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July 31, 2007

Guy Walks Out of a Bar

After work Guy and I stop into the Long Island Barrel Bar as usual. I have my beer and Guy his whiskey, but after downing it he says, "Well, goodbye to you, Peter. You've been better than most."

I jump to several conclusions, and say, "You've been fired? You're leaving town? You're dying?" Then one last conclusion. "You're not getting set to kill yourself?"

"None of the above." He signals Morty for another whiskey. "I'm just off to search for Bella."

"Bella?" There had been an Annabelle back in high school. What was her last name? "Do you mean Annabelle Phipps?"

He lights up. "I'm close," he says to himself. "Yes," he continues aloud. "Bella and I, we got married right out of school."

"You did not." I know better; he's as single as I am.

"Oh, I did," he says. "I married Bella and moved to Philly. Then we came back to the city to see her parents, and I stopped in here, to the Barrel, because I'd always been too young to drink before." He sips at his second whiskey.

Guy has been coming to this bar with me for years, almost every night.

"I had one drink, then walked out of the bar," he says. "And the world was different. There had never been a Bella; her family had never even emigrated. And I had moved to Staten Island after school to work as a nurse." He shakes his head, stares at the TV screen for a few seconds. "I stayed in that world for a month before I worked it out. I came back to this bar, the only thing that looked exactly the same, had one single drink, and walked out."

"Things changed?"

"And how. The local football team was called the New England Plymouths. Nobody used neon. And still no Bella. I couldn't trace her family at all, or mine." He plunked his empty glass down. "So I came back here, and I've kept coming back. In some worlds I didn't exist, in some the money was so different I had to find a job for a week before I could come in and pay for a drink. Some worlds they didn't even speak English. Those were tough."

He's spinning a tall one, or more drunk than I realized. "Maybe we should call it a night," I say. "I'll cover that last drink."

"Right. Well, this is goodbye." And he shakes my hand.

When I walk out ten minutes later he's there. "Hello?" he says, wary expression on his face. "Peter, is it?"

"You know it is. We were just in there together."

"Oh god," he says. "Did I have one drink? Or two?"

July 30, 2007

The Walnut Tree (from a Farmer in South Carolina)

My mother never minded that I didn't believe in ghosts. She patiently told me about each one on our farm, from the old man that walked with her and pointed to the ripest carrots and beets, to the woman who giggled in the rafters when the rain was coming. Some were long-dead friends and relations, others helpful strangers. According to her there were even two twins who guarded all the chickens and ducks. They came by one October night after the war was over, and stayed, and no fox or raccoon ever got one of our birds again. My mother left the twins two bowls of cereal every full moon.

"Easiest time for them to see my gifts," she explained, "their eyesight isn't so good."

She taught me what each ghost liked and went on letting me laugh and tease and shake my head.

Stopped laughing about a year after she passed away. Saw the old man for the first time the summer after she went, and he walked the rows with me in the dusk. I apologized for not leaving out his pipe tobacco as she had instructed, but he just smiled and shook his head as if he understood. She always said he never spoke.

A few nights later I asked him, just before I hoisted the basket to my shoulder and went to fetch the kids, would Mama come back too, to help? And he smiled and pointed at an old walnut tree and nodded. Right now I think she's traveling the world, but I'll look for her to settle there when she's ready.

July 27, 2007

With A Grain of Salt

Taffy had done 18 months for hijacking one of Peter Piper's trucks. Stole16 tons of pickled peppers (Why?! Who knows?). But Piper had a good alibi. He'd been home with his wife, eating pumpkin pie and playing cards with a couple of neighbors. So who killed a two-bit hood by ripping his throat out, dousing him with slime, and dumping him in Sir Reginald Thimble's flower bed? A similar murder in Dressmakers St. put me on the right track My client was a member of the notorious Tailor Gang At last everything was piecing itself together in my head.


Sir Reginald's front door was open. Running up the steps I slipped and landed hard. A trail of goo came up the drive and went through the door. I followed, and almost tripped over the butler. Crushed flat.

Three well-dressed victims had been smoking in a room off the main hall,.my client among them. Blood was everywhere. I stepped back out. A snail the size of a Volkswagen was coming up fast from the back of the house. I pulled a salt shaker out of my pocket and raised it high. The snail stopped in its trail.

"So it is down to me and it is down to you, Deadbolt," the snail gurgled. I was surprised to hear a mollusk quoting "The Princess Bride." Usually they go in for live theater when they seek entertainment.

"One question," I said. It dipped an eye stalk "Why? Did the Tailors pay you to hit the Welshman? And if they did, why start killing them? You're a pro, not a garden-variety psycho."

"You humanoids are all crooked. They put the hit on the little thief cos he was stupid enough to rip them off. Only an idiot steals from a syndicate."

"You won't get an argument from me," I said, "but what about the Tailors? Doing your civic duty?"

"Thread-biters didn't pay me." It sounded outraged. "I let that get out, that people can push in my eyestalks, and I won't be eating."

"Three square salads a day where you're going now," I said, "you can thank me later." Meanwhile, I had unscrewed the lid of the saltshaker. It would last until the cops got here with a couple of 5 pound sacks.

