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.


Once upon a time there was a girl
Who felt so out of place,
Out of pace with the world,
And a million miles small;
Lonesome flower on the wall.
Always a bud, never a blossom.
Ever micro, never cosm.

One late night she looked up
Into the nothing-nowhere,
And in a breath she wished
That she could go there.
She was never hateful,
Never ungrateful;
What was in her head and her heart
Wasn’t the same, though.

The little girl felt at times
That she was bursting.
Never let the seams give way
To what is hurting!
Oh! to have wings outside of dreaming,
Wouldn’t that be perfect!
To fly away and never wonder
If she wasn’t worth it.
But in the morning she’d wake
The same girl, the same place
The same crowded out space,
And expectations she must face.

Then one day, how it came to be
Nobody knows,
But that little girl awoke
And her wings began to show
‘Til so full and so majestic
She could fly out on her own,
And she thought that maybe now
They’d see her, beautiful and strong!

But she was wrong.
With envy in their eyes
They all scorned her
For becoming something
They declared she wasn’t born for.
Said her gift was nothing
But a thing that had deformed her,
And forlorn, the girl believed,
Spread her wings and wandered.

Up into the nothing-nowhere
Higher she ascended
To the place where she could breathe the air
As wishing had intended.
This was her freedom,
From there unto the curvature of earth,
Where eternity lurked in the colors
Of the sun’s early birth.
The shining stars as ancient bards
Recounted tales of old,
And the faithful moon beside her,
Always smiled, always glowed.

And yet she was alone.
The lights shone up from far beneath her,
From the home that had rejected
Criticized and did mistreat her
For being who she wished to be;
For breaking harmony
So she could play a symphony.
But who was listening?
Isolated in the sky,
It wasn’t freedom
If she only flew up there to hide.

Resolute with her decision
She turned her back to the sky,
And dove away from the nothing-nowhere
Towards the place she’d left behind.
But when she landed in their midst
As an angel from the heavens,
They saw only what was different
And they feared their own imperfections.

Still her intentions did not change,
Her courage did not make her vain,
Because she saw in them the pain
That she herself had borne to shame.
The seizing of her arms
Met no resistance,
And as they ripped her wings apart
She did not plead for their desistance.
The hours passed.

The wretched mob, grown weary with the violence,
Left the girl lying
In the dark and in the silence.
But beside her broken body
Breathing shallow in the street,
A joy within her eyes
And a tear upon her cheek,
Stood a child gazing down
With a smile as she told
The little girl who wished to fly,
“…And here I thought I was alone…”

The rain hushed away the silence of the office as Kate Vanden rolled the new-hire fountain pen from side to side across her desk. Her blouse was damp with sweat, sticking down the center of her back beneath her suit jacket. She shifted slightly to release herself from the fabric, but within a few seconds, it had seemingly adhered again to her skin. Lynn had developed an indifference to days like these, edging close to boredom yet with a splinter of anticipation. The Executive would be there at any moment, and it seemed that it was never without some anxiety that they waited for his arrival.

    Kate was still considered a rookie to Mondo Media after only a month of employment and had never so much as seen the Executive. She was still unsure as to why he was even called that. In her mind, he was no more than a tenured peer.

“Seventeen years of killing it will get you there,” said Kate’s supervisor. “Don’t expect to last that long.”

Kate wondered why anyone would want to last that long at a company that created calls-to-action and polling emails. This wasn’t why she’d graduated as head of her class with a major in marketing and a minor in communications. At $28k a year, she calculated that she would pay off her student loans just before her sixty-third birthday, and that was factoring in inflation, interest, and any raises or promotions. Assuming the company didn’t go under, that would take her almost forty years. Thanks, but no thanks.

“Is there any way we could turn up the air? It’s so hot,” said Kate to anyone. Freddy from the cubicle next door poked his head over.

“Invest in a neck coolie.”

“What’s a neck coolie?”

“It’s basically an ice pack, except with a soft outside designed to go around your neck. I have one just for when the Exec arrives.”

    “Why when he arrives?”

    “He likes it extra hot. He says sweat makes the mind nimbler.”

    “Nimbler? Seriously?” Kate asked.

    “No one jokes about the Exec,” said Brandy from the cubicle across. “Better not let him see you slacking off, either, or you’ll be in for a speech. Last time, I was in the kitchen getting coffee and he start having a conniption.”

    “But why?”

 “You’ll find out,” said Freddy as he and Brandy laughed and shook their heads. They returned to their computer screens leaving Kate with a bewildered expression.

    Kate turned back to her desk. It was a small roofless box, a three-foot table, a laptop, and her pen. A single tray with a stack of papers rested beside it, the infinite list of recipients. She took the top packet and began comparing the list to that on her screen. If she found one missing on either end, she would update them both until completely identical. This was her busy work and found it more bearable with headphones in. Funk disco was the sound of the day, she decided, inserting the buds into her ears and pressing play on a randomly generated playlist.

    A few minutes later, she received an email assigning her to write up a call-to-action for the preservation of an endangered plant in the Midwest United States and a link to a website with all the necessary information she’d need. Kate’s blood began pumping a bit faster, as this was what she enjoyed the most about her job: creating compelling messages to people who want to make the world a better place.

    Kate moved her fingers to the keys.


    Content: Almost 20,000 years ago, giant glaciers left indents throughout the Midwest known as the “prairie potholes”. It is in these indents that the perfect conditions were made for the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid to thrive. However, according to the Endangered Species Coalition, there are estimated only 172 populations left on our entire planet because of development, overgrazing, wildfires, and global warming.

WE need YOUR NAME added to the petitions to bring this worthy cause before Congress and protect this important and beautiful flower from extinction.

CLICK HERE to protect the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid.

Because no one but YOU can save them.

    “Working through lunch won’t get you a better parking spot,” said a voice, bass and articulated, very close to Kate’s ear. Startled, she whirled around to see a tall man, stocky and neat, smiling smugly down at her. “That last line is a good touch, by the way. You should try adding the same urgency to the rest of it before they trash the email from boredom.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “Did you know that within the first thirteen and a half words of anything, the reader has already decided whether they will continue reading or hit delete?”

    “Thirteen and a half?”

    “Thirteen and a half,” he repeated.

“That doesn’t sound like a real statistic.”

“That’s because almost seventy-one percent of all statistics are made up.”

“So… you made that up.”

“About the statistics? Yes. I take word count very seriously, though. I wouldn’t joke about that.”

“What study did the thirteen and a half words come from exactly?”

“That’s not what’s important. What’s important is those first fourteen words, and that’s not including your subject line.”

“I thought you said it was thirteen and a half?”

“What does that say about the fourteenth, then? For example, word number fourteen in your email is the word ‘the’. What is the word ‘the’? And don’t say it’s an adjective.” His coal black eyes peered down at her expectantly.

“An adverb?”

“It’s a definite article,” he said. Kate stared back blankly. “You don’t know what that is do you?”

