Monthly Archives: February 2015

A Matter of Public Welfare

On the television, Stephen Nilch wiped away a tear, black armband riding up his bicep. The news ticker ran:

GRIEVING FATHER’S SAFETY VICTORY/COUNTY TO IMPLEMENT CHANGES AFTER SIX-MONTH PUSH/SEVERE DENT IN JAYWALKING INCIDENTS EXPECTED

“They ever gonna let this go?”Keith asked. He had his feet up on his desk in the sheriff’s office, WORLD’S GREATEST GRANPA mug in one hand.

Stuart, fire marshal, was watching the crews out the window. “Slow news week, I guess. This ain’t Vegas.”

Half of San Andreas avenue was already parted by a chrome fence, now the crews in front of the station dug holes and filled them with cement.

“Who’s paying for this?”

“You are, natch.” Stuart let the blinds fall back into place. “Can’t say I’ll be sorry to see less crackheads cutting across traffic.”

“Crackheads? This is Holover Point. Where they getting crack, out by the cider press?”

Both men chuckled over a well-worn joke.

Keith heaved forward a little. He pointed with an index finger missing everything up to the first knuckle.

“Did they really survey this stretch of land before they put this into motion, or did bleeding hearts grease the way?”

“Not sure what you mean by that.”

“I mean, this might have some unintended consequences, is all. No disrespect to the boy.”

“No disrespect,” Stuart parroted.

“But I don’t think they thought this through.”

 

The accidents came before the fence even finished. Crossers impatient for the light were forced to jog along the fence until they spotted a gap, which was usually the center turn lane. This often ended poorly.

Worse were the mysterious hit-and-run reports that began happening in the dead hours of night. Drivers were breathalyzed and, more often than not, found sober. The unfortunate pedestrians were not found at all.

Public consensus held that the fences, while an admirable idea, were proving ineffective.

 

Stephen Nilch strode into the station. He was much taller than on television, though his grieving-yet-proud expression remained.

Keith said, “oh shit,” and extinguished his cigarette in his coffee.

Nilch nodded to him. “Sheriff.”

“Nilch,” Keith said cautiously.

“Some…indigent has dismantled a section of fence near Ponderosa court,” Nilch said crisply, “I would like to know what you’re going to do about it.”

“Well, hello to you too.” Keith forgot and took a drink. He made a wry face. “Look, we can’t be out there 24/7 protecting your pet project—”

“–the public interest,” Nilch interrupted, “is what you are here to protect, and that fence is part of it.”

“Why should a fence need protecting? And how the hell did they get that thing out of there, are some kids running around town with some bolt cutters and a chainfall?”

Nilch said “fix it,” and slammed the door behind himself.

 

Keith scratched his soul patch and surveyed the hole. It was quite a hole.

No signs of cutting, and the torn ends bent.

“Like something just ripped it out,” deputy Parrish said, probing an edge, “but there’s no torn foliage, no damage to the curb–”

“All right, CSI Glendale, I get your point,” Keith said, dusting off his hands, “this wasn’t a car hopping the curb and taking it out. So what the hell does that leave?”

Parrish found a swatch of rough brown hair on a wire point and gingerly maneuvered it into a sandwich bag.

Keith sighed.

“Maybe it was kids.”

 

Keith was tucking into a pastrami on rye when Stuart walked in. He was dressed in torn jeans in a t-shirt, all splattered with red mud.

“Good god, Stu. You been burying stiffs in the garden again?”

“Night class,” Stuart said sheepishly, taking a seat in one of the folding chairs, “I made you an ashtray.”

“Swell.” Keith napkined away a smear of mayo. “So what brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“I had a thought the other day. Also, I just nearly missed running over someone.”

“Yikes. Well, who should I put out an APB on?”

“Seven feet tall, indistinct features, disappears into thin air when you try to follow him. Ring any bells?”

Keith looked across the desk. His sandwich flopped forgotten onto the plate. “You are shitting me.”

“It all adds up.”

“No it don’t. That’s like saying five and three make seven.”

“But in algebra—”

“Listen, shut up for a second.”

Both men looked out the window.

A car, which had been presumably traveling down the road until recently, was skewed diagonally across the lawn of the funeral parlor opposite the station. When Stephen Nilch exited the car holding his neck, both men groaned audibly.

 

“You, officer.” Stephen pointed his finger like a sword, “I have an incident report to make.”

“For god’s sake, Nilch, don’t talk. And quit moving your head.” Stuart moved to cup his skull.

Keith whistled at the dent in the front of Nilch’ station wagon. “That’s some corn.”

“Are you joking? I just nearly died.”

“You just hit someone with your car,” Keith said, “do I really need to remind you where the law’s sympathies lie here?”

Nilch clammed up sullenly.

“Where’s the body?”

