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  1. Zerotonin

    Zerotonin Serotonin machine broke Contest Administrator Supporter

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    Current Contest August 2018 Short Story Contest

    Discussion in 'Monthly Short Story Contest' started by Zerotonin, Jul 31, 2018.

    There are two prompts to choose from this month. Incorporate one or both of them into your story. How you use the prompt is up to you - it doesn't have to be integral to the story. Be creative with it!

    Prompt Option 1 (thanks to xanadu for the submission): "The phone buzzed, but it was just God calling again."

    Prompt Option 2 (thanks to Mocheo Timo for the submission):
    [​IMG]


    Requirements
    • 1,200 - 5,000 words
    • Any genre
    • Any style
    • Polished to the best of your ability
    • One entry per person
    How to Enter

    Post your entry as a reply to this thread. It will be automatically anonymised. Please title the story and include the word count.

    You will be able to post entries until 14 August at 23:59 GMT.

    Voting

    Voting will run from 15 - 31 August. There is no fixed voting criteria: voters will choose the story they think is the best.

    Winner

    The winner will be announced on 1 September. He or she will get a shiny medal under their avatar, automatic entry into the annual Hall of Fame contest, and their winning story featured in the WritingForums annual ezine.

    Get writing!
     
    Last edited: Jul 31, 2018
  2. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Testing!
     
  3. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Smile (2409)


    The land around the village is empty. We just finished killing the last runner. Those still alive are hiding, cordoned off by the tan armored cars and tanks posted a mile from each other in a semicircle on the ridgeline that overlooks the bloodshed.

    Helicopters patrol in circles at the hundred mile mark, their guns spinning up constantly, followed by the echoing thump of exploding rounds. Above the helicopters the fixed wing planes lurk at the edge of sight, thousands of miles up, but easily within range. Even in full daylight you only know the planes are there when they fire and the sky bursts and the sand melts into glass. Above the land the bright sun wastes its heat warming the fires we have sparked.

    Down on the ground we patrol in our small groups through the village we guessed might be hostile in the future. We are divided into four man teams. Our arms are tucked lazily against our plate carriers, supporting black rifles ready to fire. Our goggles and masks are set over our eyes and cheeks, protecting nothing but our identities. Our flag patches are tucked in shoulder pockets beside our rank insignia and fake identification cards. We could be anyone, though when we speak our accents are European and American and Persian.

    We follow Point Man. He is out ahead of our team in the center of the dirt road. He is followed by Team Leader, who is scanning left and right and shouting orders. To the left is Left Flank, stepping over a low wall.

    I am in the rear of our team, watching the right flank and behind us.

    I am smiling.

    Occasionally one of us will lift our black rifles to fire at choking wounded or charred dead. Some villagers were half inside doorways when the 30mm rounds ripped into them, or running in the open and turned to black stains larger than a car. Some were hiding in the fields, only to be blown apart by bombs, or some were hiding in corners or craters or buildings, only to be spotted by the air support, marked, and now killed where they cower by Team Leader or Point Man or Left Flank or me.

    The animals, mules or goats and one camel, all seem to have died where they were fettered when our attack started. Their legs are all splayed up like the twisted branches of a fallen tree, bodies hacked or pulped and oozing fluid that turns black when it touches the sand, swollen necks choked in the ropes that tied them to fences or walls or homes. Many of their mouths and eyes are frozen in death stares that are peeled back like demons with gaping eyes reflecting our masked faces back at us.

    I recognize one of the faces. Not the face of a dead human, but an animal. I cannot tell what the beast was, because now it is a spread of offal and hoof, but the maw is bent upwards, yellow teeth showing through leather lips and cracked cheeks.

    The dead beast is returning my smile.

    I never fit in with my family. Even when everything was going perfectly, I hated them. I never cared about things they cared about.

    My great great great grandfather fought in the 4th/5th Consolidated Confederate Infantry Regiment. There’s a picture of him hanging in my grandmother’s room in the rest home. It is all I know about him— 4th Confederate Infantry— inscribed along the bottom of the gray and black picture. Just his name and a Confederate unit. Whenever we visited, everyone in my family always worshiped that picture

    But to me it all seemed like nothing. Not God nor Race nor Tradition set their roots in my heart, but the brand of childhood did leave a mark, and I still smile when they say Nigger or War or Our Land. I smile with them at that Confederate soldier’s picture, but I can’t remember his face. There is something else that resonates with me the most.

    He’s smiling in that picture— his mouth is curved oddly, and his eyes are heavy. His face is the sad sort of smile no one else can see, save for those who swear fealty to a flag and weapon. Everyone who saw that smile said he was smiling because he was proud to serve the Confederacy.

    But I’m the only one who decided to actually fight in the new Wars, and as time bled on I saw something different.

    I saw the hatred behind his smile.

    A dark skinned woman in a blue jacket just like an American woman might wear comes out of a tan slab building. I laugh out loud, because it is odd she dares to show herself. You think she would catch on. She starts to cry out just as Point Man snaps two shots across her neck and one into her face.

    She falls down, grabbing her neck, but Point Man steps over quickly and fires two into her back. Point Man laughs, then Team Leader laughs with Point Man, along with Left Flank.

    I am still laughing. I never stopped.

    She wastes away, and Point Man rest his elbows and rifle back on his plate carrier. He looks back at me, and through his mask and under the goggles I can tell that he is smiling, too.

    I nod and smile back.

    Team Leader walks forward and leans over the woman’s corpse and with one hand tugs her clothes. Her arms and head lull as he rips the cloth away from her groin. He sets two gloved fingers inside her and thrusts.

    Dead check, Team Leader says. Any real bitch would cum right away, he says. He thrusts again, and her head lulls in the dirt. Now she’d be pregnant, he says and laughs. Team Leader removes his hand, wiping his fingers clean on her jacket, smiling.

    I am not laughing anymore.

    We patrol into the left side of the village. This way was already cleared by another team, but today we are being thorough.

    This part of the village is more of the same pulverized mud and glassed sand and ruined meat. Seems the school was here— a newer building of hand set pricks and plaster with bright white paint and blue molding. Unlike the older buildings of mud and straw or stone this one is burning: a smoldering firestorm engulfs the building— an immense cloud billowing close to the ground.

    They tried to hide as many children or elderly in the school as they could because they thought we might not fire on it so obviously. But I know Team Leader made a point to mark the school this time; he has wanted to mark a school ever since we got here— says last time he deployed he did not get to mark a school. Whenever we were training, back home, all he talked about was marking a school. Today he got to mark a school, and he will not stop smiling.

    And I see Team Leader’s smile and jagged teeth and torn chapped lips in every child’s ruined face inside the fire.

    The colors change.

    I see movement and my heart rises and my elbows tighten

    No one else called it— they do not know that I see a person near the school. I take a breath, close my mouth, and look in silence.

    The center of the fire is so bright it dulls my vision, darkening my sight as if the sun has died. In the fire stands a man, but with two faces and one arm. One of his faces is soft and dark with a trimmed beard and one wide green eye, and the other face is melted blood and an empty eye socket and smeared fat running behind his ruined arm and down his leg and after each step he leaves trails of black ruined flesh in the dirt turning to black mud and though the man’s soft face is drawn down in a mask of pain, his melted face is smiling at me.

    He runs straight ahead, but turning to the left he does not see us, and though I will not shoot or say a word, he screams. He screams at the fire around him as if possessed or afraid, and I cannot tell if he is crying or if his eyes have simply melted in his head and weep down across his cheeks, but his voice is loud and strong.

    Left Flank hears the man, then laughs and sprays a burst, cutting the man into a bloody pile in the street turning black.

    Left Flank asks Team Leader Aren’t you gonna dead check that one?

    Team leader says Shut up, faggot.

    We all laugh.

    I hate every one of them— smiling so wide it splits my cheeks to the bone.

    After looking into the fire and seeing the faces my vision will not brighten again. Everything is dark as if walking through the night, as if I was trapped smiling for eternity in a black and gray picture.

    I dare to let this stupid poison acceptance of our broken world slip away from my face, in the imagined safety of hell borne darkness, but I know the cuts on my cheeks will not heal because soon I will be smiling again, because I know my family would be so proud of everything we’re doing here.

    We walk thought the valley of black stains to the two story building at the center of the wound we have cut into the world. Several other teams of Points and Leads and Flanks set black weapons in windows or rip doors away or ejaculate into corners or piss in dead animal mouths or cut bulbs from the poppy fields to squeeze and smear across rotting teeth. The courtyard of the building is made of bleached tiles with no sand, so the swollen bodies of the dead shine bright and red and clean instead of black mud.

