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Never and Nowhere by Nicole DragonBeck

For Felix, who is one of my favorite people in the universe, and not only because he gives me marvelous story starters.

“P.S. I love you all” read the typeset note in her hand. Hopefully it would be enough of a clue to find out who she was – and how she died.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Katie said aloud, and turned it over to see if there was anything written on the back. “And I know who I am, thank you very much.”

The paper was blank, only the faint tracery of the letters “lla uoy evol I .S.P” showing through from the other side.

Katie sighed and sat down on the vast white ground under her, which stretched away forever, or perhaps it became walls which went up and up to a ceiling far over head, but it all looked white to her.

“Why would I bring this with me?” she wondered. “Wouldn’t a knife or a rope or a fire starter be more useful?”

She sat there for quite a while puzzling over this, until she became frustrated, and then bored. For no other reason than it was something to do instead of sitting there, she got up and started walking.

Katie walked and walked through the whiteness, and several times she thought about changing direction, that there was nothing in front of her, but she pushed on. Just as she was about to give in to the desire to turn and head off in a tangent, a black speck appeared in the distance.

Katie shielded her eyes and peered forward, but it remained no more than a black dot. She broke into a jog, and the dot grew, and grew, until she could tell it was a person, and then resolved some more until she came upon a very familiar face, although this one was scowling fiercely.

“Hi,” Katie said, looking down at Katie.

Katie looked up, and her scowl deepened. “What are you doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Katie admitted.

“This is going to get very confusing very quickly if we’re both Katie,” Katie snapped. “I’m Katie. You can be Katherine.”

“That’s a good idea,” Katherine said, and pushed blond hair behind her. “Do you know what this means?”

She held out the note to her counterpart on the floor.

“Why would I know that?” Katie said in a nasty tone. “You’re the one who’s got it.”

Katherine was going to answer, but a sound drew both their gazes.

“Did you hear that?”

“Of course I heard it. I’m not deaf.”

Katie scrambled up and started in the direction of the sound, and Katherine followed. They came upon a third person, who looked like the first.

“We’ll call her Kate, just to keep things simple,” Katie informed them.

“Are you always this bossy?” Katherine wondered.

“Who are you calling bossy, stupid?” Katie said.

Katherine pretended not to hear the insult, and looked at the person with their arms wrapped around their knees, making small frightened sounds as they rocked back and forth, eyes darting about.

“What’s wrong?” Katherine asked, putting a hand on the girl’s – Kate’s – shoulder.

Kate jumped and gave a startled shriek, looking at Katie and Katherine like they might eat her.

“It’s okay,” Katherine said in a soothing voice.

“Yeah, sure it is,” Katie butted in. “She looks real okay.”

Katherine was saved by a loud wail, and the three finally identified the sound they’d heard.

“That’s someone crying,” Katherine said.

“Oh, well done,” Katie clapped. “Where are you going?”

Katerine made her way farther into the whiteness and found a girl crying pitifully on the floor.

“Everyone, meet Kathy,” Katie waved her hand. “Aren’t we a great little group? Just missing the leper.”

The girl they’d dubbed Kathy was crying more now, loudly and messily, snot dripping down her chin.

“What’s the matter?” Katherine asked, and Katie snorted.

“Who cares? What are you going to do about it anyway?”

Kathy’s sobs increased in volume and frequency, and Katherine became alarmed that she might choke and asphyxiate herself. She knelt beside the crying girl and patted her shoulder.

“There, there,” Katherine said awkwardly, but her words only made Kathy cry harder. “It’s going to be okay…no, no, shh, now. Okay. Let’s just go this way and maybe there’s a way out.”

Katherine helped Kathy stand, and found a tissue in her pocket, which the other girl went through in two seconds and kept crying. They walked some more, Katherine mulling over her note, and keeping her eyes peeled for anyone else. She was rewarded a short time later when they happened across another one of themselves, standing there and staring down at her hands with an unblinking gaze, seeing nothing.

Kate wouldn’t look at the new girl and tried to hide behind Kathy, and Katie looked unimpressed. “Now you can ask what’s wrong, because there’s something definitely wrong with her. Her name is Mary, by the way.”

“Hi there,” Katherine said, ignoring Katie, and feeling a strange completeness now. “Do you know what this place is?”

