Sunday, January 7, 2018

Fiction #76

New fiction! Issue #76
Submissions now open for #77!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.


Fiction #76: Liz Betz

Afterimage

It’s the middle of a moonless night in November when Yvonne turns off the yard light.  The shabby farmyard disappears from sight, but the unspeakable afterimage remains.  The only answer then, is to turn off her thoughts.  But there are bright stars in the shroud of darkness that evoke an old memory. 

She’s sung good-night to those same stars for her son. 

Kev loved the bedtime game; his innocence sparkled.  Twinkle, please twinkle.  He would beg all day.  Kev, of course, never understood how a person could go mad with twinkle, forever without end, twinkle. 

Without end, this madness is like a particular dream where she serves beer after beer to demanding customers.  But it is no dream when she shows up for work earlier that day. 

Stan looks at her.

“You haven’t had much sleep, have you?  I’d close up and take you home, if it weren’t for the live music.”  His voice suggests lullabies and flannel warmed slumber. 

Yvonne shakes her head and turns away. He’d better not go any further.  He’d better not offer her a shoulder to cry on.  Stan might want to be with her, but that means he would share her burdens.  He has no idea what it is to parent Kev.  Even Kev’s own father didn’t last. 

“I guess the band is a nameless wonder,” Stan says as Yvonne forces her eyes from the Christmas lights, her brain caught for a moment by the blinking, color changing cycle. Stan explains how the musicians want everyone to suggest names.

“That’s why they have set up the decorated blackboard and provided chalk.”

A squeal, like barb-wire stretching, comes from the amplifier. Yvonne shivers as if the sound is a prophecy.

“Am I supposed to get people to participate?”  She asks, unable to understand any new detail of the job, her sharpness worn away.  Kev is still missing.  It’s almost three days. 

“No. Don’t worry about it.” Stan says. “I’m glad you’re here.  You shouldn’t be alone.” 

“Maybe I won’t be any use.”

Despite her words Yvonne picks up a tray, wincing a little because of her wrist.  She’s lucky it isn’t broken.

“We’ll manage,” Stan says. “I’ll know soon enough what everyone is drinking.”

Yvonne goes to answer a drinker’s wave.  She knows these people, knows this place.  After three and a half years, she can tell which patrons are alcoholics or those here for short term relief.  The ones that she doesn’t want to think about; the ones that touch her soul, have this look of going under.  A reality, she sometimes believes, close to her own.    

Once, to make her smile, Stan said ‘reality is a crutch for people who can’t handle their addictions.’  That’s Stan.  His outlook always hearty, his manner kind, he’s done his best during Kev’s disappearance.  She’s grateful but Yvonne is still as empty as last weekend’s beer keg.  Overturned to drain. 

There is a group, friends of the band, who are close to the right age.  They might know something of Kev.  Her heart leaps and then collapses with pain sharper than no hope at all.  Why would they know anything, even if they were her son’s classmates?  These kids have no handicaps and no concern for anyone but themselves; to expect anything from them is a trip down hopeless avenue. 

She takes their order and starts back. 

“You look like shit.” 

Her brother would have to be here.  Yvonne’s intent had been to pass by where he sat with his cronies.  Maybe then she wouldn’t tell him off, or call him a useless bastard.  When she doesn’t stop, Sonny calls after her. 

“What did you expect me to do?  The police said Kev was all right.” 

At least she doesn’t have to explain why she’s pissed with him. 

“Really sis?” he says before she is out of earshot. “Kev’s legally an adult.  That means he’s too old to be brought home by the police.  If you don’t get that, maybe you’re the hopeless case.” 

Sonny looks to his table mates for approval but their attention is caught by something in their lap, or across the room.  They don’t challenge his words but that non-action is a different thing than respect.

At the counter, Yvonne listens as Stan explains a drink order but when he asks how she’s doing, hot tears gush into her eyes.  Stan lips are tight as he looks out at the drinkers.  

“Forget your brother.  It would break his mind to admit he’s wrong.” 

That is all he says but somehow his words move Yvonne on.  No one is a hopeless case.  It’s complicated being Kev’s mother.  There is a snarl of guilt as she tries to protect and yet not kill his spirit. 

Sonny means to help.  He is so sure he has the answer for them when the programs for Kev end.  ‘Let him be a farmer, get some pigs, there’s pens at the old place, both of you can live there.  Kev can hang around with me and learn the ropes.  What do you say Sis?  Do you have a better plan?’

She hadn’t.  But before Sonny does any real good he explodes with her and Kev; his way or the highway.  The example seemed to unleash something in Kev; from then on his temper becomes worse. 

This assessment is true, but for now Yvonne needs to focus on her work.  She arrives at another table.  A hand reaches out and pats hers. 

“Have you heard from Kev?  We’re all praying for his safe return.” The woman half stands, as though she’s going to give a hug. 

Yvonne blinks against her tears.  She has long ago soured on such bungling kindness but this is unexpected.  She brushes her eyes with her sleeve before she sets the bottles down.   

“I just have to hang in here.”  She supplies the words that are the only ones she will take.  “Or keep it together. Eh?”  Then to distract she asks if they’ve a name for the band. 

Apparently someone has.  Unknown Bandits is written on the blackboard.  Yvonne sees Sonny stomping towards the band.   His voice booms through the bar. 

“Ain’t no name for a band, because it ain’t no joke.  Thieves are picking on this community. But here’s a name for you.  Dead Men Tell No Tales.”   Sonny smacks the corner of the blackboard.

“I tell you, if the thieves come to my farm, I’ll give them both barrels and let them bleed out.  That’s what they deserve, and that’s what they’ll get.” 

The guitarist responds with the opening notes of a popular song, at first hesitant then stronger with repetition as the other band members join in.  The tense moment slides by. Yvonne lets out a held breath; her brother’s bluster is often a problem, but perhaps not tonight.  He retreats to his table, his face stormy as he dares anyone who does not share his opinion.  Someone pushes a beer in front of him and with that Yvonne feels she can return to her customers.    

“Last night two vehicles were stolen, and a bunch of tools.” The kind woman tells Yvonne, a breathy bit of news.  “At least no one has been hurt.  Sonny hasn’t any idea what might happen if the thieves were confronted.  It could get ugly.  I hope no one ends up dead.”  

Hope.  All Yvonne can hope for is that Kev is not in trouble and will come home to her.  Then she stuffs those wishes down to let her job occupy her. 

While the band might be nameless but they are in tune and their energy is appealing and the crowd seems determined to enjoy their evening.  She delivers drinks.  She passes Sonny’s table. Her brother informs all that will listen about his neighborhood watch.  His one-man safety check-in with local farmers included Kev’s company more than once.  That seemed to work.  With Kev along people didn’t turn him away quite as fast.  Sonny isn’t above using any advantage.  He’s even asked her to let him know anything suspicious she learns at work.  As if she wants to spy for him. 

She delivers another drink order for the group that came with the band when a young man tugs at her arm. 

“We need another option.” He tells her.

Yvonne doesn’t catch the words over the music.  “What?”    

“For the ‘name the band’ blackboard,” he says with precision, like she is slow-witted.  Just as Kev’s workers would dumb their words so she would grasp their latest integration strategy or some experiment in behavior-modification. 

Yvonne looks at the blackboard. 

“We need another name,” He repeats.  

Lucky Bastards?  Crushed Hopes? 

Yvonne shakes her head.  “Sorry.  Let me take your empties.”

“Let Me Take Your Empties!  That’s rich!”  Laughter shimmers on their faces. 

They must be their parent’s pride and joy with friends and futures that they take for granted. 

Yvonne’s throat tightens. 

No such fortune for Kev.  The system is useless.  The programs and integration models are empty.  Yet Yvonne went along thinking there would be answers.  Swayed by the professionals, swayed by her brother’s farm raised ways.  Even Stan, the daydream believer, would have her believe a solution could be found.  But when there isn’t a clear Kev question, how could you expect an answer?  No miracles workers ever found.  No miracle.       

Still she does want a miracle.  Just one, small, she’ll-never-ask-for-anything-else, miracle.  To have Kev back home.  To see love for his mother in his eyes.  Her own eyes avoid the mirror behind the bar, she knows how worry has paled her skin, aged her.  Her head bows and blinking back more tears she slips off one shoe to rub her foot. 

