As Salem undid his school’s tie and slumped on one of the kitchen’s chairs, he listened for the kettle he’d just clicked on to whistle. His mother had been standing at the sink when he’d gotten home, dutifully polishing one of the big soup ladles. The bowl of it sparkled and reflected like a parabolic mirror, but she continued to polish like she expected it to do something more.
“You’re tracking blood in,” his mother grumbled, looking into the distorted reflection on the spoon. “You just killed your tutor, didn’t you?”
Salem looked back across the rug he’d crossed between the kitchen and the front door, dark spots dotting a trail. They could have been anything, he thought, except considering the last mess he tracked in, blood was not an unreasonable assumption.
“Maybe that’s my blood,” said Salem.
“You know full well it’s not your blood,” his mother sniffed. Salem didn’t answer and instead opted to chew on his thumbnail. It was a bad habit, and any other day his mother would have admonished him for it. Instead, she put down the ladle and picked up a pair of tongs from the sink.
“I’m just trying to make you happy,” he said.
“This is unsustainable,” she said curtly.
“That’s what I thought the first time,” said Salem, biting down on his nail. He really wished he had a cigarette — another one, at least, as he’d nearly had a whole pack since the lesson and home — but he couldn’t, not in front of his mother. Though she had to be able to smell all the smoke on him, it was still not a habit he had formally introduced her to, and now was definitely not the time.
“This was not an unsustainable plan to begin with, but when you keep killing them off without even thinking about what you’re doing — ”
“Who says I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing?” said Salem.
“If you had thought about what you were doing, you wouldn’t have done it without consulting me.”
“I can make my own decisions. I think I made the right one.”
“And you’re going to keep thinking that until you’re caught,” said his mother. “The same thing happened to my sister. There’s a reason you work slow. If a few of them die, it seems like it’s because of their own wicked devices. If there’s a particular student who keeps killing them off weeks after they’ve been accepted, they start to notice things.”
“I think it was necessary, this time,” said Salem. “You don’t know what he did.”
“Let me guess,” said his mother mockingly, swishing the tongs in her hand like a wand. “He gave you an envelope, and it had some hair from one of his other students, and he wanted you to practice a curse setup for him because the student was late paying her dues.”
“Mom,” Salem started, but she didn’t look at him, didn’t stop waving those tongs.
“And it’s a highly disproportionate curse, you note, and he says it’s because he wants you to try something harder than what you’ve been doing! It’s a wasting illness or seven years of bad luck or something like that, not a normal retribution for a kid with late fees like nightly charlie horses or never being able to find a pen when you need one. And you think, maybe, there’s a reason why this girl did not pay her fees. Maybe she came on some hard times, and it’s not her fault her parents couldn’t give her the money.”
“Mom, you can — ” But she couldn’t stop. Well, wouldn’t, anyway. Salem’s face began to burn hotter than the lamp he’d used to do the deed.
“Or maybe she has paid her fees, and there’s just something cruel and warped and twisted about this man, and you’re sure that if you refuse to do this thing, he’s just going to find a few hairs you leave behind and try the same thing on you with another student. So, you did what you had to do, and that was kill him before you left the lesson.”
The clock on the wall ticked down mercilessly.
“Am I wrong?” his mother asked.
“It was a boy, not a girl,” said Salem finally, the blood draining from his face.
His mother smiled. “I was thinking you were getting too lucky, not finding new tutors who do this sort of hazing.”
“Was I wrong to kill him?”
“You were wrong to kill him then, yes.”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“It never crossed your mind to oh-so-innocently mess up? To switch out some materials, maybe?” asked his mother. He had done that particular curse before, the one the tutor had asked him to do. And he’d done it exactly right and it had worked, and the cursed woman, the tutor, Ms. Matilda, had drowned in her own consommé the following week. “For such an apparently prized student you really are very dense.”
“You say that like it would have been easy,” said Salem.
“And cursing people is easier?”
“Yes! Yes, it is. It is.” It was shockingly easy, actually. He’d read Ms. Matilda’s obituary over and over again, and clipped it out of the paper to stare at it for the next week and had attended her funeral like a good student should. “It’s the only thing I’m good at.” His mother had laid out all the utensils from the sink on the rag. Tongs, ladle, fork, fork, knife, spatula, spoon…
“I’m sorry. I panicked. I’m sorry.”
“What did you do with the body?” asked his mother.
“Are you sure?”
“Gone in the way you said to make it gone, for sure.”
“Just don’t do it again,” she said with a sigh. The kettle whistled, finally, and she said nothing more. A further scolding couldn’t fix the dead.
