They say that no one knows their own future. This is probably for the better, since it isn’t exactly conducive to happiness to know everything. Despite the adage, “ignorance is bliss,” the best course of action in life is to figure out what you don’t know and make your decision as to whether or not you should learn it. One must ask, is it useful knowledge? If the answer is yes, then the next step is to commit to the learning process. The future, however, is a different monster altogether. The unknown future is likewise uncertain. With a little perspective and understanding, it might be discernable, but with so many variables, the possibilities are virtually endless, at least, that’s the way it appears. The known future, on the other hand, is unalterable and therefore the knowledge is useless. One can do nothing but wait, and while waiting, either think about the inevitable or pretend as though you don’t know you’re going to be murdered by day’s end.

Such was the fate of Oscar Schmidt. His impending murder was a revelation he had upon waking on the morning before his seventieth birthday. As he lay silently beside his slumbering wife Gladys, he stared directly at the ceiling, his heart pounding a quick, coupled rhythm, mur-DER, mur-DER, mur-DER. It could have been his imagination, the remnant of a bad dream, but he knew that it was not. This was real, and he was afraid.

Oscar’s hands trembled as he pushed back the blanket, careful to let Gladys sleep. A few feet across the room and he was looking into the bathroom mirror, the door shut and locked. Perspiration was beaded like tiny boils across his forehead. The artery in his neck was pulsing visibly beneath loose skin. Oscar looked at himself, dressed in a faded white tank top and a pair of briefs, his beer belly slightly protruding between the two. Gray and white hairs sprouted from pale skin and curled over the neck of his shirt. His posture was a permanent slouch, his muscles having lost both mass and strength. His knees were swollen with arthritis. He was halfway to being bald. Age spots plastered themselves to his temples and the backs of his hands. It was as if his entire body, even the shape of his mouth, was melting.

“Pathetic,” he thought.

Whoever was coming to murder him would have an easy go of it. In his younger days, he’d been fit, able-bodied, an architect for almost half a century. He had been strong, broad-shouldered, fiery-eyed. Oscar Schmidt had been a go-getter in both his professional and personal life. In his work, if there was a way for him to take on supervisory responsibilities, he claimed them until his peers had accepted him as their supervisor. And he had quite literally made Gladys his wife out of sheer confidence. The moment they had first met, he knew she would be his, and so sure was he, that Gladys had believed it, too. Somehow, without noticing, that version of Oscar had withered. His younger self would never have been a victim of anything, much less of murder. He would never have been afraid.

With fluttering fingers, Oscar took the orange medicine bottle from the counter and tapped a pale pink blood pressure pill into his hand. He gulped it down, throwing his head back in a jerking movement that nearly sent his head spinning. Touching the sink to steady himself, he breathed deeply and checked his watch. It was an hour and twenty minutes earlier than he usually woke, but he wasn’t tired. After relieving himself and donning a bathrobe, he walked down the hallway into the living room. Oscar’s brain was busy trying to figure out who exactly would want to kill him. There wasn’t a single person he could call his enemy. Yet, he considered, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a single person who would call him their enemy. This was a terrifying conception, that someone would hate him so much they’d want to end his life. It must be someone he’d crossed without realizing it. Or, with three days to go, it may be someone he was yet to cross. Someone who was still a stranger and perhaps would always be.

How could he defend himself against the unknown? Stay in his house. Lock the doors. Shutter the windows. If his killer was to be someone he only just encounters, then sequestering himself away from anyone and everyone would be the solution for that. There were plenty of things to keep him occupied. He’d been meaning to fix the lawn mower, and the electrical in the garage needed rewiring. Oscar didn’t’ feel much like doing either of those things. What would be the point if he was going to be dead? No, he’d want to spend his final hours doing what he likes. Reading, having an afternoon nap on the deck, or doing his daily crossword puzzle.

Oscar froze in realization. His daily crosswords arrived in the daily newspaper, and his newspaper was dropped in front of his house at the end of the walk. He rushed to the door and looked through the peephole. The sun was risen enough to see the paper near the curb. He would be exposed all the way out there. The odds of some blood-thirsty murderer waiting behind a tree was unlikely though, wasn’t it? If he hurried, he could survive. Perhaps it would be even safer to remain in the open, away from shadowed corners and alleyways. Oscar had completed his crossword every day for over three years. He’d be damned if he was going to skip it just because he was about to be murdered. With three deep breaths and the shake of his head, he opened the door.

It was a warm morning in late spring, and drops of dew pearled up on the clear plastic bag around the newspaper. Oscar’s next-door neighbor Ms. Clairmont was walking her prize-winning pug named Gilbert. Oscar hated that pug. It was gloomy and gross with the face of a rusted frying pan, and no matter how many times his neighbor recounted heartwarming tales of her so-called fur baby, it couldn’t eliminate the annoyance of a dog growling and barking at him every time he stepped into his own yard. Oscar had mentioned to his other neighbor Paul the wishful thought of Gilbert running into the street. He wasn’t serious, of course. Oscar wasn’t a barbarian, but Paul had neither agreed nor disagreed. Now that Oscar thought about it, Paul had hardly smiled, which was suddenly suspicious. What did he really know about Paul? One too many backyard beers had perhaps made his neighbor seem more trustworthy than he actually was. What if Paul had told Ms. Clairmont what Oscar had said? Would that be enough to motivate her to murder Oscar? And now, she was approaching, beginning to say something. Oscar rushed in the opposite direction, excusing himself with a fluttered wave and hurried back into his home.

“What are you doing up so early?” asked Gladys who was in the living room.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he muttered, removing the protective bag from around the paper and taking a seat in his armchair. It faced east towards the back yard, the view through a sliding glass door usually bright and reviving. He couldn’t feel it this morning as with other days, however. He wasn’t dead yet, so why did he feel so disconnected to life? Never mind all that. There was a crossword to do.


“Yes, please.”


“You know I drink my coffee black,” he frowned.

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot,” Gladys said, shaking her head. The woman was four years his junior, yet she was showing signs of aging far beyond even his years. The slower movements and more calculated sentences he could tolerate. The forgetfulness, however, was pushing Oscar to his limits. He looked up from the crossword at his wife. He couldn’t decide if he loved her the same way that he used to. Of course, he loved her. There was no question. But the reasons, he felt, had possibly changed. He would be dead soon, and the desire to know why he still loved her after forty-three years pervaded him. Gladys had always been a fine and happy cook. She was a wonderful mother. Was a fantastic lover, at least up into their sixties. She’d always been beautiful to him, even now as age had caressed her.

“What’s the matter, Ossie?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“Showing unfeeling resistance to tender feelings.”


“Showing unfeeling resistance to tender feelings,” he repeated, ignoring her confusion. “Eight letters. The second is a ‘b’. The last is an ‘e’.”

“Oh. Um…Obdurate,” she said after a few seconds of thought.


“Mhm. O-B-D-U-R-A-T-E.” How the woman could remember the most obscure words that no one ever uses but couldn’t remember that her own husband drinks black coffee every day for decades, he didn’t know. “Johnny and the kids will be here around four this afternoon.”

“Johnny who?” he asked. Gladys froze.

“I mean…Jimmy. You know who I meant.”

“I don’t want a party, Gladys,” Oscar huffed.

“But it’s for your birthday,” she said, approaching with their coffees.

“I want peace and quiet for my birthday. Our son drags those brats of his in here and all hell breaks loose.”

“Oscar, they’re our grandchildren. You shouldn’t talk like that.”

“And that new wife of his…What business does a thirty-nine-year-old man have marrying a twenty-two-year-old woman?”

“Times are different now. We have to accept them.”

“No, we don’t. We didn’t even get to be at the wedding. We gave him life, dammit.”

“You had a heart attack. There was no way we could get on a plane.” Gladys sipped her coffee. “What’s the matter, Ossie?”


“You couldn’t sleep, you’re getting angry about things that don’t matter at all. This isn’t like you.”

“How do you know what I’m like? You don’t even know how I take my coffee.” Oscar tossed the newspaper onto the floor and left Gladys alone.

Maybe Oscar was exhibiting anger because he didn’t know how to express his increasing concern for his wife’s failing memory. Maybe it was his frustration with the crossword puzzle, his completion speed greatly reduced over the past six months at least. Or perhaps it was because Gladys was right. He wasn’t feeling like himself. He wasn’t acting like himself. Sure, he truly hated having his dimwitted grand kids around, but he loved them all the same. The thing that angered him the most, however, was his inability to control himself and his feelings. Oscar had long been considered a man with a patient disposition. He was always tactful. Contemplative, not reactive. But things were different now, weren’t they? His life, no matter how little of it was left, was threatened. Doomed.

Oscar went back to bed until the sound of a car horn disrupted his sleep. It was afternoon, and his son had arrived. Despite his bone-saturating desire to simply ignore them and roll over, he pushed himself up and back onto his feet. He looked through the blinds at the shiny black SUV the little cockroaches emerged from. There was the blond strumpet in high heels and bug-like sunglasses on her face. There was his wealthy son, the ringmaster of a collapsing round top. Oscar wondered if this was evidence that nothing he ever did in his life mattered at all. Perhaps this was fate’s sadistic sense of humor, to shame an old man facing the eternal miscalculation.

“Happy birthday, Pop!” said Jimmy, arms extended to embrace his father.

“It’s not my birthday,” Oscar muttered as they hugged.

“Mom, Dad, I’d like you to meet Bridgette.” Jimmy presented his young wife to his parents. The woman displayed a big-toothed smile, but to Oscar’s surprise wasn’t painted up the way he’d imagined. Perhaps a little bit of eye shadow, and that was all. Just like Gladys.

“So nice to finally meet you!” Gladys said. “I’m so sorry we couldn’t make it to the wedding.”

“It’s all right. We were just relieved that you were okay,” said Bridgette. “No wedding is worth risking someone’s health. Especially someone so important.” She turned to Oscar. “I’m so happy to meet you, Mr. Schmidt.”

“You can call him Oscar,” said Jimmy.

“Or Dad,” laughed Gladys. We’re all family now.”

As this brief exchange took place, Oscar’s frown was involuntarily deepening. Who the hell were they to speak for him? Where the hell was his respect? He was going to be dead soon for Christ’s sake! But they didn’t know that. Only he did. He was alone in this knowledge, and with that realization, the isolation made him hate his singularity. It wasn’t fair. Not to him. Oscar turned away from them and entered the kitchen. Nobody followed him, and he was glad because it gave him some modicum of validation for his anger. They didn’t care. Even if they knew he was to be murdered, they wouldn’t care.

Oscar had turned the water on and was standing at the sink for no apparent reason. He decided to drink a glass of water. It was hot water, and he enjoyed the unpleasantness of it. This would not do, however. None of this would do. He had to get out. Get away. Far away.

“I’m going for a drive,” he announced as he exited the house, not waiting to hear any protest.

Five minutes later, Oscar was on the highway, the three skyscrapers of his hometown appearing as though they’d been plunged into the earth rather than built up from its surface. He recalled the time when they hadn’t existed, the city flat and unassuming. He’d helped build them, with reservation. Yet, there are amounts of money that speak louder than principle. Was he a sellout? So what if he was? It was for his family. Almost anything could be justified for the sake of family. Even now, driving away from them all, he reasoned that it was for them.

Oscar had never particularly cared for O’Neal’s Tap and Barrel, despite it being his childhood friend’s bar. When he went, it was out of obligation on either O’Neal’s birthday or St. Patrick’s Day. After his friend passed away almost a year ago, however, the place was intolerable. It was too small and poorly lit, noisy, and the only people who went there were cantankerous old townies. For some reason, he now felt an unexplainable urge to go there, never mind his impending murder. In fact, he almost felt he would be safer there than in the company of his own loved ones. Oscar was sure that somewhere he’d heard that sexual assaults were more often committed by people the victim knew as opposed to strangers. It stood to reason the same applied to murder.

                He took the downtown exit, and parallel parked across the street from the bar. Oscar chuckled to himself after looking both ways before crossing the street, humored by the irony of checking for cars, as if it mattered now. The black metal door swung open at his hand, and he entered, a trio of strangers seated across the room at the bar turning to look at him. He was the stranger now, Oscar realized with some satisfaction, and he placed himself at a good distance in a booth to the right. The lights were still dim in there, most of the illumination glowing through slats of the window blinds beside the entrance. The lingering scent of burnt tobacco permeating from every fixture in the establishment. Photographs of drunk and vivacious patrons decorated the walls, a few old portraits of some unknowns hanging intermittently among them. All these things he recognized from the last time he’d been there, except for the mounted head in the center of the largest wall. The jaws of a crocodile spread open, as if about to snap up any unsuspecting bar guests who stood beneath. The glass eyes were equally hungry. Ravenous for the taste of blood. For the taste of life.

                “What’ll you have?” asked the bartender, approaching the booth.

                “Pabst,” he answered still staring at the dead reptile, and she nodded and turned to walk away when he said, “Bring me two.”

                Would it be poor form to beat the murderer to it? To do himself in? Drinking himself to death couldn’t be too horrible. But then how could it be his future to be murdered as he knew it was? Murdered…The word cycled through his mind. Murdered for no reason. He wasn’t a bad guy. He’d never hurt anybody, not really. Not devastatingly. Oscar wasn’t religious, wasn’t political. Live and let live was the most accurate way to describe his sentiments on social structure. Was it worse, however, to be murdered for a reason than for not? Justification for murder is like throwing darts at a moving target. If you’re lucky, it sticks. But most of the time when it does, it’s never a bullseye.

                As the bartender delivered Oscar’s beer, the door to O’Neal’s opened, sending a projectile of light through the bar. A young man entered, closed the door behind him, and glanced around. Oscar thought little of him as he walked towards the blinds covering the large window overlooking the sidewalk. He stared out for a long moment, his hands in his pockets, then turned and walked casually to Oscar’s booth and took the opposing seat. Oscar looked up at the man, seeing him as no more than a boy. Clean shaven, bright black eyes, straw-yellow hair, and a dimpled smile. The shiner on his cheek and cut on his lip seemed almost purposeful in some strange way, the completion of a statement.

                “Can I help you?” asked Oscar after they’d stared at each other for several seconds.

                “My name is Wayne. I’d like to buy you a drink.”

                “I have a drink. Two of them.”

                “A better one.”

                “There is no better one,” Oscar chuckled disdainfully. The shadows of the three men at the bar fell on the booth. They walked toward them quietly, and Oscar realized they’d shown some keen interest in the young man since he’d arrived.

                “Whatever you do,” said Wayne, “don’t stand up.”

                “What the hell are you doing here?” said the tallest of the three to Wayne, a mustachioed man with long stringy hair poking out from under a sweaty bandana. He leaned over them, resting his weight on dark knuckles. The other two crossed their tattooed arms and puffed up their chests beneath squinted eyes.

                “I’m meeting with my friend, of course,” he said, calmly gesturing to Oscar who shook his head, determined to not be murdered by something as ridiculous as a few angry bikers.

                “I don’t know this kid. He just sat down out of the blue.”

                “I wasn’t talking to you old-timer. I was talking to this little maggot.”

                “Come on, Ike. Is name calling really necessary?” Wayne asked. “Seems a bit childish to me.” Ike smiled and stood straight.

                “That mouth of yours keeps getting you into trouble. Maybe you didn’t get the message last time. Do I need to make my point again?” He lifted the front of his shirt a few inches to reveal the handle of a pistol in his waistband.

                “There doesn’t need to be violence,” said Oscar, surprising himself.

                “If that were true, you’d see us all sitting in a field singing kumbaya with daisies in our hair.” Ike leaned in, locking his bloodshot eyes with Oscar’s. “You see any fucking daisies?”

                “It’s all right,” said Wayne. “I’ll leave. Just as soon as I get what I want.”

                “You ain’t getting shit, motherfucker. I already told you before.”

                “Then I want to talk to Cochran.” Wayne’s jaw was set, his eyes firm. “Let’s see what he says.”

                “Oh, yeah, we’ll see what he says, huh?” The three of them laughed. “You ain’t talking to Cochran. In fact, in a minute, you won’t be talking to nobody. Get up. We’re taking a walk.”

                “I will speak with Cochran. In person. Right now.”

“You’ll get the hell up, or I’ll get you up.”

                “I won’t ask again,” Wayne said in an apparent warning. The air moved without interruption, the loudest thing in the room for several taut seconds.

                Ike had been considering his options, and once he’d settled on an action, he reared his fist back. Just as he was about to strike Wayne, glass shattered from behind Oscar, and a burst of blood halted Ike’s attack. He cried out, his hand a limp, bloody mess through which a bullet had apparently passed. Wayne jumped to his feet, grabbed the biker by his beard, and revealed his own pistol, the muzzle pressing mercilessly into Ike’s temple.

                “Drop your guns. Now!” Wayne ordered the other two. “Stay right there, lady,” he yelled at the bartender who halted from running to the back room. The men followed his instructions, and looking at Oscar, Wayne motioned to the guns with a nod.

                “What?” Oscar stuttered, trying to comprehend what was taking place.

                “Get their guns,” he said.

                “No! I don’t want any part of this!”

                “It doesn’t matter. We’re too far into this. Now, pick up the guns.” Wayne was calm, his voice almost soothing in a reassuring way. It made Oscar feel a reluctant trust, and he did as he was told. Wayne then had Oscar zip-tie the bikers’ wrists as they were seated at a table in the center of the room.  The bartender was ordered to wrap up the injured biker’s hand. Wayne took a cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number before holding it to Ike’s ear. “Tell him I’m here, waiting for him.”

“Fuck you.”

“Tell him.” The faint ringing of a phone could be heard from the little device, then a man’s voice answered.

“Wayne is back at O’Neal’s,” said Ike. “He’s got us at gunpoint with a sniper on the roof. Says he wants to speak with you.” They all remained motionless as Ike listened, then said, “Yes, sir. I’ll tell him.” Wayne ended the call. “Mr. Cochran says he’ll be here in ten minutes.”


Finally, it was quiet, and they were all sitting tensely, watching Wayne for an indication of what might happen next. He was looking again through the window, gave a hand signal, then turned back to Oscar.

                “Have you ever broken into a safe before?” Wayne asked him.

                “Broken into a safe? I’m an old man! Why would I be breaking into safes?”

                “You were an architect, yes?”

                “Wha…How did you know that?” Oscar narrowed his eyes.

                “Proper execution requires proper planning, one hour for every 2 minutes as a matter of fact. That’s a statistic, but I’ve found it to be quite true. You understand a thing or two about planning, don’t you, Oscar?”

                “How do you know my name? What the hell is all this?”

                “It’s important that you remain calm. If you want to live past your birthday, you’ll follow all my instructions completely and without hesitation.”

                “You’re full of shit,” Oscar accused with a wavering voice. He already knew he was going to be murdered, so what did it matter if he listened to this sociopath? He was a dead man walking. If anything, he should try to save them all, be willing to sacrifice himself for these younger people still with their lives ahead. Oscar glanced at the bikers and wondered if maybe they didn’t deserve to be saved. He was no one to determine such a thing, however.

                “You’re here, caught in a very precarious situation instead of staying at home with Gladys and your son and grandchildren. I’m sure at this point you wish you’d stayed home, but it’s too late for that. There is only here and now. So, please, answer my question.”

                “You already know everything about me,” said Oscar, folding his arms. “You tell me.”

                “For us to work together, there must be trust. I know the answer, but can I trust you to say it?”  

                Oscar looked closely at the young man, at his slight smile and twinkle in his eye. That was the face of a man who held all the cards, or at least, of a man who wanted you to think he did. Oscar had never been a gambling man, but was there any way to call his bluff?

                “Can you trust a man to be honest with a gun pointed at him?” Oscar sighed. “I take it you need me to open a safe for you.”

“Cochran’s gonna kill you, boy,” Ike warned.

“Cochran’s going to kill both of us, I imagine. But all things in time,” said Wayne. Turning back to Oscar, “Follow me.”

The doorway behind the bar led to a hallway with two doors, the first opening to the cooler where a dozen or so kegs of beer were stored. The tile floor tried to adhere itself to the soles of their shoes, and the sound ticked and cracked with each of their steps. The second door was closed, windowless, and locked. The ring of keys Wayne had taken from the bartender jingled as he tried one key after another in the lock, his back turned towards Oscar.

“Who was that outside? The one who shot through the window?” Oscar asked Wayne.

“No one you should concern yourself about.”

“I think it is. He could’ve shot me.”