“I…it’s one of those little words like a preposition, right?”

“No,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s not like a preposition. A preposition is a word that governs a noun or pronoun and expresses relationship with another word. A definite article introduces a noun and implies some common knowledge, the key word being ‘common’. ‘The’ as your fourteenth word is a death sentence to the rest of your message, which means you might as well have not written which means that Shoreline Media might as well hire a chimp to sit in your seat because even a chimp who types an email full of mumbo jumbo wouldn’t squander his one precious fourteenth word with a pathetic ‘the’.”

“Don’t patronize me. I graduated top of my class from Howard University with a major in marketing and minor in communications. I might not be an expert with grammar, but I know a thing or two.”

“Oh, Howard University,” the Executive repeated, putting a hand on his hips.

“That’s right.”

“Top of your class, too?”

“Yes. I, a woman, was top of my class.”

“Well, you know where I graduated from? I graduated from Fuck Your Bachelor’s Degree University with a major in more experience in my left walnut than your entire femininity. And don’t get all pissy; that’s not a jab at your sex. That’s a gunshot to its head, because anyone who thinks that their sex makes them weaker and as such makes their marginal accomplishments greater has already lost. Lost what, you ask? Lost the fucking game. Cash in your chips. Thanks for playing.”

“That’s easy to say, coming from a man.”

“Yes, I’m a man, and as a man my accomplishments are significantly diminished meaning that I have to work ten times as hard to be considered successful. Do you know what a successful woman is by society’s standards? A successful woman is a human who bleeds monthly and runs a business with a quarterly profit of over two percent. Do you know what a successful man is by society’s standards? Steve Jobs. Muhammad Ali. Martin Luther King. Patton. Charlemagne. Julius Caesar. Any of the Kennedy’s. Those men had thrown at them everything that society didn’t have bolted to the floor. Any other man who accomplished anything is just a man, and every other man who cleaned toilets and assembled parts is just a number.

“Words are your tools. You should know how they work both individually and combined. More importantly, you should know how they don’t work. You say you know a thing or two? I won’t argue with that. You know where the break room is, where to find the ladies’ room, and how to make a decent closing one-liner. But everyone here can say the same thing. So, the question you should be asking is, what don’t I know?”

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Kate jumped back as he reached into his jacket and produced a fountain pen similar to hers but much more elegant. After removing the cap, he presented it, placing it onto her desk, ‘The Executive’ etched across its nib.

    “I am the fucking Executive. I didn’t give myself that name, and I didn’t earn it because I was never working for a name. It was given to me freely by my peers. Peers past, present, and future. Peers that I had no problem cutting off like gangrenous limbs when they tried to hold me back with their deficiencies.”


“Yes, as in, your call-to-action is deficient in urgency, inspiration, in herding the blind hearts of sheep to follow. You say there are only 172 populations? Make it 60. This plant is going extinct because of wildfires and hungry bovine? Throw in fracking and a divided federal government. Give them someone to blame.”

    “But that’s lying.”

    “Lying is what your paid to do. You have one objective in this place: get names. Names are people, people with interests, money, votes, health problems, debts. This information is like blood diamonds, retrieved at any cost and sold to the highest bidder.

    “These emails are supposed to speak to the good in people.”

    “No, they’re supposed to speak to the selfishness in people. Everyone wants to be a hero, but not at the cost of facing the villain. That’s where we come in. The middlemen. That’s why people sign their names on these petitions. They sign so that they can go to sleep in the comfort of their homes, bellies full, safe from harm, feeling like they actually influenced change in the life of a kid starving on a city sidewalk without ever having to look at them. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.”

    “But these petitions help people. They help the world. They make people see—”

    “How much plastic has been pulled from the oceans because of a name? How many endangered species saved? How many famines reversed, diseases cured, trees planted? You say you majored in marketing, but it seems you missed the very first and most important lesson of all. We are in the business of lies. Every bit of it, and if you think the truth was ever important, you’re right. It was. But not anymore.” The executive turned towards the doorway of her cubicle. “They call me the Executive because I command people. If that’s what you want to do, then fix that fourteenth word. You’ll only be lying to yourself, otherwise. It’s all about manipulating the lies into alignment. If you can remember that, then there’s nothing you can’t make anyone do. Not even me.”

    Kate sat in silence for a long moment after he’d walked away, stunned and shaken. She wasn’t afraid, yet, she feared something. Not the executive. Not the act of lying. What she feared was this rising pleasure in the ability she now possessed. Had the executive meant to cut her down? At first, it appeared so. But now, she suddenly found herself lusting the power he’d revealed was in her hands all along.

    The sound of voices returning from lunch began to fill the office as she turned back to her laptop.


    Content: Save the last remaining 51 Western Prairie Fringed Orchids in the world from annihilation…



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.


“…what we have here, Bill, if you—if you let me speak, Bill, what we have here is a classic case of bait and switch. There’s no way that the White House is truly backing this, even as a declared fully partisan plan. There’s too much at stake here for both sides, too much to be lost on both sides, and what I was—”

“Leonard, I’ve known you for a long time—”

“—what I was trying to say—”

“—I’ve known you for a long time, Leonard, and I’ve always respected you until this very moment. How could you honestly believe this whole bait and switch theory when it’s blatantly obvious that the whole thing’s been concocted by the far left to distract the general public from the important issues—”

The radio clicked to silence, the cab of the semi becoming heavy with the reverberating sound of the engine. The passenger window was down about halfway, and the air was sweeping the stale out. That was how Carl liked it sometimes. Quiet, natural. The stale was new. It had smelled sweet before, but now there was the pungent odor of nothing. It had been giving him headaches, or at least, that’s what he kept telling himself. Carl hadn’t been sleeping exceptionally well, either, but it had been a boon for his travel time. Being paid by the mile, he made the most of his insomnia by cutting down his delivery times, and he found himself beginning to appreciate his restlessness.

On the opposite side of the coin, the silence was sometimes deafening. It fluctuated between soothing and debilitating, and at the worst times it was both, and there was nothing to be done except to listen to one of Linette’s old cassette recordings. He reached to the center console, selecting blindly from the collection. Once he had a grasp of one, he read the title “Madama Butterfly” handwritten neatly on the label. He smiled, knowing this was Linette’s favorite, then turned it up until it was too loud and too beautiful for him to go insane.

With the extra time on his hands, Carl had chosen to take a back road in lieu of the interstate, which, around the Denver area, was picturesque in the moonlight. The caps of the mountains glowed a chrome white, saluting the Midwest sky. Linette would’ve taken a photograph, he was sure. Carl glanced over at the collage of Polaroids stapled to the interior of the cab as though they were the kaleidoscope of life itself. There was the one with him sleeping in the back, wrapped in that old pueblo blanket she’d picked up at a gas station in New Mexico. Linette loved that thing, and they would bundle up under it together on cold nights.

