Tiedän, etten ole kirjoitellut tänne oikein mitään vähään aikaan, kiitos viime vuoden melko eeppisten työrutistusten, mutta nyt tuli niin vahva “ei hyvää päivää” -hetki, että täytyy reagoida. Keskisuomalainen nimittäin uutisoi Juhani Starczewskin (kd) lausuntoja eduskunnan puhemiehen Eero Heinäluoman (sd) vaimon äkillisen menehtymisen jälkimainingeissa, ja nythän on niin, että Starczewskilla menee niin lujaa, että siinä ei kohtuus, kohteliaisuus, perusinhimillinen empatia tai mikään muukaan ei-paskamaisuudesta kertova ominaisuus tunnu missään.
Nythän on nimittäin niin, että Starczewskin mukaan Satu Siitonen-Heinäluoma kuoli ehkä siksi, että hänen miehensä ei vihaa homoja, kuten Starczewski haluaisi. Anteeksi, Jumala. Jumala ei tykkää homoista yhtään, ja on valmis tappamaan todistaakseen tämän, kuten Starczewski hyvin tietää.
Nettikirjoituksessaan Starczewski yhdistää nämä kaksi tapahtumaa – Heinäluoman myönteisen homokannanoton heinäkuulta ja Heinäluoman vaimon loppukesäisen sairastumisen – ajallisesti ja antaa ymmärtää, että vaimon sairastuminen saattoi johtua ”Jumalan vihasta”, koska ”Herra ei jätä rankaisematta, eikä salli itseään pilkata”.
Starczewski myös kirjoitti keskustelupalstalla, että: ”Ollaanpa kerrankin ihan realisteja, niin kyllä Mäkinen ja Heinäluoma ja myöhemmin muut päästivät Suomen kannalta sellaisen paukun, joka noteerataan ihan Yläkertaa myöten”. Lisäksi Starczewski kirjoitti, että ”Arkkipiispa Mäkinen kehotti 14.7.2014 kansaa seuraamaan ”Tom of Finlandia” ja ensimmäisenä siihen suostui Suomen virallisen protokollan kakkosmies, eduskunnan puhemies Eero Heinäluoma”.
Oikeesti? Oikeesti? Tämäkö on nyt se asia, joka on syytä tuoda esiin, kun jonkun puoliso kuolee? Tämäkö on se paras hetki ruveta syyllistämään ja hymistelemään, että siitäs sait, hähä?
Ja kun jälkikäteen kysytään, onko tämä nyt sit jees, näinkö pitäisi käyttäytyä, miten silloin reagoidaan?
“Näin jälkeen päin ajateltuna ei ollut korrektia yleensä käydä tätä keskustelua juuri tässä yhteydessä. Toisaalta pidän kuitenkin mielipiteestäni kiinni. Halusin nimittäin kertoa, että tekemisillämme on merkitystä Jumalan edessä.”
“No joo, meni ihan piirun verran pieleen, mutta tärkeintä on kuitenkin muistaa, että olen oikeassa!” Ei anteeksipyyntöä. Ei empatiaa. Ei katumusta.
Ei tarvitse olla mikään etiketin asiantuntija tajutakseen, että Juhani Starczewski käyttäytyy kuin vastenmielinen ja ylimielinen nilkki, mutta pysähdytäänpä nyt miettimään tätä varsinaista asiasisältöä hetkeksi: tämän jätkän maailmankuvassa siis Jumala on tyyppi, joka tulee ja tappaa vaimosi jos teet jotain, josta Hän ei tykkää?
Sinänsä tämä täsmää aika hyvin, vanha testamentti on toki pullollaan tämmöistä hyvää käytöstä (Job lähettää jaksuhalit!), mutta eikö missään vaiheessa siinä omassa pienessä ummehtuneessa päässä välähdä sellainen pieni oivalluksen kipinä, että ehkä tämmöinen meininki ei oikein kestä moraalista tarkastelua? Eikö yhtään epäilytä, että ehkäpä tämä voisi olla jonkinlaisella perustavanlaatuisella tavalla ihan pikkuriikkisen väärin? Jos Starczewskin puoliso (en tiedä, onko hänellä puolisoa, enkä viitsi tutkia asiaa, koska näin voin elätellä toivoa, ettei ole, koska haluaisin ajatella, ettei kenenkään tarvitse elää tällaisen moraalivammaisen haaskalinnun kanssa, mutta kuitenkin) tekee jotain väärää, olisko silloin perusteltua tappaa Juhani Starczewski kostoksi rouvansa perseilystä? Jotenkin epäilen, ettei Starczewski pitäisi tätä aivan yhtä oikeudenmukaisena. (Edit: Kuten Petri Hiltunen huomautti, Jumala antoi Tom of Finlandin selvitä hengissä sodasta, mutta jonkun satunnaisen poliitikon vaimon tappaminen on ilmeisesti kuitenkin prioriteetti. Hiukkasen ristiriitaista viestiä tässä tarjolla.)
Ja ylipäätänsä, jos nyt leikitään, että Jumala tuli ja tappoi kostoksi, minkälainen pipipää rankaisee pistämällä väkeä lihoiksi kertomatta kuitenkaan miksi näin tapahtuu?
“Joo no toi Latikaisen ukko sai haimasyövän ja Pipsalle pantiin ryöstömurha, en nyt vaan mitenkään ehi täs selittää miks, kyl te kai tän tajuutte enivei. Vinkkinä että tää saattaa liittyä johonkin poliittiseen homojutskaan tai ehkä joku söi äyriäistä lol!!! :) ;) :) Sori mun pitää ny mennä Afrikkaan tappaan lapsii HIVillä (EI SIT KORTSUI TYYPIT MUISTAKAA!!!), ei nyt mitenkään kerkii jatkaa tästä. PEACE OUT, LEHTEREILLÄ TAVATAAN!”
Tällainen ajatus häiritsee ketä tahansa, joka haluaisi elää reilussa yhteiskunnassa ja viitsii edes vähän tutkiskella omaa maailmankuvaansa, mutta ilmeisesti ei Starczewskiä. On tietenkin universaalisti hienoa ja kunnioitettavaa, että Starczewskillä on Vakaumus, sillä kuten hyvin tiedämme, mikään ei ole yhtä hienoa kuin se. Hän on epäilemättä itse niin ylpeä siitä, että pieni kyynel tirahtaa omalle turpealle poskelle aina sitä ajatellessa.
Ehkäpä kuitenkin erityisesti näin Charlie Hebdon jälkimainingeissa ajatus siitä, että sanot mitä on ylhäältä määrätty, että sanotaan, tai Jumala tulee ja murhaa ei näin yhteiskunnallisesti tarkasteltuna tunnukaan ihan sataprosenttisen hienolta.
Juhani Starczewskin maailmankuvasta se kyllä kertoo kaiken tarpeellisen.
