Monday, November 25, 2019

Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, Wherever You Are

A child awakens in a field overlooking a seaside cliff. It is near dusk. Realizing it is late, she runs, hands feeling the tall grasses as she blows through them like the wind through her hair. Overhead the first pinholes of light are dotting the sky. An electric and crackling voice calls through the compound's speakers that are ahead of her.

"Ilia, come home. Enough fresh air for today."

Hearing her name, Ilia adds an extra step to her speed. As she runs she pulls her hair back into a ponytail. The hair is free during free time only. The child is free during free time only. In through the rusted gate she pushes, making sure to lock it behind her. She is almost home now so she slows her pace. She walks a path cut into the dirt. On each side of her, hundreds of weather vanes and whirligigs of different shapes and sizes move rhythmically.

They are her friends and she stops to greet a few of them. Her favorites are the silver rooster with a few flecks of red on its comb and a crazy cat that looks like it's running fast. She does not greet the frog though. They are not friends. Not anymore.

Home is a door in the side of a hill. The only light that enters into Ilia's home is from the four pane window in the upper part of the door. The rest is a sturdy oak reinforced in places with metal plates. She slides a key from around her neck into the lock and turns it carefully one way, then the other. The door unlocks and she enters, making sure to lockup behind her.

As she walks down the long corridor, she traces her fingers against the pebbling of the concrete walls. When she enters the main room her mother is sitting beside a table with a shortwave radio. Around them a few empty chairs and couch sit atop a large multicolored rug. The only light from a halogen lamp strung from the ceiling. Seeing her daughter she beckons for her to join her.

"Ilia, where have you been all this time? You know how I worry when you're gone too long."

"I'm sorry, mama," she responds. "I was staring at the clouds above forming shapes, and the next thing I knew they'd become stars."

Her mother raises a finger to scold her then drops it instead with a heavy sigh.

"You must be careful to observe the times," Her mother cautions. "Did you see anyone?"

"No, mama. No mans or boats or anything."

Her mother nods and turns to flick a couple of switches on the radio. Turning the dials finds only static with the occasional pop and hiss. She flips the off switch and turns to her daughter.

"Now, young miss, looks like you went out without boots again."

"I like the feel of the ground."

"And the dirt. Off you go, to the basin and wash those feet."

"But I had a bath two days ago."

"And I said nothing of baths. Wash those feet before you get mud on my carpet. Then get ready for chores."

Ilia obeys and walks down another corridor to the washroom. She undoes her hair, washing her face and hands before her feet. After she is clean she changes into her work clothes. A shattered sliver of mirror shows her slim frame now covered by the brown rags she's wearing. I am the burlap baby. I am the patched child.

From the other room she hears her mother excitedly calling. Quickly she darts back out. Her mother is frantically clicking a button on the part she speaks into. She is speaking words Ilia has heard before but doesn't understand. Every few seconds her mother stops to listen.

"Get the welding gear," her mother tells her anxiously, before heading into the third and last corridor.

"But we always do domestics first," Ilia calls after her.

"No domestics tonight. Hurry."

Ilia grabs the welding gear from a metal shelf by the couch. Two masks, two pairs of gloves, and a torch. In the third hall her mother is stripping weather vanes apart. She arrives in time to see a bear shaped vane get pounded by a hammer. Bear was an old friend. A good friend. Her mother grabs the gear and starts putting it on.

"Why is your hair down? You know it's dangerous when we weld."

Ilia grabs her dark brown hair and pulls it back into a band. She slides the too big mask and gloves on. Her mother's golden hair has already been tied into a knot and hangs down all the way to her waist. When she was younger, Ilia would play with her mother's long hair, twirling it in her fingers and watching the sunlight get caught in between the strands.

Her mother grabs the torch and lights it up. She motions to Ilia who grabs the bear and holds him up against the concrete wall. Each of the walls in this corridor are lined with veins of metal from the backs of Ilia's old friends. She watches in dismay as bear slowly becomes a part of the wall. A part of corridor three.

"Why are we doing this, mama?" Ilia asks.

"I've told you before. This tunnel is like a big antenna that makes the radio's signal stronger. The more we add, the stronger the signal."

"I know that," Ilia responds. "I mean why are we making the signal stronger?"

"So we can find others."

"But why do we want to find others? Aren't we enough?"

Ilia's mother turns off the torch and raises her mask to look at her daughter.

