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“Things Are Better Now” by Robert Maxwell

"Your dad," the seasoned teacher smirked, jabbing a finger at a cocky boy named Patterson, "and your mom," whirling his laser gaze onto a pudgy girl with nasty pink hair, "both your parents. I taught them," he chuckled, shaking his head with disdain. The boy made a rude face. The teacher made a ruder one.

"Yes sir, I've taught just about all your folks at one time or another..." He moved quickly to the front of the room. "...and that's how I know that you, Patterson, are a troublemaker. Born and bred. It's in your genes. Your daddy was trouble. And I've certainly seen your grandfather down at the Legion. Trouble with a capital T." All the kids laughed, except Patterson. The teacher, the legendary Gary Walsh, chuckled along with his barb.

"Alright, enough of this. You guys waste your education laughing all day in school like this and the Chinese will flatten us. The buggers even go to school on Saturday, you know!"

A new boy named Lee stopped smiling.

"Mr. Walsh," whined a thin boy with glasses, "can I get a drink?" Walsh laughed.

"Oh, you need a drink, do you? Fat chance, Flanagan. You've been in class five minutes. You're not getting up ‘til you're dryer than a prune."

The boy knew better than to protest. This was Mr. Walsh after all, not some bleeding-heart kid-lover fresh out of teacher's college. Legend has it that Mr. Walsh once threw Edmund Donivan over a desk for cheating on a test. That was in '73, but time hadn't done much to erase the collective memory.

"Alright Flanagan. I'm feeling merciful today. Since it's the first day back from holidays, go get a drink. But make it snappy!"

Flanagan blinked, not sure what to make of the change in situation, his thick glasses exaggerating the bewilderment.

"Hello? Anybody in there? I said you can go, Flanagan. Unless you'd rather waste the day in La-La Land. Wake up you boob!"

More laughs. Hot blood flushed Flanagan's cheeks as he stood up and shuffled towards the door.

"Anyone else want to divide their time equally between work and water breaks?"

No one breathed.

"Didn't think so. Jamie! Hand out these history textbooks. I'm going to teach you kids about the time the British whipped French ass in less than fifteen minutes on the Plains of Abraham."

A dark-haired boy named Claude groaned softly.

"What's the matter, Clod? Does your stomach hurt?"

"Huh?" was all the boy could manage. Not a response Mr. Walsh appreciated.

"I asked if you have a stomach ache. You were groaning like a woman in labour."

Someone snorted. Then laughter broke out for the third time that morning. Claude's fists clenched beneath his desk. It wasn't easy being a French kid in what had to be the most English part of the country.

"Well?" Mr. Walsh demanded, his voice suddenly rising.

"No," stammered Claude at last, looking at his desk. "I'm fine."

"Then don't disturb my class with your noises. Now, about those poor Frenchies on the Plains of Abraham..."

When the morning bell rang forty-five minutes later, Claude slammed his history textbook shut fast enough to squish a housefly. He had his coat on and was out the door for recess before most of the class were out of their seats. Two hours passed, and so did French class, music, and lunch. Back in the homeroom, math with Mr. Walsh struck like a falling anvil in a roadrunner cartoon.

"Martin, two out of ten." Martin burrowed into his sweater.

"Alicia, three out of ten." Alicia looked like death would be preferable.


The boy cringed.

"...Nine out of ten. Very good. Did you cheat?"

Flanagan's sigh of relief was loud enough to justify snickers.

Two pop quizzes and a worksheet later Mr. Walsh ordered the room to pack up and get out moments before the final, afternoon bell rang.

"Get out of here you maggots. You think I want you guys wasting my beer and cormorant time?"

No one did. Outside school, Mr. Walsh was known for two things: drinking beer and shooting cormorants. Anyone foolish enough to interfere with either obviously hadn't heard the old stories. Probably because there weren't many brave enough to repeat them.

The class stood up. A herd formed, heading for the door. Mr. Walsh barked.


The boy stopped, fear and annoyance on his face.

"I'm part French, you know. On my mother's side. I'm allowed to make fun. Just don't let anyone know about me."

Claude's eyes widened, as Mr. Walsh winked.

"See you tomorrow, kid."

He never did. Two seconds after blasting the third cormorant of the evening, Gary Walsh's left arm exploded in pain, dropping the warm 12-gauge onto the limestone rocks along the shore. The pain spread to his chest. He knew something was wrong when his foot kicked spasmodically, knocking over his open Coors. He'd been drinking for half a century, and never wasted a beer before.

"Things must be bad," he grunted. Then his eyes rolled and he fell backwards, taking his army green lawn chair with him...

"Good morning, class! My name is Miss Barnes," the slightly overweight woman with hair dyed too dark chirped, "and I'll be taking over for Mr. Walsh until the school board finds a full-time replacement."

Every word was rehearsed. She paused to sip her coffee. Her breath was awful.

"Where's Mr. Walsh?" Claude asked loudly, surprised to realize that he actually wanted to know.

"I'm not at liberty to say just now," the woman smiled, double chin wobbling slightly. "Like I said, I'll be taking over for Mr. Walsh until the board replaces him permanently. Now, will someone please tell me where you left off in your history textbooks?"

"Page thirty-two," the class pleaser piped up.

Pages ruffled.

"Ah yes. Have you learned about the brutality the British imposed on the French on the Plains of Abraham yet..."

Two months later the board still hadn't found a replacement for Mr. Walsh, but Miss Barnes was seriously considering resignation anyway.

"Good morning, class."

A chorus of laughter rose. So did a squadron of paper airplanes and a flurry of goopy, pen-launched spitballs. Miss Barnes fought tears, then lost. Wet rivulets of mascara flowed downwards, highlighting wrinkles that hadn't been there in September. She hid her face behind a quivering hand.

"Open your history textbooks, please."

A few kids obeyed.

"We're the British, and Miss Cow-Barn is the French on the Plains of Abraham," Patterson shouted eagerly. "Let's get her!"

Spitballs flew in a focused line. Miss Barnes, taking cover, stumbled out of the room, silently sobbing. She never learned how to deal with a mob in teacher's college.

That night the principal phoned Miss Barnes at home, causing her to spill herbal tea all over her lap.

"I want you to stay on, Gloria. You like the kids, and it shows... just between you and me... you don't pick on them like Gary did."

Miss Barnes pressed her lips together hard enough to turn them white.

"It sounds harsh, but as a principal I'm glad he's gone. He didn't understand the new policies and new psychologies. He practically bullied the kids, and we all know the harm that does. Why some of the parents liked him is beyond me. Things are so much better now, don't you think?"