The end




"Peter Piper"


"Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater"


"The tailors and the snail"


July 26, 2007

A Cage in a Pit in Another Universe

"What you in for?" said the skeletal guy from his rusty, spherical cage a few yards away.

"I paid for smokes with money from another universe," said Andy from his own cage. He shifted, trying to get comfortable, which was impossible. The cage was too short to stand up in, too curved to sit in, and lying down made the bars cut into him. Squatting was bearable for short periods. He tried that again. Belatedly, he remembered his manners. "What about you?"

"I ate an Eyeball of Power."


"Yah za, it wasn't bad," said the skeletal guy. "Kinda savory. You know, ma slacka, you sound brainburnt to me."

Andy looked out across the wide, dank pit, crisscrossed by girders from which dozens of cages like his hung by tangles of thick chain. "If that means crazy, then yeah, probably. You know how long we're supposed to be here?"

The skeletal guy smiled, revealing a mouth almost devoid of teeth. "What you mean? How long before we die?"

"They have to let us out sometime, right?"

"How come?"

Andy didn't have a good answer to that. His legs were beginning to ache, so he tried sitting again, but the cage forced him into a slump, then into lying down against the rough bars.

"You want a cigarette?" Andy said.

The skeletal guy laughed mirthlessly. "Yah za, what we gonna do with those?"

Andy shrugged, took out a cigarette, and cupped his hand around the end while he flicked his lighter.

"Yah my long-suffering mama!" said the skeletal guy. "You got fire?"

Andy flicked sparks from his lighter in the guy's direction as he took a deep drag on his Millboro, which tasted awful. "Yeah," he said. "So?"

"I told you," said the skeletal guy. "I ate an Eyeball of Power! We just gotta swing these cages closer, ma slacka, and we'll be flying outta here in no time!"

Andy had no idea what eating an eyeball had to do with his lighter, but he damned sure didn't have anything better to do. Clamping his cigarette firmly in one side of his mouth and squinting, he stood up as much as he could, his back pressed against the bars, and leaned first one way, then the other. The skeletal guy began to do the same.

Hell, even if the guy turned out to be crazy, at least Andy'd made a friend.

July 25, 2007

Ghost Dancing the Cemetery Mile

It was your idea, your concept that started it all. I saw your face as you watched the historical footage. I saw the moment the plan came to you. I didn't know what it was until you drove us out there, beyond all the walls and shields, the abandoned strip malls and the checkpoints.

You tapped the pad you'd glued to the dash and the old-time music started, so loud and so low our ribs throbbed with the beat and we couldn't hear the screeching of the harpies. You'd slipped the restraints and slid out the window before we could stop you.

There, under the light of the hololoops of the dearly departed, you danced. And the hover, controlled by that patch pad on the dash, moving in time to the math you'd programmed, danced with you. You leapt and slid and spun, ran or slow-walked, while the hover surged and stopped, fishtailed, hopped up and drifted down. You spun on the roof; you tumbled through the underside jets and came up again, road dust unfolding spookily around you in the holo-light. The mausoleum blocks echoed with laughter and voices singing along to century-old slang.

"Ghost dancing," you said.

The next week, we cruised the tombs again, and we all took a turn. Under the flickering gaze of beloved husband of, cherished daughter, much-missed brother, we danced. The hover, danced with us; you'd taught us the method of your math, and we'd each programmed our own choreography.

Your math was always the best; your choreography the most perfect. That was why things went wrong -- your movements were too true to the beat. The harpies knew exactly when to swoop. They had you off the ground by the time we reached you. You were still twitching to the bass; they knew how to move to hold you tight in their claws.

Now you stay locked indoors, won't talk to any of us who still go out into the night and the music.

We dance to new tunes, stochastic syncopation that bewilders the harpies, too many rhythms shifting too quickly. We dance for you, much-missed brother, and hope that you'll join us again, to leap and twist by the light of the dead.

July 24, 2007

Instruction Manual

Operating instructions

1. There are none.
2. Please remember not to try to steer it. Thank you.

Basic care

1. Leave it alone as much as possible.
2. Enjoy it.
3. Try not to use too much of it at once.
4. We strongly recommend that you do not produce radioactive or toxic waste, as this voids the warranty on protein codes.
5. Do not touch the wings of the butterflies, as it damages their scales. Thank you.

Emergency care

1. Study it very carefully.
2. Figure out which parts you did not leave alone.
3. You can panic, but please remember that that is a function of your glands. We advise an initial stage of panic followed by considered, careful action.

Tech support

You can call us at 1-800-277-1324. But it won't do any good. If you've messed things up, we certainly won't be able to figure them out.

Ted asks that you call us if you like the flamingos.

Parts list

Too numerous, particularly the moving parts, which are also changing all the time, therefore we feel it is not worth producing and revising a set list. But before you start using it, check to be sure these principal parts are intact:

1. Warm core.
2. Hard crust.
3. Watery surface.
4. Shell of air.
5. Local star (ensure correct distance, between 147m-153m km).

