My breath fogged the window as we passed Ogden Street. There was no First Street, but after the overpass, there’d be a Second and a Third. I’d ridden this loop many times over the years. It usually bore fruit.
The bus swooshed to a stop at Easy Street, where a man in a hoodie waited in the rain. A student at the university, I surmised as he boarded. But as he stood, looking for a seat, I saw lines on his face. Too old to be a student, then. Maybe too old to recall the grave mistakes of his own youth. Nevertheless, I moved the newspaper off the seat next to me.
He swung into it with a grateful glance.
“What brings you out on this stormy day?” I asked, flashing a friendly smile.
He pushed back his hood, shook out his hair. “I needed a walk. For inspiration. But then it opened up again.” He glanced at the leaden blanket hanging over the facades that flashed by.
“Inspiration? For what?”
A rueful smile. “A screenplay.”
I sat forward. “You’re a writer?”
This was lucky. Very lucky, indeed. A writer would understand why people do what they do. Ah, but I was getting ahead of myself.
“I have a story,” I said. “Will you hear it?”
He stretched a damp leg up the aisle. “Sure,” he said. “I’ve got nothing but time.”
I inhaled deeply, reined in my hope. “This happened a very long time ago,” I began.
Two prisoners sit side by side in chain-link cages—dog kennels, actually—the right hand of each is chained to a corner post.
I stole a glance at the screenwriter to see if he was picturing it.
“Yes, yes,” he said, nodding.
The prisoners are countrymen. But they are strangers, united by chance at a refugee shelter in a foreign land. One man is an aid worker and the other, a journalist, there to take photos.
The journalist sees a dusty Peugeot pull up beside the truck the aid worker is unloading. Armed men, their faces covered, jump out. He photographs the bewilderment and then the shock on the aid worker’s face as the armed men surround him and fold him into the car.
The journalist knows that Peugeot, and he knows where it’s going. The Resistance movement, whose flames he fanned with his photographs, is growing bolder. Arming recruits is expensive.
The journalist decides to follow the kidnappers. He will make good money with this story—this enslavement in the name of freedom.
But then he thinks about the aid worker, a countryman who crossed the world to help others, and he feels ashamed.
He will talk to the leader instead. He will convince him to free the innocent man.
This journalist is a fighter. When he meets the Resistance leader, he puffs out his chest. “You are wasting your time holding this man. Our government does not pay ransom to kidnappers.”
The leader smiles. “We will see, my friend.” He waves his guards toward the journalist. “Now we have two hostages. If our demands are not met by noon, one of you will die.”
So, the two prisoners wait, sitting shoulder to shoulder. Night falls. Their guard—a boy, really, with an automatic weapon—dozes fitfully and listens to their conversation. The journalist describes the wars he has covered, the plagues and famines and revolutions. He reveals what spurred him to try to rescue the aid worker.
The moon rises and then disappears in the light of a new day.
The sun heats their backs as it climbs in the sky. Suddenly, the aid worker laughs. It’s a chuckle at first, and then a great, sobbing, belly laugh.
“What’s funny?” the journalist asks, his lips sliding into a smile.
“The irony,” the aid worker replies. “A year ago, my lover spurned me for a ‘more serious’ man, and I tried to kill myself. Now I face death, and I am afraid.”
The color drains from the journalist’s face. The smile disappears. “So, what brought you here?” he asks finally.
The aid worker wipes his face. “No reason. I wanted my love to hear tales of my bravery. I wanted a purpose, so I picked a cause.”
“Boy!” barks the Resistance leader from a cement bunker across the road.
The guard leaps to his feet and lopes across the hard pack. The sun is directly overhead.
Minutes later, the guard heads back. He pauses in the road to pull a bandana over his nose and mouth. He shoulders his weapon and points it at the journalist.
“You,” he says. “The leader says you must die.”
“No!” shouts the aid worker. “He risked his life to rescue me. He is a hero. Take me instead!”
The guard ignores him. He kneels to unshackle the journalist’s wrist. Another guard emerges from the bunker to record the execution on his mobile device.
The journalist sits for a moment, rubbing the wrist that was chained. He leans toward his compatriot. “Keep me alive by telling our story,” he urges. “Tell the world of two brave countrymen willing to die for each other.”
