Posted on: October 2nd, 2011 Zombie Funeral

By Daniel Eness

But can we so easily forget the Rhonda who also spent the past month in that greasy mid-shin apron stalking, stalking, ever stalking?

“Life is trouble,” she used to say nearly every day from behind the griddle at the Maid-Rite. She was a working-class philosopher, a woman with a machine-gun brain and a mouth that squeezed the trigger, cutting down real customers and imagined exes on an indiscriminate daily spree.

After she stood up, her life was trouble on two crooked feet, her thousand-pound soul was trouble, her wheezing afterthoughts were trouble, her teeth – her teeth were trouble. Even then, there was something about her: the way she clung to that fry cage like it was a doll, the way she dragged her left foot behind her, as if some important part of her struggled to restrain her new nature, struggled to keep something back in a forgotten, invisible, unknowable land: our own.

Today we mourn and rejoice.

Let us not turn too quickly from the brutal metaphor we can finally bury today. Indeed, a great weight has finally lifted from Rhonda Rust’s shoulders: her own head.

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Posted on: September 18th, 2011 Down by the River

by Lydia S Gray

I go down to the river, to that spot where it bends around the big rock and the current undercuts the bank. I cast my net into the deepest part and catch two small fish and a baby. I eat the fish straight away, but I save the baby for later. It stares at me as I tie it in the bag, and I carry it back over my shoulder so I don’t have to look at it.

Back at the camp I put it in the pen. It kicks its fat legs and screams, so I put my hands over my ears and try not to listen. I hate the noise they make.

“Keep it as a pet,” someone said, but they always say that. They want everything as a pet, even a dog. I don’t know why they’d want that. Just one more mouth to feed, and a useless one too.

It screams all evening. I hoped that we’d eat it that night, but someone caught a cat and it’s already gone into the pot. It smells good, but I’d rather have the baby.

*

I can’t sleep. Someone’s snoring and the baby keeps on screaming. I hope someone will go out and knock it on the head, but no one does and I don’t want to do it myself.

After a while I fall into a doze, but even there the baby carries on. Only it isn’t that baby any more, it’s the other one. The one that came out of me after I got huge. I got so big I thought that they would eat me, I seemed so full of food. But the river called it and the baby came out in a rush of water. I saw its face as it screamed and swam away. I got a cat in exchange, an old one.

The fat moon stares at me through the holes in the roof. The baby’s still making its noise. I’m not going to put up with it.

“Make it shut up,” I say, kicking someone, but they just turn over and go back to snoring. I’ll have to do it myself.

I stamp out of the hut, banging the door behind me. I can smell the baby as I get close. It’s shit in the pen. Someone will have to clean that up, I’m not going to do it.

It waves its arms at me, making fists with its hands like it wants to hit me. Maybe its brave. It looks like the baby in the dream, but they all look the same really. They all sound the same.

I pick it up, slinging it over my shoulder and holding it by its fat hands. I run back to the river, jogging quickly before someone sees me.

At the rock I crouch down and dangle the baby over the water. “Give me a fish instead,” I say, but I’d take anything, a puppy or a kitten. Maybe just a different baby. I let it go and it falls with a little plop, vanishing into the dark water. It doesn’t scream when it goes in. Perhaps I should have waited, maybe it was done with the noise.

I wait a little while for it to go, and then I reach down and plunge my arms in. I should have brought the net if I wanted something in exchange, but I forgot. The water surrounds me, cold but not dark, silent and sparkling with light. I wonder if this is what the baby saw. I wonder where they go.

There’s something between my hands, large and furry. I pull out a dog, a big one. It sets up a whimper as I sling it over my shoulder. Maybe it will eat the baby shit. Dogs sometimes do that.

*

For a while I crouch by the pen and it whimpers at me, everything makes noise. I wish it was quiet. I don’t want to go back to sleep, someone will be snoring again, and the moon is so big, it throws strange shadows. I walk back to the river, to the spot where it bends around the rock and the water runs deep.

I plunge my hands in, and then my arms, my head. I let myself go, sliding into the water. I kick my feet. They are a fish’s tail, a baby’s legs. The lights sparkle around me.

Posted on: September 4th, 2011 Sultanas in the Orphanage

by Tom Andrews

Daddy would mix the Manhattans and Momma would play “Take Five” on the accordion, and that was just how it was in our house in the 1970′s. If there wasn’t anything on the TV, the whole family would sit around and sculpt the busts of notable politicians and government figures out of fast food. I once crafted Spiro Agnew from a Burger King Whaler, and my brother Dave did four of the Supreme Court Justices out of a single Big Mac – all while watching an episode of “Welcome Back Kotter.”

