“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
There’s not a whole lot of places you can go after you nearly destroy the world.
Prison, sure. If you’re into that kind of thing.
Unfortunately, I’m not. I’ve been to prison before, of course – any good supervillain has. The odd bank robbery, maybe a hostage situation. Property damage, that kind of thing. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that if you’re a supervillain and you haven’t been to prison, then you’re just not setting your sights high enough. And boy did I set my sights high. Tornado swarms, a pair of force-5 hurricanes. The wind was at my fingertips, and everything was going my way. For a while, at least.
My mother’s house in Queens was just like I remembered it. A squat little brick affair set back from the road. You had to walk up a couple of steps from the sidewalk and open a flimsy little gate to get to the front door, which she never used anyway. As far as she was concerned, only visitors would use the front door. It opened into the living room, which she kept spotless with the kind of obsession that soldiers usually reserve for cleaning their guns. The living room was the one room in the house that I never went into, on pain of death. Back when I was still into that whole “following the rules” thing. By the time I grew out of it, my rebellious urges had grown pretty far beyond sitting on mom’s plastic-covered sofa. In her house, the side door was good enough for family.
I knocked on the front door. This is mom, not the White House. I can’t assume anything anymore.
There was a moment of dreadful silence, and then the slow unlocking of the five deadbolts that she’d installed over the years. The door cracked inward, and I saw half of my mother’s face peek out of the darkness. I spread my arms wide and dropped my duffel bag to the ground. “Ma!” I said, forcing cheer out in my voice in waves. “Look who’s home!”
Her dark eyes glanced up and down just once. Then she said, “Come around to the side.” The door slammed, and she slowly started redoing all the locks.
My mother’s house was like a time capsule, where everything just stopped changing somewhere around 1992. She had the same appliances, the same fixtures, the same wallpaper. I felt bad when I realized that I had never once offered to buy mom a new fridge or something, no matter how much I stole. She’d never say anything, of course. But I knew that she knew that I was thinking it. Somehow.
I put my bag down on one of the kitchen chairs and sat in the other. My mother started fixing a glass of iced tea.
I suppose that everyone goes through this when they grow up, but my mom looked so… small. Her hair was dark, but there was gray starting to show through, and she moved more slowly than I remembered. She was wearing houseclothes – a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt that matched. This from the woman who had a knockoff Chanel and a fake pearl necklace that she would wear just to go out to the supermarket. Something had happened to my mother, and I suspected that it was somehow my fault.
That could just be my mother’s superpower, though. I can control weather, she can make even a hardened supervillain mike me feel incredibly guilty without even saying a word.
She put the iced tea on the table in front of me and then took the remaining chair. The tea was super-sweet, of course. For a little while, it was just us and the tick-tocking of the cat clock on the wall.
Finally, she said, “I saw you on TV last week.”
I just nodded and sipped my tea.
“That hurricane of yours ruined my gardening.” She gestured out to her tiny backyard garden. The usual chaotic rush of flowers and vegetables was just a broken pile of leaves and stems. “It was just about time for the dahlias, too.”
“Sorry, mom,” I mumbled around the glass.
We sat there for a while longer. I started out the window a little more, and I missed the sunflowers that should have been just about over by now.
“Will the police be coming by?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I never let them know who I was,” I said. “A friend of mine hacked into the Department of National Security database for me. They think I’m from Jersey.” This got as much of a laugh out of her as I could expect – a dry chuckle.
She stood up, slowly. “I’ll make up your bed,” she said.
“Mom.” I reached out and took her arm gently. “Mom, let me take care of that.”
“Nonsense.” She swept my hand away. “I’m your mother.”
And that was it. She walked down the hall to where my old room used to be. I was by myself in the museum kitchen, just me and my iced tea and a spare costume in the duffel bag. And no plan. No idea what I was going to do next. I stood up and looked out the window at the garden. Amidst the mess, mom had cleared out a space in the corner. There were a couple of plants growing there – I have no idea what they were. Green is green, as far as I’m concerned. But they were growing. I concentrated a little, and a brief rain fell around the plants. Just a bit of water sucked out of the air. Nothing dramatic. A little rain.
Mom wouldn’t let me go too far, I was pretty sure. She couldn’t solve my problems. She couldn’t make the police leave me alone, or make the heroes let up or anything like that. But there was iced tea. There was a bed and some time to sit down and figure things out.
That would be enough.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
“Next!” Uster’s nasal voice rang through the great marble audience chamber of the castle, just barely overwhelming the sigh of boredom and frustration that came from the king behind him.
A young man in a well-worked suit of leather armor walked down the aisle to the small table that had been set up below the throne. He handed over a little wooden disc with the number “54″ printed on it in careful brushstrokes. Uster examined it to make sure that handwriting was his own – it was – and that it was one of the chits that he had made – and it was. He dropped the chit into a basket on the floor by his side, made a little tick mark next to the number on the elegantly-inscribed roster, and then impatiently gestured for the young man to sit down. Which he did.
“Name?” Uster asked. The Lord Clerk looked the way he sounded – small, drawn and pinched, as though that was the way he thought clerks were supposed to look and so that was what he became.
The young man’s face brightened. “There are those in the far-away Elven kingdoms who call me Corisen, the Defender of the Walls. In the tongue of the Dwarfs I am -”
Uster looked up from his writing, and the young man stopped dead under that cold green glare. “Name?” Uster asked again.
There was a moment of quiet, and then the young man swallowed and muttered, “Ajek.” He took a deep breath. “Son of Kalal the -”
“And where are you from, mister Ajek?”
