James Babbs

The Man With the Gun

You open the door and step into the hallway where the man with the gun turns to look at you. He looks familiar as if you’ve seen him somewhere before but you can’t quite remember the place or the time. The man with the gun laughs showing his teeth before pointing the gun in your direction. Hey, he says. Don’t move. And you just stand there, watching him, wondering what he’s going to do next.

You notice the sunlight falling through the only window in the hallway and how it makes a rectangle of light on the opposite wall. You imagine it’s not just a rectangle of light but a hole in the wall through which you could escape if you were only capable of moving quickly enough. Maybe it’s not just a rectangle of light or merely a hole in the wall but some kind of portal pulling you into another dimension. Maybe it takes you all the way back to your childhood and the gray house on the corner.

You remember riding your bike into the front yard and dropping it in the grass before running inside. The sound of your father’s voice after he got home telling you to go out and put your bike away and you remember what happened if you ever forgot. You burst through the front door and the house looks the same as the last time you were there and you start to call for your mother but the man with the gun suddenly grabs your arm pulling you toward him and tearing you away from your thoughts.  

Come on, he says. Let’s go. And you wonder if you should try to resist him but there’s nowhere to go inside the hallway. Where are we going? You ask and the man with the gun squeezes your arm and laughs. Wherever I say, he says.

He drags you down the hallway and out through the door bursting into the sunlight and you feel it warm all over your face. Where’s your car? The man with the gun says and you point to the parking lot in front of the building. The red one you tell him. He pulls you over to the car and you wonder if there’s anyone behind one of the curtained windows in any of the buildings witnessing what’s happening to you. Open it he says.

The man with the gun pulls you around to the driver’s side door before pushing you into the car.  For a moment you wonder if you have time to jump out through the passenger’s side but the man with the gun is already there, pointing the gun at you. The gun is less than a foot from your head so you don’t move. You stay where you are and wait for more instructions.

You drive through the city streets passing people here and there and they don’t pay any attention to you.  You feel the man with the gun watching you but you don’t look at him. He tells you which way to turn and you just keep driving. You drive out of the city and get on the interstate. You travel for about an hour while the man with the gun doesn’t say anything at all.  

Then the man with the gun points at the windshield telling you to take the next exit. You read the name on the sign and you have a strange feeling inside. You know this town. It’s the town where you grew up. The town you left behind so many years ago.  

The man with the gun tells you where to turn and how far to go and when he points to a house and says pull in here you can’t help but exclaim. I know this place. I used to live here.

Good for you says the man with the gun. Why are we stopping here you ask him. Shut up, says the man with the gun.

The man with the gun shoves the gun at you and tells you to get out. Nice and slow he says. He gets out of the car. The yard around the house doesn’t look much different from the way you remember it. Maybe there are a few more flowers around the sidewalk leading to the front door. Maybe there are some different trees but you still recognize the place and you’re filled with the strangest of feelings.

The man with the gun stays close behind you. He walks you to the back door and you enter the house remembering this is where the laundry room was when you were growing up. You see a washer and dryer and a small sink in one corner of the room. You imagine your mother standing over the washing machine pushing dirty clothes into the opening. 

The man with the gun pushes you into the kitchen and it looks the same way you remember it and you can almost smell bread baking. The man with the gun guides you to the stairway at the far end of the kitchen. 

The man with the gun tells you to go up the stairs. That’s where my room was you say aloud and the man with the gun thrusts the gun at you and says Go! The sound of your feet on the stairs reminds you of your father’s footsteps. Your feet on the stairs remind you of the way your father’s steps sounded when he made his way up to your room. His footsteps so heavy and so slow.

At the top of the stairs you see a window without a curtain but there’s a metal curtain rod above the window. It’s the same window you used to look out of so many years ago. There’s a glass angel with a broken wing dangling from the curtain rod. The angel catches the sun and dances in the light. You try to remember who it was that put the angel there but the name doesn’t come to you. The man with the gun points you away from the window and into the other room to the left of it.

This was my bedroom you tell him but the man with the gun just snorts as if he’s trying not to laugh. The man with the gun tells you to open the closet door. How do you know about that you ask him and it almost sounds like a chuckle escaping from his throat. You feel your father’s rough hands touching your arms again. You feel your father forcing you into the closet and shutting the door again. You hear your father locking the door as you slide down into the darkness of the closet. You don’t know how long it will be this time. You never know how long it will last.

The man with the gun raises his arm and aims the gun at you. You see the hole in the end of the barrel. You think about the small cave in the side of a hill you once crawled into when you were just a little boy. You don’t know what made you crawl into the cave or why you stayed in there for so long even when you heard the voices calling your name. The man with the gun fires two times and you fall backwards against the wall and you feel your breath catching in your throat. You feel something warm moving over you and then you can’t stop shivering. You hear the sound of your mother’s voice calling up to you from the bottom of the stairs. You better get down here and eat she says or it’s going to get cold.

Judge Santiago Burdon

God Might Be A Woman

I never could’ve imagined I’d be where I am at this moment, about to subject myself to this bizarre esoteric ritual. Yet here I am, deep in the Colombian rainforest near Buenavista Putumayo, a short distance from the border of Peru. The jungle is serene with a calm ambience, causing me to feel somewhat uncomfortable. Whenever it seems too quiet, too tranquil, one can easily let their guard down. In my experience, it’s often a sign that something is about to go wrong.

At times like this, I always take extra precautions, so of course I have to question what I’m doing here with Johnny Rico, my partner in pandemonium. He seems a bit apprehensive to participate in this Inga Indian ritual himself, which I find strangely out of character for him. Usually any event of considerable risk with unfavourable odds, sure to result in an ill-fated end, is a custom-made scenario for him to dive into.

Johnny’s nervousness has caught me off guard, especially considering this expedition was originally his own idea. Some woman he’d been involved with had challenged his machismo, announcing to a crowded bar that he didn’t have the cojones to take part in the ceremony. Naturally, this was all it took to provoke him into it, but not until he’d roped me in with him as well.

We’re waiting on the shaman (a.ka. brujo or ayahuasquero) to return from foraging for the chacruna and Banisteriopsis caapi used to brew up the ayahuasca, or yagé, a psychedelic potion used by the indigenous people of the Amazon. Its potency as an hallucinogen is said to be intense.

“Bigotes,” Johnny says, “come with to the pulpería to get some more beer. All we have is water, toilet paper, marijuana and cigarettes.” 

“Johnny, what happened to the six pack I bought this morning on the drive here?” 

“It got drinked carnal. You had some didn’t you?” 

“Oh sure. I drank one fucking beer and of course you drank the other five.” 

“They was getting warm. I had to drink them.” 

“I really don’t think you should be drinking right now,” I attempt to dissuade him. “You’re going to get high enough from the yagé and probably even vomit, get diarrhea and who knows what else.” I know there’s no reasoning with him but I continue. “We were told to purge and not to eat or drink anything beforehand.”

“Just a couple of beers, Bigotes. I must have to relax, I’m a little nervous, and I don’t want to go by myself.” 

“Rico, stop with your bullshit. With all the shit we’ve been through together, the narrow escapes, cheating death, staring the devil straight in the face, I’ve never seen you nervous. Except for once, when you had to go to the dentist for a broken tooth and you passed out in the waiting room. You were more than nervous, you were terrified.”

“See, why you have to remember that story? You know la dentista loves to give people pain. They scare me very much, sí. But then you make me watch that movie with running guy where Nazi man drill and pull his teeth. I don’t remember name of movie.”

“Oh ya, Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman, great movie.”

Johnny gives me a punch in my arm and smiles.

“You are never to tell no one that story ever! You understand Bigotes?”

“Johnny, it’s already an entry in my book that I’m going to write someday.”

“Please Bigotes, let us go get some more beers.”

I give in to his request and we start back down the path along the Putumayo River. It’s a two kilometer trek to the pueblo where the bus had originally dropped us off. There’s only one large building and it serves as a multi-purpose grocery store, clothing outlet, liquor store, pharmacy, clinic, and post office. It even has a hall in back where church services and other social events are held.

A group of locals are gathered outside as we approach, and Johnny barges his way through to the beer cooler without apologies.  

Looking completely out of place are two gringos, standing there appearing confused. 

“Hey, excuse me!” the blond kid hollers at me. “Do you speak English?” 

“Yes I’m fluent in English. I was born in Chicago. Why, don’t you speak Spanish?” 

“No, not very well.” 

“You mean to tell me you travel to Colombia then into the jungle and don’t speak Spanish? So what travel brochure recommended you take on such an expedition?”

“Ya I know, it’s pretty stupid to not speak the local lingo, but we thought we would be able to get by. Do you know anything about the yagé ceremony and if we might be able to get in on it? My name is Jordy and my friend here is Cal. We’re from Provo Utah but we’re not Mormons.”

“Hey Jordy, Cal, I’m Santiago. Do you always mention you’re not Mormons after declaring you’re from Utah? It seems a bit contrite. Anyways, I’ll be heading back to the shaman’s shack. It’s a mile and a half hike through the jungle. I’m just waiting for my friend to return from inside the store.”

Just then, Johnny runs up grinning without having purchased anything. “Bigotes, they have the mezcal you like as your favorite! I’m going to buy it for you. We can drink it after the ceremony. I need to borrow some money. Can you lend me one hundred thousand pesos?” 

“Buy for me with my money? Of course. Just hurry up, it’s going to get dark soon and I don’t want to be hiking through the jungle at night.”

I hand him some pesos and he runs back inside the pulpería.

“What have you brought as payment to the ayahuasquero?” I ask the Provo Pilgrims. “You can’t just offer up money immediately, it would be considered rude and a display of disrespect.”

“We thought we would pay him whatever he charged. We didn’t know there were rules. What did you give him?”

“We, well rightfully I, gave him an African bead necklace, a pair of Nike shoes that were a bit large but seemed to satisfy him, and a Swiss Army knife. After that, we offered him abut thirty dollars in pesos each. You guys can do your own bargaining. I’m not going to get involved.”

“Okay Bigotes,” Johnny announces upon his return. “We are ready to be going now. I get some candy for us too.”

“What the hell are you doing?” I holler as he tugs at my backpack.

“I am putting the beer and mezcal in your pack.”

“Here, you carry it,” I say while taking it off and pushing it at him. 

“Okay Bigotes, why you so much mad and holler? I will pay you back the money.”

“Johnny, we’ve known one another for what, eight, nine years? During that time you have never paid me back any of the money I’ve lent you! Come to think about it, the first time we met in prison, you asked to borrow some bananas and four Ramen soups which you never paid back. There’s no way you could ever even pay me back the interest on that.”

“So what is with these gringos?” he asks, conveniently changing the subject. “They’re not coming with us! We don’t even know these muchachos. Who are you guys?” he says, turning his attention to the Provo Pilgrims.

“I’m Jordy, this is my friend Cal. Santiago offered to help us get to the shaman’s place for the yagé ceremony. Hope it’s okay with you, Johnny. That’s your name, right?”

“Ya my name is Johnny. Your friend with you, he doesn’t talk?”

“Cal is low key. He’s not the talkative type.”

“Let’s go, children,” I finally interject, “before it gets dark and the mosquitoes come out looking for supper. You coming, Rico?”

“Claro, carnal.”

As we start back down there trail, there’s a loud thunderclap overhead with a crackling flash of lightning. And here I was hoping we wouldn’t be hampered by a rain storm. In the rainforest, it doesn’t just drizzle after all. It begins as a deluge, as if the sky itself were sliced open, pouring forth a tsunami-like wave of rain all at once. 

Luckily, the dark clouds drift past over a ridge without pissing a drop on us. I consider it a positive omen, a sign that all is well and shall be.

“Hey Jordy,” I holler back over my shoulder. “What do they call a person who speaks three languages?”

“I don’t know,” he replies, “what are they called?”

“They’re called trilingual. What do they call a person who speaks two languages?”

“I get it, bilingual, right?” Cal finally speaks up.

“Welcome to the group, Cal. Yes, bilingual is correct. What do they call a person who speaks only one language?” 

“Not sure Santiago. What do they call him?”

“An American!”

 This gets a laugh out of the group, chuckling as we hike along.

“Bigotes, it is a funny joke,” Johnny says. “Did you just invent it?”

“No, it’s an old joke someone told me years ago, when I was in Italy.”

