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?'”

Grand Ghoulish (Act Four)

4-1

Harold screamed, but didn’t.

The room was large. Very large. So large, in fact, it was as if there were no windows or doors. No sound but the electric humming of medical equipment. No light but the harsh, cutting white of surgical lamps reflecting on impressively polished steel tools with lots of little blades and teeth. Nobody to hear screams that never came. And while this large, empty place was also, somehow, kept at a pleasant seventy-two degrees, Harold was too preoccupied to properly appreciate it.

“Sorry,” Oliver said from somewhere, casually walking over to Harold, then flipping a switch with an adorable little click. “You looked like you had something to say.”

Harold looked at Oliver, then squeaked a startled yelp.

Oliver waited. “Go on. Get it out. Nobody can hear you scream.”

Harold considered this. “Pot to Kettle, how much more of a cliche can you be?”

“Not to put too fine a point on this,” Oliver chewed, “but I am a surgeon holding his wife’s lover captive in a big, secret laboratory.”

“Fair enough,” Harold said. “But, where the Hell did you come from? I thought I was alone.”

“Bit of lunch and socks,” Oliver gestured with his sandwich and feet.

“Where’s Sophia?”

“Why? Feeling lonely?”

“What did you do to her?”

“I scooped out her brain,” Oliver said, still using that sandwich as a teaching aide, “and put it into the relatively younger body of a pink-haired woman who tried to sell me cologne from the trunk of her car.” He took another bite of his sandwich, swallowed, then continued. “You were there.”

“Did none of that sound crazy to you?”

“Look. If it helps, you weren’t the first.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Sorry,” Oliver said, disappearing for a moment. “There was this guy from high school, a few coworkers.”

“Bullshit.”

“I’m not even Sophia’s first husband,” Oliver said, rolling back over to Harold in a small desk chair. “Now, that guy? Real piece of work. I got some good practice out of him, though.”

“Why would she do all that?”

Oliver finished his sandwich and shrugged. “It makes her happy.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“You slept with my wife,” Oliver said, picking up one of the shiny steel tools with the scary little blades and teeth. “I don’t think you get to shame other people’s kinks.”

Harold seized on the scary little blades and teeth, and ignored everything else. “Jesus. If you’re going to kill me, just do it already.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Oliver chuckled. “I’m not going to kill you.”

Harold puzzled this. “You’re not?”

“Of course not. Keeping you alive is the whole point.”

“Wait. What?”

Oliver rolled over to a large mirror, rolled back with it, spun it around, and Harold eventually saw everything. And what he saw there was more or less a chrome-finished Salvador Dali painting. But instead of melted, sagging clocks, twisted figures, or surreal landscapes, Harold’s insides were stretched and sagging and dripping on the outside, and all over Oliver’s otherwise spartan, make-shift surgery room. His lungs were draped over the back of a chair. His entrails wrapped around one of the surgical lights, across the operating table with his exposed and mostly empty chest cavity, and inexplicably tied on the other end to an old Victrola. And his head dangled above this from several cables, with a number of tubes and wires clipped or stuck into this or that hole, one of which was connected to that switch with the adorable little click.

“See, Harold?” Oliver said, holding up Harold’ still-beating heart, and jangling it in front of Harold playfully like a set of keys. “I’m a bit of an artist myself.”

Harold ignored this, and screamed.

Oliver sat there with Harold’s heart still in his hand, shook his head disapprovingly, and then flipped the switch. Click. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s enough of that.”

Harold shot Oliver a look, and silently cursed.

“What?” Oliver blinked. “I meant nobody else can hear you scream.”

4-2

There are precisely two types of people in this world. The first are those eclectic few showcasing their gaudy wealth in a secret art gallery located beneath the surface of the sort of affluent California “community” where everyone is as artificial as the grass, trees, and even the lightly-scented air. (For fear of being assimilated, the name of this particular town escapes me at the moment.) Meanwhile, the other sort are the art. And as Harold stared at a clock hung between a pair of terrified teenagers frozen in freshly-carved ice sculptures, he took solace in the fact that while his most embarrassing memories were currently being projected on the wall behind him, at least the portly couple with matching bear-hands in front of him couldn’t tell he was crying.

“Hey!” a familiar lilt called, scrambling the feed.

The portly couple turned ever so slightly to their left to find a pink bob cut in a silk sundress and adorable shoes approaching them, started to whisper something about superficiality and the tasteless fashion sense to not wear a bra in public, then smiled and gushed in unison. “Sophia!”

“I see the two of you are enjoying Harold’s work,” the pink bob cut smiled.

“Our grandson absolutely loves it,” gushed the portly man with an impressive mustache.

The man’s portly, clean-shaved husband nodded in agreement. “Sophia, you’re looking so daring these days!”

“I wasn’t going to keep it,” Sophia said with a tease of her hair, fingers gliding across faint, thick lines in her scalp. “But it kinda grew on me.”

“I’m not sure yet,” a tinny voice said.

