Category Archives: Désirée Matlock

The Bench by Désirée Matlock

For Briana Y., thanks for the inspiration!

I had been sitting on the bench for so long my butt was numb… That’s the first problem.

The second problem was that I was here at all. Purgatory was totally not what I’d expected. I had been told by my hippie parents that the universe was a continuum, and when I died, I’d be reborn as a turtle or a butterfly or something awful if that’s what I deserved, but I wouldn’t because I was perfect according to them.

They pampered and loved on me, their only daughter, born in the summer of love, gave me everything I wanted, and when I was older and I hit the real world, it hit me hard. So, I hid from life with drugs, all the way through. And then I OD’ed just before my 45th birthday. Which is how I ended up here beside all these other losers waiting on benches alongside the road to the Gates of Heaven, apparently.

What a non-religious love child is doing in the purgatory outside of the Pearly Gates, sitting on an ivory bench, I don’t know. But here I sit, watching angels walk past on the other side of a wrought iron fence that tingles with what I would classify as magic. I suppose these folks would call it God’s grace. Strange, alien concepts suddenly confront me. Each of the angels is ignoring me, impossibly beautiful, with seemingly saccharine smiles on their faces. I’m not sure if I feel like that’s for me. Maybe I am mis-filed. I’m so not supposed to be here.

My butt being numb is really starting to bother me, so I start to stand, wiggling my toes, and a voice peals louder than brass horns, “Please stay seated until you are called. Thank you for your patience. Your approximate wait time is twelve standard heaven hours.” The voice changes as it reads off the time, and I realize that I’m listening to an automated voice.

Well, crap.  I sit back down.

“What’s the punishment for standing up then?”

No answer.

I lay down on the bench, and no voice peals out to tell me to sit back up, so I curl my arms behind my head, and close my eyes. Now all of me can at least be as asleep as my butt.

Another person on a nearby bench starts to say that I am not allowed to do that. “Bite me.”

I must have fallen asleep because the loud angel voice is waking me up; like the loudest alarm clock I’ve ever had, it sounds like it is going off in my head. “Hey! Moon Carlisle, it’s your turn! Our Sainted and Glorious Peter will see you now.  Please report to the gates ahead and on your left.”

It continues on repeat until I stand up and start walking.

Ahead of me, a robed, winged, impossibly beautiful young man who looks like a Versace model stands. I tuck my hands under my armpits. Pretty boys always make me nervous.

“Hey.”

His mouth opens and his voice is like smooth wine and a good smoke. “Please name the reasons you feel you belong in heaven.”

“I don’t.”

“Okay… Why not?” I have his attention.

“Because I don’t believe in God or Heaven.”

His arms spread, his wings spread, and he gestures upwards with his chin momentarily. “Even faced with this?”

“Yes. Of course. I’m being delusional. I’d like to go back now please. I want to be reborn as a puppy.”

“A puppy? Why?”

“They never get faced with drugs. I had a little guy, and he never had to battle with himself whether to take heroin or attend his cousin’s wedding.”

“Sounds like a good idea then.” He nods. My hope spires up.

“I can’t arrange that, but I can do something else that would give you a chance to have a brand new life.”

“Okay. Deal. Do it.”

“You don’t mind where I send you?”

“Sure. But I’m not interested in ever being one of the people in your iron cage here.”

His slight smile shows my words struck a chord.

“Deal.” He touches my shoulder, and I suddenly feel I am falling and falling, the sky spirals into darkness, and I open tired eyes in a dark room.

“Where am I?” My voice is cracked and dry; my lips feel split.

A nurse walks up to me. “Sweetie, you OD’ed. You’ve been out for a few days.”

I laugh, cry a little, and choke on my dry throat.  “Well, now I know how long twelve heaven hours are.”

“What, sweetie?” the nurse asks.

“Nothing.”

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Odd Beginnings by Désirée Matlock

For Atlanta Napier

 Funny enough, it didn’t start how you would think.

“What?” She trembles on the spot in front of me. “What are you saying? You’re not attacking me?”

I notice that my gun hand was slacking a little. I’ve been holding the heavy thing up for a full fifteen minutes now. “Of course I am. But it didn’t start as a plan to attack you. I just wanted the doll. And you said no and you said no. You wouldn’t change your mind.”

“Well I still haven’t. You can’t have her.”

“But, why not? I wondered. Why not? This woman,” I gesture with the gun, “25 years of hunting for the head of a very specific doll, I finally find it, and it’s lost its whammy. Not only has it lost its whammy, but you yourself will NOT part with it.” I’m yelling now, and I cannot keep myself from it. I’ve focused on that damn doll since the day it walked away from me. From my wrecked home. I need to chill out, or the doll would win. Again.

“Go to hell,” the woman across from me says, eyes squinting in hate. I recognize that hate.

“I don’t know how you did it, but you got into this woman. What did you do to the woman you stole the body from? Where the hell is she?”

Her eyes glint across from me, a moment’s pride in her act. And I know I’ll have to kill her. But not with the gun. It hadn’t worked on the doll years ago, and I know deep down it won’t work now. The demon within her will just flit into the nearest thing, probably me. Damned if I’ll host that wicked creature.

“I guess it doesn’t matter how you transferred yourself into the woman, but refusing to give me the doll head means you need that stupid ceramic home with its plastic eyelashes. You need it for some reason. Why do you need it?”

“You’re talking like a crazy person, you know that.” This stings, since I’ve spent ten years in a psych ward after they found me in the ashes.

My radio crackles to life, “Found it. There’s got to be dozens of doll heads here.”

I bark back across the phone, “Smash them and then torch it.”

Screaming, the woman across from me lunges toward my hands, toward the gun. The sound of something glass-like smashing to bits comes in tinny through the speaker. “No!” She falls to the ground mid-lunge, like a marionette that has lost its strings.

“Oh yes. You’ll never hurt another child. Never destroy another home, Betsy.” I grow stronger, my trembling stopped. She can’t hurt me any more.

“You know nothing. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know the damage you’ll do!” Desperation in her eyes. Fear.

It is a trick. At least I hope so.  “Keep going,” I bark into the two-way.

As the crash and tinkle of breaking dolls continued, the voice got lower and less sweet, and then it turned into a bare whisper, “I wasn’t Betsy, I wasn’t Molly, I wasn’t Dolly Dee, I wasn’t even Poc. Even Poc is gone. Oh!” The moan turned whisper made my skin crawl.

The sound of tinkling and breaking china ends finally a few seconds later, and then Stone’s voice comes back through the two-way, “I’ve got kerosene on everything in this room, now, kid. The whole house will go up once I start this up. We need to get out of here.”

I walk backwards out of the room the woman is in and down the hall backwards. She doesn’t move, just sobs in a heap on the floor. I keep the gun trained in the direction she’s in, and walk outside. Smoke is just starting to flood out of the basement window.

“Stone? You make it out, too?” I speak into the two-way again.

“Yup.” He stands beside me. Startled me, but I am so glad we succeeded, I hoot and jump in his arms. Then we run.

