New Skin

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “New Skin.”

They were sitting at a table by the terrace’s edge. She had promised to come with him, to lend him moral support and social legitimacy. She supplied neither as she lit her fourth cigarette of the hour. He stopped babbling for a moment to take in the full splendor of her face; her eyes met his with steely resolve.

“It won’t change anything,” the model said. Her face was slack with disgust. She took a deep drag from her cigarette.

“I disagree,” he said. She shot him a withering look.

“Things change,” he said, “people just get used to them. Either that, or they don’t know how to handle the changes.” She rolled her eyes and looked away.

“Well,” she said, “I tried. You might as well find out for yourself.” She got up, with her wine glass in one hand and the cigarette in the other, and walked away without looking at him.

He watched the people around him. They were mostly ugly, but tonight they were happy and filled with a sense of possibility. In a few hours, they would all be young again, with completely new faces, houses, spouses, and even new minds. They were finally getting the lives they had always dreamed of. His model friend was too jaded to appreciate her good fortune.

“The Businessman doesn’t make deals with just anyone, you know,” she told him six months ago. She wasn’t a model back then; she couldn’t be one, not yet. He thought she was beautiful before her metamorphosis, even with her crooked nose and her two front teeth overlapping. Those little things kept her off the covers of magazines, but they made her more memorable. Now she was just a face among faces. Her smile no longer reached her eyes.

He never learned how she met the Businessman. To meet him, you needed an introduction, an appointment, and something of value to offer. His office was at the topmost floor of the Sulgane Building, a tower of delicately arched steel beams and large panels of pink glass. Transients were always muttering to themselves by the entrance, unsettling the tourists trying to take pictures.

She wangled him an appointment by “calling in a lot of favors.” “Don’t be late,” she’d warned him; he wasn’t. As soon as he arrived at the Sulgane, an elegant young woman ushered him into an elevator. She placed a key in the elevator’s control station; it rocketed to the top of the building. By the time he caught his breath, he was standing in the middle of an office, facing a man sitting behind a desk.

The room was bathed in a soft pink light. It was without ornament or ostentation, not that he would have noticed;  upon staring into the Businessman’s eyes, our protagonist felt an irresistible impulse to devote himself to the handsome, pale face that stared back at him.

“Mr. Barnes,” the Businessman said. “Thank you for coming to see me today.” His voice, a smooth and cultured baritone, washed over his visitor like a wave. He smiled at his visitor, an engaging, intimate smile.

“Do sit down.”

Mr. Barnes sat in a chair that he hadn’t seen when he first came into the room. He was suddenly very close and very far from the Businessman; all the world vanished except for those eyes.

“How may I assist you today?”

Mr. Barnes stammered something about getting an appointment through a friend, an aspiring model, but the Businessman waved this away.

“I know all about Milena,” he said dismissively. “I want to know about you. My time is worth a lot. Please don’t waste it.”

“Milena told me that you can give people entirely new lives,” Mr. Barnes began. “You make them rich when they’re poor. You make them pretty when they’re ugly. You make a million people fall in love with a man, even if his own mother can’t stand him. You give them glamor and power when they don’t have a right to either. And the price is…well, she said it was ‘modest.'”

The Businessman’s smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” he chuckled. “Milena is right, of course–I can, and do, make incredible things happen. But I’m afraid she may have misled you. The price is not modest,” he said, spitting out the last word like an olive pit. “I don’t believe in charging less than I’m due. And a service like this has no equal, just as its price has no equal.”

The Businessman got up and walked toward the window. He stretched his body into a parenthesis, leaning back while resting his weight on the balls of his feet.

“Only a few people can truly pay for what I give them,” he continued. “Not because of any failure on my part. I have faith in every soul who crosses my threshold, but not all of them have faith in themselves.” He turned back to Mr. Barnes and locked eyes with him.

“I canot do a thing for a man who won’t allow himself to be served,” he said. “It sounds silly, but it’s true. If you will put yourself in my hands, Mr. Barnes, I can open worlds for you, vistas of experience and pleasure beyond your powers of imagination. I can make anything happen for you that you desire. But I cannot lift a finger without your permission. If I am to assist you, you must believe in yourself, and trust in me.”

Mr. Barnes did not quite follow this line of argument. He nodded anyway. An enormous smile broke over the businessman’s face, hiding his eyes behind a thousand wrinkles. He strode to Mr. Barnes and shook his hand.

“Wonderful,” he said. “I’m delighted to have you with me. Go home now–someone will call you with instructions very soon. When these instructions come, you must follow them to the letter, or I am powerless to give you what you desire.”

Someone called Mr. Barnes the instant he came home, cordially inviting him to a party on Pierce Street. That was how it started. He’d spent the past six months going to parties, soirees, salons, luncheons and other events where he felt enormously out of place. He’d woken up in penthouses, mansions, hotel suites, even private jets; he rarely slept alone. There were long stretches of time that passed without his knowing. He didn’t worry about them, even when he woke up in a sweat, unable or unwilling to remember his dreams.

Everyone was at these parties––everyone––all of them united by a common purpose. Their work for the Businessman drew them together, gave their lives meaning, gave them hope for a brighter future. Their hope infected Mr. Barnes. The Businessman, he felt, would not let him until his great task was accomplished. He had never been happier.