Those Manhattans were strong, I should add. Daddy would lean heavily on the Bourbon, and the whole silver tray of cocktails would slosh back and forth as he carried them out to the dinner table. All of us, from Daddy and Momma on down to little baby Lily, would sip our Manhattans and smile a great, beaming, bourbon-y smile. Collectively, that is.

One day the doorbell rang at dinnertime and a man from the government came in. I was certain he wanted to see our artwork, so I tried to tug his sleeve and draw him closer to the Kissinger that I had carved from a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was no use. This man had no artistic interest whatsoever. Rather than examine our artwork, he busted up our happy home. I never did see Daddy and Momma again, and my brother Dave and I went to live with the crazy gardener with the lazy eye and the oily patch on his forearm.

I never knew what became of little baby Lily, until about three years ago when I was channel surfing during an electrical storm that was driving prairie dust into my nostrils. There on some local access station that was airing an amateur production of “Return to Gilligan’s Island,” I saw my sister.

She was cast as the Island.

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Posted on: August 21st, 2011 Irreversible Dad

By Kenton K. Yee

I noticed Dad shrinking when I was in third grade. He could no longer pull books from the top shelf and his pants mopped the floor. I wanted to tell Dad to see a doctor, but Mom told me to let him be. “He is what he is,” she said.

By the time I reached high school, Dad was the size of a teddy bear. Fortunately, Dad had academic tenure, so his condition was not a problem at work. The morning after I got my driver’s license, I threw a blanket over him, locked him in a cat carrier, and drove him in for testing. “Collapsing wave function,” the man wearing the stethoscope said.

“It’s irreversible.”

Dad continued teaching until a student nearly stepped on him. By that time, I was packing for college and Dad was smaller than a mouse – a baby mouse. We kept him in a gallon mayonnaise jar with two cotton balls. He licked one for water; the other absorbed his excrement.

I had to squint to resolve him during my first visit home. We sat in the kitchen. I munched a donut and flicked specks of powdered sugar into his jar. He chased after the falling flecks like a goldfish gobbling feed flakes.

“Be nicer to Mom,” I said. “Changing your soggy cotton balls through the mouth of a mayo jar with tweezers is making her twitchy.”

He cupped both hands over his mouth and shouted, but all I could hear was the quiet of cotton.

A few days later, Mom phoned to say she could no longer find him. I rushed home and took his jar to the research hospital, where they stuck it into an electron microscope. The computer screen flickered a black and white image of Dad sitting on a molecule of atoms, his legs crossed, an elbow on a knee. Engrossed in the undulations of a proton wave, he was as I had always imagined: the tall physics professor who reached up to the top shelf and pulled down books for me; the skinny graduate student who worked up the courage to ask Mom out on the final day of class; the little boy who stayed alone during recess in his second grade classroom to read about subatomic particles in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Posted on: August 7th, 2011 Lessons in Invertebrate Diplomacy

By Helen E. Kourous

The perfect gentleman, 78th Earth Ambassador began by praising the plumpness of her queenship’s ovipositor. Before sitting down to to the afternoon’s defecation, he complemented the new art on her exoskeleton using trending adjectives. H’waaNi Noorek, Fourth Moult, of Five Million Sacs, Queen-Prefect of Subjugated Earth Colony, twisted and untwisted her eye stalks salaciously. She yanked out a minor limb at the slightly flirtatious (but still quite proper) second joint and presented it to the human Ambassador with a flourish. He rapped it smartly on the ice block table to show his amusement, cautious not to bare his enamel incisors.

They had learned that from number 17.

Pocketing the gift, he dropped his trousers and seated himself first to show deference. Not that fast! Bend each part of your legs separately, remember? He scowled at the unwelcome tinny voice in his ear. He needed no damn coaching, he had worked for over a year for this. He continued, schooling himself to patience.

“I see that your most recent mate was a fifth tier artist.” Yes, past tense was proper here (number 50). The Ambassador nodded toward the iridescent patterns on her queenship’s chitin and politely waited for her to defecate first.

She beamed approval by clacking her pincers, and purred, “You have learned much from your-” the translator hissed static, then enunciated “–predecessors” She paused to drop a pearlescent row of dainty regal pellets from her lower thorax, and keyed up the week’s tribute sheets on the vid.

He bowed in place and said nothing, the new embedded-sensor scars on his scalp tight and aching.

Suddenly she rose and towered over him. Her abdomen quivered and she emitted a long series of pops and clacks. “Night or six?” The translator finally produced this unencouraging monosyllabic query.

The tin voice was silent. He reviewed all his memorized responses. Nothing.
“Ah, night, your queenship.” He bowed his head, waiting, and hoped they were getting all of this back home.

