We flying monkeys get no respect.
Tassel flew into my room, face scrunched in worry. “The Artificer’s going to kill us all.” He pulled at his fez, but the damn things only came off when the Artificer so commanded.
I nervously groomed my beard. “What’s going on?”
Tassel pointed at the window. “Lucky and Hap are being taken into the lab!”
I hopped up to the window ledge. The huge coal-fired engines chugged away in the yard below, turning gears and lathes and whatnot. Two dozen flying monkeys struggled to clean a giant gear that had been pulled from one of the machines.
Past the chugging engines stood the Artificer’s lab. A clanking automaton carried a cage toward the lab’s portal.
The work party stopped their efforts and stared wide-eyed as the metal man strode past. Two flying monkeys were inside the cage. One beat the bars and screamed. The other huddled in a corner, weeping. The door slid shut behind the automata, silencing monkey screams.
“He promised no more experiments,” I said.
Tassel shivered and folded his wings. “Jack and Lance got sent in this morning. Now Lucky and Hap.” He swallowed. “We have to leave. Now.”
Tassel pulled at my brocaded jacket sleeve. “If you tell me to fly away, I will. You are First Monkey!”
“It won’t work. I can’t even say the word.” Away. My fez prevented me.
A patrol of flying monkeys flew past, in tight formation, bound to the Compound like the rest of us.
I shuddered. The Artificer had charged our fezzes again yesterday, hundreds of filaments stretching from his steaming steel gauntlets, each filament attached to a fez, sending hot wires into the back of our skulls.
I grabbed Tassel by the shoulders. “Besides, were would we go? That murdering witch at Chasm Castle would do anything to get us back, and the Wizard at Splendid City hates us.”
“But he’s going to kill us.”
I flew out the window without answering, soaring over the yard and the glass-roofed lab. I spotted a metal table behind the lab and my heart froze. Jack and Lance lay on the table, their dead eyes staring into nowhere. The tops of their skulls were gone, and their brains were missing.
I vomited my breakfast over their corpses.
Tassel hovered above the yard, and spun in a tight circle as I joined him.
“What did you see behind the lab?” He asked.
The cool air calmed my retching stomach. “Lance and Jack are dead.”
He covered his face with his hands. “What do we do?”
I clenched my jaw. “We have to kill him.” Somehow.
“But we can’t hurt him. The fezzes won’t let us,” Tassel moaned.
As long as we wore them our fezzes protected the Artificer, prevented us from disobeying or harming him. Only his order would remove them. They bound us to this place. Somehow the Artificer had remade the fezzes which the Witch at Chasm Castle had originally fashioned to control us through her magic. Instead the Artificer bound us with his strange science.
The patrol was making another pass. Crimson led the formation. Crimson followed orders, including mine as First Monkey, as long as those orders didn’t contradict the Artificer’s control.
The Artificer called me his clever monkey, which was why I was First.
“Come on,” I said to Tassel.
I waved Crimson to a hover.
“Sir!” Crimson saluted me smartly. The patrol hovered behind him. One thing about having wings along with arms, you could salute.
I swallowed. This would only work once. “An imposter has infiltrated the master’s lab!”
Crimson’s arms face set in a grim expression. “Sir!”
I leaned in closer, beating my wings harder and whispered instructions to Crimson.
“Got that?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Sir!”
I landed outside the lab’s door.
“What are you doing?” Tassel shouted from above.
I banged on the steel door with a rock. The door opened and a clanking automata loomed over me.
“What’s this?” The Artificer asked from inside the lab. “Ah, First Monkey. Come in!”
I entered the lab. Wires and cables twined across the floor in all directions like an army of snakes. I gagged at the stench of hot wire, oily smoke and blood.
Hap and Lucky were strapped onto tables, their fezzes off, the top of their skulls gone. A spidery machine sewed something silver into their brains as the Artificer watched. Drool dribbled from their slack mouths.
The Artificer snapped his fingers and pointed at me.
“Of course! Your brain will make this work, leading the others’ brains in helping me create an ultimate weapon to use against the Witch.”
We would die to help him against Her.
“Come here,” he ordered. My fez made me obey. The Artificer lifted me and placed me on an empty table.