The young man deflated again. “The ever-verdant fields of…?” He trailed off as Uster glanced up. “From Twarlock,” he said. “Nestled in the Afansi mountains,” he rattled off before Uster could stop him.
Uster made a short, skritchy-sounding note on the parchment. Then he looked up, and his face softened into what he probably thought was an expression of amiability. It just made Ajek more nervous. “And what is it you think you would bring to a royal marriage with the Princess, Ajek?” he asked.
Ajek tried to look over his shoulder at the King, who was leaning against one arm of his throne and slowly dozing off. The princess was beside him, and she was completely absorbed in reading a book. She really was beautiful, with dark skin that was made even darker by the gown of shimmering silver and white that she wore. Her hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail, keld in place with a tiara of diamonds, and Ajek was sure that if he could see her eyes, they would shine in the dimness of the audience chamber like burnished gold.
Uster cleared his throat and reclaimed Ajek’s attention. “Well,” the young man said, wrenching his eyes away from the princess, “I come from an excellent family – we have been the stewards of Twarlock for twelve generations.” Uster made a noise of faint approval and scratched a note. “I have spent all my years learning swordplay and hunting,” he went on, “and I have been well-schooled by the head clerk of my family in the running of a household.”
That got Uster’s attention. “Who is the head clerk of your family?” he asked. “Maybe I know him?”
“His name is Ellulash, sir.” Ajek smiled. “A fine clerk indeed. We wouldn’t know what to do without him!”
“Hmm,” Uster said. “I don’t know the name.” He made another note. “And what is your feeling towards the role of women in governance?”
There was a moment of silence and a soft moan from the king. Uster stared at Ajek until the young man said, “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” Uster said. “What is your feeling towards the role of women in governance?”
Ajek licked his lips and glanced up at the thrones. The king had his head in his hands, but the princess was finally looking at him. He had been right about her eyes.
“I believe that as a strong and capable man, sir, I will do everything in my power to see to it that my wife never has to worry about such sordid affairs as governing. Maybe she could take up embroidery, or -”
“Thank you,” Uster said. He made another note and then moved that sheet to another pile. After a moment, he glanced up at Ajek. “You’re still here,” he said.
“Well, yes,” Ajek said. “I just thought -”
“The interview is over, young man.” Uster made a shooing gesture. “Off with you.” He looked past Ajek to the remaining suitors. “Next!”
“Lord Clerk,” the king said from behind him. “A word, if I may?”
Uster stood and turned at the same time. “Your Majesty,” he whined, “I am only trying to do what is best for Her Highness!” He made a perfunctory bow towards the princess, who nodded back. “This is the task you gave me, sire.”
The king sighed. “Indeed I did, Lord Clerk,” he said, “but when I did so, I was unaware of the lengths you would go to.” He gestured to the waiting crowd of men. “You’ve been at this for weeks.”
Uster held up a finger and then pulled a small, folded piece of paper from his sleeve. “If you may, your Majesty, your exact words were: ‘Do whatever it takes, Uster. Make sure my daughter marries the right man.’” He folded up the paper and put it back in his sleeve. “This is whatever it takes, your Majesty. The wheels of courtship may grind slowly, but they will grind fine.”
“Yes, Lord Clerk, I see, but -”
Uster exploded in exasperation. “Would you have her marry an inferior, your Majesty? Some hay-haired, slack-jawed outlander who probably has a sister at home just in case this doesn’t work out?” The king glared at him, eyes narrowed, but Uster went on. “I, for one, will not trust the union of your only daughter -” again he made a small bow, and again, she nodded “- to some random chance or a silver-tongued devil. I will see her married to a man who represents the best your kingdom has to offer or I will die trying!”
The king waited a few moments before he muttered, “That may be sooner than you think.” He sighed again and the turned to his daughter, who was watching the exchange with interest. “My dear Cherin?” he asked. “I suppose it’s up to you?”
Princess Cherin smiled at Uster. “I think our Lord Clerk has everything well in hand,” she said. “I know he will find the right husband for me.” She nodded at Uster, and he made a small bow back. “Keep looking, Lord Clerk,” she said. “I expect my new husband is closer than we think.”
Uster bowed a final time, and then glanced over at the King, who made a bored gesture and settled back in his throne.
“Next!” Uster called.
“I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
-Edward Everett Hale
The king has never taken kindly to republicanism. It doesn’t come up often, but every now and then one of his subjects gets the idea that the people should rule the land for themselves. That the king has no more right to rule than any other man. That leaders should be chosen for their skill, not accepted for their accidental grace of birth.
When they get those thoughts into their head, it then becomes my job to see that that head comes off.
It’s the king’s birthday today. I bought a new whetstone.
He likes to watch, just like his mad father did. He sits close enough that he can see everything, far enough away that there’s no chance of blood landing on him and spotting his precious silks. He claps and cheers when the head comes off, and he orders it brought to him as soon as possible after it stops rolling. He has a theory that they’re still alive, you see. That somewhere, for just a few minutes, the spirit of the man – or woman – is still hiding in that head. And it’s still able to hear, perhaps to see, maybe to understand. His Majesty loves the idea of holding their head as their soul flies off to a better place than this.
Then he throws it to that deranged, inbred bastard of a son as a kick-toy. And he gestures to me, and it’s time to bring out the next one. I sweat and weep under my hood, but of course I dare not remove it.
Sometimes I dream, though. I dream that I throw off my hood and put the ax to the king. I watch his pale, spotty head fly off into the sky, spiraling blood behind it. And when it lands, it looks confused for a moment, right before the light fades from its eyes. The blood flows everywhere, all across the land, and now my ax handle is a mile long. The blade is a hundred miles across, and when I swing, the kingdom dies.
