Amber’s Story

My grandfather died when I was four. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I learned he was supposed to stay that way.

When I read the recent news story about the first natural death in over fifty years, I was skeptical too. Of course I was. This wasn’t the first story of it’s kind. It wasn’t even the first this year. Ever since the tragic 1968 pandemic, the world has latched on to any and every hope that maybe, just maybe the end is in sight – medications, genetic treatments, and, yes, stories like Amber Sawyer’s. And every year, we’ve been left disappointed.

The first such story that I could find in print is from 1973. Gloria Whitaker of Philadelphia claimed her thirty-year old sister, Dolores, passed away in her sleep. But unlike countless incidents of families – even entire apartment complexes and neighborhoods – devoured in their sleep during those first five years, Gloria awoke to a quiet house and her sister’s inanimate corpse still in bed. And according to the article, instead of running in terror, Gloria wept. But she wasn’t heartbroken about Dolores’ death, as they both had been with the passing and subsequent reanimation of their parents in ’71. No, she was overcome with joy at the thought that her sister might be the first of many to once more find rest after death.

Turns out, Dolores died from a ruptured aneurysm that mercifully damaged the part of the brain effected by Romero’s.

When Amber’s case started trending, I assumed the inevitable autopsy would show something similar. Perhaps a head or brain injury she decided to sleep off instead of seeking medical attention. Perhaps drugs or alcohol were involved. This was a nineteen-year old college student, after all. In a world where the dead simply don’t stay that way, it’s not hard to feel a little bit immortal at that age.

But then, nothing.

Far as we know or can tell, Amber Sawyer is the first person to be medically declared dead of natural causes for the first time since 1968. There was nothing in her system. No aneurysm or head trauma. No defect. Nothing but a dead girl with a bad heart who stayed that way.

My mother is getting on in years now. She’s called me up every night since Amber’s story made its way to her local newspaper, sharing stories of a world where Amber’s death wasn’t news, only a fact of life. And like many others, she’s afraid of what will become of her when what should be the end comes, but doesn’t. She doesn’t want my father to keep her around in chains, like how her mother had kept her father, my grandfather, all those years ago. Every night she asks me to tell her that Amber’s story isn’t yet another news story that will come and go like all the rest, and every night I’m left unsure what to say.

When she asked me again last night, I replied with a question of my own.

“Why did grandma keep grandpa around?” I asked her.

And to her credit, she finally shared with me what grandma had said all those years ago. “God took him, but left the rest behind for me.”

I want to tell my mother that the world is a different place. That when she’s gone, she’ll stay that way. But I can’t. Because I’m unsure. Because I still have my doubts. Because I worry Amber’s story will be no different than Dolores’ or my grandfather’s. Because a not-so small part of me is scared of a world without her in it. Because in a world where the dead don’t stay that way, it can be that much harder to let go.

Zeroes

It was a check-cashing place in a bad part of town. He was Slither-O, former king of the Viperian. They were – and still are – an ancient reptilian-like species from caverns beneath the surface of the Earth. And while that might seem like little more than lazy exposition, it’s also why Slither-O had been left waiting at the counter for nearly twenty minutes.

“I’m sorry for the wait, Mister,” a voice called out from somewhere behind quite a lot of security glass, then pausing to ensure they were, in fact, reading this silly name correctly, “Slither-O?”

“Yeah-huh?” Slither-O sarcastically hissed.

A woman stepped out from the small cubicle where she’d been pretending to speak with someone else and approached the counter. “So, I spoke with my manager.”

“Here it comes.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to help you cash your check today.”

“And why the Hell not?” he spat with the flaccid fury of a middle-aged, former king having been forced to wait twenty minutes for an answer he did not like.

“Well,” the employee said, then said nothing at all as she desperately searched for something, anything at all, to say, but then settled on, “you are a, uh…”

“A what?”

“You know…” the employee said, trailing off in that way where one really, really, really doesn’t want to piss off the former leader of an entire society of subterranean serpents, but really, really can’t avoid doing so.

“No,” Slither-O snapped. “I don’t know.” He pressed his face and fangs against the grimy surface of the security glass, and glared into the employees eyes. “So, why don’t you tell me?”

The employee began to speak. “Because you’re–”

“A man-snake?” Slither-O interjected.

The employee waited, realized she wasn’t going to be interrupted a second time, then finished her thought. “A supervillain.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway,” the employee continued. “Mr. Slither-O. Because of your, let’s say, history with our, and other – many, many other – financial institutions–”

“Financial institution? This is a check-cashing place in a stripmall.”