“That’s just it,” Nilch said bewilderedly, “I got out of the car to check—”

“And he disappeared,” the other two men said in unison.

Nilch looked from one to the other.

“Do you want to tell him, or should I?” Stuart asked.

“I’ll go, he hates me already.” Keith gestured to the road. “Nilch, there’s something about this road. The fence was a bad idea.”

“Not that it was a terrible idea,” Stuart cut in, “it might even be good, somewhere else.”

“But it just so happens that right here, it cuts across the migratory path of the Yeti.”

Nilch said, “What.”

“The Yeti. The Sasquatch. Bigfoot, skunk ape, Gigantanthropus crypticus, call it what you will. These suckers chose right where we’re standing to migrate.”

“Get the fuck out,” Nilch said.

“Look, hear the man out,” Stuart urged.

“Shut up, Jimenez.” Nilch jabbed his finger at Keith’s jugular. “You. You have no call to mock me like this. My son is dead—”

“Look, no one’s saying it’s not tragic,” Keith said, “whether or not it would’ve happened if you’d taught him not to run across the street in the first place.”

Nilch made a strained noise.

“But the fact is that this fence is preventing the yeti from moving pastures.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Well, look at it from their perspective,” Stuart said, “they’re gentle creatures, not used to this modern world. It’s sad. One century they walk across a dirt path from one field to another, the next they get run over by a glowing-eyed monster screaming out of the dark, leaving behind only a crumpled skin that may have belong to a gorilla and their rank stench. Sad state of affairs for such a majestic and idiosyncratic animal.”

“You people are insane,” Nilch said, stepping back.

“You’re in denial. What the hell do you think keeps this town afloat? The mill? The postcard sales alone paid for the repaving of main street. Look—” Keith put a hand up. “Leaving all that, the fence hasn’t done much in the way of good. People still try to cross the damn street at midway.”

“No, no, no,” Nilch interrupted, “you don’t get to talk to me about yetis and then suddenly pull back. I’ll have your jobs. Both your jobs.”

“Well,” Stuart said, “if that’s the way you feel.”

Both men watched as Nilch got back in his car and gunned it. The motor turned over with a heavy cough and the car laboriously backed off the sidewalk. Both men waved.

Nilch made a three-point turn, steering with one hand while he shot them the bird with his other. He set the car straight and accelerated. The headlights illuminated a figure standing in the middle of the road. Every hair seemed to absorb the light, the eyes refracted back the headlights in deep red. The car swerved, jumping the curve with one tire and tearing a chunk out of the fence. The horn blared. The figure stalked back to the edge of the road and disappeared into the shadows.

“Majestic creatures,” Stuart said, “they’ve got a natural curiosity. Sadly, that doesn’t come bundled with natural caution.”

“I ever tell you the time my daddy shot one?” Keith asked. Stuart shook his head. “worst meat I ever had. Didn’t melt in your mouth, it disintegrated. Stunk up the deep freeze so bad we had to get a new one.”

Both men looked to the car. Nilch’s head lay against the steering wheel. Keith sighed.

“You fish him out, I’ll get the kit.”

The office smelled like a dead skunk when he opened the door. The sandwich was gone from the plate.

Keith shook his head and grabbed his emergency kit. “Worse than the Jackelopes.”

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Instructions

There was a fountain in the middle of the town square, and in the fountain swam a fish. It was a large white carp that swam in circles and sometimes ate the bread that the town’s children crumbled into the water.

A young man approached the fountain. He wore fine clothes, but they fit oddly, and his sword was hung from the wrong side. The young man looked around and bent close to the water.

“Magic fish, magic fish,” he said.

The fish swum closer to the surface. “Hullo, little prince-to-be. Did you reach into the woodpile without showing fear?”

“Yes.” the young man seemed nervous. He clasped the extra cloth at his waist.

“And did the princess wear flowers in her hair?”

“Yes, fish, yes.” He bent lower, his lips nearly to the water. “I picked her out of ninety maidens. The king could set no more tasks before me. We are to be wed, and it is all thanks to you, fish.”

“Well,” the fish said, “that is tremendous.” It mouthed the algae growing in a corner.

“They have made me into a prince.”

“Fabulous.”

“One day I shall be king.”

“My congratulations to you.”

“Fish,” the young man said urgently, “what if I do something wrong?”

The fish swam lazily to the other end of the basin and back again. “are the servants at all animous to you?”

“No. They scoffed at the tale of bandits taking my clothes, but now they reassure me I will never have to dress myself again.”

“And the princess, how does she find you?”

“She told me she wore flowers in her hair because she knew what I would be about. She almost didn’t. But she was tired of seeing young men die for her hand.”

“Well, it seems you are well off.”

“Well off? I won because she pitied me.”

“It meant she wanted you to win.” the fish snapped at a mayfly. “I am a fish, but I can see it’s very simple: don’t beat her, speak to her kindly, and she will be willfully blind to your faults. They all want to see a prince, and so they will. The only way you could fumble it is if you do something terribly out of character.”