Then his hundreds of loyal troops cut me down. Then his son takes the throne, and everything just gets worse.
There will be no revolution here. Not for a long time, I think. And no matter how much I may sympathize, when the mob finally comes to the castle, the king’s executioner is going to be bit by his own blade, no matter how much I swear I was on their side all along. This is how things are, and this is how things will stay. For now and forever.
I can’t stop the executions. His Majesty finds them far too entertaining. The captain of his army finds them too useful. The priests find them instructional.
There is only one thing which is within my power, and I am meticulous in my duties.
I bought a new whetstone. It cost me most of what I’d saved over the last year or so, but it’s worth it.
The blade will cut cleanly. It’s all I can do.
“We have no reason to suppose that we are the Creator’s last word.”
-George Bernard Shaw
In the middle of prime-time, right between a commercial for the newest rich-girl-poor-girl sitcom and an ad for oversized SUVs, a man unfolded himself from the fourth dimension and announced that he had been sent as my replacement.
I looked up at him from the sofa, my hand halfway between the bowl of chips on my stomach and my mouth. “You’re my what?”
He laughed and shook his head. “No wonder.” He looked like me – or rather, like the version of me that I carried around in my head. He didn’t have the softness at the waist, the thinning hair, and a zit at the end of his nose. He didn’t have uneven stubble and rings under his eyes. His skin was clear, but darker than mine. He had an olive complexion that I lacked and that I suspected probably tanned really well, the bastard. His jawline was strong, and his hair was the same gold-red as mine would be, if I took the time to treat it properly. He was wearing a simple grey suit that looked like it had been made for him, and probably cost more than all the t-shirts and jeans I had folded up in my closet.
“Say that again,” I said, struggling to sit up. “My replacement?”
He nodded while looking around the room. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re being phased out.” He stepped over to the crappy IKEA bookshelf in the corner. “You still read?”
I took the bowl off my stomach and levered myself off the sofa. “Listen,” I said, trying to put as much bass into my voice as I could. “I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doing here, but you need to get right the hell out.” I pointed at the door. “Out,” I said again. “Now.” I was always slow to anger, so I had to admit that a lot at this point was an act, but still. A guy walks into my apartment from… well, from nowhere, and that made me confused. And upset. Angry wasn’t all that far off.
He put the book back and stared at me for a moment. “Oh,” he said in a small voice. “Oh, now that was just adorable.” He reached out and started patting me on my shoulder. “Maybe He’ll let me keep you.” He looked around again. “Is that seriously the toilet over there?” He turned and started walking.
“Hmmm, this might work for storage. Maybe a giant aquarium, I don’t know.”
“Hey!” The anger was starting to kick in, but it wasn’t the kind of righteous anger that the state of Texas lets you use to shoot intruders. It was a more panicky version of that. It was the kind of anger you would expect when someone talks to you like you’re a dog. In your own house. I grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him around, and he had the nerve to look surprised.
“Oh!” he said. “You’re still here.” He glanced into the bathroom, which I had to admit needed a lot of work. “You know, I’ve been wondering how you people deal with all that stuff coming out of you every day.” He lifted my hand off his shoulder and crossed his arms. “Does it bother you? It would bother me.” He looked at me for a moment, then turned and wandered off to the kitchen. “Maybe I’ll just have this whole place gutted and start again from scratch.”
I was baffled, and that’s what got me crying. I don’t like to cry, and usually I save it for really good movies or the occasional book or grievous injury. But if there was one thing that was guaranteed to get me going, it was something like this: utter helpless confusion. Not a common situation, I grant you, but it worked. My eyes started to run, and my nose followed soon after, and all I could get out through the hiccoughing breaths was “I.. I don’t underst – understand!!” I thumped back against the wall and slid to the floor, holding my head in my hands.
That got his attention. He poked his head around the corner and then the rest of him followed. “Hey,” he said gently, squatting down next to me. “Hey… Ryan? Is that your name?”
I nodded and snuffled.
“Hey, Ryan.” He put an arm around me and lifted me up. “Now I know it’s normal to feel a little confused right about now. Things are changing, and they’re a little scary, right?” Again, I nodded. Part of me was incredibly, massively offended at his condescending tone, but that part wasn’t ready to go just yet, so I sniffled along like the mess I was until he sat me down on the sofa.
“Now,” he said. “You guys were supposed to be notified about this, and if you weren’t, well, it’s not really my fault. So don’t go taking it out on me, okay?” I nodded again, but my eyes were starting to clear, and the smug look on his face was just beginning to register as punchable. “You people are being replaced,” he said. “By us.”
“And who – who are you?” I managed to ask.
He smiled, and I nearly recoiled from the beauty of it. “We’re you, only better,” he said. “Think of us as human 2.0 – all the benefits, none of the flaws.” He leaned back and put an arm around me. “We’re intelligent, creative, compassionate, interesting. And we don’t have all those nasty parts that He let evolution get away with. All the psychodrama and the tribalism and the ancient biomechanics.” He chuckled and poked my in my generous belly. “Why He let this nonsense go on for as long as it did, I’ll never know. I mean, it’s not like you people are still scraping food off the Serengeti, am I right?” The man didn’t let me respond, but just barreled on forward.
