Coyote

A SAFE PLACE

(FOOL, in a chair before all, restless.)

FOOL

I never thought I could kill anyone.
Until I did.

All I wanted was some fuckin’ ice cream, man.
It’d been pushin’ a hundred all week,
and I was sweatin’ like crazy every night, all night.
Y’ever been so hot
you stick your head in the freezer just to cool off?
Y’ever get stoned out of your mind
just so you can forget how hot it is?
Well, when you’re both,
ya know,
shit happens.

The last thing I remember before it all went screwy,
it’d have to be standing in line
in this sweatbox of a gas station,
right around the corner from my place.
I had that ice cream in my hand, man.
Sweatin’ there in this long fuckin’ line,
wondering the fuck there’s a line at two in the mornin’.
Then I finally pay, step outside,
and then nothin’.
No stars, no black, no nothin’.
Just, nothin’.
Didn’t even get to open the wrapper, man.

I remember the way the man cried.
He was,
how do I put it?
He was fuckin’ losin’ it, ya know?
I remember’ just kinda blippin’ in to that,
ya know?
One minute, I’m all about that ice cream.
The next, I’m in the middle of a fuckin’ canyon.
The sun’s coming out.
It’s finally cold as shit, and everything’s wet.
And there’s this guy tied up next to me.
He was just layin’ there, losin’ his fuckin’ mind.
He was cryin’ and screamin’.
Shit was runnin’ down his nose.
He was chokin’ on his spit and everything.
I don’t know what happened.
He looked fine.
Nothing had happened.
Yet.
Maybe I’m the weird one for not acting like that.

She wore a Coyote mask, jeans, and a Ramones tee.
Her voice sounded young, but
something about the way she talked,
I don’t know,
it’s like she’d been doin’ this a while.
Like, there’s that way people talk
when they’re really comfortable doin’ shit,
ya know?
Like, they got this shit handled. No worries.
Ya know?
Real boss-lady type shit.
The whole thing’s really fucked up.
The whole fuckin’ thing.

“Pick one.”
That’s what she said.
She tossed me a fuckin’ tire iron, and said, “Pick one.”
And I just look at her like, I don’t know.
Like someone just kidnapped me,
dragged my ass to the middle of a fuckin’ canyon
with some dude who looks and sounds like he’s shitting himself,
and then gave me a tire iron and said, “Pick one.”
Then she pulled out a piece.
So, I picked one.

She took our phones, our wallets.
I had to walk out of the canyon, and down the highway.
Caked-up in dirt, and tears, and vomit,
and blood and brains and bone.
I don’t know how long I walked.
Maybe it was a few minutes, maybe longer.
Eventually CHP pulled me over.
It was the second time someone pulled a gun on me.
Not that I blame him.
You should have seen me.
You think she was watchin’?

Sleep is hard.
Being awake ain’t easy either, I guess.
But sleeping is harder.
I should probably see someone about that.
Money’s a bit tight.
But sometimes when I can’t sleep, I think about her.
Did she know what I would do?
I didn’t know the guy, he didn’t know me.
Probably.
She could’ve picked anyone else in that gas station.
Why me, huh? Why him?
Or that piece of hers.
It’s not like she fired a warning shot, or whatever.
She just kinda held it, waved it around a bit.
“Pick one.”
Do you think she meant her too?
Did I kill some guy I didn’t know with a fuckin’ tire iron
when I didn’t have to?
Maybe if he had to pick, we’d both still be here.
Did I fuck up?
Does it even matter?

(FOOL grows silent, still, lost deeper and deeper in thought.)

The Moose in the Room

“Good evening,” the man said. “I’m Fine Howareyou, and welcome back to, ‘My Way, or the Hemingway,’ in which we have intimate, one-on-one discussions with woefully depressing creative types for some reason.”

“Hello,” the woman replied.

“Shut-up,” the man hissed.

“Sorry.”