It’s been three weeks since the fire. I’m back in the psych ward, as a second offender. Stone says he’ll keep tabs on whether she shows up anywhere else. But I really think we got her. I may never get out, but at least that damned doll will never be able to hurt anyone else.

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Social Politics and Other Headaches by Désirée Matlock

For Susan D.

I just ran into the ex-husband of one of my FB friends.

I looked at Jen, “Do you mean Facebook? Or is there a new thing called FB?”

“Don’t make fun of me.”

Our coffees were growing cold between us, but we were gabbing still. This was our standard Saturday ritual.

“I’m not. I’m really not. I am never up on these things. I’m ten years behind every trend, you know that. Honest.”

“Well, then, no, there’s nothing new. I mean FACE BOOK.” She over-pronounced the words and gave me a dirty look.

“So? What happened?”

“When?” Jen asked, having forgotten the original point.

“The ex-husband? The Facebook friend?”

“Oh! Yeah. His name is Jack, and he goes to the same yoga class as me. He’s so hot. Oh my god. And he flirted with me. I almost want to see if I can get the dirt on their relationship.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Um, I barely know her. So, I need to get closer to her, so I can ask something personal like that.”

“See, but if you did that, you’d be too close to her to then go and date him. It’s a real catch 22.”

Jen looked at me in disbelief, “Seriously?”

I almost stood up, I was so adamant, “Yeah! Seriously. You don’t violate the girlfriend pact.  If you were close enough to her to get the straight skinny on him, he’d be off limits.”

“Oh crap.” Her head slumped down onto her hands, and I picked up my coffee and started sipping, thinking through the problem.

“Why not just date him anyway? Find out for yourself.”

“Well, because Mindy seems to have a good head on her shoulders, from what I’ve seen. And if she dumped his ass, she probably had a good reason.”

“Maybe he snores?”

“I could put up with that.”

“You say that, but you’ve never been with a real freight train of a guy. The kind that keeps you awake for hours.” She raised her eyebrows. “And NOT in the good way,” I added to clarify.

“Well, there has to be something wrong,” she threw in. “There just has to be. Mindy’s too smart to leave a good guy,”

“Wait, do you mean Mindy Westerling?”

“Yeah,” Jen’s face perked up, “do you know her?”

“She’s one of my clients.”

“Okay, you totally need to befriend her to find out for me.”

“She’s totally a client! I can’t do that. I don’t cross that line either. Next thing you know, she wants free work ‘because we’re friends.’ Nu-uh.” I sat back with my coffee. I noticed she hadn’t drunk her coffee. “Pick up your damn coffee, Jen, and start drinking. I’m not drinking yours for you.”

“Fine,” Jen slumped a bit. “You sure? Jack is so cute.”

“So, date him and find out.”

“Ugh, friend politics was weird enough before social media came along. Now there’s a whole new set of extra levels of friendship, and you just never know where you stand. You know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but I’m still not turning a client into a friend. Remember Donna the Clingy one? I gave her three thousand dollars of free consulting before I could get rid of her. She started as me trying to turn a client into a friend.”

“Fine! No, I mean it. I won’t ask again.” She tried puppy dog eyes. I shook my head no.

“Okay,” Jen said, ”then I need a good way to find out without having to befriend her.”

I thought for a minute, “So, find out who her best friend is, make friends with her, invite her out for wine, and get her to blab. Friends love to blab about each other when they’re drunk. Not me, and not about you.”

“Oh, definitely,” Jen added, looking only slightly guilty.

“But don’t mention you know Mindy. That way there’s no violation of the friend code.”

“Will do.” Jen got her phone out and started looking through Mindy’s facebook feed.

“Well, let me know how it goes then.” I clicked my coffee mug against hers. “But here’s a bet. I bet you’re sleeping with him before the next time I see you, and without caring one bit what Mindy says. Or Mindy’s friend.”

Jen laughed. “You’re probably right.”

I slapped a ten dollar bill down to cover our coffees, and we headed out.

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Dude That Smells Funky by Désirée Matlock

For Cal. Thank you for the great starter!

“Dude, that smells funky.”

Jake turned his head away from the scratch and sniff I was holding up toward him. His hands came up in a mock defensive posture. “What the fuck is that?”

“I know, right? And I didn’t even scratch at it.” I returned the scratch and sniff sticker on its yellowing waxy paper backing to the plastic baggie I had put it in when I found it.

Jake looked at me, “Dude, if you knew, why’d you make me smell it then?” The sound of the game as someone scored, and the pounding of feet on the bleachers above drowned out our voices for a moment.

“Just cause. It’s so nasty. Smells like maggots or something.”

Jake thought for a second, “Something between rotted old wine and meat… like a bad dumpster. Where’d you get it?”

Lynnette piped in. “Let me smell.” I handed her the baggie. She cracked it open slightly and then turned away, gagging slightly.

“Gross, right?” Jake smiled at her.

From where we were all sitting under the bleachers, Lynette’s hair caught a little ray of evening sunlight and glowed. A puff of Jake’s vapor cloud behind her whirled through the sunlight. She was so damn pretty. She thought deeply for a second, “Yeah, I smell the rotting smell. But I also smell something like when my folks took me to Hawaii, and we climbed a volcano… What’s that called?”

“Brimstone.” Saying the word reminded me of dozens of video games about hell. I think that’s where I’d learned the word.

“That’s it, brimstone! I smell brimstone. Maybe your scratch and sniff is about Hawaii… What’s the picture on it?”

We all peered at it through the baggie.

“The picture on it is so small.” I looked at it, “Looks like a goat?”

“Standing up like a person? Weird.” Lynette peered at it, too.

“So, where’d you get it?” Jake repeated his question, while he handed me the vape.

“That’s the weird part. My dad went to a police auction yesterday. Got himself a new desk. I was told to clean it up. He keeps trying to give me chores,” I paused to puff, “make a man out of me.”

Jake sniggered, and Lynette leaned over and put her head down on my shoulder for a moment. I passed her the vape we were all sharing, and reveled in watching her lips form an “o” around the device as she drew in a breath of pot. She stretched back and lay down for a second.

“So? What’s that have to do with the stinky-ass antique sticker?” Jake asked, pulling me from fascinatedly watching Lynette’s chest breathe in and out.

“The sticker was in the bottom drawer, tucked into an envelope under some kind of contractual legal papers and shit,” I finished. “I threw away everything else, but kept the sticker.”

Lynette snorted, “I mean, have they even made scratch and sniffs since our parents were kids?”

“What else was in the envelope?” Jake frowned.

“Nothing, man. Just this stupid sticker. You’d think there’d be guns and shit in those drawers, since the dude they belonged to was some kind of big wig dealer, but nah.”

“Weird. Man, that sticker is so schnasty, dude.”

“Let’s scratch it up good so it’s really stinky and leave it in Julie’s bag.” Julie, who Lynette had been frenemies with since grade school.

Jake chuckled. “Awesome! I’m in. How ‘bout you, man? It’s your sticker?”

“Whatever Lynette wants, man, she gets,” I said and was rewarded with a little smile and a peck on the cheek as Lynette sat back up. She stood, long legs stretching for a second, then started searching the bleachers above for where Julie was sitting.

