“Élan Vital” by K. Tempest Bradford

Élan Vital

by K. Tempest Bradford
to the sound of “Rock Me To Sleep” by Jill Sobule…

This story appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.


For Marjorie; I still have that dream.

Elan Vital by K. Tempest BradfordTHE FEW MINUTES I had to spend in the Institute’s waiting room were my least favorite part of coming up to visit my mother.  It felt more like a dialysis room, the visitors sunk into the overly-soft couches and not speaking, just drinking orange juice and recovering.  There were no magazines and no television, just cold air blowing from the vents and generic music flowing with it.  I’d finished my juice and was beginning to brood on my dislike for overly air-conditioned buildings when my mother arrived attended by a nurse.

I kissed and hugged her, automatically asking how she was, mouthing the answer she always gave as she gave it again.

“I’m fine, same as always.”

It wasn’t strictly true, but true enough.

“Let’s go on out,” she said, shrugging off the nurse’s continued assistance.  “It’s too cold in here.”

Despite the hint, the nurse tried to help Mom over the threshold.  As always, she rebuffed any attempt to treat her like an old person.

“Where to today?” she asked, slipping her arm into mine as we escaped the frigid building.

“Just down to the lake,” I said.  “Don’t want to overexert you.”

She squeezed my arm as her feet slid carefully over the cobbled path.  I wanted her to use a wheelchair, or a walker, at least.  She wouldn’t.

“What you mean is that we haven’t got so much time today,” she said.

I shrugged instead of answering.  I didn’t want to go into why I couldn’t afford much this trip.

“Next time I’ll come for a couple of days, at least.  I promise.”

“No, that’s all right,” she said.  “I don’t like it when you spend so much for days and more.  A few hours is fine.”

I helped her past the immaculately landscaped gardens and small orchards.  The scent of flowers, herbs, and fresh-cut grass wafting at us in turn.  I glanced at the garden entrances as we passed by, catching quick glimpses of other people in the middle of visits.  A young couple who’d been in the waiting room with me knelt by a small, bald girl as she splashed in the koi pond.  Two elderly women stood under a weeping willow, their heads close, lips barely moving.  A large group of people speaking Mandarin milled around the waterfall in the rock garden.  I could still hear faint traces of their melodic din all the way down by the lake.

I preferred this spot—the flora was less regimented and more natural.  And no walls.  Just an open space, water gently flicking the shoreline, a beautiful view down the hill, and the occasional cat wandering by.

“This hasn’t changed much,” my mom said as I helped her down on one of the small benches by the water.  “I thought they were going to get ducks or geese or something.”

I chose a nearby rock for my own perch.  “I think they’re having trouble with permits or whatever you need nowadays.”

The wind kicked up, sending freckles of reflected light across her face.  Her skin was still perfect, beautiful and dark brown, though stretched across her cheekbones a little too tight.  I hated that I never had enough to restore her round cheeks and full figure.  I have to look at pictures just to remember her that way.

“You haven’t changed much, either,” she said while fussing with my hair.  I’d bought some dye the week before, knowing she’d notice it.  “How long has it been?”

“Three months.”

She let out a familiar sigh—part exhaustion, part exasperation, part sadness, I suppose.  “That’s too soon.”

“It’s your birthday, though.”

“Is it?  It’s fall already?”  She looked out over the small forest that edged the Institute’s boundary a few miles away.  The trees were still green with no hint of turning.  It always felt and looked like summer there; one of the reasons the administrators chose the location.  “I miss the seasons.  Fall colors, Christmas snow…”

“You never did when you had to shovel it.”

That got her to smile.

I reached out and held her hand; still a little cold even in the full sunlight.  “Besides, I missed you.”

“I know.  But…”

“And I won’t be able to come back until after the new year, anyway, so I wanted to squeeze in one more visit.  Since today is special…”

Years ago I used to bring her cake and presents on her birthday.  She couldn’t really eat the cake—one of the side effects of whatever they did when they brought her back.  The presents had to go back home with me since she didn’t have any place to put them and couldn’t wear clothing or jewelry once she went back to sleep.  I hated having to give that up, too.

“Okay, I’ll give you a pass this time.”  She kissed my cheek, seeming more like her old self.  “Where are you off to?”

“Rwanda.  For a dig.  Dr. Berman promised I’d be more than a glorified volunteer wrangler this trip.  And they want me for a year.  Still, I’ll try to come back and see you sooner than that.”

“No, you should concentrate on your work.  I’ll still be here.”  My mother never changed.

It was the same when she was sick.  I wanted to take a break from college and stay home with her.  It was pretty clear that her death was inevitable by that time, the only question being: how long?  I wanted to be with her, she wanted me back in class.  If you take a leave of absence you might never go back, she’d said.  So I went back.

“For me it’ll seem like you’ve gone and come back right away.”  Trying to reassure me again.

“I know,” I said.  “Must be strange, not being able to perceive the passage of time.”

We didn’t say anything for a while.  This was the part of the visit where one of us either addressed the elephant in the room or steered the conversation around it.

“At least I’m not as bad as Ella,” she said.  And we both laughed.

My aunt, her older sister, was so notorious for being late that we started her funeral a few hours behind schedule because it just felt right.  My cousin Brandon joked that we should have carved an epitaph on her headstone: “I’ll be back in five minutes.”

“Remember the time she was supposed to pick me up from rehearsal or something?”

“And you waited for her, caught the bus, and was home before she’d even left the house!”

Mom kept me laughing for a long time, recounting trips she’d taken with Ella and their cousins and everything that went wrong because they were never on time anywhere.  Stories I’d heard dozens of times before and wouldn’t have minded hearing a hundred times again.  More and more, her laughs ended with a small coughing fit.  I checked the time; we had about forty-five minutes left.

“Do you want to head back?” I asked.  “Sit inside a bit before you…”

“Die?”

“You don’t die.”

“Technically, I do.  According to the doctors, anyway.”

I didn’t argue.  I didn’t even want to be talking about it.  I was never there when my mother went ‘back under’, as the nurses put it.  It was against Institute rules.  I suppose for some people it might have been upsetting to see their loved ones in the capsules residents stayed in.  Too much like a coffin.  For me, it felt wrong not to be by her side when it happened.  I was with her when she first died, after all.

Seeing that I wasn’t going to go there, mom leaned back and turned her face to the sunlight.  “No, let’s stay out here a little bit longer.  It’s a nice day.”

“I could come back tomorrow, get a few more hours,” I said.  It wouldn’t matter if I stayed a little longer.  There wasn’t anyone waiting for me back at home.

“You know how I feel about that.”  Her look was semi-stern.  “You don’t want to end up in here yourself.  Not for a long time, if ever.”

“At least we’d be together,” I said, smiling.

“But who would bring us back?”

