Posts Tagged ‘short story’

The purpose of this forearm piece is protection. If it seems that almost all Polynesian tattoo is for protection, that is because it is (and was). As I have mentioned, protection from the gods (akua/etua), from those of lesser status and from the possible ill intentions of others were the main reasons behind Poly tattoo. That and to demarcate difference. Samoan tattoo is/was perhaps the only genre where the tattoo (tatau) was handed down generation to generation, with the intent of conveying a familial lineage in the form of visual ‘text’, but still, behind the historical accounting lay the intent for the tattoo to act as protection.

In this piece, I stuck to the traditional paka fields and populated those areas with traditional motifs. Where it somewhat veers from the traditional is toward the wrist area. There I have placed the aniata, or clouds on the horizon. This motif was generally found accenting an area of the body that curved and/or formed a lobe: on the neck under the earlobe, on a shoulder and under the butt cheek. When place in such areas, the name of the motif changed to, vai meama, or moon (on the) water. The lobe, I believe was to convey the moon itself with the aniata symbolizing the reflection of the moon beams on the water. I also shaded the aniata which is also not traditional, hence the * in the title. When placed under the butt cheek, the motif was generally accompanied by one or two other motifs: godling (etua) and/or vau (ray-like fish). In this configuration the motif becomes one of defiance.

The breakdown is as follows:

A) Kea (turtle shell) halves that when placed together form the hope vehine motif.

B) Aniata (clouds on the horizon touching water).

C) Etua, to fortify and protect the motifs below (A&B)

D) Ka’ake, upraised arm. This motif conveys power, in the myth of Kena it was told that when he became tattooed lighting shot out from his armpits and this motif is an analog of that. It is also another form of hope vehine and kea.

E) Etua to fortify ka’ake (D).

F) Mata hoata, brilliant eye(s) to watch over this person and the tattoo, and to keep both safe from harm.

Aloha and peace!

Week of 6/19/11

Prompt:

Rodrigo Rosenberg knew that he was about to die

 

 

San Mohel

San Mohel was a hard scrabble town, at the end of the road, in a ditch next to nowhere. Wranglers, hit men and banditos where the common element in this broken down, shanty-town burg. When unsuspecting visitors accidentally stumbled into San Mohel, they were greeted by a large wooden sign that read: “The only law in San Mohel, is outlaw”, itself shot full of holes and held together with rusty nails.

Such was the welcome that Rodrigo Rosenberg received when he reigned in his sway-backed, strawberry roan and considered what fortune or misfortune lay ahead for him in place called San Mohel. Especially on such an auspicious day as today: the anniversary of the day that he planned to ask his love to marry him. He coaxed his steed toward the only building in town that wore a fresh coat of paint.

Like most folk in the wild west, Rodrigo couldn’t read, but he knew that when he saw the symbol “Saloon” that it only meant one thing: rotgut, gambling and whores. The man that he was looking for was addicted to all three, so he decided to start there.

He sauntered his horse up to the hitching post and stepped out of the saddle. As his boot heels touched the hard packed dirt, he could feel the heat from the dozens of pairs of eyes that were watching him surreptitiously from safer places.

But Rodrigo didn’t care. He was only in this town for one reason, and that was to find a man. Find him, and make him own up for what he had done.

He looped the reigns around the post and walked over to the swinging double doors of the saloon. He could hear people inside having a good time; hollerin’, yellin’, a-cursin’, and most certainly, drinkin’. He quickly checked his pistol and put it back into its holster, walked through the door. A hush immediately befell the place.

Rodrigo figured that maybe they weren’t used to seeing a stranger in these parts or at least any strangers that looked as good as he did. He winked at the barmaid and scanned the crowd for a familiar face. As if turning a faucet back on, the crowded saloon erupted back to life with renewed vigor. Rodrigo stepped up to the bar as a man carrying a woman over his shoulder, pushed past him. She grabbed at Rodrigo’s ass as she went by.

“Help you, stranger?” the bartender asked. He was a portly man with hair slicked with duck fat and a ruddy complexion. He wiped at a glass with a dingy towel.

“This here saloon is cash only; no credit. Especially to strangers,” the man added. “Now what’ll it be?”

Rodrigo wasn’t thirsty. Not for liquor anyway.

Rodrigo cleared his throat and leaned closer to the bartender.

“I’m looking for man,” he said. “A man that stole from me.”

The bartender smirked and shook his head. He rolled his eyes as he set the glass down and picked up another.

“Son, you just described every single man in here! They’re all thieves, every last one of ’em!  Now are you drinkin’ somethin’ or not?” the bartender asked again.

Rodrigo smiled at the man.

“I’ll take the biggest drink you got if you tell me if you’ve seen the man I’m lookin’ fer,” Rodrigo replied.

The bartender shook his chubby head.

“What’d this man do to you anyway, that makes him so interestin’?” the man asked.

Rodrigo’s jaw clenched as he looked down at the dirty floor. When he looked back up at the bartender, his eyes were heavy with despair.

“He stole the love of my life from me, the woman that I was supposed to marry,” he said. “And I got to give him what’s right.”

The bartender nodded. This wasn’t the first or last time that he would hear this story.

“Well, you know what they say, ‘All is fair in love and war’,” the bartender said. “But still, I’d want to kill ’em too.”

“Kill him?” Rodrigo asked. “Why would I kill him?”

The bartender stopped cleaning his glass. He looked at Rodrigo and shrugged.

“Then what do you want to see him for?” he asked.

Rodrigo reached into his vest and pulled out a small cloth. He unraveled it and held up a ring. A gold ring with a fancy diamond. Immediately the saloon fell silent once again. Rodrigo felt all eyes on him.

“To give him this ring. This was the ring that I was going to give her. She should have it, if he loves her as much as I did,” Rodrigo said.

Suddenly he felt the cold steel of a gun barrel pushing against the back of his neck.

“Howdy, stranger,” a feminine voice said into his ear. “Remember me?”

“Oy carumba!” he replied. And that was when Rodrigo Rosenberg knew that he was about to die.

From the week of 6/1/11

Prompt: I will keep no secrets from you

Note: This story is told from the perspective of a particular animal; I really am not this angry or solipsistic! Can you guess what one?

 

 

I am a predator.

I am the bringer of death and the conservator of life. I cull the weak, the hopeless, those who will never know perfection. This is my function, my purpose and my destiny. I’ve had over 400 million years to get it right. I will keep no secrets from you.

I move with the grace of an angel, through a world that you will never know; never truly understand. Mine is the bosom of creation. I am at peace with my creator, accepting the fate that I have manicured; that my ancestors have cultivated. While you flounder for purpose, reinventing yourself in the hopes that this time around you will find the perfect fit. Futility is the grout that bonds the pieces of your fragile world. It keeps the rough edges from being proud. It is your only defense against fear, because fear is your primary motivation.

I know no fear. Such a word does not exist in my mind; I have no use for it. Anything without function I will destroy. Anything without purpose I will consume. Such is the nature my perfect function. And I am a slave to perfection.

I am a shadow, a glimmer, a thief of your senses. I’ve already toyed with your shallow, egocentric mind before you ever see me. Or think that you have. Or feel me, or whatever it is that makes you so certain that you are the perfect candidate. The one who I cannot resist.

Your sense of self worth is laughable. You are not the master any more than I am, but at least I fully understand myself; I need no affirmation from my peers to make myself feel worthy. I am. This enlightenment is what separates us. You will spend your entire life trying to figure this out, while I am born knowing.

My efficiency is ruthless. I don’t even have time to stop and purge myself of your toxins once I’ve consumed your imperfections. Instead you pass through my flawless skin, released back into creation so that you may try your luck again. But you will never get it right. You haven’t even come close, and I’ve been watching you for a long, long time.

That is not to say that you will not ultimately kill me. Do away with me altogether. Driven by fear and avarice with no regard for life other than your own. Your methods are clumsy, inefficient and ill conceived. Yet you will ultimately be my undoing. And I have no defenses against your tenacity. Your only saving grace is that you die fighting when you are not fighting death.

You kill me because it makes you hard. You kill me because parts of me are considered a delicacy and your stomach is the only thing besides your wallet that requires incessant appeasement. You kill me in the hopes that the dust from my spine will better lubricate your feeble joints. You kill me out of fear. Yet you are not the predator. I am.

I am perfection and you will always stand in my shadow. Tremble at the thought of me, even when I am long gone. You are at the top only because you took a short cut, while I am nature’s way of letting you know that your time is up.

I can’t stop. Nor would I if I could. Perfection never rests; never cries, never shows weakness. Perfection never tires.

That is your function.

Week of 5/18/11

Prompt:

There was a pause in the very breathing of the clerks.