“This is Never and Nowhere,” the fifth mumbled, her gaze not moving from her hands.

“How do we get out?” Katherine asked, pleased with the progress.

“You can’t,” the fifth said. “It’s no use. You’re trapped here forever.”

“This is ridiculous,” Katie grumbled. “I can’t take this anymore.”

Kathy started hiccuping along with her now silent sobs, eyes red and puffy.

This can’t be the way out. There’s no way the five of us are getting out of here like this, Katherine thought. It’s too complicated. It has to be simple. Katherine looked down at the note – P.S. I love you all – and then up at the group of people clustered here. Simple enough to write in in five words.

“P.S. I love you all.”

“What?” Katie snapped, as tears started pouring down Kathy’s face. Mary just stood there as if she hadn’t heard.

“I love you all,” Katherine repeated and knew how to get out of this Never and Nowhere. “I love you all.”

“No you don’t,” Mary mustered the energy to say. “Love isn’t real.”

“I love you all.”

“You’re lying!” Katie shouted, her face going red as a vein pulsed in her temple.

“I love you all,” Katherine said simply and knew it was true.

The white began to crumble around her with great crashes and shakes.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Kate said, her eyes darting about. “What’s going to happen to us?”

“I love you all,” Katherine said to herself and let the note fall from her grip.

Somewhere else, in a place that was Sometime, a real place with color and motion and good things, Katie opened her eyes.

 

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Translation Errors by Brandon Scott

For Jerrod Ruble, who thought this was going to be a different story.

“Dale pues, y en donde queda la persona?”

“I’m sorry. What was that?” Xin asked. “Is that…what is that?”

The creature, a ten-foot-tall green ape, cocked its head and fiddled with his small plastic-looking oval on his hairy chest. He pressed his long fingers against the surface, trying to bring it back to working order.

After a moment, a spark erupted from the surface of it, and the ape cleared his throat. “I was asking you to give me the location of your colleague, more or less. The translator is remarkably not tuned today.”

Xin considered this, thinking as a huge ship flew overhead. The spaceport was never a quiet place, not conducive to higher brain function activities, but he had to make the sale one way or the other. Paying for the stuff back at the casino was imperative.

“He’s not around now.”

“Well, clearly,” the ape said. “Hence why I asked.”

“No, I mean—” Xin cleared his throat and wondered how screwed this would get for him. A Upernit like this one, while not a meat-eating species, was not a person he wanted pissed off.

“I mean he is not alive anymore.” Xin glanced at something but saw something else entirely. A few memories flashing in his eyes. “He did not survive the last trip. The one to get these.”

And, on the word “these” he opened his pack and withdrew a solid mass of quartz-like material. All jagged and producing a faint light. It was eerie and hard to stare at, like the sight of it might make you go mad from the sheer gall of viewing.

The alien appraised it, but did not blindly grab—he was no fool. There was a reason that it was in a reinforced bag—and that Xin held it so gingerly. The air could burn like ignited methane if those things got aggravated.

“And what happened to him, what became of—”

The machine on his fur sparked, and what came out of his mouth next was a language of guttural shouts and oddly sensual hisses. Also, a good amount of phlegm. Unfortunately, Xin didn’t understand such a tongue without a working translator.

The alien gestured at the material and mimed for Xin to give it to him. Xin shook his head and held out a demanding hand. Cash first, then the ape got his crystals. And even then, Xin planned to track the Upernit for a few miles. See what a creature like him wanted with a power source like that. Certainly, not for travel like he’d said in the order. Space fuel, though not always cheap, was easy to find. The crystal was more conducive to torture or genocidal purposes.

At the impudence, the ape got pissed and reached for the leather-like belt around his waist, drawing a long-barreled silver pistol. Xin recognized the model, old but reliable.

Xin’s gun was not so old. In one motion, he flipped open a pouch and drew out the boxy pistol with a large handle. It dwarfed his hand and could take the ape and send his blood all the way up to the stratosphere if Xin pulled the trigger.

The ape stopped taking out his own weapon and stared at the grill of the gun, nose drawn open and flared—a signal of panic and fear for his species.

Xin tried to hit the Upernit’s communication device with the side of his hand, tried to get the translator working. When that failed, he stepped back and tilted the weapon for the ape to deal with the device himself.