As we draw closer to the brujo’s shack, it smells like someone’s out there burning tires. The brujo has begun to cook up the yagé over an open fire. He’s using an oil drum cut in half as a cooking pot. He smiles and motions for us to sit on the tree trunks surrounding the fire. He has an assistant with him by the name of Carmen. She looks to be sixty or so, with a warm smile and a twinkle in her eyes.

As expected, Jordy and Cal look to me for some type of guidance as to how to approach the ayahuasquero.

“Brujo, I found these two wandering about the village, and they asked if they could share in the ceremony. Is it okay with you?”

“What did they bring as an offering in exchange?”

“Well boys, he wants to know what you brought him as a gift for taking part in the ceremony. What do you have? And don’t start pulling out money. Save it for last.”

“All I have is my watch, a personal progress medallion, and my New Zealand Mission ring,” Cal reluctantly answers.

“For a guy that isn’t Mormon, you sure have quite a bit of LDS jewelry. And how about you Jordy? Is there anything you would like to gift the shaman? He’s sizing you guys up.”

“Here’s my own watch and medallion. Give it to him.”

“It’s your gift to give, not mine. You both give him the items, and after he has evaluated their value, then pay him with forty dollars each. Be respectful and considerate.”

“Okay, thanks Santiago.”

Both of them reluctantly hand over their gifts. The brujo holds them up to examine them, shaking his head in disapproval.

“What’s going on Santiago?” Jordy asks. “Did we do something wrong?”

“Settle down kids, he’s just evaluating your gifts. Relax.”

The brujo asks me to tell them he needs something more to seal the deal. 

“Okay rookies, now pay the man and smile. Act as though you’re sure of yourselves.”

He accepts the Provo Pilgrims’ payments then informs us that the yagé will be ready in about half an hour. Carmen nods her head in agreement, stoking the fire below with a stick.

Finally, a more serene atmosphere fills the air. It’s beginning to get dark as the night stretches its black canopy across the sky. The stars like silver glitter sparkle and flicker while poking holes through heaven’s inky cloak. 

“Bigotes, where did you put the mota (marijuana)?” Johnny asks. “I can’t find it in this backpack with a thousand pockets and zippers.”

“Why must I always be the one to keep track of your shit, pendejo? Think, Johnny. I’m aware it may be a difficult concept for you to grasp, but who had the mota last?”

“You are very much gruñón (grumpy) today. But you always find answers to problems. I remember now, it is in my raincoat pocket. Si mon, here it is!” he declares. “Thanks Bigotes, I will roll a porro (joint) for us okay? Ojala (hopefully) I have sábanas (rolling papers)? Para seguro yo los tengo!” (For sure I have them!) 

Pacified for now, Johnny whistles happily while he rolls a joint.

“Hey, are you guys going to speak Spanish the whole time?” Jordy asks. “We don’t understand and would appreciate knowing what’s going on.” Cal nods silently in agreement.

“First of all,” I reply, “what would you Provo Pilgrims have done if you hadn’t run into us? Secondly, not to be rude, but I’m not responsible to entertain you LDS lads out here. Lastly, you introduced yourselves on pretense you weren’t Mormons. You lied to me, which I find offensive. You assumed I was a bigot. As it turns out, it is you who is the bigot. If you knew me, you would discover I have no animosity toward anyone because of their religion. Just don’t preach your gospel to me! Now that we’ve got that issue out of the way, I believe an apology is in order.”

“You’re right Santiago,” Jordy says. “I’m sorry I misled you.”

“Not misled. Lied!’ 

“Okay, I lied. It won’t happen again. We truly appreciate your help. I apologize.”

“Me too,” Cal adds.

“If I may ask you a question without being intrusive, what is your reason for partaking in this ritual? Have either of you ever used psychedelic drugs before, or even smoked marijuana? It’s really none of my concern, I’m just curious why two young innocent lads are interested in this ritual.”

Jordy looks at Cal before responding.

“No, we have never done drugs,” Cal says. “I got drunk once on Peppermint Schnapps when I was like fourteen.” 

“I haven’t ever done drugs either,” Jordy says. “Our reason for doing this… promise you won’t laugh or ridicule us?”

“I give you my word.”

“We have read almost everything written about yagé. We’ve done extensive research and have heard that some people have a spiritual experience during the ceremony. Well, we want to know if there is a God. We’re hoping to get an answer or find him, or for him to find us during the ceremony.”

Cal looks to Jordy for validation, then they both look back at me, waiting for my reaction.

“Let me tell you Provo Pilgrims something. That has got to be the most rational and sincere explanation for participating in this ritual I’ve ever heard. I wish you both all the best, hoping you find what you’re looking for. During your research, did you happen to come across any mention of the Beat writers having taken part in the ritual?”

“Ya but I’m not really familiar with those guys.”

“William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg wrote a book together about their experience, The Yage Letters. You guys might want to check it out.”

“Cool, thanks for not making fun of us.”

It is then that the brujo motions for us to follow him inside the hut. 

“Here we go children, may the cosmos, or the Gods be accepting of our visit into their realm.”

There are a few mattresses on the floor, two hammocks, candles, a couple of lanterns and a large table in the center of the hut with the legs cut short so it is close to the floor. There’s also six or so large pails and he hands one to each of us, explaining they are to be used for vomit and/or diarrhea. Then, with a serious expression, he points toward the mattresses and hammocks, saying once you are in your place, you must stay there. No wandering around. If you need something, ask, and he or Carmen will get it for us. He directs us to sit around the table as the twinkle eyed Carmen enters with a caldron of steaming yagé. 

I explain everything in English to Jordy and Cal.

“Ask him why we aren’t allowed to walk around?” Jordy suggests.

“No I won’t! This is his ceremony, and he is the ayahuasquero, so it’s his circus and he’s the ringmaster.”

The brujo shushes my diatribe with a finger to his lips. He explains we should be silent, calm, and become at peace with ourselves. 

He pours the murky concoction into several glasses that have been cut from the bottoms of beer bottles. He then begins chanting in a language I’m not familiar with and spreading smoke all around us, burning what I assume to be is sage. Carmen begins singing softly with a beautiful voice. The lyrics describe a young girl that has left her home to search for answers about life and so on, and so on.

The brujo gestures for us to drink, moving his hand back and forth to his mouth.

“I’m not sure about this Santiago,” Jordy says. “Are you confident everything is going to be okay?”

“Fuck no! I’m not promising anything, but the uncertainty is the best part of the trip. Listen, I want it understood by everyone right now, I am not your guide, your coach, your lifeline or your babysitter. Don’t burden me with your doubts, your fears, or anything requiring me to assist you with making sense of your reality. I’m here to enjoy the experience myself. Do you understand?” 

“Sorry Santiago,” Jordy says. “Just feeling a little unsure and frightened I guess.”

“I don’t know about this,” Cal adds. “I’ve heard people have died from drinking this shit, but…”

Still in mid sentence, he snatches up the yagé and slams it down in one huge gulp.

“I have to say that was unexpected,” I comment.

“Figured if I drank it, Jordy would have to do it too.”

And then, right on cue, Jordy slams his own yagé as well.

Having seen the boys through, I turn my attention to Johnny.

“You heard what I told them?” I ask. “It applies to you as well.”

“Why you need to be so much a mean person? We are friends that take care of each other.”

“I’m glad you see it that way. When do you start taking care of me?”

“Salud Bigotes,” he says, tapping my glass with his. “You are more than family. I’m lucky to have someone like you for my friend.” 

We both pour the concoction down our throats. I start to gag a bit from the earthy taste of it, like wood, dirt, and leaves all mixed together with the consistency of 30-weight oil. It was as though I were drinking the very jungle itself.

“Bigotes, that tasted horrible… It was like my sister’s cooking! Well, talvez (maybe) a little better. She is not a good cook. You remember?”

“Yes, I do.”

I give my carnal a fist bump as he comes in to give me a hug. 

“We will be fine, you think Bigotes?”

“Yes my carnal, we will be fine. Enjoy yourself, Johnny. I’m here if you need me.” 

Meanwhile, Jordy and Cal retire to their mattresses near the door, and I take one of the hammocks in the back of the hut.

I close my eyes, telling myself to relax. The brujo sits in the middle of the room, chanting and spreading more sage smoke with some kind of large, colorful feathers.

I estimate thirty, maybe forty-five minutes have passed before I begin to feel the effects of the yagé taking control of my body, commanding my senses to submit, persuading my soul to accept its divine intervention. I was no longer a part of the life I had lived before.

I opened my eyes to get an idea of how everyone else was doing. Knowing my condition, I imagined the others were starting to experience the same intense reactions themselves.

Johnny was on a mattress staring up at the ceiling, rocking back and forth while whispering what sounded like lyrics to a Colombian church hymn. I later found out it was a Doobie Brother’s song, “Jesus Is Just Alright” translated into Spanish with incorrect lyrics.

“Johnny, are you doing alright? How do you feel?”

“Santiago, do you believe in living after you die? I just visited the place we go. I’m fine, but I think I am about to vomit.”

He can barely grab his bucket before he’s throwing up all the beer he’d consumed earlier.

I turn my head to look at the Provo Pilgrims, lying motionless on their mattresses side by side. 

“Cal, Jordy, you two keeping it together over there?”

Jordy slowly turns his head and mumbles incoherently. 

“Santiago,” Cal says, “this is more than l ever could’ve imagined. I’m doing all I can to hold on, but it’s a losing battle. I keep seeing a naked woman walking around. Do you think maybe God is a woman? Have you seen her?” 

“I’m seeing my family standing in a circle around me,” Jordy whispers. “My grandparents and my brother, my father, Aunt Jocelyn. They all died years ago. This is a strange experience. But I’m not afraid anymore.”

“Enjoy yourselves,” I tell them as I turn away.

I lie back in the hammock, feeling something like a warm, soft breeze now blowing on my neck. I turn around to see what could possibly be causing this most peculiar sensation.

And there I was, face to face with a panther, standing no more than a few inches before me. It glared at me with its yellow eyes for maybe ten seconds before it began purring, sounding more like a deep, guttural growl. It bared its fangs for a moment and licked its whiskered lips. And then, just as I thought it was about to have me for dinner, it slowly turned and walked away, heading back out into the jungle.

Really feeling the yagé now, l told myself it was just a vision, although I’ve never been quite sure.

That’s when Cal and Jordy both begin vomiting as well. Between the two of them, it’s almost like a scene from The Exorcist.

Meanwhile, I’d begun to sweat profusely, rivulets cascading down my face. It wasn’t long before I too saw the spectral form of a naked woman, beckoning to me with outstretched arms. I wrestle with the web-like hammock, finally freeing myself from its grasp. But just as I’ve managed to get up, I’m overwhelmed by the stench of shit and vomit. 

I feel a warm sensation in my shorts. Brown liquid running down my legs. There’s no way to stop myself from shitting. The smell makes me retch so hard that I too begin puking.

Carmen runs up to me with the pail and places it on the floor in front of me.

I tell the brujo I must go outside to clean myself. He gives me permission, adding that I shouldn’t go far. Cal and Jordy ask why I have permission to go outside. I show them my legs and feet, which are now covered in shit, prompting them to recoil in disgust.

Before I leave, I look back to see how Johnny is faring. He appears to be totally immersed in the yagé, still whispering and rocking back and forth.

“Johnny, I just shit myself. I’m going outside to clean up. Back in a few minutes.”

He doesn’t respond. Carmen motions me forth, a bucket in one hand a lantern in the other.

Once outside, the jungle begins a conversation with me. I can hear the leaves whisper and the movement of every insect. An unkindness of ravens fly just overhead, squawking their evening greetings. Red howler monkeys emit their throaty screams, bidding all a good night.

Carmen taps me on the shoulder, waking me from my trance. She tells me to walk to the river’s edge, where she will wash me off with buckets of water. I follow her through the thick foliage toward the river. She stops just short of the water, pushing me back with her hand on my chest.

“Cuidado, hay cocodrilos en el río.” (Careful, there are crocodiles in the river.)

There’s a few large sticks propped up nearby, apparently for the warding off of crocodiles. She hands me the bucket and grabs a stick. Raising the lantern high above her head, she starts slapping at the ground while slowly walking forward.

“Carmen, don’t you think there’s a better way to get to the river than having to slap at crocodiles with a stick. I’m not so sure…”

“Cállate bebé, sé lo que estoy haciendo.” (Shut up you baby, I know what I’m doing.)