“Fez off,” he commanded. With a loud snick the wire withdrew from my head. He reached for the table straps.
Crimson and his patrol circled above the skylight. I somersaulted off the table and pointed at the Artificer. Crimson saluted and flew off with the patrol.
“Show some dignity, First,” the Artificer said, reaching for his big net gun. “You’ll honor yourself with your brain.” He aimed the net gun at me, but I scrambled under the table.
“Come here.” He bent down and I scurried to the far side.
Crimson, his patrol and the work party, reappeared above the skylight carrying the giant gear the workers had been cleaning.
I waved and they let go. The skylight shattered, the huge gear hurled to the lab floor right where the Artificer stood, crashing down like a thunder clap. The gear rolled a dozen feet, wobbled, and then toppled to the ground with a boom.
Crimson and the others swooped down toward me, their fezs falling away like leaves.
I picked up my fez and hurled it at the broken, bloody remains on the floor.
“We decide our lives now,” I shouted.
Dale Ivan Smith is currently writing a weird western, as well as revising his super hero serial, Weed. His stories have appeared in 10Flash Quarterly and Every Day Fiction, and can also be found at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other eBook stores. His website is www.daleivansmith.com.
Gendelman kept refusing every offer for the shop.
A peculiarity of the lease rendered him untouchable, though the landlord’s heirs hoped Gendelman’s bereftness after Dina might end their misery. But he came of an older stock that goes on.
Some people shrivel with grief; Gendelman seemed larger to me, containing an immensity of longing. He only let show his humor and his grace.
“Idiot!” said Merlensky, surly because his own place across the street wasn’t the object of anyone’s lust. “Now the buyout is half!” But Gendelman hadn’t cared about the money.
“What is the point?” Merlensky howled. “Who goes in there?”
I did; it was a place to linger, and Gendelman didn’t value customers by what they spent.
“For him,” Dina said, “the right match is everything.”
Gendelman would laugh, but he savored books more than he sold them; he preferred them to go to good homes.
A warmth of sensibility infused the whole place. Gendelman had not cared for fluorescent lighting — an abomination, he said, to those who delight to read.
The back room looked like a family parlor, huge sofa in counterpoint to Gendelman’s big old desk.
The shop held some battered bookrests, too, and a miniature lectern, and Dina’s favorite — a small glass case full of elderly fountain pens. But those weren’t walking out with anyone.
They never spoke of life beyond the shop, but Dina was sometimes not there.
“Busy with other things,” Gendelman said. That’s an answer that stops more questions.
Then the shop was shuttered for a week, and when Gendelman reopened, he replied heavily, to all inquiries, that “she has gone now.”
He still managed to twinkle at me, and I got over feeling helpless and tongue-tied every time I stopped by. “I know!” he said once, squeezing my shoulder, and though the offering of comfort seemed going in the wrong direction, he’d known exactly what I needed.
I was too tired, one gray wintry Friday, to grant myself even a few minutes browsing through wonderful things, but Gendelman’d kept an eye out and hailed me.
“Ah! he said, “today you are not in heart! Never mind! But come tomorrow, five o’clock.”
I was never much in heart these days. I stood up for myself at the miserable crappy job I couldn’t afford to leave, but something in me diminished a little more each day.
“So!” he said. “You remain gloomy!”
I’d put my nice smile on but it must’ve slipped a little as I walked down the street. Maybe the sleet knocked it sideways.
“Never mind!” he said. “Everything will be to rights shortly.” He pulled me inside, big square hand closing around my wrist. “To the back!” he said. “We are having a little party.”
He’d set out a splendor of Old World delicacies. An electric samovar bubbled on a corner of his desk.
“Well,” I said, “Thank God you skipped the borscht.”
“It is only because you have never truly known winter,” Gendelman said, “that you scorn beets.”
But he patted me with approval; the sight of the walnut cake and its layer of raspberry jam had perked me up nicely.
“So,” his voice rumbled at me. He refilled my glass with a thick dark smoky brew. “It is time I join my family now.”
“This is a strong tea that you are not used to,” he said. “Soon your head will clear.”