A sound to the side caught both of their attention, and Xin glimpsed a few men and women of different races now looking at the spectacle with interest. Xin had chosen somewhere quiet and unpopulated for this meeting, but apparently, any part of the city didn’t stay that way for long.

The ape got the device back to a functioning, if still sparking, state.

“We had a deal,” he growled.

“You’re right, we do. But I need my payment for this. I need to get off the planet—I imagine at least.”

The ape’s hair bristled, the implications of that pretty clear. The reaction was all Xin needed to be sure of his intentions. The Upernit reached down on his belt, opposite to the pistol, and drew out a sack made of basic animal skin.

“Here,” the ape said, the coins inside the bag clinking. “This is what we agreed to, right?”

Xin was not dumb, he kept the gun on the ape. “You count them out for me, okay? I want to be sure that I got what I wanted—”

The bag of coins was not full of coins. Instead: rocks. And those hit right in Xin’s face. The ape, being about twice as strong as a human male, snatched the crystals—risking his hand—and shoved the man backward.

Xin stumbled and pulled the trigger on his gun. And damn did it kick and roar in his hand. The people around staggered, covering their ears, as a huge energy blast spewed forth from the barrel and made the air ripple with purple death.

The building behind, the entire edge of it, sheared off and atomized.

But the shot still missed, and the ape ran with huge pounding steps, going around the corner, brushing past the watchers. Xin ran after him, waving his gun around. The onlookers gave him a wide birth. He sprinted harder, watching as the mammoth ape took a running jump up to a second-floor windowsill and swung further upward. The action should have disturbed the crystals, but considering the ape did not turn to ash and drift down slowly, along with the city block, it appeared he had a gentleness in his motions.

Xin debated following further but instead did a quick calculation in his head. He ran off the opposite way, and past the group of onlookers again. As he did, one of them—a shadow-like being—opened its fanged maw and uttered noises. Noises failing to sound like the intended English.

Xin kept on running, somewhat glancing back, trying to parse what he was saying, when a truck, the truck the alien had been trying to tell him about, smashed into the front of him and sent him careening backward with a burst of blood and broken bones. He managed to remain conscious as all the other people screamed around him.

The man looked down at the gun he had been holding and saw smoke emanating off the wide barrel. A blast used to full effect.

It was then, as a second thing to notice, Xin got that the truck that hit him was gone, as was most of the surrounding street. The only remaining driver, a small flamingo-like being, stood on shaking legs and yelled into a communication device. When Xin moved, even in a totally not meant to be threatening way, the being ran off in a panic.

Xin could not blame it for that. But he felt less compassionate when he discovered, in a matter of moments apart from each other, that he could not get up, and that the police were on their way. Several cars coming around, lights blaring.

The hover cars dropped onto the seared ground, and out of the first, came a few members of the native species. An aggressive, large-eyed, thin-bodied creature with long limbs. They held guns on Xin, and walked up to him, staring with fractured kaleidoscope eyes.

The front one, who lowered his gun, tried to say something to him. Came off as a balloon leaking hard consonants at the rhythm of a tribal drum.

Xin smiled weakly, “I speak English? Any variant you might like? I can do Interstellar British?”

The alien police officers looked at each other and said something else in their native tongue. Xin did not understand what any of it meant. They pulled out handcuffs, and Xin winced.

“Hey, you might want to get off this planet; a terrorist just made off with bombs.”

Of course, the one English word that the aliens understood was “terrorist,” and the guns remained on him with renewed vigor.

“Typical,” Xin said and wondered how long it would take them to realize they would have to drag his crippled body to the station.

Too long, he bet.

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Jumping Back by Nicole DragonBeck

For Desi, thank you for the abundance of Starters for my round three of SMFS (yes, I’ve been doing it that long), I think it is fitting that this one is last ❤

What kind of disturbed mind would have created the sight before my eyes and why?

Dystrin took a moment he did not have to gaze with unveiled shock and disgust at the painting in front of him. Some fanatic of the neo-Neoclassic had poured his heart and soul into the canvass, and that just made Dystrin sadder. Whatever happened to the magic of capturing beauty and truth with the paint and brush? How did it come to this confused effort to impress with an pseudo-erudite aloofness?