“And what if I do,” he gasped, “what if I do something terribly out of character? How do I know what this prince wants, what his taste are? I’m a farmer’s son, I don’t know finery.”

“You made him, little prince-to-be. I’m sure you will be able to help them in their self-deception.”

“That’s it,” the young man said, “I’m not clever. I’ve only gotten this far because of you.”

The fish found an eddy that held its interest for a moment. The young man stared into the water, his hands curled into claws.

“Listen,” he said suddenly, “what do you most desperately want, more than anything in the world?”

“Want? I am a fish. I have no real wants.”

“You mean you’re not just an enchanted sorcerer or something like that?”

The fish swung its pectoral fins wide in a gesture much like a shrug. “I was born this way. I am a fish who can speak and have always been.”

“Do you come from a magic land?”

“I don’t remember. All I have ever really known is this fountain and the people in this village. Occasionally they drop coins and wish, but you were the first to strike up a conversation with me.”

The young man gripped the basin with white-knuckled hands. His sleeves had fallen in the water; they were cut wide and long in the current fashion, now their silk was drawing water up into itself.

“But if you could want anything?”

The fish nuzzled a surface bubble. “If I wanted something? I suppose I wouldn’t mind being put in the ocean. It would not be my home, not really, but there would be more room to swim around.”

“That is your wish?”

“Not a wish. It might be nice, that’s all.”

The young man nodded. He dipped his fingertips into the water.

“And in return,” he said excitedly, “you will advise me in my first year as king?”

The fish backed away until its fins grazed the bottom of the basin. “No.”

“Why? Why? I’ve done everything you asked.”

“Princeling, that was not for me, that was for you. Has palace life affected your ears? I have not been adverse to helping you, but either leave me to my peace or let me go.”

The young man stood. “You won’t give me even one little piece of advice?”

“I already have, in case you haven’t been listening. You will do fine. Now go enjoy your spoils. In a while the schoolchildren will come this way and drop their leftovers in the fountain—hark!”

The young man looked around. The square was empty of people.

“I will be back,” he promised. The fish made no reply.

 

That night, moon spilled into the square, making the fish nearly vanish against the white of the basin. It dozed with one eye open, one fin twitching ceaselessly.

A metallic clank against the wall of the fountain. The fish opened its other eye and swam to the surface.

The young man was there, dressed in a peasant tunic and trousers. The outfit he’d worn when they had first met, to be precise. He held a silver bucket.

“Hurry,” he said, “I have slipped away, but they will miss me soon.”

The fish gently gravitated in place. “You are going to set me free?”

“I have every intention of fulfilling my end of the bargain. Here—” he dipped the bucket into the water. It rocked buoyantly, he thrust it down with both hands so that it violently filled, a small geyser splattered his brow and clothing.

The fish paused, looking from the boy to the bucket rim.

It swam into the bucket. The young man lifted it, water slopped over the sides but he gingerly heaved it over the edge and to the ground. He carried it carefully for a long ways. The fish could only tell travel from the pass of light and shadow. It dozed.

The jolt of the bucket being set down woke the fish. It was too dark to tell what lay above it. It heard scraping that echoed metallically. Suddenly the bucket lifted again and the fish rushed out in the torrent of the bucket being upturned.

It landed in a porcelain bowl painted with scenes of the kingdom’s founding. The fish darted around, examining its surroundings. The young man looked down at it. Whether he was wet from sweat or water was uncertain.

“You promised,” the fish said.

“I have every intention of fulfilling my end of the bargain,” the young man said, “I was telling the truth. I just need you help for a little longer.”

“How much longer?” said the fish, “how long will I have to swim in a bowl one-tenth the size of my home?”

“I have to keep you here,” the young man said urgently, “if they found you, it would mean disaster. Besides, for one who has lived as long as you, it will seem as no time at all.”

The fish looked around the room. It took in the heavy drapes, the single chair, the only door. The young man followed its gaze.

“I have the only key,” he said, “so you won’t have to worry about being bothered.”

A bubble escaped the fish’s mouth, sitting on the surface for an instant before it burst.

“I don’t understand. When I told you to take only the plain walnuts, did you?”

“Yes, but—”

“When I told you how to creep into the king’s garden and eavesdrop on his barber, did you follow it to the letter?”

“Of course, but I—”

“Why, then, should you choose to disobey me now?” Another bubble escaped, this one sat like a pearl on the water.

“…you’re being very selfish,” the young man said finally, “what’s the use of getting me this far if I only fail? Look, I’ll steal some scraps from the kitchens, you have some time to think about it.”

He turned to go.

“Wait,” the fish said.

The young man stopped.

“Do you still trust me?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Then you must put me on a marble plinth by the light of the moon.”