We got up and followed her. Lynette eventually spotted Julie’s feet, almost out of reach, and her bag was on the row of bleacher right above that; we could see a little of the strap. Julie was so fond of that purse. It was some kind of ridiculously fancy one that came with a certificate of authenticity. Her mother had gotten it for her in Italy on business, as she would tell anyone who would listen.

Lynette took the sticker from me, pulled it out of the baggie, which fell to the ground, and the smell of rotting flesh and decadence and hellfire or whatever grew strong around us.

“Dude, it smells so nasty. This is gonna be great!” Lynette laughed. Another scoring play out on the field and then the cheerleaders must have come out because everyone started chanting. Lynette chose that moment, with feet pounding and everyone yelling along, to climb the bleacher supports, and I watched her from below. I could do that all day. She deftly climbed and giggled down at us. I puffed on the vape, breathed in deep. Life was good. The world was starting to really blur at the edges.

She was reaching out toward Julie’s bag now, other elbow hooked through the support beams, sticker in fingertips. Then she remembered, and pulled her hand back and scratched at the sticker hard for a second, and started reaching back out toward Julie’s bag.

That’s when a fireball erupted in the air between myself and Lynette, and vanished as fast as it appeared. Mid-air between us, a horned demon with cloven feet and a bright red tail appeared.  He thudded to the ground, and Lynette swung down to the ground beside him, having let go of the bleacher in shock.

Seeing her so close to the creature scared the crap out of me, so I snatched out toward Lynette, pulling her behind me out of some kind of instinct. My arm brushed against the demon for a split-second, and I felt my skin burn away in that spot. Hurt like a mother-fucker. Worse than the time my step-dad put out a cigarette on me when I was four. But then it stopped hurting completely and disappeared as Lynette handed me back the sticker.

“Woah,” Jake said.

“Dude!” I said, as my blood grew cold. I started to shake.

The smell of the scratch and sniff was suddenly incredibly stronger. I could hear someone up on the bleachers above ask who farted. The demon rolled his shoulders and stretched. “Ahhh. Room to breathe.” His voice sounded like a few voices at once heard through shifting gravel and sand. It sounded bad. Like, really bad. Like death come for you. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

“Which of you holds my token?”

“What?” Lynette blurted out.

Jake dropped to the ground in a sudden case of uncontrollable giggles. “He means your scratch and sniff, assholes.” He started cackling, couldn’t seem to stop himself. The demon flicked a finger at Jake, and the laughter turned to quiet as Jake instantly fell asleep.

“Who holds my token?” the demon repeated. I held out the sticker toward him.

“What possessed you to summon me by daylight so close to a place of worship?” He pointed in the direction of the church steeple, barely visible in the fading evening light.

“We didn’t know, man, we didn’t know what the sticker could do. Look, take it, we didn’t know.”

The demon shuffled his cloven feet, and whipped his tail around a touch, as he approached me, ungainly, unbeautiful, and deadly. He placed his horned, black-eyed red and bony face within an inch of mine and said, “Do you mean it? I can have it?” The stink of him was overpowering. My eyes hurt from it.

“Sure, dude. It’s yours.” He snatched the sticker from my hands and whirled away from me. Out of nowhere, a fire conjured from the ground in front of us, and he danced around it in a swirl of cloven legs, whipping tail, and bowed horns. He threw the sticker into the fire, and immediately, the scent of brimstone and rotting anything disappeared with the sticker. The fire swallowed itself into the ground.

“Thank you, child. I treasure the freedom you have granted me. I shall use it wisely, pillaging and purging and destroying whatsoever I choose!” He spread his chest out, beat upon it briefly, and took a deep breath. Then his gaze returned to us, and Lynette hugged me from behind, scared. “I shall grant you the same power of my previous token holders, in granting your earthly desires, but summon me more wisely next time. No churches!” He pointed. “No crowds!” He pointed above. “And no daylight!”

He disappeared in a puff of smoke. Literally. Not like the wispy stuff you see on stage, but a cloud of black smoke that burned the nostrils when it hit and made the eyes water. As it wafted through the bleachers above, voices sounded upset. A few heads peeked through the holes in the bleachers and Julie’s voice shrilled out at them, “What the hell are you guys up to down there? Knock it off!”

Jake woke up, and Lynette spoke first. “Dude. What the hell?”

I looked at Lynette, “I get whatever wishes I want?”

Jake looked at me, “Where’s the sticker?”

Lynette came around in front of me and hugged me tightly, trying to comfort the fear out of me. I figured I still looked like I was about to crap my pants. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t.

“Yeah, you get whatever wishes you desire, sounded like he said.” Lynette looked at me sweetly, “That’s something, right?”

“Dude, how am I supposed to summon him without the sticker, though?”

Lynette and I sat back down next to Jake on the ground, and he pulled his vape back out of his pocket.  “Damned if I know,” Jake said, through a cloud of white vapor.

“Whatever,” Lynette said.

“Yeah, whatever,” I repeated.

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The Misfortune of Two Jays – Désirée Matlock

James’ life was forever changed when he bought that haunted hot dog cart.

He’d always wanted to start a nice vegan wrap truck going, but the trucks were all way out of his budget, and all he’d been able to afford was this second-hand cart. He’d fixed it up, repaired the tires, and gotten his license. Everything had been coming together so beautifully, it was like magic.  The money for the new green umbrella had been offered by the family of the guy who’d owned the cart before. They’d even offered to pay for any new parts the cart needed, but it turned out it had just needed cleaning, and all worked perfectly.

The first weird thing he’d noticed was back at the garage, when he was trying to stick new decals on the side of the cleaned-up cart. The decals showed the five initial menu choices he and Jenny had decided on, with nice pictures that they’d taken a few days earlier of their sample meals. As soon as he applied a decal, it came peeling off. He tried four times, and then called the signage company, who immediately sent over replacements that also peeled right off. He tried taping the corners and that had also failed, so he’d had to settle for glueing all the decals to two posterboards and leaning them against the cart.

He’d placed a fold out table and two chairs, plus his beautiful vegan wrap stand with its bright green umbrella right next to his uncle’s garage- a great corner, honestly, that he’d never have been able to afford without his family. They were very lucky, and very optimistic. Jenny had made herself a beautiful sandwich board with big photos advertising their non-GMO organic veggie options on the cheap, and would be standing out by the traffic acting ridiculous to bring in customers, until they could afford to pay someone else to do it. James excitedly put on his apron and stood ready to pass out as many lunches as possible.

“I love you, Mr. food cart co-owner!” Jenny called out from her spot on the corner.

“I love you, too, Mrs. food cart co-owner!” James called back. They grinned at each other and got ready for customers.

And so, ‘Two Jays Vegan Wraps’ had gotten its start on a beautiful May morning, with James and Jenny cheerfully standing at the ready as the first lunch customers started pouring out of the financial district, walking toward the restaurant district, and right passed the cart.

Six people had walked by before their first customer stopped. A nice middle aged lady. So exciting!