“Take a break.” Stan says with a nod at her cigarettes. 

A moment of calm with a cigarette is irresistible.  She grabs her coat and heads out the exit.   Maybe she can finally quit… if Kev comes back…when Kev is safe at home. 

Intent on her mission, Yvonne has the cigarette in her mouth and her lighter clicked before the door closes behind her.  Then, beyond the glowing end of her cigarette, she sees moving figures in the parking lot.  Doors being tested, a low call ‘this one.’ 

Yvonne yells.  “What the hell are you doing?  Get away from here.” 

A vehicle parked in the ally roars to life, as one person bolts towards it.  Another figure grabs the arm of the third. 

“Come on Dummy, we have to move!”

Yvonne recognizes the hesitation.  It’s Kev.  Her son is with the thieves. 

“Kev! Kevin Robert, come here.”  Yvonne rushes towards her son. “This is wrong.  Come here.”
“You can’t stop me.”  Kev brings up an arm, a tire iron in his hand.  “These are my friends.  They like me.  You don’t like me.” 

He moves towards her; the tire iron swings.  His shadow is huge.  Then he brings his weapon down on the windshield of her vehicle.  Then they are gone. 

If she had tried to stop him and grabbed his arm, would Kev have hit her?  Yes.  Yvonne knew. 

“Is everything all right?”  Stan calls from the doorway.  He sees the broken windshield.  “What happened? 

“Thieves. They were about to steal a truck.”  Yvonne’s arms fly wild, her cigarette end an arching point of light.  Her breathing tears at the bottom of her lungs; her ribs deliver sharp jabs of pain. 

“We’ll have to phone the police.   Tell everyone what happened.”  Stan ushers Yvonne back inside. 

Yvonne knows that Stan is doing the right thing.  But would it be all right, if she hopes the thieves get away?  Would it be all right if she hopes they are caught?  Would it be all right if she cried, or screamed, or wept?  

Inside, everyone talks at once.  Sonny’s voice is the loudest.

“The band is in on it,” he states.  “Why else did the thieves hit here?  Right here, when there was too much noise and we wouldn’t notice anything.” 

The band and their friends look alarmed at Sonny’s accusation, but mostly the patrons ignore him.  While some put on their coats, the band begins another song.  Yvonne moves close to Stan to tell him Kev was with the thieves.  What his reaction will be, she doesn’t know, she just knows that she badly needs a kind word.  She can smell his warmth, a waft of aftershave.  But Sonny grabs Yvonne’s arm as he announces his intentions. 

Stan will have to handle the bar alone, Sonny proclaims.  He’s taking his sister home.  He’s the neighborhood watch person.  He will drive around and see if he can find the bastards.  Yvonne has no strength to overrule her brother; his grip alone makes her wince. 

In a few minutes they are on the road.  They speed through the night, in Sonny’s truck, over the rough country roads as every pothole jars Yvonne deeper into her worry.  The headlights bring fragments of the road into view so fast that she no longer knows where they are.  Sonny’s mission of vengeance frightens her beyond any fear she has ever known but Kev, among the thieves, alarms her more. 

How did this come to be?

Then Yvonne has her inkling.  When Sonny took Kev with him, he pointed out how certain things could be stolen from neighboring farmyards.  Kev could remember what was said.  She guesses the next step would have been for the thieves to befriend Kev, to find out what he knew.  Easy pickings. 

Unconsciously she rubs at her wrist as other aches echo in her shoulders and ribcage.   The entire list of her mistakes, right back to Kev’s conception has to now include Sonny’s influence. 

Her regrets are like stones in her stomach but what will be next?  Jail time for Kev?  Her petitioning for mercy?  Everyone knowing what her son has done? 

She stares as the darkness reaches in, withdraws briefly in the headlights then enfolds everything behind them.  

Then they are at their destination.  Sonny lets Yvonne off at her farmhouse door and speeds away, her door barely shut behind her. 

She wants to search for Kev, even knowing she would be in danger.  First she has to stop shivering; all warmth has abandoned her.  First she has to get over this dizziness; the ground sways as she tries to take a step.     

She should have told her brother about Kev, but then she’d have to hear again how Kev is a hopeless case. What if Sonny is right?  A whimper escapes her lips.  She should go to Stan.  But he deserves the whole truth.      

When the squeals grow louder and more desperate, she realizes the noise has been there since she got home.  She reaches the pen to find a sow hung up in the barbed wire, broken legged and cut deeply.  The blood has sent the other animals into frenzy.  For a moment Yvonne rocks back and forth, her hands over her ears lest she join the mayhem. 

What is she to do?  She forces herself to stop gulping air.  If she were at the bar, she’d use whatever force necessary to keep the peace.  A plan forms; good or bad.  Shakily she retrieves the double barreled shotgun and loads it, just as she would get help to approach an unruly table of drinkers.  She shoots the trapped and bloody sow with a single fatal round.  The sow drops heavily, instantly inert and lifeless.

The other pigs scramble away to the far end of the pen; they have no loyalty to their companion’s plight.  Then Yvonne locks the sows away from the dead animal so they are away from the source of their distress.  If only someone could do the same for her.  

“This was an escape plan.  You must have thought there was a way out.”  She faces the bloody dead sow. 

“Kev… he purposefully shoved me away from him.” 

Then she lets the memory come whole to her.  She is on the floor and she was down.  Her wrist fails her, pained and yet numb as she tries to get up.  She hears Kev’s growl, she sees his ugly sneer and then his boot comes at her and her ribs send fireworks into her brain.  As she curls up in pain, he walks out of the house. 

Was his get-away ride waiting?  For his actions, she understands now, fit into a plan of the thieves.  A plan he agreed to, and without regrets, as an image reawakens of how Kev brought the tire iron down on her vehicle in the bar parking lot.  There was such force that it would have killed her had she been under it.  This happened.  His success.  Her failure. 

She hears a vehicle drive into the yard.  Sonny?  Stan? 

No.  The thieves! They are at her fuel tank.  She steps out where they can see her, the shotgun like a third leg at her side. 

“Don’t do this Kev.” she begs her son.  “Let him alone.” She beseeches the others.

Someone laughs.  Kev swings his tire iron, the way he used to swing his favorite toys when he was a child, his ears delighted by the swish of air.  Those remembered toys and now the very real tire iron.  Kev is coming fast, like an animal gone bad.  His eyes alight with fulfillment, satisfaction.  Energy. 

He bears down on her. 

She understands.  She has to save him from himself.  That answer is pressure on the trigger. 

This is how.  The thieves running away.  This ending.  Kev’s whole sorry life is over.  Her son silent and so still. 

Can the dead forgive? 

No longer able to look at her son’s body, no longer able to know what she has done, no longer able to explain anything, she turns out the yard light.  All is silent.  The stars overhead disappear one by one. 

What remains is the afterimage.

*


Liz Betz is enjoying her retirement pastime of writing short fiction which has been published in a variety of markets.   She writes from rural Alberta.  Afterimage was one of the most difficult pieces that she has ever written.  Now she is extremely happy to have it published with Danforth Review.


Fiction #76: Nick Rayner

A Hand Cuts Through The Smoke

When they split the trees and walked through them like corpsified yawns, most of the cities were already abandoned. The concern of encroaching dust was still a dull vibration. I was the last of my kind to listen to the car alarms choke out.  My name is Winston and I am an elephant.

I spent my entire life in the metropolitan zoo before the skies within all the individuals cracked open, revealing baffling fractals. Every day was exactly the same. They gave me a tire. It was me, the tire, and the memories I had stacked neatly like obtuse bricks in a building that jarred and shook every time I tried to scan its perimeter.

People came to see me, mostly children, and from what I understood I was viewed as different from the rest of the creatures there. I remember a time before I got there, staring up at the clouds through the half-light just before dusk and I could see the moon. Then down at the horizon there were thick pillars of smoke that solidified in columns near the bottom. There was water all around me. I can’t remember if I was coming or going.