Carl tried to place a name to the soprano singing on the cassette, or at least to name the song. His wife had told him at least a few times, yet he could never seem to remember until she’d told him again. Without her there to tell him, however, what was he to do? He recalled her saying it was an aria. Carl stared blankly ahead, his brain taking charge of the wheel while his thoughts steered him down other roads. Linette was beautiful. Her smile was the sunrise over the plains and the sunset of the Rockies. Her laugh was the sound of the ocean landing on a Pacific shore. Her eyes were the heavens where God himself dreamed of retirement. Linette had always been that way, when they were young and as they aged. Now, the sun confined itself to the other side of the world. The ocean stilled its waves. God took out a timeshare in Florida.

…he found himself beginning to appreciate his restlessness.

Carl shook his head, furious for allowing his thoughts to take control again. He didn’t have time to get lost or to stray from the charted course where it was safe. He clicked the selector knob back to the radio, cutting out the opera, but only replacing it with static. Carl cursed aloud as he turned the dial further to explore the empty frequencies.

A loud thump at the nose of his truck captured his attention, and a shot of adrenaline opened his eyes wide. His brakes squealed and the pressure released with a hiss. Carl began to imagine all the possible animals he may have hit. A deer or an elk maybe. It wasn’t unheard of out here in the middle of nowhere, and it was the time of year for such things. Parked on the shoulder, he reached into the back of the cab for his flashlight then popped his door open. Blood on the front fender indicated he’d indeed clipped something, yet without fur left behind, he couldn’t say for sure what. His footsteps were thick and crisp beneath his boots as he followed the beam of light across the ground. It had been less than a hundred feet, he estimated. Out of habit, Carl checked his tires and cables as he approached the rear of his 18-wheeler.

“This is a damn good flashlight,” Carl thought as the spotlight cut holes out of the darkness. There was the gravel lining the edge of the road. Rocks and weeds. The empty asphalt. Nothing that seemed to indicate he’d hit anything. “Maybe it was Sasquatch,” he chuckled to himself.

With a shrug, he turned to go back to his truck, but as the light swung ‘round, a glimmer shone from the opposite shoulder of the road. It was blood, not much, but some. The eyes of a coyote gleamed at him but with little concern for his presence as they turned to the dark, shimmering mass beside it. Carl took one cautious step closer, then another. The body of a second coyote lay at the paws of the first, breathing heavily and fast.

“Shit.” Carl shook his head, dismayed. “Shit, shit.” He wasn’t much into nature, but Linette had always been the kind-hearted one, and in her absence, he felt compelled to compensate.

He went back to his cab, took the .38 Special from the holster beneath his seat, ensured there were rounds in the cylinder, and returned to where the dying animal lay. The first coyote was no longer standing over the second, but lying in front of it, nose against nose. Carl’s throat burned and ached in his realization of what he was witnessing. Yet, with a cough, he resolved it, and steadied his gun.

“This is for the best, darlin’.” The female looked at him as her mate bled. “I’m sorry. He’s in pain.” She rested her head on the fur of his nape, making eye contact with Carl. The brow lifted and a sad whine sang out. “What do you want me to do?” Carl asked. The coyote began to lick the wounds of the other. “There’s no fixing him. There’s no helping. The closest town is about sixty miles and they don’t have a vet. Even if they did…” Resting her head again, she kept looking at him. “Just move, damn it.” He aimed again, yet she did not budge. Exasperated, Carl sighed and lowered his gun. “Ballsy little mutt, ain’tcha? Okay, then. Have it your way.”

As he turned to leave them, the coyote lifted her head and whined once more. Carl looked back, curious. It seemed to him that she wanted him to stay. He asked her this, then chuckled at himself for asking a stupid animal a question like that. But she seemed to answer. It was those goddamn eyes. They spoke a language, something that Carl couldn’t translate yet understood fluently.

“You hungry?” She didn’t move. “You’re probably hungry.” Carl went back again scrounged for the paper bag with the leftover fast food that Linette would have never let him eat. A moment later, he unwrapped a cheeseburger and tossed it toward the pair. She merely glanced at it, the bun askew and mustard smeared. “What’s the matter? You don’t eat meat?” he asked. “How about some water then?” Carl had grabbed a cooking pot and emptied a water bottle into it. Placing the pot on the ground, he slid it toward them. The coyote bared her teeth, wary of his proximity. “Okay, okay.” Carl backed off quickly, then stood scratching his head. The flashlight illuminated the blood to a glowing red and revealed a leg turned completely around.

Carl had heard that some coyotes mated for life but had never considered it more than a decision based around anything but procreation, if not a rumor. This was something else, however, something familiar to him, and he heaved a sigh. A large rock lay several feet off on the roadside and he took a seat, still watching them.

“You don’t mind, do you?” he asked her. She watched him calmly, laying her head back down on her mate. “If it makes you feel any better, he’s the lucky one. Dying is the easy part, you know. It doesn’t take any effort. No work, no fail and try again. Living, now, that’s the hard part.” He sucked at his teeth for a moment. “Like right now. He’s having a hard time trying to stay alive for you. He’s in pain. I’m sure he wants to stay alive, but… It’s just like a woman to make a man want to do things he don’t want. I guess that applies to other species… You should let me end it for him.” Carl reached for his gun, but the coyote growled again, and he held his hands where she could see. “Aright, alright. No guns. No easy, painless death for him.” He swallowed. “So, what now?”

The three sat still for a long time, and Carl listened to the breeze move across the spinning earth. Linette would do that on many mornings, except she would be in one of her various yoga positions. How she stayed in those knots for so long, he never could figure. Carl hadn’t ever been very flexible, even when she’d gotten him to try it out. Now that he thought about it, how the hell did she convince him to do yoga not once, not twice, but four times? He shook his head and laughed.

“I’m sorry,” he responded to the coyote lifting her head. “I just had a funny thought.” She laid back. “I was thinking about my wife, Linette, and her way of getting me to do things I’d never want to do and even make me think that’s what I wanted. You females are wily, and I suppose a female coyote’s the wiliest of them all. She got me eating okra. I hated okra my whole life, at least I thought I did. I hadn’t actually ever tried it. I didn’t tell her that, though. Just made it seem like I didn’t like the texture. One day she fried it up, and she made this special dipping sauce. I swear, I’ve still never eaten anything more delicious than Linette’s fried okra.” Carl was smiling at the coyote, then remembered, and he stopped. “Wily women. Maybe in a way, I always wanted to do those things. She just pulled it all out of me. And it made us both happy. I’m sure he ain’t any happier about him dying than you are,” he said, nodding towards them. She nuzzled the other coyote, licked him a few more times, then lied still watching Carl.

It’s just like a woman to make a man want to do things he don’t want.

“Better eat that cheeseburger before the ants get it. I heard they got big ones around here.” She glanced again at the food but remained where she was. She wasn’t eating, and he understood why. It was the same reason he hadn’t eaten. He lied to Linette about it, of course. He didn’t want her worrying. For some reason, thinking about the lie he told made him sick now.