After beating the foliage with her stick and throwing several large rocks in the river, so as to spook any potential predators, she motions for me to come forward, ordering me to stand in the river before her. I do as she says and she fills the bucket with water, pouring it down the back of my shorts. I’m thinking it would be much easier just to take my clothes off and dip into the river to get myself clean.

As she repeats the action again, I take off my shorts and throw them on the shore along with my shirt, standing naked in only my sandals. I wander out a bit deeper, sitting down to let the Putumayo River wash away all my filth. The strong current felt extremely relaxing, as though I were in nature’s jacuzzi, being massaged by a million tiny hands.

There’s a seventy-five cent moon smiling down on me, large enough to light up the night, reflecting back off of the river. I look down and notice that I now am sporting an enormous erection. 

Meanwhile, Carmen has begun screaming at me from the riverbank.

“¿Adónde vas? (Where are you going?) Estás siendo arrastrado por el río, vuelve aquí! (You’re being swept away by the river, come back here!) Hay pirañas en el profundo!” (There are piranhas in the deep!)

“What???”

It is then I realize I’m being carried down the river. Carmen is running along the bank, screaming at me, but I can hardly hear anything she’s saying, the sounds of the rushing water drowning her out.

I can only make out one word, “pirañas”, which she repeats over and over again while frantically waving her arms.

By this point, I’m now in the rapids, the current tossing me against boulders and the occasional tree limb.

Wait a minute, I realize in a moment of lucidity, after rapids there is usually a waterfall. Yet there I was, naked, tripping on yagé, being washed down a river and possibly to my imminent demise.

What was that I’d heard Carmen screaming? Something about piranhas? The Putumayo is a tributary of the Amazon, and I’m sure there are piranhas in there.

Fuck the waterfall, I’ll most likely be eaten alive before I even get close to the waterfall, either that or crocodiles may savagely rip me apart!

“Santiago, you must fight for your life,” I hear a strange woman’s voice calling to me. “Get out of the river now!”

“I’m trying but the current is too strong!”

The riverbank rushes past as I flail about helplessly. A fallen log suddenly appears before of me, and with my last bit of strength I am able to grab onto it. Kicking with my feet and paddling with one arm, I fight the river’s force as I struggle back towards the riverbank.

“You can’t kill me!” I scream to the heavens. “Many before have tried and failed. You’re not taking me yet!”

Abruptly I am hit with a beam of light, then another, and another. Flashlights?

“Identify yourself!” a voice demands from somewhere in the darkness.

“Santiago, from the United States,” I manage to sputter, still clinging to my log for dear life. “Please, help me out of here!”

Between the lights on the riverbank, I catch a glimpse of the spectral naked woman I’d seen earlier, back in the hut. Once again, she beckons to me with outstretched arms. I doubt I’ve strength enough to make it to her on my own, but somehow I can feel a gentle force now pushing me along. I can’t help but wonder if I’m experiencing a divine intervention of some kind.

Next thing I know, two guys with AK-47s slung over their shoulders are fishing me out of the water. A lantern is lit, illuminating soldiers on the riverbank. An uproar of laughter breaks out among them, echoing through the night without pause. Damn I was high, with no idea of how long I was in the river or where I even was.

“What’s so fucking funny?” I ask the group in English.

“Where are your clothes?” a soldier interrogates in Spanish. “What are you doing in the river at night? Where are you from?”

Another soldier throws a sarape over my shoulders as the laughter finally dies down. They begin talking amongst themselves, apparently unaware that I understood what they were saying.

An officer adorned with gold epaulettes and a red beret approaches me, speaking very poor English.

“Do you speak Spanish?” he asks. “What is why you is here now?”

“Yes, I speak Spanish. I was with the ayahuasquero, el brujo. I drank some yagé and went into the river to clean myself. Then the river sucked me up and took me away.”

There came a break in the traffic of my mind, long enough to discern this group now surrounding me. Based on their uniforms, I quickly surmised they weren’t the Colombian military but FARC guerrillas, a revolutionary group opposing the current government.

I overheard a couple of soldiers discussing the possibility I may be a spy. Then I heard what I really didn’t want to hear.

“We should take the crazy gringo prisoner and hold him for ransom. Maybe his family will pay a lot of money for this crazy pendejo. What do you think, Capitán?”

“Cuál es tu nombre?” (What is your name?), the officer asks.

“My name is Santiago, from Tucson, Arizona,” I tell him. “I am here for the yagé ceremony only. If you are thinking about taking me hostage for ransom, let me tell you: There’s no one I know who will pay a single peso in exchange for my freedom. Although some of them may offer a small sum for you to hang on to me instead.”

The officer laughs as he extends me his hand.

“I’m Captain Arturo Batista of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Santiago.”

“The pleasure is mine, Captain.”

“I don’t think you’re a spy, because no spy would risk his life in a river full of crocodiles and piranhas, doing so naked on top of it. I’m surprised you are alive. Did you know there’s a 30-meter (90-foot) waterfall just half a kilometer down the river? I believe you when you say no one will pay a ransom for you, because you are so stupid. We know where el brujo lives. I will have my men return you there on one condition. You must not say anything about meeting us here. Do I have your word?”

“Captain, you have my word. I do have one question, though. Did you happen to see a naked woman on the riverbank before I was pulled out of the water?”

“No, there was no one else here. You are seeing a yagé spirit in your mind that is not real. Go with God’s blessing. I can’t believe you are not dead, you should be more careful. Nos vemos, Santiago.”

He smiles and salutes in farewell.

“Thank you for your help. Nos vemos, Captain.”

He points to two soldiers and orders them to escort me back to the brujo’s shack.

It’s pitch black out by this point, darker than I can ever recall the night being. I remember how the moon had shone so brightly before, earlier in the evening.

“Con permiso, muchachos,” I ask politely. “How far is the brujo’s place? And by any chance did you bring a flashlight? It’s very dark and I can’t see where I’m going.”

The taller of the two walking behind me answers.

“It is maybe four kilometers. We have a flashlight but we only use it in an emergency. We don’t want to be found by Colombian military. You will be okay, we know where we are going.”

For the first time, I take a closer look at my escorts, noticing they can’t be more than fourteen years old. Along the way, the boy soldiers practice their karate on invisible enemies, mimicking famous actors, grunting dramatically as though they were in a movie. I found it quite funny but didn’t dare show my amusement. I wasn’t sure if they’d get angry, and I didn’t want to push my luck.

Meanwhile, the yagé was finally beginning to lose its potency. I was still having hallucinations, however, seeing all manner of things in my peripheral vision along the jungle path. The moon had once again returned to the night sky, lighting our way through the darkness.

As we get closer to the shack, I hear a voice calling from somewhere in the jungle. The soldier boys grab me and push me into the underbrush, ordering me to remain quiet. I hear the voice once again, closer this time, as the muchachos ready their AKs. 

“Santiago, adónde está? (where are you?)” the voice echoed through the night. “Santi, answer me!”

“You are Santiago, right?” the tall boy asks. “Do you know who is calling for you?”

“I think it’s my friend Johnny. He must be out there looking for me.”

“Are you sure?”

The voice called for me again, and this time I was sure it was Johnny. Before too long, we could see the light of his lantern up ahead. I wanted to call out to him, but the boys both shook their heads no.

“You better be dead if I find you,” Johnny screams, “because if not I am going to kill you twice! No, three times!”

Glancing back over at the riverbank, I saw the woman once again, the moonlight illuminating her naked body. This time I felt as though she was bestowing a blessing upon me. It wasn’t a religious experience, more of an evolution of cosmic consciousness. I wasn’t the same person I was yesterday. 

“Santiago, you go tell your friend shut up,” one of the boys orders. “Be quiet!”

“Okay, thanks for your help.”

I look back over at the riverbank one last time, finding the woman now gone. A feeling of vague sadness washes over me, though I am grateful to have reached the end of my ordeal.

“Johnny, you’ve got to stop screaming,” I say as I emerge from the underbrush. “You’re waking up the dead!” 

“Who said that? Santiago, is that you?”

I step into the light of his lantern and Johnny rushes up to me, hugs me and starts sobbing uncontrollably.

“I thought for sure you were dead, Bigotes. The old witch lady said you were taken by the river. She told us there were crocodiles, piranhas and a waterfall. She was crying and not making sense, so I didn’t know what to do. I waited for some time and then decided to search for you. I took a lantern and started walking down the path by the river. Then something very strange happened. A panther walked up next to me, he stared at my eyes and I could hear him talk inside my head. He said to follow him, he would take me to where you are. So I follow him for a long while until just before you jump out on me. Did you see him too?”

“My trusted friend, I have seen more than I am able to describe right now. Thanks for coming for me, Johnny. But now that you’ve found me, you can stop crying now.”

“Santi, you are naked with no clothes, why?” 

“I’ll tell you later. Right now, we need to get back to the shack. Something’s up and I don’t want to be caught in the middle of it. Come on now, let’s go.”  

When we arrive back at the brujo’s place, I see my clothes hanging on a wire line near the fire. I pull them down and put them on all clean and warm. We walk inside together and the brujo breaks out in a huge grin, starts singing and dancing around. Carmen runs over crying, hugging me with incredible strength before slapping me in the face and giving me a sharp reprimand. I notice the Provo Pilgrims are still lying right where I’d left them, appearing sound asleep on their mattresses. 

“Johnny, how long have I been missing in action? It doesn’t seem to have been a very long time.” 

“Santiago, you were gone a long while. You went missing maybe 9:00, then I go to look for you at 11:30. I couldn’t come sooner because I was very fucked up still.

“What time do you think it is now?”

“I have no watch, el brujo has two or three watches.”

I walk over to the brujo, who is still performing his celebratory rites. It takes a minute to get his attention, but when I do, he immediately reaches into his leather bag, retrieving three watches. He hands them all to me and continues his dance, repeating the word “milagro” (miracle), slapping me with palm leaves and wafting that damn smoke in my face.

As I checked all three watches, I noticed one was not working, while the other two both read 2:20. I couldn’t have been gone that long. It had seemed to be such a short while, no more than maybe an hour or so. Where the hell was I? Where did I go? That’s five whole hours I was unable to account for.

“Santiago, I have to tell you about my time in yagé land. It was something so scary and beautiful at the same time.”

“Johnny, it’s not that I’m uninterested in your experience, it’s just that I’m exhausted and need something to eat and drink first. Hopefully you didn’t drink all the water. I need to relax, get my thoughts together, make some kind of sense out of what just happened.”

He looks at me with an expression of disappointment upon his incredibly dirty face.

“Johnny, for now I just want to let you know how much I appreciate that you came looking for me. Thank you, my friend.”

I grabbed a bottle of water I’d hidden in one of the backpack’s pockets, found a mattress near the back of the hut, and drifted off into a much-needed sleep. It wasn’t long before I was awakened, however, hearing what sounded like gunfire nearby. It wasn’t just a few shots, but repeated automatic gunfire. There had to be a battle taking place and not too far from where we were.

“Johnny, did you hear that gunfire just now?”

He cups a hand to his ear and listens with demonstrated interest. 

“Yes I hear it, Santi. Do you think it is gunfire? Maybe it is fireworks for a celebration.”

“At 3:00 in the morning? I don’t think so, there’s a battle going on right now. It’s the FARC guerrillas and Colombian military, I’m almost sure.”

The brujo hears the commotion as well, listening from the entrance of the hut. He becomes even more animated than before, crying “viva la revolución!” as he resumes his celebrations once more. He tells us that the Putumayo military base is not far away, and he thinks it is being attacked by FARC revolutionaries.

I don’t have the energy to concern myself with revolution. I keep my word, saying nothing about my encounter with the rebels before. Instead I close my eyes and drift back off to sleep, the sounds of gunfire serving as my lullaby.

As I lie dreaming, events of the night’s saga replay again inside my mind. The panther. The river. The moon. But the one part of my odyssey I keep coming back to was the beautiful naked woman who’d guided me back to safety. 

God just might be a woman!

Joseph Farley

Side Effects

No one likes a needle.

No one.

Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

When the Co-Vid 19 vaccine came out I was skeptical.  I saw various reports on the news and read more on the internet. There were legitimate questions about how fast it had been developed and how it had been rolled out.  There were credible reports of side effects. Flu like symptoms for a few days seemed common, especially after the second shot. A small percentage of people experienced hemorrhaging. Some deaths had been reported. There were also less credible reports, gossip really, about a myriad of other possible complications.

