Still Faces

 
 

“Bahahaha,” Lin rolls back laughing, one hand almost losing grip of the oar. “Oop!”

Jay scoffs. “What’s so funny?”

“Wh-when you said faces in the water I thought you meant”—shakes his head, still chuckling. “You made it sound like you saw a mermaid.”

Jay grunts. “No…No, no. That’s on you. All I said—”

“You said, ‘Lin, Lin, you have to come with me to the green shoals. I-I-I saw something.’ I asked you what you saw and your eyes grew the size of the moon. ‘I saw…faaaces.’ ” Lin laughs. “You left out the statue part.”

Sullen, Jay huffs, “I think they’re neat. How old do you think they are?”

“Mm, no older than your mother.” Lin shoots him a glare. “Sorry-sorry,” Jay waves his hands: please-don’t-hit-me.

“Everything’s a joke to you.” Jay says, Lin only shrugs. “Think it’s from before the rifts were sealed?”

“Who knows?”

“Looks like one of the seven nobles. A little like Vasna,” Jay cranes his neck as the boat glides over the statue’s face, looks over the other side of the boat. “Give me a coin.”

“Eh?”

Holding his hand out, “Come on, I know you have one. Give me a coin. Anything. I want to say a prayer and make a wish.”

“Pfft, you don’t believe that stuff do you?” Lin asks, but is tugging at the coin pouch on his belt. “Here.”

“Thank you.” Jay holds the coin close, mutters a few words, touches it to his forehead, flicks it into the water.”

“What’d you wish for?” Lin asks.

“For you to learn some respect.”

That shuts Lin up and for the rest of that day the two friends talk little.

 

Twisted on the Inside

 
Art by:  Ben Wanat

Art by: Ben Wanat

 

Water cuts through the rising steam. My tea bag flips and flops like a fish on land. The little sand timer, four minutes draining away, a gift from…Who? My—no, not mom. I…I don’t remember. An office party I think, no. Something at work though. A gift exchange—white elephant I think. The sand is drained. Two sugar cubes, plop-plop. Although they don’t look much like cubes. The white ones do, but I never liked those. Too perfect. I use these rough cut ones. More like little lumps than cubes.

Long night. Must have been. Can’t remember what I did. Head feels fuzzy, full of fluff. Don’t remember drinking. Let’s see, how did I get here, right here. Let’s go back. I…Well I came downstairs. I must have because I’m in my kitchen. But I can’t remember doing that. Okay, now hang on. I remember making tea. Putting the kettle…No the kettle was already in my hand. It whistled, right? It must have. Of course, the water was steaming. Why can’t I remember anything before…Now hang on, hang on.

The room spins. Colors swirl like a child’s finger painting. Then it isn’t just colors, but the walls bending, flowing like molten wax. My counters, the table, the chair I’m in—when did I sit?—all melting. All drawn down, down, down. Pulled inward. All is in a vacuum. I’m not falling, there’s no where to fall. Everything hangs, suspended, yet pulled down, down, down towards a point of light the width of a pixel. A single pinprick in the black-on-black canvas of night.

From that point rise whispers. An ancient promise.

“Hey," George taps my arm. “You alright?”

I’m in the break-room, the electric kettle gurgling, stream wafting from its spout. When did I get here? The first thing I think to do is look at my hand. Even before I do I know it won’t be right, I can feel it. Not physically—although that doesn’t feel right either—but inside. It isn’t whole. And when I look through the hole in my palm my feeling is confirmed. “I’m alright.” I tell George.

“Finish up your tea, or whatever you’re making,” points at the kettle. “We’re talking about the Miller proposal.”

“Yeah.”

“Your water’s boiling.”

“Thanks.” I say and George turns to go, pauses a second. “Oh, I almost forgot. You left this on my desk.” He sets a sand timer on the counter.

My hand looks like one of those pictures of a hurricane taken from space. I look through the eye, see the timer, move my hand, see the kettle, my mug, the box of loose tea.

I take a sip, set my tumbler on the park bench. A small gathering of birds start at the movement, but return to eating the crust of bread they’ve pulled from a nearby garbage can. I hear whispers. Promises, threats, curses, cries, pleas, anything to get my attention. I take the lid off my mug and tendrils of steam rise, wrap around my face, and pull me in.

