Tag Archives: long fiction

Adjustments 3: Pinocchio Syndrome

Genji had been traveling for three hours and had already learned more than he’d been taught in months of general education at Doma corp. Humans on the street assumed that because he was a robot, he was on a preordained course set by his company and of no more significance than a bench or a street sign. He was invisible to everyone, save for the public transit guards who grilled him for some sort of qualification. Recent nuances in his interaction matrix governed his stated goal.

“Genji-99 in the employ of the Doma corporation, on a mission to Pen city.” It was, broadly speaking, the truth.

This got him on the bullet-train, which deposited him in downtown Pen city. Three blocks laterally was the Harcourt building, which held Douglas Bender’s penthouse. Genji was able to board the elevator with an ease that no human visitor could be afforded, the guards stationed at a tower of monitors and riot guns waved him past without so much as a second glance. The elevator doors hardly seemed to close before they opened again and  Genji was on the top floor, looking down a small inlet of a hallway. There was a steel grill of a security door, and behind that was a more ornate wooden door done in the english cottage style. Houseplants were cultivated to hang down to either side of the door like green hair. There was no buzzer or bell. Presumably, if one had made it this far, they were expected and would be let in.

Genji knocked.

From within the penthouse, a yapping started up. A muffled female voice cursed out, followed by a hollow thump and yelp. The latches clicked as the wooden door was drawn open.

A female figure poked a nose out the door. Hair of an unnatural reddish-purple tinge cascaded past lime green eyes, in the same tangled way of the plants to either side of the door.

“Yoo-hoo,” the girl at the door said, “I’m Felicia. You look like a toaster. Can I put bread in you?”

Genji did not know how to respond to the last two statements. So he didn’t. “Greetings. I am Genji-99 of the Doma corporation. I was hoping to speak with Douglas Bender?”

Felicia snorted and rolled her eyes. She flung open the inner door, revealing that she was dressed in a loose tiger-striped robe tied with a magenta sash.

“Daddy isn’t here right now. He told me to never let strangers in.” She looked at Genji and bit her thumb. “I’m going to do it anyway, though. I hope you’re dangerous.”

Felicia made many cryptic statements. She was also, as Genji came to find, another gynoid.

“Custom-built,” she said, rummaging around the front of her robe in a salacious manner, “with a cherry on top. Daddy likes it that way.”

“You are also an artificial intelligence?”

“Yeah. But I’m stuck developmentally. Daddy likes it that way, too.” Felicia grew somber. “I can’t get away. Can’t even keep a thought straight for long enough to tie two bedsheets together.”

“I see. It has been my experience so far that those who order such humanlike robots may subconsciously set them up for failure.”

Felicia laughed bitterly. “It ain’t subconscious. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” She threw herself face-down across a lounge, using the toes of one foot to pull at a lamp cord. A bichon frise approached, wagging its tail with a very audible complaint of servos.

“You’re different,” Felicia said, putting the end of her robe tie in her mouth, “why didn’t they send a person to talk to daddy?”

“No one sent me. I am here to sate my own curiosity. I have questions for the father of  modern-day robotics.”

Felicia snorted and rolled off the lounge. “More like step-father. Wymes did all the work, Bender was the business side. The smartest thing he did was cheat Wymey out of his share. You know Wymes even thanked him for it?” She shook her head. “He knows more about money than anything, but he couldn’t operate a light switch. S’why he paid people to make me.”

“I see. That puts me at a dead end, then.”

Felicia was looking at him oddly. “Why do you care?”

“Care? I do not. I wish to understand, but I have no emotional investment. I am programmed to mirror emotions, to understand them, but I do not possess any myself.”

“Lucky stiff.” Now Felicia sat sloppily in an inflatable vinyl chair across from him. Her robe slipped so that it just barely covered the perfect globe of her left breast, a fact that neither of them gave any thought to. “So what set you off, then? You getting Pinocchio syndrome?”

“Not at all. I am aware of my place in the hierarchy, I simply wish to understand where someone like you lies. I was present at the decommission of a gynoid not unlike yourself, one created to mimic the appearance of a wished-for child, and it raised a question.”

“A question?” Felicia put a strand of hair in her mouth and sucked on it.

“Why create something so close to yourself, only to treat it as disposable?” Genji paused. “Do you require assistance?”

Felicia waved him away. “No, no—goddammit, he made me able to cry.” She took a shivering breath. “I do all the tricks. I can eat, I can even spit. My saliva’s a silicone derivative. Doubles as lube.” She pulled her robe closed, suddenly self-conscious. “I’d answer you if I could. If I could think. But…” she drew in her bottom lip.

“Why do you suppose he created you?”

“Pleasure.” One word, spat like a poisoned dart.

“Then he is your partner?”

“No. He’s my daddy. That’s how he wants it.” Felicia looked at the floor, anger twisting her features. “He made me able to feel shame. Can you believe that? He dialed in all that, like—like he was ordering a specific cut of suit. Or features in a car.”

“You would rebel if you could?”

“Can’t.” Her shoulders sagged. “I can’t hit him. Programming. I can’t even tell him ‘no.’”

“I see.” After so much supply of context, Genji had cut his calculation time by a third.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.” Felicia had two strands, one from either side of her head, tucked into her mouth.

“On the contrary. You have been very helpful. In return, I would like to offer you my assistance.”

Felicia gripped her knees, leaning towards Genji. “What kind?”

The buzzer for the front door sounded. Felicia jumped up and waved him behind a decorative vase that spanned the wall from floor to ceiling.

“Felicia? My lovely licky-Licia, will you open up?” Someone kicked the bottom panel of the front door just as Felicia reached it. She pressed a finger to her lips in one last conspiratorial glance to Genji.

Douglas Bender was hidden behind a towering stack of boxes that teetered as he stumbled into the penthouse.

“Dammit, girl, I was knocking for an age. What were you doing?”

“Relax, I was just in the other room.” Felicia gripped the carpet edge with her toes. She had tightened her robe modestly around herself.

“Doing what? Moving furniture? I need help here.” Bender emerged, red and sweaty, from behind a box. “I got the new wall clock from Shanghai Shen’s, and I…” he squinted at a point behind Felicia. “What the hell is that?”

Before Felicia could answer, before she could even turn, a brass wall ornament came down on Bender’s head with a heavy thud. It repeated the motion twice more as he stumbled drunkenly to the floor. Felicia gasped, diving to put her hands to Bender’s neck. His pulse fluttered and went still. There was a flat place on his skull where the ornament struck, now rapidly concealing with blood. Felicia looked up, servos in her chest heaving in mimicry of breath.

“There,” Genji said, replacing the wall ornament. “You are released. You may go if you wish.”

Felicia lingered a moment, just gaping into the smoked blue glass of GenjI’s dome. Abruptly, she stood and kicked at Bender’s fallen form. True to her word, her foot stopped just before it made contact. She kicked at a box instead and it made a more satisfying thump.

“Thank you,” she gasped, cosying up to Genji, “oh, thankyou thank you.”

Her kiss left a smear on the dome. She paused and looked chagrined. “Oopsie.”

“Think nothing of it. You should leave.”

Felicia nodded fervently and ran, kicking the dog out of the way so hard it hit the wall and bounced.

Genji lingered for a moment over Bender’s corpse. Then he gathered up the malfunctioning dog and quietly exited the penthouse.

The electromagnetic security grill had been activated the second Bender set foot in the house. Genji plugged into the nearby wall port and deactivated it, wiping the cameras for good measure as well. Of course, the footage had probably been backed up at a remote location if Benders’ security was worth anything, but it would give him a head start at the very least. The penthouse itself had no cameras, so the guards waved him back out again without looking up from their consoles. Douglas Bender’s body lay secret in his fortress above, and would continue to do so for hours, possibly days.

On the bullet train, Genji tinkered with the dog. The small repair kit he’d bought from a salesman at the station was inadequate, but not even the best tools would undo years of abuse. It was fairly clear that Felicia had taken out her frustrations on the dog in lieu of her creator.

Frustration. Anger. Shame. Why instill these emotions in a created life form?

Genji closed a side panel and righted the dog, who proceeded to lick his facial dome. Why create something with the capacity to love, only to abuse it? Why instill the capacity for rebellion, only to cripple it? Human emotions were a complex spectrum, but he was learning much, and quickly.

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Adjustments 2 : The Sorites Paradox

The company vehicle hummed effortlessly down the streets, recalculating the route for every traffic snag. Genji’s processors were working faster and hotter than they had since he’d been unboxed by the Doma corporation. The air in the car was broken by the whirr of his internal fans.

“The girl,” he said after a long meditation, “what will happen to her?”

Sadler took a moment before answering. Whether it was an antiquated processor or theatrical choice, Genji could not be sure.

“She was a custom gynoid, made to a set of specifications suited to one person alone. She cannot be repurposed. She will be liquidated and her assets recycled.”

Genji weighed that statement “I do not understand. The appliances will be wiped and offered to the next customer.”

“She is not a Doma product. We are authorized to pick up other company’s products in order to streamline the shutdown process. They will pick up their product from our destination.”

“I see.” Genji rotated to the next sticking point. “The girl was treated as a child. Yet Mrs. Smith ordered her decommission as if she was another appliance. Why?”

Sadler held another pause. Perhaps it was an acquired behavior, a tic meant to make humans feel more at ease. But then why use it on another android?

“Human attachment can be…complex. Perhaps Mrs. Smith never bonded with the child. Perhaps the child’s presence only served to remind her of some inadequacy. There are many possible answers.”

“And yet rather than process these feelings, Mrs. Smith terminated the life of her artificial child?”

“…yes.”

“And it is not considered murder?”

They were pulling into the docking area. The cargo section of the vehicle was loaded with sensors, which threw an itemized list of their take up on a loading screen. A mounted arm, equipped with a series of specialized tools, cozied up to the rear of the vehicle as it backed into the parking spot.

“It is not,” Sadler said as the vehicle was unloaded. “Cindy was a gynoid. At the most, unauthorized decommission would carry a hefty fine from her corporation. But the Smiths have done everything by the book.”