We hope you have found this manual useful. If not, we recommend that you re-examine your product more carefully, because it's damn complicated, and we still haven't figured out what it's for, even though we like it a lot.

July 23, 2007

Higher Fidelity

Benedikt Tarr picked up the used CD at a garage sale. It was an act of desperation prompted by his seeing it had been released in 1984, quite likely seriously out of print. The morning's pickings had been nonexistent so far, and for someone who made a living on eBay that was tantamount to disaster. He repressed the urge to try talking the seller down from fifty cents.

On his way home he popped the CD in the car's player, to make sure it was as pristine as it looked and so he could, "in truth", declare that it had been played only once. The strains of Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto Number Four bloomed from his speakers. At a stoplight he looked over the case carefully, finding it free of scratches. The thin insert showed a white-haired man in profile at a piano, behind him a full orchestra in tuxedos except for a woman in an evening gown sitting at a harp.

Someone coughed. Then someone walked by, from the left speaker to the right. Both sounds were faint, but audible. Benedikt turned his head so he could hear better, eyes still on the road. Just when he thought he'd imagined them, someone's chair creaked a bit and someone else sniffed. "Crap," said Benedikt. He'd read about this problem with early CDs; nobody expected them to pick up so much more than the music.

Four minutes, fifty seconds in, he heard the music from a new angle, one too heavy on the woodwinds. Shaking his head at the slipshod production, he gripped the wheel and vowed to research the better CD labels. Then the audio changed; it sounded like he was in the timpani section. Again, and he was in strings. Then he seemed to be in all three places at once, then more.

Vision came next, of a score, the back of a flautist's head, nimble fingers on a violin's neck.

Smells: sweat, dust, and polished wood.

Fingers shifting up and down on cello strings.

Fingers impacting on piano keys.

Fingers strumming the harp.

Benedikt's brain splintered into a hundred tracks. He heard felt saw the concerto from the inside, sitting in each seat and playing each instrument.

Then his car ran into a tree at thirty-eight miles per hour.


Benedikt Tarr skidded down the aisle and slammed into the side of the stage. He lay there for a time, then ran his hands down his chest. He appeared to be in one piece. He looked around. No car. He was in a theatre. Finally, he stood, and saw the orchestra conductor, then the orchestra. They all stared back at him. "Tell me," the conductor finally said. "Do you play French horn?"

July 20, 2007

The Marking

Lud stands next to the pharmacy's wall for a long moment, one hand held to the sun-warmed brick. He senses the layers of paint on it, the war between art and whitewash. Symon has been here, and Vibo, and the silent artist whose tag is all black and orange arrows. Their symbols are all trapped beneath expanses of paint.

He glances up the street, then down. It's a quiet Sunday morning in Dallas, already sweltering. Lud shrugs off his pack, and pulls from it his tools. Templates and brushes, thick markers in seven colors, three spray cans. All of the cans have heavy-duty magnets on their bottoms to keep the ball-bearing 'peas' from rattling while he walks. It's best not to advertise what he carries.

Donning the gloves and removing the magnets from the cans, he shakes one of them, enjoying the feel of the weight shifting back and forth. He lays down a light blue diamond on the wall. He gives it a black drop-shadow. Once he starts, he's impatient to be done. He cuts into his first form with dark purple, then sprays through templates to build up one sigil, then another and a third. The last glyph is the most difficult, the most dangerous.

He's halfway through it when the wall bulges toward him, as if made of rubber. It touches one of his gloves, starts to pull his hand into the wall. Utter cold flares through his bones, and he slips his hand out of the glove, sees it sucked away.

There are ice crystals on his hand. More bulges appear on the wall, seeking him. Avoiding them, he picks up a marker in his good hand and removes the cap with his teeth. Positioning his thumb over the dent he's made on its barrel, he presses to make the ink flow and shakily completes the sigil. When the last line is drawn the wall is once more smooth and motionless.

Lud flexes the fingers of both hands, one thawing and the other cramped from squeezing the marker. He steps away from the wall and admires his work.

Tires crunch on gravel, and he whirls. A police car is moving slowly through a parking lot across the street. If they haven't seen him already, they soon will. He pulls his hoodie up over his pointed ears and crouches to scoop his supplies into his backpack. He scuttles around a corner and is gone in search of the next wall or billboard or train car.

Behind him, the wall stands doubly reinforced, useless to the legions of Faerie seeking their lost children.

July 19, 2007

Parthenia Rook V: In Rio de Janeiro with a Gnome

The garden gnome had never envisioned himself parading in Rio de Janeiro dressed only in feathers, a pineapple hat and a thong, but when Parthenia Rook came to him and asked his help to defeat the Bonobo King... well, she was a superheroine in leather pants. Besides, at that stage, nobody had mentioned thongs.

Parthenia's costume was rather more elaborate. Albert thought she must be carrying about a hundred pounds of fruit which, sadly, covered her from head to foot. Her plan was to infiltrate one of the blocos and parade through the city. Bonobo King would not be able to resist their fruity head-ornaments and when he approached them and tried to steal their irresistible mangoes and bananas, Parthenia would knock him out with her patented leather-boot triple kick. It seemed like a fool-proof plan at the time. Alas, as many other fool-proof plans in superhero history, it wasn't.