“He’s the only one we have left, and the only one we’ll have for a long time. The sanctuary’s not even taking anymore.”

They came to me with reverence, their eyes tuned differently. I saw it countless times, I saw them walk over from the meerkats and switch out their faces along the way. Three faces in total. One boy in particular came by more than the others, around once a month. He had red hair and a round face, and he always wore fingerless gloves because he was ready for action. He always came with an older man who may have been his grandfather, and I got the feeling he came just for me. I would approach as close as I was able; he always had a blue shirt on, and I heard his name was Richard. I felt an indescribable connection to him. Something foregrounded him against it all like a cloudbreached wingtip. He didn’t care about the meerkats.

Richard had been coming to my exhibit for 10 years until people found out. He wouldn’t come as often and by the end he was coming only once per season, but it was still good to see him grow up. We grew up together. I’m not certain how the discovery was made, but word travelled fast and within a week everybody knew. Researchers at Emaytee University discovered that my kind were reincarnated humans. They told everyone just like that, very plainly. They said “elephants have the consciousness of people who have died” and that was the start of it.

“There’s no way we can communicate directly with them, but we’ve been developing a more nuanced pictorial system to see if we can see what memories they have.”

I knew they were right. I knew the vague architecture of those obtuse bricks but I couldn’t get the full scope of it. More people came to see me for a while. Richard came to see me more often too, and they were all talking to me. They were all asking me questions. I couldn’t respond to them vocally. They left me gifts, ornaments, books. They were crying. There were hundreds of elephants in captivity in this country back then. I would guess it was the same everywhere. They threw letters and I read what I could, getting help from the caretaker who worshipped me. She had blonde hair and freckles all over her face, and of course her green uniform. She didn’t talk to me like she was lesser than me, I remember that the most. She would ask me questions that didn’t need to be answered, and then she would look into my eyes and interpret my reaction somehow. I saw her eyes change too. Three facial epochs, and then she stopped coming around. They all did.

Later I would discover that this was forbidden knowledge. Humans were not supposed to discover this. By the time the first reports swept halfway around the world it was already too late. Everyone was talking about it and their minds began to fragment. A network of interlocked crystals cracked, separated, and adrift amid themselves like a broken ice sheet. The cost of learning forbidden knowledge is the mind breaks. By the end of the week everyone had skitsofrennya.

“While not directly responsible it’s impossible to ignore the appearance of entirely new constellations in the sky and what random coincidence could possibly cause that.

I watched them all change over that first week, I thought it was because of the excitement but it was something else. The letters started to change. Richard was there, I saw him high up looking down on me. His grandfather wasn’t there anymore. The letters were talking about how the forests – or the woods – were the only way to make sense of any of this.

Everyone came to the same conclusion. Some of them included drawings. The caretaker showed them to me. She even interpreted them for me, in her own way. She added layers of meaning I didn’t grant them, before deciding that the letters were hazardous. She collected them and read them to herself and then took them back beyond the door. I never knew her name. I knew everyone else’s name except hers. She’s the one who helped get me out once they decided that being locked up was no way to treat her esteemed ancestor.

Most of the other elephants in the country were being released around this time. Not all of them, but the majority of them by the end of that first week were out and walking around. All the ones that were my age had taken in enough second-hand information to know certain things, like elephant sanctuaries. It always came up at one time or another, so we knew they existed. Some were lucky and knew where they were, so they started to figure out how to get there.

Skitsofrennya is like trying to solve a puzzle of something you’ve never seen before while someone you can’t see holds a gun to your head. I saw it in the letters, I saw it in the streets. I saw it in their missions. Undeniable facts collide with unknown circumstances and create unknowable fictions that have more truth at the end then when they began. There were sounds everywhere but nobody in sight; a thousand busy hands crafting solutions each tectonic in their breadth and umbilical in depth. A distant explosion, an enormous map sketched on the wall in chalk, the rapid gulping of a tire fire made to light improvised meetings.

“I need to go out and find the darkness. True darkness, and the quiet. That’s where the answers are. I didn’t understand at first but it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

I knew Richard was out there somewhere. Back then anything was possible. I saw a woman try to pull out a map from an infant’s belly and watched the morbid awareness frost her nerves before, unfortunately, thawing very shortly after. It wasn’t chaos in the streets, it was merely abandoned lives and the ways they kick up in the wind after days in the unreal coolness. Vehicles piloted by supervenomed half-decisions parked respectably in preposterous locations. Manifestos scrawled upon walls with fine attention to typeface. Whatever new death was indoors. The terms of the contract were scratched out but they still waved it above their heads with bolded importance.

They say dormant familiarities fired back up with turgid flickers. Something deep inside the people was leading them away from the cities – away from the zoo I was born in– and into the outskirts. They were walking towards the trees; a slow trickle at first, but by the end of the second week there was mostly nobody. The violent ones remained, unable to decipher what was given to them. I had to tread lightly around them and the broadening horizons of their machinations.

A man with long, greasy brown hair squatted on the curb and biting his finger, staring at a sunflower with a cigarette stuck in it and seeing a kaleidoscope of sensible architectures I’ve tried so hard to even witness. I was looking for Richard. Maybe he hadn’t left the city like the rest of them. Is what I told myself.

“It’s just prisons and prisons, all the way back.”

Out in the forests of the world, when the people were ascending into the pseudozone, there was a dank and total quivering. Prior to the grand exodus, a grand replacement was reaching the last stages of planning.

Out in the forests there was an emergence. From the trees shunted thousands upon thousands of creatures not of this world, lying in wait as they were for hundreds of years up in the verticals. They took the forms of children, clean and clothed and spry as a spiral, and climbed out from the centres of the woodwork fingers first. They stepped foot to Earth and began walking towards the cities at the behest of magnetism what churned like leviathan wake. Their camouflage coughed and refined with every shadow cast upon them. Under the hypnotic shadows of branches in the wind, they passed through beneath as refractions wrestled into form.

We would learn later they were extraterrestrials; colonists from an impossible crucible who were alarmed at the opportunity presented to them, and rightly so. They were cautiously delighted at how easy the colonisation proved to be, evidenced by their plan of attack which wasn’t altogether well coordinated. Who knows how long they’d been lurking beneath the barkwork. As the people of the world were losing their minds the aliens moved in disguised as the fuel the people ought never question. They convinced men and women they were their children, or their siblings, or their cousins.

Their intelligence was a richer soil than ours and their horticulture was much more advanced. If they had tried to convince me I was one of them I wager they could have done it. I saw a girl with blonde hair convince a heavily armed woman that she was her deceased daughter. Within 20 minutes she was on her knees embracing her. Even when they weren’t talking their mouths were moving, mouthing conflicting syllables.

“You’re right, if we don’t look out for each other nobody will. I’ll protect you.”

As the people were leaving the populated areas as maddened scattershot into the wild, the doppelgangers were colliding into the lengthening tendrils. They found perfect stock to ingratiate themselves, and within hours each one of them had found either a host or community. They convinced some they were children, they convinced some they were cousins, they had so long to prepare for every scenario and still some were discovered. Staccato alarms, quickly a soft dissolve. It leads one to believe they had to improvise. I wasn’t there. I was looking for Richard.

Richard was grown when I found him. He never changed his hairstyle over the years, it’s what stood out the most when I caught him networking a room full of computers together for some sourness no doubt. He had a friend, a younger boy who was standing nearby and supervising. Richard knew computers very well and whatever had him staying behind in that bombastic mausoleum must have been important. He had bigger fingerless gloves then, and he was so engrossed in his work he didn’t see me come up behind him.

When he finally drank in the reality of the situation I could tell he was processing it, having at least the wherewithal to know his mind could be paying tricks on him. It was the first time we met as equals. He lifted his hand to touch me but pulled back at the last second.

“Do you know this elephant, Richard?”

The boy with him wouldn’t tell me his name and his pupils concaved into metaphysically horrid gorges. Over the course of the day he would speak almost exclusively about dreams. He never once said that they were dreams he had before, he just wanted to know what Richard dreamed about and would talk about some dreams in the abstract. Richard didn’t talk anymore. He would look at you and amplified emotion flashed across his face, but I couldn’t talk to him either. It was perfect. I’d always looked up to him, and he smiled down on me. He smiled to communicate – a robbed utility - but that was enough. I would watch him work and I would remember standing as still as stairs in an underground room, chains tied all around my neck and body. The door opened and on the other side was a wall of fire.