Lisäys n. kuusi tuntia myöhemmin: Nämä bileet eivät kovin pitkään kestäneet, sillä kristilliset antoivat näemmä juuri Starczewskille kenkää puolueesta. Yllättävän rehti veto tältä nimenomaiselta puolueelta, joka ei perinteisesti tällä sektorilla ole oikein kunnostautunut. Ei syytä huoleen, tosin, eiköhän tällä alustuksella isäntä löydä uuden, mukavan kodin vaikkapa Muutoksen riveistä.
As you can tell, I’m taking further advantage of my flu-ridden existence. When my friend Jaakko Stenros submitted the opening sentence I used for this one, “Oscar found Jesus at gay hot nude yoga,” I knew I would just have to do something with it, but it wasn’t at all clear what that should be. It took me some thinking.
There was that whole “oh-but-he’s-a-Hispanic-guy” thing, which was perhaps the most obvious choice, and there was that whole “the actual Jesus Christ is just hanging out there as one of the guys” approach, which might’ve been a little more fruitful — tee hee — but I didn’t know where to go with that beyond the initial setup.
So, eventually, I took the Hungarian approach.
Oscar found Jesus at gay hot nude yoga.
He didn’t plan on it. Oscar had never been on what you might call a spiritual quest. He was a lapsed Catholic; he wasn’t exactly comfortable with the church, given his particular bent, and the church’s bent for telling him he’d go to hell. Not a lot of common ground there. Oscar liked his dudes and the church wasn’t cool with that, so Oscar had made his call years ago. And even if the church had been more welcoming, it wasn’t like he’d have been comfortable as one of the flock anyway, what with all the priests who were into little boys and all that. He didn’t want anything to do with any of that sick stuff, and he had a feeling most of his fellow parishioners would just round it up to “faggot” anyway.
And in any case, there was the biggest dealbreaker: Oscar was pretty much an atheist anyway. Maybe there was something out there, maybe there wasn’t, but it didn’t seem likely that the entire human race came from two people who ate an apple in a garden six thousand years ago, and if that was bullshit, the rest of it kind of fell apart. You couldn’t cherry-pick your way through something like that.
So no, Oscar just wasn’t a believer. He didn’t even go in for the hippy-dippy quasi-mystical feel-good karma crap some of his friends were into. He liked his life neat and rational, layered with a reasonable degree of skepticism. Which was one reason he did the gay hot nude yoga, apart from the obvious; nobody was yammering about tranquility or balance, it was just hot dudes staying in shape and stretching, with the occasional stray boner and some fun in the showers. Which suited Oscar just fine.
But just the same, there he was, trying for the crow pose and finally getting it right after two months of work. He was settling into it and getting comfortable, feeling like he’d accomplished something today, staring at the bare ass cheeks of the Hungarian guy in front of him, and all of a sudden the warm afternoon sun came out, shadows shifted, and he saw the face of Jesus. The light streamed in through the huge studio windows, and the shadows fell across the Hungarian’s hairy backside just right, and there He was: Jesus, clear as day.
Oscar blinked twice and cocked his head slightly, wobbled, and almost lost his balance.
“No way,” he whispered.
But He was there. The luxurious hair, shaped by a complex combination of the shadow cast by the window lattice and the Hungarian’s dark body hair, the gentle smile formed by the curve of the right ass cheek, and the beard… well, all right; the beard was a little more pointed and… lumpier than what he was used to seeing in pictures of Jesus, since the Hungarian was letting it all hang all out.
But it was Jesus. Who else could it be?
There was even a cute little mole that allowed Him to lay his gentle and wise gaze on Oscar.
Oscar had heard about images of Jesus appearing on toast, or in the stains left on walls by rusty water under bridges, or some sad bullshit like that. He’d never taken that seriously. They were easy to fake, or people saw what they wanted to see. But there was an obvious image of Jesus right here, and nobody could fake this. The Hungarian had no idea he had the Redeemer on his ass, staring at Oscar. Nobody could position themselves like this on purpose.
Either it was a freak occurrence, or it wasn’t. Oscar’s mouth was dry.
Clouds rolled in. The sunlight faded. Jesus seemed mournful as He slipped from view.
Then it was just a hairy Hungarian ass. When the sun came back a few minutes later, both it and the Hungarian had shifted position, and the Son of God was gone, never to return again.
Later, Oscar got dressed in silence. He was used to joking around in the locker room, hanging out with the guys, but now he was subdued, lost in thought. He kept glancing over at the Hungarian, who was patting himself down with an exceptionally fluffy towel. That hairy ass with the mole was just a hairy ass with a mole.
The Hungarian noticed his stare, and covered himself with the towel. He smiled at Oscar, a little shyly. He had a strong jaw and nice teeth. They’d talked once before, a couple of weeks ago.
“Hello,” the Hungarian said.
Oscar nodded at him.
“Hey, do you want to go get coffee?” the Hungarian asked. “Good place nearby, I’ll take you, yeah?”
The man let the fluffy towel slip, bent down for his boxer shorts. The mole winked at Oscar before it slipped from view.
He was cute, Oscar decided. That was a really cute mole. He felt a profound sense of loss that he suspected would take a long time to process.
Oscar stood up, put on his jacket. He wasn’t a timid man, but now he hesitated. “Hey, back in there… I mean, do you think you could maybe…”
The Hungarian looked at him expectantly, but Oscar didn’t know how to finish the sentence. The Hungarian frowned in confusion, spread his hands.
Oscar couldn’t think of a single thing to say. He shook his head sadly, and walked away.
It’s been crazy busy at work, so it’s been a little longer between stories than I originally planned, but now I’ve got the flu, and thus I have time to get into this again. There may be a slight fever dream quality about this one, but I’m not sure if that’s the result of illness as much as it is just the natural result of the opening line, submitted by Risto Paalanen, who knows what I like and where to find bad things that are very, very good: “After the last heaves subsided, he wiped his chin and looked at the gently pulsating mess of tissue with a profound feeling of fatherly love.”
Lovely. I hope I did it justice.
After the last heaves subsided, he wiped his chin and looked at the gently pulsating mess of tissue with a profound feeling of fatherly love. The fleshy glob twitched on the concrete, making wet sounds in the puddle of clear slime, steaming gently in the cold air of the parking garage. Tran was on all fours, pulse hammering in his ears, gazing down at it. He was weak; his arms shook from supporting his weight, but he didn’t want to stop looking at what he’d made. So he stared at it until his head swam and drool dripped from his mouth, and then he finally sucked in a breath, sweet oxygen flooding his aching lungs.
His arms couldn’t take it anymore, so he toppled to his side, laid his cheek against the rough floor, felt it suck the heat from his naked skin. It felt good. He felt like he was burning up. There was an afterspasm, and a little more of the slime gushed into his mouth. It didn’t taste like anything. He spat it out.