The so-called work of art was a dissonant riot of stark lines that did not touch or align at any point, against a thundercloud of splotches painted by someone who used a color wheel as a dartboard and threw blindfolded. Dystrin’s mind, so attuned to the melding of color and shape to create a likeness of what is and capture the magic within spaces and objects, had trouble comprehending how a mind that would make this could function.

The sound of footsteps echoing in the dark recesses of the museum drew Dystrin’s gaze to the vast space behind him, and reminded him that he did not have time to be critiquing each painting as he went. He needed to find a specific one and jump back.

He ran through marble halls, trying to keep his own footsteps from giving him away, but it was hard on the polished floors. At last he came to the wing of old paintings, the ones with real magic, old magic that the painters of this day and age could only touch upon and dream about.

Here, everything was hushed by thick velvet curtains. At least the curators gave these paintings the respect they deserved, and instead of crowding them together like peasants in front of a street stage, each was given its own wall, and a single light above each haloed the painting with a soft glow.

It was even harder for Dystrin to restrain his urge to stop and gaze at these, with wonder and reverence this time, but he really needed to get back before they caught him. It would be difficult to explain his presence here, and he had none of those all-important pieces of plastic identification that they loved so much.

He could move faster here because the plush carpet swallowed his footsteps, and he quickly reached the end of the wing, where the painting he sought lay displayed on a tiered dais guarded by diamond columns. But as Dystrin’s eyes traveled the length of the great painting like a lover’s caress, his heart sank. No, it can’t be!

He looked deeper, blue eyes probing the visible, and the invisible, trying to find the pull of the magic, but it was flat and empty. To the eye, it may have been identical, but he did not look with only his eyes. They’d switched it out with a replica. The original was probably somewhere in the vaults under lock and key. Leaving Dystrin stranded here.

He glanced around with wild eyes, heaving great gulps of air as he considered his options, trying to quiet the panic in his mind as the guards with their dogs came closer. He looked up, left with only one choice. He was going to have to choose one of the others, and then somehow, figure out how to jump back here and get to his painting. It was a frightening concept, not the least because no one had ever been known to do that, but better to be stuck there than caught by the men here.

Some of the paintings here were still originals, he could feel it, and Dystrin thanked whatever gods watched over this place for that. It seems people get stingy with beauty when they forget how to make it. The first three paintings he passed as he backtracked were empty forgeries, and while the fourth pulsed with magic, the scenery was a vast and stormy sea, lightning illuminating the silhouette of a lone ship. He was willing to take a risk, but he was not suicidal. The next six were no good either, and just as Dystrin was starting to think of a back-up plan for his back-up plan, he found one.

It was quiet and soothing, drawing the eyes in to the detail with the promise of treasure in the subtle lines and carefully placed colors. The forest opened to a grassy hill, and at the top was a fortress beautiful in its simplicity. This one will do.

The lights of the guards’ torches flashed erratically in the darkness, illuminating walls and arches and then leaving them invisible an instant later. The dogs yipped and howled as they sensed their quarry nearby.

Dystrin steeled himself, grabbed the gilt frame, and hauled himself into the painting. Space and time undulated past him, his eyes watered and his ears popped. Behind him, the light and sound from the other world faded as the one at the end of the tunnel grew more solid, until at last Dystrin stood among the trees he had been looking at just a moment before.

He looked behind him and saw a vague shape of a painting in the air, depicting a room in a museum, dark purple hangings protecting the precious art like a mother duck folding her ducklings underwing. As the portal faded, the image too would fade, until just the soft stirring of the leaves and the twitter of birds in the trees surrounded him.

And if the guards in the museum cared to look at the painting on the wall, they would see that a tall, lean figure with dark hair now stood among the trees, shrewd blue eyes gazing at them as a small smile played on his lips, taunting them by being right in front of them and totally out of reach.

But none of them looked, they just rushed by with their dogs. A moment later the dogs doubled back to where the scent was strongest and sat, tongues out, panting with satisfaction while the guards tried to get them to continue the chase. In the morning, when the first patrons of the day began to filter through the hallowed halls, the figure in the painting was long gone, leaving the little forest as empty as it had ever been.

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Caffeinated Anarchy by Brandon Scott

For Kalvin, I don’t think I know you, but I like the cut of your word-based jib.