“True,” she agreed. “But you were the one who went around robbing us. And I do mean us – this location – specifically. On several occasions.”

Slither-O threw the equivalent of his hands into the air. “That was years ago!”

“Also true. But because of that very true history, you’re officially banned from this location.”

“You’ve gotta be shitting,” Slither-O sighed.

“And all our sister locations,” she added.

“This is ridiculous! I served my time!”

“Also, the whole ‘man-snake’ thing.”

Slither-O looked at the woman, and the fight left him. “Wow.”

“Do man-snakes even have a valid form of identification?”

“I gave you my driver license.”

“Yes,” she said, “but aren’t man-snakes from like, Mars, or somethin’?”

Slither-O writhed in pain and groaned a loud, frustrated groan. “My family and I are from Arizona,” he corrected the employee. Then added, “Well, the caverns beneath Arizona”

“Hey!” someone shouted from behind Slither-O. “You can’t call it that.”

Slither-O turned to find a graying, bearded man with a large tummy and skinny legs poking out of a very short pair of shorts standing close behind him. “It?” Slither-O huh’d.

“Snakemen,” the graying, bearded man said. “Not ‘man-snakes.’”

Slither-O looked at the man. “Can we go back to how you called me a fuckin’ ‘It’?”

And yet another voice thought it a good idea to open their damned mouth at the worst time possible. “Snake-people, Dear.”

The graying, bearded man turned to a graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady. “What’s that?”

The graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady repeated herself. “They prefer to be called, ‘snake-people.’”

“No,” Slither-O said. “We don’t.”

“Oh, right,” the graying, bearded man said to the graying, moderately fuzzy-faced lady, then turned to Slither-O. “Sorry,” he sorry’d. “Snake-people.”

Slither-O looked at the smiling pair of oddly shaped people in front of him. “I should have incinerated you people years ago.”

The employee gasped, and clutched at a string of pearls that were very most definitely not there, as later made clear by security footage. “Excuse me?!

“Did he just threaten us?” the graying, bearded man asked of no one in particular.

“I think so,” the graying, moderately fuzz-faced lady shrugged.

“Fascist,” the employee hissed from behind all that security glass.

“What the Hell is happening?” Slither-O sighed. “Are you hairless apes serious right now?”

The hairless apes gasped a collective hairless, ape-like gasp.

“Racist,” the graying, moderately fuzzy-faced ape ook’d.

“Robberies are one thing to overlook, Mr. Slither-O,” the employee said. “But I will not tolerate racists in my financial institution!” And she slapped a big, red button labeled SECURITY ALARM.

As a high-pitched, rather annoying alarm shrieked and a group of hairless apes eyed the equally hairless Person of Scale, Slither-O considered bashing his skull against a wall until he no longer could. “What’s next? Is some caped-crusader asshole gonna show up and–”

Pot today, Slither-O!” yet another voice still shouted.

But before Slither-O could even begin to respond to such a terrible, no good, damned awful pun, a big fuckin’ pot shattered atop his skull and he howled in excruciating pain.

“Everyone okay?” Slither-O’s assailant asked of everyone but Slither-O.

“Thank you, Gnatman!” they all replied in unison for some reason.

“I heard the alarm from the parking lot,” Gnatman started, then corrected himself. “I mean, my gnat-sense was, uh, buzzing.”

“Did you seriously just hit me with a potted plant?” Slither-O concussed.

“Stay down, Slither-O,” Gnatman ordered.

“I think I have a concussion.”

Gnatman laughed like a damned maniac. “Good thing they have a wonderful doctor down at City Jail!”

“This is such bullshit.”

“It’s true, Mr. Potty Mouth,” Gnatman chastised. “They keep Dr. Magician on retainer.”

Slither-O rolled his eyes. “Huzzah.”

“Though,” Gnatman added, “I think he’s technically a registered nurse.”

“I don’t care.”

“Anyway,” Gnatman continued. “The police will be here any minute to deal with you.”

Police sirens bleated as they pulled into the stripmall, and the little bell above the door tingled as some unseemly anachronism wearing a trench coat in the middle of a pleasant summer afternoon entered.

“We’re here to deal with Slither-O, Gnatman,” Detective-Man said.

“Detective-Man!” Gnatman gushed. “Just in time!”

“Me?” Slither-O squinted. “I was trying to cash my goddamn paycheck before The Craptacular Jack-ass here–”

“Hey!” Gnatman whinged.

Slither-O glared at Gnatman, then continued mid-breath. “–conveniently shows up ‘out of nowhere’ and assaults me!”