Carl tried to leave again, but the coyote whined and yipped. “You want some company, huh? That’s what they say about misery, you know. Maybe that’s what I should call you. What do you think, Misery?”

The moon moved slowly across the sky as he neared sitting there for an hour. Glancing at his watch, it was a quarter to four. He considered his route, how much time he had to spare, and was still five hours ahead of schedule. The male coyote was still alive, and every so often would sigh, weak and strained. It’s not fair to him.

“It’s just not fair to him.” Carl looked her in the eye. It wasn’t fair to anyone. “I was right where you are, you know. My wife died, slowly. Instead of a few hours though, it took years. I watched her and held her as she fought through all the pain. She’d cry herself to sleep some nights. It was all I could do not to cry myself. Sometimes I wish I had, but she needed me to be strong for her. Someone had to. Her own body had turned on her, was killing her. And we stuck through it, with all the medicines and the treatments and operations and recoveries and thinking it was over and then finding out it wasn’t really.” Carl looked away, thoughts connecting in places they hadn’t before. “I’ve been wondering what the hell it all was for. Why all that if she was just going to die anyway? Now… you know, in some strange way, certain parts of it were the best time of our lives. In between the pain and the tears, we laughed so much, and we smiled. We had before, but, when you sandwich regular slices of good in between all the slices of bad, it was pretty damn amazing in contrast.” He looked back at her. “I guess I can understand now why you don’t want me to end it for him.” She sighed softly, and they sat silently again.

The dying coyote began to tremble, causing her ears to perk up as she cried.

“He’s getting cold. Lost a lot of blood. And it’s gotten colder.” Carl checked his watch again. Another hour had passed in what felt like only a few minutes. He wondered where the time had gone, and as if in response, the first glimmer of twilight peaked over the crests of the mountains washing everything with a dark purple haze. It took a few seconds to see clearly, but he could make out the panting of the coyote, still bleeding, still dying, and Carl became angry.

“Why’d you make me sit here like this, watching him die? I don’t deserve this. It’s not my fault that this is happening. You refuse to let me put him out of his misery.” She looked at him, motionless. “Why do you keep looking at me like that? He’s suffering, goddamn it! Can’t you see? You can hold on all you want to, but it isn’t going to change anything for him except leave him in pain longer. He’s dying. He’s as good as dead already. This isn’t about you, you know. I’ve got a life. I’ve got a job to do. I should be out there driving right now instead of sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere watching a stupid coyote bleed to death in the dirt. What the hell is the matter with you? You’re a sadistic little bitch, and I’m not putting up with it anymore!”

As he stood, she growled, and as he stepped, she darted in front of him, facing him with her fangs revealed. She wasn’t exceptionally large, but the warning in her eyes was a fire, and Carl halted.

“Get out of my way, you stupid mutt.” The coyote growled again. “Move! Go on!” Still, she remained in his path. Carl drew his gun. “I’ll shoot you. I don’t want to shoot you, but I will!”

The front sight post of his pistol was aligned to the Misery’s face. Her expression didn’t change, however. She was unafraid in a way that Carl recognized, not because he too was unafraid, but because he had been the polar opposite, and a part will always recognize its counterpart. But what was he so afraid of that this coyote wasn’t? What the hell did she know that was so unapparent to him? She knew what the gun meant, and yet she remained fixed in his path. Dying didn’t matter to her. He wasn’t bluffing. But in the same measure, staying alive didn’t matter either.

“Living isn’t the point, is it…” Carl neither asked nor stated. “But dying isn’t either.” The coyote relaxed and let out a quiet whimper. “I’m sorry for hitting him. I wasn’t paying attention. It’s my own fault that we’re here.

The sky was glowing as they returned together to the dying coyote. Carl sat beside them, his elbow on a knee. She took a spot nestled beside her mate. His breathing was shallow and labored now. Then, as the first ray of morning sun claimed the horizon, he died. She nudged him a few times, licked his face, then reared back and began to howl for several minutes. Somewhere in the distance, the echo of a response returned the call. Then another, and a third and fourth. Carl listened in silent awe as they sang to each other.

Misery rose, calmly, lightly, and turned away. Carl watched her until she disappeared in the distance. Five minutes later, he was digging a small grave away from the road, and soon after, he turned the key in his ignition. The radio blasted static at him, and he jumped, fumbling with the switch. Then, the soprano began singing her aria once more.

“Freni. Her name is Mirella Freni.” Carl laughed deeply, relieving the tension in his chest as he drove his rig back onto the highway, the sunlight warming his face. “One good day, we will see,” he said with a smile. “One good day, we will see.”



Studies In gray.


One week prior, Lois had been taking her lunch break when the news was announced that a team of marine biologists had discovered the literal edge of the world. The break room television, which was never on, displayed the newscaster. He was visibly shaken, the headline flashing across the bottom of the screen.      

Everyone wanted to know what was over the edge. There was plenty of speculation, anything from empty space to the depths of hell itself. Evangelists preached that Jesus’ return was nigh. Most scientists agreed it was simply the extreme shifting of tectonic plates, though they were divided as to whether the cause was related to climate change or not. Several governments attempted to declare and cordon off portions of the edge for their respective country while others denied its existence completely. Even the International Space Station was no longer broadcasting its live feeds.

The discovery changed nothing for Lois, however, at least, not significantly. Life was more or less the same as it had always been. She was still a single mother who lived in a small town and worked in a manufacturing facility, far from the edge. That day had been like any other, waking up ahead of the sun, getting her children ready and out the door fast enough to beat the interstate traffic. The night before, she’d set out their clothes, prepared their breakfasts, and loaded the coffee maker for the morning. It was supposed to afford her an extra twenty minutes of sleep, but her son, Ezra, woke before his normal time, meaning she did as well. The earth could have turned into a rhombus. She wasn’t losing any more sleep than before.

“How do you know the edge is even real?” Mike, the janitor where Lois worked, leaned on his mop.  “Or what if the government knew about it the whole time and was just lying to us?”

“I guess you don’t,” said Lois, taking a bite of her sandwich.

“Why keep it a secret?” Eddie wondered aloud from the other side of the breakroom.

“The question isn’t why keep it.” Mike replied. “The question is, why let the secret out now?”

Lois chewed slowly, considering his point. If it indeed was a well-kept secret, there was certainly some reason for its revelation. What did it have to do with her, though? She had a car payment to make and summer clothes to buy for the kids.

The earth could have turned into a rhombus. She wasn’t losing any more sleep than before.

Her cousin Beth called her that evening, as did her mother and her brother Simon.

“What do you think it is?” Beth asked.

“What do you mean? It’s the edge,” she answered.

“I know, but what is it? I wish I could go see. Can you imagine being at the world’s edge, looking over?”

“No, not really.”

“Have you made things right with God?”

“I’m not dying, Mama.”

“No, but the times are getting more and more queer.”

