Romo always had considered his afternoon nap a luxury, a perk of retirement. But one day that nap was more an escape, a means to knit a suddenly raveled sleeve of care. A doctor had told Romo that he would slowly decline over the next year or so. And then cease to exist.
On his way to the recliner, Romo stopped to rub away a smudge on the glass over a yellowing photograph hung on the wall. He in dress uniform, a few days before shipping out to Korea. Beside him, his late wife in her mother’s wedding gown.
Beside that photo, his son and daughter-in-law, also gone.
Beside them, a photo of Marilyn, Romo’s granddaughter. Tortoise-shell glasses and pink hair. He’d raised Marilyn, and she was the only relative he hadn’t outlived.
Romo plopped into his recliner, clicked on the TV, and tuned to C-SPAN — something about memory research. He was about to drift off when a woman on TV said, “Absent context, nuance — even facts, our minds tend to fill in the blanks with conjecture and speculation, assumption and presumption.”
Romo’s eyes shot open.
When he was gone, only Marilyn would remember him. But what would she remember? What might she guess at? Speculate, assume, presume?
Romo could write down some things about his life for his granddaughter. But he wasn’t good with words. On the other hand Marilyn, while for the moment employed as a Target cashier, had graduated that spring with a degree in creative writing.
He invited her to dinner that night.
After the meal Romo opened a package of windmill-shaped cookies, Marilyn’s favorite. He took one for himself, but only set it on his plate. When his granddaughter finished her cookie, Romo rose from his place across the table, sat next to her and explained what the doctor had told him.
Marilyn cried into his shoulder for a long while.
Then Romo smiled and said, “I still have some time, honey. I was thinking. Maybe it’s a silly conceit for a nobody like me. But if I told you about my life, do you think you might write about it? Then maybe I could look it over?”
Make sure Marilyn remembered him as he intended.
“Oh, Grandpa! That would be so cool.”
Marilyn interviewed Romo over the next several evenings. If one of Romo’s stories seemed to particularly interest her, he would explain the life lesson.
When he’d told his granddaughter everything he could remember, Marilyn began writing.
After a few months, Romo asked when he might read the first few chapters.
“Grandpa. This is a work-in-progress. It keeps changing, evolving. I want to show you my best writing, once it’s final.”
“Honey. Time is not my friend.”
Marilyn sniffled. After a long pause, she cleared her throat and said, “I’ll quit my job. Work on the manuscript full-time.”
Romo’s first impulse was to talk her out of quitting. But Marilyn would inherit the house and more than enough cash to get through even a very long bout of unemployment. Besides, who would make certain she remembered Romo as he had been if the manuscript wasn’t finished… before he was?
When Romo went into the hospital, Marilyn placed family pictures in the room where he could see them. She stayed in the room, sleeping in a chair and spending most of her waking hours pecking at a laptop computer.
One morning she said, “I’m finished, Grandpa!” and set the computer on his lap.
But Romo had trouble reading the screen.
Marilyn stuck a bit of plastic into the computer. A memory stick, she called it. She pulled the stick out and said she’d print a hard copy.
Marilyn came back and placed pages in Romo’s hands. She’d even thought to print in extra-large type.
“It makes me nervous to watch people read my stuff,” Marilyn said. “I’ll come back in a little while.”
Pushing through pain and fatigue, Romo skimmed the pages. The title, Ecce Romo, made him smile. Ecce, Latin for behold.
But the beep of his heart monitor quickened as he realized that Marilyn often reported conversations complete with dialog, gestures, even descriptions of rooms and furniture. Details Romo himself didn’t remember.
She’d attached a sticky note to the page with the first pseudo-conversation: “In my creative non-fiction course, we learned it’s okay to make up dialog and descriptions, stuff like that.”
Romo frowned at the smiley-face at the end of the note and inhaled more oxygen.
His granddaughter had gotten the gist of the conversations right and had included a few of the life-lessons he’d tried to explain.
But most of the glosses were her own. Interesting insights. Important ones. She really had grown. Still, Ecce Romo seemed more about Marilyn than himself.
He looked up.
