Short Stories

 

     In a small town, little more than a village really, a place whose import outweighs its value as the county seat, is a house. It sits behind a large wrought iron gate, flanked by stone and brick pillars that bleed into more iron blackened with time and memories and fire and other things, fencing that extends around the property, keeping interlopers out and the untold acreage in. On the other side of the gate, the side you don’t get to see unless you’re invited or one of the members of the small, almost nuclear family that lives there, is a drive. A long time ago, the drive was nothing more than a dirt path. Then it became layered with pecan shells, followed by gravel, then stone. Today, for the moment, it is asphalt as dark and black as the farthest reaches of the night sky as you might see them with the naked eye. 
     The drive is long and winds and takes unexpected turns, not unlike life or this story. It goes past a pond that is stocked with koi and other things that can breathe under its surface, a large fountain churning away any hint of algae at the center. The drive weaves through the woods, a narrow slicing path, where the canopy of sycamores and maples and oaks and trees whose names you don’t know, can’t know, shade everything so that this part of the drive exists in perpetual dusk. Eventually, the drive exits the woods and the house is finally visible, resting at the crest of where two hills who in their youth aspired to be mountains grow into one. 
     If you ask the people who live on the other side of the gate, the people who pass by this place every day of their lives, generation after generation after generation, they will tell you the house has always been here. They will tell you the house will outlive them and their grandchildren’s grandchildren. They will tell you about the house and its wonders and the grounds upon which it sits. Most have never been on this side of the gate, fewer still have followed the drive past the pond and into the woods. A mere handful have ever seen the house with their own eyes, instead, knowing what little they know from photos framed and hanged and on display in the local historic society – a place that occupies a squat former row home in one corner of the town square.
     At the top of the twin hills, is the house, its facade a sea of shimmering glass and stone, speckled with quartz, and brick the color of blood, the color of thick tree sap, the color of the sun when the sky is hazy and tired and ready for a sleep that lasts and lasts and lasts. The house has a double front door, solid wood, maybe from a tree that once grew in the forest on the grounds, stained dark. Just short and leading up to the door is a garden, broad and lush and green. There are topiaries in the guises of giraffes and dragons, of lions and unicorns. There was once a hedge maze, there were once generations that called this house home, there were once children to run and play. Today there is only a house and a father and a mother and their daughter. 
     On the other side of the double door is the inner workings of the house. There is a grand foyer, three stories tall. This is but one of the ninety-nine rooms, maybe there are more, that when puzzled together make the house. There are the rooms you expect in a home like this. There is the foyer, and an office with a large, hand-hewn desk where the father or the mother or someone who lived here once but no more performed their craft. Accounting or research or cobbling words together into sentences, into paragraphs, into pages. There is a kitchen with gleaming counters of granite and an oversized butcher block island fit for preparing the finest pastries or butchering the most fatted calf. 
     There are no less than eighteen bathrooms, some en suite, some rooms unto themselves. Some with ornate wallpaper, imported from Europe long ago and placed with care and craftsmanship in the house before the family that lives here was a glimmer inside a glimmer inside a glimmer in some long ago great, great someone’s eye. Others are painted to match an adjoining space, creating a sense of design and thoughtfulness. Others still are jarring and feel offensive when you enter them, leaving you with no desire to perform your most private of business within their four walls. 
     There are nine bedrooms, including the master suite, a room larger than many of the cottages at the other end of the long drive, on the outside of the gate. There are seven bedrooms reserved for guests and other visitors who never come and almost never stay. There is the daughter’s room, a space occupying equal parts of the second and third floors. It floods with moonlight at night, lighting the space as brightly as any lamps or chandeliers or stage lights might hope to. This room wasn’t always a bedroom. Once upon a time it was a ballroom, but the mother and the father decided it unnecessary to have more than one ballroom and with that the house changed from an eight bedroom to nine. The house is prone to changes. The house likes changes. The house has ninety-nine rooms, which most of the time is the truest thing about this place. 
     On the lowest level, dug into the earth’s surface, resting below the crest of the hills that the house sits upon is a bowling alley and two pool rooms, one with a billiard table and a snooker table and some other tables where the object is to use a stick or a paddle or your innermost thoughts to roll a ball from one place to another, the other pool room is home to an Olympic size pit void of water because the father doesn’t like the smell of chlorine and the mother never learned to swim. There is a second kitchen that goes unused that once served to serve the wait staff, its entrance hidden coyly behind a book case filled with first edition books by authors whose names are unfamiliar. There is a parlor where one could enjoy a snifter of brandy or a tumbler of bourbon or imbibe in something more viscous and warmer and intoxicating. There is a smoking lounge, whose walls are yellowed and long overdue for a facelift, whose forty feet by forty feet square space has gone unused for more years than the father has lived in this house or his father before him.
     There are other rooms and other doors. There is a green door, made of jade, its surface ringing when you tap it. On this side of it you stand in a gallery hall, portraits of people and family and long-ago residents staring into you. On the other side, with a turn of the brass handle and a step over the threshold you are in a library where the stacks and shelves extend into the sky, taller than the three stories that make up the house and deeper than you can travel in a day or a week or a month. You will swear you see the books extend past a line of clouds, the endlessly runged ladders propped against the shelves sturdy in the heaviest of winds. Every book is here, every language, every writer, every word ever recorded. The spines not arranged by Dewey Decimal or some numbering schema but by shade and tone and hue, a panoply of color and the ever-present scent of ink and pages yearning to be turned filling the air. There are books bound in cloth and board. Books bound in leather and gold. Books bound in flesh, borrowed, bought, and bobbed from donors willing and unwilling, their words recorded in something other than ink. There are best sellers and first editions and only editions. There are textbooks and novels and poems and tablets carved of stone and bone and wood. The library may be infinite and ever expanding like our universe, the library may be a universe unto itself. You could live in the library. You could die in the library. You would not be the first. 
     There is a door whose color changes depending on the mood. It could be your mood or the house’s mood, the only way to know which door it is, as it has a penchant for moving around the house with ninety-nine rooms, is its crystal and platinum knob. There are brass knobs and pewter knobs. There are iron and silver and gold ones. There are levers and push plates a plenty. There is only one knob like this in the house. There is only one knob like this in the world. The surface multifaceted and etched with words you can’t pronounce in a language you cannot speak. When you find this door, the urge to open it is overwhelming and when you do you are rewarded with a lush field where it is always midnight. The ceiling replaced with sky and stars and constellations and a view of the galaxy and your place in it. This room could be your favorite, this room is wonderful but by no means the most wondrous in the house. This room is the favorite of the girl who lives here. She will often sneak out of her own bedroom, pillow and stuffed bunny wrapped tightly inside a blanket, and come here. She will lay under the stars and watch comets streak across the expanse above and delight in those moments when an aurora adds an unexpected splash of color to the twinkle and flicker of white on ultramarine. She will rest here, she will lose hours here, she will discover things about herself here. This will be the first room she shows you when she invites you inside. 