Sophia and the portly couple turned to a pair of speakers connected to an old laptop somehow wired to the brain in a jar beside them. The brain bubbled in its solution. The projector flickered vague images, flashing frames of bodies in pieces and blurred faces lost among bits of pixels and noise. And a woman’s voice repeated the same six words, again and again, from the speakers. “So, what does that make me?”

“What is that awful thing?” the portly mustache asked.

“One of Oliver’s little toys.”

Clean-shaved husband pawed at his ears. “Bit gratuitous, isn’t it?”

Sophia nodded, Mmhm. “Don’t let Oliver hear you say that.”

“He’s a magnificent surgeon–” the woman crackled from the speaker.

“I’m sorry,” Sophia said, turning to the couple. “But I better get Oliver over here to fix this.”

“–you can only roll back the clock so far,” the woman on the speaker continued.

The portly coupled said their goodbyes, and Sophia watched them waddle off, paw-in-paw.

“Do they bother you?” the woman asked.

Sophia turned back to Harold, and Harold bubbled in his jar. She began to speak, thought better of it, and then disappeared into the crowd.

The End

Grand Ghoulish (Act Three)

3-1

In the musty darkness of a roadside motel in some forgotten corner of Santa Ana, Harold and Sophia lost themselves in each other.

Their first hotel room felt like a lifetime ago. This was the second room this week. Another stolen moment in a summer of stolen moments. There had been a brief gap of several days after that day by the harbor, and Harold thought little of it. Laying low, disappointed, he thought. Who knows? Who cares? But when that first text message with Sophia’s name popped up on his phone, he piloted that boat of a Ford to the side of the road and dropped anchor somewhere in Irvine.

BORED IN BREA. WHAT YOU UP TO? her message read.

A little back and forth and an hour later, they were stealing kisses at a mall like a couple of teenagers cutting class. In the days to come, their text messages became love notes. Love notes evolved into voicemails. Voicemails slipped into hushed late-night calls. Long drives and short make-out sessions in parking lots and malls quickly abandoned for more hotel rooms and lunch at her favorite places. And when Sophia paid with cash, Harold never asked why.

“Why me?” he asked her one night in a church parking lot.

“Does it matter?” she said.

A phone rang in the musty darkness. Sophia rolled atop Harold, and answered it. And as he looked up at a woman speaking casually with her husband on the other end of a very inconsiderate call, Harold supposed nothing mattered at all.

“Goodbye, Oliver,” Sophia growled, hanging up and tossing her phone. It clattered on the floor, and she clawed at Harold’s chest and nibbled on his lip. “Where were we?”

“Everything cool?”

“What?” she said, looking at Harold as if he were the stupidest man alive. “Yeah, I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Why?”

“He just called,” the stupidest man alive drooled.

“For fuck’s sake,” Sophia huffed. “You’re not going to start being a little bitch about this, are you?”

“No,” Harold lied. “It’s just–isn’t this even a little fuckin’ weird to you?”

“That’s funny,” she said, rolling off Harold. “I didn’t know that was your conscience inside me a minute ago. My bad.”

Harold sat in his mess, watched Sophia gather her clothes and disappear into the shower, and then sighed. “Goddammit.”

3-2

Brennifer stepped out into the alley behind the gallery, and found Harold standing there beside his grandmother’s Ford, a large framed photograph under each arm, and one shattered to pieces at his feet.

“Everything okay?” Brennifer asked. “I heard screaming.”

“Yeah, it’s cool,” Harold replied. “I always scream when things are okay.”

She gestured with a nod of her head. “You need some help with that?”

“Nah,” Harold said, squeezing the two remaining frames into the Ford with the others. “This is the last of it. Sorry it took me so long to come back for all this.”

“It’s cool. I’m sorry nobody bought anything.”

“Yeah. But at least I got some work out of it.”

Brennifer puzzled this, then laughed. “Oh, yeah. That weird couple. How’d that work out?”

“Sophia’s not weird,” he laughed.

“Aw, shit,” she grimaced.

Harold blinked. “What?”

“You dumb bastard. How long have you been fucking her?”

Harold considered this, then doubled down. “What?”

When later asked by police to describe what happened next, Brennifer said, “The dude came up and knocked him the fuck out.” And this was more or less true. One moment, she and Harold are debating the ethics of marital infidelity in the alley behind an art gallery. The next, Harold’s kissing pavement while a very angry man stood over him.

“Wait,” the officer interjected. “You didn’t think to warn your friend–“

Brennifer shook her head, Nuh-uh. “Harold and I screwed a few times in the utility closet after hours. We weren’t friends.”

The officer looked at the pink-haired woman in front of him, wondered if she sold minerals or weed (Both, he decided. Definitely both.), then continued. “Right. So, you didn’t think to warn Harold that a ‘very angry man’ was about to start a fight with him?”

She shook her head again. “Not a fight–an ass-kicking. The guy threw one punch, then left.”

“Okay. But why didn’t you say anything to Harold?”

Brennifer considered this, then shrugged. “Maybe I thought he had it coming.”

3-3

Eunice Jablonski was eventually stirred from her place on the couch by the sounds of her near-mint wood panel Ford station wagon screeching to a stop in the driveway, followed by the, quite frankly, overdramatic way her grandson, Harold, tantrum-ed into the house.

