Smoking Herb & Other Stories, By John D Robinson

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John D. Robinson returns with ‘Smoking Herb & Other Stories’, his first collection of short fiction from Analog Submission Press.

A5 saddle stitched chapbook. Lovingly handmade, hand stamped, and hand numbered. 3 stories over 20 pages. Limited to 25 copies. Printed on an old Canon laser printer we found abandoned at a dump site.

Out April 10th. Pre-orders welcomed. £4.00 + shipping.

BUY A COPY HERE

David Sprehe

Dog’s Day

Sunday. God’s day. Misty, gorgeous, redheaded, freckle speckled Misty, naked and on her knees, spread out a large stained blanket on the living room floor. Jesus, her German Shepard, watched, tongue out, thick bushy tail thumping the green carpet. Misty hadn’t bathed since Friday and her crotch put off a killer reek. Jesus whined. A shudder ran up his spine and down his front paws. He gave a muffled, frustrated woof.

Misty giggled, and wagged her jiggly ass.

Peeking over her shoulder, she saw Jesus’s pink cock rocket poking from its sheath. She crawled over, and gave the tip a lick. Precum spurted in her mouth. She tongued his wet nose, tasting dog snot, then crab crawled back, bitch giving a teaser. Jesus leaned into the smell. She laid out on the blanket, propping pillows under her ass. She spread her legs.

“Come, Jesus,” she said.

Eager Jesus shot over. Breath caught in Misty’s throat as Jesus painted her slit with his slobber, his long, wide tongue rolling along with master artistry.

“Good boy, Jesus, oh fuck, good boy Jesus, lick mommy, oh good, good boy,” she said squeezing her droopy titties and thinking of suckling pups, thinking of love and Holiest Sweet God in a woman’s best buddy. Jesus’s tongue tickled her butthole. She squeaked.

Her toes started in to curl. Her stomach reddened, prickling along her folds. She put her hands under Jesus’s snout and lifted his head.

“Mount,” she said.

Jesus stepped over her legs, his penis unsheathed and quivering like plucked guitar string. Drops of stanky, goopy pre-seminal drippage wetted her bushy crotch. She wrapped her legs around his rump and guided his pulsing cock with her hands. His heat entered her, fever-like heat spreading up through her guts. Jesus collapsed on top of her. His dog dick knotted, swelling. Spooge flowed, filling her cunt.

“I’m your bitch, Jesus. Breed,” she said. Jesus’s wiener stretched her pussy, like a white-hot sun expanding inside her, until, moaning, they tied off, woman and canine locked in a cock-poon clutch. Tingles ran over Misty. She wiggled, and farted. Warmth of gushing seminal fluid, dog nestled between her sagging tits. Jesus licked her face. She played with her clit, swollen hot dog dong inside, her finger motions, and stroking her lover’s fur, digging her nails back along her lover’s skin. Her chin dripped with Jesus’s spit. Her ass tensed, rhythmic pelvis motion, rubbing her belly against his. She held his head and licked his mouth, licked his teeth, his gums, dancing tongues, sucking spit and dog breath, her body beaded in sweat. Heaven is a place on earth.

Misty’s fuck hole filled, Jesus’s dick shrank. Jesus backed up, and began lapping the overflow. Misty smiled, rubbing Jesus’s head, her bladder releasing on a residual twitch, urine dribbling onto the pillows. Jesus loved her piss.

“Perfect angels,” she said propped on her elbow and playing with her nipple. Jesus knitted his eyebrows and looked up at her.

“Our puppies would be angels.”

Leah Mueller

The Proposition

If your uncle yammers for hours about alcoholism, and how it fucked up the entire family, you don’t expect him to take you to a dive bar afterward.

Crazy Scorpio guy. Henry was obsessive and had the goods on everybody. The previous evening, he’d driven me around my grandmother Mildred’s neighborhood, pointing out the hidden skeletons behind every door. Mildred lived in the wealthy North Bay section of Racine, Wisconsin. She played bridge with Johnson Wax executives and voted a straight Republican ticket.

Henry pulled up in front of the most expensive house on the block and idled for a full minute. “Real can of worms in this place,” he said, without elaborating.

Mildred seemed happy to go to the bar with us, though she usually drank at home. She’d nursed her second husband through senility until the bitter end and was having a great time without him. I didn’t blame her. Henry Sr., a racist, sleazy dentist, had a bad temper and a poor sense of humor. All of us were better off with him gone.

At 29, I was always glad to visit a bar, even one in Racine. Henry had talked non-stop since I arrived at Mildred’s house two nights beforehand. I’d paid her an impromptu visit, just so I could flee Chicago for the weekend. As soon as I saw Henry, I regretted my decision, but now it was too late.

Aunt Donna had left Henry for another man, so he’d gone home to live with his mother. My uncle’s old bedroom featured zebra skin rugs and African spears. Mildred’s twisted idea of  boy’s room décor. She’d picked up these items during transcontinental excursions, when her son was still young and impressionable.

Henry married Donna, his high school sweetheart, a couple of days after graduation. The two of them looked like two mid-1960s caricatures of young adults. Henry sported a stylish crew cut and Donna wore tight capris. They adored each other.

This arrangement sufficed for many years, until the couple’s inevitable midlife crisis. Donna went nuts, drinking and crying and screaming and fucking other men. She had a breakdown and spent a few weeks in a mental hospital.

Henry had already devoted several hours to the task of warning me about the destruction alcohol wreaked upon families. A bar would be a nice change of pace. I climbed in the back of Mildred’s Lincoln Continental and stared out the window.

My uncle fidgeted in the passenger seat. “You sure you want to go?” A weaselly attempt to walk back the invitation and avoid responsibility. Typical Henry behavior.

Mildred smirked. “Of course, or we wouldn’t be here.” She turned the key, and her engine roared to life.

We headed straight downtown and pulled up in front of a dive. Multicolored neon lights shone on the hood of my grandmother’s Lincoln. Mildred killed the engine and climbed from her vehicle, slamming the door. “I’m ready for a drink.”

“Don’t worry, I’m buying.” Henry sidled up to the bar and waved his hands until the bartender came over. The poor man looked ancient. Most likely the owner, but jobs were scarce in Racine.

“Um, O’Doul’s for me,” Henry said. “Mother?”

“I will have a Manhattan,” Mildred said, in the imperious tone she reserved for drink orders.

The bartender glanced at me, and I deliberated. “You got Point on tap? I’ll take one, please.”

The delicious local brew sold in Madison’s college bars for two bucks a pitcher during happy hour. I didn’t share Mildred’s love of hard liquor, preferring to drink for quantity.

On the other hand, my grandmother could really put it away. She tossed back her Manhattan and signaled for another. The aged bartender picked up a bottle and a glass and began his arduous task of pouring and mixing.

Mildred’s eyes traveled down the bar and came to rest upon a middle-aged man. He sat at the far end, nursing a can of Old Style. Handsome but tired-looking, the fellow appeared to be in his late 50’s. At least 20 years younger than Mildred, who planned to celebrate her 80th birthday in April.

My grandmother already had a new boyfriend named Clay—a millionaire who took her dancing every Friday. Mildred had made no promises of fidelity. She leaned over the bar and squeezed my arm. “He’s cute,” she said in a stage whisper. “Don’t you think so?”

“I guess.” I gazed down at my glass. Henry had revealed that Mildred was almost broke. She’d burned through two million dollars and was down to her last $100,000. It still seemed like a lot of money to me. My college fund had gone into my grandparents’ expensive liquor glasses, a few dollars at a time.

College was bullshit anyway. I took a gulp of beer and stared straight ahead. Harry sat on my left and nursed his can of O’Doul’s. He appeared to be deep in thought. It was a welcome switch from his usual mindless chatter.

Suddenly, Mildred draped her body across the bar’s Formica surface and gestured towards the man. “Hey, handsome,” she slurred.

Looking startled, the man raised his head and slowly rotated in her direction. Mildred flashed him a lascivious grin. “What are your feelings about oral sex?”

My grandmother’s voice was so loud that the bartender almost dropped her Manhattan. Undeterred, Mildred continued to lounge on the counter like an octopus, her long limbs scattered willy-nilly amongst the ashtrays and empty glasses.

The man’s eyes grew huge, and his mouth fell open. After a moment, he composed himself. “It depends.”

Henry burst into laughter. He set down his beer can and covered his mouth with his hands, but the guffaws escaped through his fingers anyway. Rivulets of beer streamed from his nose.

I gaped at Mildred, horrified. The concept of her as a sexual being had never occurred to me. Like a couple in a 1960s sitcom, she and Henry Sr. had shared separate beds for years. I’d often helped my grandmother clean the conjugal bedroom. She’d tried, in vain, to teach me how to construct hospital corners with her crisp, imported sheets.

Mildred shrugged. “I need to visit the ladies’ room. Be right back.” She rose to her feet and staggered towards the rear of the bar.

I leaned towards Henry. “I’m afraid she came on a bit too strong.”

Henry emitted a final snort, then shook his head. “She prefers the direct approach.”

I swiveled on my barstool and turned my back on Mildred’s would-be paramour. Most likely, he didn’t relish the sight of our dysfunctional family—three generations of social misfits, all lined up and staring at him like vultures. The poor guy was entitled to some privacy.