We are all reasonable men, all. But for all reason there is an edge, and I am at mine.

And, of all the things to push me there, it’s the thing that—perhaps—at the end of the day, I always knew would be my trigger. And that is caffeine. Sweet, sweet coffee and caffeine.

And the edge is the barista.

And, though she would not know it, her words, in this moment, I’m sure, will make her a historical figure. Songs will mention her by name—if only because she bothered to wear a name tag this fateful day.

“Here’s your drink,” she says to me and smiles with a soft smile. She has this reddish-brown hair, and this freckle dusting on her nose, which I love.

But, I put the drink up to my mouth, and in a second I do not love her anymore. Not in the littlest bit. Through the faint slit in the cap, the liquid inside sloshes into my throat and spirals down.

The acrid taste of the lack of cream is on my tongue and I die inside. I just…die. I cannot. As I said, this is my edge. I’ve dealt with enough shit, enough scorn. I failed a test, not an hour before this—and I think my girlfriend is fucking my English teacher. Which means she’s bi, if not flat-out gay, and this will not stand any moment longer.

They said having a pocket knife in class was enough to get arrested. I do not doubt it, but I still pull out the sucker I’m always carrying, and before she can say anything to defend herself, I plunge the blade into her throat with a war cry of the ages.

“I asked for milk!”

She gasps and looks at me in what I hope is pure shame. I pray she understands what she did to me in her final moments as her blood trickles down over the counter and she falls with rolling-back eyes.

I turn on my retracting motion, throwing my coffee over the counter into one of the other baristas and finish rotating to stare at the line behind me.

Standing there, as expected, is many other twenty-somethings: my people. And they have the glazed over expressions of people still in shock. My shirt is sticking down with blood, and I’m still gripping the offending knife.

I drop the knife and hold up both hands to curtail the incoming screams. I could just tell from the air they were coming.

“Okay,” I say, and my confidence surprisingly rises, “I know what you must think, but I have something to say.”

A pause and the woman in front of me has her mouth shrink back from a gasp to a neutral expression and cocks her head. The other people pause, looking confused.

“Well, okay then: explain,” she says.

I breathe out, nice and slow. “Alright, she gave me the wrong coffee, I asked for cream because straight black coffee is disgusting.”

“So, you killed her?” came another person’s response. “That seems like an overreaction.”

I narrow my eyes as all these things I’ve always wanted to say bubble to the surface. The cops will be here, no doubt, in the next minute. But I need to get this all off my chest.

“Yes, I did kill her. And you want to know why? Because that’s what the response should be! How many annoying people are there? Have you seen the people trickling into the newest classes at schools? It’s a fucking zoo! I say, that we, as millennials, have the right to murder those who offend us, even when it’s only a little bit.”

“What about safe spaces?” asks a familiar voice, coming from the back. Kallie, my literature sucking girlfriend, walked in during my speech and now she stood with her overalls and fedora.

I sigh and nod my head. “Yeah, obviously, we honor safe spaces. That just makes sense, but what I mean is…”

“Should we kill, like, equally?” Kallie chimes back into the conversation I’m having with my mob. “Like, we should honor women by murdering them more, or less? And what about, like debates…?”

With a skill, a skill I did not know I knew, I flick the blade through the crowd, nearly hitting a random dude with dreadlocks, before it plunges into Kallie’s forehead and sinks deep. She shudders and falls over, and the others clear to give her body some space.

Another long silence, and I hold out my arms, before looking back to step into the now empty—but full of the blood from the other girl I killed—main coffee-making space.

And I spread my arms out even further and smile. “Do you see what I mean! Is that not liberating? This is awesome!”

Another pause, and during it, I turn and add some cream to a straight black coffee, just like I like it. I add caramel sauce, since I can, and drain it in one gulp.

“This is the future. Am I right or am I right?”

One guy answers with a question. “Do we get to have free coffee too?”

I place my hands together and nod. Looking like I’m praying. “Oh yes. All you can drink. Let’s raid this place!”

The front girl smiles and bops her head. “Yeah, okay, yeah! This is perfect! Let’s do this!”

I pump my fist above my head and laugh. “Yeah, this is a perfect idea! Let’s go, let’s go! Coffee!”