“Tonight,” the man continued, only now utterly pissed, “we’re in the alley behind a clinic of some sort with our guest, Anna Moose, former hotel clerk, or resident–“

“Clerk,” she said. “I worked the front desk.”

“I don’t care,” the man said. “Either way, she’s now some fancy-pants poet something-or-other who wrote some bit of whatever about a bad day at work.”

“You don’t know who I am, do you?”

“I don’t do poetry.”

“You don’t do poetry?” Anna Moose replied.

“Anna,” the man said, not giving an assing fart about anything really. “I think the world frankly doesn’t care, but my job insists that I pretend to care to know, ‘Why poetry?'”

“I can’t do this anymore,” she replied.

“The interview or the poetry?” the man asked. “Please say it’s the poetry.”

“None of it’s true.”

“What’s not true?” the man continued, as a man is inclined to do when paid to care. “Your poem? Were you not really held hostage by domestic terrorists plotting to overthrow the local housing association if they weren’t given a quarter of a billion dollars, an Apache helicopter, and direction’s to Lincoln’s golden, precious jewel-bedazzled tomb?”

“None of it happened. Not a word.”

“It’s all a lie?”

Her head sagged, and her voice got all deadly serious all of a sudden like. “An utter fabrication. A linquisitical falsification of an otherwise uninspiring evening, almost as if the absence of purpose or meaning in my abusively, oppressively underpaid labor propelled my pen until its ink was spent and I, soaked in the afterbirth of my poeting, rolled over and fell asleep until someone caught me and reported it to the manager.”

“But, why poetry?” the man asked.

“Oh, I thought I could get away with it. I thought I could pass-off some bit of well-worded fiction.”

“But, why poetry?” the man persisted.

“Yes, yes. Alright,” she huffed. “Nobody gave a shit when it was a mostly-written blog post, a half-finished novel, or a completely half-baked, quarter-assed screenplay.”

“Seems like a long way to go to get somebody to read your work.”

“I mean, have you read Hotel: Zero? Who the Hell could possibly swallow that five-hundred page suppository unless I passed it off as some sort of introspective stream of consciousness reflexively written mid-hostage crisis?”

“Fair point.”

“I certainly didn’t think it’d ever get this far. How was I supposed to know you’d all blow it up into book deals, movie contracts, pornographic satires, and such?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not like this terrorist attack made the local news, did it? Nobody thought to do any damn research until I said anything till now. And why? Because you all had a good story to sell. Certainly sold better than this trite. You know, I have to be known for this thing either way – real, or not. You think I want that? I was supposed to be the next Victor Caramba, or Misty Weathers.”

“Who?”

She leans forward, disgust oozing from the corner of her mouth in a fashion very similar to drool. “Don’t you judge me. Don’t you sit there – in your clothes – with your job and sense of purpose and direction and sense of contribution to society – and judge me.”

“Oh, I don’t have a job,” the man corrected.

“You don’t?”

“No,” the man said. “No, this is just to get out of the house. Let’s me feel like maybe I’m accomplishing something more with my life than a brief, devalued existence as someone’s indentured servant, toiling away at some menial task or another, for an unsustainable wage and a perpetual sense of dread and anxiety that risks siphoning what little will to live I have left in me, if not for those brief, few moments where I get to host my own little show for a small audience, but much needed peace of mind and self-worth.”

Anna Moose narrowed her eyes, and choked on the bile burning at the back of her throat. “People like you make me sick.”

Marriage License

A man clipped his nails from atop his toilet, pants around one ankle, and a woman called from somewhere beyond the door. “Sweetie?”

“Yes?” the man replied.

“You’re not a secret agent, are you?”

“Not to my knowledge, Dear.”

“But if you were, you’d tell me, right?”

“Of course, Dear. Why do you ask?”

“Well,” she said, walking in with a large case filled with an assortment of tactical gear, weapons, ammunition, blueprints for a “RAY” of one sort or another, and multiple forms of identification for multiple identities. “I was looking for a marriage license in the garage, but all I found was this old junk.”