     The red door with the push plate is sometimes a third kitchen, or an extra laundry room. Once it was a music room with gramophones blaring recordings of crossroads blues. Other times it has been a storage closet full of buckets and brooms and bleach. It has never been a bathroom, the house respects one’s modesty and provides a lock at the entrance to all its lavatories, both static and impermanent. There was a summer during prohibition when it opened onto a distillery boiling and refining a gin so smooth it didn’t require any mixer. It originally served as a shortcut to the center of the hedge maze, before the labyrinth was razed for only reasons a long-ago gardener and the father’s father’s father’s mother knows, the door has never behaved properly since. 
     There are other rooms in the house of no consequence, some large and vast and purposeful for purposes no longer relevant. There are others that are little more than nooks and crannies and spaces to hide should one ever decide to hide while someone else seeks. There are rooms with significance and value and reason, none of which matter to you or the girl who lives here. They are normal rooms, or at least as normal as a room can be when it is but one of ninety-nine. 
     There is a room that opens out from the trunk of a large palm tree onto a small island in the middle of a faraway ocean, the sun bright and blistering and unkind. There is a door that leads to a dock and a row boat and a dry lake littered with the bones of long dead fish. There is a room where it is always Christmas Eve, where there is always a tree aglow with lights. Sometimes they are electric, sometimes they are delicately placed candles. There are always gifts and bowls of fruit and fresh baked bread aside a crackling, bristling fireplace. The purple door on the third floor takes you to a Victorian opium den, the smell of stale flesh and sweat and rot fill the air here and it is no surprise that someone at some point placed a pad lock on this side of it, though there are nights when a rattle and shake come from the other side seeking some form of escape. There is a room that opens into the heart of the Palazzo Senatorio at Capitoline Hill and another in the ruins of a castle at Tintangle, which sometimes aren’t ruins at all. There is a door whose entrance opens into a submersible slowly drifting deeper and deeper into cold waters, creeping from the midnight zone into the abyss. There is a room where the girl who lives here will sometimes go and visit her grandparents, long ago buried in a plot at the east edge of the property. In this room, they are not long buried, but new parents and the girl takes a certain delight in holding the baby that will be her father. Through the magenta door is an orchard with an endless variety of apples, Honeycrisps and Galas and Bismarcks and Jupiters and Cotton Delights and Faery Buckles, all arranged in neat and orderly rows, miles upon miles of sweetness and crunch waiting to be picked, waiting to be imagined.
     There are rooms that open into hallways not in the blueprints of the house with ninety-nine rooms. There are doors that refuse to budge or give, the only clue to what might be on the other side gleaned from inspecting a key hole. There is a key hole so luminous it burns your eyes, its light brighter than sunshine. There is a key hole where you feel an arctic chill slip through, its knob in a constant state of being iced over. There is a key hole where the only thing one can see is someone else’s eye staring back at them, red vessels growing angrier year over year over year. There is a room that opens into a forest floor, blanketed with snow, a lone lit Gaslamp atop a dark iron post always burning to greet you. There is a door that provides entry into a room with countless other doors and countless decisions and countless opportunities. There is a room that morphs and shapes itself to what you need it to be, but not necessarily what you want it to be. There is a door that leads to a house very much like this one, where there is a mother and not a father and she would adore a daughter, but there is something not quite right about her smile or the buttons that serve as her eyes. 
     A gray door in the basement, with a heavy iron knocker, leads you to where the front steps should be, in the time before there was a house, before there was a village, before there was a girl or a you. 
     There is a door, a key stuck in its fixture, the strong smell of chocolate and sound of rushing water or something else seeping out from under the threshold. There is a room with a wall of monitors and a small speaker that responds to your voice. You can tell it to show you whatever your heart desires. A lost film, your third birthday party, what your family is doing right at this very moment, how your parents met, how your parents will die, how the house was built, Lincoln’s inauguration, Caesar’s assassination, the first footsteps on Mars, it can fill a wall of LED and plasma with the past and the present and the future. It can provide a highlight reel of this place or that place or places that you know aren’t real, but inside the house with ninety-rooms reality is subjective. The speaker will provide you with glowing, moving pixels of whatever you ask of it. It can show you anything. Almost anything. In a world of impossibilities, you will find that at least one thing is impossible. 
     There is a door that opens atop a tall tree branch in the woods that surround the drive to the house on top of the twin hills. It opens to this place on the day the girl who lives here found you alone, wandering up the long drive toward the house on a dare. Your sister and her friends no longer visible on the far side of the gate, the start of the drive a distant memory, your feet sore from walking for what seems like forever. You watch from the tall tree branch and when you see the girl approach you, you yell until your voice grows hoarse and your throat raw. You remember when she was you and you heard the distant waling and scratching in the canopy above and wondered what kind of bird made such an awful racket before choosing to ignore the sounds from above. You remember accepting the girl’s invitation to join her inside the house for tea or lunch or a tour or to play, the memory of what she told you on the drive so long ago, now fuzzy in your brain. 
     There is a room where you sleep, it is one of the nine bedrooms. Every morning, a silver tray of steaming eggs and crisp bacon and buttered toast is waiting for you. A long time ago it came with ice cold milk, then one day orange juice, and now coffee, black and strong and hot. Every day, you enter the en suite bathroom and shower and brush your teeth and wash your face, and style your hair, eventually opening the bathroom door to let any residual steam still trapped inside escape. Always, there on the bed is a freshly laundered dress. The sizes and fashion changing with you, with the world. Some days you will make a quick exit from the room and seek out a corner or a recess to hide, your heart filled with the futility of hope that today will be different. It won’t be. You will seek out the far corners of the house and the rooms that flesh it out. You will come to hate yourself and this place and then you will forgive yourself and reconcile that what is, is. Most mornings you will dress and sit in an overly plush wingback with a book from the library and read until the rapping of knuckle on wood at the bedroom door fills your ears. The girl will want to play. The girl will want to go outside. The girl will want you to dance with her. The girl will want you to explore one of the ninety-nine rooms with her. The girl will want you to read her a story. The girl will want you to make up a story. And you will tell her about a girl who lived in a small town, a place little more than a village really.