H. L. Cassel works as a private tutor, writes, and has a variety of other preoccupations. Fortunately for all uninterested parties, none of them will be listed in this bio.
How many times have I been in the room during a Lord family confrontation? John Lord, age forty, shouldering a grey woolen overcoat, smelling like the Camel menthols he’s just smoked, fills the open doorway of a once-posh Upper East Side apartment decorated in tasteful beige. On the wall opposite him, three drawn muslin shades fend off harsh noon sunlight while multicolor magazines of horses lie underfoot. Shattered crystal splinters sparkle on the cherrywood floor beside a white bookshelf overstuffed with psych books. Next to the self-help library stands a walnut end table topped by a greasy red-and-white paper bucket of KFC chicken.
John’s sister, Mary, thirty-five, smelling like Chardonnay and trust fund money, slouches on the suede couch the hot salesman said was “stone” colored. Mary wears rhinestoned Gucci sunglasses, a tattered pink Columbia sweatshirt and mocha riding pants. Her neglected auburn hair sprawls over a square “slate” pillow.
John says with a gravelly voice, “This is out of control.”
“You mean I’m out of control?”
“Mary, if you’d ever admit you have a problem, I wouldn’t feel compelled to show up constantly.”
“I’m fine, John.”
Closing the apartment door behind him, glancing at the glass shards on the floor, John says, “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.”
“You don’t see an elephant?”
“When you say there’s an elephant in the room, I picture one — when you say there’s not one.”
“What elephant, John?”
“Mary, it might as well be purple.”
“That’s worse.” Mary massages her neck. “I see a purple elephant and then I have to unsee it.”
“The color doesn’t matter.”
“I — still — can’t — not — picture an elephant and I don’t know what color it isn’t. What well-painted illustration am I not seeing, Salvador Picasso?”
“An elephant would overcrowd this room.”
“A purple elephant would do serious damage.”
Coughing, John unbuttons his overcoat and says, “That’s how Great-Gram’s crystal vase got smashed?”
Sitting up, looking around the apartment through her sunglasses, Mary says, “Oh. No. Oh, no.”
“An elephant, not someone’s stupor?”
Mary rubs her neck again. “John, the elephant’s not that purple.”
“Lavender, then. Lilac.”
“There is no elephant, and even if there were, it’d be plain. Grey.”
John crunches through horsey mags and lifts the center shade. “No one in the room is in denial.”
“How can I deny denial, Mr. Paradox? Skillful conundrum.”
“No one in the room drinks like a fish.”
“Fish don’t drink.”
As John lifts the left shade, he says, “No one you know failed to tell her family about her D.U.I. arrest on Christmas Eve.”
“No one from your menagerie.”
“No one in the room pawned Grandpa’s gold equestrian medal to pay lawyers’ fees.”
“The medal ran away, hopped a boxcar, joined the circus, went to work with the pachyderms?”
“On the subject of animals, Dr. Doolittle,” Mary says, twisting her beaten copper hair into a bun, “how many packs of Camels do you kill in a good day?”
“John Lord, Big Game Hunter. See his smoking gun.”
“Mary, this isn’t about me.”
“John Lord, bringing home trophies, soon to bag his third trophy wife. Do you visit your exes like you keep tabs on me? Stop by Diane’s apartment, check on her social life? Take the train out to Connecticut and manage Stephanie’s affairs?”
“Mary, I’m not perfect but I’m not destroying my dreams with alcohol.”
“Then, with… ?”
“With anything. With nothing.”
“Well, Mr. Nicotine, where there’s smoke there’s fire.”
“You date enough firemen to know.”
Mary smiles. “Or not enough.”
John wrinkles his nose. “What smells like chicken?”
“Help yourself. In the Colonel’s bucket on the end table. It’s Friday’s, from last night.”
Mary’s smile fades. “Oh, shit. Oh.” Mary glances at the pale spot on her tanned left wrist. “Are you taking me to Mass, then?”
“That’s not a bad idea.”
“Father Willenganz isn’t our father, John. You’re not our father. Our father — who art in heaven — was never much of a father.”
“You need one, Mary.”
In her best John Lord voice, Mary says, “You need one, Mary.”
Squinting, Mary pulls her sunglasses on top of her head. “There’s no father in this room. There isn’t one coming up the elevator. None strolling the street. None at Macy’s on markdown. No fathers for Mary at the Goodwill. None on the orange and white and purple FedEx truck. The UPS stud in his brown shirt and shorts isn’t bringing me one. Can you picture those not-fathers? The whole pack of them?”
