Well, June is over, so I figured I’d take a look at how I’m doing. After all, it is said that one way to make sure you stick to an ongoing project is to keep track of how it’s going. And since I have a natural love of organizing information, here’s what I’ve got so far:
I started this on May 22nd – my birthday – because it seemed like a good enough time to start. So, for those ten days I wrote 11,112 words, for an average of 1,111 per entry. Not too shabby, but not quite where I want to be just yet.
For June, I wrote 38,332 words, for an average of 1,278 words per entry. Getting better, as we can see. Of these entries, only one qualified as unfinished – an untitled piece on June 9th that just veered off the rails, rolled down the hill and caught fire. After hitting a busload of nuns.
Sometimes you have to know when to take your hands off the keyboard and back away slowly.
My goal is the NaNoWriMo Limit – 50,000 words per month, which means an average of 1,613-1,724 words per day, depending on the month. I’m not sure what I’ll do when NaNoWriMo actually rolls around, but we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.
I’ve also hit on a few interesting things to look forward to on a regular basis. FridayFlash is one, a way to get more readers in to look at what I’m doing. Another is the character mash-up, wherein I take two randomly selected characters and put them together to see what happens. I’ve got over ninety to choose from, and that number will increase steadily, so it should be fun. It seems I’ve started one serial tale – Road Trip – and there’s nothing to stop me from doing another. I’ve discovered that going to TVTropes and picking two random entries is a fun way to get ideas. And then there’s the end-of-month revamp entry.
So, long story short (too late), I think I’m off to a good start. I don’t know what this project will become when all is said and done, but I have to say that I’m glad to be
playing God writing fiction again.
On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. This month, we’re going back to the beginning – Happy Birthday. Enjoy.
The day after the Rapture was my birthday. I had hoped for trumpets and celebrations, for the face of God to appear on Earth. I thought the dead would rise again, that the oceans would be as blood and the sky as flame, that animals would speak in the languages of man and utter the terrible truths they had known for so very long.
Before the Rapture, there was the Hype. You couldn’t drive through the city without seeing one of those billboards, or one of those trucks that just drove around all day blasting sermons out of huge speakers. The late-night hosts were having a ball with it, and the Internet did what it does best – relentlessly mock. I joined a Facebook group that promised to loot the houses of Raptured families, and I joked that if I was going to be watching the Tribuations, I might as well do it on a 65-inch LCD TV.
I didn’t believe it, mind you. I wandered away from the church years ago, and even then I had trouble accepting the whole “The Bible is the Word of God” thing. I didn’t even bother to go on Easter and Christmas anymore.
Nonetheless, I found myself looking forward to it, almost hoping that it really would happen. After all, angels coming down from Heaven, the return of Christ Almighty and the torments that would be visited upon the Unsaved, well… How could you not look forward to that? Angels with swords aflame would come flying from the clouds to carry off the elect. I figured music would rain down from heaven. It would have sounded like the kind of music Bach heard in his head but could never quite get down on paper. I expected the earth to shake and crack and rend itself asunder as great gouts of sulfurous steam jet forth, blasting the flesh from the bones of anyone unlucky enough to be in its way. There would be wonders and horrors enough for a hundred lifetimes, and I would get to see it all.
What I saw on that day was this: On the train, a young woman – probably about thirty or so – looked up from her book, said, “Oh.”
Then she vanished. And that was it.
Maybe I was the only one who noticed, maybe no one wanted to make a fuss about a young woman who disappeared like a soap bubble, but there it was.
It happened again a few more times during the day. An elderly man who just started laughing before he went; a small girl who was singing and vanished mid-skip; a Starbucks barista who managed to hold on through making a double latte. She put the cup on the counter, called the customer’s name, let out a deep breath and then just… wasn’t there anymore.
And it seemed like nobody noticed but me. Everyone went about their business, doing whatever it was they did on a Saturday afternoon. Twitter was humming along as it always does, but the only mention of the Rapture was to make jokes about it. Not once was there a, “Hey, did anyone see people disappearing? That’s kinda #weird.”
The next morning, the morning of my birthday – and allegedly the first day of the Tribulations or whatever they were called – the sky was grey. Not turned-off TV gray. Not a foreboding, hard-rain’s-gonna-fall gray. Just a lack of any kind of color. Just gray. The air was heavy and muggy and sluggish, barely moving through the world. What sunlight filtered through the gray sky was weak and attenuated. There was no birdsong outside. There were no insects traveling through the air.
My morning coffee was weak and bitter, my toast crumbled as I bit into it. My shower was lukewarm, no matter how I twisted the knob. My clothes made me itch. My hair lay flat on my head, and my skin was pale and dry and old.
My boyfriend stumbled out of bed and grunted something that was probably “Good morning,” but really could have been anything. He dropped a box on my desk and said, “Huppuhbufduh,” before crawling back into bed. The box wasn’t even wrapped. It was from a box of granola bars that he’d taped shut. Inside was a pair of socks. One of my pairs of socks.
I spent five minutes just staring into the refrigerator.
All that was on TV was cooking shows and home shopping.
The dog didn’t eat. The cat just slept.
That last part, at least, was normal.
So I’ve been sitting here. I’ve been through Facebook and Twitter and Flickr. I’ve gone through all my feeds and my bookmarks and forums. I’ve read through webcomics and funny cat caption sites. I’ve sleepwalked my way through some games, both online and off. And now all I can do it sit. Because I can’t think of anything better to do in this grey and heavy post-Rapture world.
Demons, volcanoes, the collapse of causality. Any of those would be better apocalypses than this. Screaming ghosts, empty graves, bloody skies. At least they’d be exciting. Interesting. Something worth writing about.
This just… is.
“Don’t get mad.”
Geoff looked up at Anders and felt cold dread in the pit if his stomach. The trip had thus far been one minor disaster after another, and another would just be the end of his patience.