Marilyn cleared her throat. Then cautiously, as when she used to ask Romo’s opinion of a new high school boyfriend, she said, “What do you think of what you’ve read so far?”
Before he could respond she said, “I know this was supposed to be about your life. But as I was writing, I learned so much about myself. Ecce Romo became a chronicle of my personal growth. In this manuscript, I’m the Romo being, you know, ecce’d. Are you mad?”
Romo closed his eyes tight and fell back against the pillows. He had been upset. But, late in the game as it was, Romo had figured something out. He wasn’t in control of what his granddaughter would remember.
Never had been.
But he might at least influence what Marilyn recalled of this moment, one of his last.
Romo removed his oxygen mask, smiled broadly, tapped the pages and said, “Super, honey. I’m so proud of you.”
Ted Lietz is a freelance writer and reformed marketer. His work also has been published in such places as Every Day Fiction, Bartleby Snopes and Flashquake. Everyone has to be somewhere. He happens to live near Detroit.
Olive Bane pushed her black triangle lenses against the bridge of her slim nose and leaned back. “Why do you paint?”
David didn’t expect to speak very much. “Hasn’t she read my bio?” he thought to himself.
A brief light flashed behind his eyes — majick. “Sorry, mind reading is a bad habit of mine,” she sighed as she popped open a gold snuff dispenser and inhaled. “Anyway, I’m not interested in hearing the things you say so people think you’re smart.”
David looked down and picked at a dried callus on his finger. “I paint because it beats crying.”
Olive raised an eyebrow. “How brief. Still waters run deep, I suppose,” she said and wiped her nose. “I respect that.” She examined her nails and with a deliberate blink, changed the color of the polish from white to a rich, midnight blue. “Better, right?”
David nodded hastily, as wary of Olive’s notoriously capricious temperament as her supernatural power. Majick was a fickle gift following no bloodlines, no spiritual disciplines and no moral compass. Every epoch of recorded history was filled with stories of its unwieldy strength, featuring men and women who fell spectacularly from grace, drunk on their own power as they nose-dived into addiction, crime, ruinous love affairs and depraved obsessions. Olive was attracted to the seedy and the sublime. There was no telling, yet, how history would look on her.
“So,” David stammered, “my work. What do you think?”
She smiled. “Signing an artist is a complex calculation — so many intangibles. Don’t rush my process, David.”
He watched warily as she began to inspect his pictures. With a crisp flick of her wrist, she summoned them one by one from a series of easels that lined her office, suspending them in midair a foot from her face. She sipped a glass of red wine as she mused over every detail, surveying the soulful layers of acrylic threaded with lines of poetry, stray thoughts and numinous symbols. The first piece was met with silent approval.
“Oh — not this one,” she grunted, frowning at the second one. “Messy.” And with a nod of her head, the canvas went up in smoke.
They had met just two weeks before at the opening of David’s first solo exhibition in an earnest but dilapidated venue near an abandoned train station. Fresh off being acquitted of assaulting a former employee and just days out of an obligatory PR stint in rehab, Olive was back at the helm of her eponymous gallery and hungry for new talent to heal her image. Her unexpected appearance in the dingy warehouse was like a fire in the dark. She burned through the crowd of ragged, downtown cognoscenti with a twenty-year old lover on her bejeweled arm and drank in their slack-jawed worship.
David felt bedraggled and untidy as he watched her snake toward him across the narrow room, a glittering clutch floating at her cinched waist. Their conversation was brief and definitive. With a swift rub of her palms, she surrounded them in a bubble of silence and made her offer: five new paintings to be presented in fourteen days. “Less musicality. More structure. I might sign you if they’re good.” He didn’t remember saying yes or watching her leave, he only knew that he was suddenly the center of attention. His stock was clearly poised to skyrocket.
“Three of them are excellent,” Olive said staring at a trio David’s new pictures. “Like Cy Twombly with a dash of Anselm Keifer. Passionate.”
David’s throat was dry.
“You know, I have to fight simply not to be numb. The gilded cage.” She rolled her eyes. “I do it well, but do you understand how hard that is?”
He shook his head and held his tongue. No one could possibly believe that — Olive’s appetite for pleasure was legendary. Disagreeing, however, would be most unwise and David certainly knew the value of keeping his head down.