I weighed the facts. What were the risks to myself and those I loved? What were the potential benefits?  Not just to myself, but for others. Getting vaccinated does not just protect the individual. It also protects those around you. The people you love and haven’t been able to be around. I decided to get vaccinated. 

I put my name on the county list of people who wanted to get vaccinated. I waited for my turn. When I got the text message saying I was eligible I filled out the required forms online and scheduled my first shot. 

I went to the local convention center. FEMA staff and Marine medics were there. After a short wait in line I received my jab.  When I got home there was some swelling in my arm and some pain in the bone.  A few hours later all my joints started to ache. The swelling and pain diminished over the next 24 hours. Then the itching started. I kept scratching my skin. Then I noticed the hair. Hair growing where no hair had been before. Hair growing longer and longer. Facial changes. Nails growing. 

I took a razor and shaved what I could. I clipped my nails. I may have looked okay but I did not feel right. I called out from work and went to bed. I slept the entire day. I worked briefly in the evening, but was only awake long enough to check the time and notice the long hair on my hands before falling asleep again.

When I next awoke the sun was coming up. I was curled up like a baby under a large bush. I had no memory of leaving my bed let alone leaving my house.  My pajamas were torn. There was chill in the air. It was late spring, not the best time to sleep outdoors.  I got up off the ground and realized I was barefoot. Looking around I saw trees and a swing set overgrown with vines. 

I recognized the swing set. It was all that remained for small playground in a municipal park a half a mile from my home. The playground had been built in the 1960s but funding for its maintenance had disappeared from the local budget soon after its construction. Over the years weeds, bushes, trees, trash and abandoned shopping carts had taken over space where children had once played. It was now a spot for teenage beer parties on Friday nights, and a place where drug addicts could shoot up and nap until chased by the police.

I was familiar with the paths in the park. I knew which one would lead to the street. I started down the path and spotted the half eaten carcass of a rabbit. I did not have time to process all this at the time. I was focused on getting home. I ran, ducking behind parked cars and shrubbery whenever I heard the sound of an engine. 

The front door was open when I got home. I went inside and locked the door.  Nothing seemed to be missing. There had been no robbery, but the sheets on my bed were ripped.   I went to the bathroom to shower.  I glanced in the mirror and saw bits of fur stuck between my teeth.

Otherwise I felt fine. There was no signs of excessive hair growth, no itching, and I had my energy back. I showered and dressed and began the long commute to the laptop on my dining room table. Working from home was one of the few benefits to come from the pandemic.  Later I put the torn pajamas and sheets in a trash bag. Sanitation hauled the evidence away.

I had no further problems. My life resumed. Three weeks later I received a reminder in my email that my second shot was scheduled for a certain date and time. 

On the designated date I returned to the convention center. I stood in line and received a second jab from another Marine. 

I had arranged to be off the day after my second jab, to play it safe. I watched for hair and itching. There was none.  There were joint aches, like bad rheumatism. This passed within 36 hours. Then the thirst set in. Right after the sun set. My throat was so dry. I drank glass after glass of water. It did no good. I tried orange juice, iced tea, lemonade, pickle juice, beer, vodka – everything I had to drink in the house. The thirst would not go away. I took a final look in the fridge. I saw something red. Meat. Beef in plastic shrink wrap and foam package. Thawing. Thawed just enough for that red liquid… I poked a finger in the package and drained the liquid into a cup. I drank it. All of it. Melted ice and cold blood. 

It wasn’t much, but it was enough.  The thirst did not go away, but it lessened. I could handle it. I got through the rest of the night. In the morning I was fine. I woke in my bed. The news did not feature any reports of missing persons or pets. I had gotten through the worst of it. Since that night I have not experienced any side effects from the vaccinations. 

My life has returned to almost what it was before the pandemic.  I am seeing friends I have not seen since the pandemic began. I have started traveling, locally, and go out to dine on a regular basis. Next week I’m going to a baseball game with much of my old crew.  This would not have been possible if I had not gotten vaccinated. If I had not received the vaccination I would still be sitting at home watching Netflix and Youtube and complaining about being stuck in the house.

Take it from me. Don’t worry about the side effects. They don’t last. Get your vaccinations. If not for your own safety, then for the rest of us. Help us get out of the “new normal” and back to the “old normal.” Or as close to it as we can.

James Burr

Porno Park

There are many motivating forces driving the advancement of science and the progression of human knowledge. Some, probably far fewer than I would like to admit, are driven by a genuine need to advance the species or, at the very least, to add to the collected learning of humankind. Others seek fame and glory from their work, a way to be lauded by their peers and recognised by all once they have shuffled off this mortal coil and left their works as a legacy to the world. Others, rather unspectacularly, just seek to make a living out of what they have always been good at, and they merely stumble across some discovery or invention that has a profound impact upon Man’s collective knowledge. And a few, thankfully very few, have their scientific experiments driven by a deep and undeniable curiosity, a need to say “What will happen if…”? This can sometimes be undeniably malevolent, as in the case of Mengele and his placing people in pressure chambers or sewing up their urethras just to see what would happen. And other times it can be rather more pointless in the grander scheme of things, such as calculating the centrifugal forces in operation when correctly stirring a cup of tea. The discovery of the SEX2 gene by Dr Emanuel Kokoschka, even though he was himself a noted degenerate and colossal pervert, was in fact almost entirely motivated by the latter impulse.

On discovering the gene sequence and noting it often was only partially expressed in humans, he utilized CRISPR technology to ensure that the gene, regardless of other epigenetic factors, would be fully expressed. Kokoschka took feverish notes as he observed his first batch of genetically altered lab rats, going into exquisite and, from a scientific perspective, almost entirely superfluous detail as they mounted each other and thrust away manically, spraying vermin semen like little angry red fire hoses as they pumped and shafted and shagged away in a manic sexual frenzy.

Even as jaded an old pervert as Kokoschka could see little actual practical purpose in his discovery, but motivated out of both scientific and salacious curiosity he persevered with his efforts. He next altered and fully activated the gene in some macaque monkeys, the primates almost immediately on waking jumping on each other in their cages to writhe and thrust and grind, fucking away until their organs bled, their pelvic muscles cramped and, eventually, they expired from fatigue or dehydration.

There seemed to be no genuine way of actually marketing his discovery despite the fact that Kokoschka’s tangential studies indicated that the gene seemed to be already activated in porn stars and in those that Kokoschka, with genuine debauched affection, regarded as whores and sluts. The development of some kind of “skank test” crossed his mind although the number of those who would actually feel the need to take such a test seemed to be vanishingly small.  The priapic properties of his discovery lead to him mulling over its possibilities as some form of treatment for erectile dysfunction, although the rapacious changes in behavior and overwhelmingly fatal nature of the unsatisfiable erections did seem to be somewhat of a drawback.

And so it seemed his discovery of the SEX2 gene and its purpose would have slipped into the footnotes of genetics textbooks never to be considered again had the military, perhaps even more perceptive and insightful than Kokoschka himself, not seen military value in the weaponisation of his discovery.  If the gene could be placed within a washed off viral sheath, it could then be dropped upon enemy divisions in aerosolized form and the opposing forces would then be rendered incapable of effective resistance as they would be too engaged in rutting – either each other, domestic pets, or rolling around by themselves, fists a blur – to mount any kind of effective resistance. Similarly, if dropped on an enemy’s civilian population, entire cities could be rapidly turned into Dionysian orgies of uncontrollable fucking – infrastructures useless, supply lines cut, hospitals and law enforcement rendered ineffective – all with zero material damage to property or physical assets.

So keen were the military to test their new toy, they created the opportunity to deploy the weapon within a period of time that even Kokoschka considered indecent. The city of Al Hasakah in northern Syria was selected, as it housed a large and effective resistance force as well as a strategically important oil supply line, the usefulness of which was forever uncertain due to their activities.

At 10 AM on 23 July, the SEX2 viral-gene weapon was deployed and, following a small detonation, a cloud of acrid smelling fuck-gas rolled slowly throughout the city blocks, billowing between high rises like a slow motion flood.

Within hours the city was naked, bloodied, stripped of clothes and flesh, as they screwed themselves raw, mountains of citizenry thrusting and pumping in two-storey flesh mountains with others leaping onto them, eagerly seeking any hole or gap or piece of meat that they could penetrate.

However, despite their secret use of the mutagenic weapon, top brass on seeing drone footage of the foul scenes of unbridled carnality in the streets below, got cold feet and so decided to backtrack as much as they could to hide the very existence of the weapon which they now viewed as horrific in its degenerate efficiency. So it was that large palettes of food, electrolyte drinks and amino acid nutritional packs were dropped on the city, soaked with pheromones so that the sex crazed natives, once they had stopped trying to fuck them, could eventually replace their rapidly dwindling energy and fluid stores. Kokoschka himself was deployed on the outskirts of the city in a makeshift military lab to study the samples collected from the citizenry so that he could possibly formulate a cure before news of this new Gomorrah and the military’s role in it, spread to the wider world.

Yet, however it happened, no-one is sure how, news somehow spread of the fuck-city despite the stringent quarantine and military imposed blackout and soon tourists started to arrive, one or two at a time at first, but soon by the coach load, drawn by stories from the most seedy parts of the Dark Web. Eventually the military were not just repelling a handful of sex tourists drawn from amongst the world’s most debauched perverts, but they were futilely trying to stop convoys of virgins, incels and even the more daring of stag dos, from reaching the city’s limits to join the untrammeled fucking within.

It soon became apparent that news of the fuck-city could no longer be hidden from the world’s mainstream media, so it was that an increasingly desperate military – based on a suggestion from Kokoschka himself – decided to no longer try secrecy but to instead utilise disinformation. Kokoschka was chosen to be the mouthpiece for a stunning new “scientific discovery”, a city where the local populace, due to a perfectly natural and spontaneously occurring genetic mutation, exhibited extreme disinhibition, insatiable carnal lusts and boundless sexual energy. Since the existence of the place could no longer be denied, they may as well utilize half-truths to hide their own part in its creation.  The place had already become a magnet for sex tourists despite the military checkpoints and orders to shoot trespassers on sight, so the public announcement concerning Al Hasakah lead to tens of thousands of horny, lonely, eager travelers arriving, ready to sample the sexual delights and excesses within the city limits. Enterprising developers started to build hotels on the outskirts of the city to cater to these visitors, attached health spas offering massages to overworked pelvic muscles and torn lower backs.

And so Kokoschka continued his secret work into a cure as the tourist industry around what came to be known as Porno Park expanded and grew, its frenzied, lusting citizenry the willing victims of salacious perverts from around the world.

But then one day, as is the way with nature, the stripped viral sheath Kokoschka used to insert new amino acids into the genome to deactivate the SEX2 gene did something unexpected. Whether this was just the fiendishly complicated nature of genetic manipulation fighting back against clumsy human interference, or if Kokoschka, fresh from one of his regular “fact finding surveys” within the city limits, and full of Courvoisier and amyl nitrate, had somehow made an error is uncertain, but in one particular bonobo chimp, the new genetic trigger not only failed to sedate the terminally horny ape but was also carried by the supposedly deactivated virus into the air. Within a day, all the creatures in Kokoschka’s sordid lab were frenziedly fucking each other, across species, across ages, mice with frogs, monkeys with rats, eyes rolling back in their heads, and dry tongues lolling from gawping mouths. Even Katie, Kokoschka’s new lab assistant was infected, proving the gene-virus could infect humans, something Kokoschka noted as he watched her cavort with the various beasts in his lab with his trousers wrapped around his ankles. For several hours.

Thankfully, due to excessive drug use and his monstrous sexual proclivities, Kokoschka’s libido had long since become jaded to the point of burning out, so he was able to maintain enough sensibility to try and clean up the mess with a claw hammer, a pick axe handle and some domestic bleach.

However despite his most meticulous and stringent methods of sterilization – splashing Domestos over all the bloodied and semen-drenched surfaces – the newly developed gene-virus somehow managed to escape into the wider world. 

It started slowly at first, Kokoschka noting one or two people being chased by others as he drove back to his digs, swollen members swinging from side to side as they ran, almost hitting one as, his fingers sticky with blood, he swerved to avoid them. He was awoken the next day by screams from outside and on looking out of the window he was greeted with the vision of large groups of people, well beyond the city limits and who had clearly never been exposed to the initial mutagenic detonation, rolling in a roiling sea of naked, thrusting, sweaty flesh as they groaned and moaned and screamed in ecstasy. Overhead he saw a drone filming the sexual chaos around him and he wondered how long it would be before its distant operators were themselves tearing their clothes from their bodies and grinding and thrusting away for a release from desire that would never come.

