Stories

No We Will Not Limit Our Performance Time

#longreads #shortstories

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David’s job, for the next few hours at least, was to order and staple the piles of paper lying in front of him. He had made things difficult by trying to print double-sided. He had stopped the printer as soon as he realized what was happening, but that had left about sixty copies with the odd sides printed upside-down. After deliberating over what to do for a few minutes (taking a bathroom break had helped), he had decided that the orientation error on the packet would just make things too difficult for everyone—who included, as Alan had been saying at weekly meetings for the last month, not only the upper echelons of the GPRL but also, if all the scheduling stuff got worked out, possibly even Jimmy Chen himself. Most importantly, it would reflect badly on Alan and everyone else that had worked so hard to put together the 1995 TBC Developers’ Conference.

Now, noticing the scent of toner coming off the warm piles in front of him, David knew that the only solution was to print out the odd pages separately, single-sided, and to finish printing out the remaining pages single-sided because double-sided was just too much of a hassle with that printer. It wasn’t just toner: smells of grass and maybe tar from the window were mixed in. But hence the four piles:

1) Cover pages.

2) Even pages with the back side upside down.

3) Odd pages, one-sided.

4) Concluding thankyou page that wasn’t a part of the main 32-page document.

Across the street, the construction workers were taking lunch, sitting aroung the picnic tables with their plastic lunchboxes. David lined up the first complete packet in the stapler, wondering what it would be like to work outside for a living—to go home from work each day not just satisfied with a good day’s work (a day of stapling and filing and report-writing, for instance), but physically exhausted—then he pushed down and felt a twinge of satisfaction as the staple ran through each sheet in turn and curled slightly underneath.
#

“I’m just trying to figure out why you left,” said Alan from across the table, before taking a sip of coffee.

“We have great benefits,” he said. “And of course, as your superior before you quit the company—as a manager—I would say that. But it’s true—you know it’s true, I know it’s true. You won’t find retirement like that anywhere, and that’s a fact.”

David smiled. “That wasn’t really it,” he said.

“Not retirement. So it was more healthcare or vacation-related?”

“It wasn’t any of that. I think it’s something that’s been coming out—building—since I was little. It’s actually tunneling, is what I’d call it.” David stated to worry that Alan wasn’t going to get the point, and he reddened. “Do you know what a culvert is?” he said.

“Is that like a short street?” said Alan.

“Sort of. Well, no. It’s actually a tunnel that a stream or body of water goes into—they use them for drainage as well.” David didn’t know if this was the technical definition, but he thought: best to march on.

“There was one in my neighborhood we always used to take the family dog to every day, my Dad and I. Well, every evening. I used to always wonder what was down there—I imagined all these tunnels connecting underground, and it was sort of this magical thing in my imagination, down there.”

Alan was very hungry, and he started to cut into his food. David worried that this might have been some kind of semi-conscious signal for him to get on with his story.

“So,” he continued, “one day I went there without my parents. I snuck out and stood outside the culvert. But it was dark, you know, and I could hear this, almost this puking noise. It was coming from inside the culvert, periodically. Do you know what I mean?”

“About the pouring? Or, the puking?”

“Well, more about the periods. Periodically.”

“The periods were periodic?”

“No. I was just saying that the puking noise came off and on.”

Alan looked confused. “Didn’t you say the periods periodically?”

“Did I?” said David. “I didn’t mean that.”

“Right, sorry. Carry on.”

“Sorry; where was I?”

“You heard the puking.”

“Right. I remember standing there with my hands on the bars and listening to it. And like I said, I used to imagine it was sort of magical down there.”

“Sorry—how do you mean magical?”

David considered his words. He had just run into Alan on the street; he didn’t have to tell him anything. Magical—the used to imagine a world underneath his neighborhood with castles and palaces, with everything up on high hills. Kind of this kingdom underground, waiting for him.

“Just magical,” he said.

“But I was standing with my hands on the bars”—Alan nodded encouragingly—”and just listening. And it was all kind of grainy, because of the darkness, but I imagined—” he wondered if he was giving too much detail, because he really didn’t have to tell Alan anything. “I imagined going in there, just to see what it was actually like, but then as soon as I went in these hands would grab me, sort of grainy like the darkness, and they would sort of hold me down—” he stopped. Definitely too much. “Sorry, this isn’t really the point,” he said.

“Right,” said Alan—”who was puking?”

“Nothing. I don’t know. No one was puking.”

Alan definitely looked confused. “The point is,” said David, “I’m a tunneler. That’s where it all started. I have to go down and find things underneath. Underneath—structures and systems. If there’s anything better I have to find it, even if I have to dig. Do you know what I mean?”

Alan put down his coffee and, after trying to think for a moment, said:

“I’m sorry—where what started?”
#

On his second day after he quit the company, on the way out to California, David pulled off the highway and stopped at a bar for lunch. The curtains were pulled shut inside, tinting the room red and darkening its wood-paneled walls to black. The sliver of white light through the gap in the curtains illuminated the coils of smoke rising above the men seated at the bar. Those coils, he thought, are never the same shape. They will always be unique.

He sat down in a booth across from the bar. The men there were all distracted by a band tuning up at the front of the room. The waitress came to take his order and said, “We don’t get bands in here often,” with a twang in her voice. He smiled in a way he hoped didn’t come off as condescending.

“Interesting,” he said. “I’ll have the french dip sandwich?”

“Sure thing. Fries or taters?”

“Ta-um, potatoes, please.”

“Sure thing, I’ll be right back.”

He settled back into the leather of his seat. There was a general haze of tobacco smoke, but in the sliver of light from the window he could see still see the individual swirls rising. He thought about walking over to play one of the old arcade games in the corner, but there was a nice warm feeling in his legs after being in the car for so long. The twang was charming, really; he would have to leave a good tip.

The band started to play. A guitarist and a bassist strutted around at the front of the room in tight fitted shirts, low-cut and revealing pale, hairless chests. He looked back to the bar. Most of the men there had white tufts of hair poking out of the collars of their shirts, but they seemed to be enjoying the music. It was a blues standard—they were singing about the sea, losing someone in the sea. David had never been to the sea.

His sandwich came, with a cup of sauce and a yellow toothpick sticking up from the top. It was hot; more swirls rose from the top. But not the same as the ones up at the bar, up above the cigarettes.

He noticed a change in the music and looked up. The singer had stopped singing and was walking around the stage, nervously David thought, while the guitarist played a strange-sounding solo. Maybe he wasn’t playing the notes in the scale. Or the key—David wasn’t sure what the difference was. Either way, the tufty-chested men didn’t seem to be enjoying it too much. Everyone in the band looked serious and concentrated.

He took a few more bites of his sandwich, each dipped in sauce. The blues is very structured, he thought. The same pattern repeats. He remembered a phrase he had heard, “chord changes.” The chords change—change and repeat, in and out like the sea. But the real thing, he thought, must be to dive underneath. He was starting to enjoy the music now, but the men at the bar definitely seemed upset. The guitar solo was still going, seemed to have been going on too long. The singer had resumed singing, but there wasn’t a melody any more—he was just chanting lines into the microphone with the same serious expression, about someone lost in the sea.

The tufty men were turning rowdy. All of them glared under thick eyebrows; one stood up and yelled at the stage, “Play some music!” The band seemed unfazed; in fact, the music was becoming looser and louder. David started to sway along, a smile breaking on his lips. He thought of his roommate in college and a punk song that fell apart at the end, only this lasted—was all falling apart. His eyes darted to the bar and back to the stage. The guitarist had abandoned his pick and was pounding on the guitar with his hands; the drummer kept a beat but the bassist struck one note rhythmlessly. He didn’t think they were playing the blues any more—new shapes were forming. Now all the men were yelling for the band to stop playing. David stood up and began to search for the money to pay, seeing one man take slow steps towards the stage. He was digging through his pockets–he knew he had the right change—when one of the men threw a bottle at the stage and he ran out in a fast question mark around the empty tables in the center of the room.
#

The office of the company that David worked for was on the second floor of a larger office building. On the day before he left for good, the little boy and his mother came in through the glass double doors at ten o’clock—later than she had planned. She settled in at her desk on the first floor, and the boy began to spread out his toys on the carpet in his spot under the desk. The little boy loved elevators, and his mother wasn’t always very good at keeping track of him when she was working; soon the toys were abandoned and the boy was making his way into the hall. He called the elevator and, when it came, ran his fingers over the two buttons that he could reach. They were blue and rounded, and they seemed to go back forever into the elevator, like a tunnel somewhere; the boy wanted to find out where it went.

David sat at his desk on the second floor, flipping between work and the office’s messaging program on his computer. He took a break for a moment to look around the room. Alice turned over piles of paper on her desk, her face distraught, searching for something. At the front of the room, Andrew asked Alan something while Alan, sitting, nodded patiently. Evan watched Alice intently, smiling and twirling a blue pen.

David looked back at his screen, where he had minimized all the windows. The background was a computer-generated picture of a lake. It looked very realistic; he had even wanted to visit it for a while. He brought back all the windows, put his head down, and tried to get to work again, but when he looked up the boy was standing a few feet from his desk, holding a little handheld game system. David looked around again: no one had moved except for Evan, who by Alice’s desk, saying, “I was holding the pen up the whole time you were looking for it! Isn’t that funny?” Alice’s face was serious for a moment and then she laughed unconvincingly.