He looked at this, then to her. “Must be Bill’s.”

She also looked at this, but then to him. Though she could have also looked at her, if she wanted. The bathroom’s vanity was right there and everything. But she didn’t, because this isn’t that sort of thing. “These are Bill’s?”

He considered this. “Fairly certain.”

“These are Bill’s guns, turtlenecks, night vision goggles, and fake passports?”

“The night vision goggles might be mine.”

She pouted. “Are you sure you’re not a secret agent?”

He laughed. “I think I’d remember signing up for something like that.”

She picked up a passport from a small box of passports clearly marked, POTENTIAL FUTURE IDENTITIES. “Is this my identity? Were you planning on stealing my identity?”

“Honey,” he sighed. “I’m disappointed in you.”

“What?” she what’d in that way when someone is rather confused.

“You went and spoiled your birthday present!”

“My birthday present?”

“Yes?”

“Why would I want you to steal my identity for my birthday?”

“Remember how you’ve been going on and on about how you wish you could just disappear, just runaway and never look back and nobody would ever even know you were going?”

“No.”

“Well,” he said, buying himself a brief moment to think of something to say next. “It was supposed to be a surprise.”

She nodded. “I suppose that makes sense.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you sure you’re not a secret agent?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Well, okay.”

She gathered up all the secret agent-like gear back into its box, and left. “I suppose I’ll call Bill and ask him to pick up his things.”

He returned to clipping his nails, then thought to add, “Don’t let him take my night vision goggles!”

“What night vision goggles?” someone else replied from beyond the door.

“Honey?”

A completely different woman stepped into the bathroom, saw him on the toilet, and averted her eyes with an audible hiss. “Why?!

“What?”

“Why that,” she growled, pointing to the man atop the toilet with his pants wrapped around the ankle attached to the foot attached to the toe from which grew the nail he was currently stretching to clip.

“I’m clipping my nails,” he said, mid-clip. “Why are you acting so weird? You were just in here.”

“What?” she what’d in that way one whats when they’re really, really confused. “No, I just got home. I’ve been at my sister’s all week.”

He looked at her, then to the door. “Son of a bitch.”

Thoughts and Prayers

Mr. Cockenbells, a sweaty, nervous wreck of a man, paced about a hospital waiting room, and Dr. Nibblepleaser watched from the door.

“Mr. Cockenbells?” the suspiciously named doctor asked.

“Yes?” replied the equally suspiciously named man. “Is it about my wife?”

“No. I’m afraid it’s about your wife.”

Mr. Cockenbells struck the doctor in such a way that, more or less, resembled a slap. “Out with it, man!”

“We’ve lost her, Mr. Cockenbells.”

“You mean…”

“Yes.”

“My Brennifer?”

“That’s right.”

“She’s really…”

“Mr. Cockenbells, are you slow or just stupid?”

Mr. Cockenbells considered this, and then continued on as if he hadn’t. “How is this possible? I did everything exactly like they told me!”

“Mr. Cockenbells – may I call you “Mister?”

“I’d rather you not.”

“Too late,” Dr. Nibblepleaser dismissed. “Mister, I know that I’m only a well-educated, and even more well-endowed doctor of medicine. But in my least humble opinion, sometimes these things just happen.”

“Just happen?” Mister spat back at the doctor. “These things don’t just happen!”

“Please stop hitting me.”

Mister stormed about the room, pulling out his phone and waving it about like an absolute ass. “I posted her photo all over social media! I got eleven-and-a-half thoughts and prayers!

“Half?”

Mister shrugged. “Brennifer’s ex-wife was still on the fence, last I checked. I thought it better to round up.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“No, no,” Mister said. “Brennifer could be a bit of a–“

Just then, the doctor’s pager buzzed a little buzz.

“What the Hell was that?” Mister asked.

“Good news, Mister,” Dr. Nibblepleaser said, reading the teeny, tiny screen on his teeny, tiny relic of the past.