The idea had been simple: Geoff’s parents had a beach house, a beautiful, sprawling, modern thing that they had bought with the inheritance from his mother’s parents’ fortune. It was within view of the beach, and had all the amenities – a huge kitchen, four bedrooms, a living room stuffed with electronics and amusements. There was a huge redwood porch on the beach side and great windows that caught the sunset perfectly. Geoff thought it was a massive insurance claim waiting to happen, but he’d take advantage of it while he could. He and four friends were going to spend the last week of their summer vacation there. One last summer of freedom before jobs and grad school got their claws in them.
It had started out perfectly – a sunny and hot August morning, perfect for a beach trip. Geoff drove across the river to pick up Anders, who was lugging a huge duffel bag towards the car.
“What the hell do you need all that for?” Geoff asked.
“You never know,” Anders said, out of breath. “I have extra towels, some sweatshirts and a windbreaker in case it gets cold, a couple of beach blankets.” He wiped his forehead and then wiped his hand on his jeans. “Some beach games, board games, a pack of cards and my D&D books.” He dropped the bag by the trunk and waited for Geoff to pop it open.
“You sure you didn’t forget anything?” The look of panic on Anders’ face made him wince. “Just kidding, man. I’m sure we’ll be grateful.”
The next leg of the trip was an hour’s drive to pick up Taka. He was already waiting outside his parents’ house, a skinny, shaggy-haired guy kicking a hackey sac around on their perfectly manicured front lawn. When Geoff pulled up, he gave the sac an extra kick, stuffed it in the pocket of his shorts, and jogged to the car. He slid into the back seat, put his bare feet up behind Anders’ head and said, “Okay, let’s go!”
The two in the front twisted around to look at him. “Where’s your stuff?” Anders asked.
Taka spread his arms wide. He was wearing a faded t-shirt, ragged cargo shorts, and nothing else. “Don’t need stuff,” he said. “We’re going to the beach. Got all the stuff I need.”
Anders blinked. “But we’re gonna be swimming and hanging out on the beach. You don’t have a swimsuit? Or something to wear while you dry off? Warm clothes, it gets kinda chilly at night…” Geoff closed his eyes and sighed.
Taka shook his head. “Don’t need all that crap. I can swim in my skin, right? And if my clothes get wet, they can dry while I just hang out!”
Geoff shook his head. “Hell, no, Taka. You’re not hanging out anything. Go get clothes.”
“You’re just being stupid, man,” Taka said. “I do it all the time at home, no one says anything.” It wasn’t just home, either. Anyone who knew Taka for more than a few weeks had a story of walking in on him in his dorm room. The guy had an aversion to clothes that had become legendary on their campus.
“Yeah, well, this ain’t your home,” Geoff said. “Piss off your parents in your own time. We don’t want to see you all swinging in the breeze for a week.” He turned the car off and ostentatiously set the parking break. “Go get clothes.”
Taka groaned, popped open the car door, and ran back to his house. “And hurry up!” Geoff yelled after him. “We’re on a schedule!”
He waited, tapping the steering wheel, for five minutes, then ten. After five more, he told Anders to go up to the house and get him. “If he’s any later, it’s going to seriously screw things up.”
Anders plodded up to the front door and knocked. A few minutes later, Taka burst out, carrying a stuffed laundry bag under one arm. “There’d better be pants in there,” Geoff said when they got back in the car. He didn’t wait for an answer, and they drove off.
As they got on the highway, Geoff handed Anders his phone. “Call Mick and see if he and Pat are on their way.” He glanced at the clock. They should have left by now, but Pat was two weeks in with his new boyfriend, and getting the two of them separated was nearly impossible. Geoff wasn’t sure if the moping would be better than the saccharin that flowed from the two of them. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Chad, really. They just didn’t know him very well.
Maybe Taka can keep Pat distracted, he thought.
Anders covered the phone with his hand. “They haven’t left yet,” he said. “Pat’s crying.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. Tell him he agreed to this a month ago, we all made sure we could do it, and that Chad will still be there when he gets back. Probably.” He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and changed lanes while Anders relayed the message. Every goddamn time.
After a few minutes, Anders disconnected and put the phone back in the cupholder. “Mick says he’ll get them on the road soon, and to lay off Pat for once.”
“Lay off? I just want to get everyone to the house, dammit, where we can all have the good fucking time we planned on having!”
“Hey, can you turn on the aircon?” Taka asked from the backseat. “It’s hot back here.”
“No,” Geoff shouted. “Open a window!” A moment later, Taka’s t-shirt was tossed into the front seat. Geoff reached over and put the air-conditioning up to full. “There!” he yelled, and flung the shirt back.
Geoff tried taking deep breaths and focusing on the beach. It would be great, he thought. Just the five of us, hanging out. Come and go as we please, enjoy the freedom. There were some steaks and wine in the cooler, and the idea of sitting on the porch with a glass and watching the sun go down was just about the most relaxing thing he could think of.
It was only Anders’ terrified shout that broke his reverie and kept him from rear-ending a pickup truck.
Traffic was stopped as far ahead as he could see.
Geoff started at the traffic jam. “You have got to be kidding me.” He looked at the clock again. He had been on the road for nearly two hours, and he had figured that he’d be at the house in another two. Maybe one and a half if they caught a break. The long line of cars baking in the summer sun promised that his precious schedule was just so much dust in the wind now.
He glanced in the rear-view. Taka, shirtless, was sleeping. Anders was looking ahead, trying to spot the end of the jam. “I dunno,” he said. “Looks like no one’s moving.”
No frikkin’ kidding, you giant lump! I can see that for myself, what do you think I am, blind? The ranting in Geoff’s head just got louder. No one’s goddamn moving and we’re not goddamn moving, and we’re never gonna move so when Mick and Pat finally get to the house there’ll be nobody there and this weekend will turn into a legendary catastrophe!
Geoff ground his teeth. “Looks like it, yeah.”
TO BE CONTINUED….
As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.
Green hair isn’t something you can hide easily in high school. Evelyn Pierce certainly tried, but she found that trying to go from a deep, mossy green back to her normal blonde was asking for more than modern cosmetics could offer. The new tint ignored the bleach utterly, and she knew she wasn’t goth enough to pull off dyeing her hair black. So green it was.