David didn’t know exactly what to say to the boy, but he was going to say something, when Evan noticed him too and came over to help.

David turned his face back to his computer intensely—let Evan be sanctimonious, let him act the good guy in front of Alice. David had emails; he didn’t have time to help with anything like this; he had emails to check.

“Hey, can I get some help?” he heard Evan say. He was trying to pick up the boy. “Will you carry take this upstairs if I get the kid?”

He handed David the little videogame box that the boy had been holding. It had a gray cartridge plugged in at the back that David didn’t recognize.

“Thanks,” said Evan. “His mom or whoever must be up on the third floor. There are more offices up there, right?”

David shrugged and followed Evan to the elevator with the game in one hand, and with the other he pressed the deep blue elevator button that was his favorite feature of the office. He pushed the deep blue elevator button that was his favorite feature of the office and felt a familiar tug of acceleration as the elevator pulled him up to the third floor.
#

“First of all, just let me make it clear to you that we’re not hiring you back,” said Alan before taking a sip of coffee. “We just can’t—I think I could still persuade them even with the property damage but after that report that Alice wrote there’s just no way—corporate would never. But if you don’t mind me asking—Alice kept mentioning something about a game?”

David smiled.

“I used to play it when I was little—it was on a little gray cartridge with the label scratched off. It was something my Dad got from a garage sale, I think. We weren’t—you know, we weren’t exactly throwing down money on any yachts back then, so my dad had to get creative with what he bought for me to play with. It was strange. I had this idea that it was—I don’t want to say enchanted, but…”

Alan left a pause and then said: “Okay.” He had mostly played business-simulation-type games when he was little. He was imagining David’s game as one where you run an amusement park that successfully shifts business models to suit the times while retaining its core of family friendliness and fun and safety. “What kind of game was it?”

“Oh, I guess it was an adventure game. You just did normal adventure game stuff, you know, go from island to island and fight monsters and solve problems.” This information seemed harmless to share. “And once you finished every island there would be this little ceremony in your honor, with dancing and a little pig rotating on a fire.” He paused, remembering.

“But the strangest thing was that there were these vines that sort of encroached on you throughout the game. Like, they started as these harmless things that you just had to cut through, but as you went on they became more and more intrusive and they eventually started to fill up the screen and you could barely even play it anymore.” He wondered if he was explaining this adequately. “And, apart from that, it never seemed to end. There seemed to be an endless number of islands.”

Alan didn’t say anything. He had never liked games like that.

“Actually,” said David, still looking down. “That was kind of the reason I went out to California. …That’s where I ended up going, when I left.”

He really hadn’t intended to tell Alan any of this—he had just run into him on the street—so what was he doing now? But now he had started his thought and it would be strange just to leave it there incomplete, and so he said,

“I had had to find the man that made that game.”
#

He later came to an island that seemed to lack any particular features or tasks to complete. Wondering why it had been put there, he started to explore. He eventually came upon a tiny house just into the woods that covered the island. He went inside and found an old man sitting on the floor. The man didn’t seem surprised when David entered; in fact, he addressed him right away.

“There are twenty-seven thousand, seven hundred and forty villages in the world,” he said. “That’s three hundred and sixty-five times seventy-six. In order to finish the game, you have to visit every single one of them.”

He stepped aside to reveal a trapdoor, which he pulled up. There were steps leading beneath the house.

“But perhaps there are other ways,” he said.

David,11 at the time, looked at the stairs on the screen. He was eleven now. He thought of the culvert, of standing outside it and hearing that noise repeat and repeat. He pressed the button on the controller to talk to the old man again, but he was silent.

David left the island and, though he visited it again, he could not ever again provoke the old man to talk to him. He stopped playing the game soon after.

#

The elevator rose and bumped into its dusty seating on the third floor. The doors opened and David, Evan and the boy stepped out into a dusty nowhere: concrete floors, chairs and desks stacked up, fiberglass walls, light through plastic sheets. The music from the boy’s game echoed around tinnily.

“I was under the impression there was another office up here,” said David. He looked back: Evan was backing up into the still-open elevator doors, mumbling something about getting work done. So he dropped the act when Alice wasn’t there. David started to make a noise of protest, but there was no point really; he let him go.

He looked around. Sheets of ragged paper fluttered around his feet. Past the stacked chairs, the way was blocked by a row of large filing cabinets, forming a kind of wall. He couldn’t tell if it was all randomly placed or if there was some kind of system.

He wandered around for a while, talking to the boy, who was mute and receptive. He noticed that some of the walls, the concrete ones and the ones made by the bookshelves, had been painted. Many of them were painted solid colors. Some had kind of symbols spray painted on them, David thought maybe Chinese symbols; some had quite painstakingly detailed faces or scenes painted on them. And some of the bookshelves and chairs and desks were arranged so as to form what could be interpreted as sculptures.

For David, exploring this wasteland with the boy was oddly comforting, like imagining someone else’s life or seeing it in a dream. He asked the boy what he would like to be when he grew up, wondering what he would have said at that age. It was strange, he kept thinking, that all this was upstairs and he had never known about it.

They found an unstacked desk to sit down on and David took out his lunch to share with the boy. He noticed that the pattern on its plastic surface was the same as the one on his desk. They were like that for a while, David and the boy, both sitting on the desk and eating. Though neither of them talked, the noise of their crunching filled up the silence and it was alright, really, the two of them there together.
#

“Yeah, I always thought he was weird,” said Alice to Alan. He had called her there the day after David left in order to get the full story for the incident report. “Just, I dunno, he was always checking his email, and I remember thinking, who checks their email that much, you know? And he was really quiet, he didn’t really talk to anyone, but when he did talk it was like it was too much—it was just like, ‘alright, I get it!’, you know? Anyway, I wasn’t really all that surprised when it happened.”

The morning after David left, Alice had pulled into the parking lot at 7:00 a.m. This was an hour earlier than she, or anyone really, normally came into the office, but she had been woken up by the construction that had been going on for weeks outside her house and she figured she might as well get some work done early so she could have an easy afternoon, comparatively.

As she pulled into the parking lot, she remembered immediately that they were still changing the locking system and no one but Alan had the new card needed to get into the building. Shit, she thought. “Shit,” she said. And who was blasting music at 7:00 in the morning?

Because there was no point in going all the way home now, and because it was cold, Alice sat in the car with the heat on and fumed for a while. The sun was just beginning to rise. She thought she could see a light flickering in the second floor window of the office, but it might have just been reflections from the cars passing by or something. She gave in and started to eat the pasta she had packed for lunch, beginning to enjoy the novelty of being up so early.

At 7:28, the office’s cleaning lady pulled into the parking lot across from Alice and went into the building without noticing her sitting there. Alice put the lid back on her pasta and approached the glass door the cleaning lady had just entered through, wondering if the lady would be offended if she tried to speak to her in Spanish.

“So when I finally got upstairs, David was just sitting there in the middle of the floor,” said Alice to David. “He’d moved some of the desks out of the middle of the room to make room. And—I put a pretty detailed description of this in the report, but. There was music playing really loud, and now I could hear it was like videogame music, and he’d hooked up the big projector to his game. The shades were closed and he had it projected onto the back wall, so all the colors reflected off it and sort of filled up the room. It was such an old game, the screen looked like just a pattern made out of colored squares more than anything real. You know how those games look?

“And I know this is the first time he’s done anything like this, other wise one of the cleaners or something would have found out and told somebody.

“…But, anyway, I remember that on the screen was a picture of a room with a little old-man-looking thing standing in the corner. And David made the other little man, the one he was controlling, go down this staircase in the corner. He hadn’t seen me at this point, he just had his eyes locked on the screen and he looked… terrified, or really excited, I don’t know. But anyway, the man on the screen went down the staircase, and it was like the game broke.

“The credits started coming down from the top of the screen over the old man still standing there, but the music went all strange, it was got really loud and started making all these high- and low-pitched noises. It was terrible. And all the squares in the screen just started turning random colors, it seemed like, and so everything in the room was changing colors really fast. And then there was this other really loud noise, sort of a humming noise, and I thought it was coming from the game at first but it wasn’t, it was coming from the projector, and I know that projector is really expensive so I ran over to turn it off as soon as I realized what was humming, but I guess it was all already broken. Anyway, David finally noticed I was there then, and at first he just game me this look like… ‘What are you doing, I have to stop now?’ And then he seemed to sort of snap out of it and see that I was there. And he said something like—I put all this in the report, but—something like, ‘Alice, I’ve always thought you were alright, you shouldn’t let Evan treat you like that.’ And I was like: creep…” Alice was blushing, but Alan nodded her along still.

“And then he looked at me and he said, ‘Alice, I’ve decided something. I’m leaving.'”

Alan looked at her expectantly.
“And then he left.”
#

“I have to ask—what actually happened in California?” said Alan. “You seem more—confident, or well-balanced or something.” Though it really would have been difficult to rehire David, both of these qualities were listed under “highly desirable” in the GPRL’s Elements of Leadership handbook.

“I told you,” said David. “I went to find the programmer that made the game.”

“Yes, yes, but what did you actually do?”