“If she was going to shoot you,” said Wayne, “she would’ve shot you.”

“Don’t you need a duffle bag or some sacks or something?” Oscar asked.

“For what?”

“The money.”

“Money is for suckers,” Wayne chuckled. “I’m not stealing money. The more you have, the more you need. It’s a psychological trap that gets you caught but allows you to think you’re getting away.”

“So, you’re an anarchist.”

“Oh, no,” Wayne said, pausing to look at Oscar. “I’m a humanist.”

“Humanism doesn’t have anything to do with money,” Oscar said.


The lock turned, and they entered into a carpeted office, typical in appearance with a desk, an old rolling chair, random papers, pens of closed businesses, an out of date computer, a calendar of the previous year.

“There’s no safe,” said Oscar.

“Come, Oscar. Don’t tell me that you forgot all about designing this building.”

“I didn’t design this—”

“They came to you at your home,” said Wayne. “All those years ago. They offered you that government contract with the condition of strict secrecy. You’re still living off the money they paid you for your blueprints.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“How do you access the stairs?”

“There aren’t any stairs.”

“So, you admit to making the blueprints.”

“This is a bar,” Oscar said angrily. “And you’ve got three dangerous men tied up out front, waiting on someone who’s planning to kill all of us. I don’t know what you want, who you are, or why you’re doing this, but if you want me to tell you anything, you’re going to explain it all to me right now.”

“Trust,” Wayne said quietly. “I know more than just what you are, where you live, more than names and dates and addresses, more than all that. I know who you are. I know all the things that Gladys doesn’t know, Oscar.”

“Leave my wife out of this.”

“All the things that will make her ashamed to even visit your grave.” Wayne paused. “Only hours to live, the precious last minutes of your life ticking down. You could be with your son right now. With your wife. You could tell them everything you’ve been keeping to yourself, to find some relief, some redemption, before it all ends. But instead, you come here, to a bar you hate, owned by a man you despised. Why?”

Oscar felt solidified by Wayne’s words. How could he have known what Oscar had only realized that morning and had revealed to no one?

“It’s you,” Oscar whispered. “You’re my murderer.”

“You woke this morning with the same shadow over your soul as I did. Two people with a merging point. Like your crosswords, I guess. You don’t need words of the same origin or language, the same part of speech or even a similar definition. Just one common letter. When that’s the only caveat, the possibilities are endless. I suppose that’s why you like them so much.” Wayne smiled. “Admit it, you felt that same strange relief I did when you realized there was no more guessing about the future, when all the letters were finally in their appropriate spaces.”

 It’s true that Oscar had been afraid, but it hadn’t been of death. Death was a fact of life, something he’d accepted over the past dozen years. It was ever approaching, silently, invisibly. Many of his friends and family had already died, leaving the world a significantly lonesome place. Perhaps there had been a shred of relief. But as an old man, which he knew he was, death wasn’t as scary as it was final. There wasn’t any undoing it. No more chances. No more reparations. No more waiting ‘til tomorrow. This is what he feared, because he’d spent his life on tomorrow. On the other side of the coin, it also meant that a lifetime of pressure was lifted. Life was heavy as it was light, and truth be told, it was tiresome. But like a child being tucked into bed, he wasn’t ready to fall asleep. Not yet. 

“The stairs are over there,” Oscar said, pointing to the corner of the room that the edge of the desk extended to. Wayne dragged it away and kneeled in the corner. With a knife from his pocket, he cut the edge of the carpet and pulled it up, folding it aside. “Under the flooring. It’ll take you down to the safe.”

Oscar stood at the other side of the room, watching Wayne make himself vulnerable. He must know. He must realize that he’s trusting Oscar to not shoot him right there. It would be easy, wouldn’t it? Wayne was dangerous. Wayne was going to kill him, had already admitted to it. His hands shook, his blood pressure elevating again. His joints ached, bringing doubt to Oscar’s mind if he could even move if he tried. It felt as though the earth’s gravity had been turned up to an excruciating level. And it was smothering hot, so unbearably hot in there. Life was ragged and miserable now, but he couldn’t bear to release it. Not willingly. He felt the poison of time infecting his veins, his cells and organs.

Oscar found himself wanting all the things he never had before. The important things that he’d always dubbed to be the treasure of simpletons. But even more so, he wanted to give all the things he’d withheld. This was the antidote. But to do so, he would have to take something first. The question was, could he do it?

Wayne’s head burst open, his brains creating bloody trails down the wall. Oscar had never killed a man before, and he was disgusted with how easy it was. Life, he’d always known, was fragile, but never was the realization so poignant until after he’d broken it. Shattered it. Splattered it onto cheap wallpaper. Oscar stared disgustedly at the inside of a former person for several seconds before exiting the room, the gun clenched tightly in his hand.

The bikers and the bartender stared at him, wide-eyed. Without a word, he released them from their bonds, placed the guns on the table, and walked towards the front door. Ike was saying something to him, but Oscar wasn’t listening. It didn’t matter. Oscar would go home. He would hold the wife he loved, the reason for his love unimportant; he would smile at his son, and maybe he’d smile back. There was so little time and so uncertainly, the whole extent of life seeming quite long until it had passed. Where had the time gone? Why had he let it get away from him? No more, he decided. He may be an old man, but life still belonged to him.

Oscar pushed open the door of O’Neal’s Tap and Barrel, the setting light of the sun shining warmly on his face. It felt as though for the first time. Perhaps, that is the way of all last times.



Studies In gray.


The long line that had formed down the grand corridor never dissipated even as the Registrar was averaging three to four entries per minute. The quill in his hand shook violently as he scribbled down the information in their appropriate categories.

                Item 1: Class

                Item 2: Subclass

                Item 3: Duration

                Item 4: Cycle Number

                Even as a very simple form, it was up to the Registrar to assign every entrant a destination based on a careful calculation of each line in relation to the others. Having mastered this task within the past seven-hundred and thirty-two years, however, it was as effortless as brushing his teeth.

                “Class?” he asked, poised to write. Before him a woman stood clothed in sheer black lace and a scarlet bodice.



                “Fantasy.” The Registrar ’s mustache bristled slightly.


                “All night long.” He peered over his glasses at her for a brief second, then his quill continued to dance along the page.

                “Cycle number?” There was no answer. “Cycle number?” The Registrar looked over her closely, examining her reluctance to answer. “You can either tell me, or I’ll look up your previous records.”

                “Two,” she finally answered. The Registrar was dissatisfied.

                “You’re at least a five. Maybe even a six.”

               She stammered, “But how—what makes you think—”

               “You’re missing a leg, sweetheart.” He pointed the feathery end of his quill towards her skirt.

               The woman let out a cry of indignation.  “How dare you!”

                “Let’s see it,” the Registrar insisted. She looked about her seeking some kind of support, but the next few in line who had been overhearing the dialogue remained unsympathetic if not a bit curious to see for themselves. 

                “This is harassment!”

                “The leg.”

                Realizing the state of her dilemma, she hung her head before pulling aside the flowing skirts. After a moment of looking down at the one remaining leg, the Registrar nodded solemnly. “It’s not the end of the world, you know. Everyone’s got to get reprocessed at some point. Why would you want to keep going on like this? Eventually it’ll be the other leg, the hands, the middle. Nobody’s fantasy there.” The woman burst out a volley of sobs she’d been holding in. “There, there.” He patted her hand, but simultaneously jerked his head to summon a pair of orderlies over. They took her arms and waited for him to fill in the lines of a blank ticket and rip its perforated edge. He handed it to the woman who looked at him with sorrowful eyes. “Don’t fret, now. The chances of you coming back as a nightmare is a four to one. Well, three to one. At worst it’s a fifty-fifty.” Her sobs returned as she was escorted away from the counter, and the next in line scooted up.




                “Ahhh,” the Registrar sighed. “Duration.”

                “I couldn’t really say. Out there in the suck where the only thing between you and the Almighty is a gun and a bullet, an hour could seem like seconds. But the nights…the nights last a lifetime!” The soldier blew out a stream of smoke from his cigarette.

                “No smoking. What’s with all you soldier types? Now…what was the duration?”

                “Thirteen minutes,” the soldier mumbled.

                “Cycle number.”

                “Four.” The Registrar went back to his ticket book and filled out another for him.

                “Next!” The Registrar called. “Class?”

                “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means.” The Registrar looked up, annoyed with such an absurd statement. Over the centuries, he’d heard many excuses and stories but never something so ridiculous. A class was, well, a class. Every dream was born with one or the other, and to not know was simply impossible. He studied his subject through narrowed eyes, finding a girl on the edge of maturation. She stood serenely with her hands clasped loosely at her front, an innocence in her eyes but an equal determination in her smile.

               “Do you know how long I’ve been doing this job?”

               “I’m afraid I don’t,” she began apologetically, “but as efficient as you appear to be, I would say for a long time.”

               “Almost eight hundred years!” The Registrar exaggerated, extending a finger towards the domed ceiling high above his clerk’s visor.

               “Oh, my! That is a long time. You must be the best there is.”

               The Registrar eyed her even more closely, searching for sarcasm but finding none. He leaned in deeply and lowered his glasses. “You’re a little young to be here, aren’t you?”

               “I’m almost nine,” she boasted.

               “What do you mean,” the Registrar stammered, “nine? This is your ninth cycle? Why that’s simply impossible.”

               “But that’s what—”

               “Child, I have no time for these games.” The Registrar huffed and took up his quill again. “Now, tell me your class. Day or night?”

                The girl stood silently biting her lip, her eyes jumping from left to right in consideration of the two options. “Both?”

                The Registrar slumped forward, removing his glasses with a long exhalation. With eyes closed he spoke. “Young lady, I do not have time nor energy to entertain such tomfoolery. You are either one or the other. Not both! You can’t be both because there are only two classes of dreams! Night and day!” The Registrar caught his breath and continued quietly, “That is simply how this works.”

                “Oh!” The child suddenly brightened with a newfound understanding. “But I’m not a dream.”

               The Registrar blinked behind his glasses and stated quite assuredly, “But of course you are.” The girl shook her head patiently. “Then what could you possibly—” The Registrar choked his question to a halt, the dawn of realization breaking through. “Oh.  Oh my.” From under the counter he produced a slanted microphone at the end of a cable and blew a cloud of dust from its base.  Muttering to himself he flipped the switch and began speaking but stopped as his voice did not amplify.  “This blasted piece of useless junk…Ah!” He gave it another try. “Attention! Requesting directorial assistance at station four! Requesting directorial assistance at station four! Code White. I say again, Code White.”

               With the announcement came a flurry of activity from all around, including the other six counters where those registrars began craning their necks to have a look at the subject of such an alarm. The little girl did not move yet fell under no anxiety. Her contentment and tranquility remained in eyes that befriended the Registrar. The Registrar himself looked back into hers, and a shadow of sadness fell over his face for he knew she did not understand.

               From across the Great Hall a small formation of guards approached in step. When they reached the station, the center two stepped aside and a suited gentleman took two long strides forward. He looked down at the girl before him, then with a single motion he removed the fedora atop his head and bowed graciously.

               “Hello, young lady.” Turning to the Registrar, he assured him that the torch had been passed and to resume his work. Then back to the girl, “It seems there’s been a little mix-up. Yes?”

               “I suppose so,” she replied, uncertain if she truly had any idea what was going on.

               The gentleman grinned at her. “I am the Assistant to the Director of REM, Reverie and Trance. I apologize on behalf of the Intake Division for any inconvenience you may have experienced. If you’d kindly come with me, we can sort all this out.” The Assistant Director extended his hand towards some unknown destination beyond them.

               “Of course,” the little girl agreed, but stopped after a step and turned to the Registrar. “Goodbye, Sir. I’m sorry to have troubled you.” The Registrar nodded but found no words to speak in return.

               The girl entered the formation which closed around them again and walked along, marveling at the magnificence and beauty of the place. High above hung planetary rings as chandeliers glowing with starlight. Ribbons of amber extended through latticed windows to cast a hue of amber gold over the faces of a thousand dreams. As they ascended stairs to a second level in the palatial facility, the girl gazed over the rows of lines which seemed to extend beyond her vision. The lines wriggled with the subtle movements of the fairies, goblins, witches and freaks, clowns, acrobats, animals and insects, saints and devils, and some just ordinary looking people. The little girl stopped and peered over the rail, her eyes widening in awe.

                “Twenty million, nine-hundred-thousand and eighty,” the Assistant Director proudly informed her at her side.

                “What?” the girl blinked up at him.

                “That’s approximately how many dreams you see before you now, and about twenty times that will come through each day. Of course, we’re only one facility of hundreds but as the Headquarters for REM, Reverie, and Trance, we draw the largest numbers.”

               “What are they all doing here?”

               “Reprocessing,” he replied, turning away.

               “What’s that?”

               The Assistant Director puzzled at her for a brief moment before saying in a hushed tone, “The Director is better suited to answer your questions.” He continued to walk, and she followed obediently until the group arrived at a tall set of wooden doors. The guards around them dispersed to take their own vigilant positions. The Assistant Director moved forward and led her through into an anteroom where a woman was seated behind a desk, though she did not pay them any mind. He instructed the girl to wait before slipping out of sight through another smaller pair of doors.

               “Hello,” the little girl said to the woman who smiled radiantly in return.

               “Hello there.” A clock ticked loudly in the silence around them. “What’s your name?”

               “My name is Hope. What’s your name?”

               “My name is Felicity.” The Assistant Director reappeared and instructed the girl to follow him in. 

               “It was very nice to meet you, Felicity.” The woman nodded pleasantly.

               “And you as well, Hope.”

               The next room was dark, its walls ascending to a height immeasurable in the shadows and filled with the greatest collection of books the girl had ever seen. In the center of the room was a single chair facing a great marble desk upon which a lamp illuminated a pair of wrinkled hands folded in solemnity. The Assistant Director gestured for the girl to continue on but remained at the door as she approached the chair and sat. Her hands folded on her knees, she smiled at the man behind the desk as his eyes lit up in recognition.

               “Hope,” he said, then repeated as if uttering a word in an unknown language. “I am the Director.”

               “Hello.” The girl smiled at the old man whose signs of aging were given another ten years in the dimly lit room. The click of the door closing behind her echoed. The Director’s eyes glided over the girl’s youthful visage as she marveled at the expansive library. “Did you read all of these books?”

               “Half of them.” Hope’s eyes met his and he looked away.  “The rest I’ve written.” After some moments of silence, “You must be wondering why you’re here.”

               “Yes. The very nice gentleman who led me here said you would be better suited to explain.”

               “Perhaps,” the Director nodded with a chuckle. “An industry as old as time itself. Older even. There’s been little change to the whole thing besides the obvious need for expansion, new facilities erected, and of course we reprocess dreams now. Several millennia ago, we were still incinerating them. But with the rapid growth of the human population we couldn’t keep up with the demand.” He stood and began walking along the shelves. “On average a single dream can be redistributed up to seven or eight times before being reprocessed into a different dream, and for approximately every seventeen dreams reprocessed a single dream is born.”

               “But how is a dream born?” asked Hope. “Do they have mothers and fathers?”

               “No, no. Nothing quite so complicated as all that.” The Director stopped and turned to her, his shadowed eyes sparkling. “Shall I show you?”

               “Yes, please.” Hope straightened up with excitement.

               Without speaking further, the Director took three long strides back to his desk and stood with his eyes scanning the books. After several seconds, his eyes widened, and he retrieved an old book bound in ancient leather and hemp string.

               “Books,” he said, “are the portals through which dreams travel with least resistance. They may appear antiquated, even archaic, but there is a reason why good men read books and evil men burn them.” The Director returned to his desk and placed the book reverently down, running his fingers over the aging cover. “Now then…You’d better hold on.”

               As he flipped open to the first page, there was a flash of light and the floor beneath her seat gave way. A sudden weightlessness overcame her body in free fall, and around her the movement of shadows shot upward in cascading streams. Her ears filled with the rushing of air and space as she plummeted into the dark. The fall seemed to be lasting some immeasurable amount of time, but after several moments she realized she was in fact slowing down. Finally, she stopped without the hint of a jolt, or rather, she felt as though she stopped, for in the pitch black she was uncertain. A burst of white broke the seal of darkness, and the silhouette of the Director filled a bright doorway before her.

               “This way,” he informed her, then stepped into the light. Hope followed, fluttering her eyes against the transition.

               From the top of a narrow staircase, she looked out over a cavernous space. Enormous glass tanks were in neat formations of rows and columns extending as far and as high as she could see, each swirling with vibrant hues of mauve around a glowing axis, and she realized this collective of cylinders was what kept the space illuminated. A series of walkways supported by curving trestles gave access to the tanks. Across them were dozens of white-clad figures appearing to be conducting tests and measurements, examining instrument panels and dials before conferring with clipboards and discussing their findings with one another.

               On the nearest walkway, the Director stood with his hands in his pockets, pleasantly looking into one of the tanks. He spoke briefly with one of the people nearest before giving a nod of approval and returning his attention to her as she descended the stairs. “These are the incubators.”

               “Are those dreams inside?” Hope asked in fascination.

               “Dreams of the Second Order,” said a thin voice from behind them.

               The tallest woman that Hope had ever seen approached silently. She was dressed in white like the others but had long straight hair that seemed to blend directly into her slender overcoat that was lined with several small and unidentifiable instruments that one could only assume were for some scientific use. On top of her head rested a pair of circular safety goggles. The lady stood with one gloved hand holding the other.

               “Hope, I’d like you to meet the Superintendent of Creation,” said the Director.

               “Hello,” said Hope.

               “These are dreams that occur while both asleep and awake,” the Superintendent continued, forgoing formalities. “And they do not have any direct connection to the dreamer’s reality. Only the light you see is the dream. The colors around it are the elements we keep circulating through to ensure the dreams stay well-balanced. It is a special combination of three parts imagination and two parts reality, the reality only necessary to make the dream believable in the way that old wives’ tales become legends. Of course, these are only the most basic of elements. Upon maturation, each dream receives their class and subclass and are then assigned a human. They can be transmitted simply even without books, making them the more common type of dream. It’s all a fairly simple process with very few incidents.”

               “Incidents?” asked Hope.

               “On extremely rare occasions, there will be an error in an incubator and the combination will get reversed to three parts reality and two parts imagination. It doesn’t hurt anyone, of course, but it makes for a rather boring dream.”

               “That’s not so bad,” Hope smiled.

               “Not for the dreamer,” the Superintendent said beginning a slow pace down the walkway. “But for us, it can lead to an array of complications in the reprocessing, and sometimes force the incineration of the dream due to its instability.”

               “Oh, my! That’s just awful.”

               “A dream with too much imagination can exhaust a dreamer to the point of insanity,” said the Director. “Too much reality can drive a dreamer to believe that there is some deeper meaning in the dream.”

               “You mean there’s not?”

               “You must understand that a Dream of the Second Order is no more than a hallucination, a manifestation of nothingness.”

               “They seem very real to me,” Hope replied, gazing intently into one of the tanks. “And they’re quite beautiful.”

               “It’s not that they don’t exist,” said the Superintendent. “A hallucination, though something unreal, is still something. Technically, nothing is something. It is the absence of a thing. It can be dangerous to misinterpret something as nothing, however, especially for humans. They have a bad habit of going overboard with it. Nihilists…” The Superintendent shook her head in annoyance.

               “I’ve had dreams before,” said Hope as they continued along.

               “Have you?” the Director asked.

               “I think I have, in a way. They were more like feelings, like the way I feel now in my stomach. It’s the same way that happens a lot while Lucy is reading, especially when she reads Matilda. She’s read it three times already, you know.” Hope tucked her arm over her middle and scrunched her lips. “It’s not a sick feeling, just peculiar. Exciting.”

               “Really?” asked the Superintendent with a hint of surprise. “What is your name, child?”

               “Hope,” she beamed.

               “Hope?” the Superintendent repeated with a raised brow.

               “She just arrived,” the Director explained.

               “Ah. Well then, that’s not so surprising,” she nodded to Hope. “Dreams such as those found in books are forever connected to their source, and it seems this is the connection you have made through that particular book. It is an occurrence we call Conception. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it is the reaction when a human’s hopes and dreams combine. These reactions form Ideas.”

               “I guess Lucy has ideas a lot,” she smiled.

               “Lucy…this is your human’s name?”

               “Yes. Sometimes her ideas don’t work out, and that makes her sad. Or she forgets some.” Hope looked out over the warehouse of dreams in warm reminiscence. “And sometimes her ideas do work out. And that makes her happy.”