"Wouldn't you like to have some friends to play with?"

"I have friends."

"Real friends. Ones that can run with you when you're out in the fields playing."

"I have you," Ilia states defiantly.

"But you won't always. One day, I'll be gone. I want to know you won't be alone when that happens."

Ilia puts her mask back down, but her mother lifts it again and wipes the tears forming in the corner of her eyes. The torch is almost dropped as Ilia hugs her neck. After a few minutes of rocking her daughter the tears are dried and the work is resumed.

"Is that the only reason?" Ilia asks, holding up a long rusty piece.

Her mother continues welding even as she talks.

"You remember what I told you about God? How he's always talking to us, and we just have to learn how to listen?"

"You think God is going to speak to us through the radio?"

"Not exactly," her mother responds. "Well, maybe in a way. I think God uses all kinds of ways to talk to us. It's our job to be prepared when he does."

"Why couldn't God just knock on the door? My arms are getting tired."

Her mother laughs.

Suddenly, from the other room, the sound of crackling static mingles with the strains of music. Mother and daughter look at each other before bolting to the room. Gloves and masks shed as the two run.

Ilia's mother sits down in front of the shortwave and begins twisting dials, fighting the static that threatens to overwhelm. There's a fading in and out of music and a voice neither can quite make out. At last just as the music is ending her mother manages to get it clear, just in time to hear the final few words.

"Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."

After that there is only static again. The two sit there stunned for a few minutes, not saying anything. Listening to cracks and pops as if they're holding new secrets to be divulged. Finally, Ilia is the one to break the silence.

"Was that God, mama?" she asks.

"Not exactly," her mother responds. "Well, maybe. In a way."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Sad, so sad, SAD SAD, Saaaaad

"Pathetic," she said with a smirk.

He rolled his eyes and grasped her hand. As gently as he could he twirled her away, before pulling her back to himself. Her cotton dress flowed as she moved, the little blue flowers on it, dancing along to her rhythm. But then...

"Sorry," he said, wincing as he felt his foot crush hers.

"Sad, so sad, SAD SAD, saaaaad," she grimaced. She grabbed at her foot and massaged it through her shoe.

"Three weeks until our wedding, I'll get it," he smiled.

"Yeah, even if it kills me," she laughed.

The old man laid back in his hospital bed, eyes closed, remembering. The wrinkles on his face easily numbered the many memories he'd made with her. Beside him, the dripping of the I.V. did it's best to ease his transition. Other than the occasional nurse coming and going, he was alone. The kids would be on their way, but would never make it in time for last goodbyes.

"Fifty-three years of dancing together," the old man spoke aloud, tears in his eyes. "Soon enough, my dear, we'll dance again. I'll try not to step on your toes this time."

The Return Of The New

"The one in black is the bad guy, right?" The face of the small boy peers up questioningly.

"It's not always that simple. Sometimes there isn't a villain."

The child's strange protector rolls a cigarette between his long pail fingers before lighting up.

The boy and man sit at the bar watching two other men fight. One of the men is in his late 40's, but has kept in shape. He is wearing blue jeans and a white short sleeve shirt. The man belonging to the nose he has just broken is in his early 20's and is wearing a black button up shirt and matching slacks.

The boy fiddles with a glass of milk that sits half drunk on the bar.

"Then why are the two of them fighting?" he asks.

His guardian's gaze is steady on the fight. Under a dark brow, his eyes are hard but filled with an odd compassion. Long dark bangs hang damply with sweat. The smoke from his cigarette playing shadows in the dimly lit room.

"The guy in the black shirt has just been to his young fiancee's funeral. He's hurting pretty badly at the moment."

"I'll say! His nose is gushing."

The man chuckles at the boy's words.

"Not what I mean. It's his soul that's in pain right now."

The guy in black spits out a mouthful of blood and wipes quickly at his nose. With a quick lunge, he catches his opponent off guard and slams them both into the bar. The wood surface lets out a groan that speaks of many fights over as many years.

"Did the man in white kill his fiancee? Is he the bad guy?" the boy asks.

The dark man takes a drink of something generic and hard.

"Nope. They've never even met before today."

"So, why is he so angry at the black shirted man?"

"Because his little boy just died an hour earlier. He's in shock at the moment and hasn't quite figured out what to do with himself yet."