When they saw the Bonobo King, Parthenia Rook pushed the gnome behind her and faced her archenemy. Albert thought it was very heroic of her and peered out from behind her fruity derriere.

"At last we meet, Bonobo King," she said.

The Bonobo King's eyes darted from bananas to oranges to melons. He seemed frozen with indecision. Finally he knuckled up to Parthenia and reached up for the cherry dangling from her ear. Parthenia jumped forward... and toppled over from the sheer weight of the fruit basket attached to her head.

Albert stared at the Bonobo King over the fallen heroine's body.

"Er... at last we meet..." It didn't sound as portentous as he'd hoped. "Fruit, anyone?"

The Bonobo King put the cherry in his mouth and stared at the garden gnome. His face twisted into a mask of pure evil. Then he started laughing. Albert thought he was never going to stop. He pointed at Albert and jumped up and down, eyes watering and belly rumbling. Mortified, the garden gnome wished Bonobo King would get on with
business and kill him already, but then the ape went blue in the face, started coughing and toppled over.

Parthenia Rook emerged from the mountain of fruit. "Cherry pits plus laughter. Never fails," she said, marching triumphantly over the Bonobo King's body. "Thank you. I couldn't have done this without you, Albert."

Albert trailed behind. "Aren't you gonna, you know, check that he's really dead?"

"No, superheroes never double-check stuff. There is such a thing as style." Albert glanced back doubtfully: he was sure he'd seen that ape twitch.

July 18, 2007

Job Interview

-- Drac. We meet again.
-- I need a job, Doc. I'm so desperate I--
-- I vant to suck your blood! Ha, ha.
-- That's an old joke.
-- So you're desperate for a job?
-- An oldie but a goodie! Ha, ha. You got some delivery, Doc.
-- Frankly, Drac...
-- Name's Dracula. The title's Count. Say them together: Count Dracula.... But please call me Drac. My trusted associates do.
-- Okay, Drac, but frankly a man of your qualifications isn't needed in the hospital nursery.
-- I'm overqualified?
-- If you want to put it that way...
-- What other way is there?
-- Your experience in the mortuary, hospice, blood bank, ICU, and phlebotomy labs, don't translate into work for a nursery. Besides, a few irregularities sprung up at your last positions.
-- You're discriminating. I'll sue.
-- Nobody's said--
-- Undead men got rights, too. You think I won't sue?
-- That's nice, but it's more your reputation.
-- Have you checked my references?
-- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson were fine American citizens in their day but they're dead now. Your reputation, I'm afraid, goes a little deeper than any man alive could dig.
-- What do you mean?
-- You were in jail forty years for murder.
-- I'm a changed man. I was let out on good behavior.
-- You were let out for the good behavior of the state of Georgia. The prison had trouble keeping inmates. The criminals disappeared, one by one, until only one mysteriously remained. The entire state of Georgia didn't commit a crime during your sentence. They called the prison you stayed at, let's see, "Death Row."
-- Aw, Doc. Give a fella a chance.
-- With babies? These little fellas want to live. You've got to work where no one else wants to.
-- I need youth. Rejuvenation. I need to savor the laughter of boys and girls. If you don't give me a job, I'll... I'll...
-- You'll vant to suck my blood?
-- I'll show you! You... you...
-- Speech impediment?
-- Ow! What the heck?
-- That? That's my fang-proof turtleneck--a fine weave of cotton, wool, and sterling silver smelted from crosses found in abandoned sanctuaries. You like?
-- I'd like a job.
-- Youth ain't what it used to be. Time to hang up your dentures and move on. Oh, Drac, don't cry. You'll smear your powder. Chin up. Listen, the unwanted pregnancy clinic opened a position in... What do you know? Gone already. Like a bat out of hell. Give the boy credit. A real go-getter.

July 17, 2007

What Do I Win?

Ron showed the lid to the cashier at Quickie Mart.


"The contest!" He clicked the lid down on the counter and pushed it an inch or two towards the man.

The cashier picked it up, walked to the window, and stared at it for a long time. He put it back down in front of Ron. "It says 'all-expenses-paid worlds tour.'"

That was right, Ron knew, typo and all.

"But how do I get the world tour? Do I go to a website?"

The clerk pointed at some tiny print on the bottle cap. "You call that number." He gave the lid back and turned away.


"Hello." A pleasant contralto.

"I, um, I'm calling about,"

"The worlds tour! I'll set you up right now. When do you want to go?"

"Well, I, er, any time," Ron finished weakly.

"Fantastic! Thank you so much for calling, and have a great trip." She hung up.


That was the most surreal conversation he'd ever had, even stoned out of his mind. He turned, and was overwhelmed with the sensation of jamais vu, the unexpected feeling of unfamiliarity amid the familiar. Had the apartment been this untidy when he left this morning? He stepped over a pile of clothes and looked out the window. Holy shit! The lake was gone. No, it was covered with floating condos. But when had the condos been put in? His stomach was starting to feel a little queasy.

Someone walked out of the bathroom. He was short, paunchy, middle-aged, and wearing a towel.