The entire crowd cheers so damn loud. They make me almost deaf with the din of them, and I step back, taking with me another cup of coffee, as they stream into the space, fighting for the caramel.

I keep stepping back, going outside, and I feel impressed as my phone vibrates with more and more updates. Apparently, someone in the coffee shop recorded my revolutionary speech and posted it online.

The video went viral already, and my accounts are lit.

I slurp down my coffee and realize what this could all mean. What I could now do, as the world saw all I’d done, all I’d showed as the truth. Anything was possible now.

So, I figure I’ll go kill my English teacher before finals. And make sure not to piss off anyone in the process. After all, they had the right to plug me in the face same as I’d do to them.

I may now be a wanted criminal, and somewhat soon, probably, a starter of a murder horde and genocide, but that did not mean I was a hypocrite. No, never that.

I have my standards.

 

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Xs & Os by Nicole DragonBeck

For Kalvin, thank you for leaving out all the forty-two dollar words 🙂

Imagine my surprise when, upon answering a midnight call, I was greeted by my own voice.

“This is going to be a short story, because I don’t have much time and the universe is conspiring against me even as I speak. It’s cold here, in this other place with no time, but there’s a warmth to it as well.”

My voice sounded strange to my own ears, more so than usual. I sounded older, more worn. My skin prickled, and I fought the urge to slam the receiver down. Ignorance is bliss. But some inner strength made me listen further, a strength I suspected the person on the other end of the receiver knew a lot more about than I did.

“There are many steps between where you are now, and this place that is your fate. Someone is coming for you, someone you should listen to. Running is pointless. They will follow you and there is nothing you could do about. I already know what you’re thinking…”

This is crazy, nothing in the future is set. My actions will determine your face.

“This is cray, nothing in the future is set, but your actions will not determine your fate. Your fate has already been determined, but others of far greater power than yourself. They are the called the Dorfrenti, or the Faceless Ones, depending on who you ask.”

The name sent shivers down my spine, sending cold pools of ice settling in my stomach. Somewhere, in some other universe, I knew that I had come across these Faceless Ones. And it didn’t turn out too well for me. The thought came out of nowhere and hit me harder than a punch. A squeal from the recording rang in my ears then a painful tightening in my chest made me gasp. It was like some invisible hand had reached through my ribs and was squeezing my heart. For a second I was afraid I was going to die, then it eased up and I could breath again. The ringing in my ears faded, but my head pounded as if I had run a mile in the sun. I had to rewind the recording because I hadn’t heard it.

“They have powers that you cannot imagine, and if you go with them, you can learn the most wonderful things. Things of magic”

Another harsh whine spat from the machine, and the squeeze in my chest came again. Pain blurred my vision. Before everything went black, whatever it was let go of me, and I clutched at the bench. It took every ounce of my strength to remain upright. The words the voice was still speaking, but the words washed over me, meaningless.

“…that’s all I have to say, except one last warning. Don’t trust anyone, except yourself. No one is who they say, and nothing is what it seems. And whatever you do, do not follow the Xs and Os.”

The recording whirred and clicked and the fell silent. I was tense, waiting for another wave of pain. It didn’t come, but suddenly a heavy fog of fatigue descended, and I felt like I wanted to sleep for a month. This was too much for so early on a Sunday.

Trust no one. That wasn’t very helpful. And what about those Faceless Ones, the ones whose real name made my skin crawl – I couldn’t face these Faceless Ones on my own. I wasn’t that smart, or that brave, or that powerful. Trust no one. Then another thought came: does that mean I can’t even trust myself?

A shadow moved past the door, and my heart leaped to my throat and began pounding. Was it the Faceless Ones, come already? The shadow paused, the letter box rattled, and a white envelope shot out. I stood frozen, watching the shadow, then in a blink it was gone. In shaking steps, I moved to the door, and picked up the letter. Inside the envelope was one sheet of paper, with a simple message, written in a hand I knew better than anyone else’s, because it was mine.

Follow the Xs and Os.

 

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Snakes on The Brain by Brandon Scott

For Kevin, a man of deep conversations. I hope you like this story that went way off the rails.

Hiss!

Jerald’s eyes darted left, and then right, and then back to his dinner date. “Did you hear that?”