“I’m sure I could bribe Brandon’s kids to do it.”  I wasn’t particularly close to my cousin anymore, though his oldest called me on the holidays.  My guess was he’d been coveting my share of our grandmother’s house.

“You’ve given this a lot of thought.  I’m surprised.”

I knew I had to tread very carefully.  “It may come up.  Someday.  You haven’t said you want to stop.  And if anything happens to me, it’s in my will that I want to come here if I can.”

Mom gazed at me steadily for what felt like a long time.  “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

That alarmed me more than a little.  “Why?  Is there… I mean, something that isn’t right?  Is it…”  When you avoid talking about something for so long, it’s hard to know how to start.  “Is it bad?”

“The dying?  I don’t know, really.  They always induce sleep before that moment.”

Though I had always been more reluctant to talk about this, I could tell my mother was holding back, not saying some things.  That scared me even more.  She was always very upfront with me except when it came to what was going on with her.  Usually when it was really bad.

“What’s it like?  Afterwards.  While you’re… gone.”

She shook her head slowly, her look far away.  “To be honest, I don’t know.”

Better than the answer I’d been dreading.  Answers, plural, actually.  Nothing I could imagine made me feel particularly good.  Either I was ripping my mother away from the glories of heaven or giving her only small respites from the tortures of hell.  The preachers and protestors all had their own variations on those themes and loved to scream them at me (or anyone else driving past the gates) whenever I came up.  ‘I don’t know’ was, at least, not guilt-inducing.

“It’s a little like waking up from a dream,” she said after a couple of minutes.  “I know that I’ve been dreaming, and I even intend to remember the dream, but I can’t recall a single element once I wake up.”

“That must be frustrating.”  I sometimes dreamed of what she did and where she went while I was gone.  Many times I was there with her.  Those were my favorite.

“It’s the way things are,” she said and shrugged.  “Ironic, though, isn’t it?  I don’t know anymore about the afterlife than anyone else and I’ve been dead how many years?”

“Seven.”

“Hmm.”  She smiled my favorite smile—the one where the corners of her mouth turned down and yet it was still somehow a smile.  “I guess I am having trouble with time.  I thought it had been longer.”

I still couldn’t get over the fact that it had happened at all.  It wasn’t fair.  I was too young to lose my mother and she was too young to be dying.  Only fifty-three.  Not fair at all.  So when the UR Institute approached me in the hospital I was primed to listen and agree.  They would handle all of the funeral arrangements and costs and even buy a crypt for her in the cemetery where her mother and father and brother were buried.  No one else would know that she wasn’t in there.  Only I knew that she was actually resting in the Institute waiting to be re-animated.  You could have your mother back for a couple of days a few times a year, they’d said.  Holidays, birthdays, maybe even your wedding day.  They had me from hello.

It didn’t matter that the only reason they were prepared to foot the bills was that they wanted to study how people who died from cancer reacted to the resurrection process.  It didn’t matter that I couldn’t tell the rest of the family.  Only a few people knew then that the Institute wasn’t just reanimating rich old ladies’ cats anymore.  It didn’t matter that I would have to provide the élan vital necessary to reanimate her again for those few hours or days.  Or that these transfusions shortened my own life span, sometimes caused considerable health problems in other ‘donors’, and took the ability to have children of my own.  It didn’t matter.  I just wanted my mother back.

“It can’t have only been seven years.”  Mom was frowning now.

“Oh, right.  It’s been more like ten.”  My hand went to the nape of my neck, rubbing the tender spot they always used for access.  I thought I’d gotten rid of that tic.

“Has it?”  She was paging back through her memory.  I could tell from her look.

I exuded casualness—my only defense against a mother’s ability to catch you in a lie.  “Like you said, the process messes with your sense of time.”

I had developed this tendency to treat her like a doddering old woman.  She was only 53 and would always be 53.  She never aged, just backed up from death a few steps before going ahead again.  The resurrection process didn’t work very well on cancer patients, particularly cancers of the blood.  She was perpetually sick-seeming, though the pain wasn’t as bad.  That made it easy to fool myself by thinking she was getting old and forgetful when her memory was as sharp as ever.

“I’ve been resurrected twenty-six times.  I know because someone told me when I hit twenty.”

They weren’t supposed to tell her stuff like that.

“Six visits should have been three years ago,” she continued.  “How long has it actually been?”

And of course she was giving me that look.  The one mothers have when you’ve been caught forging a report card signature or sneaking into a movie when you’re supposed to be in Algebra.  There was no point lying then.

“A little over a year,” I admitted.  I could see her ramping up.  “Mom, it’s-”

“When I agreed to do this it was on the condition that you only do two transfusions a year.  Three at most.  Now you’re telling me six!”

“No, listen—”

“Shannon, that’s too many.  It’s dangerous!  You’re throwing away years—”

“I’m not!”

Years of your life on the past!”

There was more to the speech but a chime interrupted.  Each patient had an electronic monitor bracelet to keep track of vital signs, warn of danger, and countdown the time left.  It chimed again, informing us that we had 20 minutes.

“We should start back.”  I said, knowing she didn’t need the whole twenty for the walk.

“No.  Sit down.”

“Mom, please, we need to go.”

She pointed at my rock.  “Not until we talk about this.”

There was nothing to do but give in.

“You can’t keep doing this,” she said, using The Voice.  Like I was a small child and she was explaining why I couldn’t have something I’d begged and begged for at the store.  “This five or six or however many times a year.  You promised me.”

“I know.  And I’m sorry I lied.  But I didn’t want you to worry.  And I couldn’t afford it any other way.”

“Afford what?  I thought they said this was free.”

There had been several times I’d wanted to tell her this.  To tell anyone, really.  But she wouldn’t have just listened.  She would have made me stop.

“The ‘storage’ is free,” I said.  I hated that word and the way they used it.  “But the resurrection isn’t.  The fees went up once they went public.  I couldn’t always afford it.  And I couldn’t wait years between seeing you again.  Then they developed a way to transfer vital force between non-family members.”

I wanted to turn away, but I forced myself to look her in the eye.  “People pay a lot of money for that.”

I have only seen my mother cry a few times in my life.  Seeing tears in her eyes broke me down to the child I was when I first saw them.  When you’re three (or thirty) and your mother cries because of something you’ve done, you want to turn back time or vow to be the perfect daughter for the rest of your life.  Anything to make it better.

“Every time I do it for someone else they let me do it for you, too.  For the short visits.  Then I earn enough money to buy longer ones.”

“You have to stop.”  She squeezed my hand tight and drew me over to the bench.

“Mom, it’s okay.  I’m fine.  The process is much more refined now, much less dangerous.”

“No.  This isn’t right.”

“But I’m helping people.  Helping them hang on to life a little longer.”

Mom made me look her in the eyes.  “Why aren’t their family members doing it for them?  Why are they paying someone else to do it?”