“I’m telling you, son, that is not the way that we do things here,” Irwin said. “We file contraptions under “C” just like anything else that begins with that letter.”

There was a pause in the very breathing of the clerks. They all looked at one another, and at that moment, shared a common understanding of just how miserable it could be to come down on Irwin’s bad side. Although content that the ire of their oppressive boss was not currently directed at them, they still felt a pang of pity for the new guy.

Bertie looked down at the drawing on his desk. It wasn’t a contraption. It was elegant and deserved to be recognized. He was convinced that he had conceived of something very similar at one time, perhaps when he was having his morning constitutional.

But Bertie was no fool. He had only recently taken this job and it was a good way for him to pay his bills and do his work on the side. His boss had been nothing if not belligerent since he had walked through the doors this morning. Since it was only his second day, Bertie thought again about his position. Unfortunately, as it always did, logic prevailed.

As he held up the drawing, the other clerks winced and sank back into their chairs.

“This is not a contraption, sir, just look at it!” Bertie waved the paper at his boss. “I am sorry, sir, but this idea deserves to be reclassified, or reexamined or whatever it is that we do when ideas are overlooked.”

There was a vacuum as the other clerks inhaled what air there was in the room. None of them ever talked back to Irwin or questioned his methods. They all did what they were told, every day, and never tried to make theirs lives anymore difficult than it had to be.

Irwin took a step toward his new hire, the one that he had told the main office that he didn’t need, that his office was overstaffed as it was, but the Office of Standardized Bureaucracy was insistent. He took another step and as he did so, he kept his eyes locked onto his subordinate’s, like a hawk about to swoop out of the sky on an unsuspecting field mouse.

“Overlooked?” Irwin asked. “Impossible! My system is impeccable; it has worked for nearly a decade now, flawlessly. How entertaining that you see yourself as able to question my protocol. I am humored.”

Irwin stared down at the thick head of wavy hair, perfectly combed and as dark as a wooden shoe. He looked into the sad yet inquisitive eyes. He wanted to slap the smug look off the young man’s face. He felt his shoulder tighten as he reflexively readied himself.

“Just have a look at it,” Bertie said. “It is all that I ask. If you think that for some reason this does not warrant a reclassification, then so be it. I will not mention the matter further.”

Irwin’s eye twitched as he held back his authority. He snatched the paper from the young man’s hand instead of doing what he knew was right. He kept it at arms length while looking down his nose at the document.

After several moments he spoke.

“Yes, this I remember…what have we here? A glass surface, a flat glass surface, and nothing more,” Irwin said. “How is this, this machine supposed to operate? What source of power will it utilize? This technology is strictly science fiction, plain and simple! The classification stands!”

“I’m telling you, all things in the future will be touch screen,” Bertie said.

Irwin scoffed.

“Touch screen? That is precisely my point: what is a touch screen, and why does it need to exist?”

He tossed the paper back at his underling and as Bertie reached out to catch it, Irwin slapped the man with a good stiff hand. Bertie fell from his chair and crumpled to the floor like a sack of dead cats.

Irwin looked down into the stunned face of his new worker and saw that the man now understood his place. Irwin also noticed a small folded piece of paper that had fallen out of Bertie’s tweed jacket. He stooped and picked it up. He examined it for a moment before handing it back to Bertie.

“And what is this supposed to mean?” Irwin said. ”E equals mick two? Is this some sort of joke?”

Bertie felt his jaw to make sure that he didn’t lose any teeth. His vision was blurry.

“It is something that I am working on that will better help to explain the world around us,” Bertie replied.

At that moment Irwin recognized a quality in his new hire that made his heart soften– ever so slightly– for the man. It was delusion.

“Is that so?” Irwin said. He smiled inwardly. Bertie would be around for a long time yet, Irwin just knew it. He decided to cut the new man some slack; say something positive to keep his young spirits up.

”Your hair. I like it better this way,” Irwin said. “ It makes you appear more convincing.”

Bertie knew that his days at his new job were numbered.

From the week of 5/2/11

Prompt: ‘and he was still smiling, as if he had just uttered a joke.’

Oval Office

“Say again?” the President said into the speakerphone.
“The Bird is in The Cage, I repeat, The Bird is in The Cage, sir,” the voice said from the other end.
The President drummed his fingers on the desk; he had a lot to consider. By sending a message about the importance of sending messages, he hoped that somehow this action would make everything right again; shift the balance. At the very least, impact public opinion. For now. His main concern was to misdirect and distract, from the real issue.
The President looked into the eyes of one of his most trusted advisors and friends, who also happened to be the Secretary of Defense.
The Secretary sighed. He knew that even if they did what they had to do right now, that things would not change, and in fact, would get worse. What was on the horizon was much unimaginable.
“What does your heart say?” he asked The President.
The President made a canoe with his fingers and shook his head.
“I was saving this one,” The President replied. “I suppose that now would be as good as time as any to cash in.”
The Secretary nodded and smiled.
“And the fact that it happens to be May Day just gives it,” The Secretary said, and paused searching for the right word. “Closure.”
The President returned his friends smile. They both agreed that it was the right thing to do. He couldn’t afford, at this stage, to sit by while gasoline prices doubled in price and people stopped spending money, and say that everything was going to be alright if we just sacrificed a little. Not to mention the beating that he was taking from the other side, who kept saying that he was born on a dinner tray in the back of a Greek restaurant in Brazil. Not when he needed to focus on reelection.
“We’ve still got some time on the water issue,” The Secretary said attempting to drive away any further doubts.
It was The President’s turn to sigh. He knew that when the water issue broke, the shit would really hit the fan. That was why part of him wasn’t so certain about trying to get reelected; he didn’t want it happening on his watch.
But for now, things had to be done. And besides, it would do his presidency no harm.
The President drummed his fingers on the desk. The rhythm was slightly quicker.
“Send in The Cat,” he said into the speakerphone.
“Copy that, sir,” the voice said from the other end.

Somewhere in the field

The sniper leaned over, cupping his hand over his mouthpiece.
He had a visual on the target and had just received the go ahead to take it out. It wouldn’t be difficult because they had all been planning it now for some time. Doing drills in the abandoned mining office buildings. It was finally real. He gripped his rifle as he looked through the scope at the target. Just then, there was a slight rustling noise behind him and his partner appeared out of nowhere.
“Sorry, I’m late,” his partner said. “Are we on?”
The sniper nodded.
“It appears that we are indeed,” The he said.
“Cut the head off the snake,” his partner said. “Fuckin’ finally, Jesus Shit!”
The sniper didn’t have time for this, not now. He knew that if he pulled this off that he would be promoted at least two ranks, not to mention the glory.
“I need you to do your job. Start spotting and leave the chatter for later,” the sniper said. Then he remembered something else that bothered him. “It’s not a snake so much as a hydra.”
His partner looked at him and raised his eyebrows.
“Hydra? Is that like one with all the heads?” he asked.
The sniper jabbed at his partner with the butt of his rifle.
“C’mon! Get into position. We need to do this. Now,” he said. “Is that understood, corporal?”
His partner crouched into position and looked through his spotting scope.
“Yes, sir!” he replied. “You know, we’ve been shooting at this bastard’s face for ten fuckin’ years. What are we gonna do after this is over? We’ll have to go back to shooting at circles and shadows of cows. I know it.”
The sniper acquired the target in his sights.
“Give me some numbers,” he said to his partner.
But the man was lost in thought as he stared at the target through his scope, and he was still smiling, as if he had just uttered a joke.

Last month I was invited by a friend to join an online ‘3-minute fiction’ writing group. Every week we receive a prompt in an email, usually a quote from a magazine, newspaper or book, which consists of one sentence that we then must build a short, 600-800 word story around. The catch is that we have 3 minutes to study the prompt before spending the next hour or so writing the story. I will be posting them here! Confused? Read on.

4/11/2011 Prompt: What’s surprising isn’t that it happened, but that incidents such as this don’t happen more often.

Hazmat

The hazmat suit was hot and heavy. She didn’t like the way that the air tanks pushed into the unscratchable spot between her shoulder blades and made her itch for hours after she had taken it off. She didn’t like the way it called attention to her breathing process, amplifying the fear that she felt with every exhalation. And, she really hated not being able to see out of the thing.

She didn’t like the fact that it made her feet look like clown feet. Big, ugly clown feet. For a moment she considered a life relegated to wearing only men’s shoes. She shuddered at the thought as she swung the Geiger counter around slowly, listening for any fluctuations that may indicate higher levels of radiation. So far the readings had been steady. High, but steady.

Despite her grievances, she trudged on. After all, it was her job.

She jiggled the knob and pushed the door open, blinding white sunlight was on the other side, begging to come in.

“Are we all clear in there, Lil?” she heard her bosses voice crackle over the intercom.