After a moment, Mildred wandered back into the room. She sank into her seat, then rotated in a clockwise direction, hoping to attract the man’s attention again. Feeling apprehensive, I allowed my eyes to travel slowly towards his end of the bar. I didn’t want him to think Mildred’s seduction was a family affair—some sort of unholy foursome, too ghastly to imagine.

His seat was empty. An abandoned can of Old Style remained on the counter, beside a half-drained glass. The man had tucked a couple of dollars underneath an ashtray and wandered off into the winter’s night.

My grandmother sighed. “I guess he got cold feet.” She raised a hand and signaled the bartender. “Another Manhattan, please.”

The bartender scuttled towards the sink for another glass. His face assumed an implacable expression. The man had undoubtedly seen some weird shit during his years behind the bar. “A bit stronger this time,” Mildred snapped. “The last one was weak.”

“I think you scared that poor fellow,” I said.

“Who? The guy at the end of the bar? He wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman.” Mildred accepted her drink from the bartender and took a hearty gulp. “That’s all right. I’ll find someone who will.”

I didn’t doubt it. Mildred always got what she wanted, one way or another. In an hour or so, we’d return to her palatial home. The Lincoln would idle on my grandmother’s pink driveway for a few seconds. Then Mildred would guide her vehicle into the garage and retire to her pink bedroom.

The woman loved pink, and she finally had it all to herself—as soon as Henry Jr. moved into his new apartment. Friday was only a few days away. Clay would come over with a dozen roses and his usual invitation for a steak dinner and ballroom dancing. Meanwhile, in the dark of her bedroom, Mildred might conjure up an image of her fantasy lover. If she even cared or managed to remember.

Matthew Licht

Take It Off and Say Goodbye

Derek’s girlfriend Yvonne was a stripper. She danced two nights a week at Joe Rae’s, on 6th Avenue and 24th Street. Joe Rae took one look and gave her Fridays and Saturdays. She also danced out in Queens, and at another place in Jersey City. She kept her tits and ass busy.

Derek and I worked together, but we weren’t bankers or lawyers or doctors. We were editors at a weekly sex newspaper.

Derek was of medium height, skinny, dressed in black. He wore near-opaque sunglasses, even at night. There used to be a million guys like him in New York. I always thought Yvonne should’ve been involved with someone more interesting. Like me, for instance.

Yvonne’s hair was like neatly stacked marine rope. She was from Illinois, and had a bit of a heroin problem. She’d nod off at odd times and there was a slight, constant trickle from her upturned nose, but it didn’t seem like anything to go into rehab about.

As the sex newspaper’s Art Director, my job was to look at pussy all day. That wasn’t enough, so I went to Joe Rae’s topless bar nearly every night. There’s a big difference between pictures and the real thing, even if all you get to do is look. Though it wasn’t strictly legal, Joe Rae’s girls would pull aside their G-strings for a dollar. If they’d seen you around, or if they liked your face, they’d work finger-magic. Some nights, a low-tide tang clung to my beard like fog.

Pussy’s nice to look at. I guess I like looking at it more than dealing with it. But it wasn’t just pussy that kept me coming back to Joe Rae’s. I really loved his place.

Joe Rae was an old hippie, even older than me. He stuffed the jukebox with Cream, Hendrix and the Stones. Some of the dancers complained there was no disco or Latin. Joe gave them quarters and bills to feed the glowing slot, and strippers became adolescent girls in a department store who’ve been told they can have all the makeup they want for free.

Drinks at Joe Rae’s cost the same as at normal dives. The girls never asked, but you could buy them a drink and they’d sit with you to while they drank.

The decor at Joe Rae’s hadn’t changed since it’d been an Italian social club. The red flocked wallpaper was sticky to the touch, and hung with amateurish oils of Palermo and Naples. There was also a picture of a young man who was killed in Korea.

That hand-tinted photograph bothered me sometimes: a guy in uniform, with a toothy smile and sad eyes, all geared up to kill commies overseas. They killed him instead. Born in New York, 1930, died at Inchon, 1952, Corporal Joseph DeRamo might’ve been tickled from beyond the grave that his shrine was in a topless bar. It always seemed kind of strange that Ma and Pa DeRamo hadn’t taken their boy’s picture with them when they closed up shop. Maybe they left abruptly, for the place where you can’t bring anything along. I asked Joe Rae, but he didn’t know his place’s history. The rolling metal shutters had been down a long time when he bought it.

Bikers sold crank at the Teddy Bare. Boob-job skells hustled ginger ale champagne at the Pla-Z-Boy. It cost ten bucks just to get past the threadbare velvet rope at Limoncello’s. Joe Rae’s had no such drawbacks. I never got diarrhea from the free-buffet meatballs. The men’s room wasn’t a gay pick-up scene, not that there’s anything wrong with it. Even the bouncers acted friendly.

Not all Joe Rae’s women were as beautiful as Yvonne, but some of them were real dancers, and it was nice to be there just to watch them move. A Canadian amazon who could touch the back of her head with the soles of her feet stayed in town long enough to get me obsessed. I handed over ten-dollar bills until one night she was gone.

There were junkie girls, and ladies who looked like they’d carve you up with a  razor for whatever was in your pocket.

Joe Rae gave big women a chance. Baby Blue looked like she was carved from a block of cellulite, but she was a crowd-pleaser. She shimmied hard for her finale. Cottage cheese crammed into flesh-colored pantyhose vibrated and shook while the sweat sprayed. She was powdered with stardust, but I never asked how she got home, or where that home might be.

Yvonne told Joe Rae she didn’t want to strip any more. She’d decided she wanted to get into the music business.

The founder and publisher of the sex newspaper heard of Yvonne’s career dreams through her boyfriend, Derek. Our boss had a soft spot for his employees’ girlfriends, especially the ones who may or may not have blown him for a hundred bucks in the stairwell at one of the XXX-mas parties he threw every year, attendance mandatory. The big man said Yvonne must have a farewell party at Joe Rae’s, and that he would sponsor the event.

The editorial offices of the sex newspaper were on 14th Street. They occupied a high floor with sweeping views of midtown Manhattan. The walls were covered with obscene graffiti left by contributing cartoonists and illustrators.

My office was next to Derek’s. We spoke to each other through open doors, but not that often. Since he had a year or two of college English under his belt, he turned our illiterate employer’s ramblings into sentences and paragraphs. He drew from readers’ deliria and edited stories from outside writers on an Army Surplus electric typewriter. Derek had created the publication’s voice.

The paper’s scumbag look was my baby. I dropped out of Art School. The black-and-white pictures came from inexhaustible battleship-gray file cabinets.

Our boss ran the operation with his own money. He was the one who went to prison when The Man said he must, which was often.

A few women worked at the sex weekly. Miss Gloria was the boss’ long-suffering personal assistant. A slightly addled Jewish lady handled accounting and advertising. Long tall Cindy did the cut-and-paste layouts. She was from Florida.

The entire staff was practically ordered to attend Miss Yvonne’s Farewell to the Stripper Life party.

The affair started at nine. Everyone went home to change into festive attire. In my case, a basement dump in Brooklyn and the last shirt left with a collar, which had grown tight.

The underground scene was represented by a grizzled poet and a director of nudie art films. Vinnie the Bouncer stood at the door and told the businessmen and college guys, “Sorry, we got a private party tonight. Joe Rae’ll buy you a beer next time.”

What went on at Yvonne’s goodbye party was the same as what went on any other night, except the drinks were free. Felt like in a dream I had, a nightmare, I guess, in which New York City was Hell. The only things different were that the subway was free and there was no Statue of Liberty in the burning harbor.

At midnight, Yvonne would do her last show. Then, like a princess in a fairy tale, she’d disappear and keep her clothes on forever after.

We ripped into the greasy spread, catered by the boss’ favorite deli. Free liquor made things jollier. Cindy the Paste-up Girl, who’d held onto her Florida accent, talked about how she used to hit Plato’s Cave every weekend, before Town Hall shut the place down.

She seemed wistful, as though the swinger scene had been some glorious chapter in human history.

There were so many women like her in town, loose and slightly nuts. They can’t all own art galleries or run ad agencies. New York was a Hell for dashed female aspirations.

Yvonne emerged from the toilet. The other girls onstage applauded and lingered briefly to fondle her. Hendrix played “Little Wing” from the jukebox.

Hendrix was dead. So many evenings I’d sat there thinking that this was what it was all about, in the end. Joy and rage and thinking things could be different boiled down to thighs spread for a dollar.

Yvonne went all the way. Her G-string flew. Decency laws exploded. She backed up against the mirror wall streaked with femme-grease, spread her legs and sank down slow.

Goodbye to being young. Goodbye to whatever it was that everyone thought was supposed to happen. Goodbye to the idea that dropping out could lead somewhere good. Goodbye to topless bars.

The music biz, in Yvonne’s case, turned out to be selling used records at Bleecker Billy’s.

There was a positive side to her career change, though. She met a skaggy guitar player and dumped Derek. At least I thought it was positive.

Yvonne’s last move on that final night was a backwards bend-over. I didn’t want to see her go. I couldn’t have her. She wouldn’t be mine. I asked, once.

