Era

At the beginning, before I blamed myself, before the rage and the resentment, I just cried. Tears mixing with the snot flowing out of my nose, getting everywhere, attempting to vacate the failing system of my body. It was a shut-down, plain and simple. I couldn’t believe it. How could these past years lead up to this? What went wrong?

#

Some people say that depression makes you feel like a ghost, a shell, trapped in darkness. I certainly can see why one would say that, but for me, it was different. Depression starts like a backpack, slugging around a meager, yet bothersome, load. But as you think about going somewhere or doing something, the load starts to get heavier. It just weighs down on you, dragging you lower and lower, making everything strenuous and unpleasant, even those things you used to enjoy. That weight sinks into you, replacing your marrow with concrete, until the point where the thought of getting out of bed becomes unbearable. Even your mind feels like it’s drowning and unable to reach the surface. Like Sisyphus, I had an unbearable burden placed upon me for eternity.

That’s what you left me with. A burden of just being alive.

#

I spent so long trying to figure out what I did wrong, what I could’ve done to make you leave behind our future. I picked at my personality like skin, nipping away at the surface layers and peeling down through my viscera and fascia to reach the core essence of who I was. It was tearing my consciousness apart, until I finally understood.

Although I didn’t want to admit it to myself, we just didn’t have the right bond. I always thought that the perfect relationship lacked the petty fighting that tore otherwise good people apart. I was wrong. Rationalize as much as I wanted, I was swept up in the maelstrom and failed to realize the truth: we were idealistic. The idea of high school sweethearts who were madly in love and lived a happy life together was romantic. I so desperately wanted that life with you. But somehow, my greatest fear had come true. Did we hide our resentment from one another? Did we fail to recognize the futility of our endeavor?

I don’t know, but one day, it ended. Like death, only worse. You were still here; you just didn’t want to see me anymore.

#

It’s weird. I hate you and I still love you. The thought of returning to your embrace fills me with a euphoric fuzziness, and at the same time, it disgusts me to the point where I want to vomit. How is it possible to hold both utter adoration and utter contempt for the same person?

See, this is why I try not to think about you. It just gets way too complicated.

At the same time, it’s hard not to. I mean, we spent nearly every day for four years in each other’s company. I’ll miss spending evenings trying out new recipes. I’ll miss just relaxing and playing video games for hours on end. I’ll miss lying naked with you, basking in the afterglow of our passion. Most of all, I’ll miss feeling wanted. That was the best feeling in our time together. I could look into your eyes and feel the same intensity of ardor I had for you, only greater than the day before. I really did want to spend my life with you.

You were everything to me.

And then, you were nothing. That was it. You just cut the cord and walked out, acting as if nothing had really happened. Without so much as a crinkled eyebrow of a warning, you blocked me from every form of communication and pretended as if I no longer existed. How could you do that to someone? No, not just someone. As far as I could tell, we were enamored with one another. I know I loved you, but the way you ended things…I’m still struggling today, trying to determine whether any of it was real. That really fucks with you, you know? Trying to figure out if any of those years meant anything. Now, I can’t even hear your name without cringing, and the slightest glance at a photo of you fills me with dread.

That night, when we were dancing in moonglow, listening to John Coltrane, before collapsing into a hammock. That was the first time I ever felt truly content.

#

I never did get to say goodbye, so I guess this is how I’ll have to do it now. This will be the last time I write you, and even though you’ll never read this, I don’t care anymore.

It hurts breaking up with anyone. It’s a knee to the solar plexus when your fiancée cuts off all contact for no apparent reason. At that point, it’s easy to just sink to the bottom of the ocean and let the tide swirl around you, while you just sit in an inky void. I’m not going to let you do that to me.

We happened to be in the right place at the right time in our lives when we met. Emotional tumult at home, mixed with social awkwardness and a hint of hormones, brews a perfect combination for nerdy teenage romance. I like to think it blossomed into something more, though.

Of course, I’ll still miss what we had. The time we spent together was among some of the happiest of my life and I won’t forget the bliss it brought me. But as long as I let you have this vise grip on my heart and mind, I can’t grow beyond the person I was. We’ve both changed significantly, and I’m sure if we’d never met and just now crossed paths, we wouldn’t give each other a second fleeting glance. Our time together changed us.

I don’t know if I can wish you luck or happiness or anything like that. All I can say is that our time together was an era of my life.

I hope it was for you, too.


To J

Happy Birthday

It was her eyes, their shade of burnt ochre that burned its way into my mind. It was when she gazed into my eyes that we embraced for the first time. That’s when I knew. It was not merely their color, but the immeasurable depth of her eyes that filled me with an equally immeasurable sense of awe. All around us was squall, but she was shelter.

The world was a sensory overload, blinding, chaotic, unforgiving, unrelenting. The only reaction that occurred to me was to cry. So I did. Oceans rolled out from my eyes and she was there to calm the tide. She was able to transform the cacophonous carillons crashing in my head into melody.  When all seemed lost, she knew just how to find it.

