More Completely Regular Deals!?!?! ZOMG!?!?

What are you doing over there so handsomely? Come be handsome to me!

You precious little snuggle wuggle bear!

-is a thing I say to my cats, which I figured quoted out of context might hit the funny zone between creepy and surprising and catch your attention! And if you’re reading this, then it did!

The above is also recommended as a pick up line in bars for any gender! Take it as a free courtesy just for having read this!

Ahem.

Is anyone else as sick of me as I am? Yes? No? Maybe? Too awkward to say?

Well, in that case do I have a deal for you. That deal is more of me then you could ever possibly want, all concentrated in one place for you to look at or not look at as you decide!

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Dunce Upon A Time: The Complete BC Woods Non-Fiction

You see, for a limited time, my collected non-fiction is available for FREE PLUS $0.99! That’s right, for JUST ninety-nine cents above ZERO DOLLARS, you can have every family story ever posted on my old website! What’s that you say? Yes, there is the number $4.99 written above that figure with a line drawn through it, because that’s a price that isn’t being charged!!!

Shop with the satisfaction of knowing that the figure you’re paying has a higher figure above it that you are not paying!

making deals with devils

Making Deals with Devils

If that’s not enough, then you can have “Making Deals with Devils” my latest short story that I’m not weirdly ashamed of for ACTUALLY FREE! THAT’S ZERO PLUS ZERO DOLLARS!!!

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Rock Bottom: A Novel in 12 Steps

And Rock Bottom, my latest masterwork that brought both a roughneck and drug counselor to tears is THE SAME PRICE IT ALWAYS WAS WHICH IS $2.99!?!?! SALESMANSHIP! AMERICA! BOOKS! FREEDOM!

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Dunce Upon A Time: The Complete BC Woods Fiction

And if you didn’t get it for free last time it was offered (and feel uncomfortable e-mailing me) my fiction is back at its regular price-gouging $4.99! That’s infinitely times more than zero!

 

Last Chance for Free Fiction

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Team,

Today is your last chance to obtain the free wondrousness of my collected fiction at Amazon.

Dunce Upon a Time: The Complete Fiction

You guys have been awesome. For pretty much the last two days running, I’ve been in the top 20 free list for SFF Anthologies and Short Stories. Today is the last push I’m going to be making before giving your eyeballs a rest.

I’ve published some free fiction here, as samples for what is in the book.

For Tide world fiction we have:

The Doctor and the Nub

Man-Maker

Enjoy 9 more in the collection!

For One-Off fiction we have

The Writing on the Wall

Cormac

Run, Run Judy

Enjoy… I’m not honestly sure how many more in the collection, as I have to go to work soon.

It’s all completely free for today, because I’m confident enough that if we share my stuff to enough people, I’ll catch some people who want to read more. A ton of you have already shared this on facebook and other social media and I wanted to say thanks to all of you.

Here’s what some genius reviewers have to say, and two women and a werewolf can’t be wrong:

This writer is so talented. I wish there were hundreds of Tide World stories.

~KiKiRio

Talented, funny, sharp — writing short stories is an art form, and this collection is just full of treasure. Reminds me of some of the greats — Orson Scott Card’s short stories come to mind — but with a unique voice. Truly worth a read. And a re-read.

~C Powell

If you like works of fiction like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series or Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings books, then you shall certainly enjoy BC’s magnum opus, the Tide World. Set in a world where men were turned into tools of war to combat horrific monstrosities who prey on humans, where remarkable creatures were put on the front lines of extermination of Evil and people must make their way in this world. Following characters such as Tedi Hightower, the Doctor and the Nub and Talori of the Ironwoods, it’s a fascinating and exciting fantasy world, rich and vivid. But of course, this does not detract from the stand-alone novels, which are quite wonderful works in and of themselves.

~Clayton Reese

I’m a weird man who lives alone with a bunch of cats (although, if you have enough cats you’re never truly alone) but for a goodly chunk of my life I’ve got to connect with people through writing. And I appreciate the hell out of that.

Run, Run Judy

Today is your last chance to get the Complete Fiction at Amazon for FREE!

Who can tell me what Panopticism means?”

Mr. Larson had a mustache like a dirty brown push broom. When he smiled, as he nervously did now, it looked like the push broom had snapped in half trying to sweep the tragedy of his yellow teeth out of his mouth.

Judy winced as he worked his lips, smearing the teeth with saliva.

Does anyone know?”

Mr. Larson’s ugly mustache contorted, this time in something that looked like the precursor to mania. She wondered if he’d drawn a short straw or if he was merely expected to give this talk in his role as the history teacher. Whatever the case, Judy couldn’t stand to look at those teeth for another second.

She chose instead to stare at the intercom over Mr. Larson’s head.

Let’s… let’s try this another way.” Mr. Larson swallowed, flashing his nervous smile.

Still staring at the intercom, Judy’s nose shriveled in distaste. His teeth were like the porcelain in an unclean urinal.

Who… who can tell me why we have… Lights Out?”

It was as if the last two words had been ripped from his throat. He was starting to sweat. Judy also noticed his eyes kept going to the clock in the back of the classroom.

Judy figured his mistake was that he was trying to talk about Lights Out like it was just some history lesson. But Lights Out wasn’t about history. Lights Out was about evil. Horrible, rotten, stinking, putrid evil. Mr. Larson was making himself sick trying to put a shine job on it.

Judy glanced over at Elisha Powell who was rubbing her chest and wincing. Elisha still wasn’t fully recovered from her mastectomy. Her parents should have scheduled it earlier. Now it was too late and she would have to face Lights Out at less than full strength. Judy shook her head in bewilderment.

How the fuck do you not plan for something you see coming sixteen years away?

Mr. Larson had apparently decided it was easier to speak if he stared at his shoes.

Panopticism is… it’s all the cameras everywhere. Well, I suppose that’s a simplification… but Panopticism means being watched all the time. It means there’s no such thing as privacy,” Mr. Larson realized he’d made another mistake. “Does… anyone know what privacy was?”

Judy knew. Though from the reactions of the other students, she figured she might have been the only one. Privacy was an old archaic word, representing a concept that was now unthinkable.

Privacy was other people not being able to look at you naked any time they wanted. Privacy was not being sent videos of boys masturbating while they murmured your name into their pillow. Privacy was going into a room by yourself and crying without anyone being able to see.

It must have been wonderful.

When no hands went up, Mr. Larson took a moment to dab the sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief. He scanned the classroom. Their eyes connected for a moment.

Mr. Larson flinched.

Creep, Judy thought.

Privacy was when people had secrets from one another.” Mr. Larson swallowed again, realizing he had used another archaic word. “Secrets are events that occur… Off the Record.”

That got a few raised eyebrows. No one in the classroom had ever done anything Off the Record before. On the Record was a common enough phrase. People said it to seal promises and the like. But Off the Record… that was intriguing.

You’re wrong, Judy thought. Privacy was more than that.

The world has been On the Record for over sixty years now. No one chose it. There was no action of government. There was no vote. Total Panopticism… that is to say, being watched by everyone… was an inevitable extension of technology and economics. But still… here we are.” Mr. Larson gestured at all of the cameras in the room. Most were too small to see, of course, and they were everywhere, on just about everything that was manufactured… but he chose to wave at the intercom over his shoulder anyway.

Every classroom had an intercom. Intercoms represented Complete Coverage. Judy favored the intercom with a scowl.

Mr. Larson had failed to mention that the most important part of Panopticism was knowing that someone else was watching.

Jennifer Lawrence asked a question about how things could ever happen Off the Record, if the Record was Infallible? Infallibility was one of the pillars of Complete Coverage that everyone learned about before they could read.

Jennifer Lawrence seemed awful dumb for someone who had been smart enough to get her mastectomy six months ago. Maybe her parents were the smart ones and had known she would need time to recover.

Judy’s own budding breasts remained embarrassingly ample, which was why she tended to have her arms crossed over them more often than not.

Well… let’s see. What’s the best way to answer that?” Just for a moment, Mr. Larson had been fine, as if discussing any other history lesson but now that he’d come straight up against Lights Out again the nervousness was back.

As you know, at first we reaped enormous benefits from the Panoptic Model. It almost totally destroyed the need for a legal system. It made corruption virtually impossible….”

Come on! Say it! Stop focusing on all the good and tell them what happened!

After the first ten years of Complete Coverage, violent crime rates dropped to less than one percent of what they had been… except… there was one significant drawback….” Mr. Larson was really sweating now. “I don’t suppose anyone here knows-”

Suicide,” blurted Judy..

The eyes of the class swiveled to her. She felt like they were staring at her breasts and her face flushed. It took a concentrated effort not to shift her arms.

All the crime stopped but the suicide rate jumped to twenty-percent,” she mumbled.

Mr. Larson’s face reddened. He was struggling with tears. Lights Out affected everything, but speaking of it was taboo. It was like standing at the Thanksgiving dinner table and shouting curses at the top of your lungs. This talk was the only time it was ever spoken of in any official capacity.

Judy is correct. While the Panoptic model stopped almost all crime it also increased… I’m afraid the polite phrase is ‘self-termination’ Judy.” Mr. Larson forced a grin. Judy wished she had a pipe wrench so she could swing it at his jaw.

Lights Out wasn’t seen as a solution early on, of course. It evolved quite naturally. You see… the cameras,” Mr. Larson waved at the intercom again, “create a sense of pressure. It makes us feel bottled up even if we’re not aware of it. Although Complete Coverage has numerous benefits, human nature rebels against it.”

Judy turned to look at an empty desk. Ian McCaskill used to sit there. Until the video surfaced of him wearing his mother’s underwear. Stupid kid thought he was too unpopular to be Searched. He should have known no one is too unpopular to be Searched.

Ten years after Complete Coverage a section of Chicago suffered a system-wide power and information outage. All the cameras in the east side were off for almost twelve hours.”

Now we get to it. Tell us Mr. Larson. Tell us the truth about the human fucking race!

By that time termination was unheard of, but thirty-three people were terminated that night….” Mr. Larson had finally managed to sweat through his shirt.

There were also a number of other crimes like forced-copulation and other types of lesser body-violation. At first the wave of violence was seen as a tragedy, a form of group madness, however in the aftermath it was noticed that….”

No one involved in the Power Outage committed suicide,” said Judy.

That’s us. That’s people. We need to do bad things just to live.

Mr. Larson’s hands trembled. Everyone tried to pretend Lights Out never happened. Everyone tried to pretend the world was a polite and wonderful place where no crimes could ever be committed because people were good. Lights Out told a different story. Lights Out said that being watched and being good were two very different things.

Judy is once again correct… even if her… verbiage is a little out-of-date. The results were confirmed in a few other isolated incidents that mirrored the first outage. Five years after the first data black out…” Mr. Larson started to cough until his eyes were red and full of tears, “There was a nation-wide outage lasting six hours.”

And what happened, you apologist fuck? What happened when all the cameras were shut off?

There were thirty-thousand terminations, over three-hundred thousand forced-copulations and millions of lesser forms of body-violation. Afterward, the self-termination rates plummeted across the nation. Lights Out therefore… after a few more large power outages… became a national custom.”

Bet you don’t say anything about there being no police response! Bet you don’t say anything about how no one gets punished because I bet I’m the only one here that knows there used to be police!

There were modifications to be made before Lights Out reached full acceptance. Firearms, of course, had to be done away with. As with most other weapons. You’ve probably all seen them in movies.” Mr. Larson, hands still shaking, mimed a few shots with a gun.

No one laughed.

Explosives are also controlled as there is too much possibility for damage to the infrastructure otherwise. And… it was also necessary that young children be protected, which is why we’re having this conversation.”

Judy had read that during the first Lights Out, over five hundred mothers had murdered their children. Most of them had been infants or toddlers. Kids who cried all night.

During Lights out, there is only one place where Coverage still exists. There is still Coverage in ‘Safety Boxes’ where children remain until they reach the age of sixteen. When you go home today, you will find that your Safety Boxes have been removed.”

The age of majority was supposed to be sixteen. However, they’d changed it later to be your sophomore year of high school. That’s when the suicide rates spiked. Shame. Judy was still only fifteen.

Mr. Larson raised his hands when he saw the classroom tense.

Now don’t panic! The terminations were only a major issue during the first few years. Less than a thousand across the entire nation are terminated during each Lights Out. Most people pass the time away in their homes with the door locked.”

Judy noticed Mr. Larson didn’t say anything about rape, or forced-copulation as he styled it. There may not have been that many murders, but rape ruled during Lights Out.

Rape was why Elisha was still hugging her chest and why Jennifer Lawrence had had her tits cut off six months ago. Rape was why all the girls had their hair cut short and ugly in the last few weeks. The way people thought now if a girl looked nice during Lights Out she was asking to be raped.

I imagine your parents will all have some tips for you. And now… I believe our time is done.” Mr. Larson practically fainted with relief when the bell rang.

All the other children headed to the school buses. All except Judy.

She went for a run.

*****

Judy’s tits didn’t bounce when she ran. She’d gone through three dozen sports bras finding the perfect one that kept them from jumping up in her face. Even so, men watched her when she passed, an ancient hunger in deep in their eyes.

Judy flipped them the bird.

Perverts, Judy thought. I ought to do a Search and send a video of you looking to your wife.

A girl with no tits was the norm and no girl except Judy wore tight clothes where anyone could see. All kinds of papers had been written about how this would one day change the standards of what was considered attractive but the men Judy ran passed told another story.

Judy ignored them.

She didn’t run any faster than was needed to get her blood pumping. She’d need her speed and stamina for tonight. This was just a warm-up. A way to get herself physically and emotionally prepared for the nightmare that was to come. She let herself look at the community.

The more forward thinking adults were putting their cars up on blocks and removing the tires. Judy’s neighbor buried his tires in his backyard every year. No chance of the car being stolen that way.

Others were checking the bars on their windows. Window bars came out every year like Christmas lights. They couldn’t stop a whole mob of men, but if you’d done like you were supposed to and not made any enemies they didn’t have to.

On the enemy front, Judy saw housewives going from house to house, handing out cookies in a last ditch effort to generate good will.

Judy passed a couple who were filling water buckets in case of a fire. Waste of time. All building materials had been fireproofed for the last forty years. It was made a priority after the Great Fire of Phoenix during the second national Lights Out.

They should have done what their neighbors were doing. The father and son just happened to be playing baseball.. with aluminum bats. The mother just happened to be cutting back some hedges… with a machete. The daughter just happened to be breaking up concrete with a crowbar. It sent a strong message. A good message. They would be safe during Lights Out.

Judy had no intention of hiding indoors. Her breasts were full. Her hair was long. She was beautiful. Her beauty was a sin against Lights Out and tonight the mob would come to punish her. No fortress would stop them. They would chase her.

They came for old Mr. Harlow’s Sports Car. It was the only nice thing he had, but it was nicer than what everyone else had so they smashed it all to bits. She was like the sports car. They would come for tonight.

Judy let loose a burst of speed.

Let them chase.

In another few years, Judy would be on the Olympic team. There were a lot of women runners now. As fast as any man. That was another unforeseen benefit of Lights Out. Women were getting faster every year.

Judy sneered at a few more men.

I’ll run you all into the fucking ground, she thought.

*****

Dad made a light dinner of chicken and vegetables. It was good, but Judy only ate half. Eating slowed her down.

Tell me about mom,” Judy said, putting her dinner napkin on top of her plate.

Dad sighed, drumming his fingers on his stomach. His plate was empty. Dad had put on a lot of weight since Judy was a little. He told her that was because Mom was the one that used to get after him about eating right.

Her father looked at her with kind brown eyes. He was a sweet man. Too sweet for the world he lived in.

Your mom was beautiful, smart, and-”

Tell me about how she died,” Judy interjected.

Dad’s face fell. He pushed his chair back from the dining room table and stared at a picture of the family on the mantle. He lifted it and ran his fingers across the frame lovingly. It had been taken just after Judy had been born. They hadn’t even been married a full year.

You know I don’t like talking about that, Judith.”

Tell me so I don’t stop running when my legs get tired.”

Dad closed his eyes. There were no sobs. It had been too long ago to even seem real anymore.

It was Lights Out. You were just a baby in the Safety Box. Some men broke into the house and raped her. When they were done, one of them slit her throat.”

Judy didn’t ask her father what he’d been doing during that time. When she had been old enough, she’d run a search and seen video of him bloody and scarred the second the cameras came back on. The men who’d killed her mother hadn’t got to her without a fight.

I’m so proud of you for that, Dad. I’m so proud you fought when they came for her.

And that’s why you taught me to run,” said Judy.

They repeated this ritual often. Judy was the one who instigated. It helped her when her lungs burned so much she wanted to throw up, or when her legs quivered from strained.

Dad nodded. “That’s why I taught you to run.”

She walked over to a wall where her trophies were kept. Lots of pictures of her with first place medals around her neck. Her dad was holding a stopwatch in all of them.

Am I fast enough, Dad?”

You’re the fastest, Judy.”

Judy took her plate to the kitchen and shoveled the remains of dinner into the garbage disposal. She ran upstairs and changed into her tight running clothes. She re-checked the weather report to confirm there would be no rain. Then she got the knife from off her nightstand and strapped it to her hip.

Drive me out to the forest now?” she asked.

Her father looked at the door, frowning.

How long have we been planning, Dad?

It’s early yet. Why not wait a couple hours?” The color was starting to run from his face. Judy could tell he was rethinking the whole plan. Thinking there might be some way to fortify the house and protect her with only a few hours left.

The only way I’ll be safe is if I’m alone, Dad. We both know that.

Judy kissed his cheek.

You can’t protect me. A mob of them will come tonight and your only hope is to leave all the doors open so they can see that I’m not here.”

Dad sighed.

They’d both known running was the only way for years.

Take me to the park now.”

You’ve been there a thousand times. Ever since you were little.”

But people need to see me there. They need to see me there through all the cameras before Lights Out so they know better than to come for you.

I just want to make sure nothing’s changed.”

Wait an hour?” her father pleaded, putting an arm over her shoulder.

Fine,” said Judy, “one hour.”

*****

Take a blanket, for Chrissakes!”

Dad waved a blue flannel blanket but Judy kept on walking. She’d be warm enough when the running started and she had no intention of sleeping any time during the night.

You’re gonna freeze to death out here, Judith!”

Once Judy crested the hill, she climbed atop a picnic table and shouted goodbye. Her father lowered the blanket in defeat. She could hear him cursing as he changed gears and drove off.

Judy watched the car drive away until it was only a trail of dust off somewhere in the distance.

He’ll be safe. Anyone out to get her would have already done a search and tracked her progress to the park.

She watched the sun sink down toward the horizon. Lights Out started at sundown. It ended at sunup. All Judy had to do was keep her eyes open. If someone wanted to chase her, there was a forest for her to play hide and seek all night. A forest she knew so well there were maps of it on her feet, separate from her brain.

Judy took the knife out of its sheathe on her hip. It was a boning knife from a high-end kitchen set and the closest thing she had to a combat weapon. She spent an hour sharpening it as the sun went down.

She hoped people were watching through the cameras.

She hoped she gave them second thoughts.

The city lights burned in the distance, still bright even under the sun. Then some time later the sun disappeared and the city lights went off. Darkness smothered the world like a blanket.

Judy fought off the need to tremble. There were no cameras in her head. The fear could be her secret if she kept it there.

*****

The park was an hour away from anywhere else.

That’s why they’d chosen it. That’s why her father had picked it out off the map. The further away it was, the more time people would have to spend chasing her. An hour there… and hopefully an hour back if they didn’t want anyone to suspect where they had been.

Two hours gone from the night.

Judy walked in a short circle on the hilltop, keeping her eyes peeled open. If they came, they’d have to come from the road. She would let them get halfway up the hill, to make sure they exhausted themselves, and then she would run out to the forest and lose them. Just like she’d planned.

She tried not to look at the dark city. She swore, even though she knew it was impossible, that she could hear screams coming from that direction.

I should have had my tits cut off. I should have lit my hair on fire and poured acid on my face.

She realized her breathing was getting out of control, so she forced it to slow. Judy resisted the urge to press the glow button on her watch to check the time. She couldn’t run the risk of ruining her night vision.

She kept running through her strategies.

Up the hill. Let them get half way up the hill. Up the hill. Halfway up the hill.

If she ran before then, they’d just skirt off the side, and her advantage would be gone. If she ran out into the woods right away, they might be able to band together and search in some logical fashion.

She’d planned it for years, but it now seemed like the most insane strategy in the history of the world. Half the hill was too damn close.

Halfway up the hill. Halfway up the hill.

Judy wished there was some kind of training for waiting in suspense.

Headlights blared into existence from beyond the curve of the road.

Judy’s mouth went dry. Her heart hammered. They were coming.

Am I a runner? If I’m a runner then why do my knees feel so weak? Why do I feel like I’m going to faint?

Another pair of headlights followed the first. Then another. Judy’s hand went to the knife. She couldn’t breathe. Three cars in all.