David as silent. He would not be quantified. He had never meant to tell Alan anything. What is the thing called where you know what goes in and what comes out but not what’s happening inside?

At the table across from them, two women were arguing about someone’s romance. A child sat across the table in silence, drawing something with a crayon. The output isn’t all that’s important, though. The inner workings matter too! —The cogs and shafts and pullies.

A black box is what it’s called.

“I talked to him. Just once. And I spent some time on the beach,” he said by way of a reply. “That was it, really. I watched movies in the hotel room.”
#

The programmer’s name was Gregor Cisneros. He was forty-seven years old, but he had only been living in the United States for thirty-six. He had a sister back there who he didn’t talk too much any more. They weren’t on bad terms; it was just like that.

He worked in an electronics store inside of a little mall in San Diego where everything else seemed to be either boarded up or closed for the day when David got there. The only other person he saw sat behind the desk in a used bookstore, with his feet up, watching him through the glass.

David had found out that Gregor lived in San Diego from an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly dated July 5th, 1990, purchased in a large cardboard box from an online seller. After a search through the issues in the box that lasted two days, David had found a review of the game “Super Baseball Tournament,” published by a San Diego-based company called “Technlovision, Ltd,” the company that appeared in the credits at the end of the game. The reviewer described the game as “broken and ultimately […] unamusing.”

When David arrived at the address that he eventually found, noticed a smell immediately upon opening the store. It clearly was a body odor, and so he knew that it should be off-putting, but it was not entirely unpleasant in a kind of coffee-like way. When the service bell rang, he was aware of a flurry of movement somewhere in the vicinity of the front counter. As he walked up to the counter, he had time to take in the contents of the shelves that lined the store: radios and televisions and toasters in various states of repair; devices that appeared to be Frankenstein’s-monster-like combinations of those three appliances and perhaps more; miscellaneous other experimental-looking works made of tinfoil and different-colored liquids and sometimes elaborately constructed wooden frames. Behind the counter hung a pair of old-looking and off-white curtains through which, as they were displaced by a gray and stubbled and wiry man, David could just make out a hammock swinging back and forth softly.

Since emigrating to America, Gregor was often described by teachers as “bright” or “pretty bright” but never outstanding or excellent.

The epicenter of the smell seemed to be Gregor’s feet.

David introduced himself. After he waited for Gregor to grab something unnamed from a back room, they left for a coffeeshop where they could talk. It was a new place called Sahasrara. A sign by the door explained that the sahasrara, in Hinduism, was the highest Chakra on the body and was supposed to represent pure consciousness or the death if the body. However, looking around, one could easily conclude from the average skin tone everyone at the café that this probably was not the deepest or most well-studied interpretation of the term. By the counter stood a bookshelf filled with hundreds of magazines and newspapers and miscellaneous publications, which the owners of the cafe intended to cover all genres and political leanings and intellectual levels. For instance: TIME. Climbing in Nebraska. Three Toothbrushes: an Experimental Literary Journal. Development of Beta-6 Keratins in Hypoglycemic Mice. USA Today.

They found a table by the window. Although David did manage to start a conversation about the game, with Gregor helping him along, and not stray back to topics like the food and the weather, it initially focused on technical details like the the music and the artwork. David vigorously complimented, Gregor vigorously deflected.

David had mostly lost contact with his friends from high school. He still looked back on his memories of them fondly, but strangely, although their relationships were founded on and developed mostly around a shared love for videogames, he had very few memories of actually playing games with them.

The questions that were the most important to David, the ones that he visualized himself asking Gregor, would have dissolved under much thought, much less verbalization.

The conversation turned to the fate of Technlovision, Ltd. When Gregor revealed that he had stopped making games because his publisher stopped backing him for financial reasons, David said:

“So it was the system! You didn’t want to join the supersystem.”

“What?” Gregor had said with his unplaceable accent.

“You didn’t want to be a subsystem. Because your game didn’t fit into what they thought they could convert into a number and sell.”

“Well, I suppose, sort of. I didn’t particularly mind being part of a system, or if I did I didn’t notice. I just wanted people to play my game.”

David thought this must have been a joke.

“But really, I don’t think it was much a system,” Gregor continued. “Just people.”

And he had argued, saying something like how he could not feel like a subsystem when those around him only tried to make him fit into a whole number or one with a certain number of decimal places when he was the space in between numbers, the endlessly unpatterned ones, and to define him in words when… and how could he live when he was constantly forced into units of time and mass that matched the decay of a cesium-125 atom or a bar of cubic zirconium in Sweden?

And Gregor had said:

“It’s just not like that. You have to find something without—beyond saying. A bird does not say. There is a bird in the sky that is always changing colors, and you only see it now and then, sometimes you don’t see it all the time.”

And David had looked out the window, half expecting to actually see something, but there was only a patch of blue moving through the clouds.

David left to go to the bathroom. He didn’t need to go that badly, he just wanted to kind of get a breath of fresh air. He sat down in the stall so that no one would see his head sticking up out of the top and think that was weird.

Scrawled in sharpie on the walls, among other things, was:

“School gets in the way of my passion.”

David let his head fall onto the plastic wall. He didn’t know. Did he have a passion? He thought about his school days. A presentation he gave on “Coral of the Sea”. Mrs. Marlson’s whole class had to give a presentation and that’s what he had chosen. He had come down late to dinner every night for weeks to research it, he had had dreams about reefs, viewed from above just a dark spot in the sea, but then he would be swimming in the dream through branches and caves, and further in he could see the texture and the individual polyps. Then when he gave the presentation he didn’t know what to say, he wanted a good grade so he tried to think about what Mrs. Marlson might want him to say; then he saw Julie Ackerman at the back, the one who never lent him her colored pencils, and he tried to talk about what she would want to hear, but then Todd and Steven and Jared were at the back too and none of this seemed to overlap that he could see so he just started listing everything he knew, everything he had learned about coral. He had gone until the bell rang and past it even; he could see everyone groaning and squirming in their seats. Never mind the fact that it would later be called an “attention seeking episode.” What about Julie and Todd and Steven and Jared—did they know what they wanted? Would they have done better? Because it was really the same thing problem now as it was back then, he thought.

When he came out of the bathroom there was a little stack of gray cartridges on the table with a note:
Sorry I could not stay—meeting I remembered with a customer. Call me
and I hope we can meet up again.
(888) 432-0092.
Your new friend?
Gregor Cisneros.
#

David eventually played through all of the games that Gregor left him in turn. None of them was as long as the one he had played as a child—the longest one took him only an hour or so—and nor were they similar in content, but each one reminded him strongly of that first game somehow.

In one, you crash land on the moon and you can hear messages from Earth over the receiver, but your transmitter is broken and you can’t send anything back.

In one, it’s just started to rain and a small puddle begins to form on the ground. The puddle seems shallow, but actually you can dive underneath and there are networks of tunnels connecting massive caverns. Ruby and heliodor encrust the walls of the caverns, and columns of emerald and topaz hold up the mighty ceiling. Everywhere is lit up with bright shafts of light, but there is no clear source.

In one, you explore a temple somewhere in the rainforest filled with statues of men and women and carvings of great battles and decisions and visitations from gods. All gathers moss.

David eventually more or less decided that Gregor had at some point gotten old and was no longer of any use, but he kept these games around and still played them. They began to take on huge significance for him, and he began trying to think of ways that he could disseminate them.
#

At the table next to Alan and David’s, the women still argued. Alan was still speaking, but David’s attention had turned. They were discussing a male lover; the woman who was involved called him a poet and a saint. The other woman, the one outside of the relationship, called him a shoddy journalist and a drunkard. Meanwhile, the boy had finished his drawing, and he held it up to show his mother. She kept talking to her friend, without looking.

“Excuse me,” said David—interrupting Alan, who was saying something about venture capital. David got up to walk towards the bathroom and, passing the table where the two women still talked, brushed the table on the side that the boy was sitting with his hand. When he came back from the bathroom, the boy was passing something through his fingers—something small, rectangular, and gray.
#

The morning he left California, David woke up in a hotel room. The sheets smelled like old detergent. He lay in bed with his eyes closed for a long time, waking up slowly. He had been dreaming about something—a childhood friend, someone he could talk to—but when he tried to piece things together, he found that he wasn’t even sure if it was anyone he had ever known.

He remembered the night he had spent in the office, playing that game from his childhood, before Alice had walked in. He remembered the name “Gregor Cisneros” scrolling down from the top of the screen, and deciding then to find him wherever he was, even if it was Chile or Japan or something farther away. After that there were the flashes of light and the sound. It was like everything was being compressed into one moment in time, one point in space. He had thought about it a on the drive out to California as he counted the telephone poles: he had decided it meant the end of boredom, the end of loneliness.

He thought of the day before: meeting Gregor, how disappointed he was. David had so many ideas about the game—that it contained all the other games he used to play, each one of them on one of the little islands; that the magic world that he told Alan about somehow led there; that maybe real moments and scenes or life itself were somehow encoded into it. Whether or not that was all true, he had expected a visionary in Gregor, and found that scrubby little man working underground. He squirmed a little under his sheets and shook his head.