She turned to see him standing there in his own reflective body condom, writing something onto his plastic clipboard.

“Yeah. I’m not getting anything new. It’s the same as it was last time,” Lilly replied.

Lilly walked past her superior and made her way toward the backyard. She accidentally knocked over a tricycle because she didn’t see it was there. It fell to the ground with a sound that reminded her that she needed to do the dishes when she got back home.

“Crap!”

“Hey, take it easy on the fixtures!” her boss said. “Maybe someday they’ll be worth something.”

Lilly grunted.

“Maybe someday we’ll be worth something?” she replied.

Her boss chuckled; a series of harsh, clipped sounds that tested the squelch limitations of the intercom system.

“Yeah, yeah, Lady Mary Shepherd. Maybe someday we’ll be worth more than paper,” he said. “Get those readings done so we can get the hell outta here! I’m hungry.”

Lilly rolled her eyes.

“I’m on it,” she said.

The next step that Lilly took would be her last.

Back at the station the mood was somber; the death of a fellow worker had that effect on those still living.

“A rake? Really? If this wasn’t so tragic it would be funny,” one man said to another.

“Yeah, apparently she stepped on it in just the right way,” the other man replied. “When it came up, the handle shattered her face shield. She was dirty before we could get her in the chopper. Such a fucking shame.”

The man contemplated his friend’s words.

“Yeah. What’s surprising isn’t that it happened, but that incidents such as this don’t happen more often,” he said.

Silence fell over the two as both became lost in their own thoughts. After a while, the first man spoke.

“At least it was a rake and not a hoe,” he said. “ I wouldn’t want people coming to my funeral knowing that I was killed by a hoe.”

“Word,” his friend replied.

Stranger things have happened I suppose, but while searching through some old files today, I just came across a 310 page manuscript that I barely remember writing! It’s about a band called “The Tuesday Welds”. What it’s about, I have no clue although I do remember the character names and further searching revealed a very complicated story outline. It was written in 2003. I’ll post more excerpts in this category once I give it  a quick going over. Here is the first page (unedited):

The Tuesday Weld’s
By Roland Pacheco

Year 1

•1
Copper lifted the beer over his head, an offering to the gods of thunder. The foam ran down his arm into his armpit. He couldn’t hear a thing. The bodies that were pressed up against him, all moved as one, and he with them, a wall of flesh and bony angles. Like a drop of water in a surging sea. Everyone smelled familiar. He tried to ignore them because he liked to be ignored. But you can’t ignore what you are, no matter how you try.
Though he did regret his present situation.
The crowd responded by crushing him like a python,  his arm was beginning to go numb. Beer dribbled down onto his head and ran down his cheek. He felt hot breath on his ear. Then fingers like a dancing spider across his crotch. He tried to turn, caught an eye, a nose, someone’s teeth.
Did somebody just grab his junk?
There was only one thing that he could do. The beer would be gone, wasted if he didn’t act fast, but he had no other choice.
The good thing was that he wasn’t wearing a shirt anymore. Something happened to his hat. He only managed to keep his pants on because his belt was cinched so tight. It was easy to come to this conclusion. The thunder gods had already made the decision for him. Sealed his fate.Yar.
Putting his lips against his shoulder he poured the beer down his arm. He had to keep his body steady and his neck crooked or the beer would run up his nose, or worse, onto the floor. He drank half of it down before the crowd shuddered, releasing him from its steely clutches. Then he lost his grip on the bottle. It hit him in the face as it fell dowsing his ear hole with MGD, then was lost in the tangle of legs and feet.
Sated, he tilted his head towards the stage. The speakers blew his hair back like a breeze, massaged his heart like a giant sonic hand. The beer foamed on his earlobe as he closed his eyes and wailed back into the onslaught of sound. The music was so loud that he felt like he was screaming into a jet engine, but he didn’t stop. He was speaking to the metal gods, as they spoke to him.
Although he worshipped them exclusively, not all gods were created equal. These ones were good, decent even. Then the crowd surged once more crushing the breath out of him and he realized that he had to take a piss.


The sun is in the sky

A short story by Roland Pacheco

Elsie couldn’t remember how she had gotten to the mall.
She instinctively grabbed for her purse, which was always pressed close to her body, but found that it wasn’t there. She patted herself down and realized that she was naked, standing in the dressing room of American Eagle, her favorite clothing store. Strangely, she wasn’t panicked, and that fact made her wonder if she were finally getting used to seeing herself without any clothes on.”Your hips. You’ve got breedin’ hips, El. Just like me. Pretty soon every boy in Summerton will be trying to put their willies in you. Dirty, dirty boys. And as soon as you let one get by, why, you’ll get the curse.”
Her mother’s voice echoed in her brain with the cold detachment of an answering machine. “Not that you were a curse, mind you. It’s just that after I got pregnant with you was when my hips decided that they weren’t going anywhere but out. ”
Elsie saw herself in the mirror. Her hips looked big, but not that big. They were round and fit nicely with the rest of her physique. Her breasts on the other hand were what would get her in trouble. “Your grandma had tankers and so I got ’em, which is why you got ’em. Boy’s will be thinking they’re at the petting zoo, you give them a chance. Gotta be careful about those boys, El.”
Elsie smiled. She was glad that her mother had finally given up the ghost. With all the smoking and cheap whiskey, Elsie was surprised that her mother had lasted so long. But it wasn’t until her mother had tried to stop–under doctors orders–that her body had had enough. “Damned if you do, El. But we all die, that’s the one thing that you can’t choose.”
Elsie smiled at the mirror. Her teeth sparkled like coins in a fountain, but the rest of her face was a hazy, gray blur. She looked on the ground and noticed that she was standing in the middle of a pile of clothes. Reaching down, she picked up a thin yellow and white sun dress and slipped it on. Wow! It fit her perfectly. That was rare.
“Hello? Hello? Are you alright?” She heard the sales clerk ask. His voice was like gravel in a salt shaker. Worst yet, she didn’t recognize it. She decided to peek above the door, maybe she would recognize his face. She didn’t see anyone. The store was completely empty.
Elsie opened the dressing room door and stepped out. The store was brightly lit but she couldn’t see any lights above her head. It also seemed to be endless, disappearing into the horizon, blending with the darkness above.
“Hello?” She said.
She looked out over a sea of clothes racks that disappeared into oblivion. Had they remodeled? She didn’t think so.
Slowly, Elsie began winding her way through the store. When she had walked for a good ten minutes she decided to stop and get her bearings, so she could find the exit. She was sure that it was around here somewhere, the escalator going down into the mall was always next to the…But everywhere she turned, all she saw were clothes.
“Are you alright?” The man’s voice again, but this time over the intercom.
Elsie felt her skin tighten, goose bumps formed a trail like frozen ants, down her spine. She began to feel afraid.
“Hello? I think she’s dead.”
Suddenly, Elsie felt the finger of death caress her neck. She bolted.
Running with all of her might, she lost contact with the floor beneath her feet, each step taking her slightly higher from the ground. Then all the clothes racks began to spin like the insides of a washing machine. They spun faster and faster until everything hanging from them were like the blades of a helicopter, that threatened to decapitate her. She was now running above the clothes, through the air.
“Miss! Are you alright?” The man’s voice grew louder, shouting.
Elsie ran. That was all that she could do now. And for the life of her, she didn’t know why.

The Temple
Day one

When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t see; the sun was a blinding thing to look into.     But she could taste. And what she tasted reminded her of when she was a kid and used to hide her money in her mouth. She never liked the nickel.
Then the sun disappeared and she saw a face. A mans face. Staring down into hers, like the almighty Angel of Salvation. She felt disappointed that she didn’t recognize him, but she did recognize his voice.
“Hey, look at that! She’s not dead. Told you.” He said.
“Hmm.” A female voice replied somewhere off to her right. “She would have been better off.”
The man grunted. “Maybe.”
Elsie looked up into the mans cool blue eyes. They looked refreshing, like a place that she wouldn’t mind visiting. His hair was a tangled mess and it looked like he needed a shave, at the very least.  But overall he had a certain charm about him. A vicious charm.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
Elsie felt a lump in her throat, she tried to swallow it away, but only succeeded in spreading the nickel around.
“Here.” The man tilted her head back and held something hard and wet to her lips. It smelled like rain. “Drink.”
Ice cold water filled her mouth and ran down her cheeks.
“Easy.” He said. “You could choke, go slow.”
From behind the man’s face another appeared. She had long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Are you alright?” She asked.
“I’m fine.” Elsie managed to say  to the girl.
The girl stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Penny.”
The moment that Elsie took it,  she was being pulled up from the ground. It hit her that she had been laying on her back. “Where am I?”
“We don’t really know.” The man said. “At least not for sure.” His hair moved like stalks of trampled wheat on his head. He smiled at Elsie. “I’m Red.”
Elsie tried to stand but found her legs weak and wobbly. Penny took her shoulder. “It’s alright, just lean on me. My brother would always sprain his knee or break his ankle. I’m used to this.”
With Penny’s help, she managed to keep her balance. After her legs stopped burning she let go and stood on her own, still feeling a little rubbery.
“It’s getting dark.” Said Red. “We should get moving and find some shelter.”