The young man turned. “I thought you said you weren’t magic?”

“I’m not cursed, if that’s what you mean. Magic is what I am. Are you willing to obey me one last time?”

The young man hesitated a long time. Finally, he approached the bowl and dipped his fingers in. the fish mouthed them.

“Marble?” he asked.

“I’m sure you’ll be able to find some around here.”

 

Just before dawn, the young man stole up to the king’s astronomy tower, which would someday be his astronomy tower. He mounted the steps silently until he came to the observatory.

The plinth he had taken from beneath a likeness of the queen, his betrothed’s late mother. The fish lay on it, white and motionless as the marble beneath it.

The young man approached slowly.

“Fish,” he said, “it’s almost dawn. The castle will wake soon.”

The fish was still. Silent and still.

“If you are done, I must get you back to my rooms before they begin to suspect.”

The fish said nothing. The slick was gone from its scales, it looked tacky to the touch. The young man tread on heavy feet, but the fish did not stir.

“Fish?” he asked, “I will bring you breakfast. Fish? When does the magic happen? Fish? ….fish?”

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Little People

Peter came home with a large box from school. It had “fragile” stickers on every side, and “caution: live animals” on the top.

“Is it time for silkworms already?” Rob said as he watched his son load it gingerly into the back seat, “I thought that wasn’t til third grade.”

Peter belted the box into the seat. “It’s not silkworms. I got it from soc- sosh-”

“Sociology.” Rob read it backwards in the rearview mirror. “Interesting. What is it?”

Peter shrugged, slamming the passenger door. “Dunno.”

 

They opened the box on the kitchen table. A novel-thick instruction book came out first, followed by Styrofoam cartons that had further injunctions against careless handling plastered all over them. There was lab equipment, tiny boxes, and something that looked like a purple pedometer.

Rob looked at the book.

“’Little people‘,” he read aloud. Peter handed him a safety-orange school announcement. Rob read that.

Parents!

It is time for your child’s first crucial lesson in empathy. Announcing:

LITTLE PEOPLE

They breath, live, and eat just like you do. Each one had its own life story, enclosed in a handy booklet.

Rob looked over at the instruction novel and said, “ha!”

Learn to care for, feed, and play with your little people. BUT DON’T BE MISTAKEN!!!

Little people are not pets. They are living, breathing, thinking beings. Their lives are precious and fragile, just like the life of every child at this school—

Rob snorted and put the flyer down. Peter had slit the tape with a butter knife and was now staring inside with awe.

They were people. Perfectly detailed, perfectly miniature. They even wore different outfits. Rob blinked and moved closer. The little people were blinking and rubbing their eyes, a few looking at the giants with mild terror. They were barely the size of Rob’s hand, too small and too fluid of motion to be toys. What were they?

Peter’s eyes had lit up. He said, “cool!” and picked up a man. Rob could tell by the massive wince that Peter had applied just a little too much pressure, just like he had with his ill-fated gerbil Hamburgers.

“Careful kiddo,” he said, “that’s a little tight.”

Peter frowned and adjusted his grip. The little man suddenly fell, three times his own height, to the tabletop. He landed on his arm and hip. He screamed.

Peter’s eyes popped wide and his mouth compressed until it disappeared. He looked to his father. Rob knew he had to be white and drawn. It was awful, a tiny human scream. Like a rodent’s.

Hurriedly, Peter went to pick him up again. Rob reached out to stop him—too late, too late—as the boy grabbed for the injured side with his fingers. They could practically hear the crunch. The screams were louder, unbearable for their familiarity. Peter dropped him again, a shorter distance this time, on the box. The other little people immediately crowded around him, making scared eyes up at father and son.

Rob swallowed. “I think you need to put your toys away for now, bud. Let’s get dinner.”

 

He read the instruction book in bed.

“Empathy exercise—bullshit,” he called to Marilyn in the next room, “this is just another way of traumatizing them into obedience. We gave them the monthly drills, we voted for the personality tests, what the hell else do they want?”

“You have to admit Rob,” his wife called back over the buzzing of a lady shaver, “they are at the age when they really start forming ideas of right and wrong.”

“Yeah, but what the hell good does it do to scare them into it?”

Marilyn appeared at the door. “Isn’t that a little dramatic?”

“You didn’t see his face. It was horrible. I’m just saying, why not give them…pollywogs, or something like that? Caterpillars. Mice. Why does it have to be things that look like us?”

“Maybe it doesn’t have the same impact,” Marilyn said. She was brushing her hair, frowning down at the flyer.

“It would get the job done.” Rob swallowed. “I don’t think I’ve told you this yet: I had to kill a rat when I was his age.”

Marilyn looked up.