He thought of the sunset that last night in California, when he walked along the beach. He had walked under the fishermen’s long lines, in between their tackleboxes and the wall that went down to the rocks and the sea. When the rocks widened into a strip of beach he took off his shoes and walked through the sand, feeling the waves periodically wash his feet. At some point he sat down and watched the sun over the sea. The light reached some special angle and shattered into millions of pieces over the water, like the pixels in his games. The clouds were lit up pink and orange, and the shapes they were whipped into seemed impossibly complex, like a jigsaw puzzle where each piece was a puzzle itself. He thought of something he had once heard about the molecules of water in our bodies getting recycled up into the clouds; and if the atoms in the clouds once belonged in him then was all that complexity in him too? But just as this thought was forming in his head he found that he couldn’t think it any more, and he drifted back to sleep in the hotel’s crumpled sheets.


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Violence, by Will Spears

#disturbing #longreads #shortstories #violence


This story has some disturbing imagery. To read this #longread at your leisure, use one of the options at the bottom of the page.

I’m on my third steak feeling hollow. The white dinner plate is a reservoir of watery blood. Scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, and hamburger stroganoff soak in the liquid. Everything is soggy with it. The floor, heat lamps, the other people, all saturated by watered down blood. But with the itch advancing past the subcutaneous layer I barely notice. To avoid scratching my eyelids I concentrate on chewing. Focus on working marshy lumps down an irritated esophagus. During these times I sympathize with snakes about to shed their skin. Soft meat mocks my dull knife, grappling with it and winning.
I scratch the top of my head and come away with a tuft of my hazelnut hair. Long sleeved cotton hides the network of scars I have all over my upper body. Sweat pants do the same for my legs. With all the scars it’s hard to shave my legs and they look rather odd if left uncovered. The last bites of my stroganoff go down largely untasted. I scrape the plate and lick the fork.
The frantic speed of my eating matched with the sheer amount of it has already become a whispered conversation amongst the staff. As the transformation begins so does the hunger. Animal protein is necessary. Otherwise I risk a substantial weakness, then capture, then dissection by curious scientists. If I was rich I could buy a support staff. Cops could be paid to stop certain investigations. They could be shown I only eat to survive. If I didn’t transform I wouldn’t need to eat whole families. But I do. So…I do.
It’s a busy night for the small restaurant. The place sits on the edge of town feeding passing truckers and families sick of cooking. In terms of location it couldn’t be better for getting constant business. One side spreads out into the industrial districts. This gives them a hearty lunch rush of shippers and receivers. Another side has a hill and half mile of forest which shields a good sized housing development. This gives a decent dinner crowd. And due to the industrial sector and it’s placement on one of the roads leading out of town, truckers show up at all hours. There are about twenty tables in the place and all but a few are occupied. Early yet, sun on the decline. Dinner rush. Elderly folks sipping coffee, spooning mashed potatoes. Nuclear families corralling their children into high chairs. The hour of good tips has arrived and energized the two waitresses.
One table over, a young girl pokes at a half-eaten sirloin. The man who sits with her stabs and rakes through his meal periodically squealing blade on ceramic. Sandy blonde hair buzzed short fades into his stubble. A wide smile stretches his face despite the obvious anger his body projects. He is wearing a well-worn, brown leather jacket at the table. It makes me think of hot body temperatures, itching, all that will soon come to pass. For my sanity I must look away. Instinct insists that I mistrust this man.
“Finish yur fucking food,” no tentacles, just bent teeth and juices. The young girl wipes her tears.
My credit card returns declined, defeated. There’s money enough in my checking account to cover the feast, but when the rent check clears there will be issues. Things my landlord will remember. Can’t have that. I stand abruptly and turn to leave.
“I gotta get out, it’s my time of the month,” my feet are sore, filling up the end of my running shoes. None of the waitresses know what to do. Rick, the manager, doesn’t answer his phone. They make no moves to stop me. My stomach and intestines attempt to switch places, diaphragm be damned.
I make it to the glass double doors before they scream for me to stop. Two long haulers pull into the lot. A sudden jolt of pain makes me lean on the door frame. Everybody in the place is watching me, except the smiling man.  They have my credit card they yell.
Closed for the night shipping depots pass by as the bone pain begins. Engine exhaust and road grime seeped into the street, and the buildings, and seems to coat all the landscaped bushes. Everything looks shaped from the same dirty clay. Abruptly the city ends and a wooded slope takes over. I climb it heading toward the shack I found a few days before. Halfway up the hill I look back and memorize the path back to the diner. I think about how I’ll probably never get that credit card back. Have to call for a replacement and hear about the balance and lack of payments from somebody I can’t track down. If that diner wants to ruin my credit the divorce beat them to it. That and the bankruptcy. And the leases I abandoned. Fortunately for me this is a small town and they will probably be dead by tomorrow. Tossed around in pieces. Eaten.

Alan DuPont woke with a fat tongue smearing his face. He pushed at the muzzle with his newly six-year-old arms. Unable to hold the mutt back he yelled for his mom. On his face sat a bland smile. His mom came in and pulled the dog back by the collar. Above his bed hung a poster of a gorilla holding a book open and looking at the viewer over the top of reading glasses. It used to have the word ‘read’ in fat white letters on the bottom but that part had been ruined by juice in a move and so Alan tore off that part.
“Happy birthday Mr. Alan!”
Having forgotten today was his birthday the realization brings spontaneous joy. A scowl carves itself into his face. He bounces out of bed. Jumping around the room he hoots and yays. The dog barked but was too old to join in the frolic. The room is small and Alan has just enough room to circle his mom and the dog.
“That means I don’t have to go to school today! You said I wasn’t going on my birthday because you had a surprise for me.” The positivity furrowed his brow. He wore Transformers pajamas.
“That’s right. No school today. Get dressed and have some breakfast and then we are going on a little trip to get your surprise.”
Alan scarfed Lucky Charms, practically flipped into shorts and a football jersey, and had his oversized sunglasses on in the front seat of their car faster than his mom would have believed. They drove an hour with Alan staring out the window at the overcast sky. The journey ended at a two story building with several long, one story buildings arranged behind it. Inside his mom talked with an old woman and from back rooms came the sounds of dogs of all sizes. After the grown-up talk had gone on for an eternity the old woman took them out a back door and into the second long building. The building was one long room with a cement floor. It smelled like dog, and pee, and hay. Lined up on each side of a long corridor were cages of canines. Schnauzers, Labradors, Pitbulls, Pomeranians, splotchy colored mutts all yelped, and wagged tails, and pawed the chain link doors. Their enthusiasm acted as a magnetic field and repulsed all of Alan’s positive feelings. He began to smile wider as he made his way down the corridor. The old woman accompanying misread this sign.
“Are you having trouble deciding? They are all so happy to see you.”
“I don’t like them.”
“Oh. Well…we only have a few more dogs in the next building. Perhaps you’ll like one of those ones.”
The old woman led them back outside and as she put her hand on the knob of the next entrance Alan pointed at the next one down.
“What’s in that building?”
“That’s the cats. Your mother said you were wanting a dog.”
“Mom? Can I see the cats?”
His mom frowned, which meant exactly what it usually does. It could scratch the couch up. Will have to clean the litter box. Two different bags of food. She looked at her scrawny, freckled son. His smile faded into a something that looked close to constipation. She recognized it as a hopeful plea. He will not have an easy life later on. I should give him any chance for happiness that I can.
“Sure. Let’s give them a look.”
The cat lodge was infinitely quieter but not quiet. Many of the felines meowed and rubbed their sides against the cage doors. Some of them remained in the same aloof position they had been in, others gaped for a second before curling as far back into a corner as they could squeeze.
Alan ignored the eager yowling ones and stopped first at an imperious long haired gray. He stuck two fingers through the grating and the cat sniffed cautiously before rubbing its head against the fingers. Alan pulled back and smiled. He bypassed a calico, two black short hairs, and a brown tabby. In the second to last cage on the right side a white cat with two black patches down its back hunched mid cage. It was wide-eyed and ready to bolt. When he put his fingers through the grating the cat hissed and swatted him. Before he turned around his mom told the old woman they would take it.
The next day Alan’s mom heard the cat growling in the other room. She found the cat on its back. Alan was tweaking its belly and all four legs raked his skin. Beads of blood grew from the scratches. The cat’s white fur became smeared with pink. When his mom entered Alan wore an expression of deep, vacant depression. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him this happy.