Oh God! Oh God! They’re going to work together! They’re going to surround me and then they’re going to hold me down and…

She bit her tongue. She clenched her fists.

I am fast,” Judy said to the air.

I am a runner.”

The headlights of another car, more distant than the first three appeared. Judy started to cry. Couldn’t help it. There were no sobs, but try as she might she could not stop the tears coming from her eyes. She forced her breathing to stay even. Forced her hand to say on the knife at her hip. The tears though, continued.

Four cars! Jesus Christ we never figured on four cars!

I am the fastest.”

The first group of three cars was nearing the parking lot. Judy jogged in place. She closed her eyes and counted to ten. The first group of cars had parked. The fourth was still in pursuit. Speeding.

Judy flinched when the car doors slammed open. There was only a sliver of moonlight to see by.

We’re coming for you, Judy! We’re gonna fuck you in every hole you got!” Judy couldn’t recognize the voice. Other boys whooped and shouted in approval. Someone laid claim to her asshole.

I am going to die.

If one of them takes out their penis, I will cut it off and throw it at the others.”

Judy forced herself to count. Sixteen. Some boys and some men by the look. And more to come in the fourth car.

The group advanced. Some were holding rope. Others were holding bats and clubs. All of them wore masks of one kind or another.

We’re gonna hold you down, Judy. Then we’re going to tie you up and fuck you till your pussy breaks,” it was an ugly voice. A voice no one would use if they thought someone else was watching.

They weren’t to the hill yet. Judy held her feet firm. Forced her breath to flow evenly. Half of running was breathing.

Even as her lungs pumped smoothly she wanted to shit. Wanted to piss. But she held firm.

I’m gonna fuck you like I own you, Judy.”

I’m going to make you all mine, Judy. You and them big ol’ tits of yous.”

Someone made a slurping noise. Someone else laughed.

It won’t be so bad, Judy! I bet you like it after the first couple of throws!”

They were at the base of the hill now. It took all of her willpower not to take out her knife and throw it at the nearest assailant in some mad animal assertion of her territory

Why hadn’t she thought to stack rocks? Maybe she should have brought a slingshot? Why hadn’t she brought a fucking slingshot? How could she have been so stupid?

Gonna fuck you Judy! We’re gonna fuck you in half!”

They were going to rape her. They were all going to rape her. She should have prepared for a fight. Running? That was idiocy.

Her breath continued as regular as the tides.

I am fast. I am a runner. I am the fastest,” Judy whispered it like a prayer. She no longer had any idea whether or not she was fast. It was only a hope now.

They were a quarter of the way up the hill. All sixteen of them. They only had to come up a little bit more. Just a little bit more and she could do something other than stand there. Stand there breathing like an idiot.

They were shouting. It looked like they were running except their feet seemed to fall in slow motion. Judy couldn’t hear what they were saying over the pounding of her heart.

The fourth car pulled into the lot. Only one person in it.

God she needed to piss.

They came onward slowly. Still more slowly. How could they move so slowly when their legs pumped like that? She would be dead of old age long before they ever raped her.

One of them stepped on a branch and it snapped. Judy had put it there earlier to mark halfway.

The world suddenly started to rush by. The men weren’t walking. They were charging. And she was still standing there breathing.

If one of you takes out your dick, I’ll cut it off and throw it at the others!” Judy shouted.

She turned. She ran. Faster than she ever had. Faster than she knew she could. And still her legs brought on the speed. Bountiful reserves of energy opened to her.

Get her!”

Catch that fucking whore!”

A baseball bat landed miles away behind her. They couldn’t even throw anything as fast as she was running. She passed into the treeline. The voices faded.

Judy spared one last look over her shoulder. The headlights of yet another car appeared around the bend in the road.

Five Cars! I am going to die I am going to die. I am going to…

I… am… the… fastest!”

The forest was hers. She would face them there.

Part II

Judy ran and the men chased.

Stalked.

Hounded.

Hunted.

Their eyes drank from the smooth flex of her buttocks beneath her running pants, the perfect pump of her legs, the rhythmic slackening of her calf muscles.

Their teeth gnashed in shameless hunger.

The men ran with a strength absolute, powerful and primal. There was no longer any single man, naked and blameless in the night. Only a group of men without a thought other than that they must catch her.

They howled in notes of blood and adrenaline. In notes of meat and bone. In notes of need and lust. Unstoppable, they ran, as fast as they could…. for half an hour… then for an hour.

Two hours.

Run! Run her into the ground! Take her!

Naked in the night, blameless, and without shame, they ran. Unstoppable but….

Men fell left and right.

The mob shrank.

Judy’s soles flashed white in the distance, never flagging, never slowing, their rhythm sure and constant.

Those left standing became dizzy. They leaned on trees, panting with trembling legs.

Judy smirked, upright and proud in the moonlight.

In movies, monsters never got tired.

But then no monster had ever had to chase down Judy.

*****

Twigs crackled like distant gunfire. Breathing, muffled by masks seemed to come from directly behind her. Every now and again, someone would strike a tree with whatever weapon they had handy and it took all of Judy’s willpower not to bolt like a startled hare.

The mob was maybe half the size that it had been. All those left looked tired as they wandered through the forest like zombies. She could have kept running, she sensed she had a good three hours of energy left, but if she ran too far she would come to a road and the woods held a greater safety.

Judy leaned against a tree, quietly breathing. Steady and controlled. A runner’s breathing.

Now that she had stopped running it was hard not to feel afraid. Crazed, delirious thoughts floated through her mind. For some reason she couldn’t stop thinking about a paper mache mask project that was due for art next week. She’d never done paper mache before.

Not even once.

Her life might well be over and she had never even done paper mache.

She supposed she thought of it because one of the men chasing her seemed to be wearing a paper mache mask. Judy wondered if he might have any tips.

Just stay calm Judy. Just run them down. Run them out. You’ve got the speed but you’ve got the endurance too, so don’t do anything stupid.

A twig snapped nearby

Time to move. Don’t hide. Let them see you.

Judy sprinted from behind the tree, crouching low to avoid high branches overhead, taking full advantage of her short stature. She let her feet fall flatly, not caring if she made noise. The whole point was to make noise, then go quiet again.

Just don’t let anyone get in front. If even one of them grabs hold of me…

Judy tried not to think about that.

She leaped over a creek, which she would never have dared do at night, save for the fact she had already leaped over it a million times during the day. Judy tried not to think too hard about running, lest she confuse herself. She had run through this forest often. Her body knew where to go, even if her eyes didn’t.

I’ve got to trust myself. I’ve got to believe in myself. Believe I know where I’m going….

Judy could see the shadowy forms of the men chasing her. She figured she would run parallel to the road for a while, let them get close enough to see, and then putt on a burst of speed. It would wear them out quicker that way.

A scream, high and shrill penetrated the night. Judy’s breath caught and she risked standing up straight to stare in the direction of the sound. Whoever had screamed had done it out of sight.

Another moment passed without sound.

Judy realized she was still standing up straight, and cursed under her breath. As quiet as a mouse, she hid behind the next tree, waiting for the men to chase after her. Those left had stopped yelling at her an hour ago, which was unfortunate as it was now harder to tell where they were. Judy supposed they didn’t have the breath left for it.

In the old horror movies, the bad guys would chase you all night without ever getting tired. But I’ve trained to outrun the monsters.

Judy allowed herself a satisfied smile, if only to bolster her courage, until another shrill scream filled the air and wiped it from her face.

If she listened intently she thought she could hear something like the sound of meat on a chopping block.

Who’s there!” one of the men shouted. It was the one with the paper mache mask unless she was very much mistaken. Judy could see him by the moonlight, with his back now turned to her.

Who’s making all the noise?”

Silence.

Judy patiently counted out four minutes to herself. Then she turned on the glo-light on her watch. The scraping against the forest floor said that a half-dozen pairs of feet had turned to face her direction.

Judy broke cover and ran again.

Five hours till daylight. Five hours till daylight. Five hours till daylight.

*****

Judy crawled through a wide swath of thorny bushes, with a passage so small that it was hard to find even during the day. Four of the men left seemed to have flashlights, but Judy didn’t doubt the bushes would catch at least a few more eager fellows whether or not they could see.

I bet they couldn’t even get hard right now if they wanted. They probably just want to fall down and take a nap.

When she was through the other side, with more than her fair share of scrapes, Judy picked up a fallen branch and struck a tree. In the silence it sounded as loud as a thunderclap.

Footsteps turned toward her. Flashlights illuminated the area around her. Judy let one shine briefly on her leg before she hurried onward again.

Are there even less than there were, or am I imagining things?

True, the cloud of adrenaline that had rolled over the mob had long since been forced to abate by the sheer physics of the task. Sprinting through a forest was no small matter. Let alone sprinting at night.

I think some more of them just gave up. I wonder how much quicker they would have walked away if I’d just brought a fucking slingshot.

Judy slowly backed up the incline. The forest covered a hilly ground, but as a whole it trended upward. It was getting steeper with every foot covered but it was steepest here. If Judy was lucky, in the next few hours the rest of her pursuers would drop like flies.

One of the flashlight men made his way toward the bushes. Judy hid behind a tree, and let herself watch. Although it was close, on an incline like this, with the thorn bushes in the way, he could never catch her even if he saw her.

The flashlight man tested the bushes with his hands, then turned the flashlight from one side to the other, looking for a way around. He crouched low, walking a ways in either direction as he searched for a passage through.

A dark shape appeared out of the darkness behind the flashlight man.

The flashlight man didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, assumed it was one of his comrades.

But it’s not. It’s not someone who came with him… because….

The blade of a fire axe gleamed in the moonlight. Almost too fast to realize what was happening, the axe swung down, fast, striking the flashlight man right in the side of the neck.

Blood spurted an insane distance from the wound.

I just saw someone get murdered.

For some reason, Judy’s hands, which had been sweating, went bone dry. The man with the axe, put his foot on the neck of the flashlight-man and yanked.

The axe came free without a sound.

I just saw someone kill a man for real, in real life.

The axe-man fumbled for a bit with the flashlight, trying to find the off switch. The axe-man had a large build, and wore a catcher’s mask with other sporting gear like it was a suit of armor. But there was something else… something odd. Two cylinders protruded through the catcher’s mask like….

Night vision goggles. You’re not supposed to have those. Where did he get night vision goggles from?

But more importantly, who was he? What was he doing here? The flashlight clicked off.

Dad?” Judy whispered, hopefully.

The axe-man stood still as stone, except for his head looking every which way.

Judy could just make out two circles of reflected green light as the axe-man tilted his head toward the sound of her voice. Judy knew him when he smiled.

She swore, even in the darkness with only the moon for light, that the teeth were urine-yellow.

*****

Why am I running so fast? I’ve left everyone else behind. I’ve left everyone else behind, so why am I running so fast?

Stupid. There was no other word for it. She was being stupid. Her legs were burning but still she couldn’t make herself stop running.

His teeth, biting my ears. Biting my lips. Biting my nipples. His horrible, awful, ugly, goddamn yellow teeth biting my… no. No! No! No!

After ten minutes, Judy crumpled like a shot buck. Her legs folding underneath her, and she fell forward weeping.

Mr. Larson. Mr. Larson is out here chasing me, and he’s killing everyone so that he gets to have me all to himself.

It had been so much better when the terror hadn’t had a face. She knew that was unusual, but all Judy could see in her mind’s eye was Mr. Larson’s too-wet tongue licking his sour teeth, then reaching out to taste her and… and….

Judy threw up, shaking like a sick cat.

It wasn’t much because she hadn’t eaten much, but with her abdominal muscles already tied in knots, vomiting felt like being punched in the stomach. She retched again, imagining Mr. Larson’s awkward fumbling fingers running over every part of her body.

I’ve got to stop. I’ve got to get back in control. He hasn’t caught me yet. No! No, I meant he hasn’t caught me and he won’t ever catch me!

Legs suddenly weak, Judy used her arms to half-climb a tree to get her feet back under her. She held the tree for a moment, pretending it was her father, letting its strength reassure her.

Mr. Larson isn’t a runner. He won’t be able to catch me.

Judy breathed through her mouth, ignoring the sharp taste of her own vomit. Absentmindedly, she put her shirtsleeve against her tongue and rubbed the taste away. She took three confident steps forward.

She knew where she was. She’d walked this way before.

Another confident footstep. Then another.

Someone else screamed, far off and away. Judy heard four or five chops. Meat on the chopping block.

Her legs buckled again.

*****

The second the lights went on out there, the lights went off in here.

Her father told her that, first pointing at the cameras, then pointing at his own chest. Judy wished he was there now. Wished he could appear with his great big belly and his great big hands, and wring Mr. Larson’s neck.

Everything good went away when privacy went away.

Judy walked, almost drunk with terror, bouncing off trees, not even flinching at the occasional scream from behind her. Mr. Larson had walked the whole way, Judy could see it now. He’d saved all his strength even when everyone else was running.

There were no more flashlights behind her. Mr. Larson had either killed all the men with one, or those with the flashlights had wised up and turned them off.

People didn’t need privacy just to do bad, Judith. That’s a lie you’re going to get told and I want you to know it for the damn lie that it is.

People needed privacy to do good. People needed privacy to know they were good.

You’ve got to be able to do good things where no one can see, just so you know there’s something decent inside yourself. Something that’s all for you that isn’t there just because someone’s watching.

Being watched takes being good away from us. It makes it so that we never have to be strong for our own sakes… so when the Lights go out, Judith… when the world turns its back on us… there’s no more light in our hearts to scare away the night.

Another scream. The sound of a man running away.

People need to do bad things to live, Judith. I won’t deny that. But we need to do good things too. We need to do right for ourselves because otherwise it’s all just meat and there’s no reason for any of it. Even bad men have got to have something good, otherwise you can’t stand to be a human being.

A branch scratched her cheek, drawing blood just under her eye. Judy didn’t bother to notice.

Used to be, back in the old days, the lights would go out and people would help each other. That was back before there was cameras everywhere. There was just people, sitting there, knowing in their hearts what right was. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes. Do you know what means, Judy?

Who watches the watchmen,” Judy murmured to herself.

It’s a bullshit question, Judith! They’re going to throw that in your face when you go to school, but it’s bullshit! People watch themselves! People watch themselves just fine!

Real strength comes by testing yourself for yourself. But… these damn cameras everywhere! Used to be the only camera you had was inside of yourself. That was the only camera that mattered! That was the only one that never went away!

But when the lights went on out there, Judy.. when they took the cameras outside of us and propped them up all around us, well then… in a lot of people… the camera inside just went away.

Maybe the camera wasn’t perfect, Judith. Maybe people lied to themselves about what they saw there, but they had to just to live don’t you see? People needed to be people. And when the cameras came, when it became impossible to reconcile anything away… well, everyone who had an ounce of shame killed themselves Judy.

It was like being torn apart. They couldn’t take it.

There’s only two kind of people left, Judith. Only two kinds.

The shameless and the patient.

And you and me, right Dad?” Judy croaked.

Yeah… sure.”

Judy stopped, without knowing why. She turned around.

Mr. Larson stood perhaps twenty feet away, bloody catcher’s mask, bloody axe, bloody everything. He smiled. Judy could make out his broken push broom of a mustache when he smiled.

Judy,” he said.

From his lips, her name was the most awful word ever spoken.

Judy screamed, and without any strength left, she ran.

*****

How did mom die, Dad?

He told her she wasn’t old enough to know, and that she shouldn’t look it up even though she could. Judy had learned all about “Search” at school and about how you were supposed to search everyone or else you were just a little kid with bad manners.

Dad told her he didn’t like “Search” so Judy had explained that her teacher said “Search” keeps everyone honest and makes sure everyone is doing a good job and if we didn’t have “Search” we’d be like the crazy people from a long time ago.

Her father insisted that she not “Search” on the causes of her mother’s death.

Will you check on me, dad? Will you make sure I don’t look it up?

No, Judith. I trust you.”

She looked it up anyway. If her dad broke his word and checked on her, he never said and she never did a Search to check. Judy was only been six, holding the computer under her comforter thinking the blanket somehow made a difference as to whether or not she could be seen.

Search: All dates footage available for Heather Lindall-Everidge.”

The index included the present day. She’d forgotten there was a camera in her mother’s coffin.

Judy opened the link, took a look at the corpse, saw it was shriveled and unrecognizable. No information there. She didn’t care much that it was a dead body. The kids at school had shown each other all kinds of gross things and it got old after a while.

She did another search.

Search: First death Record of Heather Lindall-Everidge.”

Judy saw a body laying on the ground, blood puddled all around. The dress was hiked up around the waist. The legs were twisted oddly. The body had been savaged.

Judy saw a face that looked something like her own. She zoomed in on it. Bruises in knuckle shapes marred the cheeks and forehead.

When she got old enough to understand, Judy would be taught that “Search” actually created a composite of tens of thousands of different viewpoints. As it would be cumbersome to use any of these separately, “Search” tied itself to people via face-recognition. It worked to a lesser extent on objects.

Judy rewound the footage and something darkly unsettling happened. The screen went black. “Footage not available.”

She knew this could not be correct. Her teacher had taught her about “Complete Coverage” and “Infallibility.” She went forward, and rewound again.

Footage not available.”

When she went to school the next day, teacher didn’t want to answer the question about the missing footage. That was for when you were older, she said.

Then they ran searches of people going to the bathroom and teacher explained why it was nothing to be ashamed about and everyone did it. That got boring after a while too. Even after teacher went around the class and showed a video of every child going to the bathroom.

When she got home from school that day, her father had placed her first pair of running shoes on her bed.

*****

I don’t want to hurt you, Judy!”

Oh that was awful. So awful. If she had anything left to throw up, she would never stop puking.

Judy scurried toward the highway. There could be no cat and mouse game with Mr. Larson. Not so long as he had those night vision goggles.

Please, Judy. Just come out here. I’ve scared everyone off. You’re safe now!”

He believes it. He thinks he’s saved me, and that I want to run into his arms like he’s a noble hero. He thinks I will kiss him and spread my legs for him, and moan when he enters me. He thinks I love him now.

Judy clutched the knife in her hand in a death grip, knowing that it could never deflect an axe blow. Oh God her legs burned. She’d used up too much in her fear. She’d let herself run too hard and now, only an hour from daylight, Mr. Larson was going to catch her.

I knew they’d come after you, Judy. I saw it and I came out here to protect you. You have to believe me!”

I don’t believe shit!” Judy hollered, unable to help herself.

Judy had seen a video of Mr. Larson masturbating to her once. Well actually, it was a video of him not masturbating to her. Numerous children had done searches, trying to find footage of Mr. Larson masturbating but none existed.

What Judy called “The Masturbation Incident” happened when footage from a week when she had taken to wearing a very tight runner’s outfit suddenly became very popular. Someone then cut it together with footage of her in the shower.

The boys shared it with each other. There were hotter things on the Web, hotter couples you could search out, but Judy supposed she had a local flavor.

Back before Complete Coverage, seeing someone naked was called porn and a teacher looking at naked students would get fired.

Someone in turn did a Search and made a compilation of everyone who masturbated to the video of her, inter-cut with the original video. It had been the talk of the school for a month. It ended with Mr. Larson staring at her video and turning off his computer with a sigh. Then of him going to sleep with his hands folded on his chest.

Judy spit, clenching the knife as hard as he could. Mr. Larson was approaching a clearing close to her tree.

I would never hurt you, Judy. Every Lights Out, I go and find a girl to protect. This year, I wanted to protect you. I’ll protect you every year if you want.”

He flashed her a bit of broken push broom.

Fuck you!”

Judy jumped into the clearing, threw a rock, and turned to run.

Judy, don’t be like this!”

*****

Her father explained what happened to her mother when she was eight. She had been running around the jungle gym, her father standing by with a stopwatch, urging her to climb and crawl faster and faster. He pulled her aside and told her in the parking lot.

When she finally understood exactly what had happened to her mother, Judy asked about getting a big metal bathing suit.

That made her father frown, although there was a hint of a smile about his eyes. A bit of “oh shucks, kids say the darnedest things.”

They tried that in the first years. But if you were someone men wanted they tore them off with saws. The women died of blood loss come sun-up.”

What about a castle?”

That made her father snort.

You’d think that would be the most obvious thing. But I’ll tell you what Judy. If you read the building codes very carefully, you’ll see you can build every kind of house there is… except one that other people can’t get into.

Oh, they give you a few concessions. They let you put bars on your windows, but not the kind that can’t be pried off. They do it quietly like that, keeping Lights Out dangerous. That way no one has to come out and say ‘What if I want to murder or rape my neighbor?’”

But… but why does it have to be this way?” Judy cried, putting her hands in her father’s.

It’s not, Judith. Not for everyone. Some people like it. It’s not bad for them. They have… I don’t know how much you know about this.”

Judy had of course seen several hundred sex “Searches” and being eight, had found them all to be incredibly boring.