“It was caught in one of those sticky traps. We couldn’t let it get away and make more rats so I…I had to go get a rock.” he swallowed. “You ever do something like that? It’s hard. I had to hit it until blood came out its ears before it would stop screaming.” He let the book fall open into his lap. “I still dream about it, sometimes. Now tell me that didn’t teach me empathy with living things.”

Marilyn smiled grimly, looking up from the flyer. “We found a dog someone had run over partially. It was too far gone to even notice.” She got a faraway look. “It kept licking the sidewalk, I remember. Just staring at us and licking this one spot. Didn’t even realize how it was already dead.” She came back to the present. “We finally managed to put it out of its misery, but it died hard.” Her face softened. “I think this might be a little easier lesson than…that. Okay?”

Rob flipped to the last page. It had one phrase printed in block caps: tyrants owe their ascent not to their peers, but their acquitters.

“I guess,” he said.

 

Peter came in the den the next day, looking spooked out of his mind. Rob had been working on a model of an ocean resort, but he caught sight of his son and his fingers dropped the tiny paintbrush.

“Hey, hey pumpkin-eater,” he said, opening his arms, “why the long face?”

Peter did not return the hug. His face was drawn, and his eyes were teary.

“I was just working on my empathy exercises,” he said.

Rob cleared his throat. “And?”

“I feel sick.”

Rob stood and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you show me what you were doing?”

Peter’s activity table sat beneath a world map the size of his bed. The US and Australia were in pink, Europe in blues and greens, and a large swath of the map showing Eurasia and Northern Africa was a dead gray labeled with three barbed, interlocked semicircles.

The little people were divided into camps on the table. Each group had their own habitat, number- and color-coordinated for convenience. The open area between them had been converted with a tiny fence to a holding area. There were two groups separated by a steel fence, they huddled into each other and stared across the divide. Peter shoved paper into his father’s hands. Rob read:

Lesson 1:

Put groups Sigma and Theta into staging area. Recreate storm with enclosed storm kit. Give only Theta storm gear. Observe.

Rob looked down and frowned. The little people didn’t look at him.

Lesson 1.5

Now, hook up electrodes to floor.

Rob shouted, “what?”

Give Sigma the insulated gear. Notice how there is not enough gear to cover entire group. Observe.

Rob glared at the staging area. The little people looked downcast. Some of them were indeed soaked, those with rainy-weather gear held it aloft so that it covered more people.

Peter was looking at his father.

“I was ascared of the electricity,” he said, “I thought you’d get mad if I did it by myself.”

Rob searched for the right words to slap on his feelings.

“I don’t think you should be doing this,” he said, “not just because of the electricity. I think I need to have a word with your teacher.”

Peter nodded. “But I still need to do the assignment.”

“What? Why? This is sick.”

“I have to,” Peter said solemnly, “they can tell.”

Rob looked at his son. He looked down at the little people.

“Okay,” he said, “but very, very short, okay?”

Peter nodded, fetching what looked like mini jumper cables from the kit and attaching them to a big, square battery. He attached the other end to nodes sticking out of the arena’s side. Peter gave Rob a questioning look. Rob, after a moment, nodded. Peter flicked a switch.

They started screaming almost immediately. Those with insulated shoes took one off and passed them around. Some tried to stand on one with multiple people. Group Theta were writhing in agony. Group Sigma reached across the bars, those that could grasped hands. Some tried to pass over the shoes.

Rob gaped. He didn’t realize how time was passing until he felt a tug on his sleeve.

“Should I stop now, dad?” Peter asked.

Rob’s mouth hung open. “Yes,” he said, “Oh jesus god, yes.”

Peter flicked the switch again. The writhing ceased. Many lay pillowed by arms and bodies. The little people spoke in a quiet susurrus as they touched each other, almost reassuringly.

Peter swept his forearm across his eyes. “I wanna go lay down.”

Rob nodded, doubting he could speak around the lump in his throat.

 

“This is wrong,” he said to the other parents at pickup the next day. “We need to call a PTA meeting.”

Jacob, who had a little girl in Peter’s grade, shook his head. “This is state-approved curriculum. Besides, it’s something they need to know sooner rather than later.”

There were some noncommittal grumblings.

“Have you actually read the lesson plans?” Rob fetched out the book. “Lesson 8: starvation. Lesson 13: separation. Lesson 15 is basically the Stanford Prison experiment.”

Jacob was watching Rob with a carefully neutral look. “A lot of people had to learn this the hard way. The point isn’t to see if they can complete the experiments, it’s to show them the repercussions of their actions.”

“But that’s a fallacious argument,” Rob said weakly, looking for supporters. “just because someone else had it worse, doesn’t mean we can’t do better.”

“My Sandra is having trouble concentrating on her studies,” a blonde woman chimed in uncertainly.

“Brayden said he leaves his sociology homework to the last because of this. It used to be his favorite.”

“Maybe we can talk to the teacher about shortening the lesson plan?”