In the meantime, Milena became a model. She graced the covers of magazines around the world. She became the latest muse of a fashion designer. Objectively, she was one of the most perfect women he’d ever seen in the flesh. She looked like a walking Photoshop. And yet…he remembered the old Milena, the crooked nose and overlapping teeth, the light in her eyes, and her laugh, bubbly and infectious. He had not seen her laugh once since her metamorphosis.

No matter. In a few minutes, a man would tap him on the shoulder and usher him into a small room. The Businessman was waiting there, waiting to help our protagonist design his new life. He’d puzzled over it for months now. How muscular did he want to be? How much money was too much? He wanted ten cars, but which ten? Any more was just overkill…and there were so many mansions to choose from, so many women dying to become his companions…

Of course there was a price, but it was a reasonable one. He didn’t think about it much. Soon he would have a new life and everything would change. If he was lucky, he would never get used to it.

Crossing the Reflection

An Alchemist by E. Lomont, 1890.

In a few minutes, the machine would warm up again, and his mother would come back to life. In the meantime he was alone in the dark with his thoughts. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like this whole process, but it was worth it for the moment when he saw her again.

He removed the headset. Objects slowly differentiated themselves in the darkness. He saw the moonlight bending itself along the contours of the couch, a diffuse silver spreading out evenly over the matte surface of a nail file, a few stars opening in the small window in front of him. The ice cubes had already melted in his glass. The whiskey was lukewarm.

“Stan?” A familiar voice said inside his headset. “Stan, are you there?”

“I’m here, Ma,” Stan said.

“Where are you? I can’t see you. Can you put your headset on?”

Stan sighed and placed the goggles over his eyes. His mother’s familiar face was in front of him, perplexed, and then suddenly smiling, her eyes focusing on his face.

“There you are!” she sang. “I knew you would come back for me.”

“I always come back for you, Ma.”

She had just opened her mouth to speak when the screen went red. White capital letters flashed on the screen: “INCOMING CALL – MELISSA – URGENT.”

“Melissa, you can’t make all of your calls urgent,” Stan said as he picked up the phone.

“You haven’t left that room in three days,” she said. “I know you’re not working in there.”

Stan sighed and took the headphone away from his ear. He could hear the small, tinny sound of Melissa lecturing him as he rubbed his eyes. He could also hear her muffled voice coming from the other side of the door.

“I’ll come out in five minutes,” he said, without putting the phone back to his ear. “Will that make you happy?”

“No. Come out here now.”

In the living room, his mother’s shell was staring into space. Her eyes were glossy and vacant. Nurse Ross was pressing the oxygen mask to her face.

“She’s having some trouble breathing,” Nurse Ross said in a monotone, but Melissa’s eyes were wild. Stan looked between Melissa and his mother’s shell.

“She doesn’t recognize me,” he said weakly. The shell’s eyes followed him as he walked towards her. He knelt down in front of her and held her hand. It felt incredibly small and delicate, like bones wrapped in tissue paper.

“Ma,” he said, “Ma. Can you hear me? It’s your son Stanley.”

She struggled to speak, gasping for breath. Nurse Ross tightened the strap around the oxygen mask, as her mouth opened and closed, like a fish’s.

“Who are you?” a thin, reedy voice asked from behind the mask.

Stan stood up and walked away. He pitied the being trapped inside his mother’s body. It didn’t know who it was, where it was or its reason for living. It was almost certainly in pain. Sometimes he wanted to smash its head in with a rock and end its misery–but he could never kill anything that looked so much like his mother. He walked to Melissa and hugged her for almost a minute.

“How long can we go on like this?” he asked. Melissa dropped her eyes from his.

When Stan returned to the dark room, a tinny, familiar voice called for him from the headset. He put it on and saw his mother’s worried face. Her eyes–her real eyes–met his.

“Where did you go, Stan?” she asked. “I was looking for you.”

“I’m here now, Ma,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I have to worry. I’m a mother, after all. Worry is my middle name.”

“Stop it.”

She giggled. He put his hands on her shoulders.

“I’ll never leave you, Ma,” he said. “You know that, right? No matter what happens.”

“You had better not,” she said. Her eyes twinkled, just like they used to. Stan hugged her and pulled her close to him, but he felt only empty air in his arms.

Nothing But Hope

Chinese takeout box. Photo by Steven Depolo, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Mystery Box.”

“Merry Christmas,” Gerald said, out loud, to himself. Carlie was already up and making breakfast. He reached out to feel her warmth still trapped underneath the blankets. A sharp corner met his hand. For a moment he plunged into a gestaltic limbo, trying to reconcile the sharp corners and flat edges of the mysterious object with his expectations of softness and warmth. He opened his eyes. They focused on a red box, wrapped with a white bow, placed underneath the covers, where Carlie slept.

Gerald sat up in bed and placed the box in his lap. It was surprisingly heavy. Its label read, in neat, printed script, “Open me if you dare.”

“Honey,” Gerald called out. “Honey, come here. I found your present.” She didn’t answer. He could hear her pacing back and forth in the kitchen. The sound of pots banging, plates clinking together, and water running in the sink told him that breakfast was almost ready. He untied the bow and tore through the wrapping paper, revealing a small Chinese take-out box. He laughed and unclasped the lid.

The bottom of the box was unusually dark; for a moment he thought it had been painted black, and stuck his finger inside to feel the texture of the paint. He couldn’t feel anything, even the sides of the box, and his finger disappeared into the darkness without touching it; then he felt something, from below the bottom of the box, reach out and grasp his finger.