James smiled as the nice middle aged lady ordered an avocado mock turkey wrap.

And that’s when all hell had broken loose. The cart went crazy, cabinet door slamming shut repeatedly. The nice middle aged lady had squealed and walked away.

The cart settled down only once the lady was all the way out of sight.

“What the heck was that?” James said, scratching his head and putting the cart back to rights.

Jenny had walked up, worried looking, “I have no idea. Is there an animal in it?”

They searched the entire cart, no sign of anything wrong, and definitely no animals. Strange.

Then a grey-haired man in a grey suit had walked up, and James thought he was in the clear, because the cart did nothing. That was, until the grey-haired man ordered a mock chicken wrap with vegan cheese. Then, suddenly, the cart started acting up again. Plus now the umbrella started flapping open and closed like a flamingo. The signs had all flown like frisbees off into the street, and the grey-haired man waved his arms in defeat and said there was no way he was ordering food from the crazy cart.

All day it continued, with customers being driven away by the cart, and with James and Jenny getting more and more worried that their investment was going to drive them into financial ruin. A hipster who stared at his phone the entire time had only had time to check in on Yelp before the cart had flipped out. He never even got a chance to order anything.

As night fell, and not one successful sale had occurred, James had started packing up.

Before everything was put away, a man with a child in tow walked up. The kid was chomping on a hot dog he’d probably gotten from another cart somewhere, and the man ordered the veggie wrap with vegan cheese, and the cart had done nothing. James had started preparing the food, and still the cart did nothing. The man received his wrap, and paid for it, and the cart did nothing!

The one and only order of the day to be successfully placed, prepared and paid for walked away, leaving James scratching his head. Maybe the cart would let him do this after all. He packed up and went home, exhausted from picking up after a hot dog cart that was throwing tantrums like a toddler.

The next day, it took James and Jenny only two walk-ups to realize that just wasn’t going to happen. If they kept this up, the cart would tear itself apart with all the banging around before they made enough money to buy another block of vegan cheese. It had to be solved today. He started packing up the cart, planning to ask every single expert on hauntings that he could find on the internet exactly how to exorcise a demon from a hot dog cart.

As Jenny was packing up the table and James was pulling the umbrella down, a woman walked out of the $5.00 psychic shop across the way. She was dressed as a typical gypsy, but she looked more like a trailer park mom than an exotic moorish beauty.

“You realize that the cart is haunted, right?” The trailer park gypsy ran a finger along the cart surface.

“Yup. Never seen anything like this. We’re considering our options, but,” and James leaned in tight for this one, to whisper in the trailer park gypsy’s ear, “right now an exorcism seems about right.”

“Unnecessary, truly. And that’s not a demon. He’s not evil at all. He’s just pissed off.”

Jenny walked up, “He?”

“Yes, He. His name is Marco, and he used to own this cart. He’s over there scowling at you right now.” The gypsy pointed toward the spot to the rear of the cart where James had been standing all day. James shuddered.

“My name’s Louise, by the way. I can help you. I won’t charge for my help, except to ask that I can get a free lunch when I want one, which might be every few weeks. And also that you sometimes send people my way and tell people I’m the real deal. But only if I solve your problem. Deal?”

James looked at Jenny, and she nodded vigorously, eyes huge, waving her hands in a low pushing motion. James interpreted that as a yes.

“Okay, sure, Louise. I‘m James, this is Jenny. And apparently, that’s Marco.” The cart made a small squeaking noise.

She stood staring at the cart for a very long moment, then closed her eyes for a few seconds and murmured things, then she opened and rubbed her eyes again.

“Okay, put your cart away, and then come on over to the shop. I’ll be ready for you guys then.” Louise trundled off.

Jenny laughed and said that she wasn’t sure whether Louise been taking a short nap, or communing with spirits or what.  But a few minutes later, there they were. James and Jenny had never ever entered a $5.00 psychic store with their stupid glowing signs, but hey. Anything was better than a haunted hot dog cart.

Louise’s shop was not draped in scarves or long curtains or tassels the way James had been expecting. In fact, it looked like a run down store-front with a nice table in it, mostly. Very disappointing. Jenny’s slight frown said she  felt the same way.

James and Jenny both sat down across from Louise, who was laying things down on the table across from them. There was a crystal ball, a tarot deck, a shaker of salt, and a few talismans and such.

They both expected some kind of mumbo jumbo about holding hands or closing their eyes. Instead, Louise spoke plainly, “Now, normally, I do a whole shtick, trying to get people to open up. But you guys don’t need the shtick. What you need is to listen to Marco.”

“How did he tell you his name? Can you hear what he says?”

“Well, my whole damn life, I’ve been able to talk to the dead. It’s kind of my thing. Runs in the family. Some of us can actually do something helpful like helping them find the light, but me? No. I can only listen. Trust me, it isn’t fun, it isn’t inspiring. It’s just a pain in the ass. But it’s nice to think I might be able to use my pain in the ass to help out a nice young couple with their pain in the ass. Especially since you guys look like you’re still wet behind the ears, and you sure won’t know what to do on your own.”

Having said all of that, she sighed and grew quiet. James looked a little insulted and like he wanted to argue, but Jenny held his hand, and James calmed himself.

“So, what are you going to do?” Jenny looked at Louise, eyebrows furrowed in worry.

“I won’t do squat here. You have to be the ones to do anything. But I can tell you what Marco is yelling about, and you guys can come up with the big ideas.”

Louise settled in, and started ticking things off on her fingers, like she was trying to remember lots of details on a laundry list of things.

“Well, first, he yelled at me about the know-nothing kids that have his cart now, and how you’re feeding people trash as if it was hot dogs. Next, he proceeded to tell me a long and boring story about coming over from Italy as a child, and how his father and mother had lived in poverty for fifteen years, saving every penny.” She rolled her eyes. “Just be glad I’m giving you the highlights. Marco went on and on. Like how all the kids had to work, and he’d never gone to school. He’d saved every penny helping his parents. He never learned math, or read a single word, but his parents had helped him save up all the money needed to buy his hot dog cart, and he’d learned how to make hot dogs, sell hot dogs, and work the till. Blah blah blah. One day he’d sold a hot dog to the prettiest girl in the world, and then they got married, had kids, and made enough money with his hot dog cart to help his kids make it all the way through college. And he’d worked his cart until the day he’d died, selling hot dogs to feed the good plain folk of this city.”

Louise sat back. “That’s about it.”

“What the heck are we supposed to do with that?” James said, flustered. He looked over at Jenny, “What the heck?”

Jenny shrugged and rubbed her eyebrow, “Look, I admire that kind of work ethic. Why is he trying to stop us from doing the same thing?”

Louise grunted loudly, “You don’t get it. He was proud of selling hot dogs. You guys are basically freaking him out with the whole vegan thing.”

“Makes sense,” Jenny said. “He’s not the first person to bitch me out for wanting to eat sustainably and healthfully. You’d think we were the ones doing harm the way some people freak out.”

“Oh man,” James ran his fingers through his hair, and looked over at Jenny, “What should we do?”

Louise looked at both of them, “You could just start selling hot dogs, right? Make enough money to sell the cart, and start over?”