Jacob didn’t look at the other parents, only at Rob. His intense dark eyes were pouched as if perpetually deprived of sleep. He leaned against the wall beneath the portrait of a man smiling charismatically. The man in the picture sat in the oval office, hands clasped on the desk before him, his oil visage showed youth and vigor. The caption read “murderer.”

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t learn this,” Rob said uncomfortably, wishing it was only him and a few other parents, “but it doesn’t seem right, that’s all.”

Jacob leaned forward. “Rob,” he said, “my family was in Jordan.”

Rob had no answer. The other parents were silent. As their children trickled out, they collected them and left without another word.

 

Rob watched his son carry out his experiments, arms crossed.

“You can’t just stop?”

Peter’s trembling hand almost dropped a baby from his tweezers. “Can’t. They can tell. And I’ll have to take a test and you have to come to a meeting—”

“—and all the bells and whistles.” Rob blew a long exhale. “Bullying, that’s what it is. Good old-fashioned bullying.”

Peter arranged the nursery with his tweezers.

“Dad?’ he said suddenly.

“Yeah, bud?”

“I don’t wanna grow up and be president,” he said.

Rob swallowed. “Of course you don’t, buddy,” he said, kneeling and putting an arm around his son’s shoulder, “but if you did, I’m sure you’d be a good one.”

Peter looked tired. And scared.

He whispered, “I don’t think so. I can’t keep them happy.”

The little people hung out of their confinement pens, sticking arms and legs from the bars in passive protest. The mothers of the babies sat on the floor, skirts pulled over their heads, facing away from Peter.

Peter looked at him. “Dad? Am I…bad?”

Rob felt his eyes well up. “Of course not, son. You’re the best.”

“That’s what his parents thought.”

“His?” Rob asked, “oh. Well, I guess it’s a parents job to believe that. But it’s true with you buddy.”

“Then why can’t I do this right?”

Rob tried to smile. “Well, usually taking care of other people is a parent’s job.”

“I thought your job was to tell me I’m best.”

“Oh no,” Rob said, looking down at the little people, “parents have lots of jobs. Lots and lots.”

 

Rob put the pan on the counter. It was their biggest. He would have to throw it away when all was said and done, but they rarely used it and he could always get another pan before thanksgiving.

He eased open the oven. The light clicked on. He removed one of the shelves as quietly as he could, the other one sat on the lowest rung. Rob settled the pan onto the shelf and clicked it shut again. The light went off. He hit the switch and turned the light on again. As much as he hated to, he needed to see.

He quickly turned the dial. One click that failed to ignite and then the gas hissed. Rob pulled up a chair and waited.

The little people seemed to know what was coming. They all sat in one large clump, holding on to each other. Some seemed to pray, others simply held on. The mothers rocked infants at their breasts. As Rob watched, they all slowly went completely still. He waited ten minutes and turned the oven off. He waited a further twenty to remove the pan and vent the oven.

 

Peter was shaking him. Rob rolled over. “It’s Saturday, buddy.”

“Dad! All my little people are gone!”

“I know, bud.” Rob scooped the pillow a little closer. “we’ll talk to your school on Monday.”

“But the thing won’t stop beeping!”

Rob opened one eye.

The pedometer-thing was beeping. The plastic facing, which had been blank when removed from the box, read AUTHORITIES ALERTED.

Rob said “shit” and dropped the box.

He looked for the book beneath the table and in the bathroom. He tore apart his son’s homework. It wasn’t on the coffee table and it wasn’t on the nightstand. Peter scrambled through the spare room as Rob dared a look out the front window. Nothing, yet. He locked the deadbolt.

The call came when he was sifting through his work bench in the basement.

“Dad! Dad! I found it!”

Rob’s relief was only temporary. “Read what it says, bud.”

“It’s got hard words!”

“Sound it out. It’s gotta be in the back, with all the legal stuff.”

Peter sat on the basement steps and read while Rob struggled to put everything back in its proper place. He scraped dirt off a recently-used spade and wiped his hand on his shirt.

“Little–people–copy–write–”

“That’s not what we want, bud, after that.”

Peter nodded, mouth working as he read ahead silently.

“Be–cause–little–people–are–real–people–they–have–been–given–bio–bio–”

“Biographies, we’ve been over that, bud.”

“Graphies. BUT.” Peter swallowed. “they–have–also–been–imp–lan–ted–with–mon–it–tors.”

Rob went cold all over.

“–war–ning. not–only–are–little–people–given–bio–graphies–they–have–been–reg–ist–ist–”

“Registered,” Rob said numbly.

“–registered–under–UN–sanc–tee–on 9.352. They–are–count–ted–as–real–people–and–their–des–truck–tee-on–is–an–act–tee-on–able–of–fense. Any–mal–is–cious–treat–ment–is–sub–ject–to–full–pen–al–tee–of–law.”

There was a knock at the door.