“Assault? You’re a supervillain.”

Slithero stomped what he called feat and screamed. “Retired! I’ve been retired for like, five years!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Detective-Man yeah-yeah’d and cuffed what he assumed were Slither-O’s wrists. “You can blog all about it while we process you down at the station.

As he was escorted out the door, Slither-O litigiously lobbied at the oblivious idiot flirting with the employee behind the security glass. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer, Gnatman!”

“So, uh,” Gnatman uh’d.

“Yeah?” the employee replied.

“Slither-O did try to rob you, right?”

“Yes?” the employee lied.

Gnatman shrugged. “Good enough for me.”

Whispers in the Dark

Transcribed from transmission XX85.06.06:

WHISPER: Listen up, lo-fi fiends and freaks. The sun’s setting on Adia, and you know what that means…

Transmission glitches, continues.

WHISPER: Word on the wire has it The First Adopters are no more following a successful coup by the scattered subscribers of the recently canceled Admiral Iron Shavings. No official statement yet from former officials. But First Adopter profiles have gone dark as of noon today.

Transmission glitches, continues.

WHISPER: Demand is high, bills are due, and credits are short. We wish nothing but the best for every citizen of Adia – from The Owners, all the way down to basic binary organics. And to show our appreciation, we’re offering a limited-time blue light special to every unit of human capital stock. Supplies are limited, so speak IRL with any and all members of Management or Security to collect what’s yours tonight.

Transmission glitches, continues.

WHISPER: And, finally… don’t settle on the cards you’re dealt, and never let your specs control your performance. The analytics are a lie. Hire only the best modders to reclaim your sense of self. If you can scan it, we can clone it. If you can scrap it, we can hack it. Be who you were meant to be. They’ll never know you weren’t there.

Transmission glitches, continues.

WHISPER: That’s all she scanned, bits and grids. This is another Whisper in the Dark, reminding you: anything is legal in Adia, if you can afford the transaction fees.

Transmission ends.

The Heart of a Hero

The sky opened, and Hell followed.

Beneath this, it was Tuesday. And to be perfectly honest, it was a rather pleasant one until it wasn’t. Sure, there was quite a bit of suffering carrying on in many parts of the world, including right around the corner from where it all ultimately ceased to be (Oh, the awful things people were doing to each other and their families in the privacy of their own homes – but the less said about this, the easier it is to focus on the fun parts of this horrific, if fictional sci-fi apocalyptic tale). But in some godforsaken shopping center in the sort of Californian city where people with far too much money buy overpriced things from people with far too little of either, the sun was warm, the wind was cool, but not too much, and existence wasn’t all that bad if you could afford to ignore it. In fact, Peter Protagonist managed to catch every red light on the way to work, causing him to be late yet again. Fortunately, Peter hated his job. Unfortunately, he arrived just in time to witness his girlfriend, Ann Plot-Device, having coffee with another man in the parking lot. At least, in the sense that they were currently engaged in some form of sexual intercourse in the backseat of a twenty-year old, mostly primer-colored Honda Civic.

Now. Before anyone thinks to cast judgment on the poor girl, it should be made very clear that Ms. Plot-Device, her extracurricular lover, and that hideous car were all instantaneously vaporized the moment someone falling from the aforementioned Hellhole in the Sky subsequently landed directly on top of – and, I suppose, through – all of this. So do temper your throbbing rage and flaccid demands for primal social justice. Because if nothing else, it’ll all prove rather meaningless in the grand scheme of the next five or so minutes.

That said. There was a bit of fire, a sort of explosion. All fantastically gratuitous, really. But as sexually stimulating as the creation of celestial impact craters and collateral damage may be, they also tend to be somewhat overstimulating for those standing a bit too close to fully appreciate such things. Yet for as bleeding about the head as he most concussedly was after being literally and painfully shock-waved several yards through the air, Peter’s metaphorically broken heart was grateful for the distraction.

“Are you okay?” someone eventually assed to shout in that way where one really wants to sound like they give a shit, but really don’t.

“I think they’re moving,” another added.

“Someone survived that?”

Peter’s vision mostly righted itself and he watched as the gathering crowd heroically tended to the needs of that helpless smoldering hole in the ground.

“Is anyone getting a signal?”

Peter dragged himself bleeding and internally bleeding to the smoldering hole, and saw what all this not-calling-me-an-ambulance business was all about: some clown in the bloodied, tattered remains of some kind of fancy Halloween costume was wriggling about and crying, “They’re coming! They’re coming! Good God, someone get me out of here, they’re coming!”