Drowning is awful, drowning in near-boiling tea is worse. I swim to the surface, drag myself onto the beach, and spit. Crawling things fall from my mouth, wriggle their way into the sand. I lay there, my skin is mush. Birds come and pick at me, eat flaps of tissue, peck at exposed muscle.

I turn in my bed, cough, wake and gag. Sheets twisted around my throat cut my air off, I claw myself free. Take long, deep, breaths. What the hell? Look at my hand, see my room’s door. Blink and try again. Now I see my hand, whole. Close my fingers, open them. No hole.

Downstairs the water in my kettle is boiling. Did I put it…But then why am I still in bed? I already know this is a dream, but what I don’t know is who the dreamer is. Me, here, in my room, or the one downstairs standing in front of a cup of tea?

 

Road Rage

 
Art by:  Fred Augis

Art by: Fred Augis

 

“You’re going down. I’ll smear you, hasher.” Rancid snarls, slams his visor down. Throws a leg over his bike, turns the engine, pulls a chain from his saddlebag and spins it around his wrist making a thick ball.

Dice grunts a laugh. No one smears me, fucker. Never has. Never will. “Let’s do this.” Hops on her bike, pulls the mace from its magnetic holder on her back. An iron pipe with a lithium ion battery running inside the length of it, a flip of a switch and it’ll give a shock powerful enough to kill an elephant. Also fry a car, or motorcycle for that matter.

Rancid ties his scarf to the loop at the back of his helmet, hits the gas, and tears out of the parking lot. Dice gives chase, her own scarf trailing in the wind. They fly past factories belching smoke into the neon lit sky. Billboard blimps pass overheard, cigarettes, condoms, lotto games, ads for vice after vice. Rancid cuts between an old truck and a police cruiser. Dice follows. The cop spots the scarves and let’s the bikers go. It’s the rare cop that gets between a road feud and lives with the story.

Ahead, an onramp curves up to the freeway. Rancid takes it to the third level, zags behind a triple-trailer semi and guns it. Dice loses sight of him, hits the gas, dips her head, and shoots down the lane weaving between cars.

A flash of bright metal slices the air, cracks her left hand. A sudden tug almost breaks her grip. Rancid’s chain is wrapped around her hand, she shakes it free. Passes her mace from right to left and swings. Rancid hits his breaks, the mace misses him by feet. Dice mashes the gas and sends her bike screaming down the freeway, checks her mirror and grins.

Spinning his chain in the air like a lasso, Rancid chases. They zig-zag through traffic, drivers gasp in surprise and fright, then curse and wave their fists in anger. Damn road ragers and their feuds. Dice cranks the throttle, leans hard to swing around an old sedan, skims the ground with her knee, sparks fly, rights her bike and charges on.

Rancid reaches into his saddlebag, throws something. Dice has enough time to spot the caltrops to turn out of their way. The car next to her isn’t so lucky and has four flats a moment later. The screech of slammed brakes, metal crumpling, the shatter of glass catches Dice’s ears. In her mirrors a pileup starts. Damn it, Rancid, you’re not supposed to bring innocents into this. Not the first time he’s done it either.

Dice flips a cover on her gas tank, hits a switch, drops low, holds on tight, and exactly three seconds later her bike lurches. The burst of Nitro surges through the engine. She blasts down the freeway after Rancid. Hits a hundred-twenty, one-thirty…one-forty. As she passes Rancid she twists his scarf around her mace like wrapping cotton candy on a paper tube. Jerks her hand down, snaps his head to his right, and keeps going. Rancid is ripped from his bike. Dice drags Rancid fifty yards then flips the switch on the mace priming the battery, lets go. Rancid and mace tumble along the freeway at a hundred miles an hour. They connect. A burst of electric blue ignites.

Feud over.

 

At the Source

 
 

They walk through the woods seeking an audience with Matariel, the Source. Only if they’ve done well will they be visited. They woke with the rising sun. Greeted the new day with the tea ceremony they practiced hundreds of times. Dawned their new robes and set out.

They walk in silence across the forest floor, saying nothing. A sudden growth of moss greets their every footstep when they’re on the correct path. Not there before they step, they know they’re going the right way when the moss meets their feet. If they step on stone, or pine needles, or leaves, or anything other than the moss they change course. Matariel guides them.

The sun hasn’t moved. Still at the eleven o’clock hour since they entered the forest. They walk into a grove, the ground slopes at a gentle angle. Steps cut into stone cradle a pool of water. Lilies and leaves on the water’s surface part as an orb rises. The three stare into the orb and Matariel appears. The center of the three raises a dish blessed for this occasion.