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Hey readers! A collaboration I did with the excellent Bill Draheim is currently up on grryo.com. Go check it out!

The Machine’s God

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Depth

“The short-tailed Shearwater champions out most other seabirds at diving 70 meters at a shot.” Anthony smacked his lips after a sip of beer. “They do that just to snag a bite to eat off some hapless anchovy. So a little 18-meter hole like this one isn’t really that far to dive.”

Nea zipped herself into her wetsuit. Her equipment was at the ready on-deck, her turquoise flippers hung besides Tony’s larger black frog-feet on a peg.

“Needless to say, we should probably be diving in pairs.” Anthony watched her. “you sure you don’t want to wait?”

“Sure,” Nea said, facing away as she wet down her mask.

Anthony had dressed after they’d come back from snorkeling at the atoll, now he was tapping on their netbook with a distracted air.

“Just don’t inhale seawater,” he said, semi-jokingly.

Nea nodded briskly and pushed off from the side. The rush and gurgle that came from hitting the water drowned out a rejoinder, if there was one.

The seabed was easy. Nea scissor-kicked until she reached the floor, proceeding along parallel to it. Tiny octopi and trumpet fish got out of her way. The sudden drop off of life in front of her let her know when she’d reached the hole. She kicked until she hung suspended above the great blue space, darkness beneath her, light above her.

She descended slow. The walls grew barren, not even polyps could be found after a few meters. Nea forced herself to breath steadily and evenly as the light faded around her, watchful for any symptoms of narcosis.

The pressure she had braced for at the beginning of the dive was slow in coming. In fact, it was long past the point where it should be noticeable. Nea checked her depth gauge.

20 meters.

Nea forced herself to take a slow breath. She squeezed her eyes shut, and examined the gauge again. 20 meters. She sat unmoving in the middle of the hole, gently rotating in place.

She did not feel the beginning stirrings of narcosis. In fact, she felt fine. She didn’t even feel that first warning shot, the drunk’s overconfidence. And there was no real pressure.

This was all wrong. And, being an experienced diver, she should head up.

…unless the depth gauge was broken. And in that case, she hadn’t gone very far at all. And that meant that she really wasn’t suffering from narcosis, and could ascend when she recognized the first symptoms.

Nea went down.

It was not very far, not to her. They had been to the big blue hole off Belize and the great barrier reef. She had free-dived alone before she’d met Anthony. So the darkness below her held no new terror.

When the darkness grew light, it did give her pause.

The depth meter read 36. It was lighter.

The depth meter read 39. It was lighter and the depth meter was definitely broken and she was ascending. Her and Tony would have a laugh about it.

43 meters and she broke the surface. And everything was very wrong. She was wrong. This was not the atoll with the boat floating nearby. The sky was wrong, it was an orange tint shading into a pink on the horizon, though the sun sat high behind her. The sound was wrong, she found, because she did not surface amidst the waves but a circular formation of stones like a volcanic chimney. For a long way all around her were cisterns of black stones and far off, if she turned a certain way, was the surf.

She turned the other way and saw a beach.

Treading water, she made it up to the side of her circle. Her equipment was cumbersome, but she demurred taking it off. The black rocks, slick at a distance, were rough and tore at her hands. Her mask she merely settled on top of her head. The depth gauge she abandoned, leaving it on the wall of her cistern.

Navigating the narrow walls in flippers were tricky, but she didn’t have her wading shoes. Though the danger of falling in was almost too much to contemplate, the rocks would leave her limping.

And if she had to get away fast…

The shore took forever to approach. As details revealed themselves, Nea found the beach was made up of regular-looking sand and was free of any flotsam or detritus a normal beach might have.

Nea flopped on her hands and knees in the sand. It took a few minutes of heavy breathing before the beach stopped undulating beneath her. Standing up was another trial.

The beach skirted a greater island, not the atoll she had left. A cinder cone dominated the landscape. The rest of the land was taken up by what Nea thought was a jungle until she approached it. The trees and vines resolved into complex rock formations. Nea put her ear out.

This far from the surf, the beach was completely silent. No animals, no birds, not even insects.

Nea looked behind her, once, and walked along the beach for a bit.

There were places where the wells had broken open, forming larger, irregular mouths. Nothing swam in them. Nea ditched her fins and ascended a hill with minor ease.

The next cove was twenty or so circles, broken into one. The beach was littered with sickle-shaped stones.

Nea drew nearer and found they were not stones.

One lay upended in the sand like a discarded oyster shell. Nea touched the surface and found it nearly frictionless. One side was indented and showed grooves. Possibly to hold musculature.

Nea stood up. The shell was as long as her leg. It looked like the discarded shell of a horseshoe crab. A horseshoe crab the size of a small horse.

Nea chuckled nervously and pushed it over. Only empties littered the beach. She could not spot any movement.