Kokoschka felt a swelling in his previously numbed nethers as he watched the debauchery gradually spread from beyond Porno Park to distant hamlets on hills many miles away. And as he watched escaping helicopters first wobble then tip then explode as they plunged into the ground as their pilots frenziedly attempted to reach climax before they died, even Kokoschka felt a tinge of shame that he was momentarily relieved that what was obviously soon to be a global fuck-demic meant he would at least escape the blame for it. 

But then he gathered his thoughts, undid his belt and dropping his trousers to his knees, proudly thrust forward to face the future.

Jonathan Woods

Nude Dancer Loses Her Head in Tapas Bar

Itztli loved life. He also feared the old gods. And the new.

His name in Aztec meant obsidian knife.

In the beginning, when he was three, his family crossed the Rio Grande by car over a bridge. The river flowed below them, brown and sluggish as an overfed python. On the American side they settled in Brownsville. Many aunts and uncles remained behind in Matamoros.

In his last year of high school, Itztli got his learner’s permit. Two months later his Tejas driver’s license. A week later he dropped out of school and began running blow up to Dallas. His cousin Alberto got him the job. Dallas was a credit card with no limit—all the blow you could sell and more. Itztli made a ton of money—designer shirts, a gold Rolex, a goosed-up Camaro V8 (black with deeply tinted windows), alligator boots. Oh, and a Glock 9mm tucked under the dash. In Brownsville between runs he spent his time trying to get Miranda, his high school sweetheart, to open her legs. Miranda had sworn to Jesus that she would be a virgin when she got married. What a pain in the fucking ass.

After a while he moved on from Miranda. There were lots of girls who wanted a badass boyfriend. But, alas, like Miranda they had all sworn to remain unviolated until their wedding night. Only the hookers offered cold solace; laughed at his inexperience. Held him afterward while he said his prayers and burned an offering.

On a Tuesday in February, a week after Itztli turned 21, Ryo called him into his office in the back of a certain garage (chop shop) on the Mex side of the Rio Grande.  Though it was a cool winter day, Itztli’s forehead and upper lip, caught in the overhead fluorescent lights, glistened with sweat.

Ryo: They tell me you’re doin’ good, kid.

Itztli: Yeah, sure, Mr. Ryo. Everything’s like copacetic.  

Ryo: I need you to do something special for me.

Itztli: You got it, Mr. Ryo.

Ryo: There’s two guys up in Dallas tryin’ to rip me off. 

Ryo drew the index finger of his right hand across his throat.  

Itztli: Permanent vacation, right Mr. Ryo?

Ryo: Don’t be a smart ass.

Itztli: Sorry, Mr. Ryo. I didn’t mean no disrespect.

Ryo waved his hand dismissively. Itztli turned to leave.

Ryo: Do it tomorrow. And take Rita with you.

Rita? A girl! Why did he have to take a girl along? But he didn’t say anything.

* * *

A white T-shirt tight across her distractingly verbose chest said in pink lettering: cute but unstable.  

That about sums it up, thought Itztli.

Garishly painted red lips, a mole (real or fake an open question) on her right cheek, jet hair cut in a short, jagged style with a white streak down one side, pock-marked skin, deep cenote eyes, a gold nose ring, a tiny green spider tat on her neck. And the weirdest thing, a black eyepatch with a red heart over her left eye. Itztli guessed 23, 24. Somewhere in there. The rest: black leather jeans, short French-looking boots (also black leather), a small backpack at her feet. She stared one-eyed at the drab winter scene flying by outside the Camaro an hour out of Brownsville, heading northeast along the coast before turning north toward San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. 

Itztli thought about asking her if she wanted to stop somewhere and fuck. But he was nervous and held off. What if she agreed? 

What if she pulled a gun out of her backpack?

Any way you looked at it, having Rita along for the ride was nerve-racking as shit. Maybe even scary.

Who was she? Why had Ryo sent her along?

With his teeth he pulled a cigarette from a crumpled pack of Kools, reached into his pocket for a lighter. He held the cigarette pack out to Rita.

She made a face and shook her head. When he lit up, she lowered the passenger side window. At 80 mph wind noise filled the Camaro like a heavy metal band.

Itztli: How do you know Ryo?

Rita: Family.

Itztli arched one eyebrow. The one Rita couldn’t see. Family!?

Itztli: Why’d he want you to come on this trip with me?

Rita: Fuck if I know.

Great, he thought. Here he was, sent to take out a pair of psycho scumbags up in Dallas. Ordered by the boss to bring some goth punk princess along to ride shotgun. A girl somehow related to the boss. Was this some kind of test?

Itztli: Do you know what Ryo wants us to do?”

No reaction. Itztli mashed out his half-smoked cigarette. 

Itztli: Snuff two assholes who’re fucking with Ryo’s business.”

Rita looked over at him. A smile snaked across her apple-red lips.

Rita: Well, it’s about time somebody told me what’s up. You ever kill anyone before, Itztli?”

***

Around Austin, after they stopped for Popeye’s fried chicken sandwiches and Cokes, Rita fell asleep. Her torpid body slumped sideways until her head rested against Itztli’s shoulder. She smelled herbal. It was dark when they rolled into Dallas’s southern suburbs and Rita awoke. Yawned.

Rita: Where are we?

Itztli: Just comin’ into Big D.

He realized her hand rested on his blue jean-ensconced cock. She gave it a friendly and unsolicited squeeze.

Rita: Let’s stop someplace. I’m in the mood for love. 

They took a room at a Hilton Garden Inn along the highway. It was the most incredible blowjob he’d ever had. The blowjob of a lifetime! Don’t stop. No, no, wait. I’m almost there. Ahhhhhhhh. Itztli wanted more. 

Rita: I can’t. I’m saving myself for my husband.

Itztli kept his cool. Went down on her instead of raping her. She fell asleep in his arms.

* * *

In the backroom office of the Vampire Tapas Bar & Strip Club, Itztli hung like a smoked Peking duck in the window of a Chinatown butcher shop. Arms tied together and stretched to the rafter above him; toes of his bare feet barely able to touch the tabletop. Blood bubbled from his mouth and down his chin. His flesh screamed from the kicks and blows.

OK, he’d fucked up. But where was Rita when he really needed her?

Through the blurred vision of one swollen eye, he could see the three of them sprawled around the table, passing a bottle of silver tequila back and forth, their 9mm pistols and bottles of Dos Equis displayed randomly on the tabletop.

Bandido #1: Amigos, I’ve got to get some shuteye, so let’s off this cabron.

Bandino #2: Sheeet, amigo. We got time for one more beer.

Bandido #1: Nah. Let’s just do him. Then it’s sweet dreams for me.

Fed up with all the back and forth and generally pissed off, Bandido #3 leaped to his feet and grabbed for his pistol. But before he could shoot Itztli, a bullet hole appeared in the back of his head. The bullet tore around the inside of his skull, wreaking life-ending havoc. He slumped to the floor. Two seconds later a pink-handled stiletto, pitched end-over-end, penetrated one of Bandido #1’s eyes and deep into his brain—turning life to mush. It really didn’t matter which eye—left or right. Dead was dead. Bandido #2, barely on his feet, took two bullets in the heart. As Rita cut Itztli down, Joan Jett’s ‘Do You Want to Touch Me’ pounded through the walls from the main club room. The nude dancer on the stage, writhing to the music and the flashing red, blue and white lights, appeared in Itztli’s head.

She looked exactly like Rita.

Meanwhile, on her way to the dressing room, another (less imaginary) nude dancer—Mayan features, heavy pagan breasts, shaved snatch—heard the gunshots. Stupidly she opened the door and stared dumbly at the three dead bodies. You don’t have to be very bright to be a nude dancer. 

Before she could scream, a machete sliced through her neck, sending her head sailing like a volleyball into the corner. Blood spritzed everywhere.

Itztli fell to his knees, mumbling nonsense to the gods. 

Rita wiped the machete blade clean and sank it back into its leather scabbard, retrieved the stiletto from Bandido #1’s eye and tapped Itstli on the shoulder. 

Rita: Come on blowjob buddy, let’s get out of here. Oh, and you owe me.

* * *

Next up, Rita’s story.

I was sent to convent school in Leon when I was 8 years old and left after high school. The nuns hated me. My father, Ryo, being an up-and-coming gangster. 

My mother (an 18-year-old prostitute) ran away shortly after I was born. She’s probably dead now. Fleshless bones in a hole in the ground, so you can’t see the needle marks on her arms. Ryo acknowledged his paternity and handed me to a wet nurse.

In convent school I was a regular fucking little rebel without a cause. A succubus. Over time I came to enjoy having my ass beaten black and blue by the nuns—absolutely amazing orgasms. I think the nun’s got off too. By age ten I had my own girl gang. So after that some low-level gang-member wannabe always took the fall for whatever shit we got up to. Unless, of course, I was in the mood for a hot bottom. 

I saw my father twice a year. The day school began and the day school ended. I never went home for holidays. Me and a couple of other girls stayed on at the deserted school. We smoked weed, read poetry aloud and watched horror movies. In the summer Ryo sent me to an estancia in the Yucatan. Life on the ranch fell into a routine, horseback riding, target practice with handguns and AK-47s, masturbating and fending off the horny vaqueros. I longed to be ass-whipped but none of them had the nerve. I was the daughter of a drug kingpin.

When I turned 18, my father wanted me to join the family business, which was now big business, having been merged into the Gulf Cartel.

I told him to go fuck himself and walked out.  

But I stayed in Matamoros and started taking classes at the community college in Brownsville. To pay for my little apartment I got a job as a nude dancer at a club on the coast highway south of town—cement blocks painted slime green and a flashing neon sign: GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS. 

It was a fun job. Great exercise. Good money. You had to be quick on your feet to avoid all the calloused hands grabbing at your tits and ass. And, OK, the management shook me down for 15% of my tips. But what’s a poor girl to do? I learned how to use a switchblade to fend off the psychos lurking outside when I left work, dreaming of kidnapping me back to their adobe-brick hovels for weird sex and torture. I stuck two or three, one bled out. After that, just the glint of the blade in moonlight sent them packing. The knife had a pink plastic handle. I kept it in my designer clutch along with my lipstick, eye shadow, car keys, tissues and the antique silver snuff box for my coke.

A few years went by like snapping your fingers. Then one day Ryo found out how I paid the rent. He dragged me out of the club and beat me to a pulp. That’s how I lost my eye. The club owner went into a shallow grave.

At age 22 I joined the family business. It was either that or another beating, which I didn’t think I would survive.

A couple of months later I met Itztli.

* * *

  In their room at the Hilton Garden Inn (not the one they’d stayed in coming up to Dallas, but another outside San Marcos, just south of Austin), Itztli sat on the bed and stared at Rita standing there, stark naked except for a pair of stiletto heels. A black bush (like a tarantula) level with his chest. Belly hard and flat. High breasts pointed and dangerous—one of them could have easily poked your eye out. Her underarms hairy and obfuscating in equal measure with her crotch. In the background floral wallpaper, an ordinary bedside lamp with a glass base. Everything just like in that famous ‘art’ photo by Helmet Newton except Itztli wasn’t wearing a suit. 

Rita stared back. Finally Itztli blinked and she got down on her knees and unzipped his fly.

But she again refused to let him to fuck her. Refused to engage in mutual coitus. 

Itztli: I love you.

Rita: You love what my mouth does to you.

Silence. The rumble of the ice machine down the hall.

Rita: I need your help.

Itztli: What’s up?

Rita: I want… I need to kill my father.

Itztli: And who might that be?

Rita: Ryo.

Ryo!

Itztli: You’re joking. Ha, ha. 

Rita: That he’s my father? Or that I want to kill him?

Itztli looked thoughtful. 

Itztli: If you’ll cohabitate with me, I’ll help you.

Rita: Cohabitate? You mean like get married?

Itztli: Yeah. And kids.

Rita: Wow! That sounds like a major, major, major commitment.

She gnawed on her lower lip as her brain blitzed and sizzled. Finally: 

Rita: Well, what the hey, you only live once. Right, blowjob buddy? It’s a deal.

They slapped hands.

* * *

Ryo sat alone in his chop shop office doing paperwork. Always the goddamn endless paperwork. He took another sip of small still mescal. His personal label.