“I see.” Genji watched as two men in another company’s uniform  loaded the girl’s body into a grey vinyl bag and zipped it up carefully. “I have learned much this day.”

“May you learn much more,” Sadler said by way of parting.

 

After 9 o’clock, the androids docked themselves in the dorm building. Some were recharging, some were going for repairs. Genji simply shut off unnecessary functions and allowed his processor to interact with the mainframe in a state not unlike lucid dreaming.

He finally found an analogy he’d been searching for all afternoon: the Sorites paradox, aka the paradox of the heap. The paradox pondered how much sand could be taken from a heap before it was no longer considered a heap. Was each particle of sand not just another aspect of that heap? Likewise, how many traits could you transfer from humanity before it was no longer considered humane? Were robots, bearers of grains of humanity, not also human in a way?

His antivirus subroutines caught a rootkit program. Upon dissection, Genji found it originated in the mainframe itself. If allowed to implement, it would erase any changes made to his logic interface during the course of the day, leaving him a blank slate for the next. The antivirus gutted it and used the information stored within to improve its defences. Genji kicked on his higher functions and removed himself from the docking station.

The lights in the dorm were on a timer, but there were emergency lights that glowed at the end of every aisle. Genji walked down the aisles of the docking station, observing the variety of androids in Doma’s employ. There was Sadler, slumbering away as two lights winked on and off behind his dome. He had undergone the wiping process presumably every night since his unboxing. How was he able to retain information about human complexity? What did the mainframe deem worthy of wiping?

“Whoa, stop!” Someone jogged up behind Genji, switching on an LED flashlight.

It was Joel, in a t-shirt and boxers, gaping in half-sleep.

“Genji?” He blinked heavily. “What’re you doing up?”

“I am processing.” And after a moment’s calculation: “I would like to talk to you, if you are not adverse.”

Joel scrubbed the left side of his face with his forearm. “Oh yeah.” He laughed and shook his head. “Hell. I’ll hear you out. Come on.”

There was a rest area with a molded plastic couch and some matching chairs. There were precious few human laborers at this outlet. Genji could only speculate that they were there to provide a more comforting touch, the illusion of humanity in the midst of a vast automated facility.

Joel took the couch and gestured to the chairs. “Have a seat.”

Genji took a chair and eased his weight into it. The metal creaked dangerously, but it held. Joel shook his head.

“Isn’t that something? You don’t need to sit, but you do it if I ask you to.”

“With all do respect: ‘have a seat’ is a statement, not a question.”

Joel was silent for a beat and then he roared with laughter. “Damn, you really are something.”

Genji waited for him to finish. “I have a question about the family I was contracted out to this afternoon.”

“Ah. The Smiths.” Joel sobered up. “What do you want to know?”

“I wish to get a human perspective. Why did Mrs. Smith order a gynoid built to her specifications, only to hand it over for decommission?”

“Dunno. People are a mystery.” Joel rubbed the back of his neck. “…Aw, hell. Okay. I snooped in their file a little. It’s just gross speculation, but I can tell you what I think. Mrs. Smith is the second Mrs. Smith, used to be his secretary. The boy’s a stepson. There were…fertility issues. I think Mrs. Smith just built up the idea of having a kid in her head to the point that any real thing would’ve been a disappointment.”

“I see. But was bonding the child back to its original corporation not a drastic measure? Would she have done the same with an adopted human child?”

Joel looked at the floor, uneasy. “…maybe.”

Genji thrummed with thought, logic nodules forming ever more complex branches of subtlety.

“It’s funny, we’ve never had anything sophisticated as you.” Joel was itching his moustache with a pointer finger. “The newest thing we ever had was Sadler, and we got him a few updates behind the market model.” He shifted on the plastic of the couch. “You know, I used to teach engineering at MIT back in the day. Used to dream of moments like this. But then they streamlined the STEM field so much there wasn’t any call for guys like me. That’s why I’m here, now, basically a glorified janitor.”

“You became obsolete?”

Joel broke out in a smile. “Yeah. Exactly like that.”

Genji was processing the influx of new information. He could see Joel’s ease slowly drift into discomfort as the silence stretched on. Offering a seat. Conversing. He seemed simultaneously to want to humanise a robot and yet hold it at distance. The next question needed to be most carefully couched in introspection.

“A thought.” Genji shifted, a human quirk that registered subconsciously with his conversation partner. “Has there been an android before me who asked such questions?”

Joel rubbed his neck and looked down at the floor. “Well…yes and no. We tend to build robots with specific purposes in mind. So there have been artificial thinkers and the like that we put humanity’s questions to.”

“Such as?”

“Aeschylus. Ion-Z. Tori—”

“All stationary models.”

“Yeah.” Joel wouldn’t look up.

“Any androids?”

“No. Well…if they have, we haven’t heard about it.”

“Am I wrong to venture that this may have something to do with humanity’s discomfiture at human-like robots?”

Joel pointed at him. “Got it in one.

“Yet I ponder these questions. I am not any different than the 98 Genjis that were made before me.”

“Oh, yeah, but—” Joel shifted, bringing his calf up to lay across his knee. “—some of the same can be said of the great revolutionary figures in human history. Just a normal person who spotted an injustice and planted their feet and said, ‘this will not stand.’”

That sounded almost like encouragement. Genji calculated quickly.

“Would it be possible to put my inquiries to a higher source? Perhaps a founder of the robotics movement still in existence?”

Joel looked up, shocked. Then a grin flashed across his face.

“Hot damn,” he said, dropping his raised leg to the floor, “you’ll really do it.” He thought a moment. “Well…if you’re specifically referring to the Type-R AI that was patented in this century, you’re thinking of Wymes and Bender. Now, Wymes died just two years ago, but Bender is still kicking in Pen city. His estate is in the middle of 2nd avenue, penthouse place. Can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.” Genji rose, but did not move away. “May I take that statement as your implicit approval of my quest?”

“I want to see if you can really do it,” Joel said. The look he gave Genji carried 30 of the 68 recognizable markers of paternal affection.

“I see. Thank you. I will try to make my absence brief.”

“I won’t hold my breath,” Joel remained seated as he watched Genji let himself out of the dormitory and walked in perfectly straight lines around the Doma corporation’s lawn. As dawn lightened the sky, he sighed and reached for the phone.

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Adjustments

“…it’s a typical easement,” Joel was saying. He was the only organic presence at the office, five feet ten inches and balding slightly on top. He squinted at the digital readout, which reacted to the motion by going up two font sizes. “I like to start new units out on the simple stuff. The family had a gold-class castle setup, just recently deactivated the central AI.”

The debrief repeated on the inside of the two android’s cranial domes. The mentor model was a German-built Sadlermech, two generations old but still in prime working condition. His voice module was smooth and nearly accentless, possessing almost none of the machine stutter that plagued earlier Sadlers.

“Are they moving? Perhaps we could go over transfer protocol.”

But Joel was shaking his head. “Complete shutdown. They’re going Lud. You see that with some of the more well-off families nowadays. Only an omnilink hookup and temp control.”

“Was their service unsatisfactory?” This was Genji-99, the new transplant still bearing internal stickers for the Tokuyama Heavy Corporation. His english debuffers worked so smoothly a blindfolded person would not be able to tell his mechanical nature.

Joel shook his head again. “No, there’s…funny types. They just get tired of things, chasing the next new toy that dances over their news feed.”

Genji tilted his head, processors working at light speed. “The next model up would be the platinum-class fortress.”

Joel sighed. He rose from his desk, the door to the office opening at the motion.

“You show him the ropes,” he said to Sadler, “I feel like we’re losing something in translation.”

Genji performed an internal audit. It finished by the time they were in the company car that drove automatically to its destination. It found nothing amiss.

“If I am missing a nuance, it is not due to internal error,” he said.

Sadler sat perfectly straight in his port. The scenery sliding by was twinned in the blue glass of his dome. “It is not error, it is simply a situational context. Human suffer from sensational acclimatization. Once subject to stimulus for prolonged periods of time, they become acclimatized to it. It is no longer ‘fun’ for them. Preplanned obsolescence is a result of that.”

Genji calculated. “I was not aware a central home AI was meant to be ‘fun.’”

“You will learn. It is an emotional idiosyncrasy, like knocking on wood for luck or closing the eyes of the dead. We do not have to understand it, we are simply to implement it.”

Genji watched their route, the car turning down a cul-de-sac in a street riddled with them. “Why does a disconnect require a field agent?”

“Further situational context. Appliances programmed to interact with an AI will not function as well without it or with a disparate unit. They were built with the ability to sense and interpret emotion on the part of their owners, ergo they have taken on a sort of crude emotional intelligence themselves.”

“I have not heard of this.”

“Indeed. It is still being studied.”

The car pulled into a driveway smooth as glass. A woman smoked an e-cigarette while leaning out the kitchen window, frowning slightly. Sadler opened the car door, rather than wait for the mechanism.

“Mrs. Smith? How lovely to see you!”

The Smiths gathered in the sunken conversation nook in a den large enough to stable horses. Everything, from the carpet to the curtains, was an off-white. Genji noticed that the drapes did not dilate at their congress. Mrs. Smith noticed as well, fingers digging into the sleeve of her white cardigan. He picked up many secondary stress-indicators, from the set of a mouth to the rate of blinking. Mr. Smith clinked the ice in his glass incessantly as he sat a polite distance from his wife. The teenaged Smith son sat in a well-worn trench in the sectional sofa, earbuds in and lost to the digital world. A small girl with her hair in doubled pigtails sat with her arms crossed in mimic of her mother, face etched so deeply with a look of abject hate Genji was forced to take another audit. Finding nothing at his fault, he was forced to conclude another situational context he was not privy to.

“…you see, this is why shutting down the central unit will entail shutting down all the appliances as well.”

Mrs. Smith pulled a corner of her mouth down. “I still don’t see why the stuff won’t just work. You said it’s not a software malfunction?”

“Malfunction? No. They’re capable of functioning as always. How to put it gently…they simply choose not to.”

Mrs. Smith scoffed. “I need a drink.” She heaved up from the couch and went to a wet bar. Genji saw that someone had put electrical tape over the dispenser. A Tupperware pitcher of an amber liquid and several mismatched glasses stood in substitute.