Hot coals in my teeth where the soft nerves should be. They feel rigged to explode, digging enamel shrapnel into my taut cheeks and swelling tongue. Each little white grinder repelled the others torturing their pink foundations. Face creaks from expanding bone. Every cell suffers, and I itch. I couldn’t tell you exactly how the hair comes up. Not with agony clamping my sight, threatening me with unconsciousness. Fistfuls of morphine help, but not much. My skin is inflated with hard tumors. Each foot is a flesh zeppelin warping slow inside. There is no way to scratch with hands of stretching ligaments, filled purple with blood.
I cut it a little too close in the diner. Should’ve got the steaks to go. Barely made it to this little shack despite the fact I scouted it days before. When I feel the first twinges of change I take the next few days planning the feeding. The change starts in my digestion. I eat a full meal and get hungry again two hours later. This is about a week prior to the big day. Usually my skin has just finished healing.
Back in the shack the dark blue carpet rubs my skin so thin it splits, and I mash pus into the fibers with my writhing. Imagine being burned from your feet upwards, lashed to a pole by the people you go to church with. Once my fur is thick enough, it gets pushed into the cuts and sticks. I force a short peek and my nose is black and wet capping off four inches of upper mandible. The pain abates slightly. But this pain will never truly be gone. Imagine your lover smashing all your bones with a hammer, then twisting your body into an S shaped cast.
Vision, blurry. Wooden plank walls just a chocolaty mass. Dark rectangle is the door. Bones aren’t sturdy yet, more like peanut brittle. I wait. Sudden relaxing makes me urinate. Something in my throat changed, only rumbling hurt, growling in breaths. They become solid slowly. I stand. Joints seem to be a series of sharp rocks on nerves.
After that first spike in hunger the bones start to itch near the joints. Not all the time, and not all at once, but with increasing frequency. Most of my money is spent on healing salves, bills, and enough food for a family of four. I eat to sustain the transformation. All I can do during the transformation is eat. When it’s over I’ve learned to force myself to eat even though I’m not hungry. This cuts days from the healing process. I’m caught in a cycle of violence with no point other than to sustain itself. When I’m able to stop and think, all life seems to follow this same pattern. A violence that begets more violence. During the times of healing all I want to do is sleep.
Right now, I want to kill. My muscles clench like a seizure that hits and doesn’t go away, but I still move. The cracks between the wall boards fade in, pinstripes. Past trails of ants innumerable, they radiate a horrid pine-vomit odor.
Prickling restlessness in my core, the same place that creates life telling me to shred it. Natural, organic impulses. Cool, smooth night air only gets through on my nose, and palms. A field of yellow halogen flowers, below me, down the hill. Then it hits and I’m angry, and hungry. If I don’t want to move again, there can’t be any survivors.

“Not tonight ok?” Candy canes decorate Shari’s sleep pants, and they dance impassively as she inches backwards. “If that’s what you call loving somebody, I don’t think I want to be a part of it.”
“God damnit! I barely broke even at work, then you have me take the kid out for dinner. Don’t get me wrong I think you have a great daughter but there’s a reason I haven’t had kids of my own. I can’t handle them very good. On top of that some lady a table over is just shovelin’ food into her face making it really awkward then runs out on the check. Now you ain’t gonna let me even touch ya?”
An unfinished puzzle spans the kitchen table. The borders are done, and in the middle three horse heads float around a pool of fake wood. Shari’s heel finds the burnt orange carpet, and the gold colored metal strip that divides the kitchen from the living room. To her right, the couch smiles with a mouth of duct tape holding together the front seam on the middle cushion, curved from the weight of so many asses. She continues to step into the living room towards her fish tank.
Most women think Alan is in the military when they first see him. A six foot one inch white man, buzz cut leaning back with both elbows on the bar. He would be holding a beer casually in one hand with the stare of someone fresh from getting yelled at. They imagine a uniform on him and it seems to fit so well they almost believe it before they even speak to him. Instead of the uniform Alan will be wearing cargo shorts, a white t-shirt, and his brown leather jacket. When he came back to Shari’s place tonight Alan kept his jacket on.
“It’s just that you were nice the first few times we hung out but then when it started to get serious you changed. It was too rough. I’m afraid it’ll get worse.”
“Seemed like you enjoyed it at the time. I thought you understood me.”
Next to the toaster Shari had set her shower radio to a Christian Evangelist, combating Satan from 7:00 p.m. to midnight. As Alan joined her on the recently vacuumed carpet the radio was heard to say, ‘But this did not please the Lord!’ Alan turned off the radio.
“You don’t even go to church. I don’t know why you listen to this crap.”
The fish bowl stand poked Shari’s lumbar. In reflex she grabbed the edge, causing the fish bowl to list precariously. Fish swim in circles, watching their universe tip and plummet. Everything sloshes onto the ground and Shari knelt, gasping. She doesn’t know what kind of fish they are, but the little creatures are more like family than the man bending towards her, more than the girl crying under her blankets. One of the fish is pointed and slender, metallic green-yellow. His name is Ritz. The other she calls Finnigan, and it’s the kind of fish that resembles a slice of cheese with eyes. It didn’t flop or fight. It just opened its mouth. Then closed it.
“Jesus bitch,” Alan sank his hand into her hair and shoved her face down among the wet pebbles, on top of Finnigan. He put his weight on her head, and yanked her pants down around her thighs.
Shari senses the delicate bones crush beneath her eye socket. Salty slime and blood seeps up the corner of her mouth. Pebbles grind against her jaw. She hates herself for moaning. For pounding harder against his fingers. For spreading her own cheeks when his stubble hurts. For a second her internal self pulls back and takes a good look at the scene. It is disgusted. Shari moves away trying to get her legs into soaked pajama pants.
“I can’t do this. Please leave. Don’t come back.”
Alan looks down at the remains of Finnigan and realizes what he has done. He’s ruined another one. Every time he opens himself up pain comes out and covers the one he loves. He looks up at Shari and beams.
“Should have known better. This happens every time. I get it. I’m a fucking monster. This is just the only way that feels right to show people my feelings.”
He wipes pebbles off his jeans and strides back through the kitchen.
From the other room he calls, “By the way, I fixed your shower earlier today.” The front door slams, and it’s quiet.
Ritz isn’t flopping, and Finnigan is a smear of poorly blended oil paints: yellow, black, red, and white. Shari goes into the bathroom and sees a new shower head and fresh caulking around the bottom of the tub. She turns on the water and it shoots out better than when she moved in. Without turning it off she sits on the edge of the tub and weeps.
He opened up and I rejected him, she thinks. Why can’t I find a normal guy?

Reinforced fingernails push through the skin above this woman’s collarbone. I use her skeleton as leverage against her pushing struggles. My extended jaw closes around her neck and thrashes. Skin tears away in ragged strips. Lunge again. Stretchy veins stuck between my teeth. Tender muscle grips the bone with tendon.
Someone hits me with a chair. My barely healed wounds open up, making wet stripes in my fur. I lift the limp woman by her clavicles, and use her to swat Rick, the diner manager. He flies backward. As people try to break for the door I toss them away. Their fear goes desperate. Somebody had ordered pork chops slightly before my entrance. They sizzle on the unwatched skillet. The coffee is stale. The place uses pledge on the tables. Smells bombard me, I sift through them. Frustration. Anger grows.
The front door bursts open on the behest of an officer’s shiny black shoe.
“Holy shit!” he says.
Waitress with my credit card number becomes a riot shield, and I bound towards the cop. He doesn’t shoot. The body contacts the gun ,pushing it to the side and my teeth find his skull. Trenches appear in rows down his face, like a field of flesh recently plowed. When my teeth meet they confiscate his upper lip. Swallow that first exquisite morsel, the hunger gives a tingle to my chest and arms, like they’re waking up. Drug addicts should imagine giving in to the symptoms, only to feel them strengthen, even as the eyedropper empties.
I drop the woman. She thuds once for her hips, and again for her head. Claws raking and raking, taking the policeman apart in gouged chunks. Kevlar blocks my efforts on his torso, so it takes a little longer. His arms are twin bones, covered with raspberry jam. Face unrecognizable to any who knew him. Rick stirs from beneath an upturned table. The napkin dispenser once proudly in the table’s center is nowhere to be found. He’s first.
Tearing muscle with teeth, several yanks before it detaches. Trapezius, gluteus maximus, erector spinae, slick with blood, being devoured. Fur clumps together, sticky red. Since I’m blocking the door the rest of the diners scurry about in confusion. The smell of fear, like rancid sour cream, wafts through the door held open by a bullet proof skeleton. External and internal obliques, rectus abdominis, Rick’s once prized six pack released from its mask of fat, prized again, eaten.
By the time I finish with Mr. Manager and start on the waitress the furnace inside is blaring. Sweat moves hair to hair down my back, gathers in my knee pit. A trucker throws a chair through a window and climbs out. Witnesses cannot be allowed.
In the morning the relatives will be asking: Why them? What kind of psycho would inflict such violence? What did they do to deserve this? They don’t understand that’s not how it works. It wasn’t their threats on my credit. I picked the place for its proximity to the woods and the shack. They die because of the natural law of un-luck. Death is necessary and violence is its engine.
I let them hear me growling before launching through the doorway. Jowls and arms soaked with their friend’s juices, membranes dangling from my gums. Middle aged parents, blocking their children. Older folks in slippers, teenagers in slippers. Seemingly pleasant people. Some scream. Some run. . Reconstructed ankles spring my tortured body in pursuit. I kill them all. When I’ve eaten my fill I bound down 4th Street, out of town. Everything hurts, and yet I am complete.
Trees welcome me with clean air, and up the hill, a herd of deer. They hear me, in the brush, but don’t leap away until they see me. The sloping ground has a layer of moss and pine needles, and a couple of them slip flinging organics. I catch an old one by the leg, and latch my jaws to its throat. When the sun comes up, not a single deer will ask a question.

To: The Avenger, (jsservant@yahoo.com)
From: (thebeast3031@hotmail.com)
Subject: RE: Do I bring justice?