It was another week before the lights went out. Long days of tinkering and reading books in silence, punctuated by Richard staring intently into nowhere. The boy never ate and he didn’t seem to notice. He listened, mostly. He listened to the boy talk about dreams as anecdotes, then as myth. He pretended I wasn’t there.

We sat in a gutted electronics storefront and scanned the silence in unison during breaks in the unilateral conversation. The last newspapers before the exodus were unhinged at best, blowing down the street like sarcastic tumbleweeds. We made a fire every night even though we didn’t need to, right on the sidewalk. Without the artificial light everything was blue in the evening. How many had died since it started?

Our boy took a special interest with the scene, standing just beyond the puddle of waste below the hovering sneakers. Another child – a young girl with olive skin in a horizontal striped dress – was standing there staring up at him. She never strayed far from the area and would return periodically to survey the latest ellipses in this run-on tragedy. Our boy approached her while Richard was busy with his work in the storefront. They stood so close their faces were nearly touching; their mouths were moving ever so slightly but they were blinking in frantic bursts. I couldn’t get close enough to see what they were saying, if anything. After they talked she stopped coming around.

“There was a dream once, this one time, there was a cup of blood being poured into a cup of gold and the man wasn’t able to look away. He could tell there was a dog at his feet being put down with a needle. He tried to kneel down while looking at the cups but he couldn’t move. Isn’t that something?”

The day Richard jettisoned his project was the day I convinced him to leave with me. The boy seemed pleased with this development. A rogue singularity blew a hole through his mind and his posture betrayed a reinterpretation of his size. He had it all figured out until he didn’t, and those moments of clarity where he would attempt to ocularly impregnate the ether happened with increasing frequency. The only thing I knew we could do was meet up with the others at one of the elephant sanctuaries in the South. I’d never been there before but I knew where to go, it all seemed so familiar. I remembered sitting on a long beach, untouched by humanity, a dead dog sitting before me in the tide. A fountain of water exploded somewhere to the right.

Before the fall and recolonization I knew some were even being shuttled there with the assumption that if there were enough of us in one place something wonderful might happen. I was betting the same. The last of our kind milling around a charismatic necropolis; that had to make us special, somehow.

To get to the sanctuary, we had to go through the Caliphant. In short, it was a destabilized warzone wherein warring elephant poachers fought each other for an unattainable supremacy. Guns and trucks, bombs and chains, I don’t think they wanted to kill each other so much as they wanted to win. Grand conspiracies governed some of the skirmishes, vendettas governed others. At one point the elephants were no longer targeted. The sanctuary was haloed by a pockmarked crust dotted with burned out vehicle husks and hacked up campsites. A murder of dirt bikes rev up behind a low hill, burning danked-up effigies to scare off wanderers; wicked tongues lashing against the retreating light along the horizon.

“What do you think he wants with us, Richard? It reminds me of a dream I heard about, this village was built on the mouth of a dormant volcano that went right to the center of the Earth and all these bats started coming out of the pipes and bathtubs and wells. And guess what, they all had human faces!”

It took us two weeks of walking to get there, my presence enthralling more often than enraging. Nobody had pieced together that the global mental breakdown was at all related to the knowledge of our shared history.  All along the way, the boy held secret congress with other children whom nothing adhered to; after who knows how long out in the wilderness and the crash, they remained pristine. Camping out by a gas station converted into an artist’s colony comma armory, a group of eight of them had congregated around back, out there just beyond the lantern, out there in the half-light. Various colours but uniform height, the similarities came into sharp relief when standing side by side. Under the light of the full moon they stood face-to-face and communicated with whispers and coded blinks. They knew I was watching them and we knew they were watching us, the time soon came that we didn’t try to hide it.

The closer we got, the more their numbers grew. By the time we arrived at the edge of the Caliphant, there was 30 of them skulking around in the refuse what spiderwebbed from each milestone. When we got to the narrow reach of the Caliphant, all we had to do was listen for engines and weave in-betweens the remnants of the effigies. We came across discarded rifles but Richard paid them no mind. I trusted his judgment. I remembered standing in a closet and looking through the crack as huge men draped in black leather stormed through the house, taking all the people from the village and gathering them outside. They pulled a woman out of the bathroom by the hair and she was screaming something I couldn’t understand.

The sanctuary was a plain sheet of desolation, crumpled and flattened like cash. In the falling of dusk it looked like a desert in a costume. We searched every body of water for other elephants and found none. We found them collected together, betrayed by a lone infant elephant standing motionless by a cliff. It wouldn’t look at me when I approached, indeed as I tried to get its attention it stood inert. I wasn’t able to communicate with him the way I could with Lucy, my partner at the zoo who was taken away to a similar place. I could communicate in all the ways I couldn’t with Richard, through the memories. We could share and implant memories within each other, stamping out marks on them if we please. It’s a tremendous responsibility and can be truly uncomfortable, but is incredible for comedy. We found the rest of the group by following where it was staring. It was there I met Hugo, the de-facto leader working on how to solve the problem. The problem was that ever since the fall of the mind of the world, all the newborn elephants were coming out blank; no minds to speak of.

Cornered as they were, they remained industrious. The corkscrew trails of goofed rockets defined the boundaries of their sandbox. The elephants – many of them recent arrivals - were aware of the madness plaguing the world and the bizarre behavior of the former emperors, our people. We were aware the knowledge was forbidden, although we could do nothing to control it. While the people of the world were still staked by the direness the elephants would die out within 2 generations at most. Total mind death, then total genetic death. And certainly everyone else would die, eventually replaced by the false child interlopers. There, gathered together around crescent of still water encircled by aerobic trees, they reasoned that the only way to fix it all was with additional forbidden knowledge. They came to this conclusion after looking at the facts. Like the omnipresent symphonic membrane of creation gathering in a single peak, it all came together, but I had to see it first. Richard tended to the empty elephant, staring intently into its eyes.

They had created their own towering effigy, and it was unclear who was influenced by whom but I am clear on where my biases lie. It was a massive structure made from carved wood, an insurmountable task for those without thumbs. Standing 15 feet tall and constructed with the assistance of the cliff, it was a crudely cobbled rune which, reinforced by the carvings, could only be pieced together with the correctly tuned faculties. A giant symbol crafted to communicate one specific message to the witness with the punch of time collapsing into a palmed shell.

The message was gleaned from secret observations of the extraterrestrials communicating with each other; they were so brazen about the colonization they openly spoke in a language they assumed nobody could hear or understand. Victory polluted their sensibility, apparently. They managed to interpret key phrases and concepts from the eye movements in conjunction with the lips. Some were captured and over time revealed unreal pressure points. Their speech was their greatest asset. Their language could wreak havoc on the uninitiated. They could convince anyone of anything.

When Richard looked upon it I saw the dawn of a new epoch. Consigned to madness and thrust back again, he brought back a strange new energy. His condition allowed him to see patterns he could not see before, his damnation granting him the very key to his escape. I saw it in his eyes, a galaxy unfolding and fluttering in a cosmic wind of enlightenment. He came back stronger, just like they knew he would. Just like I had hoped. When he looked at me, we were back in the zoo. I looked down on Richard for the first time since we first met all those years ago. He placed his hand upon my face with tears rolling down his dirty cheeks.

It’s how we would get them all back. Their ascendance back into the flawed and managed world would come from their own distant spirits pulling them through the fire. The burns would remain. The burns were necessary. When dawn crept across the deep and the Caliphant trickled in, the awestriking wave travelled fast and blossomed within them in minutes. Electricity exploding from alarming dimensions. Armed and wounded, the symmetries of reality became apparent. Emerging from the dream of the forest – a dream of the past, of the beginning – they might find a use for us relics what dream with more vivid palettes. 