Some people just throw their doors open wide and have whoever comes in, but… that’s not the whole story. For those who don’t want to live that way, there’s another kind of person out to get them. The kind of person that only wants something if they’ve been told they can’t have it. Do you understand?”

Judy didn’t.

Her father made her run.

He said understanding could come later.

*****

Her breathing was ragged. Torn. Not a runner’s breathing at all. Judy followed a mostly unused path up to the dirt road out of the forest. If she got on it, and ran straight till sunrise, another half hour or so, then she could nullify Mr. Larson’s advantage.

What then? Do I just go to school and pretend this didn’t happen? Do I just sit in history class and pretend that Mr. Larson never tried to fuck me?

Part of her knew the answer was yes. Even for her. Even for all her hate, she would be glad to go back into the safety of the classroom, under the safety of the cameras and pretend this had never happened. Even with Mr. Larson.

She could see the road up ahead. All she had to do was run. Just a bit longer. Just a big farther.

I don’t think it’s safe up there, kiddo,” Mr. Larson hissed from somewhere far below.

Judy didn’t care. Only one footstep and she would be on the road….

Clunk.

A jolt shook her whole body.

A car was parked on the side of the road. Her father’s.

He came after Mr. Larson came. Then he drove around, up here.

Judy looked down, and realized that her leg had been broken in a bear trap.

*****

There’s only two kind of people left, Judith. Only two kinds.

The shameless and the patient.

And you and me, right Dad?

Yeah… sure.

*****

Judy scooted away like a crab, dragging her useless limb with her other three. The car door opened, and she turned away not wanting to see her father step out.

Hey kid.”

He was smoking. Her father didn’t smoke… except now, when the cameras were off. He reeked of whiskey.

She tried to whisper something, couldn’t.

Her father sauntered over to her, pushed her flat with his heavy hands, and cut at her top with a knife. He ripped the top off with one rough pull, leaving her there in nothing but her bra. He did the same for her pants, until all the was left hung around her broken bear trap leg like a piece of dead skin.

Shouldn’ta gone to the road, Judith. I told ya not to go to the road.”

She opened her mouth but her father slapped her hard across the face before she could say anything. He’d never struck her before. Never even raised his voice. He pushed her flat on the ground.

You shouldn’ta gone to the road, Judith!”

Judy put her face flat against the pavement and wept.

Lights went on out there, then the Lights went off in here. Oh, how it itched at me Judith! Even your mom. Even my wife, who would have given me what I wanted with no fight, I had to take it from her.

Don’t you see Judy? Don’t you see!”

He straddled her now, toying with her breasts.

She tried to move, couldn’t.

His face bent low, his breath like a tavern.

I used to watch you in that fucking box of theirs. I used to look at you like a Christmas present, and I waited. Oh I waited so long Judy. I’ve been such a good boy waiting for my Christmas present.”

He ripped her bra off, but she covered herself with her hands as quickly as she could. She tried to move them away to fight, couldn’t.

Do you know what it was like? Knowing that I could see you naked with just the press of a few buttons? Do you know how hard it was to wait? But I was patient, Judy. So patient.” He nibbled at her ear while he whispered to her.

Her father stood up in a flash. He grabbed the knife she’d carried on her leg, and put it in her hands. Judy looked at the knife trying to remember what it was for, couldn’t.

I’ll give you one chance. If you’d got here sooner, if I’d been able to have all the fun I wanted to have, well then I probably wouldn’t even give you a chance but….” her father shrugged. He pressed over her again, this time kneading her breasts.

Why…” her voice was a needle of air, forced through her throat, “… did you teach me… to run?”

Her father laughed like Judy had told the most hilarious joke in the world.

Why did I teach you to run, Judy?” he slapped her, full across the face. The knife in her hands clattered back to the ground.

Oh you stupid cunt!” he was crying, blubbering even, “Can’t you see it, you stupid awful cunt? Why did I teach you to run?” Her father wept harder as he tore off her underwear and began to unbuckle his pants.

I wanted you to get away from me little bitch!”

He spat in her face.

Then Mr. Larson put his axe in her father’s head. He fell forward dead.

Mr. Larson pulled the body off, and laid it by the side of the road. He crossed the arms of her father’s corpse in the classic “I’m Dead” pose. Then Mr. Larson took off his jacket and used it to cover Judy.

I wasn’t lying Judy. I really did come here to protect you. You’ve got… you’ve got to be able to do the right thing even when no one’s looking.” He smiled. His teeth were urine yellow.

He wanted to kill people and not feel bad about it. He wants you to tell him that killing people is okay. Don’t let him fool you. Judy tried to understand why it was her father’s voice in her head, couldn’t.

Judy stared at the road. The cold and unforgiving road. No expression was discernible on her face. She saw a few cameras set on the street lights.

Fifteen minutes later the sun rose, the streetlights came on, and the cameras flickered to life.

Judy tried to weep for her audience. Couldn’t.

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The Writing on the Wall

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Even as he clung to the face of the cliff his greatest fear was not of falling. Though the ground lay a thousand feet distant, he moved with the patient decisiveness that accompanies long practice. Although it seemed many times he must surely fall to his death, his hands found handholds, his feet found footholds. He climbed down. Down into the valley where memory waited like a beast ready to pounce.

He had lived here once and returned now not from nostalgia, but from the force of a habit so strong it was ritual. The fact that he had performed this ritual longer than he could remember had made taking the journey a reflex more than a decision. Down and down he climbed. Down where the rock walls had stood in patient abeyance for the last hundred million years. Down to where he had climbed he knew not how many times. When at last he stood on the valley floor, he took off his pack and sat down, panting. He faced the rock wall only a moment before turning away. The rock wall made the fear turn his guts.

Every year, he came to the wall when the seasons changed and the land grew warm. He came because the valley was the place where the words lived. Carved onto the rock wall were the most important words. The only words that mattered anymore. He wished he could remember having written them. Or any of the countless times he must have done maintenance on them by sharpening the grooves in the stone.

I AM JOHN FOSTER HENDERSON AND I CANNOT DIE”

The letters were taller than a man and John Foster Henderson had no idea how long it must have taken him to write them with nothing more than a stone to scrape into the side of the cliff. Years maybe. Underneath the words were a series of serial marks. Each cluster containing four in a row, crossed by a fifth. One mark for every year of his life. The marks extended far off into the distance as far as the eye could see, stacked taller than a man, like a wall of pictures.

Today he would settle into the valley and make camp. Tomorrow he would begin the trek to the place where the marks ended. Once there he would make a new mark. The journey would take the better part of three days. He knew it in his bones without having to recall his last trip.

With shaking hands, John Foster Henderson took his journal from out of his pack. The journal was made of tanned animal hides sloppily bound together and written with ink made from blood and berries. The fear returned as he held the journal.

It was hard not to think about it. The unending fear. The fear that seemed more real than ever here in the valley.

John Foster Henderson was the last man on Earth. Maybe the last sentient being in the universe. He did his best to ignore the fear, but still… there wasn’t much else to do but think.

*****

I am John Foster Henderson and I cannot die.”

The journal began with the same sentence as the one he had written on the wall. He read the journal every year when he came to make his mark. Every five years he copied it word for word and checked it against the old copy. A single copy would never have lasted his lifetime. That was one of the lessons his immortality had taught him. Keeping anything constant required constant work.

I write this because I do not believe I will be able to remember much longer. My name. My family. Human history. Or even that there was such a thing as human history.

I have lived longer than any man was ever meant to live and my mind is filling up. Every day I live to take in new experiences is a day that my mind has to make a decision about what is important to remember. We had a saying once, when there were enough of us that speaking was important: Use it or lose it.

In enough time, when the inertia of solitary days becomes greater than the memory of all the beautiful things, I will lose everything.

I am the last survivor of the human race. The humans were a vast people. They had different faces and different skin colors and different genders, as do the animals. I have come now to accept that one day I will wake up and not be able to remember a face that is not my own. I can bear that as long as I remember that there were faces not my own.

I had a woman once. A she. If I have forgotten gender, I remind myself to look at the animals and think on how they pair with one another. That is gender. Her name was Sarah. If I close my eyes and think very hard I remember that her hair was black. Her eyes were blue. But I may be imagining that. I do remember blue eyes though. People had blue eyes once. Blue like the sky is blue.”

This part always fascinated John Foster Henderson. His hair and eyes were brown. The color of dirt. He liked to think what it must have been like to see someone with eyes the color of the sky. It was one of the few thoughts that made him smile when he came to the valley. One of a very few thoughts.

I do not know exactly what happened to the rest of the world. I was a scientist in my old life. A geologist, a man who knew things about the Earth, and I was deep in the Earth when catastrophe struck. Whatever it was came all at once, and all people but me were dead on the instant.

I lived for years in the dark, unable to leave. The skies were black and the sun gave no light for the longest time. I ate lizards and bugs, and drank water that had lain still in subterranean pools since the dawn of time. It tasted of sulfur. I despaired for what I felt was eternity, but I persisted.

There was something once called suicide. It meant the willful termination of one’s own life. They took that out of us when they took death away from us. Maybe that’s why we blew each other up. Life stopped meaning anything when it stopped ending. Maybe we just lit up all the bombs we had. We could kill one another. They never took that away. I don’t know. I could never piece together what happened after I left the cave.

All I dared think about was how I lived. Deep in the Earth. For years. Maybe a hundred. Probably more. I kept no count. When it was safe to leave I had become so accustomed to the dark that it hurt to stand in the light. It was a long time before I made the full transition and once more became a creature of the sun.

And when I left to see what remained, there were no more buildings. No more people. I saw my reflection in a clear pool, and realized that I was all that was left. And so my suffering began.”

He thumbed to the back of the book. It was filled with definitions of human things based upon a world without humans or any of their inventions. If he read them for long enough and closed his eyes, he could imagine what such things must have looked like.

Buildings: giant cubes made of stone and metal for people to live inside.

Streets: Flat rectangles of stone that laid on the ground for people to walk upon.

Machines: Things made of metal and stone that did things to make life either. Knives and spears are simple machines.

People: Others like us, who had different minds we could not touch. There were as many people on the Earth as there are stars in the sky.”

John Foster Henderson closed his eyes and murmured the words. Then he flipped back to his previous place in the journal.

I will remember this. You, my un-remembering self, will remember this. For they are gone now and only the memory of their memory will live with us. Remember their memory, because there is now nothing else we can do.”

John Foster Henderson made a fire. He made a shelter. He had done these tasks many times and they presented him with no difficulty. Buildings, he thought. These were the things men like him had made like giant shelters for many people to live inside. Machines. These were the things like his flint knife that men had made to make building things like buildings easier. Streets… for moving people and machines from building to building.

John Foster Henderson sat down and tried to imagine all of it. It was almost too much to think about. And then there was that fear again. He spoke aloud the writing on the wall.

I am John Foster Henderson and I cannot die.”

And although his voice was reassuring, there was a small terror living inside it. Did he speak his own language anymore? Would anyone be able to recognize the sounds he made? Or had it changed little by little over the years? Had he made so many vocal shifts that his language was unrecognizable?

John Foster Henderson slept by his fire and shivered in the night. Around him the sky and earth moved in their destined courses, and were as empty of life as they were full of possibility.

*****

He spoke aloud all the first day. From the journal, without bothering to read it. Use it or lose it. He had used the journal many times. His mind knew the words now like his leg knew to kick when he bumped his knee. The words like the journey were a reflex. He lived long enough everything felt like a reflex.

Her name was Sarah Foster. We met in college. College was a building where people gathered and told each other everything they knew. Sarah had black hair and blue eyes. I’m sure of that now. Black like night and blue like day. She had the coloring of the sky, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world to me.

I asked her for a year to be mine. A year is the amount of time it takes for winter to go away and come back. She said no every time. Then, after a year she said yes.

I smiled every day after that. She was mine and I was hers. We were in love.”

The next part made John Foster Henderson feel something in his chest. Something that twisted and seemed to hurt but for which he had no word. He did not have to move to another place in the journal to find the words for these confusing feelings, for they were so important they had been written in the middle of the journal.

Love: The most wonderful thing in all the world. The thing that makes life worth living. Love is the reason hearts beat and the reason people get up in the morning. We can love ourselves, we can love others, we can love the world. Love is warmer than fire. Love is bigger than the mountains. Love is more forever than the sun.

I loved Sarah. She loved me. It made us warm and big and protected. One time we went on a picnic. A picnic is a meal you eat outside of a building with someone you love. It started to rain. But we did not run for shelter. We sat and held each others hands. Because our love kept us warm and big and protected.”

John Foster Henderson’s voice caught in his throat.

I can already feel it fading. The feelings I felt for other people. I think about it and I get the emotion without the reason. In time, that too will be gone. My head will be empty of all but words and some of their meanings.

Remember love, John Foster Henderson. Remember it for as long as you are compelled to walk the Earth, for it is the one thing which will make the loneliness bearable. Love yourself and the Earth and the memory of all those who are now gone. Fill the empty places with love and you can endure without suffering. Cry if you must.”

He spoke the definition to the word he could not remember.

Crying: You will know this is what you are doing when water comes out of your eyes, but this is not the only reason you do it. You will know the other reasons for they will twist in your heart always.”

John Foster sat down in his shelter after he made camp that night and cried for a very long time. He held himself and rocked in the cold night, and found when he fell asleep he felt better. Like he had lanced a wound and squeezed out part of the infection.

*****

On the second day, John Foster Henderson thought about family. He walked along the wall, the marks becoming cleaner and more distinct. These were not so old as those he had passed yesterday. The years had not yet had a chance to be so unkind. He wondered if there were as many marks now as there had been people on the Earth. He didn’t know. His mind had lost much of the use of numbers.

Family: These are kin folk. They are related to you as animals are related to one another.”

There were red flower petals hanging in some of the etchings. It must have been the wind, sweeping them up off the valley floor. John Foster Henderson was the only person in the world who could have placed them there intentionally, and he had not done so. He kept walking.

My father’s name was George. My mother’s name was Corrine. I had one brother named Jacob and one sister named Karen. One Christmas (Christmas is a special day when everyone does their best to love one another) Karen told us she was pregnant. She was seventeen. My mother started to cry. My brother and I sat still as my father disowned her. I never saw her again after that. Not even when my father died. Not even when everyone became immortal.

I was only twenty-one, and had no money, but I should have helped her. I can see everything so much more clearly now that there are no more people. I should have helped her because family is important. No matter what you do you can never change where you came from. Karen. Her name was Karen and I should have run to her and protected her when she was alone and afraid.

Jacob went away to war. One time when we were young he took one of my toys from me and tied a ribbon around it. He hid it for a week and gave it back to me for a birthday present. I was angry, but I can see now that he loved me. Someone put a bullet through his eye. A bullet is a small metal knife that people throw at each other with machines.

My dad got cancer and wasted away. Cancer was a sickness people had when their bodies just got tired of living. He wasn’t the same after he disowned Karen. He didn’t fight it too hard when the end came. He tried very hard to do what he thought was right, but he should never have let Karen go away. That was wrong. He loved her so much and he let her go away. That was the real sin in the world. That we all loved each other but couldn’t stop hurting.

Mom lived with Sarah and I for a while. She lived to see the birth of the twins. Twins are when a woman gives birth to two babies at the same time. I named them Karen and Jacob, after the siblings I had lost. Mom died very shortly after that. I think she felt it was time to go, like something that had been broken had been restored.”

John Foster Henderson, whispered as he went about setting up camp. He whispered words that cut deeper than knives because he could not rightly recall why they should cut him at all.

We were all going to live forever. That was they said. Me, Sarah, Jacob, and Karen. All of us, forever. Bright and happy. I would see my children have children. Sarah and I would let them play on our knees knowing that we would never grow too old to care for them. All of us forever, loving each other.”

He was sobbing by the time he was sitting in front of the fire. Sobbing as if to wet out the flames, and his words were broken and came in great rasping heaves. He knew the words should mean more to him than they did, and that hurt more than anything else.

We had a house on the hill. It was white and we had a picket fence. We had a dog named Scratch that loved everyone but me. He used to tear my shoes to bits. Sarah and I fought sometimes, but almost every day was good, and neither of us would have chosen to live on without the other even at our angriest moment. I loved them all so much.

I’m just going to go away this once, honey. That’s what I said. We had forever, after all. Forever and ever. So I said, hey I want to go this new place they found. Deepest cave in the country. And she said yes, even though she was scared. There was talk about people wanting to go to war again, even though nobody was hungry or sick. Some people wanted to stop living forever, and some people didn’t think that was okay. But I went anyway.

So I was in that cave. In that dark deep cave. With the still pools that tasted like sulfur, and the lizards I had to eat uncooked. And the bat skeletons I had to crush and choke down so my bones wouldn’t atrophy. And my beautiful family, Sarah, and the white house on the hill, and Jacob, and Karen, they all went kaboom! Now there’s just me. In all of the whole world, there’s just me.

And if I could wish myself to be dead and take my own life, I would.”

John Foster Henderson fell asleep looking at his knife, and knowing that he could not even if he wanted to. That part of him had been taken out with death. The journal told him so. Still, he looked at the knife and felt a hunger which could never be satisfied.

*****

On the third day John Foster Henderson thought about time. He thought about time a lot. He could add time. He could subtract it, but somewhere along the way he had forced himself to unlearn the act of counting. Even now he shivered when he thought of counting. Counting was the biggest part of the fear. When you started counting, and thinking about counting, then anything was possible.

A Day: The time it takes for the Earth to revolve from dawn to new dawn.

A Year: The time it takes for the Earth to make one revolution around the sun. A year is made of 365 days.

A decade: Ten years

A century: One hundred years

A millenium: One thousand years

Thirty-six

That’s how old I was when the world ended. When I was finally able to leave the cave I had been living in it far longer than I had lived outside of it. After all the time in that cave, when I came out all that was left of human civilization was a few mounds. You could find some stone or metal scraps in some of the mounds if you dug deep enough. That was it.

I tried to figure out where my house was as best I could, but there was a crater there. A giant god-damned crater. I don’t know why, but I stayed there a long time, even though there wasn’t much to eat. It was hard to find food in those first days. The water was still dirty and the plants hadn’t made their comeback.

I stayed there for a long while. It was miserable and I looked like a skeleton, although I looked like a skeleton anyway from living in that cave for so long. Some of the dust there was my house and my family. Even if it was only one particle, then it was one particle I could be sure of. So I stayed there a long meaningless time. And I started to count.

One and two and three and four and five… and on and on and on. Do you remember what happened? Every number we said. Every number we uttered. There was another number after it, and when we got to ten billion we could not stop screaming because we had been counting for almost a hundred years and we still hadn’t run out of numbers. And that’s when we knew that what had happened to us was forever. That there would be no dying. That we would wander the Earth all the days of our shared life and it would never end. And we were furious!

So we climbed, fingers digging into stone, and with nothing but a little rock we carved into the stone of the canyon the one thing which we now knew. Which we knew as men had known gravity, and atoms, and space, and love, and death.

I AM JOHN FOSTER HENDERSON AND I CANNOT DIE

We wanted it there forever, but knew it would fade. Knew it would fade as the buildings had faded, knew it would fade because life, ever-adapting life, is the only thing that lasts forever and if we wanted the universe to know the awfulness of our fate then we would have to make it the duty of our life to speak our fate every waking hour. And we started to mark the time. Every year. A mark in the stone. Every five years, a bundle. Keeping tally like a prisoner, except that our prison was the whole of the Earth.

And when we could bear the sight of the writing on the wall and the marks no longer, we began to wander. Further and further afield. As if we could run away from our confinement. I don’t know how many years later we stopped. We don’t know because the one thing we wish never to do again is count the passage of time. Because when we count we can see infinity and it is horrible beyond words.

We stopped when we couldn’t remember the color of Sarah’s eyes. We couldn’t remember if they were blue, or green, or gray. Or if they were just a very blue shade of green, or if they were a very blue kind of gray. And that’s when we realized. That’s when we realized it was worse than we could have ever imagined. Our mind was filling up. Second by second. Blink by blink. Heartbeat by heartbeat.

A ream of paper, and one pen. That was all. That was all we had ever found in our travels. So we sat down, and wrote out all of my memories before they could vanish like smoke on the wind. I was dying even then, and you were being born from my forgetfulness. We wrote down everything we could, and then we realized that the paper too would erode in time. We knew e must find ways to preserve this journal for all of time, for it was all of me that was left. And so I did. And so you did. And so we did, for we are one and the same although you cannot remember me. And I love you, and you love me, because we, sharing this skin although my mind has gone away with the rebirth of each new cell, are all we have in this empty world.

So as time wears on, and the horrible clock of the universe continues to count, know this John Foster Henderson. Love yourself. Love yourself as much as you can as long as you can. You are all you have left in the world. You and me. Forever.”

He spotted the end of the marks, and he ran to them so fast his thighs began to burn. When he collapsed before the marks he took out his flint knife and began to scratch. Over and over in the same spot. This scratch was the fourth of a bundle. One two three four… and forever and infinity. Always and eternal.