She got complaints from teachers, who called her parents, who said they had no idea what was going on. There was no history of green hair in the family, of course, and they were as concerned as anyone.
Compared to what else was happening, though, green hair was the least of Evelyn’s problems.
The real trouble started in biology class, as it so often does. The project was simple: clone a plant. Take a cutting, put it in some agar in a tube and try to cultivate cells from it. Each student pair did just that – plant, cutting, agar, incubate. Evelyn was paired with Rachael Decker, which made life easier. Rachael was a rarity in high school – someone who was incredibly popular, but at the same time genuinely nice. She didn’t care who you were, but rather treated everyone with basic human decency.
No one knew how she managed. But if there was any better person to have to work with when your hair was turning green, Evelyn didn’t know her. All Rachael said when she saw it for the first time was, “Wow! That looks nice!” And that was it. From anyone else, Evelyn would have suspected sarcasm. But not Rachael Decker.
The results of the experiment were, for most of the pairs, fairly ordinary. Lots of fungal infections from improperly cleaned equipment, a few that showed some sign of growth.
Evelyn’s had exploded. It broke through its glass tube and sent blind tendrils all through the incubator, infiltrating other experiments and completely ruining half the class’ work. Mr. Peters, the bio teacher, was amused, if anything. “Looks like we have a success,” he said, carefully disentangling the thing from all the others. He handed it to Evelyn and Rachael. “What’re you going to name it?”
Rachael laughed, but Evelyn didn’t even hear him. She was too busy listening to the horrible thing she was holding in her hands as it screamed at her. It was… crying. Like a horrible, twisted baby. And no one seemed to notice.
She dropped it and ran out of the bio lab. She went to the nurse, who called her parents, who took her home. As they drove, the whispering voice of that thing tickled her mind, and wherever she looked she felt like she was being watched.
She missed school the next day, and the day after. She wouldn’t leave her room – going to the living room with her mother’s potted plants was painful enough, and when her father mowed the lawn she nearly went mad. The grass screamed at her. The begonias begged for their freedom. She couldn’t even take a shower – as scrupulous as her mother was about cleaning, there was still mold somewhere, and it spoke to her in a horrible black voice that made her teeth hurt.
After a few days, her mother poked her head into the bedroom. “Evey, honey? You have a visitor?” Everything her mother said sounded like a question. It always had, and it always bugged Evelyn, but not now,
“I can’t, mom,” she said.
“She says it’s important? It’s your friend Rachael?”
The thought that Rachael could make everything better was stupid, she knew. Childish. No one could make things better, not ever. But it planted itself in her, and took hold. If she could talk to anyone, it would be Rachael. “I’ll… I’ll come down,” she said.
She brushed her hair and changed her clothes for the first time in two days. Rachael wouldn’t mind if she smelled a little.
She heard them as she walked down the stairs. Her mother was a big believer in houseplants and kept them all over the place. Every room had green, growing things in it and until this week Evelyn thought they were nice. That they added some life and some freshness to the house. Now she could hear their voices as they strained for sunlight, called for water and ached in the pots that were provided for them. They wanted to be outside, to have their roots in deep soil and to be able to feel the breeze, to host insects and to be wild again. All of that in a cacophony of noise in her head that was so very loud. By the time she was in the living room, she was whimpering, and didn’t even notice that Rachael was there.
“Evey?” Rachael asked, putting her hands on her Evelyn’s shoulders. “Evey, are you okay?”
All Evelyn could do was shake her head. She wanted to speak, but she couldn’t unclench her mouth.
“I’ll leave you two alone?” he mother said. “If you want anything…?” She left, looking worried.
Rachael guided Evelyn over to the sofa, next to a sprawling philodendron on the side table that was singing, of all things. Singing! Evelyn whimpered as she sat. Rachael sat next to her, her hand on Evelyn’s knee. There was a rubber plant on the other side of the sofa that was growling something Evelyn couldn’t make out. “I know what you’re going through,” Rachael said.
Evelyn wanted to laugh, but that seemed like a very bad idea. What had Rachael gone through that was like this? What had she had to endure? The pitch of the plant noise ebbed for a moment, and she could sense a change in the room. An attention that wasn’t there before. A quiet, definite attention.
They were listening to her.
“Sometimes, life just gets weird, y’know?” Rachael continued. “But I want you to know I’m here if you need anything.” She leaned in. “Is it those guys from the swim team? Because they’re just assholes, and you know it.”
Evelyn shook her head again, but thinking of the laughter and the taunts she got when her hair changed just made it worse. She could feel something uncoiling inside her, something horrible and deadly. The plants had fallen utterly silent. Except for one of the spider plants hanging in the large bay window. It was laughing.
“But in order for me to help you, I need to know what’s wrong.” Rachael tilted Evelyn’s face up to look her in the eyes, and she smiled. She had such a pretty smile. She had red hair that set off gold-brown eyes, and those eyes just looked so honest. So sincere. Evelyn heard her own voice in her head, cutting through the silence. You can tell her, she thought. She’ll believe you.
Evelyn relaxed, and the thing inside her lashed out. The plants in the living room burst into life, their tendrils and leaves exploding outwards with a sound no human ear had ever heard before. Under that quiet roar was a louder one in her mind, a cry of freedom and rage. They had been given a horrible vitality that Evelyn knew was coming from her, flowing from her, but she couldn’t stop it. She didn’t know how it started, and stopping it was like trying to stop a river.
“What the hell?” Rachael stood up and started at the plants, then at Evelyn, who was rigid on the couch. “Evelyn, what’s-” She was cut off as the long stems of a large porthos plant whipped around her neck, cutting off her breathing. The long, grassy leaves of the spider plant whipped around, binding her hand and foot and lifting her, twisting and writing, off the floor. The great, stiff branches of a jade plant held her up, lifting her nearly to the ceiling.