Images flew across his mind’s eye faster than he could take them in. He traveled through seven places before he could catch his breath, battlefields and landscapes and endless crowds, with desolation following ecstasy and preceding unbounded rage. He felt many things in quick succession: a bullet clinking against his helmet, the cold body of his only child in his arms, soft wet sand in the spaces between his toes, the ground falling away underneath his plane, the sound of a thousand voices lifted together in one song, of his own voice merging and joining with theirs, and countless births and deaths, every one of them painful.

For a moment, Gerald flew above his own mind. He felt, rather than saw, the whole pattern of these ceaseless impressions. His inner world filled with light. Then something in his mind snapped, the light fell away, and all was insensate darkness.

Breakfast was ready. Carlie walked into the bedroom and looked at Gerald. He was sitting up in bed, with one hand thrust in a Chinese takeout box on his lap. Gerald didn’t return her gaze, even when she said his name. She slowly walked to the bed, calling his name and reaching out to him. When Carlie touched his shoulder, Gerald’s head jerked up and he gasped, making her jump back.

“I’m sorry,” Gerald mumbled in a voice not his own. He didn’t look at Carlie. He didn’t look at anything. He fell from the bed onto the floor, muttering in a language Carlie didn’t recognize––if it was a language.

The old Gerald, as Carlie would come to call him, never returned. A bumbling, incoherent, unpredictable figure took his place. This Gerald would go on to lose his job, then their apartment, then Carlie herself.

Maybe it was a seizure, the doctors would tell her. Maybe a localized stroke of some kind. His brain is visually normal and healthy. This is just one of these cases that baffles medical science, one doctor would tell her. When Carlie would finally leave Gerald on his parent’s front porch, she would have no story to tell about their lives together, no explanation for their experiences. She would walk away from Gerald with nothing but sadness and unanswered questions.

In the moment, as she helped Gerald get to his feet, no presentiment of the future entered her mind. The Chinese takeout box slid to the floor, next to some torn-up wrapping paper. When Carlie returned from the hospital to get Gerald’s medication from his bedside table, she didn’t notice that the box and the wrapping paper were both missing. Only a small white ribbon remained on the bed. Carlie threw it out, and never thought about it again.

Photo by Steven Depolo.

Glad Tidings

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Secret Santa.”

“He’s just gone,” Margo sobbed into the phone. “Last night he got up around three a.m. and I don’t think he came back to bed. When I woke up this morning, he wasn’t there.”

“Maybe he went to go get you something,” Sarah said.

“On Christmas? Nothing’s open!”

“What about Chinese food?”

“Why would he get Chinese food?” Margo said. “We have more leftovers than we can eat in a month. And he left his phone by the bed!”

Sarah relayed this information to David, who was standing behind her with a bemused look on his face.

“I’ll call him,” David offered.

“You can’t,” Sarah said, and explained why not. David scratched his chest and stared into the middle distance.

“It’s probably some misunderstanding, Margo,” Sarah said into the phone. “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”

“When I see him again, I’m going to kill him,” Margo wailed.

Sarah hung up and turned to David. He was still standing there, looking at nothing.

“We have to go over there,” she said. “Margo’s out of her mind with worry.”

“On Christmas? What about the presents? Who’s gonna watch the kids?”

“Then I’ll go and you stay home,” said Sarah, and walked to the dresser. She was half-changed into her day clothes when David spoke again.

“I’ve been kind of expecting this,” he said. Sarah wheeled around to look at him.

“Expecting what?” she asked. Their eyes met.

“This…type of an ending to their relationship,” David explained. “Carl’s the kind of guy who hates any emotional scene. I know he’s been bored for awhile, and…I know he’s done this kind of thing before.”

“Done what? Gone out for a pack of cigarettes? David, he left his phone.”

“I’m just saying. It wouldn’t surprise me if he leased an apartment somewhere across town. With any luck, he’ll call me later today to go get his stuff.”

Sarah stared at her husband in disgust. The kids’ voices chirped happily in the living room. Sarah turned back to the dresser to find a coat.

“It’s not our problem, Sarah,” David reasoned. “Leave it alone. The kids need you today more than Margo does.”

“Daddy, mommy, come here!” Christina yelled from the other side of the door. “I got a present from Santa! Come see!”

“Be right there, sweetie!” David yelled back, not taking his eyes off his wife. Sarah glared at him for a moment before opening the door.

It was nearly five o’clock when Sarah came over. Margo was still crying. She was sitting curled up on a couch in the living room with the lights off. The Christmas presents were still wrapped underneath and around the tree. Sarah tried not to look at them.

“He hasn’t called,” Margo moaned. Sarah sat next to her and stroked her hair.

“I’m sure there’s some innocent explanation. His car’s in the driveway, right?”

“I called the police,” Margo sobbed. “I called his mother. Nobody’s heard from him, but it’s too early to file a report.”

Sarah got up to turn on the light when one of the presents began snoring. She froze. She turned to see if Margo had suddenly dropped off to sleep––but Margo’s eyes were wide open and fixed on Sarah’s.

They both turned to look at the tree. There was a large box, larger than all the rest, wrapped in red with a large white bow on the top. Sarah went to it and lifted its lid, then jumped back.