His childhood was spent shuffling from one dingy apartment to another while his mother pursued bad men to worse ends. After she died, he went to live with his angry grandmother in her wilted, ill kept-home. There were dinners of cold beans when the electric bill went unpaid and every night, a lullaby of gunshots that echoed through their grim neighborhood of ranch houses. His days were filled with the listless droning of underpaid, overwhelmed teachers and the taunts of “faggot” in the hallways and on the street. David stayed quiet and dreamed.
Olive pulled a bulky folder out of her desk drawer and yanked out a brief but densely typed document. “Standard fare,” she mused as she reached for a sleek, monogrammed pen while rattling off the specifics. “There’s a 50/50 split if any of them sell at the retail price — or if there’s a bidding war. It happens more often than you think,” she added with satisfaction. “Sign this and ramen noodle dinners will be a thing of your past.” Her pen dangled over the page like an overripe fruit. “Don’t sign it and I’ll find another artist with a similar style and drive you out of the fucking market.”
David blinked a few times, bewildered. He hesitated only for a moment then quickly signed his name. His lopsided scrawl was a perfect contrast to Olive’s grand script that sealed the deal.
“Good.” She slid the paperwork into the desk then snapped her fingers, opening the door at the far end of the office — an invitation to leave.
“Thank you.” He rose to go.
Olive cocked her head and looked at him with an unexpected softness that made him blush. “I’d give anything to be able to paint like you — to make something meaningful. It’s majick like yours that makes me look good. Don’t forget it because I’ll never say it again. And, you’re welcome.”
Kevin Thomas Conroy is an aspiring writer living in Los Angeles. By day, he sells antiques and fine art. By night, he thinks about things that make him shiver then writes them down.
Kratos sat before his hut, skinning a rabbit. He froze, knife poised, listening to the sound of boots pressing down grass. Something moved in the shadows under his olive trees. An armored man stepped into pale moonlight.
The man lifted an arm in greeting. “Pardon, grandfather. I intend no harm.” His accent was strange, his voice raspy. He bore no obvious weapons.
Kratos rose to his feet. “It is a fine night for a walk under the moon.” He introduced himself and gestured toward his hut. “Would you share my meal? I have bread, this fine rabbit, and a serviceable wine.”
“Well met, Kratos. Call me Hulin. I will sit by your fire. The food I must refuse.”
The man followed Kratos inside and settled down on the far side of a glowing brazier. He watched his host spear rabbit chunks and place the spit over the coals.
Kratos eyed the boxy helmet squatting on the man’s shoulders. It was of a strange design, much battered, with a round grid affixed to the front and a pair of crystalline eyepieces side-by-side above that.
“Your armor and helmet are unusual.”
Red light flickered in the crystals. “It is not a helmet.” One gauntlet touched the side of the box. “The armor is my body, not… I cannot take it off.”
The old man sat perfectly still for several heartbeats. “I have heard tales.”
“Yes. So have I.” Moving slowly, his guest opened a small door where a man would have a stomach and withdrew a short, thick rod. Kratos tensed. His legs knotted as he pushed back against the stone wall of his hut.
Hulin shoved the rod into the glowing coals. A black rope led back to the opening in his belly. Kratos tried to relax his aching legs. He lifted the wineskin to his mouth, dribbling only a little as he drank. “You… you are of the gods?”
A grating laugh filled the hut. “Nay. I am of Atua. A soldier of Atua.”
“Atua?” Kratos laid the wineskin aside and turned the spit. “It must be beyond the edge of the world. Never have I heard of such a place.”
Hulin shifted slightly. His fists closed — opened. “Atua lay far to the south, in the sea. It was destroyed long, long ago.”
“Atlantis!” cried Kratos. “I have read of Atlantis.” He studied Hulin. Dents and patches of rust marred the metal torso. Rot and age had gnawed his gauntlets and boots. “The years are written on your body. Where have you been?”
“Asleep, mostly, in a burial chamber above your little orchard. My maker had a tower built high up on the plateau. Slaves did the building and dug the burial chamber.”