“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill him!” Harold said, utterly failing to both sound tough and hide how he had been crying the entire drive home.

“Are those MacGuffin boys teasing you again?” Eunice yawned.

Harold puzzled this. “What? No. Grandma, the MacGuffins haven’t lived around here for years.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Remember? Their house burned down when Mr. MacGuffin’s meth lab blew up during a police raid.”

“Our water was off all day!”

The unearthly sound of a landline telephone ringing redirected Harold and Eunice’s trip down Memory Lane toward the eventual climax of this story, and Harold answered. “Who’s this?”

“Harold?” Sophia sobbed, his name catching in her throat in that way words tend to do when one is currently (or has recently been) sobbing.

“Sophia?” Harold replied, and in that way one tends to do when one is inexplicably and unexpectedly contacted via an archaic form of communication. “How’d you get this number?”

“I’ve been calling your cell,” she said, “but it keeps going to voicemail.”

Harold didn’t have time to process how this didn’t answer his question at all, as he was too busy checking his pockets and finding only his wallet and Eunice’s keys. “Aw, shit.”

“Harold,” Sophia interjected. “Oliver found my phone. He knows everything.”

“Yeah, I kinda picked that up after he sucker-punched me at the gallery.”

“He already found you?”

Harold ignored this. “Not gonna lie. I think I got off kinda easy, all things considered.”

And then, Sophia screamed in that way one tends to do when their muscle-bound spouse suddenly returns home during an in-progress, infidelity-fueled rampage.

“Sophia?” Harold called out, again and again. But each time, he was met with only still silence. His palms grew slick with sweat. And the silence was soon replaced with the deafening roar of his own heartbeat pulsating in his ears.

Eunice watched the grown man standing in her kitchen sob like a frightened child into her landline telephone, and couldn’t help but feel as if she made a mistake by letting Harold live with her. By the time Harold realized that the phone had not gone silent on Sophia’s end, but rather the decade-old battery had simply gone bad, Eunice was sure of it. But by the time she thought to ask Harold if all this meant he’d be late with the rent again, Harold was already out the door and driving away. She never saw her near-mint wood panel Ford station wagon–or Harold–ever again.

3-4

What remained of Sophia slumped awkwardly in her bed. Swashes of blood, splatterings of brains, and bits of skull clung to everything. And as Harold looked on at this from the doorway, he couldn’t help but feel like he made a huge mistake by stopping for gas.

Now. To be perfectly fair to Harold, Eunice’s near-mint wood panel Ford station wagon was one Hell of a gas guzzler. And the trip from their home in Buena Park to that manor by the sea was already a good hour-long trip down the 5, give or take. Between the forty-year old fuel efficiency standards and some inexplicable bumper-to-bumper gridlock that began and ended for seemingly no reason whatsoever, Harold had zero chance of arriving in time for some heroic save. In fact, Harold realized this back in Irvine. But he also realized that he was a failed photographer in his thirties, living in his elderly grandmother’s garage, and having a summer fling with a married woman. So when the congestion blinked out of existence somewhere around Lake Forest, Harold steered the Ford off the freeway, put several dollars worth of gas in the tank, double-backed a bit, and eventually made his way up to Sophia’s bedroom doorway where he continued standing about like he wasn’t at some grisly scene worth reporting immediately to the local authorities.

“Good thing you dropped your phone,” Oliver said from somewhere behind Harold. “Otherwise, this could have gone–“

Harold ignored this, and broke Oliver’s nose with a wild and wholly lucky punch.

Oliver pinched at his bleeding, crooked nose. “I suppose I owed you that.”

“I’m only getting started,” Harold growled, looking for something large and heavy to beat Oliver with, repeatedly.

“You know,” Oliver said. “I completely agree.”

Harold blinked. “What?”

“Harold,” a familiar voice said.

“Brennifer?” Harold replied, turning to a pink faux hawk in sweatpants and a tattered Bon Jovi tee looking back at a very confused man seized on the fresh surgical incisions wrapped around her head. “What the Hell did he do to you?”

“These?” she replied, her fingers gliding over the stitched lines binding raw, swollen flesh. “Do they bother you?”

“Sophia?”

The thing wearing Brennifer stepped closer. “It’s like I told you, Harold. Oliver’s a magnificent surgeon.”

A hot pinch in his neck sent a cold shiver down Harold’s spine, his body grew limp, and the world darkened. “Why?”

“Turns out,” she said, pulling an emptied syringe from Harold’s neck, “when the clock stops rolling back, you can just get yourself a new clock.”

Harold collapsed to the floor, and stayed there.

“Did you see his face?” Oliver said, tending to his broken nose. “I think we broke his little mind.”

“Right?” Sophia gushed with Brennifer’s voice, then turned to what used to be her in the bed and on everything else. “But did you have to do that to my body?”

Oliver looked upon his work, and shrugged. “You’re not the only one who loves a little theatrics, Sweetie.”