“We can see better, run faster, think faster, live longer than you old-model humans ever thought you could. We’ve got access to vastly wider ranges of senses, far more resistant to injury, have a much more flexible and thorough immune system and, just for fun, we get access to one more physical dimension.” He held out a hand and… something appeared in it. It looked like a tube that was connected to itself, with something that may have been liquid flowing across the inside and outside of the tube at the same time, but never actually falling away. It made me want to throw up.
“Neat, huh?” he said. He closed his hand and the horrible thing vanished. “Anyway, you guys had a good run, right? A few million?” He patted my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “You should be proud of yourselves. I bet He’s going to send you all to a nice farm upstate or something.”
We sat there on my sofa in silence for a few minutes, just me and this perfect version of me. He even smelled better than I did.
Finally, I turned to him and asked, “Who’s ‘He’?”
“You said ‘He’ a few times. Who is it?”
He looked at me like I just asked why water was wet, though to a guy like this, water being wet might not be something he’d really had to think about before. “It’s the Creator,” he said. “It’s God.”
I wanted to laugh. “But… but there is no God,” I said. “I mean, scientifically speaking you can’t really prove that -” I was cut off by an explosion of laughter. He rocked back and forth on the sofa, holding a hand to his eyes and just shrieking with laughs. He tried to speak, but only hoarse whispers came out, which turned into all new cackles. Finally he stood up, giggling, and looked at me again, which set off a whole new round. As that peaked, he flung out one hand, and another man stepped out of an invisible fold in spacetime.
“Hey -” The man made a noise that sounded like my name, if my name could somehow be opened up, filled with the entire truth of my being and then very carefully sewn shut again. The moment he said it, I thought I had died. “What’s so funny?” This second man looked suspiciously like my best friend Jaime, or at least like Jaime would like to think he looked.
“This guy,” the Me double said. The Jaime double looked over at me for a moment, and then started as though he hadn’t known I was really there. “He said -” He paused to catch his breath. “He said -” He was really trying to get it out, but each attempt made him laugh more, which made the Jaime laugh, which made me angry. “He said there is no God!” the Me finally got out.
“Seriously?” The Jaime looked astounded. “He really said that?” He started to laugh too, though with less abandon than the Me had. “Man, you people are just adorable,” he said, tousling my hair. “I hope we get to at least keep some of you.”
“I know!” the Me shrieked. “I said the same thing!” He wiped his eyes as a few last laughs bubbled up out of him. “Oh, I needed that,” he said. He sat back down on the sofa next to me. The Jaime was already wandering around my apartment, opening doors. “Look,” the Me said. “I’m sorry if He let you guys think otherwise, but believe me – there’s a God, He has a plan, and I hate to be the one to tell you, but y’all aren’t a part of it.” He stood up and joined the Jaime as they started remaking my apartment.
Walls melted away, appliances transmuted and transformed. Green leaves burst from the walls, unfurled, and released clouds of tiny golden butterflies. The whole apartment began to expand and inflate, becoming infinitely large without actually changing size. The view from the window burst into daylight, overlooking a vast rolling green field where I had been forced to look at the brick wall of the building next to mine. The Jaime and the Me were talking in words that unfolded into entire ideas, and I stood by myself in the midst of a new and terrifying world.
There was a little throat-clearing nose behind me, and I turned to see a small woman wearing a black suit. She was standing next to an open door that led into shadow and smiling warmly at me. “Come on,” she said. “Come on here and we’ll get you taken care of,” she said. She patted the doorframe. “Come on,” she said again.
I looked around at the trans-dimensional majesty that had once been my dingy one-room apartment. The Jaime was gone, but the Me was still there, rearranging great clouds of stars in the sky. I wasn’t sure if he was the size of a mountain and very far away, or the size of a human and right next to me. He had shed his suit, and his perfect body hurt to look at. I looked down at my stained sweatpants and faded ironic t-shirt.
The woman was still waiting for me, still smiling that kind, sad smile. I suppose I had no choice. The world was becoming a place that wouldn’t be right for people like me. Human Beings 1.0, or whatever we’d be called when the Me and the Jaime went to a museum someday. I turned to the door and the shadows, and the woman took my hand. There was no telling what was beyond the door, but I hoped it was something a little more mundane, a little more three-dimensional. A little more human than this.
“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”
The living room of the Browning house smelled of lilies and expensive wood polish. It was small, and looked smaller with the crowd that had been assembled inside. Detective Branden Horne wanted to smoke a cigarette, but dared not. The wrath of Mrs. Browning would overpower her need to know who killed her husband, which was the reason all these people were assembled. On top of that, he knew that he would have far too much to answer for before the afternoon was over as it was.
The five other people in the room were the most likely suspects for the murder of Christopher Browning. Elton, his son, looked like his father in miniature – tall and pallid, as though someone had taken a normal young man and stretched him out with a roller. His liquid brown eyes always seemed to be on the verge of tears, and he looked down at his over-large feet in despair. His sister, Trudi, was almost his opposite. She was short and heavy and outgoing, and wore colors so vivid that they hurt to look at. Even during the investigation of her father’s death, Trudi had been relentlessly cheerful, which was enough to increase suspicion in Branden’s eyes.
Curtis Hancock had been the hardest to convince to come to this meeting. He lurked in a back corner of the room and scowled, except when his eyes lit on the widow Browning. When he saw her, his ruddy face softened and he looked nearly like the person he’d been before she decided to marry the richest man in town. If the crowd could have taken a vote on who the murderer was, Curtis would’ve been hanging before the sun went down.
Addie Horton was standing next to Mrs. Browning, with a cup of tea in one hand and the other on the shoulder of her grieving best friend. She had brought over one of her hand-made prayer shawls – “A prayer in every stitch,” she’d said when she put it around Mrs. Browning’s slumped shoulders. Addie wore the role of best friend well, and it made Branden wonder how much she really knew.