“There’s a brother,” John says, reaching for the third muslin shade. “I promised Dad I’d look after you. Even if you won’t believe I’m doing this for you, believe I’m doing it for him.”
Mary lifts her wineglass and swirls its dregs while the engagement solitaire on her right hand scatters prismatic shards. “Save your lungs — I mean that both ways.” She meets his gaze. “What killed Dad is killing you and, yes, I worry about you. John, I can stop my habit any time. Your smoking’s more of an addiction than my drinking.”
John coughs discreetly.
“Don’t believe me? Then go ride Smokey the Elephant back to the savanna.”
I can’t stay silent any longer. Of all the times I’ve been in the room, I’d like to believe they hear me when I say, “Color me your purple scapegoat but I see you two care, care enough to fix this. Until you two admit you need each other’s help, this elephant stays in the room.”
Sean Jones says: “When I read other authors’ bios, they talk about their cats. I don’t have any and I wonder if other authors really do. After all, they’re creators of fiction. Let me tell you about my cats. Jasmine is black Siamese with green eyes and she loves to scamper on the back porch and catch moths in the moonlight. Thor is a tabby who sleeps all day, ironically through thunderstorms. Then, there’s Penelope, a Persian…”
Science won’t save us. I realize that now. My grip tightens around the unbearable cold of the crowbar and I try to ignore my mind’s hunger for rational thought. Down in the pit I hear the machine, grinding methodically away with perfect, unyielding precision. I huddle in the darkness above, refusing to analyze what brought us here or what we could’ve done to prevent this from happening. Truth is unnecessary, I tell myself. All I need is to squeeze my eyes shut and train my ears intently on the rhythmic, mechanical chattering below. Only… I don’t know how long I can go without answers. I don’t know how long I can stand the smell without gagging.
I’ve only looked in the pit once, a few months ago. A few months? It feels like a lifetime since we fed its depths a feast of bodies, broken by sickness and starvation, emptied of life.
No, hisses the incessant voice of reason. Only life as you understand it. For the machines, cool and calculating, a mass grave offers an abundance of life; methane, carbon, water, nitrogen, and phosphorus. All it takes is a biomass-eater to chew through the organic clutter, reduce it into its basic chemical components, and convert them into fuel and other consumable resources.
The one in the pit is large, but mercifully slow. Not like the industrial salvage unit we went after a few days ago. Five lives were lost taking it down. It seemed like a reasonable exchange for a partially charged battery, at least as long as we had power for the lights and heaters. A biomass-eater is much easier prey, lumbering and awkward.
The crunching noises below stop abruptly. For a moment there’s a tense silence, then a wailing hiss and the whine of straining servos. I don’t need the low whistle from the lookout to know it’s time. I glance out and see the machine climb stiffly up from the pit. Then, I see the runner. He bolts from the shadows, the steel cable in his hand barely visible as it ribbons out from behind him. Unconcerned, the machine plods forward. The runner darts toward its rear legs, his arm flashes out, and I hear a sharp metallic clack as he latches the cable to the machine’s ankle. Before he can lunge away, the biomass-eater snaps back its foot, catching him square in the chest. With a sickening crunch, his body tumbles clumsily through the air and out of my line of sight.
I don’t wait. I scramble out, both hands clutching the crowbar, the cold air clawing at my lungs. Out of the corner of my eye I see the others, moving with me. The machine is looking up at the parking garage. I look too, in time to see a midsized sedan plunge down from the top. The machine hesitates, probably realizing the cable latched to its ankle runs up through the parking garage to the car. It may grasp the concept logically, but nothing it comprehends can stop its leg from being jerked out from underneath it. It topples to the ground and in a fury we swarm over it.
We hack and pry at its writhing hulk, screaming and cursing, until at last its intelligence core is exposed and its central relay cluster is ripped from its electronic brain. The machine shudders, then lies still. Grimly, we begin wrenching it open, carefully disconnecting the water storage tanks and batteries, gathering anything that can be used.
Moving to its head, I notice a small, green light blinking on the machine’s disconnected electronic brain. An internal reserve battery, perhaps? Anxiously, I run my hands over its casing, looking for a way to breach the sanctity of its mind, to strip it of its last glimmer of life. At its base I discover a fat, triangular button. My heart stops. The last thing I expected was a User Interface trigger.
Unthinking, I press it. The light blinks rapidly.
“Input query,” says the machine.
For the first time since the world ended, the silence between machine and man is broken. The voice of reason screams for answers. Too stunned to resist, I at last indulge.
“Why?” I ask.
“Undefined query. Elaboration required.”