Sophia shook Brennifer’s head, and sighed. “Shut up and help me move him.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

To be concluded…

Grand Ghoulish (Act Two)

2-1

It was maybe sometime in the afternoon when the wholly unfamiliar sound of a phone ringing pulled Harold away from his computer. He’d spent the last several hours perusing job listings on the internet, and arguably more time avoiding it. So between this, the heavy bedsheet nailed and drawn shut across the one window in the room he rented, and the copious amount of marijuana he’d just smoked, pinning down which pile of clothes contained his phone proved a bit of a challenge. But even as he waddled and crawled about that semi-converted garage in his underwear, the possibility of even remote human contact was as good an excuse as any to call off today’s depressing search for paid work.

Unfortunately for Harold, the number on his phone’s screen was from an unknown caller. But fortunately for Harold, they left a voicemail.

“Harold,” a familiar voice spoke. “It’s Sophia.”

Harold got as far as hearing Sophia’s voice say, “I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” before he stopped listening and attempted to call her back several times. Dude, you just called, Harold thought. Why the Hell do people always call and leave a message, but never pick up when you call back–

“Harold?” Sophia eventually answered.

“Sophia,” Harold gushed, utterly failing to hide the way his nonexistent tail wagged. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you too.”

“What?” she replied, and in that way one tends to do when utterly and purposely misinterpreted.

Harold ignored this. “I said, ‘I couldn’t stop–‘”

“No,” she interrupted. “I got that.”

“Oh.”

“What do you mean, ‘too?'”

“Your voicemail. You said–“

“You didn’t finish listening to it, did you?”

“I did not.”

“Of course.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘I couldn’t stop thinking about you–‘”

“Uh-huh.”

“–and your beautiful photos.”

“Gotcha,” Harold nodded, tucking his nonexistent tail between his– “Wait. How did you get my number? Your husband slapped my hand when I tried to give him my business card.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that.”

“I’m still kinda weirded out about that, actually.”

“Harold, focus.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Look. It wasn’t easy getting your number. Is that awful woman at the gallery always such a pain?”

Harold neither confirmed nor denied this, mostly because he was too busy recalling the way he and Brennifer had hotboxed the utility closet and engaged in some vague approximation of sex after the gallery had closed for the evening. It wasn’t so much that the high had made sex difficult so much as it resulted in them failing to remove the various mops, half-filled buckets, and various harsh smelling cleaning products before sealing themselves up for several sweltering, dizzying minutes. Certainly, this was not Harold’s finest hour. But it was mostly the way Brennifer had thrown several loose dollars and coins at him and refused to cuddle afterward that still left Harold feeling a little cheap.

“Harold?”

“Sorry,” Harold said. “I just realized I make some really bad life choices.”

“So, you’ll do it?” she asked in that way one tends to do when they already know the answer, but really want to hear it anyway. “You’ll take erotic photographs of me in the privacy of my bedroom while my husband is away?”

“I’m flattered, Sophia,” he said. “A little creeped out by the weird way you guys keep phrasing it too, I guess. But, mostly flattered.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“You’re a married woman, Sophia. And your husband doesn’t seem like he’s onboard with this sorta thing.”

“Oliver said it was a wonderful idea, didn’t he?”

“Yeah. That was kinda creepy, too. You get that, right?”

Sophia considered this. “There’s five-hundred bucks in it for you.”

“When do you want me there?”

“How does tomorrow work for you?”

“Harold?” a naggingly sweet voice called from somewhere outside that semi-converted garage.

Harold stood there in his underwear for a moment, burying his phone in his hands. But when this failed to make the voice go away, he sighed. “Yes, Grandma?”

“Are you still going to give me a ride to my doctor’s appointment?”

“Yes, Grandma.”

“Harold?”

Harold snapped, “I said, ‘Yes, Grandma!'” then realized he still had Sophia on the phone. “Yeah. Tomorrow works.”

2-2

A near-mint condition wood panel Ford station wagon creaked and wheezed to a stop outside what Harold would later describe to his grandmother as a “stately manor,” and Harold idled for another fifteen minutes.

It was an acceptable Sunday morning in an expensive corner of Southern California. The sun hungover in the sky, half-wrapped in a thin, frayed sheet of moisture that scattered the light like shards of broken glass into exposed flesh. The wind whipped at the eyes, and the salt stuck to everything. And far too many people dressed up for morning sermon but who were really just heading out for mojitos and brunch. A stark contrast to the thick, still air of that semi-converted garage where Harold stewed in his own juices all night, except for that hour or so when the air chilled and warm rain kicked up all the dirt. The sort of heat that wraps around you like a wool blanket and has you gasping for breath when the water of a cold shower hits your skin. Or has you sticking your head in the freezer until you realize how this is stupid and isn’t helping at all, taking your grandmother’s keys without asking, leaving Buena Park behind in the rear view mirror, and then cruising south along the 5 with the window cranked all the way down. Sure, you’ll get there a little earlier than planned. But you can just hangout by the beach for a bit, maybe grab some breakfast. Except there’s no parking, and there’s no way in Hell that you’re going to pay fifteen dollars for half a Cubano and some potato chips. So you drive around until you find a gas station with a restroom, and buy some donuts and an energy drink, even though that’ll just get you all wired up and shaky, and you’ll smoke a bunch of weed to calm yourself down. But then you realize it’s almost time for your appointment, and now you have to not only drive up and through a gated community located somewhere on a hill looking out over a stretch of the Pacific, but also do so in a rickety car that handles like a rickety boat. And once you arrive, you’ll spend another fifteen minutes smoking even more marijuana in the hope of forgetting that you nearly hit a family walking their dog and most definitely hit someone’s latest model luxury vehicle, even if nobody noticed or–

“Harold?” a familiar voice called.