The bus pulled over. Passengers shuffled forward as the doors sighed open. The screenwriter had moved not a muscle during the telling. Now he looked at me.
“So, you’re the survivor,” he said.
Judgment flashed in his eyes, but I deserved far worse. I must finish, I thought. I must tell it all.
“Their country did not bargain with terrorists,” I reminded. “No, I was the guard, and I shot them both.”
The screenwriter blanched, recoiling as if my sins would scorch him.
But then he whispered, “But you were just a boy. You were following orders.”
I closed my eyes and savored that small grace—not forgiveness, that was impossible; but understanding. That was enough. And for one more moment, I had brought them back to life by telling their tale.
A former journalist, Kimberly Caldwell is a book editor who is working on her first novel.
In a time when things were bleak, with plagues, witchcraft and inquisitions the party-pieces of fate and corruption, nothing quite so messed up your day like a village idiot. Where there was typhoid, she’d be spitting in your face in lisped lunacy. Where there was suspicion of the occult, he’d be running around in delight pointing at every woman in the vicinity and yelling “Witch, witch”, then giggling as the poor wretches were dragged off to the river.
It got so bad that tribal chiefs, bishops, rabbis, muezzin and shamen throughout the world were afflicted by a pernicious attack of cooperation. Tapping into the great shared consciousness we all know is accessed by a red intercom in the secret shelf they all take great lengths to hide, the reached out, discussed the problem and came to an agreement. The plan was to gather them all up and ship them off to the New Land where there was a lot of space and one tribe knew of a hollow butte like a labyrinth. Their chief swore that they’d never be able to find their way out.
Unfortunately they never reached their destination. A rather extensive rogue hunting party fell upon the detention party and slaughtered them, taking their goods and horses. Because of the suspicion about madmen, the idiots were allowed to go free — all three hundred of them. The braves laughed as they galloped off, certain that the elements would take care of them, without any bad luck risked.
Him Kerr (his parents couldn’t be bothered thinking up a name for a baby with a beard) stared after the disappearing horses.
“I’m thirsty,” Prudence announced. No-one knew her father, and her mother had fallen foul of one of the idiots who loved to shout “Witch!”
The rest sat back and waited for a cue. On the journey it had been discovered that these two were the great thinkers of the group.
Him had wet himself during the attack. “I smell water,” he assured them, pointing directly ahead, which just happened to be the general direction of Utah.
“Well, I’m going this way,” Prudence tutted and struck out in a different direction which, if she had the stamina and life-expectancy, might have led her to California.
Of course, these destinations are rhetorical, since neither state existed at the time. The group decided to split in half and follow each. Being idiots, the division was less than perfect. Most headed towards the virtual California.
There was a conference of sorts in the little-known colony of Garrick, California.
“We suck at this,” Patience said. “Mum sucked at it, and Granny Prudence sucked at it.”
Two generations of privation had instilled a bit of intelligence in the idiot line: they could now avoid the poisonous berries and manage not to squash the edible ones against their forehead when trying to eat. However, archery was still beyond them. Attempts to master it had also introduced a new concept into the idiot gene: hiding behind trees when someone was practising.
The six idiots around her nodded.
“We’ll have a competition,” Juan exclaimed.
“Eh?” Patience raised a quizzical eyebrow: she’d shaved her other one off brushing her teeth. God alone knows how. “How will that help? We all know how bad we are.”
Juan had an odd turn of mind. His father had been Killer Kerr, a fugitive who had passed through their little colony, marked the beauty of his imbecilic mother and done nasty things to her. He’d stayed for a month. Apparently she’d liked nasty things. In any case, some of those sociopathic tendencies had dribbled into Juan’s makeup.
“Yeah, but we can make others feel worse than us.”
The retinue of idiots, or Famulitium idiotae, nodded.
“They see they’re not as good as us at bows and arrows in the contest; feel really bad and pay us with food.”
It sounded really cool, but something didn’t quite sound right to Patience. Her brow furrowed – which was handy in planting season. Nope, she couldn’t pinpoint the flaw.