“What a deep voice you have, Mr. Gendelman!”
“Yes!” he said. “The old stories never lose their power! Not like this empty junk they try to fill the children with today. Be careful!” he said, leaning close, his eyes growing larger and larger, “books can take you anywhere! Anywhere you choose…”
I didn’t know I’d slept til I woke up, long after midnight, a thick blanket tucked around me. The radiator was hissing softly and the desk lamp had been switched to its dimmest setting. A thermos and mug sat next to the unplugged samovar. The rest was cleared away, including Gendelman.
On the carpet was a neat little stack of books.
The thermos was brimful with hot cocoa. I poured myself a mug and picked out a handful of titles from what Gendelman’d left for me, and then I fell asleep again over one of them…
Merlensky’s grandson came in, stamping off the snow, with a bull-eyed little girl by the hand. She had more of the family resemblance.
“My niece,” he said. She’d been squalling and was just in the midst of replenishing her lungpower.
“Couldn’t in conscience buy her any more candy,” he said, “but she disagrees with my moral values.”
I hunkered down to her eye level. “Candy,” I said, “has a really bad habit of disappearing forever when you eat it.” She stared at me.
“But a book, now — you can devour the same one over and over again. Forever.” She didn’t quite understand the verb, but it sounded rapacious enough to suit her temperament.
“You follow me,” I said, “and let’s see if we can dig out the one that’s been waiting here just for you.”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)
Under the chapel of sky, the wheat whispered to John McIntosh. It spoke of the rain, the sun, the rich, rich earth, of his father and grandfather who had worked these fields before him, and of Daniel, who would work them after he was gone.
Daniel watched the wheat bow as his father passed through the south field. Even after a decade, Daniel still struggled against the stalks.
John stopped, planted his hands on his waist. His body ached and not just from the pains of work and age. Arching his back, he breathed deeply. The new wheat smelled dry, and with no rain in the forecast, the field would need water tomorrow.
Hesitantly, Daniel put his hand on his father’s elbow. Something was wrong, but his father had always spoken to the wheat better than his family.
The wind had tangled his boy’s straw-colored hair. His blue eyes were deep as infinity. Daniel was still small and skinny, like he had been at fourteen, but John knew the muscle would come.
The wheat would see to that.
The thought cut like a threshing blade.
“Went to the doctor,” John said, struggling to keep his voice flat. “Been having fierce pain in my back…” He was dithering when he knew to-the-point was needed. The wheat caressed the legs of his jeans, giving John courage. “This will be my last harvest.”
Through the winter, the wheat slept.
John mourned in silence, like he’d done when his wife had died. But seasons pass, and minute by minute, the days lengthened and warmed, and the wheat came alive again. As the harvest neared, John took Daniel into the south field, where the wheat heads hung heavy and golden. John scrapped kernels into his hand and handed them to his son. He drew sharply a breath.
As the wheat had grown taller, his father had grown frailer. Daniel had urged him to rest, but his father only worried about the wheat. Daniel knew the drugs no longer masked the pain, but his father had declined stronger pills because they would cloud his mind, making him incapable of bringing in the harvest.
“Is it time?” John asked.
Daniel rubbed the kernels between his hands then opened his palm. The breeze swirled the chaff away. The kernels popped between his teeth and grew softer as he chewed. His father watched him, eyes wide, pain momentarily forgotten. Daniel wanted to be right in his assessment… the kernels should to be soft, but not gluey. Soon, he thought; then looking at his father, too soon.
“I think it’s ready,” he said after he knew he could delay no longer.
John rubbed a wheat head between his own leathery palms. The chaff, like earthly skin, flew into the wind. The kernels weren’t ready yet.
Three days, the wheat whispered.
John eyed the grey clouds on the western horizon. A hard rain now would ruin the crop.
Daniel looked at his dusty boots. Like his father’s face, the wheat seemed to droop. Some men had an ear for the wheat. Those were farmers who could will their lives from the land.
The wheat closed in around John like arms holding him up. For the first time in his life, he didn’t want the harvest to end, but they had already cut the east field. The northwest field would be ready tomorrow. Soon the season would be over. Too soon.