Turned out I couldn’t have Joe Rae’s, either. The laws changed, and the place went through a brief bikini-dance phase, but not many guys will tip girls in bathing suits on the off-chance that a nipple will pop out. There’s hornier stuff on television.

Joe Rae, unlike Yvonne, had no last hurrah. He didn’t sell his business, he closed it. Or maybe he tried to sell the place. I heard he moved to Mexico.

The green awning out front said Joe Rae’s Topless. Then for a while it said Joe Rae’s STopless, with the S hand-painted on, not even stenciled. The wind tore the awning, and it flapped like a flag. It still said STopless, but it wasn’t true.

Matthew Licht

A Pipe Dream

The sound of waves and roller coaster screams came in through the bathroom window in Niv’s motel room: my favorite place in the world. I’d hose down my wetsuit and shake the Pacific chill in the shower, hang out in the steam to watch the sun go down and the fog roll in.

Niv lived at the Tramonto Motel with his Iranian girlfriend. Her family ran a Persian restaurant up in San Francisco. They disapproved of their daughter’s lifestyle choices, but they sent money. Her brother rolled back and forth between the States and Tehran. He always had opium. The restaurant connection was a perfect cover. He shipped the dope in bottles of pomegranate syrup. He came down to Santa Cruz often, to visit his sister and get stoned with her and her friends.

His name rhymed with Ay-rab, so that’s what I called him. He’d get hot, and sputter that Iranians weren’t arabs, like anyone cared. I can’t remember his sister’s name, or if it rhymed with anything.

Ay-rab was nice to look at. He and his sister worked on their tans in minimal Euro-style beachwear while Niv and I caught waves. Back at the motel, she’d cook Iranian dinners and we’d blow opium. The motel was built to look like an ocean liner, with portholes for windows and fake smokestacks on the roof. The room smelled of poppy resin, and pomegranate syrup cooking down.

Big Dan dropped by with his sister Kath. She was new in town, fresh from a divorce or a less formal break-up with some black guy over in Stockton.

Kath was wearing one of her brother’s sweatshirts, about four sizes too big. Her shorts made her thighs bulge when they didn’t have to. Flowery flipflops showed off her blackened soles and toenails. When she pulled down the hood it looked like someone had gone over her hair with bacon rinds. Smelled that way, too.

Motel room rhymes with womb and tomb. Kath squatted down to hit the pipe, and didn’t even ask what was in it. An intimate whiff of herself blended in with opium smoke and Iran grub. I stared, and got lost in a stoned dream of her soaping up in the shower not far away.

Big Dan shot an ugly look. He was close to seven feet tall, weighed over two hundred pounds. He was the human hydraulic lift at a garage on the outskirts of town. He reamed out corroded pistons with his bare hands, or his hard cock. Lay off my sister, the look said. She’s in a bad place right now. 

Opium bugs crawled around like a family of cockroaches under my skin, which felt like a wetsuit. Dreams rolled in like waves and mist from the ocean.

Niv changed records. His olive-skinned lady brought in dinner and we ate it on the floor.

Ay-rab seemed really interested in what Big Dan had to say about slant-six engine blocks. He opened his caramel-colored eyes wide, and wagged his head slightly off the beat from the speakers.

Kath rose shakily to go to the bathroom. She came back with a flush fanfare and dropped down again, slightly closer than she’d been before. I handed her the pipe. She showed a chipped front tooth when she smiled.

Niv’s woman took her shirt off. Those two were real make-out artists.

Big Dan was explaining what ring job meant. Ay-rab scratched, nodded, blinked and mouthed oh wow. He packed more opium into the pipe with a little knife.

“You’ve got good hair,” I told Kath. “But you don’t treat it right. Look at you: no body, bounce or sheen.”

She shrugged, scratched her crotch. She had sorrows to forget, pain to medicate. She put Zippo to pipe-hole and sucked in deep.

Looked like a movie flickering on a distant screen when I reached out to flick a limp strand.  Kath said quit it, like we were back in fourth grade. So I flicked her again.

Then I must’ve nodded out. I was in a sideshow: The Man in the Chicken-Wire Cage Full of Snakes. My job was to sit there barely even breathing while cottonmouths, copperheads, fat rattlers and cobras crept and crawled. Suckers in Sunday clothes paid a quarter for a look and a shiver. A Gaboon viper flicked his forked tongue, sensed a carotid artery neaby and lunged. But if I panicked, all the other snakes would sink their fangs in.

Kath’s breath pulled me out of the snake-pit. “What is this stuff, anyway? Got me all sleepy.”

The only light was a beam from under the utility kitchen door and the stereo’s green glow. Niv and his motel wife humped away to the drone music under a mound of sleeping bags, blankets and clothes on the motel bed. The heap rose and fell in the gloom. The springs creaked in tune with their breaths and moans.

Ay-rab and Big Dan were off in Dreamland, fascinated by the live love show.

“Kath, let’s face it: your hair’s a mess. You’re a mess. Let’s hit the shower and see what we can do. Come on.”

She tripped over her brother’s legs. We bumped the bed. I locked the bathroom door. The dim bathroom light seemed surgical after the motel room’s gloom. I unscrewed one of the lightbulbs over the mirror at the sink. Kath held her arms up like a kid so I could pull the dirty sweatshirt over her head. Her tits flopped and bounced. Cool air from the open window stiffened her nipples.

A black mamba went for my jugular vein.

Kath’s shorts hit the floor. No panties. Female funk filled the air. I stripped like getting naked was no big deal, turned the knob, checked the temperature, pulled her into the stall.

Niv’s woman had barrels of hair-care products stockpiled in there. I moved Kath around like a doll, kept her nose and mouth out of the spray so she wouldn’t drown. I became the hairdresser who’d make her look like the girl in the shampoo ad of her dreams.

Green gunk oozed from one of the bottles. I massaged it into her scalp. Gray foam formed, like roadside slush-monsters seen from bus windows back East. Rinse and repeat, apply conditioner and let it steam. Steam was fine, but smoke was better. I pulled Kath from the shower, sat her on the sink. “Don’t move,” I said.

A needle skated uselessly on black vinyl. Niv and his woman were still screwing like dogs. Ay-rab was sucking Big Dan’s big dick. He was good at it. I almost stayed to watch, but grabbed the pipe and a lighter instead.

Kath had slumped forward on the sink.

She sucked the smoke hungrily.

“It’s working,” she whispered. “It’s like I can feel my hair coming alive.”

Like snakes. Medusa. Men turn to rock.

There was a chrome blowdryer on the shelf, and a pair of scissors.

A yellow butterfly tattoo on Kath’s left shoulder showed in the clouded mirror. I hit the pipe and began to snip.

Kath took another big hit and pulled me into her face to shotgun the smoke. She had teeth missing. She squirmed, bucked her hips, moaned she needed love, bad.

But I had a haircut to finish. My ears filled with invisible music. My hands flew.

The mirror cleared, and showed the unholy mess I’d made of Kath’s head.

Her cement-boned brother Big Dan was in the next room. Outside, mist rolled in off the Pacific. Waves roared in darkness. Sharks glided just below their surface.

Better re-fog the mirror. Steam billowed from the shower like a dream of incense-breathing dragons.

Kath, limp with romance, glamour and opium, let herself be dragged back into the stall.

“Let’s get the stray hairs off you, or you’ll be itchy all over.”

New boys in the Marine Corps had better haircuts. Nothing left but the Final Solution, which in this case wasn’t placenta-based conditioner.

Niv’s woman kept a quiver of razors in the shower. Shampoo can be used as shave cream. Kath was too stoned to maintain erect posture. She sunk to a showerstall squat and did what came naturally.

A surf bum no longer, I became some kind of monk whose saffron robes flapped in sunlight and a stiff breeze that blew from snow-mountains in the background.

Kath was a monastic novice who still lived in the sensory world that was maya, illusion, vanity. She had to learn, pray, meditate. But first she had to get her monk look down. I shaved Kath’s head to serve God’s will.

Then I shaved my own, and took my left eyebrow off too.

Kath kept on doing what she did best. The drain was clogged with hair. Dirty water and human fluids rose, overflowed. Then the motel’s hot water ran out.

Nude bald stoners shivered in a shower stall in Santa Cruz. We couldn’t stay in there forever. We had to face what passes for reality, in this world.

When I unlocked the door, Niv’s lady rushed in as though she was about to explode. She squealed when she saw the horror.

Niv was sprawled on the bed.  Big Dan was nailing Ay-rab to the floor. He got a load of Kath.

“Whu’d you do to my sister, motherfucker? I’m gonna take you apart.”

“Shut up, you big homo.”

He stared, open-mouthed. He shut up.

Big Dan later beat up Ay-rab for turning him gay.

Kath liked her new hairdo, for a little while. We went to a wig shop just off the boardwalk and got a magenta Louise Brooks model from the bargain bin. She liked the wig.

Niv still lives in the ship-shaped motel, but he never invited us back.

A. R. Braun

You Can’t Go Anywhere

I really thought I was ready.

The premier for my movie was set to play my hometown—after Cannes, Sundance and Toronto—and I insisted that everyone close to me come: my girlfriend, my parents and my homies. Which was going to be difficult, because most of us, outside of my parents, live in Hollywood these days. And right before I broke it to them, the news had reported on yet another movie-theater shooting.