“Seizing the Moment” by Ron Koppelberger

The movie was a raging tangle of relationships, specifically the relationship between machetes and pliant flesh. Saxon Crisp dug his hand into the yellow and burnt umber colored tub of popcorn. The giant cola had cost him four dollars and the corn five. Crisp mumbled something unintelligible and bits of popcorn tumbled from his lips. A dark stain of cold moisture from the icy cola stained his wranglers with the secret moviegoers stigma. Saxon watched as the masked maniac cut and slashed his way through several screaming teens. "Yaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhaaaaaaa," he said through bits of corn. The nocturnal spirit sang and Crisp pounded the arm of the plastic and metal seat. "AAAArrrrrrrrrggggghhhhaaaaqa." Darkness filled his eyes for a moment as scarlet rivers flew in cascades of beaded mist in giant projected offerings of wild abandon. "OOOhhhhhhaaaaahhhhhaaaaa," he sighed as the cola spilled to the floor in a sugary ice cube spray. "OOOhhhhhaaaaahhhhhaaaaa," he moaned. His arms flailed and a shower of popcorn flew in all directions. "AAAArrrrrraaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhaaaaa," he screamed as he stood and striped off his shirt. Crisp screamed at the top of his lungs and dug tiny ten fingered trenches into his chest. Unbound, he ran to the front of the theater screaming and whooping like a man in the shadow of an urge, an urge to ignore the withering wills of stoic reproach, calm reserve and jaded poise. "AAAArrrraaaaaggggghhhhhaaaaa," he screamed as the wolf took hold, dreaming him to sylvan express and wild extreme. Saxon padded up the aisle and into the maw of human breed as the theater resounded with screams of terror and shock borne of decreed fangs and fear. Saxon Crisp seized the moment and howled in silhouette to the applause of evening-tide shadows and the wan face of a dappled moon.

“Love Me Forever” by Mary Beth Asaro

I watched her life slip away from me like melting ice dripping down the drain in the secluded cabin. Her grey eyes glazed over and her head fell back as I held her in my arms, bleeding. My concentration flickered from Sarah to Jason's cold snare. A moment later, I was laying her lifeless body gently on the light brown rug and brushed back a strain of blonde hair from her lips. Then I slowly got to my feet and glared at him.

"Don't fuck with me, Shawn." Jason waved the pistol in front of me.

"She was never yours."

My hands balled up into two tight fists.

"She was playing us."

"She was playing you."

Jason stood there for a moment, baffled at my response. Then he slowly aimed the metallic pistol right between my eyes.

"I love you. You know that, right?" Sarah once asked me over coffee at one of those out of town restaurants. She was wearing that light blue tank top and short shorts that always drove me wild with the peeping sun shinning through her dangling hair. She smiled as if she had told a joke.

I sipped my cup of coffee and leaned back in the chair.

"Does Jason know?"

Her smile faded and the glow from her face darkened.

"I'm just waiting for the right time to tell him."

"He's my friend."

"You have my heart."

I shook my head in disbelief of the situation.

"Look, I'll tell him tonight at the cabin. You have nothing to worry about." She smiled as if my worries were childish.

"I'll come with you."

She caressed my fingers in acceptance.

"You son of a bitch! You knew the whole time!" Jason spat out.

I just stood there for a moment taking it all in. There was nothing more for me to say. Not only was Sarah betraying him, but I was betraying him as well. But I loved her more than he ever did. After a regretful "Yeah," I couldn't look him in the eye. I didn't want to. Jason began to pull the trigger while I closed my eyes. The shot beamed out as an echo in the wind. Within the darkness, I could feel no pain. Is this normal for a person to feel no pain before they die? I opened my eyes. Jason was laying face down on the floor. Dark blood stained the back of his black leather jacket.

"What the..."

My wife stood there over the railing of the wooden staircase with a small hand laser in the palm of her hand aimed at my chest, her finger hovered over the red button of the laser. She was in her everyday pink tee and faded blue jeans with her hair bound together in a rough ponytail.

"How did you..?"

"I followed," her face filled with a nonchalant facade, but her eyes were saying something else; something that wanted me to explain my behavior.

I stared at the laser gripped firmly in her hand.

"The mission, Zara. What about..?

"Don't! You are more important than these... things," She eyes Jason's lifeless body on the floor with a snare.

"Sorry," I murmured. It was the only excuse I could manage to get out of my dry, tense throat.

"Don't be."

She lowered her laser and smiled an unearthly gleam. We stood there for a moment just staring at one another from a distance. I realized then that we didn't know each other anymore. Ever since we came to this water mixture of a planet, we'd grown apart. She was always busy observing and carefully planning how to dominate the species from a watery cave beside the ocean while I was stuck with the delightful task of trying to find a weak spot in the inhabitants, but slowly, some how, I started to change. I was tired of it all. I wanted to feel alive again. That's when Sarah came into the picture. Sarah caught me at a very fragile state.

"Hi, are you waiting for someone?" Sarah's eyes squinted at me because of the fire ball rays out on the animal crowded beach.

"Not really." I smiled at her alien beauty that shined within the shadows of her face.

"Do you mind if I sit here with you for a while? Everywhere else is crowded." She looked back at the ocean of people basking in the hot sun.

"No-no, go ahead," I blushingly urged.

"Thanks." She threw a bright colorful beach towel out on the dessert sand and laid down on it, looking up at the mass of blue liquid that has begun to reach out to us.

"You must be new around here?"

"What makes you say that?" The question startled me enough to look around to see if anything was showing out of my skin suit.

"I haven't seen you around."

She looked at me for a moment in a peculiar way. Then she hands me a grey plastic bottle.

"What's this?"

I held the foreign object as if it had thorns all over the sides.

She giggles. "Very funny. Isn't it what you were looking for?"

"What does it do?"

"You don't know what sun lotion is?"

She looked at me for a puzzling moment; her grey eyes sparkling at me with a hidden life behind them.

"No," I mumbled.

Sarah took hold of the bottle and squirted some of the white liquid cream onto her palm. Then she began to rub it into my arm.

"What are you..?"

I cringed for a moment, expecting a burning sensation. Instead, there was a cool relaxation that I had never experienced before.

"It protects you skin from the sun," she grinned at me with those pale pink lips. "So... where are you from where they haven't heard of sun lotion?"

"Way up north," I smiled back at her, enjoying the cool sensation on my arm.

"You should come with me. I'll show you around."

"I'll be honored," I replied.

"I was starting to think that you were growing attached to them." Zara's expression was hard as concrete, but her eyes pleaded for a good excuse as I thought of the only explanation.

"Only as a pet. Nothing more."

The explanation brought a smile to her face.

"Come. We have much to discuss."

As I began to make my way up the stairs to her, all I could think about was our first night together on Earth.

We'd tear each others' earthly skins off just for our transparent jelly bodies to cling to each other under the August moon on the cool grains of sand. Our long tentacles caressing each other while our crystal red stomachs heaved into each others whirlwind of passion. A moment later, the feeling expired and we went back to our usual way of pasting our skins back on each other by using a misty glue called fint from a plant called finus that is grown from our home planet, Benstral. Afterwards, Zara stared at me with those dark crystal eyes as if I'd taken something from her.

"Will you love me forever?"

I looked at her in those crystal eyes and said, "I will." Then I brushed the strain of ash brown hair from her cheek. She smiled; comforted by the answer. Our tentacles connected with each other through our peachy cream skins and we were one, thinking the same thoughts and sharing each other's emotions.

Her white, smooth tentacles wiggled out beneath the fingernails. They grabbed a hold to mine in an affectionate embrace. "I have great things planned for us," she smirked.