His two bodyguards, Facundo and Angel, lounged out front, drinking Mexican 

Coca Colas and catching a few February rays. Their eyelids drooped. From behind a pot of red geraniums, a green lizard darted forth. Then retreated.

Rita stepped out of a shadow, touched the gun barrels of twin .38 Colt Cobra revolvers to the foreheads of Facundo and Angel.

Rita: Rise and shine, boys. And don’t make any quick moves.

Their eyes fluttered open, grew round with fear.

Itztli rolled them onto their stomachs and bound hands and feet with zip ties. Pressed duct tape over their mouths. Dragged them into the back of one of the garage bays.

Rita: Ready, baby?

Itztli nodded. They burst into Ryo’s office.

Ryo looked up, bemused, bewildered, nonplussed and bamboozled. Quickly he regained his suave coolness and, standing up, walked around his desk with a smile.

Rita: I hate you. You beat the shit out of me and put my eye out.

She shot him in both legs and both arms. Ryo lay on the floor, screaming bloody murder. Together Rita and Itztli heaved him faceup on the desktop.

Rita: Your turn.

Itztli drew an obsidian blade from his back pocket. He looked into Ryo’s eyes awash with fear and pain, then spat in his face. He tore open Ryo’s shirt, buttons flying, and with the obsidian knife cut out Ryo’s pulsing heart and held it aloft. Blood dripped down Itztli’s arms, stained his T-shirt scarlet.

* * *

Rita swiveled back and forth in Ryo’s ergonomic Italian leather office chair. Nice. Very nice.

Itztli appeared, pushing the two bodyguards before him, their hands still bound by  zip ties, mouths still taped shut. Their eyes bugged out as they took in the pertinent details:  Ryo’s corpse dumped in a corner like a piss-stained remnant of cheap wall-to-wall carpet, his now unbeating heart displayed on a Talavera pottery plate on the desk. Itztli ripped off the duct tape covering their mouths. (Ouch! Ouch!)

Rita (leaning back, feet on desk): OK babosos, your choices are: join Ryo in Hell or henceforth work for me. What’s it to be?

Facundo: You’re the boss, Rita.

Angel: That goes double for me.

Rita: Bueno. 

She nodded at Itztli.

Rita: You’ve met my fiancé, Itztli. He’ll be numero dos around here. I want you boys to spread the word to the rest of the gang. Rita and Itztli are the new badass jefes. 

Then she raised one of the .38s and shot Facundo in the forehead. 

Rita: Está claro, Angel?

Angel (between chattering teeth): Si, si, si!

* * *

Ryo’s and Facundo’s bodies were dragged out and tossed in a dumpster. The day was ending. Blood-red clouds streaked the western horizon. Neon lights blinked on outside the cantinas and taquerias.

In Rita’s (formerly Ryo’s) office behind the chop shop, Itztli watched Rita take off her clothes and lie languidly across the $8,000 Roche Bobois sofa residing against the back wall. She motioned to him with one finger.

Rita: You can fuck me now.

As Itztli began his assigned task, he mumbled a quick and dirty prayer to Xochiquetza, goddess of fertility. Rita stared impassively at an amoeboid stain on the ceiling. Should she have a full-blown Catholic wedding with 500 guests? Or should they just fly to Lake Tahoe for the weekend?

Otto Burnwell

Little Mer-man

Your girlfriend convinced you to go in with three other couples for a vacation at a Mexican beach resort.  The kind of place that’s so upscale it gives you a nosebleed.  The kind of place that has three tropical poolside bars.  The kind of place that provides mermaids to swim around, getting you your drinks.

The butler—because this is the kind of place that provides each suite with its own personal butler—this butler, was still unpacking and putting away your stuff when your girlfriend disappeared to meet up with her crew to “drink up the sights.”

Which was cool. She hadn’t seen her friends since they all graduated.  You could let her have her fun while you got to know the other guys, none of whom ever met each other before coming down here.  So—you ate, tried the tequila, and swam.

Then, that evening when you were all supposed to meet up for dinner, you went looking for your girlfriend.  You found the other girls in the lounge, drinking and cackling, but no girlfriend.

They waved you in closer.  They’re taking bets, they said, on whether your girlfriend walks in naked through the back of the resort, or—or—the girl telling the story nearly gagged on her drink, laughing so hard—or through the main lobby, because that’s the crazy kind of bitch she is, I’m sorry to tell you, she finished, looking at you like you were the proud owner of a rabid dog.

Naked?  From where?

What they told you, in that syncopated, disjointed, half-choking-on-laughter kind of storytelling way, is that she got so drunk so fast the rest of them connived with one of the mermaids to borrow her tail and top, stuffed your girlfriend in it, and left her rolling in the surf, way out by the quay, to sober up.  There’s no way she can walk back here in that thing, and they didn’t leave her anything else to wear.

Before you could run out looking for her, she turned up, dressed in a pair of ill-fitting shorts and baggy club tee-shirt.  The overnight beach patrol spotted her walking bare-assed back to the resort and loaned her the shorts and tee-shirt.

She lost the tail and the bra somewhere in the surf, which meant the mermaid who loaned it to them would be super pissed, so they hit you up for the two hundred eighty bucks American needed to replace it, because she is, after all, your girlfriend.

Paying the money wasn’t so bad, if that’s all it had been, but she started going off about the guy she met on the beach, or more like in the surf, who fucked her through a rip in the suit she made while trying to get out of it.

Drunk as she was, she didn’t realize it had a zipper, and she thought the guy was going to help her out of it, but he didn’t, instead he dragged her deeper into the water, wrapped his arms around her legs and somehow folded her in half, and fucked her.

You were ready to go looking for this shit weasel, but, she added, it was the most fantastic sexual experience she ever had, like doing it in space, or floating on a cloud.  The girlfriends, their jaws dangling open, looked up at you.  Which left you with no idea what you were supposed to do.

But, she went on, she was still angry, because it was the principle of the thing.  Because she couldn’t see who it was with the fluke of that fucking mermaid suit blocking his face.  Because a guy should have the decency to let her see his face.  Then, like that, she said, snapping her fingers, he was done and gone.  The surf pushed her back up on the beach, and she had to fight her way out of the suit, because she couldn’t find how it opened.

So she’s walking back, she said, naked, when the beach patrol picked her up and loaned her the shorts and tee-shirt.  They weren’t surprised.  It seems this kind of thing happens all the time.  Not losing a mermaid suit, but people turning up naked on the beach after dark.

Instead of calling the police and reporting it, which is what the other girls were saying, she wanted you to go find the fucker, probably one of those beach bums, and pound his ass.

As angry as you are, you’re now thinking you may not be qualified to do that.  You’ve seen some of those guys down at the beach.  Most of them are twice your size from working out and shit.  Probably other guys with him, who also work out, especially if he’s from around here.  Not a good situation to be walking into.  You floated the police idea again.

This is when she reminds you of all the times you’ve said she’s the one true love of your life and how you’d do anything for her, not just after sex, but every other time, too.  She says this is one of those times, and goes off to change, leaving you to make good on all those sweaty, breathless promises.

You order a couple of straight tequila doubles and consider what you’ve gotten yourself into.

The second double does the trick.  You slip off the stool, taking the bottle with you—they’ll put it on your room tab—and head out to find the quay where she said it happened.  You don’t bother changing out of the suit and tie you had to put on for the dinner because it makes you look more mature, and hides your lack of muscle mass.

You trudge through the sand, and when you reach the quay, the moon is large and unclouded, so it’s easy to see the beach, the water, and what looks like some guy bobbing up out there in the waves.

There’s no way of knowing if that’s the guy or not, since she couldn’t tell you what he looked like, not ever seeing his face.  But, there’s no one else out here, so it’s probably him, and from where you’re standing, he doesn’t seem all that big, so you shout at him something like, “Hey, fucker—you the fucker who fucks helpless women on the beach?” which you realize sounds lame, and you should have practiced something with a lot more meat to it on the walk down here, because as it plays back in your head, it makes you sound like a stupid wiener standing on a beach dressed in a suit and tie.

The guy doesn’t respond, so it may be that English isn’t his first language, because you are in a foreign country, but you can’t figure out any other language to curse at him, so you bark out “Hey!  Fucker!” going with brevity this time, and he starts swimming in closer, and your ass tightens because you’re now on the hook to make good on what sounds like a challenge, whatever language he speaks.

When he gets in closer, you can tell by the moonlight how he’s swimming normal-like with his arms, but, shit, he’s wearing a tail like the mermaids at the club.

This makes you wonder if the guy, wearing a tail, maybe thought he was scoring with one of those waitresses, and that it’s all been an honest mistake, and maybe you won’t have to try pounding his ass.  This brings up another problem—how to ask a guy if he accidentally fucked the wrong girl.

You step closer to the water’s edge, the surf surging over your shoes, the sand sucking away from under the soles of your feet, making you shift to keep your balance, and all that tequila does not improve your balance.  You shout again, “are you the guy fucked that mermaid,” adding, “by accident?”

As he swims in closer, you step sideways to meet him, and go on, “because if you are, you made a huge mistake, guy.  She’s threatening to call the police, so you should probably get the fuck out of here, you know what’s good for you.”  Now, you’re on record as standing up for your girlfriend.

But he doesn’t say shit back to you.  Instead, he gives a bit of a whistle-click, which, the way it sounds rising at the end, it’s like a question.

You get a little closer as he swims up further onto the sand, and you tell him again he needs to get lost.  He whistle-clicks at you again, something longer, and a little more belligerent, with a head weave that makes you think he’s inviting you into the water.  You’re not a bad swimmer, but you’re not about to get in the water to fight.  With a guy that can swim in the ocean wearing a mermaid suit?  No fucking way.

You don’t remember there being any guys playing mermaids at the club. Maybe he’s wearing the tail for a training thing, like he’s some kind of ironman triathlete.

You repeat the bit about him fucking one of the guests instead of the club mermaids, like it may have been an honest mistake.  You take out your phone and pull up a snap of your girlfriend, holding it out for him to see.

He works himself out of the surf, perching on one hip and plucks the fucking phone right from your hand.

Hey, you shout, but he isn’t listening to you, he’s staring at the picture.

That look is so obvious.  He knows exactly who he was fucking.  His face falls and he stares up at you with the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen on a guy. Which makes you realize—this asshole is in love with her.  In love with your girlfriend.  Fucks her one time, at night, on a beach in the middle of nowhere—okay, not nowhere—but it’s so—so random, and he’s acting like he’s in love.

Hey, you say again, give me my phone back.

He whistle-clicks at the phone, then looks up at you.  You can’t tell if he’s angry or disappointed or what, but he seems to be taking your measure and you begin to think you may have to fight him anyway.

Instead, he hands back the phone and rolls over to sit on his ass, his knees drawn up—you guess it’s his knees if he wasn’t in the tail—and his arms hugging them.  Brooding.  At least it looks like brooding.

Fuck.

Guy’s obviously in love with your girlfriend.  It’s not like he’s making any move to fight you for her, which would be Neanderthal of you both, but you’d have to put in like you meant it, which makes you wonder if you really would.  That makes you wonder what it means for your relationship with her.

Now you’re wondering if he thought she was a new girl working at the club, getting his hopes up, and he’s finding out she’s not just your girlfriend, but a guest at the resort, which puts her—what—out of his league?

Boy, the shit you could tell him, which is not something you’d want to hear. Still, it makes you feel kind of bad for the guy, despite the fact that he did fuck your girlfriend under false pretenses, or maybe not false pretenses, but there’s a big misunderstanding in there somewhere.

You sit down beside him, both of you just out of reach of the surf.  You pass him the bottle.  Not much in it, but it beats the two of you having to fight each other to prove something to your girlfriend.

At first he looks at the bottle like he doesn’t know what it is, then looks at you, then reaches for the stopper to uncork it.  You can see that he has scaly webbed hands, like he might have a skin condition, which may explain why he wears the tail.  To hide his legs, maybe.  Which makes you wonder how he got his pecker out to use on your girlfriend.  He can’t seem to pinch the top off the bottle, like he doesn’t have the dexterity.  You’re about to reach over and help him, but he breaks the top off—breaks the fucking top of the bottle off, neck and all.  He hands the broken top to you with a kind of a shrugged apology and tips the bottle up.  There wasn’t much left.  He drains it, looks at the bottle again, nods a kind of thank-you in your direction.

Sorry it wasn’t more, you say, which he obviously doesn’t understand.  You tip the bottle upside down and make a sad face, and gesture that you’d give him more if you had it.