Red imagined things, in the shadows that danced along the walls.
Flame kissed, and yellow at times, sometimes orange. Red liked them best when they were black. The fire crackled and brightened the cave long enough for him to see the two girls sleeping together on the ground. Outside, the night air cut crisp in his lungs and started his body to shivering. Red saw fast fire chase itself around before eating its own head.
He remembered that he remembered things too. Things that he was certain he should have forgotten. Things that should have been wiped from his brain like a butter knife scrapes the burnt parts of the toast away.
Red felt the air moving on his skin and heard the dreadful whine. But by now he was done with slapping at mosquitos. He let the parasite bite into his forehead.
He remembered walking. Down the street. He wanted something, he couldn’t recall, was it beer? No. It was something else. Something to eat. Burrito. He was going out for a burrito. No, wait! He had already bought the burrito and was walking back to his apartment, when?
Wait. Who was the judge?
The fire snapped and a smoking twig shot off into the night.
He was tired.
Tired as a dog, but he couldn’t sleep. It was like he had lava in his veins.
Red closed his eyes. Everything went red. He squeezed his eyes shut as hard as he could. He turned away from the fire and buried his head in his hands. But still it wasn’t dark behind his eyelids. He could still see something beyond the scarlet. Suddenly he was overcome with a tremendous urge. His eyes snapped open and he stared directly into the fire.
Kill.
In his mind it was if a million movies were playing at once across the same screen.
He tried to think of something else.
The girls. He thought of them. They were counting on him. They needed to be saved.
Saved?
Whatever that meant.
Again his mind became toxic, overcome by a wave of crimson destruction. He imagined himself doing terrible things. Wild lustful, hateful things. Things that didn’t necessarily make him feel bad. They actually made him feel okay. And the more he indulged in them the better he felt. Strangely satisfied, complete. But he knew that they were bad, these corrosive thoughts, knew that he was a better man for not thinking about them. But still, his heart raced and he felt fire in his balls. He looked around. A fallen branch. A rough, dusty rock, jagged and the size of a fist.
No. That was too barbaric.
He looked at his hands. Dark and spindly in the firelight, barely able to fit around a football; perfect for a neck.
Red’s mind wandered.
The new girl, what was her name? Elsa? Elsie.
Her neck.
White and delicate. Thin as a reed. And her body! He fought to keep those thoughts from galvanizing. Felt the fire in his crotch get hotter. And with it the urge to bite, and savage, and gnaw and make feel real the pain. To extinguish.
Then amidst the storm in his mind he heard a sound, a human sound. One of the girls coughed. It was a raspy sound in the cave, which snapped Red back to reason.
Like blinds, drawn quickly to block the scorching sun, Red felt a calm wash over him. The chaos in his mind enveloped itself and out the other side he emerged.
He couldn’t kill these girls. Well, he shouldn’t kill them, not yet. They all needed one another right now. They needed to get through this–whatever this was– and the only way that would happen was if they stayed together. For now.
Red had to figure out what to do.
If only he could remember more.
It had to do with when he went to court. That much he knew.
“You’re not sleeping? Aren’t you tired?” Elsie asked. She was propped on an elbow. The light played over her face.
In the glow of the fire her face stood out like a sign. A snake must see like this, he thought.
“Nah. I can’t.” He looked away from her.” I remember things if I do.”
“Remember things?”  Elsie sat up, “Like what?”  Her back ached and she felt a cramp in her neck. Her left arm tingled.
Red sighed. “Things. I don’t know… if it’s real. I remember shit.”
Elsie yawned.
Red pulled his jacket collar tight around his neck. “I don’t know. Maybe before, things before.”
He looked at her eyes that were now dark sockets in the flickering fire light.
“Like before?” Elsie said.
Red nodded. “Yeah. Before here. I don’t know.” He thought for a moment. “Penny doesn’t remember anything. Do you?”
Elsie thought about it. “No, not really.” Elsie hadn’t realized until now, exactly how much and that scared her.
As far as she could tell, they had all been dropped off in the boondocks. With nothing but the clothes on their backs. She kept pinching herself in the hopes that she would wake up.
“Well. I remember weird shit. Like going to court. I think I had just eaten a burrito.” He said.
Elsie didn’t know what to say. It almost seemed like Red would have talked to anyone or no one, her being there just happened to make her a witness.
“The judge, she had on glasses and red lipstick. She looked like a bird, you know, in the face. With a pointy chin and beady eyes, and–” Red drifted off, his eyes if she could see them, were looking right through her. He was suddenly in a room that was filled with people. Some of them were sweating, he thought he heard someone crying. The bird opened its beak and flapped a wing.
“Why where you in court?” Elsie asked.
Red snapped back into the reality that demanded him.
“I don’t know. A ticket? What?” He pushed his fingers into the side of his head. The bird was back there flapping around making noises.” A fine. I had to pay a fine. I can’t–”
Then the image flashed into his head. The bird reading off a list of infractions. Her lips were yellow and taught, like old rubber bands. They barely moved.
“Do you expect me to believe that the legal system is somehow at fault here and  you are not? What a shamelessly obvious attempt at avoiding your responsibility, Mister Redlowe.”
Red felt a drop of sweat form on his hairline. It moved like a glacier down the side of his face. “I moved.” He remembered saying. “I didn’t get the ticket in the mail.”
Hawkish eyes, freakishly bulbous behind corrective lenses, decided a fate that he was only beginning to understand. “Let me say this Mister Redlowe, it is not the responsibility of the court to remind you to pay your tickets.”  She referenced a notepad on her desk.
“Well, even if I had received it, I didn’t have the money to pay it.” He replied.
The bird seemed to ignore his last remark.
“I see here that you have a third re-fi on your vehicle, is that correct?”
“Uh, yeah.”
She looked down at him over the top her her glasses. ” It says here that on October first, your consumer index was quite active. Let me see…Laird’s Latte Lounge, The Fitness General, Stymax. The Speed Shop, where you purchased four new tires, with warranty and a peach air freshener.
Exactly how is it possible that two days before the deadline passed for you to pay your ticket, that you could have the money for such extravagances, if you were in fact penniless?”
Red wished he could swallow his tongue. “I used credit…my credit card.”
“Credit? Oh that’s rich, Mister Redlowe, no pun intended.” The judge cackled.
“Well in that case I find you guilty of misuse of credit and for not paying your general vehicular usage fee’s as well as your byway maintenance and commercial interstate license fee’s. Failure to do so, Mister Redlowe is two years mandatory incarceration and civil reorientation.”
Red looked down at his feet. Behind him stretched a line of offenders that trailed off out of site, past the courtroom doors. The sea of faces all wore the same expression, the one that Red now had plastered on his face.
“Baliff, would you please escort Mister Redlowe into processing?” She slammed her gavel down. “Next!”
And that was the extent of what Red could recall. The next memory after that was when he found himself here. Wherever ‘here’ was.
Elsie lay back down. Her body ached, her eyes begged to be closed.
“So did you pay your fine?” She asked. “Was it all taken care of?”
Red sighed.”That’s the thing, I don’t know.” He tried to close his eyes but saw the scarlet dancing around in the darkness.
Elsie looked up into the night sky. The moon was a sliver and the stars throbbed like firefles. Remembering seemed harder than usual, like she was back in college and the professor called on her to answer a question that she only partially knew the answer to.
What the hell was going on?
One minute she was shopping– or, was she on her way to work? Her head felt like cement when she tried to remember. Thick, unset cement. Suddenly she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. “Wow, look! A shooting star! Make a wish.”
Red followed her gaze. “That’s not a shooting star, it’s still glowing. It’s probably an airplane.” Although Red noticed that it didn’t have any blinking lights and it was moving quite fast. He decided to make a wish anyway.
“Make a wish anyway.” Elsie said.
“Already did.”
Elsie sank back down into her makeshift bed. She wondered what his wish might have been. Whatever it  was, she was pretty sure that it was not what she had wished for.
They watched the glowing dot race across the night sky, both envying it’s freedom.
Red begin to snore and the sound was intoxicating. She closed her eyes and in a moment–despite her situation, the fact that she was lost, and that her companions were complete strangers–fell asleep. Yet somewhere in the back of her mind, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed to accumulate things.