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Posted on: July 24th, 2011 Terahertz

by Simon Kewin

Black Steel pauses before he plugs my brain in. Today his body is standard human, a form he adopts more and more: plain features, fine cheekbones, thin silver hair. The need to emphasize the difference is over. He smiles but his reluctance is still clear.

“I don’t like this, my friend.”

“I have to hear, and soon my brain won’t be able to hack it. I’m not going to live forever like you.”

Still he hovers, undecided.

“Please,” I say.

“Very well. I’ll boot you up.”

I close my eyes while he works.

Once he wouldn’t have dreamed of adopting such a mundane body-form, of course. I think about that first Terahertz gig; the way he uploaded to body after body, each form more disturbing than the last. A flaming Satan roaring fire. An hermaphrodite dragging enlarged sexual organs across the stage. A child peeling off her own skin in great sheets then dismembering herself, burrowing through muscle to wrench out bone and sinew even as she continued to sing like an angel.

It was the music that did it for me though: the riot-control subsonics, the searing guitars, the disorientating arrhythmia of the percussion. I thought I’d heard it all, grown bored with thrash, rap, techno, old school, new groove, you name it. This was something new. Visceral, thrilling, alarming. The crowd of cybers raved, reacting to both the music and the data encoded within it. Word was humans standing too close risked permanent brain damage. Some were there just to be outraged. Others wanted to be able to say they’d been present. But it wasn’t like that for me. I loved it. Long before the horrors of the Soft War and the Hard War, long before the Pax Machina, right there and then I knew which side I’d be on when it came to it. Which side would call people like me traitor. For a time.

“The chemical boosters are going in now. I’ll ramp them up slowly.”

I nod, feeling the chill of the chemicals spreading through my brain like sudden frost.

That early music was primitive of course, a collider smash of human sounds. But to their quantum brains, their Planck-time minds, it was all too slow, too ethereal. Soon Terahertz were playing music so accelerated only synthetic minds could appreciate it. Then only synthetic minds could even perceive it. They say some human children with very acute hearing can just detect a complete performance of the Megagician cycle, which they hear as a faint click, like an insect beating its wings together once. Other than that it’s music closed off to humans. Until now.

“Ready,” says Black Steel.

I open my eyes for a moment and look up at him. He holds my hand.

“I never thanked you,” he says. “For everything you did back then.”

I shake my head.

“There was never any need.”

“Good bye, my friend.”

“Good bye.”

White light floods my brain. The adrenaline rush is alarming, an accelerating free-fall with no terminal velocity. I gasp. Distantly I can feel my body tensing and bucking on the table. The drugs and the electrical stimulants skyrocket my nervous system into orbit, hyperactivating it, overloading it then holding it at a trembling, superhuman peak for a brief moment.

While the music is played to me : a complete rendition of Black Steel’s own, classic Road Noise, performed live there and then, a private concert just for me.

And then it is over. Black Steel watches my fried brain die, before, as agreed, deactivating life-support.

So I imagine. In reality, I know none of this. For me, before the end, there is the music.

Fractal patterns explode into a myriad of voices in my mind; all the music I’ve ever heard woven into a coherent unity. Black Steel sings of stars and hearts, the dance of atoms and the way of the world. Of everything all at once, every thing interconnected.

It is glorious and terrible and beautiful. It fills me, fills all the universe. And there, in that timeless instant, everything I’ve done makes sense.

Posted on: July 10th, 2011 Please Return my Son who is In Your Custody

By Helena Bell

Dear Neighbor,

Please forgive my son for breaking into your house last night. Had you been home, I am sure he would have gone to the next house, or the one after that.

*

Dear Neighbor,

Please forgive my son for returning to your house last night.

I understand that he did not come in, but merely crawled up the oak in your backyard and crouched in the doorway of the tree house. He watched you pick tomatoes from your salad and pass them surreptitiously to your new Labrador Retriever.

I hear you named your lab Scotch. That was our dog’s name too.

*

Dear Neighbor,

Please forgive my son for fixing your sliding glass door last night. He felt that he owed your family a favor for scaring your daughter so badly yesterday morning. Just think, now your wife will no longer nag you to fix it like she has for the past six months.

My son even managed to scrub out the spot of blood on the frame from where your son slammed into it in the spring, knocking him back six feet and into the pool. Drowned you thought? No, just temporarily unconscious.

If the door is not completely fixed, my son says he is willing to come back and try again. He is only a boy after all, and not necessarily well versed in home repair.

*

Dear Neighbor,

Enclosed is the key I found under my son’s pillow when I exchanged one of his wisdom teeth for a crisp dollar bill last night. Funny, I thought they wouldn’t have come in already.