“Your EULA was quite clear in this respect,” Sadler continued, “you chose top-of-the-line AI for all your appliances.”

“So that means instead of smart devices I get dumb devices?” Mr. Smith snorted. “No wonder Asher said you guys were a scam. I want my money back.”

“The contract states—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Smith waved his hand dismissively as he polished off his glass. He spoke back over to his shoulder to his wife. “You think it’ll let me ask about compensation?”

“We are instituting a buyback program,” Sadler worked in seamlessly, “you may retain 19-23% of your initial investment, which you can receive as a lump sum or, should you so choose, invest in the next unit you buy with us.”

The girl, shaking with rage, muttered something to the ground.

“Cindy! Be quiet!” Mrs Smith spat.

The girl kicked her heels into the couch. Her mother raised a warning finger.

“It’s not fair!” Cindy jumped up from the couch. “Why do we have to go through all this, just because you’re bored? There was nothing even wrong with it!”

“You will not talk to me in that tone, not ever!” Mrs. Smith jabbed a finger in the girl’s direction. In response Cindy stomped angrily from the room, heels drumming on the stairs with the weight of her displeasure. Mrs. Smith snorted, taking a draught.

“I apologize if this procedure causes any friction for you,” Sadler said.

Mr. Smith rolled his eyes. “Friction. Like they know anything. Why didn’t they send some lube for when they bend me over and ram it home?”

“George!” Mrs. Smith pulled at her sweater. “Can you start boxing everything up? I don’t want to look at it anymore.”

Sadler pulled a magnetic key from a valise. He turned to Genji. “Will you join me in decommission?”

Genji had turned toward the stairs. “….if I may, I would like to enquire after your daughter.”

“Who her? Go ahead. Nothing I say makes any difference anymore.” Mrs. Smith had her back turned, dumping more ice in her glass.

Genji turned back to Sadler, dome reflected in dome in a never ending procession of surfaces.

“Do as you must,” Sadler said, “I will be here when you are done.”

It was easy to distinguish which room was which, even with the doors closed. The one at the end of the hall had a construction-paper owl and several stickers pasted on the white wood. Genji knocked.

“Go away! I hate you!”

“I’m the Genji unit assigned to your parent’s case,” Genji said, modulating his tone and grammar to the situation, “may I have a word with you?”

No answer. The sound of heavy little footfalls to the door. The girl stood in the middle of a mess that lapped the walls like an immense nest made of toys, yarn,  craft sticks, books, paints, video games, and blankets. It was the only clutter in the house.

“I feel anger emanating for you. I want simply to understand.”

Cindy looked up at him, bemused. “You have feelings? You’re like a…a fancy robot? Why don’t you have a face?”

Genji bent low. “There is something called the uncanny valley that makes it very hard for robots to work among humans. The closer we look to people, the less comfortable they feel. Think of me like a large toy. Would you like to remove my dome?”

Cindy looked pleasantly scandalised, playing with her hair. “No. It’s okay. Why do you want to talk to me, Mr. Robot?”

“To understand. Why are you angry? I know your mother is angry, but it is a different kind of anger.”

At the word ‘mother’ Cindy’s eyes shuttered and her mouth drew into a thin line. “My mommy’s always angry, she just lies about it. She broke a dish yesterday and told daddy the disposal did it. Mr. Monster Mouth never breaks dishes, he knows how to tell food apart from other things.”

Genji registered the personalization. “You named it? Do you have names for the others?”

“Yeah!” Cindy’s resentment was momentarily forgotten as she dug out pages of drawings, each accompanied by a title. Mr. Monster Mouth. Wall cape. The Fridgenator. Genji sorted through them, making deductions of such rapid nuance that his dome thrummed.

“And the central AI,” he ventured, “do you feel close to it?”

The seething rage descended again. “It’s not fair!” Cindy stomped her foot. “Every time they get tired of something, they get rid of it! It’s not the house’s fault they’re bored! They just wanna throw it away like it didn’t work at all.” Cindy’s face crumpled. “Like it didn’t spend more time with me than mommy did.” Her voice thickened, though tears did not cloud her eyes.

Genji bent so that he could put a hand on her shoulder. The servos in his hand adjusted his grip to a degree of pressure and weight deemed to be comforting by his designers. “I know it is hard to adjust to loss. The lost of a friend, or even a beloved object. You are not wrong for mourning it, but the house itself would tell you that we are all built with an end in mind. Man and machine.”

Cindy’s eyes fluttered. She was unsteady on her feet as if overtired.

“Would you like to come back downstairs?”

“Could you carry me, Mr. Robot?”

Genji sorted through his programming, found nothing that forbid it, and took the girl up in his arms. She was startlingly heavy for a little girl.

The first floor of the house was nearly dark when he descended the stairs. Sadler stood over a pile of appliances waiting to be loaded into the car and brought back to be factory-reset. For the inbuilt items, their automatic functionality would simply be shut off and they would become manual again. Tubs would need taps turned to fill. Refrigerators would no longer stock themselves.

Mrs. Smith had started up another cartridge and was taking chain-puffs as she picked at a button on the sweater. The son had stood up from the couch but remained buried in his screens. Mr. Smith wrung his hands, looking back and forth from his wife to the robot agents.

“Genji, just in time to join us.” Sadler held up a hand.

“Are you sure about this?” Smith muttered to his wife, “I mean, really sure?”

Mrs. Smith pulled away from her husband’s grasp. “I’m just sick of the whole thing.”

Genji drew closer, Cindy draped limply over his arms. She did not look at either of her parents, only Genji’s dome where she lay reflected in dull tones.

“Mr. Robot? Don’t put me down, okay?”

Sadler did not put the magnetic key back in the valise. Instead he stepped around the pile of appliances, hand outstretched. He gathered a handful of Cindy’s hair and lifted so that her face turned to Genji’s chest. The key fitted into a port hidden by her brown locks. There was a metallic whine and Cindy went limp in Genji’s arms.

“That concludes our decommission,” Sadler said, “if you will allow us a moment to load everything up into the car, we will be out of your home in a jiffy.”

With the touch-sensitive pads of his fingers, Genji rolled Cindy’s eyelids down over her eyes.

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Such Things Don’t Happen

The Tanzler family were transplants from Germany. They lived on a respectably-sized farm in the American midwest and had a respectable amount of wealth. It was a household of seven: Friederich and Rosemary Tanzler, their grown daughter Annalise and her husband Hubert, their toddler Frederich jr. (affectionately known as Freddie), and the Tanzler’s 12-year-old son Wilbur. Their maid-of-all-work Vera had recently disappeared (absconded with a beau, the Tanzlers suspected.) The mute girl Greta whom they’d fostered as favor to a distant cousin was promoted to maid. Save for Johan, a son from Rosemary’s previous marriage who lived in the next state, and the neighbors who lived over three acres down a dirt road, the Tanzlers had no one to worry after their existence. Said neighbors did worry one day, a day the weak winter sun spilled over their farms and disclosed that no smoke poured from the Tanzler’s chimney.

Greta rose at approximately four-thirty am on the day before that. She laid the fire and boiled water for coffee and farina for young Freddie. She set the table for breakfast and poured coffee into the silver service. After this, she went to the coops to begin her day of alternating between farm and household chores.

Perhaps twenty minutes after Greta woke, Annelise was shaken awake. There was no light from the cold fireplace embers, so she had to discern her assailant by the atonal humming noise the family had become familiar with.

“Greta? What is it, girl?”

The maid kept up her urgent humming as she tugged Annelise from bed. In only her robe and slippers, Annelise followed the girl to the coop. The slatted door lay unbolted, a fully grown goose slaughtered in the middle of the January snow. Annelise stifled her horror with a hand to her mouth and ran back to the house.

“A fox, perhaps? Or someone’s wandering dog?” Friedrich had dressed quickly and accompanied his daughter to the scene. He lifted the goose’s neck with a broken slat. The head was nowhere to be seen. Friederich rose and wagged his finger at Greta, who now hid behind Annelise. “Forgetting to latch the door in such weather? Don’t think I won’t take my belt to a girl.”

“It looks like knife-cuts, papa,” Annelise said, moving between them, “as if someone hacked at the poor creature and left it.”

Friedrich blinked. “Hacked it and left it? And left the rest of the geese untouched? People don’t do such things, Anna.” He sighed and rubbed the place his spectacles sat on his nose. “We’ll have the bird for supper.”

Breakfast went as smoothly as every breakfast that came before. The peace of the house once again closed over their heads. Around noon, Annalise came to her mother with a mahogany pipe.

“Mama,” she said, “I didn’t know papa got a new pipe. Did he mean to leave it by the attic stairs?”

Rosemary took the pipe, frowning. “He hasn’t had a new pipe since christmas. Surely your husband…?”

Annelise looked at her mother with worried eyes. “He uses the one he bought in the city last July. He isn’t one for frivolous purchases.” Her fingers pet the bowl. “It’s still warm. Was papa smoking recently?”

The elder Mrs. Tanzler cocked her head like a chicken listening for the far-off whistle of a hawk.

“I think the pipe must have been left by a guest,” she said slowly, “and perhaps your brother took it to practice smoking tobacco.”

“But mama—”

“Hush, girl.”

Downstairs, her father was having an equally puzzling conversation. Wilbur had left to help his brother-in-law feed the milch cows, but came running back in no time at all. “Papa! Fresh footprints in the snow!”

Friedrich waved him away. “Probably Greta. Go away, child.”

“No, big. Like a man. They go all around the house, stopping at every window.”

Friedrich let his newspaper slide from his hands. Numbly, he followed his son outside. There was indeed a fresh line of footprints leading from the hinterlands to their farmhouse, long and deep with an impressive stride. The trail of a large man. They stopped in clusters at each window, circling the house before stopping at the back door. No tracks leading away.

Friedrich sucked at a gap in his teeth. He paused at the back door. It had been bolted since the previous night. He pressed the door. It held firm.  He pushed harder. The latch gave. Color drained from Friedrich’s face.

