From his perch high above the flight deck, the sailor watched two big helicopters circle a growing column of red and green smoke that poured from flares there in the massive wake of the ship — back there where the jet had gone over the side. He waited for the carrier to turn, to circle back to where the choppers were cutting in and out of the smoke. But the boat did not slow, did not alter its course; it did nothing, really, except drive relentlessly forward into the slate grey of the afternoon. It seemed that everything that day — the water and the sky and, of course, the ship — was grey. It was only the smoke from the flares that gave the scene color and life.
He had seen it all: The pilot snapping a salute to the flight deck crew chief, the catapult failure halfway through the launch and then the plane — robbed of sufficient power to clear the deck — disappearing over the side of the ship.
Sometimes, the sailor knew, a pilot would have time to trigger the ejection mechanism and the jet’s canopy would pop off and his seat would be blasted far enough into the air for a parachute to deploy. But that had not happened this time and he knew that the ship had either struck the plane and the pilot was dead or he had lived long enough to explore the special terror of a man trapped beneath the surface of the ocean with no hope of escape.
It was the fall that the pilot had loved best. Walking through the forest with his old single-shot .12 gauge at port arms, hoping to jump a covey of grouse. Proud stands of quaking aspen set amidst massive armies of tamaracks. When he came upon the birds, they would erupt from the brush with an explosive force that always startled him. His right thumb would rock back the hammer and he would raise the ancient weapon to his shoulder, lead the first bird and squeeze the trigger. When the shot hit the bird, the animal would fold and tumble through the air and fall silently to the ground.
Then he would pick up the grouse and slip the lifeless body into a game pouch in the back of his vest that had once belonged to his father. And then he would continue on his way through the forest. Sometimes, it would rain, and he would always pause and look skyward and let the raindrops pepper his face. He loved how that felt and how the rain made the air fresh and all things good.
When he got hungry, he would stop at a good spot and sit down on a log or prop his back against a tree and sit on the ground. He always brought two sandwiches with him — one ham and Swiss with onions and lettuce, and one roast beef and cheddar. Both sandwiches were made with homemade white bread, which had been smeared liberally with mayonnaise and mustard. He would eat the sandwiches slowly and wash them down with hot black coffee that he kept in a small thermos.
Later, when he got home, his wife would greet him at the front door and his two boys would demand to see the birds that he had killed that day and which would be eaten by his family later that evening.
He was almost there, now, with his family. Could smell his wife’s perfume and feel the loving embrace of his boys. But he was being pulled back, too, back to this reality, this moment — dazed, in shock, and his chest hurting from something.
The pilot ripped the oxygen mask from his face and tore at the seat harness. He looked up through the canopy at the light on the ocean surface and raised his arms to push in vain against the glass. Then he reached down between his legs and grabbed hold of a looped cable that would eject him from the plane. He pulled hard, but nothing happened. A malfunction. And, now, looking up again, the pilot could see that he was drifting down and away from the light. Darkness was swiftly closing in on him and he knew he was finished.
And then the pilot was flashing again to the woods and the grouse and the thumbing back of the hammer on the shotgun. But he wasn’t quite there. Not totally. One moment, he was alone in the forest; and then suddenly he was back inside his sinking plane, struggling with the reality of these last few moments beneath the surface of the ocean.
The pilot unzipped his flight suit, somehow unsnapped from its holster the .38 that he and many other pilots carried as some small measure of self-defense in case they were ever shot down. But it was also a tool with which he might end this undersea nightmare.
Flashing now, yet again, to the forest: The smell of rain and how it felt on his face, the sound of a twig snapping beneath his boot, the easy touch of grouse feathers and the warmth of blood leaking timidly from each hole in the bird’s tiny body.
And now the pilot in one moment was rocking back the hammer on the .38 and in the next instant was cocking his shotgun as another family of grouse broke from safety beneath a chokecherry bush and rose beautifully into the mountain air, their wings madly pumping away until the roar of the gun ended everything.
Tim Hanson lives in South Carolina with his wife and two children.
“I’m glad we could get together,” Mike told me. “It’s been too long since we did this. You know. Just hung out, like the old days.”
It was true. It had been far too long since I saw my older brother. He and his wife had moved out of state. A happy coincidence of a business trip had brought him back to my neck of the woods. Thus, he was staying with me for a couple of nights until he had to head back out to his wife and my nephew.
The bartender handed us our beers and we returned to our table. Mike flipped through the menu.
“So what’s good here?” he asked me.