James and Jenny answered in unison. “No.”

“Well, then you shouldn’t have bought a haunted hot dog cart. ‘Cause you’re never getting away with selling green stuff in that cart. ”

Jenny said, “Well, we’ll have to come up with another answer.”

James and Jenny thanked Louise for her help, and got on their way. They stopped for coconut milk green tea  lattes on the way home, and then pow-wowed for the rest of the day and late into the night. The day after that, the cart stayed in the garage, and they did some internet research, ordered new food sent their way, and got busy making new signage. At this point, they were way, way way out of money. They scraped together as much money as they could find, even checking the couch cushions before they found enough to order the new decals, but they both went to sleep happy.

When they woke up the next day, James overhauled the cart, while Jenny prepped the food. The new decals arrived – a great big picture of a hot dog, with ketchup and relish on it. Another of a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut on it. James smoothed them onto the surface of the cart, and they stuck fast.

Another decal with no photos said simply:

TWO JAYS (VEGAN) HOT DOG STAND

OUR RULES ARE WEIRD – SO READ THIS ALL THE WAY THROUGH.

THERE IS ZERO MEAT IN OUR VEGAN HOT DOGS, AND ALL ITEMS IN THIS CART ARE ORGANIC, NON-GMO, SUSTAINABLE  AND COMPLETELY FREE OF MEAT OR DAIRY. ORDER EVERYTHING AS IF THESE HOT DOGS WERE NOT VEGAN. ALL ORDERS MUST BE PLACED WITHOUT MENTION OF BEING VEGGIE, GREEN, VEGAN or MEATLESS. WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE IF YOU BREAK THIS RULE, EVEN IN SPIRIT. THANK YOU!

The cart was filled with vegan hot dogs swimming in water, vegan hot dog buns, and all plastic was actually biodegradable, such as the cellulose forks and knives. Not a single thing in their cart was toxic in any way. Every part of their operation was sustainable. They were so proud.

The first day out on the corner, they were understandably nervous. But, no one’s food was thrown, the cart stayed silent, and Marco was obviously sure he’d won. Two Jays said nothing, and if people asked, they simply pointed at the sign, or handed over a detailed flyer that answered every question that they could come up with.

There were a few minor incidents, but if James acted offended when someone ordered anything vegan, the cart didn’t throw a fit. After a few days, they settled into the new routine. Eventually, they developed regulars, and everyone who came by seemed to already know about Two Jays’ weird rule.

The buzz from their quirky rule created huge crowds. A vegan magazine called it a brave attempt to normalize Vegan foods, and a bold political statement. This brought lots of supporters who all followed the rule in solidarity. James didn’t bother explaining.

A few weeks later, they needed four tables.  Jenny started bringing along her laptop so she could manage the social media buzz while helping the customers, and so they grew their business.

Three months after that, Jenny informed James over the breakfast table that they had the money to retire the hot dog stand and get a truck.

“What if we don’t?” James leaned across the table to kiss his wife on the nose.

“Don’t what?” Jenny answered.

“It feels sad to make Marco live in a dark garage.”

“Aww. That sounds awful. You’re right… but… well, how else can we manage it?”

They put out a strange ad for someone “not afraid of ghosts” and ended up hiring a guy named Mick to run the stand, with plenty of warnings that it was haunted, but it never acted up for Mick, and he honestly thought the bosses were probably just a little eccentric. It didn’t help that Louise’s free food was extended to a lifetime supply, and he was ordered to occasionally recommend her services. At that point, he decided they were definitely a little cuckoo. But they were nice people, so he stayed. Mick had two little kids under the age of five, and the cart seemed to brighten up some when the girls were there playing.

In present day, Two Jays’ has twelve carts and six trucks in three cities and offers more than 40 menu items. Three of the carts continue to only offer hot dogs. James and Jenny continue to always work the same truck together, and make all the rules together.

Two Jays is known far and wide because, to this day, no one is allowed to say the word ‘vegan’ when ordering.

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The Isolation Simulation by Desiree Matlock

For Blake

That damn raccoon just stole my sandwich… again!

An empty zip-pack stares up at me innocently from beside my instruments on the top of the rock I’ve been using as my table, not even a crumb left inside. A tiny smidge of mustard on the top flap is all that proves I even had a sandwich. At the sound of scrabbling feet, my gaze shifts from my makeshift table to the fig tree a few strut-lengths away that the raccoon had apparently scurried behind, laden with vines. I won’t bother chasing him down, he is amazing at hiding. He’s been stealing my food for the last eight days, and at this rate, I only have two more days of food in this chamber with me, one if the raccoon keeps stealing my food. I needed to do a better job not letting myself wander from task, especially at lunch time.

I stand up and curse myself internally for being so absent-minded, glaring up briefly at the countdown clock. The timer anti-climaxed at 00:00:00 four days and some-odd hours ago, but long habit of looking at it a few times a day hasn’t yet been broken.

Not knowing what time it is out in the rest of the station is only the first visible symptom of the problems the clock’s idleness signifies.

I start walking in the direction of the crate that supplies me with food, on the other end of the chamber. Slow and steady, since time stopped mattering four days and some-odd hours ago.

It was supposed to be a twenty-eight day iso test. Twenty-eight days of isolation, not thirty-two. There were other things that I was supposed to be doing right now to prep for the excursion; part of a rigorous timeline until mission date. Yet, here I was, still in the box, and definitely not isolated enough. Damn raccoon. Why hadn’t the seals opened? Why was the test running long? Had I passed? Had I failed? Fuck if I know, or even care at this point. I just want out. I want dinner at the mess, surrounded by noisy, sloppy people chattering about station business and gossiping about their kids’ latest stunt. I want to hear Ty laughing about the stress on the struts of the observation deck being from horny teenagers using the area to fool around.

My empty stomach drops, I miss Ty so much. He’d be great company. Hell, any other human being would be great company right about now, but that damn raccoon is all I’ve got. And I have no idea how he got in here. It’s supposed to be an ISO exercise, meaning I’m to be completely alone. So far: no people, no dogs, no ship rats, no roaches — just the damn raccoon.

They told me to expect a simple sim of the kind of solitude I could expect down on the surface. Not to scale, obviously, because the surface was supposedly over a thousand times bigger than the station. And flat as a pancake when you were on it. Even though it looked as round as home from the observation deck. Hard to fathom. They’d made this room have a totally flat floor, to sim that aspect, and it had taken some getting used to at first.

I hop over the low waterway that zags across the massive chamber diagonally.

I approach the wall, and ignore my momentary flash of vertigo, holding the wild, directionless branches of a willow for comfort as I decompress the cool metal door of the storage compartment. The 90-degree angles weird me out. I spent the first week clinging to the center of the room, avoiding the walls. It’s gotten much better, but I still feel, illogically, like I’m going to fall off the room if I get too near the edges. I grew up as a deck hand’s child, and rose to hull walker. Obviously, both trades are completely free of right angles, aside from the occasional brace or strut. They might have put me in here to test my ability to deal with isolation, but to be honest, I didn’t start missing my mates for a good three weeks. I’ve managed that aspect way better than the unnatural flatness.