I glanced back at Sarah lying below us in a small puddle of her life's elixir. One of Zara's tentacles turned my face towards hers. "No regrets?"

My tentacles touched the moist, distant smile on her beautiful face. "None," I murmured.

She dragged me to the bed room with a human hand.

"Don't worry. It will be painless... and you won't have any lasting impressions of them when I get through with you."

Zara clenched my wrist unexpectedly. Her cold eyes were focused on mine. "There will be no distractions next time."

"I understand," I replied. My eyes pleaded for mercy.

"You will," her crystal eyes cackled, "when I insert part of myself in you."

She pulled me in the room and slammed the wooden door with a heavy bang. It's one thing to betray them and it's another thing when you betray your own kind.

“The Werewolf Tavern” by Mary Beth Asaro

Dianne hypnotically stared at the small containers of bees wax and the hot pink plastic bottles of hair remover lotions while two middle aged men stood beside her in the Wal-Mart. "I hate messin' with this stuff. Why did I ever bother with it in the first place?" Dianne thought.

"So, I heard you went to France for a month," the man in the dark brown jacket mentioned.

"Yeah... yeah. I did some sight seeing. Went to a couple of bars. Saw some women..."

"Women! Well, you had an exciting vacation! So, how was the French women?"

"Hairy," the frost brown bearded man in flannel proclaimed. "Very hairy. God forbid you wouldn't want to see 'em. Ugly as hell!"

"I bet they smell raunchy too with that bush hangin' out their arms," the shaven man in the jacket added.

"Beyond word... God, I hate hairy women! They ain't natural!" The bearded man proclaimed.

Oh, that's why. Dianne grabbed the pink bottle of hair remover lotion from the upper shelf and quickly walked towards the nearest 10 items or less check out. She patiently watched a caramel woman place her items on a belt while the ebony cashier scanned them. She focused on every inch of the two women. Smooth faces, necks, arms, and legs; hairless. Dianne glanced down at her peachy cream hairy arms and scratched her shaved, stubble cheek. If only I were beautiful.

"Momma, people say I'm ugly because of my hair."

Seven year old Dianne sat on the toilet seat naked with her eyes closed tight as her mother smoothed steaming golden bees wax on her breasts with a wooden popsicle stick.

"Dianne, what do I keep tellin' ya?" Her mother placed the stick in the bees wax and waited for the wax to dry.

"I'm beautiful," Dianne replied through clenched teeth.

Her mother poked at the dry wax then yanked it off a breast.

The woman paid for the items and went on her way. Her time had come.

"Hi. How are you?" The cashier asked mechanically while scanning the lotion.

Dianne took one last glance at the cashiers face and neck.

A mental wreck. "Fine," she bit her bottom pale pink lip.

"$2.04," the casher replied.

Dianne dug in her black velvet purse for a five. She retrieved it and handed it to the casher.

"$2.96 is your change. Have a nice day," the casher handed Dianne her change. I doubt I ever will, Dianne thought. She placed the money in her purse, collected her plastic bag, and walked out of the store.

The orange South Carolina sun gave one last glare at the graveled parking lot before it slowly sank into the forbidden horizon. A few small grayish white birds chirped and warbled on the cold metallic, black pole of the night lamp near Dianne's black '92 Cougar. She thrusted the bag and purse on top of her blue luggage bags in the mild grey passenger's seat and hopped in the car.

Dianne drove with the window down hearing only the wind scattering her spiral rustic brown hair and the small chatter of people walking on the paved side walk until the roads where unfamiliar. Several cars passed by her at long intervals as she adjusted her review mirror and glanced at the familiar home of small run down businesses near house parks.

Dianne walked into a crowded cafeteria of the junior high. She dodged careless clicks trying to make it to a lunch line. Finally, she spotted a clear path to the line and took it paying no attention to the chaotic people outside the path until an olive skin girl backed into her and spun around. She stared at Dianne as a high pitched laughter escaped her Champaign lips.

"Hey, girl! Are you a dude or a she man?" A dirty blonde boy asked standing beside the olive girl.

Dianne felt a million eyes watching her. She quickly made a U turn out of the cafeteria while many colorful faces flashed before her eyes.

"Goodbye," she murmured. Then she turned her attention to the freshly paved road in front of her. I'm tired of the mental, physical, daily pain. The memories... I want... "No more," she mouthed as a single tear flowed down her cheek. She wiped away the stream with the back of her hand and glanced at the sun slowly moving down west. A mile down the road, she spotted a small Exxon station and pulled in. The tarnished bell toiled as she pushed her way through the glass door. A flabby white haired man with a toothpick slowly twisting from the side of his mouth eyed her from the counter.

"'Scuse me, you wouldn't happen to know the nearest motel around here, would ya?"

"It depends on where ya goin'," the old man replied.

"Any where but where I came from," Dianne smiled. Her eyes watered.

The man chewed on his toothpick. He didn't take his eyes off her for a second.

"Up about ten miles or so is an old tavern. It no motel. It a bar with rooms for people like you. Just keep goin' straight up yonder," the man pointed up the road, "'till ya come 'cross it. It'll say Club Colony in big letters. Ya know it when ya see it."

For people like me. I don't think there are people like me. "Thank you," Dianne whispered and went on her way as the man watched her leave.

Dianne sat in her high school desk waiting for the bell to ring. She stared at her classmate, Meca, from across the room. Little curly, soft, black hairs covered her bronze cheeks.

"Why won't you do something about that?" A ash brown girl sitting beside her asked.

"I tell you like I told my parents. I won't shave it 'cause it will only grow darker. If a man really wants me, then he will just have to put up with it. Besides, I'm only hairy on my face. And ya can't see it unless you're right up close to me." Meca glanced at Dianne and shook her head. "Dianne... with her white skin and dark hairs all over... I feel sorry for her. Her's just pops out at ya from a mile away."

The sky began to turn shades of shadows until it was pitch black. The white dotted stars peeped out and the green trees swayed with the wind while Dianne spotted an old wooden tavern with a faded red neon sign of CLUB COLONY painted above the door. She turned in, parked her car closer to the road on thick crab grass, grabbed her bags, locked the car, and proceeded towards the tavern. An owl hooted, hidden within the thick dark trees behind the tavern as crickets played violin music with their legs while Dianne walked in.

The dim rustic moonlit atmosphere crawled with people brushing against her as she made her way to a wooden round table. She sat there for a moment taking in the new scenery and the inhabitants. In front of her sat a fiery haired woman in a silky smooth red dress with her legs crossed showing her black needle hairs as if flaunting them to on lookers while chatting with a baby face tan man. Dianne's mouth opened wide in amazement until a loud, ringing voice caught her attention.

"Would you like a menu, hun?" A blondish grey haired waitress asked. Her face was filled with soft, light yellow chin and cheek hairs.

"I'm here for a room."

"It's forty bucks a night.

Dianne nodded. The hirsute waitress motioned her with an index finger to follow her to the counter where she grabbed a key from a wall of hooks.

"Room twelve," the waitress motioned her head towards the wooden spiral staircase. Dianne followed the gesture and glanced at it for a moment. The man was right. It's no motel.