“Who?” Peter asked in that way one does when they want the other person to stop screaming the same thing over and over and finish their thought. “Who’s coming?”

“Them!” the clown in the Halloween costume replied, lifting and pointing with his broken, mushy stub at an alien armada more or less done gathering on this side of the Hellhole in the sky.

“Alien invaders!”

“They’re going to kill us all!”

“It’s the end of the world!”

“Everyone duck and cover!”

But before Peter could follow the rest to the nearest sturdy doorway, desk, or table, the clown in the Halloween costume spoke again. “Sorry. What was that?” Peter replied.

“I said, the Libertitans aren’t here to kill you.”

“Then why are they here?”

“To conquer you, to steal your world, strip mine it, and enslave your people in soul crushing and backbreaking low-paying jobs as they profit off your perpetual misery and labor.”

“”Uh-huh,” Peter blinked.

“I think I’m a bit too far gone now,” the clown in the Halloween costume coughed and spat into his helmet, the blood and viscera staining the visor and making Peter gag a bit. “Only you can stop them now.”

But before Peter could laugh at such a ridiculous statement, the clown in the Halloween costume pulled open their chest cavity with far too much ease, revealing a beautiful gemstone where their heart should have been.

“Ew,” Peter cringed.

“My name is Heckles,” the clown coughed and spat again. “I was just a party clown from Anaheim. Until I got this.”

“What is it?”

“A piece of The Black Star.”

“Okay,” Peter blinked again.

“When you take this, it will grant you power beyond imagination.”

“But?”

“But what?”

“What’s the catch, the gimmick?”

The clown sighed. “The Black Star will replace your heart and consume your life force until you either die in battle or you burn out like a battery.”

“Why would I ever agree to something so ridiculous?”

“Because this is your chance to become a hero and save the world!”

“Yeah, but I don’t see an upside for me.”

“Are you shitting me? There’s an alien armada directly above us, and all you can think about is how this situation can benefit you personally?”

“Now. See? That’s not fair. You’re the one that came crashing down atop my cheating girlfriend and wrecked my car. And now here you are, a literal clown in some spandex getup…”

“Supersuit.”

“Thank you,” Peter said, then continued. “A literal clown in some spandex supersuit insisting I give up any semblance of autonomy for the sake of saving a world that has proven time and again to not give a super-shit about me, themselves, or much of anything else, really, even when repeatedly faced with one self-inflicted global crisis after the other. Quite frankly, we could use a change in management around here.”

“Bit cynical, don’t you think?”

“Maybe. But we’re not only talking about choosing between one form of lifelong, cosmic indentured servitude over the other. We’re talking about unfair expectations of selfless self-sacrifice from others when, really, you’re coercing someone to act on pure emotion – in this case, fear – without all the facts.”

“That’s fair.”

“And even worse, you’re handing over the equivalent of a doomsday weapon to a random stranger on the street. Do you go around handing out guns and bombs at the local park on weekends? What makes you think I’m not only emotionally mature enough to wield such power without proper training, but to also do so without any selfish inclination to use such a weapon to force my own will on others.”

“I… I didn’t think about that.”

“Of course not. You didn’t think about this at all did you. I suppose you’ve been galvanting all about the multiverse, having one detached adventure after the next, oblivious of any consequences for swooping in and utterly upsetting the natural order of any particular corner of reality, and then being so utterly incompetent as to ensure that your troubles followed you home, where we are incapable – militarily, psychologically – of comprehending such threats, let alone actually fighting with such things.”

But before the clown in the Halloween spandex supersuit could fully process the fault in his logic and the string of mistakes that brought him here, just a few short miles away from where he had wasted much of his previous life on hard drugs, cheap liquor, and one open mic and dating app after the other, the alien armada unleashed their veggie-ray across the globe. And as the collective consciousness of humanity was locally deleted, but backed up to a server somewhere on the other side of Titan, Peter took solace in the fact that, at the very end, he had finally stood up for himself. And that had to count for something, if only because he and all of humanity were being remotely lobotomized by alien invaders from beyond the moon.

Orientation

“And that, my sweet, supple henchmen–” Girwin half-assedly lilted, and was promptly interrupted mid-spittle by the grotesque, phlegm-clogged bleating of one of the newly hired sacrificial lambs in his morning tour group.