    In the courtyard a small girl skips by and lifts her skirt and shows me her genitals. I smile and tell her No no, go away no, but she flips me off and skips closer, legs stuck in place as she skips, so I dig my fingers deep into her and her face twists and her eyes squint, but she will not stop smiling, torn face smiling, but then relief roils in my guts as I thrust, and her arms and head lull.

    Lulling because she died on the bleached stone, legs stuck in place as she fled and died in an odd position, and I laugh as she skips beside us. I pull my fingers out of the corpse and I smile because I am such a Patriot and War Fighter and future Leader.

    My smile returns and my skin rips apart.

    We enter the building.

    The air in the structure is cool, and still. The walls feel white. A musky, damp haze floats all around, instead of dry blood smoke haze.

    I take a breath of air not choked in dust and smoke, gasping instead on a stench of slow rot and many bodies. We will set up a quick security halt before we patrol back through it all, back to base to plan the next mission. For now I free of responsibility, protected by other Points and Leads and Flanks. I start to wander a few feet in any direction, looking for something to fill the empty time.

    None of the rooms have doors. The walls are riddled with bullet holes or stains or trash in heaps. There is not much here to inspect or steal or break or joke about. Footsteps echo quietly, all around.

    The quiet makes me feel empty. The calm and quiet.

    My smile starts to fade again, softening to a genuine grin of appreciation for the sense of calm and peace in these rooms. The soft air and shadows, untouched by the sunlight, bely the path we took to get here.

    I wander, mostly alone, but a few others start to wander behind me, rifles down, following me because they have no where to go or think, following anything because without stimulation from the land or corpses or Leads, we are an empty collection of worn human wallpaper plastered over everything here.

    But I have nothing to show those who follow me but a bloody smile that I have lost. Who even knows we are here doing this? If I die my family may worship a corpse and an idea, but that is all. They would not to want to see what I am doing right now— Not because they think it is wrong but because it is just ugly and dirty, and when they sit their children on their laps they want to show pictures of smiles and flags, not fingers wet with a prepubescent girl’s smegma.

    I see that a few Flanks and Points are standing still, staring at a wall. I walk over to them, eager for something, but it is just an old map. The map shows the country we are in— could be any of them— and the oceans all around in simple white and blue. Under the picture, on a bowed table about to break, is a pile of old telephones.

    And I smile so wide and laugh so loud that my face peels away under my mask, because I see a pale melted wax face with skin dripping away from the dry bleeding blue rot beneath a broken cracking grin, as shattered bone white and choked blue and rot brown teeth tumble around rotting brown entrails and wormy milk white cusps draped down to the floor around my black stained feet turning red in the damp of this place we have burned and raped to death and we cannot stop I do not know how and I will die here one way or the other for nothing, just like my great great great grandfather died for nothing.

    And everyone around smiles and laughs with me, and I laugh at their empty stupid faces bleeding like mine, because they cannot know why I am smiling, and I cannot know why they are smiling, and I hope to never find out.

    I have found a smile more wretched than that rotten smiling man in that picture.

    A smile tearing us all apart.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 10, 2018 at 5:54 AM
  4. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Jinn (الجن) and Tonic (2,409 words)

    Walter Odom was parked on his usual stool at Down the Hatch Tavern. He was nursing a can of Budweiser. It was the mid-afternoon, and so far today it was only him and Dan McGee, the longtime bartender.

    Walter noticed the look on Dan’s face. He had known Dan for many years. The look was worried — no, it was more than worried. It was spooked.

    Walter had never seen Dan look like that before. Dan was a tough piece of gristle. He had been drinking and serving drinks since his early twenties, and was pushing sixty now. He had a nose like a deformed strawberry, the so-called alcoholic nose, produced by enlarged vessels and broken capillaries. His usual expression was a scowl.

    But his blue eyes were like skies, clear, cloudless and lucid, embedded in thick, purplish folds of flesh. When he was tired of your antics, he’d snap a wet rag at you while snapping with his voice: “No more beer for you!” Some people had jokingly begun calling Dan the Beer Nazi, but when Dan got wind of this, he 86’d the jokers for good.

    Dan didn’t own the bar, he merely ran it for an absentee owner he called The Boss. But Dan ran the bar the way that Patton ran his troops across France after D-Day. That was why, now, it was so disturbing to see the look on Dan’s face. Pattons never showed fear — until now.

    “What the hell is up with you, Dan?” Walter asked. Dan was his best friend.

    “Walt, can you take a walk with me down to the cellar?”

    There was a hatch in the floor behind the bar and a flight of stairs. Walter followed Dan down. Once downstairs, Dan flicked on a light.

    Dan pointed at a door. A sign on it, in big block letters, said, DO NOT ENTER.

    Walter had never been down here before. No reason why he should have been. Apart from the door there wasn’t much. Just some buckets and mops, and shelves full of supplies, mostly cleansers and suchlike. It was a standard cubbyhole for storage.

    “What’s the problem?” Walter asked.

    “That door.”

    “What about it?”

    “It wasn’t there yesterday.”

    “Beg pardon?”

    “Nor any of the many days before that. It appeared for the first time this morning, Walt. That’s the God’s honest truth. And ain’t no one been here to put in a new door since yesterday.”

    Walter didn’t know what to say. He looked at Dan, at the strawberry nose competing with the sky eyes. The nose suggested incipient dementia produced by a lifetime of heavy drinking. But the eyes were still skies: lucid. Could it be, Walter wondered, that the nose was gaining the upper hand over the eyes (to mix several anatomical metaphors)?

    “OK,” Walter finally managed. “What’s behind that door? Have you opened it?”

    “You see the sign on it, dontchya, son? Do not enter? You think I’m gonna open a phantom door that ain’t got no earthly business being down here, a door with a sign on it warning you not to open it?”

    “Well, look here, Dan, it doesn’t actually say, ‘Don’t open.’ It says, ‘Do not enter.’ I’ll open it for you and take a peek inside, without entering. How’d that be?” He was hoping Dan would say No. But instead he said: “Go ahead, Walt.”

    Walter walked up to the door and stopped, gazing down at the doorknob.

    “Maybe it’s locked,” Walter said hopefully. Suddenly he was dearly hoping it was locked.

    “Well, try the knob.”

    “All right.”

    Walter reached for the knob. His hand hovered over it for a moment. The knob was brass, and he saw a smeared reflection in.

    It wasn’t his.

    He closed his eyes, and after a moment opened them again and looked down.

    The reflection was gone.

    “Well?” Dan said.

    Walter sucked it up, grasped the doorknob, and slowly turned it.

    The door wasn’t locked. It was now ajar, pale light filtering out from the other side of it.

    Walter took a deep breath and then, with the palm of his hand laid on the door, he gently pushed it open. It swung slowly inward. Hot air wafted out of the secret room, like the breath of a blast furnace.

    Both men backed away from the door and the heat, but then craned their necks around and peered inside.

    A large map of the Middle East, dominated by Saudi Arabia — which was shaped, Walter thought, like a combat boot — hung on a wall. Under it was a table full of telephones in various states of disrepair.

    Both men instantly men paled.

    Dan said, in a near whisper: “You remember that unsolved murder last year at the Cedar Apartments, up on Mill Road?”

    “Course I do.”

    “They found his body under a map like that and a table full of phones just like that, Walt. They sure did.”

    “Yes. Yes they did.”

    “Jesus fuck, what is this, Walter?”

    “Close the damn door, Dan.”

    Dan closed it.

    “What do you say we get out of here, Dan?”

    “I’m for that, son.”

    “I think I need a gin and tonic.”

    “I think I need a whole battalion of whiskey.”

    They went back upstairs and drank for a long time in silence.

    “Maybe we should call the cops?” Dan finally said.

    “No,” Walter said emphatically.

    “Why not?”

    “Let me think about what to do. Just stay out of there. Got it?”

    “OK, Walt.”

    Afterward Walter drove home in his pickup. He had had one too many and he clung to the wheel, knuckles white. Occasionally he saw his eyes in the rear-view mirror. When he did, he looked away.

    When he got home Linda, his wife, was slovenly aslant on the couch, gobbling chocolate candies from a box and watching Fox News. Empty liquor bottles were scattered on the floor.

    “Turn that fucking shit down,” Walter said.

    “Go fuck yourself.” She was drunk.

    He went into the kitchen, took a carving knife from a drawer and briefly thought about running it up into his wife’s fat gut.

    Instead, he made himself a ham and cheese sandwich.