               “Conception involving a Dream of the Second Order happens quite infrequently,” the Superintendent replied dryly. “However, it is not completely unheard of, and the Idea almost always results in being forgotten.”

               The tanks appeared to grow brighter as they neared an intersection of eight walkways where, in the center of the intersection, a book as old as the first lay on a pedestal. The Superintendent picked up two pairs of tinted glasses beside it and handed one to Hope and one to the Director. “Here. To protect your eyes.”

                After lowering her goggles, she ran her long, slender fingers around the edge of the book before opening the cover. There was another sudden flash of light and a weightless journey into the dark, but Hope soon found herself walking again through a lighted doorway. The three of them had entered another seemingly endless space filled with more glass tanks, though the light at their cores was incredibly brighter than in the previous area, and she was grateful for the glasses.

                “What are all these?” asked Hope.

                “These are Dreams of the First Order,” the Superintendent answered. “The kind you connected with in that book. Here they receive both the elements of reality and imagination. However, they also receive the third and most vital element for their development.” She pointed ahead to the top of one of the tanks. “See there?”

                Standing atop the glass tank were a pair of the same figures in white, one positioning a large hose above a steel port and the other connecting it to the tank with a ring clamp. Once they were certain it was securely connected, they climbed down a ladder. Two large valves on adjacent sides of the tank were then turned in slow, synchronized rotations. Above them behind the glass, a sudden burst of deep blue erupted into the swirling scarlet and crystal light until it had become a bright and shining violet. Hope took in a gasp of amazement.

                “What is that?”

                “That, my child, is Belief,” the Director said, smiling.

                “Belief,” Hope whispered. “It’s magnificent.” The Superintendent continued walking and they followed. “What does the Belief do?”

                “Dreams of the First Order are the dreams most often experienced while awake. However, they are not daydreams but inspired dreams, dreams that have the potential to influence and alter reality. In order for them to be effective, they must remain active for a much longer period of time than Second Order Dreams. This requires Belief. It is the lifeline of First Order Dreams, like a heart, or a brain. Without it, there can be no reaction with Hope and, as a result, no Idea to be conceived. It’s odd,” she continued after a pause, “how, just in the past five hundred years, the required amount of belief to keep one of these dreams viable long enough has increased almost to ten times what it was before. There is so much skepticism with these humans now.”

                “Maybe it’s another incident,” suggested Hope. “Too much reality?”

                “Oh, no.” The Superintendent shook her head. “That’s never happened to these dreams. The only truly awful occurrence was during a period which humans have since called the Dark Ages. Books were rare, locked away. It wasn’t long before we had a massive surplus of First Order Dreams, but the moment things picked up in Italy…Well, there is a reason they named it the Renaissance.”

                “Lucy loves to read. That must be why she’s always getting these wonderful ideas,” said Hope. “One time, she created a secret language that she and her two best friends only know. They call it Lucinese.”

                “Is that so?” The Director chuckled.

                “And another time, she helped her neighbors find their dog by putting fliers in everyone’s mailbox, not just on telephone poles.” Hope continued on, her enthusiasm increasing. “And she went door-to-door to collect money donations for animals displaced and injured by wildfires.”

                “Lucy sounds like a very compassionate and loving girl,” he said.

                “She is most of the time.” Hope looked down at her hands suddenly, twisting her fingers together. “Sometimes she gets angry.”

                “All humans do,” said the Superintendent. “That is their nature.”

                “But it’s not the same, I don’t think. Lucy doesn’t hate anyone. She’s just sad a lot. Her parents divorced, and she doesn’t know why. We used to hope that maybe someday they’ll be together again, but not so much anymore. It’s been months since she’s heard from her dad. Plus, Lucy had to start at a new school a year ago, and some of the older kids keep picking on her. There’s no one to talk to about it because her friends are at her old school, but then she made some new friends.”

                “Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” asked the Director.

                “They’re different though,” Hope continued. “They never like her ideas, and no matter what we do in hopes that they’ll actually accept her, it never seems to work. She still doesn’t have anyone to talk to. It’s like she suddenly stopped mattering to anybody. Nobody has time. Nobody cares at all what she’s thinking or even bothers to ask. Nobody—” Hope stopped short, suddenly embarrassed for losing her composure. The Director said nothing, a deep frown on his face as the light of the incubated dreams reflected brightly off his glasses. “And she stopped reading books.”

                “Thank you, Superintendent,” the Director said after a long silence. “We’ll be moving along now.”

               “A pleasure meeting you, Hope.” The Superintendent bowed. “Director.” And without looking at them again, she turned and walked away.

               “Come,” said the Director.

               “Where are we going?”

               Without explanation, the Director led her down a hallway and into a room even larger than his office, filled with books as high and far as could be seen. In the center of the room was a projected holographic screen floating above a pair of empty pedestals. A scene played before them of a picturesque range of mountains with snow caps and towering redwoods passing far below in a birds-eye view. The horizon stretched farther than Hope had ever imagined, and she inhaled a breath of amazement. After nearly a minute, the scene faded away and a name and age appeared.

               “Jorge Devitas. Eighty-three years old,” Hope read. As though in response to her words, the infinite collection of books began to shuffle up and down and side to side until one book found itself beneath a spotlight. A bent old man with a flowing white mustache that matched his tunic and cane retrieved the book and took it to the pedestal. Carefully, he placed it and turned open the cover. In a flowing river of light and color, the screen appeared to stream into the pages of the book until there was nothing left. The figure then closed the book and returned it to the shelf.

               The hologram flickered back to life, and in a moment, a new image appeared of a monster with a contorted and frothing mouth and bloodshot, evil eyes. It slashed and snarled at them. Hope shuddered, and the Director put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

               “Welcome to the Reprocessing Center,” said the old man approaching with a limp. “I am the Chief Curator. I see you’re receiving the grand tour.”

               “What is that?” Hope asked, pointing to the hologram.

               “Those are dreams as they appear to humans,” said the Curator. “Wild and untamed things. They must be matched to those who are capable of surviving them.”

                “Surviving them?”

                “Even good dreams can kill,” he sighed. “In fact, they do more often than bad dreams. This is why we screen them. Technology has come quite a long way for this process. In the beginning, it was a judgement call. Now, we have algorithms to determine which human will best match with each dream. Of course, this isn’t a flawless system. Humans are creatures of continuous change and evolution. But nevertheless, once the dream has been assigned, transmitted, and used up, it returns here to its place of origin for reprocessing. This happens up to seven or eight times, and then it dies. Its elements are harvested and reused. This is the lifecycle of a dream.”

                Again, the scene stopped, a new name appeared, and the walls of books moved mechanically. Once more, the Curator took the designated book from its place and opened it for the dream to enter its pages.

                “Those books, are they people?”

                “They are the link through which dreams are transmitted,” said the Director. “And yes, there is a book for each individual human. Within the books are kept chronological records of the dreams transmitted.”

                “There’s a book for everyone?” asked Hope.

                “Everyone that has received a dream from this facility, yes.” The Curator coiled the end of his mustache around his finger as he returned to them. “Before you is the largest and most extensive collection of dreams in existence. I have the pleasure of looking after them all.”

                “What about Lucy Jane Bingham?” Hope turned to the Curator. “Do you have Lucy’s book of dreams?”

                “I should say so,” he replied. The Curator took a few steps toward the wall of books, then searched through his spectacles. “Ah! Yes. There it is.” He cleared his throat, then bellowed, “Lucy Jane Bingham!”

                For a third time, the walls moved in swift and monumental increments until a book, newer than many others, appeared in the spotlight. The Curator retrieved it and placed it in Hope’s hands. Hope was mesmerized as she looked upon the cover, a crimson pastel, smooth and soft in her fingers. Lucy’s name was embossed in gold, curling letters.

                “May I…”

                “Of course,” said the Curator, motioning to the second pedestal.

                Hope approached the hologram which appeared much larger than before as it hovered above her. She placed the book carefully upon the pedestal, and after an encouraging nod from the Curator, she turned the cover open.

                The same radiant color and light that had entered the other books began moving slowly upward from the pages and into the hologram. Lucy’s name and age were displayed in the top right corner of the screen, the number ticking down from twelve to zero. Gradually, moving and excited blurs filled the screen until the images were clear. Bright, vivid colors swirled and danced together before melting into grand scenes of the sky, green fields, smiling faces, and dogs. Lots of dogs.

                “She really likes dogs,” said Hope with a smile.

                The scene of a playground gave way to a dark shadow in a bedroom, a fast-moving train, and the sound of a screaming whistle. Hope covered her ears until it was over. The three of them stood watching for a long while, good dreams continuing steadily on with rare, intermittent bad ones making their appearance. As the dreams played through, so did Lucy’s age advance higher at a more rapid rate.

                “It appears that Lucy was paired with fewer dreams as she grew,” said the Curator.

                “Fewer dreams? But why?” asked Hope.

                “Well,” he began, looking into the book over his glasses, “it appears she was assigned plenty of dreams, but few of them survived long enough to be experienced, and that can be caused by a number of things. More than likely, she built up an immunity to belief, and that is generally a byproduct of something happening in reality.”

“We call this Realistic Saturation,” said the Director.

                “Something like what?” she asked.

                “That I have no way of telling you with any certainty,” sighed the Curator. “More often than not, however, I understand it to be a sign of trouble.”

                Hope stood staring up at the darkened hologram with steel brown eyes. “If I’m here, then I must be a dream.” She turned to the Director. “But I didn’t see myself anywhere in all those dreams.”

                “That’s because you’re Hope,” he answered. “Yes, in a sense you are a dream, but you don’t come from a place like this.”

                “Where do I come from then?” she asked.

                “You come from Lucy, of course,” the Curator explained. “Lucy created you with all the required parts, imagination, reality, and belief. But there is a fourth part that you consist of, a part which we cannot manufacture here.”

                “What’s that?”

                “Something that exists only in human beings. That is Ambition. And the four together create you: Hope.” The Curator smiled. “You are a remarkable creation, you know. Since the dawn of the human species, hope has been responsible for the perseverance of those facing certain ruin. It has freed slaves and enslaved dictators. It has sparked love and extinguished hate. Hope is the strength that balances the weak and the mighty. It is the whisper that can be heard in a sea of noise saying, ‘Hold on for just a while longer.’ With Hope, all things are possible. It is the most powerful element in the universe. Even more than love. Hope can outlast almost anything. Yes, you are quite remarkable.”

                Hope listened to his words carefully, and an expression of grave concern fell over her. “If that’s true, then what am I doing here?” she asked.

                “Do you not understand what this place is?” the Director asked. She made no response. “This is where dreams are created. This is where dreams are reprocessed. This is where dreams go to die.”

                “To die?!” she repeated.

                “Despite its fortitude, hope is not something that can exist on its own. As much as it is a creation of man, there are those who seek out and sever the bond between people and their hope. This is why it must be held close to the heart, or it could be lost forever.”

                “You mean…Lucy has lost me?”

                “You shouldn’t take it personally,” he answered. “No one ever loses hope on purpose. This is most often the work of Despair.”

                “Despair? But what will she do without me?” Hope asked, her voice rising in distress. “She needs me. I have to get back to her. She can’t face Despair all alone.”


                “She needs me!” Hope cried, grabbing the Director by the arms and shaking him. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes. “She needs me!”

                “You’re already here, Hope. There’s nothing to be done.” The Director held the child close. “There’s nothing to be done.”

                Hope wept, her body trembling in the old Director’s arms. Lucy had been her whole purpose for existence, and suddenly that existence was enveloped by a shadow that had somehow overpowered her. There was no way that she could reach any other conclusion but that it was her fault. That she had failed Lucy, and now, who knew what was to become of her?

                “With hope, anything is possible,” she whispered.

                “What’s that?” asked the Curator.

                “With hope, anything is possible. That’s what you said, isn’t it?” Hope looked at him, her sorrow having evacuated her countenance altogether.

                “Well, yes, but it’s just a figure of speech,” the Curator chuckled. “There are always impossibilities.” Hope stepped away from the two and closer to the screen where a seashell had appeared in the hands of a child, then running feet on cool, wet sand.

                “I can’t abandon Lucy, not without trying at least.”

                “Trying what?” asked the Director.

                “Young lady,” said the Curator, “I suggest you stop and think for a moment. There are processes that must be adhered to. This has worked for thousands upon thousands of years for a reason.”

                “The Superintendent of Creation said that dreams are always connected to their source. She said that I made that same connection. If I can get back to that dream…”

                Hope picked up the book from the second pedestal and placed it onto the first.

                “What do you think your doing?” the Curator demanded.

                Hope flipped from page to page, watching the hologram jump from one dream to the next. Suddenly she stopped, her eyes fixed on the image projected above them.

                “This is the one,” she laughed. “This is my dream!”

                “Hope, you’ll only destroy yourself,” the Director warned. “Do you think you’re the first to try this? If you do, there might be no hope in existence for Lucy at all. None!”

                “If I don’t try, there will certainly be no hope for Lucy,” Hope replied.

                With one unhesitant motion, she placed her palm flat on the page. A warmth began to climb upward through her fingertips to her wrist, then to her elbow. The heat spread throughout her whole body in a flooding sweep. She could not her the Director and the Curator anymore as the room began to whirl around and a forceful wind picked up. A light brighter than all the rest began to shine around her until she could feel the light, could sense herself becoming part of the light, until in a flash, there was nothing.

                The place where Hope had stood was vacant, only her handprint branded onto the page any indication that she had been there. The Curator and Director stood frozen in place, any and all words stolen for several minutes.

                “Did she do it?” the Director finally asked.

                “I don’t know,” the Curator answered. “I don’t know.”

                “Lucy Jane Bingham, don’t look at me like that. I know you’re mad, but that doesn’t mean you get to glare at me. I’m your mother, and I know what’s best for you. You’ll thank me someday for getting you away from this place for a while. You’ll see. There’s been too much stress lately. How could anyone expect you to keep up your grades? You used to be such a good student. Stop twisting your hair like that! You’re going to make it fall out. And don’t pick your nails. That’s disgusting. It’s no wonder you’ve never had a boyfriend. You’re always messing around like that, and you never wear the clothes I buy you. Always jeans and hoodies. You’re a girl, Lucy. You’ve got to start acting like that. Start looking like one. Try being pretty every once in a while. You’ll see, your Aunt Phoenicia will get you straightened out. Did I tell you she’s a home ec teacher? She’ll have you finding your way around the kitchen in no time. And, she puts your cousin Renee in beauty pageants. Renee has almost too many trophies. You’ll see. But it’s only a testament to your aunt. She clearly knows what she’s talking about. And I’m telling you what, Lucy Jane. While you’re there, you’d better learn from her or I’ll make you stay out there longer. See how you like that. Oh, sometimes I wonder if I failed you. I mean, you’re practically a tomboy. I didn’t raise you to be a tomboy. I should’ve never let your father get you into sports. God! The smell! He never did listen to anything I said. I guess it’s your father’s fault. He failed you. Not me. He failed both of us. That’s why we’re in this mess in the first place. I just don’t have time right now. That’s why it’s not fair for you to be mad at me like this. I didn’t do anything wrong to you. This is for your own good. Right now, you’re failing school, you’re unattractive, you’ always sulking and being difficult. But things are going to change, Lucy. It’s going to be so much better when you’re gone. I mean for you. When you’re there it’ll be better for you. You’ll see…”

                Lucy Jane Bingham slouched in the backseat of her mother’s car. There was no point in responding, she wouldn’t hear her anyway. Lucy was to be sent away to her aunt and uncle’s home, and that was that. They lived so far across the country that it might as well have been another planet. And she wasn’t even allowed to pack her things other than some clothes because her mother wants her to “purge the nasty.” Whatever that meant. Leaving them behind was difficult, but what made it nearly impossible to take was the knowledge that she would never see those things again. It would be less than a week before it was all in the dump, and she knew it. Everything that was anything was being ripped away. She would see, though. It was her mother’s new mantra, and ever time she heard it…

                “It’s me,” Lucy thought. “Mom just doesn’t want me anymore. And Dad would’ve done something about this if he cared at all. He doesn’t. Neither of them does. Neither of them wants me.” And this thought repeated itself over and again as she was driven to the airport.

                Her flight wasn’t for another hour, but her mother had a hair appointment she couldn’t miss. After waiting and walking through the search lines, Lucy found a spot on the floor against the wall of the overcrowded terminal. She tucked up her knees in front of her and buried her face in her arms. She cried silently so that no one would hear, a skill she had mastered in recent months as her mother had implemented the rule of no more crying.

                “Care for a book?” a woman’s smiling voice asked from above her. Lucy smeared away her tears on her sleeves as she lifted her head.

                “A book?” Lucy repeated. The woman was plump and motherly, pushing an assortment of books on a small metal cart. “No, thanks. I don’t have any money.”

                “Well, that’s perfect then, because these don’t cost anything. Let’s see what we can find in here for you…” Without waiting for a response, the woman began digging through the pile, speaking softly to herself. “Here it is! I always loved this one. Perhaps you’d like to read it.”

                Lucy stared at the small book extended to her. She remained still until the woman shook the book, urging her to take it. Lucy accepted it and continued to look upon the cover transfixed.

                “Thank you,” Lucy finally said, but the woman was already gone.

                Crossing her legs, Lucy rested her elbows on her knees and opened the book to the first chapter.

                “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers,” she read. “Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

               And Lucy laughed.          



Studies In gray.


Through the window of a diner, the sunlight was not a stream but a submersion, where, in a time far removed from the present, patrons soaked up the warmth and light. Comforting as it could have been, for Frida it was simply the familiar precursor to a half-baked afternoon. This was the feeling before the work began. Heat on the skin. Bright in the eyes. Smoke in the lungs as she leaned against the old gray pickup. That truck was wearing out, but something about the sight of it sitting in the dusty old desert gave her a fantastic chill.

                “There you are,” said Davis as he swung the door open and stepped hurriedly outside, a toothpick sticking out from between his teeth. “I been lookin’ all around for you. Didn’t you hear me callin’? I just about thought you left me.”

                “Thought about it.”

                “Look,” he began, then paused. “I think we should talk about—”

                “I don’t want to talk. About anything.”

                “But what happened—”

                “I said I don’t want to talk,” she insisted. Frida looked out at the lowering ball of fire setting off explosions of mirages across the endless miles of rocks, sand, and brush. She took a long drag of her last cigarette before offering it. “I’m just tired, Davis. I’m just really fucking tired.”

                “I’m not gonna say anything. No one’s gonna hear about it from me.”

               “Better not.”

               “We ain’t got much further to go,” Davis sighed. “Maybe fifty miles, and that’s assumin’ no quakes hold us up or make us circle ‘round. But I wouldn’t count on that.”

                “I wouldn’t either.” Frida looked at him. “Anything on the radio from the outpost?”

               “Nah. Nothin’.”

               Silently, Davis removed the stained and weathered Stetson from his head before whipping his fingers through his hair. Frida remembered when it was hardly more than a buzz cut. He’d always liked his hair short. Now it was a good five or six inches. Maybe more. It suited him though, and the beard.

               “I guess we’ll just have to hope that they’re okay. If not, this whole mission is nothing but a waste of time and resources.” Frida flicked the ashes from the end of her cigarette and took two consecutive puffs. Davis squinted at her.

               “You okay?”

               “What do you mean? I’m fine.” She tossed the cigarette and pushed herself off the truck to open the passenger door.

               “You seem off,” he said. “Like you got somethin’ eatin’ at you.”

               “I told you, I’m tired.”

               “Yeah, me too. But that’s not what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”

               “Davis!” Frida whirled around to face him. “I’m fucking fine, okay? Just knock it off with the questions!” They looked at each other for a long moment, and Frida took a breath. “I’m sorry. I’m not feeling great.”

                “We should hit the road,” Davis said after a quiet stare at the dirt. “Need to make this light count. You check the cargo straps?” He walked around the front of the truck to the driver’s side.

                “Yeah. It’s all secure.”

                Minutes later, Frida leaned back in the passenger seat, her two naked feet propped in front of the side view mirror with the wind stealing between her toes. She’d always loved that feeling since she was young, closing her eyes, imagining she was walking on the breeze.  Frida closed her eyes again, and for a moment, she almost felt that it was her father behind the wheel, and that she was a little girl, and everything would always be all right.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                Four. Blow out the candle.

                “You asleep?” asked Davis.