Further along the shore, Nea found rocks that matched the ones rimming the wells. They were stacked up into piles three times her height at minimum. Nea set her fins carefully down and gingerly tried her bare foot on a rock. They were much less slippery out of the water, and their edges seemed worn. Nea climbed, panting, sweating, using her knees to anchor herself.

Something screamed.

Nea froze, hugging the pile. A few errant rocks slid down behind her, tumbling far too noisily. She breathed shallow, waiting. Nothing.

The rest of the climb was much less humorous.

Nea sat on a small indent in the top of the pile and looked around. There were many mounds, some taller than hers, all made of the same rocks. They lacked any other defining features.

Nea scoped the land, craning her neck in an attempt to see through the petrified mesh of the jungle. When the bird emerged she nearly fell off, her flinch sent rocks tumbling down.

The bird had rose-and-white plumage, head cocked to glare at her from one beady dinosaur eye. Its beak was long and straight and hooked slightly at the end. The edge of the beak had a bright, red line that curved over it like lipstick, and the rostrum itself was tiger-striped. The bird hopped a few paces, dancing toward the stone piles. It looked ridiculous.

Mad laughter came bubbling out of Nea. She held her stomach as the bird awkwardly traversed the land on webbed feet almost as big as its body. She made a honking call that was half goose, half peacock.

The bird cocked its head to eye her. It sidled up to a pile that rose slightly above hers—and placed the bend of one wing on top of the rocks.

Nea gaped.

And then it screamed again.

Nea was upright for only a half-second more. Then she was down, scooting on her hands, riding the scree as rapidly as she could. She grabbed up her fins without slowing and ran.

The beach had no surf, so she could not run on the firmer wet sand and gain ground easily. Breath caught in her lungs and the tanks flapped at her back; a useless, dead weight. Past the shells, cresting the hill, she fell, got up, fell again.

The scream did not sound from behind her, but she knew the bird was coming. Could feel the bird coming. Nea punched the cramp in her calf and sliced the sand with her steps. She found the cove where she had come ashore and, panicking, set foot on the rocks without putting on her fins. She slipped, the rocks sliced, and a shock of pain went up her leg as the saltwater bit into her wound. Nea wriggled on a fin, hyperventilating, watching the jungle behind her. There was nothing from the “trees” as she successfully donned the other fin, nothing screaming over the hill as she forced herself to walk slow, arms out for balance.

She found the depth gauge and gave a little scream of happiness. Then she looked down and realized that there were two wells that met at that spot, two places she could have emerged from. Nea gulped, pressing a hand to her side. When she’d surfaced, had she faced the shore? No, she’d faced out to the side, at the endless progression of wells, but which way? They stretched off in either direction, almost identical.

Nea looked back at the shore.

The bird was there, observing her with red eyes. It used its wings to help it locomote in the sand like a pterosaur.

Nea turned and dove into the well before her.

No time for an equipment check. No time to properly anchor the mask. She had dropped the depth gauge when she jumped in, but it didn’t matter, because she knew how far it was up to the other surface. And she kicked.

The water grew dark, and Nea forced herself to swim slowly. She could feel pressure bear up in her fluid cavities. Extra fluid in her mask told her her nose was bleeding. But she did not stop her steady ascent.

Once she cleared the lip of the hole, Nea began kicking in earnest. Her foot burned, and her cramped leg refused to work right. But she kicked and she broke the surface and there was the boat, and Anthony jumping up and spilling his beer. He cupped his mouth with his hands and shouted something. Nea kicked closer to the boat. The adrenaline had begun draining from her the second she had broken the surface, now it took all her willpower to swim. Anthony tossed out a lifering which she gladly sank into. She cried with relief as he towed her back to the boat.

Anthony pulled her up to the deck. Nea tore her mask off and kicked her flipper free.

“Bird,” she gasped, “big—big bird!”

“Babe, you’re bleeding.” Anthony grabbed her foot. The pain made her cry out and wrench away. She tried to sit up and grabbed handfuls of his cargo shorts.

“Big bird,” she said, “we need to go. We need to go!”

Anthony pried his shorts from her grasp.

“Narcosis,” he said, patting her shoulder, “you’ll be all right. I’ll get the kit.”

Nea almost screamed when he walked away, but stopped herself. Her breath hitched in her chest.

“What happened down there?” Anthony called from the cabin, “you make a friend? They told us there were no sharks in this area.”

Nea gulped. “No,” she managed.

“Okay, then, it can wait. Let’s get you dry and bandaged. Then we’ll get out of here, okay?”

Nea covered her eyes with her hand and laughed. A swell rocked the boat gently. Her heart rate slowed as she took a seat against the bulkhead. The sky was blue, the water was open.

Nea smiled up at the sky. She glanced down into the water just as something vast unfurled beneath her.

Because it was not far to dive. No, not far at all.

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