Upon a nearby hill, the sky was backgrounded in a way I hadn’t seen for years. 30 of the children were gathered and looking on; hands clutched in unnatural configurations, their heads hanging forward as if too heavy for their necks. They were different, with gnashing teeth for eyes and jaws hanging open, loose. Thin red strings emerged from their throats and inched forward slowly like accusatory fingers. Dead faces. They were dry and cracked and the ground was wet around their feet. Their teeth moved independently, possessed by an abyssal rhythm. A library with the ground slaughtering itself beneath it. Everyone was quiet.

The Caliphant readied their weapons. If it would come to war it would be an unfamiliar war, under an evolved lamplight with beams woven through with billowing insectoid curtains.

Did you get all that?

Now what shape would you draw all that as?

*

Based in Toronto, Nick Rayner is the Director of Rayner Marketing Consulting and former editor of online horror publication Tandem Region Times. His personal site is milliondollarcuffs.com.

Fiction #76: Robert Lake

A Suture in Time

During the reading of stingy Aunt Hattie’s  will by her corrupt lawyer, mouthpiece Alastair Capon, Pinocchio quivers like an arrow’s shaft in a dying deer’s haunch. His long needle-thin nose dribbles. He panics! He faces pitiful prolonged poverty. His dream of wedding and bedding Eurydice, so far above him in stature, social class and purity, her petite nose erotic, becomes road kill, a porcupine squashed by a Harley Davidson.  Eurydice’s the widow of his best friend, Orpheus, who was shredded by furious women for making love to only men, although never to Pinocchio, who believes that Eurydice is a virgin. Maybe so, but Eurydice hides from Pinocchio that she has many lustful suitors.

Nickel-nursing Aunt Hattie had been a repository of self flattering smug quotes “only an aunt can give hugs like a mother, keep secrets like a sister and share love like a friend” and left to Pinocchio only a factory, Tiffany Threads, in bankruptcy protection. Once Tiffany Threads, white, gold, black as an assassin’s heart, and red as fiery as Hell’s furnace, were found in homes everywhere women mended. Tiffany Thread catalogues had been collectors’ items. Now Pinocchio is liable for stingy Aunt Hattie’s estate’s debts. Alastair Capon recommends the services of Angus Heap, an Inuit descendant of Uriah Heap, Charles Dickens’ smarmy villain.

Angus is tall, glib and spindly, despite gobbling large portions of Neapolitan ice cream. He’s constantly in heat, ghostly white, not at all like Pinocchio’s expectations of an Inuit from Greenland. Angus speedily identifies the hazards facing Tiffany Threads

“Nobody sews or mends in our go go world. I shall call you Piny, rhymes with tiny, which you are, except for that ludicrously extended nose,” he says in a broth of Scotch accent, scrubbed of any stains of Greenlandic . “Fashionistas buy clothes they wear for two weeks and trash. The poor buy disposable clothes at Wal-Mart. Hand me downs are so last century.”

“You mean mending’s passé?” asks a gobsmacked Piny, who hates being called Piny although Eurydice thinks it cute. Meadow, squat, swarthy, pig nosed and devoted to Piny, often asks if he loves Eurydice. “No!” he replies, his nose growing with each denial.

“By the way, who is that hot babe?” wonders Angus.

“Eurydice. Don’t call the purest women alive a hot babe!” replies Piny.

“Pure? What a waste, “says Angus.

“She’s a widow.”

“Fantastic. She can’t be pure.”

“Is so!”

“Does she insist on rubbers?”

“Rubbers? What are they?” asks Piny.

“French letters. Condoms. Hate them,” replies Angus.

“My goddess has no need of them,” insists Piny.

“Oh, sure. Let’s move on. Garbage dumps overflow with castoff clothing. I recommend an advertising blitz to extol the virtues of thread, particularly candy cane coloured,” says Angus.

“What if it doesn’t work?” asks Piny.

“Failing means you’re playing. It will only cost three hundred thousand. If it works you’ll be rich. If it fails, what’s another few thousands to a bankrupt short man?”

Piny, who still bears the scars of his aunt’s gibes that he’s a stunted dwarf, stifles his holy urge to head butt the scrotum of Angus, who promises the advertising crusade will exploit the time-fatigue of 21st century serfs of capitalism.  “They’ll do anything to snatch a few minutes of free time. We’ll make them believe that buying Tiffany Threads’ stitches, particularly marigold yellow, will save them time. I’ve already got a slogan: a stitch in time saves fourteen!”

“How about a suture in time saves thirteen?” replies Piny. Meadow thinks that correction classy

“Yer bum’s oot the windae,” says Angus.

“What’s that mean in English?” asks Piny.

“You’re talking no sense, wee guy,” grins Angus.

Once again, and not for the last time, Piny resists his righteous impulse to head butt Angus’ scrotum and pierce it with his long sharp nose. Angus surmises that Piny is thinking of sacking him and regains lost ground by saying, “Guid gear comes in sma’ bulk.” Piny no longer asks for translations, merely looking up Scots’ language expressions on the internet, where he reads that good things come in small packages. Meadow, who distrusts Angus like poison oak with autumn red leaves, suspects that’s where the phony Scot gleans Scottish lingo.

Angus smacks his forehead. “A stitch in time save fourteen won’t work. Nor will thirteen or fifteen. They don’t rhyme. I’ve got, I’ve got it.” He hoists Piny over his head and gleefully whirls him on an extended arm. Meadow begs Angus to land Piny on solid ground.

“Can’t set Piny down. Ye make  a better door than a windae,” says Angus.

“Stop whirling me like a sea sick helicopter,” pleads Piny, who wants to blow his long needle-thin nose, difficult under any circumstances, but impossible while being twirled by a spindly Inuit.

“I’ve got it, I’ve got it. A stitch in time saves nine,” exults Angus. “We’ll swell the thread market to include not just women, but men and transgender sorts.”

“Suture in time saves nine!” says Piny. Meadow thinks suture is terrific.

“If she’s a Meadow, watch out for thistles,” warns Angus, who agrees to try Piny’s version and launches  an advertising campaign on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and every social media thread buyers surf. Angus doesn’t ignore traditional media and buys two-page spreads in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle and more. Soon the slogan “suture in time saves nine” prances brightly through the dreams of fashionistas and welfare freeloaders. Piny gleefully orders Tiffany Threads’ workers to labour overtime to fill the avalanche of sales he anticipates. They refuse. They haven’t been paid for months.

“Fucking arsehole socialists!” says Eurydice. Piny’s shocked. Where was such vulgarity forced upon a pure goddess? Eurydice informs shop steward, Stuart Stuart, that she wants Piny to move Tiffany Threads to Pakistan. “Workers there don’t demand benefits, other than a daily bowl of rice with lentils.”

“We may be arseholes, but not socialists, we’d vote Trump if we were Americans,” shop steward, Stuart Stuart, replies.

“Hey, Piny, Eurydice wants to know what a suture is,” Angus interrupts. He’s bought her a kilt, a very short kilt, an immodest kilt, a tam and Highland dancing shoes, a vision that arouses Piny mightily. Meadow shudders with jealousy.

“That Meadow’s going to seed,” observes Angus.

“Angus, you bogus Scot, you’re fired.. Stuff those Scottish sayings and shun Eurydice!” exclaims Piny.

“It’s a lang road that’s no goat a turnin,” replies Angus. “Scrap up another five hundred thousand and I’ll launch another advertising campaign using a stitch in time saves nine.”

Piny has no chance of raising half a million, he confides to Eurydice, a canny investor. She buys a chunk of Tiffany Threads, despite Piny’ worries that this might eat into the insurance settlement she’d scammed from the women who shredded Orpheus. 

“I’ll chat up anybody I like, including Inuit Scots,” Eurydice saucily announces, inflaming Piny’s jealousy, reddening the tip of his nose, limping his erection and heartening Meadow. She naively believes Piny will finally see through the artifices of Eurydice and welcome her to his bed, despite her pig nose.

Once again Angus posts ads on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and every social media thread buyers surf. Angus doesn’t ignore traditional media and takes two-page spreads in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle and more. To attract male stitchers he buys time on the World Series and the Superbowl. He places ads in Frock magazine and in FTM magazine. Soon the slogan “a stitch in time saves nine” dances vividly through the dreams of fashionistas and welfare freeloaders, men, women and the transgendered.