Three of the retinue spoke at once. The conflicting tones and timbres were like nails on a blackboard.
“What if they’re better?”
“Why would they give us food?”
“Who are “they”?”
Juan sneered at two of them and stabbed the third for pre-emptive emphasis.
“Because we’ll do the judging. Because we’ll kill them if they don’t. Because – oh you don’t care anymore, do you?”
Patience tutted just like her Granny Prudence. She walked over to Juan took the knife from his hands, wiped off the blood and put it back beside the deer carcass they’d found last week. “Oh you are a scoundrel, Juan.” She mused a bit. “It’s a fair question, though. Who will we invite to our archery contest?” She’d found a poster from a travelling show with a picture of a savage shooting a bow on it. The legend had been “–ness ___zing archery–”. Most of the writing was faded, but she’d got the idea and practiced the words over and over.
Juan pouted. “Summun new.”
The remaining Famulitium idiotae nodded, and adopted poses they reckoned looked like intelligent thinking.
“Anthropologists will argue that this group here,” Honyn grinned at the tour group as they stood in the shade of the air-conditioned bus parked in the road as near the dig as possible, “… were so engrossed in some great mystery that they forgot themselves and died of exposure, thirst, and hunger.” He moved out of the way of an assistant archaeologist, climbed a few steps back towards the group, and shaded his eyes. “Now I’ve got both Ohlone and Miwok blood in me, and I can confirm what I suspected way back there in the shade with you.” He scrambled the rest of the way to the bus. “They were just dumb white eyes.”
Derryman, Perry McDaid, has produced works both on an individual basis and in collaboration with both poetry and prose. His current novel, Paladin of Tarrthála (The Dissector’s Cut), is available through FeedARead and Amazon. He has said — “I’d sooner be read cheaply than be too cheap to be read.” He resides with his family in Derry, Northern Ireland, snuggled beneath the Donegal hills, and walks the country roads creating the humorous, the creepy, and the poignant.
I watched from the wall as they began arriving. First in ones and twos, then larger groups of desolate soldiers trudging towards the city. There was no doubting what this meant: the capital had fallen. The walls which had held for four hundred years were breached.
The horde would follow.
Behind me I could see the dusty road that led to the border. Already it was jammed with carts slipping away. We had been ordered to search anyone trying to leave, ensuring they didn’t take food or weapons. How were they meant to reach safety without food or weapons? How were they meant to reach it at all? Was there anywhere safe?
We had also been given orders to stand here, no matter what the cost, if only to give our countrymen time.
When my watch ended I walked home past the infirmary. I lingered by the door, listening for a few minutes.
“There were too many of them.”
“It was carnage. Only a small number of us…”
“…harried us all the way…”
“…it’s all gone…”
“…the stench. You can’t imagine…”
“On the last day we broke out. We abandoned them all. We don’t deserve to live.” That last voice was so tragic. He sounded like he wanted only the relief of death. I leant in through the door. There was nothing physically wrong with him. He stared wide-eyed as he gripped another man’s shoulders. “We made a mistake leaving them. I won’t make that mistake again. God will see that I stand here. And die if He wills it.” These were the survivors, and they would stand with us.
At home my son greeted me by leaping up. As if nothing was wrong. I looked at my wife. Her face showed nothing, but her eyes were sad. I said, “You have to go.”
“We’ve been through this, my love. I cannot leave. For his sake, go.”
She looked angry. It was unfair, I knew, but it might save their lives.
“You could…” she began, but I shook my head. I had taken the oath. There was no choice now.
“When?” she asked.
“Immediately. The horde cannot be more than a few days from here. If they surround the city, it will be too late.”
She burst into tears. Our son ran over and hugged her, not understanding what was going on. He was a good boy. I would miss him. I would miss her. Not for long, at least – that was a comfort.
I needed to do something. “I will pack what you need.”
“Where will we go?”
“As far as you can.”
“I don’t speak other languages.”
“You will learn.”
“I don’t want…” I stepped forward and held her, and my son. I knew. But there was no choice.
The gate was closed when we arrived. I begged the captain, persuading him with now-pointless money. He took it all. Through the small door I could see a few distant carts. “Hurry,” I said. “Catch up with them and you will be safer. A group of survivors is providing escort.”