As if in response, the glob jerked again, and he laughed, his throat raw. The glob uncoiled itself, reached out with half a dozen tendrils, probing the steaming air around it. They elongated, grew thinner; he could see a network of vein-like channels inside the tissue. The glob was changing color. It had been red before, the color of fresh blood, but now it was growing lighter, pinkish. The tendrils felt around, looking for something. Tran didn’t know what, but he smiled encouragingly.
Tran wanted to scoop it up into his arms. He reached for it, but a pang of fear hit him. It’s so delicate, he thought. He looked at his big, clumsy hands. Sausage fingers, the girls at the office said. The glob sensed his presence, and the tendrils turned towards his hand, stretched out, an inch away from his fingertips. Tran imagined squeezing it to death by accident. His breath caught. He yanked his hand back.
“Sorry, buddy,” he whispered. “It’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The tendrils slowly retreated, resumed their blind probing. Tran could feel its disappointment.
“You’re gonna grow up big and strong. You’ll see.” It was hard to speak with his cheek against the concrete.
He heard footsteps echoing somewhere in the parking garage, coming closer. He didn’t move.
There was a voice. “Hey, mister? You okay?”
Go away, Tran thought.
“Hey, man, you know you’re naked?” the voice said. “What’s up?”
That’s right, Tran thought, I took off my clothes. Suddenly, he was very cold.
He felt a hand on his arm. Somebody rolled him on his back. He looked up, saw white teeth and white eyes floating in an ocean of darkness. He blinked, and they turned into a dark face. It was a man in overalls. The parking garage attendant, Tran remembered.
“Catch your death lying here with your dick out,” the man said. “You drunk or crazy?”
Tran didn’t answer. The man stared at him, nodded to himself.
“Yeah, okay, I see you gonna need help. Sit tight, I’m calling 911, okay?”
“No,” Tran said, his voice raspy. He cleared his throat, but that turned into a coughing spasm. He managed to sit up, and more slime came out, splashing his stomach and thighs.
The man took a step back to avoid the torrent. He looked alarmed. “Ohhh, shit, that’s… that’s fucked up, man. You’re real sick. Hey, you’re not contagious, are you?”
Tran shook his head. He drew a ragged breath and wiped his face with his forearm. He turned to look at the glob. It had turned almost a pure white, with just a few faint red streaks here and there. The tendrils had retreated almost completely. It was just a lump again. It was hardly moving at all.
Fear for its wellbeing churned in Tran’s innards. He whimpered. It didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem right at all.
The man had taken his phone out, but he followed Tran’s gaze, finally noticed the glob. “What’s that?” he said. He leaned a little closer, then recoiled. “Oh, what the fuck, it’s moving.”
The man hesitated, then raised a boot to crush the glob, and Tran’s fear turned into blind rage. He launched himself off the concrete in bright red fury, collided with the man. The man went down. He was skinny; Tran was beefy, even if most of it wasn’t muscle.
Tran ended up on top. He straddled the man, his thighs slick with the slime, and caught his hair in both hands. Tran felt fingers at his face, at his throat; he ignored them, yanked the head savagely up, then smashed it down into the concrete. There was a smack, and the man howled; Tran did it again, and again, and again, and on the fifth time, there was a sound like a carton of eggs dropping, and the man went limp. Tran looked into his eyes, saw nothing; the man gurgled and foamed at the mouth, and Tran’s fury retreated.
He rolled off the man, crawled towards the thing he’d carried inside his body. It was gray, now, and completely still. He reached a shaking hand towards it. The tendrils didn’t rise up to greet him. When his fingertips brushed it, it was cold and dead.
Tran howled, then, and curled up into a ball, the cold seeping into his bones.
Later, the woman finally found him. She looked down at him, her eyes hard, the promise he’d seen in them when they’d first met long gone.
“Why?” Tran said, his teeth chattering. “Why? I loved it. I would’ve done anything.”
She sighed. She spoke as if to a child. “It died of exposure, you idiot. You let it freeze.”
A hole opened up inside him. His vision blurred with tears. “But I couldn’t,” he said, and showed her his big, clumsy hands.
She clicked her tongue in disgust, and aimed the gun at his head.
I already dealt with motherhood, after a fashion, so why not jump up one step on the old family tree?
One of the things I like about writing these super short pieces is how it allows me to engage in vigorous genre-hopping. This time, I put the supernatural and the weird aside, and just went for something I have a deep and abiding love for — crime. To be honest, it’s a little surprising that it took me eight stories to get to it.
The opening line came from Eevi Korhonen. It goes, “Until yesterday, my grandmother had never murdered anyone.”
Until yesterday, my grandmother had never murdered anyone. She’d done a lot of things during a long life; she’d been a thief, a getaway driver, and a con artist. She’d been a blackmailer and a gambler, a forger and a smuggler. Once, in the 70s, she ran a whorehouse for eight months, all the way to the ground. She had been on cocaine, then, full of bad ideas and worse decisions. She’d been to jail three times, and married twice. But she’d never killed anybody.
Anyway, that was all a long time ago. She was retired now.
And yet I and my sister were standing over the body in her kitchen in the middle of the night. The pool of blood was inches from my right sneaker. I felt a little sick. Even so, I was vaguely impressed. The dead man was huge, bodybuilder type. You wouldn’t think somebody in her 80s would have it in her to kill a giant like that. I said something along those lines, and grandmother scoffed. She was seated at the kitchen table. She waved her cigarette around.
“That’s why God gave us guns, kid,” she said. “I wasn’t going to fight him. I’m not stupid.”
Cloud was kneeling next to the body, inspecting it. She shouldn’t have been touching the body, but she didn’t seem to care. She looked up at grandmother. “What happened, Grandma?”
“He broke in. He threatened me. I shot him.”
Cloud nodded slowly, kept looking at the body. He was dressed in dark cargo pants, a dark hoodie. He was wearing gloves. She pulled something from the man’s hand. It looked like a length of wire. Cloud blew her hair out of her eyes, showed the wire to grandmother.
“Do you think we’ll ever find out what he wanted, Grandma?” she asked, like it was a joke.
Grandmother glanced at me and pursed her lips. “Oh, who knows. Probably on drugs. They’re all on drugs these days.” There was a briefcase on the floor, set against the kitchen cabinet, and grandmother bent down, picked it up, placed it at her feet under the table.
I stared at the blood, and felt another wave of sickness. I swallowed hard, and forced myself to look up. Grandmother was watching me closely. Judging me. I had to say something.
“Grandma, look at the size of him. Jesus. He could’ve broken you in two.”
“You don’t need muscles to pull a trigger. My hands’re a little shaky, though. I missed the first two shots.” She sighed. “I really liked the clock. Stole it in 1962, you know. That’s an antique.”
I turned to look behind myself. I’d always liked that clock, too. It was dead now, its intricate face shattered by a bullet. Time of death, 1:44. The cops were going to appreciate that little detail.
“Whew,” I said. “You’re lucky you woke up when he broke in.”