“There are heaps of quarried stone atop the plateau. I have long thought they were from an ancient structure. The burial chamber was for your maker?”
“Aye. We were living in the tower when… when Atua was destroyed. Great waves smashed many cities along the Inner Sea. Ashes darkened the sky for months. Atua became nothing — nothing but ashes on the wind.”
Kratos turned the rabbit again. “When your maker died you went into the tomb with him? Why?”
“He called it the Waiting Room. His tomb was further inside — sealed off. I was told to await the reappearance of mechanos like myself.” Hulin tapped his chest. “Metal men with crystalline centers of thought and no souls.”
“Metal men with no souls? Perhaps.” Kratos thought of certain stories learned at his mother’s knee. “You have wandered among men at times?”
“Yes. To watch, to keep up with the language.” Hulin stared into the coals. “Ages I slept in silent stone, awakening only when earthquakes shook the mountain or when I dreamed of Atua’s death.”
Kratos shook his head. He lifted the spit from the fire and laid it aside to cool. “I eat food to live. Is the flame your food?”
Hulin’s head creaked as it rotated side-to-side. “Not directly. As fire heats the stones of your hearth it also provides a kind of heat — not unlike lightning — for my body.”
For a long time neither spoke. Kratos ate some of the rabbit, wiping the grease from his hands on the hem of his chiton. He swallowed a little wine and leaned back. “So here you are. What do you intend?”
The man of Atua stared at the coals. “I came out to say farewell.”
“Surely not to me?”
“No, but your presence is welcome. I wanted a last view of the night sky.”
“But… you speak as if you will die.”
“All things pass away. A hundred lifetimes is too long. I grow weary. My joints creak and rust invades the inner workings of this body. It is time to cease.”
Kratos sighed. “Of creaking joints I know much.” He set the wineskin aside and leaned forward. “You speak. Think. You seem to me like a man. A man has a soul.”
“My maker believed I could find one if I lived long enough.” Hulin restored the rod and rope to the space in his belly. “He was wrong. I am a made thing, cursed to remain so. I shall return to the mountain and collapse the access tunnel. Eventually, earthquakes will reduce the burial chamber and all in it to dust.”
Kratos followed Hulin outside. They stood in front of the hut for a long time watching the silent stars and waning moon.
“Celestial lamps light my way,” said Hulin. “A mountain will be my shroud.”
Kratos offered a small coin. “For the boatman.”
“He will deny me passage.”
“You have the fee. The boatman does not decide who is a man and who is not.”
Hulin clenched his fist, enclosing the coin. He stood in silence for a long time, then turned and vanished into the olive grove.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.
Captain Beardbeard raised his sabre and announced the charge.
“Onward, ye scurvy dogs!”
The pirates roared their battle cries and surged onto the beach in a flurry of striped trousers. Boarding and robbing other ships was their main source of income and the buccaneers looked on land excursions as cheerful holidays.
The captain had been assured that this island would offer a great reward to one brave enough to find it. Beardbeard had dedicated most of his spare time to tracking down maps and actually locating the island, and he had a good feeling about it.
Pirate curses filled the air as the brigands crashed through the trees toward the spot marked “X” on Beardbeard’s map. It was too quiet on the island, and Beardbeard’s good feeling was replaced with a slightly apprehensive feeling. They reached the beach with no resistance.
“Arr, Cap’n, I expected more landlubbers to be fightin’,” said Pegleg, echoing the captain’s thoughts.
Pegleg was the First Mate, but only because Beardbeard’s preferred First Mate had been grievously injured during a fight with a sea monster. Pegleg lacked the ambition that made a really good backstabbing pirate, and he was going to have to be replaced sooner than later.
“It don’t feel right without the killing and the looting,” Pegleg said. He lifted his eye patch and squinted hard against the sun. “Do ye think there be landlubbers past the forest?”
“Treasure first, me lad. Rashy Jack! Stop stuffing sand down yer drawers and start diggin’,” Beardbeard said.
Jack sighed and let go of his handful of the blissfully hot and scratchy sand. He picked up his shovel and set to work.
Beardbeard ordered a few of the men to stand guard, but he needn’t have bothered. The only threat to their operation was a skunk that shambled out of the trees, and he couldn’t make the crew smell any worse than they already did.