Erik Smetana lives in a small town just outside of Nashville. His
words have appeared in one form or another at The Missouri Review,
Dark Recesses, Annalemma, Hobart, New World Writing, Eckleburg, and
others.

 

     “DON’T SHOOT! I SAID NOT TO SH—”
     On July 28th, 2022, at 2:13 PM according to the clock on the stove, but 2:16 according to the smartphone next to the coffeemaker, a time bomb went off on a kitchen table in a house in an area heavily populated with houses and kitchen tables. All damage to the table was purely coincidental, as was everything else.
                                                                                        *
**
     He didn’t really have a name. Some of his descendants would call him Caveman, which meant nothing to him, and others would name him Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis¸ which meant less than nothing to him. The others referred to him with a deep, loud, guttural sound which meant approximately, “Very Big, Very Mean,” and that pleased him. 
     Very Big, Very Mean was tearing skin and fur from a Scary Thing, Much Meat, setting it in a bloody, matted pile in the pine needles. It was already getting cold, and he would need to put the fur on himself to survive the Ice Nights. He leaned to the side to pick up one of his Cut Rocks and instead felt something soft and tender under his fingertips. Grunting confusedly, he turned to look. 
An unused Pink Pearl eraser from Goldfield Upholstery Cleaning Company’s supply closet was sitting in the dirt, looking perfectly clean and, for all the world, like it wasn’t the single strangest thing Very Big, Very Mean had ever seen.

                                                                                        ***


     “I don’t understand why you’re making this such a big deal.” 
     “I’m not. It just is a big deal. I can’t make it a big deal if it already is one, and it already is one, so there you go.”
     “Oh, good lord, Henry. You’re ridiculous.”
     “Lydia, please. President Roosevelt said—”
     “You think I care at all what that man said? This is a war. You will die if you go.”
     “You have so little faith in me.”
     “Oh, it’s not that, Henry. It’s just…I can’t stand the thought of losing you. You’re not some warrior hero who will rescue all the prisoners and take them back home to a plate of apple pie and a kiss from a pretty lady!”
     “And who’s to say that? You? You barely even know me.”
     “Barely…oh lord. Barely even know you?! How can you say that? To ME of all people!”
     “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I just—”
     “No. Don’t sorry-sweetheart me. I’m finished with this conversation, and I’m putting my foot down.”
     “What?”
     “I’m putting my foot down. You’re not going to fight, and that’s final. I won’t allow it.”
     “Won’t allow it?! Who do you think you are? You forget your place.”
     “My place! My place! What is my place, exactly?! Because I feel like my place is further and further away from you every day!”
     “Good. You should get used to me being far away.”
     “You wouldn’t talk to your wife that way.”
     “Well, you’re not my wife. So I suppose I’m speaking appropriately.”
     “But…but Henry, what about the baby?”
     “What about the baby, Lydia?”
     “Oh Henry…”
     “Jesus, stop crying, woman, you knew what this was.”
     “Don’t touch me, you bastard!”
     “Oh, please, Lydia, just be realistic for a mo—”
     “Henry?”
     “Henry?”
     “Henry, where did you go?!”
     “HENRY!!” 
                                                                                        ***


     “And now, we bring you local news. If there are children or otherwise sensitive people in the room, we warn you: The following piece of news is graphic in nature. I repeat, if you are faint of heart, turn off your radio or change the station. A Chrysler Factory secretary, one Lydia Johnston, has been taken in on murder charges after being found in her apartment with the severed head of Henry Robbins, a machinist at the factory. Police are baffled by the case, as he has been officially missing for eighteen months, but when police found Johnston, the head was in fresh condition, as if it had been removed moments before. Further confusing police, Robbins’s body is nowhere to be found, and Johnston is two months pregnant with a baby she claims is his, which the police say is impossible. Deepening the mystery, the cut to the neck appears to be so exact as to have been dealt to the micrometer, a skill no doctor possesses, let alone a young secretary, even with all available technology. Lydia Johnston is currently undergoing psychiatric evaluation. We will bring you details as they come.”
     “The world’s goin’ to hell in a damn hand-basket,” Rhonda Claire mumbled, putting down her knitting. She called out to her husband, “John? Did you hear that?”
     “What?” hollered John.
     “The news! Did you hear it?”
     “The world’s goin’ to hell in a damn hand-basket!”
     “That’s what I said!”
     “What?” 
     “That’s what I said!”
     “What?”
     “That’s what I said!”
     “What?”
     “You need to get your dang hearing checked, John, I swear!”
     “What?”
     Rhonda sighed irritably and switched the knob on the radio, looking for a Little Orphan Annie story to wash the thought of the murder away. She noticed an object in front of the radio, something that hadn’t been there before. It was a small rectangle with smoothed edges and an inscription reading “64GB” etched in the back. She turned it over in her hand to see a cracked glass screen unlike anything she had seen before. There was an indented circle at the bottom of it, and she pushed on it with her finger tip. Brilliantly glowing cartoon birds and round green pigs began hopping around under the glass, and Rhonda’s eyes lit up with wonder. 
                                                                                        ***