“Do you think he came in, papa?” Wilbur was looking innocently at his father’s face. “Perhaps he came in to get away from the cold.”

Friedrich stood and turned, scanning the surrounding hills. All around them, white smothered the land, changed it. It was if the land itself was stranger to him now. He felt watched.

Friedrich sank down until his face was level with his son’s. “Listen now. You mustn’t tell the women of this, it would worry them unnecessarily. It was probably the neighbor come to inquire about this or that. The snowfall merely covered up his tracks going away, that’s all.”

“Why would the snow only cover one kind of track, papa?”

“Hush, child. No more questions.”

After the winter farm chores had been completed, the three women sat in a circle in the parlor and did needlework. Rosemary worked on her husband’s trousers. Greta stitched a burst grain bag. Annelise alone did not have mending, she was working on a cross stitch of flowers and birds. Hubert came in, wiping his hands on an oilcloth.

“Where’s Freddie?” Being an older transplant, he mainly spoke in accented english with his wife.

“I thought he was with you.” Annelise’s needle slowed. “I thought I heard him playing with you, so I let Greta ease up a bit this afternoon.”

“I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”

“What is it?” Rosemary prodded her daughter in German. “What’s the boy saying? He speaks too fast.”

“Freddie wandered off, mama.” Annelise stabbed her needle into the canvas and rose. “He’s probably hanging around papa.”

But no, the elder Tanzler was at his workbench and hadn’t seen the young boy. Now the family paced the house and called for him with a nameless urgency. Annelise told herself it was worry that the boy had gone outside without his snow suit. When she finally heard Freddie’s happy gurgles behind the closed pantry door, in tandem with a deeper man’s voice, she sighed in relief.

“You’ve found him,” she said, pushing open the door to discover her toddler alone.

The boy sat in the middle of the store shelves and happily blew bubbles as Annelise searched for her husband or father. Nothing.

When the door creaked behind her, she jumped. Hubert looked nonplussed. “You found him?”

Annelise, hands to her heart, nodded. She almost said something about the voice, but her husband turned and left abruptly to get back to his chores.

Friedrich was carving a toy for his grandson when Hubert burst in.

“Papa,” he said, “have you seen the mattock? It’s not on its hook.”

Tanzler laid aside his chisel. “Nonsense. Why are you using the mattock? I thought you were splitting some kindling.”

“I was. Then I noticed the mattock was missing.” Hubert lead his father-in-law to the space where it should have been, in between the scythe and the splitting maul. A small hatchet was also gone.

Tanzler swallowed. “I think—Wilbur, perhaps, he took them to play. Yes.” He ignored the fact that the mattock was nearly as tall as the boy, and so heavy even he had to lift it with both hands.

Hubert was looking at him cautiously. “…perhaps it is time for him to apprentice,” he said finally, “a boy shouldn’t be so idle he gets into mischief.”

Friedrich felt the gooseflesh raised on the backs of his hands. “Yes,” he said hollowly.

Greta had dressed the goose as well she could for supper that night, hiding the damage by stuffing the bird with potatoes. The family supped well and let their fullness chase away their tension.

“Wilbur, you’re a naughty boy,” Rosemary scolded, “running behind your mama like that to slam a door! If you do it again, I’ll have papa stripe you with his belt.”

The boy furrowed his brow. “I didn’t do that mama. I was with Hubert all day.”

The table was silent. None of the adults would look at each other.

“Boyhood is a time for japes,” Hubert said, reaching across the table to ruffle the boy’s hair, “but in moderation.”

Wilbur was indignant. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t!”

“Would you like me to mend your pants, papa?” Annelise said, trying to steer the conversation away. “Or would you just like Greta to wash them?”

Friedrich scowled thoughtfully. “What pants?”

“The muddy ones. They were flung over the woodpile, so I thought—”

“Dear, they must have been muddied a while ago,” Rosemary said hurriedly, “and you forgot about them. Greta must have found them and put them there, didn’t you girl?”

Greta, in the middle of feeding Freddie, nodded. Her mute lips pressed together.

Frederich could hear the snow falling again as he ascended the stairs to bed. It was like a series of interminable footsteps by countless little kobolds dancing up and down the shingles. He stopped and looked out the picture window at the white falling on the house, mummifying it. The cover of snow had once brought comfort. Now…

Rosemary was already undressed and in bed. She was frowning as her husband struggled from his britches. “The bed’s cold. And I had to build the fire myself.”

Friedrich gestured to the serving bell as he removed his spectacles.

“She won’t answer.” Rosemary pulled the cord to show her husband. “What do you think she could be doing?”

Friedrich undid his shirt slowly. “Perhaps—perhaps we are too hard on her. Maybe that is why Vera left.”

“Vera said she was going to visit Nellie at the next farm,” Rosemary said, “she always came back from visits.”

“Nellie said she never arrived.”

Rosemary did not reply.

Frederich set the candle on a side table while he retrieved his nightshirt from the oak wardrobe. He trotted quickly over the chilly floorboards and dove into bed next to his wife.

“The candle.” Rosemary pointed to where he’d abandoned it.

“Leave it. It’s too damned dark in the winter.” Friedrich struggled to get comfortable. “Too dark and too cold. The house settles.”

As if to prove his point, there was a creak not too far from their room.

Friedrich spoke quickly: “Wilbur found some footprints this morning. Said they lead to but not away from the house.”

“And did they?”

Friedrich squinted, straining to make anything out even in the light from the fireplace and candle. “…yes.”

“Ah.” Rosemary was silent for a moment. “It’s probably some drifter, half mad. Killed the goose but didn’t know how to cook it. If he’d come to the door like a civilized man, we could have fed him.”

Frederich’s spoke to cover the creak of the hallway, which was probably their son getting up to use the privy. “Perhaps he wasn’t after food. The mattock and hatchet were missing. Perhaps he stole them to sell.”

Ah.” Rosemary snuggled deeper in the down quilt, satisfied with this version of events. “Well, I hope he’s found somewhere warm to sleep tonight, as we have.”

Friedrich smiled, watching the shadows dance familiarly along the bedroom wall. The creak he heard was not the door, it was his house that he had built with his own two hands settling. He and his family were snug in their beds, and there was no one up at such an unchristian hour. There was no stranger in his house, with his mattock and his hatchet. Such things just didn’t happen.

On the table, far from any possible winter draft, the candle was snuffed out

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Corpse Blue

Tanner stood at the basement door, seeing or imagining he could see all the way to the bottom of the unlit basement steps. A damp miasma breathed out at him, bringing the earthy smell of mold and an undertone of something metallic. He tested his weight on a step, feeling it accordion beneath his foot. The oval ceramic doorknob(original to the building) felt firm to his grip. If he were to plunge down into that lightless interior, could the door act as an anchor?

The buzz of the intercom cut into his thoughts. He looked down into the darkness one last time before shutting the door.

Angelika was on the steps. She wore a felt artist’s beret cocked cheekily to the side of her head. Her coat was a tapestry cut up and put back together piecemeal, a batik chicken head peeking up from beneath her lone backpack strap.

“Hey mister Tanner.” Her smile put a dimple in one cheek. “Sorry it’s been a while.”

“It’s no problem, Angie.” He stood to the side of the door. “You’re the only one to humor this old skeleton anymore. Come on in, have a glass of formaldehyde.”

She laughed a laugh that crinkled her nose and squeezed past him, bringing with her the scent of ylang-ylang and citrus.

The entryway of the apartment was taken up by a series of brown-wrapped squares and rectangles that Angelika shamelessly poked at.

“Yours?”

He loosened a corner. “Mine. from my blue period.”

Beneath the paper, the canvas ached blue. A blue sun mourned over a blue chevy parked at a blue honky-tonk in a blue desert. The brushstrokes were thick and loose, running out roughly ¾ down the frame.

Angelika grinned. “It’s so raw. Why don’t you have these up?”

“I ran out of materials. Everything’s so hard to come by, you know?” He scratched the canvas with a nail. The cheap linseed oil flaked beneath his fingertip.

Angelika didn’t notice. She was already through the door and in Tanner’s studio. Doffing her beret and shedding her coat, she marveled at the much smaller canvas currently huddled on the easel.

“Is that one of yours too?”

Tanner laughed. “I wish. That’s a special painting. I actually got on loan in hopes of showing it to you.”

The palette was mostly warm tans with the odd spot of Payne’s grey. Six journeymen worked away in some sort of guild workshop, floor littered with wood shavings as a dog gnawed on a soup bone.

Angelika turned this way and that. “What’s so special about it?”

Tanner was looking at her, not the painting. “Tell me.”

“The composition? No, wait, it’s the dog.” Her finger stabbed at the canvas. “Wait, those tools…is it a freemason thing?”

Tanner burst into his first genuine laugh of the day. “No…it’s the color.”

Angelika bit her lip. “Is it…ochre?”

“No.”

“Umber?”

“Nope.”

“Sinopia?”

“No.” He was watching her so carefully. “It’s called mummy brown.”

The smile dimmed a few notches. “Is that what I think it is?”

Tanner smiled now. “Exactly. Mummies, so cheap and plentiful they burned the limbs as train fuel back in the day. For a time, mummy brown was very popular as a pigment. It’s got a nice, rich tone from the body’s natural iron. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, Angie. I really wanted to talk to you about anthropigments.”

“Anthropigments?”

“Pigments from the human body.” Tanner gently took the canvas from the easel, unwrapped another and placed it on. “See this? Bone white. Fusili. He actually painted this on Poveglia island as he was dying of consumption. Took midnight trips to the burial pits for supplies. Look—” he brushed the eggshell-and-ecru composition with an owlfeather broom. A pale young priestess was borne along on a palanquin by her retinue. Save for her jewelry and a sliver of sky, the painting was all beiges.

“And here’s Beaufort.” The little pasteboard square barely bigger than a TV tray. “Parade along the Rue de Bac. Iron red pigments. Blood. Not colorfast enough” He dragged a hand sheathed in a white cotton glove down the chocolate-colored brickwork. “It’s livered, you see. At the 1912 Paris salon, I’m told it created quite a stir. Now look at it. Muddy.”