“First of all, please try using a word other than queer. Secondly, nothing is any crazier now than it was before. In fifty years, it’ll be just another fact of life. The earth has an edge.”

“The earth isn’t supposed to have an edge, Lois. This is a sign from God. The Lord is coming soon. Even the Reverend Gillis says so. There was an emergency meeting called at the church last night, and he said that God told him to get his flock ready.”

“A lot of people have been believing a lot of things for a long time. The world just keeps on spinning.”

“For all you know, the earth hasn’t been spinning at all. You’ve got to face the facts, Sis. You need to start stocking up on canned goods, rice, distilled water. Batteries. Gasoline. Have you ever seen Mad Max?”

“No, Simon, and I doubt I ever will.”

“What makes you think society is going to remain intact forever?”

“I don’t.”

“You need to invest in a gun. I have a few extra with some rounds that you can have.”

“A few extra? How many do you have?”

“Lois, I’ve been preparing for this day for a long time. I have as many as I need.”

“Well, I don’t need a gun, much less a few of them.”

“Do you think they might open it up as a vacation destination?” asked Beth. “Can you imagine getting married at the world’s end? That’s more romantic than Niagara Falls.”

“I can’t imagine getting married at all. If I did get married again, I wouldn’t oppose doing it there so I could immediately jump off.” Lois chuckled to herself.

“Lois Mariah Hart, this is not a joking matter.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“You start joking about the will of God, and you won’t be laughing very long. You remember what happened to all the people who laughed at Noah when he was building the ark.”

“God drowned them.”

“You bet he did, and don’t you forget it. You need to start praying, Lois. Pray for your soul. And if not for yourself, then for Ezra and Harmony. They shouldn’t suffer because their mother’s an atheist.”

“For the last time, Mama, I’m not an atheist. And if you recall, when I was growing up, your church was the bar at the end of the street.”

“And look at what happened. My son is a maniac and my daughter is a heathen.” She sighed. “I don’t deny I made plenty of mistakes, but God forgave me of those sins, Lois. They don’t matter anymore.”

“If that were true, then I wouldn’t be a heathen, and Simon wouldn’t be a maniac.”

“I’m not a maniac,” Simon insisted. “Why does she always say that?”

“Maybe because you have a thousand square foot bunker behind your house.”

“I’m a maniac because I’m prepared? You know something, Lois, the earth and nature and the order of things hasn’t changed just because there’s civilization and technology. The world is still the same as it always has been, and we’re at the same risk of extinction as any other species.”

“But it isn’t the same, though, is it? At least, not for everyone else.”

“You live on this planet, too, Sis.”

“I know where I live, and where I live doesn’t have an edge.”

The following day, there were numerous accounts from multiple sources that hundreds of people had been seen jumping off the edge of the world. Evidential footage played over and over on the break room television. Trying to disregard the whole thing, Lois began eating her lunches with her back to the screen. 

“Mom,” said Ezra from the back seat, “why do people want to die?”

“People don’t want to die. Why are you asking me that?” Lois asked, feigning ignorance.

“But people are trying die.”

“What people?”

“I don’t know… people.”

“The ones who keep jumping off the edge,” Harmony interjected. “They’re trying to die, right?”

“Who told you that?” The two children shrugged. “I swear to god, why can’t people just leave kids—” Lois silenced herself when she saw them in the rearview listening to her. “Don’t worry about that, guys. Okay? Some things are hard to understand sometimes, but you can’t spend your time thinking about it.”

She’d not wanted them to know about what had been happening. Life was already volatile enough without the thought of human beings jumping off the edge of the earth into oblivion. And why? She couldn’t even tell. The general consensus was that they either were fed up with the world or that they thought maybe whatever was in the unknown depths was something better. Heaven perhaps. But heaven is in the sky, isn’t it?

“Hey, Eddie. Where’s Mary Beth and Tony? I can’t keep taking these extra shifts.”

“I don’t know,” said Eddie. “It’s unusual for sure. One more no-call no-show and they’re out. All this in the news about people disappearing… makes you wonder.”

“Disappearing?” asked Lois, who had begun taking her lunch outside. “What are you talking about?”

“It started with those people jumping off the edge. Now, folks are disappearing left and right without a trace. I think they’ve estimated almost ten million people worldwide.”

“That can’t be possible,” she said with little conviction.

“You know, I feel like that statement doesn’t apply to much anymore.”

Lois caught her mind wandering, likely due to her exhaustion, and realized that she accidentally misaligned the printing lasers by half a centimeter, doubling the smiley faces on what she assumed were lollipop wrappers. How many containers had been botched? Lois had no way to know, and perhaps, if this were a few weeks ago, she would have reported it.

Several days later, Lois watched from her bedroom window as a military Humvee patrolled her neighborhood. She couldn’t understand the call for martial law. People had been disappearing, people she knew, but she still had a job to go to. Bills still had to be paid. She needed her children to have an education. What would she do if the schools closed down like they said they would?

…they thought maybe whatever was in the unknown depths was something better. Heaven perhaps. But heaven is in the sky, isn’t it?

Lois’ sister and mother hadn’t called in some time, and Simon wasn’t answering his phone. She wondered if perhaps he was hiding out in his bunker. Or, perhaps he’d been arrested by the National Guard. What if he’d disappeared, too? That night she slept with her children in her bed. The darkness was thicker than ever outside, pierced by the spotlights of passing military patrols. Every so often, gunshots rang out, a dog barked, a cry silenced.

Lois had decided to take her brother’s advice and bought perishable goods, though she was unable to get any substantial amount. Still, they were having filling meals, rice and beans, nuts, canned fruits and vegetables, and powdered milk. She had been fortunate as a child that her mother took the time to teach her how to cook, and not simply from a recipe. Ezra asked how long they would have to go without cheese, and Lois, with all the confidence she could display, assured him that everything would be back to normal within the next week or two.

When three weeks had gone by without any improvements, however, Lois realized she would need to start rationing their food. It was difficult having to limit her children from consuming what would have otherwise been a hearty meal. The boredom didn’t help their hunger either. Schools were closed, and with the count of almost half a billion people over the edge, daycares were overflowing. Lois began giving Harmony and Ezra lessons, lessons about the earth and how to make things grow, lessons on grammar and language, about how to work more complex mathematics. One evening, after lighting the candles to conserve electricity as ordered, she explored the back of an old storage closet to find her old guitar. It was out of tune and dusted. However, once she had the strings tuned enough, she began teaching them the song her father sang to her at night, the only song she knew how to play.

Won’t you let me come ‘round

Come ‘round to the harbor

Where the ships have all moored

For the night

            I will sing you a song

            A song under the arbor

            Of the water, the waves,

            And the tide.    

  “Do you have your identification?” the soldier asked. Without hesitating, Lois presented her driver’s license. “Alright, ma’am. Just take your ticket and basket and go wait in the holding block. They’ll call you shortly.”