“There’s a man in the box!” she yelled, and for an agony the two women looked at each other, eyes wide with terror. They stumbled together into the kitchen. The snoring had stopped.

“Get the phone!” someone screamed. They reached the cordless phone; Sarah dialed 911 and held the phone up to her ear.

“It could be Carl,” Margo mouthed to Sarah, who shook her head. Margo went to grab a knife when she saw a letter left on the counter, in a nearly unreadable hand. It wasn’t there that morning. Margo picked up the note with her other hand and read it.

Dear Margo,

Merry Christmas. I’ve taken your boyfriend and left you a better one instead. Let’s face it, Margo, Carl was a bit of a drag. He was aimless, he was boring, he had no interests or hobbies. I never fleshed him out or gave him any depth. He didn’t move the story along at all. The best thing he ever did was disappear.

You’ll like Henry a lot better. He’s kind, he’s considerate, he’s always neat and tidy. But there’s something off about him, something you can’t quite put your finger on. I’m not going to spoil your own story for you, but rest assured that when it’s all over, you’ll wish you had a man that would only bore you to tears.

Sarah motioned at her friend to put down the letter. Margo didn’t put it down. She couldn’t.

Go into the living room and drop this letter into the fireplace. If you do, I promise you you’ll forget all of this unpleasantness. I’m giving you a new story, Margo. Embrace it. 

Glad Tidings,

The Author

Sarah screamed at Margo not to go into the living room. The 911 dispatcher reassured Sarah that police were on their way, but she didn’t hear him. Sarah ran into the room after Margo, only to see her friend staring blankly into the fire.

“When did you light a fire?” Sarah asked.

Margo turned to her friend and smiled beningly. Henry Swanson, Margo’s longtime boyfriend, squeezed by Margo in the doorway.

“I almost forgot,” he said, and handed Margo a present. Margo blushed and covered her smile with her hands. The package was small and red, with a big white bow on top. Margo shrieked as she untied the bow, revealing a small black box.

“Henry,” she beamed.

Sarah watched Henry get down on one knee. Someone on the other end of the cordless phone was bellowing. Sarah put the phone to her ear and heard a man’s voice calling to her.

“Can you hear me?” the voice asked. “I need you to respond. Help is on the way.” It was a strange voice, not David’s, not anyone else’s that she knew of.

“Oh Henry, it’s perfect,” Margo said, admiring the ring on her finger. “This is the best Christmas present I’ve ever received!”

Red and blue lights flashed outside. Sarah felt the phone drop from her hands. This was the happiest moment in her friend’s life, and yet it all felt wrong and out of place. The world faded to black.

“Don’t thank me,” Henry said. “You’ve made me happier than any man on earth. I can’t help thinking there’s someone up there looking out for us, who wants us to be incredibly, indescribably happy.”

They didn’t notice Sarah until her body planked forward into the living room. They were both running to her when the front door burst open behind them. For a moment, time seemed to slow down and almost come to a stop; Margo felt as if she’d been dropped into a world that she didn’t belong in. And then it passed, Margo turned to look, and the story continued.

Featured image by Roland zh, used under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

The Fate of All Mankind

An illustration from Jules Verne's novel Around the Moon drawn by Émile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse de Neuville.

It was two weeks since Harold Warsh had come back to life. His rejoining the human race had been something of an accident, owing to the extreme cold, the stillness of the lake he fell into, and the dexterity of a team of doctors at Sutter General. He had been dead for three days.

“Daddy, were you really dead or just pretending?” His son, Harold Warsh Jr., asked him one day.

“We’ll talk about it later,” he lied. Harold didn’t want to talk about it at all, least of all with Junior. Harold stared straight ahead. The game was on, and he forced his mind to focus on it. The 49ers vs. the Patriots. He used to root for the Patriots.

Junior started tugging on his sleeve. “Ow,” Harold said. “Don’t do that.” The boy sat at his feet, playing with a wind-up man. Harold’s mind would not focus, even when the tv deafened him. The bell of the hallway clock rang out five times. He gave up the game and watched his son.

His son. Fear jolted through him like an electric current. Sweat poured out of him in waves. He tried to get up, forgetting that he couldn’t walk. He sunk into his chair, helpless.

“Junior, go see your mother,” Harold tried to say, but the words came out wrong. He tried again, but his tongue lolled in his mouth. It didn’t matter; something of this message passed between them. Junior got up and ran into the other room.

“Be careful!” Harold called out after him.

In the first, delirious week of new life, before he remembered who he was, Harold Warsh had asked for a priest. A priest had come. He had no memory of their meeting, and only learned about it when Diane asked him about it one night, after Junior went to bed.

“I can’t imagine what we talked about,” Harold said. “Maybe I wanted some perspective, or had a message to convey. I don’t remember now.”

“What did happen, Harold? Did you…where did you go? Or was it just like going to sleep?”

He tried to tell her with his eyes, don’t talk about this. Don’t ask. It didn’t work. She stared at him, imploring, uncomprehending. He took his eyes away from hers.

“Do you want to go to church?” she asked him. He hadn’t responded. That Sunday, he sat in his wheelchair, trying to pay attention through the first reading, the second reading, the sermon. The priest was a South Asian man; between his accent and the reverb of the church’s sound system, Harold couldn’t understand a single word the man was saying. After the sermon was over, dozens of lookie-loos and well-wishers came up to him, smiling too brightly, speaking to him like a child, gawking and whispering while he talked. A child asked him what it was like to die. Everyone turned their faces to Harold, even the mother shushing her child. He smiled and ruffled the boy’s hair.