The boy tears his eyes from the two men rolling around on the floor and looks back at his companion. He studies him carefully. A Hawaii shirt and jeans. On one of his belt loops hangs a large ring of keys.

"My dad has a ring of keys like that. He's a janitor. Are you a janitor?"

The man smiles.

"In a way. It's my job to clean up loose ends."

"My dad also says bad guys always wear black. There's always a villain."

The man shrugs.

"I guess it's me then."

"You? How are you the bad guy?" the boy asks incredulously.

"I killed both the black shirted man's fiancee and the white shirt's child."

The two men stagger to their feet. Black shirt's nose is now completely mashed and both his eyes are swollen. White shirt has a twisted ankle and a mouthful of gaps. Along one of his cheeks is a long, nasty gash where he was caught by the engagment ring of black shirt's fiancee. Since her death it has been on his pinky.

"You're not wearing the right clothes to be the villain," states the boy, "Besides, you picked me up when I fell out of that tree. That's not something a villain would do."

The man shrugs again.

"I tried to tell you earlier. Sometimes there isn't a bad guy."

The two men are signaling to each other that they've had enough. Each retreats a respective distance away to turn their attentions back to drinking. In another five minutes, the police will arrive. They both know, and neither of them care. Already the reason for the fight seems to have vanished.

"Did you really kill them?" the boy asks.

"It's what I do," the man says with a nod.

The boy sits quietly for a minute. He's focused on the man with the white shirt. The tears pouring from white shirt's eyes are running rivers through the blood and dirt on his cheeks. Almost he looks familiar. Almost. After a minute the boy puts his hand on his guardian.

"Can we go now?" he asks.

The man finishes his drink before responding.

"Yeah, sure. A bar's not really a place for a kid anyway."

With an arm over the boy's shoulder, the two of them exit into the day.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

An Answer To Your Thoughts And Prayers - By God


I just got back from vacation and noticed a ton of messages left on my answering machine. I see there are lots of thoughts and prayers regarding gun violence in the USA. Seriously, it's like half my messages. Starving African children don't contact me as often as American Christians in the wake of stoppable mass murder. Anyhoo, I figured it was about time I finally addressed the situation.

Gun control.

I'm not really sure why this is such a difficult concept to grasp. If you make it harder to own a gun than say, running a lemonade stand, you're going to see fewer mass shootings. I mean, I know I'm only God here, but this seems obvious to me. Gun control works. It has in other countries. Like, every other country.

Don't be that guy, America. You know the one. The fat guy at the buffet who doesn't understand why he's got chest pain. You're a glutton for guns and you need to cut them out of your diet. Hell, even cutting back by say, banning the odd assault rifle, would help. Or did you think it was coincidence killers have similar tastes in firearms?

Look, I'm all for thoughts and prayers, but they're not meant for things you can easily take care of yourselves. I gave humans the earth with the expectation that y'all would run it properly. If you can't even pass some damn laws to take care of your own family, what do you expect me to do?

So, just to recap: I've heard your thoughts and prayers and, as it so happens, I'm in favor of gun control. Please take action and spare me from further grieving.

Oh, and while you're at it, feed starving children, quit polluting, and stop hating on each other cause you're different. Again, all things I shouldn't have to tell you.

Your Creator, 


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dead World [Short Story]

I don't exist.

Easy words to say, not so easy to explain. So, I won't.

I'm not dead or dying. The living are dying and so are the dead. This isn't making any sense, is it?

Maybe I should start at the beginning. Not the beginning of my story, but the beginning of this one.

A call center run by the dead. Sounds crazy, right? Yet there I was standing in the lobby. It'd been a week since I'd met the late John Doe. A representative for some branch of government run by the deceased. Turns out not everyone disappears when they pass away, some stick around and do menial labor until they die a second death.

I walked up to the receptionist who was doing her nails. We did the usual back and forth and I was directed to sit down. As I walked away I started to light up a cigarette. A voice voice from behind me put a halt to that.

"We have a strict 'No Smoking' policy," the receptionist squeaked, while tapping a sign.

I replaced the cigarette in my pocket.

"Sorry," I said. "I'm not trying to be a dick, just didn't see the sign.

She smiled curtly and nodded.

"You're fine. Have a seat, please."

I walked to the waiting area she'd motioned to. Most of the chairs were empty so I put one between me and a man who looked to be in his mid 20's. He was black, with short hair and a face that seemed sort of familiar. Very stylish in a leather jacket, dark purple button down shirt, and slacks.