"That's forty bucks for tonight."

Dianne grabbed two twenties from her purse and paid for the room. Then she proceeded up the stairs away from the unusual. It was dark and silent on the second floor with chatter and music booming behind her and a hallway full of unopened doors in front of her. She walked cautiously through the hall until she came to room twelve. Dianne plunged the little key in the hole, twisted it, and opened the creaky door. She felt the cold, smooth wall for the light switch, stumbled upon it, and witnessed the plainness of the room as it lit up. Just a regular bed, nightstand, and bathroom were provided. Dianne closed the door, sat the key on the night stand, dropped her bags on the mahogany floor, and plopped her body on the bed. She stared up at the boarded ceiling as if she was in a trance. "Where do I go from here?" Dianne thought.

Dianne sat with the men of the family in the living room watching deer hunters stalking their prey.

"Honey, you should shave that," her father pointed to her arm. "Did you start shaving your arms?"

"No, I have never shaved my arms. I don't see anything wrong with it."

"You need to shave that," he pointed out. "It's disgusting! I can't believe you've been goin' out like that! A eighteen year old don't even know how to shave!"

Dianne stared down at his ash hairs on his arms which extended to his hands and knuckles.

"I got it from you," she protested.

"I'm a man! I'm suppose to be hairy! Women are not suppose to be hairy!"

Dianne glanced at her uncle in the cocoa recliner and her cousin in the wooden rocking chair staring at her. Then she looked back at her bearded father.

"If a man really loves me, he will just have to put up with it."

"I luvs ya and I'm not puttin' up with it!" Her father retorted.

Dianne took one last look at her uncle and cousin before she jumped up from the couch and went into her Aunt's kitchen. She grabbed her green jacket from the chair, covered herself, and went out the back door.

I will never be beautifully normal. Dianne sat up and stared out the window at the grayish white full moon. The sight of the outside was peaceful, soothing, and comforting to her. She sat there for a moment taking it all in before she made an exit out the room. Dianne carefully walked down the stairs and sat at a nearby wooden round table. A drunken charcoal woman sat at a table next to Dianne with her hirsute friends chug-a-lugging on Bloody Marys.

"Supermodels... like vampires they are. Looks enticing to some people 'till ya get a whiff of their armpits! Years of sank! Ya know I may be hirsute, but at least I only use deodorant once a day to smell good! Those so called beauty queens have to use deodorant two to three times a day! Curse of bein' hairless."

"We don't fit in society, Sharen," an olive woman stated before sipping her drink.

"Poodles... all of 'em! Artificial man made poodles! Like just the other day in Bi Lo an old woman took me a side and told me how ashamed I should be for going out in public like this!" A yellow tented woman stammered. "I said, lady... go fuck yourself 'cause you need it!"

The charcoal women raised her glass in triumph. "I am werewolf woman! Ya'll watch out! I may infect ya... pass on my hairiness!"

The women cackled. "I wish I had inner strength like them," Dianne thought.

"Do you need a menu, hon?" The waitress asked Dianne.

"Yes, please."

The hirsute waitress laid a menu on the table while Dianne took in the little yellow spike hairs on her arms before she turned and walked away. She began to look at the menu until a light brown sugared man walked up to her. His dark hair was partially spiked with a hint of Irish red tent. He looked down at her and smiled.

"Hi, do you mind?" He pointed towards the empty wooden chair in front of her. She glanced at it as if she'd never saw it before.

"No, go right ahead," she shook her head.


He sat down in front of her.

"You're new here," he replied.

"Yeah... yeah. I am. Just traveling... exploring to settle." I thought he was goin' to borrow the chair to sit someplace else.

She glanced at his dark sprawling chest hairs that peeped out of his red v-neck shirt and his ash arm hairs which extended to his hands and knuckles. Then she glanced at her own wolf like arms.

"What's your name?"

She looked up at his smooth, shaven face in response to his question. There was a sparkle in his light brown eyes.


Dianne... that's a beautiful name. I'm David."

The waitress came back with a pad and pen in hand.

"Are you ready, sweetie, or do you need a little more time?"

Please, make him go away. Dianne stared at the menu.

"Coke and a cheeseburger."

She looked up at the woman as she jotted the items down.

"And what will you have, pretty boy?"

David glanced at Dianne and back at the waitress. The waitress arched a light blond eyebrow.

"Nothing for me."

The waitress took the menu and scurried away.

"So, where're you from?" asked David.

Enough with the question already. You just want me for the sex. "Why are you interested?" Dianne shuffled in her chair.

"Oh, come on! A beautiful lady sittin' right in front of me and that's all you can come up with?"

Nice one. But I'm not stupid, pal. "So I'm beautiful, am I?"

"You're saying you're not?"

Dianne paused at this question and began to chew on her bottom faded pink lip.

"People don't like werewolves for ladies," Dianne stared at the cracks in the table.

David leaned back in his chair soaking the answer up as the waitress sat a glass of coke on the table.

"Is everything okay over here?" The waitress gave a tired smile.

"Just fine," David replied.

"The cheeseburger needs a few more minutes."

Good. Go away and take him with you! Dianne nodded her head and the waitress disappeared into a crowd of hairy women dancing with men to the pure, soothing sounds of "Dolphin's Cry."

"You could get rid of it, ya know," David broke the silence.

Easy for you to say. "I can't. Nothing works... not on me."

"Have you ever thought that may be nothing is wrong with you?"

"What do you mean?" She stared at him wide eyed.

"Hair grows on the body whether some people define it as bad taste or not." He slid his chair a little closer to Dianne. "And some men even find it naturally sexy... erotic." His eyebrows jumped in a fast motion several times.

Dianne made her chair hop back at this reaction. "You only like the sex."

"Don't all men?" David smirked.

He's getting' horny. What do I do? "So what are you tryin' to say?"

He slid his chair closer to her. She slid her's back.

"Some men are attracted to hair just like some are attracted to smooth skin."

"And that's suppose to make me feel better?" Dianne arched an ash brown eyebrow.

He leaned into her. "Don't you dare," Dianne thought. She slid the chair back until it bumped into another chair. He kissed her with his eyes wide open staring into her walnut eyes. Then he leaned back and smiled at her. A tear flowed down her cheek. Something inside her burst into a million pieces. He touched her cheek.

"What's wrong?"

Wouldn't you like to know! She jumped up and ran out the door. The waitress stood there with a plate of cheeseburger sitting in the palm of her hand staring at him.

"So who's paying $4.96 for this?"

He took a five dollar bill from his wallet and laid it on the table.

"That's better," the waitress laid the plate on the table, took the money, and walked back to the bar.

Dianne crouched down in the crab grass with stickers poking her through her faded blue jeans. She wept while the lonesome cry of a whippoorwill echoed in the cool night air. Dianne looked up at the pure white full moon with a wet face and closed her eyes. She felt the light breeze blow gently against her back and heard the sound of relaxing classical music played from crickets' legs. What happened to me? Why do I keep hating myself? She heard the song of the frog's croak and hugged herself. I should start new memories. She looked at the white dotted stars for answers.