Finally, Celinda Browning herself. She had been older than her husband when they married – he was a millionaire at forty-five, and she was a divorced schoolteacher in her fifties. But they had fallen in love and retreated out to his favorite country house. There she taught some local homeschool children while he indulged in his artistic hobbies. They lived a life that seemed idyllic to anyone looking in, and as far as anyone knew they were perfectly happy.
Five days ago, Christopher Browning had been found dead in his workshop, bludgeoned to death by one of his own hand-made scrap metal sculptures. His wife hadn’t seen him since the day before and wanted to check up on him, but she couldn’t even enter the workshop due to the overpowering smell of solvents and acids that he used in his work. She called the police, who sent in a HAZMAT team to retrieve the body and make the crime scene accessible. When they brought out his body and gently removed the ventilation hood from his head, Celinda had to be held back by three officers so that she couldn’t embrace her husband and contaminate the body.
Branden had been assigned to the case, and very quickly narrowed down the suspects.
“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do one of these drawing-room reveals.” He chuckled, but no one else did. No one was even looking at him.
He cleared his throat. “You all know what happened,” he said, “but I wanted to update you on what we’ve found so far.” He took the investigation folder from his briefcase and flipped it open. “Christopher Browning was killed by repeated blows to the head with a large metal object. We think the killer was right-handed, but that’s not much to go on. The killer left no fingerprints and no DNA evidence that we could find. And the isolated nature of Mister Browning’s workshop means that there were no eyewitnesses.” He snapped the folder shut.
Branden took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, and a small plastic bottle from his briefcase. “There are lots of reasons why someone would want to kill Christopher Browning,” he said as he uncapped the bottle. The faint smell of eucalyptus blossomed in the air, and this finally got their attention. He dripped the pale blue liquid into his handkerchief. “Money, love, revenge – those are the reasons that people usually kill.” He capped the bottle and put it back in the briefcase. “Honestly, I don’t really care why one person kills another. All I care about is that the killer gets caught.”
He put his hands behind his back and started to pace. “I talked to all of you, and really I think all of you had reasons to kill him.” They watched him as he walked back and forth, and he relished drawing out the moment. “As I said, there was very little solid evidence left behind, and I had a lot of work to do as far as investigations go.” He shrugged. “Most criminals are stupid. They make a mistake and leave something behind.” He stopped and looked at each of them in turn. “This killer did not.”
He walked back to his briefcase and took out a small glass bottle, filled with a pale yellow liquid. “That doesn’t mean, however, that the killer didn’t make a mistake.” He uncapped the bottle and swiftly brought the handkerchief up to cover his mouth and nose.
The room went mad. Celinda Browning doubled over and vomited onto her shoes, just moments before her daughter did the same. Elton groaned and held his stomach, his face reddening as he willed himself not to lose control, and Curtis was on his feet, waving his hand to try and clear the air around his head of the horrifying sulfurous stench that had erupted around them. Branden smiled under the handkerchief, even though his eyes were beginning to water. He’d confiscated the stink bomb from his son weeks ago, and had been looking for a good chance to use it. The capstone of a murder investigation was as good a time as any.
He put the cap back on the bottle and went around the living room to open the windows, gripping the handkerchief in his teeth. The smell would never really go away, but he figured that Mrs. Browning would have enough money to get it ripped out and cleaned. Knowing that his little stunt revealed her husband’s murderer would be some small comfort.
When he turned back, the group was glaring at him, in between heaving breaths and groans. Elton had the collar of his shirt up over his nose, and Trudi was helping Addie guide Mrs. Browning to the sofa. After a moment, Branden lowered the handkerchief and blinked a few times at the lingering smell. “Mrs. Horton,” he said to Addie. “How are you feeling?”
“How am I feeling?” she said over her shoulder. “That was an ugly stunt you pulled young man. Poor Cellie is already in enough distress!”
“Yeah,” Branden said. “But I asked about you. How are you feeling?”
Addie stood up, but didn’t say anything.
“You didn’t seem too bothered yourself,” he said, taking a step towards her. “Didn’t that smell get to you?”
Her face went flat and she narrowed her eyes. “If you must know,” she said, “I was born with no sense of smell.” She sniffed, and Branden suppressed a smile. “It’s something I’ve never been terribly thankful for, until now.”
Branden nodded. “I thought so.” He put his handkerchief and the little bottle in his pocket. “When I visited you, you were doing laundry, right?” Addie nodded. “I remember that, mainly because I was wondering what kind of detergent you used. The basket in your arms should have smelled like flowers or sunshine or something, but it actually had quite a whiff of metal oils and some of the other chemicals that the deceased used in his craft. Not a smell most people would want lingering among their clean clothes, I thought. So I did a little asking around.”
Addie Horton had gone pale as Branden talked, and she looked around the room as though she was looking for someone to come to her rescue. All she saw, however, was anger and astonishment. She was starting to breathe more quickly, and Branden readied himself for anything. “You didn’t know what the workshop smelled like, Addie. You had no idea.” He took another step closer to her and she flinched. “You killed him. The smell stuck to your clothes and you brought it home.”
“You have to be kidding,” she spat. “You can’t prove it was me just because of that!”
Branden nodded. “You’re right – we can’t. But I only said that we had very little evidence. Not that we had none.” He smiled sheepishly. “The thing about fingerprints? I lied.”
Addie gasped. “Then all this…?” She looked around the room, at the people who were pale and sick and furious. Mrs. Browning looked like she was ready to pass out again. “Why did you do this?” Addie asked.