Grandmother shook her head.
“C’mon, Brad, you know better. Old people don’t sleep,” Cloud said, digging into the man’s pockets, pulling out a bulging wallet. “They just sit around and wait to die.”
“I’ve got bullets left,” grandmother said. She was cranky, now. “Keep running that mouth, girlie, we’ll see what happens.”
“You’ll kill another household item,” Cloud said, not paying attention. She took cash out of the wallet, a stack of crisp hundred dollar bills. She put them in her pocket.
“Hey,” I said. “That’s evidence.”
Cloud and grandmother exchanged a look. Cloud rolled her eyes. I’d been fighting it hard, but realization sunk in.
I had to ask. “Grandma, you called the cops, right?”
Grandmother smirked. Cloud smirked. The world suddenly seemed unstable. I had to sit down. I wasn’t built for this.
“Oh, God. I can’t be involved with this.”
“Buck up, kid,” grandmother said.
“Oh, God,” I said again. It came out as a moan. “Why did you even call me? You know I can’t… this isn’t me.”
There was a pregnant silence. Finally, grandmother sighed. “Because this huge son of a bitch weighs at least 350 pounds, and Cloud ain’t gonna be hauling his ass out of here by herself.”
“But he broke in. We could just call the police.”
“Get real. I can’t do time, kid. I’m too old for that.”
“But it’s self-defense,” I said, and realized I was whining.
“Hey, Brad. How about you stop getting involved in shit ain’t none of your business since you’re so eager to stay out of it?” Cloud said. “And grab his legs.”
So I did.
- – -
Somewhere in the desert, Cloud dug a grave with practiced ease. I fumbled with my shovel. It was too dark, the ground was all rocks, and my back ached. I didn’t complain.
“Buy you a beer after this,” she said, and punched my arm. My little sister.
The trunk of her car was full of bodybuilder and quicklime.
- – -
We sat on the hood of Cloud’s car, beers in hand. She’d already had two and she was going to drive me home, and I knew I wasn’t going to say a word about it.
“Why’d she call me?”
“You know why she called you.”
“Was this a test? Did I screw up?”
Cloud didn’t say anything.
“I mean, I’m not—”
“Hey.” Cloud patted my leg. “You’re gonna visit her like you always do, and she’s gonna bake you cookies like she always does, and that’s that.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. I drank my beer. “What about you?” I finally asked.
Cloud put her arm around me and squeezed me close. I leaned my face into the top of her head, breathed in the smell of beer and cigarettes and blood and quicklime.
“What about you, Cloud?” I asked again, and she looked up at me, her face unreadable.
- – -
She drove me home, and I drowsed, staring at the streetlights going by.
Until yesterday, my grandmother had never murdered anyone. I was pretty sure.
It’s Mother’s Day in Finland, so it seemed quite fitting to write a little story about a son missing his mother.
The opening sentence, “I knew it was my last chance to see Earth, but I still declined to watch,” came from Jaana Wessman. She’s also a mother, but, I suspect, a different kind of mother than the one in this story.
Then again, she’s in politics, so who knows.
I knew it was my last chance to see Earth, but I still declined to watch. I’d seen it before. I didn’t need to see it again. So I kept my back to the window.
With all the furniture gone, the living room looked bigger than I remembered, and vaguely alien. And then there was the design, of course; perhaps it was already doing something to the room. I wasn’t sure. My mother’s notes had been detailed and extensive, but they were all about the process. What little there was about the principles involved was beyond me.
The mailman stirred. I had hoped he’d stay unconscious, but he was waking up. I thought about hitting him in the head again, but what if he died? That could be a problem. Blood didn’t really flow when you were dead. I was pretty sure about that.
He could be awake. It didn’t matter. He was secured to the chair, and the chair was bolted to the floor in the circle. It would hold him.
It had been hard work, carving the design into the room. It had to be exactly right. I was sure it was; Maximillian and Skyler wouldn’t enter the living room anymore. They’d look in from the door and arch their backs. I tried to carry Skyler inside, but she hissed and clawed at me, and I gave up. It was a good sign. Animals can sense things. They couldn’t come with me anyway.
The carving had taken months. For the spiral I used a chisel, then smoothed out the edges with an X-Acto knife. I penciled it in first; working out the design had taken a few weeks. It had to be uninterrupted, but accommodate the shape of the room, incorporating the two doorways and three windows into the design. Finding ways around them was a puzzle I spent another week solving. The spiral ran over every surface, terminating at the circle in the middle of the room.
For the intricate patterns between the spiral, I used just the X-Acto knife, for the most part. I went through dozens of blades, carving in the grooves and channels, nicks and hatchings. Symbols and words, or what I took to be words. A map of where I was going, perhaps. Sometimes I imagined a vast, alien landscape, looking at it. At other times, I saw shards of substance in a bottomless void. My fingers were raw by the end.
The blood had been hard. My mother had apparently used cats. I couldn’t do that to Maximillian and Skyler, so I used my own blood. The X-Acto knife had come in handy there, too; my left arm was covered with scabs and scars and bandages. I’d had to stop for a few days when I started to grow dizzy. The painting itself had been easy, just me and a little brush, with the radio on in the background, filling in all the shapes between the spirals.
The mailman had his eyes open. He looked around, saw the design. Did he appreciate it, the work that had gone into it? I felt pride. The blood was dark, almost black. The polished silver was radiant.
The silver had been harder, much harder. Getting it was no problem, it wasn’t that expensive, but melting it down was another thing. Setting up the furnace in the back yard got me some stares and a few pointed questions from the neighbors. “It’s for arts and crafts,” I told them. “Sort of.”
Pouring the molten silver into the spiral was the worst. I set the room on fire dozens of times, and putting it out without destroying the design was almost impossible. First blood, then silver; that was the prescribed order. When the blood got ruined, I had to take out all the silver, cut myself and fix all of the blood, then try again with the silver.
No silver may touch the blood. That was the rule.
The ceiling was an absolute nightmare. I did my best on that ladder, smearing molten silver into the ceiling with a steel rod, cooling it down with a spray bottle of water. I thought about going in through the roof, but then I wouldn’t see the pattern properly, and I would ruin the blood. It was terrible. I almost gave up. I wore protection, but some of the burns were still bad. Very bad.
But I managed.
“What’s happening?” the mailman asked.
“You really came at a good time,” I said. “If I was religious, I’d call that providence.”
He swallowed hard. “Why are you doing this?”
“All my life, I’ve been,” I started, but decided otherwise. “Forget it. It doesn’t matter. I’m leaving the Earth. It’s sick and filthy, I can’t take it anymore.”
He stared at me.
“I’m going to meet my mother. It’s been thirty years. I don’t remember much about her,” I admitted, surprising myself. “But I think she was very kind.”
He started thrashing. “Let me go!”
“I’m afraid I need you. You see, she wrote down directions so I could follow her.”