     It had been decades since L4-216 had seen any kind of fresh produce. The price of a dried-out, mostly inedible apple or carrot was so high that they didn’t even sell them in the bazar downstairs from his apartment. He gulped some of his daily allowance of SUSTENANCE BEVERAGE from its ancient plastic container and grimaced. It was no Soylent whatever from that movie he’d seen as a kid, but it wasn’t a milkshake, either. It didn’t taste like anything, he reflected. It was like whipped air. But, it was what was keeping him and his nephew alive in their corner of the corporate apartment they shared with fourteen other families, and it was the only food anyone he knew had eaten in years, so what was the point of complaining?
     Except now, in the only private area of the apartment—the bathroom (they were still not animals, after all, at least in this apartment)—he found himself the only witness to something miraculous. Sitting in the bathtub was a plastic mesh bag full of the most beautiful thing he had ever seen: seven perfectly shaped tomatoes, so red it almost hurt his eyes to look at them. He’d only ever seen them in movies on the holo-projector, and even then, they weren’t so incredibly bright.
What to do?
     If he ate them he’d be happy for the moment, but would probably get extremely sick. His system wasn’t ready for that amount of solid matter, and the acidity alone would make his next bathroom visit very painful (not to mention the amount of overwhelmingly expensive TOILET-TIME SANITATION PACKETS he’d have to use). If he tried to sell them in the bazaar he’d almost certainly be arrested for possession of stolen goods. One look at the CLASS D tattoo on his forehead and he’d be in a paralysis bubble. No one from below CLASS B would be able to afford even a single tomato. And even those in CLASS B would probably have to save and ration for a year to provide one or two at their Thanksgiving feasts. And that was assuming tomatoes were even grown anywhere anymore.
     But if they weren’t, where did these come from?
     He stood up trembling with a queasy mix of joy and fear. He didn’t know what to do with the tomatoes, but if he stayed in the bathroom for too long one of the other residents would eventually break down the door and drag him out. So, he tucked them under his shirt and left the bathroom, trying to look nonchalant, like he wasn’t carrying a lifetime supply of wealth and comfort under his shirt. 
     Forty-three people were crammed into the space outside the bathroom, packed like grimy crayons in a box. Some peered at the battered old holographic tablet propped on the dresser against the wall (even though I Love Lucy looked terrible when translated to HD holo-projection), some sucked SUSTENANCE BEVERAGE from assorted containers, some even tried to read, but mostly they slept. Fitfully, sweatily, they slept. 
     “Hey,” said L4-216. “I uh…how’s the show?”
     Several adults and a toddler too dirty to be cute shushed him irritably. They all turned back to the show, with the exception of the toddler, who stood up and waded through the heaving bodies on the floor to poke at the conspicuous lump under his shirt. “Wha dat?” she said. 
     Lucille Ball floated and flickered in the air above the tablet, her voice crackling at Desi Arnaz over tinny speakers.
     “Nothing, sweetie, just my big, ol’ belly!” L4-216 said nervously.
     “What’s that dumb-knuckle talkin’ about?” murmured a toothless old man in the corner. “No one ‘round here got a big ol’ belly.” He stood up and tottered over to L4-216. “What? Thatha big ol’ belly!”
     “Yeah, no, I’m fine. Don’t worry ‘bout it!” stammered L4-216.
     “No, I theen it! What ithit?”
     “Really, it’s nothing, just—hey!”
     The old man clawed at his shirt, sending the tomatoes tumbling to the floor. Everyone in the room was now wide awake, staring at L4-216. I Love Lucy laughed at itself quietly in the background. He had this one moment of quiet reflection before the crowd clustered into a throbbing, screeching mass around him and the precious tomatoes. 
     The last thing he saw was how beautifully, brilliantly bright those tomatoes were. They were such a stunning red that he could hardly tell the difference between their smashed, pulpy skins and the gathering blood.
     “What a lovely soup we’ve made,” he mumbled, just before losing consciousness. 

                                                                                        ***


     It was a sunny afternoon in 1655. They didn’t get many sunny afternoons in Woolsthorpe, so everyone was out. The baker’s wife was out sweeping her doorstep when her friend Elizabeth came up the walk.
     “Hallo, Elizabeth!” said Mrs. Baker.
     “Hallo! How’ve ye been?” said Elizabeth.
     “None too shabby, I expect,” said Mrs. Baker.
     “Good! Didye hear about the Newton boy?" 
     “Isaac? Is he still at that school in Grantham?”
     “Fraid he won’t be no more.” Elizabeth certainly looked sad, but there was a light in her eyes that only struck when she had a nugget of particularly enticing gossip to share.
     “What d’ye mean?”
     “He’s had an accident. Some sort of wheel fell from the sky and landed on ‘is ‘ead!”
     “Wot! On ‘is ‘ead!”
     “Yes!”
     “Well, where’d it come from?” Mrs. Baker was now very concerned. She didn’t want to live down the way from a place where wheels were flying about all day.
     “No one knows! And it’s not a normal sort of wheel, either. It’s metal in the middle and black on the outside, and it says something about a good year on it!”
     “Is that true?”
     “’Tis! I seen it meself!”
     “Well, isn’t that strange. Is Isaac going to live?”
     “Yes, he’ll live, but ‘is mind’s not right no more. The doctor says he’ll be an idiot for the rest of his days!”
     “No!” gasped Mrs. Baker. “But he was such a bright boy!”
     “Yes, he was! Alas, all he does now is drool and fall off ‘is chair!”
     Mrs. Baker cackled, then placed her hand over her mouth. “Oh, pardon me. I shouldn’t laugh at the poor boy. Heaven help me.”
     “Ye shouldn’t deny yerrself a little laugh. Don’t feel too bad about it. I’ll be off now,” said Elizabeth, continuing off down the road.
     Mrs. Baker went back inside. Her husband was busy rolling out dough for fresh meat pies. “What was Elizabeth on about?” he asked.
     “Oh, that poor boy. Isaac Newton, ye know him?”
     “Aye, wot about ‘im?”
     “Some wheel came down out the sky and ‘it him on ‘is ‘ead! Poor boy’s an idiot now. He’ll probably be in asylum by Tuesday.”
     “Oh, that’s awful,” he said distractedly. “He was such a bright boy. So good with numbers.”
                                                                                        *
**


     Early morning.
     Late Cretaceous Period. 
     Northern Asia.
     A tyrannosaurus rex chasing a herd of protoceratops across a plain.
     A strip of Vietnam War era land mines. 
     Boom, splat, you know the rest.
                                                                                        ***