There are probably dozens of legitimate reasons I could have given her.  But, in the end, it all came down to the fact that people with that kind of money to throw around didn’t need to give of themselves to fulfill their desires, so they didn’t.  Nor did they have to when there were plenty of people like me around.

The monitor chimed again.  She pressed a button to silence it, then took it off altogether.

“Mom!”

“Shannon, I love you.  I would do anything for you.  I did this for you.”

I was the one crying now.  “You didn’t really want to though, did you?”

“No, baby, I did.”  She wiped the tears from my cheek.  A futile act as they were near torrential.  “When I— when I died I had no regrets but one:  that I was leaving you.  I wouldn’t get to see you graduate college or get married or be a mother yourself.  I would miss your life and I hated that thought.”

It was nearly dark.  The lights around the lake blinked on and illuminated her hollow face.  My mother’s body wasted away by cancer.  Cancer that would kill her again right in front of my eyes if we stayed any longer.  They warned every resident to get back to the Institute before…  Before.  They said if the proper procedure wasn’t followed it could result in damage, or worse.

“How many years has this taken from you?  Not just the seven we’ve been doing this, but the years they leeched?”

I closed my eyes, seeing my face as it looked in the mirror each morning.  No wrinkles to speak of—that was down to her genes.  But the grey hairs, the stiff joints, and the fatigue made me feel older than thirty.  Hell, older than forty, most days.  “They don’t know.  It’s hard to tell.  They just don’t know.  And it doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters!”

“No, it doesn’t.  Because you’re my mother.  Because I’m supposed to take care of you.  Because I wasn’t there when you had your operations or when you had chemo or all the other times you needed me.  I was off sorting through dead people’s things and wondering which pottery sherd came from which dynasty and other bullshit that didn’t matter!”

The bracelet beeped again.  I took a few minutes to calm down, knowing that minutes was all I had left.  But my throat was so tight I could barely breathe and I didn’t want to lose it.

“I thought of you every day,” she said with effort.  “But every day I was glad you weren’t there to see me like that.  I didn’t want that to be how you remembered me.  Sending you back to college was an easy excuse.”

I wiped my face dry as best I could, then swept away the tears on her cheeks.  “So.  Atonement for us both, then.”

“I let it go on for too long, though,” she said.  It was obvious that she was in a great deal of pain and did not intend to do anything about it.  “I just didn’t want to leave you again.”

“So don’t.”

“At some point, I have to.  I’m dead, baby.  You can bring me back a hundred times and nothing will change that.”

“It’s not fair.”

She wrapped her arms around me.  “No one ever promised you fair.”

No, no one ever did.  Not even her.

Elav Vital by K. Tempest Bradford

FIVE MINUTES BEFORE we were supposed to be back at the main building, a nurse found us, my mom’s head resting on my shoulder, my arm holding her close.

“Ma’am, do you need help getting back?” he asked.

“She’s not going back,” I said, my eyes never leaving the water.

“But Miss Tidmore, she needs to get back if we’re—”

“I’m exercising my right to allow my mother a full and natural death.”

The minutes ticked away.  Mom’s body started to tremble, the pain kicking in as her time ran out.  She’d lost consciousness just after the nurse went to get help.  Or reinforcements.  It was hard, sitting there, knowing that she was in pain.

In the end, she left the decision up to me.  Just like she had seven years before in the hospital.  My aunts had been taking care of her, but I had the power of attorney.  I could let her go or I could let the Institute bring her back.  Now, by the lake, footsteps approaching, it was the same.  I could let her go or I could bring her back.

When they came back, I knew, they would try to change my mind.  They would argue and reason and sound very convincing.  They couldn’t force me, though.  It was in the contract.

I held her hand.  I waited forever.

It was over too soon. But I was there.

<END>

© Copyright 2009 K. Tempest Bradford & Senses Five Press



Interview with Paul Tremblay

Interview with Paul Tremblay

by Devin Poore
to the sound of Bob Mould, Life and Times…

This interview appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.


Paul TremblayPAUL TREMBLAY IS a busy man.   He has had short stories published by the likes of ChiZine, Sybil’s Garage, Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, LitHaven, Pseudopod, and Horror: Best of the Year 2007, just to name a few. He has also worked as editor at ChiZine, Fantasy Magazine, and the original anthology Bandersnatch.   He is the author of the short speculative fiction collection Compositions for the Young and Old and the dark fantasy novella CityPier: Above and Below.   When he isn’t seemingly taking over the world of the speculative short fiction market, he teaches math to high school boys and helps run the Shirley Jackson Awards.   His first novel, The Little Sleep, from Henry Holt Publishers, is out now and a sequel is in the works.

Last summer I grabbed a chair that had been tossed to the floor and sat down with Paul during a break at ReaderCon.   We covered the usual writing questions, touched on his obsession with a group role-playing game named Mafia (which you can Google and read all about; Wikipedia, too), and found that the difference between genre and literary stories isn’t all that great.   You can find Paul on the web at www.paulgtremblay.com —DP


Your upcoming novel, The Little Sleep, is about a narcoleptic private detective; unusual subject matter to be sure, but it’s a book with little or no speculative content. You’re principally known as a horror writer. Why a non-genre project for your first book?
You mean my first sold book. Heh. To be honest, I really didn’t give the lack of speculative element to the novel much thought. Although, and I hope this doesn’t sound trite, I think there is a speculative fiction attitude to the book with its underlying uncertainty; the idea that no one or nothing is safe and is to be questioned. The protagonist, Mark Genevich, is narcoleptic, and he suffers from a host of symptoms such as hypnogogic hallucinations, automatic behavior, blackouts, and cataplexy. For Mark (and for the reader) discerning reality, memory, and identity from his dreams is difficult at best.

Since the book deals with different perspectives on reality, did you set out to write a non-speculative story or did it come about in some other way?
I wrote the first chapter more than a year before I wrote the body of the novel. I used the stereotypical PI set up of a beautiful woman going to a PI’s office, but the woman has an outlandish story about someone stealing her fingers and replacing them with someone else’s digits. I originally imagined the novel was going to be a sci-fi urban fantasy detective stew, but I stalled after the first chapter, and put it away. Later, I happened to read about narcolepsy and that horrible disease seemed a perfect fit for my PI set up, then the title (The Little Sleep) occurred to me, and the novel took off from there.

Some of your short stories are also decidedly literary, with little or no speculative element. I take it that you enjoy a little genre hopping?
I became a better writer the day I stopped identifying myself as “horror writer,” and instead thought of myself as “a writer who sometimes writes horror.” Now I try to serve the needs of the story first instead of shoehorning every story kernel into a particular framework. If the story in question happens to work better as horror, fine, and if not that’s okay too.