That’s when he started screaming for help. I stuffed a rag in his mouth. I don’t think anybody would’ve heard him, but I had to concentrate.
I licked my finger and placed it in the beginning of the spiral, and felt something like electricity. I took an experimental step, sliding my finger along smooth silver, and the room shifted. The spiral expanded, a silver path stretching out before me. I was on the verge of something. I felt a restless energy. I was ready to walk it all the way to the end.
With my other hand, I took the X-Acto knife out of my pocket and popped the cover off. I would need more blood when I reached the circle, much more. And I only had so much left.
And I couldn’t hurt Maximillian and Skyler.
I wondered who would feed them when I was gone.
This time, I cooked up an easygoing little tale of love and loyalty. “‘Kill your darlings,’ the Captain, usually a timid man, sneered, before he sank his teeth into the raw steak” is the opening line, suggested by my long-time partner in crime, Sam Lake. As always, he brings the good stuff.
“Kill your darlings,” the Captain, usually a timid man, sneered, before he sank his teeth into the raw steak. He was drunk and angry. The great strategist was a cornered rat. He was coming apart. “Not that I can call you that anymore, you fucking traitor.”
Malcolm tried to respond, but it was too hard. He was nude, chained by his wrists to one of the structural support beams that ran along the ceiling of the Captain’s cabin. His rubbery legs kept slipping away from under him. Whenever that happened, his wrists took his weight, the metal digging into them painfully, and he had to struggle to get his feet working again. In the chorus of his pain, that was the tiniest voice.
The Captain was eating his dinner at his desk, glaring at Malcolm. The scars on his shaved head, the mementos of the Hegemony slave rig, looked red and raw. They never healed properly. The Captain wiped the juice off his chin and poured more wine. He looked tired and thin. Haggard.
Malcolm heard the pitter patter of his blood dripping on the floor. He shivered. The cabin was cold. The ship’s vibration ran along the chain into his wrists, the thrumming of its drive a constant ache that resonated in his bones. He ran a tongue over his remaining teeth again, trying to feel which ones had been knocked out by the Captain’s boys. His mouth was an alien landscape. Everything was swollen, out of place. The boys knew how to beat a man within an inch of his life.
He swallowed some blood and tried to focus.
“I’m sorry,” Malcolm said. “They made me.”
The Captain snorted.
“I know you have to do what you have to do,” Malcolm said. “I don’t blame you. But they made me.”
“I have family. My brother… they’re holding him. An insurance policy. Keeps me in line.”
“He’s all I got. Except for you.”
The Captain didn’t say anything.
“I love you,” Malcolm said, and now the Captain looked away. “I do,” Malcolm said.
“It’s all right,” Malcolm said. His voice was soft, weak. “The moment I was found out, I knew you’d have to kill me. Otherwise they’d say you were weak. But I know you aren’t.”
“Just – one thing. Please. I know you can’t let me go. But forgive me.”
“I don’t think so.”
A tear ran down Malcolm’s cheek, and his voice cracked. “Please. I’m not afraid to die. You know that. But I don’t want to die with you hating me.”
The Captain closed his eyes. “Shut up.”
“Please. You have no idea how afraid I’ve been for two years now, living a lie. And that’s on me, I know. But it wasn’t all a lie. Not for me. I kept trying to find a way to tell you. Warn you. To flip it, find a way to save my brother. So I could be with you.”
In one swift move, the Captain swept his wine glass off the desk. It exploded against the wall. “You’re a liar! You’re a spy and an assassin! You took us apart. You lured my fleet to its destruction. And you were going to kill me.”
“No! Please, it wasn’t like that. Yes, the fleet – I did that. No choice. And yes, I… God, you’re the architect of the slave revolt. They said you were a terrorist. And I was supposed to find a way to kill you somehow… but I knew better. I saw the kind of man you are. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t.”
The Captain said nothing.
Malcolm let out a wail of despair. “Please, sir. You have to believe me. Please.”
His legs buckled, and the chain went tight. He tried to find his feet, but he was too weak.
But the Captain was there, holding him up like he weighed nothing. The skinny man was much stronger than he looked. Malcolm lifted his head, and he saw the Captain’s eyes inches from his own. They were wet. Malcolm smelled his breath.
“Damn you, Malcolm,” the Captain whispered. He wound a fist in Malcolm’s hair, held his head up. “I can’t let you live. I can’t.”
“I know. I know.”
“I wish to God I could. You have no idea.”
“I know. I love you,” Malcolm said. He slurred. His mouth felt thick and useless. It was hard getting the words out. His teeth felt loose. They weren’t where they belonged.
“Don’t say that,” the Captain said.
“I love you.”
The Captain leaned his forehead against Malcolm’s, his voice a shuddering whisper. “I love you too.”
Smiling was the hardest thing Malcolm had ever done. His face didn’t want to work properly. He was bone tired, but he made it work.
“Oh, God,” the Captain said.
“I know I’m a wreck,” Malcolm said.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re beautiful to me. My beautiful boy.”
He leaned in for the kiss.
Malcolm’s mouth was a hot mess. His tongue was thick and unwieldy. The Captain’s lips pressed against his. He tasted meat and wine. Malcolm took a deep breath.
He found the tooth, pressed his own tongue against it as hard as he could, got some torque. It came loose, twisted to the side.
He bit down. Something cracked; sweetness flooded his mouth. Suddenly, everything was made of perfume. He exhaled hard.
The Captain broke off, confused.
Malcolm’s lungs burned white hot. His throat constricted. The Captain staggered back. His hands flew up to his neck, tore at his clothes. Muscles and tendons bulged hard, stretching the skin. The Captain gurgled. His knees folded. He hit the deck hard. He gazed up at Malcolm.
Malcolm’s mouth was desert dry. He tried to speak. Nothing came out.
The Captain’s throat was now wider than his head. Malcolm worked up some spit, managed a toneless croak.
“I don’t have a brother,” he said. “The Hegemony prevails.”
Here’s another flash fiction piece. This one was a little harder; I think I wrote three versions of this that were all completely different, and they didn’t work at all. I didn’t have the space for what I was trying to do, and I don’t think what I was trying to do was that interesting — never the easiest thing to admit. For a while there I was going to abandon this and go for another opening line altogether, but then I thought about it some more, killed some darlings and took another approach, and I’m glad I did.
The opening line came from my friend Tyler Smith. “Adeline had put out a cigarette on her own forehead when she was thirteen in order to build an endless repertoire of fantastical explanations for the scar.” You can tell he’s a writer, and I have no doubt that he realized right away that why someone would tell lies is much more interesting than the lies themselves. Took me a little longer to get there.
Adeline had put out a cigarette on her own forehead when she was thirteen in order to build an endless repertoire of fantastical explanations for the scar. Bianca had to admit it was the perfect scar for that – it was just above her right eyebrow, you couldn’t miss it; a mass of uneven tissue that always seemed a little lighter or darker than the surrounding skin, depending on how tan she was.