"She totally thinks you're a dick," the young man said leaning in.

"Damn it, I know," I responded. "I'm not good with first impressions. Usually takes two or three impressions to balance it out."

"Don't sweat it. Cara thinks everyone's an asshole anyway. Isn't that right, Cara?" he said, raising his voice to make sure Cara could hear."

Cara flipped him off and sneered.

"I'm James Smith, by the way," stated James.

He held out a hand which I shook enthusiastically.

"I'm...James. James Bailey," I responded.

"James and James? Sounds like a detective agency."

"Or a cheap, fruity wine."

We both laughed.

"So, James," I said, motioning to the business name emblazoned on the wall before us, "what is Cumulus Care Solutions?"

"Didn't your rep fill you in?"

I shook my head no.

"It's a call center. We handle overflow from various companies. It's exactly as thrilling as it sounds."

"Purgatory in a call center seems a little on the nose," I stated.

"I'd be careful slinging around the P word. Most people don't like to think of this as purgatory. More like a second chance to make things right. But between you and me, yeah, it sucks. I've worked here for a couple decades and I hate it. But beggars can't be choosers."

"Can't you leave?"

"Are you kidding? This place is a sanctuary for the dead. It's almost impossible to get hired by the living. We make them uncomfortable because deep down they know we aren't one of them. Man, your contact really dropped the ball with you. Wish I could get a job as an outside representative. At least they get to travel. Sure as hell would have done a better job of explaining your death to you."

"Oh, I'm not dead."

If a face ever conveyed the words "say what" it was James's face at that moment.

"Say what?" James exclaimed.

"I'm not dead. I'm here for other reasons."

"Bailey, I'm thinking you've got a story to tell."

"Another time. Looks like I'm up."

I stood to greet John Doe. "A funny name" I'd said when we first met. The man on the other hand, was quite the opposite. He always looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Short, balding, and stocky with a seemingly endless closet full of sweater vests. In many ways he reminded me of a guidance councilor. I shook the man's hand and followed him through a maze of cubicles.

We came to a small board room where three people sat. He opened the door and beckoned me enter, which I did. You know that scene in the spy movies where the secret agency brings in a guy and details everything about his mission and everything is so serious and business suits? I was briefed while we ate McDonald's. 

This particular branch of council for the dead was three people: Song-Ho, who was in charge of operations -whatever the hell that meant- sat at the boardroom table opposite Jane Doe, who ran the military side of things. Jane and John were married, but always the utmost professional when on the job. At the end of the table, between them from my view, was Jo. Jo ran this particular branch. She was beautiful and fierce, with an elegance one seldom sees this day and age.

"At this point I think I'd like to skip ahead," said Bailey.

"What? You're just getting to the meat of the story," snarled the largest of three skulls peering out from a crack in a tree. The same tree James Bailey and James Smith happened to be strapped to.

Vines already tight around their bodies tightened even further. Around them, the jungle sang songs of various birds and other wildlife. The trees and plant life were dense making for a claustrophobic environment.

"I just feel, narratively speaking, the story works better if I skip ahead," Bailey responded.

"Make it work," enthused a skull with a crack in its temple. Tiny flames danced in the sockets of the skulls, making them even more unnerving. "Give us the meat."

"Yeah, Bailey, give them the meat," Smith stated.

Bailey turned his head to glare at his traveling companion.

"Absolutely. The meat of the story..."

Song slid a folder across the table as I shoved a handful of fries into my mouth. It was a file on me tracing my last fifty years. I rifled through my life for a few minutes. Ending on my current occupation as a gravedigger. I slid it back when I was finished.

"Am I supposed to be impressed?" I asked.

Song shook his head. "We just wanted you to know that we've been keeping tabs on you for sometime."

"Okay. Well, thanks for that." I answered back.

"What Song means is that we don't take asking you here lightly," Jo added. "Fact is none of us know exactly how long you've been around --or haven't, as you might say. Did you ever exist? You look fairly young. Mid twenties? Never mind, there are more important issues at hand. Have you ever heard of Tom Jones?"

"The singer? I'm not really a fan."

"Business tycoon. Sits atop a financial services empire and does his best Steve Jobs impression."

"The douche on all the money channels who wears those stupid turtlenecks?" I asked.