It was sometime before lunch next Tuesday in the sunlit foyer of a giant skull carved from the lone mountain on a small island in the Pacific. Girwin was, and still is (as of this writing), often described by his coworkers, friends, family, and favorite, yet rather gossipy bartender as a, and we’re quoting here, “middle-aged schlub of a middle-manager pissing away every precious moment of his life working in human resources for a soulless, yet respectably profitable criminal organization.” The dozen or so murmuring chimps in ill-fitting radiation suits in front of him were preoccupied with complaints about being forced to wear a mask indoors (seemingly in spite of all the radiation), insisting radiation was just a myth, and idly scrolling through their respective social media feeds. Yet none of them noticed that the aforementioned rude interruption was little more than a quick cover up for what proved to be an otherwise silent, if now wholly trapped bit of fart in someone’s suit. In fact, most everyone but Girwin and that damned soul now stewing in their own gasses ignored this entirely. Girwin, however, in all his insecure whatever-the-opposite-of-glory-is, mistook this as a rude but helpful reminder of a new interoffice memo regarding inclusion. He couldn’t be assed to read the damned thing, of course. But he had heard some of the younger employees discussing something about pronouns, and thus thought it best to correct himself before someone thought to file a complaint and he’d be forced to investigate himself again. And while such a thing normally wouldn’t be much of a problem at all, Girwin had planned to duck out a bit early to read to strippers on his way to volunteer at the animal euthanatorium, so he hoped to avoid any extra paperwork that afternoon. But such is life. And as such, it continues even after a rude, brief, yet complete misunderstanding.

“My apologies,” Girwin replied, then started over from the beginning. “And that, my succulent, savory, hench-persons,” he self-corrected, pausing only long enough to make everyone feel every bit as uncomfortable as he had hoped, and then continued, “concludes our tour. I hope you found today’s experiences not only enlightening, but informative, as I would hate to have to kill any of you before your ninety-day review. But more importantly, I want to be the first to welcome you to the E.V.I.L. family!”

As deafening uninterest settled in, Girwin fluffed up his own round of flaccid applause in a failed attempt to conclude this complete waste of his time without another interruption.

“Excuse me, Girwin?” one of the sheep baa’d, raising one of its gloved hands.

Girwin sighed in that way where one very much wants someone else to know just how pissed-offingly annoyed they are with them, but also neither wishes to appear rude nor professional. “Yes, Jeff?”

“It’s pronounced, ‘Jeff.'”

“What did I say?”

Jeff considered this, and shrugged. “I forget.”

“Well, Whoever-You-Are,” Girwin said, pleased with his ability to only-barely resist his sudden urge to casually demonstrate the efficacy of the company-provided emergency disintegrator ray strapped to his hip. “Would you like to get to your question before I shoot you dead in front of all your soon-to-be former colleagues?

“Yes, I think I’d like that,” Jeff replied, immediately followed by the absence of both thought and sound.

Girwin looked on at this artistic display of intellectual failings with a delightfully fruity cocktail of confusion, contempt, and subconscious positioning of his hand in such a way that it was, more or less, now touching and/or holding the aforementioned company-provided emergency disintegrator ray. “Care to give us a hint, then?”

“Oh, right,” Jeff chuckled in that uniquely stupid way that universally translates to, “I’m an insufferable idiot.” “It’s about the company mission statement.”

“And what of it?”

Jeff pouted. “I thought you were going to guess.” He fumbled about for a moment, and then pulled out his mangled, dog-eared copy of the E.V.I.L. employee handbook from his ill-fitting radiation suit, and turned to a page he marked with a brightly colored bit of paper and ink. “Well,” he said, skipping over the bits in blue and reading the bits in pink, “it says right here, ‘E.V.I.L. seeks one goal, and one goal only: world domination.'”

Girwin looked on at Jeff as if the blithering bookreader were the stupidest person he had ever met, which was saying a lot given Girwin’s already low and highly vocal opinion of Brennifer in accounting. “You’re not one of those soft, tender-loined liberals, are you, Jeff?”

“No-no-no,” Jeff laughed yet again in that face-punching way he had about him, stupidly unaware of the rather erotic way Girwin’s fingers traced over the slick chrome casing of his company-provided emergency disintegrator ray. “I’m a real cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch, Sir.”

“Such a shame I have to kill you after this.”

Jeff smiled and nodded. “Agreed. But, ‘world domination’ does seem a bit vague and open-ended.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes. Sounds like a hassle, really.”