Greetings Avenger! It’s Vanessa.
I’ve been thinking about your question regarding justice through violence and I’ve come to the keystone. Essentially we have one side arguing that violence only begets more violence and so using It to try and defeat It is like trying to wash dirt off your clothes with mud. Unfortunately, I find myself caught in such a cycle. The other side feels that our current “humane” forms of punishment do nothing to rehabilitate and if anything cause dependence in which violent offenders commit acts just to return to their place of comfort. You know, that whole spiel Morgan Freeman gave in the Shawshank Redemption. Same thing with the old guy that got out and hung himself.
What you got to understand is that there will always be violence. The universe will keep itself balanced no matter what our insignificant race does. If we squashed all the forms of violence that we know new forms would emerge. Killing to eat is a natural instinct and is essential for the survival of life, but a man beating his wife is a symptom of bored intellect. This planet needs to prioritize our battles. If we allowed the least damaging forms of violence to survive then there would be no reason for violence to evolve.
So in terms of whether violence can be justice, of course it can! But you must be sure it is deserved and that what you do isn’t worse than what they have done. Otherwise someone might come looking to give you the justice you deserve. And around and around we go. . .
Hope that helped,
V.

After Shari kicked him out Alan walked around the city until he got too cold and gave in. He paid for a night in a motel. He churned in the hard, smelly bed for an hour before succumbing. Cleaning service woke him with their knocks. Still sore from last night’s trek he put on his jacket which, although heavy, made him feel ready for the day. He bought a coffee and honey roasted peanuts from a gas station. Eating these he strolled some three miles and into the large parking lot of Rudolph’s pawn shop, known to certain crowds as Capone’s. The doorbell tinkled and Al Hendrick stepped behind the counter from the back.
“How’s it hanging Grins?”
“Halfway down the thigh. Sorry I’m showing up so early.”
“Don’t you worry your prim, little ass. You’ll mess up that mug. Go ahead and go down. Still got a few all-nighters down there shootin’ shit.”
Al Hendrick, the reason for the shop’s nickname and also claiming the moniker of Capone, stood at basketball player height. His silver hair was always combed. Every day he wore blue jeans, and a band shirt with a leather vest open over it. Today the band was Anthrax.
“Thanks. I had a bad night.”
“You look like somethin’ swallowed ya and shit ya back out on my welcome mat.”
Alan frowned and laughed. Due to the inevitable frown present during his good moods Alan’s laugh carried a sarcastic tone, even in the case of genuine laughter. Stepping behind the counter he passed shelves of knives, microwaves, televisions, guitars, and incomplete tool sets. In the back he opened a narrow door and went down stairs to an expansive basement that hid beneath the parking lot. Rows of long folding tables leaned against one wall and plastic chairs were stacked along the other. The one table that was never put away was solid wood, round, and sat off to the side of the stairs. During events Capone and his chosen company oversaw all from it. Right now the table had two twelve packs as a centerpiece. Four women and a man sat around it. The man laughed from his depths. The woman to his left giggled along. The others sipped beer and tried to have a separate conversation.
Alan strode up to the table, “You guys up for some Hold ‘em?”
The man stops laughing, “Sure are. You bring me some money?”
“If you can take it.”
“Heh heh hee. Another fool approaches.” The man turns to the girl who giggled, “Would you be a dear and fetch us a pack of cards from Capone. Thanks darlin’.” As she gets up he smacks her ass.
Alan picks one of the other women as his favorite and puts his chair next to her. Each of the women is beautiful but this one’s raven hair falling onto pale shoulders, and the mischievous crook of her eyebrow when she looks at him takes the strongest hold. The cards arrive. The swish and flutter of shuffling. Alan helps them finish the beer and orders another from the group. By that time he has already won more than enough to pay for the tremendous upcharge Capone adds.
Over the years Alan discovered his backward expressions worked perfectly to confuse drunken poker players. They misread his expressions for the first few big losses. Then if they got wise he stone faced which confused them all the more. When his coffers had grown by two hundred dollars his worries about Shari were gone, and his interest in the woman beside him had grown. He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and bet ten dollars. Everyone called. The river came down. He had a pair. Alan bet another ten. The man and his giggling girl folded. Hamiltons flew in from the others. Another card. No help. He bluffed with a twenty. One of the other women folded. The other called. His lady raised him another ten.
As he gazed at her face trying to delve past its beauty. He lost all cognition. For half a minute he stared at her.
“Hey shuggah, you still in?” Her mischievous smile mixed with her southern accent to create pure temptation.
Alan snapped back and without thinking he called. The hand ended with his pair unimproved and her full house pulling the cash to her purse. Not long after, the group got up to leave. The woman wrote her number on a paper coaster and leaned into Alan’s ear.
“I’ve got plans during the day, but you give me a call tonight shuggah.”
He sat at the table dumbstruck for the next few hours.

The bank teller’s face smiled sheer granite. Currently my checking balance was   $–147.38. Hands and feet groan like an old rope bridge threatening to snap. A customer pumps coffee into a paper cup. The repetitive skoosh sound grates nerves. The smell enflames my hunger; and I notice the dispenser sputters its last drop. Cubicles line the edges of the room with fellow predators selling money. Well pressed suits beckon me. The management throne beckons me; and yet here I stand. I’m on the wrong side of the bulletproof glass.
“The account should have had $780, and the only check I’ve written was for $778. It shouldn’t be overdrawn.”
“Well you also had two remote withdrawals of $20.00. One on the 2nd and another on the 16th of last month. Then with the returned check fee, and the overdrafts, and the interest on. . .”
I interjected, “All the years I’ve had this account and never overdrafted. Then my direct deposit stalls for two days and you can’t reimburse the fees that happened because of your network outage? ”
Faces skim by. Blood flows down wrinkles. Jaws, my jaws close around them. Vibrations from the screams tickle my tongue, annoying. I thrash. This bitch’s face beneath my claws, helpless and contorted.
“I’ll waive the fees! Oh please no, the fees!”
Despite my annoyance the thought makes me grin. I mash the left thumb into the opposite palm. Massage what palmists call the mound of Venus. If they are correct, and each substantial line are lovers destined to be lost, for me it’s more likely lost job opportunities.
True vision takes over. Back comes the teller’s youthful cheeks, close to flawless with no makeup. Safe behind the glass she maintains a friendly countenance.
“Actually,” the teller squints at her screen. “Ms. Dekko. May I call you Vanessa?”
“Ms. Dekko will be fine.”
“Vanessa I’m looking back at your account and see two overdrafts just within the past year. Would you care to look for yourself?” She motions to turn her privacy shaded monitor.
Outside, glossy paper cups lay smashed along the gray curb. The sidewalk is narrow from the plastic green and yellow newspaper dispenser, and telephone poles, and wide stone cylinders guarding the city’s trashcans. On the way I buy a newspaper. My apartment claims a third floor position in a complex called Sunset Hills. A series of one-story houses make a gauntlet of Sherry Rd, the back entrance used by maintenance trucks. I prefer this one to the main entrance which is well manicured and wide open. Elongated puddles dark with exhaust dot the gravel road as acne. Each is topped by a psychedelic film of oil.
As I enter the complex I find the story I was looking for. Five days ago a small town called Myrtle started an investigation of a diner massacre. The article gave the name of the officer killed onsite and said the investigation was ongoing. No mention of the bizarre nature of the crime. Excellent. To find Myrtle one travels west from Feedleton through fifteen miles of forest. The diner is on the north side of the town where highway 17 cuts through the industrial section into suburbia. Thankfully they have a bus running between so I didn’t have to walk it in the hours directly before the change.
Convalescence remains active in my face, hands, and feet. Swelling is mostly gone. Bruises have faded into yellow. Each leg and arm wear tiger stripe stretch marks. The splits are closed with rust colored scabs as remembrance. The bone pain never dissipates completely. Wads of promotional coupons fill my mail cube. I drop them in the recycle bin unopened. They land atop cloned brethren along with advertisements, insurance solicitations, and credit card offers. I keep three letter-sized envelopes from publishers. I thought I could make extra cash with freelance writing, but so far, no takers.
In my living room sits an old mattress shaped like a peanut butter sandwich. Sheets and comforter smooth the grand dip in the middle. Beside the bed sits my laptop. Email yields another rejection, third strike for my short story “Wisdom from Entrails”. I did get a buyer for a microwave, and a computer monitor. The bedroom is almost entirely filled with stacks of stuff waiting to be sold. I try to focus on electronics as they are usually small and easy to ship. I find the sold items and set them by the door.
Walls textured white, no pictures or posters. Opposite the bed five stackable plastic drawers store shirts, jeans, a dress I never wear, socks, and underwear. I step on the heel of each shoe and step out of them, padding into the bathroom. To remove shirt and shoes is relatively painless. Cranking my wrists to unclasp my jeans and bra however feels like someone taking a power drill to each joint. Stretched ligaments leave me to fumble as a marionette. When the garments surrender and retreat to the linoleum I collapse sideways onto the toilet and rub the metacarpophalangeals. Peripheral vision notices a small white box on the back of the toilet: floss. Why the hell is the floss on the toilet?
Command my weight back onto my ankles. Change of plans, I sit back down. Grab the tube of ScarZone from beside the toothpaste. Squeeze the cream onto my shaky index finger and trace the keloids along my jaw. A chemical smell that penetrates like ammonia jags into my nose. I spread it evenly along my jaw, and around my mouth and nose, but cap it before moving up to the ones on my hairline. Those can be covered with my bangs. I don’t have another $9.85 to get any more.
Door pounding interrupts my introspection. The act of getting up to answer the door is at the bottom of a long list of other activities such as not doing it, rubbing my victimized knuckles, and possibly taking a piss since I’m here already. Knocking persists.
“Vanessa, I know you’re there. I saw you in the mailroom. Open up!”
Ankles half numb from their respite jolt with clean pain for an instant as I stand. I throw my shirt and pants back on without buttoning the denim. The bedroom floor is layered with bloody newspaper and two black garbage bags filled with fur stinking of bile and decay. I close this door before opening the noisy one.
“Hey Mr. Chikodi how’s the dog?” Bhikaji, Mr. Chikodi’s beloved Pomeranian, struts around the main office yipping at any pale skinned visitor. All of the dog’s fluffy fur is shaved short except around the head and tail giving the thing a prissy mane and an ass afro. Usually it wears a blue knit sweater, sometimes a sailor jacket. It was named after an Indian national figure that supposedly stayed with Mr. Chikodi’s parents in London for two days during her travels.
“Bhikaji is perfect as ever, but the same cannot be said for your rent payment.” Mr. Chikodi’s accent rolled the ‘R’ in rent. His tone ascended through the ‘EN’ emphasing, and the ‘T’ was a harsh killing blow. rrent! “You have two weeks to vacate.” Another killing blow in ‘vacate’. I could be making enough to buy this whole place… Rage.
In this light I decide the piss is a good idea. Squatting mid living room I move one foot then the other creating a warm liquid trail on the carpet. It smells like buttered popcorn. A large hiking backpack and a heavy black wool p-coat have the closet to themselves. I snag both. Clothes into the pack wrapped around my computer. Toss the bloody bedroom newspapers along with the black bags into the communal dumpsters overflowing. These filthy metal hulks have an aura of broken plastic toys. I turn my back on them and walk through the parking lot towards Sherry Rd.
I take two buses to Capone’s pawn shop. The bell tinkles overhead. Capone has a bouquet of samurai swords in one arm and is placing them on display behind the counter. He glances back then goes about the business of sword placement.
“Miss Vanessa. Haven’t seen ya near two weeks. How’s life?”
“Sorry about that. I was under the weather and focused on online sales for a bit. I stopped in to inform you I may be leaving town soon.”
“Sad to hear it. You weren’t really here long. Never got to come by for one of my shindigs.” Capone finished putting away the swords, stalked into the back and came back out with a box of watches. He unlocked his glass display counter. The watches lined up diagonally pushing a pair of binoculars down to a lower shelf.
“That’s not really my thing but thank you for the offer. You wouldn’t want an eye sore like me around anyway.”
“Nonsense. You’re good people. Speaking of which…”
Alan and the poker beauty walk out from the back. The woman grabs his ass which makes him jump. They say goodbye to Capone and Alan wraps his arms around the woman as they trip together through the front door. The man looks familiar to Vanessa but she can’t remember why. She stares after them thinking. Capone slides the counter shut hitting the brakes on her thought train. “You may have liked Alan, he’s a bit odd as well. Him and Felicia are regulars. Anyways, I’m guessing you didn’t stop by just to tell me you’re leaving. You got some stuff to unload?”
“When I first heard they call you Capone I rolled my eyes, but you keep giving me reasons to accept it. Yeah, I got a bedroom full of merchandise, mostly electronics. Phones and mp3s. Some appliances, and a few other odds and ends. If you can handle transport I’ll give you my whole stock for two thousand.”
“You run into some trouble or somethin’?”
“No more than usual. I just prefer to travel light.”
“I want to see the goods before I settle on a price but we can work something out.”
Just then the memory surfaced. That was the guy in the diner! With the crying girl. He must have left before I came back. That means he’s seen my face, my real face. And with the credit card fiasco and with how I look he’s bound to remember me if the authorities ask. I turn and dash out of the door.
“Hey! Where ya goin’?”
“Sorry, I’ll come back tomorrow!”
The couple is nowhere in sight, but their smell lingers. I got just enough nose left to keep the trail. The next meal is taken care of.