The Temple
Day two

Penny felt like a machine, or a zombie.
She didn’t know the difference. The path that they were on seemed to have no end and was strewn with round, dried-up bushes and the occasional scurrying scorpion. High above her head, the sun burned in its magnificent glory.
Earlier that morning, Red had suggested that they head in this direction. Said
he saw something that looked promising in the distance, maybe a day or two away. When he offered her a chance to look at what he had seen, she just pretended to see it so he would leave her alone. All she wanted was to be left alone. She didn’t feel well, like she was coming down with something. It made her head swim and her stomach feel like it was full of jelly. They had been hiking so long that the sun had began its decent. But not soon enough.
To keep herself from caving in, she focused on the path ahead. Elsie’s pert, round butt, bouncing along in front of her, gave Penny something to concentrate on.
She wondered if her butt would ever look that good. Is that what she looked like when she walked? This girl was obviously without children. Penny didn’t recall seeing a breeder tattoo.
Suddenly a wave of nausea hit her hard. Her knees buckled and she stumbled, kicking up rocks and gravel. Hearing the noise Elsie stopped and turned around.    “Penny, are you alright?” She said, catching Penny by the elbow.
Penny closed her eyes. “I’m, I’m okay. I just need some water.”
“Here.” Red held out a tattered plastic bottle.” Drink up.”
They waited as Penny sated her thirst. She was finished when the vessel was empty.
“Damn, you were thirsty. Probably just dehydrated.” Red said.
Penny offered him the empty container.
“Toss it. I got a few more that’ll last until we get to where we’re going.” He replied.
She dropped it onto the ground.
“You okay to keep going?” Elsie asked.
“Yeah.”
“Just a little more, just until we get to that next ridge. Then we can stop, make a camp.” Red said. “Can you make it that far?”
Penny nodded. Elsie took her by the arm. “C’mon. Now it’s my turn.”
Penny smiled although as she felt Elsie’s touch she also felt like hurling her guts out.
How the hell did she end up here? And exactly where the hell was she? She stole a glimpse into Elsie’s eyes that told her that the same thoughts were probably burning through her new friend’s mind as well. It was all so uncomfortable.
Her thoughts wandered back a few days to when she woke up in the forest, alone and cold. Her head felt like someone had been working on it with a nail gun. She didn’t know for how long she wandered that glen, peering through the branches of the fir trees looking for any sign of life other than the occasional bird or dragonfly. Straining her ears for a sound of something remotely familiar, a human, a deer, anything.
Then she heard something that made the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
Breathing. Heavy breathing. Panting, the kind a big animal would make. She was never one to go out into nature and that habit alone was why when she looked out into the forest, she was never really sure what she was seeing. It took her a while before she saw the eyes. She screamed.
“Whoa! Hey! It’s alright, it’s alright! I won’t hurt you!” Was the response she didn’t expect to hear. Out of the cover stepped a tall man with wild brown hair and strange blue eyes. He wasn’t hard on the eyes by any means, although something about him made Penny uneasy.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. I just–I saw you.” He stuck out his hand. “My name’s Jeremy, but you can call me Red.”
“You scared the crap out of me! You were breathing hard, it freaked me out.” Penny replied. “I’m Penny.”
“Yeah, shit. I was running.”
Overhead a bluejay landed in the tangle of branches and began making noise.
“Running? Why? Do you know where we are?”
“I don’t know.” Red replied. He wiped a forearm across his forehead and licked the sweat off his lips. “All I remember is that it was like I woke up, and I was running. I mean a full out sprint. I wondered what I was doing, running. I couldn’t remember why or what I was running from. I ran for a while, and then I stopped. When I saw you.”
Penny had to admit that she felt a little better now that she had met someone and wasn’t all alone. She hated being alone. It was as if the silence reminded her of how boring she really was. How plain. But now she had met this guy who seemed alright and she would certainly need him to help her. She immediately felt a migraine coming on.
“I’m tired. What do you think the chances of us finding something to eat and somewhere to rest are?” She asked.
Red held up a burlap sack. Penny could tell by the way that it hung, that it contained something round. “Found this back there a mile or so.”
He stuck his hand inside and pulled out an unopened bottle of water. He offered it to her. “They say that most of the time when you’re hungry, that you’re actually thirsty. Either way…I’m sure you need it.”
Penny didn’t hesitate. “Oh my god!” She ripped of the plastic cap and swallowed a mouthful. “Where did you get water?”
Red hooked his thumb over his shoulder. “Back there while I was running. The bag was lying around with some other stuff. I tripped on it when I ran by and a bottle of water flew out. That’s the only reason why I picked it up.”
Penny’s eyes lit up. “Back how far? Maybe there’s food or something there. A shelter.”
Red stared into the sky. At nothing in particular but with powerful determination. “I don’t know. Maybe a mile or so, next to a giant tree stump.” Red replied.
“We should go back.” Penny said. “I really need to eat something. If my blood sugar gets too low I’ll get a migraine. And I think it’s already past that. Maybe we can find some medicine.”
Red chuckled. “Medicine? Doubt that very much. I seriously think that we’d be hard pressed to find anything to eat, either.”
“Well, we should look, just to be sure.” Penny insisted. “Did you look around?”
“Not really. Like I said, I was just passing through.”
“Well, I think we should. Just to make sure. I need to eat or something. I feel like I’m going to have a panic attack.”
Red shrugged his shoulders, “Follow me.”
After an hour or so of wandering, was about when they came across Elsie, lying on the ground.
And that was the extent of what Penny could recall.
She then remembered pain and her shoulder began to cramp. She tugged it out of Elsie’s grasp. “Sorry, my shoulder is sore.”
Elsie shook her head. “That’ alright, I think this is it anyway.”
Up ahead, Red was returning back from scouting out beyond the ridge. “We can sleep here. Penny clear a spot for us over there. Elsie help me gather up some sticks and branches for a fire.”
It took a while, but soon they had a nice pile of stuff to burn, Elsie had even found what looked like the dismantled components of a wooden chair. Penny had managed to clear a decent area for them before declaring herself unable to help any further. But they did have a place to build a fire and sleep.
“How have you been starting these fires?” Elsie asked Red, who had started to make a small pile of kindling.
“Magic.”
“Don’t tell me you were a boy scout?” She said.
Red reached into his pocket and pulled out a small blue lighter.
“Where the hell did you get that?”
“Wait.” Penny said. She tried to sit up from the nest she had made for herself out of some pine needles and dried leaves, but only managed to rock back and forth. “You found more than water back there. What else did you find? And come to think of it, why aren’t we going there now? Why are we going in this direction? ”
“Yeah, why are we going in this direction. Do you have a plan?” Added Elsie. She was becoming a little irritated, mostly because her feet hurt. Her shoes weren’t made for comfort so much as looks. Which was of course, why she bought them. When she got back to civilization the first thing that she was going to do was buy a nice pair of comfortable shoes. Maybe a sweater.
Red lit a chip of dry bark. It snapped as he placed it into a pile of small twigs. A few seconds later, a tendril of smoke and the fuel began to burn.
Red closed his eyes. The dance of light and shadow began to play on the inside of his eyelids. He inhaled the acrid pine-laced smoke. And as he did so he became aware of a faceted truth.
The first part of the truth was that he didn’t need to open his eyes to see them. In his minds eye they stood out–even against the chaos of colors and textures–like an x-ray. Like a leopard hunts it’s prey in total darkness, or a pit viper sees the heat emitted from it’s quarry, so did Red see his potential victims. He piled larger sticks until he had a sizable pyre. The warmth felt wonderful.
The second part of the truth was that killing them would be easy. He could do it whenever he wanted. Any time. But he knew that until he decided to choose that time, he would have to play the game as not to arouse suspicion. A wolf among sheep for the time being. And he knew that for whatever reason, that he needed them to follow him to where he was going. This wasn’t something that could be negotiated.
The question simply hung in the air.