Bianca had worked with Adeline for almost a year. The scar gave her an air of mystery. Bianca’d wanted to ask about it for months. Now they were having drinks at the hotel bar on the last night of the big convention. It felt like they weren’t just co-workers anymore, so she’d worked up the courage. Now she wasn’t sure what to do with the answer.
“I’d make up all sorts of crazy shit,” Adeline said. “It was the best.”
“Yeah, but – you did that with a cigarette?” Bianca couldn’t wrap her head around it. “That’s crazy. Sorry! But it is.”
“Teenagers are always crazy,” Adeline said. “I know, I went above and beyond. But it made a weird kind of sense at the time.”
There was a pregnant silence. Bianca felt like she was expected to contribute somehow. “I shoplifted,” she finally said. She’d really done it just the once, on a dare, when she was thirteen. She’d gone back later to pay for them. Thirty years later, she still felt ashamed. She didn’t mention any of that.
Adeline seemed interested. She leaned closer, looked Bianca in the eye. “You ever get caught?”
“What’d you take?”
Bianca hesitated. “Snickers bars…”
Adeline nodded, and leaned back. Bianca could tell she’d hoped for something more interesting. She watched the bartender make a frozen Margarita, and it just popped out. “But this one time I stole a blender.” Adeline perked right up, and Bianca settled into the lie. “I put it in my backpack and walked out of the store. Nobody said anything.”
“You get scared?”
“Not really,” Bianca said, but that didn’t seem like the right answer. “I mean, not then. But later I was like, ‘What am I gonna do with a blender?’ I couldn’t take it home, what would my mom say? I ended up throwing it in the trash.”
Bianca hesitated, then added the ultimate lie: “But people thought I was kind of badass for a while.”
Adeline nodded and laughed, and put her hand on Bianca’s arm, her fingers warm.
“I knew I saw something like that in you,” Adeline said. Nobody had ever seen anything like that in Bianca. Adeline went on. “Teenagers want attention so bad. Everybody’s got something going – sometimes they just act out a little. Or steal something, like you. Others get tattoos. Or pregnant. What I did… I’m not gonna lie, stupid or not, I got a lot of mileage out of it.”
“Are you kidding? Something like this, you can tell any story you want. That gets you a lot of things.”
She didn’t get it. Adeline squeezed her arm again and left her hand there.
“Teachers? The other kids? ‘What happened to you?’ And you tell them something that changes the way they think about you. You know, ‘my dad did this’ – I mean, I didn’t say that, but I could have. God, I was such a little shit.”
“But you turned out okay, I guess,” Bianca said. Adeline’s fingertips traced a little pattern on her arm. Bianca thought she’d had one too many. She started to regret coming up with the story, even with Adeline opening up to her like this. Adeline had seniority over her; she was the district manager. She wasn’t Bianca’s boss, but she outranked Bianca. She’d confessed to being a thief. This could get out of hand.
“Well, you grow up,” Adeline said. “I mean, you don’t steal anymore, do you? You got other things in mind now.”
“I’ve got other things in mind, too.”
She’d definitely had one too many, and it was late. Bianca said she had to go to bed. Adeline raised an eyebrow, the scar winking at Bianca above it.
Bianca got up off the bar stool, and they hugged. Adeline smelled of perfume and sweat and cigarettes. They made eye contact. The moment stretched.
“Well,” Bianca said. “I’m really tired…”
Adeline smirked. “All right then.”
Bianca made her way up to her room. She got undressed and got in bed.
Sleep wouldn’t come. She couldn’t stop thinking about how she stood at the cash register, the pimple-faced young man behind it, saying she’d like to pay for four Snickers bars, the vaguely amused look on his face, and she suddenly wanted to die. She buried her face in the pillow.
The feeling passed. She was still alive, still awake.
She stared at the ceiling. She bit her lip. She made the decision. Why not? Her heart fluttering, she got back on her feet, got dressed. A few more drinks. Sit down with Adeline again.
But at the bar, Adeline was talking with another woman. Bianca hung back. Suddenly, she was intruding. She leaned against a column nearby – not hiding, not lurking, she thought, just waiting for an opening – close enough to catch a few words.
Adeline was telling the other woman about the time she’d been touring a steel foundry at the age of thirteen, and a vat of molten steel hanging from a crane had somehow burst open. Droplets sprayed the area, and one of them hit her forehead.
“Oh my God,” the other woman said. She was young and pretty.
She got lucky, Adeline said; one of the metalworkers had a splash of liquid steel hit his arm. Burned a hole right through it, she said. You could literally see through it. She showed the other woman where, touching her arm.
“Right here,” Adeline said.
“Wow,” the other woman said.
Adeline kept talking.
Bianca kept listening.
This time, I went with the opening line suggested by my friend Stacy Wendt. The line she submitted was “It was Green’s last day, and she wasn’t sure what could come next.” I don’t think these stories generally have anything to do with the people who suggest the opening lines, but even so, this is a story about kindness as much as anything else — and Stacy’s a kind person. I didn’t plan it that way, but it’s probably not quite a coincidence, either.
This is my third attempt at the story; the first two were very different (and far less kind), and didn’t work at all. This one I quite like.
It was Green’s last day, and she wasn’t sure what could come next. She was enjoying her buzz; it made everything soft and easy, like it always did, but there was a bittersweet twinge this time. She wasn’t sure if that was in the mix, or if it was her own body chemistry adding that special flavor for her. Either way, she thought she quite liked that. It was something new.
They’d made the evening cold, but not unbearably so; she was wrapped up, snug and warm. She sat on the bench on the hill, looking at the frozen artificial pond below. She watched a few figures skating on the ice, lit up by the floodlights in the rafters. She could see their beams clearly in the thin clouds of haze that swirled inside the Sanctuary. Nobody moved very fast, nobody fell down. Most people were sitting down by the pond, cups of something hot in their hands. It was all very nice.
Green saw a figure walking up the hill towards her. She recognized the Caretaker by her slow and careful gait.
“Hello, Green. They say you’re leaving us tomorrow,” the Caretaker said when she reached Green.
She looked old, Green thought. She had no idea about her age, and it was impossible to tell. The face was middle-aged and plain, but that didn’t mean anything; the Caretaker was very rich. But today her posture seemed like an old woman’s, because of age, or because of the chems – no way to tell. Everybody got the same mix, but some people fine-tuned their buzz with personal meds. Green didn’t. Sometimes there were bad reactions, and anyway, she was quite content with the daily buzz. They had a different mix every day, to make sure you didn’t build up a resistance, but the effects were largely the same.
The Caretaker was waiting for an answer. Green blinked. “Yes,” she said. “I think it’s time.”
“It’s a little sudden, don’t you think?”
“Sudden? It’s been three years.”