I skulked around my parent’s living room, pausing to gaze at my reflection in a china cabinet. I frowned at my long face, my thin lips and delicate features. I considered my short black hair in a fauxhawk, my cobalt eyes and tanned skin, not to mention my crusty douche-bag mustache. I came off as looking about as greedy and as cheesy as possible. All that was needed to complete the profile were some huge gold chains around my neck. When did I become this guy? The entertainment biz, I tell ya, the ruination of persons.

So here I was, all the way home from Hollywood, and I still had to convince my folks to attend my premiere. Bracing myself for the inevitable backlash, I sighed and went back into the kitchen.

“It’s just not safe, Mickey,” my mother said, pursing her lips in that persnickety way old women have. “There’ve been many movie-theater shootings lately…”

“But you can’t live in fear,” I argued. “Besides, we live in Mowquakwa, Illinois, where nothing ever happens. C’mon, I’m into mixed martial arts. If we run into that, I’ll disarm the puke and call the cops.”

Bad things did happen here, though. Many were convinced Mowquakwa was cursed, built on an old Indian burial ground. I wasn’t about to remind them of that, however.

Dad nodded his gray head in my direction, coming back from the fridge with a beer. “She’s right, Mick,” he said. “It’s just not practical.”

I slapped him on the shoulder. “C’mon, I’m into karate, boxing and wrestling. I’ll protect you, Dad.” I threw some pretend punches at his face and gut, bobbing and weaving as he returned the gesture.

Willa came into the kitchen from the other room, where she’d been watching a fright flick with my homeboys. My girl—thirty, thin and vivacious—looked jailbait but blessedly wasn’t. She wore a collared shirt with popcorn, candy, and film reels on it, along with tight black jeans, and she filled out both like a champ. “C’mon, old people,” she said. “You can’t be fraidy cats. You need a little adventure in your lives!”

Going to a movie’s an adventure? I guess it is nowadays…

How the mighty have fallen.

But I know karate and shit!

Manny G. swaggered in, his Flexfit Cardinals hat on sideways, the stickers still on it. His hair underneath was dyed blond. He wore a silk shirt and trendy, baggy-ass jeans. “Hey gringos,” he said, “you tellin me ya don’t have the cojones to go see a stinkin movie?”

“Thanks, home skillet,” I laughed.

Z-Boz swaggered in after him, an African American in an Oakland Raiders jersey and snakeskin pants that made me look like an amateur baller in comparison. He also wore a black Cardinals hat like Manny G’s. “Yo, fam,” he said, “ya’ll need to get some mayonnaise!

I raised my hand in his direction. “Up-top!” I said.

He hissed like a snake. “Man, ain’t nobody do no ‘up-top’ no more, kid.”

Suddenly, a brilliant scheme found its way into my head. “Tell you what,” I said, turning back to my folks. “You two come with us, and I’ll quit smokin.”

My sainted mother placed her hand over her heart. “Oh, I do hate that habit. Does no good, just kills ya.”

Dad nudged her. “C’mon, Mother. It’s for a good cause.”

Mom touched her gray curls of as if keeping them in place, then wrung her hands in frustration. “I don’t know…”

“I’ll pony up some money for a charitable contribution,” I added. “What’s that club you’re in?”

“The Historical Society.”

“Yes! I’ll pump it up.” I gave Mom the puppy-dog eyes. “Please? Hey, I know Krav Maga, Kajukenbo, taekwondo, Okinawan karate, Shotokan karate, parkour and Kung Fu. I’ll be on that psycho before he can dye his hair Joker-orange!”

Standing behind them, Willa put her arms around my folks and pulled them both in for an embrace. “You seasoned veterans need to show us young people how to let our hair down and have a good time!”

“I feel ya, Willa.” Manny G. said, turning his hat the other way.

Yeeeaaah, son!” Z-Boz added.

“Aw, poo,” Mom said. “I guess we’ll give it a try.”

“If it helps, I’ll be packin, Mother,” Dad macked.

She turned to him with that tight-lipped frown and narrow eyes. “You leave that thing at home. You’ll probably shoot yourself in the foot.”

Fucking derringer.

“It’s just a pea shooter anyway,” I blurted without thinking. I can be a bit of a dick sometimes.

Mom smoothed her apron over her skirt, for she’d been baking like a Stepford. The rich scent of hot cookie dough was driving me mad. “All right, gang,” she said, “let’s get ready to go to the Bijou, then. Ooh! My cookies!” She took them out of the oven and set them atop the stove.

I found myself jumping up and down and whooping with Willa and my boys.

Little did I know it would be a premature celebration.

***

If I could’ve seen myself entering the movie theater with my arm around Willa and my boys flanking us, my parents—the stragglers—bringing up the rear, I probably would’ve grinned ear to ear. It was to be a celebration of my labor of love, our hands full of popcorn, soda—spiked with peach Schnapps, my girl’s demand—Jujubes, Sour Patch Kids, Raisinets, M&Ms, Goobers, Lemon Heads, Milk Duds, Dots, Junior Mints, Trolli Sour Bites, and Cherry Twizzlers.

“You kids are going to go into anaphylactic shock with all that sugar,” Mom said.

“No, that’s an allergic reaction,” came Willa’s response.

Holding her close, my shorty’s scent was enchanting. She’d put on Kim Kardashian perfume just for the occasion—Gold.

The Pied Piper of the rats, I led my posse up to front-row and center. The screen, huge and inviting, hadn’t been lit up just yet, but the wan bulbs around the stage gleamed like Christmas lights. This evening was like Christmas to me, but little did I know, it was soon to be more like Christmasland in NOS4A2.

I took a load off, and for a few vivacious moments, Willa perched on my lap with her soft, firm behind. Va va voom. She giggled and sat down next to me. My boys took their seats to my left. My folks took the row behind us, showing their age as they groaned into their seats.

“Got the life! Victor gets the spoils,” I  said, tossing candy out to my homies.

My girl and I went at the treats like starving dogs, the candy and popcorn delectable, ambrosia—the sugar made me dizzy, joy fireworking all up in my brain.

Man, I’m such a lightweight…

No anaphylactic shock, but the sudden sugar overdose damn-near numbed my tongue.

Mom leaned forward and placed an arthritic claw on my shoulder. “Fancy place, Mickey. You must be doing pretty well for yourself.”

“Bangin like a baller,” I laughed.

My dad’s hand fell firm upon my other shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Son.”

I craned my head and said, “You haven’t even seen the movie yet!”

That’s when I got a creepy feeling I was being watched. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of some shadowy figure, but by the time I’d turned my head, it had already vanished into the darkness. The fire door was left swinging, however. Someone had placed a brick to keep it open.

Clearly, some hater must’ve thought they were getting a free movie.

Which meant they were ripping me off.

Needless to say, I wasn’t havin none of that. I rose and headed straight for the door.

Cavalierly, Willa rose and ran off ahead of me.

“Whachoo doin, girl?” I snapped.

“I got you!” she said, smiling back over her shoulder.

“Nah, I got this…”

But she’d already closed the door before I could catch up to her.

Heading back to our seats, my homies were laughing and pointing at me.

Manny G. said, “Man, I’m gaggin. She had to handle yo shit!”

Damn, son, you be doggin,” Z-Boz added.

I shot them both my best look of death through tightly narrowed eyes. “At least I got a girl, poindexters…”

My parents, easily amused, smiled as they looked back at forth between me and my homeboys. They could’ve been at a tennis match.

“You tell ‘em, Son.” My dad bade me into a fist-bump.

Who was I to deny him? “Thanks, Daddo.”

“We just playin,” Manny G. chuckled.

“I feel ya,” Z-Boz said. “Strong shorties be hot.”

“Watch it,” I said, “That’s my girl you talkin bout.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the audience was finally showing up, a compliment to me of course. On top of the world, I snickered as the lights went down and the huge screen came to life, rolling out the coming attractions.

Nothin can touch me.

***

And then, all at once, I really had to question that thought.

Blasting through the fire door came a fiend like the devil himself, all done up in white makeup with black smeared around his eyes and mouth. He was dressed just like the Penguin from Batman Returns, complete with top hat and black coat.

He held a shotgun in his hands, a pistol strapped prominently to his side.

Wise folk say your life flashes before your eyes when confronted by death, but this fool’s sure didn’t. Pure rage consumed me, not only because he was about to ruin my hometown premiere, but also because he aimed to shoot us up as well. So, like any good Dean Koontz fan, I took his advice and ran into what scared me. This clearly caught him off guard, but before I could grab him, he jumped back and leveled the shotgun at my head.

Aw shit…

Acting on reflex, I pulled an Okinawan karate move, swiftly stepping to my left and slapping the gun to the other side. But before I could follow up by kicking it out of his hands, he pivoted away and dodged my foot with ease.

“Satan told me you’d try that…” he wheezed.

Blam! He shot me in the leg.

A sharp ringing erupted in my ears, everything else fading into background noise by comparison.

I cried out—my voice embarrassingly high-pitched—and collapsed onto the floor. The pain exquisite, the whole rotten event instantly transforming into an open house in Hell.

He snickered in a tinny little voice, the Penguin’s laugh exactly. Rushing back over to me, he roughly hauled me up to my feet.