                Frida remained silent, listening to the strained hum of the engine. The odometer was coming up on 370,000 miles with parts stolen, rigged and repurposed from other disabled vehicles. Who knew how many miles that added up to collectively? Miles upon miles with nothing to show for it. Then again, this was a different time. Before the reckoning, miles meant something. It was a measurement between places that existed and had people and things happening. Now, miles were simply invisible points somewhere in the distance. Close or far, it didn’t matter if there was nothing at the end. It was all a globe of empty and infinite directions now.

                “Fri, I need you to navigate. The road’s disappeared.” Davis was squinting at the ground before them as she sat up, slipped her boots back on, and retrieved the map from the glove box.

                “When was the last mile marker?”

                “About ten miles ago, I’d say.”

                “Then we should be seeing it soon.” Frida scanned the skyline. “There,” she said, pointing to a distant rock formation carved by prehistoric waters.


                “Yeah. Less than an hour, Davis,” she smiled. “That’s all.”

                “You thought about what we’ll do if we get there an’…well, y’know? We keep hearin’ ‘bout these stampedes comin’ through—”

                “There’s no way that’s a real thing, Davis. Give me a break.”

                “How can you be so sure? Did you ever think ten or fifteen years ago that the world would look like it does now?”

                “Just drive,” Frida said.

                “What’s your problem?” Davis looked at her. “You’re scared.”

                “I’m not fucking scared.”

                “Yeah, you are,” he laughed. “Why the hell you always gotta act like Little Miss Badass? Nobody buys that shit, y’know.”

                “I don’t act like anything. And you’re one to talk considering you have to keep a bottle of that jet fuel by your side all the time.”

                “It’s moonshine that I made myself. It’s a goddamn art, an’ it keeps me centered.”

                “Just keep telling yourself that.”

                They each glared out into the desert. When the two-week mission had started, neither of them had anticipated hating each other by the end of it, despite cutting down the time by almost three days. It was supposed to be a simple resupply like all their others. But somehow, time had proven them to be less formidable a team as anyone had thought. Frida was done with him, and Davis was done with her. Once they got to Outpost 42 and delivered the cargo, she’d find another way back to the base. Or he could. Why should she have to give up the truck?

                “Why are you going so fast? You’re going to waste fuel.”

“It’s gettin’ dark. We can’t defend ourselves out here.”

                Giving no response to his concern, Frida took an expired oatmeal bar from her backpack on the floor and cracked it into halves. She handed one half to Davis who frowned at it.

                “I can’t wait to eat something that won’t break my teeth,” he said, accepting it. “What d’you think Bill and Jenny are cookin’ up for supper back at the base?”

                “I just want some protein,” said Frida.

                “A steak dinner sounds all right to me.”

                “I was thinking more like salmon…with a white wine sauce and steamed spears of fresh asparagus.”

                Davis leaned in with an enthralled smile. “Fried chicken.”

                “Shut up, Davis,” Frida said shaking her head. “There are just some things you shouldn’t joke—”

                “Oh, shit.” Davis’s eyes widened as he looked towards the right. The darkness had been descending upon the desert like a wave, and with it, a cloud of dust was rising.

                “What is that?”

                “We should’ve stayed at the fuckin’ diner,” Davis said, the panic in his voice elevating.

                “Just keep going. Turn the brights on.” The headlights pierced ahead into the darkening shadows before them, the ground beneath the tires throwing up dirt behind. The rumbling the two had thought was the truck riding over the unpaved land was growing in intensity, and it soon became apparent that it was originating elsewhere.

                “Is that an earthquake?” asked Frida.

                “No kind of quake I ever felt before.”

                “Maybe far away?”

                “It’s comin’ from the dark, Frida. That’s no earthquake.” The darkness and the cloud suddenly swallowed up all the world before them, the rock formation disappearing from sight. Davis cursed and suddenly cut the wheel. “We’re goin’ back.”

                “We can’t go back!” Frida yelled. “We have to make our delivery! We’re running out of time!”

                “If we don’t get away from whatever that is, there won’t be anythin’ to deliver!”

                Davis kept speaking, but Frida could hear none of it as the rumbling which was now behind them grew deafening, rattling their lungs and spines. Frida turned around in her seat and screamed a curse that could not be heard as the vibration cracked then shattered the front and rear windshields. She gritted her teeth from the pain, and Davis shielded his eyes with his arm as little glass shards embedded themselves into their skin.

                About thirty yards behind them, dozens of eyes reflected the little glimmers of light that hadn’t yet disappeared over the western horizon. There had been rumors about herds of the shadowlings having formed in the open plains and in the desert, but that had all been dismissed because no one had ever actually seen it, at least, no one still living. How it was possible, Frida didn’t know, and, in the moment, it didn’t matter. She reached behind their seats for the M16. There were only eighteen rounds remaining in the magazine, so if she wanted to make her shots count, she’d have to take them while she could still see.

                Frida aimed the rifle through the broken rear windshield, the eyes now only twenty feet behind. She watched as one by one, the pursuing eyes flickered away. The day was sending out its final feeble throws of light. Frida aimed between the last pair of eyes that remained visible, and just as they too disappeared, she pulled the trigger. The muzzle flash illuminated the space surrounding them, and a sea of pale contorted faces appeared with frothing hungry mouths and gnashing teeth. But, what was that? Frida saw something she’d never have expected or imagined in a hundred, even a thousand years. Before she could take the moment to process the information, however, she felt a sudden weightlessness lift her body from the seat.

                The ground before them had suddenly opened up with a thunderous groan, and the nose of the truck was tipping over the edge. With equal ferocity, a floor of solid rock charged up from the depths, catching them midfall. Both Frida and Davis were slung around the cab of the truck like dead rats in a flooded sewer. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the earth became still again, followed by the sounds of small rocks and pebbles settling until even the rumbling of the herd had become silent. Frida looked up at the edge, the taillights of the truck revealing what she’d thought couldn’t be real. They looked back at her, hungry and milling about in agitation, bathed in red brake lights.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the…

                Some unknown time later, Frida could see the glow of day through her closed lids. Every piece of her body ached as she sputtered a dusty cough. Her face was somehow against the floorboard of the cab, and the sickly-sweet odor of antifreeze filled her nostrils. She coughed again before reaching a blind hand to grab the shifter and wriggle herself up. A dirty tarp covered her body, and she pushed it off.


                Relaxing her body for a moment, she looked ahead and found the truck to be vertical, standing on its grill with its rear tires leaning against the cliff face. A river of pale blue sky was visible between the walls of the chasm that had been formed by the apparent earthquake. Her vision blurred, and Frida clenched her eyes shut and open again several times.


                Frida was finally able to turn her head to see that the driver’s seat was empty, and she momentarily forgot her pain. She tried to yell his name, but she couldn’t get a full breath while folded in her current position, legs on the seat, back against the glovebox. Using her elbows, she pushed harder until she was upright.

                “Davis!” Why wasn’t he answering?

               She estimated that they’d fallen fifty to a hundred feet, the lack of dimension the sky possessed making it nearly impossible to accurately discern any distance upward. The ravine stretched right and left, far and wide, until both directions made sharp turns. Frida looked herself over, finding only a few cuts and bruises, relieved that, to her best guess, she had no broken bones. She wondered how long she’d been unconscious. Long enough for the sun to be high again. Perhaps six hours? No more than eight or it would be dark again, unless she’d been out for twelve or more hours. There was no way to tell for sure.

               And where the hell was Davis?

               A thought suddenly overwhelmed Frida’s mind, and frantically, she scooted herself up and out of the truck, lied on the ground for a moment, then stood to view the truck bed. Her blood tingled, and her stomach knotted as she found the cargo gone, the straps that had been holding it into place unhooked. Swiveling her neck, she looked all around for the steel container. There was nothing on the ground but leaking fluids from the mangled engine. Frida began searching in widening circles around the truck until she found herself several meters from where they’d landed. No container. No Davis.

                “He must have it,” she thought. “He has to have it.”

                The only logical explanation to Frida was that he’d come to much sooner than she had, thought she was dead, and taken the cargo with him to find a way out. There was no way to tell which direction he might have gone, however, as there were no tracks to be left behind on the solid rock.

                “He would’ve tried to head northeast towards the outpost,” Frida said aloud. Realization striking, she reached for the radio. If she could reach them…No. A piece of metal was lodged in the center of it. She’d have to make her own way. A few moments later, she was holding her compass open in front of her but watched in dismay as the arrow spun around once, then twice, then ticked from north to south in slow repetition. She would have to guess. The position of the sun was unclear, but the direction of the truck suggested that the ravine ran east to west. She would have to hope that Davis had made the same deduction.

               Frida returned to the truck to retrieve her backpack and found their last five-gallon water can to have leaked at least half its contents through a crack in its side. This left her with an inventory of her compass, two water bottles, her father’s combat knife, three oatmeal bars, a small medical kit with two sterile bandages and five alcohol swabs, ten feet of paracord, a roll of duct tape, a tactical light for the rifle, the tarp, a sack of dried lavender seeds and leaves, one signaling mirror, a book of matches, four torch rags, one flare, and two five-gallon cans of gasoline. Unable to take both the water and the gasoline, she taped up the side of the water can and attached one of the cargo straps to work as a shoulder sling. She then emptied her two water bottles and filled them with fuel. The M16 she would carry at the alert, muzzle towards the dirt, the way her father had instructed her to do when patrolling on foot.

                Frida began walking, trying to stay within what little shade the depths of the chasm provided. The bedrock that had risen was jagged in places, the prehistoric lines formed under pressure and heat running across the walls and through the rock. She considered what kind of odds there were that she would be the first human to see what the earth had been mixing and mashing together in its belly. Of all the people that ever lived, she was the one to see it. Except for Davis.

                Her hopes that Davis had come that way were keeping her vigilant for signs of confirmation. Perhaps he had left some signal behind for her, though that was unlikely if he’d thought she was dead. Why wouldn’t he have checked? He had been a medic years ago. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to check for a pulse. Frida felt a splinter of anger poking through her concern for Davis’s welfare. If roles had been reversed, she would have never left him behind unless she knew with complete certainty that he was dead.

                The sun was well on its way to setting now, and a hot breeze was flowing through the chasm. Her breathing felt thick and heavy as the heat filled her nose and lungs. It was excruciating at times as her heart would not permit her to breath slower. Frida had to continue. If something were to happen to Davis and she did not press on, the delivery would be a failure. Outpost 42 would know by now that something had happened to them. Perhaps they would send out a search party. Perhaps they already had. Perhaps they’d found Davis and had gone back when he told them she was dead. Davis pissed her off sometimes, and she’d never restrained herself from pissing him off right back. Maybe this was his way of getting rid of her. Maybe he’d never liked her in the first place.

               “No,” she thought. “He wouldn’t do that to you. Not after all this time.”

               Frida and Davis had never been late on a resupply run in the year and a half they’d been running routes together, a fact they prided themselves on. After a while, the whole thing had become almost easy, and she wondered if this was all the product of their own complacency. They’d taken their time, searched and scavenged longer than was necessary. They could’ve made it to the outpost well before dark if they’d just kept going. Whose idea was it to stop, anyway?

               “I gotta go,” Davis had said.


               “You know…I gotta go.”

               “The world is a man’s pisser, isn’t it?” she’d asked. “Pick a place. Any place.”

                “I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout pissin’.” He’d raised his eyebrows to help convey his meaning, and Frida had grimaced.

                He’d had to take a shit. That’s why they stopped. Fucking grown man couldn’t wait.

               Frida thought of the herd, of the perplexing thing she’d scene. It was a terrifyingly incredible thing, and the vision of the hundred or more shadowlings stampeding toward the truck would be forever imprinted into her mind. However, what would haunt her until the day that she died was the sight of mounted riders. They had been masked, wearing dark trench coats with white bands around their left arms. How something of that nature had happened, the taming of shadowlings, was a jigsaw of a mystery. Shadowlings were an inhuman breed of four-legged beasts, terrorizing the world by night, haunting the mind by day. They had come what seemed out of nowhere except the shadows. There was no explanation of their evolution other than the drastic change of the environment, but even that was a weak conjecture.

               Four years earlier, Lee Howard Hamilton had been the first person to ever survive a shadowling’s attack. They usually hunted in small packs, rarely alone. In Hamilton’s case, it had been a lone shadowling. Hamilton had managed to shoot it in the head, but not before it had bitten a chunk of meat from his leg. The wound itself wasn’t mortal, but the bite was festering. Within ten minutes, a human would usually be paralyzed, and their blood vessels would begin to petrify. To find a person that had died of a shadowling bite was the stuff of nightmares. Hamilton survived by chewing on lavender seeds, or so the story goes. Why he decided to chew on them or even had them at all was anyone’s guess. Either way, it worked, and the lavender flower suddenly became more precious than gold, while Hamilton became a legend who disappeared into obscurity. But the memory of the riders made her shudder, and Frida considered that there perhaps was something to fear greater than the monsters.

                The blue sky above was turning purple and gray, the chasm becoming dark much faster than she’d expected. Who knew how far Davis might have gotten? She wondered if the whole idea of catching up to him was foolish and cursed for being stuck in a hole in the goddamn ground. Frida began searching the rock wall for any large crevices that she could wedge herself into until it was light again. As the sun was nearly gone, she found one and quickly hung the tarp over it as a curtain and sprinkled a handful of lavender leaves on the surrounding ground, crumbling them between her fingers. It was a large enough opening to keep her pack by her stomach and the rifle pointed out. With the light mounted on it, she would be able to illuminate any threats and get her shots off quickly. Hidden in the wall, she was safe enough and had to only hope not to get buried alive by another earthquake.

                The ravine was eerily silent, the darkness so thick that she could hardly discern between her eyes being open and being closed. Every sound of the smallest rocks settling kept her at constant alarm. Frida breathed, resting her face against the rock. It was cool to the touch, the way it had been when she had gone rock climbing with her father as a girl. She’d been flat against the wall then, too, but only to listen. He’d rested the side of his face against the rock next to her, his steel eyes meeting hers, and he’d smiled.

               “What do you hear?” her father had asked.

               “I don’t know.”

               “Listen closer.”

               Frida had closed her eyes and focused all her thoughts on the sound. It was a hush, like the flow of water, and a rhythm like the heartbeat of the earth. She listened again now, eyes closed, and she smiled.

               One. Smell the rain.

               Two. Blow out the candle.

               Three. Smell the rain.


               Small rocks ground together beyond the tarp, then again, and a third time. Frida’s eyes shot open, and she halted her breath. Footsteps were slowly drawing closer, and she pressed back into the crevice, one hand on the light, the other on the pistol grip. Silently, she flipped the safety off, and prepared to squeeze the trigger.

               Four. Blow out the candle.

               “Frida?” a voice whispered.

               She froze.

               “Frida, are you there?”

               “Davis?” she finally replied breathlessly. “Is that you?”

               “Yeah! It’s me! Are you in the wall?”

               Frida reached out and turned back the tarp. Unable to see, she simply felt his hand on hers, and despite her anger, she couldn’t help but to inwardly acknowledge the relief that his touch gave her. Davis knelt beside the crevice inside the tarp.

               “What the fuck happened to you?!” Frida whispered a yell. “Why the hell did you leave me?!”

               “I didn’t leave you, Fri. Not really, anyway. I just went to look for a way out. I was comin’ back, but I guess you woke up and started walkin’ before I did. I knew you must’ve come this way since we didn’t run into each other.”

               “But why did you take the cargo?”

               “It just seemed like the smart thing to do since you were passed out. Whatever’s in there isn’t as heavy as you’d think, actually.

               “Wait…How are you walking around right now? It’s pitch black.”

               “Still got my night vision goggles from a couple years ago when we moved into that military base. You didn’t get a pair?”

               “No. I didn’t.”

               “Well, you need to when we get back.”

               “Who says we’re getting back?” Frida asked, and Davis said nothing. “Look…What happened up there, I don’t know if I can believe it all.”

               “I know. I thought the herd thing was far-fetched myself, but I guess it’s true. Wild ain’t it? At least we know we’re safe during the day. Out here, shadowlings are the only thing to worry about, and we can outsmart those things easy.”

               “Davis, I don’t think—”

               “We should probably stop talkin’ for now,” he said. “Let’s wait ‘til it’s light.”

               Despite her desire to share what she’d seen, she couldn’t disagree with him and remained silent.

               A few hours later, the sun had returned enough to emerge from behind the tarp, and they both took turns relieving themselves behind a boulder.

               “Nice work gettin’ the water,” said Davis. “I brought the gasoline. We can swap carryin’ them every once in a while, if you want.”

               “Sure.” Frida looked up and around the rock walls. “We just need to get out of here. You know earthquakes come in threes, right?”

               “So they say.”

               “It’s true.”

               “Earthquakes happen so often you could divide them any which way, and that’s how it’ll look. Threes, fours, tens, whatever.”

                “Do you have to argue about everything?” Frida asked, folding her arms.

                “I wasn’t arguin’,” he said.

                “Yes, you were. What the hell is your problem?”

                “What the hell’s your problem?” he demanded. “I walked ‘round this ravine in the middle of the goddamn night lookin’ for you, and I didn’t have to.”

                “No one asked you to,” Frida said.

                “No one needed to ask me to. I want us to both get out of here. We’re a team, Fri.”

                “Goddamn it! Stop calling me Fri!” She clenched and shook her fists.

                “But I’ve always called you Fri,” he said, puzzled.

                “And I’ve always hated it! So fucking stop it!”

                Davis shifted his weight, his hat cocked back on his head. He took out an old handkerchief and wiped the sweat from around his neck, then folded and returned it to his back pocket. Frida went to her backpack and began zipping everything up.

                “Are we gonna talk about what happened yesterday yet?”

                “Nothing happened,” she said without looking at him.


                “I’m walking now.”

                Frida stepped off once again toward the east, and Davis shook his head with an exasperated chuckle. She began to wish he’d just kept going the other direction, that he hadn’t been so gung-ho about teamwork and leaving no one behind. She was fine without him. Saner, anyway. There was no denying her relief when he appeared last night, however. But there was no admitting this to Davis.

                The two of them walked slowly along the floor of the chasm, the intermittent wind gusts beating the heat into their bones. Davis led the way for a short distance, then moved back behind Frida to avoid outpacing her. All the while, they remained silent except to warn each other of dips in the rocks or loose stones. Frida tried to think of a way to describe the riders on the shadowlings the night before, but was already struggling to maintain a calm, steady breathing pattern. Speaking would only worsen it.

                “Let’s take a rest,” said Davis.

                Without protest, Frida leaned against the rock wall, her forehead and cheeks streaked with dirty sweat. Though they both felt as though their throats were coated in sand, two sips of water each was all they would afford themselves. There seemed a fair amount of water at the moment, but if they weren’t careful, it could easily be gone by the end of the day, and there was no telling how long it would be until they reached a drinkable water source.

                “Here. Have a piece of gum.” Davis held out half a stick, and she accepted with quiet thanks. “You doin’ all right?”

                “Yeah,” she nodded. “I guess. How far do you think we’ve been walking? Four or five miles?

                “At least.”

                “We’ve got to get out of this ravine, Davis,” Frida sighed. “There’s going to be another quake soon. We both know it.”

                “Yes, ma’am, there certainly is.” A stranger’s words echoed down to them from the clifftop, startling them as they each pressed against the wall.

                “Hello, down there.” A man’s voice, deep and full called down. “I see you folks are in a bit of a predicament.” Frida and Davis looked up to see a heavyset man with a graying beard smiling down at them, a cowboy hat shadowing his eyes. The hem of his trench coat flirted with the edge of the cliff.

                “Who are you?” Davis asked.

                “I might ask you two the same question,” he responded. “After all, you are trespassing on my land.” Frida and Davis looked at each other.

               “We’re stuck in a ravine in the middle of the desert,” said Davis. “How are we trespassing?”

               “This is my desert which makes this my ravine,” he said. “So, I’ll ask you one more time. Who are you?” The man sighted in on them with a large, scoped rifle. Frida moved to aim the M16. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that, little missy.”

               “Look, we’re just travelling from Santa Fe to get to Deming,” said Frida. “We’re nobody.”

               “Quite a ways from the beaten path to be nobody.”

               “We got lost.”

               “Sure, you did.” He chuckled. “What’s in the box?”

               “What box?” asked Davis.

               “The metal box you’re trying to hide. What’s in it?” Davis said nothing. “I said, what’s in the damn box?” The man’s voice growled.

               “We don’t know.”