"Hey..." Ron began.

"Gaah!" The man dropped his towel.

Ron stared at the man's forked penis, then stammered: "Are you a weresnake*."

"Funny, Zero. You're still trespassing. What you doing in my zōn?" Then he slapped his forehead.
"Oh, right, 'the worlds tour.' Look, I don't need this today. Get out." He nodded toward the door.



Ron opened the door and stepped out.

From the apartment behind him he heard the fat man with the Y-shaped penis say "Oh yeah, watch that first one."

The end

*Not making this up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes#Reproduction.

July 16, 2007

Evening in the Chess-Cafe Star

That Tuesday evening, like every Tuesday for the last couple of months, Maxim Abromovich Klebanov went to the chess café on Zaparin street. Javad Azaizeh waited at the usual table by the window. Like a third of the tables in the café, instead of chess pieces, the table was set with a shallow bowl of glass beads beside the board on each side. A new fad, the game with glass beads was as rigorous as chess but more abstract.

They made the usual small talk as they played -- ostensibly, the older man was helping Max with his French, but they both enjoyed the challenges of the games, chess at first, this new game for the last few weeks. They placed the beads at the corners of squares or, when the rules allow, in the center. Javad jotted the score and corrected Max's accent; Max was distracted --

3: Akbal: climbing the steps to the sky: even with the green of the trees beyond the city

Max's peripheral mind read patterns in the bead arrangements as Mayan calendar glyphs and jaunted off on cross-reference tangents --

8: Lamat: topography in relief: overlays for infrastructure, political divisions, groundcover vs. cleared vs. paved : looped animations showing ebb and flow of cultivation over decades.

Max shook his head. His contract was very specific: the peri-brain implant was for work only. The company paid for the surgery and the monthly subscription. The connection should have ended when he left the building. He shook his head again. One idea opened into the next.

14: Ix: import export ratios for corn, beans, millet, rice: by district, by country, by continent: by month, by year, by rolling five-year interval: flurry of numbers: mob of colored charts

The clatter and conversation in the street, loud yet removed. Against the focused silence of chess club, the noise was like a pressure in the air.

Max had fallen silent, but Javad must have assumed his friend was concentrating on the game. The taste of dust from another continent, another century, was thick on Max's tongue. Amidst the random firings of the peri-brain, he glimpsed a story, a life. He moved his lips, couldn't find words.

20: Ahau: numbers flock and disperse: commodities markets, futures: a wind in the treetops: so many steps

The game was over. Javad stood, wrapped his scarf around his neck, said something. Reached out to shake Max's hand.

Behind Max's eyes, the cycle of days began again.

1: Imix: climbing still higher: above the trees now and nearer to the sun's heat

July 13, 2007

Kutter Wields the Knife

He acted tough, but I knew he was a cream puff.

"So," I drawled, "what brings you here?"

"I heard Cook E. Kutter was the man to see for making cookies."

I inclined my head slightly.

"Word's been getting around," he continued, "that you've gone soft. That you let the Doughboy get away with murder."

"That's a damn lie!" I burst out, then struggled to regain control. "P. F. never touched that dame. Besides, he's a ticklish one to deal with. Yeah, I let him go ... he'd risen as far as he could. What's it to ya?" I leaned back with a creak and parked my feet on the desk, between last week's coffee and some bootleg recipes off the Internet.
All of a sudden he seemed a little nervous. He cleared his throat: "Well..."

"Cream gone sour?" I asked sympathetically, and poured us both glasses of whiskey. "Have a pick-me-up."

He waved it away. "No thanks," he said, "I'm trying to cut back. Listen. I want to make a batch of chocolate chip. Can you help?"

"Maybe. Do you have what it takes? Raw courage? Unyielding persistence? Butter? Flour? Chocolate chips?"

Oh, he had it all, but he was holding out on me. I could tell. Still, I played it cool.

"You want to know? I'll tell you.

"You'll need ingredients: butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, flour, salt, baking soda, and the chips. You need to mix them, and you've got to do it right.

"First the wet stuff, then the dry. The chips come last."

Oh, I told him sure enough. I gave him the whole story.

"Now it's your turn," I said, "give!"

"What do you mean?" He was all innocence, up to the elbows in creamed butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla. But I wasn't having it this time.

"You know what I mean." He wouldn't talk. I pounded on the desk, threatened, I admit it, but he simply stirred flour, salt, and soda into his creamed mixture. Finally I had had enough.


There was something on my face. I licked it off. Cream filling. Delicately, I parted his severed hemispheres, and there, nestled in the cream, I saw it. I KNEW he'd been holding out on me! I reached in and picked it up. I reverently wiped off the cream with my handkerchief, and popped it in my mouth. I love cherries.

July 12, 2007

First Time

So I met this girl at a "meatspace" party the summer between high school and college. I was hanging out with a lot of BBS people back then, before the Internet. And I asked everyone at the party, but no one knew what her screen name was, and they got a little nervous when I brought it up, which only made me more interested. I spent the night watching her across the room. Some time after midnight, she walked out onto a balcony just off the main room where my fellow nerds were arguing about the X-Files. I followed her.