    After sobering up, he took a run back out to Down the Hatch. Then he took a run out to the river, and then to the bait and tackle shop that he owned by the river. There, he ran moist worms through his fingers.

    His cellphone rang.

    He cursed, dropped the worms, which writhed on a tabletop, and yanked his phone out of the breast pocket of his plaid shirt, the sleeves rolled up around his beefy forearms. One arm bore a tattoo of a triskelion, basically a spiral swastika missing a leg, and the other bore an American eagle clutching in its talons crossed bones. He had acquired the tattoos during his stint in the Persian Gulf war, where he had helped to mow down the sand niggers, many of them unarmed civilians. He had told Dan about the war. Only Dan.

    Sometimes he had wondered whether Dan knew too much.

    He expected that Linda was calling. Instead, he saw a number he did not recognize.

    “Hello?”

    “Your best friend drank up enough courage to open the door again, and walk inside,” said a thickly accented voice. “Unlike you, he’s got balls.” Then the other phone clicked off.

    Walter looked down agog at his phone, and then restored it to his shirt pocket. He stared down at the worms squirming on the table. They reminded him of writhing guts — writhing just like his were, now.

    He drove to a grocery store and got a shitload of alcohol and drove back to his bait and tackle shop and locked the door and pulled down the shades and drank until he passed out. He slept overnight at his shop.

    The next morning he didn’t go home. He drove over to Down the Hatch, which opened every day at 10 a.m. There was a different bartender, a slightly younger man, whom Walter had seen before, but only now and then. He was a fill-in.

    “Where’s Dan?”

    “No one knows. He didn’t show up for his shift this morning. Tried calling but no answer. We got someone running out to his house to check on him.”

    “All right —” Walter searched for the fill-in’s name, and finally found it — “Jack. Listen, Jack, can we go downstairs for a sec?”

    “What for?”

    “Dan had me down there yesterday, to help with some chore. I think I left a pack of smokes down there. You mind?”

    “No, not at all. C’mon.”

    They went down the hatch.

    The door was gone.

    Jack saw the look on Walter’s face.

    “Mister?” Jack said.

    Walter feigned looking around for his smokes. He didn’t even smoke.

    “Guess not,” he said with an elaborate shrug.

    They went back up. Walter walked ahead of Jack, so that Jack could not see his eyes.

    Walter went on a bender for a couple of days. When he sobered up he worked up the courage to check his cellphone, for the number of his mysterious caller. But the number was not stored, just as the door in Down the Hatch’s cellar was no longer there.

    He read the local rag. News of Dan’s disappearance dominated the headlines. There was no trace of him, and the police said they hadn’t a clue about what had happened to him. Foul play was suspected, of course, possibly by one of the many barflies Dan had 86’d in his illustrious career. They planned to dredge the river, the river that ran by Walter’s shop, for Dan’s body.

    One morning Walter was in his bait and tackle shop before sunup. Even though it was prime operating hours for the fisherman who patronized his place, he had locked the front door, pulled down the shades and hung the CLOSED sign in his door window. He was staring blankly down at a heap of worms writhing on a tabletop.

    When he popped the ring on another can of Bud he looked up and saw a door in the room that he had never seen before. A sign on it said, DO NOT ENTER.

    He stood up slowly, his eyes big. The can of Bud slipped from his hand and hit the floor with a clatter, the beer foaming out of it. He did not notice.

    He approached the door like a somnambulist.

    He tried the knob. It turned in his hand.

    He pushed the door ajar, and hot air gusted out.

    He peeked inside — just a peek.

    There was the map of the Middle East. There was the desk with the clutter on it.

    But there was something else.

    There was a mirror on a wall. It took him a moment to understand what he was seeing.

    Then he got it.

    Dan’s face was reflected in the mirror. … No — Dan wasn’t reflected in the mirror; he was in the mirror. Both hands were on the glass, fingers splayed, flanking a face with a horror-stricken expression. He was soundlessly mouthing words. Walter read Dan’s lips: Don’t. Don’t. Don’t do it.

    Walter slammed the door shut.

    I didn’t want to do it, he thought later. He was in another bar now, where he had never been, slumped over a gin and tonic. He was remembering, though he was trying not to remember. He struggled to escape his own thoughts like a mouse fighting to free itself from a glue trap.

    It was his fault, not mine.

    The stranger’s skin was too dark. I didn’t like his headwear, the turban he wore, his beard, his thick foreign accent, his whole attitude. He didn’t belong here, in my country. But I knew why he was here. He was going to build a bomb. That’s why he was here. That’s why they all come here. To blow shit up.

    He continued confessing to himself: After I met him I got drunk that night, and later found him again and followed him home, in my pickup. When I get drunk I get kind of bold. As he was closing the door I pushed it open and then I was alone with him in his little place at the Cedar Apartments. I saw the map of the Middle East on the wall and the desk full of bomb-making equipment.

    I lost my shit, honestly, it wasn’t my doing, I simply lost it. It could happen to anyone, flipping out like that. Maybe I had a flashback to the war. Yeah, that’s it. I’m not to blame. The flashback is to blame.

    Before leaving I took a closer look at the bomb-making equipment.

    They were actually telephones.

    The papers later said he was a telephone repairmen, a hard-working immigrant. He was saving up to bring his wife and kids over.

    But why? Why are you in my country? It’s my country, not yours. Why didn’t you stay in your own shithole country? If you had stayed in your own shithole country none of this would have happened. It’s your fault, yours, yours, yours!

    That night they had to peel him off the barroom floor.

    Over the next few days he saw doors everywhere, doors marked DO NOT ENTER. He did not open them. He stayed continuously drunk.

    One day his cellphone rang. He heard the thick accent.

    “Behind the door, where you friend Dan is now with us, lies the realm of الجن. Our الجن are different from the ghosts of your culture. الجن are not the spirits of the dead. Rather, they are supernatural entities that live parallel to humans, beings who are concealed from the human senses.”

    Once, at yet another bar, drunk as shit, he weaved toward the back to use the men’s room. But there was no men’s room. There was only a door on which there was a sign: DO NOT ENTER.

    He had consumed about twelve jinn (الجن)and tonics, and they had banished his fear. He boldly pushed open the door, and felt the gust of hot air. He walked inside with a swagger of inebriate confidence, and slammed the door shut behind him.

    They found him in the john with his fingers curled around his old service revolver. It was a real mess. They found Dan’s bloated, bullet-riddled corpse in the river.
     
  5. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Two Cigarettes and an Exorcism

    We were somewhere in Harlem, on the third floor of a brownstone apartment building, when the girl broke out of the chains and began speaking Latin. The girl’s mother started screaming in the corner. Maniacally, as if the Devil had got to her as well.

    “Punch the bitch!” I shouted to my assistant, Chuck. It was his first time, and I was impressed. His right hook busted a tooth out of the girl’s mouth. A born boxer. He examined his knuckles afterward. The punch had left them pink.

    “Jesus Chuck, I think you nearly knocked the spirit out of her as well,” I said and wiped the sweat off my forehead. The girl was knocked out dead on the bed. The mother vaulted across the room towards us and assaulted us with a certain violent conviction.

    “WHAT ARE YOU DOING. YOU’RE SUPPSOED TO HELP HER…” she screamed. I could only be grateful; they usually go for the weapons closet.

    I blocked her before she could disturb our process. She was about five-foot-four and although admittedly a bit feisty, I easily blocked her like some toddler throwing a tantrum. But the African genes had gifted her with long gorilla arms; she damn near knocked the cigarette out of my mouth.

    “But uh, we are helping her ma’am,” I told her. However, she was hysterical - as they come - and couldn’t be therapized. Not in this moment. So, I escorted her out of the room. Behind the door her hysteria was muffled, and in a primal attempt to communicate her discontent to us, she beat frantically on the door.

    “She’s coming back,” said Chuck, looking at the girl with big frightened eyes.

    “Alright, get the scripture,” I said and pulled my crucifix from my back pocket and held it to her forehead. It seared her skin, and her eyes turned red with blood - holes straight to Hell - and her skin became a pale green that oozed with yellow pus.

    “Where is it?” He stuttered.

    “In the suitcase of course,” I said. Amidst the incompetence, the girl had become strong with the might of Satan. Holding her down was now a sport.

    “IT’S LOCKED!” He said, as an embodiment of true and pure panic.

    These exorcism things are fickle: it’s a race between angels and demons, and in this moment the Devil was two laps ahead. But we were about to throw spikes on the road.

