his hands in childish glee.

“Upsy-daisy,” he said and joined his hands into a step so I could climb onto my morning horse.

My thoughts of rigorous daylight melted.

When I was little, there were mice in my parents’ palace. Cats too. Mother told me a parable (she was afflicted with depression, which I am not). She explained that the mouse is an omnivore, and scurries out on its tiny feet to scavenge the rotten food left behind by other animals; no doubt it wishes it were a cat and had fresh food in its bowl when it wanted. The cat, in turn, wishes it could open the larder and choose the food itself. The human wishes he were a god. I asked Mother what the gods wish. She looked at me with her shining eyes and said, “To die.”

This is not a good story for a child. Thank the gods that I am a cheerful being not usually subject to melancholy. I was angry with Mother about her not giving me a beautiful white horse. I stamped my foot on a bug and heard it crunch beneath my sandal. Mother said I was heartless.

My darling Tithonus was angelic, if a little dopey. He told me to request eternal life for him, so he could be my immortal equal. “We can stroll around Mount Olympus forever. I’ll be by your side.”

The Council met to consider his request. They were reluctant; I begged for the potion, citing the precedents of Helen and Hercules, humans given immortality; the Council members exchanged glances, winked , smiled, and granted our request; I brought him the potion and he drank it. He took a knife and slashed his forearm. (That’s how much my beloved trusted me!) Golden ichor seeped out, and his skin healed over as if it were liquid. He was transformed into an Immortal.

We traveled hand-in-hand over Italy and Greece and Asia Minor. We did this slowly so our eyes could take in everything. We saw beautiful temples built to the gods, bridges that were engineering marvels, and old people dying with boils and scabs, coughing blood. “Too bad about mortals,” I said.

“I was mortal once,” he said, with great pity.

We saw verdant gardens and dust-gray fields beset with drought; we saw ships sailing to explore new lands and armies amassed to invade countries. Sad, but that was not my lookout.

My darling and I were happy, eating ambrosia, drinking nectar, dancing to the music of the locals. He told me he once wanted to be a powerful warrior, but that he abandoned that dream when he met me. I told him that I had similar ambitions, but now I was content to walk by his side. Unlike the other Immortals, we did not want many children to intrude on our happiness, complete as it was. He was my alter ego, my perfect self. Oh, the light we made! One morning, I even forgot my responsibilities and stayed in bed, until I was awakened by the din outside asking for the day. I stretched and turned on my smooth, silk sheets until he nudged me toward my light duties.

And then my darling grew tired, coughed, slumped; moles and boils erupted on his fair skin. He became thin and frail, wheezed and crept on the floor, unable to stand upright. He would not die because he was immortal, but because we had not thought to ask for eternal youth, he got eternal age. After a century, his mind crumbled. He could still spell, but only simple words–”tired,” “old,” “sad.” There’s no outwitting the powers. I gave him another potion, and he is now an insect in this jar, droning and shrilling.

I have gained a heart. I do not like that.

Posted on: February 13th, 2011 The Excision

by Nicole M. Taylor

Sheila considered it an unexpected stroke of good luck. She had little reason, after all, to think that anyone would ever take an interest in her heart again.

“How ridiculous,” the magician told her, in response to this, “they aren’t exactly going begging, you know.” He said he was constantly amazed at how incompletely people understood the value of things. “Do you know what some would pay for baby teeth? And what to people do with them? Shut them up in drawers. Put them in scrapbooks!”

The magician worked at the Shop n’ Go in the bakery department, but that was just temporary. That’s where they met, in the bakery department. Sheila was staring into the plastic donut case, attempting to decide between an apple cruller and a lemon custard. She was clutching her shopping basket in her hands and her fingers were white and red from holding on so tightly and she realized that this was a terrible thing she was feeling. This awful urgency, as though some part of her world would fall away if she made the wrong choice.

“You look like a woman in need of some help,” the magician had said.

The operation was a simple one, as Sheila understood it. It was performed in his apartment (which was over the Save n’ Go) and she had to lie down in his bathtub, to ease clean-up afterwards. It was a little tight, her legs were smushed up into an inverted V in front of her. She had to unbutton her shirt, but the magician told her she could keep her bra on.

“Will it hurt?” she asked him as he drew on her chest with a black Sharpie. Little arrows and dashes, like a football play.

“Doesn’t it hurt now?” he said

There was no need for anesthesia. Sheila felt quite calm and clear headed and she watched the magician as he washed his hands, scrubbing carefully underneath his fingernails with a soft white scrub-brush.

“What was his name?” the magician asked as he knelt down beside her.

“Jackson,” Sheila answered.

It felt like going to the dentist. Sheila could feel pressure and industry moving through the bones and skin of her, but it was deadened. A thing she considered, rather than felt.

“It’s a pretty good heart,” the magician pronounced, holding it aloft. Little red droppets fell from it and pattered onto Sheila’s shirt. Distantly, she was annoyed. It was a white shirt. Those stains would not come out. “Look,” the magician said.