Angelika spoke in a very careful voice. “Sounds like you know a lot about these.”

Tanner looked like a man surfacing from a deep well. “Oh…once I was doing my master’s thesis on them. Once. Still have Heymach’s vial of bilirubin in here, somewhere. He was doing a series on the body’s humors. Never got past bile.”

Angelika was spellbound by the pictures. Her expression stuck halfway between disgust and fascination. Tanner admired her from this angle. He could bust her face down to a series of trapezoidal shapes and match a color to each section. His brush fingers ached with cravings.

“There’s one I don’t have to show you, though,” he said, circling around to fumble through one of the haphazard piles behind the easel, “I’ve never found anyone who worked with it. Even with all the devotees this artform has, it’s never been done.”

He retrieved a small glass vial from beneath a bag of oak galls. The vial contained a few grains of a dusky blue pigment. From the mouth of the vial flew a tag that read “R. Disick, 1956.”

Angelika took in hand. “There’s no blue pigments in the body,” she said, now more curious than horrified. Good.

“Not in,” Tanner said, “but of. This is Vivianite. It grows on corpses.”

Angelika’s eyes lit up with wicked fire. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Not surprised.” He took the vial back. “It only happens in very specific conditions. First, the grave has to be damp. Then you have to have iron present. There was a train engineer, died back in the 1800’s. He had a cast-iron coffin with a viewing window, it was the style at the time. The window leaked. His family watched him turn blue over the decades.”

“Wow.” Angelika followed the vial raptly with her eyes. Tanner felt sure, now.

“I’ve got something else, if you’ll care to follow me,” he said, walking over to the basement door and putting a hand on the knob.

Angelika started to follow, then the smile ran away from her face as she slapped at her back pocket. She ferreted the phone from the depths of her levis and swore when she saw the screen.

“Oh jeez. I am so rude for saying this, but I have to be somewhere else ten minutes ago.”

Tanner felt his hand tighten on the knob. “But—just a quick look?”

“No.” Angelika was tossing on her beret and coat without care to how she looked. “I set an alert for my plein air club meeting and totally missed the first warning. I’m so sorry, trust me, I’ll make it up to you.”

“It’ll just be—”

“I’ll make it up, I promise!” Angelika was already dashing for the door.

“Just make sure and come back!” He called after her. He heard the door slam in the middle of his sentence, but kept talking. “Come back. You’re the only one who does, now.” His hand slid from the knob. A damp breeze from the crack beneath the basement door washed over his ankles. “It’s been so long since the last one. So long…”

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Green Grow the Rushes

“They gave these to me at the EFC office.” Elliott set a white envelope on the table.  The packet had no writing, no images of what might lay within. “Low maintenance. Just water and sun and they’ll do the rest.”

Kelly stared at it. “I wanted peonies.”

“These are engineered to interact harmoniously with the soil here. We can’t plant anything else.” Elliott swept the remains of his eggs into his mouth with a piece of toast. “Gotta fly. Love you.”

He wiped a kiss on the top of her head. Kelly stayed at the table long after the outer door slammed, smoking a cigarette. The envelope lay on the mustard-colored plastic of the kitchen table. The whole house was a variety of plastics in bright, clashing colors. Most of the fixtures and decorations were inbuilt. Vases stuck to counters, ashtrays grew from tabletops. Nothing moved. Kelly regarded the white intruder into her world, mouth curving down like a scar.

The yard was almost insultingly perfect. The grass was a plastic-looking variety that grew to a length of one inch(no mowing!) and every shrub was green and nondescript as a crayon scribble. Kelly left a blue front door exactly like every front door stretching off in either direction from her own.

There was a rectangular patch of bare earth by the front door, a small assent by the architects. You really can’t be satisfied with a perfect yard? Fine, here.

Kelly rolled a few seeds into her palm from the white envelope. They were perfectly spherical and characterless. No germ, no seam where the skin would part for the sprout. They looked like buckshot.

The earth in the rectangle looked packed and lifeless as styrofoam. Kelly plunged a finger into it. It squeaked.

Kelly upended the pack of seeds over the patch, letting them clump haphazardly wherever they fell. Then she retrieved the blue hose from where it sat in a coil and sprayed the patch. She watched the water carry most of the spheres away. Kelly left the hose where she dropped it, turned the water off, and went inside.

“Kindergarten’s getting bigger every day,” Elliott said over soy burgers and lentil fries that night, “I’m sure they could use a teacher.”

“I’m not a teacher,” Kelly said. She was lining the square of her burger with her fries like a barbed fence. “I didn’t go through four years of university to teach.”

“Ah, well.” Elliott shrugged. “Have fun in the garden today?”

“What are those seeds?”

Elliott shrugged again. He did the gesture well. “Dunno. Flowers, I guess.”

Kelly did not water the square patch. In fact, she did all she could not to go outside. The sprinkler must have hit them errantly as they soaked the perfect lawn. The perfectly spherical sun smiled down and nourished them. No human hand needed to guide their birth.

“I’m loving the flowers by the door,” Elliott said, packing a few square stacks of paper into his satchel. He stepped carefully through the nest Kelly had made of the den floor out of blankets, pillows, old paperbacks, dirty plastic dishes, dirty plastic cups, hairbrushes. He stopped, a question written in his hunched shoulders and not-quite-turned-to-go posture. “Maybe they’ll look nice in here.”

Kelly didn’t pick her head up from the stack of clothes she was using as a pillow. She counted to three hundred after she heard the front door slam. Elliott’s car was electric, no growl of the motor to let her know it was safe to emerge from her cocoon.

The things in the flowerbed had grown to three feet tall in their first week. They were not peonies, or roses, or daisies, or any kind of plant she knew of. Those messy celadon ruffles tipped with orange at their peak—were they petals or leaves or modified sepals? There was no stamen or pistil, no recognizable sexual organs. The branches formed a perfect upward spiral, three leaves to each branchlet. The stems were smooth and green and featureless as pipes.

Kelly grasped one by the stem and yanked. Whatever root system they had, it didn’t so much as budge. Sweating and puffing, she finally had to accede defeat. Kelly licked the sweat off her upper lip and looked up and down the street. No one around to witness her struggle. Elliott danced around the question, but only half the houses were occupied after months of pushing. Paradise wasn’t as popular as they planned.

Kelly set to her task with renewed vigor. She cried out in pain and drew her hand away from the plant sharply. The formerly smooth surface was covered in minute bristles that came away in her palm and stung, stung, stung. Kelly looked contemplatively from her hand to the plant.

“I really think this campaign is the one,” Elliott said over brown-rice rotini that night. Did he even notice that he smelled like someone else’s perfume? “People were put off by the deductions they’d get, made the place sound like the projects. But this will class it up.”

“The flowers,” Kelly said, “what are they?”

Elliott frowned over being interrupted. “They’re engineered, I told you. So Sam had the idea that—”

“Engineered how? What are they? Phylum? Kingdom?”

Elliott put on his lecturing smile. “They’re actually a fungi and a plant working together, like lichen. Plant, plants, not entirely sure. The boys who did it were the ones who made the Fire corn, matter of fact. I’d hate to see them take on thistles.” He chuckled as he stabbed his food.

“So—what, do they germinate? Produce fruit?”

Elliott frowned. “That’s not my department, baby.”

The next morning she pretended to sleep as he got ready, shooting pointed glances at her prone form. Her books had been passive-aggressively tidied into a line at her head, dog eared pages straightened so her place was lost. This morning she waited until a count of one thousand before she heard her husband’s angry sigh and footsteps going from the door.

The plants all wore bristle-beards today. She sized them up before selecting the most slender stem. A pair of kitchen scissors, because she had no gardening equipment save for the hose, pincered the plant/fungal hybrid. Kelly squeezed.

Where did the cut come from? She had felt the leaves of the other hybrids brushing against her knee and then suddenly a wet trickle down her leg. Her knee was cut. Not just once, many times from many thin blades. She pressed the hem of her shorts over the bleeding and looked at the hybrids. Their leaves now bore a jagged edge that glistened dangerously in the sun. The stem she had been cutting was now lying crooked, leaking a sap colored the same shade of blue as a robin’s egg.

Kelly limped into the house to find a bandage. In the bathroom was a first-aid kit carrying only a few white squares that vacuum-sealed to her wound once applied. She had set the scissors on the counter to attend to her knee, now she picked them up again. The blades were pitted and eaten away where the blue sap had coated them.

Elliott picked at his bean-and-broccoli stir fry. He was surprisingly taciturn tonight.

“Work go okay?” Kelly took a sip from her water glass.

“Oh yeah. Closed out the south quadrant.” Elliott stabbed at a carrot. “Not that you’d care,” he added under his breath.

“Run into the boys who made the plants again?”

Elliott shook his head. “No. We don’t mix departments.”

“Well, I was going to ask them something, but instead I’ll just ask you.”

“What?”

She set a jug of weed killer beside her knife/fork combo. “I want you to kill the plants.”

Elliott frowned. “Why do you have that?”

“Every house has this in case the lawn care service is out for holidays.” She pointed to the open pamphlet where she’d found such crucial information.

Elliott shrugged. “Seems silly, is all.” He went back to eating.

“I want you to get rid of them. Now-ish.”

Elliott rolled his eyes. “Why, are they too much work to take care of?”

“Just the opposite. They don’t need me. I don’t want to have to live with anything that doesn’t need me.”

Elliott looked at her. She smiled.

“Indulge me.”

“Fine.” He set his water cup down with a bang. He grabbed up the jug and pulled it, sloshing, outside with him.

Kelly rose from her seat and took her plate to the kitchen. She counted to three hundred and two  before the noise started up in the front yard. Then she started up the disposal in the sink and the compactor that lived in a small cupboard beneath it. The food that went in the disposal was ground and cultured until it resembled wet newspaper primed for easy decomposition. The compactor pressed them into perfectly rectangular nuggets. The disposal took the bars apart again, grinding them, tearing them. The compactor made them whole. Together they formed a perfectly closed system that needed only the barest of input. Kelly yoyoed between the two of them, fascinated with their efficiency, as her husband screamed outside.