On line orders for threads, pink, purple, chartreuse, black, white, brown, and a new colour, Neapolitan, named by Angus after his favourite three-coloured ice cream, crash the webpage of Tiffany Threads. Fortunately, Meadow, a computer nerd with a nose like a snout, rescues the webpage, ignored by Piny who catches Angus sneaking Eurydice spools of Neapolitan thread and blowing her kisses. Surely, goddess Eurydice won’t be seduced by a Greenland Inuit, who is often short of cash and borrows from Piny to pay his credit cards. But canny Angus is raking in filthy lucre in buckets: he’s established with Eurydice a line of clothing, called MendMeNow,  that needs urgent mending, jeans with knee holes, blouses with missing buttons, ripped leggings, Cardigans with dangling zippers and most enticingly blouses with ripped bodices. Fashionistas buy racks of MendMeNow clothes, which they need to use all their thread.

Though now incredibly rich, Piny despairs. Angus and Eurydice flourish. Meadow in her melancholy brainstorms for projects to rescue Piny from his slough of despond.

“Sutures! Sutures! Dissolvable sutures!” she exclaims.

Piny has never heard of dissolvable sutures.

“Doctors will call them absorbable sutures after you invent them.” Meadow urges.

“Why doesn’t Eurydice answer my text message?”

Meadow ignores Piny’s still simmering infatuation with Eurydice and explains the need for absorbable sutures. Sutures are stitches used in surgery to bind wounds and joints. But they require follow-up appointments to remove the stitches and robust stitches can hurt the wound.

“If you could invent a stitch that would dissolve, you would be a benefactor of humanity,” says Meadow.

Piny enlists the help of Stuart Stuart, shop steward at Tiffany Threads, who loathes Eurydice and her surveillance cameras that limit workers trips to the john for snorts of cocaine. She plans to wheedle Piny into agreeing to shift Tiffany Threads to Bangladesh, where workers don’t lodge complaints or seek raises. Stuart Stuart realizes that inventing dissolvable sutures might distract Piny from pining for Eurydice and finds a secluded area of the factory, free of Eurydice’s surveillance cameras. Piny works feverishly without success, still pining for Eurydice, who bombards him with email for his agreement to shift Tiffany Threads to Burma or wherever workers come cheap. Stuart Stuart intercepts these emails and deletes them.

Meadow is struck by lightning, not really, just metaphorically. “Try silk thread!’

“Why?” ask Piny and Stuart Stuart.

“Silk is foreign to the body, which will produce toxins to dissolve the silk.”

“Piny, you should marry this genius. Who cares about her snout?” says Stuart Stuart.

*

Eurydice and Angus, filthy rich scammers of fashionistas, live gleefully ever after.  Well, except for a few abortions, Angus still refuses to wear rubbers. They live less and less happily until the consequences of self indulgent booze and diet ends their brief swagger upon the stage.

Pinocchio and Meadow, contributors to human welfare in a minor way, live in the turmoil and torment of genuine achievement. Meadow accepts Piny will always pine for Eurydice, but never asks him if he still loves that petite-nosed erotic beauty. This prevents him fibbing and so his needle-thin nose gradually shortens. Meadow finds contentment in her twins, whose noses are normal, neither long nor snouts. Stuart Stuart is their godfather. The twins cremate Pinocchio and Meadow, mingling their ashes in a single urn, when their longish strut upon the stage skids to a halt.

*

Robert Lake emerges from senility frequently to publish creative nonfiction, speculative fiction and realistic fiction. He's not sure what kinds of fiction his scholarly articles and journalism are. He writes contentedly (somewhat) in Ottawa when not travelling. Alas, a jaunt last year was to hospital for 20 days, three of them on life support.

Photo credit is Carolyn Lake

Monday, October 16, 2017

Fiction #75

New fiction! Issue #75
Submissions now open for #76!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #75: Finn Harvor

Author's statement: This story ("Last Question of the Evening") speaks, I hope, for itself. It is set in a call center during an election when a conservative party is in power … and wants to keep things that way. However, the story also exists as a movie and is part of a larger project entitled PLASTIC MILLENNIUM. Links to the movie version of this story are below. I'm hoping people will check out the movie as well as the story.

Vimeo links (two parts)
https://vimeo.com/126326733 (pw: lastone)
https://vimeo.com/126785622 (pw: lastone)

*



Last Question of the Evening

Fade in.

An office comprised of cubicles, all of them lined in rows, as if the aisles of an airplane had been converted into office space. In each cubicle, a worker with a headset.

"They're all liars," a voice through one headset says.

The man conducting the interview, Anders, doesn't reply. He waits for the respondent to answer the question in the survey.

"Eh?" the respondent says, his voice charged with a coercive energy. "Whaddayou think?"

"A lot of people feel the same way you do, sir."

"That's right!" the man from rural Saskatchewan says. "They all go to Ottawa, they promise you the world, and then they do nothing."

Pause. Anders glances at the supervisors' station, eager to see if his call is being monitored. He can't make out the supervisors' screens.

"Sir, if you could please answer the questions as they're phrased, we'd get through this much faster."

Saying this is a mistake; not because the respondent is offended by Anders's chastisement, but because it suddenly makes him aware of how long he's been on the phone. "Good lord, mister! Lookit the time! We've been yammerin' for half an hour!"

"We're almost done," Anders lies.

"I can't be talkin' about all this sort of political nonsense for half an hour!"



"Please, sir. Would you just bear with me for another ten minutes?"

"Ten minutes?! Listen, I don't have ten minutes. I think I told you enough."

"Is there some time I could call you back at?"

"No. I'm real busy. I said enough. You just fill in the rest."

"I can't do that, sir." Now a note of pleading has entered Anders's voice. "I'll get through the rest of this really fast. If we don't finish it, then I'll have to throw the whole thing out."

"Am I gettin' paid for this?"

"Pardon?"

"Are you sendin' me money? I give you a lot of my time, I expect something in return."

"Sorry, sir, the company I work for hardly pays me anything, I don't think they'd be generous enough to start mailing cheques to all the people we interview."

This attempt to establish a sense of camaraderie falls flat. "I'm serious, mister. I gotta go," the man says.

The line is cut.

Anders lets out a deep sigh and swivels around in his chair. He first looks at the supervisors' station, then the clock. It's twenty to ten. An incredible exhaustion, mitigated by the proximity of quitting time, washes through him. He rubs his eyes and stands up.

Laura, one of the supervisors, casts him a condemning glance. Feeling guilty, then, an instant later, feeling with defensive pride that he does his fair share of work and deserves the occasional break, he walks over to the station.

"Cheques in?" he says. The question is virtually rhetorical.

Laura looks at him with her glassy, neutral eyes. "No," she says.

"They were supposed to be here at five," Anders says.

"Don't blame me. There was some screw-up with the payroll system."



"Yeah, well --." Anders bites his tongue. He simply says, "I need that money."

"You're not the only one." Laura smiles tightly. "They'll be in tomorrow."

"I'll be hungry tomorrow."

Perhaps Laura feels a touch of compassion for him. She regards him with full attentiveness. But then she says, "You should plan ahead."

Anders gives her a what's-that-supposed-to-mean? look, then turns away to make a trip to the washroom.

On the way back, he notices one the senior analysts behind the glass wall that separates the executive offices from the hall that leads to the teleresearch room where the interviewers work. The analyst is a bulky guy who's shaved his head bald and clearly works out. He has the aggressively friendly, somewhat sinister manner of a doorman at a night club. In front of him is a woman in a power suit.

Anders only glimpses all this as he walks down the hall.

When he gets back to his work station, it's twelve minutes to ten. Generally, this is just around the time when one of the supervisors begins walking around and telling everyone who's not on a survey to log off. Anders feels a contented relief. He figures he'll find a way to feed himself until tomorrow. He fingers the change in his pocket: his clinking life's savings.

At ten-to-ten, Jeremy, one of few consistently nice supervisors, begins walking down aisles. Anders stretches his arms. Then Jeremy's voice becomes audible. "Don't log off. We'll be working to ten. Even if you're not on a survey, keep dialling."