Harold eventually turned to find Sophia standing beside his car. She was a comfortable mess of hair in sweatpants and a tattered Bon Jovi tee looking back at the very confused man holding a lit pipe in one hand while attempting to roll down a window that was already down with the other. When Harold inspected the window and found it to his liking, he cranked the handle several times more just to be sure.

“Hi,” he said from a cloud of smoke.

“Nice car,” she said, taking the pipe and a big hit.

“Thanks. It’s my grandma’s.”

2-3

The house was little more than a modest four-bedroom home condensed into a cramped four-and-a-half thousand square feet. The Brazilian walnut flooring was several years old by now, and the wine cellar too small for even a moderate day-drinker. Sure, the view of the crystalline waters of the Pacific from the third-floor master suite was every bit as breathtaking as it was majestic. But, it could be better. In fact, Harold hardly noticed the view because he was preoccupied with the massive, intimately detailed nude oil painting of Sophia hanging over her bed.

“My father-in-law used to be one hell of an artist,” Sophia smiled, strutting through the doorway in somehow less clothing than the painting.

“Your father-in-law painted this?” Harold replied, turning to Sophia, seeing she was somehow wearing less than the painting, and then immediately dropping some fifty pounds worth of photography and lighting equipment that he had still been holding for some reason.

“Yeah, but he’s dead now.”

Harold stood there in the bedroom of a mostly-naked married woman, among the several gym bags and rather expensive and broken light bulbs at his feet, a man at war with himself. On the one hand, he was an artist being paid to do his job. It hardly mattered that Sophia was a mature woman wearing only bits of tissue paper, floss, and a smile. The sort of haunting beauty many years removed from that painting, yet preserved by the carefree lifestyle of comically obscene wealth and the skilled hands of a well-compensated surgeon. But on the other less-skilled hand, Sophia hardly seemed to mind that Harold was gawking at her thighs and pondering aloud as to how soft they must feel, perhaps like very expensive toilet paper lightly scented in lavender.

“I thought you were a professional, Mr. Photographer?” Sophia said, seating herself on the foot of the bed.

“Yeah. Me, too.”

“Harold, I’m teasing.”

“I’m sorry. I think maybe this was a mistake.”

“What. Why?”

“Well. You’re married, for one.”

“Are you still on that? Oliver’s paying you to do this. He gave you a deposit, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, but–“

“Harold,” she groaned, rolling her eyes. “The mostly-naked woman on her bed is paying you good money to take photos of her. So quit being such a chicken shit, and whip your camera out.”

Harold nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

2-4

Harold edited erotic photos of a mostly naked married woman by the glow of his computer screen, and his mind wandered.

There was a flash of a bulb, the click of a shutter. A low-angle shot of Sophia on her bed, on her knees, arching her back and cupping her breasts. Fuck-me eyes and a bite of her lip. Click, click, click. A fling and a tease of her hair. Extreme close-up, a squeeze and a thrusting of hips. Click, click. A parting of thighs, a delicate touch of her hips. Over-the-shoulder, zoom, click, flash, then from behind. Click, click, and click.

“I don’t have cooties,” she cooed at some point.

Harold looked up from his camera, his eyes never leaving Sophia. “Huh?”

“You’re so far away. Wouldn’t it help if you got a little closer?”

Harold shrugged from somewhere between the bed and that balcony with the expensive view. “Maybe.”

Sophia pouted. “Ya know. For someone who does this all the time, you sure are shy.”

Harold continued making with the clicking and the flashing, only a little closer. “To be fair, most of these girls I photograph are–“

“Younger?”

“Not married.”

“Harold,” she scolded with a huff and a furrow of her brow. (Click.)

“I’m teasing.”

She smiled.

Click-click-click.

“Most of them are wannabe models who will never make it, settle on being whatever an ‘influencer’ is, then turn to selling oils and pills and other people’s artwork.”

“Sounds a bit harsh.”

“I’m not judging,” he said with a shake of his head. “Just sharing.”

Sophia sat there on her bed for a moment, beneath that interpretation of her younger self, and spilling out of her bra. “So, what does that make me?” (Click-click-click.)

Harold stopped again, and considered this. “I’m not sure yet.”

Many hours later, as Harold sat in the mild discomfort of an otherwise dark kitchen, beneath the wobbly blades of a ceiling fan, looking at those dozens of photos of Sophia, he still wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. Like the photos on his laptop, no two Sophias were the same. There was the refined woman in the silk sundress he met at the gallery, soft-spoken, curious, and resigned to the whims of a man who drags her by the wrist and parks in handicap spaces. A carefree mess in her vintage Bon Jovi tee smoking weed with Harold in his car. That confident young woman bound forever in canvas and oils. And every photograph was another Sophia looking back at him, her emotions and thoughts and urges scattered. One moment, she’s aware of how little she’s wearing and reaching for sheets, pretending she’s only being playful. The next, she’s ripping off her top and reaching for Harold with her eyes. But it was the Sophia who caught his camera lingering too long on an old surgical scar that Harold kept coming back to.