“Prepare to die…” he rasped in my ear, drawing his pistol and holding it to my forehead.

“How the Hell you supposed to prepare for that?” I whined, trying to sound all tough (I didn’t).

He frowned and furrowed his brow, the eyes of the Devil staring deep into mine. “Say your prayers, stupid!”

Seeing my opportunity, that’s when I attempted a Krav Maga move. Lifting my hands in a gesture of surrender, begging him not to shoot, I went to kick him in the nuts while simultaneously crouching down away from the gun. Pretty smart, right?

And yet, once again, he dodged with the grace of a dancer and re-holstered his pistol. With a mocking sneer, he leveled the shotgun back at me.

“You gotta be kiddin me!” I cried.

I’d seen YouTube videos that said gun-disarming didn’t work, and I hadn’t believed it. If it was good enough for Black Scout Survival, it was good enough for me. But, balefully, they’d been right all along.

“Where my homies at?” I screamed in panic. “Cap this fool already!”

“Shut your cocksucker!”

Blam! He shot me in the other leg. I gritted my teeth in agony, writhing in a pool of my own blood.

Finally, the previews came to an abrupt stop and the house lights came up. All I could hear was the screaming of my fam and crew. I rolled onto my side so I could see the catastrophe unfolding before me, live-wiring my brain with a sense of terror and doom.

He’s gonna murder everyone I love!

Meanwhile, my homeboys had drawn their own weapons, but why were they just standing there shaking and not firing? That’s when I knew they were all talk, the fuckin cowards.

“Bust a cap in his ass or you’re dead to me!” I yowled in pain.

But the Penguin was a sharpshooter, shooting both pistols out of their hands just as my boys had finally found their nuts.

That’s when Willa came charging at him from the side. To do what? Some wrestling takedown move? Hurling herself feet first, she was poised to connect a perfect dropkick, and then…

Blam! He spun around and shot her right in the crotch. Blood sprayed out of the back of her skin-tight jeans as she flopped onto the floor. Then he shot her in the tits. Blam! Blam! Instantly deflated.

“No!” I cried out in anguish.

The love of my life! Dead?

Curling up in a ball on the floor, all I could do was pinch myself.

This has gotta be a fucking nightmare!

Meanwhile, everyone else with half a brain had already fled the theater, but my folks had only just begun to rise shakily from their seats, as if suddenly stricken with Parkinson’s.

Blam! He blew the top of Mom’s head clean off, leaving her bottom lip quavering, her tongue lolling around in search of the roof of her mouth. Instinctively, Dad turned to dive into the row behind them to scoop up the top half of her head, just like a male Jackie Kennedy.

“Mom! No!” I cupped my hands tightly over my ears, but still this wasn’t enough to drown out the deafening gun blasts echoing within my skull.

Blam! Hitting him in mid-air, the Penguin shot Dad square in the ass, sending him sprawling into the aisle.

“Dad! No! Oh God, oh Jesus Christ…” I trembled all over and pissed and shit my pants, this black comedy of errors finally taking its toll on my sanity.

In a last ditch effort to take him down, my homies screamed at the top of their lungs and bum-rushed the Penguin. Before their could tackle him though, he blasted Manny G.’s left leg off at the knee. My homeboy went down like a sack of onions.

“Tweedledee and Tweedledumb…” the Penguin mused, laughing in that tinny voice.

Swiftly tucking the shotgun under his arm, he whipped out a machete from under his coat. Then, just as Z-Boz lunged, he cold stabbed his ass in all the Van Damme pressure points: his forehead, high on his left shoulder, lower on his right shoulder, lower on the left and into his heart, and into both of his sides of his abdomen. Z-Boz closed his eyes and sank to his knees just in time to get his head sliced off for good measure.

All my loved ones, dead.

I’d lost the plot.

And I’m next, I knew. And I’m not saved. I’m going straight to Hell.

Lord knew my parents had taken me to church as a child and had been on me to go back ever since, but I wanted horror, the handiwork of the devil, the job of the damned! Shoot, I had a franchise, son!

At least I was bleeding to death, a precious small mercy. My vision was going dark around the edges. Yet I knew I wouldn’t die just yet.

Pulling out my own hair and keening like a banshee, I screamed my guts out as a conflagration set my brain aflame. The breakdown was like spiders crawling out through my ears. All of my loved ones were dead, and demons were going to fuck my straight ass with no Vaseline in damnation, for all eternity. I just knew it.

That’s when the police entered the theater, guns drawn, screaming at the Penguin, “Down on the ground! Right now!”

Instead, he turned on his heel and stared deep into my eyes, grinning with yellowed snaggleteeth as he stuck the pistol under his chin. Took the coward’s way out. Blam! Bloody gray matter blasted out through the top of his head.

Fuck the Joker. By the time the EMTs reached me, I was cackling like the goddamned Mad Hatter.

And I couldn’t stop.

Saw bugs as big as cars on the walls. Shrieked with more laughter. Whipped out my cock and smeared shit all over my own face.

Some fates were worse than death. Worse than even Hell. Where would I go from here?

YOU CAN’T GO ANYWHERE

Tim Frank

Repossession

He carried the woman out of the boot of his car using a fireman’s lift. Her wrinkled hand with knotted arthritic joints grazed his cheek, making his skin crawl. He could almost feel the dirt under her nails infect him. Of course, he wanted to help her but, regardless, he was repelled by her feral state.

The pair were at his cottage in the country just outside town in a sparsely populated neighbourhood where it rained so much the rivers swelled to twice their size in winter and the trees dominated the horizon.

He heaved her onto the sofa bed – the springs groaning, moths fluttering out of the crumpled sheets. The woman sighed and showed signs of surfacing. He bolted all the doors and pulled up a chair opposite her – ready with mace and a rope in case things turned nasty. He rolled himself a cigarette with the artistry of a calligrapher.

As the woman came to, she propped her head on her hand and absorbed the scene – red velvet curtains drawn, stale smell of potatoes, spiders’ webs assembled in every corner. This wasn’t a home, definitely not a bachelor’s pad, but a place where untold pain had been suffered. The man licked another cigarette into a perfectly smooth cylinder and offered it to her. She shook her head with a grimace.

It was then she noticed the rope and mace he’d placed on the floor that was lined with plastic sheeting. Trying to shrug off her nausea she said, “I have nothing and I have no family for you to blackmail. Kill me if you want.”

“I’m not going to kill you, and I don’t want anything from you. I’m here to help.”

“So, you’re one of those twisted freaks who gets off on power. Well do your worst.”

“You haven’t aged well,” he said, flicking through some notes. “Says here you’re thirty-two. You look sixty. I’m guessing the drug you’re on is Fathomalide, right? I’ve seen these aging effects before, but not so pronounced. What are you doing on a posh drug like that anyway?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m your repo man and now the best friend you’ve got.”

“Whatever, mate, I’m past caring. You’ve already taken everything from me.”

She stretched her arms then scratched her cheek, loosening a scab of dry skin that floated down from her face, nestling amongst the folds of the duvet. The man noticed her sagging skin hanging from her throat.

“So, you’re going to get me clean? I’m no normal fiend, I warn you.”

“I’ve seen it all before,” he said, prodding his phone, scrolling through pictures of her belongings. “Give it twenty-four hours, you’ll be a new woman. See, my method is I show the addict pictures that connect with their past. It’s cathartic. Taking drugs blocks the emotions, getting in touch with the past sets the mind free – free from the ties of addiction. Being a repo man gives me the perfect opportunity to access their possessions.”

“You don’t have family a family do you; otherwise why would you care about a random stranger like me? And you ain’t no Mother Teresa either, so what gives?”

The man began to tap his foot – disgruntled. He stood and decided not to defend himself. He went to his room, grumbling under his breath, flopped onto his bed and continued analysing pictures. He uploaded the pictures to his laptop and let them scroll across the screen, one after another.

She began to sweat – a cold fever taking control of her body. She could only wait. She pulled on a single strand of hair, curled it around her finger and then plucked it out. By the time the man returned she’d cleared a tiny bald patch above her forehead. He sat and stared at her, curling his upper lip with disgust.

He pointed at her; “your face is – is disgusting. It’s all peeling, look.”

There were flakes of skin in a small heap beside her, mingled with loose strings of hair.

“Let’s get you into a bath and clean you up.”

As they moved into the bathroom, through the open door of his bedroom the woman could see the pictures displayed on his computer. She spied one photo in particular – a shot of an elderly couple – and as the man helped her fragile frame along, her legs buckled from beneath her. She gasped. The man struggled to maintain their balance, feeling her hip bone dig into his side. He rested her on a stool by the sink, drew the woman a bath, laying out some worn towels and a shrivelled-up piece of soap.

“What just happened? You nearly fell,” he said

“My parents, a picture of my parents. They died recently.”

She wiped tears from her eyes as steam clouded the bathroom mirror. The man turned off the taps and the last few droplets splashed into the body of water.

“Take a long soak. We’ll get through this.”

“Why are you doing this to me?

“Take as long as you need and when you’re clean maybe we can look at some more photos. It’ll quicken the process.”

The woman took off her hoodie, leggings and beaten-up trainers as the man closed the door on her. Her naked body was hunched and blighted with scars from bedbugs that had ravaged her skin. She lowered herself into the water and began to shake, falling into a silent fit, losing control of her senses as time ground by slowly.