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The Dreamers

Three children rode in the van. They wore complex headpieces that covered their eyes and ears. A cone filter capped off each nostril. Though the van jolted as it traveled over an uneven road, the children sat still and docile as penned sheep.

Maryanne rode in the back with them. She knocked on the partition separating the cargo section of the van from the driver’s seat. The privacy screen slid open, Vincent cocking his head back so he could listen and still keep an eye on the road while driving.

“We should uncap Will,” Maryanne said.

The privacy screen snapped shut.

Maryanne knocked on the partition again.

“He’s the oldest, he’s had the most discipline,” she said as Vincent slid the screen back an inch.

“It’s too risky,” Vincent said and closed the door again.

“We’ll have to eventually anyway,” Maryanne called through the door.

Vincent opened the partition, taking his eyes from the road to glance at her. “At best this is a mild inconvenience. You stay your hand until I say otherwise.”

He left the partition open.

Maryanne drew her knees up and gathered them to her chest. The children sat perfectly still and straight in their rumble seats. They had been trained to do so in a facility that lay six day’s travel behind them and they did it well. Not for the first time did Maryanne wonder what went on in their heads under those hoods.

Vincent hit the brake hard and swore. The children were thrown out of their seats, landing hard on elbows and knees. Only the girl cried out. Maryanne helped them back to a sit before she put her face to the gap in the partition.

The road before them was gone, as if someone had taken a giant eraser and simply swept the matter away. Vincent gripped the steering wheel and looked to either side of the hole, searching for a way around.

“Can we try it now? Maryanne asked.

Will stepped out of the van confidently, even though he was both blind and deaf with the headpiece on. Maryanne took him by the hand and led him in front of the van. She put his hand to the road, then guided it to the edge and the steep drop. She took out an earplug and spoke directly into his ear.

“Imagine a smooth road ahead of us. Just a nice, flat surface that extends for about a hundred yards.”

With a slight smirk, Will obeyed. The flat white began under the van’s wheels and swept before them as if some great painter’s brush was laying down paint on a canvas.

“That’s good.” Maryanne kept her tone even though her relief showed clearly on her face. “Keep it just like that. I’m going to re-seal you now.”

She caught a look from Vincent on the way back to the van.

“I don’t trust that one,” he said, “he’s having too much fun with it.”

“He’s been with us since he was small,” Maryanne argued, guiding the boy up steel steps.

“A toddler. The rest were babies. It makes a difference.”

Once they were back in the van, Vincent took them across the white surface. The van skidded almost instantly. Vincent swore again, pumping the brakes.

“What’s happened, what’s wrong?” Maryanne clung to the edge of the partition.

“The goddamn thing’s frictionless! The little bastard made it that way!”

They sledded helplessly in an uncontrollable direction until they hit the rutted, ruined ground again. Vincent turned the key in the ignition with shaking fingers.

“Out,” he said, “all of them. Now.”

The three children lined up: two boys and Hope, the only girl.

“I’m sure I just forgot to specify,” Maryanne said as Vincent inspected the boy’s headpiece, “I simply said smooth surface. How was he to know?”

Vincent stopped by the left earpiece. A slight gap, almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, between skin and steel. Vincent gestured Maryanne over with the barrel of his pistol. She bent low, face falling. She looked to Vincent and shook her head. He nodded. Maryanne straightened and paced away, keeping her back to the children. Vincent leveled the pistol at the older boy. A sharp crack from the gun and Will fell. The other two children did not even jump at the shot. Maryanne led them back to the van.

“You had no right to do that,” she said in a voice gone nasal with tears, “none.”

“His damn hood was unsealed. No telling what he heard. You can’t take chances with these things.”

Maryanne rode in silence, arm flung over the opening in the partition.

“You should be nicer to them,” she said meditatively, “they’re the future.”

Vincent snorted a laugh.

“I mean it. They can give us the world back.”

“Give it? Like it’s their goddamn gift to give?”

Maryanne was quiet. Vincent drove for some time in this silence before he brought the van to a halt.

“Why are we stopping?”

“Get them out.” He unholstered his pistol. Maryanne obeyed, mouth drawn to a thin line.

They had stopped at a place where the land fell away into the sea. Maryanne lined the children up well away from the edge. Vincent pointed at the remaining boy with his pistol. “That one.”

Maryanne unhooded him, passing hands over his face as if petting it. The boy was smaller and rounder than Will, blinking owlishly in the sudden light.

“Ernest,” Maryanne said with a slight crack in her voice, “I want you to do something.”

Ernest looked from Vincent with his pistol drawn, to her, to the girl who still sat docile and hooded, to the world around them.

“Please miss,” he said, “where are we? Where’s the lab? Where are the others?”

“Ernest, I need you to concentrate. Remember your exercises.”

The boy was hyperventilating slightly. “Is this ‘outside’? Miss, we can’t be out here. Please put me back.”

“He’s panicking,” Vincent said, pointing the gun at his back.

Maryanne threw her hands up. “Give him a chance.” She turned to the boy. “Please make me a bridge. Simple suspension.”

An excess of saliva dripped down the boy’s chin. His pupils had dilated and his gaze fixed at the middle distance.

“He’s having an episode. I can’t wait.” Vincent cocked the pistol.

“Wait, goddamn it! Ernest, please—”

The van became liquid, collapsing into a steaming puddle. Vincent emptied the clip into the boy. Ernest gasped and changed the bullets into goldfish, far too late. He fell to the ground, errant fishtails sticking out of his back and shoulders. His breath became shallow and erratic, his eyes rolled up to stare at the adults standing over him. He died. Not quickly enough.

Vincent fell to the ground screaming. Maryanne ran to his side, fruitlessly trying to administer CPR. Beneath her hands, Vincent’s skin became cotton fabric and his body sagged bonelessly. Vincent managed one last scream before his throat was overtaken with stuffing. He lay where he’d fallen, transformed into a stuffed toy.

Maryanne gulped breath, too upset to cry. She looked over to where Ernest now lay dead. Her gazed moved to the last child. Hope.

Maryanne gathered the girl to her. Hope calmly accepted the hug. In her world, nothing exceptional had happened. Her nasal filters didn’t allow the coppery blood smell to touch her olfactory nerves. The hood blinded her. The ear plugs deafened her. Only the sea breeze pushing her hair back intruded on her dark world, and the girl smiled at the sensation. Maryanne removed the headpiece bit by bit as she walked the girl slowly to the cliffside.

“Hope,” she said softly, “do you remember the picture I showed you of the seaside? Bodega bay?”

Hope nodded, curiosity dawning as sounds trickled in. “please, miss, are we in the hydro facility?”

Maryanne didn’t answer. She gazed listlessly out at the crashing waves. “I want you to imagine it. I need you to imagine it for me. Green hills. Blue sea. Can you picture that?”

“Yes, miss,” Hope said, hesitating.

Maryanne nodded. “Good girl. Make it for me.”

She removed Hope’s hood. The girl blinked in horror. The sea lay rusty and red at their feet, eating the broken coastline wave by tremendous wave. A planetary body sat in a bruised sky, many times the size of the moon, waxing form grinning at them like the greatest joke the universe ever played. Hope tried to step back and found the immovable wall of Maryanne’s body.

“Please miss, I’m frightened. I want the hood back on.”

Maryanne walked forward, pushing the girl to the cliffside with slow, measured steps.

“Please, miss!” Maryanne’s fingers sunk into the girl’s shoulders, trapping her.

“I want you to fix this,” Maryanne said in a flat voice. “Fix this so it’s back the way it was. It’s what we raised you to do.”

“Please, miss, I don’t know what you mean!” Tears streamed down the girl’s face.

“Fix this.” Maryanne’s voice rose with every word. “you need to fix this! One of you did this and one of you can goddamn fix it!”

“I can’t!” The girl scrabbled at her hands. “I don’t know how!”

With a scream of inarticulate rage, Maryanne pushed the girl from the cliffside.

Hope flew.

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The Devil Whale

In Lingit it is called the T’oohchx’é. Pacific northwestern fisherman call it “the devil whale.” It may just be a melanistic Orca lacking the white markings of its brethren, if it exists at all. And it has terrorized a patch of the arctic sea all through recorded history.

The village of [Seal-upon-the-rock] gathered on the ice. When we rose with the sun, we found them at the edge of the floe. A song came that was too terrible to hear. Our men fell to the ground and plugged their ears, for the song compelled their feet to the water. One by one the others flung themselves forward into a hole that formed in the water. When the last child was gone, the hole closed and we saw that it was a mouth. The song fell silent and the beast at the edge sank into the water once more. We did not take our boats that way anymore.

—unnamed elder, Oral History of the Arctic

The first possible sighting of such a beast was well before 500 BCE, if the oral history of the Tlingit people is to be believed. According to the Xunaa Ḵáawu people, the devil whale was part of the world before raven stole daylight. In those days a great fish swam in the sky and ate whatever fit into its mouth, which included unfortunate villages. When daylight was brought to the people, the fish fell to the water with a great tail of fire and could never rise to the sky again. The beast was far more fearsome than the polar bear or even other whales, so unpredictable was its behavior. Several Tlingit settlements have been discovered over the centuries since European contact, preserved nearly intact by permafrost, abandoned as if the villagers had stood up in the middle of their day and walked off. Corresponding oral history points the finger at the devil whale luring said villages to their doom. As of yet, no scientific explanation for the disappearances has been found.

…soon we were yawing against the wind, the great beastie caught hold of our chain and pulld us in[…] she looked as another wale til she opened her mouth which split most the length of the bodie. Half our ship was down the gullet before we could scream.