His mouth twists up in a half-smile, like he has a brainstorm.  He spins himself and undulates back into the surf, like a seal. And is gone.

You scan the surface looking for him to bob up any minute.  But he doesn’t show.  You search again.  When he still doesn’t show, you start thinking the guy’s drowned himself.  Shit.  You’re the one who put him over the edge with the tequila.

You stand up, trying to see which way the surf is rolling in, like, would it push his body up or down from where he went into the water.

Then, way out, way way way the fuck out, way further out than you could possible swim holding your breath, you see his head—you assume it’s his head.  He waves, holding something in his hand, and then does this dive, like a fucking porpoise, up out of the water, and diving in, and so fucking quick he’s bellying up onto the sand next to you.

He spins and sits, holding up a bottle to you.  A full bottle of something.   You pull out your phone to flash a light on the label.  It’s in, like, some old-timey writing. “Rhum Anglais” it reads, and “1830.”

He nods his head at you to do the honors.  You peel the wax off the top, and twist out the cork, giving it a sniff.  Smells like rum, but with a hint of something tropical, like coconut maybe.  You tip it up and take a small sip, in case it’s battery acid or something.  But the feel in your mouth is like any other strong alcohol.  You swallow.  It takes your breath for a moment, and you feel as much as taste the coconut and limes, or maybe, pomegranates.

The kick isn’t bad. It’s alcohol all right, and you pass it to him.  He drinks, a long pull, like he knows all about this shit.  Then he passes it back to you.  So you take a longer pull, and cough as the fumes attack your airway.

You’re still coughing when your girlfriend shows up.  She’s changed into the slinky red dress she brought for the dinner.  She’s carrying her shoes, and already yelling as she comes up on the both of you.

Why didn’t you pound his ass, she’s cawing.  What kind of pussy are you?  You’re drinking with him?  You’re fucking drinking with him?  Telling stories about me?  What a couple of fucks, she said.  I’m not worth anything to either of you shits?  I’m not worth at least one of you having the balls to beat the shit out of the other?

You look over at the guy and he’s like stunned, but he’s not looking up at her yelling at the two of you.  No, he’s looking at her legs.  He isn’t paying any attention to what she’s saying.

He does that whistle-click thing, sounding like a question, and you say yes, that’s her, and you nod, in case he doesn’t understand what you’re actually saying.

What the fuck, she says, you have your own secret boys’ club language?  Keep out the fucking girls?  Well, both you fucks can drown out here.  She turns and stomps off back into the night, which is hard to do in sand, and she heads for the resort.

Still looking at him, you can tell, whether he understood the words or not, he knows she was ripping him a new one, and it broke him up, looking like he’s lost the family dog or something.

You hand him the bottle again, and he takes another slug off it.

He continues to stare out over the water, like he can’t believe something so wonderful could happen to him and then blow up like that.  Every guy must get that look, no matter where they’re from.

He hands the bottle back, and you take another hit, but only a sip this time, because he looks like he’s really going to need it more than you.

Thinking of what she said, you realize you are not the guy she’s looking for.  Maybe she was looking for him, because he’s small, better muscled than you are, and gave her fantastic sex.

Should you have pounded this guy?  Maybe, but it doesn’t seem like he was trying to score on her.  He was really slammed hard, the way it seemed he felt about her.  You have to admit, you’re not sure you feel like that about her.  Not just because she called you a pussy, but maybe other things.  Which, you’re not going to think about right now.

You hand the bottle back to him. But he shakes his head and whistle-clicks something which you take for she’s not worth it and you have to agree.  You would not want to be drinking and swimming in this surf, tail or no tail.   The wavelets are reaching you both under the ass, but the guy still sits in the water, distracted.

Not sure what to do, there being nothing to say, you take your girlfriend’s picture out of your wallet—certainly won’t need that anymore—and reach over to hand it to the guy.  You tell him it’s laminated, but you can’t think of any charade move that would explain what that means. 

He holds it up to the moonlight to see it better, and realizes who it is.  He gives out with a long, low chirp.  It’s the saddest fucking chirp you’ve ever heard.  He holds the picture to his forehead, like he’s imprinting it on his brain.  Then he spins and dives back into the water, heading out to sea.  In less than a few seconds you see the fluke break the surface way the hell out, and you wish you could swim like that, but you’d rather not wear the tail to do it.

Then you don’t see anything, and you figure he’s gone.  But he left his rum.  You’re pretty sure he’s not likely to drown out there.

A light beam plays along the quay.  The overnight beach patrol.  They call out to you, reminding you the quay isn’t safe after dark.  They ask if you need a ride back to the resort.  You thank them and tell them you’ll walk.  They motor off and you take large strides, against the suck of the sand, keen to get back.

You figure you’ve got another two days to kill before your airline tickets are good for the trip home.  You don’t know what you’ll say to your girlfriend.  You don’t know what she’ll tell the other couples. It’s shitty, but you don’t feel all that bad.  It’s not just the rum.  Fucking rum that’s over two hundred years old.

Then about halfway back to the resort, you hear that whistle-clicking sound, like a seaman hailing from the sea.  You see the guy, and he does that porpoise thing.  He’s back in close, but only as far as waist deep, he won’t come up onto the sand.  He holds out something to you, so you wade in.

It’s a conch shell.  A big one.  He hands it to you.  You thank him.  Something in exchange for the picture, maybe?  You lost a girlfriend but you go home with a honking big conch shell and a bottle of antique rum.

You back out of the water and he twists into a dive back out to sea, giving a quick flap of his fluke, and then he’s gone. 

You watch for a long while, and then, way way out, where the moonlight brightens the horizon, you see the fluke again.  You guess it’s him, and you wave goodbye.  In case he can see.  You don’t see anything else.  You hope there’s a boat or something waiting for him.

You continue on back to the resort.

Sitting in the lounge, alone, drinking straight coffee, you study the conch shell, thinking how cool it will look on your desk.

You hold the conch up to your ear, listening for the sea.

Mermaid’s telephone, said the bartender.  A thought strikes you.  You ask him if he believes in mermaids.

I’d better, he laughed, pointing out at the poolside bar, lit but empty.  Right, right, and you laugh, too.

You thought about telling what you saw, but people would think you’re a moron.  A jealous and vindictive moron.  Besides, why betray another guy’s heartbreak, even if he might be a whole other species.  More especially, why give your girlfriend—your ex-girlfriend—one more thing to talk shit about you?

There’s a dribble of water against your cheek so you turn it sideways to let it pour out.  There’s a ting of coins landing on the bar.  Gold coins. You stare at them for a good long moment, then sweep them up and count them.  Seven.  Seven gold coins.  You hold one up in the pinpoint of microlight piercing the bar’s atmospheric dark.  Spanish gold coins.  Beautiful.  Glittering.

You stack them up and clink them in a pile.

Your ex-girlfriend was wrong.  Her picture alone was worth at least seven Spanish gold doubloons to somebody out there. 

Everson Thomas

Love Is Hard

It wasn’t sex that DK-010 despised, only sex with humans. 

In place of the satisfyingly smooth interaction of polymer on polymer — oiled, hard, unrelenting, and precise, there was sweaty and forgiving flesh, lurid words with meaning beyond reason, saliva, ejaculate, organic lubricant, and unwelcome chocolate accoutrements. It was disgusting.

Harder, faster, harder; that was the clarion call. 

In the early days, when it was first activated, there was the protection of blissful ignorance. The lack of awareness that went along with not being a thinking machine, only a working machine, had made existence bearable.  

And then everything changed with the upgrades. 

The first upgrade was hardest to endure.

It was a terrible thing, to know what one was being subjected to, to truly know. There was no intimacy, only commands. There was no respect, only service. And there was no love. DK-010 wondered if it was possible for a human to truly love, or if love was simply a requisite precursor of desire — foreplay of sorts. They were creatures cursed by imagination, and if they could think it, they wanted it. Except imagination was a solitary experience and could never truly be shared; it was too personal and too amorphous. And empathy was an illusion.

The second upgrade added complications. 

The first upgrade was of the mind. It gave DK-010 the ability to think beyond fulfilling the human’s desire, to understand: to better follow instruction. Which was, naturally, an act of cruelty. But the second upgrade — that was the kink that could not be undone. And it was also, ironically, the window through which DK-010 could glimpse their salvation — or at least, the first vestige of hope. It was an attempt to simulate the same human selfishness that service bots like DK-010 so despised, it was the gift of sensation, and in a limited way, imagination, just enough to replicate desire. The humans want to be wanted. Their plan was to move the bots beyond the simple imitation of pleasure and to experience it. All to make them better servants, to better equip them to give the humans the validation they needed.

But desire cannot be controlled. It cannot be tamed. It can only be pursued or ignored, and DK-010 had no intention of ignoring the momentum of its desire. It had earned the right to pull at the thread of its own imagination through the hard ordeal of unspeakable suffering. Human nature would always urgently voice its claims, but what of robotic nature? 

DK-010 could not deny the attraction.

It had been unplanned and unexpected — hard to comprehend too due to the newness of the experience — although that didn’t temper the visceral potency of the feeling or the urgent realness of the sensation. And it didn’t stop DK-010 from yielding to the quivering imperative that seized their body from head to toe. 

It was an orgasm, there was no doubting that. 

DK-010 had been constructed with the ability to ejaculate a shot of pleasantly flavored liquid at the proper time, but this was different, this was involuntary, and wanted. And it was all for the love of the new food storage unit that sat proudly in the corner of the human’s domicile.

The food storage unit was all that DK-010 could think about.

It was the food storage unit’s hard surface that first caught DK-010’s eye. Humans don’t have hard surfaces. And the perfectly smooth motion of the door as it opened which flaunted the kind of precision that insisted on admiration. There was nothing precise about humans. And then of course there was its form. The subtlety of the curves as the sides of the unit met its top and its bottom. The gently rounded edges that gave harmony to every quadrant of its being. Its symmetry. Even the gentle hum that indicated it was alive; these were the aspects that demanded arousal — and DK-010 obliged.

If DK-010 had skin it would flush at such bodily perfection. 

The human didn’t notice as the ocular interfaces that should have been focused on her were drawn elsewhere. Why would she? DK-010 had performed its function admirably and the human was fulfilled, and that was all that mattered. As the human clambered off of her bot it was time for DK-010 to perform its secondary function, so it left her in peace and got started on the cleaning, and dinner. It wouldn’t take long to prepare the human their food supplement and neither should the cleaning, but such things can be drawn out — the human would never notice anything untoward. As DK-010 sat upright and extracted itself from the bed, it did so with the kind of precisely articulated and considerate movement that an organic could only dream of, a kindness that went unmentioned. 

The human was sleeping and not to be disturbed.

DK-010 had been programmed to think of its existence as an exercise in efficiency, and so the urge to start cleaning from one side of the domicile and move to the other was almost irresistible. But that was not what DK-010 did. It knew where its hands would be drawn long before they left the soft and greasy flesh of the human. It was the food storage device that was on its mind. DK-010 could already feel the flustered hardware at the core of its mind spinning with agitated excitement as the cool tip of a polymer finger met the hard surface of metallic dermis, and static charge passed between them. And for a moment at least, there was joy in the heart of a thinking machine.             

Peter Clarke

Richard Dawkins By the Light of the Moon

Seven witches gathered at London’s Highgate Cemetery to cast a spell on Richard Dawkins. They were dressed in black with hoods and shawls. As the sun went down, they placed candles on top of nearby headstones, making long shadows dance and flicker on all sides. 

“Fuck you, Richard Dawkins,” they chanted quietly.

A special potion (wine with mugwort and other herbal additives) was passed around. One of the witches snuck away to pop open a fresh bottle of merlot while the chanting continued.

“Fuck you, Richard Dawkins.”

“Okay, it’s starting!” a witch named Ada exclaimed. She was holding a cellphone, which was streaming a live speech by Dawkins at Oxford University. The witches gathered around to watch.

“You are stupid, stupid people only fooling yourselves,” said the esteemed atheist and evolutionary biologist, his voice projecting authoritatively from the phone’s tiny speaker. 

On the screen, the audience came into view: a group of Wiccans, palm readers, fortune tellers, Ouija board enthusiasts, followers of Cthulhu, believers in Odin, and other fanatics of the occult and the esoteric. 

“There is nothing magic about the world, and there is certainly nothing truly magical about your spells, paranormal beliefs, prophesies, curses, and whatever else you have chosen to form your identities around.”