Lois entered a fenced in area at the entrance of the grocery store. Apparently, with the population in crisis, there were no workers to farm, none to package goods, fewer to ship and deliver them. Just as equally, however, with the population in crisis, there were fewer people to share rations with. Lois was flushed with joy a few minutes later when she saw a row of chicken breasts. Altogether, she took home the meat, five boxes of stuffing, five cans of mixed vegetables, two boxes of instant mashed potatoes, a small tomato that had been growing in someone’s garden, and an emergency kit handed out to each household.

“Tonight, we’ll have a feast,” she thought.

The smell of the meat cooking that evening made their stomachs grumble and their mouths salivate like never before. As they ate, they laughed and talked as in times not so long ago, but so far removed. Lois hadn’t forgotten, however, and once she was sure her children were asleep, she cried quietly to herself, realizing that such times would be scarce. This was now the way of things. This was life. How did it change so quickly?

Money was worth no more than kindling for a fire. Food and medical supplies had become the new currency. Pharmacies and warehouses had been raided before being placed under government control. Helicopters droned by regularly. She no longer heard the gunshots because they had become as commonplace as a singing bird or chirping cricket. Except, she could hear the absence of the birds and the silence in the evenings without crickets.

“Stop it!” she thought to herself. “Stop it! This isn’t the end of the world!”

“Identification.” Lois presented her license again to the soldier. “Where is your stamp?”

“My stamp?”

“You need a certification stamp to enter.”

“How do I get that?”

“You have to go to your district’s assigned station.”

“Where is that?”

“What district are you?”

“I don’t know. I live on Newton Road.”

“You’re going to need to tell me more than that, ma’am. I’m not from here so I don’t know where Newton Road is. Didn’t your district leader give you a map?”

“My district leader?”

“Yes. He should have given you a pamphlet with all the information you need.”

“No one told me anything about this. I didn’t even know that there were districts.. I just need to get food. My children need to eat.”

“Can’t do that without a stamp, ma’am.”

“Please, I don’t know where to go.”

“I’m going to need you to leave the premises ma’am. You know what you need to get in.”

No, no, no, no! She didn’t know. How was she supposed to know? Lois’s mind was reeling, the heat of exhausted fury hotter than its ignition, and she was at her end. What was she supposed to do? Her mind collapsed into hysteria, and two minutes later, she was thrown to the sidewalk. The guard snatched her license from her hand and punched a single hole into its center.

“Your license has been revoked, and you are no longer permitted on these premises. Do you understand me?”

“What?! No! How am I supposed to feed my children? What am I supposed to do?” Lois’ was on her knees, hands limp, her eyes swollen with tears.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” he shrugged. “Use your emergency kit.”

Lois sat there for nearly two hours, silent, expressionless. As far away as the edge was and as much as she’d tried to ignore it, it had somehow reached her, and now she too was falling into her own oblivion. There was no end in sight, as she had tried to convince herself. There was no more normal. Living had become one’s work, one’s chore, one’s burden. Living was a curse. Living was what people meant when they said ‘go to hell’.

She no longer heard the gunshots because they had become as commonplace as a singing bird or chirping cricket.

That night with empty bellies, she held her children in their bed. Ezra and Harmony had cried themselves to sleep. She no longer had the ability to cry, even if she’d wanted. Outside, a storm had begun, the winds howling increasingly louder around their home. What was she supposed to do?

The emergency kit. Why had the guard said to use the emergency kit? At the moment, she’d thought he was being facetious. Now, however, her mind could not rest for curiosity.

Lois slipped out from the bed and walked quietly to the kitchen. She had put it somewhere, she knew. It hadn’t seemed important at the time. After a minute of searching in the dark, she found the black plastic bag with a perforated end to tear open. She ripped it off and emptied the contents on the table, holding the candle near to get a better look. It seemed an average emergency kit. There was a tourniquet, a flare, two packs of pain relievers, a stitching needle and thread, iodine packets, gauze, wraps, band aids, and antiseptic cream. Lois stared at the pile, disappointed.

As she sat back, however, the flickering glow of the candle cast a light on the pain relievers. What had seemed to be two packets was actually one, and another of something completely different. A familiar, double-printed face smiled up at her. They stared into each other’s empty eyes for several minutes, and slowly, Lois began to find comfort in the smile. She tore open the packet and poured the contents into her hand. Four capsules, unmarked, red and white 1,000mg each. 1,000 mg of what? It didn’t matter. The smiley face was enough.

Lois watched her children sleeping for a long time as the rain poured outside. She loved them, didn’t she? Yes. Of course, she did. They were her everything, her reason for existence. But what of their existence? How many more nights must they cry themselves to sleep as they slowly starve to death? Without a word, she took a single glass of water and broke the capsule, pouring the contents in. It mixed without a trace, and she did the same with the remaining three.

“Ezra, Harmony,” Lois said, rubbing their arms comfortingly. “I got you some water. Here.” Bleary eyes, Harmony took the water first, drank, handed it to Ezra who drank then returned the rest to Lois. Looking over them for a long moment as they returned to sleep, she finished the water.

Lois returned to the kitchen, washed the glass, and went back to bed.  



Studies In gray.


Despite his wishes, Robert Collins’ wake was a black-tie affair likely because anyone who had ever imagined the wake of a billionaire would simply expect it to be and had dressed accordingly. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, however, Robert Collins had not been a billionaire for quite some time. In fact, he had been down to his last seventeen million dollars which, to a billionaire, was equivalent to bankruptcy. His accountant, Samuel Eldridge, who had recently become wealthier than him due to his generous salary and disciplined spending, was, to his knowledge, the only person aware of this. Finding himself in such a position, Mr. Eldridge secretly outsourced the work to another accountant fresh out of school and for a fraction of what he himself was being paid. Likewise, the accountant he’d hired had no idea it was Robert Collins’ account at all and would not have believed you if you’d told him so.


“So, what?”

“So, who’s going to get all his money?” the young accountant asked over a glass of brandy.

    “Charities mostly,” answered Mr. Eldridge. “The man needed his name engraved somewhere besides his headstone.”

     “But what about his wife?”

     “You mean Bridget?”

“Whoever the current one is.”

“She’s likely to get the house and the cars. The two Benz’s, I mean. Not the Ferrari. That one will go to his son, Jerry. She’s also got an allowance set aside for the next several years, though I’m sure she’ll blow through that in six to eight months. Then she’ll have to find a new mine to dig her gold from.”

    “They were only married a few years, right?”

    “That’s right.”

“She’s young, too, isn’t she?”

“Younger than any of his children, and his son Michael hasn’t even left the damn house, yet.”

“Awkward,” the young accountant shuddered. “I wonder what that must be like.”

    “Well, just look at her. I’m sure he figured out a way to cope,” Mr. Eldridge said with a smirk.

    “You mean…”

    “Wouldn’t you?” They snickered together, relishing illicit thoughts as their eyes fell upon the dead man’s pretty wife. 