Destiny looked up from her desecrated lobster and wiped off her hands with a small moist towelette. She pursed her lips and looked also in the same directions as Jerald.

“What do you mean? It’s loud in here. Which sound?”

“It was um…”

Jerald became aware, more aware anyway, of the group of people sitting near him. The restaurant was packed with patrons for the day. Each of the circular tables held two people, and each table was only given enough space so that moving back a chair would not result in a collision.

Jerald leaned forward, and Destiny dutifully followed along, leaning over her lobster, and her dark hair touched the butter sauce and clung to a bit of it.

“It was a hissing,” Jerald whispered.

Destiny also whispered back. Though not in nearly as stealthy of a way. “Like what? Like a snake?”

“Yeah…” Jerald said, worrying about fangs biting into his foot at any moment. “I think it might be one.”

“That’s silly,” Destiny said, leaning back and addressing her loaded mashed potatoes with the gusto of a prostitute hired to have a dinner date with an awkward rich guy.

“You’re being silly,” she added.

Jerald briefly wondered who used the word “silly” anymore—before shaking his head to clear the thought. “No, I’m serious. It sounded just like a snake was here. Right around us. Don’t move your feet.”

“How would it get in here?” Destiny said and gave a cursory glance at her high-heeled limbs. Nothing there, of course. She did not expect there to be.

“I don’t know…someone’s pet?”

“Look, sir. I don’t know why you want there to be a snake. But if that’s what you want, I can play along. But don’t introduce roleplay without some warning.”

“That’s not…I am not going to deal with that right now. I really do think there is a snake. Should I… I don’t know, tell the waiter or something?”

“Well, don’t scream ‘snake’. That’s for sure.”

“Duh,” Jerald said and glanced around again. “But I need to do something about it. It is imperative.”

“Impera—what now? Look: let me eat, and then I can come with you out of the snaky restaurant, and you can do what you want to me for a night. That’s what you paid for, and what I came for.”

Jerald lost his paranoia for a moment as the promise of that very purchase’s outcome flashed to his head—but he was sure of the serpent. And when he opened his mouth to say something: the universe deemed him worthy enough to give confirmation to his concern.

The person eating next to them—a woman with a purse full of dog and earrings threatening to rip off the cartilage—screamed and shuddered before falling flat on her face into her soup. Cream of mushroom to be precise.

The liquid dripped around the porcelain rim and a loud hiss thrummed the air.

Several people screamed, and Jerald pulled up his feet.

“I told you! Oh God, that poor woman!”

“Poor woman?! What the shit is a snake doing in this place?” Destiny said, drawing up her feet and grasping for the lobster cracking tool with intent to defend herself if necessary.

“I don’t know! I don’t know!” Jerald shouted as everyone shouted. The waiters were calling on their cell phones, people were moving onto tables. One daring son-of-a-bitch went fully rogue and leaped from top to top in some vain hope of making it to the door—when there was at least a six-foot gap of open space there right at the end before the mahogany portal.

Jerald composed himself again, more frayed this time. “Okay, here’s what I think. We can wait it out, right? It’s not like it can go up a table. We just sit up in our chairs.”

Two tables away, an elderly man with a half-finished roast in front of him shuddered and uttered a sound before dropping into his meal. The woman across from him screamed before tipping out of her chair with a spasm.

Destiny screamed and someone pulled the fire alarm.

Water, buckets of the stuff, descended from on high to soak everyone. A million dollars plus in clothing all became what all clothes really are: lumps of fabric to cover nudity.

Destiny looked at her lobster in dismay, and her hair flopped down on her as the chemicals holding them up broke under the torrent. Her eyes covered, she shoved the locks aside with a look of pure annoyance.

“I am never going with you again. Get a different whore.”

“If we live,” Jerald said, “I will.”

Ten tables off, another dropped from a bite, and no one knew what to do about it anymore—if they ever did. Something about a snake and death made everyone lose their collective common sense.

But Jerald, Jerald did what any brave man should, he looked around and spotted the incoming black slithering monster, and hurled his steak knife with a shriek two octaves higher than any postpubescent man should be able to achieve.

The snake was apparently rather tender as the knife severed it cleanly. A few drops of blood dripped from the dead serpent, and the water continued to pour—washing the liquid away.