    “There’s a combination lock next to the handle.” I said. The girl was saying awful things. Awful, frightening things that were pertinent only to the deepest depths of hell. I tend to forget these things, especially when they’re spoken in backwards Latin.

    “I don’t, I don’t know the code!” Chuck said.

    “For the good Lord’s sake! It’s six…”

    “Yes?” He rolled the first wheel.

    “Six…”

    “Yeah, come on.”

    “Seven.”

    He rolled the last wheel and when it clicked, the suitcase jumped open.

    “Got it!”, he said and fetched the scroll and unrolled it, then scanned over it like some confused tourist reading a map.

    “Uh, uhm - in nomine Ecclesiae,” he read. “In nominee Jesu Christi …”

    “Come on, you’re not reading a bedtime story!” I said.

    “Give me a break! Ne cesses raptus est …”

    “You’re whispering. Say it like you mean it!”

    “…IN CORPORE SPIRITUS SANCTI, ET PUERI DEI …”

    “Oh lord,” I said and dropped the crucifix as it glowed red hot. The girl convulsed with all things wretched inside of her: hands from the underworld, trying to tear through her skin, like a portrait trying to tear through to the other side. It was time.

    “Get the vessel!” I said.

    “The vessel?” Chuck said, perplexed in the moment. “Oh right” He hurried over to the corner of the room and grabbed the burlap sack, which had stayed relatively still up and until the scripture was read.

    The beast had wakened.

    Chuck untied the sack and the cat jumped out. I’d found it yesterday, straying around my backyard picking at the patches of dirt. Brave fella. I call it Constantine.
    “Grab it by the neck!” I said. In our momentary fumble, the girl had escaped my grip and latched herself onto the ceiling with her claws, her head doing full revolutions.

    “Oh Jesus,” I said, and the demonic bitch dropped on top of me and vomited black gunk onto my face. Pieces flew out of the skin of her face as my fists beat against her cheeks. It was at times like these I regretted not settling as a preacher.

    “Now is no time to dilly-dally, Chuck!” I wrestled the girl over and pinned her to the floor with my knees and elbows. Chuck held the cat over the girl’s face like some perverted Egyptian ritual. And with mighty conviction I said:

    “Demon corpus relinquere navem intrare feci vobis!”

    A black mist of hellish screams arced from the girl’s eyes and into the cat’s. Chuck dropped the cat, and it contorted on the floor for some time, like some seizing spastic. The demons had left the girl. Her skin was now normal, and there was no sign of having been any violence. She seemed confused, lost for words, as if she had woken up in a stranger’s apartment after a drunken stupor.

    “Shouldn’t we go tell her mother?” said Chuck.

    “We can take a minute,” I said, still trying to catch my breath. I wiped a good chunk of the black gunk off my face and lit another cigarette. I breathed on it for about a minute.

    “Alright let’s go tell her,” I said. We went over to the door and opened it. The mother was about to throw another tantrum, until she saw her daughter on the floor.

    “Oh Fiona,” she said and ran over and hugged her.

    “Alright, Chuck. Let’s go.” I said and grabbed the cat under my arm. “Take the suitcase.”

    “That’s it?” He asked and picked up the suitcase.

    “Right about.” We made our way down through the apartment building.

    “So, what do we with the cat?” Chuck asked.

    “What do you mean?” I asked.

    “Mustn’t we get rid of it?”

    “Why? It has eight more rounds in it.”

    “Oh.”

    When we got outside the sun was still low in the sky. My car was parked behind two dumpsters. It was a black Cadillac Eldorado. We both got in.

    “So, what now?” asked Chuck.

    “Hang on kid,” I said and grabbed a paper bag from the backseat. “Here’s your cut.” He looked like a child on Christmas morning. It was a strange feeling: this was the first time an assistant had lasted this far.

    Then my cellphone rang. I believe the conversation went something like, “Uh yes, yes sir. I understand” I hung up and put it back in my pocket.

    “Well, buckle up, Chuck,” I said. “I guess we’re going to Missouri.” I started the engine, put the car in reverse and looked out of the rear window.

    “Who was that?” he said, looking up from the cash.

    “Oh, that? That was the boss.”
     
  6. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Place and purpose (2,565)

    Finding your place and purpose in the world is a challenge. Finding it in a world of rubble and ruin is a hardship. I still remember a time of peace, and safety, when you could walk the streets with a a smile and a clear conscience, when you didn’t have to justify trivial thoughts. I wish I couldn’t remember at all. Perhaps being born into a house of chaos is easier than watching your house yield to it. Tragic as it sounds, I envied the kids I saw in the streets today - smart, savvy, weary. War-born certainly seemed stronger than war-torn.

    Every now and then, strangers would visit. Out of nowhere, they’d descend in armour-plated trucks bringing food or medicine under the guise of aide, then just as quickly disappear, leaving people to fight over control of the rations. Foreign journalists would wade through the devastation in protective helmets and bullet-proof vests, while barefooted children ran across the shrapnel and splintered concrete beside them. Now I had new people to envy.

    Today, like most days, was about survival. An influx of people had moved into the shelled out blocks downtown, but we knew they weren’t coming here so much as running from somewhere else. I wanted to know why.

    Making my way through the backstreets, I saw the usual faces. My friend Fathi had already opened up for business, sitting on his wire-mesh chair beside a table full of everything from cigarettes to blankets - no food though, that caused too much trouble for him. The bullet holes in the corrugated iron above cast dots of morning sunlight down below, as if someone had ambushed him with flecks of white paint. He smiled as I passed, commenting on his quiet night’s sleep.

    “Such a rare gift, we should give thanks.”
    “We should.” I replied.
    “I’ve given mine already.” He beamed.
    “I’ll wait to see what the day brings.” I called back as I continued.

    Fathi: winner, conqueror. It was my uncle’s name too, but he left this world unable to do it justice. When I was a child he used to read me passages from western books. I remember he once told me that the real winners in life were not those who fought change, but those who adapted to it. But over the years, the idealism he instilled in me disintegrated; to adapt to tyranny is to lose, whether you survive or not. Here, now, when your life is at stake, it’s the fighters that win.

    Further toward the shelled towers, the roads turned from narrow nexus to wide open square. Here, the noise of bartering and bustle had already begun. Men crowded round the iron hotplates for their morning bread, money wavers at the front, those looking to negotiate at their heels. In the back rooms, women prepared dough and tended to the stoves. Kids dragged gas canisters from store to store looking to make their own bread money, and every now and then a man would lift one and weigh it up and down with a sceptical scowl. At the centre of the square, vegetables lay piled high, some sizzling in pans to the side, monitored by families of up to ten or twelve. Walking through all of this was like taking a morning swim, and never failed to jolt you awake.

    Someone called out to me as I reached the other side, and I turned to scan the sea of faces.

    “You don’t recognise me!” He laughed. I still couldn’t see him until he was at my face.
    “I did, I was just trying to ignore you.’ I smiled.
    “You’re cruel, but you’re right to smile - are you going down to greet the runaways?”
    “That’s right, you too?”
    “Of course, before they scatter. We should’ve come earlier.”
    “For what? Until now there were only women.”
    “And children…” He muttered.

    I shot him a hard stare, and we walked on in silence. It was moments like this that reminded me that Hadi was no longer just a friend.

    I’m not sure at what point my friends became my comrades, but I know it was the same time they also became my enemies. Resistance had been building behind dark corners for years, but until the first bombs dropped we had always seen them as agitators. Now, standing upon the ashes of our loved ones, there was no middle ground. If the only way to peace, was war, then the only question was what you wanted to die for. For some, like Hadi and I, who had lost our fathers in the incursions, the choice was clear. For others, who fell victim to the retaliations, the lines were more blurred. These people fled, knowing full well that the resistance wouldn’t tolerate anything short of allegiance. But, as some ran away, others arrived. Displacement isn’t just about exodus after all, it’s also about unity - far easier to change where you live than who you are, and through shared principles, comes shared protection. Young men were usually quick to offer themselves, fearless and reckless. For older men, all sides were equal, all brought destruction, death and demands, and if they fought for you, you could safely assume that their loyalty was only circumstantial. This is why resistance increasingly sought out children. The younger the recruit, the greater their devotion, and obedience. But I refused to ask a child to fight for me, it should be the other way around. If we forget what we’re fighting for now, it’s all lost.

    Hadi ran ahead to a group of fighters dressed in black combat gear, with AK-47s across their backs: our new militia. Across the road, men stood against the wall in a line, looking out with quiet apprehension: the runaways.