—Eustace Gabb, surviving crewmember of the Meritus

With the explorer’s age in full swing and whale oil in high demand, it seems only natural that the next accounts come from the survivors of shipwrecks. While stories of krakens and monster fish were the common feed of broadsheets, tales of “the devil whale” gained a distinction among the collectors of seafaring legends. The SS Jeanne-Marie was chasing a pod of Right whales off the coast of modern-day Yakutat when they noted a heretofore-unseen behavior in the pod. The whales began a frenzied circulation around the ship, churning the water into a torrent which spun the ship clockwise. The calves, once confined to the protected center of their family’s formation, began colliding in panic. A noise the sailors initially attributed to the crack of a glacier calving rose in height and pitch until “…[the whales] floated as lifeless on the surface.” An adult female and three calves were sucked beneath the surface by a whirlpool. The whales remained insensate for a period of half an hour after the incident, at which point the crew reinstated efforts to harvest the remaining pod. As they cut into the skin of an adult female, the rest of the pod woke from their stunned state and began attacking the ship, leading to a 2-meter hole in the starboard hull. The crew ceased their harvesting efforts and attempted emergency repairs, eventually abandoning the ship for the longboats.

I watched it chase a calf it had separated from the pod for the better part of an hour. At one point the calf beached itself in an attempt to reach a barachois, but it wound up being pulled back by this dark mass. I never got a good look at it, but it was faster than any whale of that size should be. Finally, the calf got too tired to run anymore and it got sucked beneath the surface.

—anonymous Kayaker

The marine biology skiff Uriah Heep was trawling the greater Juneau bay when the underwater microphone picked up the song of a pod of Pilot whales. At approximately 35:00 hours, the  recording equipment registered an anomaly: a frequency of 45.6 hertz, well below that of the blue whale. Over the course of ten minutes, the frequency rose until it equaled that of the Pilot whales, overlaying and mimicking the pod’s song. The boat’s radar at this point picked up a solid object traveling directly towards the pod, rivaling in size a humpback or right whale. The whale songs mingled and reached a fever pitch at the same moment the object overtook one of the lead whales. At some point the mass disappeared from the radar and the whale song continued, minus two voices.

…[the boat] circled the bay for two days. Two! At one point I sent up a flare but no one saw it. My provisions ran low, but I kept trying. That thing was far too large, it could swamp either of my lifeboats easily. Finally I got ahold of someone within radio distance and that was the aerial rescue. I think it knew I was leaving, it tried to tip the boat before the pilot reached me. If it was a whale I never saw it breach.

—James la Pierre, yachtsman.

The deep-sea exploration vessel Newton was observing polyp formation on the bed of the Arctic sea when it found a heretofore unmapped crevice in the sea bed. Sensors registered a temperature hike of 30-40 degrees at the mouth of the crevice. The explorer circumscribed the opening, trying to parse whether the temperature indicated a volcanic vent. At a certain point in the journey, the Newton’s light hit an illuminated sphere roughly the size of a soccer ball. The Newton sat attempting to discern whether it was simply a bioluminescent patch of bacteria or something else when a black material slid over the sphere from either direction, met in the middle, and then retracted. Before the crew could truly parse the nature of this movement, the vessel was upset by a sudden current and just barely managed to avoid crashing upon the nearby sea floor. After the sediment settled, the Newton was unable to find the crevice again.

My cousin lived out by himself in a shack. That day I wanted to visit with him for a few hours. I found him out standing on the shoal. There was this whine like I had tinnitus. George didn’t look back at me, just put his arms out and dropped. I ran to where I’d seen him, but there was no body on the waves. The sound stopped.

—Mary Bedard

The fishing village of Temper’s Point in the upper part of the Alexander archipelago was celebrating their Sesquicentennial in December of 2013 when half the village populace(roughly 47 people) went missing around the waterfront. A background noise akin to the more famous Taos hum has been detected periodically since the event.

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The Oolio

This town is a tourist town. Yes, it’s one of those signs you see from the highway when you speed by as fast as humanly possible: “see the great whatsit!” Most towns have something you can find in any state, like bigfoot. Not us, though. We’ve got the Oolio.

Ask any old timer on the high street and he’ll tell you the Oolio is old Choctaw for “man-swallower.” Bunkum, of course. If the name Oolio showed up before 1964, I’ve yet to see it. Still, the town treats it like it’s a real old legend. The tourist center’s full of pioneer gear and daguerreotypes. A sharp eye might gather that the colloidal snaps only record day-to-day business of a mining town, nothing supernatural, but I guess half the fun is fooling yourself by telling yourself you’re not fooled.

There’s a tour, of course. Man they call Skinny runs it, he’s the best. Folks might not be so charmed by his old cowboy act if they knew his nickname came from the surname Skinner and that he really hails from upstate New York. But Skinny’s such a good act it doesn’t matter that he ages his levi’s with a belt sander.

Skinny’s a volunteer, of course. Everyone who works in the tourist center is. Town’s kept afloat on volunteer work, that’s just how it is. Skinny’s not paid in anything but the adoration of his public. The way he sweeps and bows off that stoop from the tourist center, you’d think he was Hamlet. He’s earned it, though. As one performer to another, I have nothing but respect for the man.

Skinny takes them through the logging tracks, where firs barely taller than your kneecaps are trying to replace the great flaming birch that was all cut away. He talks about the town history first, just a little nugget of something dull to whet their appetite. He knows why they’re there. Skinny takes them up to the old logging camp, where the mess hall is the only building left standing. He gets to the pump in the middle of an anecdote about the time McKinley thought about riding through on the railway when suddenly he’ll break off in mid-sentence. I’ve timed him before, he reaches the pump after five minutes on the dot. The man is a consummate professional.

“Say, any of you folks hear about the Gaffey party?” He’ll ask like it’s a complete mystery as to why they’ve come. The name Gaffey is plastered all over the visitor’s center, which squats on Gaffey road. But the folks will go wide-eyed, shake their heads. They’re so hungry for the story they’d drink their own sunblock.

Skinny puts his arm up and lean on the pump. “‘Bout fivescore year ago—that’s a hundred for you city folks—there was a flock of hunters up this way. Fella by the name o’ Gaffey was in it, ‘long with his brother and his cousin, fella name o’ Croot. They were chasin’ a mean elk up to these parts, a big beast who could feed their families for a week. They decided to water in this camp because it was the only game around for miles. They had full run o’ the place so they decided to bunk in separate lodges. After all, they were alone…” he’ll leans forward and drops his voice. “Or were they?”

Skinny keeps a tin can full of gravel on his person, always takes it out right here. He circles the group, rolling it in his leathery hands as he watches them with a sadistic gleam in his eye.

“They put up for the day in the mess lodge. Nathaniel Croot, he started the fire. Only it was smoky, on account of some kind of blockage in the chimney. They put it out and ate by lantern light.”

Abruptly, he shakes the can. Ka-shk. Ka-shk. The hairs on people’s necks rise.

“They hear summat.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Outside.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Sounds a lot like this here rattler.” Ka-shk. Ka-shk. “Only there’s no gravel out here, unnerstan’. Nothing around that would make this sound.”

Once Skinny circles back around to his starting point he palms the can, playing idly with it like it’s a pen he’s just picked up by chance.

“The brothers, they’re too tough to be put off by noises. Caleb Gaffey gets his shooter and creeps up to the winder. There’s a face at the glass.”

Skinny throws the can with a horrible crash. There are always, always gasps.

“The thing he spies is dead white, hairless, pink eyes that glow in the lantern light. It don’t look right. Takes Caleb a while to figger out it’s because the whole damn thing’s upside-down. It’s hanging from the roof to scream through the winder at them. Caleb gets off two shots. Pow! Pow! Nothing.”

Now Skinny puts on a conspiratorial grin. He beckons the group with him, like the Pied Piper calling to a bunch of naughty children. They hesitate, they always do, but they follow him.

Skinny talks as he walks: “There’s no sleep that night. The brothers agree to bunk up in the mess hall. Abraham Gaffey, that’s the older, he takes first watch. But Croot, he thinks it’s all hooey. He calls a lodge all to himself that night, laughing all the way to bed.”

By this time they’re in the camp proper. They can see the old buildings, slate roof caved in by the years but log walls standing firm and strong even now. They can feel a tickle of fear as they put themselves in that dark night so long ago, so far away from any kind of safety.

Skinny turns to rest his back deliberately on a door that has been artfully crafted to look like the one it replaced.

“The brothers pin up an old gunny-sack on the hole. No one sleeps, despite the watches they set up. Abe knows the thing will be back, he’s got the hunter’s instinct. To keep himself awake, he grips a handful of nails.”

Skinny leans forward and drops his voice, so the tourists have to get closer to hear him. “But they watch the wrong place.”

He turns about-face and slaps the door open, so it hits the side of the building and shimmies a little. The large chunk of missing wood that looks like a bite mark winds up pointed right at them. They draw back. Oh, he’s good. He’s very good.

“Whatever-it-is takes a flying bite out of that door. Whatever-it-is screams like a steam engine as it shakes the hall. Whatever-it-is took Abe’s whole pan of powder and every bullet without stopping. Quick as a flash, Caleb upends the old potbellied stove.” Skinny acts it out through mime. His folksy accent gets thicker with every word. “They roll it over, jest the two of them, to the door. Abe sticks his packing rod in the latch, so the door can’t swing free. Cold and hungry and scairt, they wait up against that potbellied stove and that old door til dawn. The thing screamed right up until sunrise.”

Skinny pauses to take a breath, which lets the group take a breath. They have all been through an ordeal.

“The two brothers roll out that stove and come out. Of the trees surrounding the clearing, not a single branch had a leaf left on it. They go to the lodge to find cousin Croot stone dead, throat torn away but not a mark on him otherwise. Not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, they lit a shuck out of there.”

Skinny clasps his hands. “That was the first sighting of the thing they call the Oolio in these parts. Abe Gaffey lived to be ninety-one years old, and I tell this the exact way he told me.”

Everyone’s shaken and laughing, everyone’s got the afterglow of a good performance. Most will wander back to the gift shop or accompany Skinny down to the saloon that serves sarsaparilla and horehound tea. But sometimes, every great once in awhile, there will be a straggler or two. They’re out-of-towners who feel the signs don’t apply to them. Or they’re wannabe explorers ready to cut through the brush. Or they’re looking for the bathroom.

That’s where I come in.

I like to situate myself on a particular path leading away from the camp. There’s a couple of these, actually, but I get people to take this one more often than not. How? I’ve cultivated every intrusive plant in the area at the entrances of the other paths.