“Very, very painful,” Harold said.

The priest escorted the Warshes into his office. The priest spoke first.

“Thank you for coming this morning,” he said, “I am delighted to meet you both. My name is Father Giridharan––Gih-rid-ha-ran. This is my first week in this diocese after two decades in England.” Without the reverb, his voice was intelligible again. “How are you both doing this morning?”

“Well enough, I suppose,” Harold said. The priest’s face fell when Harold began to speak.

“It’s a consequence of the surgery,” Diane explained. “He has some difficulty––”

“Let me talk, Diane,” Harold snapped. He turned his eyes to the priest. “Father––”

Diane talked over her husband. Father Giridharan sat back in his chair and listened, giving them both a pained smile. They trailed off, first Diane, then Harold.

“I understand you are returning to the church after some time,” Father Giridharan said when they stopped talking. “How long has it been since you last came to church?”

Harold and Diane looked at each other.

“Years,” said Diane. “We’ve never been––we’re not really religious.”

“Am I right in thinking that Mr. Warsh’s recent experiences have led to a renewal of your faith?”

Diane implored her husband with her eyes.

“He hasn’t said anything,” Diane said to Father Giridharan. “When he was…when he first came back, he was screaming, like a wild animal, he––”

Diane bit her knuckle. Sobs coursed through her body. Harold tried to wheel his chair closer to her, to reach out to her, to reassure her somehow. His wheel caught on something he could not see. Father Giridharan was now at his wife’s side, putting his hand on her shoulder. Harold worked frantically but his wheelchair would not budge.

Father Giridharan walked Diane out of the office; for what seemed like hours, Harold was alone, listening to the mingled murmuring of their two voices, hers plaintive and his reassuring. He tried to see what was holding him in place, but his neck would not move the way he wanted it to. He stared at a crucifix hanging on the wall between two bookshelves. Jesus’ head was turned down and his face was shrouded in shadow; Harold could not read its expression.

Feel something, he told himself. Feel something else.

Father Giridharan came back into the office, alone. He looked down at Harold, moving slowly into his line of sight.

“Shall we talk?” he asked.

The priest moved Harold’s wheelchair to face an armchair at the side of his desk. He then sat in this armchair and fixed Harold with a curious, inquisitive stare.

“Mister Warsh, I find myself at a loss in addressing you,” Father Giridharan said. “I think that for every question you have for me, I must have three for you.”

Mr. Warsh’s eyes wandered over the room. Father Giridharan tried to meet his eyes, to look open and understanding.

“Your wife tells me that, shortly after your recovery, you asked to see a priest.”

“She tells me the same thing,” Harold said. “But I don’t remember it. I remember very little about those early weeks.”

“And how is it going?”

“How’s what going?”

“Your recovery,” the priest said, and gestured to Harold’s wheelchair. “Pardon my intrusion, but are the doctors confident that you can walk again?”

“It isn’t impossible,” Harold said.

There was an awkward pause while Father Giridharan considered how to ask the question. Harold girded himself for it, and for the inevitable evasions.

“Mister Warsh…can you tell me what brought you to church today?”

“Yes,” Harold said, surprising himself. The words poured out of his mouth before he could stop them.

“Father,” he began. “I haven’t told anyone what I saw when I was dead. That was because I couldn’t. I couldn’t let the world laugh at me. Even as it was happening, I was convinced that I would wake up at any moment. And yet it felt so real, it felt more real than reality. The things I saw were clearer than you are now, sitting in front of me.

“I can remember the water surrounding me and pulling me deep below its surface. I remember my fists banging against the ice. I never wanted anything more than I wanted to breathe. But I couldn’t breathe. And then I was falling.

“I fell through a lightless tunnel, with snarling faces breathing on mine, voices whispering and laughing. There were voices everywhere, even inside my own thoughts, snickering at me, echoing my darkest thoughts and fears, mocking my love for my wife and my son, pulling up memories of past indignities and pains. I knew that there would be no end to it, to the pain and the voices and the violation of my mind.

“The darkness slowly lifted, or my eyes adjusted to what little light there was. I looked down, and I saw I was falling towards an enormous machine, extending throughout the length and breadth of the visible universe. The machine was churning through great masses of material, which came away from it in tiny clumps. It took just seconds to reach it, and every second was a century. I fell into it headfirst. I felt myself ripped apart by enormous, cold, metal teeth. Every part of me was still alive–if you’ll pardon the expression–and each piece felt keenly its own separation from the whole.

“I saw nothing after this. I felt every atom of my soul divided from itself, whirling through a boundless space…and then I felt myself re-constituted as a gear somewhere deep in the belly of the machine. The noise was tremendous. My new body spun and churned through an endless mass of souls. I tasted their fear and horror, I felt them break apart underneath me. Every atom of my soul wished to stop moving, and I couldn’t stop moving. All of my strength was powerless against the combined pressure of all the gears and levers and pumps pushing and whirring and pressing around me. And they, too, I realized, wished to stop it, but could not.