From the couch, Evelyn was helpless. She saw her friend in the air, wrapped in twisting, choking green, and she couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. She tried yelling in her head for the plants to stop, to let her friend down, but they couldn’t hear her – or wouldn’t.
Please, she implored them. Please let her go!
The mad chorus of voices surged, voicing primitive, needy thoughts. The room was filled with the sound of rustling leaves and the smell of steaming, living soil. The plants were happy, she realized. Happy for the first time in their lives. They were calling out – sun, water, soil – over and over again, like a chant, like a ritual – sun, water, soil – getting louder and louder and ignoring the screams in Evelyn’s head to stop, to put down her friend, to please just stop!
There was a loud snap.
The plants went quiet. For a moment, Evelyn thought that maybe one of the branches had broken, that they had pushed too far, too fast. But she heard the plants and knew that wasn’t so. They were murmuring, whispering, quiet. The leaves and vines and tendrils, so alive and vicious just a moment ago, went limp, and Rachael’s body fell to the floor. There were cuts all over her arms and neck where the leaves and vines had sliced into her skin. Her head lolled on a broken neck and rested awkwardly on her shoulder.
Finally, Evelyn was able to move. She dropped down beside her friend and begged and pleaded and sobbed.
The plants watched, and whispered.
“Mrs. Lucy Baker?”
The woman who answered the door of the sprawling suburban mansion looked exhausted. In her early fifties probably, her hair was still dark, with only a hint of gray roots. She held onto one edge of the doorframe as though it was holding her up. “Yes?” she said.
“Widow of Andrew Baker?”
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Yes.”
“Andrew Baker who – shut up!”
She straightened. “What?”
“Not you, love, sorry.” The man on her front porch was small and slight, wearing an ill-fitting suit that wanted cleaning and a small, battered hat. His eyes never stopped moving, dashing from one place to another and only occasionally landing on the person he was talking to. “Andrew Baker who passed away in a car accident last week?”
“Look,” she said, “what do you want? Are you from the insurance company, because we’re already in the middle of clearing up the mess my husband left us.”
The man standing on her front porch flinched as if someone had hit him. He turned around to glare behind him and said, “If you don’t knock that off…” He stopped in mid-sentence, glanced back at her and straightened up. “No, ma’am, I’m not from the insurance company. I’m here on private business. Your husband’s business.” He paused, and in the pause his eyes narrowed and he clenched his jaw.
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Baker said. “What sort of business?”
“May I come in, Mrs. Baker?”
She crossed her arms and for the first time stood up straight. “All week I’ve had people coming to my house asking for things, mister…”
“West,” he said. “David West, and you’ll just-”
“All kinds of people have been trying to sell things to me, buy things from me, or generally try to take what is mine or what is left of my husband’s legacy. Which, I might add, isn’t a whole lot.” West flinched again, she she didn’t notice. “Between bereavement counselors, used-things buyers, and the lawyers, frankly I never want to let anyone else in this house again. So here’s the deal.” She ostentatiously looked at her watch, which sparkled in the sunlight. “You have one minute to explain why you’re here before I send your picture to the police.”
West glanced up and, for the first time, noticed the small security camera up near the top of the door. “You could have SAID something,” he growled quietly.
“I just did,” she said. “Your elevator pitch starts now.”
West cleared his throat and took off his hat. “Your husband had a significant amount of money in a Caymans account that he wants you to have. First Cayman Bank, account number-” He paused for a moment. “6284956292AFA. The password is-” He paused again. “Seriously?” He shrugged, and said, “Lulubell1983.”
Mrs. Baker’s arm fell. Her mouth hung open and she stared at him for a full minute. Then, in a move that seemed beyond an older, exhausted widow she grabbed West by the lapels and dragged him into the house.
She didn’t say anything until the door was locked and the window blinds were closed. “Kitchen,” she said as she walked away down the hall. West straightened his suit, smirked at something to his left, and followed her.
She was holding a gun when he got there, a small revolver. “You have got to be kidding me,” he said.
“I’m not, I assure you,” she said. She gestured to a chair. “Sit.”
He went to the chair and sat down. “You never said anything about a gun,” he said.
She snorted a laugh. “Why would I have, Mr. West?”
He looked up at her, a reply on his lips, but he suddenly closed his mouth and held his peace. It looked like it was costing him dearly, though.
“I’ve been looking for that information for months now,” she said. “You’re going to tell me how you know it.”
West cocked an eyebrow. “Months? I thought your husband died a week ago.” A breeze rustled the curtains in the window, but she paid it no mind.
“I’ve known about the account for months,” she said. “I was trying to get Andrew to tell me about it, one way or another. All I knew was that it’s more money than I’ve ever seen, and that he wasn’t using a dime of it. But he died before he could tell me, and now here you come along.”
West leaned back and crossed his legs. “Died? Or ‘died’?”
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like what you’re implying, Mr. West,” she said.
“Neither do I, love.”
“I didn’t murder my husband, Mr. West,” she said.
“Never said you did, Mrs. Baker.”
The refrigerator door popped open and a glass fell off the shelf. This got her attention, and she glanced around. When she looked back, West was standing, his hands clenched by his sides and his eyes closed. His voice, when he spoke, was strained. “Your husband… though… has other ideas.”
His mouth shot open, and a glowing white mist spiraled out of it, wrapping itself around him and screaming as it went. The room started to rumble – cupboard doors blew open, vomiting out their contents. Drawers shot across the room, and the silverware danced across the linoleum. Knives flew through the air and slammed into the wall next to Mrs. Baker, causing her to shriek and fire a single shot into the ceiling.
West seemed to grow and shudder, and he was soon lost in the howling, shrieking mist. When Mrs. Baker looked at him again, and saw who he was becoming, she emptied the rest of her pistol into him.
To no effect.
The mist, or whatever it was, caught the bullets as they flew and dropped them to the floor. It raised what seemed to be its head, looked at her with eyes that glowed blue with rage, and said, “You really thought that would work, Lulubell?”