She tried to speak, but couldn’t. They flung themselves at me. I pushed my wife and son away.
“Take care of him for me. Good luck.”
I turned. It would only get harder the longer it took. The captain closed the gate, and her sobs were cut short. I hoped she wouldn’t linger, but there was nothing I could do now. I had to get some rest before the battle began.
The survivors were scattered amongst us, filling our ranks. Seeing the numbers on the walls gave me brief hope, until I remembered who we were fighting. No walls could withstand the horde. No army could stop them. Sometimes no one survived – sometimes a few lived to tell the tale. My heart sank as a cold wind gusted round the city.
“The Baron has given orders,” said a man near me, a survivor. “No inch of the wall is to be surrendered. He will make a final stand in the keep. We must not leave our posts.”
Of course we wouldn’t. The walls looked strong. There was still no sign of any army. That gave me hope. Maybe there had been a miracle? At least my family would be long-gone before the horde reached us.
A horn blew, and there was commotion by the back gate. Surely my wife would not have returned?
The word spread rapidly. An ambush. The survivors described their battle. They had been driven back, separated from the women and children. When a chance came to return, the slaughter was complete. With nothing to fight for, the survivors rode back for the city.
My heart was ice. I had only one task to accomplish now. To avenge them. To drag as many of the horde to hell as I could, to make them pay for what they had taken. My death now meant nothing.
I heard the horn sound three times. It was the sound of an attack, but still no army. A man to my right screamed. And one to my left.
I saw a survivor thrust his sword through one of our soldiers and push him off the wall. The other side, the same. All along the walls, men were falling. I drew my sword to face the survivor in front of me. I recognised him from the infirmary, but his face was different now. He stared into my eyes, grinning. I raised my sword, parried his blow and responded as swiftly as I could. He crumpled, clutching his chest. I turned to face another, blocking a blow to my head. I prepared to counter, but felt the steel run me through from behind, and then a boot, and then merciful blackness, swallowing up the betrayal.
When not writing, and not suffering the burden of a very much less creative day job, Robert Kibble is usually upset about the lack of a single Russian oligarch with a preference for recreating zeppelins over buying football teams, is accidentally collecting whisky, or ranting about the vagaries of modern life. He has written a novella, “The Girl in the Wave”, which is a modern gothic horror set on the beautiful Cornish coastline.
You can’t find your keys this morning, so your wife drives you to work.
At dinner, it seems, the salt is lacking, but when you attempt to add some more, the shaker is bare.
The only consolation at the end of such a troubling day, of course, is Aurelius, but he too is absent from the shelf.
When sleep doesn’t come, the bedroom grows long, the blankets constrict the body, stretching over with elastic tension, blood stagnates in the head, and the ears sharpen to the muted creeping of thieves, careful things, biding their time in air vents and drains and the narrow crevices between walls, watching through miniscule peepholes.
Every day you notice something amiss: a sock, the lid of the blackberry jam, the spiral binder of your notebook. All that remains is a new scuff on the floor, and then the next morning the scuff too has vanished.
Things fleeced never return, things that were your life: a living room full of books and machines, kitchen stocked with food and garbage, bedroom decorated with modern art, cage-free eggs, excruciating whitening mouthwash, wedding ring.
Your life an aesthetic list.
You can’t catch them. All the traps you lay—the tripwire, rat catchers, fishhook nets—all triggered and taken. The shadows of subtle pilfering evaporate when you flick on the lights in the middle of the night, the little thieves darting into unseen corners.
Then one night the light doesn’t flick on, the bulb gone, the muted sounds of thievery persisting defiant in the dark.
One day, when the wife doesn’t return from work, you realize the thieves have become so emboldened as to rob you of her warmth.
The place barren now—skeletal frames of furniture and appliances with no content to fill them—life has descended into a new level of emptiness, the pinnacle of enforced austerity, but there is always more that can be taken away.
The next morning you find they have absconded with your doors. When you return from work, the windows are gone. Your house has become a Second Circle wind tunnel, every corner in constant, restless motion.