John Foster Henderson tried very hard not to look to his right. Because if he looked to his right he would see the remnants of faded marks he had made in the past. The marks were so old they had all but vanished back into the stone, as he knew the mark he now made would fade. How many times? The fear came when he counted. He wondered and grew dizzy with the possibility of it. How many times had he covered the length of the valley with scratches from end to end? How many? One two three four five… and forever and infinity. Always and eternal.

He hoped that his journal was real. That’s what made him so afraid. That was why he hated the valley. Oh how that fear ate at him. That great fear that only returned when he was in this place. He hoped beyond hope that he had once been John Foster Henderson. He hoped that he had not been delusional when he wrote that journal. He hoped that he knew who he was because if he was not himself, then he was nobody. And if he was nobody then he was truly and completely alone.

So he scratched, and when he was done he crawled out of the valley as though he were being chased, and while he clung to the side of the cliff his greatest fear was not of falling. His greatest fear was the memories and uncertainties that lay waiting below him. The memories that would call him back year after year. When you start counting, when you even start thinking about counting, then anything is possible. One two three four. Forever and infinity. Always and eternal.

Please let me have been myself,” John Foster Henderson whispered as he reached the top. Then he ran, and ran, and forced himself not to think.

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The Doctor and the Nub

Today is your last chance to get the Complete Fiction at Amazon for FREE!

There were a lot of freaks in the Doctor’s place. Freaks everywhere you looked of every size and shape you could imagine, set out like fruit for display at market. They had names, but Aesh never used them unless it was absolutely necessary. The freaks were barely human anyway.

The newest freak was a boy two years of age with a head the size of a ripe melon. He could only pivot in feeble arcs, and Aesh was glad the boy could not talk lest he spend all day complaining. The Doctor said the boy wouldn’t last much longer, and was surprised to find the boy had survived birth. Aesh was surprised his father hadn’t put him out of his misery the second he had been cut from his mother. The Doctor said the kid had something so rare everyone thought it was pretend. He’d made a proper fuss of it. Aesh had stopped paying attention after a while. The kid had a big head, that was all there was to it. The Doctor had a way of complicating things. Besides, there were more interesting freaks.

There was Fat Chen, who lay still and obese in bed all day, unable to move his muscles. He’d fallen off a horse in some special way and landed on his head. There was Half and Half Nilea. She couldn’t move half her body and spent all day mumbling some of the worst curses Aesh had ever heard. Simple Ben had eyes that seemed too round and a face that seemed too soft. He could hardly count to ten. But they were all in a way too common. For Aesh’s money, the best freak was the Nub.

Aesh had caused a lot of trouble in his sixteen years of life. His mother had switched him for snitching food. He’d been suspended from town school for a week for talking out of turn. He’d even put his hands on Merri Nedanu in ways no boy was supposed to put his hands on a girl he hadn’t married, and been beaten half to death by her father when word got around town. He’d done a lot of bad things to hurt a lot of people, but Aesh had no idea what the Nub had done to make someone so insane with anger that they hadn’t given him the mercy of killing him outright.

The Nub had no eyes. They had been put out. And he had no hands or feet. Someone had chopped them clean off. Aesh could only figure one way that the Nub had been saved so quick that he hadn’t bled to death. That’s what really got to Aesh. That idea. Whoever had lain into the Nub had to have been the same person that saved his life. Whenever you laid eyes on the Nub, your mind turned to think of the monster what had hurt him so bad. Aesh figured that alone made the Nub a fascinating creature.

But the Nub’s horrors were more bizarre than that. The Nub had no tongue and no teeth. As if someone had purposefully wanted that he never speak again, and that he never be able to bite open his wrists and end his life. All the Nub could do all day was lay still, helpless, and think. Think about things he would never be able to relay to anyone. That was what caught Aesh’s attention so profoundly. What was the Nub thinking? What was going on in his mind? There could be no way of ever knowing.

Aesh!” Herral whispered. It was both their turn in the hospital and Herral had been trying to corner him all afternoon. Aesh had been doing his best to avoid him. Herral was going to get them caught if he kept it up.

Hold your wind, Herral! You want the Doctor hearing you?” Aesh muttered, folding a set of sheets and setting them down by the bed. He had to be careful to be quiet. The Doctor had ears like a bat.

Aesh ignored Herral’s look of hurt by reaching back into the big bin where all the clean sheets were held. He’d saved replacing the linens for last as he found it to be the easiest chore. One of the Doctor’s Prentices would come by and do the actual changing. You had to have a delicate hand with the freaks, and no one trusted it to the town youths. Aesh and Herral just had to stock supplies.

Did you get it?” Herral insisted. Lords, Herral was dumb. He was the dumbest boy in the whole town. Talking about things like that in the Doctor’s place. Might as well go into the Ironwood on Standing Day, if he wanted to be so dumb. At least then he’d only get himself in trouble.

I said hold your wind, Herral. The Doctor has no patience for that stuff, and we have to look after the freaks.” The Nub stirred at being called a freak, but Aesh didn’t mind. It wasn’t like the Nub was going to tell anyone.

You’re worried about the freaks?” The freaks were a sore subject with Herral. “I don’t know why the Doctor keeps them. I still say we ought to ship the lot of them off to Samaerael. Let the Avatars make them into stew or whatever it is they do with freaks. No need for them to be botherin’ us.” Herral made a face like he wanted to spit. Herral made the same point every time their turn came up to go into the freak ward.

Just you watch yourself. You can meet me by the miller’s place. We’ll talk there.” Aesh finished piling the last of the sheets and headed toward the door, knowing Herral wouldn’t follow. No one went against the Doctor’s orders. Not even someone as dim as Herral. Aesh found himself glad that he had gotten an early start on that day’s chores. It meant he wouldn’t have to suffer Herral any longer.

You can’t leave me alone with the Nub!” Herral hissed. The Nub started moaning again, flailing his useless limbs to and fro. He hated that name. The Nub. It must have brought all the horrors of his plight to the front of his mind. If he had much of a mind anymore, Aesh reflected. It’s not like anyone could tell if the Nub was lucid or not. Aesh snickered as Herral backed against the wall, to hold his body out of the reach of the Nub.

What are you worried for, Herral? Are you worried the Nub’s going to gum you to death?” Aesh shut the door to the freak ward, and left the hospital. At one point he thought he could hear Herral screaming, but Herral screamed every time the Nub managed to touch him so no one raised much alarm over it anymore.

Aesh smirked before leaving the hospital altogether.

*****

I don’t know about this. You know what they say about that stuff.” Winther was always the one who tried to restrain them when he felt they had gone too far. Winther was a tall gangly boy, a year older than either Herral or Aesh, yet so awkward and uncertain that he seemed at least two years younger. Winther bit his fingernails when he was nervous. At that moment, he looked like he wanted to swallow his entire hand. If they hadn’t been of the same age, Aesh doubted he would have ever even spoken to Winther, let alone become his friend.

What’s that ya great idiot?” Herral spat. “You think the Shadowman came by and stuck his thumb in the soil, and that when he pulled it away the Leaf sprung up? Alarell bleedin’ at Ragnad, Winther, the smartest part of you ran down your mother’s leg. It’s a plant. I don’t see you running for your mother’s apron strings every time you see grass on the hillside.” Herral scorned. Aesh reflected that Herral thought himself very brave when he wasn’t stuck in the same room as the Nub.

You know I don’t hold with none of that. It’s just… there’s something ain’t right about it is all. You ever wonder why all of the grown ups hush up every time it gets brought up?” Winther insisted.

They hush up every time someone mentions the Doctor too, and they all love the Doctor.” Herral made a mock kiss face, and Winther was forced to throw up his hands in disgust. Winther had been so brow beaten by his mother he wasn’t much of a man at all.

Fine! Fine! I’m just saying we ought to be careful!”

Stop it you two! You want to wake the miller?” He wouldn’t have risked meeting there had not the miller’s place been at the fork of the roads they all lived on. Aesh brought the cloth he had pressed the Leaves in out from  underneath his shirt.

Where’d you find this stuff again?” Herral asked.

Lose your guts?” Winther smirked.

From the forests outside the hospital. The Doctor sent me to fetch him some herbs. Stuff he didn’t have in the garden, I guess. Found a wild patch of it. I figured it was Leaf because it had thirteen sepals, like in the stories.” Aesh unfolded the cloth before either of them could argue anymore. Punishment for getting caught with Leaf was worse than a beating. Get caught with Leaf and they put a whip across your back. Sometimes they even forced you to leave the town.

What do you do with it?” Winther bent over to peer at it, his face scrunched in on itself. Aesh took the opportunity to slap the side of his head.

Smoke it you great idiot!”

Well you didn’t have to hit me!” Winther shouted.

Aesh smiled. He liked to remind Winther of who was in charge between the two of them. He spread the cloth out in the patch of grass between the three of them. The sepals lay there, thirty-nine in all. Dried, ready to be shredded, rolled and smoked. Aesh was very pleased with himself indeed.

Did you bring the rolling papers?” Herral asked.

Lords damn it, Herral. Did you just want to smoke all of it right here where anyone can see? No, today is just for showing. That’s all.” They were going to save it up and take it a bit at a time if Aesh had any say in matters, which he did. It wasn’t every day you found something as precious as Leaf growing in the middle of the damned forest.

When do you want to do it? Everyone’s been on edge lately. I heard there was going to be a village watch, like back when we were little. They’re setting up a patrol.” Winther didn’t take his eyes off the Leaf even when Aesh had bundled it back up and hid it underneath his shirt again. He wasn’t half so hesitant as he pretended, that Winther.

Why are they doing that?” Herral asked, distracted. They were all standing now, ready to part ways.

I heard there’s trouble back east. Witnesses aren’t content with spreading the Message peacefully anymore. Now they’re killing anyone who won’t listen. They said now that He’s back it won’t be long till He announces himself and unites all the kingdoms of the world.” Winther nodded at the end of each sentence, as if he knew every word to be true.

You could rape a Witness’ mother in front of him and all he would do is ask you to stop.” Aesh said. Winther really didn’t know a damn thing. “Don’t give me none of this war nonsense. The Doctor keeps out the Barons and the Witnesses, alike. Everyone knows that.” Aesh sneered, buttoning up his coat. He had to get home soon or his mother would start to ask too many questions. There wasn’t much work in the winter, but that woman still kept track of his whereabouts too much for his liking.

Nothing lasts forever.” Herral said.

Tell that to the Doctor. You mark my words, Herral. You too Winther. When Alarell comes riding back over the world holding the Spear of the Horizon, there won’t be nothing but dust and the Doctor. The Doctor ain’t going nowhere. And he sure as the sky is blue ain’t letting the Barons or witnesses into town. Just dust and the Doctor. You mark my words.”

With that Aesh finished buttoning the last button on his ragged coat, turned toward the road that led to his house and began to walk. Not for the first time he wished there was enough money around that he could get himself a proper horse. Walking in the mud was undignified.

*****

For ten years, the Weaver lived side by side with the folk of the village. For ten years, he worked the fields with them. He shared his meals with them. Shared the use of the common. He became one of them. And after a while, he found a young to share his bed and begat children by her. Now, some say they were her children from another man, but it made no difference to the Weaver. Children were children, and if they were hers he would raise them as his own. A big heart, had the Weaver.”

Aesh rolled his eyes as he closed the door behind him. His mother was putting his brother and sister to sleep still. She spared him an unkind glance in the lantern light before returning her attention to the children. Aesh’s mother was a weather beaten hag. She had a sun squint stare and skin like leather. She was even proud of the way she presented herself, said it meant she’d worked hard. Aesh hated to even look at her.

So for ten years the villagers loved the Weaver as one of their own. Loved him and took him in as one of their own, and all was well until the Baron of the village took a lusting to the wife of the Weaver. So one day while the Weaver was out working the fields, preparing food for the stomach’s of his wife and children, the Baron brought the wife of the Weaver to him and took her to his bed. And when she tried to deny him, he killed her. Slit her throat, ear to ear.”

Aesh’s mother ran a finger across her neck for emphasis. Jak and Nia gasped. Aesh noticed their hands were grubby from scrubbing the house. His mother, Aesh thought, did not have a proper respect for leisure.

A fine story to be telling children.” Aesh muttered.

A true story! A story children ought to hear if they’re to have a lick of sense.” His mother turned and nodded at the children.

What happened next?” Jak asked.

Yeah, what happened?” followed Nia.

It’d give you nightmares.” Aesh’s mother insisted, waiting for them to ask for more.

Please!” They said in unison.

Aesh’s mother smiled as she acquiesced. Aesh snorted. His mother loved telling dark tales. She loved stories for all that her imagination wouldn’t stretch from one end of her field to the other. “Okay then, okay but you have to promise you won’t be scared too much by it.” The children gave eager nods. Aesh occupied himself with preparing his bed for sleep.

Well… some say that the Baron tried to take the children of the Weaver hostage to stop him from getting his revenge, see? The Baron didn’t know he was a Weaver, but he knew that he was a powerful man quick to anger and was afraid of him nonetheless. So he took the Weaver’s children, and when the Weaver came to him to get them back, the Baron killed them both. Same as the mother.

The Weaver, he wasn’t like the rest of his kind. He had been sent into exile long ago for some reason nobody remembered, not even him. And he had made a promise never to spill a drop of human blood, not even if that oath cost him his own life. So you know what he did?

He had a powerful curse he summoned upon the Baron. Something given to him from back before the Abandonment that would catch someone in a kind of living death and he used it on the Baron so that his essence would hang forever over the land, protecting it from harm, unable to go into the After. And when all that was done, he became the new king of the people and protected them from all invaders. See? It worked out for everyone.”

Except the Weaver who got his family killed.” Aesh murmured. Then added,

And the Baron. Didn’t work out well for him either.” Aesh had found a loaf of bread and tore it in half to eat.

And now where have you been, young master Aesh, if you would be so kind?” His mother had a way of talking down to him like that. Aesh was not a bit fond of it.

I had to stay long at the Doctor’s. They needed help with the freaks. I volunteered.” That seemed to satisfy the old hag, so she got up and put the children to bed. She never asked questions about the Doctor or school, as she had no mind for either. Aesh was grateful for the opportunity and used it to the hide the Leaf in his coat, both of which he he threw under his mattress. He’d have to find a better hiding place come morning.

How was the Doctor today?” His mother asked, returning.

Aesh shrugged. “Same as always I guess. All doom and gloom like it was Ragnad all over again. I didn’t see him too much. He was tending to people.”

His mother bit her tongue, and took a seat at the kitchen table. “I need to have a talk with you.”

What about?” Aesh hoped like all the Lights in the After she had not caught a whiff of the Leaf he’d been carrying around the past few days. She’d turn him over to the Doctor worse as any town snitch.

The town’s putting together a patrol. There’s been rumor that the Witnesses are giving the Barons back east trouble. There could be people heading this way. Dangerous folk coming along with them. I told the council you would be happy to volunteer. One of the Doctor’s Prentices came by today to talk to me about it.”

Aesh was angry. As if he needed even more to do. “And why would you go and do a thing like that for!”

There ain’t many men here. And of what men there are, most of them can’t leave long enough to go on a patrol. They’ve got business needs doing. You know that, and you’re old enough now to be of use. No fields to plow in the winter. No seeds to plant. No ditches needing digging. Plus, you’ll get to feel important. I would have though you’d fancy that idea.” His mother sniffed at the idea of importance.

Walking around all through the middle of the night, freezing my ass off? You make it sound like it’ll be a grand adventure!” Aesh knew Winther and Herral would see it that way. Dim bastards that they were.

You’ll do it just the same.” His mother said, looking at her fingers. She had such grubby little hands. They looked like claws. Good only for digging in dirt. Couldn’t even use them to spell her own name. Aesh did his best to keep his hands tidy.

We’ll see about that. You’ve already got me at the Doctor’s half the day dealing with the freaks, as if I don’t have better things to be getting on with.”

You know, Aesh. You remind me a lot of your father when you talk like that. He thought himself too fancy for this and that too. And you know what happened to him.”

Aesh rolled his eyes and crawled under the blanket on his mattress. He’d find a way to weasel out of patrol duty one way or another. No way was Aesh Medu going to be making a fool of himself in the middle of the night. Whether it was something his father would have agreed with or no.

Not for the first time, Aesh fell asleep wondering what actually had happened to his father. Whatever it was had happened right after the twins were born. Aesh couldn’t remember, but his father had been crying that he had to go. Aesh did not sleep well that night.

*****

Aesh sat astride the horse, not feeling particularly happy. A horse would have been well and good had he had some time to break himself into it. But all at once like this, his legs felt like they were trying to slide down the sides of the animal so they could come clean off his body. His joints felt wobbly. And then there was the animal itself. Pulled off farm duty somewhere. It was bow-backed and walked crooked when it wasn’t too busy trying to nibble at something to go where Aesh wanted.

Each team will be getting one lantern, a blanket, and something to eat for the night. Remember, you’re to ride off to where you were told, and stay there. If you see someone, don’t try to do anything. No sense getting killed.”

Wasn’t that the truth, Aesh thought. It had been a week since his mother had told him about the patrol. Aesh had figured he would end up doing something like it. But he hadn’t expected to see the entire town turned out in the common and everyone looking so Walker-crossed serious.

Signal up toward the town with the lantern, three flashes. We’ll have other people ready to send out to where you are. Am I understood?” Yolandam finished. Aesh hated her. She was one of the Doctor’s Prentices and walked around like her droppings didn’t stink. You would have thought she was in attendance at some grand Academy from the way she carried on.

There were three members to a team. No one had objected too heartily to the idea of Herral and Winther being on his, except to say that it was probably not a good idea to have them all alone without supervision. But being hard pressed for men no one had complained too much. Aesh and his companions trotted off toward the western road. The least likely to see any action.

Did you get the papers?” Herral asked.

Aesh only nodded. They weren’t far enough away from town yet that he trusted speaking aloud. The Doctor had been scarce during the meeting, and the man had a way of popping up behind you without you ever knowing he was there.

Well maybe we’ll have something else to do tonight than freeze our asses off.” Winther added. It was cold enough as it was, with the sun still high in the sky.

You figure we’ll see anyone?” Herral asked.

No. Ain’t no one wants to come here. What’s here ’sides the Doctor?” Aesh replied.

Winther frowned. “I wish I knew why everyone seemed so damned serious about it. That was the whole town back there. Think someone is holding back on us?”

Aesh and Herral told Winther he was being a dim idiot, but as they made their way along both of them spent a lot of time looking at the shadows.

*****

The Shadowman made the Leaf. That’s what the stories said. Back in the olden days before the Abandonment. Back when the Walkers walked and the Shadowman fought with Alarell. Way back then, the Shadowman stuck his black thumb in the soil of the world, and when he pulled it back the Leaf sprung up. The Leaf, to test the wills of men and turn awry all who fell from the path.

Aesh had never bought any of that shit. He lit the Leaf, now rolled into a bloom and puffed deep, coughing. They’d made camp over four hours ago, and the monotony of it all had finally convinced Aesh it was time to get a little relaxation.

Can you feel anything yet?” Winther asked, expectantly.

I feel like someone just knocked the wind out of me if that’s what you mean.” Aesh coughed with such force he feared he might bring up blood.

Let me go next!” Heral insisted, reaching out for the bloom.

Aesh took several more deep puffs before passing the bloom to Herral. He leaned back against a tree, suddenly feeling less anxious. It felt like he had stepped into a bath so large that he was able to spread out his entire body. Even the coughing didn’t seem so particularly bad anymore. Aesh smiled. When he turned to look at Herral, he was smiling too.

Well, let me have some then.” Then, after he was done coughing, Winther started to grin. A big dumb grin that made Aesh want to laugh. Winther really was one of the dumbest people in the whole of the world, and if that wasn’t hilarious then Aesh didn’t know what was.

I feel like…” Aesh didn’t know what he felt like… like he wanted to lay there forever and forget the world. Like no matter what happened he knew that tomorrow was going to come and that in the big picture nothing much really mattered. Time passed as Aesh pondered the question.

I’m in the best dream of my life, and I’m still awake. That’s what I feel like.” Herral took another lazy puff from his bloom. They were all three puffing their own now. Aesh had wanted to save them, but once they had started to smoke it didn’t seem so important anymore. Aesh would just have to find some more somewhere else when they were all gone. Worrying about where and how didn’t seem so important. He would do whatever it took to feel this way again.

You ever wonder why the Doctor doesn’t want anyone to have this?” Winther asked, but his usual concern wasn’t evident in his tone. His words were like the words mumbled by someone right before they fell asleep. Half and Half Nilea spoke the same way.

Damn the Doctor! He ain’t here, is he?” Aesh giggled. It was very funny. How everyone was afraid of the Doctor. Afraid like he was some kind of killer. His mother especially. Oh how she feared the Doctor. Never brought him up unless it was absolutely necessary. Like speaking the name of Alarell.