“Good news? What could possibly be good news at a time like this?”

“It seems we just found your wife.”

“What do you mean?”

“Turns out she was in the cafeteria this entire time.”

“I thought you said she was dead?”

Dr. Nibblepleaser looked at Mister as if Mister were the stupidest, stupidest, good Lord, how stupid can you possibly be man he’d ever met, and, in fact, even considered letting Mister know just as much, but then didn’t. “I never said that.”

“You said she was gone!”

Dr. Nibblepleaser struck the doctor in such a way that most certainly resembled a slap.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Apologized. “You’re right. I suppose I am being a little over-emotional.”

“We all make mistakes, Mr. Cockenballs.”

“I’m just happy to know Brennifer is alive and well.”

Dr. Nibbepleaser looked at Mister once more. “You “stupid, stupid, good Lord, how stupid can you possible be” man I’ve ever met. I never said she was alive.”

“What?”

“No,” he chuckled. “It appears she choked to death on a chicken salad sandwich.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Deadly, I’m afraid,” Dr. Nibblepleaser replied, failing to stifle his snickering and chortling. “It’s a little known fact that the chicken salad sandwich is the third-deadliest sandwich on the planet, just ahead of peanut butter, and right behind knuckle.”

“Is that true?”

“In a sense.”

“In what sense is that possibly true?”

“It’s true in the sense that I made it up.”

“What kind of hospital is this?” Mr. Cockenbells winged.

“Not a very good one, obviously,” Dr. Nibblepleaser said, this time very serious-faced and such. “But it’s hardly our fault you two were born too poor to afford proper insurance, now is it?”

Mr. Cockenbells hung his head and nodded. “No, I suppose not.”

“Good,” the doctor stomped, and turned to leave. “And if you could please pick up your wife’s corpse before we have her towed, that would be wonderful.

That Wasn’t Even Sexy

Good evening. Tonight’s piece, “Calvin Carson’s Cavalcade of Cars, Cards, and Cardigans,” has fortunately been misplaced on account of gratuitous sex, violence, and pedantry. In its place, we dispassionately offer a mostly flaccid, partly turgid bit of tale titled, “That Wasn’t Even Sexy,” already unpackaged, reheated, and ready for you to do with as you please.

(NOTE: the safeword is, “mukluks.”)

And now, the bit:

A phone rang, and someone accidentally answered when they actually meant to ignore the call. “Hello.”

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“Hi.”

“Oh, good. You’re not a complete idiot.”

“Surprises await us both, I suppose.”

“Truer words have been spoken. May I speak with Throbbing Fistwood, please?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Did I say, ‘No?'”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Because I meant to say, “‘Yes.'”

“So, I may speak with Throbbing Fistwood, then?”

“Perhaps.”

“I’m sorry. I must have bludgeoned myself to death on my faux hardwood floor, because I appear to be in Hell.”

“Would you like to call back another time?”

“May I speak with Throbbing Fistwood then?”

“No.”

“Then, for God’s sake, why would I call back later?”

“I was wondering that myself.”

“I swear, this is the number the young lady gave me when I inquired with her about Throbbing Fistwood. Are you sure this isn’t Throbbing Fistwood?”

“Fairly certain.”

“I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time.”

“It doesn’t have to be a total waste, does it?”

“How so?”

“I mean, you’ll have to give me a moment, but I may be able to help.”

“You can help locate Throbbing Fistwood?”

“Well. At my age, you never can be too sure without a bit of ‘assistance,’ if you will.”

“No. No, thank you. I’m afraid I’m a bit tight on time at the moment. Perhaps I’ll try calling back later.”

“Wonderful.”

“Who should I ask for?”

“Dick Squat-thrust.”

“Got it, Dick. May I call you ‘Dick?'”

“I do certainly hope so.”

“Thank you.”

“Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

The phone went click, and never rang again.

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.”

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.”