"I want to belong," Dianne mumbled.

She looked back at the tavern and then at the grass. I already belong. She stood up and pulled the stickers from her blue jeans. Then Dianne walked back into the tavern. "May be I should buy myself a short skirt or some short shorts? I've always wanted to wear them," Dianne thought as she made her way through the crowd and back to her table with a plate of food waiting for her.

“The New Year’s Gift” by Mary Beth Asaro

Michael Sneezer made his way to the closest cemetery he could find. He needed to get away from the constant reminder of what he didn't have. With dirt filth hands from another year of a homeless living, he unlatched the gate leading to a small, out in the open cemetery. He left a portion of the gate cracked and continued walking. Dead silence was all that welcomed Michael on New Year's Eve in Montrose graveyard. Nothing out of the ordinary caught his eyes or shivered his spine. The yard was just a pile of grass, orangey-brown leaves, and granite headstones. He went close to the middle of a sea of grey headstones and sat down. Michael leaned against an expensive looking headstone with a statue of an Arch Angel chiseled on top of it. His hazel eyes watched the setting of the sun for the very last time of the year. Then he pulled out of his black jacket caked with dried mud an old silver harmonica his father gave to him when he was eight. Staring at the instrument, Michael smiled at the memories of a simple childhood and a prosperous adulthood as an engineer until he was suddenly let go four years ago by the plant simply down sizing. A heavy, irritating cough sensation caused the interrupted memories to fade as he is brought back to his present. After a few moments went by, the cough passed and Michael was brought back to the cold night air and a silver harmonica. Gripping the instrument tightly in his hand, he began to play a free style melody that expressed his frustrated sorrows with only the dead to hear his plea.

Sounds of the gate banging shut made the tragic symphony come to a halt. Michael leaned over until he was on all fours squinting to see the person who had crashed his New Year's party. But there was no sign of another life lingering in the dark crevices of the cemetery. He looked to the black velvet sky for answers and found only a thumbnail of the moon glaring back at him. Then he finally stood up. His hazel eyes wandered through the surrounding area carefully as his body followed. "Is anyone here?"

Footsteps on crunching grass and snapping twigs behind him penetrated his ears. Michael spun around to see nothing, but the night air beginning to mist over and the headstones becoming harder to see as the night wore on. He could see his panting breath before him and felt an icy chill cling to his bones. "Who's there I said?"

A crushed leaf buried in the dark close by him answered.

"I have a gun!" Michael plunged one of his hands in his empty, holy pocket to make his claim look authentic. "And I'm not afraid to use it! So why don't ya just do yourself a favor and come out nice and slow like!" Michael stood there for a good ten minutes feeling his blood racing through his veins against his cold pale skin.

Heavy boot steps emerged from behind him. Michael spun around again ready to fight, but a vague figure in a Civil War uniform vanished before Michael could land the first punch. Frightened by the disappearing image, he stumbled over backward. He wiped his eyes with his dirty hands and stared back into the black nothingness of the graveyard.

"Who is he?" A little girl's voice whispered from somewhere in the dark next to Michael.

Michael jumped up on all fours and started looking rapidly around n a circle for anything moving in the dark. "Who are you? What do you want?" He found himself screaming out.

"What are you doing here?" A voice of an old southern woman asked in his ear.

Michael turned towards the voice that had neither form nor shape, just the misty darkness. Scared out of his mind, he began to weep. "Please... please don't hurt me! I mean no harm! I mean... no harm!" He pleaded on his hands and knees to what ever was out there cloaked by the night.

The air grew quiet again. After a while, Michael laid down on the grass and curled up in a ball praying that nothing would easily harm him in that position. He was too scared to think straight and run for the gate. Moments later, Michael drifted to sleep.

Hours passed by when an owl's hoot woke him up. He hugged himself for warmth. Then he maneuvered himself up off the grass with his legs as he carefully looked at his surroundings for any suspicious characters lurking around the head stones. The cemetery was quiet and ordinary again. Michael glanced at the velvet clouds blanketing the stars letting only the crescent moon shine through. With an exhausted sigh from his visible breath, he proceeded towards the gate.

Michael was relieved to see the gate in plain, reachable sight. His anxiety of the whole atmosphere lifted off of his shoulders. He started walking faster as his paranoia grew about what stood lurking behind him. Before Michael could comprehend what was happening in front of him, his body froze at the sight of a dark cloaked figure pacing back and forth in front of the gate. It seemed to take notice of Michael while it blocked his only exit. Michael took a couple of steps back. Behind him, heavy footsteps came running towards him. He spun around and was immediately pushed down by a bolt of icy air. He landed hard on his back. The impact made him lose his breath for a moment. The night seemed to be a nightmarish dream until he found himself in a conscious state staring up at the moon with an aching back. He slowly sat himself up until a ton of invisible bricks pushed him back down on the ground as if he was a bag of flower. Michael was paralyzed. As his fear grew, the force got stronger and more aggressive.

"You can't leave. I won't let you leave. You're mine now," a deep demonic voice laughed.

Michael felt claws running through his chest and face. He screamed out only to hear other demonic laughter surrounding him. Then as quickly as the beatings began, they stopped. Michael had the sudden urge to cough. He tried to fight it, but the urge was overwhelming and finally won him over. Pinned down, Michael coughed until he was coughing up streams of blood all over himself. The more he coughed, the more the dark figures enjoyed it.

"There will be nothing in death for you," the voice on top of him assured him.

Beyond the sounds of cackling and painful coughing, Michael could hear fireworks in the distance. A moment later, colorful rain like sparks emerged in the sky as a sign of new hope. He could feel the force feeding off his energy little by little. There was nothing he could do, but lay there as road kill while the vultures feed off of him.

A blurry green light appeared far off in the distance in front of him. It rapidly grew closer until Michael could make out the light as a lantern attached to a dark figure behind it walking amongst the headstones. As the figure drew nearer, the fewer demons he heard around him until the very last demon on top of him made a run for it. His coughing ceased and his body was free to sit up.

Michael held his chest with one hand and rubbed his blood stained throat with the other.

"What business do you have here?" A female voice demanded.

Michael looked up to see only the bright green light blinding him. He placed a hand in front of him to block out the excess light, but still he could only see an outline of a dark figure with an old and withered pop hat on.

"It depends. Are you the caretaker?"

"You could say that," the voice responded in an ironic tone.

He felt relieved to hear another human voice besides his own.

"I know you must hear this of'en, but somethin' is not right about this place. It's haun'ed. You see, I was attacked..."

"By skin dwellers," the woman finished his sentence.

Michael paused for a moment as he tried to figure out what skin dwellers were. "'Scuse me."

"What your kind calls Shadow People or... Demons is what my kind calls skin dwellers. They seem to hate ya'll so much that they tend to cling to ya."

Michael didn't know what to make of the figure standing before him. Was it even human at all? Michael could not tell through the dark silhouette.

"Looks like you be needin' some cleanin' done to ya. Cancer's been eaten away at ya good. Couldn't seem to keep away from those tobacco sticks much when you had a home to go to, huh, Michael?"