“There was a desperate kind of hope. Surely this would stop; yet it didn’t stop. Someone would come and shut it off; nobody came. This machine had been so expertly designed that no soul could escape it, not even, I believed, the righteous ones. And I felt such horror at this, such unbounded pity, that I became numb; I did not accept this horror into my heart, but in my actions I accepted it. And I ceased to wish for it to stop.

“I came to in the hospital, and for a moment I thought the light of the hospital was the final, merciful torture, that my agony at long last was complete; and then I saw a human face, and knew I was not dead, and woke up a week later in my own bed. I have no other memory of that first week. God knows what I told the other priest.”

Father Giridharan had turned quite motionless and pale during Mr. Warsh’s narrative. His hands hovered unmoving above his chair’s armrests. For a moment there was silence, a silence so deep that even Mrs. Warsh, who had tried to interpret her husband’s mutterings from the other side of the door, did not even dare to breathe.

The priest cleared his throat.

“You have just experienced a great shock,” Father Giridharan said. “I am referring, of course, to your death and revival. I can tell you, Mr. Warsh, that Satan is a liar, and many of your perceptions–your conviction that even the righteous could not escape this machine you describe–were based on distorted and false information presented by him. That said, we can’t rule out physiological explanations––”

“––Don’t tell me about physiological explanations!” Harold interjected. “Didn’t you read about me in the papers? No brain activity, they said. No brain activity for three days under the ice. I should be dead right now, I should be under the ice still, I should be one more cog in that enormous machine, churning through soul after soul…

“Maybe I still am there,” Harold said in a quiet voice, so quiet that Father Giridharan and Mrs. Warsh both leaned forward to hear him. “Every time I sleep, it comes back to me. Maybe this is my sleep…perhaps there’s sleep everywhere, even in hell. After all, God is merciful.”

Father Giridharan paused before he spoke. “Mister Warsh,” he said, making his voice as gentle as possible, “I do not know if what you experienced was a vision, a hallucination or a genuine glimpse of life after death. But I do know that God has saved you from it for a reason. And I believe that you only have to ask God to be saved and salvation will be given you. If you are willing, I will take your confession and offer you absolution.

“To the unsaved, the pure light of God’s love causes unbearable pain. ‘Light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it.’ And there is no way to overpower God, to be free of Him. It is only in perfect obedience to God that man finds freedom.

“The fate of all mankind is to do God’s will. No man can escape from that; even the most sinful men serve His ends in ways we do not understand. Your experience of being torn apart, rebuilt, and compelled to move by an inescapable force––this all may reflect how the unsaved perceive the will of God, which they can neither halt nor change. Like the light of God, the workings of His will are torture to the disobedient. Think of this nightmare as a warning from God, as a call to return to the truth. If you do, you may never have to endure such tortures again.”

Harold looked at Father Giridharan a long time before speaking.

“It’s possible,” Harold said, “That you’re right. I don’t believe it, but it’s as good an explanation as any.” His voice had become thick-tongued again, and he struggled to speak.”I’ll take conf––confession.  It couldn’t hurt. And there is so much to confess.”

Father Giridharan concealed a smile as he turned his face away.

Mrs. Warsh helped her husband into the car. He said nothing as they drove back, even when she asked if he wanted to stop at Burger Palace on the way home.

“I just wish you’d let me in, Harold,” she said. “Just tell me something, anything, about what you went through. I can’t help you if you won’t even talk to me.”

The world outside was covered in gray slush. A few trees housed banks of snow in their branches. The rains would come soon, and then it would be spring.

“Did it help you, at least? Talking to the priest. You can at least tell me that.”

They drove past Greenwood Park. Two boys shrieked with delight as they ran through the slush. Harold followed their movements until the car turned on River Street and the boys ran out of sight.

That night, the whole family ate macaroni and cheese for dinner. Harold barely touched his. At 7:00 sharp, the night nurse arrived to take Harold’s vitals, draw his blood, and give him his medication.

“Don’t worry, Diane,” the nurse said in the hallway. “You are doing a fantastic job of looking after your husband. It may not seem like it at the moment, but things will get better. In a few years, you’ll look back at this time and see how far you’ve come. And you’ll be so grateful that he’s alive.”

Mrs. Warsh stayed up late that night, looking out the window at the trees in the backyard. Occasionally a wind would blow through them, sending fine powdery snow cascading through the air. She could hear the hum of the freeway over the hill, and the soft clink of the neighbor’s wind chimes in the breeze. Inside, the refrigerator rumbled to a halt, and she could hear the slow, deliberate turning of the gears inside the hallway clock. Any minute now the bell would ring.

Our History Teacher

Every other Friday, our history teacher takes us on field trips through history. We visit Pompeii, Mount Ararat, and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He guides us through the depths of the Pyramids of Giza, rides with us through Venetian canals, and shows us the paintings of Vermeer and the prints of Hokusai. He brings these places to life for us, illuminating them through seemingly trivial details, showing us how the shape of an arch reflects the philosophy of the time. He is in love with history, just as we are in love with him.

Our history teacher answers all of our questions, even the silly ones. He laughs when we make jokes. He leads our discussions of the textbook, which he also wrote, and asks us questions to stimulate our understanding of each subject. He grades our papers. He’s a harsh grader, but fair. Occasionally, his algorithm gets a bit off kilter, and he answers our questions in a strange way, or his face freezes in an odd expression, but it only lasts a second and when he comes back, we laugh about it together.