               “Where’s it going? And don’t tell me Deming.”

               “We’re trying to get to Outpost 42,” Frida said. Davis inhaled sharply and shook his head at her.

               “Outpost 42,” the man repeated. “I know the place.”

               “We’re on official government business, and we can’t afford any more lost time. Can you help us out of here?”

               “Government business? What government?” he laughed.

               “The United States government,” she said. Davis put his head down.

               “The United States government doesn’t exist.”

               “Yes, it does.”

               “Not out here!” The man yelled down angrily. “This is Shadowrider Territory, and we are the government!”

               “We?” Davis asked, “Who is we?”

               He smiled from behind his rifle before lowering it. Without a word, the cliff quickly became fully lined with masked figures in dark trench coats, white bands around their arms. Each held a weapon of some kind from swords and knives to pistols and submachine guns.

               “Shit,” Davis said under his breath.

                “We’ve got eyes and ears everywhere,” the man continued. “We knew you were coming. That’s why we sent the welcoming party last night.”

                “What’s he talkin’ ‘bout?” asked Davis.

                “I should’ve told you,” said Frida. “Last night when we were being chased…they were riding the shadowlings.”

                “Ridin’ them?! And you didn’t tell me?!”

                “We’re only interested in the cargo,” the man said. “Just hand it over, and we’ll let you be on your way.”

                “We’re federally mandated couriers,” Davis answered. “We won’t be handin’ over anythin’.”

                “Suit yourselves,” the man shrugged, handing his rifle to the masked man beside him. “Let me ask you though, how long will that water last you? A couple of days? How much food do you have? Starving to death is more painful than it sounds, you know. I’ve seen plenty of it out here. Who knows? An earthquake might close this whole ravine back up. They’re very unpredictable. Of course, that may actually be better than starving to death. Quicker, at least.”

                “If we did give it to you,” said Frida, “how would you open it? It’s locked.”

                “A lock is a lock is a lock,” he answered. “Anything can be broken into.”

                “This is a militarized cargo box,” she continued. “It’s rigged to blow if its tampered with.”

                “That even smells like bullshit.”

                “It’s not.”

                The man above crossed his arms and began to pace back and forth in a small limping line. “Do you know what’s in that container?”

                “It ain’t our job to know,” said Davis.

                “Of course, it isn’t. Well, let me enlighten you,” he said. “Inside that box is the greatest scientific breakthrough of any importance in the modern world. It will improve everything for everyone, everywhere.”

                “You don’t strike me as the type to care about the wellbeing of other people.”

                “I’m a part of this world just like you, aren’t I?”

                “A different part,” Frida said.

                “We don’t even know who you are,” said Davis. The man nodded.

                “Yes, you’ve got a point,” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lee Howard Hamilton. You may have heard of me.”

                “We’ve heard rumors.”

                “Most of them true. Where is the credit I deserve for finding a natural antivenom for a shadowling bite? Oh, well. I don’t care about fame anyway. Fame doesn’t mean anything in a world like this. My only interest is what’s good for all of us. What you have in that box is the key to a new dawn of civilization.”

                “Unless it’s another moon, I don’t know how that’s possible,” Davis said.

                “No, not a moon. There was only ever one of those, and the government’s destruction of it cost the world everything.”

“It was accidentally destroyed while conducting lunar nuclear tests.”

“That’s what they told us, but we know the truth.”

“Conspiracy theories,” said Davis. “There’s no proof of that.”

“At this point, does it really matter what you believe?” Hamilton asked. “We can’t replace it. It’s too late. That’s why what you have in that box is so important.” He ran his fingers through his beard.

                “What is it then?” asked Frida.

                “It’s a seedling, the first of a new genetically engineered species of grain that can grow in any soil, in any climate, with varying amounts of water and light. It doesn’t grow according to any seasons, but all year round. Simply put, it’s the answer to the world’s food shortage.”

                “Then why are you trying to steal it if it’s such a good thing?”

                “Do you know what’s at Outpost 42?” he asked. “It’s the entrance to an underground facility where biological experiments are conducted on all types of species of animals. They develop viruses and the vaccines and the viruses to kill the vaccines

                “But why? What for?” Frida asked.

                “Control. Control of you. Control of me. Control of us all.”

                “You got no proof!” Davis yelled.

                “No? Where do you think the shadowlings come from? Not out of the shadows like people say, I can assure you of that.” The man laughed until he sputtered into a cough. “You don’t know which side you’re really on.”

                “We’re mandated couriers for the U.S. government,” said Davis, “and we’re not goin’ to—”

                A deafening gunshot reverberated through the chasm, and Davis’ entire body bounced against the wall behind him then onto the ground, an exit wound gaping in the back of his skull.

                Blood and bone were splattered onto Frida’s face, and in a sudden panic, she screamed, pressing her body against the wall. She began to cry tears of hate and fury. There wasn’t a modicum of cooperation left within her, but what was she to do?
                “I didn’t want to have to do that,” said Hamilton with a frown. “It’s always important to get a good understanding of one’s situation for just such a reason. I hope you understand yours.”   

               She couldn’t allow herself to feel it. She couldn’t allow herself to be the victim he wanted her to be. There was more to this than the cargo or her life or Davis’s dead body. There was no more room in the world for weakness. She turned her head against the stone wall.

               “Listen closer,” she thought, her eyes closed. “What do you hear? What do you hear?

               One. Smell the rain.

               “I hear them.

               “No, Frida. What do you hear beyond them?

               Two. Blow out the candle.

               “I hear…the wind.


               “The earth…it’s unsettled…

               Three. Smell the rain.


               “The earth is shaking…


               Four. Blow out the candle.

               “The earth is—”

               Frida’s eyes snapped open to see a small pebble trembling at her feet, then another and a third.

               “It’s a quake!” someone yelled from above. “Get back! Get back!”

               Frida looked up at the river of sky again, appearing almost like a flowing stream between the swaying cliffs. Hamilton and his band of shadowriders had disappeared from the rim of the chasm. She was about to die, and all for nothing. There was no way to change it, and in this knowledge, Frida forced herself to be still. Her final moments wouldn’t be wasted panicking. What was the point? She was about to be swallowed up into the earth. And all because Davis had to take a shit.

                “Look there,” Davis had said. “An old diner. Who knows? Maybe someone left some toilet paper behind.”

                “Just don’t take forever, okay? We’ve got to get to the outpost before dark.”

                “I know that, Fri. It’ll only take a second. Or two.”

                They’d pulled up slowly to the single cubed building with chrome and aluminum edging around the windows and roof. The sun had reflected off the diner and into their eyes giving it the appearance of a giant, dumpy gem. There’d been a dry layer of pale dust on everything, and their hands had left prints on anything they’d touched.

                “Holy shit. There’s power here.” The lights inside flickered on.

                “How is that even possible?” asked Frida. “Even if there was a generator, wouldn’t it have rusted or something?”

                “I don’t hear a generator,” said Davis.

                “This is fucking weird. I don’t know about this place.”

                They’d walked around cautiously from the front to the back, Frida carrying the rifle and Davis with his pistol drawn. The place had been stripped long ago, even of silverware, cups, and cooking equipment. Davis, who had searched down a short hallway, suddenly cried out.

                “Davis! What’s wrong?” Frida rushed to him, only to find him grinning.

                “They’ve got toilet paper.”

                After taking another look for supplies and finding nothing, Frida went back outside. She’d walked slowly around the truck, checking it for any leaks or damage that might cause any upcoming problems. Jumping up onto the bed of the pickup, Frida had begun checking each of the four straps holding the metal container in place. That was when the lid of the box had caught her eye. It was slightly ajar, unevenly locked. She’d knelt down, examined the gap, and after failing to press it closed, determined the only way to fix it would be to unlock and relock it. She’d typed in the one-time-use, seven-digit code into the electronic pad. It had beeped and lit up green. She’d opened the lid.

                What Frida saw was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in her life. Simple and perfect and lovely.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                Frida closed the lid and hated the world.

                Davis had never seen what she had seen, and now he was dead for protecting something he could have never fathomed. A decade ago, the thought would have brought her to tears. However, a decade ago there were no shadowlings, no Hamilton, no worldwide quakes, and the moon was still illuminating the night sky. The moon had been Mother Nature’s way of comforting the little humans that flourished on Earth when the sun was gone. But the little humans had killed her, and the moon had been soon to follow. Death had become nothing but an occasion as remarkable as a hiccup. Hold your breath, and it goes away without another thought until the next one.

               As though there actually existed a thing called fate or destiny, Frida survived the second quake. She didn’t bother reasoning why or how. The ravine had narrowed by several feet, but there was still room to walk through. As the walls had shifted, large pieces had crumbled, and as though a stairway to heaven, a steep grade was formed that could be climbed back up to the surface.

               Frida stood slowly to her feet, her knees unsteady, but she continued walking upwards with the locked metal box in her arms.  The sun was beginning another descent, casting fingers of color and light through a few distant clouds. She had seen it before when she was young, and her memory replayed the sound of her father’s voice as he’d read aloud from his poetry collection on the front stairs of their home. There was a particular poem that he was always sure to read no matter what. This poem by Longfellow was perhaps his favorite of them all.

               Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

               Life is but an empty dream!

               For the soul is dead that slumbers,

               And things are not what they seem.

               Life is real! Life is earnest!

               And the grave is not its goal;

               Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

               Was not…

               “Was not…Was not what?” Frida stopped walking.

               If there had ever been a question in her mind about how the worst things happen to regular people, it was answered now. She had been born in reasonable comfort. She’d gone to a good school, had a loving father who loved her more than any two parents could, played softball and field hockey, made up tunes on an old guitar, dreamed on a porch swing during midsummer nights about the wonderful future. Now, twenty years later, she was ascending from what had been a certain grave into a barren desert. The world had changed, and so her life had changed. She wanted to say it wasn’t fair. She wanted to say that there was something about it all that shouldn’t be happening to her. It was a life that belonged to someone else. Now, she realized that she had been that someone else all along.

                Frida continued until she reached the top and looked around. The stone formation that had served as a landmark was almost invisible in the distance. In the opposite direction, the diner glimmered, murky and fluid behind the rising heat. Frida sighed in relief and started up a quick pace with the newfound hope in sight, and she imagined quite clearly how refreshing and cool it would be inside with running water and electricity. She could hide there for a while, hide the box until it was safe again, until she could decide what to do with it. Hamilton might have been a murderer, the ringleader of a gang of evil shadowriders, but it didn’t mean that everything he’d said was wrong. She’d seen inside the box herself, and it had killed her trust in anyone.

                Frida had closed the lid and hated the world. It was a feeling she’d not ever experienced before, and she was torn between the beauty of what she’d seen and what she was surrounded by. All that she’d become accustomed to around her was now sickening. There was and would never be anything more wondrous than what she’d beheld in the box, and when she had returned inside the diner, she couldn’t contain her disgust and rage any longer. She’d smashed the mirrors with the buttstock of her rifle, smashed chairs and broken shelves. Davis had run out to her, wrapped his arms around her as she wept malicious tears. And he hadn’t asked her why, as though he’d already understood.

                The distance between Frida and the diner was closing more slowly than she’d anticipated. A familiar sound began to drone quietly, and she looked over her shoulder. In the distance, a large mob of shadowlings were bearing down on her with the creeping darkness. Frida began running awkwardly with her hands full, panting as the winds picked up again. The dust and dirt were forming clouds around her, and to her dismay, the visibility of the diner began to decrease. Her heart felt as though it might burst as each breath was accompanied with sand. Her legs were aching and trembling with exhaustion, and she begged them to continue, almost tripping over herself at times. Still quite a distance away, the diner disappeared completely. The dust storm had darkened the sky, and Frida’s eyes burned with tears. There was no shelter. There was no hope. She continued to run for a few moments more, then halted, realizing that she had completely lost any sense of direction. Without the diner as a reference, she might very well have begun to run in a circle.

                Frida dropped to her knees, a destitute at the mercy of an unforgiving universe. She stopped expecting. She stopped planning. There was only to wait. She sat down on the ground, eyes closed, as the wind swirled around her. There was nothing more to listen for.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                As quickly as it had begun, the winds died, blanketing an eerie silence over the desert. Frida looked up, the remnants of a flaming sky still visible in the distance, and the diner far away. She could here the shadowlings behind her, footsteps approaching slowly.

                “No more running,” said Hamilton, approaching from behind. He walked around to face her, and she looked up at him. “Open the box.”

                “Why?” asked Frida.

                “Because, despite what you might think, I don’t like killing women.”

                “But you do like killing.”

                “It depends.” He took a knee beside her. “I didn’t like killing your friend. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t enjoy it.” Frida folded her hands in her lap. “Open the box.”

                “You don’t want to see what’s inside,” she warned.

                “Yes, I do.”

                Hamilton waited several seconds before pulling a pistol from inside his trench coat. Frida looked around her as the shadowriders surrounded the two of them, mounted on their shadowlings whose snouts were muzzled with iron and chains.

                Frida reached out to the box and entered the one-time-use, seven-digit code into the digital pad, and the light turned green. She presented it to him silently, turning the box to face him. He holstered his pistol and reached down.

               As she watched Hamilton, the remainder of the poem sprang suddenly into her memory, and she smiled.

                Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

                Was not spoken of the soul.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                “This means a new beginning for all of us,” said Hamilton, brushing the dust off the lid.

                Four. Blow out the candle.

                The final etchings of twilight stretched out from the horizon.

                Five. Smell the rain.

                Hamilton opened the lid and looked down at the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. Simple and perfect and lovely.

                Six. Blow out the candle.



Studies In gray.


It wasn’t until the day after next that Edward Kind realized each day had been an exact repetition of its predecessor. What caught his attention, however, was not his watch’s weekday indicator remaining on Tuesday, not his schedule unchanged from the one previous, nor even his work documents’ digital stamping with yesterday’s date. Even as the conversations in passing at the office and later with his family at the dinner table remained the same, he remained oblivious. Though this all would have proven to be an extremely odd and noticeable occurrence for the average person, for Edward Kind it seemed only as a vague repetition, if not completely ordinary.

The thing about Edward Kind was that his life was already quite monotonous. He was just a family man with a wife, Marcy, their three kids, Adam, Kevin and Lois (in that order), a chocolate lab named Suffix, a fat cat named Schooner, and one hamster whose name changed with the days to whatever fancied Lois at the time. They lived in a brick, suburban house upon which was a mortgage he’d gotten at a fixed rate of 4.3% that would be paid off in only twelve more years—if they kept their payments ahead—just in time to send Adam to the university. Every morning, Edward would wake up at 6am, dress, and drink his coffee. He would eat his bacon, eggs, and cheese rolled up in a tortilla as he drove the practical family sedan to the metro station a mere fifteen minutes away without traffic. He’d catch the red line at 7:35am, stop to make a connection, wait on the platform for another seven minutes, and then be on the blue line at 8:10am until he reached the inner city. From there it was only a ten-minute walk to Edward’s office which was located on the second floor of a nine-story building. He was always there fifteen minutes early and always left five after five, following his customary phone call to Marcy informing her that he was on his way home.

After a reversal of the same route, Edward would arrive home no later than 6:30pm where he’d find Adam and Kevin doing homework. Lois would be either helping Marcy with dinner (as much as a five-year-old could) or be playing with her dolls. It was Edward’s duty as the protector and provider of the home to walk Suffix and pick up his excrement before and after dinner. The children would tell him about their day which was almost always the same. He’d say nothing of his own day generally for the same reason, and Marcy would keep him up to date on what’s on sale and where and why whatever it was was needed. He’d kiss and hug the three children before putting them to bed, and then, if somehow the dishes were washed and laundry folded before 9pm, Edward and his wife would do what every married couple promises to never let become infrequent and boring. It was.
Two days before the day after next, Edward Kind had already prepared his breakfast, driven to the metro station and was attempting to scan his gate pass. At first, he thought it was some sort of malfunction, but after five attempts, he realized that there was indeed something wrong with his pass that was keeping the gate from opening. Disturbed at the intrusion on his routine, Edward Kind demanded to know what was wrong with his pass and approached the station manager.

“I demand to know what’s wrong with my pass,” Edward said. The station manager swiped the pass in his computer and informed him that it had expired. Edward Kind, after a shake of his head, then paid for a new pass and was let through the gate, but not in time to board the red line at 7:35am. Edward watched in a stunned silence as it disappeared around the rail. He would have to drive to the connection in time to catch the blue line at 8:10am.

Edward Kind didn’t make it in time to board the blue line, however, as traffic became more congested with each mile marker he passed into the city. He would have to drive the whole way, arriving to work one hour and thirty-six minutes late. He had never been late before and was overcome with a feeling of helpless frustration at how much his routine had been shifted by such a trivial thing as an expired metro pass. By the end of the day however, things had returned to normal, and at five after five he informed Marcy that he was coming home. Edward followed his general custom of walking to the metro, taking the blue line to the red, then getting off at the platform where he always had before. That’s when he remembered he had driven that morning, and his car was all the way back at the office. Unable to reach Marcy on the phone, he was forced to hail a cab. He arrived home at 6:41pm.

Edward sat eating his meatloaf as his boys informed him of the unlikely demise of some comic book super villain, his daughter described the picture she’d drawn in kindergarten, and his wife informed him of the new hairdresser at her favorite salon. Though it crossed his mind, he did not tell them of all that had happened to him. Once the children were in bed and the house was clean, Edward and his wife found themselves alone in their room before 9pm, and so, in the observation of tradition, did as married couples do with the same vigor and energy that newlyweds vow against.

At 6am, Edward was woken by his alarm. Remembering that he had left his car at work, he called ahead for a cab to take him to the metro where he would catch the red line at 7:35am. However, when he exited his home, he discovered his car sitting in its place, just over the dark spot on his paved driveway. Edward gave the cab driver a tip for showing up, then drove himself to the station. As he scanned his pass, the same problem occurred, and again, Edward demanded to know what was wrong with his pass.

“I demand to know what’s wrong with my pass,” Edward said. The station manager once again informed him that it had expired and issued him a new pass. Edward, perturbed that such a thing was possible, informed the manager that he had just received the card yesterday. Upon viewing the expiration date on the laminated card, Edward was forced to concede against his own recollections. A moment later, he was once again watching in stunned silence as the red line scuttled away.

Edward was one hour and thirty-six minutes late again and apologized to his supervisor for being late two days in a row. His supervisor was confused, and said he’d never been late to work before.

“You’ve never been late to work before,” said Edward’s supervisor. Equally confused, Edward said nothing and returned to his work. At five after five, Edward went back to his car and drove home, arriving at 6:54pm. Edward sat again eating his meatloaf, listening to his boys inform him of the unlikely demise of the comic book super villain, his daughter describe the same picture she’d drawn in kindergarten, and his wife inform him again of the new hairdresser at her favorite salon. Though it crossed his mind, he did not tell them of all that had happened to him, nor that he already knew what they had to say. The same routines were followed, and Edward and his wife slept together again.

The day after next arrived, and Edward woke at 6am, prepared his breakfast, drove to the station, and scanned the metro pass to walk through. This time, it opened because he’d had the forethought that morning to borrow Marcy’s. Edward smiled in comforting satisfaction as he boarded the red line at 7:35am, arrived at his connection at 8:03am, caught the blue line seven minutes later, and after the ten-minute walk to his office, found himself seated at his desk at fifteen minutes to nine.

Over the next few hours, it seemed that all was normal to Edward Kind. He attended his meetings, submitted his paperwork, and put the day’s mail aside to open at the end of business. It was just before 3pm, however, that Edward received a call from a nurse at the general hospital. There had been a terrible accident.

“Mr. Kind,” said the nurse at the general hospital, “there’s been a terrible accident.” Edward listened to the information of his wife and children driving the minivan through a busy intersection, of glass shards and mangled aluminum and clouds of powder from inflated airbags. He hung up the phone.

After considering the fastest means of travel to the hospital, Edward Kind was running the twelve blocks down the sidewalk. His tie flailed behind him like a boneless appendage. What entered Edward’s mind as he ran were all the possibilities of what could have happened. He wondered what had caused the accident, why he hadn’t asked for details. It wasn’t, he thought, for a lack of caring. Edward reasoned that he was simply unprepared for this. It had never occurred to him that the fabric of his life which had been woven with such worn and fragile threads would be rent apart. He had only eight more blocks to prepare now, for it was never too late to prepare. Edward decided to think of the worst case scenario, because it seemed to him that worst case scenarios never happen when they’re preconceived.