“I needed to be sure,” Branden said. “And like I mentioned, I’ve always wanted to do the drawing-room reveal.” He took his cell phone out from inside his jacket. “You want to come quietly?” he asked as he flipped it open. “Or do I need to call in some back-up?”
The moment hung in the air, and Branden honestly wasn’t sure which way she would go. Finally, she just slumped and nodded. Branden dialed his phone. “It’s over,” he said. “Come on in.” He reached out and took her shoulder.
“Cellie,” she said, turning in his grip. Mrs. Browning looked away from her. “Cellie, I’m sorry.” She tried to reach out, but Branden pulled her away. “I can’t explain, but… I’m so sorry.” She crumpled to the floor as she said the last words, and Branden caught her in his arms. He held her there, in silence, until the other officers came in, handcuffed her, and led her away.
This was done for the upcoming Worth1000.com contest “Odor.” With luck, I’ll be able to chop out 200 words and get the rest into fighting shape in the next twelve hours….
“Everyone knows you don’t rescue the damned, you just make a silent vow not to join them.”
The campaign had been running for eight months now, and Dema Rahib swore that if she saw her brother’s face on TV again, she’d put a brick through it.
The TV. Maybe the face too. She wasn’t sure which.
She checked her hair again and wondered if maybe she should have worn the lighter blue suit. She’d always been told it looked lovely against her dark skin, and today was a day she’d need all the help she could get to look lovely. Her brother was coming as part of his campaign tour, and she needed all her energy just to keep from screaming at him in front of the inevitable media barrage that would surround her house in a few hours.
If it had been up to her, she would have told him to go to hell. She would have told him that she would sooner let her house be torn up by rampaging mobs of wild animals before she would allow him to bring his campaign to it. When he told her, she couldn’t even summon enough words to yell at him – she just hung up, only for him to call again. And then once more.
The next call after that, however, was from their mother, laying down in no uncertain terms that this was important for Musad. This was what would put Musad over the top in the polls. If everything went right, Musad would become the first Muslim governor in the country, and there was nothing that his older sister was going to say or do to jeopardize that. To which Dema replied that she wanted nothing more than to do everything in her power to jeopardize his career. That had elicited a very quiet and simple response from her mother.
“Try it. See what happens.”
Dema checked her watch again and the doorbell rang. She could feel herself grinding her teeth and took a moment to loosen her jaw. She took a quick look around the house and hated herself for the hours she’d put in cleaning it up. It wasn’t much. It was a starter house, set into the suburbs, far from the city and all the apartments and roommates that had let her down over the years. The street was leafy and the lawn was green, and she ached at how perfectly middle-class and American it was going to look when it showed up on TV.
The young blonde woman at the door was Ashleigh French, one of Musad’s campaign advisors. She was talking into a small earpiece, the kind that everyone was using and made it look like someone had filled the mall with schizophrenics, but she turned around as soon as she heard the door open. “She’s here, gotta go,” she said, tapping the device to turn it off. Her face lit up in a gleaming white smile. “You must be Dema!” she cried.
Dema gripped the door handle. “I live here, yes, so I suppose I must be.” She let go and extended a hand to Ashleigh. “You’re Ms. French? Musad told me -”
Ashleigh waved the hand away and came in for a hug, which Dema received with all the warmth of a block of stone. “Call me Ash,” she said, letting Dema go. She pulled her phone out from her pocket and tapped at it a few times. “I’ve heard Musad talk about you so much I feel like I know you already.”
“I’m sure you do,” Dema muttered. “Is he still coming?”
The other woman looked up for a moment and then laughed – too high, too loud. “Of course he’s coming,” she said. “The crew is about fifteen minutes away, and then your brother’s bus is coming later along with a small press convoy.” She checked the phone again. “Just a few networks – CNN, NBC, FOX, you know, the usual.” She looked up and around the front yard. “This is going to look wonderful,” she said, “although I wish we had a little more sunlight.” She pointed to the blooming chrysanthemums. “Did you plant those?” she asked.
“Yes,” Dema said.
“Oh, they’re just gorgeous, and they’ll show up perfectly on TV.” She walked to the rows of flowers and started taking pictures with her phone. A few quick taps later, and Dema was sure that they were on their way to her brother for his approval, and she had to resist the urge to cut them all down.
“Now when he gets here,” Ashleigh said, “he’ll have a few minutes to chat with you – you know, chat, brother-sister stuff – and then the press conference starts at eleven.” She walked out in front of the flowers. “We’ll have our guys set him up here, and the media boys can set up where they want, and -” She looked over at Dema, who hadn’t moved. “Are you following this?” she asked. Her face folded into a look of concern, which Dema was sure was hiding contempt. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine,” Dema said. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Ashleigh spent twenty more minutes telling Dema all about the schedule, and Dema didn’t hear a word of it. When the advance crew arrived to start setting up the remote press conference apparatus, Dema excused herself and went inside to have a cup of tea. It was the only thing she could do that had nothing to do with the circus that was already beginning in her front yard, and which would only get worse as the morning progressed.
More and more people came, some to talk to her, others to get things ready for the crowd that was to come. Dema did her best to stay in the kitchen and drink tea. Or do the crossword. Or draw meaningless shapes on a yellow legal pad. Anything to distract herself, to make the day go faster.