“It’s Applebee’s, Mike. Don’t they have Applebee’s in Ohio?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, but Friday’s is closer. Believe it or not, the nearest Applebee’s is probably a good hour and a half away from me. That’s part of why I suggested this place. I don’t think I’ve been to one since I moved. And we used to come here all the time back when we were home from college, remember?”
I smiled fondly. “Yeah,” I replied. “You, me, the girls. Sometimes Brian and Todd would join us. Todd used to always bring that chick with him whenever he came. What was her name again?”
Mike chuckled. “You know, I don’t think I ever bothered to learn it. I knew she wouldn’t last, so I just thought of her as ‘temp’.”
“Come to think of it, you may have called her that at one point,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, probably,” Mike agreed. “That sounds like me. Can’t imagine Todd appreciated that too much, if he wasn’t too blitzed to catch it. Man, I miss that old S.O.B.” He closed his menu and placed it on the table.
“What can I get you two?” a voice to my left asked.
I turned slightly to see that our waitress had arrived. She was beautiful. Long blonde hair, deep blue eyes, bright white teeth. Couldn’t have been a day over twenty-five.
I ordered the three cheese penne pasta. Mike ordered the steak with Jack Daniels sauce.
“I’ll have that right out for you,” she said, flashing a toothy grin. She put her notepad back in her pocket and headed for the kitchen.
“Wow,” muttered Mike. “The waitress is a real looker.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “She’s pretty hot.”
Mike nodded. “Speaking of lookers, you seeing anybody these days?” he asked cautiously. He fidgeted with the label on his beer bottle. He knew that he was treading in potentially dangerous waters.
“No,” I replied softly. “There really hasn’t been anybody since Samantha.”
Mike continued to fidget more with his bottle, clearly trying not to ruin our rare visit by opening old wounds. “Well,” he finally admitted, “I’m sure eventually someone will show up. You know. Not to take her place or anything. But to keep you company at least. Nobody deserves to be lonely. And Samantha wouldn’t have wanted you to be lonely. Certainly not for this long. She loved you too much for that.”
I took a swig of my beer and shrugged. I didn’t really have a verbal response to that and Mike understood my silence.
After a moment and another drink from my bottle, I replied, “I don’t know. Dad never remarried after Mom passed. And Samantha was just as much of a ‘one and only’ type. I’m not sure that I could ever really convince myself that she’d be okay with it.”
It was Mike’s turn to not have a verbal response ready.
Luckily, our waitress chose this moment to return with our food. She placed Mike’s meat in front of him and my pasta in front of me.
She asked us if we needed anything else.
“I’ll take another beer, please,” Mike told her. “So long as Logan here doesn’t mind me crashing on his couch later.”
“Pretty sure that was the agreed upon plan,” I reminded him. “Otherwise you’re sleeping outside with the raccoons.”
The waitress giggled. “And how about you?” she asked me. “Can I get you anything else?”
I looked up at her. Her dark blue eyes caught the light in a way that made them sparkle and her smile was warm and inviting. Without thinking, I responded, “Yeah, your number.”
Mike’s jaw dropped as she smirked. “Okay then, I’ll have that all ready for you in a jiffy,” she said. She put her notepad back in her pocket and walked away.
Mike laughed at me. He couldn’t believe I had just done that. Frankly, neither could I. That just wasn’t something that I did.
A few minutes later, she brought Mike another beer and placed it on the table, along with a scrap of paper. She gave me a coy smile as she walked away.
I read the piece of paper and showed it to Mike. It contained her number, along with the scrawled name Amy.
“You sly dog,” laughed Mike. “Look at you! Picking up a waitress at Applebee’s! I didn’t know you had it in you!” He slapped me on the shoulder. “Good job!”
Amy came back later during our meal to bring us the bill. “I expect you to call that number,” she told me. “And how that call goes will be entirely influenced by how well you tip!” she teased. Mike stared at her exceptional behind as she walked away.
“You better call her,” he told me. “She’s really cute and you know Samantha’s not gonna be mad at you for trying to be happy.”
“I will,” I promised.
But I never did.
I have never dialed those numbers in my life.
And I doubt I ever will.
I can’t do that to Samantha.
C.M. Gabbett lives in New Jersey. He has previously been published in Trillium, In Parenthesis (online), Section 8 and Black Lantern Publishing. He has also published several political articles and is the former co-writer of the webcomic MandMPancakes.