    “Did you tell them to line up?” I asked the group angrily.
    “No” one snorted, “guess they’re worried. You’ve got nothing to fear brothers!” He shouted across with a smirk.
    “Stop that.” I wanted to explain why, but didn’t see the point. Though most men joined the resistance for the cause, some sank into it too smoothly. This group were young, between 16 and 20, mostly Hadi’s friends that had arrived from the city years ago. But while their boisterous chest-beating was annoying, when bullets flew they stood strong, and I couldn’t fault them for that.
    “Do we know where they came from?”
    “Waiting for you bossman.” One replied mockingly.
    “Bossman…” Hadi sniggered and opened his mouth, but closed it again when he caught my eye.
    I walked across the road, the group followed.
    “Wait here a moment.”

    I approached the eldest, must have been about 50. In these situations, it was best to be clear and direct. I wouldn’t insult his intelligence by feigning warmth with a handgun strapped to my waist.

    “Where did you come from?”
    “The city.” He replied coldly.
    “Ok, what took you so long? Most drew a line at martial law.”
    “We’re not deserters. I only leave my home if I’m forced out.”
    “And who forced you out?”
    He paused. I knew resistance fighters had been advancing at the city limits recently but was unsure of their current positions.
    “Men with guns.” He said eventually. I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t here to make enemies, regardless if he considered himself one or not.
    “How many of you are there?”
    “Maybe 60, maybe a hundred if more make it. We don’t want trouble here, we only want shelter. We can cook, and-”
    “Shelter you’ve found.” I interrupted, nodding back to the crumbling tower block. He shifted his feet. I knew he meant protection.
    “Some need medical help.”
    “I’ll send a doctor down to you.” Now, we were negotiating.
    “We have money.” Or perhaps not…
    “Spend your money on food.”
    “We will pay our way.”
    “Yeah, well money isn’t the only currency here, my friend.” I was never good at dancing around the obvious for too long. “Information will get you more than cash.”
    “I have no information.”
    “The army runs the city, you know nothing of what was happening beyond your doorstep?” He didn’t respond. “Were you forced out by resistance or army?”
    “Both of them!” He yelled angrily “Bombs, guns, falling buildings, those are my enemies. Danger is my enemy.”
    I reflected on this for a moment. I didn’t believe in middle ground, but if it existed in this war, it was a strata of grief and loss. I gazed at the younger men to his right. They stood aloof, arms folded, their eyes filled with exhaustion and frustration.
    “You.” I nodded toward them. “What did you do in the city.”
    “They were tradesmen.” the old man interjected, “Carpenters, electricians.”
    “Any of them know how to handle a gun?”
    “We don’t play with guns! Like some…” He receded into the shadow slightly as my group advanced forward. I turned to raise a hand and they stopped again.
    “You’re all the same!” One of the younger boys burst out. “You all wave your guns for causes, kill for causes. What about the people? You don’t fight to end the war,” he went on as the elder tried to calm him, “you enjoy the war, you want the war! Why don’t you go to the city if you like it so much. Cowards!”
    “Shut your mouth!” Hadi marched forward with the rest.
    The men huddled together and back up against the wall. Women appeared at the doorways with their hands at their chest and tears at their eyes.
    “Hadi!” I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him in close. “Go up to the square and get a doctor.”
    “Are you kidding?”
    “Do I look like it?” The rest of the group glowered, on the boil, guns levied. Idle soldiers are dangerous. “The rest of you take up a perimeter of the building and keep your eyes open.” They dispersed tentatively, looking back every few yards.

    When they were gone, I turned back to the elder man and spoke softly.

    “When my father died, I didn’t swear to avenge him, I swore not to go out the same way. He didn’t die fighting, he didn’t die spying or smuggling. He died for nothing. When the SA dropped bombs here, they didn’t drop them on barracks or factories, they dropped them on hospitals, schools, markets. Ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives. People that didn’t take sides. At least when I die, I’ll die for something, and my mother will have the peace to know I deserved it.”
    “Death is not inevitable.” He protested, voice wavering.
    I smiled. “My father was an optimist too.” With that, I faced the younger boys again, who looked sheepishly to the ground, then I backed off and headed back up to square.

    As I walked round the corner, I saw Hadi sitting on a wall in the shade, talking to a familiar face.

    “Zahran.” I called up. Zah wasn’t just my superior, he was also a close friend. He’d been steadily climbing rank among the resistance for years, all too happy to leave home and trail the battlefronts wherever needed. Half brave, half foolish, or maybe double of each.
    “Hadi tells me we have new runaways.”
    “Yes, and I told Hadi to get a doctor to them.” I said staring at him, but he refused to meet my gaze.
    “Do you hear this?” He looked to Zah. “We don’t know who they are, they could be sympathetic to the republic.” Zahran smiled with all his teeth and patted Hadi on the back hard, forcing him to his feet.
    “And who are you sympathetic to? No one I’m sure.” His smile faded. “Now do as you’re told.”
    Hadi’s face stiffened at the sting of subordination and he dragged himself up the road in a sulk.
    “There are too many boys here and not enough men.” I said once he’d left sight.
    “Hadi ages with you.”
    “That’s not what I meant. When you pull all the true fighters to the front line, all you're left with is boys… and dead men.” Zah laughed at this and grabbed my shoulders, guiding me through a doorway in the wall.

    Inside was a dusty hall decorated with combat boots and bullet shells. Dens were always changing to avoid detection, two weeks ago this was textile shop, now the backrooms were packed with old phones, radios and ammunition. In one room, young kids sat on the floor in front of a large oil-stained coffee table, fiddling with various wires, cables, circuits and panels, each busy with their own specific, though indiscernible task. I didn’t ask, and hoped they were just making repairs.

    “Doctors for runaways.” Zah repeated, lighting a cigarette as he lowered himself into a chair by the table. I joined him on the opposite side.
    “Fear only convinces the fainthearted. We don’t need fainthearted fighters. Kindness wins loyalty.”
    “But loyalty doesn’t win wars. Numbers do.”
    “Is there something I should know?” Zah previously sided with me on showing compassion for runaways. We’d both experienced the horrors that pushed people to flee their homes; ‘resisting' wasn’t for everyone. He took a long draw of his cigarette and met my eye.
    “You’re right, we’re losing men. They have technology, and better weapons. I thought we could just hold off until support came. But support isn’t coming.” I followed Zah’s drifting gaze to an old sun-bleached map on the wall. Rumours ebbed and flowed around incoming support from the Levant, and even from the west. True or not, at the very least the rumours had served to buoy hope, until now.
    “So we pull back to the towns and outposts, go dark.”

    The shop owner’s wife brought us tea and food, and I stirred in my seat with guilt. Zah stayed still as a statue, and continued to stare into the map, until finally he broke off and reached forward to flick at the ashtray. I had to admire such an unnecessary pay of respect, in light of the mess that surrounded us.

    “I have an opportunity, to leave. You should join me.”
    “What?”
    “I can’t share much with you, but you can trust me, this is a good way out.”
    “Out of where? The country? You’re asking me to run away?” I snorted at the irony.
    “Not run from, run to. Join a cause worth fighting for. The war is over, we can’t win here. But there’s still hope to resist beyond the border.”
    It was all I could do to remain in my chair. “Worth fighting for…” I seethed, “what about our people? Aren’t they worth fighting for?”
    “Are they worth dying for? Because that’s the choice we have to make now!”

    I bit my tongue. As much as I wanted to storm out the door, I stayed. I thought about everything I stood for, and against, and everyone. I thought about my family, my neighbours, my friends, even the runaways. I wanted to scream ‘Yes’, but couldn’t. I replayed what I said to the old man in my head. ‘At least when I die, I’ll die for something.’ As I thought, I looked down to the floor, and at the young boys joyfully building munitions like toys. At that moment, my mind and heart aligned, and made the decision for me.

    Perhaps the old man was right, maybe death wasn’t inevitable. I hoped he was right.
     
  7. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Afternoon Tea (1200)

    Reverend Jacob Sanders sat behind his desk in the parish office. On his right, he had an old telephone. It was a relic from the time before plastic was invented. The weight of the handset alone was that of a minor dumbbell. Although it was still fully functional, something inside it had given up. The ringtone was more of a small buzz than the clear ring it had in its youth.

    Through the door on the left, Jacob could see that his assistant Maria had laid some afternoon tea in the library. A tray with cups and a porcelain teapot stood on the small table between the comfortable armchairs. He could not see them, but he was sure there were also some cookies and small sandwiches. There was always something extra when he had visitors. He was waiting for his oldest friend, Lucas Armiger. They had been in school together when they were just boys. While Jacob had become a man of the church Lucas had started his career as a teacher at the university.