He arrived at quarter to eleven, and walked into her house as if it was his own. He looked just like he did on television: tall, handsome, with a full head of hair and bright teeth and deep brown eyes that had made the girls melt in his hand since he was twelve. The suit was tailored, the tie shimmered, and the little American flag pin on his lapel looked like it had been polished that morning. He walked into the kitchen and looked at her, hands in his pockets. “Hello, Dema,” he said.
She didn’t look up from her sketches. “Musad,” she said.
There would have been silence, if not for all the voices outside. “You’re not even going to look at your brother?” he asked. “I came here to see you.”
Her hand twitched and crumpled a sheet of paper off the pad. “You came here for a photo opportunity,” she said. “Let’s get it over with so you and your minions can get moving to the next one.”
“My minions?” He chuckled. “That’s new.” He pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. “Dema,” he said. She didn’t look at him. He reached out for her hand and took it. She stiffened. “Dema,” he said again. “Look at me.”
She looked up, and felt her hands shaking. She had so much inside her that wanted out, that needed to be said, if only she would just open her mouth and say it. She bit her tongue, literally, and forced herself to look at him.
“Dema, I need to know that you’re not going to do anything… dramatic out there.” He smiled, and for a moment, he looked like himself. “I know you, big sister. I know you have things you want to say.” He dipped his head down to meet her lowering eyes. “Am I right?”
The words seemed to come out of her chest like they were made of stone. “I will smile,” she said. “I will smile and wave, and I will be nice.” She took a deep breath. “I will make you look good on TV and then I will go inside.” She took her hands from his. “You will leave, and never come back.”
Musad’s face fell. “Dema,” he said. “I know you hate this, and I know why.” He leaned back in his chair. “If I could have chosen someone else as a running mate, I would have. Carl is -”
“Carl would be perfectly happy to see you dead, Musad. Dead or dropped out in the middle of a desert somewhere.” She looked up at him and felt her eyes start to well up. She blamed Musad for that, too.
“Dema, please. He’s really not a bad man.”
“Really?” she said. “The man who has an entire YouTube series devoted to how the Muslims in this country are trying to enforce Sharia law?” She stood up and started pacing around her kitchen. “The man who screamed bloody murder for six weeks about that project in New York?” She yanked open a drawer and grabbed another legal pad. “The man who said -” She flipped through it until she found the page she wanted. “The man who said, ‘The day a heathen Muslim man rules over a man of Christ is the day the Devil has his victory.’”
She slammed the pad on the counter and held up a finger. “And yes, I was saving that one just for this conversation, Musad.” She walked over to him and dropped the pad on the table in front of him. It was covered in quotations and references not only to Carl Corbett, but to other party leaders and fundraisers who had been part of Musad’s rise in the campaign. Her handwriting, usually so precise and controlled, was harsh and quick, and there were circles and arrows across the page that were annotated with dates and places and sources. Dema was nothing if not thorough in her research.
He looked at it, turned over a few sheets of paper and let them drop. He took a deep breath and looked up at her. “That was yesterday,” he said. “That was ages ago.” He shrugged. “I had breakfast with Carl this morning as we talked over our strategies for the next few weeks, and he’s really a very nice guy.”
“He’s a monster,” she said through clenched teeth.
“He’s handing me the Evangelicals,” Musad said flatly. “You go check his YouTube site now – that man has turned around to his Muslim brothers and sisters so fast I’m surprised it didn’t break his neck.” He looked down at the pad and traced a doodle with his finger. “I need the votes he’s bringing in,” he said. “I can’t win this race without him and the men he brought with him.”
“And there are more Christian voters in this state than Muslim,” Dema replied.
The words hung in the air, and Dema hated the way they sounded. Even her brother looked uncomfortable.
Finally, Musad nodded. “There are indeed,” he said. “And they’re going to elect the first Muslim governor in the United States.” He looked back up at her, and gave her that smile that she remembered from when he was so much younger. “Joke’s on them.”
Dema wilted. She took his hands and pressed them together. “Please, Musad,” she said. “Don’t do this. Don’t…”
“Sell out?” he asked. After a moment, she nodded, and her eyes overflowed. He patted her hands and stood up. “Big sister, it is far too late for that.” Musad helped her stand up straight and wiped tears from her cheeks. “There is no victory in politics without someone selling out. And if I have to do that so that a Muhammad or a Wahid or an Amir can come after me and sell out a little less?” He shrugged. “I’m willing to pay that price.”
He took a deep breath and pulled her in for a hug. “Thank you, Dema,” he said into her ear. “I know you want the best for me. You always have.” They stood together like that in the kitchen for a long moment before he pulled away. Dema saw motion in the corner of her eye, and she and Musad looked to the front door at the same time. Ashleigh was clutching her clipboard to her chest and looking anxious. Musad nodded to her and looked back at Dema. “You ready?” he asked.
Dema wiped her eyes. “I must look terrible,” she said. “I can’t -”
“You look fine.” He started to walk towards Ashleigh, and Dema saw his demeanor change. His back straightened, his jaw seemed to jut out a little more. “Take a couple of minutes if you need them. Join us when you’re ready.”
Dema watched him turn around and head towards the front lawn, where the shouts and the ratcheting sounds of cameras and flashes began before he was even out the front door. She lost sight of him in moments, and the after-image of flashbulbs blurred her vision along with the tears.
“God always has another custard pie up His sleeve”
- Lynn Redgrave
If the only thing that had happened to Eva that day was that she lost her job, she would have counted herself lucky. Well, not at that moment, certainly, but if she were told all the other things that the world was about to throw at her, she would have taken sudden unemployment as the godsend that it was.
Hell, if it had just been the job, her car being towed, her fiancee calling off the wedding and her cat running away – all within six hours of each other – she still would have counted her blessings and gone on to face the future with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.