So my buddy Hal went with me down to the old mom and pop place off Main in Pleasant Grove because we heard that in the back you could leave your fears behind. That was worth checking out, because who doesn’t want to get rid of fears? Right? I hadn’t even applied for two jobs because I was too scared to. One at the Mustang stop-and-rob sweeping up, and the other at the grocery store working in produce, which would have been the best job ever because you spend most of the time just misting the vegetables. How cool would that be? But I didn’t because I was sure they would turn me down, like others have lately. To top it off my sometimes girlfriend Mandy said, You are so afraid of rejection you make me sick. So I’ve been thinking about that. It was weird what Mandy said, because she was rejecting me at the same time as we were talking about it. Weird.
Old Lady Elsie was there behind the cash register, just like always reading People Magazine. She didn’t look up until my buddy said, Hey Elsie is it true that there is a place to leave your fears in the back? And she was like, Go see. Then she popped a bubble from her gum so hard it sounded like a piece of gravel hitting the windshield. So we did. Into the way-back, you know, the storeroom where they store the food arriving on trucks. We found a room with hippy beads over the door, so we went in.
There were old wooden shelves with pint jars on every one of them and every jar was labeled with masking tape with stuff written in sharpie like, A Knock at Night or Heights or That My Husband Will Find Out, and I can tell you that one made us laugh so hard.
A sign on the wall said, You can leave a fear behind but you must take one with you and there were empty jars, a roll of masking tape, and a milk jug of green liquid with Fear Juice red-sharpied on the side. Looking at it kind of gave me the Heebie-Jeebies, you know? The room had a strange smell too, sort of like the smell of broccoli that’s been left sitting on the stove for a couple of days, with a hint of incense or something weird.
Well, I was pretty sure I wanted shake the fears I had, so I poured the juice into a jar and I labeled it REJECTION, like that with all capitals. I wanted to make sure whatever did this knew I was serious, and then my buddy says, What you going to take? Well, that required some thought. There was one that said, Lizards. That was tempting until I remembered that I sometimes like to watch the bluebellies that play on the fence in the backyard that catch those white butterflies that come early in the spring. Instead I also thought about taking the one that said, Fear. But I had an unsettled feeling about what that would do exactly, so decided against it.
Behind most of the jars was an old one that said, Mrs. Smith, My Geography Teacher, but what I didn’t get was if that would make me afraid of all teachers, or just all Geography teachers, or Mrs. Smith herself, wherever she was.
My buddy was saying, Hurry, so I grabbed one that sounded safe. It had Lawn Mowers on it, which sounded like a funny fear to have. Plus, I was thinking, I hate mowing lawns and being afraid of mowers would give me bona fides for not having to do it. I could even get a doctor’s note saying I can’t use a mower because of deep fears.
I asked Hal which one he was going to take and leave and he says, I’m keeping my fears. He made me pause. I said, What’s up with that? And he went on about how he’d spent enough time with them, They were comfortable, so no sense shaking them up.
Anyway, we went out front and Elsie says, That’ll be $2.99, and I was, like, I didn’t know it costs, and she says, We ain’t running a charity. So I scrounged it up even though I felt like I was getting taken for a ride.
Now several months have gone by and this is the bad thing, the grass in front of my house has gone to seed, and my neighbors are complaining and even called the city, and they have put notices on my door saying they’ll take this or that action, and even so, I can’t bring myself to mow the yard. I can’t even stand to hear one or even know one’s been around the house. It like tears me up even to think about it and if I pass them at the hardware store I get all panicky and have to leave. Mandy, my sometimes girlfriend said, You are such a freak, no one is afraid of lawnmowers! She hasn’t come over in a while.
Still no job. I’ve been to lots of interviews. But I don’t seem to care enough to make a show it even matters. I thought having no fear of rejection would mean something like being brave and confident. No. It just means not even caring about rejection enough to fear. Now, I go to an interview and think, Whatever. I even said that once out loud to the old codger interviewing me. He said, Why do you want to work for me, son? And I said, Whatever. Just like that. Whatever. Right out loud.
I went back to get my old fear, but Elsie don’t know what I’m talking about and the room behind the beads just has an old mop and cleaning supplies. That itself gave me another fear. A big one.
I told you, says my buddy Hal, I told you so.
Steven L. Peck is a university biology professor and teaches classes on ecology, evolution, and the consciousness of the human mind. He has published over 50 scientific articles. Creative works include three novels with mainstream publishers, including the magical realism novel The Scholar of Moab, published by Torrey House Press—named AML’s best novel of 2011 and a Montaigne Medal Finalist (national award given for most thought-provoking book). Publications in such places as Abyss & Apex, Analog (Fact Article on possible alien biology like in this story!), Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Nature Futures, Pedestal Magazine, Perihelion, and many others.