Matariel’s hands move, fingers form signs, no visible transition from one to the next, bright crystal lines hang in the air. The dish fills. All three hear Matariel’s words in their head, “Drink and see.” They do as told, each in turn, eldest to youngest—although only days separate their births. And see they do. The passage of time. Trees grow from seeds, birds roost in the branches, their nests fall, the trees die, from the mulch grow flowers and ferns. Worms burrow into the soil, mushrooms burst forth. A baby crawls, stands, becomes a child, takes tentative steps, grows into adolescence, walks with confidence, is an adult, then grows old, curls up, joins the dirt. The three see life in all its fullness in the span of a breath.

When they return Matariel is gone, the pool too is no more. They're sitting amid a grove of ferns surrounded by ancient trees that hum with beauty. They smile at each other, and still not speaking, return home. What is there to say? There are no words after such an event. Sometimes life is too big to try and fit into the limited confines of language. Matariel showed them just how massive life can be, and for that they are grateful beyond the use of sounds made with a mouth. They’ll carry this back to their village and share what they learned through action. Action alone allows for the grandeur of Being to be seen.

 

Growing Infection

 
 

The children turn so fast. Daisies, poppies, dandelions. She’s sitting in a meadow, runs her hand through the grass. Tears roll down her cheeks. Two days ago she played hide-and-go-seek with them. The five Maklen children. Now a patch in the field.

She looks at her arm, a blossom breaks the skin. New since this morning. Small, not yet open. She breaks it off. Feels only the subtle vibration the action causes, but no pain. When she woke and sat up in bed she felt multiple points of resistance, then heard tearing. Thorns had grown from her back in the night and clung to the sheets. She could only laugh and think Yeah, what’s the point in getting up? But get up she did.

The Hekinstein’s on their morning walk, hand-in-hand. Joel Hekinstein says they’re becoming redwoods, Judith says maples. It doesn’t seem to matter too much, the elderly last so much longer than the children. They’ll be trees, no one over fifty has ever become anything else. It’s the middle years, between the early twenties and the mid forties that go in so many directions. Some transitions last years, skin becoming bark in patches, blood slowing, hair changing. Melanie Yeets became a pine, took seven years. But for every Melanie there’s a dozen George’s. George became a laurel, as did Tiffany, Megan, Sarah, Dylen, and Cooper. Probably a few others she’s forgetting.

In her palm a thorn grows through skin, she stares at it for a time. Closes her hand, hard. Smears blood across her palm as she unfolds her fingers. Of all the things that might have happened to humanity is this so bad? When she tries to imagine what it’ll be like to be a rose bush she thinks of a book she read in school,The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. About a French man that suffered a massive stroke that left him afflicted with Locked-in Syndrome. He ‘wrote’ the book by dictating to a nurse through blinks of his left eye. Taking more than a minute to write one word. Working four hours a day the whole book took ten months to complete. Will I be locked in? she wonders. What will I see when my transition is finished? What will it be like to be a rose shrub? Will I feel the wind? How does a flower feel? Does it? Will I hear bees come to visit me? Will it tickle to feel them play in my pollen? She pushes her consciousness towards the part of her becoming a plant, but it’s like a wall. It feels like trying to walk into the side of a mountain.

The tree that was once her friend feels warm. “Hey. I—” she stops. Talking to a tree? Why? “Because you used to be my friend. Maybe you still are? I’m going to be a rose. We joked about becoming poison ivy, getting on people and causing them to burn. But you’re…” she looks up into the branches of the tree that was once her friend. “You’re gorgeous. I hope you can hear me. In a way I know you can. But what does a tree hear? Does it feel the sound of my voice? I know you can’t answer me, but maybe—” a pine cone drops onto her head. The instant it happens she winces, slaps the tree’s trunk. “Hey, come on.” As much as she wants to think that was Melanie responding she can’t help shake the idea that it was just a pine cone falling from a tree. Maybe it’s what I want it to be, she thinks.

A rose bud growing from her shoulder unfolds, its sweet scent wafts through the air into her nose. She wonders how much longer she has to experience smells as a human. Then she smirks, a human doesn’t grow flowers. But what is a human? A question with no clear answer plays in her mind as she heads home.

 

You Again?