An hour later the man opened the bathroom door and chucked inside a clean tracksuit for her to wear. As she returned to the living room the man noticed her appearance was significantly altered – her posture was erect, her skin was taut, her scars healed, the leaden glare in her eyes, gone. She was transformed. Then the man’s attention was drawn to a stench emanating from the bathroom.

“Smells like something died in there,” he said, and he went to investigate. As he peered through the door, scouring the room, everything was normal, until he realised laying by the bundle of the woman’s dirty clothes was another pile, consisting of a mysterious material. An odd fly dipped and dodged about the mass, that on closer inspection looked like flesh. He poked it with his foot. It gave way and rippled. The form reminded him of flaccid, discarded intestines.

“The old me,” the woman said, grinning from ear to ear, peering over his shoulder. “I tell you; I’ve never felt better.”

“What just happened?”

“I thought you’ve seen it all. Come on, let’s look at some more pictures, I want to finish this.”

In a daze the man got a bin bag and scooped up the rotting flesh with rubber gloves and it oozed through his fingers. He recoiled in disgust. He dumped the bag outside as maggots squirmed in the creases of the mushy bundle.

After dinner the man collected his laptop from his bedroom and set it up on the kitchen table allowing the woman to comfortably focus her attention on the photos of the possessions that had once represented her entire world.

“Stop,” she said after a dozen or so photos had drifted by, “let me look at that one in more detail.”

A brown teddy bear was pictured – a toy without any real distinguishing features – and yet the woman reacted to it violently, clutching her stomach as if she’d been stabbed. Within seconds, her belly had swollen, stretching her top out as if she was six months pregnant. She pulled up her hoodie and pressed her hands against the naked bulge, stroking bruised veins that poked out of her skin. She whispered gentle words to the unborn soul. “It’s ok,” she said, “this time will be different.”

The man dragged his fingers through his hair and wore a look of disbelief.

“I’m going to need pears, lots of pears,” she said, eyes glued to her tummy.

“Uh, ok. Listen, do you know what’s going on? Because I don’t know what’s going on.”

“I think I’m pregnant.”

“Yes, it looks that way.”

“Pears.”

“Ok, you really want pears. Give me an hour and I’ll stock up. I have to lock you in because we’re not finished. I hope you understand. But you’ll have your pears soon and we’ll figure this out.”

As he returned, heaving groceries under each arm while juggling his keys, he looked around for the woman but she was nowhere to be seen. Only then did he notice a streak of blood marking the floor. He heard a sharp cry. He dropped his bags and raced into the bathroom. The woman was on the floor, resting her back against the bath, writhing in pain. Her lower body was stripped bare and blood gurgled out of her crotch. Then something slimy, something large forced its way out of her, moving imperceptibly, maybe even breathing.

“You did this,” said the woman, “you.”

“Did what? How?” he said.

“Never mind. It’s dead. I don’t know why I thought it would be any different this time.”

“Please explain, what’s happening.”

“My drug, it eats my insides up. I’ve had one miscarriage after another throughout my life.  Seeing that teddy brought all the memories flooding back – memories of a time when I was preparing to become a mum.”

“We need to keep you off the drug and clean your system out. Maybe looking at some more pictures would help. Trust me I know what drugs can do. I never had a proper family because of them. That’s why I always wanted to be a dad. But it hasn’t happened for me yet.”

“That’s a touching story. Look, I believe you mean well but I don’t want this anymore. I can’t do it.”

She got to her feet, blood and mucus pouring down her thighs and walked into the living room as the man laid a towel over the dead foetus, ready to be binned beside the skin festering in the trash cans outside. Despite her anguish, she looked fresh and full of life. Her hair glossy, teeth white. She had oily skin too and was breaking out in spots around her forehead and temples. She could pass for a teenager.

She picked up the laptop, with the man’s phone still hooked up to it, raised them above her head and sent them crashing to the ground, spreading broken electronics to each corner of the room like scuttling cockroaches. The man dashed out of the bathroom, head in hands, and screamed at her with every sinew in his body, causing the girl to cower. “Why!” he cried, “don’t you see that was our only hope!”

“Hope for who? Maybe there’s hope for you, but not me. At least if I can block any memories that trigger me, I can avoid going through more pain.”

The man took several deep breaths. There was always a solution.

“Listen, let’s gets some sleep, we’re both on edge and I’m sure we’ll see things clearer in the morning.”

That night, while the girl tossed and turned in bed – troubled by sinister dreams of rabid dogs attacking her stillborn baby, the man injected her with a sedative and bound and gagged her. By the time she woke up she found herself seated in a large room illuminated by halogen lights and filled with boxes – some nailed shut, others crowbarred open, with possessions spread across the floor.

“This is your lockup, and these are all your repossessed belongings,” said the man. “Now I’m going to take off your gag. Scream if you want to, the place is deserted.”

Once she was freed the girl said, “What now?”

“Well, we find the next trigger.”

“Where does this end? Please let me go before something worse happens.”

“Don’t look at it that way, we’re on the cusp of something important.”

The man began to sift through boxes, ripping open lids and burrowing deep inside. He fished out clothing, kitchenware, paperwork, and held them up to the girl in the hope that an object would spark a reaction. When he found a child’s watch, with the design of a unicorn floating on a rainbow, the girl sat bolt upright, straining against her ropes.

“This is something, isn’t it?” He said. “Who does it belong to? Did you have a child after all? What is it, tell me?”

Her neck began to shift from one side to the other making a loud cracking sound. The man hid the watch from the girl’s view and her body immediately slumped in relaxation.

“Ok,” he said, “I want you to be entirely honest with me. And if you do, I will let you go. This whole thing will be over for you, I promise. But you have to explain yourself.”

“You promise?”

“Yes, I have other things to do too you know.”

“That watch belonged to my older sister. She died of a brain tumour when I was young. I didn’t really know what was happening, I was too little, but anyway I wouldn’t stop crying after she passed. I cried and cried and my parents couldn’t cope. Their solution was to put me on a new drug at the time, Fathomalide. Well, the crying stopped, but it had side effects – uncontrollable vomiting, joint pain, weird growths on my body – things like that. But my parents kept me on it and I seemed to adjust.”

“But now,” he said, “you’re suffering consequences in ways you could never imagine, right?”

“Right. Now do as you promised, let me go.”

“I did promise, didn’t I. But to be honest it’s just too tempting to find out what will happen next.”

He held out the watch, dangling it by her nose as she began to gag and her body rocked from side to side. Her lips trembled and snot dribbled into her mouth. He moved the watch closer to the girl’s nose, dangling it with a steady hand as the girl fell into contortions.

“What are you? What can I do with you?” he said.

The girl spat at the man’s cheek and he wiped off the saliva with the cuff of his shirt. Suddenly there were ripping sounds. Her tracksuit tore as bones jutted out of cloth – spine, shoulders and knees, poking through like jagged knives. He could see blood dripping from her flesh. She tried to close her eyes, but somehow, she was compelled to maintain her gaze.

“Help me!” she cried.

Then everything changed. A cascade of vomit spewed out of her mouth, knocking him back on his heels sending the watch flying across the room. Then a gel-like substance was excreted from her pores all over her body, casting her in a thick layer of gunge from head to toe. As the gel solidified around her body, he could hear the sound of bones shifting and crunching again.

The man listened as her voice murmured from inside her casing. He could hear the girl sobbing, becoming desperate – a clawing cry that set the man’s nerves on end. He couldn’t hold back any longer. He thrust his arms into the gel and searched around, finally grabbing hold of her as she shuddered with fear. He pulled out the body and a green discharge spurted across the room. He unveiled a child of about two years old, draped in sopping wet rags.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” the man said, wiping the pus from her face. The child took some deep breaths, ceased crying for a few seconds as she took in her environment, her new body and the man staring intently into her eyes. But it didn’t take long before she started up like a car engine and began to wail again.

“Ok,” he said, “what do you want? What shall I do?”

The child was inconsolable. There was the sound of activity outside. It was dawn and the lockup was opening for business.

“We’ve got to get out of here. Hold on to me. I won’t let you go.”

He gathered up the child in his arms and raced to his car before his bleary-eyed co-workers could discover any wrongdoing. The man placed the child in the passenger seat and strapped her in. Still crying, he held her by the shoulders and said, “This doesn’t fit but it’ll have to do for now. Listen, you belong to me now. I can look after you in the ways your parents never could. You will need me like I need you. I know I treated you badly but one day you’ll understand why it had to be done. So, let’s both start over. Just please, please stop crying.”

They drove off into the morning streets, sun nestling behind a block of trees, casting a long shadow in the man’s rear-view mirror.  They had no place where they had to be, nothing tying them down. They would find their own way, in their own time – into the burning heart of the future.

Matthew Licht

Big Black Widow

Here she comes, stomping down Fifth Avenue, a sexual nightmare on two legs: Big Mary, the terror of all those smaller than she. In other words, everyone.

So many years since she last tore herself out of the shadows.

She was still horribly beautiful, and dressed in black.

Her black hat was hung with a black veil. Long black gloves showed off her biceps and the whiteness of her skin. At fifty paces, she had me on the verge of premature ejaculation.