Vesper moved around the room enjoying the new muscles and movements of her sister’s avatar, Lady Cintron. She stretched and strutted. Lady Cintron was tall, lithe, controlled — nothing like the short, heavy, clumsiness of the twins’ natural physiques. Lady Cintron’s steps were light, but Vesper could feel the idle, waiting power, the dormant strength in each miniscule movement. It was singular and wonderful.
Vesper laughed as Lady Cintron. She danced and dodged an imagined foe.
Sadie stomped around the still empty arena, adjusting to the body of her newest creation. She felt the bull’s muscles ripple and stretch. A small part of her missed the lean grace of Lady Cintron, but there was a joy in maneuvering a new set of limbs, a new center of gravity. With an extra thousand pounds to move, Sadie’s control was awkward. She would be much slower than her Lady Cintron’s usual opponents, but the pre-installed instincts she added would help. And her sister had never played the game before. That would help too.
Sadie bellowed as the bull. She stomped and shook her heavy horned head.
The first two acts of the fight went quickly, far quicker than Vesper expected. The picadores on horseback brought down the bull’s neck. The banderilleros stuck the bull with sticks, taunting and chasing to weary it.
Vesper, certain that she was to star in act three, but uncertain of exactly what to do, accessed Lady Cintron’s memory. Gathering her red cape in one hand and a heavy sword in the other, she sauntered out to the bull. Anticipation and elation flooded through her consciousness. If the feelings were Vesper’s own, or somehow part of Lady Cintron’s programming, she couldn’t differentiate them. She felt confident. Powerful.
The first two acts of the fight took much longer than Sadie expected. The computer-generated picadores had played with her, getting her to chase them before stabbing her in the neck. She couldn’t see well after that, barely able to lift her head. After the picadores on their horses came the banderilleros on foot. They hounded and mocked her, tormenting her with their quick movements and their endless pokes and jabs. She snorted and chased them to get them away from her, but she was weak. Weary.
Sadie was relieved to see her Vesper stepping forward as Lady Cintron. It had been excruciating to know her sister watched her suffer, but now the game was almost over. A few more charges and Vesper would throw down the cape and sword, take Sadie’s massive horns in her hands and win.
The violence and pain were at an end.
Vesper hadn’t expected such a lack of effort from the bull. With each half-hearted attempt at charging, she was able to dodge and slash. The bull’s red blood stained the dirt and splattered her traje de luces, but Vesper continued on. She would cause Sadie as much pain as she was physically able. If at all possible, Vesper would kill the bull. But Sadie’s pain would prove Vesper’s point — even in a virtual, false reality, what Sadie spent so many of her after-school hours on was awful. It may have made Sadie more confident than she had been, but at what cost? Vesper knew that each new “win” was a small death of a small part of her sister’s soul.
Through pain, Vesper would show Sadie the light. Lady Cintron’s heart beat fast, blood pulsing through her ears and hands and feet. Vesper had never felt so alive.
Sadie hadn’t expected Vesper to actually stab her with Lady Cintron’s sword, but she had thrust deep, hitting Sadie’s heart. Sadie collapsed in the dirt of the area. It was muddy with the bull’s, her own, blood. Part of her was relieved to be dying as the bull. It had been a long, hard game and she was glad to be done with it.
When the bull breathed its last, Sadie drifted out of the game and back into her self. She wrapped her human arms around her whole, human body. Shaken, she waited to for her sister to leave the game as well. Knowing that Vesper’s goal had been to get Sadie to quit playing Lady Cintron, Sadie still never expected Vesper to take it so far. Sadie had never actually killed the bulls in the arena. Why would Vesper?
Now every time Sadie played her, the memory of this kill, Sadie’s own death, would be there. Sadie didn’t want that memory. She was repulsed by the memory. And so Vesper had achieved her goal. Sadie would never play Lady Cintron again.
Vesper dressed Lady Cintron in the new traje de luces, discarding the old embroidered tight pants and short jacket on the floor. Their gorgeousness had been dulled by the dying bull’s blood, and a traje de luces, a suit of light, must shine. Sadie had been right when she said this body, this character, and this game made her feel powerful. Now Vesper was powerful. It was heady. It was lovely. It felt right.
Vesper restarted the game.
Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in the pretty part of New Jersey (but she’s not from there).
The alarm went off, but the spaceship hadn’t come yet and he still needed pretzels for the bears, so Jacob hit the snooze button. Several snooze buttons later, Jacob woke with a start and realized that there wasn’t a spaceship and there were no bears. He was late to work.