Edward was out of breath and drenched in sweat when he arrived, shouting his wife’s name and that he was her husband.
“Marcy Kind! I’m her husband!” Edward gasped. “Where is she?” The head nurse insisted he calm down, though her orders were not enough to quell the need to see that they were all right, to see his sons discussing their favorite boy things, and his daughter doing what girls like to do with their dolls. He needed to see Marcy’s eyes look at him the way they did and hear how her voice sounded when she told him things. All this would happen again, he thought. They were normal, and unusual things didn’t happen to normal people.

He sat for almost thirty minutes by the nurses’ station, waiting for the doctor to make his appearance and informing him that, though some injuries were sustained, they’d all be good as new. Edward would go in, first to the kids, tell them a joke, make them laugh. Forget it all had happened, as if it was just a bad dream or some unsubstantiated scare. Then he’d go to Marcy, her neck in a brace, a cut on her lip. Perhaps a black eye. But she would give him a warm smile, pleased that he was there. They’d all be thankful. Maybe they’d start going back to church on Sundays, say prayers before bedtime. They’d be better people because of all this. They’d be stronger, wiser, closer. But when the doctor arrived, none of that happened, and Edward found himself trying to summon the definitions of words like blood loss and spines and fractures; words he knew but suddenly found impossible to translate into understanding.

Edward Kind had been thrust into singularity.

Edward decided to think of the worst case scenario, because it seemed to him that worst case scenarios never happen when they’re preconceived.

Over the next several hours, he was led like a blind man in a maze, aware of what was taking place but having no perception of where or why or what next. There was a chaplain who prayed with him, though Edward had already determined the uselessness of it. Two police officers informed him that his family had been killed by a drunk driver who had also died in the crash. A counselor consulted with him on the disposal of his family’s remains and left him with a pamphlet listing the steps of grief and how to cope. The next day, he opened Marcy’s address book listing all their relatives, though the names were as familiar as the ones under “z” in the phone book. He told them all, and they all told him they were shocked and sorry as if they’d been the ones who’d killed them. In a stroke of luck, the local funeral director informed him of the current buy-three-get-one-free special on the most comfortable coffins. His first word in that sales pitch was “coincidentally”.

Edward Kind buried his wife and children four days later.
That following Monday, Edward woke at 5:45am to walk Suffix, then drank his coffee and ate his bacon, eggs and cheese rolled up in a flour tortilla. Edward found each step through the house labored, forcing himself through silence that filled the space like sludge. He drove the fifteen minutes to the metro, caught the red line at 7:35am, waited at his connection for seven minutes, and then boarded the blue line. After making it into the city, Edward made the same ten-minute walk to his office arriving fifteen minutes early. At 5:05pm, he left work. He was about to call Marcy and tell her he was coming home but stopped since she would never answer. When he arrived home, Suffix had gotten into the garbage and had defecated on the floor. Edward scolded him and cleaned up the mess. He fed Schooner, changed the litter box, and checked on Lois’ hamster. It occurred to him that he had no idea what to call the rodent, so he named it Hamster.

The next day was the same, and the one after that. It seemed that every twenty-four-hour increment had become only separable by the different food he microwaved for dinner each night and the shows on television that put him to sleep. If anyone visited, he didn’t answer the door. If anyone called, he ignored the phone. A week later, he had the beginnings of a beard. He still had not entered his children’s rooms, leaving everything as it had been the day they’d died. Marcy’s silk nightgown remained at the edge of the bed, neatly folded in preparation for the night that never came.

Some weeks later, notices of overdue bills began to arrive in the mail and subsequently land in the trash can with the paper boxes of Chinese delivery. Edward had noticed the food beginning to pack the weight on around his midsection and face. One day, the garbage man left a note asking if he would like all the dead flowers to be taken off the porch. Despite walking past them every day in his commute to work, Edward had forgotten about all the bouquets and wreaths constructed of flowers and condolences. He likewise kept forgetting to write a response on the note, and so they all just sat there rotting.

It was on a Saturday without any particular relevance that a deep and intrusive knocking erupted on his front door. Edward stumbled over Schooner to reach the door and opened it to a middle-aged woman in a suit and a white lab coat. Her hair was pin straight and her glasses as circular as quarters. She introduced herself as Dr. Valerie Gunther.

“My name is Dr. Valerie Gunther.” Edward had never heard of her.

“I’ve never heard of you,” he replied.

“That’s all right. I’ve heard of you, Edward Kind, and I can help you get your family back.”

Edward sat listening to Dr. Gunther in his living room explaining the scientific process of her claim. Edward didn’t believe a word of it, but felt he had nothing to lose.

“I don’t believe a word of it, but what do I have to lose?” Dr. Gunther gave him only one warning.

“You must not stray from the path. This is my only warning.”

In his living room, Edward Kind was laid back several hours later on his recliner. A computer with three monitors was set up, countless colorful wires jutting out from the back and snaking to a headpiece that crowned Edward’s head. He hadn’t asked for an explanation of how it all worked, and Dr. Gunther did not offer one. It was as casual a transaction as in a convenience store. Edward listened to the clicking of keys then the buzz of circuit boards and hard drives in action. Dr. Gunther instructed him to focus on his wife, on his children, on their home, on their last day together. Edward did so, his eyes closed, his mind as busy as the computer. Then she informed him he may experience some discomfort.

“You may experience some discomfort,” said Dr. Gunther, and before Edward could ask what kind of discomfort, a bolt of force pummeled through his sternum and into his spine. His ribs quivered, and he thought for a moment that his heart would explode from the pain in his chest. But as quickly as it had begun, the inner quake was over, replaced by a fuzzing of his eardrums that he could feel pulsing from the center of his head. Edward felt his limbs relax, then more core and more chest. His neck no longer held his head, but rather was relieved by a perceived lack of gravity. In his vision, a tiny hole appeared, a white void growing like an enveloping cloud, consuming him, until it had become the universe.

Edward was standing, or what he thought was standing, for though his feet were below him, there was neither shadow nor depth to judge his surroundings by at first. After several moments, lines and shadows began to form in small particles. There was a shelf, a window, a chair. It was his living room, the one he’d existed vaguely in for the past few months, except it was not gray or quiet. It was alive, and from the kitchen, Edward heard voices familiar and exhilarating. He entered quickly, and there at the counter was Marcy, her ivory smile, those glimmering hazel eyes. Her black hair fell as it usually did about her shoulders, framing the dark cream of her skin.

Edward sat at the dinner table eating his meatloaf, discussing with Adam and Kevin about the unlikely demise of their favorite super villain who was half man half crustacean living atop a giant skyscraper in the center of the city. He imagined Lois’ drawing as she described it, a sun over their square house, and outside the house were all of them including Suffix, Schooner, and the hamster DeeDoo. Edward asked Marcy about anything new before she could tell him, and he listened about the new stylist named Karen who came all the way from some fancy cosmetology school in New York.
Edward and Marcy ushered their children through the process of preparing for bedtime. They joked and played along, landing everyone in their beds like airplanes. Together, they washed the dishes, saying very little, though it was just fine, and together they went upstairs, moved to the bed, and made love.

The alarm woke Edward at 6am. He dressed, prepared his breakfast, then was about to get in his car when he remembered the pass problem at the metro. He considered what Dr. Gunther had told him but concluded that getting the pass would only keep him from straying on the path. He returned to his room to retrieve Marcy’s pass. From there, all was as normal.

Edward Kind answered his office phone just before 3pm.
Tears were blistering his cheeks as he ran, faster than the first time, curses of bitter betrayal and anger filling his cheeks like the air he gasped. They were dead, and again, Edward was thrust into that wretched singularity.
It was all the same—the doctors, the police, the funeral director, the graves. The difference, however, was that while he mourned and the flowers rotted, he waited.

There was a knock at Edward’s door.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Dr. Gunther.” The doctor already knew.

“I already knew,” she said frankly. “I’ve been waiting for you as well.”

Dr. Gunther entered the house and together they sat in the living room as before.

“Why did they die again? Why didn’t they stay alive?” Edward demanded to know.

“You strayed from the path, Mr. Kind, as I told you not to the last two times.”

“What do you mean the last two times?”

Dr. Gunther held in her breath before telling him the truth of it all. Edward saw.

“I see.”

“You have a choice to make now, Mr. Kind.” Edward chose.

The alarm woke Edward at 6am, and he slapped his palm down upon the snooze button before opening his eyes, before turning to his side and taking in Marcy’s sleeping visage. The blankets over her rose and fell softly with her breaths, the lashes of her eyes fluttering slightly with her dreams. Edward decided to never leave that place again, that to stay was safety. Quietly, he scooted himself off the bed and into the hall, stopping at the rooms of his children to look in on their peaceful figures before sneaking downstairs and into the kitchen.

There were eggs to be scrambled, strips of bacon to be cooked, pancakes to be mixed and griddled, and he did it all within thirty minutes, setting five places at the table with silverware and glasses of orange juice. As he did all this, it occurred to him that there was no need to stay in the house, to keep them there hoarded away, and an energy Edward had never felt before filled him with the happiness that only a regaining of what had been lost to eternity could produce. He thought about all they’d do with their new lives, with his decided freedom. They’d go to the park and walk the trails stretching through the trees by the river. They’d take a vacation to Florida like Marcy and he had been meaning to do for the past eight years. They’d go get ice cream and spend the evening under the illumination of the drive-in movie, curled up together in the car with popcorn and hot chocolate. He wouldn’t stray from the path. He would make his own.

The sound of steps in the living room pulled Edward’s attention back in, and he hurried to scoop portions of eggs onto each plate with the bacon and pancakes. “I’ve got breakfast on,” he called with a smile, anticipating the surprise on Marcy’s face. Edward stepped through the doorway and into the living room where she was seated on the couch facing the window, unresponsive to his words. “Marcy?” Moving around the couch, his eyes fell upon her face, and the granite of joy that had been sculpted suddenly disintegrated into a heap of rubble and dust.

Where Marcy’s face should have been was a featureless sheet of skin stretched over a shapeless frame. She sat with her hands folded, unmoving, unseeing, unhearing. Edward fell back against the wall unable to breath, strangled by his horror, his lungs shriveling like grapes under an unforgiving, desert sun. He floundered with his hands, moving back toward the kitchen, unable to avert his eyes, unable to comprehend the sudden catapult from immeasurable happiness into infinite madness.

“Adam! Kevin!” Edward bounded up three steps at a time, down the hall to their rooms. Personless forms sat upon their beds in his children’s pajamas. “Lois!” Entering her room, the arms of nobody cradled a stuffed kitty cat as if it still offered security. He shut their doors, then shut himself away in his bedroom, falling breathless upon the carpeted floor of the spinning reality.
“Dr. Gunther!” Edward cried out as if to god. There was no answer.
Edward screamed and cursed, wept and crawled, then finally lay at the foot of the bed staring at the ceiling. It had been hours he felt and in a hopeful courage ventured out to see if perhaps he’d been wrong in what he’d seen, knowing that he had not, and proving it to himself. Eventually the well of tears ran dry, and exhaustion set in, sending him into a black, dreamless sleep.

Edward was shaken awake still on the floor of the darkened bedroom, and when he looked up to see Marcy’s face, he jumped back and away from her. She furrowed her brow, puzzling at him.

“Edward, what are you doing on the floor?” She smiled and kissed his cheek before pulling him into a sitting position. “I have dinner ready. The kids are anxious to see you.” Marcy stood up and disappeared into the hallway from where the voices of Edward’s children were echoing. He emerged slowly from the room, looking around to see that all was as it was supposed to be. Downstairs he found his family at the table, waiting and smiling.

“You’re all here? You’re… you’re all fine?”

“Of course,” Marcy laughed. “Just like every night. Come sit so we can eat.”

Edward knew he had ventured into the unknown when he created his own path and explained away the day’s freak occurrence as the reaction of reality to his aversion. It needed only to balance after being shaken.
Once the meatloaf was consumed, the discussions had, and the children tucked in, Edward and Marcy made love. The dim glow of a streetlight cut in through the lace curtains of the window, and Edward was convinced that all would be well from there. The universe had fixed itself, and it was that self-assurance that finally lulled Edward into sleep as the shadows of branches danced across the ceiling above them.

At 6am, the alarm buzzed again, and again Edward slapped it off, looked at Marcy sleeping with her hand on his chest. This time he wouldn’t get up, he thought. This time he wouldn’t move. Her head was nuzzled against his shoulder, and he held her hand, feeling the warm breeze of Marcy’s exhales over his knuckles. An hour later Edward opened his eyes again having drifted back to sleep, and a lock of her hair had settled under his chin. He looked up, wishing he could see through the ceiling into the sky. It was then that Edward noticed that the subtle breeze had stopped. The body in his arms was still. When he couraged a glance down at Marcy, the bridge of her nose, the curve of her cheekbones, the shadow of her brow had all been smudged out again, and the horror filled him once more. Unable to contain himself, he cried out in panic, jumping out of the bed and backing out of the bedroom. The thing moved to a sitting position and rose mechanically and without character or effort before the feet shuffled across the room. It followed Edward down the stairs and took its place once more on the couch.

Dr. Gunther had warned him about straying from the path so far as he had. It was volatile and unstable. Edward had taken the chance anyway, determining that there was just as much a possibility of her being wrong about it as much as right. It was a wager he’d made and lost.
Edward Kind decided to return to the path.

Edward’s family transformed back to their normal states that evening, ate the meatloaf, said the things they would say, slept soundly. Edward stayed awake, sitting, watching his wife sleep, drinking one glass of whiskey after another. None of it was real, he thought. It was just the skipping record of reality.

As the birds began to awaken in the twilight outside, he clicked off the alarm, for he was already awake.

Edward Kind dressed, drank his coffee, and ate his bacon, eggs, and cheese rolled up in a tortilla as he drove his practical family sedan to the metro station about fifteen minutes away without traffic. His metro pass failed, and he received another from the station manager after being informed that it had expired. Edward watched through bleary eyes as the red line moved away, and he walked slowly to his car. Edward sat silently in traffic, emotions weighted by the inevitable, and words weighted by the emotions. He arrived at his office one hour and thirty-six minutes late, though he saw no reason to present himself to his supervisor and apologize.

Edward remained in his office, excusing himself from his meeting. At noon, his coworkers invited him to lunch, but he declined, preferring to go alone to the bar down the street. Between shots of bourbon, he watched as the second hand of the clock on the wall ticked by, the minute hand begrudgingly following.

It was just after two that Edward returned to his office and the mail boy was rummaging through his cart outside his door. Edward took his mail, not returning the smile that the young man offered. He thanked him, sat behind his desk, then stared down at the correspondence. As his eyes studied white and manila envelopes with blurred vision, his fingers moved on their own, reaching out to them, nudging them apart. Then in the middle of the pile, he recognized a handwriting, and with an exalted explosion of passion snatched up the envelope and tore it open to reveal its contents, a single sheet of paper. Edward read the letter line by line.

This was the moment that Edward Kind realized each day had been exactly the same as before.

Once finished with the letter, he sat perplexed for several moments, then without a word bolted from his office, through the halls and down the emergency stairs, for there was no time to wait for elevators.

Behind the wheel of his car, Edward swerved in and out of the city traffic, pushing the limits of his possible speed until he came to an intersection where he cut left, then right again. The tires spun, losing their traction, and he found himself spinning towards a minivan.

Weightlessness. Glass shards and mangled aluminum. Clouds of powder from inflated airbags.

Edward Kind lay staring up at the sky, bright gray with spots of blue. Like inverted clouds. Approaching footsteps. Voices of panic and control. His eyes and a line of blood descended from his ears. Then the sky was obscured as a face looked over him.

“You did it, Mr. Kind. You did it.”



Studies In gray.


“Hello, Andrew.”


“How are you feeling today?”

“I’m feeling well, thank you.”

“How did you sleep last night? I know the nightmares have been giving you trouble lately. You’re still experiencing them?”


“How often?”


“And last night? Did you have any dreams that you’d care to talk about?”

“We were on the railroad tracks. Kids, walking the ties. Barefoot, but we didn’t care about splinters. It was me and Nora and Chucky. Good ole Chucky. He was scared of the splinters, so he kept his shoes on. We walked for miles, down past Jenkin’s Creek, all the oak trees full green.”

“Is this a real place? The tracks and the creek?”

“It was. Not anymore.”

“They dug up the tracks?”

“They dug up the trees.”

“I see… What happened next?”

“Both Nora and I had been looking for old iron spikes. We found about three or four each. Chucky was just filling his bag with coal. We had a wager to see who could get more for what they found. We’d walked around there before looking for coal, but Nora heard about a construction supplier buying up old iron for double the price of coal. Two bucks a spike, I think. Chucky wasn’t convinced though and said the coal was the surest bet for a good payout. ‘No-semitty,’ he’d always say. Like Yosemite. He was into geography and things like that. What Nora and I knew about that stuff was just from what he told us. I wasn’t interested in all that, but it seemed important to Nora, and that meant it was important to me.”

“Did she like learning from Chucky?”
   “Nora always used to say, ‘Come on, Andy. Let’s go see what Chucky chucked up today.’ So,we’d go see. She loved it.”

    “And how did you feel about it?”

    “It was important to me because of her.”

    “You liked Nora? As more than a friend?”

“Almost everybody liked her that way. She was the prettiest girl in the county, and on top of it, she could do everything all the boys could do and better.”

    “But she was your friend out of everyone…”

    “She was. We used to go crawfishing, catching crickets and frogs, fighting spiders and turtles against each other. She could dig up twice the earth worms as anyone, including me. But Chucky showed her a geode one day. It was pretty neat, sure. But then he got a telescope and he showed Nora the moon and the stars.”

…it seemed important to Nora, and that meant it was important to me.”

    “How did that make you feel?”

    “She was my friend. I tried to not care.”

    “She chose to look for spikes instead of coal like Chucky. Did you feel like that meant anything?”

    “Sure. It meant she understood the value of a dollar better than Chucky. I’m surprised he didn’t decide to look for spikes, too, just because she was. He would never have looked for them just because of me.”

    “Well, who won the wager?”

    “Nobody won.”

    “Nobody won? You mean it was a tie?”

    “I mean nobody won. We never sold the spikes or the coal.”

    “Why not?… Andy… Can you tell me what happened?”

    “Nora sprained her ankle.”

    “And you had to carry her back? Leave the coal and the spikes?”

    “No. Nora sprained her ankle and Chucky wrapped it up in a bandage. He was like a boy scout except he wasn’t. He knew how to do all that like he was a paramedic. I didn’t know what to do. I was worried, but Chucky just stayed calm took care of Nora. When he was done and she stopped crying, she hugged him. For a long time. Then she thanked him with a kiss.”

    “How did you react?”

    “How would anyone react?”

“You’re not just anyone, Andrew. You’re you, and the way you reacted in your dream can tell us even more about you in real life. That’s all it really was, wasn’t it? Just a bad dream?… Andrew… Andrew, if you’re not willing to give me the full picture then you’re tying my hands to help you… Please, Andy…”

    “I took a spike from my pocket and drove it into her skull.”


    “I’ll never forget the look on Chucky’s face.”

    “Why did you kill Nora? She was the one you liked.”

    “I never said that.”

    “You said everyone—”

“I said that almost everyone liked her that way. Chucky did, but I didn’t.”

    “Then why did you murder her?”

    “It was Chucky that I liked. She knew it, too. But Chucky didn’t like me. He wasn’t a faggot like me. I’m not the one he opened the geode for. I’m not the one he showed the moon and the stars to. That was always for Nora. Always Nora.”

“How was that Nora’s fault?”

“She knew how I felt about him. She didn’t care. Nora never cared about anyone. That bitch got what was coming to her. Sometimes, I can still hear that railroad spike, the top of her skull popping like… like a wooden tire, and the blood was all over everything. Chucky was still kissing her before he even realized what had happened. The spike even got stuck for a second, and I had to put my knee in her back just to get the leverage to yank it out. It made this horrible screeching sound. Not like nails on a chalkboard… but like the screech of a fork on a dinner plate. Then she fell over. I remember her blinking up at me as her body spasmed. Then it stopped… I wish it could’ve gone on longer…

“Why so pale, doctor?… I hope I didn’t upset you. It was only a bad dream, wasn’t it? You said so yourself.”

“Yes… I did…”

“I’m sorry, what was your original question? I got completely sidetracked.”

“Um… how did you sleep last night?…”

“Oh, that’s right; I remember now. Yes, I slept very well, thanks. How about you?”