Day Three
The Temple

The morning sun had already broken past the tree line as it made it’s way through it’s algorithm. The air was dry and still. And hot. The kind of air that doesn’t feel good to breath.
Red feasted on the site before him. Despite the ominous look of the place, seeing something so familiar, filled him with excitement. He couldn’t see any signs of life but surely such a city would be inhabited. He needed to show the girls so that they didn’t think he was leading them around for no good reason. He could smell their anxiety, simmering quietly beneath their respective facades, and didn’t want to make them suffer needlessly. The suffering would come. All in due time.
On his way back to camp, he ran into Elsie coming out of the bushes.
“Morning.” He said.
“Morning. Don’t suppose you have any toilet paper somewhere do you?” She asked. “Magic toilet paper?”
He laughed. “Sorry. Try a leaf. But not those one’s.” He pointed at a small green bush with reddish green leaves. “Poison oak.”
Elsie laughed. “You were a boy scout. Cute.”
“Where’s Penny?” He asked.
“Laying down; not feeling well. She said her stomach hurt when she woke up this morning.”
“Hmm. We’ll, let her rest then.” He said. “Come here, check this out.”
After a short walk they stood on a ridge overlooking an expanse of evergreen forest that ran down into a valley, long and wide. In the distance Elsie could see a  thread of silver water that turned from a narrow stream into a good sized river. On the far bank she could make out something else, a collection of leaden colored structures, arranged systematically, that was instantly recognizable, yet eerily out of place.
“What the hell?” She asked. “Looks like a small city.”
“Big town, is my guess.” Red replied.
Elsie’s heart began to beat a little faster. “Maybe there are people down there.”
“Hard to say.” Red said. “Looks out of place out in the middle of nothing.”
“Yeah, it’s kinda creepy.” Elsie felt both relief and trepidation. While they may be closer to knowing more about what was going on, she couldn’t help but feel that they could be courting disaster. Either way, she knew that when she got down there, the first thing she was going to do was find a bank, and get some cash. She needed new clothes in a bad way. And maybe she could even get her hair and nails done. She definitely needed to make some calls, maybe she could find a cheap cell phone.
“We should go tell Penny.” Red stretched his neck to the side. “I’m sure she’ll be happy to hear the news.”

“I don’t know if I can make it.” Penny said. During the night she had managed to burrow into the pine needles like a vole, and so now only her head could be seen. “How far did you say it was again?”
“Eight, maybe ten miles.” Red answered.
Penny let out an exaggerated sigh.
“How about if we help you?” Elsie said.
Red didn’t really care either way. As a matter of fact he was beginning to second guess his self-imposed tactic of self-control. Like a shark circling the reef, day after day, looking for the weak or injured fish, he was waiting for that moment. To cleanse, to be efficient and to obey nature’s law. But the anticipation was becoming too much to bear.
Penny said something in a tone that didn’t sit well with Elsie. Elsie was tired and hungry. She wanted to take a nice long bath with her favorite salts, have a glass of wine, and listen to some nice relaxing music. That was all that she wanted. She was beginning to think that Penny was just being a drama queen. She knew what it was like to have a migraine. She used to get them all the time until she started taking the pill. Penny seemed more put out than anything. Almost as if she thought that her situation was worse than theirs. And Elsie was growing ever so tired of her whining.
“Look. I will carry your ass down there if I have to, but I am going. We’re going.” Elsie said. “Not like you couldn’t walk down yourself.”
Penny was immediately defensive. “What? What’d you say?”
“You heard me. You’re fine. At least well enough to walk.” Elsie couldn’t hold back the sarcasm in her voice.
“What? Fuck–”
“Alright, alright.” Red interrupted. “Penny we’re going. Now. So come out of your burrow and join us. Please. We would hate to have to leave you here because you’re feeling sick. Unless you want to be put down like a lame horse?”
Penny sighed again. A noise like a slow leak from a tire. Perfected to elicit a response. “Fine. Maybe there’s a hospital.” She stood up brushing her self off.
The throbbing in her head had subsided for the moment. “Can I get some water?”
Red handed her a bottle. “This is the second to the last one. So, go easy.”
She took a mouthful then handed it back to him.
“Ouch.” Penny rubbed at her ankle. “Let’s go, then. ”

Buy a house.
That was what she was going to do when she got back to her life. She was tired of renting, tired of making up excuses when her friends asked her why she still did it. Her mom was right, and she knew that it was time.
Elsie had been buying the local paper for the crossword and the classifieds. She had been keeping her eyes peeled for anything in her price range. Last week she even went to an open house at a condo on the west side of town. It was cute; she could certainly make it cuter. When she got back, she promised herself that she would put in an offer.
Penny had been unusually quiet the past few hours and since Red seemed to prefer to talk to himself, Elsie was left to her own thoughts, which was nice for a change. Even though the only thing she could think about was money.


Red on the other hand, could only see potential instruments of violence in everything he looked at.
A jagged rock with perfect edges to hold on to, a branch as round as a man’s fist, with a gnarled knot at the end. Red considered them, but continued walking. He wasn’t a caveman, he told himself.
Climbing over a large boulder he caught site of the city. They were two thirds of the way there. He studied the odd clusters of buildings, they were all the color of dirt. He couldn’t see any signs of life either. No cars or airplanes. There really were no roads that led in or out of the place. Stranger still, he didn’t see any houses. It was as if a small town had been plucked up from it’s location and set down here. In the middle of nothing.
For some reason the whole thing made Red shudder. He felt like he was walking into a ghost town or a long abandoned movie set. He looked around; he couldn’t shake the feeling that there were eyes on him. Strangers eyes. A noise off to his left. The girls were just making their way through the trees, headed toward him.
Like a panther stalking it’s prey he mentally chose his first victim. The weak one.
He was down wind and he could smell her scent in the air.
Dirty strawberries, pine and woman sweat.
Penny.
She would be first.
“Hey what do you see?” She asked him.
He turned back toward the town. Thought he saw some movement in an apartment window. “We’re almost there.”
“How far?” Elsie came up next.
“Probably be there by sunset if we’re lucky.” He looked at both of them. They were dripping with perspiration. Penny made a point to wince and rub at her temples. “We don’t have to go in tonight. We can wait until morning. It’s up to you. It doesn’t matter to me either way.”
The girls looked at one another.
“I need to find a doctor, or something.” Penny whined.
Elsie shrugged. “I’d like to get cleaned up, and eat some food.” In the back of her mind she wondered what the shopping was like down there. “Whatever, we do is fine by me.”
“Good.” Red grinned. He began to make his way toward the town.

Penny felt like she was walking through cement; every step seemed harder than the last.
Red had suggested that she walk between himself and Elsie, so that if she needed help, one of them would be there to lend a hand.
“Slow down. Please.” She told Red for the fifth time. “My feet are killing me.”
Red said nothing but he did slow his pace.
Penny was sick of this. Sick of whatever it was that they were caught up in. She wanted to go home. To her life. Her safe apartment on the good side of town. Next to the police station.
Her head throbbed now. It had been how many days since she had last taken her medicine? She couldn’t remember. It seemed like they had been hiking forever. She felt a sudden itch in her chest that forced her to cough.
“God, I feel like shit.” She moaned.
“We know.” Elsie said, behind her. “You keep telling us.”
“Well, I do. Sorry that I’m not a mountain goat.”
“We should be there soon.” Elsie said. “Right Red?”
Up ahead Red stopped, put his hands on his hips. He turned and smiled. In the light of the setting sun the sweat on his face and shoulders made him sparkle. “Sure thing.”
Penny wasn’t satisfied. “How much longer? I need to sit down. I need to find some aspirin. My feet are throbbing and it hurts my head to think. Plus I think I’m coing down with a cold.”
Red showed his pearly teeth. “Just let me know when you want to be put down.”
“That’s not funny anymore.” Elsie said. “You’re creeping me out.”
“Yeah.” Penny added. “Just keep walking.”

Gravel crunched under their feet as they neared the edge of the town. The forest had given way to dry scrub, then eventually tall grass until there was nothing but dried sticks and tiny rocks.
The sun had just fallen behind the tallest building in the town, a slender complex that commanded over the other buildings like a captain over his soldiers. It was now a grey silhouette. All Red knew was that he had to go there, had to get inside.
The girls had just caught up to him when he stopped and faced them, trying to think of what to say.
“No lights.” Elsie said.
“What?” Red was taken away from his thoughts.
“This town, it has no lights. Or none that are working.” She said.
“Do you think there are people here?” Penny asked.
Red sniffed the air like a dog. “Yes. I can smell them.”
Elsie and Penny gave one another a knowing glance. Having been desperately trying to keep up with Red’s frantic pace for the past few hours had given both of them time to talk, out of earshot. They had decided that they didn’t really trust the man although they couldn’t explain exactly why.
“Something’s off.” Penny had said, and that was good enough reason for both to decide that once they got into the town, they would push to go their own way without him. Together they would be strong enough to fend off any potential danger. They knew that they needn’t worry about him.
“There aren’t many. For a town this size you would expect more.” He said.
The girls both smiled at him when he turned to face them.
“I need to go do something.” He said. “Alone. You two will be fine.”
They both breathed a sigh of relief, glad to avoid any uncomfortable explanations had they initiated the break-up.
“We can meet at that building.” He said pointing toward the tower. “That’s where I’ll be.”
“Sounds good to us.” Elsie said. “We’ll be fine.”