Did I ever tell you about what my da saw?” Winther started to cough again, but he grew quiet soon enough. Winther’s eyes were wide and his pupils looked like two black buttons pressed in the middle of his eyes.

No, Winther. What did your da see?” Herral asked. Winther never spoke about his da. It was almost like he was embarrassed about having one.

Remember back when everyone thought someone had killed Pess Vernu? Before we all found out she run off with that merchant wagon?” Winther started laughing so hard he had to pause between each word. This made Aesh and Herral laugh too.

After a while Aesh said. “Yeah… yeah I remember.”

Well my da was part of the posse that went to go find her. So he’s… he’s off taking a piss see, and the Doctor comes up next to him… and he starts to take a piss too….” Winther was contorting on the ground with laughter. Lords and Walkers that was funny. Who ever thought of the Doctor as being the kind of man to take a piss?

Now… now you can’t tell my da I told you this… he made me swear. But the Doctor… when he looked over and saw the Doctor’s thing… the Doctor ain’t got no nuts. No nuts at all. There’s just a flap of skin hanging there like a turkey’s waddle.”

Now they were laughing so hard there was no sound. And that’s how they stayed. Until night fall.

The Doctor, he ain’t got no nuts, see? No nuts at all. And they laughed and laughed and laughed, and never saw the flames of the approaching torches.

*****

The Doctor had gray eyes. Gray like mountain stone, set into a face harder than granite and on a body that looked like it had been made for the sole purpose of cutting people. Strange, Aesh thought, that this was the first time he realized that cutting could be a violent act as well as a medical one.

Where’d you get it from?”

Aesh could not understand why he had ever been afraid of the Doctor. Not really. Oh sure the Doctor looked like he could kill you and not think twice about it… but what did that really matter. Everyone dies eventually. So Aesh laughed, and smiled up at the gray eyes and laughed again.

You ain’t got no nuts!” Aesh said, and toppled over to his side, as he continued to laugh.

There are too many for me to take alone. And thanks to you and your friends here they got the drop on us, circled round where I wasn’t expecting them.” The Doctor lifted Aesh up by the back of Aesh’s shirt and held the giggling boy in front of his face like a he was holding a puppy by its neck fat. Powerful strong was the Doctor. Stronger than any man had a right to be. But he wasn’t a man. Not really. He didn’t have any nuts. So Aesh laughed again and again and again.

You’re going to tell them a story when they get here. Do you understand that? That’s your punishment for bringing this into the town. This is on your head now, Aesh Medu. So I will tell you a story, and you will tell it to them true when they arrive. Tell it true enough and they may even let you live.”

Aesh howled as the Doctor made his way through the forest by the moonlight. And he howled and howled and howled when the Doctor drove a stake into the ground and tied him to it. He even laughed when the Doctor brought the Nub out of the hospital and tied him to the stake around the neck. The whole town was watching him. His mother was there, holding each of the twins behind her, begging for something. Tears poured down her sun squint face. Tears she aimed at the Doctor.

He’s just a boy. Please. You made my husband go. Not my son too. Not my son.” The twins looked at Aesh with large fearful eyes. Aesh wished he could have told them the joke, but every time he reached out for the words to tell it, the joke slipped away.

You know the price of bringing Leaf here. Your husband knew the price too. If it caught root here again we’d be no different from the rest of the Baronies. And it made your son drop his watch. We may have to fight to keep this place. That’s what Leaf does.” That was the Doctor. The oh so funny and nutless Doctor. Aesh kept laughing.

Please… all he needs is a chance.”

There’s always a chance.” Aesh laughed, because that was true. There was always a chance.

But then the Doctor started to tell Aesh the story he was to tell, and then even Aesh couldn’t laugh anymore.

*****

Where is he? Speak up boy. We know he left you here to pass on a message. Tell us where the Weaver went and we’ll let you go.” Aesh didn’t feel very well. He felt like there were bugs under his skin, and that if he didn’t scratch them in time they would burst out of skin carrying little bit of his flesh with them, until he wasn’t nothing but a skeleton anymore. No sir, Aesh did not feel very good at all. He didn’t know when he had started to feel this way, but it felt like it had been going on for hours.

We said speak up!” The man in the bright red coat said again. It was a fancy coat. The kind Aesh had always wanted when he saw merchants come through town. Dark crimson like blood with elegant. It would have cost him a year’s wages for a coat like that. If he wore that coat, no bugs would be trying to jump out of his skin.

The Lords cuss it! Did he leave nothing but a cripple and a dim boy?” Aesh howled bloody murder when the man in the coat thumped him on the head with the butt of a flagpole. His head was tolling like a bell. Then the man bent down and sniffed Aesh’s hair and fingers. Aesh didn’t have the mind to stop him.

It’s a Leafer, m’lord. They may have left him behind as punishment when they retreated.” No words came from any of the men behind. There were a lot of them. Some of them on horseback. A lot of them carrying weapons. The kind that looked like they’d been through a lot of use. Aesh didn’t like to look at them too long, the glint off their armor was too bright and it gave him a headache.

Come on boy! Liven up when you’re in the presence of a Baron! We know a Weaver stands guard over this village? Where is he? We wish to negotiate terms for surrender.” Aesh winced when the man licked his lips. Somehow, in Aesh’s mind, it sounded like paper being torn in half right by his ear.

Baron Glynn is not an unreasonable man!” The red-coated man shouted, as if the empty houses held people. They weren’t there though. Aesh remembered they had all left in the middle of the night to go somewhere. “We will let you live in relative peace for the tiniest tribute!”

Somewhere from the end of the caravan a man came forth on a jet black horse. Pure jet black. All of one color, and that kind of animal cost money Aesh couldn’t even imagine. The man got down and lifted Aesh’s chin till their eyes met. Aesh knew then. Knew that this was the Baron, and that this was the man to whom he must tell his story.

I have a tale… the Doctor told me to tell it to you.” Aesh grinned, then stopped when he realized that grinning made his face hurt. He picked at his face, trying to pat the bugs down so they wouldn’t keep trying to crawl out of his skin. It wouldn’t do to have them jump onto the Baron.

Then tell it.” Commanded the Baron.

Once upon a time… yes? That’s right… that’s how he told it. Once upon a time a man did a very bad thing. He did something that he had been told all his life that he was never supposed to do, and when he was found out they sent him away. Except… except he was a special man. A strong man. A fast man. And to make sure he didn’t have any… any special children…. Well they took something to make sure he couldn’t ever do that. See? But he stayed strong anyway.” Aesh gave a pleading look to the caravan but no one so much as cracked a smile.

He came here. He had realized the error of his ways. That’s why they send special people away you see. They think being special means that the Lords gave you a duty to protect people. And when they send you away they tell you. ‘You gotta protect somebody and you got to kill nobody when you do it, because any life you take will be bad on account of the wrong you done.’ See? See, where I’m going so far?” Aesh smiled and picked at his head some more. It seemed very important to smile. Very important that they believed every word the Doctor had told him to tell, even if he knew he was getting a lot of it wrong.

But he didn’t know that at first, the man they put away. He just wanted to live a common life. The shame was too much, see? He couldn’t bear to look at himself in the mirror anymore. Not after having been who he was. That all changed when he met her. He fell in love. And she fell in love with him. That’s when he started caring again. First for her. Then for her children. Then for the people of the world. Except he never cared about himself ever again…. nope… he told me that. He told me to tell you he didn’t give a good lords damn what happened to him.”

The only sounds in the world were the creaking of saddles and the chirping of an occasional bird that had yet to flee the winter. The Baron seemed very afraid all of the sudden, like he had heard this story before in his childhood but never really believed it was true.

He would have done something about it one day, anyway. The way the Baron treated the people. But it got pushed ahead when the Baron took his kids. He was a pervert. That’s the word the Doctor used. Said the Baron was a pervert. Well when his woman found out, she tried to kill the Baron but he killed her first, and killed her kids too so nobody would never know what he done to them.” Aesh started laughing. The Nub, hearing it all began to cry. Or whatever it was the Nub did that passed for crying.

There was still enough of the Leaf in his system that he saw the grand cosmic humor in it all. But he got control of his laughter for long enough to finish. “He… you see the Baron… the Baron didn’t know the man he wronged was special. He thought he was just a man. He thought it was just a farmer that he could bully over. And… here’s the kicker… you see, he didn’t know that the man couldn’t kill him! Don’t you see?” Aesh laughed, and saw that they could see. That they were all staring at the Nub now, and not a horse or a man made a sound to break the silence.

He never killed him. He never killed him worse than any man has never been killed before in the history of the world. Back in the place he came from they’d trained him up to be a man of medicine. So he set to work taking a man apart just about as much as a man can be taken apart, using everything he knew about how to put people back together again. He couldn’t get those kids or his woman out of his mind, see? That’s why he done it. He was crazy for days after it happened, but he never forgot he wasn’t supposed to kill.

When he was done, everyone knew for a long time they weren’t supposed to come here. What happened here got around. People talk. Most folks figured this place was haunted. Then the Doctor showed up. Made himself up again. He started helping people, and real Doctors are rare enough no one wanted to anger him, cause sooner or later everybody needs a Doctor.”

The blood had gone out of the faces in the men in the line. They were whispering to each other. The Nub was crawling on his mutilated limbs, pushing hard on the ground, trying to strangle himself on the rope tied around his neck so he could escape the words flying like loosed arrows from Aesh’s mouth.

That’s what the Doctor told me to tell you. That and one more thing.” Aesh was punching his stomach to keep the bugs from coming out.

The Doctor wanted me to tell you that if you stay here…. If you try to rule over these people like you ruled over the people where you came from… he said if you try to do that….” Aesh was crying and laughing all at the same time now. “He said he’ll find the man in charge of all of you. He said he won’t kill that man first. Then he’ll find whoever takes his place and he won’t kill that one. Until everyone of you hasn’t been killed. That’s what he wanted me to tell you. That and that the road west is wide open.”

And then the caravan left, man by man by man and the only sound in all the world was the inarticulate wailing of the Nub.

Today is your last chance to get the Complete Fiction at Amazon for FREE!

Cormac

Hey All, just wanted to say thanks for taking Dunce Upon A Time: The Complete Fiction to #15 on the Amazon Free List for SFF Anthologies and Short Stories! Here’s another story from the collection… which is again free on Amazon right now. *sigh* I really need to get better at promoting stuff.

 

I felt the heat most on the bridge of my nose and on the fat pockets under my eyes. Even through the windshield of the van, the sunlight made me squint and turned the top of my hair as molten as its color. Knowing I wouldn’t need the gas for later, I turned the air conditioner on full.

Then I waited.

No one tried to stop me. Cormac had been around so long he was forecasted like the weather, and he was due within an hour. To pass the time I listened to a CD of my old stand-up routine. The one I’d done right before everyone decided I wasn’t funny.

Halfway through a hackneyed routine about how office life sucked, I saw Cormac crest a hill. He was just big enough to see and my stomach twisted. If I stared hard, I could tell he was blue.

I gripped the steering wheel. The voice of a younger and oblivious me droned from the speakers. I could still turn around and call the whole thing off. No one knew I was out here… because no one cared. The thought of that got me out of the car more than anything else.

Do or die, schedule be damned. I walked toward Cormac.

Slow like honey poured out of the wide-lipped mouth of a mason jar, that was Cormac. Inevitable as the grind of tectonic plates, that was Cormac too. Cold and terrifying as the meaningless black between the stars, that was Cormac most of all.

As we were in the middle of the desert, there was nobody else around. I’d planned it that way so there wouldn’t be any distractions. Cormac still drew onlookers, but not here. There were no roads anywhere near and no one without a GPS would have been able to navigate. Cormac was on his way to Los Angeles, to tear it into little bits. Everyone knew that’s where he was going because Cormac only ever walked in a straight line. Until he was done with a place and started new.

Sooner than I would have liked, I was in front of him. The blue, almost granite-like, hue of his body made him seem part of a heat haze. Like a mirage, except he had destroyed the Three Gorges dam in the course of an afternoon, busted every Power Plant in the state of New York, and broken who knew how many monuments.

I held my finger an inch from Cormac’s face, and stared him in the eye. Or what I thought was his eye. Cormac was humanoid, but no one really had any fucking idea what he was made of or where he came from.

I’m not touching you.” I said.

I held my finger there a while longer, and took a step back. Cormac’s expression, or what passed for his expression had not changed.

I swallowed hard and held my finger steady.

I’m not touching you.” I repeated, careful that I shouldn’t slip and actually make contact.

My heart hammered so hard I could feel it there at the end of my fingertip. Pounding as if to burst the skin and smear Cormac with its hidden red essence.

Christ, I had stage fright.

I’m not touching you!” I screamed so loud it echoed off the mesas.

*****

The day after my dad died I got a gym membership. I told the instructor I wanted to be a runner. He didn’t say much about it, since I figured a lot of people must have been compelled to work under the same regimen with Cormac around. Not that it meant much, as you’d have to be a turtle for him to catch you. It was a psychological thing.

I’d spent a year training. I had been a string bean when I started, but now I was a string bean with muscles, sinews and fibers. I looked like a fast string bean. I wore shorts with a long sleeve running shirt. My hat shaded my red hair from the sun.

Why’d the chicken cross the road, Cormac?” I taunted.

I was dancing around him, with my finger held a few inches away. I was careful not to touch him as that would mean death. Whatever Cormac was made from, it killed humans in milliseconds.

It wanted to cluck your mother. Ha ha, get it Cormac? It wanted to cluck your mother?”

Someone smart had once tried to knock Cormac into orbit. They’d been the first person to realize that Cormac was indestructible. Working from that, they’d realized it didn’t matter how strong or indestructible he was, he still had finite mass. After they’d figured out how to strap a rocket to him faster than he could take it off, they’d launched him. The corks were barely out of the champagne before he reappeared, right in the exact spot he had been, and resumed walking.

They’d figured it had cost him about thirty seconds.

Cormac! Did you fart? Whoo boy, I can smell it all the way over here.” I farted again for good measure. There were a lot of beans at my camp sites.

No one had ever figured out how he did the reappearance trick. That was still back when we thought there was a way of getting rid of Cormac. Back before the world had gone into damage control. They tried a couple of more times, then they figured he had to have some kind of massless drive. No one knew why he didn’t use it at ground level. Probably couldn’t.

Cormac, would you rather be kicked once in the junk or punched twice in the face?” I ran in front of him and bent over, grabbing my ankles and let a big one rip.

Fine! Before you have to ask they’ll all be at equal strength and the foot isn’t sharp. Just a regular sneaker.” I put my hands over my face so that it looked like I was wearing pair of glasses, and then stuck out my tongue.

They’d tried a neutron bomb first, once he was away from population centers. There was plenty of time to evacuate, and there wasn’t much confusion as to where he might be going. After that hadn’t worked they’d tried a hydrogen bomb, just to see if it would make any difference.

It hadn’t.

We’d exhausted gun fire, explosives, and all other conventional warheads long before that point. It didn’t even slow him down. One mile per hour. No faster no slower.

I saw the moon had risen and realized I’d stayed too long. I’d been too excited. I’d been too busy testing for a reaction. If I was going to keep it up I had to stick to the schedule. Keep to the plan.

I had to endure. I had to be as regular and inevitable as Cormac himself.

I’ve got to go for the night, ol’ buddy. Your mother called and said she needs a good fucking. Guess your daddy turned gay or something. Oh, and by the way, I’m still not touching you.”

*****

After I jogged to my first camp, I took a long drink. I also took out both of my alarm clocks. One was solar powered, the other on a battery that was guaranteed for three years. I suppose I could have gotten another alarm clock, with another battery, but that seemed too redundant.

I knew how this was going to end anyway, and as long as I got to the fifth camp I would live to see the endgame.

I took out my alarm clocks and set them to wake me up in eight hours, and slept.

Cormac would be one half-mile away when I woke up.

I intended that he watch me wake up every morning. Always out of reach.

*****

I’d gotten the idea from stuff I’d read in history about some Arab guy that had led an army through the desert by following a trail of oases. The rest of it, the part of it that didn’t involve any fighting, well, that’d been all me as far as I could tell.

Taking advantage of Cormac’s clockwork regularity and a GPS tracker, I’d laid out ten fully stocked base camps through the desert wilderness. I had unloaded them one at a time from my van until I’d eventually reached Cormac. Once on the move, as long as I did a brisk hour and a half jog toward dusk, I could be at a camp every night and rise to meet Cormac every morning.

My actual mission was complicated. It had occurred to me, some time long before I had resolved to do it, that where weapons failed I might succeed. Perhaps because of my failures as a comedian, I had begun to wonder if the indestructible Cormac might be heckled to death.

I broke camp early in the morning. The sun hadn’t even risen, the alarm clocks hadn’t even gone off, but I was eager and jogged to Cormac. If I really looked at him, I could see a sort of pale blue glow coming out of the crystalline cracks of what I assumed was his skin.

Sorry I’m late, buddy. Your mom wouldn’t let me pull out until a little bit ago. Then I had to wipe all the shit off my dick. Next time you talk to her, tell that bitch to stop eating corn. I got a kernel stuck in my foreskin.” I gave an exaggerated yawn.

Cormac kept walking.

It ever bother you that no one comes out to see you anymore?” There had been some cults once that had worshiped Cormac. Most of them went away after the inevitable happened. Never-sleeping Cormac would get a hold of someone and murder them with slow, absent-minded efficiency.

Only one person had ever survived contact with Cormac. Dumb kid had fallen asleep in her car waiting for Cormac to show up, like he was fucking Santa Claus. She’d been wearing very thick clothes, which was what saved her from his initial touch. After realizing with horror that Cormac had gotten a grip on her wrist while she was asleep, she’d cut off her own hand.

I know your mom’s better company than you, but still. I knew a guy with some retard pedophile for a brother. He still took a trip up to the loony bin every year at Christmas to see him. Oh but look at me talk, you’ll be wanting to kill yourself if I keep it up.”

Cormac’s head pointed dead ahead.

I walked over to the side of the highway and grabbed fistful of pebbles. I threw them one at a time, and bounced them off Cormac’s face. He didn’t so much as turn in my direction.

Would you say you look more like a Vegas attraction reject, or more like a stain glass window made by someone with palsy? ‘Cause I just think you look like a dick.” I bounced a rock right off of Cormac’s eye.

What’s the first thing you’re going to break when you get out to LA? Too many fake tits there, for my money. Not that I’m saying they’re all bad. I mean, your mom’s got some great hooters. I could suck on those puppies all night. But if you took out a few plastic surgery centers that would probably be a big help.” I grabbed a stick, walked round behind Cormac, and held it against what I figured was his butt-hole.

Except that Cormac didn’t shit. Or eat. Or sleep.

I don’t know if you know this, seeing as how you can’t speak or whatever, but you’re the reason there’s no nuclear power anymore. You got too close that time in New York. Almost had a meltdown. How many guy’s was it that died carrying all the hot stuff out? Fifty?

They have to figure out how to take dams apart when you’re around too. Millions of people displaced by that. Some of those green wackos think you’re the best thing for the environment we’ve ever had. Me? I just know you’re a guy who loves having a stick in his ass so much that he won’t say a word to have it taken out.”

I took the stick and walked to the front of Cormac and held it where his nose might have been.

You should take a whiff of this Cormac. God awful stuff. It’s probably what your father’s shit smells like after a night of gang bangs. Tell me Cormac, how is it possible for one man to love taking cock that much?” I turned and threw the stick far ahead.

Fetch!”

Cormac kept walking, unperturbed.

Ah, fuck it. We’ll get there eventually.”

I didn’t give a shit if Cormac was impervious to attack. There was no such thing as perfect self-esteem.

*****

If I tell you a secret, promise you won’t tell anyone else?” I had taken to standing in front of Cormac long enough for him to reach toward me, before stepping back. Risky, and far ahead of what I had laid out for a schedule, but it was the only thing I could do to make him react.

I used to masturbate to my second cousin. All the time. Every day I came home from school, I’d have to whip one out to her. I knew it was wrong, but she had the best tits I’d ever seen, next to your mother.”

Cormac reached for my throat, but I leaned back so that he missed by the smallest of margins. Still wasn’t much more passionate than swatting at a fly.

Another thing I want to get off my chest. One time I was at a sleep-over. Must’ve only been eight or nine. Took a big ol’ shit. Huge. Like the one your father has all over the operating room table while they’re trying to shove his asshole back inside. Anyhow, the toilet wouldn’t flush. Wouldn’t you know it, not a plunger in sight. So I left it. Pretended I didn’t know who’d done it.

There was a dirty kid there named Ryan Sivyer, so I let him take the blame. Would you believe that Ryan Sivyer didn’t invite me back to his birthday the next month? Never accused me directly. Passive aggressive asshole.”

Cormac thought he was going to get clever and get me with his other hand, the one I’d led him to believe I wasn’t watching, but I moved again so that his fingers came up short.