"But Jer-emy," a whiny voice says. "This survey is super-long. If we get someone now, we'll be here to, like, midnight."

"I'm just passing my orders along. I don't want to stay here any more than you do," Jeremy says. Then he adds, as if as an afterthought, "We're going to be starting another survey at ten."



"WHAT?!" a Jamaican woman named Celia says.

"I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. We've got a rush job from The Policy Group, and everyone has to work till quarter past."

The Policy Group isn't technically part of the company that Anders works for. Anders's company is called Windgate Research, and it's a pollster for the federal Liberals. The Policy Group has its office halfway down the hall between Windgate's executive suites and Anders's workplace. It in turn does polling for the provincial Conservatives. Both firms use the same interviewers.

Celia says loudly, "I SIGN UP FOR TEN, AND THAT'S WHEN I'M LEAVING. YOU WANT PEOPLE TO STAY EXTRA HOURS, YOU TELL THEM IN ADVANCE."

Anders listens to Celia with a distant kind of neutrality. He doesn't share her fury. Then he starts thinking about what's going on and gets angry not only because Celia has a point but because she isn't pin-pointing the exact nature of the way the truth is being spun.

The description of this survey as a 'rush job' is a misnomer; while it's understood that some surveys are more urgent than others, all of them need at least a day or two of preparation. If nothing else, the analyst who wrote this particular survey would have begun working on it early in the afternoon. There is no way management could have 'just' discovered it needed this survey done.

Then a more calculating, more cautious part of Anders's mind kicks in. He's been having trouble getting along with the supervisors lately -- even the normally genial Jeremy has been prickly. And Anders, a university student with post-grad ambitions, is too intellectually proud to put up with the low-level condescension which is routinely directed at the interviewers. He tends to snap back when criticized. He knows that he has a reputation for being difficult. If he were to stay for an extra fifteen minutes, it'd help him go down in the supervisors' good-books.

"Everybody log off," Jeremy says to the whole room. He repeats his message a few more times, like a portly town crier walking down a street of computers.

"You know what this survey's about?" Anders says to Michelle, the woman with no front teeth, who's sitting at a station opposite his.

She shrugs. "Maybe the teachers' strike," she says.

Anders realizes she must be right. It's early November, 1997 -- the strike has been dragging on for over a week. And the provincial government is starting to lose the battle of public opinion; simply that it has been holding off legislating the teachers back to work shows that it's scared.

Despite himself, like a true political junkie enzymes of excitement begin coursing through Anders's blood. It's like being a sports fan at a playoff: He wants to see what the final match up is going to be.

"The survey's number is 154," Jeremy announces. "This is manual dial. Please log on."

Anders begins reading the new survey. Any anticipation he experienced a moment before is evaporated by the sheer length of it; it contains over eighty questions.

"LOOK AT THIS!" Celia says. "THIS SURVEY LONG, JEREMY."

There are murmurs of agreement from her section of the room. Laura rushes over to quell the problem. She speaks to Celia, her voice inaudible.

"I DON'T CARE," Celia says. "THEM POLICY GROUP PEOPLE DO THIS ON PURPOSE. THEY DO IT LAST WEEK, TOO. AND WHAT ABOUT OUR HALF HOUR BREAK? WE WORKIN' FOR MORE THAN FIVE HOURS, WE'RE ENTITLED TO HALF ... AN ... HOUR ... BREAK."

"It's only fifteen extra minutes," Laura says. "You'll be paid for it."

Celia's tone lowers, but it's still adamant and clear with outrage. "That's not right. They're tryin' to nickel and dime us. They plan this."

Again, Laura's voice slips under the threshold of hearing. Anders turns back to his screen.

He's been phoning the West most of the evening. With its time differential, he hasn't had to worry about upsetting people by calling too late. With dismay he realizes he'll now be phoning metro Toronto, the most cranky and survey-harassed region of the country, at ten on a Tuesday night. He swears to himself. The questions keep appearing before him. Almost all of them are leading.... As was said earlier, the strike by the teachers' unions is illegal. Does knowing this make you more likely or less likely to support the provincial government's reforms to education?

"It's just another fifteen minutes," the interviewer sitting next to Anders says. He's a skinny skateboarder named Lance. He once told Anders that he ate one meal of eggs and bread a day for a week.

Anders looks back at Lance with an aghast expression. "Are you kidding?!"

Lance shrugs. He slouches deeply in his seat. "Just phone a coupla numbers. Look like you're workin'. Make 'em happy."

Anders's emotions shift very abruptly. Lance is right. Pretend to be a good employee.

But at ten sharp, a mutiny breaks out. People begin rising from their seats, starting first, it seems, with Celia. "I got a connectin' bus to catch," she says by way of explanation.

Hunger gnaws at Anders's stomach. He only had a can of sardines for supper. He was counting desperately on the pay-cheque. He figured after work he'd make a beeline to a bank machine, deposit his pay, then treat himself to dinner at a souvlaki place. Physical discomfort reminds him of how much he hates his company.

Despite his resolution, almost involuntarily Anders finds himself rising from his seat. He makes an extra show of lining up his keyboard neatly on his desk and putting on his coat with genteel calm.

"What are you doing?" Michelle says.

"I'm not staying. This is ridiculous. What, we're supposed to phone people now, and ask them a bunch of propagandistic questions for half an hour?"

"It's a job."

"Barely."

As Anders is walking towards the supervisors' station, the man who was in the front office -- the one with the bald head and fighter's build -- enters. He sees the mass of people huddled around the sign-out sheet.

"What's going on?" he says loudly to Laura.

"People don't want to stay. They signed up till ten o'clock, and they're leaving."

The tough bald man looks around him. For a second his expression is so similar to that of a captain trying to give orders to soldiers who are on leave that Anders wants to laugh. Then the man composes himself, and his face becomes a managerial mask.

"Everybody, could I have your attention!" he says loudly. "Everyone! Listen, this is a rush job. It's very important. We need you people to stay."

A number of the people milling around stop. Everybody seems temporarily frozen by this man's voice. Then a few people move discreetly towards the door.

"Listen, I know it's late, and I know you people want to get home. But we have to start getting results on this particular issue. Certain people -- important people -- need feedback, and they need something that they can start working with first thing tomorrow. So everybody, would you please ... just return to your stations. If we all pitch in, we can make a dent on this baby."

Some people seem to have been convinced by this man's manner, but no one actually returns to a station.

Seeing this, the man adds in a deal-maker's tone, "I'll give you a bonus."

The man is standing right beside Anders. Although the man isn't looking right at him, Anders can practically feel tendrils working their way out of him, as if he has thousands of microscopic hairs waving gently in the air, picking up people's opinions chemically.

"How much?" Anders says. His voice is steady, but he's surprised at how fearful he feels.

"Come on," the tough bald man is saying to everyone, clapping his hands together. Then he turns to Anders, his body language like that of an adult irritated by a child.

Anders watches as the man's eyes settle on his. They are disconcertingly focused; they are powerful and unblinking. When the man's mouth moves, there is the slightest of hesitations when he pronounces his first syllable. "Three bucks." 

The adrenalin that Anders experienced minutes before comes back to him stronger. "You've got to be kidding."

The tough bald man holds his hands out from his pockets as if to say: hey buddy, that's all I got.
Then the man says, "You think you're worth more?"

A voice in Anders's head tells him that he should back off. It tells him he's making a huge mistake, engaging in confrontation. Everybody else in the room knows this man's a jerk. Why say it to his face?

So Anders, thinking he's being conciliatory, says, "I'll do it. But yeah, I think I'm worth more."

"Let me tell you something about what you're worth," the man says. He holds up his hand, making a zero sign with his thumb and forefinger. "I could have you replaced like that." He snaps his fingers with startling volume. "Now you get back to your friggin' station or you take a walk out the door."

This is too much. Anders glares. "Maybe more than one person will walk out that door."

"What's that supposed to mean --?"

"People here are pretty sick of working for eight bucks an hour. We get no raises, no benefits, no consistent hours, and the company rakes in millions." Anders feels as if his nerves are exposed. He's absolutely convinced the man is going to hit him. He's startled; he thought he'd left this level of fear behind in high school.