It wasn’t long before Pegleg waved Beardbeard back to the digging site.
“What be the problem, Pegleg?” Beardbeard asked.
“No problem, Cap’n. Rashy Jack hit treasure already!”
“Well blow me down!” Beardbeard exclaimed. He tried to whistle but most of his teeth were missing so it didn’t come out right. “What have ye, Rashy Jack?”
Jack signaled to a couple of his fellow pillagers to give him a hand. The trunk they hoisted out of the ground was a solid wooden one, carved with ancient letters outlined with a bit of gold. It landed with a satisfying thud in the sand.
Beardbeard rubbed his hands together gleefully. He selected his favourite lock-smashing club and clubbed the lock until it gave way.
“Avast, me hearties, feast yer eyes upon this bountiful booty!”
The trunk was not filled with gold. There was a strange object upon the felt-lined interior, covered with wires and all manner of beeping things.
Beardbeard scowled at it. What was he to do with such a thing? A blue button lit up and he jabbed it with his thumb.
“Shiver me timbers!” Big Britches screamed. He pointed out at the water with a shaking finger, his jaw hanging open in shock.
Beardbeard had heard a tidal wave or two in his day and he recognized the massive whoosh of the water as it rose. A ship rose from the depths of the sea, revealing full black sails and portholes made of gold on its metal hull. Beardbeard had never seen its like before. Ships were made of wood, not metal.
“Well, plug me bung hole,” Beardbeard said. Perhaps the take on this adventure would not be so disappointing after all.
“What is it, Cap’n?” asked Buxom Bess.
Beardbeard knew the answer in his heart of hearts and it made his lips part in his nearly toothless grin.
“It be our new ship, Bess.”
“Cap’n! She be a cursed vessel. She just rose from Davy Jones’ locker!” Pegleg said. “We can’t sail ‘er.”
“Arr, that’s enough of yer mutiny,” Beardbeard said. “Shut yer gob if ye don’t want to be keelhauled.”
Pegleg did not fancy being bound to the underside of the ship so as to die a horrible death. He shut his mouth.
“All aboard, me bilge-suckers!” Beardbeard shouted. “Get the booty from the old ship, then swab the poop deck and weigh anchor! We be sailing in style now, buckos!”
“ARR!” the pirates cried in unison.
Beardbeard climbed aboard and admired the deck as it gleamed in the sunlight. He patted the ship’s figurehead lovingly. It didn’t look like any person he’d ever met, landlubber or seadog alike, but he liked the elongated face and large almond-shaped eyes. It wasn’t nearly as buxom as Bess, though, and that was a real shame.
He looked down at the strange device he’d taken from the trunk. A different button had come to life with a red light, and he gave his parrot a pat.
“Do the honours, old girl,” he said. The parrot squawked and pecked the button with her beak.
The tidal wave began anew and the ship lifted up out of the water and into the air. It rose higher and higher into the sky and would soon touch the clouds themselves. Beardbeard clutched the railing and laughed with the sheer joy of it.
Some of the crew panicked and abandoned ship, but those with any brains in their thick skulls stayed behind. Not only would the jumpers miss out on excellent adventure, they were falling to a messy death.
Beardbeard pressed the green button next. Something screeched below them and soon the ship was encased in a clear bubble. The pirates looked out at the thinning clouds as they went higher still. Beardbeard put an arm around Pegleg and squeezed him.
“We’ll be lootin’ more than just the seven seas of our world,” Beardbeard said, flinging his arms wide. “There be at least seven more out there, somewhere.”
“Where are we going, Cap’n?” Pegleg asked.
“To the starrrs, me hearty. To the starrrs.”
Holly Geely has been under the influence of fantasy and science fiction since she was very young. She has been shortlisted twice on Mashstories.com. She is a fan of bad puns and bright colours. You can find her on Twitter @hollygeely.
“Close your eyes,” she said, brushing his eyelids closed with delicate fingers.
Smells from the palm of her hand, the smoke of their burning home, the thick mud of the embankment they had scrambled up in desperate flight.