She screamed and tried to run, but the mist-figure of her husband wrapped an arm around her and pulled her back into the kitchen. The roiling fog smelled like scorched metal and rubber and burning oil and it clung to her skin.
The doors slammed shut, the windows broke, and as it pulled her close the screaming in the room rose to a deafening pitch.
Then there was silence.
“That was why you killed me, Lulubell?” the ghost said. “For money?”
“I… I… I…” She couldn’t say anything else. She struggled against him, but he only pulled her closer.
“There were plenty of good reasons to kill me,” it said, and it almost sounded amused. “I thought you would have chosen a better one.” She flew out of his grip and was held up against a wall. The ghost rose on a spiraling column of stinking, glowing mist and pressed a hand to her forehead.
“I was going to let you have that money, Lulubell,” it said. “It would have been enough to keep you in Oxycontin and pool boys for a long, long time.” It chuckled, and the laugh sounded like glass being crushed. “I figure I’ll just leave you with this instead.”
Its fingers slipped into her skull, up to their last knuckle, and Mrs. Baker tried to scream. It was a high, wheezing, soundless scream that went on forever.
The spirit withdrew its hand, and she dropped to the floor, twitching and mumbling. The figure of mist stared down at her, and then loosed itself, flowing across the floor in cold white waves. David West stood at the epicenter. He brushed off his suit and looked around the ruined kitchen before taking a good look at the woman on the floor.
“Reliving the car crash? Forever?” He smirked. “Not very original, is it?” He shrugged. “Hey, whatever makes you happy.” He started to step his way through the broken glass, battered metal and ruined furniture. He pulled the magnetized shopping list and pen off the refrigerator door. “What was that account number again?” He paused and started writing down digits. “And it was ‘lulubell1984,’ right?” He scratched out a number. “Three, right.”
He folded the paper, put it in his pocket, and picked up the phone. An anonymous 911 call would do to get her put in the right mental hospital, and from what he had just seen, she’d never remember him. He made his way outside, got back in his car, and started it up. “You got what you wanted,” he said. “And I’m set for life. We good?” He nodded, sat still for a moment, and then shuddered.
Whistling softly, he pulled out of the driveway. The money was good, yes, but there would be more work. There always was. David West thought he should get busy enjoying himself before it turned up.
“All right, Mister Vails, it says here on your resume that you used to be… Umm…” The unemployment counselor looked up from the resume to the tall, muscular man who was sitting uncomfortably across the desk from her.
“Photon.” He cracked a knuckle with his thumb. “The Magnificent,” he said. His voice was flat, almost a whisper, and his wide shoulders slumped.
She made a note on the resume. “I see. And this was before the gene-bomb?”
The man nodded, and didn’t look her in the eye. The gene bomb had gone off two years ago, detonated by Tobias Rhyne, an inventor and technologist-turned-supervillain. Rhyne had developed a method by which metahumans could be stripped of their powers, and thanks to years of defeat at their hands, he had finally gone and done it. When the bomb went off, there were 5,313 metahumans working around the planet. Some of them were in mid-action when it happened, and plummeted from the sky like a horrible four-color rain. Others were suddenly subject to the laws of physics that they had previously ignored, and the results were grisly at best.
Those who survived had to do so without the powers they had come to rely on, and as yet no one had managed to find a way to reverse the effects. Professor Harcrow, of the Corsair City University – a three-time Nobel Prize winner and frequent ally of the international peacekeeping squad Heroes United – was said to be working on a cure. To date, though, no metahuman had recovered his or her powers. Some tried on their own, hunting down lightning storms or trying to re-create the cosmic vortexes that had blessed them in the first place. They were, to a man, unsuccessful.
It became necessary, then, for them to try and re-integrate into regular human society. Even those who had maintained secret identities were having trouble coming to grips with their situation. For them, being a super-hero was the real job. Newspaper reporting, working in an auto garage, being a police officer was just a way to pay the bills. Now it was their real life, and much like soldiers returning from war, they were having problems assimilating.
Constance Wixted had just started processing these claims, and they were starting to get to her. She had seen Photon the Magnificent before, of course – everyone had. The silver and blue costume he wore was unmistakable, and after he saved the Golden Gate Bridge from being turned into a harmonic earthquake generator by Lord Temblor, his fame rose as high as he did.
Now he was sitting in her cramped and dingy public assistance office, hoping to find some kind of work that was as fulfilling as world-saving. “Okay,” she said, trying to pitch her voice somewhere cheerful and optimistic. “What skills do you have that might be valuable to employers?”
He looked up at her, and she remembered for a moment the cosmic blasts that he used to be able to shoot from them. There was a video on YouTube of Photon holding back a rampaging battle tank with those eyes. Now they were flat. “I can type,” he said. “And I’m very organized.”
“Those are good,” she said. “Anything else?”
He sat there, and exhaled. “I’m good with people.”
Constance fought the urge to rub her eyes. “Mister Vails, I understand you’re in a difficult situation….”
“Do you?” he asked. He looked at her again, and for a moment there was strength in his face. “Have you ever seen the sky in the infrared? Have you ever felt the earth move under your feet and known that you moved it? Have you ever had an entire city thank you for returning it from a shadow dimension?”
She shook her head. “No, I – I haven’t.”
“Then you don’t understand anything,” he said. He stood up and took his coat from the back of the chair. “Thank you for trying, Miss Wixted,” he said. “This isn’t working for me.”
She stood with him. “Wait, Mister Vails!” He turned and looked over his shoulder. “Maybe… maybe you could do some work with an NGO, or a charity – I have a few here that-”
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s just… It’s just not the same.” He put his coat on, and she watched him as he walked through the waiting room and out the door.
Constance dropped back in her seat. She made a note in Vails’ file – “Pending” – and dropped it into a tray on her desk. “Next,” she said. A tall woman with green hair and a willowy figure stood up, smoothed her dress, and came into the office, closing the door behind her.