Alan awakes with a slender, pale forearm across his hairy pecs. He lifts the arm away slowly pulling the sheet off his body an inch and shimming out of bed. Exploring the right pocket of his paint splotched jeans Alan retrieves his cell phone. Six missed calls from an unknown number and a voicemail. He dials for voicemail and listens.
“Mr. DuPont, this is Detective Lupine. I’d like to ask a few questions about an incident on…” Alan hangs up.
Oh shit, the bitch went to the cops. Guess I’ll have to lay low here as long as possible.
His poker beauty groans within sleep and rolls away from him onto her side. Baby feet tattooed into her left shoulder blade, a drab green shape of indistinct shading. A path of four purple bruises extends below the tattoo traversing the ribs. The other side has a matching set caused by his fingertips digging in. Bruises dot his chest from her latching on with teeth. Alan frowns his contentedness. This one might just be as crazy as I am. Calloused hands notice nothing of softness as they ski a creamy, bruised hillside. The girl brushes his hand away with an elbowing motion her body determined to keep her mind in dreams. Maybe one part of the mind protecting another.
The past couple days had blurred in his head. He remembered the first day when they met at Capone’s and he got her number. Then that night they had met back there and bet on kickboxing matches. Beer flowed into his cup, then down the gullet. At some point…tequila shots. Then memory loses distinction. That was two, three days ago. They came back to her place with a case of beer and a bottle of gin. The bed, the bathroom, the fridge were the only things he’d seen since then.
Alan pulled a scraggly blanket up to the poker beauty’s shoulder and searched for his pants. He stepped between dissected corpses of past outfits. A metallic blue electric guitar leaned beside the door to the laundry room. A coffee table book about Stonehenge lay on the ground with the empty bottle of gin and three shot glasses next to it. Who was the third one for? Around the book: a semicircle of beanbag chairs facing a TV. He frowned at all these, and at all the pictures of sisters, brothers, parties, vacations, birthdays; all those times deserving remembrance void of any boyfriend or husband. Alan’s face held ultimate distaste for his lucky new beginning. Inside, hopeful. Outside, weathered and sour.
The pants splayed their legs on the kitchen floor with his underwear still inside them. He put them on. He sat down on one of the bean bags and inspected the bottle and glasses for any traces. A lump in his back pocket was uncomfortable. His wallet. Inside he was surprised to find a substantial cache. Upon counting it came out to four hundred and thirty-two dollars. This revelation made the booze no longer necessary. He settled back into the leather squish and closed his eyes.
Sounds of kitchen industry awoke him.
“Heh heh, I came out here to find my pants and must’ve fallen asleep again.”
The woman peaks from the kitchen wrapped in a blanket, “Well I’ll be! When you weren’t in bed I expect you had run off. That case you want some coffee?”
“Sure.” Alan approaches her from behind and rakes fingernails down the back of her neck. He bites on the meat of her shoulder.
She moans and wriggles back against him, “Shuggah don’t start with that again. I gotta get to work in an hour.”
He frowns and moves back to lean against the opposite counter.
“Don’t be upset darlin’. You can stay here if you want. I got soup in the cabinet up there and I’ll come back as soon as I’m off.”
“I ain’t upset. I’m just a bit different. My mom always said that inside me love had been reversed. If you aren’t a ‘fraidy bitch and run away then you’ll understand after a while.”
An unidentifiable darkness came into her eyes. The soft contrast between her pale skin and dark hair sharpened giving her a corpselike aspect. Although she didn’t look angry Alan felt a spike of fear. “Nothing frightens me anymore shugh. Least of all men like you.”
“Far as I know there aren’t any men exactly like me.”
She tilts her head and peers at him for a second. “Most men are like you. They just fool their own heads into thinkin’ they ain’t.”