We wonder if he remembers us, although we know he won’t. We ask him about stories the older students tell us, and he smiles and gives us vague answers. He never tells stories from previous classes. He doesn’t understand our in-jokes. He can answer any question about history, so long as we remember to use the right syntax and don’t mush our words, but he can’t remember who asks him these questions.

We need to find out where he lives so we can copy him. There are rumors about a copy of the civics teacher that someone installed in an adult game. There are rumors about a house of pleasure that got shut down for using the likeness and personality of someone’s grandmother. There are rumors of dream pods using memories to reverse engineer a person. If we can’t copy him, perhaps we can make a better, wiser and handsomer history teacher, someone who is better, wiser and handsomer than the real Mr. Simon ever really was. The school is more and more careful every year about how they secure their teachers while still delivering the lesson. The lawyers find more and more ways to retard the pace of technology. It doesn’t matter. We will find him in time.

Today is Friday the 27th. We’re going to medieval Ireland, fifteen minutes before the arrival of Henry II at Waterford. We meet in a large green field overlooking the sea. A fleet of ships heads toward a small settlement in the distance. We look for our teacher and can’t find him. We begin to panic until we see him, standing far above us on the hill, smiling and waving to us.

We smile back.

Story Based on an Overheard Conversation

You should never cut a sandwich with a hunting knife. Not in a car going 80 miles an hour down the freeway. Cat imagined the lectures Dad would give her when she came home. There was no way to hide an injury like this.  She held her arm up over her head, just like Marcus had told her to.

She closed her eyes against the light. Imagine working here every day, she thought. I’d go crazy.

“Does it still hurt?” Marcus asked. Cat nodded and fiddled with the end of the tube tied around her armpit. Marcus batted her hand away.

“Don’t do that,” he said. A man in scrubs passed by the open door. Someone moaned down the hall.

A woman came in and asked a series of questions about the injury. She wrote on a clipboard while Marcus answered. Her nametag read “Rita Nguyen – Licensed Vocational Nurse.” Marcus wondered what hour of her shift she was on.

“What’s taking them so long?” Cat said. “I wanna get stitched up and get outta here!”

“They’ll be here soon,” Marcus assured her. “They––stop!––they’re busy. It’s Friday night.”

She closed her eyes and smiled. “I wouldn’t mind a scar,” she said. “I could be like the Joker, but with my arm.”

“Add to your street cred?”

“Yeah. My nonexistent street cred.”

Rita Nguyen left. A man in dark blue scrubs came into the room. His name tag read “Dr. Severinghaus.” He took Marcus’s seat and began unwrapping the gauze around Cat’s arm.

“Finally,” Cat said. “I was majorly freaking out.”

“We’ll get you home soon, Cat. Don’t worry.”

“I’ll be okay though, right?”

In the room across the hall, a woman muttered something about COINTELPRO. Marcus leaned against the sink and watched Dr. Severinghaus unwrap the gauze covering Cat’s hand.

Acid Nightmares

Ashley Banks peered down the telescope to the pale dot of light at the other end. He could see his own eye reflected in the mirror around it. The dot darkened and disappeared.

“You’re looking through the wrong end, dummy,” Milton said.

“You don’t understand the exercise,” Ashley said without looking up. “Focusing all your attention onto a single, infinitely small point––that’s the meaning of life.”

Milton sighed. The dot reappeared, first red and then white. The floor creaked under Milton’s feet. Ashley looked up at his friend, who was now turned away from him, facing the bookshelf.

“You should try it,” he said. “You’re young. You should be expanding your mind. This––” he tapped the telescope with his finger “––this is the newest form of meditation.”

“It’s a new way to look at yourself with approval.”

Ashley laughed. Milton turned. He was holding a book in one hand, the other pressed against a stack of books teetering over on one of the shelves.

“Come on, Ash,” Milton said. “It’s still early. Why don’t we go to the park? Maybe we could get a sandwich. I know a girl, Carolyn, who works at the King Street Deli. She might…”

Ashley wasn’t listening. He returned his attention to the small dot of light surrounded by a mirror image of his face. Milton petered off and stabilized the stack of books on the shelf. He stood there for a few minutes, before walking across the room to the couch.

Ashley peered into the telescope while Milton tried to read the book. At noon it grew hot, and Milton got up to turn on the fan and take off his coat. Ashley didn’t move. Milton returned to the book, and read five pages without taking in a word. He looked at the cover and quickly forgot what it said; the image of a girl, dressed in white, with large, imploring blue eyes stuck with him.

Milton looked at the cover again. The words Acid Nightmares screamed up at him in jagged, yellow letters. The girl’s white dress stood out against a tie-dye background; demonic shadows attacked her from all sides. One figure held a knife to the girl’s throat, while a hand from the crowd tore at her dress.

“Jesus,” Milton said. “What is this, anyway?”

“Everything,” Ashley said. “Everything in the entire universe.”

“You didn’t even look.”

“I did,” said Ashley, and swung the telescope so the viewfinder was pointing at Milton. “Everything that ever was or is or will be, it’s all inside your soul––”

“––My soul isn’t in that viewfinder,” Milton said. He slammed the book on the ground and stomped across the room. He yanked the telescope out of Ashley’s hands and took it to the far corner.

Ashley took a moment to focus on the other boy’s face. When their eyes met, Milton was scowling.