So yeah, I do like a little genre hopping. I hope to be able to do it at novel length, going forward!

The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay

Buy at Amazon.com

It sounds as if you do not consciously sit down with a mantra of “today I write horror”. Your story in Sybil’s Garage No. 3, “Holes” is also decidedly ambiguous in regards to its genre. Was that a conscious decision?
I think ambiguity is an undercurrent in almost all of my more recent work. As a reader, I enjoy stories that do not spoon feed and that can give even the most mundane scenes/occurrences multiple meanings or possibilities. Maybe it’s better put this way; I gravitate to stories with something to say, but that something to say always leads to more questions. To me, ambiguity is interesting, scary, and, well, real.

“Holes” was a very personal, auto-biographical story, one in which I wanted to have a heavy atmosphere of dread, even if the protagonist, or the reader (or the writer, for that matter) wasn’t exactly sure of the source or nature of the dread.

I think most of the best horror fiction takes advantage of ambiguity. Was Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” just crazy or could he actually hear the heart, or neither; was the killer manipulating you, only trying to make you think he was crazy? Horror fails, most spectacularly, when our inherent state of ambiguity is ignored, when the lines of good and evil aren’t blurred or muddied.

While readers seem to have no problem reading Hemingway one day and Gaiman the next, writers tend to stay within their chosen camps. Sometimes militantly so. Have you come up against any roadblocks or issues since you are not writing in your usual field, in regards to acceptance, thoughts of marketability?
In my admittedly brief experience, I’ve found that it’s (at least with the major publishing houses) less the writer being militant about sticking to their genre than publishers being willing to take a chance on an author’s book that might be outside of their genre, or outside of the perceived comfort zone of their readers.

I’m still quite new to the process so I haven’t come up against any roadblocks yet. Both my agent and editor have been enthusiastic about my other published work, but the test will be later this year after I turn in my second contracted novel, and then start pitching a speculative fiction craziness!

A sequel?
I prefer “follow-up.” Heh. To be honest, I didn’t write The Little Sleep with any intention of doing a series, and my agent and I didn’t pitch Sleep as a series, but Holt offered a two-book deal (second to be the follow-up) and, needless to say, we weren’t about to turn it down. I think Mark Genevich is complex and interesting enough to have more to say. He’s got another story in him.

How much credit is due short fiction to your novel success? Do you consider yourself more of a short story or novel writer?
Knock on wood, there, with the talk of novel success!

I learned to write with short fiction, as is painfully evident in my older stories. Transitioning to a novel was a challenge, of course. The Little Sleep is my first sold novel, but it’s not my first novel; it’s my 4.5th. 1.5 are safely buried in the trunk, never again to see light of day. 1 is likely trunked, though it’s the novel that nabbed me agent representation (no sale, though), and 1 still hope to publish later. Keeping score at home?

Honestly I think I enjoy short stories more, but they feel a little harder to write now that I’ve been in “novel mode” for almost two-plus years. But, yes, short fiction has been good to me. I was fortunate enough to meet talented folks like Steve Eller (editor, writer, HWA mentor), Poppy Z. Brite, Stewart O’Nan and so many more who have been great friends and mentors to me.

When starting a story, do you plot and outline, or follow the organic approach of just seeing what turns up on the page?
With The Little Sleep and it’s follow up, I’ve had to to plot/outline more beforehand by necessity. I’m not good enough to make up the mystery element on the fly. I used to (and still enjoy writing this way) sketch out a character and plop the poor sap in a few scenes to see where the mess might take me. For The Little Sleep, I had wrote 10 page synopsis before going back to that first chapter and adding to it. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it. Ah, heck, I hate plotting and outlining. I’m much more interested in character building. But the outlining was a good exercise and extremely helpful for this particular project.

Did the novel conform to the synopsis?
It did, but not so rigidly that I didn’t tweak some scenes, add others, and the ending completely changed. I treated the outline as a rough map, one I could erase and move the longitude and latitude lines if I wanted.

Tell me about the Shirley Jackson awards.
During the winter of ‘07 a bunch of us currently associated with the award were discussing what they liked in horror, and how a lot of exciting dark fiction doesn’t market itself necessarily as horror. As we saw it, there was all this great fiction out there and it wasn’t necessarily being recognized by the horror/speculative fiction community. So with the blessing of the Shirley Jackson estate, we created the award to honor her name and the current crop of literary horror/dark fiction.

We’ve been so pleased and humbled by the overwhelming support offered from publishers, writers, editors, and readers.

Do check out our website for more info! www.shirleyjacksonawards.org

With the short stories, novels, and awards duties, how does your “real world” mesh with the world of a writer?
Being a high school math teach helps. Honest! No way could I be teaching English (grading essays and papers and vocab, oh my!) and get all my writing done. I generally teach Calculus and Geometry, have small classes, have a great comfort level with the material in those courses that, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time lesson planning. Bonus: if my kids are taking a test or there is a free period, my laptop is with me and I write as little or as much as I can. The Calculus classes are usually seniors and they get out early in the spring, so there’s more free time. While my fall and winter are very busy, the rest of the year I’m able to devote a good chunk of time to writing.

We’ve sat across each other many a time during a game of Mafia. What’s the appeal of that game to you, and what inspired you to take it to school and teach it to your students?
I love games. I hate losing, and I like arguing for the sake of arguing. I grew up in a very competitive family; it spanned the generations. Sundays were spent at my grandparents, playing cards with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the games usually got heated.

I think my childhood was different than most writers, at least in terms of hobbies and interests. As a kid, I did well in school but didn’t read much for pleasure. I spent most of my time in the backyard, shooting hoops by myself, maybe playing catch with my younger brother. I was not big or strong enough to play basketball in school. I essentially wasted my youth fantasizing about baseball and basketball. Mafia appeals to that craven little boy, yearning for victory.

As for the students… we play Mafia because I get to lord my momentary psychological superiority over them. That and they enjoy accusing me of lying about being in the village. But I am a villager.

Between teaching and writing, it sounds like you have the best of both worlds.

I have to admit, with the release of The Little Sleep coming, this year especially has been crazy busy with the double-workload. But I love teaching. The students’ energy does help to motivate me in general. The good days far outnumber the bad. The only thing that could tear me away from school would be possibly a full-time fiction writer. Yeah, I know, don’t quit your day job…

Okay, now, at the end, is there anything that I should have asked you in this interview that I missed? Anything you want to add?
A few tid-bits: The stories of me throwing a chair during a game of mafia have been greatly exaggerated, although I did jump out of a window once (ground floor) after being killed in the night. Everyone should read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I am a villager. Thanks so much, Devin and Sybil’s Garage!

© Copyright 2009 Devin Poore & Senses Five Press

“Heaven’s Fire” by Paul Jessup

Heaven’s Fire

by Paul Jessup
to the sound of “Love Her Madly” by the Doors…

This story appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.