“It is dead!” Jerald proclaimed, and in the rain, the others cheered. Except for Destiny, who booked it out of there, clutching her purse containing her payment, even if she’d planned to weasel some more free stuff out of her date. But not dying was good enough—and the dude was probably awful in bed, anyway.

“The snake is dead!” Jerald said and repeated it a few times. Until he heard a scream in a familiar voice.

Destiny had the door open and was now stepping backward from it, into the restaurant, with her hands on her chest and yet another scream stuck in her throat.

Streaming in, in waves and sheets, were more snakes than anyone could conceive of existing in the world. Each one with coal eyes, and flitting red tongues, and seeking a bite of the people who liked fancy food.

“Oh…” Jerald said. “Oh…the snakes are not dead.”

Off in the distance, came the sound of a firetruck running off the road, and then exploding, followed by a hiss so loud it may as well have been the only sound in the entire world.

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Liabilities of Language by Nicole DragonBeck

For Desi, from Story Starter number four.

I could not make any sense of her words.

The writing was formed by graceful, flowing script, unfaded despite the obvious age of the fragile paper Gelma held in her hands. The dialect was strange, and the grammar just a bit off, so Gelma often had to reread the sentences to make sure she had it right before she wrote down the translation. Concentration creased her forehead, and her mouth held tight, lips pressed together. The world faded, and only the ancient account had any force of reality.

The beautiful creature continued to speak to me, her words tumbling over one another, too fast for me to understand fully. She kept saying something about the golden crown, the golden crown. I held my hand up, trying to slow the rush, but she was too frightened to heed me.

Gelma sighed ,pulled her dark hair over her shoulder, and bent forward, her eyes beginning to pound as she glared at the paper with a predatory gaze, her fingers white around her pen, her hand slow and careful in the formation of common glyphs. The store of ancient scrolls, tomes, and scraps of paper had been found almost a year ago, and the best translators had been gathered from the four lands to decipher the wealth of knowledge.

Gelma had been working on this unbound sheaf of paper for two months. It appeared to be part of a journal. Markings at the top suggested a record of the date, or time passing, though she was still waiting for a mention of an eclipse or other significant event to correlate the marks to anything.

She was lost in the nuances of the next sentence – was that “will be destroyed” or “may have been destroyed”? – when an insistent knock interrupted her. She looked up to find a thin, awkward-looking young man with a shock of blond hair and a pen behind his ear glaring at her. A red band across his chest marked him as a messenger he ran dispatches between departments.

“What can I help you with, Murin?” Gelma asked, already turning back to the sentence she was working on.

“I’ve come from Liabilities,” he announced.

Gelma sighed. Liabilities of Language crosschecked the data and translations to find discrepancies. Gelma appreciated the importance of the department, but sometimes she wished they weren’t such a nuisance.

“What is it?”

“They want you to look at this piece-” he glanced down at the paper, “number twenty twenty four. There’s just one line,” he added helpfully.

Gelma sighed and waved her hand at him. “Give it here then.”

He gave her two sheets – the original and the translation. It was short, only seven lines.

“It’s the third line,” Murin said, peering over her shoulder.

“Thank you Murin,” Gelma said, reading and rereading the line.

It said the same thing each time. Over and under, up and down, it comes and goes, the golden crown. The translation said the same thing.

Gelma shrugged and handed the papers back to Murin. “Seems fine to me. What’s this about?”

“I’m sure I have no idea. You don’t think they actually tell me anything, do you?”

Gelma gave him a look. “I know you have ears and a brain between them.”

Murin looked pleased, and he leaned close to whisper to her. “If you want to know, I’m to take this to Sensitive if you confirmed the translation. They want anything to do with that phrase, the golden crown. Do you know what it means?”

Gelma shook her head. Sensitive was the department that handled anything that might dangerous, confidential, or more than unusually important for any reason. She didn’t really care for Sensitive any more than she cared for Liabilities. She liked her place here and the work she did.

“Well, off with you then,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll want it up there five minutes ago.”

Murin gave her a nod and rushed out of the room. Gelma turned back, reread the sentence she had been working on, and still couldn’t be sure about the tenses, so she determined to diagram it to be sure. No need to cause extra work for Murin or Liabilities.

 

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