Deprived of her, my world just seemed so empty and miserable. In honesty, there was nothing seemingly worth the effort necessary to press forward. The instant that thought came upon me was that in which her strength flowed into me. I felt her aura augmenting mine, imbuing me with the capacity to achieve my dreams, to follow my passions, to inspire and intrigue. Ultimately, my actions were my own, but without her as the impetus and wisest influence, there was no reason to fight for the things I now hold dear.

And then, I saw her tenacity falter. It happened in just a moment, but that’s all it took. The rush was too much to handle and the cracks in her innermost self would give way to rifts, from which poured out the essence of despair. All this time, I thought she had an endless amount of vigor which she could lend to others. But that’s when I realized she, too, was affected by the constant bleakness of the world. No one, not even her, was immune. What was I to do? Give up?

No. I knelt down beside her and gave her back the strength she gave me. I returned all of the years of comfort and joy she infused within my soul. She gave me the capacity to stand up to everything life had thrown at me, and now I was there for her.

And when it was all said and done, when equilibrium was once again achieved and a sense of equanimity returned, we looked into each other’s eyes. Amidst the tears, I saw within her eyes the same thing I saw those years ago. I knew, at that point, why she spent all that time imparting unto me the capacity to press forward to the end of each and every day. Her desire was to see in my eyes the same level of devotion, of compassion, of understanding, of exuberance that I saw within hers.

It was her eyes, perihelion to her heart. That’s when I knew I loved her.


For Sonia

One of Them

Kent sat by Caroline’s bedside, stroking her blonde hair, coarse as the straw mattress upon which she slept. The creases in his face were exaggerated by the morning sun, its orange light splitting through the windows which had long before been boarded up. He gathered another handful of her hair and ran his fingers through it as she slept, as she shivered without end. His mouth was curled into a frown, as it had been all morning since he had awoken. His aching muscles felt like they’d been pulled into a grimace ever since she first started showing symptoms. She hadn’t been getting any better the past few days, not even with the medicine. He stopped stroking her hair and grabbed the damp cloth from the wash-basin at the foot of his chair, wiping away the sweat on her fevered forehead. Replacing the cloth to the cool water of the basin, he removed the bloody bandages from her forearm and looked at her wound. Over a week and the infection still hadn’t died down. Pus festered around the lesion and it smelt of rot. Maybe Charles’ medicine couldn’t help her. No, it had to. Kent tossed the blood-stained rags across the room and re-wrapped her arm with some rags next to the water basin, making sure to tie them tight.

He stood up, returning the chair to the rough-hewn table in the corner of her room, exiting and walking to his room at the other end of the house. The hallway floorboards creaked with every step. He had to remember to repair them when he got back. Anything that was even slightly broken or out of place had to be fixed. Opening the door to his room, he strode over to the chest at the foot of his bed and removed the holster and revolver from its depths. Buckling the holster to his waist and placing the gun by his hip, he removed a belt of ammunition from the chest and slung it over his left shoulder before walking over to his wardrobe and procuring a gray wool vest. The wool itched like ticks crawling over his skin, but it was the best thing he owned to cover up the belt. He didn’t want to become more of a target than he was already. He scratched at the vest, and then at his graying beard. Kent put on his leather boots, aged and cracked and damaged by the sun, and left the room.

He returned to Caroline’s room. The thought of leaving her alone again, of a shambler breaking down the door and attacking her again, clawed at him, but he had no choice. There was so much to do, and only so much daylight. It wasn’t safe to be out at night anymore. He bent over her and kissed her forehead, which had already begun to pool with sweat again.

“I’ll be back soon, baby girl,” he said, his voice cracked like his boots. He turned to exit her room, making sure to lock her door, and walked down the hallway to exit his abode. Before he opened the front door, he grabbed the brown stetson off of the rack by the door and placed it on his head, covering his combed-back, gray-black hair.

The dawn clementine of the sun had already risen above the ridge when Kent turned the key and locked the door to his house. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was still home to him. The unpainted brown of the mesquite was a stark contrast to the tan sand of the Arizona desert. The house’s windows and single door were covered by planks of wood and scraps of metal. He grabbed the iron lock from his pack and clasped it to the door. He’d traded a week’s worth of food for the lock, but the heavy clunk it made when it closed reminded him of the good deal he had made. Satisfied with the current state of the locks, he walked over to the small barn next door, kicking up dust with every step. He removed the lock from the barn and threw the doors open. Inside the barn was a single brown stallion, somewhat thin but with a hint of muscle hidden under its leathery hide, who huffed a greeting as light entered his home. Kent walked past him, making sure to pat him muzzle, and grabbed a saddle off the barn wall. The horse whinnied and backed up, shaking its head in one violent movement.

Kent sighed. “C’mon, Strider, don’t make this difficult.” He always hated that name, but ever since Caroline named him, it stuck. He walked over to Strider, who had backed him into the corner, and threw the saddle over him back. “That’s better.”

Strider whinnied a single, resigned neigh and walked out of the barn.

After locking the barn door, Kent pushed himself up onto Strider, grabbed the reins, and kicked its sides, galloping out of the valley that surrounded his highly-defensible home.