     Adom was getting too old for this. He had been working on the Ode to Pharaoh his whole professional life, and his joints ached, and his skin cooked in the blaring sun. Pushing limestone blocks up the ramp was not quite thankless—it was a good job—but the pay didn’t feel as worth it as it had even just a decade ago. 
     He smeared dust-crusted sweat from his forehead, took a drink from his pouch, and shoved. He had to be careful around this corner. He’d seen a worker lose a brick off the side once, and he could still remember the look on the men’s faces below as it came tumbling down. 
     He inched and shoved and pulled and inched, blood running from a cut in his raw knuckles, and muddy sweat oozing down his legs. He backslid in a crumbly spot beneath his foot, and for one blazing second, his life, and the lives of a dozen behind him were suspended in dizzy probability. His foot caught, the rock stilled, and he recommenced pushing, jangly heart whapping against his ribs, and sour terror sweat chilling the space between his shoulderblades. He was definitely getting too old for this. 
     He was almost around the corner when not just his block, but the whole side of the pyramid—nearly 70 cubits—they had been working on disappeared. It didn’t move or shift. It just was there, and then it wasn’t. Panic hit him hard in the chest, and he dove sideways, dodging a block that wasn’t coming. His dazed eyes zigzagged as he took it in. Months of work, perhaps years, had just vanished. He thanked the gods no one was dead, but silently begged them to return what they had taken.
     The owner of the used car lot in 2019 Puerto Vallarta didn’t thank any gods of any kind when the massive pile of limestone blocks appeared inexplicably on top of his inventory. 
                                                                                        ***


     The holy army advanced.
     They had no knowledge of the way history would look on them. They didn’t know the negative effect on scientific advancement their crusade would have. They didn’t even really know anything about the religious practices of the Muslims they were about to slaughter. They just knew their job. Their job was killing. It paid well. And the church sanctioned it. That was good enough for them. 
     The people in the little village in Palestine didn’t even know they were approaching. 
     Commander Trithyrius saw a scout coming back from over the hill. 
     “Sir!” he screamed as soon as he was within earshot. 
     Trithyrius nodded curtly. 
     “Sir, we’ve found something!” called the scout. 
     “What is it?”
     “A…we don’t know. It’s a strange object never before seen! It’s as large as many horses and is made of some strong metal. It has numbers on it. We think it may be some sort of enemy stronghold. What should we do?” 
     What the scout couldn’t and wouldn’t try to articulate to his commander was that the object had shaken him badly. It wasn’t right, somehow. It was so smooth and gleaming and alien, and its mere existence made him question everything: God, His church, the crusade he was on, everything. This  was a bad mental place for someone who had spent so many days wading in the bodies of God’s slaughtered enemies, certain he could hear His holy voice in the sound of steel hitting bone. Something about this bizarre object made him think he hadn’t heard a thing.
     “Destroy it immediately.” Trithyrius couldn’t really be blamed for the result of the command. It was just the general answer for the crusaders. Don’t know what it is? Destroy it immediately. If God had wanted it to continue existing, He would have told the holy army what it was. 
     “Sir?”
     “You heard the order. Destroy it immediately.”
     The scout turned his horse and hauled off to do his commander’s bidding. 
     Another thing Trithyrius couldn’t have known, nor could the men under his order, was that it takes quite a lot of force to destroy a B43 thermonuclear bomb. But, he was a hard leader, and his men were determined to carry out his order. 
     After the blast, Trithyrius and the holy army did no more advancing. They had heard God’s voice. It was loud. And it was bright.
                                                                                        ***


     Imani is building with the new deck of playing cards Daddy brought home from work at the casino. She loves playing cards. She almost never talks, so the day she built her first house, a simple two-card tent, and immediately exploded into manic jibber-jabber about all the things that must be happening inside that house, Mommy was stunned. She laughed and cried, holding Imani in her lap and stroking her braids for a long, lovely time.
     Imani likes to sit on the living room rug and create a base square with fluorescent plastic rulers,  then stack the cards within its boundaries in an ornate structure reaching impossible heights. Her card houses are beautiful, carefully feathered art pieces that amaze her family, but her favorite part, the reason she loves them so much, is the way they fall apart. 
     She loves making them incredibly intricate, so that it doesn’t matter which card she moves, or even if she takes it out all the way, the entire thing will still collapse. Her favorite times are when she has a full-52 monolith, built precisely the same as the last one, and the one to come after it. She has a blueprint in her head, and her favorite times are when she doesn’t stray from the blueprint.
     When building these architectural masterworks, she always has her favorite ruler, perfectly neon purple, handy. Her older brother calls it her Time Bomb because it is always ticking, waiting to smack him or one of their other brothers if they tease her too much. She likes to finish her hours’ work of cardstock architecture, then pick up her Time Bomb and tap one of the cards deep inside of it. When she does this, she can watch the structure fall as if in slow motion, shot by shot. An Ace of Hearts will flutter into the pathway of a Nine of Diamonds, knocking a King of Spades into a Joker. Cards sift and flit about, bumping into other cards they never would have contacted unless the structure fell exactly as it has. There is a moment of transcendently chaotic simplicity she waits for, when most of the cards are airborne, touching each other in an transcendently unpredictable chain reaction, and she can see that none of the other cards are aware of any presence other than their immediate collision paths. 
     Then she gets to work on a new house, exactly the same as the last.
     And the Time Bomb awaits.
                                                                                        ***