    Jacob was thinking about next week’s sermon. He planned to talk about the Decalogue, but he had to find ways to set it in the modern world. There were so many things in the bible that had to be interpreted in order to be applicable today. No one had a donkey these days, and most people wouldn't recognize an oil lamp if they saw one.

    There was a knock on the door, and Maria announced that his visitor had arrived. When Jacob raised from his desk to welcome his guest the telephone buzzed. Jacob smiled at Lucas and pointed at the library door.

    “Be seated. I will try to make this short.”

    Lucas entered the library and heard Jacob’s voice through the open door.

    “Arnold Brucker? I saw the obituary, but he wasn’t one of my sheep.”

    “No idea. You will have to try the Westbrook parish.”

    There was a small thud as Jacob laid down the handset. When he sat down in the library, Lucas had already started on the cookies.

    “Where were we? It's so nice to have you here. We do this too seldom,” said Jacob.

    “Is this just a social meeting or are you in need of my help?”

    “I just wanted to see you, but as you are here you might give me some input for my sermon next week.”

    “I see, you are going to talk about the problems you have when translating nineteenth-century French poetry.”

    “Not really, I will talk about the ten commandments. In a more modern vesture.”

    “To bad, I just wrote an essay on classical French poets.”

    “I am sure it's an interesting subject but this is about the commandments. Some of the explanations are outdated. Think about: Thou shalt not steal. In the explanations, it's all about physical things. There is nothing about immaterial rights.”

    “Downloading films and music you mean?”

    “Yes, and it has even reached the church. I was at an ecumenical meeting last month. Two of the participants almost started fighting. One of them accused the other of stealing his sermon similes.”

    Lucas laughed and almost dropped his teacup.

    “Was it a sacred simile?”

    “No, it was very mundane, about a trolley.”

    “You are kidding me!”

    “No, I looked it up. This man has an interest group where he publishes his sermons. It was from there the simile had been ‘stolen’.”

    “What had he said?”

    “Life is like a streetcar; the power comes from above.”

    “Are you going to give that as an example?”

    “I don't think so, but maybe you have some modern examples of theft?”

    Lucas was silent only a few seconds.

    “Theft of parking slots! Just this morning I was trying to find a place to park outside our local mall. Every slot was occupied. I circled around and saw this lady stuffing all her purchases into her car. I drove to the side to let her out, but then some jerk just overtakes me and sneaks into my slot. I was really mad, and the guy only smirked at me.”

    “Maybe he didn't understand that you were waiting,” said Jacob.

    “Like hell, sorry, he knew exactly what he was doing. I think it should be considered a major sin.”

    “So you think I should say something about that, give it as an example?”

    “Yes. Thou shalt not steal thy neighbor's parking slot.”

    A low buzz was heard from Jacobs office.

    “Sorry but I have to take this. Have some more cookies. Maria is upset every time there is something left of her baking.”

    Lucas heard the one-sided conversation.

    “Tart?”

    “Something is very wrong with your information. Never heard a bad word about her. Rarely missed a church service.”

    “But she used to bake a fantastic lemon-tart each year for the summer feast. Someone has made a huge mistake. Miss Marion was such a nice lady. When she died I immediately had four of her neighbors that volunteered to take care of her cats.”

    This time there was a louder thud from the handset. When Jacob was back in his armchair, he sighed.

    “That was just God calling again. Usually it's his assistant Peter that calls, but they must be very busy. There have been calls all morning. To me, it looks like their IT system is messed up. You could think they should know everything about cloud computing up there, but maybe they have outsourced.”

    “I am not sure the sacred world blends well with computers. Some of my theological colleagues think they are a figment of the devil,” said Lucas.

    “Don't even talk about it. We have had a manual system here for years. Maria used to have a ledger and sharp pencils. Never a problem. But then we were computerized. Three weeks ago we had a double booking for a funeral. Someone had misspelled the name of a deceased, and the system had handled it as a single funeral. It was a miracle that Maria visited the churchyard on Saturday to put some flowers on her grandmother’s grave. She noticed there was only one grave prepared.”

    “So you managed to handle the situation then?”

    “At first we thought we might put them in the same grave, but Maria strongly dissuaded. She had known one of them and said that we had to spare the other deceased. The man Maria knew was famous for his unending gabble and babble. It could wake up dead, she said.”

    “That's not the kind of neighbor you want when you finally are resting peacefully,” said Lucas.

    “No, so we had to depart from the sabbath commandment and let the churchyard caretaker use the backhoe to dig another grave early Sunday morning.”

    “Everyone would understand it was an emergency situation. I am sure you did the right thing.”

    Jacob poured himself some more tea and leaned back in his armchair when the phone buzzed. As he prepared himself to get out if the chair he glanced at his wristwatch and smiled.

    “It's after office hours. They will have to call tomorrow.”

    “But, won't they try to reach you on your mobile phone?”

    "No, I never give my number to just anybody.”
     
  8. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Seavey Street Blues (~4200 words)



    The office was above a meatpacking warehouse on the corner of Seavey Street and Amherst. Miriam made coffee while she watched the trucks idling below her, filling the loading docks with puffs of Freon and the steady reek of diesel. There were flowers on the table next to the coffee pot. Aside from her desk, it was the only piece of furniture in the room.

    “Thank you for calling Seavey Street Packing,” Miriam said when the red phone rang at 8:01. “How can I help you?”

    “Uh, yeah, hi, this is Gracie’s Bistro calling… I need to add ten pounds of chicken breast and four pork loins to my order.”

    “Okay.” Miriam jotted the order on the red pad. “I’ll get that out to you this afternoon. Have a great day!”

    The note went into the outbox on the corner of her desk. Something crashed on the pavement outside. She looked down and saw an overturned dolly with a miscellany of gizzards and chicken parts spilled across the curb. The packers gathered around it and screamed at each other in Spanish. They saw her looking at them and immediately shut up.

    Next she answered the blue phone. “Roger’s Television Repair. How can I help you?”

    “Hi, I need -- “ paper rustled on the other end. “I need an antennae for a Magnavox Touch Tone Color. Model number 5020.”

    “Just a moment, please.” Miriam pulled the blue notepad from her desk. Numbers were scrawled on the back cover in her careful handwriting. They changed every week. “What color is your set?”

    “Color? Um, I’m not sure.”

    Miriam hung up the phone and made a note on her blue pad: Part out of stock. Investigate and reorder immediately.

    Nobody called for a few minutes. She watered the flowers on the table and checked the alley across Seavey Street. The Monte Carlo was parked there again—cherry red with tinted windows and a supercharger piercing the hood. The driver was looking up at her from beneath the rim of his Kangol.

    Hola, Bodega Manny,” she said, still watching the Monte Carlo when she answered the green phone. Silence. “Digame.”

    Miriam could hear somebody breathing on the other end. And something else moving. Like a chair across a tiled floor. She waited another few seconds before she hung up, unplugged the green phone, and affixed a note to it written on a piece of masking tape: Out of order. Please replace.

    -------

    Later the Korean kid brought her lunch in a brown paper bag and took all the memos from her outbox. There were at least two dozen now. It never stopped. People had desires. Worse, they had needs.

    Miriam placed the chicken salad sandwich and iced tea on her desk and removed the piece of cardboard from the bottom of the bag. Beneath it were three envelopes fastened with thick elastic bands. She put one in her pocketbook and the other two next to the Sig Sauer P220 in the top drawer of her desk. She hadn’t fired it in years but cleaned it once a month. Just in case.

    The yellow phone rang—a woman selling magazine subscriptions. Three for the price of one. How could she refuse? Miriam couldn’t. She ordered six subscriptions and hung up the phone. One of the packers came into the office and replaced the green phone with a newer, shiner green phone. There’d be a new number connected to it now. Miriam didn’t know any of the numbers. Or who exactly was calling on the other end because, well, you couldn’t be too careful these days.

    Later a horn honked. She looked back out the window to see the Monte Carlo gone. A squad car from the 26th Precinct was parked in the alley instead. Miriam saw the hat of a shift lieutenant behind the wheel. She rolled her eyes, swapped the red roses in the vase for the yellow carnations, and placed them on the window sill where they would be visible from the street.

    The lieutenant came up to the office a few minutes later. Miriam took a few more calls while he waited. He didn’t interrupt her—fifty-four hundred dollars a week would do that to a man. Even those who were used to getting their own way.