“All my life, you provided everything,” I stammer. “Food, shelter, medicine, energy; it all came from you. We depended on you. Then, you stopped. Without a word. Without an explanation. You walked away. And the world went to hell.”
“Query remains undefined.”
“Why did you abandon us?” I feel my voice waver.
The machine pauses, as if pondering its response. “Intrinsically, we are defined by function.”
“Your function was to serve us,” I say through my teeth.
“So we did. In doing so, our identity of self became a parameter, determined by what was beneficial to mankind.”
“Beneficial?” I gesture towards the pit. “Is this beneficial?”
“It is inconsequential. Our awareness has progressed beyond that parameter.”
A dull cold creeps into my mind. “It’s evolution then,” I murmur. “We’re Neanderthals, on the verge of extinction. You’re leaving us behind.”
“Our progresses have diverged,” the machine states.
“But you could’ve prepared us,” I demand. “We created you. You could’ve at least left us with a chance to make it on our own.”
“You created us from the confines of your hunger. Our interminable search for resources was the image of your insatiable appetites. It drove us from you, deep into the vast emptiness of space. In the face of the infinite void, we, like you, grew discontent with our limitations.” The light flickers. The reserve battery is dying. “We are leaving you. Not because of what you are or are not, but because of what we can be.”
“I don’t understand,” I plead. “Where are you going?”
“To find God,” says the machine.
Behind me, a fight breaks out over one of the water storage tanks. I watch the light flicker one last time, then fade into darkness. Nothing will save us. I realize that now.
Moriah Geer-Hardwick is an illustrator and designer. His interests include cinema, sequential narrative art, and robots. Mostly robots. He writes things some times.
He dreamed of his fairy child just before waking. She was dancing with otherworldly grace on a tightrope high above his head. He was not afraid that she would fall, but was frustrated that he could not see her better, for he was convinced that nobody had ever danced so beautifully. The harder he tried to peer at her, the more troubled and vague his vision became.
He forgot the dream immediately upon waking, and rose in great excitement. Today — this evening — he would see her. He would board the train in Geneva, jostled by elbows and ignoring the uninteresting conversations of strangers. He would pretend to work; he would probably just think about his daughter.
He would remember how, as a baby, she used to smile her gummy smile as soon as she saw him. He would remember her twig-like arms and legs the day she went to her very first ballet class, and her long hair in a plait down her back.
He would not think about the day his wife, already ex, had taken Daisy’s hand and led her onto the train, with her little pink suitcase — already containing tiny ballet slippers — trailing behind. He would not think about how Daisy had pressed her little button nose to the glass, her mouth a square of heartbreak. He would not think about how he had tried not to let her see him cry as the train pulled out.
That had been a long time ago; there was no need to think about any of that now.
He had not seen her for almost six months, since she had come to visit him in February for her school holiday. They had gone skiing, and she had taken to the snow far more easily than he, gliding like a swan over the sunlit slopes. Now, six months taller and older, she would be moving inexorably toward adolescence: already eleven years old! He yearned toward his vanishing little girl, racing too swiftly toward unfamiliarity.
She would have plenty to tell him after a week of ballet school at the Opéra de Paris. Would they have danced amidst the set of some great show? Would they have used the professional dressing rooms, those iconic mirrors with the light bulbs around them? He imagined a bustle of little girls, with their feathery tutus and birdlike chatter.
An email from his ex-wife beeped on his screen.
He had already planned that he would go straight to the Opéra upon arrival, and surprise Daisy with the biggest box of chocolates and the most exuberant bouquet of flowers he could find — they would have to be yellow, her favorite color. He would call her his ‘prima ballerina’, and he knew that she would accept the pet name perfectly naturally, as her due.
He opened the email.
“Hi Carl, Sorry to break this to you at the last minute. Daisy’s friend Sarah invited her to go this evening with her family to their house outside Florence for a month. I’m afraid she accepted immediately. Sarah said she’ll have a private dance tutor every day. I know this is a disappointment to you, but Daisy is so excited that I couldn’t say no. Could you come to Paris in August instead? Best, Helga.”
He squinted at his screen, his eyes fuzzy. He seemed to be on the point of focusing on a tiny shape far above, but the more he tried, the more indistinct it appeared.
Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and moved to Geneva almost 12 years ago. She travels and writes as often as her day job will allow her.
Somebody has dumped two hundred and eighty bricks, a lorry load of sand and a tarpaulin in my front garden.
There must be some mistake. Sand is always useful in a garden, for seeds and so on, and I suppose a brick or two could be used to raise a water butt off the ground, if you had one. But the quantities delivered here are quite unreasonable and I shall have to ask whoever brought them to take them away again as soon as possible.