     As a little boy, Chuck dreamed of time travel. 
     He devoured H.G. Wells in elementary school, and became an avid Doctor Who fan in middle school. A specialist told his parents that many children with spectrum disorders often experience life through their obsessions. It would be a fact of life for him, and they would just have to wait time travel out until he moved on to a different fascination. “Enjoy it with him,” the doctor suggested. “Just lean into it and have fun. It’s a way for him to express himself with you.”
     So they did, and their older son Davey did too. Chuck’s family learned to know him through time travel, going to sci-fi conventions, watching movies, and reading books with him. But the obsession never shifted. It just became more complex. Back to the Future gave way to Primer, and he mapped timelines on his bedroom walls in sweeping waves of math. Then came the early graduation, the M.I.T. scholarship, the doctorate, and the grants. 
     His parents had to laugh. The doctor had dissuaded them from expecting the stereotype that people with Chuck’s neurodivergence are always antisocial STEM geniuses, but here he was, a bona fide genius. Though he wasn’t antisocial—he was just very specific about what he wanted to talk about. Regardless, most of his work was too classified in nature to discuss with them. He lived on-campus in a tiny house next to the private college that funded his research, and spent his time working in his in-house lab, or on short walks on his treadmill. His meals were delivered to him at 4:56AM, 12:34PM, and 6:54PM every day, and this was right. 
     On the afternoon of July 28th, 2022, Davey waited in Chuck’s minimalistic living room, fidgeting with his phone and waiting for his brother to reappear. He’d been waiting for almost two hours. It was bizarre to be in his brother’s house. He’d never been, and hadn’t seen him in person in three years. He was anxious to be seeing Chuck, and he was anxious that he wasn’t currently actually seeing him. The whole thing was unnerving.
     He didn’t dislike Chuck. He loved him dearly. Chuck was just a lot. 
     Davey was a comic book illustrator, and kept up on his scifi, but his talks with Chuck were always intense. When Chuck would explain temporal paradoxes or causal loops, Davey would do his best to keep up, but it was too theoretical, and he ended up feeling exhausted and confused. Conversely, when Chuck would explain how timeline management, as he referred to it, might be the most important resource issue of human history, and how it could be used to save countless lives, stop climate change, explore space, further the arts, and more, Davey couldn’t get enough. 
     Chuck would call him late at night, saying, “Do you mind if I verbally process?” and Davey would almost always say yes. They didn’t get together to watch a game, or go backpacking or whatever else Davey supposed brothers usually did together, but Chuck lovingly collected every edition of Davey’s comics, and Davey listened avidly to Chuck’s time travel symposia. In this way, they loved and felt loved. But it was always long distance. 
     So, when Chuck had called and said, “Davey, I need you here tomorrow. Bring your car,” then hung up, Davey knew something big had happened. 
     Chuck appeared suddenly in the living room, sweating and fully dressed in what looked like full outdoor survival gear. 
     “Whoa, Chuck, you scared the hell outta me!”
     “Sorry. I’ve figured it out.”
     “What?”
     “I’ve figured it out. Can’t say more right now. We need to go.”
     Davey stared at him, quizzical smile touching his mouth. “You...did?”
     Chuck’s eyes, not usually terribly expressive, looked wild. 
     “Chuck, are you...are you okay?
     “I’ve never been more excited, and I’ve never been more scared. Meitner and Frisch probably felt wonderful, at least for an afternoon, when they discovered nuclear fission.”
     “Wow.” Davey felt waves of ice and fire pass from his scalp to his fingertips. 
     “Yes! I said that too. I said, ‘Wow.’”
     “Wow. Are you...are you saying you...you figured it out?”
     Then Chuck did a strange, miraculous thing. He grinned. The grin became a dazzling smile, then vanished, all in a moment.
     That was when Davey got worried.
     “Alright,” said Davey. “Fill me in.”
     “It’s confidential. As in, highly classified work. We have very little time. The president has been notified, and the Department of Defense will be here tomorrow afternoon.”
     “What?” asked Davey, bewildered.
     “Please stop asking questions. I won’t give you any answers.”
     “This is incredible! I can’t bel—wait. You’ve figured out TIME TRAVEL and you’re giving it to the military?! Are you insane?!”
     “No, I am not insane. I do not believe I have a choice in the matter. But if I cooperate, the resources they’ll provide will be enormous. Also, I’m not confirming it’s time travel or time travel related.” 
     Davey was about to shout again when Chuck pulled out his phone and began typing furiously. 
     Davey’s pocket vibrated. He took out his phone and read, “Davey. Say you have a phone call and go down to the street.” He stopped himself from reacting and said, “Hold on, I need to take this,” then walked out the door and down the little path to the road outside the house. He looked down at the phone and read, “Using a disposable phone. They don’t have the number. They may be monitoring. Already done w device but they think I still have bugs to work out. We need to run.. It’s on the kitchen table. Follow my lead.” 
     He read the message several times, letting the shock roll over him in slow, tingling waves. He put his phone in his pocket, turned to go back to the house, stopped, shut his phone off, and went back to the door.
     “Is everything okay?” asked Chuck. 
     “Yeah, everything’s alright. Just…yeah. No problem.”
     “Good. Have a seat.”
     Davey could hear how uncomfortably robotic Chuck’s voice sounded, but knew that anyone monitoring wouldn’t notice.
     “Okay,” said Chuck. “Coffee’s ready.”
     Davey went into the kitchen and saw that yes, coffee was actually ready. He had never seen his brother drink coffee, but there it was. On the kitchen table was a messenger bag with a lump about the size of a shoebox inside. Davey’s eyes widened, and he looked down to avoid looking as awestruck as he felt.
     “Oh,” said Chuck. “There’s your bag. Remember, you left it here a while ago and keep forgetting to get it?”
     “Yeah…yeah, my bag. I remember. I love that bag!” His enthusiasm sounded artificial to him. If someone was listening, he was sure they’d know something was up.
     “Okay, so why don’t you put it in your car, so you won’t forget it again?” asked Chuck. 
     “Yeah, good idea,” said Davey. He leaned over to pick it up. In doing so, he noticed with calm wonder that the arm with the hand around the strap had come unattached from his shoulder. The pain didn’t start for an endless moment, at which point he collapsed to the ground, let out one long scream, then passed out. He would be dead in less than two minutes. 

     Chuck looked numbly at the blood pumping from his brother’s chest and shoulder, glanced out the shattered kitchen window, and shouted, “Stop shooting! Please stop shooting or you'll hit it!”
     “NO SUDDEN MOVEMENTS,” came a voice on a loudspeaker outside. “WE HAVE YOU SURROUNDED. THAT BAG IS THE PROPERTY OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT.”

     “But it’s mine! I created it!”