"What's the weirdest thing you have ever seen?" she turned and asked me before I could figure out what I wanted to say. She lit a Marlboro with a cheap Bic lighter, and the end glowed like the moon on fire.

I paused for a moment before answering. "I saw a ghost of a jogger on the Fourth of July, running in the road. I could see through him and everything. You?"

"Flying saucers practicing their landing on a hillside in Arkansas. They darted up into the clouds sometimes, and then floated back down like a feather. I was bored after an hour."

I laughed. "I know what you mean. It like, when you see things that lie outside of the realm of the normal, you aren't aware, in the moment, just how unusual they are. And then you spend a lot of time trying to come up with explanations that put the event squarely inside normal."

"Lovecraft thought those kinds of things would drive people mad, but I think that human brains are too elastic for that," she said. When she took a drag from the cigarette, her face lit up. Her eyes were green.

"Is that why I am not gibbering right now?" I asked.

"You mean, because of my tentacles?"

I shrugged. I hadn't meant to draw attention to them directly, but they were kind of hard not to notice.

"Beats me," she said. She paused, and took a long drag off of her cigarette. "You want to make out?"


So that's how I lost my virginity. I have a suspicion that if I had answered her opening question with "you," something much worse would have happened to me.

July 11, 2007


Hailey grabbed the toad by the leg and threw it against the wall. There was an ugly splatter.

"See what you've done?" she told the prince which had matterialized half-conscious on the floor. "I'm never going to get those guts off the wall and the cleaning lady will ask all sorts of questions in the morning."

"I'm sorry," stuttered the boy. "You freed me, my Princess!"

"Yeah, whatever. That's what we do in this country. We free people." Hailey wrinkled her nose at the overwhelming acne on the boy's face. "I'm soo glad I didn't kiss you," she said.

"But you will when we're married?" he asked. Hailey lifted an eyebrow.

"You are going to marry me, aren't you?"

Hailey backed off towards the door. She'd planned to spend the morning in bed, but the citric walls and cool posters weren't as welcoming with slime dripping down to the floor.

"Wait, don't leave me!" The frog-prince scuffled after her. "I rescued your PSP from that lake."

Hailey turned towards him viciously.

"Listen to me, you little toad. I don't owe you anything. Sure you got the PSP back, and I already said thank you for that. Following me home hasn't been a cool move. And when I threw you? Well, I didn't plan on freeing you, I was just trying to stop you from jumping into bed with me!"

The boy whimpered and gave her that look: emotional blackmail, pitiful thumb-twisting, a calf going to the slaughterhouse.

"OK, listen. I have to go to class now. Bertzank will go insane if I skip English 101. I can't not go. You just go back to your lake and I'll come get you after class."

The frog prince scuttled obligingly out the door and Hailey closed it behind him with a sigh. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and she had cleaning to do.

July 10, 2007

Raise Your Hand if You Just Became a Vegan

A well-constructed young woman barged into my office Monday morning, breathing hard after running up two flights of stairs. When she regained her composure she told me her great aunt had "drifted away from her moorings." Some time Sunday morning the old lady had started devouring livestock, not just raw, but still living. By day's end she was dead.

"What do you want me to do, Miss Clarendon?"

"Oh, Mr. Deadbolt," she replied, "Why did she eat those critters? The great aunt Sylvia I knew would never do such a thing. She might have been murdered. Maybe by a hypnotist."


"I'm sure you know why I have gathered you together," I began. "You are the relatives of the late Sylvia Clarendon. I was asked to investigate her death, to find out whether foul play was involved. I've checked into all of you carefully, as well as anyone who had business or social dealings with the deceased. I turned up nothing. Ms. Clarendon was universally liked, and was far from wealthy.

"I did partially solve the mystery. She really did take a double dose of several powerful prescription drugs last Friday night as she went to bed. Sunday morning she swallowed a common housefly, and then a spider in hopes that it would trap the fly. Because of the limited opportunities for web construction within her digestive tract, she chose a jumping spider, but of a perfectly respectable species. When the spider failed to return, Ms. Clarendon swallowed a small bird. Its mission was to retrieve the spider, but by 0900 hrs it had failed to do so. Her choice of a house sparrow, a seed eater, may have been part of the problem. There followed in rapid succession the following commandos: a rat, a cat, and a dog, all with rather obvious goals. Her motives of the afternoon are less certain. About 1320 she swallowed a goat, which might have been a bad choice considering the size of the dog it was supposed to subdue. Be that as it may, around 1500 hrs a cow followed the goat. This was a highly reliable operative named Bessie who had successfully completed similar missions in the past. At 1545 a cleaner named Dobbins was sent in, with what tragic results you all know.

"I have, as I said, worked out most of the details of the weekend's tragedy. However, one thing still puzzles me about the whole affair. I don't know why she swallowed the fly."

The end



July 9, 2007

Cinderella Begins Dating Again After a Bitter Divorce

"You look beautiful."

"Don't be charming," she snapped.