ME AND JAZZ waved at the Goodbye Girl as it flew overhead, the gold and blue gossamer wings like butterfly beats, the silver cockpit shimmering in the afternoon light with tiny silver threads looping down and around it. We saw the paint we had splashed on earlier in a drugged out mania, the orange and blue and the bright burning red — making it into star shapes and star patterns. Just so my gal Mary Mary May could find her way home across the many patterns of glowing suns.

Jazz sat against the tree, woomph, eyes lit up and his hand rubbing his bare chest. “Man, that Mary Mary May is some girl.”

I pulled out a joint and lit it. The smell was sweet, like flowers. “Yeah, you could say that. She’s not going to be back for another twenty or so years. And then we’ll be old, and she’ll still be young. But at least she’ll be safe. Those fucking molts will have purged her from the datamines by then, and she’ll be safe.”

“So it goes,” said Jazz, “So it goes. I’ll miss her madly.”

“We both will,” I said and watched as she hit the stratosphere, the last of the paint peeling and crackling in the heat of exit.

###

Bear was back in the station, not paying attention to us, his face buried in the guts of a robotic body. Spent vacuum tubes lay scattered across the floor in a circle, ringing around a pile of filthy sparkplugs.

He turned his bushy head round to see us. “Couldn’t convince her to stay, eh?”

Jazz kicked a rusted mechanical hand across the floor. “Nope. The molts have a scent on her code, man. You know how it goes. Once they sniff ya, it’s over on this planet.”

Bear put his head back into the machine. “Yeah, fuck. Why are we still here, then? They snuffed our code out ages ago, and now we can’t sleep in the same place twice without being hunted. Why do we keep on fighting on? Why can’t we go to Zappa, or Firebell, or even Skydew? Any of those stations are better than this. They say they share all, no greed, no law, no fucking molts. You know? Why can’t we have that?”

I reached over and grabbed the microwave rifle from the wall, feeling the power and weight of it in my hands. It was beat down, old and angry. Just like me. Just like Bear and Jazz. “Someone has to do this. Someone needs to stop the molts. We keep running into the stars, Bear — we keep running into the stars and they will move out after us, take the war away from those alien worlds and focus it on the stations. They will take their hands and squish the rings of moons, smash down the other stars. Those peaceful communes won’t last, not when the molts land and start opening up. Consider what we do a diversion, a sacrifice for their existence.”

Bear threw a wrench at the ground; it clanged and sparkled as it spun, sucking in the light. “Fuck. I know you’re right, right? I know you’re speaking good stuff. But — why does it have to be us? I’m sick of fighting. I’m sick of being revived. I’m sick of all this shit. Why can’t we just lay back and live on one of those stars? With Mary Mary May, or Silver Kitty, or Dopeling? Let some kids do our work for us.”

Jazz walked forward, his eyes on a poster on the back wall. Dylan in bright blues, Dylan holding a rally, and underneath it written in brilliantly curving balloon letters: Take Hold of Freedom.

“Because of Dylan, that’s why.”

Bear was quiet. The name of our patron saint, the king of the Weathermen — Dylan. He who died for our cause so many years ago, back when the first wave of molts came in and war was announced, before we stole the gene base and the revita chambers from the military compounds. We were the first to fight back, the first to say no to the molts, say no to the war. We won’t go and rape the alien planets, we won’t kill ourselves on the soil of relic worlds for the molts to pillage, we won’t play their games, live their lies.

We were the Weathermen. And Dylan was our leader, guitar in one hand and pipe bomb in the other. We blew holes in their buildings, had our heads knocked about by the molts and their machines. But in the end there are more of us, growing each day.

Bear didn’t say anything. He just went back inside the guts of that machine and tinkered about, the sparks of his soldering shooting out blue and leaving the air tasting like sweet ozone.

###

It didn’t take long for the molt dogs to sniff out our code and hunt us down in the ratted ruins of a bus station we had called home for the past week or so. We had to run that night Mary Mary May left, leaving our old home behind us, the metallic barking under the light of the full moon, the sound of pistons and steam wooshing into the forest winds. We each had a backpack slung over our shoulders, microwave rifles in hand.

Bear was the biggest and hung in the back, firing at the molts that ran us into the dark of the woods. The sound of the bolts from the rifle burst our ears, leaving them ringing for hours on end, the ping ping pinging of the metallic molt dogs piercing in even further than the bolt firings.

Bear was mad and yelling and hooting, his half finished baby robot Sunshine hung on his shoulders like a koala to a tree. “Come on you fuckers! You can’t kill us, you can’t cut us down! We are the fucking underground, and we will come up from all corners and smother you! The revolution is now!”

Blue lights of fissuring fire shot past us from the molt dog guns, burning the sides of my cheek and my face stinging from the pain. If I hadn’t bit some dream berries an hour ago, that would be a fuckload of hurt, but right now it was just warm and blistering and distant. Like it was all happening to someone else.

Eventually the molt dogs either all died or left us running because the blasts stopped coming at us and the barking died out until there was no sound at all. We ended up on a beach near the main lake, the lake that was larger than the moons that orbited around us. The night was gone and the sun was just beginning to rise up, painting the world in a cold blue that was both beautiful and haunting at the same time.

Cliffs lined the beach to either side, forests like a pine army lining the top of it. I saw a huge mansion on the top of the highest cliff looking dead and run down with haunted eyes. No lights, no star ships, no cars, nothing.

Above it we saw the glimmering stars that trailed the sky, disappearing with the light of day. Bear clamped his hand on mine, it was sweaty and dirty, Sunshine bot over his shoulder smiling the painted on smile, her little light eyes glowing blue. Her AI was half finished, just like her body, but she still had life, somehow. Even if it was mostly broken and artificial.

Bear laughed, heartily. “Now, that. I forgot about how much fun that could be. We were too complacent, man. Too stone still. I had forgotten about how much fun the fight is. I’m going to stay here and fight forever.”

Jazz was near the crashing waves, leaned over and panting. “We need a place guys. Need some pad to lay our heads, right?”

“Right on, right on,” I said, “You guys see what I see? Right up there. Now that’s a joint I could get used to.”

Bear shrugged. Sunshine bot mewled on his shoulders, making the only noise she knew how, blowing hot steam out of her back while the vacuum tubes that lined her shoulders flickered a soft blue and amber light. Black tubes lined her shoulders and back, clockwork gears twisting and turning the wiring. “Yeah, could do. At least until we get hunted again. Damn. You sure it’s empty though? I mean, it looks empty…”

Jazz stood up, his breathing more slow and regular, his body outlined by the grey and blue of the polluted lake. Over his shoulders was a bead blanket, keeping the bitter lake wind from biting his bare chest. “Like, looks can be deceiving though. We all know that.”