#

There was one dirt road that connected Kent’s home to town, and he traveled down this road the same as he had done near every day now. The sun, which turned from a deep orange to a blinding silver-yellow, blazed above. Kent wiped his brow and grabbed the canteen on his saddle, taking a deep swig. The lukewarm water didn’t bring him any relief. He cracked the reins, and Strider picked up speed, trotting toward town. At least at home, he always had repairs or some other activity to keep him occupied. Out here, with only Strider and the dirt as company, he had nowhere to turn but himself, and that frightened him. He remembered that day, just over a week ago, when Caroline was attacked.

#

She had been outside, hanging up the clothes to dry. Kent warned her to take his gun, but she insisted it would be fine. No sign of a shambler for days. She hadn’t been outside for five minutes when Kent heard her scream tear through the silence. He grabbed his gun and kicked down the front door to see it biting at her arm. Its skin was black with desiccation, its clothes torn by some unknown desert beast. Without hesitation, he aimed down the sights and fired, striking the shambler. It turned to face him, empty eyes staring and blood-stained teeth barred. As it dropped Caroline into a puddle of her own blood, Kent fired again, this time striking the ghoul in the head. The carcass collapsed. Kent rushed over to it and unloaded the remaining bullets into its rotting skull, his own shouts almost as loud as the gunfire. Satisfied that it was now nothing more than a pile of decaying limbs, he ran over to Caroline. She was unconscious, blood pooling out of her forearm. Kent tore his shirt sleeve and wrapped it around her wound, as tears began to stream down his face.

#

He shook his head, as the memory could be flung from his mind. He looked toward the horizon and saw, for the first time in a long while, a silhouette, approaching from the direction of town. It was large and bulky, shifting from side-to-side along the dirt road. A wagon, maybe? Kent let go of the reins with one of his hands and moved his now-free hand toward his revolver.

The figure got closer. It was a wagon, drawn by a single horse. Its contents were covered by a large sheet of rough, linen cloth. Kent got a good look at the two people sitting in the wagon’s front. A man, wearing a dirt-stained black suit, patchy stubble covering his face. By his side, a woman. Brown hair in a tight bun, blue gingham dress torn near the ankle. Kent made eye contact with the two of them. They stared back, their mouths closed with tight lips. He gave the couple a single, curt nod. The man gave a slow nod back as the cart passed him. Kent’s thoughts turned from Caroline to the couple. Were they trying to get out of town? Avoid the danger? Made sense, sure, but going out into the desert alone was a death sentence. If the heat didn’t get you… Kent shuddered at the thought, the memory of that first chewed-up corpse on the roadside burned into his brain.

A blaze of heat scorched Kent’s side. Unusual, since the heat primarily came from above. He looked to the right and saw the same-old lone church by the road, white stone standing tall and proud, a monument of arrogance against the desert sun. But by the church’s side, a great fire roared from a large pit, the flames licking the sky. A priest, cloaked in black, crossed himself and read from a worn book as he stood by the flames. Though his face was stone, staring at the pages, Kent saw a deep sadness in his faltering expression. By his side, a woman, wearing a dress black as night. She stood at the priest’s side, crying into a handkerchief, the volume of her tears rising like the flames next to her. As Strider ambled past the pyre, Kent stared into the flame and wondered for whom she was crying. Whoever it was, he thought, it wasn’t them that she should be crying for.

#

The tall, hastily-erected wooden gates of Prescott opened wide as Kent came near. Looking up to the watchtower, the guard up top, taking one hand off of his rifle, tipped his hat to Kent. Kent huffed in indifference. Courtesy wasn’t necessary in times like this, he thought. The people should just get in, get what they need, and get out.

Even though Sheriff Wallace had the gates erected to “keep those monsters and us in,” the initial tension had died down a week after its construction. It seemed as though the reanimated menace was finally coming to an end, but Kent wasn’t so sure of that. Kent stepped off Strider and hitched it by the gate, tying the reins tight before making his way towards the town’s center.

The inn, the blacksmith, and the stores were all still there, all still that sickening shade of off-white. Charles’ office towered above all the rest, though, its red paint a fresher color than everything else. Dust nipped at his face and the faint odor of burning wood filled his lungs.

As he walked, he remembered a time, a few years ago, when he and Caroline came to town. The plague hadn’t come through yet, and Prescott was a sleepy, dust-covered transit town. She was pulling at his pants, asking incessantly for sweets from the general store until Kent relented. Her smile as she gorged on the candy made bile churn in his own stomach. She’ll be like that again, he told himself.

A crowd amassed outside of the doctor’s shop. Men and women and children, all clumped together into an amorphous shape, surrounding the building, held back by two men on the front steps, clad in blue uniforms and holding rifles.

A man in a top hat and a thick mustache yelled, “We need our medicine! What if we get infected?”

A woman, scrawny, her cheeks as rosy as the paint on Charles’ office cradling two small children beside, her called out, “I need to think about my family!”

A boy no older than sixteen, the stubble barely breaking through the smooth skin on his face, shouted, “If you can’t protect yourself, how can we be protected from those monsters?”

The voices of the crowd all melded together into a cacophonous roar. The riflemen stood still, ignoring the clamor. Kent pushed his way through the crowd, shoving against the back of the fat bartender. As he got closer to the door, one of the riflemen caught his gaze.