    Bridget Hanson-Collins was across the banquet hall still shaking hands and accepting condolences nearly an hour into the wake. It was, of course, all a formality. No one besides the old gardener and her husband’s second wife was truly sorry to see him go, not even her. Sure, she’d loved Rob, but much in the same way that she loved high heels or spa days or weekends in Boca Raton. It was also in this same way that she was experiencing the vacuum of his absence. However, such a vacuum would not be filled so easily were anyone to realize how little Rob had actually been worth at the end. Bridget still maintained the advantage of their accountant’s discretion, but without her husband’s employment, that discretion was surely approaching its expiration. The money—real or otherwise— was her dowry, and she must flaunt it like a hooker with her tits out.

    “Mrs. Collins, my deepest sympathies to you and your family.” Howard Leach, the rich, elderly CEO of a company that was apparently revolutionizing cellular computing technology, patted her hand. “What an incredible loss.”

    “Yes, quite incredible.”

    “And yet, an incredible gain, perhaps?” He paused for effect. “You must be under quite a lot of pressure taking over his estate. Have you considered assigning a trustee?”

    “I have, though one doesn’t simply assign just anybody to be a trustee,” said Bridget. “That sort of thing requires… well, trust, and as we both know, that is a rare commodity, especially in this room.”

“Well then, for the sake of commodity, allow me to give you some words of advice that I actually received from your husband not so long ago. We were out on the golf course, and he turned to me and said, ‘Howie,’ he said, ‘if you want to beat the other vultures, you don’t have to be the strongest; only the hungriest.’” Bridget nodded slowly, and Mr. Leach moved closer. “Vultures, Mrs. Collins. Do you understand my meaning?”

“I believe I do.”

“Your husband was a good man. If there’s any way I can assist you, don’t hesitate to call. I’d hate to see his legacy lost to the wolves.”

“The vultures, you mean.”

“Yes,” he nodded with a smile. “The vultures.”

“Thank you, Howie. I’m sure I’ll be calling you very soon.” She shook his hand once more before he moved on.

“He’s got potential,” said Michael over her shoulder.

“All this vultures and wolves talk… he’s nothing but an ass.” Bridget wiped her hand against her thigh.


“This is bullshit. If your father hadn’t been such a fool with his money and given it all away, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

…‘if you want to beat the vultures at their game, you don’t have to be the biggest vulture playing. You just have to be the hungriest.’”

You wouldn’t be in this position,” Michael corrected. “Be glad you’ve got me on your team. The others would’ve left you high and dry.” Bridget stepped to the side and stared him down.

“Let me make one thing clear to you, Michael, because it seems there’s something you’ve overlooked. The house you live in, the bed you sleep in, the luxury car you drive, the ridiculous allowance you spend, it all belongs to me, now. I might be at a loss because your idiot father found Jesus, but I am not high and dry. I may be young and play the damsel in distress, but trust me,” she said, leaning in toward his ear, “I am a wolf. I know how to survive. So, if you try to fuck me, I will rip that pathetic cock off your little boy body and shove it so far up your ass it’ll give a whole new meaning to the term ‘deepthroat’.” Michael gulped, and Bridget returned a satisfied smile to her face. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have hunting to do.”

Michael listened to her heels tap behind him as she walked away. Who the fuck did she think she was? If it wasn’t for the fact that he started believing it to be a sin, his father would’ve divorced her a long time ago. She was nothing but a stupid floozy. No, not stupid. Bridget knew exactly what she was doing. If only she’d been able to keep the old son of a bitch from giving almost everything away. Imagine if he hadn’t died. Michael realized what a stroke of luck it was for all of them. His brother Jerry had also acknowledged this, as had their sister Maurine. Their sister, Lisa, however, had chastised them for such a thought, apparently giving the three of them more evidence in the “Lisa was adopted” argument. It was a discussion that dug under Lisa’s skin, and the recollection of it forced a quiet laugh out of Michael as he approached his siblings by the French doors to the veranda. 

“She’s really turning it up today, isn’t she?” asked Maurine. “Like a bleeding shark in a school of sharks.”

“Sharks are solitary animals.”

“Sharks are solitary animals,” Maurine mocked. “Shut up and eat your shrimp, Lisa.” Lisa, armed with an overloaded salad plate, shut up and ate her shrimp.

“What did she say to you?” asked Jerry.

“Just how grateful she is that I’ve been there for her,” said Michael, taking a cocktail from a passing tray. “I think she’s going to crack soon. Could be any day now.”

“Just make sure you have those documents ready to go,” said Jerry. “I don’t need any setbacks. I’ve already got investments lined up, so the sooner I get my cut, the better. Two million dollars isn’t much, but I can make it work.”

“I can’t believe he wasted all that money on a bunch of dirty, old poor people,” said Maurine. “Ridiculous.”

“Better than wasting it on a bunch of dirty, old rich people.”

“Shut the fuck up, Lisa.”

“You guys are assholes,” said Lisa. “All you care about is money. It can’t buy any of you happiness.”

“No, but it can finance it,” said Jerry into his glass.

“There’s more to life, you know,” she argued. “I should just get up and tell everyone here the truth.”

“Go ahead, Lisa,” said Michael. “I’ll take your two million, and you can give out samples at a grocery store for a living.” Lisa stuttered for a moment, then ate another shrimp. Turning back to the others, “You know, I’m surprised Mother hasn’t said anything about any of this. I think I saw her shed a tear earlier during the service.”

“It was probably just trying to escape the cold-hearted bitch,” said Jerry. “Mother doesn’t cry for anyone or anything. Not even when Lex died.”

“Goddamn.” The four of them stood somberly together for a moment. “Imagine if he was still here. We’d all be out half-a-mil each.” The three of them laughed while Lisa leered disgustedly.

“Four hundred thousand,” she muttered under her breath.

“Would you shut the hell up, Lisa?” Michael asked. “Who invited you here, anyway?”

“Mother,” said Lisa.

It just so happened that Mother, despite how long it had been since she’d played the part, still retained the uncanny ability of hearing her child speak her name in a crowded room, and so, she turned her eyes toward the four of them. How grown they were, she thought, and how she wished she’d summed up the courage to use a coat hanger instead of always falling down the stairs. It never worked.

“Carol, what is it?” asked Denise, Mother’s thirty-two-year-old personal assistant and off-and-on-currently-on lover.

“You know I like you, Denise, and sometimes I even feel that I love you, maybe,” said Carol, “but it’s become increasingly clear to me that I should have never left Robert all those years ago.” Expectantly hurt, Denise withdrew her hand from Carol’s who subsequently rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t be such a fucking baby.”

“I would do anything for you,” Denise declared. “I would die for you.”

“Yes, well unless you have millions stashed around somewhere that really doesn’t do me any good, does it?” Denise blinked in shock. “They say you can’t take money with you when you die, but that’s only ever poor people who say that; poor people who disguise their deficiency of ambition as an abundance of frugality and humble pride. But they’re no different than anyone else. They’d choose money in a heartbeat if you offered.”