Studies In gray.


It has been said that in the final moment of a person’s existence, their whole life flashes before their eyes. I cannot say with any certainty whether this is true because, firstly, I have no life, or at least, no life of my own. What existence I have is shared and fleeting and relies solely on the existence of others. Secondly, there is no such thing as a final moment, because each moment in and of itself is both final and independent. It is for this reason that I cannot fully fathom the notion of directing one’s own fate. Yet, I do believe in it, however begrudgingly, and know that if it were ever afforded to me, I would treasure it. Such privilege is all too often wasted on those who are incapable of believing, even as they hold it in their own hands. My fate forever remains out of hands I do not possess. And now, the only hand I see is balled into a fist and poised for my destruction. Don’t think that I am bitter for my helplessness. I am what I am, and I accept that. After all, one cannot lose what was never had. Therefore, with neither a final moment nor a life with which to live it, I shall do as I have always done and reflect.

It was on a peculiar day, not five years ago, that the new owners of my residence placed me into a room I’d never before seen, and at first I was repulsed at how much time these people spent looking at me. They mindlessly splashed me with sink water leaving the droplets to dry until they felt compelled to clean them off. Many times I found myself peering through the mist, unable to discern any more than shapes and orbs of color and light until the towel which had been wrapped around naked flesh was used to smudge away the fog. And what noises that escape the human form! I consider myself fortunate to reflect light and not sound.

However, even in that undesirable environment, I found most pleasing a new view through a small window giving me sight to what I’d only before heard referenced to as “the lake”. The water moved back and forth in soft crescendos, disturbed only by the impact of rain on its surface. When the sun returned, the neighbor children would go jumping into the water from the pier for some time, then sit back with their fishing poles lined and launched. It was sunny this way nearly every day when the new couple arrived. I do not know where they came from, but I could only surmise after hearing and seeing so many conversations that they too were pleased with the change of scenery, however minor it may have been.

The man was handsome, a bit rough around the edges, and certainly not as fit as others I’d seen. He smiled much more frequently, however, and at times it seemed to be his most attractive feature. The woman who kissed him was short and spent far less time than many other women fixing their hair and concealing their blemishes. She seemed to realize what was already beautiful about her and needed nothing—nor felt a need—to make anyone else more aware of it.

What I found most peculiar was the bond between them, far different from the aching hearts of the meek and the mild, the backbiting of the envious, and the stoic silence of hopeless romantics. It was almost as if they felt something genuine for each other, a thing which I could not give a name, yet it was something visible in their eyes when they said to each other, “I love you.” The man and woman said this often, always simply and without reservation. I had, in the first weeks, already decided that even if they believed they meant it, such feelings would not last, and such beliefs would follow suit.

She seemed to realize what was already beautiful about her and needed nothing—nor felt a need—to make anyone else more aware of it.

Whether due to an affliction of supra-naiveté or simply a lack of matrimonial awareness, as the summer turned to autumn and thusly to winter, their happiness and love did not appear to diminish. It was a struggle even for me, with all my knowledge and observation of the human species, to remain pragmatic. Idealistic attitudes of human nature never ended well, as the very first inhabitants of my house learned all too clearly when they were robbed by some soldiers who’d surrendered and sought a night’s shelter from their former enemies. By all accounts, it was nothing short of a miracle that no one had been murdered in their beds. At any rate, the cycle of trust and deception always ended in this way: those who trusted would be deceived, and those who deceived would never trust, but all would meet their end with bitter wisdom.

In the dawn of their first spring, a layer of morning clouds cast a haze over the lake, and the woman entered the bathroom, quickly locking the door behind her. She sat in every ordinary way on the porcelain seat, fumbling with some box and its contents. I paid the affair little mind until she stood before me. She looked at herself in me, and it was then that my attention was caught. It was as if she was facing a giant; that reflected before her was not herself but something greater, as if she observed the path of uncertain adventure. Yet, it was this fact of uncertainty that brought the smile to her face. The man began knocking at the door, and after taking a deep breath she allowed him entrance. Together they smiled, then laughed. Together they wept. This was something I’d never before witnessed. Of course, I’d seen countless men and women weep, but this was something else. This was happiness, and I pondered with perplexity such joy that would release a wealth of tears.

Soon, the woman’s figure changed, her belly and her breasts swelling quickly. Unlike others who grow bigger, this seemed to please her, and she’d turn to one side, then the other, feeling and pressing at her sides, then rubbing her palm tenderly across her skin. On occasion, in quiet moments, the man would do the same to her, his arms wrapping around from behind. The summer and the light returned until it cooled and the leaves began to turn. Breezes whispered to each other just as did the man and the woman, and despite the winter claiming the lake, the cold found no shelter here.

Then, there were three of them. The baby girl chattered and cooed at herself in me, her mother holding her securely against her bossom. The man was there as well, his smile evolved into an expression of awed affection. This child was their creation, and they were humbled and in love. Few moments followed in which the girl was not the center of attention. Like two planets, they orbited their star, and they called her Felicity.

Those who trusted would be deceived, and those who deceived would never trust, but all would meet their end with bitter wisdom.

The three lived this way for a long time. The woman even grew again as with their daughter, and she and the man wept together as before. Yet, there was no addition to the family. One autumn morning before dawn, the light switched on. The woman was alone as she struggled into the bathroom. Her night gown was coated red, and her hands the same leaving smeared prints on the floor as she crawled towards the tub in agony. Her skin was pale, sweating, and crying, her teeth gritted until I was certain they’d crack. With a guttural sigh, her strength gave out, and she lay silently on the floor. The woman bled until she stopped.

I do not like some reflections. I do not like most, if I am to be honest. The man walking into the bathroom, tired and dirty from a long night’s work, those suspended seconds of confusion, the bolt of realization piercing him that followed and the scream he could not give voice to; I would have rather not existed at all than to reflect that light. Perhaps, in consideration of such things, fate is in no one’s hands at all. Perhaps, such a notion is simply a myth, a fairy tale created to make sense of the nonsensical, no different than any other horrible bedtime story.

To say that the woman lived is subjective, and you may take that as you will. The eyes that once looked confidently upon a great adventure now stared blankly at a wall. It was only with Felicity that such an expression was replaced with a smile. However, there was no question that the new reflection was void of something that the old possessed. The man recognized this, too, though he remained silent, seeing it then looking away in denial of both, as if to not acknowledge something is to negate its existence altogether. However, that which is buried alive will seek vengeance when unearthed, and it will shriek and howl all the while in between.

Despite her role in my imminent shattering, the woman I see now is the same woman I saw years before. No form of her in the present is devoid of her in the past, and though it may seem her heavy eyes and splintering tears were born of sorrow for what might have been, they were instead for the inexorable change of what used to be. She’d repeated countless times while looking at herself in me, “You cannot lose what you never had… You cannot lose what you never had…” It may have been that she was simply trying to convince herself of such a thing, to remind herself of what still mattered. However, when one has smiled but can no longer, when a person who has expressed love becomes incapable of expression, when someone who—worse than a lack of feeling—feels the heaviness of nothing, then there is no matter. There is only the reflection, and the reflection must die.



Studies In gray.


Disclaimer: The following short story contains racially charged dialogue and disturbing subject matter as it reflects the characters and the period in which they exist. In no way does it express the views or opinions of the author.

“The hangman’s gettin’ his today.” A puff of cigarette smoke floated toward the open window. “Yessir. The hangman’s gettin’ his.”

  “Sit down, Joe. Enough witnesses out there already, ain’t there?”

  “What’s eatin’ you, Pal? Since when did you stop likin’ a good hangin’?” Pal looked back down at the revolver he’d been polishing for nearly an hour. It had been three long weeks since he’d been able to clean it. He couldn’t stand a dirty gun. Joe sat down at the other end of the table, exhaling a gray cloud. “There ain’t nothin’ you coulda done. Mitchell dug his own grave. What the hell were you supposed to do? Let him run off with them niggers?” Pal stopped wiping for a moment of thought, then resumed.

  “Ain’t no nigger ever done nothin’ to me,” he said.

  “It ain’t about what a nigger do. It about what a nigger be. A nigger be a nigger. You can’t trust a one of ‘em. Sure as shit, as soon as Mitchell’d got them up north, those damn spooks woulda put a bullet twixed his eyes and made off with his horse an’ his billfold. I’m tellin’ ya. Sure as shit.”

  “Why would they do that to someone just helped ‘em?” Pal asked.

  “’Cause they’s niggers,” Joe answered. “It’s in they blood.” He stamped his cigarette out on the table for emphasis.

 “Nigger blood don’t look no different than any other blood,” said Pal.

 “Sure it do,” said Joe, relaxing. He took out his pocket knife and began scraping the dirt from under his fingernails.

 “Didn’t look no different up in Kentucky.”

 “You just wasn’t payin’ no attention.”

 “Oh… I was payin’ attention.”

 “It’s in they skin, Pal. Come on. I know you ain’t missin’ that.”

 “No, I ain’t missin’ that.”

 “You can learn a nigger a lotta things. How to plow, how to plant, how to harvest, how to build. But you can’t change ‘em. You can’t wash out the nigger. You can’t learn out the nigger. They ain’t never gonna be no more than a bunch o’ damned monkeys. Any chance they’d get, them spooks’d be turnin’ this here country into Afr’ca, chuckin’ spears an’ bangin’ drums. Worst part is, it’d be us white folks chained up like we the slaves. Niggers would be goin’ ‘round murderin’ and rapin’ all our white women an’ chil’en. Lawmen like you an’ me, you know we’d be at the top o’ they kill list. That’s why we gotta keep ‘em under control, ‘specially them bad ones. Ain’t no tellin’ what a bad nigger gonna do.”

 “Ain’t no nigger ever done nothin’ to me,” Pal repeated.

 “Don’t mean they wouldn’t if’n you let ‘em.”

 “Don’t mean they would, neither.”

  “’Cause they’s niggers,” Joe answered. “It’s in they blood.” He stamped his cigarette out on the table for emphasis.
 “Nigger blood don’t look no different than any other blood,” said Pal.

 “The hell’s got into you, Pal?” Joe asked angrily. “You actin’ like there’s somethin’ wrong with killin’ a bad nigger.”

 “I ain’t sayin’ all that.”

 “What you sayin’, then?” Joe demanded, putting his knife away to face Pal who looked down at the gun in his hand.

 “What’s the difference ‘tween a good nigger and a bad nigger?” Pal asked, looking up at Joe.

 “What d’you mean ‘good nigger’? Ain’t no such thing as a good nigger, Pal.”

 “Just s’posin’ there were, Joe.”

 “But there ain’t-”

 “Just, s’pose.”

 “Well,” Joe shrugged after a moment, “a good nigger—s’posin’ there be such a thing—a good nigger know his place, an’ a bad nigger don’t know a nigger’s place.”

 “Okay,” Pal nodded. “What’s the difference ‘tween a good white man and a bad white man?”

 “I ain’t gotta explain a good white man. A good white man do good. A bad white man…” Joe shrugged again. “Well, a bad white man don’t know a nigger’s place, neither. Look at what Mitchell done, helpin’ them coons. He got it all mixed up in his head one way or ‘nother.”

 “So, a bad white man is the same as a bad nigger, is what you’re sayin’?”

 “Now, Pal, ain’t no white man the same as a nigger, good nor bad.”

 “Would you shoot a nigger if’n you caught him rapin’ a white girl?”

 “Sure as shit, I’d shoot that nigger dead.” Joe straightened up proudly.

 “Would you shoot a white man if you caught him rapin’ a white girl?”

 “That ain’t the same thing at all, Pal, an’ you know it.”

 “Why ain’t it?”

 “’Cause, it’s twice the bad if a nigger’s rapin’ a white girl.”

 “To you or to the white girl?”

 “If they ain’t no difference to the white girl, then she mixed up too!”

 “It’s the same crime ain’t it, rapin’ someone?”

 “Yeah, but it ain’t the same if a goddamn nigger do it.”

 “What makes it different?”

 “’Cause they niggers, Pal! That’s why they gotta be kept under control. Why you questionin’ ever’thin’?”

 “You mean make ‘em slaves?”

 “If’n that’s what it takes, an’ we both know that’s what it takes.”

 “Supposin’ you made a white man a slave, put him in chains, took his woman and children away. Supposin’ that. What do you reckon that white man’d do?”

 “That ain’t the same thing.”

 “It ain’t?”

 “You talkin’ ‘bout a white man. We dealin’ with spear-chuckin’ chimps.”

 “What would you do if it was you, Joe? What if you was just some ole whitey slave under the nigger’s thumb? Sweatin’ away every day in their nigger fields, getting’ beat every day with them nigger whips, always hungry, never seein’ your wife and girls again but knowin’, fearin’ that every day, some nigger’s stuffin’ ‘em good? You’d do everything you could to get away, wouldn’t you?”

 “Course I would.”

 “You’d fight back? You’d break out and run?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “You’d make them niggers pay, wouldn’t you?”

 “You’re goddamn right.”

 “I suppose you’d steal yourself a horse too if’n you could find one, to get you far as you can, quick as you can, right?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “You’d need food, so you’d steal some of that, too, wouldn’t you? An’ a gun? If one o’ them were to see you, try to stop you, you’d shoot ‘im wouldn’t you?”

 “Sure as shit.”

 “So you’d be runnin’, stealin’, and murderin’…” Pal looked down at the handkerchief in his hands, his thoughts pulling him back and forth. “Sounds a lot like the same shit bad niggers be doin’. There ain’t no difference.”

“… A good white man do good. A bad white man…” Joe shrugged again. “Well, a bad white man don’t know a nigger’s place, neither….”

 “Them niggers is property, Pal! White folks ain’t property o’ no man!”

 “But what was they first, Joe? Was they property first, or was they just niggers first?”

 “You talkin’ nonsense, Pal.”

 “It ain’t no nonsense that anyone would be doin’ the same thing if’n they was treated the same way. You said so yourself.”

 “So, what?”

 “So, there ain’t no difference ‘tween a bad nigger an’ a bad white man. We jus’ say there is ‘cause we’re white an’ ‘cause we’re the ones runnin’ shit. Switch things ‘round an’ niggers would be sayin’ the same ‘bout white folks. They’d be callin’ us property and bad ole whiteys. There jus’ ain’t no goddamn difference, Joe.” Joe looked a long time at Pal who’d gone back to wiping down his revolver, and he wasn’t sure if he should start to hate him or fear him.

 In Joe’s mind, the only thing more dangerous than a nigger, was a nigger lover. They were like spies. Turncoats. You couldn’t trust them, but you couldn’t identify one just by looking at him. They were tricky. They could circumvent law, spawn anarchy and rebellion. At the same rate, hadn’t it been Pal who’d taken the lead while they were hunting down that last group of runaways? Hadn’t it been Pal himself who’d cuffed Thomas Mitchell, his longtime partner? He’d even testified against Mitchell to the magistrate. If it wasn’t for Pal, Mitchell might be rounding up some more runaways instead of standing outside in line at the gallows. Perhaps, it didn’t matter much what Pal thought in his head because Pal didn’t let it get in the way of the job he’d sworn to do. They had to maintain the balance of law and order and keep the peace. Joe had always respected Pal, but in that moment, he realized he neither hated nor feared Pal. Joe wanted to be Pal in some different way he had yet to define for himself.

 “What would you do, Pal?” Joe asked, lighting a fresh cigarette. Pal looked over at him.

 “What would I do, what?”

 “What would you do if’n you was some spook’s slave, jus’ some ole whitey all chained up? What would you do?” Pal sat for a long time, staring at the table between them, his eyes heavy, the dark circles beneath them like the shadows of twin crescent moons. Joe was leaning forward slightly, squinting at him.

 “I can’t rightly say,” said Pal, holstering his pistol. He stood up slowly and approached the window, folding the cloth between his hands.

 “The hell you mean, you can’t rightly say? Why not?” Joe scoffed, second-guessing his newfound desire to be like Pal. “I wanna know what you’d do.”

 Running his thumb along the stitching of the handkerchief, Pal looked out towards the distant gallows. The sun was high, and he could see the one shade of light skin leading the line of dark. Mitchell was first up to climb the platform, and it occurred to Pal how quickly time passed in life. They’d been partners for almost nine years, and there was no question in Pal’s mind that if it wasn’t for Tom, he’d be a dead man. Pal felt pretty certain that he’d done the same for Tom, but even if he had, did it count for anything, now? If anyone had ever tried to tell him it would be his testimony that tightened the rope around his partner’s neck, he’d have knocked their teeth in. Tom didn’t look angry about it at his trial, though, almost as if he approved of Pal doing what was right, even if Pal didn’t like it. Yet, they’d both done what they believed to be right, hadn’t they? The difference was that one had acted according to his conscience and the other according to the law, but how do you string up a man for following his conscience? And if a man’s conscience runs counter to the law, does that make the man wrong or the law wrong?

 Pal couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and it had finally exhausted him. What would he do if the world was opposite? How the hell could he tell that if he couldn’t tell what he’d do in the world as it was? Pal did know, however, what Mitchell would do, and he hung his head as the black bag was lowered over Tom’s face.

 “I guess I’d be a good ole whitey.”



Studies In gray.


Tiny crumbs of asphalt crunched as Rudy parked his cab along the sidewalk. After turning his flag down, he reached over for the lunchbox on the passenger floorboard. It had been four days of peanut butter sandwiches, and he was hoping that today wouldn’t be the fifth. The tin container rattled open, and unwrapping the parchment paper revealed a jelly sandwich. “If that woman don’t beat all,” he chuckled.

   The city of Chicago and its citizens were alive and buzzing around Rudy like a hive of bees. The sun was affectionately combing its fingers through the heights of concrete and steel, down along the avenues, and toward the hidden lakefront. Checking his watch, he estimated that he still had about two minutes and quickly tore away the crust, stuffing a quarter of the sandwich into his mouth. As he chewed deliberately, Rudy considered what the monetary repercussions would be if he sucked it up and put down the fifty cents it would cost for a soup and sandwich at the diner on 5th Avenue.

   “Hiya, Rudy,” a young woman’s voice said through the window. Looking up, Rudy returned the greeting as he cranked the window down. “We should be ready in just a minute.”

   “No rush,” he said. “How you been, Margaret? Busy week so far?”

   “Not as much as last week,” she shrugged. “It’s only Tuesday, though.”

   “Sure is a pretty day,” Rudy commented. “I was thinkin’ about fishin’ on the lake tomorrow if it keeps up.

   “Yeah, it’s really nice out.”

   “Did you know that spring is my favorite season?”

   “I didn’t know that.”

   “Not too hot, not too cold. And you know what? Gloria was even out for a walk this morning.”

   “Really? How’s she been doing?” Margaret leaned one hand on the roof of the car.

   “Some days are better than others, days like today.” Rudy looked pensively ahead down the street. “Seems like it always gets better before it gets worse, but… it’s best to enjoy the good while it lasts. That’s why I don’t tell her about all this,” he admitted, wagging his thumb over his shoulder. “Wouldn’t be any good days if I did.”

   “Makes sense.”

   “Hey, Margaret, she’s ready. You all set?” Another woman had poked her head out from the door of the apartment building beyond them. “Oh, and we got two more calls.”

   “Two?” Margaret repeated.

   “Yeah, so we’re gonna need you to take one,” she confirmed before disappearing back inside.

  “I guess I spoke to soon,” Margaret said, handing him a folded piece of paper. “Here’s the address.”

  “What do you mean, here’s the address? You mean you ain’t comin’?” Rudy asked, suddenly anxious.

  “I’ve gotta stay for these other ladies.”

  “What about the one you got right now?” he demanded. “I ain’t one of ya’ll. I don’t know how to talk to these women.”

   “Nobody said you have to talk. Just drive her there like any other passenger.”

   “South Shore?” Rudy asked, looking at the scribbled address. “That’s near a half hour. Ain’t no woman can be quiet that long.”

   “Just turn on the radio.”

   “What if she doesn’t want no radio on?”

   “Here’s five extra dollars, okay?” Rudy glared at the folded bill in Margaret’s hand.

   “Fine,” he conceded, accepting the money. “But this ain’t gonna be no regular thing, you hear? I’m gettin’ too old to be consolin’ women and all that.”

   “Here she comes,” Margaret said. “Just drive.”

“Seems like it always gets better before it gets worse, but… it’s best to enjoy the good while it lasts. That’s why I don’t tell her about all this.”