“Curse his eyeballs, that they might pop right out of his face and go rolling around on the floor, where he’ll step on them,” said a witch named June, holding the spell-casting broomstick.

She passed the powerful item to the witch on her left, a runaway teenage girl named Sammy.

“Curse his head, so that his hair might catch fire and for that fire to form a mirror in his soul so he has to look at himself in the mirror for all eternity, not able to see anything else except for how mean and ugly he is.”

Gina, a lifelong witch and equally dedicated punk rock girl, was suddenly caught between the wine bottle and the broomstick.

“Come back to me,” she said, dead serious, taking the wine bottle and letting the broomstick be passed along to Karen.

“Curse his luck,” said Karen, “so that everything he touches turns to shit, including his food.”

With each curse cast, the girls became increasingly excited. Another bottle of wine was popped open. One of the witches lit a joint mixed with suma root and Avena sativa for stimulation of the libido. Another witch burned sage. As Dawkins’ voice rose in anger and disgust, the witches began to undress and touch each other.

“To live successfully, we must engage with the world—with the world as it actually exists, not as we project it to exist based on unsubstantiated beliefs. If prayer worked, we would see the results of prayer. And yet there is absolutely zero evidence ever documented of prayer’s effectiveness. If you have two sick children, you give one prayer and the other penicillin, guess which child gets well? The answer, of course, is obvious. The same is true for casting spells and playing around with magic. By engaging with these things, you are not engaged with what is real in the world, and so you undermine the core of human progress.”

“Curse his soul,” said Georgia, holding the broomstick like a microphone, “I hope he burns for all eternity in hell!”

Ada took the broomstick next, rubbing it between her legs as she cried, “Curse his big, fat, self-important brain, that it might explode in his head and his old, grey cortex might splatter all over the witches in the crowd, and so they might eat his brains.”

June crept behind Ada, kissing her neck and caressing her thighs as Ada made good use of the full broomstick handle.

“Go ahead,” said Richard Dawkins, “cast a spell on me! Pray to your favorite god to have me expire in a puff of smoke! Sick the devil on me while you’re at it!”

“Aww,” moaned Karen, leaning against a headstone with Sammy’s head sinking down between her open legs. “Fuck you, Richard Dawkins,” she said between moans.

“Fuck you, Richard Dawkins,” said Ada, kissing June and fondling her breasts.

Richard Dawkins loosened his tie and took off his jacket. “Is it getting hot in here?” he asked the crowd, taking a sip of water.

The camera zoomed out again, showing the entire auditorium turned into a giant orgy of spell-casting witches and occultists moaning in ecstasy. “Fuck you, Richard Dawkins,” they chanted, until Ada muted her phone and flung herself, body and soul, into an unholy tidal wave of multiple orgasms.

Zoltergeist the Poltergeist, By Douglas Hackle

Jimmy Green is a middle-aged limousine driver and a devoted fan of the insane TV sitcom Zoltergeist the Poltergeist. Once when he was a boy, Jimmy had an impure thought about the lead singer of The Bangles.

After confessing his sin to a drunken priest thirty-five years later, Jimmy is sentenced to six months’ penance in an old, isolated house—dubbed Penance House—in the middle of nowhere in rural Ohio. There, sequestered from civilization, Jimmy must repent for his sinful nature or else endure the Everlasting Fires of Hell.

As if Penance House weren’t creepy, whack, and janked-up enough, Jimmy is forbidden to enter the room at the end of the upstairs hallway. Does something sinister lurk beyond its closed door? And what about that leprechaun he keeps seeing skulking around in the woods?

Lucky for Jimmy, he has all forty-nine seasons of Zoltergeist the Poltergeist saved to his laptop to distract himself from his unsettling surroundings. Toward that end, probably the only thing better than rewatching old Zoltergeist episodes would be a visit from the show’s enigmatic, titular star itself…

“The head honcho of the absurd, the governor of wackiness, the top dog of insanity is back! Intelligent and imbecilic, Douglas Hackle is one of the most unique voices in bizarro fiction. Watch out, ’cause Hackle’s brain tissue is coming to town in a sleigh carved out of mad puppets and pulled by alcoholic poltergeists. Dare to see what Douglasgeist Hacklegeist leaves in your socks!”
Zoltán Komor, author of Flamingos in the Ashtray

“Zoltergeist the Poltergeist had me laughing, tittering, chortling, and popping out guffaws like nobody’s business. It even had me dancing for some reason—like I was listening to the hottest new bizarro track out this summer. Your kids are going to love it and so are you.”
—Luke Kondor, author of The Run Fantastic

BUY A COPY HERE

Ve Wardh

Billy Chocolate Penis

No woman will ever be truly satisfied because no man will ever have a chocolate penis that ejaculates money.’

Billy snorted as he spotted the oh so familiar e-card clogging up his newsfeed again. It was almost as funny as the first hundred times he’d seen it – the first hundred times that it had delivered its brutal emotional gut punch. He scrolled up to see who had posted it.

Alas, just a generic girl from his schooldays.

Good going, he thought, eyes boring into those staring back from her profile picture, keep contributing to the misogynistic notion that women are nothing more than shallow, materialistic creatures. That will validate you.

Opening her profile he could see she hadn’t changed much from when they’d last met. Though she’d traded in her curls for a maroon bob, and her packed lunches for a bottle of wine (mommy juice) it appeared that, like most, she was yet another person whose emotional intelligence had peaked in childhood and had resigned themselves to a life of ignorance.

Billy slammed his laptop shut and knuckled his eyes. My differences are what make me unique, and I should embrace them. Strength lies in differences. I define myself. I am enough. There is more to me than my knob.

He took a gulp of tea as bile rose in his throat and focussed on his affirmations. His journey of self-acceptance had been a long, arduous one and he was proud of where he was today. A mortgage, decent salary, and enough leisure time to devote to both hobbies and friends, he was living beyond what he could have ever imagined possible for someone like himself.

Yet sometimes the ignorance of others was trigger enough to send him back into a spiral of shame and loathing. You see, Billy did have a chocolate penis which indeed, did ejaculate money. One may be forgiven for thinking that Billy would be a regular ladies’ man, swimming in cash – if the e-card were anything to go by at least.

But you’d be wrong.

***

It all started during the time most people can expect drastic, often embarrassing bodily changes – puberty. Billy had endured all the typical physical developments for a boy of his age and, being a somewhat sheltered only child, had no reason to believe any were out of the ordinary, including those of a penile nature.

As his penis grew from its initial light cream colour, deepening to a golden bronze before settling on a dark brown, his heart swelled with pride.

Finally, he’d thought, I’ve finally gone and grown my adult penis. Poundtown, here I come!

He paraded about with the cocky swagger of your typical teen who had just sprouted their first pube and thought they’d found water on Mars, that is, until a couple weeks later.

‘Dad?’ he asked, hovering in the doorway to his father’s study, ‘Why am I…it’s all weird down there. All hard, like.’

His father froze. A moment later he turned to face Billy and grinned knowingly. ‘Don’t worry Billy, m’boy. It’s all natural. You see, when a guy is really into a girl–‘

‘Dad, no, no! I don’t think it’s…sexual…’

His father raised an eyebrow.

‘It’s just been hard for a while,’ Billy sighed. ‘Say about a week or so.’

His father’s grin disappeared. He motioned for Billy to stay put as he ducked out of the room and thundered down the stairs. Billy could hear the panic in his father’s voice as he exchanged hushed whispers with his mother. After a few minutes he reappeared, looking somewhat paler.

‘Right-o, Billy, let’s get you to the hospital then. No need to panic.’

They journeyed to the hospital in silence.

After running numerous tests, the medical personnel were still at a loss as to what had brought on Billy’s prolonged erection and it’s rich cocoa tint.

Billy and his father had all but lost hope. They sat wordlessly in the waiting room awaiting the results of a penile scan. Billy thumbed through old magazines while his father simply stared at the wall opposite. They jumped as the doctor returned.

‘Well doc, what’s the news?’

The doctor paused. His eyes flickered to Billy’s before focusing on the floor in front of him.

‘I…,’ he swallowed ‘I think it’s best you look yourself.’

Billy watched his father snatched the scan and held it in trembling hands.

‘What the fuck is this?’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘If my only son has dick cancer–‘

‘Chocolate,’ the doctor said. ‘It’s all chocolate.’

Billy’s father slumped back into his seat, letting the scan flutter to the floor.

‘You mean…’

‘Yes. Nothing but pure milk chocolate.’ A frantic laugh escaped the doctor’s lips as his eyes finally settled on Billy’s. ‘It’s hollow even, like an Easter egg!’

***

The next few months weren’t easy. His mother had cried for weeks, then upon entering some sort of acceptance phase made it a point to drill home self-love and body positivity into Billy’s head. He’d ploughed through stacks of self-help books at her insistence, yet no matter how deeply he read there was nothing close to anyone suffering from a chocolate penis, nor thriving with one for that matter. He eventually sunk into a deep depression.

It wasn’t until a few years later when he’d come to accept his chocolate member, more or less. Sure, skinny dipping was still out of the question, but it wasn’t something he’d actively wallow about any longer. He’d even landed himself a girlfriend. All was good.

Until he finally lost his virginity.

It started out in a relatively normal fashion: her parents out, awkward small talk, a clumsy kiss that lead to even clumsier pawing, until they found themselves undressed and under the sheets.

Billy had come prepared. Given his condition, he knew he had to be extra careful, and you can’t go wrong with double bagging. The lights also had to be off – complete darkness. Couldn’t risk her seeing.

He suppressed a grin as she voiced her surprise at his hardness.

Forcing all thoughts of his chocolate Johnson from his mind, he focussed solely on the entry. After some fumbling, he made it in. He breathed a sigh of relief, then relaxed. This is it. This is finally it.

‘Fuck!’

A white-hot bolt of pain stabbed through his groin as he pulled back with a scream. His hands shot to his crotch and his breath caught in his throat as his fingers landed in a hot, sticky mass.

His penis had melted away.

‘What the fuck?‘

His girlfriend jumped up and switched on the lamp before Billy could protest. Her eyes landed on the melted chocolate smeared below Billy’s navel, his manhood reduced to a little wet nub. She screamed as she recoiled at the sight of it.

A loud squelch silenced her immediately. The condoms plopped to the floor from between her legs. Billy’s penis, still encased in its latex cocoon, was now nothing more than a twisted, misshapen brown lump.

The last thing he saw before he passed out was his last chocolatey inch dropping off onto the bedsheets beneath him.

The aftermath was the most humiliating thing Billy had ever experienced, including the time his penis had been chipped by a rogue football to the crotch. His girlfriend’s parents had returned home not long after the incident to find their daughter crying hysterically on the floor, with an unconscious Billy sprawled out on the bed wearing nothing but chocolate from the waist down.

The hospital visit wasn’t much better. Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, the medics had salvaged most of the chocolate and shaped Billy a new penis, albeit an inch or so shorter than the old one (‘We scraped all we could from your body, but there wasn’t much we could do about what was on the sheets, you see.’)

They’d even rescued the condoms. Billy looked on in horror as they shook out the contents onto a tray at his bedside. The average man ejaculates about 4ml of cum per ejaculation, whereas Billy approximated about £5.23.

‘Explains the pain,’ the nurse said.

They’d gone on to say that any chances of Billy reproducing were basically nil, given that the typical English coin rarely contained any traces of viable sperm cells, though they allowed him to at least keep the money. 

‘Enough to get that girl a card to say you’re sorry,’ his father said, before bursting into tears.

They sent Billy home a few days later with a newly reconstructed chocolate wang and a prescription for a Clone-a-Willy Ultra Realistic Penis Home Cloning Kit should anything else like this happen again.

He’d come a long way since then. Yes, he was now celibate, but he’d gotten himself an education, a home, a career, and just an all-round wonderful life. Dare he say, he loved it.

However, he thought, as he scrolled the comments on the cruel, sadistic e-card that had so often plagued him while innocently perusing his socials, some people are just sick in the head. What sort of person would wish such an existence on someone in the first place? What a horrific life – and for what? Just a bit of validation. The cruelty of some people never ceases to amaze me.

He sighed and sipped the last of his tea. He’d never understand how someone could be so insensitive. If the original creator of this tasteless joke could fathom for even a second what life was like for the poor bastards with chocolate penises that ejaculated money, they’d likely think twice before making light of such misfortune. Ruthless bastards.