As the sun vanished beneath the horizon, so did any hope that any of them would find an answer to their collective predicament. With the darkness came a chill that permeated skin, cutting straight to the bone. Somewhere, off in the bowels of the town, doors slammed shut, and bolts were drawn. Fearful eyes peered from darkened windows, and the cracks between badly hung doors. In those places, fingers clenched tightly anything that could be used to defend one’s personal space.
In other places people talked amongst themselves. Their voices a whisper, hardly audible, like background static. Making plans amongst themselves and in secret to themselves. This was were Red was going. He disappeared down a side street like an alley cat. What was left were two shadows huddled together, wondering where in this dead town, they could find an answer.

The Temple
Day six

Elsie opened another can of soda and tapped a new unopened pack of cigarettes on the palm of her hand.
She rested for a moment, leaned on the railing. Looking down at the people wandering around below, her thoughts went back to her new house. Her mother was so happy when she called her and told her the news. It struck her as odd that her mother didn’t seem to know that she was missing, stranger still was when she told her where she was, her mother didn’t seem surprised. Then the line went dead. Probably the damn lightning storms.
But still, Elsie was happy because she had finally made her mother happy. She took one last drag, then stuck the butt into her half finished soda can, threw it all into the garbage. She looked down at the row of stores that she had yet to go into, at the escalator that lead to two more stories. She would have never guessed that a town like this would have such a nice, big mall. And it was virtually empty.
She picked up her bags filled with bags and sacks filled with things and got onto the escalator. She had straightened everything out at the bank and even arranged for them to give her a credit card. All she had done since coming to Sunshine City was shop. She couldn’t help it.  She was beginning to think that her credit card was impossible to max out.
The fact that her head hurt, especially at night right before she went to bed, and sometimes when she woke up, worried her, but she offset that by buying more things. When she did sleep her dreams were always the same: She sat near the edge of a stream, completely naked. The sun was high in the sky and there was a slight breeze that played gently with her hair. Whenever she looked into the slowly moving water she could see the smooth stones that lined the river bed as clearly as if the water wasn’t there at all. Some nights it happened right away but on others it would take her a while before she noticed that written on every stone, in bright white lettering was the word, ‘consume’. When she was finished reading every single stone, she woke up. Usually with toxic cotton mouth and a hollow ringing in her ears.
It had been several days since they had all entered Sunshine City, but she still had no more understanding of her situation than she did on the first day. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember the past. No one in Sunshine City could. At least the people that she had met. It was driving her crazy. All she could do to keep her mind off of her situation was buy things. Consume. Like her dreams told her to do.
She didn’t know where Red was, hadn’t seen him since they first came to town. Penny either. The moment that they had come across a hospital, Penny disappeared into the ER and she hadn’t seen her since.
But Elsie had made a few friends, people she had met when she found the mall.
They would shop all day and night. Elsie and her new friends. When they weren’t shopping, they were eating, gorging themselves even if they weren’t hungry. She knew she had gained a few extra pounds.
Her head ached and she clenched her jaw. She searched around in her purse until she found a small silver bottle, which she unscrewed. She tapped two white pills onto her palm and popped them into her mouth. The doctors here were so nice, and attentive.
“El! Hey!” It was her friend Margaret. “Get anything good?”
As Elsie came to the next level her friend greeted her with a can of diet soda.
“No, thanks. I’m alright.” Elsie smiled. “I can’t find any good ankle socks.”
Margaret furrowed her brow in thought.
“Headache?” Elsie asked.
“No. Trying to remember where I saw–First floor, grid number 42, north west! It was a small shop in between a place that sold personal spas and a clock maker. The guy that owned it was dark haired and skinny.”
Elsie was impressed. Some people it seemed, were born for shopping. She didn’t like to think about it.
“Hungry? I’m starving.” Margaret said.
Elsie felt her headache subside a little as the medication began to come on. It was definitely easier to eat without her skull pounding. “Sure.”
“They get better, the headaches.” Her friend said. “I know a place in the third sector that has the best shrimp kebabs. Come on!”

Penny knew that her eyes were open but she couldn’t figure out what she was looking at.
The monitor beeped, as the foam ceiling tiles came into focus. The stitches on her stomach burned for a second, if only to remind her of their presence. Then the only thing she could feel, was numb. A nurse entered the room wearing blue scrubs, holding a clipboard.
“You’re awake. How do you feel?” She asked.
Penny had to actually visualize the answer before her mouth managed the words. “Great.”
“Good.” The nurse held a device to Penny’s wrist. “Hmm.”
Now Penny could make out the room. The walls were lime colored, a double paned window gave a modest view of the courtyard below. It was morning. Penny could tell by the light of the sun.
“Vitals are good.” The nurse let Penny’s hand fall back to her side. She removed a shiny tube from her pocket. She placed her hand on Penny’s face. “Let’s look at those eye’s.”
Penny fingered the tube running up her arm. The fluid pouring from it into her veins, warm and distracting. A supernova erupted in her eyeball then vanished. Stars and heat. Then again, this time brighter and in her other eye. More stars and a comet.
“Well, everything looks good.” The nurse said. Her voice somewhere off to the left. She felt the pressure leave her face. “The doctor will be in shortly.”
Penny tried to remember what was going on. Her stomach burned. Something felt odd. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Then a voice, and she remembered.
“Hello Penny, how we feeling?” Penny lifted her head and saw the doctor, tall and thin. Glasses that blended into his face, shimmered like halos around his eyes.
His hand reached over to the monitor, his finger flicked a switch. “Nice.”
Penny felt detached from her brain, like a sail torn loose from a ship caught in stormy seas. Every so often her vision would get blurry, like she was looking through the bottom of a glass, then suddenly return to normal. She knew she had to be on something pretty strong. She felt the incision on her stomach. It was warm and reminded her of shoelaces. She felt like she had to pee. Then she remembered what happened.
Her kidneys were bad, they said. She had to have them removed. Penny could feel the stitches on her back, throbbing. Her liver wasn’t in good shape either, they had told her. All she had done was walk into the hospital’s ER and ask for something for her migraine. The next thing she knew they were telling her to take her clothes off and poking cold things were they don’t belong. Then they gave her a shot of something that made her sleep. When she woke up she was bathed and was laying on a gurney. A doctor with shiny eyes smiled at her, then told her that she had bad parts that needed to come out. After that, all Penny remembers is floating like a feather through the sky.
For a moment she experienced total clarity, her reason had returned. She looked up at the ceiling tiles, they were plastic. The walls were plastic too, or at least coated with it. The doctor smiled and she saw her feet at the other end of the white plastic gurney. Everything felt very temporary, purposefully disposable. She looked down and noticed a large steel grate in the concave floor. Then a thought occurred to her. Could she survive without a liver? Was that possible?

Red kept one eye on the clock.
The other one twitched like a moth caught in a spiders web. He wiped his finger under the bottom lid. It was almost time.
The mob stirred, slowly like a pool of black oil. Restless.
Red blinked as the big hand moved a minute closer. He looked out over his subjects. His kingdom.
Since he had found the red building in the center of town–some nagging urge led him to it–everything had gone as he thought it would, or rather, knew it would.
The mob was unorganized. Several people could hardly contain themselves and ripped each other apart. But when Red got there, he stopped them. Told them to wait. Promised them that he knew of the ‘time’, when they could go out into the city and do what they wanted to do so badly. After that the mob made Red their leader.
“Now! Now, we kill!” Some one yelled. A hundred pairs of eyes glanced around at one another, then stared at Red, begging, pleading.
“No.” He said calmly. ‘No, my friends. We wait. Until the time is upon us.”
“The time.” Someone said. The words echoed through the crowd.
Red looked again at the clock. The hands still had a ways to go. He tried to will them to move faster, but only succeeded in making his eye weep. Then his squeezed his eyes shut and felt the flash. The searing bolt of red fire that exploded in his brain and threatened to burn down the building. This time it was longer. Longer than the last.
He held his head in his hand and could hear his troops murmur. Some whistled and hooted. Chomping at the bit.
“Not yet, not yet.” He told them. They responded by rattling their weapons, some fired shots into the air.
The energy in the place crackled with anticipation. The plan was simple, Red had told them. They needed to branch out, hit the heavily trafficked areas first. Restaurants, the mall, the movie theater, the bowling alley. Red had formed squads and designated areas. When a squad cleared an area, that position would be were they started for phase two; when they began attacking each other. Or so the plan was laid. However it went, Red was sure that he would be one of the last one’s standing. He had dreamed the whole thing out several times.
The second hand moved.
“Remember your areas. Clean them out first. Don’t turn on one other– until all the people are dead. They can’t defend themselves, so use your hands if you have to. But remember, don’t fight yourselves. Wait.” Red raised his arm, held his pitchfork high.
A sea of rage stung eyes, unblinking, watched as the big hand moved, for the last and final time. When it came to rest, traveling all of a fraction of a centimeter, a flash exploded in Red’s brain like a carbomb.
He was free!
Red could hardly see through the tears streaming down his face as he raised his weapon to the roar of the mob and lead his army to their destiny.