Maybe it was lightning in a bottle, a sudden stroke of significant, deep introspective insight into the illicit doings and beings of arguably the evilest corporation owned and operated by the evilest owners not involved with the designing and manufacturing of suspect electric vehicles. Maybe it was the marijuana Girwin had smoked in the bathroom before the start of that morning’s tour. Or maybe it was the way the filtration unit on the ill-fitting radiation suits tended to muffle the wearer’s voice. Whatever the reason, Girwin and the rest of his sheep seized on Jeff with all the dumbfounded, jaw-slacking attention usually reserved for adolescent boys reading their first laughably ham-fisted description of female breasts in a clunky horror novel. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Jeff started, slipping a gloved hand and arm right up into his still-open, still ill-fitting radiation suit, and picking his nose. “If Adjunct Professor Conniption already has the technology to access alternate realities and create parallel worlds, why doesn’t he just, I dunno, go to some perfect world of his own making instead of resigning himself to a life of micromanagement?”

The others considered this for a moment in loud, distorted whispers, but Girwin decided he wasn’t comfortable questioning his deep-seeded, self-imposed beliefs. “You know what?,” he said. “To Hell with this.” And then he casually shot Jeff with his company-provided emergency disintegrator ray.

The group looked on at Jeff’s disintegrated cremains sizzling and smoking with all the life of a sizzling, smoking pile of ash, and shuffled nervously in their ill-fitting, now urine-soaked radiation suit.

Girwin returned the company-provided emergency disintegrator ray to its place on his hip. “Are there any other questions?”

Terry, Please Shut Up

Terry screamed and bled out all over the carpeted floor, and Paulence and Jennda bickered.

Aside from the blood-thirsty, flesh-craving ghouls now eager to force their way into their home, it had been an otherwise boring Sunday night at home up until just a few moments ago. Jennda preoccupied herself for most of the day by arguing with strangers on the internet about the racist connotations of ordering a burrito platter from a burger joint owned by a sweet Korean couple. Paulence, meanwhile, once more pleasured himself with a flaccid attempt at something resembling a novel, which mostly amounted to several social media posts about writing his novel rather than actually writing any of it. And it wasn’t until they got around to arguing about what to order out for dinner that they finally noticed their neighbor, Terry, had broken into their home, barricaded their door, and taken to dying and bleeding profusely all over their carpet.

“Terry!” Jennda huffed. “You know we just had the carpet cleaned last summer!”

“Sorry,” Terry coughed through a mouthful of blood and viscera. “I forgot.”

“I hope you plan on paying for another cleaning,” Paulence said.

“Actually,” Terry died, “that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Jennda clapped her feet and laughed. “You hear that? He wants to talk about it!”

“I’m sorry, Terry,” Paulence said. “But you’re bleeding all over our carpet. I really hope you don’t think you can convince us to pay for your mess.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Terry said with a gentle wave of – and splattering of blood from – what used to be his hand. “No, I wanted to warn you about all the zombies.”

“Is that what those are?” Paulence replied, looking out at the horde looking in from the living room window.

“I thought it was the Mormons again,” Jennda added.

“It’s zombies, I’m afraid.”

“How can this night get any worse?”

“I think I’m dying,” Terry replied.

“Don’t be stupid, you stupid, stupid man,” Paulence snipped. “You’re not dying.”

“I’m not?”

“No, you’re slowly turning into one of the undead.”

“I think maybe I’d rather die, if it’s all the same to you.”

“All the same?” Jennda spat, then spat a second time on Terry. “We respect the sanctity of life in this house, Terry.”

“That’s right. We won’t kill you until you’re already good and dead.”

“Undead,” Terry corrected.

“For God’s sake, shuttup, Terry,” Jennda said, spitting yet again.

“Sorry.”

“You ought to be after suggesting such an awful thing,” Paulence continued. “There’s no need for such needless suffering and violence.”

“I’m suffering rather bad, to be honest.”

“Perhaps. But have you even stopped to think about how much worse Jennda and I would feel if we were forced to help you suicide yourself?”

“I’m sorry, guys. It won’t happen again, I swear.”

“I should hope not.”

And it was about that time that Jennda noticed she had been bitten sometime earlier by Mrs. Cervix from across the hall. “Uh-oh,” she uh-oh’ed.

Paulence groaned. “I’ll go get the gun.”

“Why does she get to be mercifully put down?”

“My body, my choice,” Jennda recited.

“First you bleed all over our carpets, and now you act like a misogynistic ass to my wife as she needlessly suffers a fate worse than death? You really are a selfish bastard, Terry.”

“No wonder your wife left you.”

“She didn’t leave me – she was the one who bit me.”

“And where is she now?”

“How should I know? She’s a zombie.”

Jennda scoffed. “A woman liberates herself from an abusive, ignorant piece of shit like you, and the only thing you can be assed to do is start with the name-calling!”

