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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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The Syndicate by Alanna J. Rubin

For Unknown –

He opened his eyes slowly, the sting from the fall still throbbing at the back of his head. “Hurry,” he thought. “I have to recall the incident.” The portal started closing.

Aaron watched as the edges of the portal drew together toward its center, leaving no trace of its existence, taking with it the last flicker of memory of where he was and why he was here. He found himself hoping that whatever it was would come back to him. In the meantime, Aaron was surrounded by nothing but dirty gray concrete walls.

Damn, he thought to himself. Aaron sluggishly got to his feet and dusted off his black pants trying, without much success, to ignore the pain in his head while looking for a way out. He wandered the maze like halls, which all looked the same. The only sources of light were cast from dim yellow bulbs evenly spaced every few feet along the ceiling.

After what seemed like hours of aimless walking, he was starting to wonder if he’d ever make it out, so he was both elated and on high alert when he heard voices up ahead. He crept along slowly and hid himself behind a pillar just outside the entrance to a room where he saw an exceptionally beautiful woman with long red hair wearing some sort of leather armor. Whoever she was talking to was out of view and they appeared to be arguing. However, their hushed tones made it impossible to make out what they were saying. That became the least of his concerns when he heard the hammer of a gun being pulled back and the weight of its barrel pressed against the back of his head.

“Get up…slowly,” the menacing masculine voice demanded. Aaron didn’t have any viable options, so he complied. As he stood up and attempted to turn around, his captor ensured that he remained facing forward and forcibly marched him into the small room. At least that’s what it was a moment ago, but Aaron now found himself standing in the middle of an opulent throne room and seated upon the silver throne was a familiar looking woman with short dark hair and eyes the color of the sea during a storm. She looked at him slack mouthed and rose to her feet. She was slender, but wore the same kind of leather armor as her associate.

“Aaron,” she breathed. “Is it really you?”

“Yes,” he responded. “It’s good to see you, Miri.” He could not help the wide smile that broke out across his face.

“Brother,” she exclaimed, running over and embracing him as if they were children again. She pulled far enough back to look him in the eyes, the spitting image of her own. “But how? I thought you were dead.” Her look of confusion was understandable. Aaron also thought he should be dead, but fate had other plans. “That’s a story for another time.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked.

“That’s a good question. I can’t remember and I didn’t even know where I was until I saw you,” Aaron replied.

Miri looked at him quizzically then asked, “Do you trust me?”

“Unconditionally.”

Miri gently pulled Aaron’s head down so that their foreheads made contact. “Open your mind to me,” she commanded and Aaron obeyed. It was a strange sensation as Miri’s consciousness surfed his memories. She saw his capture in the hallway, his wandering the maze like halls, his fall from the portal and…Miri let go with a gasp and Aaron’s eyes went wide as his memories came flooding back.

“What?!” she asked.

“You’ve been framed for the chancellor’s murder,” Aaron said worriedly.

“I saw that myself, but why?”

“Callum,” the weight of the name hung in the air. “He still considers you a threat to his power. He wants you out of the way, so…”

Miri interrupted to finish Aaron’s sentence for him, “So he can become the next chancellor, unchallenged.”

“That’s the short of it, but I came here to get you out,” Aaron said with desperation. “The Syndicate is on its way along with Callum. He tried to wipe my memory before I could warn you and he almost succeeded too, if I hadn’t made my way through the portal. I knew you’d be able to pull my memories back, just like mother could. You’re so like her. She’d be proud to see the leader you’ve become.” Aaron squeezed Miri’s shoulder in pride and to share a moment of grief for their departed mother. He then moved to the center of the room and let his eyes focus on everything and yet nothing at the same time. His fingers created elaborate signs in a repeated order in an effort to call a portal into existence.

The ceiling shook as the Syndicate’s ships landed and the footsteps of the troops beat down in eerie uniformity. Miri looked up in worry, then over to her brother who seemed to be in a world unto himself. A wind formed in the room, whipping in circles around them as if they were in the center of a tornado, but the energy was sucked into the heart of the portal as it erupted into the room out of nowhere. Miri looked at Aaron in awe, “I’ve learned a thing or two since the last time we were together,” he said with a smirk.

“Clearly,” she replied impressed. “Erissa,” she called over to the red-headed woman. “Yuri,” to the man still holding the gun that was pointed to Aaron’s head earlier, “go,” she ordered. They both looked at Miri, then ran through.

Aaron, walked back over to Miri and took her hand, “This isn’t how I imagined our reunion,” he said.

“Well, you always did have a flare for the dramatic,” she replied light heartedly. They both ran into the portal just as the Syndicate came crashing in and it vanished before Callum, wearing his white captain’s uniform adorned with the silver emblem of the Syndicate, could follow. He clenched his fists in anger. This was far from over.

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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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Software Update by Anne Cargile

Chris Hamilton:  I got nothing.  Actually I got less than nothing.

…Ginny thought. The computer update was not going according to plan. It had taken what felt like hours waiting for the all of the updates to just to download, and then another interminable length of time watching the little hourglass spin and rotate, spin and rotate. She hated that hourglass.

When the monitor finally whirred and she heard the signature reboot sounds, Ginny looked at her screen, then over to the replicator. The replicator was making some strange flashes. Ginny tapped the escape key, but of course nothing happened. The replicator shouldn’t have been doing anything; she’d just been doing a software update for crying out loud. The replicator was making more noise and she started to get worried.

Just then Joe walked in to the lab, bumping into the tables as usual because he couldn’t get his head out of his VR glasses long enough to look where he was going. Ginny wrinkled her nose as him, knowing he wouldn’t see her expression anyway.

“Hey Joe?” she said, loudly.

“Whah,” he responded.

That was the thing, Ginny thought; he couldn’t even be bothered to pronounce the letter “T” on the end of words. She wondered what would happen if such a sound ever erupted out of his mouth. She had a feeling that would be a sign the world was about to end. As a lab boss, he left a lot to be desired and Ginny was frequently left on her own. She could  have been watching Oprah and eating bonbons and he probably wouldn’t even notice.

“Something’s wrong with this update and I can’t tell what it’s doing. Could you take a look?” she asked, politely. She was after all, only an intern.

“Sure. One sec.”

Joe came over and lifted his VR glasses off his face. He blinked rapidly, and Ginny almost giggled. The glasses had left a deep impression around his eyes, kind of like a snorkel mask. He looked rather silly. Joe leaned over so he could read the text scrolling on her computer screen. His face paled, which was a feat, given how pale he was already.

“What the fuck did you do?” he asked, each syllable pronounced emphatically. “You asked the replicator to make 10 million daffodils?” he screamed.

“No I didn’t, I swear,” Ginny cried out in horror. “I just ran the updates you asked for!”

Joe wasn’t listening as he frantically typed away on the keyboard, with little apparent result. The replicator in the corner started puffing and shaking a little. Since the machine was the size of a walk-in freezer, this was more than a little alarming. Ginny ran over, thinking maybe she could unplug something to make it all stop when the door to the replicator popped open and a flood of yellow daffodils came pouring out.

Ginny never knew daffodils by the thousands could be so heavy as she clawed her way to the top of the pile. Taking a deep breath as she broke through, she looked around for Joe and saw him a few feet away, no longer white, but a pasty yellow from all the pollen.

“Maybe we can donate the flowers to the local hospital,” Ginny said softly.

Joe just glared at her.

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