“Miller.” His voice, cold and clear as ice water, cut through the clamor of the mob, who had started to become silent upon hearing Kent’s name. “Wallace and Goodman want t’ see you.” He stepped down from his spot and into the crowd, moving aside the now-quiet throngs of people to let Kent pass. Kent stepped through and made his way up the small staircase to the front door. The man’s watery eyes and thick goatee were unfamiliar to Kent. He pushed his way cautiously past the guard. Mayor’s bringing in too many conscripts, Kent thought. How could he trust them all?

“Hey!” a scratchy voice broke out. It was the sixteen-year old boy, who had stepped forward to the edge of the staircase. “Why does he get to see the doctor? We want our medicine!”

The fat bartender roared, “Boy, don’t you know who that is? That’s Kent Miller, and you’ll give him some respect!” The bartender nodded at Kent as the crowd began to shout in agreement, and the young man, blushing furiously as he stared at his feet, stepped back into the crowd.

His boots clicked crisply against the wooden floor as he entered Doctor Charles Goodman’s pharmacy. The good doctor took care of not only the townspeople, but of his own workplace. Everything was immaculate in his store. At least, it usually was. The shelves were now empty of the bottles and jars of cure-alls and remedies that once lined them in perfect rows. The floor, often clean and clear of debris and dirt, were now scuffed and covered in a thin layer of dust. The door had been bashed in and shattered glass fragments still littered the atrium. Goodman himself, who was usually sharply was now unkempt, his shirt stained, white hair strewn about the top of his head like he had just jogged through a tornado, a lens of his glasses shattered. A lump on his forehead was crusted in dried blood. He stood by the counter of his store, his shirt stained, His arms were crossed as he spoke to the man across from him, who wore a brown vest and pants, a blue shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat.

Sheriff Robert Wallace, noticing a new presence in the room, turned to face him. “Morning, Kent,” his voice rolled out of his mouth like thunder.

Kent nodded towards Wallace. “Sheriff,” he responded in a brusque tone. He turned to the doctor. “Charles, what’s going on?”

“Take a look for yourself, Kent,” Goodman responded, opening his arms out to the barren store, tears in his eyes.

“Early this morning, a couple broke into the office as Charles here was getting ready for the day,” Wallace said, stepping towards Kent. “They attacked him and emptied the shelves and backroom.”

“They took everything,” Goodman said, his voice trembling, “Money, painkillers…”

“What about the vaccine?” Kent eyes widened. He was across the room before he realized it, digging his fingers into Charles’ shoulders. “Charles, what about the treatment?” Goodman didn’t meet Kent’s eyes, his hollow eyes drifting toward the corner of the room.

“That, too. Everything’s gone, Kent.”

Kent opened his mouth to speak, but no noise came out. His ajar lips and large, twitching eyes made him look insane. His brow furled and he gritted his teeth.

“Who were they?” he growled.

“I…I can’t remember,” Goodman said, “I didn’t get a good look at them. I saw a man approach me, a gun in his hand, and a woman by the door. Next thing I know, they club me over the head, and when I woke up, everything was gone.” Goodman touched the lump on his head and looked at the fingertips, as if there might be fresh blood. Kent let go of Goodman and his hands curled into fists.

“Doc, Caroline needs that medicine. Are you sure they took everything?”

Goodman buried his face in his hands. “I’m so sorry, Kent.” He collapsed into the corner.

Kent turned to Wallace, taking deep breaths through his nose. “Any leads?”

“Was waiting for you to show up first,” Wallace said, taken aback by Kent’s rancor. Even though he was the sheriff, Wallace didn’t do anything without first consulting Kent, leaving himself to talk and bring as much information to Kent’s capable hands as possible. The people of Prescott wanted Kent Miller, the survivalist Civil War veteran, to be the town sheriff, but Kent, preferring a quieter life outside of town, declined. So Prescott was stuck with Robert Wallace, the once-bumbling drunk who could barely see the pile of horse-shit that he just had stepped in. “All Charles remembers is that he was attacked by a man and a woman. Didn’t get a good look at either of their faces. I’ll stick with Charles. Maybe you could take a look around?”

Kent turned dismissively away from Wallace and made a beeline for the shelves. The doctor and sheriff were right. They were cleaned out. No arsenic, no creams, no nostrums, no vaccines. Everything was gone. Kent slammed his fist on the counter. The fury in his chest knotted as he thought of Caroline alone in the house, her eyes becoming hollow like the demon that attacked her. I have to fix this, he thought. He spun around and looked at the shattered door. The muffled yells from the crowd grew louder as he approached the wooden frame, pouring through the gaps like dust on a windy day. The shards of glass were spread out on the floor, having been broken from the outside. Something blue caught his eye. Kent reached to the door and grabbed a piece of blue, gingham cloth which was snagged on the splintered glass. He froze. A man and a woman. A covered wagon. A blue gingham dress. He gripped the cloth as he stood up and turned to Wallace.

“I’ll come get you later,” he said, holding back the feral band of horses in his chest.