From the sky we saw a brilliant flash of light and then stars streaming down blue and gold. I felt like I was covered in honey, prickling, warm, bee filled honey. I felt the bee feet dance on my skin and I smiled. After the flash of light we saw some silver and gold object come skating down, off, behind the cliff and into the woods.

“Damn,” Bear said, “Fuck me if that ain’t a sign.”

I grinned, big pumpkin grin. “Question is — of what? Is that some moldy probe sent to kill us? Is it like some alien ship stranded down among us? Or is it some satellite that just happened to be hit and get knocked down? Could be a bad sign. Could be our death sign.”

Jazz laughed. “To hell with your astrology, man. I say it’s a sign we go and check out what it is, dig? And then we take that pad for our own. If someone lives there, it’s probably some old cat we can coerce into letting us crash. Cool?”

Bear nodded, Sunshine bot smiled and said, “Gooeygahmoo!”

I walked up the path towards the cliff, pushed my hands on the rocky face and felt a trellis of tree roots along the side like sandpaper against my palm. I grabbed it, pulled and yanked. Seemed sturdy enough for climbing. “All right, you bearded crazies. Let’s go. But I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

###

Trees bent out like broken ballet dancers, crushed under the weight of metal and heat. Circle of ash. I held my breath, because  I recognized the ship pieces, shattered, gossamer wings caught and ripped and torn in bare branches, the knotted fingers grasping through.

I called out, no — screamed, rushed forward. The air vibrated, and I saw the lean hungry shadows of Bear and Jazz run with me, pulling off piles wreckage, sorting through the debris. It was Mary Mary May’s ship — we all saw that. Memories of painting it fluttered through my mind, scattered scar thoughts of Bear building it, claiming the ship sky worthy, that the bounds of this sub earth could not hold The Goodbye Girl in the clutches of its gravity.

“Bear!” I screamed, “Bear!”  I hit him as we pulled out pieces of shrapnel and scattered metal pieces. He didn’t hit me back, he just pushed me and kept on searching through the wreckage. Sunshine bot on his back shot me a dirty look, said something to me in its clicking baby tongue that I’m sure was an insult, its illuminated eyes glaring through tin skull.

“BEAR!” I screamed, and howled, and punched my fists into the ground, dirt and rock breaking the skin of my knuckles.

I loved Mary Mary May. We all did, but I loved her moreso, loved her fingers against stomach, loved her lips on shoulders, loved her teeth running against my back. Loved her thrust and howl, loved her whole and shaking, coming and burning. I still felt her, like a ghost against me. Rocking.

Jazz called me out — yelled at me to come and help. He found her leg — the rest of her buried beneath some plastic chair that was torn to shreds with loose puffs of stuffing come loose and floating like clouds. I ran over and helped, whispering prayers to gods I thought long since dead and buried, hoping that she was alive underneath all of that junk.

We pulled her out, her body slid against the ground, pulling the hunks of metal and plastic off. She breathed — beautiful chest rising up and down, orange skirt frayed and torn but still there, the beads around her neck broken and scattered along the chair like tiny, colorful stars.

I held her in my arms. She was bruised, but in one piece. Nothing pierced through, nothing shattered. “She’ll be all right, yeah?”

Jazz grunted. “Won’t know, man. Not out here. Need to plug the equipment in.”

I nodded and ignored Bear, whose long lean body was sorting through the wreckage, scratching at his beard and making thinking noises as he did it. He sucked on his tooth as me and Jazz carried her off, towards the house to get some juice for Jazz’s equipment.

I was going to say something rude and thought against it. Better Bear stay out here, amongst the scraps of this tin can that he strapped a rocket to. Safe my ass. He sent her up to die.

“Hey guys,” he called back, not turning his head, “She was shot down.”

And we said nothing. I knew he was right. He followed behind as we head up to that old mansion. We felt something igniting in the air — a feeling of being watched. The molts watched us. In the trees, in the sky. Somehow, the molts watched us, using their damned molt technology.

###

That was a spooky old place, definitely one that had gone up and given the ghost. Nobody had stayed in that pad in ages — the wallpapers were all from the early century, the clocks and furniture were covered in dust and cobwebs. We heard the noisy feet of spiders scurrying in the shadows, and tried to pay it no mind when the ancient clock chimed out the angry hours.

“Damn,” Jazz said as we laid her body flat against the floorboards, “I’ll be lucky if there’s any juice left in this old place.”

He pulled open his backpack and rummaged around inside. The sound of gears cranking and mechanical whirring tasted the air as his nimble fingers moved about, searching for the device.  He pulled out it with no great flair, all of us on edge. I held her body, close, that soft velvet skin of Mary Mary May, hoping she would be fine, good, cuddle close and still breathing.

Bear said nothing. He only peeked with cautious eyes out of the windows, microwave rifle in hand, joint in mouth with smoke pluming around his head. “They watching, I think.” He said in his big bear voice, “They shot her down right here, and they’ll be here to get her. That’s why they stopped chasing us, man. We’re in for a big bang of a brawl.”

Sunshine bot clung to Bear’s shoulders, mechanical arms and legs wrapped around tight and making low whirring noises, like a small broken wristwatch. Bear petted Sunshine bot and the thing cooed and mewed in pleasure, tin head arcing up beneath the stroking fingers.

Jazz pushed aside an old table and chair, shoving a tiffany lamp to the floor and followed its mouse eaten cord back to the wall. “Ancient, ancient. This is ancient. But it should have enough juice. Enough sparkly sparkle for what we need it to do.”

He plugged the machine in. Hummmm.

Glitter glow of tiny tesla coils, arching strange light, snickering, snickering. Then the soft illumination of the vacuum tubes, and the tiny green screen in front of him, with glowing radioactive letters. “Give me a sec, boys. I need to calibrate it to her life waves. Focus in, get her signs. See if her chi’s in alignment.”

It sounded like a radio tuning in some ghost frequency — voices from dead stars, dead cities echoing about in the old mansion room. This device always gave me a bad feeling, like something inside of me had gone sour and spoiled my bones.

“Kay, kay, kay. Got it, man. Got it. She seems fine, doing okay. But what’s this? She’s pregnant.”

I tried to speak, but all I got was muttered half words. Was it mine? Was it theirs? It was hers, I knew that, but whose was it? And was it okay after an impact like that?

More tuning, weak sounds like banging, ancient music. Bear pulled red curtain back, pushed his body flat against the boards, fingering the tip of his rifle. “Something’s outside. Like, something walking the beach. Ain’t ever seen anything like it. Fuck me, we are in trouble, boys. We are in trouble.

“Ok. She’s got a minor imbalance here. Just need to change the flow of the chi, correct the balance with a few things. Baby is fine, kicking a little even. I doubt she knows she even has it.”