Aggravated, Rudy inhaled another quarter of his sandwich before returning the rest to the lunchbox, muttering under his breath about the new generation and their ridiculous expectations on people his age. At least he would be able to get that soup and sandwich, now. What time did they stop serving that lunch special, though? In an hour, maybe? His estimation of the fastest route to take was paused as the woman he was to drive opened the door and took her seat in the back. She wore a pressed, blue dress, black flats, and one of the little hats all the women seemed to be wearing those days. Gloved hands tightly clutched a small, cloth purse over the edge of her knees.

   “All right, Jane, this is Rudy,” introduced Margaret. “He’s gonna drive you to the location just like we talked about. If you need anything, just tell him. Okay?”

   “Okay,” Jane nodded timidly.

   “You’re sure you want to do this?” Margaret squinted as she waited for a response. Jane nodded again, only silently this time, and with down-turned eyes. Margaret stood straight, closed the door, and hit twice on the roof.

Rudy pulled away from the sidewalk and began navigating toward the highway, the engine humming a different tone with each shift of the gears. He found himself occasionally glancing at her in the rear view. She didn’t seem but twenty years old. Maybe twenty-five. It was impossible to tell those days with all the young kids looking like adults. Her eyes couldn’t lie, though. They were tired, tired the way no kid’s eyes should ever be.

   “Where are we going?” Jane’s question broke him from his thoughts.

   “South Shore,” he answered curtly.

   “I’ve never been down that way. How far is it?”

   “Gonna be about twenty-five minutes, give or take. Depends on traffic.”

   “Is there a lot today?” she asked, with a hint of hope.

   “Roads are lookin’ pretty clear so far.” Rudy hoped this would be the extent of the conversation, and to help ensure it was, he asked, “Want to listen to the radio?”

   “Not right now,” she answered quietly. Rudy frowned. “Is it a nice place?”

   “You mean South Shore?”

   “The place we’re going.”

   “I don’t know. Ain’t never been there.” He couldn’t understand why she needed to talk to him, or better yet, why she couldn’t just listen to the radio.

   “Do you do this a lot?”

   “Well, I’m a cab driver, so…”

   “I mean for this,” she specified.

   “I ain’t part of what they do, but, sure, sometimes.”

   “So,” Jane began slowly, “you know what this is all for, then?”

   “I got a good idea.” Rudy cleared his throat uncomfortably.

   “And it doesn’t bother you at all?”

   “It ain’t my business to be bothered by.”

   “A friend of mine did this last year, you know. Maybe you remember her. Her name was Catherine—or Cathy, I guess. We all called her Cathy… and she had thick brown hair, always bobbed real nice. Pretty, straight teeth, too. A real nice smile. All the boys were—”

   “I don’t remember,” Rudy interrupted.

   “Oh, of course. I’m sure you see hundreds of people every day. Thousands maybe. I guess you couldn’t be expected to remember one.” Jane rubbed her thumbs along the strap of her purse. “I doubt you’ll remember me, even.”

   “There’s a lot of people in Chicago,” Rudy said, as if to imply that it was no fault of hers that she would be forgotten and in turn make up for his previous abrasiveness. Judging by her expression, however, his words seemed to have little effect. “What I mean is, I probably won’t remember you any more than I won’t remember anyone else. You know? There’s a lot of people.”

   “I knew what you meant,” she said. “Nobody’s special.”

   “I wouldn’t say all that,” he replied. “Nobody’s special to everyone, but everyone should be special to someone.”

   “Even if they haven’t been born yet?” asked Jane. Rudy remained silent, watching the lines on the road move slowly toward them, ever-increasing in speed until they jumped by and were gone. Like life, he thought to himself. It seems like everything to come is a slow haul until it arrives. Then, it’s over as if it never happened at all. “Who’s special to you?”

   “What’s that?” he asked, stealing a glance at his watch.

   “I said, who’s special to you?” Jane was studying him in the mirror, now.

   “I’m married.” Rudy focused on avoiding her gaze.

   “Oh? How long?”

   “Longer than you been alive. I married Gloria back in 1921,” he said proudly. “Ain’t looked back since.”

Her eyes couldn’t lie, though. They were tired, tired the way no kid’s eyes should ever be.

“That sounds wonderful. You two must really love each other.”

   “I love her. She tolerates me,” Rudy smiled. “No, I suppose we love and tolerate each other about equal parts. Marriage ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know, but it’s worth a hell of a lot more than folks like to admit.” At this, Jane blinked and looked blankly out the window. “I don’t suppose you’re married, are you?”

   “I’m engaged.”

   “Ah. Does he know about…”


   “I realize I’m just some old cab driver, but,” Rudy began, “don’t you think that maybe he might want a say in this, too? If he’s the man you’re marrying, he might actually want—”

   “He can’t know,” Jane interrupted. “It would ruin him.”

Rudy nodded, surprised at himself for feeling surprised at all. This was a grown woman, wasn’t she? She was as capable of infidelity as anyone else. For some reason, though, she didn’t strike him as the type. He’d lived long enough to understand that people are more than their appearances. But what does ‘the type’ even look like, he wondered. This lady appeared about as innocent as a baby jay. Although, wouldn’t an innocent appearance be advantageous for a cheater? “You’re doing this for his sake, then…”

   “What’s it any of your business why I’m doing this?” Jane snapped. “Maybe I’m doing it for me. Maybe I’m doing it for the baby. Did you ever think of that?”

   “No, I guess not,” he said, wishing like hell he’d taken Margaret’s advice. “Just seems like, if you got this far, you’d know why.”

   “I can’t take care of a baby on my own, no matter how much I might want to. What kind of life do you think some bastard child would have in this world? And I would be the one who let it happen. I would be the cause of it all, and I couldn’t live with that on my conscience.”

   “I’m confused, now. Is this for the child’s sake or for your conscience’s sake?”

   “Who says it can’t be both?”

   “Nobody, but I figure one’s gotta carry more weight than the other. Who says this baby can’t end up being somebody special? Don’t matter what other people say about him or who his father is if he decides to be someone special.”

   “No one is special to everyone, remember?” Jane shot back.

   “No one should want to be,” Rudy said. “Anyone that special is doomed to fail.”

   “So, you don’t think I should do this,” said Jane. “You think I’m going to hell? That I’m committing a horrible sin?”

   “Now, I didn’t say anything like that, but if that’s how you feel, then that’s on you,” said Rudy. “I ain’t no preacher to be tellin’ you how to live your life. It’s your decision to make. It’s your life unless you decide to have the baby, and then it’s his life, too. And if the father steps up, well then, I suppose it’s all three of your lives.”

   “He can’t know, I already told you.”

   “You mean… this is your fiancé’s baby?” Jane stared silently away. “I don’t understand why a man wouldn’t want to have a baby with the woman he loves.”

   “Because he’s a minister,” she confessed, “but we’re not married yet, and he’ll lose his position in the church if anyone were to find out. Like I said, it’ll ruin him. Everything he’s ever worked for will be gone.”

   “You’re saying he would want you to do this?” Rudy asked.

   “Of course not! If he knew I was here right now, he’d never speak to me again. This is a sin. Unforgivable.”

   “And if you kept the baby?”

   “I don’t know that he’d ever admit it was his. He’s a man of God, and a men of God don’t have babies out of wedlock. If I have the baby so I don’t commit a sin, he’ll leave me, and if I don’t have the baby and commit a sin and he finds out, he’ll leave me—even if it is to save his reputation.” Rudy watched Jane exhale from beneath the weight of this reality.

   “Last time I checked, there ain’t no sin that’s unforgiveable. It don’t matter what anyone tries to tell you, and, boy, don’t they ever try to tell you. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I quit goin’ to church. Ain’t no such thing as a man of God. A man’s a man, a woman’s a woman… either we’re all of God or no one is… nobody’s better than anyone else, no matter what position they got… whole damn thing is a scheme, and we—” Rudy was silenced by a sniffle from the backseat.

   As he listened to her whispered crying and considered the source of her tears, a foreign thought suddenly entered his mind. Perhaps this decision wasn’t simply a matter of having an abortion. That was the easy part. The choice that she must make, whether to sacrifice her soul, her conscience, or the one she loves, perhaps that was where the difficulty truly lay. And who could ever lightly make that decision for their own self much less for another person?

   Jane never responded to his words. The remainder of the ride was silent, and fourteen long minutes later—still leaving him a solid half hour to buy his soup and sandwich—Rudy was driving alone back towards the heart of Chicago, the tires drumming quietly down the road. He contemplated Jane until his stomach rumbled at him, and his thoughts returned to the diner. “Decisions, decisions,” he sighed.

    Tiny crumbs of asphalt crunched as Rudy parked his cab next to the sidewalk. After turning his flag down, he reached over for the lunchbox on the passenger floorboard.



Studies In gray.


Mr. Gaines was not breathing.

  Mr. Gaines was not breathing.

  Why wasn’t he breathing? How long had he not been breathing? Olive had been tired, yes, but she’d had a cup of coffee earlier. She would’ve had more if the coffee maker wasn’t broken. She must have fallen asleep. Had she fallen asleep? She couldn’t recall. Just like with all sleeping, time was indiscernible. She could check the chart. Yes! She could do that. She’d made sure to write down everything. Hadn’t she? No, the fields were blank. She must have forgotten to write the times into the chart and had fallen asleep. Maybe had fallen asleep. It was still uncertain. Who could possibly say if she’d fallen asleep or not? Olive didn’t remember dreaming anything. Then again, people don’t always dream, and if they do, they don’t always remember it.

  Olive began performing CPR. 1, 2, 3, 4…

  Why, oh why had she sat down? Her feet had been aching after seven hours of cleaning the industrial complex. Her ankles had been swelling. Why shouldn’t she have taken a seat? She deserved a rest, didn’t she? She’d even placed herself beside Mr. Gaines’ bed as a precaution, in case she were to fall asleep. She hadn’t, though. She was almost certain. Olive was a hard worker, a good worker. Day after day, she went out and earned her pay hours upon hours at a time. She rested little. The time she had outside of work, she spent with her two daughters. It was for them that she worked herself to the point of endless exhaustion. She walked around in a perpetual state of weariness that she’d become so accustomed to, it wasn’t a struggle to keep  moving—so long as she kept moving.

  9, 10, 11, 12…

  However, Olive had taken a seat. She’d taken a seat and shirked her responsibility to look after Mr. Gaines, a man who had no way to care of himself, a man with all the money in the world and no one to love him. She’d heard he had children, at least a couple, but there’s no telling where they were. Any family he might have was absent enough to need her, a stranger, paid to make sure he stayed alive. The staffing agency that Olive had received employment through was tasked with filling the position she now held. She wasn’t certified to be there. She didn’t have any real training besides CPR and basic first aid. Olive had retained some information from her stint in nursing school before dropping out when she got pregnant.

  18, 19, 20, 21…

She walked around in a perpetual state of weariness that she’d become so accustomed to, it was no longer a struggle to keep moving—so long as she kept moving.

It didn’t matter how much knowledge and skill she had or didn’t have if she was asleep, though. If only that damn coffee maker had been working, she wouldn’t have fallen asleep… that is, if she had indeed fallen asleep. She drank coffee all the time. Olive wondered if, perhaps, her body had become addicted to coffee and, without it, wasn’t up to her usual level of energy. Now, there was a dead body all because of a broken coffee maker. There was no way her job could be saved now. She needed this job, but, with a death on her hands, how would she ever replace it? Olive would lose her apartment. She wouldn’t be able to buy groceries. The bank would repossess her car. Her daughters would look at her and wonder why they were starving, their innocent eyes filled with disappointment and confusion. Then, the state would take them. And what then? What would she have left to live for? All because she’d chosen to sit down.

  …29, 30.

  Olive halted her thoughts, her mouth hovering over Mr. Gaines’ lifeless blue lips. Then, there in his throat, she saw an object black and shining like obsidian. Extending a finger, she reached in and hooked the object, then pulled it out, revealing a long chain attached that had been down his trachea. In a horrifying instant, Olive realized it was her own necklace, a black stone on a silver chain, the one passed down to her from her great-great grandmother. What the hell was it doing in his throat? Had that been what caused him to stop breathing? Dark mucus and thickened blood dripped down onto Mr. Gaines’ chest as the stone dangled from her fingers. She realized that as she pulled the chain and pendant, it must have dug itself in somewhere, scratching and cutting at his tissue. A puddle of blood began to form in his throat where the necklace had been. In a frantic start, Olive dropped the necklace and turned him onto his side. A gush of blood began pouring out, off the edge of the bed, and onto the floor at Olive’s feet. It flowed like a waterfall, splashing upon impact with the carpet that had so quickly saturated, it was becoming slick. Olive’s sneakers, at least three-years-old and devoid of any remaining tread, slipped over the blood. Her legs shot up from under her, and the last thing she heard was the snapping of bone in her neck.

  Olive’s eyes snapped open, and she sat upright in the chair. Panting, she looked at the floor, clean and recently vacuumed. With a trembling hand, she traced her fingers along her collarbone, feeling the cool metal and stone in its appropriate place. No broken bones. Her body relaxed. It had only been a bad dream. She would fix that coffee maker one way or another, and she would make sure to never sit down on the job again, damned the aching in her feet. New sneakers would help the pain. No more putting off buying new ones any longer. With a slow sigh, Olive allowed herself to smile. Finally, at ease, she looked over at the bed. Olive’s heart froze.

  Mr. Gaines was not breathing.

  Mr. Gaines was not breathing.



Studies In gray.


It was on a crystal-clear morning, sunny and warm with only the hint of an early chill, that Bruce was awakened. His siblings had apparently been up for a while and were a little ways off, nibbling on remnants of old venison. It had been their only source of food for some time, though it wasn’t anything to be disappointed about. Nourishment couldn’t have come in much of a better form than this, and while he never complained, there wasn’t anyone to complain to even if he wanted. His existence didn’t afford him such luxuries, and, in truth, it wasn’t particularly necessary. After all, Bruce was a fly.

Bruce was but one in 87 flies, smartly laid by his mother deep within the warm carcass of a deer which had recently been hit by a semi-truck on the highway. Out of the original 87 eggs, only 62 hatched, and out of those 62, only 23 of them completed the metamorphosis from maggot to fly. Bruce vaguely remembered the journey from the guts of the deer to the surface, though he recalled the light had been nearly blinding. However, within the first few days in his encasement as a pupa, he’d become accustomed to it, and since his emergence, he couldn’t help but stare at the big, blue sky above them. Never in his life had he ever seen anything so spectacular, and the reality that his life hadn’t been particularly long in the first place was a detail of little relevance to him.

No one else seemed to notice and, in fact, did not generally seem to see or even think about anything beyond the carcass whatsoever. His brothers and sisters zipped around mindlessly, and any time he tried to tell them about anything that he considered amazing, they simply stared at him and said, “Buzzzzzzzz.”

With such an isolating difference between him and the rest of his family, Bruce spent an ever-increasing amount of time by himself. This didn’t bother him, however, as he had become fond of strolls at twilight along the exposed ribs of the deer. Bruce considered often how nice it would be to talk to someone about everything, though, and it was during one of these particular moments that Bruce first began to wonder why he was different.

He looked like the rest of them, ate the same food, slept the same way—more or less. There was no doubt that he was indeed a fly. Yet, Bruce did not feel like a fly, or whatever he imagined a fly should feel like. No one else cared about the great vastness above them. He was the only one who seemed effected by the vision of swaying tree branches in a breeze, the bright variances of color as the sun rose, its comforting warmth in the day, and its stunning brilliance at sunset. Even as he was sleeping, Bruce would see and feel these things, sometimes things he’d never felt or seen, and would wake with his heart racing euphorically before falling into despair upon realization of the truth.

It was after waking from just such a sleep and to such a feeling that he began his morning stroll earlier than usual, the sky still black and sparkling above, a full moon glowing. He walked along the bone until he’d come out into the light of the moon. As he moved past several droplets of dew, he noticed a shadow at his side, though more than simply a shadow. Bruce, at first thinking that perhaps one of his siblings had woken early as well, turned to see that this was not the case as he had come face to face with his own reflection.

This was not apparent to Bruce, however, and he wondered how many times he had been in that same spot before and not seen this strange aberration, a fly trapped within the water. It watched him as he watched it, and Bruce spoke first with mounting excitement.

“Hello, there,” Bruce greeted with a wave. “Are you on a stroll, as well?” The fly appeared to be trying to speak and wave also, yet Bruce heard nothing. “I couldn’t sleep,” he continued. “So, I came out to enjoy the night sky. Do you like the sky, too?” He spoke louder, and the fly in the water appeared more excited as well, but there was still no sound. “Can you hear me?” Bruce asked. “I say, can you hear me?” The fly appeared to be fairing all right there in the water, though apparently growing agitated as Bruce could not understand what the fly was trying to say. Presently, the fly became forlorn, and collapsed before him in defeat. “I’m sorry,” he said sadly.

It seemed only a moment later that the sun was up and the dew almost evaporated. A breeze tickled at Bruce’s wings, and they fluttered lightly. The fly’s wings in the water were hardly visible, but they, too, fluttered. Bruce adjusted his wings. The fly in the water adjusted his wings. One of Bruce’s siblings droned by. A second fly in the water suddenly droned by the first.

There was no doubt that he was indeed a fly. Yet, Bruce did not feel like a fly, or whatever he imagined a fly should feel like.

It is widely considered that, in all individual existence, it is the first moment of self-awareness which sets the course of everything to follow. That it creates a defining point of origin for the path of life and presents the possibility of extraordinary things. It is, for most, a pleasant thought. For Bruce, however, this awakening was something else altogether. In one microscopic moment, a fly named Bruce suddenly realized that he was both of the world, and apart from the world. He realized that he could do everything or nothing. His life was his to make whatever he wished it to be. Such a realization might seem invigorating, but to a fly, who—if lucky—lives but a matter of weeks, was earth-shattering. It had been one part genetics, two parts luck that he’d survived as long as he had. Already, half of his siblings who’d fully developed were dead. How could he ever do all he was capable of or experience all there was to be experienced with such a short and fragile life?

Bruce retreated into the carcass, trembling with fright at this sudden revelation. He was determined to keep himself alive at all costs and located an untouched section of intestine to hermitize himself. He would only come out for food when absolutely necessary, and what food he did get, he would ration. He could think of little else he might need, and before midday, he’d disappeared deep into the decaying animal. There Bruce stayed, and while at first he struggled with the lack of light, he didn’t find it all too bad of a place. There was nothing more to worry about. He had everything he would ever need, and now, all the time in the world to have it.

But Bruce did worry. At first, he worried about the food running out and so stockpiled it, restricting his ability to move, but when he dreamed, he dreamed of limitless space. After that, he worried about his stockpile being discovered and so blocked the entrance into his hideaway, isolating him more than he’d ever been, but when he dreamed, he dreamed of all the friends a fly could have. Pretty soon, Bruce’s own waste began to build up. This wasn’t so bad at first. After all, he was a fly, but it wasn’t long before he could hardly recognize his waste from his food. He quickly convinced himself that it was all edible, but when he dreamed, he dreamed of unattended picnics. He would live, Bruce thought, and that was all that mattered.

Then one day, as he dreamed of space, friends, and picnics, a rumbling erupted all around him, and his lair began to shake violently. The booming and the jostling sent Bruce into a panic, and, certain he was going to die, he cried out in anguished fury at the world that had it out for him and all his kind. No matter what he had done, his life was over, and all the things he had dreamed of doing were to never come to pass.

What Bruce was unaware of—by no fault of his own—was that the carcass of the deer which had been his only home was being cleared from the highway. As it was tossed into the bed of a truck, the very place where Bruce had made himself a sanctuary was torn in apart. The daylight burst in upon Bruce. The sweet, fresh air poured over his wings which had become caked with his own excrement and incapable of flight. His body landed somewhere foreign to him, and even the sky which has always been blue, was now gray and menacing. As little drops of rain began to land around Bruce, he lay, waiting to die.

In his defeat, Bruce no longer felt the desire for anything. He didn’t care about the sky. What did it care of him? He didn’t care about the trees or it’s swaying branches, or all the things he knew exist but would never experience. It wasn’t there for him. It never had been. Turning his face away from the clouds, he looked over where drops of rain were collecting, and in them he saw his reflection, the fly in the water.

Bruce waved feebly to the fly. The fly waved feebly back. The fly smiled weakly at Bruce. Bruce smiled weakly back. And they both said to each other, “This is all your fault.”



Studies In gray.