“The east field is fallow next season.” John said. The stalks bent closer to hear his words, and if necessary to whisper to him what needed to be said. Like his father, John never seemed to know what to say.
“I know,” Daniel said, irritated. He wanted his father to talk to him.
All John’s life the wheat had demanded his labor, his attention, his blood. When he died, he hoped his soul came back as a stalk of hard red winter wheat.
The wheat sighed and bent close once again, whispering assurances. The wheat would watch over his boy as it had watched over him.
Daniel felt the heat of the sun reflect off the golden shafts. He strained to hear anything, but he heard nothing, no matter how he tried. To lie hurt, but the truth would hurt his father even more.
“Look around you, son,” his father said. “This isn’t wheat. It’s the sweat of my grandfather, when this was nothing but dust. It’s the tears of my father, when the rains were late. It’s the blood of my life, when the banks tried to bleed me dry.”
But all Daniel saw was wheat. All he heard, wind.
As they worked to bring in the northwest field, John McIntosh collapsed. Daniel found him, a ring of wheat bent over him in prayer.
Glassy eyes, reflecting gold, stared up at the vault of heaven. “Bring the harvest home, son,” John whispered, his voice barely a rustle, and then he went quietly, like the fields into fallow.
Daniel left his father there, in the arms of the wheat. The harvest had to come in. Unlike Daniel, the wheat was ready.
On the morning he cremated his father, Daniel went into the south field alone. In his hands he carried a simple box; inside, the ashes of a simple man.
Although Daniel tried not to, he cried.
The earth drank his tears.
Around him, the wheat sighed and bowed. It caressed him until his sadness flowed away. As Daniel stared across the golden wheat, heads heavy beneath the infinite blue sky, he heard his father’s voice in the rustle of the stalks.
“I am ready,” he said.
D. Thomas Minton recently traded a tropical Pacific Island for the Pacific Northwest of the continental USA, and now lives a short walk from vineyards and an alpaca farm. When not writing, he can be found working in his garden with his wife, daughter, and too many cats. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, InterGalactic Medicine Show and numerous other publications.
It’s been twenty-five years since Genesis Jones. He was the first. For me anyway. I’m not one for sentimentality, but once a year I find myself wandering over to this place by the docks called Harry’s, a dark, lonely little bar, where a man and his ghosts can drink the night away in peace. A good place for remembrance, although technically it all went down about three blocks away, under the street, in the sewers. I prefer Harry’s though, on account of there’s whiskey. And a few less rats.
The door creaks open like a coffin lid. Nobody notices. Darker than sin in here. I stumble for the bar like a blind man, trying hard to maneuver through the maze of mismatched tables and zombie-like patrons. I don’t recognize the barkeep, but that’s half the charm. Different barkeep every year. Harry’s been dead for a decade. Not by my hand of course. Liver disease.
Barkeep doesn’t wait for an order, just slops me a shot of whiskey. Guess if you’re not drinking whiskey, you’re in the wrong place. I gesture for him to the leave the bottle.
Twenty-five years. Damn. I was fresh out of the service. Signed up with the Security Council right off the transport. Lotta guys did that. Apparently, if you had a knack for not ending up dead, they thought you’d make an okay detective.
Spent my first year bored senseless. Mostly cleaned up for the real hero types. They’d make the messes, get the glory, and leave all the dirty details for us civil servants. Don’t need a cape or a cowl to push a pencil, I guess.
One day, out of nowhere, this tall man with a narrow face and dark hollow eyes steps into my office and sits down in front of me. He puts his fingertips together and stares across at me for an uncomfortably long time. “Do you know who Genesis Jones is?” he asks.
“The hero?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “The hero.” He says it like he doesn’t have the patience to choose a better term.
“I read the papers,” I say.
“Of course you do.” He smiles. Not a happy smile. Just a joyless twisting around the corners of his thin little mouth. “Hypothetically speaking…” Again, like he’s avoiding a longer explanation. “If you had to kill Genesis Jones, how would do it?”
I blink at him, then mull it over.
“I knew this guy, back in the War,” I say. “Wasn’t much of a soldier, but he was handy in a machine shop.”
The man raises a slinky eyebrow.