“Were you going to tell me?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’d make any difference.” And you’re kind of creeping me out, she thought. “And you’re kind of creeping me out,” she said, and then regretted saying it. But not very much.
The Caretaker sighed, and sat down next to Green, her movements deliberate. She took Green’s hand in hers, palm up, and peeled off the glove. Green let her do it; why not? The cold air nipped at her exposed fingers.
The Caretaker stared at Green’s palm for a long time. Then she pulled her sleeve back, saw the scars. Her gaze made the thin, white lines itch, and Green felt a distant urge to make a fist, so she did. The Caretaker slowly raised her face, met Green’s eyes with some difficulty.
“It’s a harsh world out there,” the Caretaker said.
The Caretaker tried to pull the glove back on Green’s hand. After three clumsy tries, she gave up and placed the glove on Green’s lap. Green picked it up and pulled it on.
“You can always come back.”
“I know,” Green said. “But I don’t think I will.”
The Caretaker nodded sadly. “I don’t think you will, either. I think you’re going to die out there. It’ll be too much for you to handle, like before, and this time you won’t hesitate.”
People were blunt in the Sanctuary, the haze stripping people of certain inhibitions. It didn’t matter. Words were dulled here. It was therapeutic. Perhaps.
“I don’t think it’ll be like that.”
“I suppose you’ll find out one way or the other. It’s your funeral.”
Something like anger stirred in Green. “You’re a bit of a bitch, aren’t you?”
The Caretaker looked at Green, but didn’t respond.
“You need us here. We make you feel important. You’re the Caretaker; you like to be the provider. We’re the dolls in your dollhouse. Your toys.”
“People come here because they can’t make it outside. Anybody can leave whenever they want.”
“Almost nobody leaves. The haze makes people docile. They stop caring. You’ve created this world where everything is controlled. Everything is so…” She struggled for a word. “Safe. Nobody feels much of anything.”
“Nobody hurts here, Green.”
It was true. Green couldn’t argue with that. She was quiet for a long time. “I used to paint,” she finally said.
“You can paint here.”
“But I can’t. And I miss it.” She tried to find the words, but couldn’t. “I just miss it so much.”
The Caretaker looked at her, and after a while, she nodded slowly. She patted Green’s knee.
They sat for a while and watched the skaters together.
“We’re thinking of having a late spring next week,” the Caretaker said. “Very warm, a gentle breeze. Fresh grass.”
“That’ll be nice,” Green said. “I like that. Is it going to rain?”
“I think we might have a little rain, just for that smell you get afterwards.”
“Well,” the Caretaker said, “just try to come back if you need to.”
They embraced. The old woman felt thin and bony under her bulky clothes, but Green was surprised by how strong she was. When the Caretaker let go, she kissed Green once, a dry peck on her cheek, and Green thought about her mother for the first time in years, how weak she’d been at the end.
The Caretaker got to her feet, and started down the hill, towards the pond. But she turned around.
“Maybe you’re right about me.”
“It doesn’t make you a bad person,” Green said. “I know you’re trying to help.”
The Caretaker shrugged slowly, and walked away.
“I’ll be Anna again,” Green called after her, but she kept walking.
Green sat on the hill, and looked at the skaters. She thought about fresh air, and becoming somebody else, and trying things. She thought about failure. Somewhere inside her, fear stirred. And hope.
And yet more flash fiction, because why the hell not. The opening line for this one is provided by Anne Liljeström: “I don’t know how long I just stood there, drawing shallow, shaky breaths, before I could open my eyes and look in the mirror.”
So, so many ways you could go with that one. This is the one I picked.
I don’t know how long I just stood there, drawing shallow, shaky breaths, before I could open my eyes and look in the mirror.
I didn’t see anything. I cocked my head left and right, narrowed my eyes and peered at my features, but it all seemed normal. It was just me. The fear subsided. It was ridiculous, what he’d said.
“I don’t see a… Mark of Satan,” I said. I felt like an idiot, just saying it out loud.
“Oh, well, look at Little Miss Expert,” the dwarf called from the other room. “What, you think it’s just there for anybody to see? You gotta have an eye for it. Hell, you’re the last person’s ever gonna notice it. That’s how they do it.”
I left the bathroom and walked over to him. He was still there, cuffed to the radiator of his crappy little bedroom, blood all over his chin. He peered up at me and grinned with red teeth. “Yep, there it is, right on your forehead. The Mark of Satan, and let me tell you, lady, it’s a doozy. They got you goood.”
“Shut up,” I said. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“I think you’re too messed up for smart or stupid to matter. Otherwise you’d worry.”
“It’s not real. You’re just making it up.”
He chortled. “Okay, I’m making it up. That’s why you just showed up and kicked the shit out of me.”
“For Christ’s sake…” I showed him my badge. “You see this, pal? I’m a cop. I’m just doing my job.”
He peered at it and nodded. “You sure are. Great police work, Detective, you definitely cracked the case of the guy minding his own business until a crazy woman kicked him in the teeth for no reason she could articulate. How’re you gonna write this one up?”
He saw my confusion, and talked to me like I was a child. “What’d I do? What’s the charge? Where’s your warrant?”
I was quiet.
“You gonna take me in? Why’d you come here? Why’d you pick my door?” He coughed and spat blood at my feet. “Christ, do you even know my name?”
I didn’t say anything.
“You’re doing Satan’s work, lady.”
I felt the angry flush on my face. I took a hold of my t-shirt’s neckline and pulled it down, showed him the cross. “I’m Catholic, you son of a bitch.”
He laughed again. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
I let my hand drop, felt it snake behind my back, find the holster. I took out my gun, its weight familiar in my hand.
The dwarf went pale. “That’s probably standard arrest procedure, right?”
“You’re going downtown,” I said, and I chambered a round. “Can’t talk your way out of this one.”
He swallowed, found a weak sneer and gave it to me, shook his head. “Lady, I ain’t talking my way out of shit. I was dead the moment you walked in here.”
I didn’t say anything.
We were quiet like that for a moment, and he looked at me with wet eyes, and there was something like hope in them. “Okay, look, listen to me.” His voice cracked. “Just – don’t. Just fight it, you can walk away, okay? I know you’re not in control, but walk away. Just walk away. Okay? Don’t do it.”
“Do what?” I asked, and took off the safety.
His voice went up. “Don’t kill me. You said it, you’re a cop, you’re with the good guys, right? Please don’t kill me.”
“You’re insane,” I said. “You’re crazy. Yeah, I’m a cop. Why would I kill you?”
I shot him in the chest twice, the recoil running up my arm, startling me. The sound boxed my ears. Suddenly, my head felt very, very warm.
He gurgled. He raised a weak hand, pointed a finger right at me.
“There it is,” he said. He laughed through the pain, and blood bubbled on his chest. “There it is.”