     “I REPEAT. IF YOU TOUCH THE BAG, YOU—”
     “Okay, I understand, just please stop shooting!”
     Davey coughed on the ground, then went still and silent. Chuck stared down at him, truly understanding his brother’s situation for the first time. He didn’t have any words for the moment, so instead of saying anything, a high-pitched scream of sorrow and fury rang from his mouth and he lunged forward to gather the corpse up in his arms. Another massive round was fired through the kitchen window. It went directly over his head and struck the bag. 
     “DON’T SHOOT! I SAID NOT TO SH—”
     On July 28th, 2022, at 2:13 PM according to the clock on the stove, but 2:16 according to the smartphone next to the coffeemaker, a time bomb went off on a kitchen table in a house in an area heavily populated with houses and kitchen tables. All damage to the table was purely coincidental, as was everything else.

Topher South is a wayward English teacher, father, and lover of genre fiction. Besides nonfiction and marketing work, he has a horror story published in The Junction. He likes robots, magicians, and things that go bump in the night. 

 

     Ella stood behind the display case, ready to pick donuts. On the other side, Raven was holding up the line. He smiled. Just smiled, as if that were enough. She tried to tell him that he needed to make a choice, because a line was developing, but nothing came out. No sound. No words, much less a sentence. 
     Raven’s smile faded. He had seen her lips move. Her jaw drop and rise and pulse as if in speech. He heard nothing. He started to panic. He tried to answer, but spat empty air. Earlier, when he had woken to his alarm clock, when he called Ella to let her know he was up and on his way, when he waved and called to Pastor Vicky, speech happened. He heard it. They heard it. 
     In between those pleasantries of the early morn, something had happened. Capacity. Or more like incapacity. Like the moment when your car’s engine sucks the last drop of gas -- and coughs to a halt.
     This was the day the cartoon balloons went empty. Space with nary a word to occupy it. Everyone was so blithely blind to the capacity issue. They saw clouds and rain, snow and fog, beams of newborn sunlight and the eastern wall of night coming on. The sky, for all they knew or gave it thought, was limitless. Wasn’t it? It went on forever, to infinity -- and beyond. Naive souls, they fooled themselves. 
     Down here, under the dome of atmospheric embrace, their air was filling up. Aeons of yack and piffle, battle cries and fireworks Fourths, stadium cheers and “one-more-beers.” 
     Talk, talk, talk. 
     As if it had no impact. 
     As if it was “just words.” 
     As if the substance of verbiage bore no weight, occupied no space, until, dot and dash, verb and noun, sentence and dependent clause, layer on layer, they filled it up. Ran out of room. No space for speech, and no way to make more. What a fucking mess. 
     Raven wondered if he was having a stroke? Sweat surfaced on his skin. His pulse quickened. 
     Ella saw his distress. She looked at the people behind him, tried to say “I’ll be right with you,” but if she did, if sound actually emerged from her mouth, she heard none of it. And none of the people behind Raven did, either, from the looks of their perplexed faces.
     They were getting agitated, though, clearly upset that the knucklehead in the front of the line wasn’t completing a simple donut purchase. 
     To ease the mounting pressure, Ella slid open the doors behind the case and reached in and selected a maple bar and a glazed old-fashioned, put them in a bag, and handed them to Raven. He shoved her a five, and she slid back three ones. 
     She said she would see him later. Alas, her lips produced nothing but silence. He heard not a word. He shoved the money in his pocket, flustered, and wandered toward the door.
     Then he turned. Grabbed his phone. Tick tick tick. She knew to look to hers. There it was, his words. She replied, but avoided emojis. They made eye contact, and she smiled.
     They weren’t the only ones to have lost the ability to produce speech. Nobody could mouth a single sound, and all experienced their own variation of distress before leaving with donuts selected by the non-verbal act of pointing, and pointing, and holding up two fingers or one, or ten plus ten for a box to feed an office event.
     Outside, the problem became even more apparent. Every spoken word over the course of history became visible, swirling in the air above and around each sidewalk stroller. Air pollution through which every pedestrian sliced like a destroyer on the sea. 
     As Raven walked, he felt as if he were walking through a disassembled dictionary. Other people saw it, too, pointing and making their mouths move, but all to no effect. 
     Every so often, Raven would pass a couple waving their hands at each other, making jerky motions, different shapes, like the figures we all form for shadow puppets. They laughed, too, as if the other person’s hands made funny. Sign language still worked.
     He remembered an aphorism, and quickly adjusted it for the current moment. 
     “In the land of the deaf, the two-handed man is king.”
     Then, from the jumble of floating language, he saw the word “Hi” appear in front of him. He thought of the speech balloons that cartoonists draw to let their characters interact. They really exist, he thought. We just never saw them. 
     It made him gasp, and as he inhaled, the word “Hi” disappeared into his lungs. Just as quickly, he encountered a coworker at the entrance to their building. 
     “Hi,” he said. And heard himself. 
     His coworker tried to respond, but had not inhaled a “How you doing?” so only his lips moved.
     A realization hit Raven. Language was out there. He just needed to find what he needed to give it life again. Rake speech from the air, for his lips to recycle. 
     Until then? He opened the door to his office, and entered silence. As he worked his way upstairs, he found himself searching the air around him for just the simple niceties of social intercourse. Most of what he found was the language of dating and mating and breaking up. “Beautiful,” “No,” “Maybe” and “Goodbye.”
     An awful lot of “Goodbye.”

Stuart Watson was an award-winning journalist before shifting his focus
two years ago to his lifelong passions -- fiction, poetry and essay.
Recent work has appeared in The Maine Review, Two Hawks Quarterly,
Revolution John and Wanderlust Journal.
He lives with his wife and dog in the Columbia Gorge of Oregon.

 

Today we are learning handshakes. It seems strange to realize that the handshake is more modern than the bow or the curtsy, or even the tipping of the hat. Professor Dasha says handshakes date back to the seventeenth century and, if we are to perform any of the theater, particularly of the twentieth and twenty-first century, we are going to have to perfect the handshake and make the action look natural. If we weren't already dressed in our optical camouflage suits I don't know that I'd be comfortable making the attempt. Didn't anyone in the twentieth century worry about disease? Or hygiene? This is only Acting I and I can't imagine what Dasha and the rest of the department must teach in Acting III and IV. Kissing for certain.
 