He turned some knobs, right, left. I sat by, watching, holding my breath. I want to go and look at the window, to see what Bear sees. But she needs me here, by her side. That’s my baby in there. That’s my girl, half dead from a blast from space, knocking her bird down to earth.

Her arms moved as she shook violently, her eyes flipping open, spasming. Jazz turned the knobs another direction, muttering something beneath his breath, tried to focus harder, his knuckles white, his eyebrow twitching. She sat up, gasping for air, holding her stomach and close to screaming, tears rolling down her face as butterflies flew out of her mouth. They flapped in the air for a moment, and then dissipated like colored smoke.

I grabbed her and hugged her, pushing her close to my body. I didn’t ever want her to go again, don’t ever want her to leave again. Even if the molts come directly for us, their dogs growling and bone hungry. I had wanted to set her free, to let her escape, to let her live in peace. I realized now that was just as selfish as keeping her near.

She shook, finally gained composure to talk. “Where am I? Oh, Captain Heart, you’re still here. Hold me for a moment. I fell from the sky, like a falling star. I can feel it — something shot me down. A bird with an arrow in its breast. How did I survive? My whole body feels twisted and wind-smashed.”

Jazz waved at her and smiled. “Got it done with a little help from my friend here. Just made sure the life forces were flowing properly. And — congratulations.”

I held her tight, knowing this might be the first moment she hears the news — our news. “Congratulations?” she whispers in an out of tune voice.

“Yeah, you’re pregnant.”

She shoved me away, I fall back and hit the floor skidding across. Not the response I expected, not the response I wanted. I’m hesitant, unsure, and must admit a little scared.

“Oh no,” she said, “Oh fuck no. I can’t raise a baby here — not in this world! Not in this — this hell. Those damn molts will eat the poor kid up, turn her into a machine…no, no I can’t do this.”

I reached out to hold her, reached out to comfort her. We heard a noise coming from outside, on the beach. It sounded like metal eating metal, machine devouring machine. “Mary Mary May — we can raise her underground — out of the way of the eating world. We can keep our baby safe from the molts — safe!”

She shook her head as Bear pulled out his rifle and aimed it outside, aimed it at something on the dark beach. “It hasn’t seen us yet,” Bear muttered, “And it’s not going to get a chance to, either.”

“Our baby? Our baby? What? You fuck me a few times and think you own this flesh? This is my baby, idiot, and I’m not raising her in a warzone while you and your buddies play revolution.”

I was hurt, I was broken. Bear fired out the window, the loud shots from the microwave rifle making our ears ring, the smell of ozone once again tinting our senses. “This is my baby too, right? It’s partly mine, right?”

Mary Mary May said nothing, she just ran, ran with her beautiful legs out the door and outside, into that forest where the molts wandered, laser cannons ready to hunt us down and take us out.

Jazz shrugged and unplugged his tool and then popped it back into his backpack. He then unslung his microwave rifle and started the charge, getting it ready to blast some metal to welded scrap. “No thanks, eh? Well, I don’t expect you to thank me for her, man. That’s just how it goes.”

I nodded at him. “Thanks man,” and gave him a quick hug. Our arms beat our backs and we parted for a moment. His beard was ragged, twice as long as mine and covered in tiny beads and braids. “I’ve got to go after her,” and I took out my own rifle, testing the scope, making sure the old battered-down beast of a gun still worked.

“Is cool. Don’t worry, you know? Go after her. I have a feeling this pad might be a good hangout for some time.”

Bear turned around, his face was twisted, his eyes mad with the feeling of a fight. Sunshine bot bounced up and down his shoulders, happily making baby bot noises in joy. “It’s getting closer, closer, closer. You best get her back here, before that damn thing gets to us.”

I took a look outside of the window, saw the beach beyond. Patches of the sand had been blasted into glass, the waves rushing about and crashing beneath the newborn sun. Birds darted over the lake, outlining the lone monster of a gigantic bipedal bot that stood about the size of a house. It was covered in molt designs — complex patterns made of intricate mathematical functions. It was rusty and old, and coughed smoke and smog out of giant tubes lining the head.

It had a tail that oozed out toxic sludge, probably some byproduct of its weaponry. Two arms on either side were lined with large cannons, firing a silent plasmatic bolt in the air, aiming for the cliff, not knowing we were in the house on the hill. It shook the ground, creating small landslides of sand and dirt and tree.

In the center of the biped was a molt. Clean shaven head, clean shaven face, thick black military glasses perched on the nose. Out of its mouth dangled a pipe coughing tar colored smoke in shadows around his head. A grey sweater vest accented his chest, a tie around his neck neatly tied and black pleated pants unwrinkled even in combat. He grinned with each shot, sussing out exactly where the weathermen were hiding.

Bear leaned back out, fired off two bolts just to the left of the machine. The molt swung his head around, trying to follow the trajectory with his eyes, tracing it back and discover the origin of the blast.

Jazz got his rifle ready, scope pointed out. “You missed him,” Jazz scolded.

“Naw,” Bear said, “I’m toying with him.”

Jazz looked back at me and shoved me with the palm of his hand. “Whatta ya doing here, gawking? Like, get out there and grab the girl. Make sure she’s safe, even though she’s fucking nuts.”

###

I found her sobbing in the wreckage, pushing around the broken parts of the space ship around, her skirt torn and almost a thin thread, her makeup running down her face as she sobbed.

“It’s OK,” I say as I walk up to her, “It will be all right. Everything’s cool.”

She sifted smashed wires between her fingers, looking at the glinting fibers in the palm of her hand. I walked up cautiously, listening to the sounds of the woods around me, rifle at the ready, knowing that with one molt here the rest should be coming round soon, sniffing out of code and swallowing us whole.

“I almost was out there — you know? Almost out to the Heaven’s Fire. My brother went there a few years ago, been sending me vtcards through the post. He can’t say much, but he’s so happy, you know? And they don’t have any of this there. None of it. They all live together, grow food together, take care of each other’s kids. It’s so beautiful. Why can’t we have that? Why can’t I have that?”

I got down at the balls of my feet. Ignoring my instincts to run and fight and kill. I put a hand on her shoulder, and her tear stained eyes look up at me, pleading. “We can have that. I — I don’t want to give up the cause, you know? Like, this fight is important. Because once the molts are done fighting on the foreign worlds and the alien nations, they’re going to target the communes next. And we’ve got to stop them before they start, cool?”

“I don’t care! I want to raise my girl in a place that’s safe. I want to be happy! Why can’t I be happy?”

And I leaned in and I held her close, and I knew, at that moment, that I was going to give it all up. Give up the war, the fight, the Weathermen, give it all up for what she wanted.

“It’s ok,” I said, “We’ve got enough martyrs here. If you want, I’ll help you. I’ll come with you. We’ll make it to Heaven’s Fire. If you’ll let me.”