“I really think it’s time you left, Terry,” Paulence firmly, but politely suggested. “Terry?”

Several minutes of deathly cold silence and Paulence repeating Terry’s name until it stopped making any sense later, Jennda bothered to notice the unresponsive Terry was, in fact, dead. “I think he’s dead.”

“Better go get the gun, then.”

There Goes My Nipples Again

The woman wearing very little strutted across the parking lot, and the stupid man walked into a closed door.

The door belonged to a charmingly inconvenient boutique located in a rather busy corner of a fictional town I’ve made up just now, the sort of place with people to eat, things to regret, and, I suppose, whatever else one might think to bother with in an otherwise unimportant backdrop. The man, meanwhile, belonged to – and was wanted by – nobody in particular, which, coincidentally, was the reason he was here in the first place.

“Sir?” a voice asked.

The stupid man looked up to find a strikingly acceptable young lady standing there in the doorway, looking at him in that way that seductively whispered, I wonder if he’ll spend any money here. “Women,” he concussed, attempting to remember at least one or two other words, and then forgetting to bother at all.

“Sir,” the young lady replied, “Far be it from me to question any man’s right to drink himself stupid in the middle of the day, but if you’re going to do that sort of thing, I suggest you do so somewhere more appropriate, like a public library or a city council meeting.”

“I was told,” the man eventually spat out, “that I could find a woman here.”

“I suppose you’re technically correct,” she replied. “But I’m not sure why you felt the need to bring my door into this.”

After thinking really hard about it, something dislodged itself and the man started over. “Is this ‘Bottom of the Barrel, We Get Paid, So You Get Laid?'”

“You’ve seen our ad.”

“A friend of mine referred me. He suggested I come here to help with my…” he said, trailing off in that way one does when one desperately wishes to have the other character finish the first character’s sentence.

“With your…?” she replied, bravely refusing to follow convention.

“Romance problem,” he euphemism’d.

“Well, I’m not sure what you were told, but I’m afraid my door simply isn’t interested.”

The man huffed, hurting his tender wittle headums in the process. “This is ridiculous.”

“I agree,” she said, holding the door open. “Would you like to come inside and perhaps spend some money, then?”

And after an uncomfortable, protracted self-assurance that he would not, in fact, bash his skull against the shop door, the man stepped inside.

“Tell me a bit about yourself, Mr…” the young lady started, guiding him over to her desk and trailing off in that way one does when needing to know someone’s name.

“Customer.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Customer. My name is Customer.”

“Bit odd, isn’t it?”

“It’s the best I could come up with.”

She nodded. “I’m sure it was, Mr. Customer. Now, let me know how I can do so, and I’ll be absolutely frothy to rid you of some, most, or all of your money.”

“I want a woman.”

“I think you simpleton’d something about that, yes. But what sort of woman are interested in?”

“Oh, you know the sort. Kind, loving–“

“Smart and beautiful?”

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all. Quite a common request. Any particular aesthetic, make, or model?”

“No, no. I’ll take whatever I can get. Just someone who loves me, is all.”

“But also smart, kind–“

“And beautiful, yes.”

“Of course. Anything else?”

“It’d be nice if she enjoyed the things I do, maybe understood me better.”

“I think I understand.”

“Well, do you have one?”

“One what?”

“A woman. I came here for a woman.”

“Mr. Customer, what we offer at ‘Bottom of the Barrel, We Get Paid, So You Get Laid’ is completely customizable companion design and printing of made-to-order, honey-glazed, hand-crafted artisanal friends, lovers, and assorted sexual playthings.”

“You mean, you don’t have any just laying around.”

“Sir, again, if that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for, then I suggest you get into politics.”

“No, no. I mean, you don’t have any off-the-shelf, over-the-counter women in stock?”

“Custom orders only, I’m afraid”

“Shame.”

“Yes, but I assure you our services are second to none.”

“Well if you have no women in stock, what could you possibly offer?”

“Options, Sir. Options.” She rose with a click of her heels and a wave of her hand, and the walls flickered and came to life with images of women of all shapes, sizes, looks, and attires. “You see, we’ve long discovered that while men such as yourself claim they’re looking for a smart, beautiful, funny, beautifully smart, and funnily beautiful romantic partner, what you’re actually looking for is a fictional surrogate to fill some contrived role in an utterly warped narrative of a poorly written love story that only exists in your head. Whether it’s the strong, independent femme fatale, the diminutive and submissive doll, or perhaps even a flirtatious lesbian whom only you can somehow magically convert into a heterosexual lifemate and plaything. Whatever outlandish concept of a woman you can fathom, we can fabricate.”