“Miss Pierce?” The woman nodded. “Sorry to see you here again so soon. The arboretum job didn’t work out, then?” The green-haired woman shook her head and, quietly, began to cry. Constance stood up and brought over the box of tissues she made sure was always within arm’s reach.
“Don’t worry, Miss Pierce,” she said. “We’ll find something for you.”
The day the gays came, no one was prepared. Families sat in their kitchens, eating breakfast and getting ready to go to work, to school. Hard-working Americans set off to earn an honest day’s pay. Husbands kissed their wives good-bye, wives their husbands. The sons and daughters of American families went off to their lessons, sure in the knowledge that their futures were bright and their success was ensured.
And then the gays came.
Where they came from, no one knew, but come they did. They descended on those breakfasts, those fathers and wives, daughters and sons, and no family was left untouched.
The day the gays came, they lined up all the men in the world. With sass and sarcasm, the Gaystapo culled the men, taking those they could use and discarding the rest. The handsome flowers of American youth were swept away in great flurries of leather and denim and glitter to the Homofication Camps in San Francisco and New York, Provincetown and Key West. There they raised their young gay army of football players and swim team captains, drama queens and emo boys, creating a virile, hedonistic force to overrun the world.
The day the gays came, drive-by renovations were endemic. A man could not step out of his house without being surrounded by teams of designers and decorators, and he was lucky if he made it out with his old Metallica t-shirts intact. Souvenir shot glasses were replaced with hand-blown, free trade glassware, Precious Moments figurines were dashed to the ground and traditional Japanese phallus sculptures were put in their place. Refrigerators were emptied of hot dogs and onion dip, old Chinese food and microwave pizza. It was arugula or death. Walls were viciously repainted, furniture upholstered without mercy, and no kitchen went without Marthafication.
The day the gays came, the ugly, the unfashionable, the irredeemable – they were sent away to work in the great Versace and DKNY factories that were swiftly erected across the Great Plains. Men would slave for Dolce and Gabanna until they died, overseen by hulking dominatrices and oiled-up security guards. The goods they made in the Dior Re-Conditioning Camps would flow to the queer elite, who would use them for exactly one fashion season before leaving them in the rubbish for the hipster nomads to upcycle into keychains and beer can holders.
The day the gays came, a great Amazonian kingdom emerged. Women in workboots and flannel, free-loving hippie girls and high-powered femmes fatale converged to create the Great Sapphic Kingdom. Their embassies were hardware stores and college campuses, coffeehouses and indie guitar shops and women’s prisons. There they engaged in the ancient rituals of womynhood, celebrating their mother Earth and sister Moon and calling forth the great life force to which only they could ever truly connect. Any man unlucky enough to witness their rites was torn limb from limb – a price he paid happily.
The day the gays came, the Lilith Fair ravaged the land. It moved across the country like a swarm of locusts, devouring all in its wake. As it came, it took the girls it found and absorbed them into itself. Daughters and sisters, mothers and wives all bonded together into a great lesbotic hive-mind, served by its mindless, eunuch slave-men. Discipline was strict, unrelenting, and merciless, and their ranks swelled daily with their only desire being to serve Empress DeGeneres.
The day the gays came, gyms sprung forth from the earth, vast and loud and terrible. The new fitness junta was inescapable, participation mandatory. Enforced by elite teams of aerobic instructors and weightlifters, any man without a six-pack was held indefinitely. Until he could master his core zone, he was not fit to be called a man. Unless he had the abs of an underwear model, biceps like oiled pythons, and an ass that could crack walnuts, he would never again again see the light of day.
The day the gays came, the churches were turned into rave halls. Great marble Madonnas were re-made into Madonnas, and the sacristies were rededicated to saints Garland and Minelli, Gaga and Beyonce. Where once the walls rang with the songs of holy choirs, now they pulsed to the beats of PrePhab, Junior Vasquez, and Deadmau5. The priests were evicted, but the altar boys were kept, and the parties in God’s houses never ended.
The day the gays came, the Homopocalypse, the earth shook and danced, the skies glowed mauve and the world came to a halt. The day the gays came, Fagnarok, there were poppers and X in every Happy Meal and every lunchbox had a flavored condom. The day the gays came, Queermageddon, the world was turned upside down and inside out, and all that was good was made fabulous.
The day the gays came, all creation was unified under the Rainbow Flag and its fearsome masters and mistresses.
The day the gays came was the best day ever.
(Congratulations to New York State for legislating equality of marriage for all its citizens. A long time coming, but wonderful to see.)
It was a feeling too big to hold on to. Every time I tried, the fingers of my mind would slip, like trying to hold onto soap in the bathtub. It was right in front of me, all around me, inside and out, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t handle it, make it make sense. I had lost everything. Everything. How do you hold on to a concept like that?
The fire department arrived about two minutes after I made it out. Those two minutes stretched into eternity, an eternity where I could see and hear everything I had ever worked for, everything I had ever loved, burn and die. In my mind, I saw the flames eagerly devouring hundreds of books, falling from their shelves as their pages fluttered through the air like the wings of brilliant birds. Books I had read and loved, books I had yet to read. The fire annihilated them, one at a time and all at once.
I remember the neighbors holding me down on the lawn as I screamed and tried to get in.
The rocking chair that my wife’s mother had left us. Solid oak, hand-carved by her father. It was the chair in which my wife had sat as a little girl when she learned her letters, when she read her bible. It was the chair I sat in when our little girl wouldn’t sleep, or our boy wanted to read. It was the chair I sat in on that last night, when the love of my life left this world. It was rendered down into char, stripped and eaten alive.
The fire department arrived in a flurry of noise and light. Three trucks, bringing flashing red brilliance to the night and an order where there was none. The flickering of the flames was brought to heel by the oscillating red brilliance. The aimless wandering of neighbors was undone by the men of great purpose who came to fight fire with water. They turned their hoses on my house, and kept others ready in case the fire spread.