“And where are you going?”

“I’m going to find Caroline’s medicine.”

#

Kent pulled back hard on the reins of Strider as he reached the ridge by the roadside. He calmed down his mount, brushing his mane, before stepping off of it, tying him to a nearby fence, and, crouching, began walking down the road. He must’ve followed those wheel tracks for hours. The sun was already starting to set by the time he saw a small pillar of smoke rising thick and greasily into the orange sky. Kent slid down the rough rock and sand of the ridge, and crawled towards the campfire in the distance. He saw the wagon, still covered up with that large cloth, the horse standing off to the side. Around the humble fire sat the man and the woman. He was reclined on the ground, shoving finger-fulls of some indiscernible slop from an iron plate into his mouth, while she just sat up across from him, staring silent, the fire making deep shadows on her gaunt face. Kent slowly moved forward, taking care that his boots didn’t kick up too much dirt or press too loudly on the ground. He made his way behind a large boulder a small distance from the couple. It wasn’t a preferable position, but as he pressed himself up against the rock’s surface, he felt confident that it would protect him. He leaned to the very edge of the stone, listening in on the couple.

“…and when we get to California, it’ll be okay,” the man said, snorting through servings of his dinner and wiping his greasy hair from his brow. “Lots of people made it out there. There’s water, land, protection. Everything’ll be okay.”

The woman gazed towards the man and said nothing, shifting her eyes to the fire and clicking the heels of her boots together.

“I promise, Maggie,” he said, “Once we get to California.”

Kent removed his gun from his holster, leaned over the edge of the boulder, and pointed his gun with a steady arm towards the couple. They wouldn’t be able to see him until it was too late, he thought, and he only needed a single moment to strike. He looked towards the wagon again, and saw a rifle barrel sticking out from under the cloth. He had to be quick.

“We have enough medicine to last the entire way now,” the man continued. The woman nodded and brought a small bottle to her lips. Even from the distance, the distinctive paper label and yellow liquid allowed Kent to recognize the medicine as the same treatment he gave his daughter. Their minds were set, Kent thought. Stolen medicine, fixed plans, weapons…they wouldn’t be willing to negotiate.

A crack filled the air as Kent fired, the bullet striking the man in his shoulder. He shouted as the white-hot bullet tore through his flesh, dropping the plate and reaching for the gun at his side. The horse reared and ran off into the desert, frightened by the sudden noise. The woman scrambled to the wagon, crawling on her hands and knees. Kent made eye contact with the man for a second, seeing an inferno burning in his eyes brighter than the campfire around which they sat, before retreating behind the rock. Another crack and a resounding thud, as a bullet from the man’s gun pounded into Kent’s rock, resonating the entire fortification.

“Maggie, get the rifle!” the man screamed.

Kent leaned over the other side and saw the woman throwing off the tarp on the wagon and thrusting her arm over the side, reaching for something in its depths. Kent aimed and fired. The bullet struck her in the side, just below the ribs. She cried out like a wolf as blood flowed from the wound. He fired again, hitting her in the back. She collapsed, crimson staining her blue dress. The man screamed as he saw the woman fall, a rattling howl which reminded Kent of the way he shrieked when Caroline was attacked. The man turned his gun on Kent once more, firing three times but striking the rock like thunder cracks with every shot. Fragments of rock exploded from the great stone. Kent crouched behind the rock, lifting his hand above the top and blind-fired towards the man. He heard another crack and a bullet whizzed above him, then silence, then the telltale click of the chamber being removed from the gun. He had only a few seconds. Kent stepped out from behind the rock and pointed his gun towards the exposed man. The man was reloading his gun when he looked up, fear in his eyes. Kent fired. The bullet crashed into the man’s stomach. He groaned as he dropped the gun and clutched at his body, red spilling out between his fingers. Kent strode over to the man, picked up the revolver, and placed it in his empty holster, still pointing his own gun at the man.

The man moaned in pain, tears falling from his eyes. “Maggie,” he wept.

Kent turned and looked towards the woman, lying face down on the dirt, motionless, surrounded by a pool of blood. He pointed his gun at her head and fired. The bullet collided with her skull and she remained motionless, still like the morning sky. The man screamed as Kent fired, a scream of pain that made Kent shut his eyes tight and bare his teeth in a grimace.

Kent turned back to the man, looking at him with a face as harsh as uncut stone. “You should’ve expected retribution for what you did.” The man looked up at Kent, pain welling in the folds of his face.

“We was looking out for ourselves,” he wheezed, “She was infected!”

“Well, now she won’t come back,” Kent spat, his gun still pointed directly at the man’s chest. The man cried silent tears, clutching at his side. Kent spun around. “The sheriff will be here soon,” he said, his voice seemed cold enough to extinguish the fire.

“Wait,” the man gasped Kent looked over his shoulder at the pitiful figure reaching out to him. The man choked out the weak words, “Please don’t leave me out here. Don’t let me turn.”

Kent paused. He stood there, looking at the man, his black suit was stained with blood, his face covered in dirt and tears. Kent turned around and aimed the gun at the man’s head. The man looked up at Kent, his eyes pooling, a slight smile on his face as if he were thanking him. The man turned his head away and closed his eyes as Kent cocked the hammer of the gun.