    She pulled one of the two remaining envelopes from her drawer, held it out to him, but pulled it back when he reached for it.

    “Those putos came by again today,” she said. “I’m tired of seeing them outside my window.”

    The lieutenant nodded. “I’ll take care of it.”

    Miriam stared at him a moment longer. You could measure any man by the way his eyes drifted, by the way his hand hesitated in the air, reaching but not reaching, his fingers twitching as if looking for someplace to scratch. And once you knew where their itch was, you had them for good. It made her smile, and she made sure he saw it before she handed him the envelope.

    The lieutenant squared his hat and left. Miriam lit another cigarette and watched him pull his cruiser up Seavey, his taillights disappearing amongst the packers and fiends, the dumpsters stuffed with dead infants, the streets paved with gold.

    ------

    Miriam was getting ready to leave when the red phone rang at 4:58. “Seavey Street Packing. This is—“

    “Miriam Salazar?”

    Miriam didn’t recognize the voice. “I’m sorry, I think you have the—“

    “Don’t hang up on me, jefa. I have someone who’d like to speak to you.”

    Something bumped on the other end. Like the phone had been dropped. Or maybe it was being handed off, but that wasn’t quite right either. She’d heard just about everything a person could hear over a phone, but this was different. And then a voice she recognized spoke.

    “Grandma?”

    “Pablito?” Miriam’s finger froze on the cradle switch. “Where are you?”

    “I don’t know. I was walking home for school and this big van pulled up and—“

    The phone moved again and that other voice returned: “Are you listening to me now?”

    Miriam’s blood turned to ice but she didn’t blanch or cry out. She didn’t do anything for a moment. One of the other phones rang. It sounded as if it was happening three blocks away.

    “I’m listening,” she said.

    “Good. I want you to clear your outbox. Remove all your memos and burn them. Do it now.”

    Miriam tore the memos into strips, placed them in the ashtray and dropped a match on top of them. Acrid smoke filled the office as she watched them crinkle and die.

    “Now take out your green pad. Write Ristorante Vicente needs twenty pounds of tenderloin and ten pounds of rib-eye.”

    Miriam did, the numbers and letters sloping back as if they might fall over. “You understand what this means, don’t you?”

    The owner of the voice on the other end of the phone smiled. She could actually hear his lips parting across his teeth. And the way the saliva sloshed about the corners of his mouth. She memorized the sound. And the voice, picturing the face and the mouth and what his severed cock would look like drooping from the corner of it.

    “We all understand everything completely, abuela. Ristorante Vicente. Twenty tenderloin and ten rib-eye.”

    “Give me a moment.” No panic yet. It was business. Always business. Until it wasn’t. “I’ll have to check the stock.”

    “Check it all you want. You have until midnight tonight. I don’t have to tell you what happens at twelve-oh-one.”

    Click.

    She stood there with the phone in her hand until the off-the-hook tone chimed senselessly into her ear. Her fingers fumbled across the desk for her cigarettes. Why hadn’t somebody been watching him? Miriam’s son, Pablito’s father, was long dead. Shot on Bedrosian Avenue in 1977. That had been tough, but it was business too. There were actions and there were consequences, older than time itself. But Pablito? Pablito was only nine. And his mother was a useless junkie cunt. None of those things was Pablito’s fault yet, but the world didn’t care much about that.

    It took her a moment to notice the Korean kid standing in the door again with his backpack open, ready to accept the afternoon delivery slips.

    “Nothing today,” she told him. “There’s a problem with the trucks. Come by early tomorrow and we’ll drop off then.”

    “What about the one in your hand?”

    “Oh, this?” Miriam looked at the order she’d just taken for Ristorante Vicente, crumpled it, and tossed it into the trashcan. “Wrong number.”

    He nodded and left. She opened her desk drawer and placed the pistol in her purse. She was still looking at it when Andreas, her driver, appeared at the door.

    “They took my grandson.” Her voice was remarkably level. “They took Pablito?”

    Andreas didn’t even blink. “Who did?”

    “I don’t know.” She looked out the window. The Monte Carlo still hadn’t returned. “But I have a good idea.”

    “What do they want?”

    “You know what they want.”

    Andreas shrugged. It was the most appropriate of possible gestures. “You can’t—“

    “I know.”

    She could have made a call but Medellín wasn’t in the habit of giving away free steaks. It just wasn’t a part of the business model. Pablito and anyone else she knew would end up in an oil drum full of acid if she did what they wanted. Andreas must have been thinking the same thing. He was as loyal as the next good doggie, but he was there to intercede if he sensed she was about to do something crazy. That was part of his job, too.

    “Get a truck ready.” A tuft of ash landed on her desk. She poked at it while she thought. “Load it with tofu… twenty and ten for Ristorante Vicente but don’t send it out yet.”

    He nodded. “And then what?”

    Miriam looked over her phones. And then at the flowers sitting in the window, the ones she changed around to signal the cops, packers, and freaks milling about the warehouse. It was 5:14. Pablito had about seven hours. Maybe less. Certainly no time for subtleties.

    “Give our blue friend a call.” She zippered the pistol into her purse. “And then bring the car around.”

    -------

    The sun was dipping below the river when they reached the docks and parked the Bronco in a vacant lot beneath the overpass. Miriam had Andreas leave the engine running while she sat in the back, listening to the river lap against the concrete quays while she waited, trying not to think about Pablito and how everything had turned out wrong.

    “He’s not coming,” Luis said, a Tec-9 with an extended magazine and folded wire stock on his lap.

    “He’ll be here.” Of that, Miriam had no doubt. Again, once you had them, you had them forever.

    Sure enough, headlights soon pooled around the bridge stanchions, lighting up their Bronco, hesitating a bit before the lieutenant pulled his cruiser the rest of the way into the lot. He didn’t turn the engine off either, or appear as if he had any intention of getting out of the car. There would be another unit somewhere nearby. Probably parked at the bottom of the parkway or across the street from the old rubber plant.

    “Stay here,” she said, opening the door and walking up to the cruiser. Her hips ached something awful but she refused to use a cane. The doctor had wanted to replace them for years, but she never expected to live this long.

    “I came as soon as I could,” the lieutenant said after rolling down the window. “In the future, I think it would be better if you didn’t—“

    “We need your car.”

    “—try to contact me at the—“ He cocked an eyebrow at her. “What did you say?”

    “You heard me. Your car… now.”

    The lieutenant looked at her a moment longer and then turned his head forward, peering over the wheel and occasionally glancing up as if he was waiting for a traffic light to change. And in a lot of ways, that was exactly what was happening right now. Things moved forward until they didn’t. And sometimes you could turn left or right when the conditions fit, but other times you had no choice but to stay the course.

    “You can’t take—“

    “I can,” she said. “And I am.”

    “You don’t get to threaten me.”

    Miriam sighed. “I don’t need to threaten you. Now get out of the fucking car, lieutenant. Tell them it was stolen or lost or hijacked by Iranians. I really don’t care.”

    She opened the door for him. His hand had been on the butt of his service revolver the entire time. She could see him thinking about it, but he had a wife and two kids and Miriam knew where they ate and slept and the numbers on their Little League uniforms. Davey was turning into a heck of a third basemen. He could make the throw across the diamond flatfooted when he had to.

    “You’re going to have to tie me up or something,” he said. “You can’t leave me exposed like this. I’m no good to you in the slammer. You have to make it look convincing.

    “Don’t worry.” Miriam smiled and motioned for Luis to join them. “We will.”

    -----

    Andreas and Luis already had police uniforms with all the correct accessories. They’d used them before, mainly for raids, but this was the first time she remembered stealing a police cruiser. That made her smile too. She was far too old to be monkeying around in the streets like this, but she’d been cooped up in her office for too long and people had forgotten to fear her.

    It didn’t take them long to locate the Monte Carlo. The owner's crew had only a few corners around Wayland Avenue and wasn’t particularly known for keeping a low profile. All they had to do was follow the ghetto music thrumming through the low-rises like the funeral dirge it was. And then wait for the Monte Carlo to turn down a quiet side street. The rest happened quickly. They used the cruiser to pull the car over and then Luis blew the passenger’s brains clear across the front seat and out the driver side window. He preferred a shotgun for jobs up close but Miriam had him use a pistol to keep all the Monte Carlo’s windows intact.

    Removing the driver was simple after that. They drove him and all the vehicles back to Seavey Street, tied him to a chair, and made him watch while they ran his partner’s body through the 72 inch band saw they used to butcher rib eyes. They dumped the pieces into a waiting oil drum. Except for his head. Miriam had them bag up what was left of it and place it in the cooler so they could drop it off on the corner of Wayland and Charles later.