“Can you remember?” she said. “Can you remember what it was like before the war?”
He tried to open his eyes, tried to see her face once more, but she kept her fingers poised, their touch barely felt. Could he remember a time before the war? Before son had rebelled against father and war had come to a city that had once held nations in thrall?
Her hand fell limp, but he held it there still, held it to his face and kissed her fingers. With an effort that tore at his being he opened his eyes to see her lying before him, her yellow hair thick with mud and clinging to her cheek. He smoothed her hair with a shaking hand and closed eyes that stared into a sky streaked with foul magic.
“I am the city,” she had once said. Only in the end had she agreed to flee with him, and then it was too late. The armies of the Wronged Son were at the walls and the city was aflame with shimmering fires and magics that burned.
“I am the city.” And he was her, for we are what we love, and what was there to love in a world where his wife and his son were no more?
He kissed her brow, his tears caught in the mud thick on his cheeks. He closed his eyes against the vile colours whispering across the night sky, closed his eyes against the sight of his silent wife.
“I remember,” he whispered, taking her hand once more. “I remember what it was like before the war.”
Remember. Remember for her. Even as baleful lights seared his eyelids and cannons blasted his ears. Remember.
She loved the city, he knew. She loved the city and she loved the people and she loved the red geronants that soared through the blue skies and the yellow antrophahs that shivered through the white-fringed lakes. She loved, and he had loved her for the love she shared. He had loved her even as he had begged her to leave when the Wronged Son had appeared on the blue mountains with his cannons of black and his rows of men with spike and spear and pennant.
He loved her and when she had wept as the guns began to fire and the walls had begun to fall, he had held her and wept with her.
He remembered begging her to flee the city with him once more.
“I am the city,” she had said, “and this city is me. I was born where the crooked spire twists into the clouds, and my father worked where the talking ships from the rainbow seas come to dock, and I met you where the deodaras turn the meadows yellow. And our child,” she had held his cheek, stopping him from turning away from her. “Our child was born in the house near the weeping willow. Those four walls, that tree, heard his first cries, heard his first laugh. He is here still, with us.”
She had wiped his tears away with a cool finger as the cannons roared and the magics blazed with deadly silence.
In the end she had agreed to flee with him, but it was too late. The Wronged Son had already marched from the mountains, and the walls were already beginning to fall. She had stumbled in his arms as the shrapnel pierced her side, but still she struggled to stay with him, her face pale. She bit her lip against the pain.
The river had been clogged with the dead and the dying, and they had scrambled through mud and blood. She had fallen to her knees, gasping. “It’s no use,” she had said. “I can’t.” She fell on her back, and his hands were bloodied as they tried to close the wound.
“I remember, too,” she had whispered. “I remember before the war. I remember our wedding day. You found a flower and placed it in my hair and told me you would love me always.”
He had wept then. Unashamed tears as he held her hand. “I should have made you flee,” he said.
She had smiled then, a sad smile. The Wronged Son and his magics and cannons had brought sadness to the world.
“How could I leave him?” Even now the tears stung her eyes. “Our son, he is still there, buried beneath the weeping willow. How could I leave our son? I would listen to him, sometimes.” Her voice was quiet, hesitant with pain. “When the wind would whisper through the branches, sometimes I would hear his voice. Who will listen to him now I am gone?”
She had closed her eyes then, and the screams of the dying filled the air all around them and the ground shook under the rage of the Wronged Son’s cannons.
“I remember,” he whispered, kissing her cheek. “I remember our son.” Ten years since the plague had taken Marcus, but still he could remember his voice, his laughter, his tears.
“I am the city,” she had once said. And he knew then what she had meant. We are what we love. He had seen her once, sitting beneath the weeping willow, her eyes closed as the breeze had rustled the leaves above. She had smiled then and his heart ached at the memory.
He kissed her and squeezed her hand, her fingers cool and loose in his own. He turned back and saw the city burning, the magics lighting the night into blazing day, the smoke coiling into the unnatural brightness.
He could be with his wife and his son again. All he had to do was to return to the city they had loved.
Return to Sharanih.
Mark Rookyard lives in Yorkshire, England. He likes running long distances and writing short stories.