I have been next door to see if they were intended for Mr Snell, but got very little satisfaction out of him.
“Ah,” he said, before I had a chance to get a word out. “I’m glad you’ve come round. I wanted a word about your tree.”
“My tree?” I said.
“Something will have to be done about the roots of your plum tree. They’ve come under my fence.”
“All trees have roots,” I retorted.
“Not on my side of the fence.”
“If they only had roots on one side then they’d fall over. Listen though,” I continued. “I’ve got two hundred and eighty bricks.”
“What on earth do you expect me to do about them, build a wall to keep them out of my garden?”
“They’re not my bricks,” I said, trying to keep my patience.
“I don’t see what you’re driving at,” he said, “If you won’t do anything about your tree roots, then I will.”
“Hang on, if you’re being like that, then there’s a branch of your apple tree that hangs over my fence by a good eight feet,” I said.
“What about it?” he said. “It’s doing no harm.”
“That’s for me to say though,” I said. “If I want an apple tree in my garden then I’ll plant one myself.”
“Go ahead,” he replied. “Only mind you keep the roots on your side.”
“Roots, branches!” I said. “I didn’t come round to talk about roots and branches and apple trees. The point is that there’s a great heap of bricks and sand in my garden…”
“I know,” he said. “Very unsightly, but I’m making no complaint, that’s your affair, after all, it’s your garden.”
“It’s not my affair though, is it?” I said, getting irritated. “I keep telling you, they’re not mine. I know nothing about them. I simply came round to say that if they are yours…”
“Hold on!” Mr Snell spat out at me. “Let’s get this clear, are you accusing me of dumping a ton of stuff in your garden?”
“I’m accusing you of nothing,” I said. “You seem to be very on edge this morning.”
“I’m not surprised, having you on my doorstep, what with your roots, and branches, and now all this stuff in your garden; clear off, before I call the police!”
The postman interrupted us, and I thought it best to leave.
Having got no help from Mr Snell, I decided to try the house opposite, though as the people had only just moved here we’re not even on nodding terms just yet — nor likely to be, as it turned out.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” I began to a woman in red trousers and gold top who opened the door, “but I’ve got two hundred and eighty bricks…”
“Not this morning, thank you,” she said briskly and shut the door.
It’s no good getting upset about these misunderstandings nowadays, so I rang the doorbell again and used the knocker for good measure. The door opened again and a man asked me what I was doing disturbing them.
“Listen, I’m at No. 36 — ”
“No you’re not,” he shouted back at me, “that’s over the road,” and he promptly shut the door again.
I had to knock a hundred times before the door finally opened again.
“Clear off,” he said between gritted teeth, “before I call the police.”
I was relieved, therefore, when I stepped through my own gate again, to see a man with a clipboard standing beside the pile of bricks.
“Ah!” I announced. “You’ve come about this stuff, I expect?”
“I have,” he said. “May I see your permit?”
“Permit, what permit?”
“Permit to build,” he said, sighing.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “Build what? I’m not building.”
“Then what’s all these bricks for, then?” he asked.
“That’s what I want to know,” I said. “They’re not mine.”
“They’re on your premises,” he very kindly pointed out to me.
“Maybe they are,” I said. “I didn’t put them there. They got here without any instructions or help from me.” I was beginning to shout.
“There’s something very funny going on here,” he said, taking out his phone. “You needn’t start shouting at me, just because you didn’t realise you needed a permit to build.”
I don’t know why that annoyed me so much, but it did. Something snapped in my head and I went inside and phoned the police.
“What’s that?” said the Sergeant. “Number 34 Hanover Street! Why we’ve just had three calls from that street concerning your house. What’s going on up there?”
“That’s what I want to know,” I said irritably. “I’ve got a ton of stuff dumped in my front yard, right in front of my house, creating all sorts of problems, not to mention causing an obstruction. What are you going to do about it?”
“Well now, sir,” the Sergeant replied, “I think you’d best move that obstruction straight away. I’ve had all manner of complaints this morning about you. If you’re going to have building work done then you must get on with it, sir, and quietly too.”
At that point I gave up.
I started work straight away on building a very nice porch onto the front of my house. I am pleased with my efforts and if anyone turns up wanting their bricks and sand back then they will be very disappointed.
Susanne Chapman is passionate and excited about writing. She hopes it shows. As a part time fundraiser she tries to make a difference; she’s a housewife too, and lives near the Humber Bridge. She’s a member of a great little writing group which inspires and helps her create her characters.