#

Kent sprinted through the doorway of his house. The evening sky was filled with starlight by the time he had retrieved Sheriff Wallace and made it back home. He stood in the entry hallway, listening carefully, in his hand a small glass bottle with golden liquid.

“Caroline!” he yelled out. There was no response, just a slight shuddering throughout the house. He ran down the hall and threw open his daughter’s door. “Caroline,” he gasped.

Her arms flailed as her body convulsed on the straw mattress he had left her on. Kent ran over to her, unfastening the lid of the bottle. He took quick, shallow breaths as he forced open her mouth and poured the liquid down her throat. The convulsions continued for a moment, then settled somewhat. As he kept feeding her the liquid, her shaking grew more and more calm, until it had ceased altogether. She lay still on the bed, her chest rising and falling in a slow, regular manner.

Kent sighed a deep sigh, smiling somewhat for the first time that day. “It’s okay, baby girl. I’m here now,” he whispered, pulling up one of the chairs and the wash-basin. He dabbed a cloth in the water and pressed it against her forehead, looking down with sorrow at her delicate figure. “I’ll never let you become one of them.

A Snake Called Obsession

Let me tell you something, man.

People say that obsession is extreme dedication, that it’s love and devotion on a huge scale. No no no no no. Obsession is a fucking snake. I’ve seen it.

And you’ll see it, too. Next time you think about that new video game you bought, or that new album you started listening to, or that smoking hot chick who sits across from you in Ethics. The next time you think about any of those things, just look carefully around you, and you’ll see it. You’ll see it coiling around, surrounding you like a never-ending storm. And you wait for the tail to come and for that giant goddamn snake to just end. But it doesn’t. It just keeps going and going, until it’s completely surrounded you on all sides, until all you can see are it’s fucking scales and all you can feel is dark and cold, like being buried in snow.

That’s when shit gets crazy, though. The scales begin to change. Their color shifts, from blue to red to green to colors you can’t even recognize. The scales become smooth, and the cold and dark that was surrounding are replaced by a soothing warmth and a soft light. Then, your eyes glaze over and all you can see is that game you were fantasizing about…what was it called? Dragon Age: Inquisiton or some shit like that? Anyway, it becomes sacred, a Holy fucking Grail, suspended in front of you, close enough to where you can see it but never reach it. So you keep reaching for it, because you think it’s your salvation or something. And it becomes all you CAN think about.

That game’s all you ever end up talking about. It’s the first thing you think of when you wake up and the last thing you think of when you fall asleep. You become dirty, your clothes super-wrinkled. You smell like curdled milk and sweat, like you haven’t showered in weeks. You start wearing weird shirts with obscure references that only you’d get and putting goddamn Inquisitor buttons and pins on your backpack and jacket, and who-knows-where-else. And don’t get me started on those glasses. You stay up too late reading fan-fictions online about Cassandra Pentaghast, and so you start wearing glasses to compensate. Those glasses have rose-colored lenses, man.

It’s a sickness that completely envelops you. It’s a stranglehold by a serpent that won’t let you go. Take a look at Lee. He hasn’t talked about anything but Mass Effect for the past two months! Don’t tell me that something isn’t wrong with him. Oh sure, you say you see a glint in his eyes, but all I see are those goddamn scales reflected back at me. It freaks me out, man. And when you talk to him about anything else, try to get him to move onto something different like martial arts or cooking, try to get rid of those things he’s obsessed over, he responds like they all do: “Don’t take this away from me! I need this!”

Don’t ever feed it. That’s how the snake survives: it feeds on your obsessions. Once it encircles you, it never has to sink its fangs in you because you already belong to it. It gains strength the longer you are trapped within it. So how do you get out from its grasp, or how do you avoid it in the first place?

Simple: don’t think about it. Just don’t obsess over that stupid game. It’s just a game, it’s probably not that important in the long run. Just focus on the important things in life, like family and health, and don’t concentrate on stupid shit, like Nostalgia Critic or Chopped. Because when you start obsessing over those things that are a waste of time and energy, that’s exactly how the snake gets you.

James Tiptree Jr. Imitation Exercise: And From A Black Ocean, He Called To Me

James Tiptree, Jr.’s writing style can be summed up in the following phrase: to the point. Tiptree does not waste her time with airy words and flowing descriptions, preferring to cut to the meat of the matter. Few words are wasted on figurative language; it’s merely used as a device to set up the rest of the story. Rather than spend a lot of time focusing on the descriptive language, Tiptree chooses her words carefully to depict visceral, “human” actions and emotions that really cut deep into the human experience and forces me to question the flowery writing conceptions I’ve been drilled into appreciating since a young age.