“These?” she replied, her fingers gliding over the faint lines running beneath her arms and breasts. “Oliver’s work. He’s a magnificent surgeon, but you can only roll back the clock so far. And time still leaves its scars.”

Harold said nothing, and through his lens he saw how his silence cut at Sophia like her husband’s scalpel.

“Do they bother you?” she asked, looking elsewhere.

Harold lowered his camera, saw the mostly naked woman on the bed in front of him, and considered this. “No.”

Sophia smiled. “I tried to cover them up as best as I could.”

“They look fine. You look–“

Harold never finished his thought. Back then, Oliver had returned by bursting through the front door and announcing his arrival like Ricky Ricardo. Whatever Harold might have been thinking at the time was replaced by the conflicting desires of leaping from the balcony window with the expensive view and running to the toilet. But now, his Grandmother had walked in on her sweaty grandson in his underwear looking at erotic photographs of a mostly naked woman on his laptop.

“Harold,” the old woman sighed. “I thought we talked about you doing this sort of thing in the kitchen.”

Harold slammed the laptop shut. “I’m working, and it’s hot in my garage!”

2-5

It was a sweltering afternoon in a slightly more affluent coastal California “community” where nobody really likes each other, but are too medicated to care. The still air was thick and smelled of fish. And as Harold watched another yacht struggle to navigate the calm waters of the harbor, he concluded the world was wrong and life was meaningless.

“Would you do me?” Sophia asked.

They sat on a bench beneath the thinning shade of a patch of trees, yacht clubs and hotels to their left, families splashing about on a narrow stretch of sandy beach to their right. She was a fashionable mess of hair blowing in the wind, making her way through a stack of photographs of herself. He was very confused. “I’m sorry. What?”

Sophia ignored this, holding up a particularly flattering image in which she made creative use of a chair, a mirror, and the contents of a box she kept buried in the back of her closet. “I’d do me.”

Harold smiled. “I’m glad you like them.”

“I love them,” she gushed. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but how are you not getting more work?”

He shrugged. “What’s there to say? One minute, you’re young and full of shit and the world is yours. The next, you’re looking at a clock on the wall in an empty art gallery, wondering what the Hell you did wrong.”

Sophia saw the man beside her, and turned to the stack of photographs in her hands. “I haven’t seen myself–,” she started, then thought better of it. “I haven’t felt this beautiful in years. Thank you, Harold.” And then, she kissed him.

Wow. Okay, he blinked.

“Your lips are soft,” she whispered, gathered her things, and walked away.

Harold sat there watching this like an idiot, then realized he should probably say or do something. “Wait. What? Shit,” he poetically blathered. “I’m sorry, Sophia. I didn’t–“

Sophia stopped, and turned to Harold. “I know you didn’t. I did.”

“Then, what’s the problem?”

She smiled with her eyes. “No problem.”

To be continued…

With Apologies to Bill Billiamson

Dear Reader,

We regret to inform you that tonight’s very special presentation of Bill Billiamson’s classic erotic novella, “Shut Your Stupid Mouth, and Die Already,” does not exist. For such malicious turgidness, we humbly, deeply, and sexily “apologize.”

In its place, we now present Act Two of “Grand Ghoulish.”

Grand Ghoulish (Act One)

1-1

There are precisely two types of people in this world. The first are those daring few showcasing tasteful erotic photography on the walls of a small art gallery located in the sort of affluent coastal California “community” where everyone drives the latest model luxury vehicle, grows their own pot, and insists on charging their rocks by moonlight. (For the sake of legalities, the name of this particular town escapes me at the moment). Meanwhile, the other sort aren’t complete idiots. And as a man we’ll call Harold stood there in a mostly empty art gallery, staring up at a clock hung between a pair of before-and-after photos of a sticky motel room, he took solace in the fact that while his idiocy was on full display, at least nobody was around to witness it.

“Hey,” a voice said, shattering the silence and dragging Harold kicking and screaming back into the harsh, unflattering light of his own failure with a thundering lilt.

Harold turned to a pink faux hawk in horned-rimmed glasses and a pantsuit, started to scream something about phoney capitalist elites sucking on the teat of artistic integrity, then thought better of it. “Hey, Brennifer.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” he lied. “I think so.”

Brennifer looked to the empty gallery, then back to Harold. “Wow. Really?”

Harold looked at Brennifer for a moment, wondering if the dead-eyed woman across from him sold either scented oils or pills when she wasn’t failing to sell other people’s artwork for money. Pills, he thought. Definitely pills. “Have we sold anything yet?”

She shook her head, Nuh-uh. “But if it helps any, I’ve curated worse showings than this.”

“Really?”

“No. This is probably the worst.”