 
 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Loh digs her hands into her pockets.
”You.” Duma’s tongue whips out, tasting the air, he spits. “You taste mad.”
”Fuck you, Duma. Fuck. You.”
Duma laughs. “You think I want to work with you? Uhn? I’ve heard about you. Please. Sooner we get this done the sooner I can go back to eating”—he leers—”babies.”
”That might actually be funny if I thought you were kidding.”
”Enough, you two. You both wanted this job, but I can’t have only one of you take it. It has to be a two person team and you’re the only two that responded to the posting. No one wants this job.”
Duma crosses his arms, grunts.
Loh sighs. “The reward still fifty-kay?”
Captain Ellis nods. “A hundred split, yes. We need this done, the sooner the better. I’ve been authorized to add an additional twenty if it’s finished by the end of the day. But you both have to return, that’s as much a requirement as is bringing in Phano’s head.”
”Any bonus for bringing him in alive?” Duma asks.
”No. We want him dead. Wanted him dead a month ago. The problems he’s causing”—Ellis grits his teeth, shakes his head—”they need to end.”
Loh adjusts her shoulders, the massive blade on her back shifts. “For sixty thousand I’ll whack the head off pretty much anyone.”
Duma grunts in agreement.
”You want transportation to the island? Or you going to figure that out yourselves?” Ellis asks.
Duma turns to Loh, “I know a fishing captain that trawls those waters. You willing to trust me to get us there?”
Loh stares into Duma’s eyes for a beat, searching for hints of deception. Finds none. “Okay,” she says. “Fine.”

Just shy of seven hours later Duma is laughing, carrying a bloody bag, dips his head in mock bow as Loh opens the door for him. Loh kicks Duma in the butt.
”Excuse me what,” asks Ellis’s butler. “You can’t come barging in like…Now hold on just a minute, Captain Ellis is in the middle…Stop right there.”
But the pair is too drunk to listen. Too giddy to pay the wrinkled old fart any attention.
”Ellis, where the hell are you?” Duma booms in the foyer. “We’ve got your head.”
Loh bursts into laughter. “You going to give him head?”
Duma, pauses, then as understanding dawns shares in the hilarity.
Ellis appear at the second floor landing. “That was quick,” he says. The robe’s cloth belt slips from his hand as he tries to tie it around his waist. From another room a woman’s voice calls.
”You busy, Captain?” Duma laughs. “You want this head, or that one?” Looking towards Ellis’s room.
”Both,” Ellis snickers. “That’s Phano?” Nodding at the bag in Duma’s hand.
”What’s left of him, yeah.” Loh grunts. “You said you wanted his head, we left the rest in the ocean for the sharks.”
”Any trouble?” Ellis asks.
”Trouble? Like the few dozen goblins? Or Phano’s pet Cockatrice?” Duma’s eyes widen? “That sort of trouble?”
”Howell, bring me the bag.” Ellis says.
The old butler steps to Duma. “Sir?”
”Oh, hey, look at that, I’m a sir.”
”A big green ugly one,” Loh shoulders the Orc. It’s like bumping into a tree. The fuck did that make her wet for? Good grief, how many did she have? She steps away, swallows, feels sweat form at the small of her back.
Duma sniffs, his tongue whips. His eyes dart towards Loh for a half second. Hands the bag to Howell.
Loh feels Duma’s eyes on her. Aw hell.
Ellis opens the bag, grimaces. “Yeah, that looks like Phano alright. I’ll have Howell give you each ten right now. Come back tomorrow, sometime after midday and I’ll have the rest.”
Duma glares. “What? That wasn’t part of the deal.”
”You think I keep that kind of money here? Give me a break, Duma. And I need to have a forensic mage verify this is Phano anyways. Find something to do for the next sixteen hours. You’ll get your money.”

An hour later, in the alcove of a bar, Duma moves his axe into a more comfortable position. Behind him the door opens, the sound of music, laughter, a glass breaking, someone calling for a drink. The door shuts, muting all sound save for falling rain.
Loh elbows him. “You got plans?”
”Sleep until I can get paid.”
”You tired?”
”Not really. Something about the smell of hot goblin blood gets me”—he spits. “Good night, Loh.” He steps out into the night.
”Whatever, Duma. Go fuck yourself.”
”He turns, water running down his face. How about you help me, you little bitch?”
God. Damn. She smirks. Runs right at him, jumps.
He catches her like she weighs nothing. “That’s what I thought,” he grunts.