It was the fairies.
They were something her grandmother had told her about when she was a child. “Eva,” she would say, usually in an accent that no one outside the family could understand. “When I was a little girl, we used to leave out milk for the fairies every night.” Grandma’s eyes would become misty, her accent would thicken, and Eva would start to wish her mother would let her go play Nintendo or something. “And we would leave a lump of bread by the front door so that they would watch over the house, and every little girl – and even your Nana was a little girl, little Eva – every little girl had to carry a lump of cheese in her pocket on her way home from school, or else the King of the Fairies might take her away to fairyland.”
As a child of the nineties, Eva wanted nothing to do with her grandmother’s fairies. She wasn’t even sure the kids back in whatever country her grandmother had come from even believed in them. For all she knew, the fairies were something her grandmother had pulled out of her dusty, decrepit brain.
Except that, as it turned out, they weren’t.
She got home close to midnight, very nearly too drunk to get the key in the door on the first try. She muttered to herself as she fumbled around in the dark, a stream of consciousness of invective that swayed from anger to self-pity to sorrow and back again as she dropped first her purse, then her coat, then her shoes on the floor. By the time she thought it might be a good idea to turn on the light, she bumped into the sofa, tripped, and was asleep by the time she landed on the cushions.
She was awakened by brain-stabbing rays of morning sunlight and the ugliest creature she’d ever seen, sitting on her chest.
For a moment, she peered at it through blurry, narrowed eyes. The thing grinned, which only made it uglier, and gave a brief wave.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Eva muttered, and went back to sleep.
When she woke up again, her head cracking in two and threatening to spill her brains out onto the floor, there were more of those things around her. They were perched on the sofa, on the bookcases, sitting on the dining table. One of them was playing with the pepper shaker. It cracked the top off, took a deep breath, and sneezed hard enough to knock it into the next room.
The things looked terrible, like her hangover come to life. They had leathery skin that was a dark blue, almost black, and uneven tufts of green hair on skulls that looked like they had been beaten into random shapes. They had noses that were either flat or bulbous or needly, and big eyes that popped out of their head so far that Eva was afraid she’d end up having to retrieve them from under the refrigerator at some point. They were mostly covered in greenish-brown fur, though some of them seemed to be wearing adornments made out of toothpicks and bottlecaps and whatever other garbage they could pick up. They had long, slender fingers, large, flat feet, and smelled like a basement.
One of the creatures, probably the one that had been sitting on her, waved again. It said, “Hi.”
Eva closed her eyes again and tried to settle back into the cushions. “Not here,” she said. “Not playing along.”
A moment later, there was a tapping on her skull, like a tiny fist was knocking very impatiently. “Ow,” she groaned.
“Hi,” the thing said again, and it resumed knocking. Each knock made Eva flinch and groan. Finally she turned over, and the little creature scampered to avoid falling on the floor. She levered herself up on her elbows and squinted around the room at the creatures that were diligently investigating everything about her living room. Another one of them looked at her, waved, and said, “Hi.”
Eva robbed her face. “If that’s all you things know how to say, I’ll just have to kill myself right now.”
The one that had been sitting on her shook its head. “No!” it said. “We can say lots of things.” It turned to its companions. “One, two, three, four!”
As if they had been ready for this, the things sitting on the back of the sofa jumped to their oversized and misshapen feet and started singing.
Hello, my baby
Hello, my darling
Hello my ragtime paaaaaal!
Send me a kiss by -
They scattered as Eva swept her arm across the back of the sofa, sending them all to the floor. “No!” she said, wrestling herself off of the sofa. “No, uh-uh, no. No.” She spun and pointed at one of them. “No.”
The thing looked around at its comrades. “She said No.”
One of them stuck its head out from behind the stuffed bear she had bought at the airport in London a few years ago. “No?”
It screwed up its face. “But she can’t say no!”
“She said no.”
“But.. but she can’t!”
Eva hoped that going into the kitchen would make them go away, but they just followed in a tumbling, catastrophic mob. She reached for a mug, and a pair of little blue hands handed one to her. Another came over, struggling under the weight of a can of instant coffee, and a muffled yelling from inside the refrigerator revealed one of the things standing in the doorway with its cheeks bulging. A moment later, it spat out a stream of milk. “Black?” it asked.
She slammed the door shut.
The ones that had been arguing hopped up on the counter, still not sure if she had said no, or even if it was possible that she had. Eva ground her teeth while she waited for the water to boil, which didn’t help her hangover any. Finally, she gripped the edge of the counter and leaned on it, her eyes closed. “What,” she said quietly, “can’t I say no about?”
The little creatures silenced immediately, and all of them looked at her. The one who had done most of the talking so far – the one who woke her up – seemed at a loss for words. It looked around, and the other one – the one who had been arguing from behind the London bear – elbowed it in the ribs. It glared and rubbed its side, but then looked up at Eva. “You’re going to take care of us,” it said. “You have to.”
Eva stared at it long enough for the water to boil. Then she turned away, poured the water into her cup, and turned off the stove. She stirred her coffee, tapped the spoon off on the side of the mug and tossed it into the sink. She took a careful sip and closed her eyes in psychosomatic relief as the taste and smell of coffee told her that there, in that moment, everything would be okay.
Then she opened her eyes again and looked at the things in her kitchen, smiled brightly, and said, “No.” She reached into a cupboard and snatched a breakfast bar from a fuzzy pair of hands, and walked back into the living room.
The little creature watched her leave, then turned to the others. “But she can’t say no!” it wailed.