These curt and succinct descriptions also lend to the thematic approaches of her story, which create a sense of intrigue on the surface, but is ultimately much darker and deeper at its depths. Reading stories like “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” one can see the initial fascination with the alien species, characterized using one or two descriptors at most, leaving us to fill in the blanks with our own imagination. This evokes a sense of wonder and mysticism that is inherent in science-fiction. However, on further exploration, the themes of her stories are grim and bleak, warning us of alien threats that might be closer to home than we realize. By the end of “And I Awoke,” we learn how dangerous sexual attraction towards alien species is. This acts as an allegory, prompting us to take caution against unregulated, addictive hedonism. Indulgence can be okay and harmless, but when uncontrolled, can lead to disastrous consequences, which, in the story, potentially lead to the decimation and conquering of humanity.

Tiptree’s initially-simplistic style is far more complex upon analysis, and her stories create a sense of desolate wonder unlike any other science-fiction writer I’ve experienced.


And From Across a Black Ocean, He Called to Me

A cold mist swirled around my feet as I stepped into the black shop. My footsteps were light as I crossed into the largest section of the store. This was strange. Indoor stores were uncommon in Bhimra, especially ones of such reputation. Still, I had to find what I was looking for.

A red sphere on a shelf caught my attention. I picked it up. An apple, glistening crimson as if light were emanating from within. I placed it back to its original position and read the label next to it.

“Syntherian Apple.”

I sneered at it. “Impossible,” I said mockingly.

“Why would you think that?”

I spun around as my eyes bulged out of my head. Standing in front of me was a man, with lanky arms and a beard which pooled at his feet like the fog in the shop. He stood, tilting his head, expectantly waiting for a response.

“Well, i–it’s just that…um…Syntheria…”

“Speak up.” His voice was like a dagger.

“Syn–Syntheria was razed to the ground two centuries ago.”

“And?”

And? I tried to explain how Gorot and his warband salted the earth around the ancient elven city, that nothing grew there anymore, that everyone knew that.

The man smiled, a wide and toothy smile. “Young man, you’ll find that here, many things are possible.” He tapped his fingers together. “But I don’t think it is magical apples that you’re looking for. No, you’ve come for something quite special.”

I stared, watching as he glided around the black store.

“Tell me what it is that you’re searching for. Samsaran texts, a Sigil blade, one of the Amarant Stars. I can assure you, we most certainly have it.”

My hands shook violently as I took the slip of parchment from my pocket and handed it to him, describing how I was to bring that item to my patron.

The man chuckled. “The box…he would ask for the box. My boy, do you have any idea for what your benefactor asks? No, of course you don’t. This box is a particular treasure of mine, one I would not normally pass on to a simple messenger as yourself, but I can make an exception given the circumstances.”

I suddenly recognized his voice. He was the one calling to me in my dreams, the one plaguing my waking moments. He must be the Antiquarian.

He turned with an unexpected swiftness and disappeared behind a bookcase, rustling about for something, throwing rolls of parchment and gemstones behind him. He strode back to me, holding in his hands a small wooden chest.

“Your benefactor does not yet understand the gravity of what he desires. This,” he tapped the lid of the box, “is ancient. Far more so than I am, and its contents are even a mystery to myself. However, I extracted it from the Xaranthines and kept it hidden. I never dared peak inside, oh no. What lies inside here is far to great a temptation even for myself.”

He pushed the box into my chest, until I took it from him. Holding it in one arm, I tried to reach for the bag of coins on my side.

The man chuckled again. “Your master has already paid for it, boy. Everything’s been taken care of.” He leaned in close. “I could barely resist the enticement to open it myself, and I’m far less curious than any man. I wonder if you’ll fare any better.” He shook his head as he turned once more and disappeared into the blackness of the shop. I choked out an attempt to make him wait, but as I walked around, I could not find any trace of the man.

I looked back down at the box. Its clasp was undone and the rough wood was split slightly. I held the lid with a firm hand.

Entry Log 409-5b

The bell in the upper-left quadrant of the glass-and-steel door rings. I pass through the threshold. There are five life-forms inside the place of business. I identify one whom is standing up. Male, 39. All others are sitting and facing away from him. Conjecture: he must be the leader. Are they afraid of him? He wields a metal object in his hand, actively dismembering the hair on their head. Identifying: object appears to be a pair of scissors. Primary use: cutting. Human functions are quite foreign; no database entry on “hair cut.”

Greeting: “Salutations, human.”

The man with the cutting instruments does not turn to face towards my platform. “Jesus, what are you doing here? Thought I told you not to come back after last time. That girl nearly lost her scalp.”

Statement: “I still do not understand. If humans are okay with removing their hair, they must surely accept removal of more.”

His exhalation is distinctly audible. “Well, whatever business you have, make it quick. I’ve got two other customers waiting, and I don’t want you hurting any of them this time.”

Identifying customers: male, 34; female, 17; male, 60. They appear to have excess hair.

Query: “I am, how you would say, curious. How do you dispose of the hair?”

The scissor-man’s eyes turn approximately 346 degrees in their sockets. Analyzing expression: eyebrows raised, pupils contracted, lip curled downward. 95% match to perplexity. He turns his head towards me, away from his victim. “We’ve got a broom. Ricky sweeps it up and throws it in the dumpster. Can’t just leave it around, it’s dirty. Health Department would shut us down. You know the Health Department, right?”