I swallowed hard, my heart hammering. The fear was bad.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
I shot him in the neck, and his head jerked to the side, remained at a strange angle. He twitched and gurgled some more, every ragged breath weaker than the last. He slid down until he was in a heap on the floor, just that one hand pointing up, still attached to the radiator by the handcuffs.
“What’s happening?” I whispered as I holstered the gun. There was a blinding heat behind my eyes, and something vast and heavy thundered in my ears, like distant waves, or a wind moving in the trees.
The dwarf’s mouth moved, and he looked up at me, the light going out in his eyes. I couldn’t hear anything. My head felt like a blast furnace.
I was outside the apartment building, and the people on the street were swarming. I heard raised voices. They were pointing at the building, shouting on top of each other, looking worried. Scared.
I stepped away, gathered my thoughts. I wasn’t sure what I was doing there. I looked at my watch and swore. I was already a half an hour late for my shift. I hadn’t even called. The Lieutenant wouldn’t like it.
I fast-walked towards my car, getting into the swing of it, digging my phone out of my pocket. Better call in, do some damage control. I got an early start today, had to meet a CI. Sure, he’d buy that. Sorry, forgot to call first. No point in getting into details, just make the best of it. I looked up from my phone as two squad cars raced past me, stopped in front of the apartment building.
I leaned against the car, hit the speed dial, looked at the building. The kind of place cops got called to every day. Christ, I thought, some people just lived like animals.
Then he picked up, and I busied myself with the call.
More flash fiction — I think I may have caught a flash fic bug.
I’ve asked a number of friends to submit opening lines just to keep things a little more interesting. This one was submitted by Jukka Särkijärvi, and it’s quite wonderful: “The duelists revved their chainsaws.”
How could I not love that?
The duelists revved their chainsaws. A flock of birds took the sky from the nearby tree, startled by the sudden noise. They looked impossibly white in the morning sun.
The challenged party, the handsome Mr. Tito Miranda, Esq., held his massive chainsaw in a low grip and leaned back hard to balance himself, his feet wide. Miranda was obviously still quite drunk; he was showing off, rolling his shoulders, swinging the heavy saw slowly left and right as he goosed the engine, making the onlookers’ ears ring. The saw belched black smoke. It was fire engine red, and Miranda’d freshly painted the name “Ayla” in bright white on its side – another insult to his opponent, Count Kneller.
As for the Count, he looked at the younger man with open disdain. The bags under his red eyes and the stubble on his chin spoke of a tremendous hangover; the broken nose spoke of a fight that hadn’t gone his way. The Count’s chainsaw was a much lighter model, almost elegant, with a long and narrow guide bar. The tasteful white enameling accentuated the rubies that adorned it, and a mother of pearl inlay formed the Count’s family crest. The grips were ivory, and golden tassels hung from them. The Count raised the fine instrument up, as if to inspect it, and revved it again experimentally. Hung over or not, his movements were smooth and precise.
Leaning against his broom, feeling vaguely underdressed in his plain brown overalls and ratty old cap, Anton was already bored to death by the whole fad. He didn’t like the stink of the exhaust, or the noise, or the oily stains they left everywhere. He definitely didn’t like cleaning up the mess afterwards. What was wrong with a good old-fashioned sword fight, or better yet, lengths of piano wire? That had been a good one. He hadn’t even needed the hose. Just hoist the body on the wagon, all done.
Still, with a crowd like this, at least the tips’d be good.
The onlookers cheered drunkenly at the spectacle, consisting mostly of the duelists’ family members and colleagues. Their respective retinues of courtesans, musicians and flunkies wore masks of polite attention. Most of them were up past their bedtime, only here for professional reasons. The two constables who were patrolling the area stood by; they’d been bribed to look the other way, so naturally they showed up to watch the proceedings. A fat man wearing an ill-fitting, but expensive wig clapped too vigorously; he was just an oafish bystander, and was ignored by all.
The shaky old Dr. Dubrovnik, acting as the officiator, stepped up and raised his liver-spotted hands for attention, and the crowd quieted down. Anton took out his battered old pipe and started stuffing tobacco into it.
“Good people,” Dr. Dubrovnik called in his toneless voice, “we all know why we’re here.”
Anton didn’t. He only had a vague understanding of why the duel was taking place. The Count had challenged the younger man over somebody named Ayla. Apparently, Miranda had boasted of his conquest of her, and the Count had immediately taken offense and called Miranda a liar. Miranda threw a punch, the Count threw down a glove, and things had taken their usual course. As the challenged party, Miranda had his choice of weapons, and drawn chainsaws at dawn it was.
And here they were. Business as usual. Anton had really been hoping to hear some juicy details about this Ayla, but no such luck. Whoever she was, she apparently hadn’t even bothered to show up. Typical.
“A challenge has been made,” Dubrovnik droned on. “Demands of satisfaction have been presented. I ask you, gentlemen, are you set on your course?”
“Yes, sir, you bet,” Miranda said. He slurred slightly.
“Let’s get this over with,” Count Kneller said. The new, nasal tone in his voice was a delightful surprise to Anton, who didn’t like Kneller. But he was good. Miranda would probably lose.
“Very well,” Dr. Dubrovnik said. “You shall fight until first blood.”
Anton rolled his eyes. These people. The crowd ate it up, though, murmuring their approval of the admirable restraint shown by the combatants. Anton struck a match off the side of his wagon. He lit his pipe.
Dr. Dubrovnik’s face was a stony mask of indifference. He held up a handkerchief. The crowd became subdued. They held their breath. The only sound that could be heard was the idling of engines. Anton yawned.
Then the man in the wig started clapping again for no reason at all, embarrassing everybody. Dr. Dubrovnik lowered his hand and glared at the fool, until one of the constables walked over and poked the man hard in the chest with his truncheon.
“Be quiet,” the constable said, very loudly.
The man looked indignant and rubbed his chest, but quieted down. Dr. Dubrovnik glared at them, then raised the handkerchief again.
Dr. Dubrovnik let go of the handkerchief.
The chainsaws got loud.
Hours later, when Anton had finally loaded everything into the wagon and was almost done hosing down the square, a young woman showed up wearing yesterday’s make-up, looking confused. She was quite beautiful in an utterly unattainable way, but she ran up to Anton, her high heels and the cobblestones a precarious combination. Somehow she didn’t break an ankle.
“Oh, my God, I fell asleep,” she said breathlessly. “They didn’t wake me up.”
“All right,” Anton said, a little confused.
“Where is everybody?”
A little light went on in Anton’s head.
“You must be Ayla.”
She scowled at his presumption. “I’m Miss Vannier, yes.” But she let it go. She looked around excitedly. “Where is it going to happen? Where are they?”
She scowled some more. “Wait. Did they go ahead without me? Without me?” Then her face fell. “Where’s… where’s Tito? He didn’t get blooded, did he?”
Anton glanced at the wagon, cleared his throat.
“Weeeell,” he began. “See, here’s the thing about chainsaws, ma’am.”