Michael sat there with squinted eyes trying to find some detail on the figure, but it was no use. It was too dark to see. "Do I know you from sum where?"

"Not particularly." A hand reached out and grabbed him by the hand that was shielding him from the green light in the lantern.

The figure pulled him up. Michael could feel the blood rushing to his numb legs. His eyes hit upon a young woman behind the lantern. At a first glance, the woman look beautiful in a black weathered down trench coat and black trimmed hat on with her ash brown hair dangling down to her elbows. But at a closer look, Michael was shocked to find a pair of bobcat eyes on the woman with cat like teeth smiling back at him. She was dressed in only a trench coat. A portion of her feminine hirsuteness showed revealing some of her chest and legs. The woman wore no shoes and stood on her tip toes. "You seem to be at a loss for words, Mr. Sneezer."

Michael looked at her stubble face and stepped back. "What in god's name are ya?"

The woman gave a high pitched bobcat laugh. Then she placed a hand on his shoulder; her long nails clenched to his jacket loosely. "You have nothin' to fear from me, Michael. The name's Claudia." She pulled him close to her. "You reek of death," her facial expression changed from warm loving to serious. "I give a gift at the start of a new year to the one destine to find it. That is if ya want it bad enough." She stared at him eagerly. "Any requests."

Michael's mind fell into a blank fog. He could not believe what was happening as he stood in awe at the situation that lay before him.

"Very well then. I know just what to get ya." The woman pulled him closer to her and kissed him.

Michael stared into her big cat eyes. He tried to push away, but her strength over powered him. She growled as she sucked the sticky disease from his body. His lungs felt like masking tape was being pulled off of them. He closed his wet, burning eyes and felt his knees give way. Within a couple of minutes, the pain in his lungs eased off. The scratches on his face and chest began to heal until all that was left was a blood stained face and neck. She released him and started to cough violently.

Michael fell to the ground. His whole body was numb. The last image he saw of the woman before his eyes' sight faded into a black veil was of her on all fours coughing up a big black hair ball.

Michael awoke to the sound of whispers. He sat up from the sofa and peered down at two small children staring up at him.

"See, I told you we were gonna wake Dad if we played here!" The boy reminded his sister.

"You did not!" The small girl argued.

"Sam! Kelly! What have I told you about disturbing your father?" An exotic Asian woman came into the room. "Clean this mess up!" The woman pointed at the Go Fish cards scattered on the floor. "...And go play in your rooms!"

"But MOM!" The boy whined.

"Move those butts!" The woman demanded.

The children silently sulked while they gathered all of their cards and stomped out of the room. Michael stood up and looked around the lavished living room.

"How was work?" The woman brought his attention back to her.

Michael was dumb founded by what his eyes were showing him. "Work?"

The door bell rang.

"I'll get it," Michael quickly went to the door and opened it.

A Caucasian woman with ash brown hair pinned up in a bun stood at the door dressed in a UPS uniform. She presented a small package to him. "Here ya go."

Michael held the box in his hands and stared back at her. He gazed at those familiar bobcat eyes winking back at him. Then he straightened up and thanked her with one of those smiles one usually gives to a stranger.

"You're quite welcome, Mr. Sneezer," the woman returned the smile.

"Hun, did you order somethin'?" He called out to his wife before he closed the door on those once familiar eyes forever.

“Dog Days” by Ron Koppelberger

He cleared the mystic plane, the realm of sleeping dogs and flittering sparrows in misty dreams of paradise, never wavering, tail-wagging, sloppy tongued and hungry. The trail was dusty and lined by the red sash of roses and amber marigolds in bloom. He paused near a clearing at the far end of the path, scratching fervently at his haunch. Fleas, the entrance to doggy nirvana and he still itched. The sky rolled in azure reflections of nearly, except for the fleas, perfect paradise. Sniffing the ground, he wagged in a curious hope. The scent of food, warm perfumed wind, roses, and daisies commingled with the odor of damp leaves and the female. A soul-mate perhaps, the heady mists filled the spaces between whispering tempests in heavenly reward and the urge to run, run for the promise of a sunrise, a gentle respite from the cares of life.

He stared ahead and watched as a pond, cool freshwater and mossy around the edges, appeared like a mirage in a sweet dream of respite. Gentle, lazy eyes, and wagging grins, the female sniffed the air near the far side of the pond. She barked in commune with the spirit of freedom and love. She padded closer to him with expectant joy and the prospect of sharing a divine fate, an Eden in sure seasons of rabbit hunt and foxy demeanor. Closer, closer, until he was within inches of her damp nose; tail wags in acquiescent glee and the essence of both biscuits and prime rib savored in tune with the quiet joy of souls in commune, he had never been happier.

The jangle, jangle of a bell, low and resounding, filled the air. The old dog heard footsteps and the noise of people talking in hushed waves of sound.

"Come on, boy." Confused in mazy sensation his eyes began to clear and the dinner bell clanged on. Vast, grassy green, he ran and ran to the dinner that awaited him. The dream would wait and the promise of another love would greet him someday, for now he had the dinner bell, dog bones and the affections of his master to fullfill the waking wont of dog days.

“Round Robin” by Ron Koppelberger

Belonging to the mix of entertainment, women, and cheep cologne was a satisfying wrinkle in the web of tense embryonic existence. He caused the fray, cured the commotion, and assured the gaggle of drama. A sure secret, a mystery of import and tempered rumor gone round robin. In a turn to return, a will to passing whimsy, just a whisper to the giggling mistress of screams and guffaws, laughter and flittering evanescent communication; just a whisper in a room full of parishioners. He leaned toward the raven haired beauty; she smelled of lilacs and wine as her gold and diamond earrings danced in delicate circles of light, prismic and casting tiny spears of candent white light against her slender neck. Just a whisper to come along, round robin, round robin.

Her smile faded as he whispered in gentle coquette, "There's a fire in the loft love, a fire in the loft." He watched as she struggled to identify the whispering source of her fear. He watched as she grimaced, teeth bared in fright.

"YYYYYIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEE," she screamed through clenched teeth. "FFFiiiiiiirrrrreeeeeeeee." her face contorted into creased lessons of fright and her expression became a contagious rhythm of flowing fear.

The room shifted and the crowd churned to the front door. Screaming surges trampling, crushing in waves of patent leather and stiletto heels, in waves of bloody stomped silk, stumbling ails and tuxedo stain. They surged and pressed and the demon smiled in distracted interest as the broken bloody bodies of a dozen lay heaped near the door.

"Round robin, round robin," he hissed in sibilant appreciation.

“Blue Moon” by Mary Beth Asaro

I can still smell the grass growing in the summer rain. The lights are out and all that is a glow is the silver moon spying on me through the blinds as I watch its light pour down on me from my bed. It's calling to me again. The sound of panting, paws scrapping against dirt, and the earth wrenching howl draws me up to the window. They are waiting for me outside the glass, beneath the blinds as though there were no blinds. I can't stay away. They won't let me. Those eyes of porcelain grey will not let me rest or even dream of sun again. "It is my fate," I tell myself. I must go forth into the unknown before it engulfs me by force. I stand there in my black silk gown until my bare feet instruct me to the back door and onto the chewed up, rain damaged, pine steps. The air with its warm breath caresses my body and arouses my gown into a little nightly dance. They are gone as far as my eyes can see. Nothing but drying grass and dripping pine woods in front of me.