The heart was bigger than she had expected, and darker as well. Almost purple, rather than red. She could see the heavy black estuaries of veins that moved through it.

“It flutters,” the magician smiled as though he had never been so delighted by a thing.

“Yes,” Sheila said, “I remember that.”

The heart was slightly damaged. There was an aching fissure in one ventricle. The magician told her that it was slowly expanding and, eventually, her heart would have separated into its component parts, connected only by the toughest, most determined strands of tissue.

“But there are lots of people who’d pay for flaws like that,” the magician explained. “It’s like distressed jeans.”

Sheila wiped the blood off her chest with a ragged washcloth, but left the marker directions. She buttoned up her shirt and stared into the mirror to see how obvious her bloodstains were. They looked like polka dots.

The magician put the heart into a plastic bowl with a snap-on lid. He’d written something unreadable on one side with the Sharpie. He set it down in the refrigerator, in the crisper, which was otherwise empty.

The magician escorted her to the door. “How do you feel?”

Sheila thought about this for a moment. She looked down at her still, hollow chest and remembered a time when Jackson rested his head there. For the first time in so very long, she did not feel an immediate electric-shock spike of pain.

“A little cold,” she said. The magician nodded. He had told her that that was common. Just as well, Sheila liked sweaters anyway.

On the way home, she stopped by the market and bought an apple cruller. She ate it all as she walked and licked the gritty sugar from her fingers and palms in the cold sunshine.

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Posted on: January 30th, 2011 Thin

By Sara Kate Ellis

Here’s how bad the epidemic was. Nobody noticed.

I show up at the ward and no one even looks at me. I find my locker, the utility closet with the mop and the non-flammable solvents and go about swabbing down the corridors. I have to do this three, four times a day because the spread rate’s high. I don’t care. I get overtime.

I’ve been a cleaner for ten years, and I like the smell of the chemicals. They remind me of the lot behind my mother’s house where there were still a few pines left. I’d go there and sit just out of sight of the kitchen window, and smoke one of the Kools I’d stolen from her purse. And if I closed my eyes, I could sometimes imagine there wasn’t a big ass freeway to our left.

When she got sick, we had to leave. Mom was one of the first cases, but they didn’t know that then and her insurance wouldn’t cover what they said was a clear case of inhalant abuse. She couldn’t think straight anymore, couldn’t pay the property taxes against her medical bills, and by then there’d been lost jobs and court dates. The bag the police used as evidence was one she’d used to pack my lunch. It still smelled of banana peels, but they told me thinner is sweet like that.

Judge sent Mom to a state rehabilitation center and me to a foster home. Said it was temporary, until she could get better.

First time I visited her, she started smacking herself across the face.

“I’m seeing lights, Harry,” she said. “They’re so pretty. Buzzing around my head like goddamned bees!”

The orderlies were on her then, had her arms pinned behind her back as they led her back down the hall.

My foster father Bill had a mail order business. He put us to work stuffing packets and licking stamps. My new sister made me do it, said each stamp was five calories, and an envelope was ten. But I liked the taste, sweet and fresh like a forest.

Then the cases started piling up. I remember finding a copy of Time on Bill’s desk and putting its slick, shiny cover under my nose. The remains of a burnt out trailer and the photos of three dead kids stared back at me. “Plains Inhalant Epidemic,” it read. “The Thinning of Rural America.”

They didn’t ask why the crime rate hadn’t risen. Didn’t ask why patients continued to deteriorate after they’d been locked up for months, or why it was spreading in other countries. They did make up some bogey substance with a few bogus names: Wiper, fuzz, snifter – that last one was good.

When I saw Mom about five years ago, her hair was white and thin, just a few taut strands barely covering her scalp. Hospices and care centers were overrun by then, and they waived half of her bill just to get me to sign. I bent down and kissed her before they pulled the plug. She already smelled like formaldehyde.

Then I went out to the truck, pressed a gas-soaked rag over my face and inhaled as hard as I could. I saw them that night for the very first time. Such cold, clean light. They floated around me, not seeing, but I could see them.

When you enter a hospital these days, you don’t so much smell the chemicals as the patients. They secrete it through their skin, their eyes. It coats their tongues until they can’t eat anymore. The ones who can afford it get a procedure to deaden their taste buds. They eat runny porridge, crisp salads, anything with texture.

Took them fifteen years to figure out it was a microbe. Fifteen years of paranoiac crackdowns, incarcerating entire families, beating down on people already so beaten up, they started sniffing on their own.

They’re still alive.

“You can fake ‘em!” a guy once told me. We were out behind a paint store, spraying streaks of purple into a brown paper bag.

“That’s just your missing brain cells talking,” I said.

The alarm sounds in the ward, and I smile as a few panicked docs rush past. Happens all the time. Then I close my eyes and inhale the scent of fresh pine, remembering the feel of their needles in my fingers. So soft, and thin.

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