I check the display. Yup, there eight more food items available. That’s about two days. For whatever reason, I’ve favored sandwiches. They just feel more “adventure-y” than any of the other possible orders. And I want to eat what I want to eat. I key in the order for one turkey club, then open the crate’s hasp, and the vacuum hisses as the next very flat, hot sandwich pops out of the base. It will need a minute to hydrate before I can open the zip-pack. During which minute I sometimes daydream or forget to stay put, resulting in nasty thievery by tiny furry hands. Suddenly, it occurs to me how I’m going to get out of here. I’m relieved to realize that this also means I’m going to get another activity. There had been twenty-eight days only of activities planned as part of the test. I’d been twiddling my thumbs, bored out of my mind, since then. Today, I’d already repeated the activities from day three, just for the hell of it, which was why there was now a too-pruned set of rose bushes clustered somewhere along the starboard wall.

I walk back over to the rock, sandwich pack growing in my hand and cooling to ambient temperature as it expands and finishes forming. I scoop my gear into my pants pockets, wait until my lunch is ready, and open it. I eat half my sandwich and pull one edge of my crust off. I tuck my half-sandwich into my pocket and seal the velcro. The bit of crust goes on the rock, and I walk over to stand closer to the spot where I think the raccoon heads to — the far wall, just under the countdown clock. I give the clock one more look and then huff at myself. I really need to stop wasting effort looking at that clock.

The damn raccoon doesn’t come from where I thought he’d be, he turns out to be much closer than I expected. His brown head pops out of a hole in the ground beside the base of the fig tree, one I’d never noticed. What had the eco-mech told me that was called? Oh yeah: a burrow.

As he scrambles over to the rock to inspect the bit of crust, I walk up to his burrow, pulling an ore-sample scoop from my pocket. I extend it and start digging up the burrow.  The raccoon chitters at me to scold me then runs away with his crust, and he’s suddenly gone. Blast. I needed to know where he was going, but I can’t be two places at once. I keep digging at the burrow, and the air fills with the smell of ionizing soil as my digger cuts in. I’m at it for about 30 minutes before I clear the area and reach the sloped metal of the deck beneath. I stop digging at the first contact with the deck and switch instrument, using my metal stress-tester to check for flaws in the deck. I’m sure there must be, otherwise how did the raccoon get here to interrupt my privacy? The test comes up clean, and it’s the first time I’ve ever been unhappy to see that result. A perfect deck floor. Well damn. That theory is out. I lay back onto the dirt briefly, contemplating how the hell the little pest got here? He was much too large to slip between panels.

I’ve tried not to cut into the roots of the fig, but they’re quite a complex mesh. I use them like rungs to climb back out of the sizable hole I’ve made for myself. As I reach the top, the raccoon appears at the far end of my hole, chittering at me to complain.

I wipe my hands on my pants, and say, “How’d you get in here, little guy?” My rasping voice frightens both of us; we are utterly unaccustomed to language. The “little guy” starts walking away.

“Look,” I continue, “we both like sandwiches, apparently. I’ll share, if you’ll show me how to get out of here.”

He cocks his head, probably able to tell that I don’t mean it, and runs off. I run as fast as I can to keep up with him, but he’s gone faster than I can catch up. We’re not too far from the aft wall, so I run my scanner over it, and find nothing. No flaws in the wall. I decide to walk the perimeter checking for stress anywhere on the outside walls, and find none. This is apparently the best engineered room in the whole damn station. Well, I’m fucked. There’s no way out of this place.

I give up on the problem for the moment and decide to take a nap. I lay back down onto some ferns at the base of another tree, which I idly think might be a eucalyptus. I realize I walked every wall in the place, and never felt even a little dizzy. Not too shabby. This hull walker (sixth class) might just make a good surface walker after all.

If I ever get out of here. I drift off into sleep quite discomfited by that thought, but too tired from the day’s activities to care.

After my nap, I carefully avoid looking at the countdown clock. To hell with the clock. It’s time to get out of here, is what time it is. I realize I haven’t yet checked the pre-existing ingress points, the ones engineered into the room. The decks might be pristine, but the shafts are all weak points.

I study the ceiling at length until I spot the right place. It’s been holo’d to act like sky, but obviously there have to be mechanics behind that holo. I spot the point where I’d have chosen to place the projector, and I start climbing the tree just below it, a very large mata palo. As I reach the tree top, the holo fades. It’s hot up here. The tree’s highest branches are now shown to be practically brushing the ceiling. Being a hull walker means I think of thin struts, practically wires, as walkable, but this trees branches are weak and brittle. They almost snap under me until I grab a handful of smaller offshoots and pull them together. Squeezing them between my legs as I shimmy and sway, I can barely reach the ceiling, but I manage the scan, check the integrity of the projector’s hook-up, reading the controls, wiping sweat from my brow. The controls aren’t coded, since they hid them well. If I wanted to, I could change the sun,, but I don’t see the point in messing with that – it won’t get me out any sooner. The connections are fine.

Damn. I mean, great for the engineers. They did a good job, but bad for me. I didn’t really think that one through anyway. What did I think, that the raccoon would have fallen into the room from above? Not likely, and he certainly wouldn’t have jumped that far, would he?

No, he probably came in through the walls. The perfect walls. Huh.

I notice that the light is fading, and I never ate my dinner. I climb down, and sit on the widest part of the tree’s trunk while I eat the other half of my sandwich. Then, I walk over to the food crate, and order all of my remaining seven meals as sandwiches. I pop them all into my pockets for later.

The raccoon is watching me from a ways away. I can feel his beady little eyes on me, even though I can’t see him. Well, he’s not getting these sandwiches.

I start walking the perimeter again, this time using the right equipment to check for faults in the few shafts that released into this room. None of them should have been insecure in any way, but I have to check. The raccoon had to get into iso somehow.

I can hear the animal chittering away, so I look behind me at the low waterway running at an angle through the room, where he’s washing his hands. Dip. Scrub. Dip. Scrub. He can be kind of cute, for a little thief.

I continued circling the room, looking for flaws in the points of ingress into the room. I manually check every point where there are controls. Apparently, I need a passcode to adjust the temperature or humidity. Great.  After circling the room yet again, I’m too exhausted to continue, and there are still no ways out. The only area I can control appears to be the hatch behind which my food crate reposes, empty and useless.

I’ll check it in the morning more thoroughly. Meanwhile, I’m going to sleep. This is a wasted day, but at least I’m not sitting around doing nothing. I check to make sure my pockets are locked, and curl up against the wall. I’m asleep before you can say boo.

I dream of Ty and I on a hull walk, enjoying banter, checking the plating for debris. My mags cut out and I slip out into space, floating away silently. I can’t breathe. I can see Ty, and he’s watching me calmly. How does he not know I’m outside the atmo? I wake gasping, crying, in the dark. I really want to get out of here. Where is everyone? Why am I still in here?  I try to go back to sleep, but can’t. I wrestle with my thoughts until the holo gives me dawn. Day thirty-three begins.