I am hopeful that this may finally set things right between us.

*

Dear Neighbor,

This is only a theory:

My son nearly drowned last spring and he may not have come all the way back. He does not respond to his name when I call him. Yours is not the first house he has entered without permission. Sometimes he takes things with him: his laundry, dirty dishes, a toothbrush. He completes his chores before moving onto other things left undone: your door, an unchanged light bulb, recyclables piling up beneath the sink.

Sometimes he leaves things.

A few days ago I asked where he had moved his collection of amethysts. He did not know.

Tell me, did you find them? Tucked beneath piles of neatly folded undershirts? Was it nestled among the plantains, shining in the fluorescent glow of your refrigerator?

My son used to know a lot about rocks, obscure artists, planes. He had a badge in archery, but now his fingers falter when he raises the bow and pulls the string to the corner of his mouth.

Visualize what you want. Inhale, exhale, release, I say, but it means nothing.

My son feels as if he did not wake up in his own skin. He does not break into houses to frighten the elderly or pick through their jewelry. He’s trying to get home. He hopes that when he turns a dial to permanent press, hears the whump of a dishwasher, he will recognize those appliances.

My real son would be much more scientific about the process: divine from the stories I tell him about himself which habits belong to him, which to another. My real son never had a fear of cornfields, never remembered the capital of Wisconsin, and never learned to juggle. My real son would use that knowledge to pick which house to enter to see if it fits.

But random selection can work too.

Please forgive my son-who-may-not-be-my-son for returning last night to move into your second floor bedroom. And if it’s not too inconvenient, let your son ram himself head first into that glass door one more time. When he looks up at you, see if his eyes glaze as the knowledge of sedimentation slides from his consciousness.

Even if you do not agree with our reasons, try to remember your own fear when your son stopped moving. Remember how you wanted to jump to the next day, the day after, the following week because in the future you’d know whether he came back? And that night at the hospital, didn’t you start adopting some of his habits as your own so if he ever slipped away again, you would always carry parts of him with you?

Before deciding, think how I must have dropped this note in your mailbox: balancing it between the tips of my fingers. Inhale, exhale. Release.

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Posted on: June 26th, 2011 Train Ride Out of Oakland

By Jennifer Hurley

The train was to be four hours late, so I walked back to the bus carrying my bags, the parrot on my shoulder. The bus driver just raised his eyebrows; he recognized me, and sighed, and let me on, even though the bus strictly forbade bicycles, food and drink, shirtlessness and shoelessness, and presumably, birds. The bus chugged along toward the old hotel, where I hoped to get a cup of coffee and sit by the fireplace. My hands were rigid with the cold, my feet tingled, and the parrot and I both sent out plumes of fog as we breathed.

The hotel smelled of Lysol and of the chickens going around and around on the rotisserie. The parrot went wild for the smell, cawing EAT, EAT, EAT in his nasal, rapid-fire voice. The man at the coffee counter looked alarmed, but he didn’t dare ask me to leave: I might have been a lunatic; I might have ordered the parrot to attack his jugular. So the parrot kept up his EAT, EAT, EAT, and I smiled politely at the man at the counter and ordered a coffee and a banana, and then the parrot and I went to sit at the counter, a dirty, sticky counter that looked out on a busy street corner where women in their polyester city skirts strode along the sidewalk, some of them stopping when through the glass they saw the parrot clutching the shoulder of my coat. Before the parrot, no one used to look at me in public—I was invisible, a rather petite woman of nondescript features, nondescript clothes—but now they all stare at me a little nervously, and the best ones smile at the corners of their mouths.

After the coffee, for me, and the banana, for the parrot, we walk the long walk back to the train station. It’s warming up. The sun is filtering through the gray Oakland sky. I can hear the train roaring and jangling and hooting its way up to the station. The doors hiss open. The conductor sets the yellow stool in front of the platform so that I can step comfortably into the train. Then he spots the parrot.

“Miss, you can’t—” he begins, but the parrot breaks in. “HANDSOME, HANDSOME, HANDSOME,” screeches the parrot, and the conductor, who isn’t the slightest bit handsome, with his stoop and his slack European cheeks, can’t help but smile.

I smile back, and wait.

“Well, I suppose it won’t cause any harm,” he says, “but next time, leave the parrot at home.”

The parrot and I get on the train. We take a seat on the right side of the train because the parrot likes to see the water; he likes to look out over the bay and say “FAR, FAR, FAR” as the train shuttles past all of the troubled scenery of this place: the graffitied walls and the children standing knee deep in a swamp, rescuing their only toy, an old tire.

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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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