Chick I used to date in high school, I did some bad shit with her too. She was one of those goth weirdos, had a tongue ring and could suck a dick like no one’s business. I was only going with her because I liked her sister. I stole a pair of her sister’s panties one night when I was over at her house. No one ever said nothing about it. I used them for a jizz rag for what had to be six months before I threw them away.”

It was getting late. I was off schedule again. I cussed at myself for it, but I wanted to… I hadn’t planned on it for two days. I pulled out my dick, so close to Cormac that he had to be infuriated even though he gave no sign. Even as slow as he was I felt vulnerable.

Staring Cormac in the face, I let loose a stream of urine that splattered all over his iridescent blue feet.

As you may be able to tell, old buddy old pal. I have a habit for pissing people off.” I raised the stream and pissed all over Cormac’s abdomen. I got part of his hand for good measure.

Ha ha! Do you get it, Cormac? Pissing people off?”

I let the stream go to a drizzle before I zipped my fly.

Anyhow, I need to go for the night. Drink up. Your mother gets moody if I don’t piss on her at least a little.”

*****

I sat by the campfire, drank some water and ate another plate of baked beans. It would be week and a half before Cormac got to a population center.

It would be the longest stand-up performance of my life, with the world’s worst audience.

No distractions. For the either of us.

I laid down, set the alarm clocks, and looked up at the stars. Which one had Cormac come from? Where were his people?

Where were the other Cormacs?

God help me, did Cormac even understand English?

*****

Cormac was an Irish word for “Destroying Son.” It’d stuck, at least in the English speaking world, because the first place Cormac had ever appeared was Ireland, and some writer had written a poem. Cormac had walked up out of the ocean, and walked straight to Dublin. It was kept secret for a while. They’d pass off whatever he broke as an “unscheduled demolition.”

No one knew why he’d gone there first. It was probably random, since we’d later figured out he’d landed in the Atlantic Ocean like a meteor and spent two weeks walking the ocean floor. It was probably the closest dry land to his drop spot.

After a while it had gotten to be too big to cover up. Cormac had ripped up every power plant in the city. Tore them to bits. He did that with every major utility he found. In a matter of days 1.6 million people were without power, water, or any of the amenities that make city life possible.

He had made Dublin unlivable within three weeks.

As you can see, I’m up bright and early this morning. I pulled a trick on your mom. I face fucked her so hard last night she passed out. Wasn’t able to wake up this morning to make me throw her another pity fuck. I know, I was afraid the slut might be dead too, but I checked for a pulse before I left.

“‘Fraid to say your dad took a turn for the worse though. The doctors had to… cut him a new asshole! Ha ha! Get it Cormac? Because his other one had been fucked to pulp?!?”

I grabbed another handful of rocks, and took my time so that each one hit Cormac between the legs. It may not have been his dick. His dick may have been in the chest for all I knew, but I figured it was the thought that counted.

When I was in college, I went back to my home town one weekend. Almost no one in my home town goes to college, so I thought I was hot shit. I was failing everything, but I didn’t tell anyone that part. I’d started doing stand-up then, and everyone thought I was famous.

Found that goth weirdo I used to date. She’d gotten fat. Not the cute kind of fat either. The kind where it’s all bunched up in different weird places. Her sister though, she got hotter. Her sister and I got lit up, and then fucked in some bushes. We got caught us right in the middle of it. The goth weirdo started punching me in the back, calling me a bastard. Calling her sister a whore.

After I’d pulled out of her sister, she just sat down, put her head in her hands and asked me why I had to be such an asshole. All she wanted to know was why I had to be such an asshole.

I looked right up into her fat wobbly jowls, right into that ugly lumpy face and I said… ha ha! I said ‘Because your sister’s hot!’

So she says ‘You’re not funny, Sean’ so I says ‘Well, you’re not hot so let’s call it a wash!’ Ha ha ha!”

I brought my face as close to Cormac’s as I dared. So close I could feel the fey heat of his blue lights on my eyes. I stared down into the depths of his glass-like face and snarled.

Her face, all fat and covered with tears, that was the most pitiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. Till now.” I spit in Cormac’s face. It glistened in the sunlight.

I spent the next long while following the blue demon, running around him in circles, declaring that I was not touching him. He kept walking onward. Indifferent.

I had stayed late again. It was only my third day, and I’d already made a habit of breaking the schedule I’d promised myself to follow to the letter. I turned to the dark path ahead, and looked over my shoulder.

You know Cormac, my mom died when I was young.” I paused, wondering why I had said such a thing. The words had slipped out of my mouth without thought.

She got cancer.” I felt sweat on the skin of my palms. I pretended it was from the nervousness of not knowing what to say next. I reached out, and grabbed something… a half-formed joke.

You ever wish your mom had died, Cormac? So that she wouldn’t have to see what you are?”

For half a beat, so quick it might have been my imagination, I swore I saw the fucking thing stop in its tracks.

I dismissed it as wishful thinking and turned to go.

*****

I about let loose the shit that saved my life, before I realized how well and truly fucked I was. I’d woken up to go to the bathroom. I had not expected to see Cormac’s hands pressing against the nylon wall of my tent.

Trapped in a tent like this, even Cormac might manage to get a hold of me before I could escape.

I heard the swish-swish of stretched nylon, as Cormac’s hands loomed ever closer. The tent was coffin-like in its proportions. If I sat up to unzip the door, it would take me right into Cormac’s eager hands.

In desperation, I threw all my weight against the side of the tent opposite Cormac. I hoped that if I could flip it over a few times it would give me the time I needed to get out.

I threw my weight, and rebounded so that I almost bounced back into Cormac.

I just had to put stakes in the ground!” I shouted.

Cormac must have been on his knees, ready to smother me, because there was barely a foot to move. What I needed was a knife. I had one.

Outside.

My shorts, which I had put under my head as a sort of pillow, found their way to my hands. If… I found the zipper and pressed the sharp pull tab to the fabric.

Using my other hand to create tension, I ripped the fabric. Once the hole was big enough, I put my fingers through it and ripped it wider. It wasn’t easy. When I’d planned all this out, I’d bought the best. The fear of Cormac’s hands gave me strength. I pushed myself, scrambling, through the small hole, as I felt the rest of the tent collapse behind me.

I ran a few yards before I took the time to so much as pant. I was naked except for a pair of boxer shorts. And the desert morning was cold enough that if my balls hadn’t already been pulled tight against me in fear, the temperature would have sent them their in minutes.

I turned to see Cormac rising back to his feet. If he was upset at my near escape, he showed no sign. Perhaps, could show no sign.

Ah Cormac, thanks for the wake up call, Buddy. Your mom fucked me to exhaustion last night. I can barely keep my eyes open!”

The alarm clock, still in the tent, went off. It was followed shortly by its companion.

I stopped and stood stock still.

My camp sites were set an eighth of a mile off of Cormac’s line of travel. They were also set with the idea that Cormac’s rate of speed was constant. In all the careful years of observation he was observed to travel no faster or slower in any condition.

I smiled.

I smiled wider.

I smiled like when I found that one joke that would lay an entire audience flat.

I whooped and hollered, turned around, and pulled my shorts down to give Cormac a good view of what he’d missed. What he had tried to kill.

I didn’t know you cared!” I laughed so hard I cried. I scrambled around the camp, grabbing what I could find and hurling it at Cormac in orgiastic glee.

Am I getting to you, you old blueballed fuckface! Am I fraying your last nerve, you cumguzzling dickwipe?”

Cormac, slowly, but perhaps, just perhaps a little faster than usual crushed one of the alarm clocks beneath his foot. A few minutes later, the other followed. The twin beeps died so that the only sounds left were the wind and my own breathing.

I remembered the pause from last night. The tick. I ran to Cormac as though eager to share glorious news.

Hey Cormac! Your momma doesn’t love you! You hear me? Your Momma hates you!”

*****

When I was little, my mom could tell I liked fighting and stealing too much. I used to get caught with shit from the grocery store in my pockets all the time. Pack of gum, chocolate bar, maybe a comic book. I stole a candle on the day my mom died. I lit it in the church, and I could tell my mom was somewhere up in heaven crying that her son had to be such a little shit even in the face of something so serious.”

I was dressed again. Cormac had ripped apart a lot of my equipment, but I had extra at the next camp site. The only things that were unique were the alarm clocks I’d been carrying in my pockets.

It was a very confusing time when she died. But I was glad too, because that’s the kind of asshole I am. My mother died, and suddenly I got all the oven-bake pizza and ice cream I could eat. Still, it kept me up at night. Thinking about her somewhere up there, watching me.”

Cormac was definitely walking faster, and I thought I could sense something like strain coming off the hulking blue beast. I walked close to him, stuck my face in his, and walked backwards, matching him step for step.

I can’t even imagine what your mother thinks of you, Cormac. Maybe I drank when I should have studied. Maybe I fucked when I should have been loving, but I ain’t never done the fucked up shit you done. If I hurt someone it was always incidental. But you? You go out of your way to be a dick.”

I poked Cormac with a stick. In his eyes. In his crotch. In his chest. “How’s it feel to know you can’t catch me? Little Sean Doolittle, who couldn’t win a fist fight if he had a gun, and big strong Cormac is at his mercy. What would your mother say to that?”

I broke the stick on Cormac’s face, but I didn’t worry to much about it, as the way ahead offered many more.

Way I figure, you’ve got all kinds of relatives. I ain’t no fucking scientist, but nothing like you happens by itself. You’ve got to have family. You’ve got to have people fucking over a long period of time, and with all your fancy powers, you got to have them fucking in a society!

A sophisticated piece of cum like you doesn’t come to be without serious emotional fucking damage. And this whole slow walk bit? That’s pretty fucked up too. This isn’t how things are supposed to be, are they Cormac?”

I thought about a version of Cormac that was fast. I thought about a hundred million Cormac’s sprinting, and invulnerable to atomics. I had to suppress a shudder.

I used to burn ants with a magnifying glass. It was another one of those shit things I did that pissed off my mother. So she told me about how in the olden times, when you did something bad, they’d stake you to the ground, and smear you with honey and let the ants eat you alive.

I figure that’s what they did to you, and you’re here kicking ant hills.” I found another stick and rammed it into Cormac’s face, over and over.

You’re a disgrace to your whole fucking family, Cormac! Your mother doesn’t even cry when she thinks of you. She thanks God that you’re out of sight and out of mind. She divorced your father so she could go fuck other men, have other children, and write you out of her life.

The ants finally learned how to pinch, Cormac! So pinch! Ha ha! Your own mother hates you! Pinch pinch!”

The sun was going down, but I didn’t mind. I was onto something, and I’d never been good with schedules anyway.

*****

My throat was hoarse from yelling all through the night, but I’d gotten some extra water once we’d walked close enough to my next camp. I’d forgotten sunblock, but that seemed a minor concern. We were only one day out from the end game, and that was beyond even my wildest expectations.

Hey Cormac! You think your mom’s going to be disappointed I didn’t fuck her last night? You know, I lied yesterday, when I said she never talks about you. She does have one secret pleasure.

When I’m nailing her, and I mean really nailing her. Humping her so hard that her ass and tits are shaking like jello, she likes to say some of the nastiest stuff about what a disappointment you are.

It’s got this weird incest vibe. Always saying ‘oh Sean, fuck me so hard I forgot about that little shit that came out of my pussy’ or ‘oh Sean spank me like I never spanked that stupid fuck’ and, this one’s the tops ‘oh Sean cum in me like that loser son of mine dreams about every night when he touches himself!’”

I had to put my hand on my legs when I bent over, I was laughing so hard. My nostrils were shaking with the thrill of it. I laughed until it was a cough and I had to drink a long pull of tepid water. After a while, the laughter subsided.

You ever think about fucking your momma, Cormac? I mean, I figure psychology’s got to be pretty universal and that’s Freud. Am I right? You ever listen at her door when she was balling the neighbors?”

I put my hand to my ear in an exaggerated signal that I was waiting for him to speak. Smile still wide, although my lips were beginning to chap, I prepared my next retort.

Cormac’s face opened. Somewhere near the middle of his head.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuckkkkkkkk…” it had all the force of a whisper. All the calm of the eye of a storm. If I weren’t such a prick, I wouldn’t have been pulling my pants down even as he spoke. If I weren’t such an asshole, I might have stood there, moved by the first word ever spoken by a being not of this world, instead of taking a shit.

Yoooooooooooouuuuuuuuu…” I picked up my own shit, quick as a could, and threw it in the open place in Cormac’s head. I picked up the bits of sand where some of it had escaped me, not caring for how filthy my hands were. Not caring that it was barbaric.

Eat shit, Cormac!” I screamed, not even trying to be coolly disconnected. Not even trying to be funny. “Eat shit and die!”

It tore my voice box so bad I wasn’t able to speak for the rest of the day.

Neither did Cormac.

*****

I had some cough syrup at my next camp site, and some sanitary wipes which I used on my hands. I even managed to eat a bit, but I hadn’t run so far ahead of Cormac that I had time for anything elaborate.

A weak part of me. The part of me that had taken Bryci’s sister into the back of the car and stuck my penis inside of her, thought about taking the tent and jogging ahead and catching a few hours of sleep. I swallowed hard, feeling the cough syrup lubricating my throat. I’d packed it in case it rained and I took a cold.

I ate some half-warm hot dogs, and another plate of beans. I hadn’t planned on all the beans, until I’d got to the store and they’d been on sale. It’s funny the way life works out.

I raised my right hand in a one finger salute to Cormac and kept eating. I made sure to hide the gun in the back of my shorts.

I’d been very careful that Cormac should not see me pick it up. That might have been a useless gesture, as Cormac seemed capable of knowing to the millimeter how to get to what he wanted to destroy, but on the off-chance that he couldn’t see, then I wanted it to be a surprise.

Back to Cormac, I looked down at the gun, and made sure all the chambers were loaded.

*****

My dad got Alzheimer’s. That’s a disease you get where you get to be rude as fuck and no one can get mad at you for it. So one day, I go into the home to visit him. Not that I did it all the time, I’m a dick, remember? But I got up there every year or so. So what do I see?

Some fucking little redhead devil is there, lookin’ a bit like me. My dad has got him by the shirt, telling him to watch himself. Telling him that he’d wanted his mother to have the abortion, but she’d demanded they go through with it, and that they’ve both spent their whole life regretting the decision.”

I felt like I’d run out of things to say, and I couldn’t think up anything more creative than bouncing rocks off Cormac’s head. The most original thing I’d thought to think of that day was walking behind Cormac. Sometimes stopping.

That seemed to really burn his biscuit. He wanted me to kill me. Wanted to tear me apart worse than anything else on this ant-heap, and when I stopped behind him, when I made a move like I might get up and leave and never see him again, I could tell that pissed him off the most. I didn’t do it too much, because I didn’t want it to lose his effect, but I did it enough that he had to change speed.

Whatever it was they’d done to him. Whatever the terms of his punishment, changing his speed hurt Cormac. It hurt him like giving birth or being born, or who the fuck knew what.

It was like going back in time and reading my dad’s mind when I was still a child. Can you even imagine? And there wasn’t even any cheesy Hallmark moment, where he made it clear he really loved me. Nothing but the shit.

I figure that’s the way your parents feel about you. Except worse.”

Ran into Bryci after all that happened. She was that goth weirdo from high school. She was a waitress. No wait, I’m sorry. A hostess. I got drunk, and we got to talking, but not about how I fucked her sister twenty years back. About her life. She got married, had a couple of kids. Still fat, but better looking. She wanted to know how life was in the big city, so I told her to come back to my room if she wanted to know.

I’d washed out of comedy by then and I was doing insurance adjustments, but when she looked at me she saw a star. Anyhow, I fucked her. I fucked her good and hard and long, and I came right in her. Then I sent her on home to her husband and took a shower.”

I took a long swallow of water. My voice was scratchy, but I figured Cormac could suss it all out.

Came back a couple of month’s later, on account of my dad had a stroke and was on life support. It said right in his will to pull the plug, so I did, but I also felt good about it, and I knew that wasn’t right. Fucking old man, talking about me that way.

I went to the bar needing a fuck, found Bryci, and guess who was pregnant!?! I knew it was mine because of the way all the color ran out of her face. Wondering if I’d say something. Wondering if I’d tattle to her husband.

So I ordered a drink. Then I took another, and next thing I know I’m shouting ‘Because your sister is fucking hotter than you!’ at the top of my lungs. Some guys took me outside and roughed me up. Small town. People have friends, and all that.

Bryci comes out, looks at me and says ‘You’re not funny, Sean.’ Then she spits right in my face.

So I’m laying there, blood all over my face, and I can’t quit laughing. I had a girlfriend back in the city. Well, a fuck buddy. And that’s when I realized, here I was, going to have a kid. Going to have a kid that I probably wasn’t ever going to be allowed to know, and the most significant emotional relation I’d ever had with anyone, was with a waitress whose sister I had fucked twenty years ago.

Then I saw some piece about you on the news. Would you believe, except for things like building projects, no one ever thinks about you anymore? You’re just a consideration like earthquakes or volcanoes. No one actually cares about you. We’re not even terrified anymore. And that’s what I realized about myself. I was just someone people planned around. No one actually cared.

So I figured I was going to have a kid, might one day find out who pops was, I might as well do something good. Went to the gym, learned to run. Made up a plan.”

I drank another deep pull.

We’re a lot alike, Cormac. That’s why I fucking hate you so much.”

*****

I took out all the bullets in the chambers but one, spun it faster than I could see, and with one flick of the wrist snapped the chamber back into place.

In my plan, the big one I had for killing you, there were supposed to be news choppers here. There were supposed to be reporters, and big-titty college school girls getting wet between the legs. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be a hero. I only wanted to get laid a couple of times before the ending.”

I was sitting on a rock, thirty or so yards ahead of Cormac, and he was aimed right at me. The hole in his head was open. Like the son of a bitch wanted to eat me.

No one knows you’ve changed course, old buddy. No one knows your walking faster. No one even cares. Especially not your momma. I bet that time they knocked you into space, you didn’t even get something so personal as a swat to send you back. It was automated, I bet. No alarms or anything.”

I took aim at the hole in Cormac’s head and pulled the trigger. The gun fired and glanced off. Well, so much for last chances. I’d figured it wouldn’t work anyway.

That wasn’t very dramatic.” I sighed, and loaded another bullet then repeated the process. This time I put the gun to my own temple and pulled the trigger. There was only a hollow click.

My mother used to tell me I could frustrate someone to death.” I jumped down from the rock and shot at Cormac. There was another empty report. Three chambers left.

I stood directly in front of him and stopped. I put the gun to my temple and squeezed. Nothing.

Do you want to kill me Cormac? Do you want to kill me so you don’t have to hear about your momma no more?”

I could feel the effort from him as he struggled to increase his speed by the smallest margins. “Yeeeeeesssssssssss….”

I walked toward Cormac and stayed a few tantalizing inches out of his reach.

Do you want to kill me so bad you can’t think about anything else?” I asked.

I could see some sort of strange redness inside of Cormac’s mouth. I wondered if that meant he was damaging himself trying to get to me. “Diiiiiieeeeee….”

Cormac’s hand, slowly began to ascend. I leaned forward so my neck was the easiest thing to grab.

The only relationship you have in the entire world, is with an ant.” I pulled the trigger at Cormac. Nothing. One left.

I could feel the warmth of Cormac’s blue light on my neck as his fingers prepared for a slow squeeze. I waited for the last possible moment.

Nope, Cormac. Your mother told me last night you weren’t even good enough for this. Do the world a favor and kill yourself.”

I put the gun to my temple.

Two circles of white appeared on Cormac’s head. I supposed they were his eyes. They seemed full of horror. Of agony without end. Of denial and loss.

I smiled. Then I squeezed the trigger.

Once again, more stories by me are available for free right here.

Man-Maker

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“What makes a man, Abra?”

The sound of Master Rim’Fain’s fingertips tapping striking the desktop was like the beating of five little war drums. Too anxious to speak, Abra sat dumbly in his seat across the desk as the Master’s fingers continued to pound.

Outside the schoolhouse, he could still hear Benn Lo’Raundaun’s weeping. Further out under the were the cheers of the other boys celebrating their graduation. Abra was alone with the Master. He hoped the tea kettle would start to whistle soon. It might drown out the tapping.

The Master arched an impatient eyebrow.

In response, Abra managed to clear his throat. Each finger strike against the desktop was almost a word of accusation: “Why won’t you do it?”

Not five minutes past, Abra had watched the tendons in the Master’s neck became go taut as a ship’s rigging from screaming. The Master had hollered at Benn Lo’Raundaun so hard that his face still seemed flushed. Yet for all that anger, all the Master gave to Abra was the tapping. Over and over again.

Blessedly, the tea kettle began to whistle. Abra stood with a bow and fetched it, preparing tea for his teacher. He chanced a peek out of a window. The other boys had disappeared from view, no doubt eager to be off celebrating somewhere. For them, the thirteenth year ceremony had was complete. They had taken their place in the community as men. Even Benn Lo’Raundaun was a man now.