“One time, he takes this hollow spike, ’bout a foot long, and rigs it to a handle with a pressurized tank of liquid nitrogen inside. Then he fixes up a trigger, so when you stick a guy… Pfft! Shatters him into ice-cubes.”
I shrug. “He never got to use the thing. Took a slug in the face at Anzio. In any case, Jones has that super-fast healing thing, right? Papers say his body eats bullets. Freezing him good on the inside might slow things down. Enough to do some damage anyway.”
The man nods and rubs his chin. “I like it. Subtle, effective, and cheap. A single man could do it with minimal trouble.”
“A single man?” I lean back and fold my hands behind my head. “Any reason you wouldn’t get a Cape to do it? Or an army? We’re speakin’ hypothetically, right?”
He chooses his words carefully, like a man trying to dance a waltz through a minefield. “This society… is made up of many… interconnected elements. Actions made by some… cause… equal and opposite reactions by those inverse of them. Balance… is maintained through the actions and reactions of opposing forces.”
I frown at him. “The hell are you talking about? The world ‘aint a seesaw, it’s a food chain. We’re on the bottom, and people like Jones are at the top. Problems way up there get solved way up there.” I pull the morning paper out from my desk and toss it over to him. “You show me anything in there other than gods at war with gods. The only time us mortals make the news is when we get killed in the crossfire.”
He smiles, his sad little smile. “Making the news is exactly what we wish to avoid.” He slips to his feet and turns to go. “You’re quick,” he says, looking back. “Answers should come easy for you. Provided you’re asking the right questions.” And then he was gone.
That’s how it started. Honestly, I don’t remember much of what happened after our first conversation. None of it seemed significant. Until a few nights later, there I was, standing face to face with Genesis Jones, staring into his wild eyes, freshly rigged nitro-spike clenched tight in my sweaty hand. As soon as I saw him, I knew something wasn’t right. He didn’t look like the pictures I saw in the papers. He was clutching the broken body of a little girl close to him, like a kid clinging to a rag doll. I don’t know, some guys have a bad reaction to the Victus Serum after prolonged use. They never told me what made him like that.
I lunged at him, but he didn’t flinch, didn’t let her go. I stuck him low in the gut and the liquid nitrogen instantly froze a good sized chunk out of his inner organs. Death was slow and painful, but he didn’t make a sound. Didn’t move. Held that kid close until the end.
That’s what I remember down here at Harry’s. I remember why they need me to do what I do. That the world needs to keep looking up in the sky for heroes, so nobody sees what dirty things are happening below its feet. And I remember how mortal it makes you feel when a man takes down a god.
Moriah Geer-Hardwick is an illustrator and designer. His interests include cinema, sequential narrative art, and robots. Mostly robots. He writes things sometimes.
With the dishes once again cleaned and shelved, Mona stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the small living room, mentally reviewing her to-do list. She wiped her wet hands on a small red-checked dishtowel while the men in her life sat on the couch watching television.
“Blue Stew,” her husband of nearly two decades, roused himself from an after-dinner nap to watch TV with their teen-aged son, Mulch. He reached instinctively for the remote control missing from the arm of the couch. Mona retrieved it from the floor and tucked it in his hand, kissing him gently on the top of his head. She knew she should wait for the next ad, but she had an agenda to keep.
“Blue Stew,” she said, “honey, I want a divorce.”
Stew, who had noticed a glimmer of restlessness at supper, fired back. “And I want a glow-in-the-dark Lamborghini that runs on lawn clippings, with a beer-scented air freshener.”
“You don’t have to move out,” said Mona. “And we can still fool around – when I’m drunk. I just want my name back.”
Stew turned to her. “You still have your name. Never lost it. Desdemona, since the day you were born. Your mom came from a different class of people.”
Mulch stirred. “Desdemona? Is that your birth name? Sounds like an angel.”
“Don’t encourage her,” said Stew.
“Except everyone in your father’s family calls me Mona. With his last name tacked on, Mona Everhardt sounds like a porno queen. I want a pretty name. I want the name I was born with.”