“You’ve wasted a morning on nothing, Ash. I’ve had it. Why don’t we––”

Milton’s scowl vanished as his gaze turned inward. His face sunk. He walked across the room, picked up the book and placed it on the couch. Ashley watched him without moving.

“Milton?” Ashley asked. “What’s the matter?”

Milton didn’t answer. He crossed the room and left without picking up his coat. Ashley heard him descend the stairs two at a time. The door creaked open and slammed, rattling the blinds.

Ashley saw Milton once more, twenty years later. They were crossing King Street, traveling in opposite directions. When they were two feet away from each other, Ashley’s eyes passed across his old friend’s face. He didn’t recognize him, and the memory of the bald man crossing the street vanished as soon as he turned the corner.

Milton was in his car when the realization hit him. The man he’d just passed was wearing an old coat with a patch of faded calico fabric on the chest. Milton remembered sewing that patch on that coat after tearing it on a branch. He lost it before he moved away, probably in a break-up or a spring cleaning. Back then, he would put the clothes Goodwill rejected in a box on the sidewalk. Occasionally he’d see his old sweatshirts on teenagers or one of the homeless downtown. But many years had passed since then. He’d assumed that was all in a landfill by now.

Isn’t it funny, he thought to himself. The first day of my visit, and I see my old coat on someone else’s back! I wonder where it’s been all this time?

He considered running after the man, but decided against it. How would you feel if someone came up to you and said that your coat used to be theirs? He imagined the girls laughing at him while Carolyn rolled her eyes.

“And then what happened, Dad?” Marina would ask, before collapsing into a giggling fit.

Maybe I’ll tell them a story when I get home, Milton thought. I’ll say that I went after the man. That I told him about the coat. He didn’t understand––he thought I was making fun of him. He thought it was a t.v. prank. Maybe he was a wino. That would work…

He drove past Ashley walking on Commerce Street, his head bent against the sun. A wino, for sure, Milton thought. A wino plays better than some poor, nondescript bastard. He took one last look at the coat before driving off.

The Atheist at the Machine

I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in a better light than any light that ever shone — in a land no one can define or remember, only desire — and from forms divinely beautiful.
— Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The young man’s face glowed in the evening light. He worked next to the window, and management had removed the window-side cubicle walls to cultivate a “culture of openness.” They also forbade hats and sunglasses indoors. The young man shaded his eyes with his hand or else pretended to work. No one had pulled the blinds down yet, or even attempted it.

Outside, a few men in suits walked through the parking lot. He liked to watch their long, purple shadows trail behind them, slipping across cars, windshields, and the lines painted over the asphalt.

“How long have you been here?” a woman said behind him.

He turned around and blinked away the sun. Suzy squinted down at him. Henna-red hair framed her soft, jowly face. He saw her smile at the Christmas party last year, touching Martinson’s forearm with her free hand.

“Since seven,” he said. Suzy whistled.

“That’s dedication,” she said, her voice as flat and insipid as a gluten-free pancake. “You coming in tomorrow, too?”

“I expect so.”

She walked away scowling.

The sun set. When the young man put down his hand, everything in the world outside was tinted blue. A few stars shone near the roofline; he could see them if he rolled his chair to the window and looked up.

He watched light fade from the world. At seven, the parking lot lights came on and the stars disappeared. He drew one of the lights on a Post-It note.

The janitor vacuumed and turned off half of the overhead lights. The light in Suzy’s suite communicated a translucent, refrigerated glow to the rest of the office. Keys and keypads clacked all around him. The young man looked over and saw Martinson’s face, illuminated by a desk lamp and the bluish light of the screen.

Whatever They Like

The clerk was on his last hour of overtime before a mandatory four-hour break. Four hours wasn’t enough time to sleep off a sixteen hour workday, and this break would make him late for his next shift. He wasn’t looking forward to the abuse he’d get from Hailee Winstead for being late, again.

“By order of the state” was no excuse, even if he had LA’s top labor lawyer on retainer, which he did. He’d spent the money his dad left him on a mink coat for his then-girlfriend and funneled the rest into paying the monthly retainer fee for Weiznacki and Harmann. He’d regret buying the coat until his dying day, but the retainer fee was worth every penny. He’d never used Weiznacki’s services, but knowing these services were there gave him great peace of mind, like a gun in the nightstand. He had eleven more months of peace of mind left, then the money would be gone. What on earth would he do then? He should have quit his job and moved to Puerto Rico, like his brother. At least then he’d get laid.

The man in front of him had a black eye and red cotton in both nostrils. A string dangled from the left nostril that quivered whenever the man spoke; the clerk’s attention, or whatever scrap of it wasn’t attuned to the slow passage of time, was hypnotized by the movement of this string.

“Slow down, sir,” said the clerk. “What happened?” The man did not slow down. He launched into the same story he’d been telling for the last twenty minutes. This story, without beginning or end, involved the man’s daughter, last June, a neighbor who didn’t speak English and a purse in something called a culvert. What was a culvert? Never mind. The clerk tried to piece the man’s story together with the tiny shred of attention he had left for it. He couldn’t.

“I’m not sure how we can help you, sir,” the clerk said finally.

“You don’t see? Last night she didn’t come home!” said the man.

“People can do whatever they like, sir,” said the clerk, “So long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

“It hurts me.”

“You’re not anybody.”

The man started crying. The string in his nose rose and quivered mid-air with each sob. The clerk looked at the clock. Thirty-eight minutes left!