All the boys were men… except for Abra.

Hands shaking, Abra finished the tea without Master Rim’Fain’s eyes somehow knock the cups over by power of sheer observation. Still trembling, Abra set the tray in front of his teacher with another low bow.

The tapping stopped.

“What makes a man, Abra?” Master Rim’Fain repeated.

Abra closed his eyes and thought, trying to see passed his discomfort. The question had many answers, all of which they had gone over in the months leading up to the thirteenth year ceremony. Abra was unsure of which one answer the Master wanted.

“A man makes other men,” he answered, hesitantly.

Master Rim’Fain grunted in annoyance and swept one hand in a washing gesture, meaning that formalities were to be ignored.

“What does being a man mean to you?” Master Rim’Fain leaned forward and regarded Abra over the top of his teacup. The Master did not drink, he only held the cup and waited.

Abra wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead.

“Glenn Lo’Dain said that to be a man is protect the genitive aspects of civilization, which is to say that-“

“Abra Rim’Jadao, do not think I will be impressed if you speak like a barrister! I did not ask what Glenn Lo’Dain had to say on the subject! I ask for your opinion and yours only.” There was a spark of the fire there that Master Rim’Fain had released on Benn Lo’Raundaun but it quickly faded. The cold embers that remained were worse.

“To me, sir, being a man means that I must always do what I feel is right.” Even though the Master had signaled that formalities were to be ignored Abra could not help but add another bow.

“I see. How is she?” Master Rim’Fain drank his tea in a single swallow and slammed the cup down on the tray upside down. Abra flinched. An upside down tea cup was a rude way of saying that the tea had not been satisfactory.

“Sir?”

“Your mother, how is she?”

“The same as ever, sir.”

“And that’s why you won’t kill her, eh? Because it’s wrong? Even if it’s only pretend?” Master Rim’Fain had a quill in his hands now and was writing on a parchment. Abra felt that the quill was a knife and that every time it scratched the paper it was cutting his insides.

“It is wrong, sir. It would devastate her and to no good end.”

“All the other boys completed the ceremony. They all made the oath.”

Abra opened his mouth to speak, for surely the Master must understand why his situation was different. Even if no one spoke of it, everyone knew. No one could possibly feel that his integrity was in question.

“Enough!!” Master Rim’Fain shouted, cutting off Abra’s words before they could even leave his tongue.

“I am sorry to have offended, sir.”

“If you were a gutless coward like Benn Lo’Raundaun I would only need to scream at you until you broke. Every year one or two boys can’t muster the courage to make the oath. I’ve never had one last longer than half an hour when I took them aside.” Master Rim’Fain bent over his letter again.

The silence stretched. Abra had to bite his tongue to stop from speaking. He forced himself to stand at attention, and tried not to flinch every time Master Rim’Fain dipped the quill back in the inkwell. He didn’t even attempt to look at the letter. He kept his eyes fixed on the harbor out the schoolhouse window. A was a ship in from the mainland. There hadn’t been a mainland ship in almost three years. If the present situation had been any less dire, the presence of the ship would have excited him.

“Explain why I didn’t feel it necessary to yell at you,” Master Rim’Fain grunted, apparently finished.

“You knew it wouldn’t make a difference, sir.”

Master Rim’Fain poured himself another cup of tea, this time mixing it with other ingredients, and again drank it all in one swallow again. He left the cup on the table, face up.

“Don’t be smart with me, Abra. No matter how smart you think you are, there will be trouble over this. Tell me, how did I know yelling wouldn’t make a difference?”

“Because being afraid doesn’t matter to me, sir,” Abra said. As if in confirmation, he felt his knees twitch.

Master Rim’Fain nodded, apparently satisfied, but then flashed an angry sort of grin as he folded the letter on his desk. The Master stamped the letter by pressing his seal into some blue wax harder than needed, and then hastily wrote an address in the corner. Once finished, Master Rim’Fain let out a sigh and then shook the letter at Abra.

“If you promise me right now you’ll complete the ceremony and take the oath, I’ll burn this letter and damn the cost of paper.”

Abra said nothing.

“You could be a Detective one day if you set your mind to it. You could pay for a nurse for your mother. You could set her up in a fine house. You could have a life of your own. There is only this one thing you must do first.” Master Rim’Fain held the letter out to a candle on his desk.

“All you have to do is promise me you’ll do it, Abra. Promise me and I won’t send for one of the Chagraen.”

Abra reached out and grabbed the letter before it could find the flame. To do otherwise would bring shame. After refusing the ceremony, Abra could stand no more shame however justified he felt.

“I will take it to the post, sir. I… apologize if I have disgraced you.”

“Once they come they’ll make an example out of you. They have to make an example, Abra. Surely, you must understand that.”

“There have been exceptions before, sir.” Abra had researched as much as he could in the library. Since the War of the Broken Rose, there had been six exceptions. None were well documented, but the rumors were persistent. If the books were any account, circumventing the oath was possible.

Master Rim’Fain turned away and set about tidying his desk, ignoring Abra. To not offer formal farewell was an insult, but Abra accepted it was no less than was warranted given his failure. He only hoped that once an exemption was made the Master would forgive him.

Abra walked to the center of the schoolhouse, lifted the trapdoor that led to the rope ladder, and prepared to climb down below where his mother waited.

“When they break you, please don’t hate me that I couldn’t break you first.” The words floated to Abra as a whisper. There might have been tears in Master Rim’Fain’s eyes, but he stood in front of a window now and Abra could only see only a shadowy silhouette.

Abra bowed as much as he was able to on the rope ladder.

“I could never hate you, sir.”

Abra closed the trapdoor.

*****

Abra’s mother was still still picking flowers in the Community Garden by the schoolhouse where he’d left her. All around were Katar blossoms she had dropped without realizing. Abra gathered them before his mother had a chance to distract him, using his shirt as a makeshift sack.

“Very well done, mother. Good pickings,” Abra said.

At the sound of his voice, Abra’s mother almost let go of her apron as she stepped forward to hug him. He managed to restrain her before she could scatter even more blossoms.

“Did he yell at you?” his mother whispered conspiratorially.

“No, mother. He did not yell at me.”

“He didn’t hit you, did he? We’ll have to tell your father if he did. Even teachers aren’t supposed to hit children.” His mother nodded, as if confirming this to herself.

“No, mother. Master Rim’Fain was very kind to me.”

“He yelled at that other boy. He didn’t stop, even when the boy started crying. I heard.” Abra’s mother looked very solemn.

“He was only doing what was best for Benn.” That was true. After he’d completed the ceremony, a still weeping Benn has kissed both of Master Rim’Fain’s cheeks and thanked him for what he’d done.

“Oh, Benn! He used to come over and play when you two were young! Do you remember, Abra?” his mother beamed.

“I remember,” Abra replied.

They walked in silence for a while. When they got to the Town Hall, Abra made sure they hurried over to the bin for Katar blossoms first. His mother liked to touch things and was bound to let go of her apron soon. People would have stopped to help, of course, which would in turn halt all traffic and only make the whole incident more embarrassing.

Katar blossoms were not overly valuable, but picking them was one of the few ways that poor families like Abra’s had of contributing to the community. Abra found it humiliating that it was such a struggle to contribute so little, and so was relieved when the Katar blossoms were finally emptied into the bin without incident. The mail coach came by every other day for fresh pickings, then took them to Elenn for use in one of the Chagraen schools. It was a small thing, maybe, but it was matter of pride to Abra to keep the bins full.

The post was nearby, so Abra deposited Master Rim’Fains letter in the mail sack. With luck, a special exemption might arrive by mail within a few weeks and the whole sorry mess could be over with. If a hearing was in order, he had prepared his arguments.

Thinking of all these things, Abra turned to look out at the docks. A sailor was down there trying to get off the mainland ship. It looked like he was arguing with the Dock Master by the way he waved his arms in the air. Abra was curious to go down and see exactly what all the fuss was about, but knew better than to get involved with mainlanders.

It was three months by sea from the mainland to Angard. Sailors were always anxious to get to shore after the long voyage. It was likely no more than that. The Dock Master was probably explaining that ever since a sailor had brought alcohol to Angard three years ago the Town Council had allowed no outlander to set foot to shore.

Abra had even seen the sailor from three years ago, slurping messily from a green glass bottle every few steps and laughing at nothing. It had not been until later that Abra had realized the man was drunk.

The sailor’s antics hadn’t lasted more than a few minutes before the Town Council put back aboard his ship, confiscated his belongings, and sent back to the mainland. From what Abra had heard, the man had been insane enough to say that such a penalty was unjust.

He must not have known that if he were Angardi, he would have been hung for the offense.

Alcohol invited the Woa. Alcohol lowered the mind’s ability to resist intrusion. Alcohol got people Infested by demons. There were even more dangerous substances than alcohol on the mainland, but none of it was allowed to touch Angard.

Not for the first time, Abra wondered what life might have been like if he had not been born on Angard. On the mainland, there were no Woa to Infest men and turn them into demons. There was no need for a thirteenth year ceremony. On the mainland, a man could live his entire life without fear that he might be called upon to kill a creature that wore the face of a loved one.

Abra watched a while longer, until the outlander got back aboard his ship. That was good. Abra would have hated to have seen the man punished simply because he did not know proper etiquette.

“Do you think your father will be cross we haven’t started dinner yet?” Abra’s mother asked.

“No mother, I’m sure he’ll just be pleased to see us,” Abra whispered, not bothering to say that his father three years dead.

The sailor paced the deck of his ship now, indignant. Abra watched him stomp, and thought of a world free from the threat of Woa where men were allowed such petty concerns.

I miss your father when we’re gone all day like this,” his mother said.

Abra smiled, and pat his mother’s arm gently, never taking his eyes from the sailor. On the mainland, so much would have been different. The most important difference was that Abra would never have had to kill his father because there was a monster hiding inside of him.

*****

The schoolhouse was the only building in town that rested on stilts, although Abra understood it was common practice in the east. While an island, Angard was as big as most nations and the east was ever more prone to attack than the west. The schoolhouse was designed so that during mass Infestations, archers could use it to defend young children while Woa milled below as arrow-fodder.

Abra stared up at the bottom of the schoolhouse, and lifted his arms in the air, imagining how high he would have to jump to touch the floor of the building. It was an admirable design. Abra only regretted that it now served to keep him out.

Abra had not been allowed in the school since he’d refused the thirteenth year ceremony. It had hurt to see the rope ladder pulled up while he was still on the ground, let alone to hear the other boys speculating about their futures, but Abra knew that was the price he had to pay.

Instead of fretting, he used that part of his day to gather from the Community Gardens. Without his mother, it was easy to gather the Katar blossoms, Sun spires, and Fire wands that grew at the base of the stilts.

The Community Gardens were mostly unattended during the weekdays, so Abra had them to himself. For the past five days, he had managed to more or less fill every bin in front of the Town Hall. Less than an hour into this particular day, his hands were already sticky from picking Katar blossoms.

Abra turned over his shoulder to see a gray-haired old woman leaning against one of the school’s stilts. She wore a wide-brimmed hat low on her forehead.

“Ho, traveler,” Abra bowed.

The old woman held up a hand, and moved it to the side dismissing formalities. Abra relaxed.

“What are the uses of Katar blossoms?” the old woman asked.

It was not uncommon for passing adults to challenge wayward students, and the woman no doubt mistook Abra for a boy who had merely spoken out of turn.

“Katar blossoms are used for their waxy coat, as a finish for the jacket of a Metal Weaver.”

“And why do they require such a finish?” the old woman was walking around Abra in a circle now. Her stride was sure and strong despite her apparent age. The stranger’s face remained largely hidden in the shade of her hat.

“I do not know,” Abra could not help but bow in a show of shame.

The old woman took a Katar blossom from Abra’s hand and dunked it in a nearby mud puddle. She held the flower up so that Abra could see.

“Do you see the way the water bunches up into drops?”

Abra nodded.

“Some of the Loke, when cut, emit dangerous chemicals. No metal will guard against these, but a leather coat with a waxy finish will stop what armor can not.”

Abra had never seen a Loke, although they were related to the Woa somehow. The Woa were parasites that turned men into monsters. Loke were born monsters, and from what Abra had heard most of them looked more like animals than men.

Abra was nodding at the wisdom in this, when he was overcome with sudden understanding. He dropped to one knee immediately. The sunlight shifted a bit and Abra saw a black bandanna around the stranger’s forehead.

“I apologize Chagraen, I did not recognize you without your coat.”

The Chagraen, a born Hunter of Loke and Woa took a seat on the ground and leaned against one of the stilts with a grunt.

“They said you were a observant. What gave me away?”

Abra ‘s heart hammered in his chest. Some feared the Chagraen as much as the Woa, for both the Chagraen and the Woa were creatures made long ago when the True Masters had turned men into weapons. Abra’s struggled not to let his tongue freeze as it had with Master Rim’Fain.

“Your clothes do not show enough wear for a traveler. I saw the set yesterday in the tailor’s shop as I walked to the Town Hall. If you were a member of the merchant’s guild then the school is far enough away from the docks that you would have no business here, my lady.”

“Rise,” the Hunter said.

Abra took his feet again and stood at attention. The knees of his pants were damp.

“I read that you will not complete your year thirteen ceremony. Why?” The Hunter took the letter Abra himself had taken to the mail post not five days past out of her bag, and turned it in her hands.

“Apologies, Hunter. My mother does not possess all her faculties, and there are extenuating circumstances which would make the act traumatic for her. Furthermore, I have already demonstrated my willingness to keep the words of the oath.” Abra let out the speech in a rush. He had practiced it many times in his mind. When finished, he swallowed, panting in great huffs. He had never spoken to a Hunter before.

“Anyone ever tell you that you sound like a barrister?” the old woman asked, wryly.

Abra was about to get back to his knees to beg for forgiveness, when the old woman rolled her eyes at him and motioned that he should stay standing.

What are the extenuating circumstances?” she asked.

“My lady, if you have reviewed my letter you must be aware of my history.”

“Yes, but I would hear it from you.”

“I… I killed my father, my lady.”

“He was Infested?”

“Yes ma’am!” Abra shouted, surprising both himself and the Hunter.

“The full story please,” the old woman said, now trimming her fingernails.

“He came home one night and demonstrated all the symptoms, my lady. He was unable to tolerate the glow of the lantern light. He moved as though pulled by strings. Metals grew hot when pressed to his skin, and he attacked both myself and my mother!” Abra had been only ten at the time, and although he could not remember most of the night, sometimes he awoke from terrible nightmares with the feel of his father’s warm blood on his hands.

“How did you kill him, child Rim’Jadao?”

“I put my knife in his neck, my lady.”

The old woman laughed, as if patricide was a joke, “You killed him the same way as the ceremony? I take it that your mother saw.”

Confused at the Hunter’s scornful reaction, Abra pressed himself onward. There was nothing for it than to be as convincing as he could. He chose the biggest words he knew.

“Yes, my lady. The killing of my father is what precipitated her madness. I fear if she sees me attempt a similar action upon her person she will suffer a complete break.”

“Say one thing for talking like a barrister, you make a compelling argument,” the old woman acceded with a grunt.

I request special exemption from the ceremony, my lady.” Now that the words were out there, Abra forced his arms behind his back, spread his feet apart, and stood at a trembling attention.

The Hunter stood, and walked away. Abra almost rushed after, but the old woman had only been grabbing a bag that Abra had not seen. Out of the bag the Hunter took two long black poles intricately tied to a belt, which she expertly strapped around her waist.

The poles were Sarain, the sheathed swords of a Hunter. If the woman was right-handed, the sword now resting under that palm was made of Spun Fire. If she was left-handed, the sword resting under that palm would be made of Woven Moonlight. Both metals were revered in stories, and each was lethal to Loke and Woa alike. Beneath his fear, Abra felt a wave of awe.

The Hunter threw her hat on top of her bag. Standing there now with the swords strapped to her waist and her bandanna blowing in the breeze, she no longer appeared at all frail.

Child Rim’Jadao, your request for special exemption has been heard. I am Captain Drunna Lo’Annaum, Hunter of the Raven Clan. I carry sentence from Regional Commander Nessa Im’Foller and, on her behalf, I hereby deny such exemption.”

Abra felt the air go out of his lungs. He felt his heart stop. Tears sprung to his eyes. It had been his last hope and now it was gone.

Please! She is all I have!” Abra fell to all fours, crawling toward the Hunter’s feet.

What makes a man?” Captain Lo’Annaum shouted.

There was a stomping of feet from the school above. Thirty voices responded in unison. Abra could make out Master Rim’Fain’s voice with ease.

A man helps other men,” the choir sang.

What makes a man?” Captain Lo’Annaum repeated.

A man protects other men,” the choir responded.

What makes a man?” Captain Lo’Annaum her voice full of authority.

A man makes other men,” the choir finished.

Please?” Abra begged, sensing what was to come.

Child Rim’Jadao, you are shunned. You may speak to none here. You may take succor from none here. You are a child without home.” The Hunter threw a knife into the soil in front of him. It was the ceremony knife. A blade with no edge.

Should you decide that you wish to become a man, you will take this knife to your mother, complete the ceremony, and recite the oath.” The Hunter turned her back and sang a song about the Oath.

Voices rose in chorus from the school above, joining with the Hunter. Abra distantly wondered how long they had rehearsed to achieve such eerie harmony.

They wanted him to run the knife on his mother’s throat and promise to kill her if she were ever Infested. Even though he’d already killed his father! Her mind had been broken and now the community demanded he break her heart! Abra pulled at his hair. It was impossible! Impossible!

Child Rim’Jadao is no more. He has broken accord and fled the bonds of men. If he is to return he must make the promise a man must make. Community before the individual. Once, Child Rim’Jadao showed much promise. If he is to show promise again the child must die and the man must take his place.

Our enemy is the enemy of all men. Our enemy has no mercy and would kill all men. We are steadfast and prepared.”

The Hunter walked toward town while Abra sat under the schoolhouse with a sackful of Katar blossoms feeling like the ghost of a murdered man.

*****

No one spoke to Abra as he emptied his sack into the bins. People milled about, but they looked everywhere but where he stood.

Girls from the Women’s School were out running in formation. Abra stared after them with white hot resentment. Abra did not know what happened in the women’s school, but he’d never heard of any ceremony or oath.

Abra stared at the girls, two lines of them running with long limber spears, and his fists bunched up so that his fingernails dug into his palms. The unfairness of it all made him shake.

When a woman comes of age, she promises to kill her child. She is given an infant, is made to care for that infant for three months, and must call it her own all that while. When the end of the three months approaches, the woman holds a knife over the infant’s heart and recites the oath. This teaches the importance of motherhood and community.” Abra was startled to see Captain Lo’Annaum sitting on a rocking chair on the porch of the Town Hall, reading from a book.

Abra was about to call the Hunter a hypocrite for speaking to him, but then realized he had not spoken and the Captain might as well have been reading to herself. The name of the book the was “The History of the Oath.” Abra had requested it from the library several months ago and been denied.

As if to herself, Captain Lo’Annaum continued from another part of the book, “Before the introduction of formalized schooling and the oath, nearly seventy-five percent of all Woa inflicted fatalities proceeded directly from the inaction of potential first-wave defenders. The relative rarity of Woa assaults coupled with natural reluctance to believe that an Infested loved one is already dead, conspires to create paralysis of action. First-wave defenders therefore simply become first-victims.

Since the introduction of formalized schooling, as well as physical and emotional conditioning, less than thirty-percent of first-wave defenders fail to initiate action against the Infested. This number is never expected to reach zero, as some may simply find themselves without the means to combat a Woa assault. The most dramatic improvement we have seen is in the so-called second-wave defenders who initiate combative action against Woa assault in over ninety-nine percent of all recorded cases.”

Captain Lo’Annaum licked her thumb and turned the page, ignoring Abra’s presence completely.

I killed my father! I did it already!” Abra shouted.

Captain Lo’Annaum didn’t so much as look up.

I don’t have anything left to prove!”

Captain Lo’Annaum rocked gently and hummed to herself.

I left the knife at the school! I won’t do it! Not ever!”

Abra ran toward his house. He had to find his mother.

*****

 

The house was locked, which confused Abra as there had been no lock that morning. After further examination, he realized the windows had been nailed shut from the inside. Panting and panicked, Abra picked up a stone and threw it through a window. He knocked out the glass shards with a shovel and climbed inside, not caring if he accidentally cut himself on any of the smaller shards fragments.

Mother!” Abra shouted.

He went to the kitchen. There was no food there. For the first time, he realized that he was hungry. He tore through the cupboards wildly, eyes wide. How could this have happened? Special exemption had been made in at least four of the cases where the circumstances had been less severe than his own.

Mother!” Abra called again. She had to be at the Lo’Garagaun’s. It was just down the road and sometimes they took her in for the day to keep her out of trouble.