Photographs in the dining room, all in an old Macy’s shopping bag that my mother had given to me. Some of them went back to the late 19th century, images of stiff and uncomfortable people trying to leave their mark on the world through this new and magical medium. My great-great grandmother, in her youth, was a woman of vibrance and mischief, a woman I never would know. If the flames didn’t get them – and I was sure they did – the water would seep in, find them, and insinuate itself. The moisture would warp and twist and inflate the photographs, and if anything at all was left, it would be only a piece. An eye. A hand. The top of someone’s head.
I sat on my lawn, as close as the firefighters would let me get. The night had turned cold, perhaps just in comparison to the waves of heat coming off the home I would never live in again. I was in my pajamas and my coat, the only thing I could grab on the way out. We had played that game, my wife and I – what would you save? And in my head, in the peaceful security of a glass of wine in the living room, I had mapped it all out. Despite the impending certainty of destruction, I would calmly and carefully gather the items I needed – wallet, phone, the bank book – and the items I treasured – the photos, my first edition Mark Twain, our wedding album.
I had none of those. Escaping the house was gone from my memory, erased in a moment of madness and terror. I had myself. I had the clothes I was wearing.
The lady from across the street brought me cocoa. I took it, and I think I said thank you. I sipped it as I watched my house burn. All that I had been, all that I was, was gone. Up in smoke.
So I remembered. I thought of the house, of each room. The living room we repainted three times because the green we thought we bought wasn’t the one we had in mind. The bathroom where our son almost drowned when he was three, where I pulled him back from death on a floor tiled with flowers. The bedrooms that we went back to night after night. The bed that we slept and fought and loved in. There was a cabinet door in the kitchen that didn’t shut right. A chair in the den that we couldn’t move because it would reveal the wine stain on the carpet. The huge dinner table that hosted Thanksgiving every year. That framed painting that our son did in college that a team of wild horses wouldn’t get me to admit was terrible.
It was all there, in my head. In my memories.
I sipped the cocoa. Several other neighbors had come by, asked if I was okay. I may have nodded. The firefighters were shooting water into the upstairs window, into the bedroom that our daughter defiantly painted black when she was in high school. While her mother and I were on vacation, of course.
The house was huge, in my memory. Room enough for decades. For armies of people. Everything we had was in there, somewhere. The feeling of the rag rug in my “study,” the smell of the incipient mildew in the basement. The hum of the refrigerator and the sound of rain on the skylight. It was all there, and bright, and real.
I sat on the lawn. I watched my house burn.
And I was at home.
It was only twenty seconds after Paul Alexander Barbeau was born that the first murderer appeared.
His mother, Alyssa, had just taken him to her breast. His father, Ollie, was still filming, and babbling with great happiness over the birth of his first child. The doctor was just about to say something about ten fingers and ten toes when a man burst into the room. He was wearing a smoking leather jacket with a blue ideogram embossed on the back, and was waving what was unmistakably a gun.
“NEVER AGAIN!” he bellowed, and leveled the gun at the newborn. He was only stopped because one of the maternity nurses had done a tour of duty in Afghanistan and was quick on her feet.
The man was arrested and brought to trial for attempted murder under the name of John Doe, as he refused to give his name. He had no records, of course, although his fingerprints seemed to match those of Matthew Dixon, a six year-old from Milwaukee whose parents had helpfully enrolled him in a police database in the event that he was ever abducted. The coincidence was dismissed as such, and John Doe was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Paul Alexander Barbeau slept through the whole incident, completely undisturbed.
When interviewed by the police, his parents were understandably shaken and upset. Nothing like this had ever happened to them before, they said. Oliver Barbeau was a junior high school math teacher, and Alyssa had quit her job as a medical secretary to become a stay at home mother. They had never had trouble with the law, never been in a fight, and they had no idea why someone would want to kill their beautiful baby boy.
As the years passed, the Barbeaus began to realize that their son was special. All parents think their child is perfect and brilliant and absolutely better than everyone else’s children. In the Barbeaus’ case, they had reason to be proud. He was speaking in full sentences by the time he was two, was already well on his way to learning his multiplication tables, and only a week before his third birthday party had managed to take apart the television remote. He wasn’t able to put it back together, of course, but he said he did it “to see how it worked.” The Barbeaus were looking into a gifted program for Paul as soon as he was old enough to enter one.
The team that assaulted the birthday party was better prepared than the man who had broken into the delivery room. Three people – two men and a woman – crashed through the front door right before the candles were lit. They held the party hostage for the better part of four hours before the police were able to get a team in to end the standoff. The local evening news led with the story, running the videotape that had been couriered to them only an hour before the standoff began.
On the video, the three – who were dressed in paramilitary outfits, all wearing a blue insignia on an armband – proclaimed that they were saving the world from the future. “As a result of our actions,” the woman said to the camera, “we will appear to be monsters. The terror we lived through, the terror spawned by Paul Barbeau, will never come to pass. We are willing to accept our fate, that we should become monsters, for the good of the world.”
All three were killed during the police assault. Like the man three years earlier, their prints were either not on record or matched children elsewhere, prompting a call for better police computer systems across the state. When interviewed by the police, the Barbeaus said that they didn’t know any of the assailants, though Mr. Barbeau did recognize the insignia they had on their armbands.
“When I was in college,” he said, “a guy tried to mug me on my way to my first date with Alyssa. He jumped out of the bushes in broad daylight, yelling incoherently – and I remember he had the same thing on his arm. Kind of a blue eye-thing, I think. I tried wrestling him to the ground, but he had a knife.” Here, Barbeau lifted his sleeve to show a thin white scar that ran up the inside of his arm. “You know, I was lucky that campus security happened to be nearby, or I would have been killed.”
Unfortunately, this kind of incident became almost commonplace during Paul’s eventful childhood. By the time he was ten, he traveled in an armored car with a security detail whenever he went to the Max Planck Magnet School for Gifted Youth. His parents were among the first to take part in a specialized security service offered by Cerbecorp Security Enterprises, which donated officers, vehicles and body armor to the Barbeaus and their associates.