She didn’t see me, or couldn’t see me. Lesser creatures, the ants all around her, don’t really exist. We’re just packets of energy with little or no mass, aimlessly adrift in nature, while she spans and dominates the world. I could’ve turned around, or ducked into a building, or grabbed a cab. She closed in, staring off into space. Her eyes blazed red, as though she’d been weeping.

“Hey Mary.” We’d been off our playground across the Hudson River for decades, so I didn’t say, Hey Big Mary. That nickname might still be a torment.

She looked around. She seemed lost. ‘Maybe she doesn’t live in the city,’ I thought. ‘She’s just here for the day because someone she loved, or admired, has died.’ It was still difficult to imagine that Big Mary could have friends. What a huge, lonely life she must’ve led.

“Oh. Hey. It’s you.” Her lips moved slowly, like the wings of some magnificent demon.

“Wow, you look exactly the same,” I said. “I mean, you look great. How are you?” Man how stupid can you be? You see a woman dressed in mourning, and ask her how she’s doing.

“Oh, great, except that I’m a widow now.”

“Oh no. I’m sorry. How long were you married?” I mean, who the hell was the lucky guy? A professional wrestler? A monster from Hollywood? And how did you kill him?

“Not even twenty years,” she said.

“Well hey, that’s more than most couples get.” The more I spoke, the more I felt I hadn’t grown or made any progress since the woman I’d just bumped into arrested my development in the Fifth Grade. But that was already more education than most people got.

“Yeah I guess,” Big Mary said. “Hadn’t thought of it that way, yet.”

A moment was about to slip by. Had to grab it, get it back, make it stay, but moments are much more powerful than they seem. When they want to go, they go. “So, uh, you live around here?” The Upper East Side, where everyone who doesn’t live there wants to, was her natural habitat.

“Yeah. It’s weird, our apartment’s in the same building as the funeral parlor. I mean, how convenient. You die, all you gotta do is head downstairs. Don’t even have to put a sweater on.”

It was early spring, a bright day with a cutting chill wind. Big Mary hugged her arms. “Jeezus maybe I should’ve put a sweater on. I got a whole goddamn closet full of cashmere and camel hair.”

Herds of alpacas and vicuñas had been rendered into cloud-like garments to warm Big Mary’s broad alabaster shoulders.

She looked at me, then. We were more or less eye-to-eye.

Memory plays tricks with perspective and creates monsters. Black clothes accentuate height. Big Mary used to wear drab monochrome outfits to school. They were custom-made by her Mom, since store-bought clothes were expensive, and none of the shops in town had anything that’d fit her colossal daughter anyway. Mary’s family was poor.

She let me drape my coat on her shoulders. “Jeezus Mary you used to scare the hell out of me. I used to have nightmares where you’d clomp down the street and knock down buildings and uproot trees. No matter where I hid, you’d find and eat me.”

“Oh yeah?” She looked as though she’d forgotten her husband’s funeral for a moment. “Maybe fate has brought us together today so I could say I’m sorry.”

So she remembered the time she and her ogress cronies dragged me into the little house-schwitz on the playground. They tied me up with a jump-rope and threw me to the floor. Big Mary loomed far overhead, straddled, dropped to her knees. Torture was a kiss, something grade school boys were supposed to dread. But she also whispered that she was going to suck the eyeballs out of my head.

 That was one long, dark recess.

“Tell me about you,” Big Mary said. “You live in the city? Whuddya do?”

“Oh I write stories. For kids, mostly. Not little kids, though. Big kids, I guess.”

“Yeah? You make a living at it?”

“Not really. Not anymore. You got kids?”

“Zero. You?”

“None for me too. I split up with my girlfriend a while back. We had twelve years together. That was all we got. Too bad, because I think we both wanted more.”

“Well that’s pretty funny, isn’t it, us bumping into each other like this after so long and we’re both sorta available. I mean, you are loose, aren’t you?”

“Let’s go for a walk in the park, Mary. There’s a place I like.”

“You haven’t turned into some kinda ax-murderer, have you?”

“Oh, you never know.”

“Okay, let’s go. I don’t mind.”

She didn’t say, ‘I ain’t afraid of you or anyone like you.’ She’d grown polite.

The place I liked was near the carousel. The roundabout was curtained off and closed, due to the wind and cold. A playground for ghosts, the spirits of children who grew up and weren’t children anymore, though of course deep down inside they still were and would always be. The clearing was isolated, and quiet.

Big Mary pulled a face. “You like this place? That’s so weird, cuz it always gives me the creeps. I always jog around it so I don’t have to look.”

“You’re in great shape. You look like a…” I was about to say, ‘glamorous bodyguard’. “…A dancer, some kinda full-contact ballerina.”

“I just try to keep from falling all the way apart is all.” That New Jersey accent won’t go away, ever.

The carousel dissolved in the raking light. The city beyond the trees had dematerialized. I led Big Mary into a stand of ironwoods that grew from the mouth of a red brickwork tunnel. She said, “Look, I already apologized for what I did. I wasn’t really gonna hurt you anyway. I only wanted to smooch-rape you cuz I thought you were cute. Honest.”

“This is known as psycho-drama, Mary. It’s supposed to help people get over past traumas.”

“Okay, go ahead and kill me if you want. Do it quick, though. I’m not into pain.”

“You got the wrong idea. We bring the past back to life in order to make it go away.” I was lying. I lay down on the dirt, face up. The carousel’s organ began to play. The wind wheezed a ghostly music through its pipes.

“What the hell are you doing?” The wind blew Big Mary’s veil off her face. The lines showed. The years pounced into the moment like hyenas.

“This is the only playground we got left, Mary. Do it. But go all the way this time. Please.”

“You don’t mean it,” she said, but she knew I did. She moved, towered over the visible world, the way she had back at school. Her black skirt was a shroud, her black lace panties a chic touch of death. She went down slow, put pressure where the air went in, and where the blood raced to the brain. She knew what to do, where to go, knew how to meet a millionaire husband and how to snuff him when the time was right. Oh you big gorgeous cunning killer.

Everything was so sweet and black and final. But then she stopped, stood up and let the light have its way again. Sometimes I hate light.

“Why not, Mary?” I gasped. “Back then you said forever and ever.”

“We were in Fifth Grade, for chrissakes.”

“Life used to be so scary and serious, then it got light and sorta fun for a while, and now it’s all so dumb and meaningless.”

“Nothing changes,” she said. “The only thing that’s different is that when you’re all grown up it’s okay to be the biggest thing around.” She straightened her stockings, her skirt, set her veil back where it belonged.

“What’re you doing this evening?” I brushed myself off, shook the dead leaves and grass out of my hair. “Do you have to go to some gargantuan funeral banquet, or can I take you out on a date?”

“That’s what I wanted you to ask me out there on the playground,” she said.

We went to the Stork Club for drinks, had dinner at Delmonico’s, danced at Studio 54 and wound up as close to the stars as possible, at Windows on the World. The harbor and New Jersey sparkled like crazy below. We watched a storm come in off the Atlantic to erase the night and shake the skyscrapers to their foundations.

The next morning we went to the old Penn Station, that Roman Temple dedicated to Cronos, and caught a train to Jersey City to visit our old school. But the old red building had been torn down. An octoplex cinema was there instead, and its parking lot had engulfed the playground.

Isaac Sheldon Hale

Bingo and the Cockless Wonders

NEXT!!”

Bingo walked up to the massive wooden desk.

“What’s yer name, kid?”

“I’m the Cockless Wonder.”

The fat man behind the desk raised an eyebrow.

“Well, it’s Bingo – but I’m the Cockless Wonder.”

“You got a name like Bingo and you call yourself the Cockless Wonder?”

“It’s the act. You gotta see it. It’s really–”

“I like it! But we need four more guys. You’re Bingo and they’re the Wonders. I like it.”

“Don’t you want to see the act?” Bingo reached for the zipper on his crotch.

“Not if you’re gonna whip your fuckin’ dick out, kid. Leave the pleasure to the crowd.”

Bingo frowned. “I don’t whip my dick out. I’m a cockless wonder.”

“This is Hollywood, kid. You wanna be a wonder? You gotta have a cock to make it, or you gotta find one that can do it for you. It’s the only way.”

“You don’t understand – I’m different. I don’t need a cock to make it. That’s the whole point.”

“Fuck it. Let’s see what you got.” The fat man leaned back in his chair and lit a cigar.

The kid unzipped his fly and dropped his pants. The fat man was momentarily stunned; he choked on his cigar smoke. A cat hissed and scurried out of the room. Then Bingo began…

It was something magnificent, like a sunrise over Halong Bay. Like the chorus of angels from on high. A foul odor crept into the air, filling the small office space. The fat man sat frozen with awe, his tearful eyes growing wider with each passing moment. He hadn’t felt this way in so long; a lip quivered as his mind rolled through tender childhood memories. The Chinese Ballet had nothing on Bingo. The Roman Empire would have fallen to its knees for him. Such a glorious fantasy display, unparalleled in all of history. This kid had it.

As Bingo finished, the fat man sat silent for a moment. He couldn’t believe it: of all the talent agencies in L.A., Lady Luck had chosen this one to grace with her presence. He grabbed a tissue and wiped snot off his upper lip.