The earth is silent for a brief moment. Then the crickets start their ten o'clock gathering of Blue Grass Music. Something makes me draw closer to the woods. Curiosity? May be or just a sense of proof that I am not dreaming. The sound of a lonely whippoorwill emerges from behind a pile of olive pine needles that automatically makes my bones jump and my mouth gasp until its beautiful dark wings flap away into the starry sky. I stare up at the silver moon for an answer and all it can give me is a simple white glow highlighting a narrow dirt path through the woods. What else can I do? I'm bone tired of fighting. I slowly follow down the muddy path letting the pine needles pick away at my skin. There's nothing left for me. My family is gone. She's got her wish. I am alone.

I reach the uneven clearing where the moon is shinning its brightest. They are waiting for me in a perfect circle; the wolves with her in the center. Her fiery hair stands out against the fold. The canines are protruding outward as her porcelain grey eyes laugh at me. "Come," her red lips urges. "You are my family now."

I move forward to the center entranced by her beautiful human skin wrapped in a white gown. "No longer shall you be lonely," she whispers in my ear. "I'll take care of you."

She takes me by a breast, tasting some of me, and then lets me fall down to the wet ground watching the moon glow blue while the deafening howls pierce the night air.

“Whispering to a Vampyric Moon” by Mary Beth Asaro

The air was warm, cryptic, and sweet to listen to on a bus traveling to small towns. Keisha sat in the back feeling what little breeze a seventy mile an hour bus can make through a cracked window. Then she closed it, took one look at her dry ebony skin, and pulled out a bottle of vanilla lotion from one of her bags. She smoothed out and rubbed in the lotion on her arms, legs, neck, and face as if it was a religious ritual to cleanse the soul. The coolness of the lotion felt good against the roughness of her cream sweater and denim blue jeans. After the lotion bath, Keisha tossed the bottle in the bag and leaned against the grey cushioned seat while watching the blend of living and dead leaves, and grayish brown tree bark chopped with colorful double wides flash before her window. The rhythmic colors danced in her eyes at a fast pace under the dying sun. Then she lifted her nappy head slightly against the small comfort of a cheap seat as the bus began to show signs of slowing down. They passed by a speed limit sign flaunting the bold black letters of fifty-five to the passengers.

Keisha stared at the tin roof while she caressed a small square locket around her neck. Hours went by as her hypnotized eyes transfixed on a memory she worked hard most of her young life to bury. A shade of anger shaped her facial features; her hand just stayed pressed to the silver locket as if to hide it from the rest of the world. Then within a snap of a finger, the emotion was gone and Keisha was back to staring at the window.

The bus slowed down before coming to a halt. Keisha spotted her destination in the distance of a corn field. She grabbed her bags and walked slowly off the bus. The door hastily closed behind her and continued on its way again to another destination. Keisha glanced beyond the corn field at a two story grey shack and began to walk, racing the shadow of the sun to the house.

Sweat poured from her brow as she climbed the creaky steps on to the wooden porch and banged on the storm door. She heard nothing arose from within. A call from a whippoorwill made her jump, shrill, and look towards the back woods.

"Lord, I don't wanna die here," she proclaimed silently.

The storm door flung open making Keisha jerk her head towards the disturbance. A middle aged Caucasian woman stood next to the door with her green eyes looking Keisha over. Her long dark curls were held up from the pale face in a halfway pony tail and the woman's thin figure was dressed in all black as if she was one of those modern day vampires that are shown in a horror movie.

"Can I help ya?"

Keisha was beside herself for a moment. She didn't know whether she should answer the woman or drop her bags and run.

"Is there something I can do for ya? Are ya lost?" The woman drew near Keisha and placed her black painted fingers on Keisha's arm. The coolness from the fingers made Keisha come to life with answers.

"I'm lookin' for a room... for rent. I read in the paper that this place has one. Are you Miss Kurby?" Keisha could feel her bags beginning to slop away from her sweaty palms.

The woman took a contemplative look at her. "You're not from around here, are ya?"

"Not lately, no." Keisha heard several plops on the wooden porch and realized that she wasn't holding her bags any more.

Miss Kurby smirked. "Call me Kat."

"I'm Keisha Burner."

Miss Kurby opened the storm door and waited for her. Keisha quickly picked up her bags and just stood there for a moment wondering if she should go in.

"Well, are ya comin' in or not?" Miss Kurby's body showed signs of impatience.

Keisha took note of this and hesitantly went inside. Miss Kurby followed after her and let the door swing shut behind them.

"It's one-fifty a week plus room and board."

She watched Keisha survey the living room and the small wooden fire place for anything unusual.

"You're the first since October."

"Why's that?" Keisha turned her attention towards Miss Kurby.

"Since the serial came to town."

Keisha's dark eyes grew bigger than a pecan on a summer's day.

"Oh, it was just some psycho who thinks that he's some kind of vampire. He's probably long gone by now." Miss Kurby assured her with a wave of her hand. "Find anything... to your liking?" She gave a warm smile to her new guest.

Keisha stood in the middle of a black and white Third Eye rug while taking in the creepy environment. "My, what a... interesting place you have here."

Miss Kurby brushed passed her and elegantly walked into a large, modern kitchen area filled with all the home comforts of a New Age phone, sink, counter, table and chairs, cabinets, microwave, stove, freezer, and refrigerator.

"Oh, that's only the beginning," Miss Kurby grabbed a cocktail glass from one of the upper cabinets and sat it down on the counter closest to the refrigerator. "You don't mind do you?" She smiled at Keisha. "Or do you want something to drink as well?"

Keisha stepped in the room and eyed both the cocktail glass and Miss Kurby before politely mumbling a "No, thank you."

Miss Kurby opened the refrigerator and took out a clear, rectangular plastic bag filled with dark red plasma. "Thanks. It's that time of the month for me." She snipped a good size portion of a plastic edge with scissors she scrambled for from a bottom drawer and poured out the contents in the cocktail glass. "I have a cravin' for blood once a month since I was twelve." She threw the scissors in the drawer and slammed it shut with a hip. Then she placed the empty plastic bag in a small white trash can hidden in one of the bottom cabinets.

Keisha could feel her pulse pumping out of her wrists. "H-human blood?"

Miss Kurby took a sip of the blood and nodded a quick "Uh-huh."

Keisha clasped a hand to her mouth and back ed up a few paces after dropping her bags on the Mahogany floor.

"Miss Burner, it's nothin' like that!" She raised the glass. "This is from willing patients at Carolina's who are aware of my cravin's."

Keisha released her mouth and drew nearer. "What?"

"I work the graveyard shift at Carolina's Hospital. Everybody knows I have 'em." She began to drink some more blood before continuing the explanation. "It's some sort of disease. I forget what they call it. Any way..." She reached over and grabbed Keisha by the hand. "I'm harmless as a butterfly." Miss Kurby shook Keisha's hostage hand with her free hand and winked at her to comfort Keisha. Then she slowly walked beyond the kitchen to an old spiral staircase. Miss Kurby turned towards Keisha and motioned with the glass in her hand to follow. "Come on! There's still lots more to see."