“I love you, Carol,” said Denise earnestly.

“Love,” she chuckled. “Now there’s something worth leaving behind.”

“I need some air,” Denise sighed, rising to her feet.

“Oh, please, don’t get your panties all in a bunch.”

“I don’t wear panties. I wear boxer-briefs.”

“Yes, I know,” Carol frowned. “Well, then, if you’re going to go sulk, at least come back with a bottle of that merlot.” Denise rolled her eyes and turned to go until Carol said her name in that sweet, strangely intoxicating tone she hated admitting an affinity for.


“You know you’re my favorite.” Denise smiled and walked away towards the bar where Sam Eldridge was chatting with a young man. He and Carol made eye contact, nodded, and turned to face opposite directions.

How grown they were, she thought, and how she wished she’d summed up the courage to use a coat hanger instead of always falling down the stairs. It never worked.

Gloria, Robert Collins’ second wife, approached Carol leaning heavily on a cane. Her hands were wrinkled and spotted, and her face, with no more than a bit of rouge and lipstick, was unashamedly aged according to her years. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said, her head shaking unsteadily. “Can you believe it?”

“When was he ever here?” Carol responded.

“I know you two didn’t have many good years, but is it so difficult to refrain from speaking ill of the dead? Of someone you loved?”

“I never loved Robert,” said Carol. Gloria nodded and took a tired seat beside her, wandering her gaze across the faces in the room.

“Robby loved you.”

“Yes, I know he did. It was disgusting.”

“But you had five children together. You must have loved him at some point.”

“If you believe that the pussy and the heart are interminably connected then you’re no more of a woman than a man decides you to be.”

“Five children,” Gloria persisted. “Five. That’s no small thing to give a man.”

“Says a woman incapable of giving any,” Carol shot back. “Just look at my return of investment. How commensurate.” Gloria looked at her for a moment before lowering her eyes.

“You’re rotten, Carol. You know that?”

“Yes. I am rotten.” Carol looked at Gloria with a startling expression of pride. Gloria rose slowly and turned away to leave her.

“Nothing rotten was never once sweet.”

As Carol stared ahead silently, a salad fork dinged gently at the side of a glass, and the din of conversations ended abruptly. Samuel Eldridge and his employee, Bridget Collins, the four children, and the two ex-wives looked together at an old man who stood at a corner table preparing to speak.

“Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Henry Koper. Most folks call me Hank, at least, Bob did when he was alive. I don’t know if saying things about the dead matter much. Seems to me that if you had something to say about someone, you should’ve said it before they died. That’s a hard lesson you generally don’t learn but the hard way. Bob and I, we grew up together over in Port City, just a couple of troublemakers playing hooky, chasing girls, tying sparklers to cats… good times. Then we grew up, went to war… after that was over, he went his way, and I went mine.

“I become a lawyer. Bob became a billionaire.” The room laughed for a moment without Hank. “He became a billionaire…” Hank hung his head before inhaling to regain his voice. “Bob wrote a letter a long time ago. He gave it to me in ‘Nam for me to send home in case anything ever happened to him. We didn’t die, obviously, and I forgot all about it until I found out he’d passed. Never even read it until yesterday… I’d like to share it with you now, because, well…” Hank Koper reached into his jacket pocket and produced a dirty, yellowed letter and a pair of bifocals. After clearing his throat, he read the following:

Dear Mother,

If you’re reading this, it means either they got me, or I got me. I don’t really understand what this is all about, and I don’t expect you to, either. Regardless, you’re still here, and I’m gone. I once heard somebody say that even after you die, you’re still alive as long as someone is thinking about you. If there’s any truth to that reasoning, it seems to me that it should work the same in reverse. So, wherever it is that I am, I hope I’ll miss you there, because then, you’ll still exist for me, too. If there’s anything I’ve come to realize, it’s not that you lived that’s important, but that you remain alive after it’s all said and done.

Well, I guess there isn’t much else to say, now, except that I love you, and thanks for the socks.

Love always,


Hank folded the letter and returned it and his glasses to his pocket. A grin bloomed on his face as he looked around at the crowd and said, “I get the feeling you folks will keep Bob alive for a very long time, and well, that’s just something you can’t inherit from the dead, now is it?”



Studies In gray.


mean /mēn/ noun

  • the average of a set of numerical values, calculated by adding them together and dividing by the number of terms in the set.

In the history of the world (as we know it), over one hundred billion human beings have been born, grown, loved, dreamed, cried, fought, reconciled, eaten, shit, itched, scratched, fucked, aged, and invariably died. Of these billions, we only know a small percentage of who those people were and what–if anything–they did. However, it’s only a matter of time before it’s all lost to the past (assuming the sun doesn’t explode prematurely).

Observing this and everything else in our universe, we know that nothing is permanent. Everything ends in one way or another. This fact in mind, we can say quite assuredly that what we are doing every day, no matter how slight or extraordinary it may be, will someday end and be forgotten.

So, why do anything at all? What is the purpose of our existence if nothing ever lasts?

Don’t worry. I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole that is nihilism. Rather, let me draw your attention back to the word at the top of this post. You probably had a feeling it would come into play somewhere, and this is it. A mean in mathematics is an average. It is based on a group of combined numbers. A mean cannot be created from any solitary number no matter how large or small.

In just the same way, meaning does not exist in any solitary thing, person, place, or action. Only when there is another entity added to the factor can a meaning be made; a meaning reliant on all parts equally.

This is why each of us is not a universe. Despite what some might have you believe and no matter how romantic it may sound, we are, in fact, dependent on one another to add the necessary components to each other’s lives so that we might–together–create a meaning.

It is difficult, though, and at times we will inevitably find ourselves taking away from the lives of those around us. But that’s okay. The meaning fluctuates. It is fluid for all the fuck-ups and non-believers like us who insist on learning things the hard way.

And so what if the meaning changes? If it’s not what you believe it should be, then add to it. If the meaning isn’t quite how you imagined and you can’t think of a way to make it right, then surround yourself with people who will add to it. I promise, they won’t mind.

If nothing else, remember this:

Meaning is the collective tapestry of art by humanity. We cannot create meaning alone, and no one can create meaning without you.

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.


I never wanted you to see me
But held it against you when you didn’t,
As if it was your fault that I was
Keeping myself hidden.
Back there in the dark,
Behind the curtain, pay no mind.
There is no such thing as magic, don’t you know?
We made it up like fairy tales
On sleepless nights, and you believed,
And so I did because despite myself
I never wanted you to leave.
Don’t you remember when on summer nights
We fell into our dreams?
We sewed the seams so tightly
Between the real and the imagined,
And while you ruled your kingdom,
I got lost while chasing dragons.
But that never really happened.
So, why does this all seem familiar?
Could it be we’re dreaming now?
The bed is getting colder and my breath
Is running out.
It’s not life that I wanted.
Only you.
But you made me want to live.