Statement: “My database contains an entry on this Health Department. It is such a shame to dispose of such luscious hair. I do not understand why the government would mandate such an act.” I watch as the scissor-man removes the hair from the male, 34. The brown locks fall to the ground in wet mounds upon the linoleum tile. Searching database for reasons to dispose of hair; error, no entries found.

The scissor-man turns to the end of the cutroom. His vocal amplification increases to 14.3 decibels. “Ricky, sweep it up!” A male, 18, appears from the end of the cutroom, wielding a large implement in one appendage, with a flat plastic plate in the other. Identifying: large object is a broom; flat object is a dustpan. The scissor-man returns his attention to me. His exhalation is again distinctly audible. “Listen, tin man, if you like hair so much, go buy a wig and stop bothering me. There’s a place down on Plantation.”

Search terms inputted: one entry found. WIGGED OUT, 334 Plantation St. Specializing in both monofilament and natural hair wigs.

Query: “One is simply able to purchase a covering made of hair?”

“‘Course you can. Hell, I’m wearing one right now.” The scissor-man reaches with his hand and removes the hair-garment on top of his head, revealing a bald scalp.

Query: “But why would one wish to dispose of one’s own hair. Is it not for warmth?”

The scissor-man replaces his hair-garment to his scalp. “Look, buddy, if I wanted to stay warm, I’d put on a sweater. Hair ain’t about that, it’s about style.”

Missing connector found: style. Related terms: beauty, status. Other automatons are without such qualities.

Conjecture: “Perhaps with a hair-garment, I would be able to become a unique platform. Hair brings with it much ‘beauty and status.’ Without it, one is mundane.”

The scissor-man returns to dismembering the seated male. “I’m not sure about that. Look at Vin Diesel, he isn’t mundane.

Diesel: liquid fuel used to power machinery by compression of air mixture and injection of fuel. Not my machinery.

Statement: “Fuel is irrelevant in this conversation.”

Query: “WIGGED OUT is located 10.3 miles away. Is there not some business transaction that we could make and bypass the locomotive process?”

The scissor-man makes an abrupt cut and pauses. He rotates his head towards me. “How much cash do you got?”

My motivator core glows.

Bad Story Exercise: The Lone Rider of Mysterra: Chapter the Ninth

Brenton, the last in the line of the ancient kings, stood before the Warlock Lord, seated on his black throne, in the vast antechamber. Blade in hand, he slowly strode towards the figure clad in black, his boots clacking on the floor, stopping before the stairs leading up to his dark seat. The towering black marble pillars vaulted above them, opening to the inky sky, a sky devoid of the comfort of light. The only light source stemmed from the Warlock Lord, as he wielded a greatsword which flickered with crimson flame.

“So,” the Warlock Lord rasped, his voice calling out from behind the pale mask he wore to conceal his visage, “You have come to challenge me. How noble. I shall reward you with the honor of a quick death.” His words penetrated Brenton like icicles, filling him with a chilling dread. Nevertheless, Brenton raised his dragonbone sword, pointing it towards his enemy.

“It is my duty to slay you and return peace to this land,” Brenton shouted with conviction, though every fiber of his being shook with fright. Standing in the presence of the Warlock Lord alone was enough to strike fear into any man, let alone challenging the dark titan to a duel.

The Warlock Lord laughed his cold, terrifying laugh, which resembled a mixture between a cacophonous death rattle and a moan slaked in eternal pain. “Defeat me? My child, you are not the first to attempt such a feat, and you will not be the last to fail.” The Warlock Lord rose from his throne and descended the staircase, almost gliding down the marble steps. “Perhaps instead of killing you, I shall turn you into one of my servants. Your abilities will be most useful in my army.”

“I will never serve you, abomination!” Brenton charged forward, thrusting his blade outwards, hoping to penetrate the villain’s heartless chest. The Warlock Lord side-stepped his attack, and Brenton stumbled. As he lost his balance, the Warlock Lord smacked the back of Brenton’s head with a gauntleted fist. Brenton fell and crashed upon the marble staircase, swiftly turning around to face the Warlock Lord from his less-than-preferable position.

“Why do you fight?” the Warlock Lord asked. “You have no chance of victory. My darkness shall consume all. Why resist the inevitable?”

“Because I have things worth fighting for,” Brenton shouted. “Honor, homeland…” He clutched at the golden locket around his neck, “…love.”

The Warlock Lord laughed again, this time shrieking with amusement. “Love? Such miserable palabra shall not save you. Now, die!” The Warlock Lord stabbed his sword downward towards Brenton. Brenton held fast his locket, thoughts of the beautiful Amarra filling his head, as he closed his eyes and braced for the bitter end.

The evil Lord’s blade never reached Brenton, however. A burst of light emanated from between his fingers, pouring forth from the locket. Brenton became surrounded by a golden bubble and, when the Warlock Lord’s blade struck the bubble, it cast him back. The Warlock Lord flew through the air before stabilizing himself and floating to the ground of his throne room.

“What sorcery is this?” he barked at Brenton.

“Love,” Brenton stood up, readying his blade, staring confidently at his enemy. “My love gives me strength, and it is love that shall defeat you!”

“Very well, fool. Let us see pit your love against my hate.”