Then the frames of furniture drift away: the cushionless couch, the chairless table, bed frame, book shelves, carpet, refrigerator: more items struck off the list. Finally, all that is left is you curled into the corner of your bedroom at night, watching the hunched forms of the thieves flit through the shadows.
Bolder and bolder.
The less there is for them to have, the greedier they become.
It is only a matter of time before—a longing throb—you find the nail of your pinky toe missing, plucked neatly from your body.
By parts, they pluck your limbs from you: a foot, a forearm, a calf, a bicep . . . . One day you awaken to find a stillness in your body: the beating of your heart silenced. You can only imagine the pit there, flanked by slabs of lung.
One by one the organs of your body are ripped from you, cleanly, without any disturbing scar, just the memory scar of that wholesome feeling of filled body space.
By now you can only shamble about, the bits of you that still poke out exploring the parts of you with holes. With the exposed retina of the one remaining eye you piece together that they have stolen the entire left side of your house, parts of the roof, the floor. Beyond that are giant, empty bites out of the earth, the sky, existence.
Worst of all, you realize, staggering on the brink of a void, somehow, throughout it all, they managed to steal your volition and motivation to fight back.
Finally, the pathetic scraps of sleep and solace that had been left you are yanked away: at night all there is to do is watch their slight, bird-clawed shapes lurching through the darkness as they plunder through the pathetic remnants of your ravaged life.
As you stare blankly, they rip the digestive system out of your mouth, the circulatory system out of your chest, skeleton out of the hole in your arm, and then, with their little thief hooks, your entire nervous system out of your nose, brain and all, leaving behind the deflated folds of skin that had once been the mask people had called “you”. Then, of course, that goes too. It all goes, every atom, until you are not really sure what it is the thieves were charitable enough to leave behind.
Nothing, it seems.
The edges of vision.
But then you see it flashing in the corner of your mind, distant and tantalizing.
Your car keys.
You reach out and grab a hold of them with psychic energy, reel them into your essence, and from there associations begin to branch out: your car and travel coffee mug, your house and fence, your refrigerator and wife, all the books and wood, paint and carpet, paintings and spaces. It all begins to fill back in, and you find that you are not only grasping the keys mentally but are also gripping them physically, can feel the metal biting into your palm. There is more, as well. Carpet fuzz beneath the feet. The sight of the disorganized kitchen counter. The cloying smell of overripe fruit in the fruit bowl. The sound of your wife preparing for work in the bathroom.
Everything seems miraculously as it was before the thieves: so present.
As you drive out in the sunlight, the universe is not full of holes, but you can’t shake the feeling that this dangling keychain, this car, these thick hands, this brain, none of them belong to you.
Tim W. Boiteau’s fiction has appeared in journals such as LampLight, Kasma Magazine, and Write Room. He was a 2012 finalist in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open contest.
From a dim corner I laughed as I watched Ashlyn coax Dr. Jesmit into Graves’: a clever rabbit drawn into a den of foxes. Dr. Jesmit had clawed her way from a third tier slum to a first tier office in the world’s biggest tech company and then thrown it all away on principle. It would be hard to pass judgment on a creature like that.
My stone sat heavy in my pocket.
“I want you to see what I’m offering you. What I’m asking of you,” Ashlyn said.
“I know,” Dr. Jesmit said, “I just didn’t realize — there’s so much.”
Ashlyn laughed making thin black creases in the shimmery gold around her eyes. “This is Mr. Graves’. Circus employees only.”
Mr. Graves’ was brimming with gambling, sex, and the cleanest eating in the world. We were allowed no drugs or junk food so we could be at our best for the crowds. The Circus was a religion, after all. It required sacrifice.
“This is Baker Vegersteff, the Master of Clowns,” Ashlyn said. Clowns crowded around Baker. “A scoundrel for sure, but a kinder soul you’ll not find. We discovered him in a traveling show in Romania. When he joined us, he’d been awake four days with a dying elephant.”
“Why did it die?” Dr. Jesmit asked.
“Why do any of us die?” Baker said. “She was mortal.”
“Of what did she die?” Dr. Jesmit said.