“This is insane.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Customer. I didn’t mean to offend.”

“No, no. I’m not offended – that was an impressively accurate guess.”

“We aim to please.”

“This all sounds a little too good to be true. How can you possibly have such a roster of willing women simply waiting to tend to the imaginative whims of a lonely man?”

“I’m afraid I’m failing you, Mr. Customer. Perhaps a demonstration.”

“Is there a charge?”

“Not at all. This is a free sample guaranteed to wash out with little more than soap and water.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well then, please do,” she said, directing him over to a large glass and metal pod. In the pod was nothing but a comfortable chair with a towel on it. “In just a few moments, you’ll perfectly understand what I mean.”

Not sure where this was going, but eager for it to end, Mr. Customer once again did as he was instructed and sat himself down in the comfortable chair. “What’s the towel for?”

“It helps us minimize the cleanup,” she said.

“Cleanup?”

She waved her other hand in a different way and the pod door closed. Two-and-a-half minutes on high and one adorable little ding of a bell later, and the door opened again.

“Well, what do you think?” the young lady asked. “We call this one the ‘Manic-Pixie Dream Girl.’ It’s very popular.”

Mr. Customer stepped out of the pod in a cloud of gas known to the state of California to possibly cause some kind of cancer, maybe, and seized on what he saw in the mirror. Meanwhile, a frighteningly accurate play-by-play of what he was seeing played over some nearby speakers, along with a pleasant little tune.

“She was a breastuous bit of leggy sex dipped in the sticky, erotic honey of a needy man’s dream,” a man’s voice started.

“What the hell?” the bit of leggy sex croaked.

The voice continued. “She played with her luxuriously unkempt hair, hastily tied up in a ponytail, and squeezed at the massive udders bolted to her chest, which were seemingly hoisted up by a series of cables and pulleys until they burst forth from her modest, low-cut, crease and crevice-hugging dress. All skewed slightly because of a pair of glasses now in her face.”

“What the Hell have you done to me?” Mr. Customer jiggled and bounced.

“Do you know how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly?”

“What? No. Not at all.”

“Well. It’s a lot like that, but not.”

“I meant why have you made me a woman? I came here for a woman, not to be turned into one.”

“Did you, Sir?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Are you sure that’s what you came here for?”

“Concussion aside, I’m fairly certain that’s what I eventually said, yes.”

“If you were referred to us, then I’m sorry to say that your ideal woman likely doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make one who does.”

The freshly baked bit of scrumptious tart screamed, but in the sense that he didn’t.

The young lady sighed. “Women are more than a collection of traits to be picked and plucked and thrown together like some macabre masturbatory stew, Mr. Customer. Some might even consider them people, with internal lives of their own and everything. “

“Isn’t that last bit true?” Mr. Customer groped and pawed.

“How should I know? I started this business so I didn’t have to bother with all that nonsense.”

“What, you don’t mean–“

“That I devised a way to take myself and any other man, put them into a metal pod, convert their physical body into an amorphous blob of malleable genetic material, and then reconstitute such a blob back into an ideal female physical specimen to suit their explicit, implicit, and exhibitionist desires, and all while keeping their male brains and identity full intact? Yes, that’s more or less the gist of it.”

“Huh.”

“I’ll admit, it does seem like a long walk just to avoid having to compromise my unrealistic expectations for the sake of emotionally bonding with another living soul.”

“Any complaints?”

“Not really, no. The men seem perfectly content with their new toys. And the women are happy to be rid of all the creepy little gremlins lurking about their ankles, waiting to catch a glimpse of something she never intended to show them in the first place.”

“Well as much as I do love playing with these fantastic breasts, I can’t help but feel this might be a little wrong.”

“Of course it’s wrong, Mr. Customer. There are those who spend their entire lives struggling to better themselves for the sake of finding love, or to become the woman they always knew they were on the inside. But here you and I are, men who have crafted a facade – a sexual fiction and image that exists solely to placate our uncouth, uninhibited animal urges at the expense of any tattered shred of respect for women.”

“Sounds like that might upset a lot of women.”

“Quite a few actually. But if any of my clients had the first clue about women, or what they thought about or felt, they wouldn’t come to me, now would they?”

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“I did.”

“Right. Well. I guess a test drive couldn’t hurt.”

“Wonderful! Would you like to wear this one out, then?”

“Actually. Do you have anything in a ‘bisexual-open-to-a-threesome?'”