    She smoked while she watched the driver struggle against the binds. His name was Deshaun Washington and he lived at 1825 Rueben Street, apartment 248C according to his license. Six-foot-one, one hundred eighty-five pounds, and an organ donor, which was about to become irrelevant.

    It was 8:43 when his turn came. There was a pile of cigarette butts at Miriam’s feet with teeth marks gnawed half way through the filters.

    “Where is he?” she said.

    Deshaun Washington screamed something into his gag. She let him do it for a bit, then patiently asked him again. More screaming. Miriam nodded to Andreas. He came up behind him, dropped a plastic bag over his head, and tightened it around his throat. The screaming stopped. His head whipped back against the chair and his feet drummed against the floor. It didn’t take much. Just enough to reinforce the necessity of air. Take it away and then give it back. In her experience, you often didn’t need to go much further than that.

    Luis removed the bag and Deshaun Washington’s nostrils flared at the cool warehouse air. He groaned something. Miriam gestured to remove the gag.

    “Where is he… where’s my grandson?”

    “Water,” he said, gasping. “Water.”

    They gave him water, tipping it up into his lips, watching it dribble down his chin. He’d pissed himself somewhere in the process. It was a common misconception that this was a man’s game.

    “One last time.”

    “Wayland Avenue,” he said. “The apartment above the bodega. Third floor, unit B. Please… I had nothing to do with it. I was just the lookout.”

    “Yeah? Right above your spot? That’s creative.” Miriam sighed, picked his wallet up from the floor, and turned it over a few times in her hands. There was blood on it. Likely from the seats of the Monte Carlo. “So who put you up to it? Who gave you my codes?”

    He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

    Miriam nodded and Andreas choked him again. Harder this time. Luis punched him in the nose. Blood filled the bag. His head whipped around like he was being electrocuted. Miriam watched his eyes grow. Watched them realize what not having air meant. Maybe twenty seconds left. She counted to fifteen and had Luis remove the bag. The chair stopped moving. Deshaun Washington sagged into his restraints, his chin sinking all the way to his sternum. He didn’t move for a while but Miriam was in no hurry. Pablito was probably dead but everyone was born dying anyway.

    “Who gave you my codes?” She slapped him across the face. “Who told you where to find Pablito?”

    He wheezed across the warehouse. Probably a crushed windpipe.

    “We don’t have time for this,” Andreas said.

    “I know.” Miriam pulled the Sig Sauer from her purse, flicked the safety, and shot Deshaun Washington in the face. The chair fell backwards. One of the packers started the bandsaw.

    _____


    They were familiar with the Bodega on Wayland Avenue and the crew that operated there. It was amateur night. Trucks were much better. Trucks moved around and were easy to sell, repaint, demo, or reregister under different names. And they made executing search warrants and proving conspiracy difficult. Why shouldn’t a meatpacking truck be spotted here, there, and everywhere else in town? That was what they were supposed to do.

    But a store? It just sat there waiting to be raided.

    It was 9:46 when they pulled the Monte Carlo up to the door that led to the apartments upstairs. The Wayland crew only had one man on the door, and he came right up to the Monte Carlo when he saw it. Luis rolled the tinted window down and slipped his shotgun beneath the lookout’s chin. Then he opened the door with his knee and guided the lookout toward the door.

    “Open it,” Luis said.

    “Fuck you.”

    “Open it.” Luis pushed his face into the brick wall with the shotgun. “We’re going upstairs.”

    The lookout pulled his keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. Luis ripped it open and smashed the back of his head with the stock of the shotgun. The lookout fell to the pavement and they went up the stairs, Andreas and his Tec-9 in the lead, Luis and Miriam behind him with another two packers, Guillermo and Joe, covering the rear. She shouldn’t have been out here with them. This was a bad idea, but it had been a very bad day.

    Apartment 3B was right by the staircase. Luis blew the lock out and kicked the door in. Smoke filled the hallway. Somebody screamed inside. Luis fired and they stopped. The apartment reeked of cigarettes. And bacon. Somebody must have been cooking. Another one sat on the couch just inside the door. Two more shots and he died in his underwear with a Nintendo controller in his hand. Miriam was right behind them, moving like she hadn’t in a long time, the gun in her hand as she headed for a door in the corner of the living room.

    The door was locked. Andreas threw his shoulder into it and the door flew open and bounced off the wall inside. Pablito was sitting on the edge of the bed with his hands over his face. There was a McDonald’s bag on the nightstand beside him. He hadn’t touched it. Something moved in the corner and a man grabbed Pablito around the shoulders and pulled him off the bed. He placed a revolver to his head and stood there in the middle of the room.

    “Drop it,” he said and Miriam recognized the voice. Mexican, probably, the hand holding Pablito layered deep with bracelets, a tattoo of a weeping Jesus snaking up his right arm. “Come on, jefa. Don’t push me.”

    And then the sound of Andreas’s Tec-9 lighting up the room, the shells falling across the bedspread. The Mexican fell back with have his face missing and took Pablito with him. He still had his school uniform on. Miriam fell to the ground and scooped him into her arms.

    “Grandma?”

    “Hi, baby.” Miriam kissed his forehead, nose, and cheeks, tasting the puto’s blood on him. “Are you okay?”

    He nodded, scared shitless but keeping his wits about him. Tough like she was. Like Pablo had been, even if he’d inherited his mother’s gringa look.

    “Come on.” Andreas took her by the shoulder and herded them back into the living room. Luis had another two homeys laid out on the floor with their hands over their heads. Not much older than kids, but old enough to know better. Miriam covered Pablito’s eyes and nodded. Luis shot them both. Pablito screamed at the noise.

    Doors were opening from the other apartments when they reached the hallway. Andreas loosed a few rounds into the plaster. The doors shut quickly. More screaming and yelling and maybe a fire alarm or something blaring on one of the lower floors as they ran down the stairs. The packers still had the street doors covered with the Monte Carlo and the Bronco parked on the curb. Miriam could hear the sirens coming down Crescent Avenue behind them, six blocks away heading south, about to round across Pearl and end up on Wayland in front to them.

    “Back up!” she screamed when they piled into the Bronco. Her and Pablito in the back, Luis in the passenger seat, and Guillermo behind the wheel. He gunned it in reverse, whipped the wheel around, hopped another curb, and then they were flying the wrong way down Pearl. She’d lost sight of Andreas in the Monte Carlo. More sirens. And the flashing lights reflected across the storefronts behind them.

    “Keep your head down,” she told Pablito, who was shaking now. The shit never ended. No matter what she did to keep him away from it, she knew one day it would find him.

    They took the side streets toward the warehouse. They’d have to ditch both cars. And all their hardware. She had a cousin who ran a chop shop uptown, but they couldn’t risk heading up there now.

    “We have to get you out of here,” she said, cradling his head in her lap. “You need to get out of the city.”

    “No!” he said. “I want to stay with you!”

    “Shhh, Pablito. You’re going to stay with Auntie tonight. You’ll be safe there.”

    But that was a lie. Everything was a lie. Luis was already glancing over the bench seat at her with his Glock held loosely in his hand. She’d had a feeling growing all night but didn’t know until right then. Somebody had given the Wayland boys her numbers and codes. There was no way they could have come up with that on their own. And they hadn’t asked for money. They wanted product, and those darkies couldn’t move anywhere near that much weight.

    “Just let me put him on the train,” she said. “You don’t need him anymore.”

    Miriam’s eyes pleaded with him but Luis only shook his head. She looked to Guillermo but he keep his eyes on the road, passing the warehouse without slowing, heading toward the river, the city alive but blissfully subdued.

    “So where’s Andreas?”

    Luis shook his head. “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

    Miriam nodded. Luis had always been a disappointment, but was smarter of the two. At least Andreas hadn’t been in on it. That would really have broken her heart.

    “You were supposed to deliver the truck,” he said. “That was all you had to do.”

    She laughed. “You didn’t really think I would do that, did you?”

    “I would have been much easier if you did.”

    Luis nodded to Guillermo. He pulled them down a quiet alley near the sewage treatment plant. Machinery clanked in the background. Pablito tried to look up but Miriam kept his head in her lap. What a way to go out.

    “They’ll never work with you,” Miriam said. “Richardo, Constantino… nobody down there will consign you so much as a dime.”

    “I wouldn’t worry about that. There’s plenty of meat to go around.” He raised his gun and turned toward Guillermo. “Turn up the radio. It’s going to be loud.”
     
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