“That name don’t exist anymore,” said Stew. “It’s been taken out of circulation, retired like Wayne Gretzky’s number 99. There’s no going back. Besides, names ain’t nothing. They’re just a way to get the right person’s attention when you’re in a crowded place, when it’s just confusing to yell, ‘Hey, you!’”
“That’s a lie,” said Mona.
Mulch was interested. “Hey, Dad, can I have a divorce, too?”
“What do you want a divorce for?” asked Stew.
“I’ve seen it on TV,” said Mulch. “Sometimes you get money, like when the judge finds in your favor.”
Stew swatted Mulch on the shoulder with the magazine from his lap. “You want money out of me? You should pay me for the roof over your head.”
“You mean the roof you inherited from Grandma?”
“Does anybody else in this house want a divorce?” asked Blue Stew. “Somebody find the dog. Ask that old hound dog if he wants a divorce. Maybe we can get a group rate. You got to pay lawyers, to file the paperwork, to put it all down in legalese.”
“What about the lawyer that married you?” asked Mulch. “Is he still around?”
“What lawyer?” snapped Stew. “To get married, you just need a motivating incident, like a father-in-law with a shotgun, or one in the oven, and God’s everlasting blessing. It’s like wrinkles and gray hair; it just sort of happens. What on earth makes you want a divorce now, after all these years?”
“Cause we’re approaching our 20th anniversary,” said Mona. “And I don’t want to. That sounds like you can’t get out of it, when you get to twenty.”
“And nineteen was different?” Stew demanded.
“There’s just something about twenty,” Mona said. “Maybe because I was twenty when I married you. Maybe because Lizzie just turned twenty.”
“If we get divorced,” Stew began, “who’s going to mother our children?”
“I can still mother them without being married to you,” said Mona quietly.
“Mulch, what do you think about your mom moving out?” asked Stew.
“No more making my bed. No more curfew. Sounds like heaven,” said Mulch. “No offense.”
“Where you going to live, the Howard Johnsons?” Stew asked.
“There’s a halfway house in town, for unwed mothers,” Mona answered.
“But you are wed,” said Stew.
“I’ll be unwed when we’re divorced,” said Mona.
“They mean mothers who never had a husband,” said Stew. “You’ve had a husband.”
“At least you’re seeing it my way,” said Mona.
“How’s that?” Stew asked.
“Had: past tense,” said Mona. “It’s over.”
“This isn’t because Wiley Hitchens is finally between wives, is it?” asked Stew.
“What Wiley Hitchens does in the bedroom is his business. This isn’t about him. This is about opportunities. I want a life with less housecleaning and more dancing. Seeing as you haven’t danced since our wedding, I don’t expect you to understand.”
“You want me to end up like those hoarders on TV, with clutter piling up everywhere?”
“It’s your choice,” replied Mona.
“You’d never be a hoarder, not you, collecting everything and not letting go.”
“My father didn’t raise no packrat,” Mona declared.
“Even though you already collected a life,” countered Stew, “a family and a husband.”
“In your case, one is too many,” said Mona.
“Can we talk about this at bedtime? ‘All roads lead to bed,’ the man said. We’re still going to the same place, ain’t we?”
“I was thinking that we wouldn’t be going to the same place,” Mona explained.
“Well, where you going to sleep? We only got two bedrooms in the house. And I am not sleeping on the couch.”
“You were sleeping on it fifteen minutes ago, watching the news. Seemed pretty comfortable then.”
“You know I’m a sensitive guy,” Stew offered. “Sometimes news can be overwhelming. I can hear it, but I can’t see it. I can do one or the other. If I hear it and I see it, then I have nightmares. So, if I just hear it, then I stay current, but I can still sleep at night.”
“Hey, Mom, I’ll divorce you,” said Mulch.
“You have to be married to me first, Mulch,” Mona explained.
“So, I’ll marry you, then divorce you,” Mulch offered.
“I’m going to bed,” said Mona, spinning on her heels. “Don’t wake me.”
“Happy anniversary,” Stew called out.
Charlie C Cole lives with his family in Maine on land once owned by his great-great grandfather. He has been previously published in alongstoryshort, Blackpetals, The Blue Crow, The Sandy River Review, The Café Review.