Tonight I planned for the change to happen near the place the diner guy is staying. In the last few weeks he hadn’t gone to the police, but eventually they will come to him. The woman he shacked up with lived near the diner in a small group of houses beside a shipping depot for car parts. Still relatively isolated.
Blue tarp crinkles a stiff paper melody as the pain sets in. It starts in the jaw, gums pull away from teeth that burn and work their way out of the bone. Mandible stretches gradually. My whole face is a fuchsia balloon, with an alien inside warping its elastic prison. Rain trickles down pine needles without conviction. The drops accumulate and make the tarp slick. Creases are valleys, and wrinkles are mountain ranges–shifting with my toss and turn, flooding and rising again.
The molten orange orb drops away and its silvery rival shines triumphant by the time shape returns to my extremities. Splits alleviated by the marshy tarp. Normal teeth scattered in the pink puddles; canine ones emerge. Extending claws shred the tarp, another $16.79 destroyed. Vocal cords loosen into deep gravel anger. Then, I’m the predator once again. I stalk out of the small grove of pines and sniff.
Traveling scents act as menus. Pockets of pungent cologne and body lotion. Burnt coffee, exhaust, and sweat. French fries. Baby wipes. The whole town leeched away, molecule by molecule on leisurely northwest winds. I head towards an area represented by cut grass, cedar siding, garbage, and the unmistakable musk of diner guy.
Trees give way to shrubs, which are stopped outright by asphalt. Dark gray wastelands with stoic, lonely warehouses extend out to the right. To the left, a row of one story houses shine light onto back porches. Backyards portioned with waist high chain link. The sky swirls with extremes. Hordes of clouds in dark cloaks lumber by dropping burst fire rain. Lightning and aliens dance inside. When one passes, the troubled blue takes over allowing only the strongest stars to shine through. The moon is full but remains a devout Muslim behind its cloud sari. Despite the floating moisture behemoths the night is bright, with the steely blue-gray atmosphere of mushroom trips. Beatles crawl in through the fence and eventually back out again. The house I’m looking for is the second in from the edge of warehouseland.
The rain has softened the battered lawn into a marsh. Thick, curved toenails sink into the mud. Rusting items sit around the plot beside the wire fence border. Tonka trucks, a charcoal barbecue, a 1981 Buick. Five plastic chairs stacked next to the back door. Along the edges the grass survives but most of the lawn is a shallow crater of mud. Demolition derbies happened here. Car one hits car two. Car two hits car one. Repeat. Boxing matches were decided. Steaks and hot dogs carried on paper plates from grill to chair, then back for seconds. Repeat. Nightcrawlers bask in the soggy coliseum. Tire tracks large and small crisscross each other. Footprints of sex fiends, and teenagers, and aunts, and policemen now filled as puddles.
On one side of the lawn an ancient cherry tree sips through its roots. Beneath it where the grass lives one could still see pits from years before. Cherries hang like drops of unoxygenated blood. Its fruit clog the gutter but where the fruit fell into the crater no one can tell. They are already swallowed. The trunk is dark gray with bark that seems to be attempting escape. On the branches brown, knobby elbows denote past injuries and buds to come. The Buick sits in the back of the marshland, hood wide open yawning. Cedar siding mixes with engine grease creating the new Tommy Hilfiger cologne. Sitting at the edge this smell mixes with rust and grass-next year’s fragrance.
Having not yet partaken tonight my control is strong enough to wrap my long, hideous fingers around the back door knob and turn it.
Inside, electric guitars and bass drums fill every inch with heavy vibrations. The only life in the kitchen is growing in the stagnant dishes littering the sink, counter, and circular dinner table. Two cabinets are open displaying a can of Dinty Moore beef stew, and two shot glasses.
A woman’s voice, not in the music but present says, “. . .conjoin our souls with the dark nature.”
Carpet invites my padded feet onto it down a short hallway that opens into the living room. Five red candles burn in a circle around four naked teenagers, two girls, two boys. Their hands and mouths move freely among the group, to all parts of the body. Furniture hugs the walls, and the dimples their normal position created are visible outside the candle ring. A boy slips a finger inside a girl and she leans back, moans. Above them all is a woman clad in a black silk bathrobe. Right arm extended holds a gray and white splotched cat by the scruff. Its skinny as a POW and looks recently dunked in water. Her other hand brandishes a plastic handled filet knife.
The same voice, coming from this woman continues, “Release us from false morality. Give us the strength to Do What We Will.” Emphasis on the last words, then here she bows her head and drags the blade vertically down the cat’s belly. The feline screams and struggles in her grip, intestines poke out the slit and thick, red blood flows out. She walks around the circle dribbling the liquid on the teens who are undulating on top of one another, smearing the blood with their tongues.
My eyes dilate fully becoming all pupil. Both hands flat against each side of the hall dig five holes in the cheap, fake wood paneling. Stomach muscles grow slack and my guts seem to drop away like I’m the victim cat that the woman drops into a five-gallon bucket by her electric fireplace. It no longer seems that I have a heart but instead that every muscle I have contracts and loosens spreading the deep thump through my legs raking up carpet confetti, and arms tearing away chunks of paneling, into my brain flash frozen by the violence. I have become a heart.
I rush the room. The woman in the robe jumps and her robe falls open. Pierced nipples, healthy layer of tummy fat, a horizontal scar beneath her belly button. I rake at her breasts attempting to remove the piercings. She puts her arms in the way and falls into the pile of followers. Bite, rip, bite. I get mouthfuls of adipose tissue and skin. The blood hides a chemical zang taste. Opening up the other bodies I find that same clinical smell in their system.
Claws slice through tattoo and the ink swirls into the blood. Color intensifies in waves. The red of the blood and meat sing into my eyes while the bland hues of the carpet, and walls, and furniture fade into grays. My nerves, already strung taught as piano wire are strummed as I tear though one girl’s tendo calcaneous. Her calf muscle breaks free on one side and bunches up by her knee and I take it whole with a single chomp. Flailing free from the group one guy wobbles toward the door. I pounce. He bounces off the window into my claws. I pick him up and gnash at his deltoids. Squeeze my fingers through three layers of stomach muscle.
Toss the body. Another crawls toward kitchen. Gouge through hamstrings, triceps, latissimus dorsai. The meat machine she inhabits no longer functions. Whimpers. Eat back muscles. Whimpers stop.
As I eat I am fulfilled. I do not get to have a stable home. Career ambitions are not an option. In this society I have no place but to thin the herd. Keep my belly full. By killing if I need to. The only law that’s older than the book.
Whole body thumps against the empty space around it. The walls churn in spirals like the tattoo ink blood. Thinking this I look down at the prey feebly living and they mold down into the floor. I wonder how long I’ve been standing here. My feet root to the ground and no longer grow fur but carpet fiber. We are all one; predator and prey, saints and monsters. Since my killing carries no hate I sense the direct life-death-life tapestry and my part in its construction.
Damn, whatever they took has me deep in its grasp.
The door opens. The man from the diner steps in and shuts the door. His lips pull back and reveal his teeth. He speaks but all I hear is growling. He advances slowly. As he walks I realize he isn’t a man. Fur thick as mine poked out from his shirt. Another monster, like me, threatening facial expression, a rival. Direct eye contact, more growling. I’m back inside myself, encapsulated. Uprooted from the world I feel a sudden fear and exhilaration.
All alone in my tortured frame again.
Survive.
I lunge.

“You aren’t ready to see this side of me,” Felicia said.
She was naked in her silk bathrobe and the inference of taut nipple beneath the fabric compelled him to punch her teeth, but he didn’t. Alan figured she was trying to protect him from a too girly pastime. Then the kids came in, dropped tired backpacks and slipped a small square of paper on their tongues. The damn things might be sixteen. Not going through that hell again.
“Look, just give me a hint. You should know by now that I don’t scare easy.”
“It’s not about scaring you shuggah. Not exactly. I just need to work you slowly into this part of my life. I don’t want to lose you. Please just trust me.”
“Let me borrow the car then.”
Out to the car, he jumped in and drove to a convenience store. Fluorescent lights created a boxed piece of daytime lined with hanging, colorful bags of licorice, and peanuts, and gum. Alan selects a 40 of Old English, nacho cheese corn chips, and a Maxim. Looking again at the cover of his mag, a skinny brunette holding a white sheet to her half open lips effectively concealing what clothes are not, he snags a couple napkins from the microwave area. He pays and takes the brown crinkly bag back to Felicia’s driveway. Just in case she changes her mind.
The curtains are thin, dark green. Through them float fluid shadows in candlelight, what Alan perceives as sensual stroking, and the playful flicker. He swigs the cold beer and fortifies his attention on an article about an Austrian man who is attempting to invent robotic bartenders. Nude girl on the cover returns on the next page wearing a jacket with no shirt but holding the zippers barely over the center of each breast, short skirt, and fishnet leggings. Alan goes for the napkins.
As his zipper parts at the top a massive roar explodes inside the house. The sound finds tiny, shrill screams and swallows them like impatient quicksand. Alan watched the flowing ghosts behind the curtain change into something loving. Rapid, savage movements. Loud thuds as body met furniture or wall. Entranced like a yokel staring up the beam of light dragging him into the sky, Alan steps slowly from the car and towards the window. Something smacked against the curtain, Alan twitched almost slipping in the squishy lawn. Whatever hit left a dark spot on the cloth, a darkness that slowly spreads down.
Alan grabbed the doorknob with unconscious force, unable to turn it and unable to let go. Looking down he was surprised that the knob didn’t collapse in his grip. Resisting his instinct for cowardice he opens the door. As gap between door and frame expanded a massacre unveiled. Three red candles observed a human body covered in fur with the hands, feet, and head of a wolf tearing meat from a pile of bodies. Lungs and intestines were scattered about—apparently unsatisfactory. The beast tugged on a deltoid still attached to a teenage boy’s clavicle. His blank face jiggled on every jerk. Finally teeth sank through and the wolf head looked up at Alan.
Two wires deep inside Alan connected. All his life feeling a monster inside him, one that whispered: love is violence. All the pain he had caused. The crush of guilt afterwards. Now he had found someone more like himself than he thought he would ever find. For the first time in his life he smiled out of happiness.
“I love you Felicia,” Alan said, holding his arms out. He walked towards the beast. It growled and tossed the boy’s body behind. “We’re the same honey. You don’t have to hide this from me. We can be monsters together.”
The wolf launched over the mess of human, knocking Alan to his back.
“We can be together, I’ll help you. It’ll be you and me, forever.”
Alan’s skin peeled from his stomach and thighs at the behest of claws. The beast bit onto his ribs, bending the floaters and tweaking his diaphragm. He reached up and gently rubbed one of the creature’s ears between his thumb and forefingers. The smile was still on his face.
“So soft,” he said. “So soft.”


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