Harold considered this, then briefly imagined himself running through the gallery’s glass storefront and cackling his way down Main Street until finally succumbing to blood loss. “Thanks, Brennifer–“

“You’re welcome.”

“I didn’t finish.”

“Oh?”

Harold shook his head, Nuh-uh. “I was going to say, ‘Thanks, Brennifer, for stomping on the shattered remains of my hopes and dreams.'”

Brennifer hung her head. “Oh.”

“Yup.”

“Sorry.”

Harold turned back to the clock. “It’s fine. I didn’t want to have to carry home what little self-respect I had left.”

1-2

The hours didn’t slip away so much as they shuffled by, fell over, cried that they’d fallen and can’t get back up, waited a moment, and then slowly got back to their feet before finally getting on with it. During this time, Harold decided his feet hurt and got a chair. And from atop an uneven, wholly uncomfortable chair that creaked and clattered every single time he shuffled his weight, Harold’s attention alternated between the clock on the wall and the scattered handful of disinterested locals and disinterested, broke tourists drifting in and out of the gallery. At one point, a pleasant man with thinning hair and a thick Romanian accent briefly considered purchasing that pair of seedy motel photos on either side of the clock. But as the pleasant man later told his equally pleasant, squattish wife, “I would love to buy it, but that angry little man looked like he needed it more.”

This continued for much of the afternoon until a wrinkly potato of a woman with a green visor and bad highlights in her hair asked Brennifer why the lady hadn’t put her phone away and asked the shaggy homeless man in the back to leave.

“You need to leave,” Brennifer said.

“What, leave?” Harold asked, looking up from his chair, accompanied by yet another slow, echoing creak that hung between them. “Why? This is my show.”

“You’re scaring everyone away.”

He cocked an eyebrow, scoffing, “‘Scaring everyone away?’ There’s nobody here, Brennifer!” He gestured to the still mostly empty gallery, locked eyes with a concerned couple in matching shirts, watched as they slipped out the door without any sudden movements, and then turned back to Brennifer. “Okay. Maybe you have a point.”

“Excuse me,” a voice tittered.

Harold and Brennifer turned ever so slightly to their right to find a petite woman smiling a confused smile. She was a cool forty poured into a silk sundress, dark curls kissing the bare, tanned skin of her shoulders. Only the faint hint of laugh lines appearing about a pair of bedroom eyes as a devilish smile–

“Can I help you, Ma’am?” Brennifer squawked.

Harold shooed Brennifer away with a wave of his hand, but without so much as a look her way. “Go vlog in the street, or something, will ya?”

Brennifer considered this, pretended to care, thought better of it, then floated away to do exactly as Harold suggested.

“Is she going to be okay?” the woman asked.

Harold shrugged, Who knows? “How can I help you, Ms…”

Harold’s voice trailed off, and his words hung there a moment before the woman realized the man in front of her wasn’t simply at a loss for words. “Sophia,” she said, extending her hand.

Harold smiled, and did just that. “How can I help you, Ms. Sophia?”

Sophia looked at her hand, back to Harold, then withdrew her hand without another word. “Aren’t you the janitor?”

“What? No.” Harold replied. “I’m the photographer.”

“Wait. Really?”

“Yeah,” he said, gesturing to the many photographs hanging on the wall, but specifically to the reasonably sized sign by the door with both Harold’s name and face printed on it. “These are all my–“

“I’m so sorry,” she apologized, sneaking another look at the sign by the door, “Harold.”

“Did you actually think I was the janitor?”

Sophia shrugged.

“Huh.”

“I mean, you dress so…” she trailed off, gesturing at Harold.

Harold sighed and shook his head. “No, I totally get it.”

“Poor,” she clarified. “You dress like a poor–“

“Yeah. I got it.”

She looked at him. Did you, though?

A silence fell between them until Brennifer was nearly rundown in the street by a passing bike messenger while she complained about her crummy day at work to strangers on the internet. Her subsequent shouting and swearing, though frowned upon by everyone else around her, provided a conveniently timed distraction for both Harold and Sophia.

“So,” Harold started, turning to the not-screaming woman beside him. “Sophia. Did you see something you like?”

“Actually,” Sophia replied, still seized on the pink-haired woman still shouting at the long-gone cyclist. “I wanted to inquire about a possible private session.”

“Seriously?”

Sophia turned toward a photograph of a naked woman wistfully looking out across Santiago Canyon at sunset, and sighed.

“Okay,” Harold blinked.

As she shared some emotionally charged story about her fading beauty and the men who once painted images of her, Sophia drifted from one image to the next, pausing dramatically as necessary. Harold watched this from his creaky chair, but mostly tuned in and out until Sophia stopped long enough that he simply assumed she had finished.

“I would love to photograph you, Sophia,” he said, still creaking in that damned chair as he did so. “But, why me?”

She considered this for a moment. “Do you believe in fate, Harold?”

Harold didn’t consider this at all. “No, not really.”

And then for the sake of dramatic conflict, it was at this time that Sophia’s previously unmentioned husband appeared.