I crack my knuckles beneath the silver gloves of my optical suit and breathe easier. Professor Dasha asks Sander to join her at the front of the room. Sander is a boy who once before offered to take on a show without an optical suit. He’d rather use costumes, classical style, he says. He'd rather meet an audience in person. I wonder if he’d like to try antibiotics or get his vaccines through needles. He probably would try it if it was to help him research a part. 
 
The professor has Sander plant his feet and role his shoulders so that his arms are loose. Bending his arm at the elbow the pair press their palms together, crossing the distance between them. The professor rearranged Sanders fingers, so that they bend lightly beneath her own, his thumb resting atop the place where their gloves come together.
 
“Pressure is a character choice,” she insists. “A firm grip can indicate intimidation, dominance, anger, or even respect. If your hand goes limp.” She demonstrates. “This could show fear, disinterest, a lack of respect, or nonchalance.”
 
I curl my hands into fists in my lap.
 
"Didn't handshakes start the Black Death?" Odo asks, his words appearing for us all to read on our heads-up-displays.
 
"That was not handshakes, but rather people not washing their hands at all," Professor Dasha corrects. "While this is not a history course, it would do you all well to understand the background of the gestures and actions of any character you assume."
 
"Didn't handshakes coupled with not washing your hands cause Pandemic 19?" Axton asks.
 
"It was a bit more complicated than that," Professor Dasha replies, before turning back to Sander.
 
Just as the curtsy seems old fashioned at a time when no one wears a suit they'd be capable of physically curtsying in, so too does the handshake seem naïve and even reckless. Supposedly vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitation were part of everyday life back at the beginning of the twenty-first century and still handshakes were commonplace, just like embracing someone who wasn't a member of your own family. They may have had the tools, but they lacked the knowledge and science to fully understand the dangers of everyday life.  
 
The incline seems as if it's been around forever. Tilting just your head and shoulders in greeting is both polite and hygienic. Its roots can be found in Asia, with the bow, as well as in the post-pandemic century. 
 
I try to imagine pressing my flesh, the very thin and singular layer of tissue that protects all that is me from all the dangers that sit in wait in the outside world to the flesh of another who shares no genes, no living space, no relation with me what so ever. As an actor, it’s not supposed to matter. As a human the idea takes some getting used to.
 
I wonder at the strange intimacy of acting. Speaking to, touching, holding people you barely know. Perhaps it only works because you are not you and they are not they when you’re on the stage doing such things. Perhaps it’s comfortable, appropriate because, in the end, it is not connected to you in the slightest. You don’t have to be you, or be here, or be afraid.
 
Professor Dasha dismisses Sander who seems reluctant to return to his seat. She asks each of us to turn to our neighbor and practice the gesture. Asha is seated to my right. She reaches across the arm of my seat and I lay the glove of my optical suit against hers. I can feel the pressure points where the pads of her gloves meet the receptors in mine. My fingers are long enough they reach her wrist. We move our arms up and down. I feel the pressure change as we remove and then rectangle our hands at different angles. 
 
Professor Dasha reminds us about the links we are to consume on the history of handshakes and greetings on the world stage and the presentations that are due in a fortnight, as if they’re not preprogrammed and we haven’t been receiving alerts for two weeks already. When she phases out we know we are finally released. 
 
I snap the fingers of my glove and the classroom dissolves around me. I stand from the extension stool and stretch my back before letting the study doors hiss apart and release me into the rest of the family suite. I’m the only one in an optical suit since I’m the only one who had an appointment I needed to be present for. My sister is in her room with her heads up display, my father is at work in his office, and only my mother is there to greet me in the galley.
 
She puts a hand on my cheek and for a moment I think about germs and microbes before remembering that our family, our suite is a sealed biome and she can’t hurt me. But actors could, and did, and would if Sander has his way.
 
The wall is projecting a starfield as I take a seat. 
 
“You need to trim your facial structure," my mother remarks, her hand sliding over the stubble on my chin. "You look just like your father.”
 
“Isn’t that the idea? The outcome of duplicate reproduction?”
 
“Cloning?” My mother smiles.
 
“It is strange to hear you swear.”
 
“That’s why I do it.” She laughs. “That is a side effect of duplicate reproduction, but it still surprises me to see it.”
 
Her hand drops to her side and I am very aware of not being touched any longer. Not being connected to another living being in any tangible or palpable way. And for a moment it feels like something is missing. And perhaps that’s why handshakes existed for so many centuries. But I don’t think the loss of touch is more atrocious than the loss of life. Apparently no one else thought so either.
 
And again I wonder about kissing and why Sander and other actors think we’ve lost so much more than we have found. My mother, my father, my sister, and I only have to worry about our studies and not our health. Worry, anxiety, illness, they disappeared with the handshake.
 
My mother moves off, perhaps she is going to check on my father in another part of the suite. She could pull his location up on her overhead display, see how he is fairing, but something about the movement of going to look for him appeals to her. Perhaps that is why there are actors like Sander.
 
I rotate the lock at my wrist and remove the left glove of my optical suit. Then I remove the right one. I hold my hands, pale and fleshy, flat before me, palms up. I stare at the lines, just visible against the otherwise unmarked white skin. The hands seem to glow against their backdrop of chrome countertop. 
 
I rest my elbows on the counter and raise my hands before my face. I press my palms together. They are warm, slightly sticky it seems. My nerves sense more than the pressure they encountered through Asha's glove. I bend my fingers and push them between one another, interlacing them as if they are an antique lock being twisting together and waiting for a key. Waiting I can feel my heartbeat through the pads of my fingers. Warmth radiates out from where my knuckles bend. There is a sense that my skin understands something. That it recognizes itself in a way no sensation can register through gloves or optical projection. This mingling, this fusion, this feeling, how much could it matter? 

I pull the glove back onto my right hand and latch it at the wrist. I watch the starfield. I want to stare out at a lake and mountains. I snap my fingers. The scene changes. 

Jessie Atkin writes fiction, poetry, essays, and plays. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The YA Review Network, Writers Resist, Cloudbank, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University, She can be found online at jessieatkin.com.