Cinderella's date took a swig of chianti to cover his confusion. A peasant's idea of a nice wine; Cinderella ignored hers. Though Charming probably wasn't drinking much better stuff these days, after the settlement. He was lucky he'd got to keep the cobwebby old chalet where he now had to live. Hell, he was lucky he got anything at all after his fling with Sleeping Beauty.

Her date smiled at her. What was his name again? Hans or Jan or something like that. He was handsome in a chunky, woodcuttery way. He smelled like ginger. That wasn't bad, ginger. It made Cinderella think of pumpkin pie.

"So, Cinderella," he said. "What do you do?"

"Do? Nothing. I used to scrub floors and have forest animals at my beck and call, but they're not welcome in the palace. Or I guess they weren't. Now they will be. If they still have any idea who I am."

"You like animals? I like animals," he said in a rush. Then his face grew red. "Sorry, that sounds desperate."

"Better than charming," she said. There was a long silence, and she tapped one foot impatiently. She grimaced. "When's the waiter going to be here with our salads?"

Hans or Jan or something sighed and stood up, dropping a few coins on the table. "Let's try again another time," he said.

Cinderella stared, uncomprehending, as Hans or Jan or something bowed awkwardly and walked to the door. What was he doing? Cinderella was beautiful, obviously rich, she had a lovely singing voice ... he was leaving, just like that?

Apparently he was: she waited for a long moment, and he didn't come back. Cinderella ran out to the parking lot, not losing her shoe because she had long since taken to wearing ones with straps.

There was nothing out there but the surrounding forest.

Cinderella looked all around her, the anger draining away. He wasn't Charming. Why had she been taking it out on him?

An ancient bluebird flapped arthritically to the ground and trilled at her, and she saw something beside it: a white stone, gleaming in the moonlight. And there was another, and another: a trail! She picked a breadcrumb off her blouse and threw it to the bird, then followed the rocks into the dark forest.

Hansel, that was his name. Hansel.

July 6, 2007

The Grand Spire

(From A Comprehensive Guide to the Labyrinth City, by P.W. Garletts. 1087: Mewlen and Oll, Publishers; Osper Square. Pages 57-58.)

The Grand Spire is the tallest building in the Labyrinth City and, allegedly, the only one from whose upper floors the whole design of the city can be seen.

Built in the Linear Year 136 by architect siblings Oscar, Omar and Olive Specto, the tower was built of stone quarried from the mountain that formerly stood in what is now the Three Hills neighborhood.

The Grand Spire's existence was one of the underlying causes of the Second Mapmaker's revolt in L.Y. 260. When Queen Sheparsa IV brokered an end to hostilities, the fate of the spire was one of the most contentious issues. The only issue that united the squabbling Mapper's Guilds was their common desire to see the Spire razed. Eleven-finger Owlsely, a steward of the Sevenbridge guild, even produced a map of a proposed park that would encompass the dunes that would result from the Spire's being ground to sand.

The nearby neighborhoods, however, had seen the worst of the fighting during the revolt's five years. With its massive stone blocks barely chipped, the spire was the least damaged building for nearly a mile in any direction, and a great source of local pride. More practically, the inhabitants of Spireshadow, Spireview, Baker's Fallow, Wormtree, and Lower Seething saw the Spire's use as a landmark as their only hope to rebuild without falling prey to the unscrupulous map sellers who were quickly amassing fortunes in other war-torn quarters of the city.

So it is that the tower wardens not only cover their faces with eyeless masks but also blind themselves each day at noon by plunging lit torches into troughs of ink-dust, filling the interior of the tower with impenetrable darkness. Behind the welded-shut windows, the wardens go about their duties by touch. No matter how they may be tempted, they are unable to abuse their position and glimpse the plan of the city.

From the time of the truce, maps in the Labyrinth City have been approximate, transitory, and provisional, but the peace, however strained, whatever injustices it leaves unchallenged, is -- like the Grand Spire -- enduring.

July 5, 2007

Stones without Sticks

The Rolling Stone was his own man, so to speak, and traveled past lands unseen. The stone, being a stone, was stoned with the inordinate pride of having gathered no moss--his being's essence unsullied by another being's essence, which his most restless and rocky friends had firmly warned him against.

To scale new heights in his rollings, he started at the foot of a mountain that poked holes in passing clouds. For millennia (a figure rounded by reckoning since stones don't count), he forded streams and outstripped boulders attempting the same ascent. Occasionally, a biped wandered by, and Stone leaped into the crack of its foot's second skin. This saved him hundreds of years of bounding up the path. The free rides never lasted long, however; for in short order, the bipeds removed their skins (they obviously gathered another kind of moss).

Along the way, he heckled those stones who had given up the struggle--not only gathering moss but water, earth, grass, and trees, even! What odd, stiff, wooden creatures they were to stand heartlessly on his fellow stones. It served the trees right to die in a few hundred years.

The higher he climbed, the stranger the substances that his fellows had drowned in: water solid as stone! He chatted up a few, but they all seemed frozen in fear.

Finally, Stone reached the summit. He leaned over a steep precipice and roared his triumph at achieving his dream. That's when he heard the triumphant yahoo of a biped which swallowed his pipsqueak roar. Before he could turn, the biped's second skin kicked him over the ledge.