"That's the industry standard," the man says. He narrows his eyes. "Pal."

"You got people here who don't even get enough to eat. You think that's a fair standard?"

The man looks at Anders -- he looks at the people nearby. He smirks. Most everybody is well-dressed.

A schizophrenic electricity fills the room: Anders is completely alert but also more tired than ever. He feels that everybody's attention is on him and nobody is with him. The other people all stand around, waiting. A horrible sense of defeat hovers on the fringe of his consciousness.

"What did you say your name was?" the man says. His voice is superficially polite, but it's edged with the appetite of an axe.

*

Finn Harvor is an artist, writer, filmmaker, and musician. He lives with his wife in South Korea. His work -- literary and academic -- has appeared in several journals including Poetry Film Live, This Magazine, Canadian Notes and Queries, Former People, Eclectica, and others. His author-made movies have been screened in Korea, the U.S., the U.K., and Greece, with upcoming screenings at the Athens Poetry Film Festival and the Rabbitheart Poetry Film Festival.


Fiction #75: Suzanne Bowness

Alternatives to Knitting

I hope I have enough room in my satchel. I’ve brought the pink patchwork bag, the one I used to store my wool when I tried to take up knitting. Stupid hobby. Takes days to make something you could buy for $10 at the store. Lainey tries to tell me that people hang on to the handmade things forever. I don’t believe in forever anymore. Roger, now there was a man who believed. Kept every ticket stub he ever bought. Every birthday card. And now who’s left to hang on to them? Me. He threatened to haunt me if I ever tossed them. So there they sit, in that stingy alcove they call a closet.

I reach in to feel the space inside the bag, and my hand disappears into its silky pink lining. All you can see is the creamy lace cuff of my blouse. Definitely ample. Last time I took my old black leather bag. Inadequate. Close call—I know I’ve gotten a little bold with practise. Can you really blame me? I mean I expected this to be easy but not this easy. Hell, I could start bowling melons down the paper products aisle, smash all the glass jam jars onto the floor and they wouldn’t even notice. Wouldn’t notice except to say, “aw there she goes the poor dear,—bet she keeps her knitting in that patchwork bag.”

As I pull my hand out again I avert my eyes and focus on the cottage cheese tubs in front of me. Cottage cheese: gross. The cafeteria ladies seem to think anyone over 60 must be crazy for it. In the mornings, it’s cottage cheese with yoghurt. Lunch is vegetable plate with cottage cheese. Dinner--well, let’s just say the lasagna is suspiciously cheesy. Most of them don’t give it much thought; they’re too busy gossiping or angling for the right table with the right people. Just because Gladys Earl wears those slimming pantsuits and by some miracle managed only to put on ten pounds to the standard twenty (okay, thirty) somehow she thinks that gives her dibs on the table near the window. And Hubert, always right there to pull out her chair, to slip her the Sudoku he clipped from his morning paper.

I hate looking at my hands now that they are wrinkly and veined. Roger used to say that my hands were lovely. Elegant, he called them. “Rose, you have elegant hands.” I’m sure he’d hate to see them now if he were still around. The sad thing is, I’m sure he’d love to see them.

Roger would not approve of Hubert one bit. But he’d approve of my walkabouts even less.  Not that it gives me a pardon, but Roger never did like this store when we lived nearby. Too commercial. We’d only come here for the specials and staples: tuna and canned soup and deodorant. Otherwise we shopped at George’s, the local market around the corner. I think Roger felt a twinge of disloyalty to George even with the occasional visit to the supermarket; they had been friends after 20 years in the neighborhood. But there’s disloyalty and then there’s a third off sirloin.

The light here is so sharp when it glints off the plastic. Burns my eyes. It’s almost blue, that light. My eyes lately aren’t what they used to be, well for that matter nothing is. Hair thinner, hearing harder, legs wobblier, boobs saggier. Even my wardrobe seems to be falling behind which vaguely depresses me, although not enough to spend a hundred and eighty dollars on a pantsuit. I heard that’s what Gladys paid. And just last week Sonia strolls in too wearing a powder blue ensemble. Just marched right over to Gladys for inspection.

I’m glad I decided on the patchwork bag, besides being larger it also blends in well. Non-descript coat. Grey scarf. A bit of shuffle. Grey hair, curly. Really playing up the old lady here. Shuffle in; grab a flyer and a cart. Be sure to leave the cart in produce and wander by myself over to the dairy section. Fruit is beginner territory. First the occasional sample right in the store. Once I even heard them, just barely. “The old lady is eating the grapes!” Then, “Relax, Joe, in her day that was probably what they did in her time. What are you going to, bust some old lady?”

After they walked away, I munched on a few more, then put a couple in my pocket. That was all that happened the first time. Two anonymous pale green globes rubbing against each other as I paid for my magazine at the front cash. Now, I know some would think I would have moved on to more expensive hauls by now: the pharmacy for instance. But it’s the anonymity I relish, the interchangeable objects, the green globes, the oblong nuts, the smooth brown discs with their sugary centres, all mingling in my pockets and my patchwork bag. Freedom. Liberated from their neat stacks and packages.

My legs are a little sore from walking. This store is further from the bus stop than I remember. But it’s far enough from the centre that I won’t see anyone I know. Everyone I used to know around here is likely dead. I haven’t lived in this part of town since Roger died. Still the usual mid-afternoon crowd though. New mothers with their screaming toddlers. Older mothers with their bodies beginning to sag as they chase after their coughing school-aged children off sick.  A senior or two. We blend in here. We try to ignore each other, too obviously members of the same grey haired, wrinkly skin and everywhere-sagging clan to really feel the need to associate.

That man looks like Hubert, only thinner and without the moustache. If you squinted you could imagine that lady trailing him to be Gladys. Although she’s probably ten pounds heavier. And without quite the same look of smug judgment as Gladys. Bitch. The more I think of her the more irritated I get. Four months ago Lainey and I used to be good friends. Then Gladys moved in. Now it’s all, “Lainey, we need one more player for bridge. Lainey, why don’t you show me how to do the purl stitch.” And Lainey just eats it up. I say, Margaret would have seen right through that. Friends on the inside are just not the same as the friends from before.

I look past the cottage cheese, locking in on my target. “She moves in.” That’s what Harrison would say, even at eight he’s already memorizing the scenes in those ridiculous cop movies his mother lets him watch. Harrison, what a nonsensical name, parents these days trying to outdo each other with their so-called creativity. But what do I know? I would never tell his mother, but those shows he tells me about are actually quite something. I don’t let on that I watch them but I’ve started tuning in to the program on Wednesdays with the blonde detective. I mean there are some real tricks revealed in those programs, places the ordinary mind does not naturally go. I wonder if real criminals study them too.

There, it’s in. One quick motion is how you do it, really. First the hover, then the twist. The tag comes off in your hand, that’s the fussiest part. I like to pocket the tag as a souvenir. They’re all over my cutlery drawer. But things have to move quickly now. The quick reach. Three plastic cylinders. Cool. Pliant. Inside my patchwork bag the one bag is moving anonymously now, liberated from its siblings, free and rolling around. Untraceable. I imagine sipping tea later this afternoon, pouring it in and watching it swirls around, warming my insides. Maybe I’ll invite Gladys and Hubert over to sample a cup, listen for them to ask for just a bit more when I fail to fill the pitcher enough. I imagine Joe or his dairy counter equivalent coming along later and trying to figure out the mystery. Two instead of three. A mistake at the processing plant? This is the largest I’ve liberated yet, and it’s taken three afternoons to work up the nerve. The raisins from four weeks ago now seem amateur by comparison. Maybe next week I’ll try the crackers, crinkly packaging be damned.

“But we’re not in the clear yet,” Harrison would say solemnly. Time to make my escape. As I head to the door, the middle-aged butcher nods his bald head indulgently and winks at me. I blush in a suitably old-fashioned manner.

*

Suzanne (Sue) Bowness is a freelance writer and editor who published her first poetry collection The Days You’ve Spent (Tightrope Books), in 2010. In 2006, she won the Ottawa Little Theatre’s National One Act Playwriting Competition. Sue is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. Keep an eye on her at suzannebowness.com