His stomach rumbled. Perhaps he had not been hungry to begin with, but his hysteria had him starving. In a flash of insight, he ran out to the garden. All the plants had been ripped out. He dug through the garden anyway, in case anything had been overlooked. He found a carrot, an onion, and a potato. He went to wash them from the well, but the bucket was gone. He settled for dusting them off with his shirt, then he ate them ravenously.

Later, he got sick from eating the onion and the potato raw and threw up. His stomach in cramps, and feeling weaker than he ever had before, Abra cried himself to sleep in the shade of what used to be his home.

He told himself that when he woke up his father would be alive, his mother would no longer be insane, and that the last three years would turn out to have been a nightmare.

*****

The Lo’Garagauns set their dogs on him when he got close to the farmhouse. Abra got close enough to see the porch by the moonlight, but then someone whistled once, sharply. A few seconds later, Roskar’s fangs were in his arm. Abra barely managed to beat the dog back before Bakkar was nipping at his leg. The dogs had been his friends once, but now Abra fought both of them for his life. When he finally felt he’d beaten the dogs back, Master Lo’Garagaun charged with a stave in hand.

Mother! Mother it’s Abra!” Abra shouted.

Someone moved inside the house. Abra heard a muffled cry as if someone had tried to speak but a hand had been placed over their mouth. It was his mother! It had to be!

Master Lo’Garagaun struck him twice across the back with the stave. Each strike cut his skin.

I’ll come back mother. I promise!”

Someone slung a stone. It might have been one of the boys. They were both younger than Abra, but they were good shots. The stone nicked Abra’s scalp. Blood ran into his eyes.

I love you mother! I love you!”

Abran ran. There were no friends here any longer.

*****

The boys formed a line on the deck of the schoolhouse. Abra watched from the depths of the Community Garden, scowling. He had barely slept, having woken up sometime around midnight when someone began throwing rocks against the house.

He’d run away to the Community Garden to get Sun spire to treat his wounds. It had taken most of what was left of the night to figure out how to put a poultice on his own back.

One by one, the boys approached Master Rim’Fain and were presented with their certificate of graduation and their letter of recommendation. Master Rim’Fain praised each boy for his strengths and delivered a warning about his weaknesses. Abra watched as the boys he knew died and became men.

Laran Lo’Tavi was going to be a doctor.

Quinn Rim’Yannera was to become an engineer.

The Vio’Haven twins were going to be farmers like their parents.

Benn Lo’Raundaun was awarded the highest honor. Benn who had cried like a girl and only completed the oath under threat. He was to be sent to Elenn to train with the Hunters. He would become a Detective and help track Woa. The position that Master Rim’Fain had meant for Abra.

A twig snap behind him, and Abra turned with a barely suppressed scream to see Captain Lo’Aunnaum standing there with a smirk on her face. She leaned against a tree, reading again from her book.

The power of the oath is that there are no exceptions made. The commonality of the experience creates group pressure. A man will strike down an enemy, though it might bear the face of a loved one, because he fears that other men would do the same and he must not be discovered as the sole weakling.

It is especially desirable that those who have proven conviction to follow the oath be made to swear the oath. The mere fact of the swearing creates a strong community message. ‘Even those of us who have every right not to be called to make the pledge, are called to pledge. Who then among us can do otherwise?’”

Abra’s face paled. His hands shook.

It is also desirable that some number of people refuse the oath so that they might be broken, thereby renewing the psychological impact of the oath for the whole community. To this end, in those cases where it might be done without undo attention, rumor should be created that some have been allowed to circumvent the oath in order to create this false impression.”

Abra ran under the schoolhouse, not caring that all the boys could see him. Not caring if one of them shot him through with an arrow. Abra grabbed the dull knife from where he’d left it and ran down toward the ocean.

Captain Lo’Annaum’s voice boomed.

This scarcity of rumors will assure that this avenue is not often sought, or even desirable for the public at large. It also assures that only those individuals with compelling reason will try to circumvent the oath. Those who may not be broken by a simple scolding will prove themselves to have sufficient will that once broken will serve as an example to all the community that no one is exempt.”

Abra arrived at the ocean panting, the blunt knife in his hands. He threw it as far as he could.

I will not!” he shouted.

*****

That night, Abra found Benn Lo’Raundaun as he was walking home from the celebratory feast. Abra punched him in the mouth, knocked him to the ground, and didn’t stop kicking until Benn Lo’Raundaun stopped trying to get up. Abra took his certificate of graduation and his letter of recommendation and tore them to shreds.

When the boy started to cry, Abra spat on him.

*****

No one thought to guard the pig slop at the Vio’Haven farm so Abra helped himself. He didn’t dare eat it raw, so he stole a metal drinking trough from the barn to cook it in.

It tasted even worse than he’d expected but once it was in his stomach, it stayed there. It had been days since he’d eaten, and even though it was terrible it returned some measure of his strength to him.

The plan worked for three more nights before dogs were posted by the pig troughs. There were other farms though. He stole from them all for another week. Then there were dogs everywhere.

 

*****

Have mercy!” Abra cried at the ship. His stomach gnawed at itself and the water sucked the heat from his body.

One of the sailors peeked overboard. The face was ugly and the teeth were brown, but to Abra the mere act of knowing the face was looking at him afforded it a sort of beauty.

The sailor said something to someone over his shoulder, but Abra could not hear for the water splashing in his ears. Seconds later, a latrine pot was thrown overboard, its contents landing in the water next to him. Raucous laughter sounded from above.

Abra ducked under the water, hoping that any residue on him would be washed away. He could not afford to get sick living in the woods. He brought his face back to the surface only when he was far away from the ship and out of breath.

Another sailor was yelling at the first two. There was a fight. The sailor Abra had seen that long ago day on the docks now peered over the side of the ship with a lantern in his hand. He saw Abra and cursed at the sky, before throwing down a rope.

Abra grabbed it and began to climb. He was too hungry. There was no choice. He had accepted that he might die when he dived into the waters. Even a strong man could drown in the ocean.

Finding that he was unable to climb the rope on his own, Abra was relieved when the Cursing sailor simply shouted “Hold on!” and heaved the rope up the boat himself. Abra landed on the deck of the ship like a limp fish and promptly threw up a stomach full of seawater.

The sailor looked at him and cursed. Then the sailor looked at the sky and cursed. Then, cursing as Abra had rarely heard, the sailor disappeared below decks. When he reappeared, the sailor handed Abra a plate of cornbread and beans.

The ugly sailor opened his mouth as if to object, but what Abra thought of as the Cursing Sailor favored him with a few profanities and he went quiet again. Abra scooped the food into with his bare hands because a spoon would have been too slow.

Meanwhile, the Cursing Sailor took a seat on a barrel and watched Abra eat by the light of a lantern. There was a hard frown on his face.

We sail tomorrow. We’ll take you along if you like. I don’t know what you did, but it can’t merit what they’ve done to you.”

Abra finished the tray, and bowed to the sailor. It felt like forever since he’d had a reason to bow. He was trembling again, not in fear this time, but from weakness. He wondered how tired he had been that he hadn’t even had the strength to shiver. That was a worrisome thought.

This is my home. I… cannot leave”

The ugly sailor muttered about throwing him overboard before they got in trouble, but the man Abra now thought of as the Kind Sailor silenced him by touching a club at his side.

You’d rather stay here and live like a dog?”

There was no way to explain. His mother was here, but that was not all of the reason for his staying. His friends were on Angard, although they now threw rocks at him. Every moment of his entire life had been spent on Angard. Even if there were monsters, there was community on Angard. To be taken from the community was worse than shunning. To be taken from the community was to be made less.

You are very kind. You are… a good man, I think. Thank you. I will be leaving now.” The ugly sailor laughed but the kind sailor only sat on his barrel, frowning. Abra stood up, and limped to the side of the ship.

I used to judge mainlanders harshly. I will not do so again.” Abra dived off the side of the ship into the cold black waters.

Boy!” the Kind Sailor shouted. A keg landed in the ocean by Abra’s side. Abra grabbed it and waved. The sailor waved back.

I owe you my life!” Abra hollered, tears in his eyes.

Well then I hope it’s worth it!” the sailor shouted by way of acknowledgment.

When Abra got back to the shore his clothes were gone, save for his undergarments which he’d been wearing. Written in the sand were the words:

 

NEXT TIME I WILL PUNISH THEM.”

But the keg was full of beans and pork and Abra did not feel sad when he fell asleep with a full belly even if he was cold. He had spoken to another man. A good man. There was a kind of fire in that act that even the cold could not chill.

*****

The longest any individual has resisted taking the oath is one week. To date, none have chosen exile over compulsory swearing of the oath. To end suffering as quickly as possible, it is advised that the conditions placed on the refuser be as strict as possible. This demonstrates the authority of the governing body as well as reinforcing the fundamental principle that no one must be above the oath.”

Captain Lo’Annaum sat on a log next to Master Rim’Fain, reading as if she could not see Abra sleeping under a lean-to not ten paces away.

One week is the longest you say?” Master Rim’Fain asked.

Yes. I understand the boy gave up due to hunger. He had not managed to secure an alternate source of food.” Captain Lo’Annaum licked his thumb and turned another page.

Abra scurried out of his shelter and grabbed the squirrel he had killed in a trap yesterday. They’d put dogs on all the food. No one had thought to set dogs outside the library or thought that someone might steal books on woodcraft.

Have there been any who refused who were able to find some way to live separate from the community?” Master Rim’Fain asked.

There have been a few who might have done so, but their trials happened to be in other areas, where the ritual coincides with winter.”

No man can survive the winter alone.” Master Rim’Fain nodded. As if even nature conspired against him, a cold wind blew through the trees and Abra shivered.

I’ll starve first,” Abra grunted. “She’s my mother and I’ll starve first.”

Master Rim’Fain and Captain Lo’Annaum stood and walked away. There was a knife with no edge on the log where they had both sat.

I’ve already made it a month! A month do you hear me?”

Abra walked down by the cliffs again and threw the new knife into the ocean. When night came he howled at the moon like a wolf. He had made it a month, and no matter what else happened, no matter if they took his hand and forced the motions, he had made it longer than any other boy.

He was like an anvil: so strong that any hammer struck against it would break.

I was strong enough to kill my father when the time came, and I am strong enough that nothing can break me!” Abra shouted.

The only response was the regularity of the tides. In and out.

*****

Abra learned that you could make a skin by boiling an animal’s brain and rubbing it against their hides. It would not have been a useful skill with the squirrels, but he had found a rabbit warren and he knew he had to be ready for winter. It was already getting too cold at night to fall asleep without a fire.

He had been on his own for two months. Eight times longer than anyone else.

A rabbit poked its head out of the warren. The rabbits were becoming wise to the fact that they were being hunted. Abra knew that he should be careful but winter was only month away. Abra threw a stick as hard as he could. It hit the rabbit square between the eyes. The rabbit keeled over, dead.

Killing rabbits wasn’t hard. Killing enough of them to wear was the real challenge.

When he got back to his camp there was an edgeless knife hanging from a tree branch by a leather thong. Abra threw it in the ocean where he’d thrown all the others.

They would break themselves trying to break him.

*****

Abra shivered as he protected his fire. Occasionally, he leaned over it to the point that it felt as though it were cooking his belly. He did it for the heat and also because it was necessary to bat away the snow flakes that were encroaching on his shelter. Even under the rabbit skins, it was cold.

There was not enough firewood. He’d known and it had not made any difference because he’d burned everything he could comfortably carry to his camp already. The wind gusted, shaking the poles of his lean to. Abra’s whole body tensed. The flames flickered.

The fire went out.

Only smoke remained.

A person could freeze to death in under an hour in this weather with no protection,” Captain Lo’Annaum said.

Master Rim’Fain walked beside her with tears in his eyes though nothing else about the man’s face or posture indicated sadness. Both wore heavy coats. “A man may face many things alone, but never the winter. In winter, we must draw fire from one another.”

Master Rim’Fain almost turned to look at Abra, but stopped himself at the last moment. Hands trembling the old teacher set an edgeless knife down in front of the fire. Barely able to move, Abra picked it up and crawled toward the ocean cliffs knowing that it was not only the knife that would be going over this time.

Abra did not turn to look over his shoulder, but he hoped that Master Rim’Fain was proud. He had refused the ceremony but no one could accuse of him of not doing what he thought was right. There was pride in that, Abra was sure.

How long do you think that poor woman will last in the stocks?” Captain Lo’Annaum asked.

Abra stopped.

An hour maybe. She keeps calling for one whose name must not be spoken. She has only to stop calling his name to be let back in close to the fire, but she will not stop calling.” Master Rim’Fain was openly weeping now.

Captain Lo’Annaum’s knife was back out and the woman was clipping her fingernails once again.

If we run, perhaps we can talk sense into her before she dies,” Captain Lo’Annaum said.

Abra had no more strength left to run, but he ran anyway.

*****

I am here, mother,” Abra whispered. The stocks were in front of the Town Hall. There was no one around. The streets were white and empty.

His mother squinted at him. Her blue lips turned upward in a smile. Abra took off his cloak of rabbit skins and hung it around her even though it left him almost naked.

Abra? Is that you? Get your father dear, the town’s gone crazy. I think… I think they’re going to kill me.” His mother started to cry. Her finger were purple. Abra took his mother’s hands in his own and rubbed.

She needed a fire and Abra had none to give even if he broke her free.

Father is dead. There’s only you and me now,” Abra confessed.

His mother saw the edgeless knife in his hands and pulled her head as far back in the stocks as she could, struggling. Her eyes went wide with terror. She whimpered almost too quietly to hear. Abra swallowed and raised the knife.

His mother screamed.

Come out! I am ready to complete the ceremony!”

Captain Lo’Annaum appeared by Abra’s shoulder as if she had always been there.

I will let no love hinder my guard. My greater love is for the community. I vow to watch for all deception and free my mind from my heart. I promise this now and give sign.”

With his back turned to his mother to hide the sight, Abra ran the knife twice across the captain’s throat. As he did so, Abra whispered “I once was a boy but he died. You have made me into a man, and thus I name you mother. The ceremony is obeyed.”

The Captain nodded, a smile on her lips.

The knife clattered to the ground below. Abra was no longer strong enough to hold it.

Master Rim’Fain ran toward the stocks with a set of keys in his hands.

The community gathered all around him emerging from the dozen buildings of the town square. Somehow, Abra knew they had been waiting there for a long while. A hundred hands lifted him. The Lo’Garagaun’s carried him. Then the Lo’Raundaun’s. The Vio’Havens opened the doors for him. A hundred hands carried him to safety, working as one.

What makes a man, Abra Rim’Jadao?” the Captain whispered.Abra had been cold so long that the warmth hurt.

Community…. community and family makes a man,” Abra whispered.

Master Rim’Fain pressed a letter into Abra’s freezing hands. The note was crumpled and battered, as if it had been written long ago, carried in a pocket, and examined often.

It said: Detective.

This and other stories are available in my collection Dunce Upon A Time: The Complete Non-Fiction now free on Amazon.

 

Dunce Upon A Time Free Fiction

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Dunce Upon A Time: The Complete BC Woods Fiction is free on Amazon for the next three days!

Is that worthy of an exclamation point? Who can say?!? I’m so crazy I’m giving it away!!!

Ahem.

This collection contains all the Tide World stories I’ve ever published publicly as well as all the one-off fiction from the old site.

It’s yours for the next three days at the low low price of $0. That’s so cheap that if it was any cheaper I’d have to give you money to read it!!!

Don’t have an Amazon account?

You can get the Amazon App on your phone, iPad, tablet or whatever. You can read kindle books all over the place including whatever screen you’re reading this on. So read it with your face!!!

Or don’t.

If you want it, it’s seriously not a bother to email me. Or just leave a comment and I’ll send you the stuff for free. I appreciate your readership. It’s just easier for me to drive all sales through one channel until I can establish myself again.

I’ll also post some stuff that’s in it that you haven’t read before!!!!!!!!!!

Okay, I’m done with exclamation points for another year.

Your Tears are Liquid Validation

So, Rock Bottom is a pretty quick read.

I’ve mentioned that. About three quarters of the people I sent it to read it in one day. Two of the people who have read it so far are a substance abuse counselor and a mud-engineer on a drilling rig (who has tons of tattoos and worships Thor). Both of them cried.

When I write a story, I like to punch people right in their deepest most sensitive feelings… and then turn my fist into a knife… and then twist that knife… with salt.

Then let all their feelings spill out all over the place to get full catharsis.

Here’s what JC (the mud-engineer) has to say:

If you’ve ever experienced the sensation that some unfathomable force of revelation, some still, quiet, but at once horrifying element of universal magnitude just a hairline breadth away from being more than merely a frustrated tingling of the nerves; if you’ve lived your entire life in curious denial that in any one moment something will snap into place and you’ll be introduced to how poorly marooned you are within an inferno just outside of focus and just a flinch away from comprehension, then you owe it to this man to support his writing. He is a master of that feeling, and if you don’t feel it now then you will when you read his work.

I’m sort of an emotional Kamikaze pilot. I write things knowing that the act of writing them will be emotionally devastating. But if I can take you down with me? I’ll do it. That’s right, motherfucker. I’m just that crazy.

Then I get weirdly glib and not attached.

It’s a defense mechanism.

So, if you want to cry it’s like $3.

BEING A WEIRDO

In my external life, I wear lots of plaid and spend most of my time trying to avoid crowds and mumbling to myself and being a general curmudgeon. I also spend a lot of time indoors worry about catastrophes that might happen if I went outdoors. In my internal life, which everyone prefers, I am a deeply introspective and sensitive man who stares at walls and cries because I’m overcome with a sense of beautiful ennui.

It is true.

Once, in high school, my English teacher read a piece of poetry criticism I wrote and asked the class to guess who wrote it. All the sensitive kids in the corner (they had a corner) guessed each other. Then they cried over how deeply the poet had been understood and how delicately their intent had been extracted and explained. There were lots of congratulations given.

Then the teacher told everyone I wrote it, and they all screamed at me and said it was a trick.

REVIEWING SCHTUFF

I don’t write a lot of book reviews because it gives me a skeevy “cross-promotion” feeling. Promotion gives me one of the grossest feelings in the world. Not because I’m impractical, but because I’m super practical.

You only get to be alive one time. That’s it. This is all there is. There’s nothing else. You’re going to die one day and all you’ll ever really have had was that you got to be you. So why would you for one moment try to not be you? Why would you pretend to feel something you didn’t feel? I know what you’re about to say. I know.

Just say it.

Money.

Right?

Think about what money really buys you.

You can clean yourself in a bigger warmer pool of water. You can have more space you don’t need. Some different weird clothes. And maybe a powerful laser. Or some vats of liquid nitrogen to freeze shit in. And one of those saws that uses supersonic streams of water…

Okay, there are some cool things you can buy with money.

Lots of cool things.

There are only like four or five kinds of expensive things that I can appreciate as myself, though. I don’t care about nice clothes. I don’t care about nice food. My palette isn’t sensitive to those. You’re probably the same if you’re being brutally honest.

There’s nothing I hate more than people pretending to give a shit. Or pretending to give more of a shit. Or pretending to give a different kind of shit than they actually give.

For example, all of that was just bullshit to say that I’m going to start reviewing books (I think) but only if I really like the books.

It’s Here!

UPDATE: If you don’t have a kindle or Amazon account, just let me know in a comment and I’ll email a copy to the email you used in the comment form. Also, reviews etc are always welcome.

 

I wrote a book.

It’s a very, very short book. In fact, by some definition it might not qualify as a book. But to me, it is a book. It is something I wrote that proved to me I could write a book when I didn’t believe I could ever write anything again.

I love it to pieces.

It’s a book about a man who has lost everything he ever had and has to find a way to inch back up toward daylight. It’s about a guy who is a dick and has to forgive himself for being a dick. It’s about trying to outsmart your own bad habits.

It’s also a book about remembering how to create things.

It obviously holds a very personal space in my heart, even though I sometimes think it is a bit “too fucking metaphorical.”

The people I’ve had Beta Read for me who have responded with the most emotion have either been addicts, family members of addicts, or otherwise people who have undergone some kind of treatment. When I send things to people for feedback I almost never pay attention to what they have to say as much as I pay attention to how quickly they have to say it. That shows me they got sucked in. That shows me where they got passionate.

I like sending things to people who are busy for that reason. You want to steal someone’s attention when it’s hard to steal.

Most of the people I sent this to responded to me in a day. Some people cried. You may  not cry. It’s a silly odd ball kind of story. The stuff I write after this is going to be to a broader audience. But I hope you like it.

Here it is:

Rock Bottom: A Novel in 12 Steps

The first of many more to come.

PS. I’ve decided to save the horror stories I have until next Halloween. That way I can release a more or less full fledged book or scary shit. I also decided I want to write the kinds of horror stories you could read aloud to people to scare the shit out of them.

little things become big things