"That's him," Jo nodded. "That's the man the world sees. In truth he's been dead for decades. Although his past is as clouded as yours and no one can say exactly how long he's been around."

"But James -er, Smith, told me while I was waiting that the living feel uncomfortable around the dead. How could he accomplish such a thing?"

"He couldn't. Unless there was some powerful force at play. This might sound a little crazy, but Tom Jones is heavy into the occult. We believe he's used his knowledge of the occult to gain his power. Furthermore we have reason to think his ultimate goal is not Wall Street but the end of the world."

I took a sip of my Coke. It spluttered telling me there was no more sweet life to give. I popped the lid off and shook a cube into my mouth which I happily crunched.

"Mr. Bailey, did you hear what she said?" asked Jane, who had been mostly quiet till then.

"Yeah, yeah, end of the world. You guys know you're already dead, right? Shouldn't you be embracing the end so you can move on to your respective Valhallas?"

"You're a dick," the third and smallest head interjected.

"No, I'm jaded, there's a difference," Bailey replied.

"How come?" Large Skull asked,

"The living have the living. The dead have the dead. I have no one."

"You have me," said Smith.

"That's not what I meant. You're a good friend, Smith. But as someone who doesn't exist, I mostly stand alone."

"Like the cheese," Cracked Skull joined in.

Everyone stared at Cracked in awkward silence for a moment.

"Yes, like the cheese," Bailey said. "Point is, at that moment I'd been years without any real interactions with anyone. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to the story."

"You're a dick," Jane interjected.

"No, I'm jaded. There's a difference," I replied.

Jo raised her hand to silence us.

"Mr. Bailey, we're not that different from the living. We don't pretend to know why some people stay behind for a time. We have no definitive idea what lies beyond. In the meantime we enjoy life. Surely you must take some joy out of this life as well, even in your current state."

"I apologize," I apologized. "I can be a bit sardonic. But I did come here with good intention, so please continue."

"A few decades ago, Tom Jones began purchasing large amounts of real estate around the world. One of the properties is an island. One that doesn't actually appear on any maps."

"Then how was it for sale?"

"He purchased the coordinates in the middle of an ocean."

"I'm confused, is there an island or not?"

"There's an island, alright," Song picked up. "It just doesn't exist in the world of the living. To get there one must travel twenty-six miles on foot through a stretch of reality between the living and the dead."

"We've had a few spies successfully make the trip over the years," Jo continued. "The path is hard to travel as it folds space. It's hard to explain, but it's sort of like a double exposure of two different roads."

"Also, there aren't any roads," Song finished.

"This is all very fascinating but what does it have to do with me?"

"Eitr," Jane replied. "You're here because of Eitr."

"Is that the name of this island?" I asked.

"It is the name of a fountain found on the island," Jane answered.

Jo continued. 

"Our intelligence indicates that the secret to Tom Jones's power, and thus the way of stopping him is located in the Fountain of Eitr. It's an ancient spring that is death to anyone living or dead. Over the years, many secrets have been tossed into the fountain, knowing that they shall be safe there from anyone who would recover them. But you..."

"I don't exist, so I can't be killed," I finished.

"That's our theory, anyway. To be honest, we have no idea what effect it'll have upon such a unique individual as yourself."

"I'm in," I stated.

"Just like that?" Jo asked skeptically.

"Why not? I always wanted to be a hero."

"Excellent. There'll be some training before we send you off. Jane will take care of that. Song, of course, will show you everything you'll need to to know to get where you're going. Additionally, to help you along the way, John and Jane Doe will accompany you."



"Pass," I reiterated. "I appreciate the offer but I'd prefer to go it alone."

"Absolutely not. You'll be travelling through the dead world, you'll need companions who are experienced."

"In that case I'll take James. Smith."

"Thanks for that, by the way," Smith smirked.

"Hey, you said you wanted out of the call center," Bailey responded.

"What happened next?" Small Skull asked.

"Boring. If I tried to describe it, it would be a montage of me learning basic combat skills and showcasing how bad I am with a gun."

"He's the worst," Smith chimed in.

"The worst," Bailey agreed. "I did become pretty good friends with the Does. Jane had a lot more time to form a better opinion of me while training. When John wasn't on duty, he stripped off his serious mask and was an affable guy. I even stayed with them a couple weeks while preparing. So that's it. We're about caught up."

"What do you mean 'caught up?' You haven't told us about your travels to here," Large Skull spat, the flames in his eyes dancing angrily.