I stand, stretch, and run my hands through my hair. I’m out of ideas. This has to be it. I open the hatch, pull out the food crate, and inspect the entire area. I spend an extra hour on it. There’s no sign of a way out, and I need to eat again.

I spend most of the rest of the day rechecking everywhere from the day before, with no different results, except now I’m down to four sandwiches.

There are no holes in this room. But then how did the raccoon get in?

The raccoon is at the waterway again. I watch him fastidiously washing his hands, and decide I need a bath. Not a shower. A bath. A nice, relaxing soak. They’re a rare delight, and while I can’t adjust the temperature of the water, I can at least climb in.

I wander to the water’s edge, and the damn raccoon scurries off again, no doubt to a brand new burrow. I follow the water’s edge looking for a deeper spot. I reach the wall, where the water gets sucked through for filtration, and there still hasn’t been a deep enough area to bathe in. I walk back the way I came, finally finding a slightly deeper spot, near the origin point of the water. I undress and wade in, then sit down. I hold onto a rock half-submerged in the water while I adjust to the change. The water is cold and refreshing, and I eventually settle myself, laying down in the water deeply enough to cover my head all the way to my brow. It feels great. It sharpens my senses, and I find a nice peaceful moment.

It’s a lucky thing the water is filtered. It must get sucked into the sub-deck, scrubbed and pushed back out at this end. If I sit here long enough, I’m bound to feel the same water run past. I didn’t see any controls for the waterway around the perimeter, but maybe over here near the origin point…

Suddenly, I get it. I figure out how to leave. I have no idea how the damn raccoon got in, but it doesn’t matter. I know how I’m getting out.

I scramble out of the water, get dressed again, letting the water drip down my body. I don’t care, it will hardly matter. I check my pockets. Oh hell no. I’m missing another sandwich!  That damned raccoon ate another one!

My blood boils. This is getting ridiculous.

How did he even get into my locked pockets? Whatever. I lock my few remaining sandwiches away, check that everything else is there, and wade back into the water about a foot and turn around, squatting in the mud.

I run my hands everywhere along the banks, both sides, between the deep spot and the origin point of the water. I know full well where I would have placed the controls if I were hiding them, and I find them not too far from there, tucked in beneath a few mangroves. I brush away the silt and stare at my luck. As I suspected, the controls were hidden, not coded!

I turn up the temperature — I’d need all the warmth I can get — until the water is almost too hot to stand, then I adjust the controls. No scrubbing, just dump it. I turn up the volume so it will rise to its highest possible level. I continue to tweak settings but the water is so high I almost can’t keep a foothold. I grab onto a mangrove root, and adjust the water’s speed, at which point the volume increases even further, and the forest floor is totally submerged. Dirt is churning into a thick muddy soup around me.

As I let go of the mangrove root, the water starts carrying me away, along with everything else not anchored. I hear loud chittering. The raccoon doesn’t sound happy. He’s almost certainly about to get swept downstream with me. A raspy angry screech confirms it.

Sorry little guy, you might die, and so might I, but it’s better than starving to death slowly in here.

The water is difficult to keep my head out of, and I take big gulps of air in preparation for what I know is coming, hot water rushing around me, towing me under.

As I approach the far wall, I take the deepest breath I can, and then completely submerge myself, hoping the systems won’t see me as me, just another part of the muck. As I pass through the far wall my nose passes too close by the field’s edge — that was close. The beam tickles and I force myself to keep holding my breath.

I’m being carried through the sub-deck, and I continue to hold my breath, sometimes semi-surfacing but not long enough to trust it. The water spirals down the pipe, and I feel a slip of fur slide past so I grab onto it, just as it’s almost past my reach. I shove the raccoon against me, tucking him under my arm while he wiggles relentlessly. We both get smacked into by something hard, but nothing’s broken. At least on me. I shove my unlikely traveling companion more securely under my shoulder, wishing I could harness him. It would limit mobility to hold onto him, but hey. I can’t just let him fly off into space.

Great, now I’m going to drown in deep space because I couldn’t help myself, I had to save a stowaway. The pipe releases into a larger channel, and I am now mostly above water, so I grab a few fresh lungfuls of air before I’m submerged again. The raccoon’s struggling has calmed down. He must be too confused to care about me holding onto him.

I measure out the distances between this subchamber and the hull, watching in my mind’s eye as various key spots rush past me. I’m already aching to breathe. It’s only been a few seconds, but my adrenaline state has me using up my oxygen faster than anticipated.

I’m at the hull before anticipated, and I have barely a split second to reach out and grab at the metal before I leave the containment field and enter zero atmosphere. My arm slams into a brace, and it slows me but I slip to the farthest beam as the water bashes into me. One handed, I’m in raw space for less than a second before the raccoon panics and scrabbles, clinging to my chest, holding on well enough for me to use both hands to grab the support, at which point, I’m back into the hull atmo, back where I know what I’m doing. Clinging to the very edge of home. And suddenly quite dry and quite cold, my hair staticky and wild.

I climb my way past the rushing water as it thrusts itself out into raw space and disperses, misting me and warming my fingers. I’m sorry I had to waste the experiment’s water ration, but damned if I was going to die just to follow rules. The paperwork on this is definitely going to be a bitch, though.

I climb, raccoon-chested, up to the closest portal, cold seeping through my clothes again.  I key in the station’s access code and the seal opens. One hull walker and one terrified raccoon back in the real world. There’s a potted fern in the wall recess of the seal, as per usual with the business district’s lobby spaces, but I’m unable to look at it without laughing. This tiny entryway is just looking too much like my home of the last few weeks. Just me, a racoon, a few sandwiches and one too many plants. I slap the button to seal me in and open the door. No damned codes. Thank the gods!

The door hisses open, and the raccoon instantly jumps off me, running away into the station. Well that’s gratitude for you.

There’s no one at all in the lobby. I’ve never seen an empty hall this big. What the hell?

I walk through to the far end, dread building up in me. Where is everyone?

As I open the door at the far end, to the section L communications center, I see ten people lined up. Oh, thank the many gods. I leave the door wide open as I run in. I drop to my knees and cry-laugh for a moment, tears unstoppable. I’m just so glad to see people that I don’t even care how I look to them.

I am so tired now, I sink to the floor.  Ty comes over, looking concerned. “Are you okay?” He says, faintly, as darkness swims in front of my eyes.  What’s Ty doing here? I realize that the other people here are all uniforms, related to the isolation test.

The brass crowd around me. The oldest one pipes up, loudly, “Well done, hull walker sixth class. You just became a surface walker second class. You passed the raccoon test. And you’re the only one who did it without killing themselves or the raccoon, so that means mission captain, and a skipped class. Congratulations, citizen!” He pins something sharp to my breast.

What the hell was the point of that? I want to ask, but am just too fatigued. As I nod my acceptance, eyes half-closed, down on the soft blessedly dirtless carpet, I turn my head, absently scanning for the countdown clock. I roll my eyes at my pointless habit again.

No way. Against the far wall, I see my raccoon friend, turning another sandwich in his hands, nibbling on the corner. I can’t help it, I crack up.