“Bureaucracy,” Baker said. “Our Animal Transports were out of India. They were ingenious in how they absorbed shock so the animals didn’t get motion sick, but only if the gears weren’t too dirty. If we took them apart for cleaning, we couldn’t get them back together. We had to send them back to India. Customs in India didn’t want them back, though, once they’d been in contact with animals. A piece of the hydraulic system on her door had come apart and cut her legs. She died of infection.”
“Do many animals die as a product of being in a circus?” Dr. Jesmit asked.
The room hushed, giving away our trick of listening without being quiet.
“Every single one of us,” Baker said.
“We use the same transports here,” Ashlyn said, the disapproval in her voice not daring to crease her makeup as her laughter did. “Nobody’s died, yet.”
Dr. Jesmit nodded. “I could reconstruct a transport.”
“Not legally,” Baker said. “Reverse engineering is considered corporate sabotage by the U.N.”
“I’m aware,” Dr. Jesmit said.
“That’s pretty dirty for a corporate scientist,” yelled a clown.
“I think you misunderstand the nature of corporations,” Dr. Jesmit said.
“She’s got my stone,” said Baker, a hearty laugh making his hoop belly shake wildly around his reedy frame.
Several of the clowns slapped each other on the backs, piled their stones into Ashlyn’s hand.
Ashlyn guided Dr. Jesmit around the room, her hand at the small of the Doctor’s back. I wondered if we were going to acquire Dr. Jesmit so Ashlyn could have her or if Ashlyn would have her so she could be acquired.
“This is Legion Comfrey, a tent tech,” Ashlyn said, coming to politic to me.
“What do you do for the Circus?” Dr. Jesmit asked.
“I sweat for it. I bleed and ache from muscles down to bone for it. What do you plan to do for our Circus, Dr. Jesmit?”
“Develop more efficient generators and maintain the more advanced equipment.” Dr. Jesmit studied me. “Perhaps I can find a way to ease your burden.”
“Ain’t you helpful,” I said.
“Isn’t that why I’m here, Mr. Comfrey, so my usefulness can be judged?”
“Your usefulness ain’t what we’re judging. I’ve read some of your papers. I especially liked your work on low cost prosthetics.” I shook my prosthetic foot for her. “It’s easy to lose parts when the tents go up.”
“Then what are you judging?” she said.
“The weight of your soul, Dr. Jesmit, the direction of your compass. We all keep our Circus rolling, from the Mistress of the Skies here,” I pointed to Ashlyn, “to Daisy Germel who scrapes the trash from the ground before we disappear. We have to make sure you can dance before we invite you to the party.”
“I understand,” Dr. Jesmit said.
“I doubt it,” I said. “I’ll hold my stone for now.”
“Your stone?” she asked.
“We cast stones,” Ashlyn said, “to vote on whether or not to allow you to join the Circus.”
I produced my stone. “They’re all identical. When all the stones are cast, they’re weighed. I know you’ve won the clowns’ stones, but us tent techs will need a little more convincing. Many of us have been kicked out of fine nations to be citizens of the Circus. Our mothers won’t claim us and the rest of the world only wants us on their stages but not on their streets. I’m not sure you can bear that kind of honor.”
“So you’ll do unto me as they’ve done unto you?” she said.
“Trust me girl, the irony ain’t lost on me,” I said.
Dr. Jesmit smiled. “So the lobbying continues.”
“Guess so,” I said, unaffected by Ashlyn’s glare.
Ashlyn paraded Dr. Jesmit to the juice bar so the food vendors could have their turn. I jostled the stone in my pocket. I hadn’t wanted to like her.
Truth told, though, casting my stone had nothing to do with who I liked. She would be a boon for the Circus. The Vid feeds remembered how New World Industries had tried to rake Dr. Jesmit over the coals when she gave away her plans for low cost prosthetics after they’d rejected them. Her prosthetics were better than the expensive ones. The Circus had to have a Mistress of Engineering, so it seemed right to get the one willing to piss off a global corporation now and again.
It wasn’t in me to spare kind words though. I slipped by Ashlyn and dropped my stone into her pocket, leaving politics to the performers.
Sara Jackson lives and loves and makes believe in Oklahoma where her advanced use of sarcasm is underappreciated.
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