"I mean, there's not much to tell. There's some goon who works for Tom Jones, makes the trip every few months. Just a matter of following him when he took off. I think his name is Jeremiah."

"And..." Large persisted.

"And it's been weeks of walking through a damn jungle. Twenty-six miles may not be so bad driving down a highway with the top down, but walking through dead world it feels forever. You really want me to describe all that walking and sweating?"

"Ain't no one got time for that Tolkien-Lord of the Rings-bullshit," Smith added.

"I guess," Cracked said. "Still feels like half a story though."

"I'm the hero, I never claimed to be a storyteller. Besides, what do we know about you three?"

"What?" the three skulls chorused.

"We told you everything about us," Small Skull exclaimed. "About how we're three travelers whose souls were joined to this tree. How we once had individual names, but now simply refer to ourselves collectively as The Clutch. And how it gets boring telling each other our same stories so we seek out entertainment from passing travelers."

"So either you present us a good story, or you'll both join us for eternity," jumped in Large.

"That's all well and good, but I'm in the beginning of my story. What more can I offer?"

"More story or you'll join us," Large reiterated.

"Look, you seem like fun guys," Smith spoke. "How about we make a game of it? You can ask Bailey one question to fill in the blanks, then you let us go. That has to be worth something, er, anecdotally speaking."

The three heads conferred among themselves, eventually coming to a decision.

"We are agreeable to this, but you must answer truthfully," Cracked said.

"Fair enough," Bailey agreed. "What would you like to know?"

Another tête-à-tête between the skulls ensued. At last the large skull, who seemed to be their leader, spoke up.


"Why what?" Bailey echoed back.

"We don't buy your motivation that you're doing this just because you're a good guy. Every hero has his motivation. Something he wants or needs that pushes him. If you don't exist, why concern yourself with the affairs of either the living or the dead?"

"Fair enough," Bailey responded. "You guy were right, I was holding back. There is one more piece to the story."

It was the day before me and Smith were to start our travels, a journey that would start in the backroom of a used bookstore ala Narnia. Everyone was either checking our packs or checking our weapons or checking our mental status. Jo who had been watching me carefully that day to see if I was going to go through with it or if I might back out, pulled me aside.

"There's something else you should know about the island," Jo spoke.

"Does it have spiders? Don't tell me if it has spiders. I hate spiders," I joked.

"There's someone there like you. A girl. I'm not sure how old exactly."

"What do you mean, 'like me?'" I asked, my heart catching in my throat.

"She doesn't exist. Or at least, she didn't used to. We've gotten reports that she not only exists, but that she's alive."

"What's her name?" I breathed.

"I don't know. What I've told you is all I know."

"With those words, and a pat on the arm, she left me to think things over. So there you go. My motivation."

A silence followed as the skulls thought it over. 

"It is acceptable," Large Skull declared finally.

The smallest skull and the cracked skull began to sink backwards into the tree. The vines around the two men began to loosen and they fell forward to the ground with a thud.

"Jeremiah is a good kid," Large stated. "If you say he's mixed up with this villain of yours, I won't argue, but he's a good kid."

"What makes you say that?" asked Smith.

"He always stops by our tree when he comes through here. Reads us some Stephen King. Much better than your story. No one else has ever come back. And it's not just because of the questing beast."

"Questing beast?" the Jameses sang in unison.

"Burden of the Pellinores?" the final head spoke, sinking back into the closing tree. "You really should learn more stories. Might save your life some day. That is, if you had one between you to save."

Quickly the two men gathered their packs and left the tree behind. In short time they were in the thick of the jungle again. Periodically, the view around them would flicker, merging the jungle world with a cityscape or ocean view. Just a quick flash to remind them of the overlap of worlds they were in.

Overhead the sun blazed fiercely. Since the moment they stepped into dead world the sun had not gone down. It made things even more difficult since when they rested they had no idea how long they were sleeping.

"I didn't know that about the girl," Smith said after awhile.

"I wasn't sure if it was just Jo making sure I'd stay on target or if it was real information," said Bailey.

"Makes sense."

After an awkward silence or two, Bailey tried changing the subject.

"Questing beast, eh?"

"Yeah! What nonsense was that?" Smith responded, happy to clear the air.

"Right? Pitiful attempt to scare us."

"I'm more scared at the potential of R.O.U.S.'s."