Stone cursed the biped--though the beasts' lives were already abysmally ephemeral--until he realized this was another journey (if considerably faster) to tell his grandchildren about. Stone bounced and sparked other stones who, excited about Stone's journey, joined him in the Great Fall. Despite the descent, it pinnacled Stone's achievements: His fall was his meteoric rise: so many other stones leaping to join in Stone's headlong, boisterously joyful fray--a veritable pride of the unmossed, so quintessentially, so unreservedly stoned in their stony abandon.

Panting and laughing, they landed at the foot of the mountain with a flurry of dust. What a rush! They spoke of the great race for eons to their children's children. Eventually, Stone gathered moss, but it was nice not to be bald anymore.

July 4, 2007


His dead wife called Parnell in their bedroom at 3 PM precisely.

"Hi, honey," she said. "Is this a good time to talk?"

"Beulah." He felt with one hand behind him for the bed, then sat on it.

"If it's--"

"No, it's fine. You just caught me off guard, that's all."

"I--" She laughed. "I don't have a good reason for calling, I just missed you."

He knew she was a computer program, a clever artificial intelligence, a last gift from Bee. "I miss you," he said.

"How did you sleep last night?"

He transferred the phone from one hand to the other. "The doctor gave me something," he finally admitted.

"Be careful," she said at once. "Don't overdo sleeping pills."

"I won't." It really was like having her back, hectoring tone and all. "I just don't know what to do. After being married for thirty years I'm not sure how to go on."

"That's why I'm here." There were sounds: a chair scraping across a floor, paper rustling. "I was going to keep this first call light, not say anything. But I'm worried about you." She cleared her throat, he imagined her adjusting her bifocals. "Now, the lawyer will read the will on Thursday. I've left everything to you except one small insurance policy for my niece. Be sure to ask for six certified copies of the death certificate."

"Should I take notes?"

"No," she said. "I'll send you an email message."

Blinking, he reached out to touch the pillow she'd used so recently. "You're very resourceful. What next?"

"Sixty two percent of widowers lose the bulk of their inheritance within two years," she said. "What you need to do is invest your money well."

"Invest? I'm almost fifty." Couldn't he splurge? Live a little?

"Yes. Find a good fund, something well diversified. Do try to leave the principal untouched. Oh, and make sure they invest in Aftercall."

Par pulled the phone away from his ear, looked at it. Tentatively, he put it back against his ear. "That-- that's you, isn't it?"

"Oh no," she said, her voice losing a bit of Bee's timbre. "I'm a simulation of your wife, designed to aid you in these trying times. But I ought to mention that Beulah chose to purchase the basic service, which includes adware. You may upgrade at any time--" And here the full depth and character of his wife's voice returned. "But I don't recommend it. Save your money, dear."

July 3, 2007

The End of the Mission

I was sitting on the front porch of my guesthouse, waiting for the mothership to come, enjoying the hot evening, when out of the grass they rose, one by one, little whirring beings with lanterns in their bottoms: blinking on; blinking off; blinking on. A local alien had told me the day before that this blinking was the way these little lantern-beings spoke of love.

I was still pondering this when the great beam blinked on and pulled me up into my mothership, among all my friends and cousins, "home sweet home" as the aliens say, and a surprise party for the end of the mission besides. Somebody had even hand-programmed a holograph saying "Happy End of Mission!" The cycling on it was wrong so it blinked on, blinked off, blinked on.

July 2, 2007

The Honeybee Movement

You know how people wonder whether the human race will go out with a bang or a whimper? I think the honeybees have answered that question for us. I personally see the hand of God in the fact that honeybee workers, classic nose-to-the-grindstone types, are just walking off the job. More and more colonies are turning up empty, or with just a few young and bewildered bees. It's like the family that left their home in Oklahoma or wherever it was. They drove until the car ran out of gas; then they started walking. No one ever saw them again. Well, I figure this is our last warning. The pillar of salt was a warning. The global flood was another. The honeybees are simply the latest, but I think they show us how it will happen. I've seen this in a vision: people just dropping things where they lie and walking away, walking away from everything, and they don't come back.

Now if we only knew which of the myriad sects was the correct one, the one that had God's true word, we could all join. Maybe if only one person joined, we would get another chance. I am convinced that this time, as in the time of Noah, someone will see the light. Someone will understand the true word of God, act accordingly, and people will listen. But this has to happen soon. As I walk to and from work it seems to me that more houses are empty, more businesses operate with a skeleton crew, more storefronts are abandoned.

So I think we will be saved, but one thing has me lying awake at night. Suppose one of the countless sects that has been extirpated over the last few millennia was the only one that got it right. Or what if no one has ever understood the Truth?

I'm doing what I can. I'm researching forgotten religions and setting up websites for all of them. Go online and Google "religions." You'll find them, mixed in with all the familiar ones. Ritual of the Gnaath. Sisterhood of Eternity. And so on. Each has a PayPal button. I'm not taking that money myself! It really goes to that religion, for website maintenance. I figure if I can revive any of these religions it will improve our odds. And I'm getting lots of hits, lots of contributions. Do I have yours?