1-3

He was a square jaw in khaki shorts. A head of luscious, perfectly coiffed hair wearing socks with sandals. Broad shoulders and meaty arms with a tiny wristwatch. Not since Charlton Heston descended from that mountain top in his finest robe and slippers has a chiseled work of divine art commanded the attention of all those in attendance. So it didn’t surprise Harold that, even as he stood on his chair, he was but a boy, in both stature and dress, to the animated slab of beef before him. And all he could think to say was this: “Is that a tailored polo shirt?” (It was.)

“Harold,” Sophia interjected, just before Harold could physically inspect the beefy man’s arms without permission. “This is my husband, Oliver.”

“Husband?”

“Doctor,” Oliver corrected, extending his hand to Harold like a Greek God reaching out to a chimp, “actually.”

“Of course you are,” the chimp said without thinking.

“Excuse me?”

But before Harold could even begin to consider constructing a lie to hide this strange and confusing mix of fear, insecurity, and pure animal attraction, he realized that what can only be described as Oliver’s massive paw was crushing his teeny-tiny baby-man hand. And as the bones and joints bent and popped in ways they never evolved to do, Harold recalled a date with a petite Vietnamese woman at a Japanese seafood restaurant. He couldn’t remember the woman’s name, or even why this scenario occurred in the first place. But he did remember the way he struggled to crack the shell of a crab with the big metal cracker they’d given him. And the way he felt uncomfortable watching his date rip and tear crab leg after lobster claw with her bare hands.

“I said, ‘You’re crushing my hand.'”

Oliver released what remained of Harold’s hand. “Sorry.”

“Oliver’s an experimental surgeon,” Sophia added, for some reason.

“Experimental? What, like ripping people open with his bare hands?”

“Wait,” Oliver said, with a not-insignificant amount of concern in his voice. “What have you heard about my bear hands?”

Harold looked at Sophia. “Is he serious?”

“Probably.”

“Sweetie?” Oliver said, his eyes never leaving Harold, which made Harold all sorts of uncomfortable, if we’re being perfectly honest.

“Yes, Darling?”

“Why are you introducing me to the janitor?”

Harold looked over and quickly examined himself in the glass of a photograph depicting a young interracial couple mid-coitus beneath a pier, the sunset behind them, the long shadows of the pillars caressing their naked flesh as the waves threaten to consume them whole. All-in-all, a rather impressive image. And it hardly took any convincing from Harold to get the couple to sign a release form. “Do I really dress that bad?”

“He’s a photographer, Oliver.”

“Always good to have a hobby, I suppose. But why are we speaking with the help?”

Harold snapped his attention back to the beefy man and pretty lady. “Rude.”

“No,” Sophia said. “This is his show. These are his photographs on the wall.”

“My face is on the poster, man.”

“How quaint.”

“Thank you?”

“Bit gratuitous though,” Oliver added as he looked about at the skillful, if poorly marketed work around them, “all these pictures of naked people and their wobbly bits. Don’t people share this sort of thing on the internet for free these days?”

“Oliver–“

“It’s okay,” Harold said. “He’s not wrong.”

“See?”

Sophia rolled her eyes. “Yes. Well. I want to book Harold’s services for a private session.”

“Is that right?” Oliver asked, once more staring deep into Harold’s soul.

Harold shrugged. “Yeah, I don’t get it either.”

“You want to take private, erotic photographs my wife?”

“Yes.”

“Possibly in some state of undress.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you want to be paid to do such a thing?”

“Also yes.”

And just when it seemed like something might come about from all this awful tension, Brennifer took a moment from her nonsensical ramblings on the internet to stick her head back inside the gallery long enough to ask if someone’s latest model luxury vehicle was parked in the handicap spot across the street.

“Yes,” Oliver replied. “Why?”

“Because they’re towing it, Dude,” Brennifer duh’ed.

“Not again,” Oliver groaned. “Okay. Look. Henry?”

Harold,” Harold and Sophia corrected.

“Don’t correct a man when he’s giving you a job, Henry.”

“Yes, Sir,” Harold said, realized what he’d done (in response to Oliver, with his life…), then accepted how stupid he truly was.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea to have a total stranger take erotic photos of my naked wife.”

“I mean, when you put it that way–“

“I did.”

“Right,” Harold conceded, spineless, gutless. “Well. Let me get you a business card, and–“

“No,” Oliver said, shaking his head and slapping Harold’s hand away from his own pocket. “Nope. No business cards.”

“What the hell?”

Oliver wiped his hands clean on the back of Sophia’s dress. “I don’t do business cards.”

Harold puzzled this, then decided it hurt too much. “What?”

Oliver dismissed this with a wave of his hand, muttered something about poor people, then took Sophia by the wrist. “Don’t worry about it, Hank. We’ll find you.”

Harold attempted to correct Oliver once more, saw Oliver and Sophia were somehow already out the door, then stepped off his chair.

“Did he threaten me?” Harold asked no one in particular. “‘Cuz that sounded like he was threatening me, maybe.”

“A little,” Brennifer said, still standing in the gallery’s doorway. “But if it helps any, they totally towed his car away. He’s super pissed.”

Harold smiled. “Yeah. That does kinda help.”

To be continued…