“Just sign right here,” he said.

Bingo walked past the hardware store and took a left, stopped next to a stairwell. He pulled a torn napkin out of his pocket and looked at the address again; this was the place. He climbed the stairs to a red door that groaned when he opened it. Inside, he stood in an old rehearsal hall. The fat man was at the other end of the room, pacing, eyes glued to his wristwatch. He looked up and startled, nearly tripped on his own feet as he went to greet the kid.

“Thank God! I thought we might’ve lost you. Follow me.”

The fat man hurried through another groaning door and Bingo followed. In the next room stood four men: two blondes, a redhead, and a bald one. Bingo could tell they had little means.

“Boys, this here is Bingo,” said the fat man. “He’s gonna make you the Cockless Wonders.”

The men looked concerned. The redhead took a step back.

“It ain’t like that,” said the fat man. “We’re all gettin’ a fuck-ton of money.”

The redhead stepped forward again.

“That’s more like it! This is the time of our lives, gents – believe me!”

Bingo waved the fat man over. “What exactly are these guys here for?”

“Son, it’s showbiz,” said Fatty. “With this act, you’re gonna be on a big circuit – a big stage, see? Can’t have just one guy up there. The crowd gets restless. Besides, this way the name has some zing to it.” He turned to the four guys and winked, then faced Bingo again.

“Okay, kid…go ahead. Show ‘em.” The fat man braced himself for the spectacle.

Bingo shrugged and dropped his pants. Then he began…

It was, of course, phenomenal. It was like the Grand Canyon: pictures could not do it justice. You had to be there yourself. All that beauty pouring out from one source…so much talent, such incredible moxie. Hitler would have been jealous. And the stink! – God, it was overwhelming.

When Bingo finished, the four men applauded. It would have taken a swimming pool to catch all the tears. Only the bald man spoke: “I’m gonna buy my mama a Cadillac.”

The fat man slipped a ten-dollar bill to each of the men. “I’ll have your suits ready on Friday,” he said. They thanked him and left the room in single file.

It was an opera house in New York City. Bingo rolled down the window and saw steam rising from the curb as the limo came to a stop. It was cold as ice out there; he hardly noticed. The past ten months had been a whirlwind of record deals, TV interviews, and a sold-out national tour. The reviews were fairly mixed: “CONTROVERSIAL!” … “GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!!” … “THIS GUY’S GOING TO HELL.” This was the last leg of the tour and momentum was still on the rise. Top-notch film director Willoughby Jones was considering leads for his new action flick; rumor had it that he might be in the crowd. If tonight went smoothly, the sky was the limit.

Bingo got out of the car and squinted, then held up a hand to block the flashing lights. The fat man exited the vehicle behind him and beamed at the cameras. Bingo waved, gave an unsteady smile as he walked along the carpet. This was a bit more than he’d bargained for, but oh-so delicious. Along the grand marquee stood tall words lit up like a fairground:

TONIGHT!!

BINGO AND THE COCKLESS WONDERS

(Cash Only)

The fat man pushed Bingo through the double doors and into the lobby. They made a sharp right through an entrance marked ‘TALENT.’ Outside, the people were still screaming. There was a long corridor that reeked of spilled champagne; Bingo remembered New Years Eve, and marveled that it was coming up so soon. Time moves fast when you’re keeping busy, he thought. He entered a dressing room and the fat man followed.

Fatty closed the door and faced Bingo squarely. “Listen…I mean, this is kind of a big night. Not that it really matters, but do you do any other numbers…or just the one?”

“Just the one.” Bingo was confident.

The fat man grabbed his shoulders with love. “Okay. Well, no matter what happens, this has been amazing, kid. I want you to know how much it means to me – it means everything.” He looked pretty genuine.

“Just another day on the clock.” Bingo smiled.

“Yeah, but it’s a big fucking clock.” The fat man left the room and walked down the hall as Bingo closed the door. It was almost go-time.

Inside the dressing room, Bingo stood motionless for a moment. It was hard to believe this was all real. Last year he’d been picking up dimes off the sidewalk – it seemed people only dropped dimes, for some reason – and eating from trash cans in the park. His life then was filled with false starts, dead-end jobs, and broken promises. He was never the type to fit in. His response to the talent ad in the local rag had been a joke, a shot in the dark, a last-ditch attempt to do something worthwhile with his final hours. Just that morning, Bingo had decided to jump off the tallest bridge in town. But it was more like a choice, really. Decisions are made with conviction, and the suicide was mostly about apathy. His response to the ad? Now, that was a decision: a conscious effort to complete something once and for all. Just one thing – just one little thing, for God’s sake. It wouldn’t really matter any more or less than the things he had done before, only this time he would see it through to the end. Then he could get on with the suicide, if he still had the balls.

That’s the problem, he’d thought – I don’t have any balls. And the cycle of self-loathing started all over again.

Now Bingo was doing alright. No more dimes off the sidewalk. No more food poisoning from the recycle bin. Things were looking pretty good. So he stopped standing in the dressing room and began walking. He walked straight to the fridge for a bottle of chocolate milk. It was full of them, just as requested. This was important for the show.

Ten minutes later, the show was about to begin. The Wonders walked to center-stage and stood on their marks behind the stage curtain. They were ready. Bingo was ready. Somewhere not far away, the fat man was ready as well. A local radio announcer walked up to Bingo and shook his hand. He held out a Starbucks receipt and a ballpoint pen.

“Listen, if you don’t mind…my kid would really appreciate an autograph. He’s crazy about assholes. Don’t ask.”

Bingo obliged. The announcer thanked him and walked out into the spotlight as the music began playing. The audience piped up in celebration. Bingo stepped to his place in front of the Wonders. It was tuxedos all around.

From there, all Bingo could see was the dark backside of the deep-red curtain. But he could hear the audience; he could smell their popcorn, feel their bank accounts dwindling in the atmosphere. The roar of their excitement was beautiful. Bingo knew he had earned this with his commitment to that one fateful decision. And yet somehow he felt an immense gratitude to the powers beyond his control. It seemed the moment he had stepped out in faith, all the pieces just came together. If he could ride this high for just one more night, Bingo would never consider the bridge again. He could easily carry on living. He promised this, somewhere, deep down inside.

The radio announcer wailed into the microphone: “Ladies and gentlemen! Please give a warm New-York welcome for… BINGO AND THE COCKLESS WONDERRRSSS!!”

The ruby curtain rose. The audience stood clapping and cheering, happy as children on Christmas morning. Bingo waved to them. The Wonders waved to them, too. Panties flew onstage. Then the lights dimmed, the excitement softened, and everyone returned to their seats.

Bingo walked closer to the front of the stage, folding his hands in front of his waist. He turned briefly to his bandmates and nodded. On his cue, the Cockless Wonders cleared their throats and commenced humming a soft acappella number. They swayed from side to side in unison, their tune rolling in rise and fall like the refrain of a Southern Gospel hymn. It was low and sweet, fit for a funeral; the pace was measured, the tempo calm. For some in the crowd, it held a certain familiarity they could not yet define. The Wonders raised their volume. Bingo lowered his head in reverence, and just as the melody lifted he deftly unzipped his fly. Then he dropped his pants to the floor, and the audience gasped: Bingo was as bare as a plastic doll. Not a hair could be found, not a shred of evidence to suggest that he’d ever possessed an organ at all. But for the lack of scars, one could have sworn he was a eunuch, or the victim of some tragic accident.

On the next measure, Bingo turned his back to the audience and bent over at the waist. He spread his cheeks apart gently, and in that moment the sweetest voice rang out through the auditorium:

Clock strikes upon the hour,
and the sun begins to fade…”

It was an impossibly clear tenor, perfect in pitch. Gorgeous, velvet tone spilled into the theater in waves. The audience gasped again.

Still enough time to figure out…
how to chase my blues away…”

Such crystalline, operatic body… A range that stretched to infinity… And the vibrato – my god, that vibrato!

I’ve done alright up to now…
It’s the light of day that shows me how…
And when the night falls… loneliness calls…”

It was beauty incarnate. It was simply indescribable. It was a soulful, heart-crushing rendition of Whitney Houston’s nineteen-eighties mega-hit ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody.’

Ooohh, I wanna dance with somebody…
I wanna feel the HEAT with some-bah-da-aay…”

The impassioned wails moving each line… An incredible display of control… All that unfettered power, fit for a king, yet reserved to one lowly asshole. It hardly seemed just. The smell was overpowering.

Yeaahh, I wanna dance with somebody…
With somebody who loves me!”

The Sirens of ancient Greece were rolling in their mythical graves. This kid really had it. By heartache or by stench, not an eye in the house was dry. The fat man watched from the wings; his face was distorted with joy. Somewhere in the third row, Willoughby Jones was frantically reaching for his cell phone.

Bingo couldn’t believe it: for the first time in his life he felt the touch of grace. From a hobo on park benches to the darling of Hollywood; from the bottom of the gutters to the heights of his wildest dreams…this night was worth everything. It could all end tomorrow and he wouldn’t be any less grateful. This was more than the result of a decision; it was a validation of his desperate intention. It was magnificent and it was pure. It was, finally, a holy and miraculous calling.

As the anus reached its final note, Bingo sobbed into his open hands. The crowd went wild.