"What are those?" Bailey asked.

"R.O.U.S.'s? Have you never watched Princess Bride?"

"I'm more of a reader."

"It's a movie about a book."

"Then I'll read the book."


This last came from ahead of them but out of sight. The Jameses stopped in their tracks and looked at each other nervously.

"After you," Smith said politely, waving Bailey onward. "Us dead can still die. I'll hang back."

"Thanks," Bailey scowled. "Don't come whining to me if the beast decides to circle round from behind."

"I'll take my chances," Smith smiled back.

The two began pushing forward again, albeit much slower. Bailey, machete in hand, hacked away at the overgrowth of the forest. Bushes and small trees gave way beneath the knife. At last the blade swung and found only air.

Bailey stepped out into the clearing ahead. The dense jungle had ended and given way to a meadow that, from the look of things, lasted about a half mile till it ran to the foot of a line of snow covered mountains.

"Well, crap," Smith uttered, stepping out from behind.

"My thoughts exac-"

Bailey found himself cut off by the swipe of a giant paw. He flew threw the air, landing twenty feet away. Before he had time to react, the beast had already made up the distance and was upon him. Smith stood transfixed in terror as he watched his friend being mauled.

The beast was the largest bear Smith had ever seen. Its arms were each the size of a full grown man. When it opened its mouth to roar, the sound was like a hundred wolves inside its stomach howling. The brown coat was thick and shaggy but matted in places by mud or gore.

Bailey lay limp as the beast slashed him repeatedly with its claws. As Smith looked on, Bailey's chest was laid open, again and again, but immediately closed after the claws as if they'd never run through him. In one instance he saw Bailey's heart before the wound closed up like a zipper. Then came the teeth. The bear opened wide, grabbed Bailey from the side and crushed his back before flinging him into the air again.

Bailey's broken body began straightening before he hit the earth. This time he was up before the beast was upon him. Covered in his own blood but otherwise uninjured, he rolled, dodging the bear's paws. By luck he found himself by where he'd dropped the machete. The next time the claws came at him, Bailey countered, striking the paw with his blade. He readied himself for the next attack but it never came.

The beast had barely been cut, but pain was clearly something it was unaccustomed to. The Jameses watched as the beast ran off into the jungle, whining as it went. Smith, who had been keeping his distance, grabbed their gear and rejoined his friend.

Bailey rifled through his shredded backpack and found his change of clothes were just as tattered.

"Thanks for the help back there," he said.

"What was I supposed to do?" Smith responded.

"You have a pair of guns in your pack."

"Hand guns? Against that thing? Not likely. Did it hurt?"

Bailey frowned at him.

"I mean," Smith clarified, "do you feel it when it happens?"

"Every bit of it. I heal instantly, but I feel the pain same as anyone would. What's more, I feel the pain of it healing."

"Dude, I'm sorry. I just...I've never seen anything like that."

"Hopefully, you won't again."

"I'd be good with that. You want to wear my clothes, they're dirty but whole?"

"Yes, please."

Bailey tried Smith's clothes, but even though they were both in good shape, Bailey's frame was just too much for Smith's skinny jeans. With no alternative, the two pressed forward with their journey towards the nearest mountain.

"Bet the tree skulls would love this story," Smith said as they walked.


"Gotta make light of it. Otherwise we're just two guys taking a leisure stroll with your swinging penis."

"My clothes are in shreds, I'm covered head to toe in my own blood, and you're worried about how uncomfortable my dick is making you?"

Smith smiled and shrugged.

"Yeah, no, that's fair," Bailey conceded.

At last they arrived at the foot of the mountain. Bailey was grateful he still had his boots, as they were now making their way through a half foot of snow. Just a little up the mountain they could make out a door. Plain, wooden, with a red knob.

The two Jameses headed up till they were in front of it. Around them the wind swirled and howled, whipping ice against their bodies. Bailey was red and raw, yet he still looked around hesitantly. Carefully he opened the door and looked in. A dark, narrow tunnel ran into the fading distance.

"I guess we don't have a choice but to hope this cuts all the way through to the other side," said Bailey.

"That or we trudge your naked ass around a frozen mountain."

"Maybe we'll get lucky," Bailey said, walking into the darkness. "Maybe there'll be a clothing store inside."

"Maybe," Smith agreed, following his friend and closing the door behind him before muttering under his breath. "Twenty-six miles, my ass."

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