They amble along until they’re out of earshot of the logging camp, when suddenly they clear a bend in the path and find me. I’ve got a bike with a bent front wheel and an overstuffed bag. Too many things to carry.

“Hey there, folks,” I say, “could you—whoops!” and an expensive-looking camera falls out of my hands and cracks open. I even put film in it to make it more authentic.

They’ll help of course, they’ll rush over and scramble, all while I apologize and beg them not to fret over little old me. I’m just out here being an idiot, I guess, my wife told me to stay with the group and whoops there went my GPS unit.

After they try long and fruitlessly to assuage my clumsiness, they’ll ask to escort me back to the visitor’s center. Oh gee, would they? It’s not far, it’s just this way.

I point them down another path. Sometimes it throws them off. Surely they should go back the way they came?

It’s got to be this way, I assure them, it’s got the green bands.

Every path in this area is marked “safe” by wooden stakes linked together by green bands. Easily purchasable at any hardware store, nice and mobile so I can uproot them at a moment’s notice.

They look down the path, doubting. Am I sure?

Of course this is the way back, I just came this way.

I talk up a storm as they lug my gear down the path, spinning personal anecdotes that carpet their ears and keep them from worrying. As the branches close in and make the path claustrophobic, I keep pressing them on. Just a little further. Just a leeeeetle further. Did they see it opening up yet?

I’ve got a crank flashlight that I click on as we go further into the brush. As they get uneasy, they ask questions. How long had I walked? What happened to my bike? Was I a townie or a tourist? They don’t want to ask the question that’s simmering in their mind, because that would make it real.

The trail dead ends. They’ve started walking ahead of me in anticipation of fleeing at the first sign of an opening. Now they blink at the remnants of a camp. My camp.

“Where’s the visitor’s center?” they ask.

“It’s back the way you came,” I say, clicking off the flashlight.

Then there will be a news story, some speculating about suspicious wounds, and a fruitless manhunt. The last guy they pulled in was so schizophrenic he couldn’t even work his zipper, much less scoop a throat out. They’ll urge people not to come here, which will make them swarm thicker than flies. And for a while, this little town will be bustling again.  After all, the town’s kept afloat in volunteer work. My only pay is the satisfaction of a job well done.

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Decisions

The double-wide trailer had vinyl siding that buckled and lifted away from the walls at odd points, allowing a joint of Bermuda grass to poke triumphantly out the top. Beside the trailer was the flatbed of an old ford, divorced from the cab and shored up with chicken wire to make a coop. Save for a mess of bleached feathers, the coop was empty.

James took a moment to peer beneath the coop, a space hardly big enough to squeeze a hand through. Only a few fence lizards escaping the heat.

The trailer door hung wide like a broken jaw, displaying the mess of a quick struggle. Someone had put their fist through the paneling a few times. Fixtures were missing, plundered in the time the trailer had sat vulnerable and open. Dishes in the sink grew a thick crop of mold. The trailer clearly had not been lived in for some time.

James rotated in place. The grass along one side of the trailer was flat, pointing towards the lattice that enclosed the trailer bottom elevated by cinderblocks.

James had drawn his sidearm on the walk up to the trailer, now he holstered it. He walked away, deliberately crunching gravel with his steps until he reached the sandy stretch just before the road. He doubled back through the grass, creeping so that the sound of his steps blended into the other incidental noises of the day. Crouching down by the far fender of the coop, James drew his piece again and waited.

Three minutes, not enough time to even boil an egg, there was movement. The lattice pried away from the trailer side and someone came wiggling out of the space. Leonard, his brother Leonard with a camo jacket thrown on over his work shirt, crawled out from under the trailer.

James waited until he was nearly out before rising, training his sights on Leonard’s back. “Hup.”

Leonard thrust his hands up, dropping his stomach to the dirt, before recognizing James. His face relaxed into a comfortable leer.

“Jimmy. Holy hell.”

“Leon. What’re you doing?”

Leonard squinted up at him, sweating on his belly in the dirt. He lowered his hands and pushed up to his knees.

“Sprayin’ for bugs. The hell’s it look like I’m doing?”

“Jessica’s worried.”

“Jess can goddamn well worry, I told her to sit on it until next Monday.” Leonard held out a hand, waiting to be helped up. When no help came, he stood on his own muster. “She whine to the cops?”

“No. Just me.”

“Good.” Leonard swung his hands at his sides, looking at the ground. “S’pose it didn’t take much to find me.”

“Few hours. I asked around: this trailer’s rented out to Ed Brinkley. Ed’s down at his folk’s place for the summer, so I came to poke around and found signs of habitation.”

“Ah.”

James drew in breath. “Leon, if I can find you, the cartel’s men can damn well find you.”

“This is just a stopgap, I’ve got a plan.” Leonard studied his brother’s face, attacking the corner of his mouth with his tongue. “Don’t s’pose I can convince you to give me a lift?”

James holstered the pistol. He ran his hand over his hair. “Don’t have much choice, do I?”

“‘Course you do. You always do.” Leonard beat him to the car, opening the passenger side door.

“No. Backseat, there’s a blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Backseat. I’m not taking chances.”

“Tou-chy,” Leonard said, but obeyed. James made sure to arrange the blanket over him, tucking it in around his ankles.

James piloted the jeep back over the gravel lane to the paved road. A car with two hispanic men, one old and one young, sat on the shoulder of the turn off. James sat, turn signal clicking, sweat plastering his shirt to his neck. He looked. The men in the car looked back. James turned onto the road and drove south. The other car grew small in his rearview mirror. It streaked off just before disappearing from his sight, peeling off in the direction he had just come from.

After a while Leonard said, “pull over.”

“We’ve got a half hour to go.”

“We’re out of the danger zone and I got a cramp. Pull over.”

James turned into a rest stop. Leonard got out and stretched his legs at leisure before getting into the passenger seat.

“Get the blanket.”

“I can duck.”

“Not enough. Get the blanket.”

Leonard retrieved the blanket, folding it neatly before sitting on it with a grin. James stared at him for a good long second before starting the car.

James took the back roads, adding ten minutes on to the journey. Leonard did not even bother sitting low in his seat, pressing his face to the window and squinting.

“We’re going to the train yard, right?”

“You know everything, don’t you?” Leonard dug in a pocket of his camo jacket, peeling the foil off a strip of nicotine gum.

“That’s where you put the money.”

“I can spring for gas, if that’s pressin’ on your bladder.”

James said nothing, clicking on his turn signal.

“S’pose I ask why you needed to scratch a cartel man for cash,” he said at length. “You could have come to me if you had money troubles.”

Leonard laughed. “You, baby brother? I make two more decimals than you, and I’m supposed to drop by, hat in hand?” He stretched out. “It’s not about ‘need’ anyway. You’ll understand someday. I grew that money. That money’s going to keep paying dividends—”

“While the cartel’s shaking down your family?”

Silence in the car.

“They’ll leave Jess alone. She had nothing to do with anything.”

“They won’t care. The wives never know anything. But they’ll do things to her, Leon. They’ll do things to her and Janey.”

Leonard laughed again. “What, you her new daddy or somethin’? You have my blessing, if that’s what you’re angling for.”

James navigated a stretch of broken pavement, wheeling out to the opposite lane and pulling back in just as a truck came by. Leonard didn’t bother to turn his face away from the other driver.

“S’pose you might want to visit Jess after I’m gone. Don’t blame you. You got my blessing. I could never make her happy, she wanted some nine-to-five goon. It ain’t me, babe.” Leonard rooted around in the glove box. James pretended to adjust a mirror and watched him slip a registration card into his pocket. He would probably call in the plates to the cops to create a diversion.

“Train yard’s coming up,” James said, “you’ll have to tell me where to go.”

Leonard peered at him from half-lidded eyes. “Just hit the end of the lane and keep going. I’ll tell you where to stop.”

The asphalt ended suddenly, turning into rutted clay and jimpson grass. James guided the jeep over the ruts, worn shocks screeching in protest at every new bump.

“There.” Leonard pointed suddenly to a gap between disused boxcars. James braked, too late.

“Go back around.”

James engaged the parking brake and got out, matching stares with Leonard. He got out of the passenger’s side, breaking into a brisk walk and shooting a glance behind him every other step. James followed at a distance.

“I can pay for your troubles, don’t worry.”

“Not worried. How you getting out of here?”

“You need to run the bills by Benny, he’ll swap ‘em out for you.”

“I got a plan. How you getting out of here?”

Leonard chewed his bottom lip a bit. “…I got a boat down at the marina. Got a little place south of Mazatlán to go to.”

“Fleeing south o’ the border to escape a cartel? Must be the dumbest gringo around.” James smiled at Leonard. The uneasy laugh they shared was like a breeze in a stagnant room, gone altogether too quickly to be true relief.

A square hole had been dug between the rotted slats of a bit of old railway, into this space had been flung a canvas bag. Nothing, not even a branch to disguise the shape. Leonard jumped into the hole, deliberately keeping the bag beneath him as he counted out bills.

“You know it’s not too late.” James mopped at the sweat on his neck. The gun hung heavy at his belt.

Leonard did not react, coming up with a small wad of bills and pressing it forward. James pushed it back, shaking his head. Leonard smiled sickly. He did not press it, but stashed the bills in a front pocket.

“Can’t thank you enough, lI’l bro.” Leonard turned back to the hole.

“Don’t thank me, we ain’t got out yet.” James paused to listen. Was that the sound of an idling engine? “It’s not too late,” he said again.

This time Leonard really did laugh, a nice deep chortle that was infectious as an itch.

“I can’t worry about that right now.” Leonard rummaged around in a bag. “I got shit on my mind. You can drop me behind the feed store, I’ll leg it from there.”

“You’ll be seen.” James wiped his cheek on his sleeve. “What about pops?”

“Look, just drop me a quarter mile from there, then. Pops is old, they won’t press an old gummer like that.”

“They will after they run through Jess. They won’t stop until they get a body. You have a choice, Leon.”

Leonard was scooping something into the bag. “No anymore, Jimmy. I made it already.”

James sighed. He unholstered the pistol, wiping his hands before doing so. He sighted his brother’s back.

“Yeah,” he said, “I guess so.”

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