“Must be emotional stress from the test,” the nearest officer says.

I’m drifting, but I hear Ty pipe in “…be fine in a few days, I’m sure…” I drape my tired hand across my chest, feel the sandwich pocket, unlocked. Two sandwiches left. I pull them out and toss them to Ty and the bigwigs. I am way too tired to eat, but gods be damned if I am giving them to that damn raccoon.

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Eat or be Eaten by Désirée Matlock

Dedicated to Patrice Gutentag

They were already dead; they just didn’t know it yet.”

He shoved a few people out of his way, harder than he really needed, but the adrenaline of running all day was keeping him from moving the way he was used to. He picked up the pace, running faster and faster, weaving and ducking through bodies, both live and dead. New York streets were always full, but this was different. Everyone was just as panicked as he was.

Graduating Suma cum Laude at law school hardly mattered anymore. Captain of Debate hardly mattered. Being a middlingly well known member of the Hamptons club hadn’t helped him. His brief but successful run at politics had failed to make any kind of difference under these unique circumstances. Not when the rest of the his Ivy League friends were dead or worse. Even Blanchard, whom he knew full well was better than he was at everything. And even his looks wouldn’t help now. Being tall, dark, and handsome just made him a bigger target. And being the second-youngest partner ever at DC+H was less than useless after the company folded. Well, the whole building had folded. With him nearly in it. At least one part of his youth was still relevant, and he blessed it. Medalling in track. He ran, curled the corner faster than anyone else on the street, certainly faster than the woman with her infant that he knocked down. As he ran, he contemplated his choices. There were three behind him, all distracted for now on other members of the hoi polloi. And there was apparently nothing happening in that alley behind the busted fire escape, it seemed. He sprinted as fast as he could before they spotted him.

This isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. His father’s voice rang in his ears, mocking him as always. Possibly, he thought, but I’m guessing it won’t last that long. We don’t seem to be surviving this one, pops. The imaginary dad in his head snorted, and swirled his scotch. His real father was in Long Beach, and before the news cut out, he’d heard it was obliterated. His father would have stayed on the burgundy leather settee, asking his mom for a scotch neat, legs crossed, the points in his suit crisp and sharp and cordial while death rained down on them both.

J.J. Patridge II, Attorney at Law, made it to the alley just in time to probably not have been spotted. He saw two dumpsters, both full to brimming, like bookends on the hell that was the rest of the alley. A large pile of people must have all jumped from the building above, before its partial collapse. He dodged behind the dumpster on the right and rolled under it in one liquid motion.

He peeked from his hiding place into the street beyond. I’ll be damned if I didn’t make it all the way from the Upper West Side to the Flatiron building, he thought smugly to himself. That’s quite a distance for not having competed in over ten years now.

He looked across the alley to the other dumpster and saw a young child hiding the way he was. Except apparently, it felt safer than he did, because despite squeezing a hideously ugly doll hard enough to pop off the head, the child was asleep, breath slow and calm, seemingly untroubled despite all this goings on. He considered trying to rest. After all, he was going to die just as surely as she was.

Alien invasion, the ultimate equalizer, he mused, and then snorted. He knew he needed to stay quiet, but he couldn’t quite shut his thoughts down. He touched his forehead to the cool, pebble-strewn ground below him and shut his eyes. He needed to plan.

Six minutes later, no particular plan seemed to be forthcoming, and he was ready to call himself stumped. He wished Maryellen was there to advise him, but he’d watched her beautiful golden tresses scatter to the floor with the rest of the people in the hallway when the building collapsed. The loss of the firm’s best paralegal mind, in the form of his secretary, was harder to take than the rest of this day’s tragedies for him.

His wrist beeped, with the sound of a notification. The normally comforting sound of getting a text message was terrifying right now. He scooted his arm forward , and crunched himself up to look down at his gold-banded smartwatch. Dammit, covered in blood from when a random taxi driver had tried not to evaporate into mist. His whole suit was covered in blood, and now also in the sludge that oozed from the corner of the dumpster, the only remaining sign that everything had been normal only hours earlier. He pushed his hand and wrist in under his suit, almost as though he were trying to pull out his wallet, and wiped the screen up against a clean area of his white 100% Egyptian cotton linen suit shirt. What a terrific waste. He pulled his arm out and stared down at the screen at the notification.

Eleanor    4:12pm

Honey? What’s happening? Are you safe?

He’d remembered earlier to set his phone to silent, but not the smartwatch. Dammit. He was cursing under his breath, and trying to change the settings to silent, when he was unceremoniously yanked out from under the dumpster. The creature looked at him through his large reflective mask. He hadn’t been this close to one of them, of course, but even through the terror, he noticed that it was almost like there was nothing to see behind the semi-reflective mask. Where was its head? What was that writing along the bottom of the visor?

His sheer terror and the volley of questions he suddenly had kept him from realizing for a moment that he wasn’t instantly dead. And the creature looked inquisitive rather than violent.

“Can I help you?” the lawyer said. The mask of the creature scrolled two lines across his visor. One line was totally incomprehensible, not even readable. The second line read, “How can I stay alive right now?”

Unfamiliar words came out from behind the mask. “Are you competent with intercourse?” came out in an atonal electronic voice which he assumed was the translator.

“Possibly.” He looked confused. The creature looked away for a moment, but before it did, the second line of the visor scrolled to read, “Be careful. Does it want sex?”

The creature made a noise that sounded like a barking jet, and then spoke again in guttural noises. The electronic voice translated, “Not sex. Discourse, communication.”

The lawyer nodded. “Very.” The creature’s mask faced him, and the scrolling words read, “Top of my mother fucking class in debate and politics, you bet your ass. Oh fuck, I think that text is my thoughts. Yes, look there it is. Oh fuck. I hope I stay alive.”

“That skill is necessary to me. You will not die at this moment. Walk.” J.J. was remarkably buoyed at the news, and his thoughts scrolled across the screen while he congratulated himself and then told himself to shut up.

After the rest of an exhausting day spent assisting negotiations between the UN and the creatures, he was ready to drop. Head lolling, he was carted away and shoved into a dull grey box where he curled up and slept for an hour before he woke again and remembered the sleeping child and thanked his stars he hadn’t thought about her during the day, or she’d be dead. He thought about all the things he hadn’t thought about that day, and hoped he could keep from thinking about what he’d learned over years working with DC+H as legal counsel to the world’s largest private military concern, or all that negotiation would be for nothing. He fell back to sleep for only a few seconds.

His watch vibrated, just as the door opened unexpectedly.

Eleanor    2:37am

Jimmy? I’m so worried. I’m holed up in Arlene’s bunker. Are you safe?

God, how could he have forgotten about his wife?

Come with us,” the automated voice was too loud in this room, assaulting his ear drums. He looked up, noting a small change. There was now a strange rainbow bubble perched center chest, facing him. It was somehow obvious that it was a weapon of pain.

“Fuck, I’m dead,” Jimmy thought as he watched his thoughts scroll across the visor. His captor sniffed, thoughts as inscrutable as ever.

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