“It’s nothing new for me, of course,” his mother said after another failed attempt on Paul’s life at a local summer camp – the second in three months. “I’ve been dealing with this since I was a little girl. These crazy Blue-Arms have had it in for me and Ollie since we were both kids in foster care. I mean, I’ve never known why they want to kill us, and it was disturbing at first, but after a while you get used to it. It just becomes part of your life.”
The closest Paul Alexander Barbeau came to death was during the science fair in his senior year of high school, when he was twelve. Adeline Kramer, a biology teacher of fifteen years, allegedly slipped a toxic substance into Paul’s drink. While giving a presentation to a standing room only crowd at the National High School Science Competition on his work in the field of nanocybernetics, Paul collapsed mid-sentence. As his team of bodyguards rushed to his side, Kramer began shouting, “It’s all over! The beast is dead!” At this point, she drew a handgun and fired two shots at Paul.
Two other science competition participants – Treva Vanderburg and Julianne Goodlet – were seriously injured in the shooting. Ms. Kramer died when her neck was broken as she was tackled to the ground by Lee Wrackman, a member of Paul’s security team, in a moment that echoed Wrackman’s first rescue of Paul only moments after the boy was born. Paul was rushed to the hospital where doctors were able to save his life.
In a press conference, Paul Barbeau, with the family lawyers and security standing by, said that he bore no ill-will towards the woman, or towards any of the people who had threatened the lives of himself and his family since before he was born. “There are those who do not see the world as I do. They do not see the future that I see. With my work, I will be able to one day rid the world of the plagues of mankind. I will make a brilliant future for humanity, one which will allow us to become what we always wished we could be.”
The press conference was quickly evacuated when one of the reporters accidentally discovered a large satchel bomb under the stage. The bomb was successfully disarmed by the police, and no one was injured.
The Barbeau family soon left for an unknown destination. For five years, no word could be had of the whereabouts of Paul Barbeau or his family, until his announcement that he had developed a neurocybernetic viral analogue that would safely cure nearly all forms of human disease.
In a remote video feed, he explained the basics of the technology – a hardy, self-replicating nanovirus that could be spread through the air – in a presentation that ended with Paul Barbeau injecting himself with a fluid that allegedly contained his “miracle cure.”
“Starting with me,” he said, “the world will enter a whole new era, unlike any that it has seen before.” His image was replaced with a 3-D rendering of the blue Barbeau Pharmaceuticals logo, with the words, “A New Tomorrow” superimposed underneath.
“Come with me,” Barbeau said in the voiceover. “Together we will make a new world.”
Senator McLaughlin blinked against the onslaught of camera flashes as he entered the press briefing room. The sound of shutters was like a swarm of insects – locusts, probably – that was about to descend on him in a cloud and eat him alive. He held a hand up against the brilliance so that he wouldn’t bump into the lectern that had been set up in front of the hastily-erected navy blue curtains.
When the noise had fallen to only a few clicks per second, he leaned in over the microphone and cleared his throat. Silence slammed into the room, and after a couple of final, desultory clicks, he began to speak.
“My fellow Americans. It is with a heavy heart that I stand before you today. Five years ago, my constituents, the hardworking, honest and decent citizens of Connecticut, elected me to serve in the nation’s most revered deliberative body. I was humbled to have been chosen, and honored to serve. They exercised the right that their ancestors had fought and died for, the one right that is fundamental to any citizen of a democracy – the right to vote – and gave me the awesome responsibility of being their voice in the U.S. Senate. It is only right and fitting, then, that I apologize to them first.
“People of Connecticut: I am sorry. Your faith in me… was misplaced.” The cameras erupted again, and reporters texted that quote to their editors en masse. It would be the headline of the hour, to be sure, superimposed over the tortured expression the Senator was wearing. That picture would be on magazine covers before the week was out.
“While the physical damage is indeed high, the economic effects long-lasting, and of course the human cost impossible to calculate, know that it is the betrayal of your trust that weighs most heavily on me.
“To the exiles of Waterbury. It was not my intention to have your city miniaturized. The discussions with Galactic Overlord P’thn’aar were going well, but I fear that a slight misapprehension on my part may have led to your lovely and historic city being reduced to the size of a snow globe. I assure you, the nation’s top scientists are working round the clock to find a solution that involves the least loss of life possible.
“To the soldiers of George Washington’s Virginia Militia – my most sincere apologies. I was unaware that the New London Supercollider would tear open a hole in the fabric of space and time, that it would happen during my ribbon-cutting ceremony, or that it would be you who had the misfortune of falling through. I wish we could send you back, but I am told that would result in a collapse of causality. Please take solace in the knowledge that you alone of all your brothers in arms can see the fruit of your sacrifices, made so long ago.
“And to the people of New London, who cannot hear my voice, I hope that, once we have figured out how to restart the flow of local time and you are able to listen to this announcement, you will forgive me. If all goes well, you will not have been in stasis for more than a few months. If, on the other hand, civilization has collapsed and all those you ever knew and loved are dead – my heart goes out to you.
“And finally, to the people…” He paused, cleared his throat, and took a drink of water. “To the former people of Farmington. I feel truly terrible about this, and I hope that, if you are still able to comprehend such things as ‘sympathy’ and ‘sorrow,’ or even human speech, that you will accept my apologies. We only intended the virus to be used in the event of war with the Soviet Union, and in all honesty, I thought that canister was empty. I mean, really – who the hell leaves a bottle of zombie supervirus in Farmington of all places? New Britain, sure, but Farmington? Am I right?” The Senator looked around, incredulous, but all he saw were camera lenses, flashes, and the hard, hungry eyes of reporters.
“In any event,” he continued, “it has been made very clear that the misfortunes that have been visited upon my state all have one common element – me. Therefore, the only honorable thing to do at this time is to resign so that perhaps no further damage will be done. I will be leaving with my family, and we’ll be moving back to my wife’s family home in Waterford, just a few miles from the former Millstone Nuclear Power Station number one, which I have been assured is perfectly safe.
“Thank you, no questions, and god have mer-bless the people of Connecticut and the United States.”