Forty-five minutes later he dashed into the meeting room and took his seat. Several minutes passed. He realized that everybody was using acronyms he didn’t understand, the universal sign for being in the wrong meeting. He peered at a handout someone next to him was holding. “Strategies for Information Management,” the title read. Yep, wrong meeting. Someone must have changed meeting rooms, which he would have known had he had time to check his email, or had his work had the foresight to provide him with an iPhone. He would have to complain to HR.
He needed to leave the room, but he had been here for a few minutes, and he didn’t want to draw even more attention to himself, since he was new and he might have projects under several of the people here. He didn’t want them to know that he both went to the wrong meetings and did so late.
Jacob occupied himself for a minute or so with looking at a woman across the room. Then it began to occur to him that the meeting’s moderator was an endorser of inclusivity, which meant that she periodically asked for input from people who hadn’t spoken yet. Jacob hadn’t spoken yet. He was probably only minutes away from being asked a question that would contain an acronym he couldn’t even identify. That would be his introduction to his future project managers: Jacob Gayne, who goes to the wrong meetings, gets there late, and can’t even understand the questions once he gets there.
Clearly there was only one solution. Jacob needed to speak preemptively so that he could choose his own topic.
Jacob said, “Maybe we should combine our client and development data tags.” Then he sat back and smiled encouragingly at his colleagues.
A man who had been referred to as Ryan cleared his throat. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “The client and development tags track two different things.”
“Maybe they should be integrated,” said a guy with a fireworks tie.
Jacob nodded forcefully. Confidence. It was all about confidence.
“No,” Ryan said, “That’s completely wrong.”
Diana, whose previous comments indicated she was from accounting, was a consensus-builder. “Maybe we should set up a task force to study it,” she said.
“Maybe we should have a task force to find out why we waste time with task forces,” Ryan said.
“That’s not a very helpful attitude, Ryan,” the moderator said.
“Let’s try to be in a problem-solving mode, not a problem-creating mode,” Diana told everybody while she looked at Ryan.
Jacob nodded sagely.
The task force was given a conference room, a snack budget, a list of volunteers and a mandate to meet on Tuesdays. On the first Tuesday, an hour was spent discussing mission statements, half an hour was devoted to the election of officers—because his vision had inspired the group, he was made chair—and 94 minutes were given to the development of an agenda with accompanying schedule and task chart. Ironically, it only took Jacob two minutes, after returning to his office from the meeting, to look up definitions of client and development tags on the company intranet and discover that Ryan had been correct.
A lesser employee might have been daunted by this realization. But Jacob understood that to admit defeat would have been to declare the entire three hours and four minutes of the just-completed task force meeting a waste.
At the next Tuesday meeting, he explained that it wasn’t enough just to investigate how to combine the tags; to do justice to the faith the task force’s creators had in them, they should integrate the processes of client relations and product development. Fortunately, he had picked up an inspiring term for undesirable tasks, “improving practices and standards,” and he used it then.
To accomplish its expanded mission, the task force could no longer restrict itself to meeting on Tuesdays. And it needed resources. A project plan was drawn up, amply supported with a flowchart and a PowerPoint presentation. The effort required to produce this plan impressed Jacob’s superiors, and soon the task force had a substantial budget and was able to start recruiting people from various departments.
The department heads were not pleased that the task force was poaching their best talent. Jacob learned that they were signing a petition under Ryan’s leadership, calling for Jacob’s dismissal. A short time later, he received a summons from the president. Not good.
Jacob had learned by then that the woman who had attracted his attention at his first meeting, Dr. Marsha Greene, was a crack strategist. He went to her for advice.
“You have to show that you’re getting things done, you have plans, you’re efficient,” she said. “There’s only one way to do that on short notice. Spend your whole budget right away.”
Jacob was dubious, but he did it. When he went in to see the president, and the president learned that the entire annual budget had been spent within the first month, she was amazed. “No one else has ever been able to work that fast,” she said. She promoted Jacob to a managerial position, turned the task force into a permanent team under him, and expanded its budget.
It took another six months before Jacob was raised to vice president. In many ways, he maintained the approach that had worked so well for him as task force chair. But there was one change he held himself to: he always made sure to set his alarm.
Aaron Emmel’s short stories have appeared in The Chicago Reader, Neverworlds, Spaceways Weekly, Shadowkeep, Nuketown, Alternate Realities, Wanton Words, The Martian Wave, and other publications.