She didn’t say anything. She just sobbed on my shoulder. We sat there, still in the wreckage for a moment, and then heard explosions and running feet. I moved to stand up, but she pulled me down, pulled me close, shielding her.

From out of the house I saw pillars of smoke, pillars of fire rising up and engulfing the sun. And running towards us, guns out and ready are Jazz and Bear. “I guess it’s not such a sturdy building after all,” Bear called out, Sunshine bot bopping on his back, “One blast from that molt and it was toast. Whoohee! Come on boys and girls, it’s time to run and keep running.”

They stopped in front of us, Jazz panting, holding out his hand. “Come on,” he said, “I don’t care where we go. We just can’t stay here.”

And I reached out, and he grabbed my wrist, and he pulled me up, and I pull Mary Mary May up with me. And she looked at me, and we heard the sound of explosions, and then saw the giant biped come up over the cliff, right towards us. “I’m scared,” she said, holding her stomach.

Bear laughed. “Join the crowd. Come on kids, let’s get moving.”

And then we run. We run through trees and woods, the molts chasing after us, we fire back, fire true, and over our heads we hear their mechanical birds flying, dropping down flames and fire and burning holes in the ground. And we go and keep going, running, running. Because the revolution is made to run. We are made to run. To fly. To keep on fighting.

<END>

© Copyright 2009 Paul Jessup & Senses Five Press

“Wombat Fishbone” by Jason Erik Lundberg

Wombat Fishbone

by Jason Erik Lundberg
to the sound of “A Heap of Trouble” by Steve Sullivan…

As published in Sybil’s Garage No. 5


The flyers and placards sprout from a multitude of locations all over town, all displaying the same graphic (the iconic walking man featured on Walk/Don’t Walk traffic lights and signs), although the text is different, unique, in each instance: “J. Juniper Jellyfish walks tomorrow,” “J. Lemon Stegosaurus walks tomorrow,” “J. Wombat Fishbone walks tomorrow,” always that same pattern of nonsense words preceded by the initial J. No one knows who plasters the notices on lamp posts, bulletin boards, tree trunks, brick walls, flag poles, shop windows, mailboxes, front doors, and errant animals too slow to avoid coverage, so fast are the scouts, the ahead-runners, quick and silent and invisible, like ninjas.

There have been stories and rumors from other towns, other counties, other states, but it doesn’t feel quite real until your own town is visited, snuck into, invaded. For the flyers are merely the first wave, the warning of things to come: the arrival of the Walkers. All that day, the day before, the cold air runs tense through the town, oozing through the leafless winter branches, sliding down shirt collars. The skies turn grey, as if responding to the news, rendering a flatness to the light and an ominous foreboding to the streets. You may laugh it off; it’s just a fraternity prank, or an activist stunt, or a harmless cult, but you hurry home nonetheless, that prickly feeling at the base of your skull urging you to safety, convincing you that there they are, right behind you, conjuring phantoms from the reptilian section of your brain.

The mayor goes on the local station that night, cheeks pinked by the cold, uncomfortable in his new toupee, suit more rumpled than usual, and he reassures you, all of you, that this is nothing to be afraid of, that we can’t let these strangers come into our fair town and terrorize us, though you see a note of fear in his shivering hazel eyes, in the way that beads of sweat drip down the sides of his face. He does not speak long, wanting to be home himself, and it is with some relief when the station returns to prime time sitcom reruns, or reality-based competition programs, or game shows encased in dazzling lights and ecstatic audiences, your regular nighttime showcase of entertaining falseness, full of all the beautiful people.

Your dreams are filled with images in monochrome: a concrete house in disrepair, spotted and stained with gray splotches, surrounded by maple and elm, shed of leaves, extending their skeletal fingers into a sky populated by the skrawks and caws of crows, circling lazily a ghostly form clothed in the robes of an ascetic and surrounded by the crackling blackness of unholy energy, and then the figure stands along the darkened path to the house, more substantial — you can perceive even the rough weave of his garments — and his hands reach up to pull back his hood and reveal his face, to tell you his true name: J. Something Something, but your dream-self recoils, and you scratch and claw your way through an infinite number of oneiric layers until you awaken, breathless, damp, in your own bed. It is an almost involuntary reflex to laugh, to banish the strange dream, to take away its gripping power.

The next morning, the skies still ashen, the colors bleached out of everything by the harsh light that suffuses the streets, you make your way slowly to your office, looking behind you every ten steps or so, passing store after store displaying Closed signs, and only a handful of brave souls wander the sidewalks, chatting and humming to banish the fear and anticipation, as if walking through a cemetery. You unlock the door to your travel agency and slip inside, letting out a breath now that a layer of glass and wood separates you from the outside, from whatever is coming. The work keeps your mind occupied through the morning, arranging flights over the phone, booking package deals with airlines and hotels as far away as Indonesia, filing receipts and reports since your assistant has decided to call in sick, and so the sound creeps up on you, background noise at first, but soon clear and distinct, emerging from the west side of town, and it is the unmistakable sound of more than a dozen men singing.

Naked, we are strong!

You want to march along!

Manly men, come join your kin

And listen to our song!

It is intoxicating, this simple chant, growing closer and louder, progressing ever more near as it approaches eastward, sailing the main street through the town, toward you. The words infect your ears, your bones, your skin, and abruptly your office has become too warm, too stifling, and your clothes too rough and confining. You long to be rid of them, to strip down to your essence, and that is exactly what you do. Off come the tie, jacket, shirt, pants, underwear, hurriedly shedding your second skin, the chant pulsing in your chest as you find the words emerging from your own mouth, and you run outside to join your brethren just now passing by, men of middle age: bankers, office managers, computer scientists, engineers, salesmen, high school sports coaches, now accompanied by others, your townsfolk: an accountant, a dealership owner, a bicycle repairman, an ice cream salesman, a pharmacist, a university professor, a gas station attendant, and yes, a travel agent, all marching and chanting and reveling in your maleness, in the communal bond with your fellow men, untouched by the cold winter wind.

You know that it all looks preposterous, absurd, twenty or so men all parading down Main Street in nothing but their shoes and socks, paunched and hairy and out of shape, far from the manufactured airbrushed magazine advert image of what a man should look like — glossy, coifed, tanned, muscular — as you step in joyful cadence down the lined asphalt, and although you spy horrified looks from behind the window curtains of the people you interact with every day, your voice grows louder, and stronger, and you truly don’t care how it all appears, because for this one all-too-brief moment you experience a near-nirvanic sensation of communion with something higher, of interconnectedness, of being in the world and of the world, tears in your eyes, loving every single man and woman on the planet, vowing to do all you can to deliver this feeling to others, this sense of being liberated, unconstrained, free.

<End>

© Copyright 2008 Jason Erik Lundberg & Senses Five Press