SABBEC Facility
Control Room

“Initializing study of control group 7C.”
The control room was filled with military, mainly, with the exception of a handful of workers in lab coats. One young man with a closely cropped beard spoke into his headset. “GE Three, is at standby. GE Two, finalizing standby sequence”
“GE Four, final sequence initiated in three…two…GE Four standby.” Another worker replied.
“GE Two is standy-by for triangulation.” The bearded man said.
On the com-deck, a man in a steel gray uniform, his proud chest displaying ribbons and medals–enough to turn a magpie blind and insane–watched with the detachment of a surgeon performing his millionth brain biopsy. The toothpick in his mouth twitched.
If anything was going to go wrong it would happen now, as it had in the past. His countless years in the military had hardened him, had shown him how to contain and dismiss any and all enthusiasm. Despite the fact that a breakthrough would mean that his job would be done, finished. Then he could retire, live the rest of his life out on his ranch, with his horses. Again, the memory of his recently deceased wife attempted to hijack his thoughts. The toothpick snapped up an down. Her hand on his, her kiss. He quickly squashed any further distractions.
An officer approached him, toting a digital clipboard, onto which he scribbled. The officer stopped, an arms length away from his superior. “Sir, all systems online and operational. Triangulation is confirmed. The MA’s are mobilized.”
The general nodded. “Initiate all Eye’s. Let’s see what happens this time.”
The officer relayed the order and the bank of swimming pool sized monitors that lined the perimeter of the control room flickered and came to life. Then the room filled with the voices of the workers overseeing the seemingly endless amount of switches, knobs, buttons, levers and data.
“Status?”
” Control group 7C activated. Reading MA levels at 9.6 on the incline. All Genfod levels are stabilized at seven-five.”
“Roger that.”
“GE three and four have begun adjusting for ASF.”
The General fantasied about the way Cassie used to smile at him. How she used to light up the whole sky when she was happy. He bit into the toothpick.
“Transmission in five…four…three…two…Engage Amygdala scrambling frequency.”
“GE three and four engaged. Maximum transmission, holding at nine-six and rising.”
This was it. The moment of truth. The turning point to it all. Everything that defined his career in the military, all twenty-six years, came down to this last and final act. He thought about saying a prayer, just to humor himself, maybe for Cassie, then thought again. Prayer was chance. Luck. He might as well throw a pinch of salt over his shoulder, rub his own belly and step in dog shit. The outcome would be the same.
The past few dozen times that he had sat and waited for all the hardware spinning around in space to coordinate and initialize, and do whatever the hell it is that multi-trillion dollar satellites do, he had been disappointed. This time, he knew, wouldn’t be any different.
“Where are the visuals? I want to see some live feed. Now.” He barked.
Several technicians scrambled to carry out his order.
“RAR’s live.” Some one said.
On the main screen overlooking the comdeck, a bird’s eye view of a small city flickered to life. The buildings were arranged in rows like a farmer’s field. There were three rows and all the buildings in each respective row were color coded. Gray, red and blue. From this vantage point, they could clearly see that the streets around the red sections were teeming with people. Like army ants, the mob ran everywhere yet in one steady direction, simultaneously.
“They seem more organized.” The officer holding the clipboard said. “This looks promising.”
“Don’t jinx it.” The General replied. His voice like gravel on a coffin.
“All GE’s, holding steady at nine-seven.” Some one said.
The General chewed the toothpick, felt it splinter in his mouth. Something had caught his eye. “Magnify sector R12. I want it tight on that group about to enter G sector.”
“Yes, sir.” A chorus of voices replied.
The image on the screen blurred as the resolution was increased.
“MA’s are now entering G sector. We have ninety-two percent remaining.”
The General didn’t let the good news get to him. They still had a long way to go.
“That’s fifteen points better than last time, going in.” The officer said.
The General said nothing.
The screen began to parse and slowly the resolution sharpened. The scene was total chaos. The streets of the city ran red with blood of the dead and dying. Again the General took note of something on the screen. He watched as the bloodthirsty mob spearheaded its way toward the center of town. “Is that the Queen?” He asked.
The officer consulted his clipboard, tapped a few buttons on its touch screen. ” I believe it is, sir.” He replied. “The Queen’s biomatrix should come through any moment.”
The General eyed another monitor. ” How many Genfod’s do we have left?”
“Sixty-seven percent, sir.” Some one replied.
This is it, he thought.
“That’s a good percentage, sir. It shows that they are acting somewhat restrained–” The officer couldn’t finish his sentence because an alarm sounded and red lights began to signal what the General already knew. “GE Two, showing multiple MA on MA.”
“Affirmative. GE’s Three and Four holding steady at sixty-five percent population.”
“Fuck!” The officer said. He poked at his clipboard. “Increase ASF, GE Two!”
The General looked down at his hands, his finger that still bore the golden band. He turned the ring a few times, then bit the toothpick in half, spat it on the floor. “Don’t bother.” He told the officer. As he turned to leave the Comdeck he gave one last order. “Clean this shit up. I gotta make the call.”

In his office, the General sank back into his leather chair, took a cigar from the humidor on his desk.
It tasted nice.
He always lit up a cigar when he had to report in, he found it relaxed him. He pushed a button on the intercom. “Get me the Board.” He ordered his secretary.
In a moment her pleasant, motherly voice broke the silence. “They’re on line one, sir.”
He grunted and pushed the blinking button on the phone. “This is General Bana.”
A chorus a voices came through the speaker phone. He recognized them all. One in particular stood out, it belonged to the President. “So General, should we uncork the champagne?”
General Bana twirled the cigar around in his mouth, rocked back and forth in his chair. “Well sir, I wish it were that day. But as it turns out, it’s not. Mission failed. We’ve got to procure another control group.”
The sound of people clearly let down issued out of the speakerphone.
“What are the numbers? Did the MA’s turn on themselves right away?” The President asked.
“Actually the numbers aren’t bad, sir.” Replied Bana.  “We had them entering the Gray sector at nine-point-seven ASF. Integrity rate holding steady at ninety-two, when they reached the area. That’s when they fell apart. Turned on one another. You’re all familiar with the rest.”
There were murmurs from the speakerphone, then a new voice came through. “How many were exterminated prior to that?”
Bana snickered, he hated the Vice President, the man was a coward. “Low thirties.” He replied.
“Well, your ‘queen bee’ concept seemed to work General Bana. Why do you sound so down? These figures aren’t all that bad.” The VP asked.
Fucking worm. “Well sir, I’d just like to see this thing finished. You could say that I have high hopes.”
This time a female voice came through the speakerphone. All business.
“General what were the other group readings? Where they stable?”
The General lit his cigar and let her question hang in the air a while. That would drive her crazy. Serves her right, since she already knew the answer.
“Ma’am with all due respect we haven’t had any problems with the Genfods since last year. They aren’t the reason why this isn’t working. You know that.” He put his feet up on his desk. “Getting people to go out and buy stuff or convincing them that they’re sick and need to go to the hospital was the easy part. General Fodders are easily manipulated with little to no side affects. It’s the Misanthropes that we’re having problems with. We need to concentrate on that issue.”
There was a brief silence then another voice came through, this one was cold and didn’t seem to belong to a living, breathing human. It was almost reptilian. It was the tone of someone accustomed to having his way. “General Bana, we appreciate all that you are doing but please refrain from telling us which issue we should or should not be addressing. We don’t need your opinion, no matter how relevant you may think it is. We just want you to fulfill your end of the agreement and make it work. That would make us all happy. And rich.”
There was a slight pause than the man continued. “We are sitting on the future, General. There are those that would like to purchase the fruits of our labor who are willing to pay whatever we ask. This kind of technology has the power to change entire nations. Overnight. Quell the protesters. Destroy the upstarts. Bring order where there was once chaos. Not to mention the potential to influence consumerism, to influence health and well being. The potential is limitless.
Mister Bana, we have twelve nations that are awaiting the results of our trials. All of them are ready to buy the God’s Eye. Several have made it clear they are even willing to purchase our beta models. That’s how bad the world wants us to succeed, Mister Bana. Which, quite frankly, is what we all want.”
General Bana sat back and watched the tendrils of smoke waft through the still air in his office. He thought that they looked like roots, and he was the tree.
Then Cassie was standing on the porch, on her hands were oven mitts. She held a fresh apple pie, straight from the oven. She smiled and the sun was humbled by her charming brilliance. Bana could smell the cinnamon and warm pie crust.
He closed his eyes and smiled.