After a moment of waiting, Miss Kurby started to walk up the staircase. Keisha glanced at her bags on the floor; then the living room leading to the front door and back to the slow rhythmic feet moving up the wooden staircase. Seconds later, she grabbed her bags and joined Miss Kurby on the staircase.

Miss Kurby took another swallow of blood. She kept her eyes upward on the decreasing stairs. "Where ya from?"

Keisha bit her bottom lip. Then she exhaled exhaustedly. "Came from Florida, but was born here in South Carolina." She felt one of her hands begin to lose its grip on one of the bags. Keisha digged her nails into the black fabric for a tighter grasp until she could reach the second floor. "Was raised here in Dovesville 'til thirteen."

They reached the second floor. Keisha put her bags down for a moment to rest her hands. Miss Kurby stared at her guest massaging her hands. "You and your parents moved to Florida, I take it."

Keisha kept her eyes down at her aching hands. "No. They been dead since I turned thirteen. I just ran away so I wouldn't have to go some place I didn't wanna go."

Miss Kurby was intrigued by Keisha's answer, but she didn't dare to dig more into it. Instead, she kept drinking her blood. Keisha finished massaging her hands and picked up her bags. While in the process of lifting up the bags, the corner of her eye caught a glimpse of an open door with lit candles and a black opened casket inside at the far left side of her. She quickly turned her head towards that direction to get a good look to confirm what she just saw. Miss Kurby followed her alarming gaze.

"Oh, that's my room. I can't get to sleep in open spaces. Some how I tend to get more rest in a closed coffin than in an open bed." She drank the rest of the blood in one gulp. "Everything is a disease now-a-days."

Keisha gulped down a ball of fear that appeared in her throat. Miss Kurby smiled at her. "Come on. Your room is this way." She escorted Keisha to the opposite end of the hallway. They came to the last door. Miss Kurby opened it and switched on the light. The light illuminated a room in the style of the 1950's with just a plain bed, dresser, and closet area; the bare essentials for a traveling guest. Keisha sat her bags on the bed and took a look around. Then she noticed a small window next to the dresser. She approached it and stared up at the grey spotted, pale moon shining down at her in its full spotlight.

"Protect my innocence and forgive my faults as I go my own way," Keisha whispered to the moon.

Miss Kurby eyed her as if trying to figure her out. "Who are you whispering to?"

"To the vampyric moon." Keisha closed her eyes for a moment while she listened to a frog croaking outside her window.

"And why did you come back here?" Miss Kurby stood in the door way anxiously awaiting an answer.

Keisha opened her eyes and turned back towards the bed. "Sometimes you can't out run your past."

"Right." Miss Kurby took a step back. "I'll just let ya pack. I'll be down stairs if you need me 'til eleven thirty when I go to work."

In a matter of seconds, Miss Kurby was gone from the door and Keisha was left with herself. She unzipped her bags and began to unpack her belongings on to the bed. Then Keisha went through them, one by one, placed them in the empty dresser drawers, and plopped down on the bed. She laid her head down on the pillow. With her eyes closed, she listened to the nightly house and outside noises until she fell into a dreamless sleep.

Keisha awoke to the sound of breaking glass. She jerked up and slowly made her way towards the threshold of the door. "Kat! Is that you down there?"

She could hear footsteps walking around down stairs. A moment later, the sound of a chair slid across the floor. "Miss Kurby!" Keisha carefully walked from her room to the spiral staircase. "Did ya break somethin'?"

Only the petrified silence answered her back. Keisha made her way half way down the stairs and paused for a moment. She leaned against the rail and tried to let her eyes adjust to the pitch black of the dinning room next to the lighted glow of the kitchen. A bell toiled from a grandfather clock near the staircase letting the near by inhabitants know that it was now midnight. Keisha jumped at the sound of it and almost screamed until she held her mouth closed. She took a deep breath and gazed over the railing again. A dark figure sat at the dinning room table watching the staircase.

"Who's there?"

"Whuz dere? Whuz dere?" A male voice mimicked psychotically.

Then the figure rose up from the table and walked into the lighted area of the kitchen. "Death cums ta dose who find it," the charcoaled man replied. His artificial fangs laughed at her while his greenish red contact lens glared at Keisha crazily. He brushed back his long dreadlocks with a flick of his head. Keisha just stood there paralyzed as the man ran towards her until she felt something inside of her pulling her to run. She found the strength to run to her room and slammed the door. Keisha pressed her body weight to the door trying to keep the nightmare at bay. But the man wedged the door opened, and began to taunt her with his fake hisses and cackles. Minutes later, he pushed her on to the bed, over powered her, and prepared to sink his teeth into her neck.

Filled with anger and fear, Keisha could feel the mental power building inside her. No longer fighting, she placed her arms around his neck and closed her eyes; welcoming the nightmare.

His teeth slightly caressed her skin when he felt his life draining out of him. The man tried to push away, but Keisha held on tight. She could feel herself getting stronger while her victim grew weaker. Keisha liked the taste of him, his energy.

A couple of minutes went by when she could no longer mentally taste the life within his body. Keisha pushed him off of her. He fell to the floor dead. She got up from the bed and opened her locket from around her neck. Her smiling parents stared back at her as the vivid memory of her angry thirteen year old self mentally draining the lives out of her parents flashed through her mind. A tear fell and caressed her cheek. She closed the locket and brushed it away.

She found herself walking down stairs to the kitchen phone and dialed 911. A mellow female voice answered. "I've just killed an intruder. Please, come quickly," Keisha heard herself say calmly before she slowly placed the phone back down on the hook. She walked out into the cool night air awaiting the sight of flashing red lights while singing "The Precious Blood of the Lamb" on the front porch.

“Party on Lee Street” by Ryker Martin

"So you will do it?"

"Yes..." said Aaron Gibson, a short chubby middle aged man with thin brown hair and brown eyes. He was fidgeting in his chair and had a slightly nervous look across his freckly dimpled face. "Of course I will," he said, "It would be an honor."

"Good. I was hoping it wouldn't be too much of a trouble. Nine o'clock is when people should start arriving, there won't be too many now," said the man as he popped open a bottle of scotch and poured it into a small glass.

Good, good... yes," said Aaron as he shifted uneasily in his chair and strummed his fingers across his legs. He gave a weak smile and said, "Well, I look forward to seeing you there," as he stood up he shook the man's hand and walked out the door.

"He hates you, you know..."

"Ah! Don't sneak up on me like that Will."

"Who are you talking to Mr. Gibson?"

"Uh, nobody hun... nobody." The assistant gave him a strange look from behind her desk as he quickly scuttled by. "You can't keep talking to me while other people are around; its really distracting, you know."

"Don't be mean to me, Aaron... I'm your friend, you know, you wouldn't want me to leave you now would you?"

"Well of course not... I was just saying... it's bad business." He quickly hurried down to his car, he squirmed around as he shifted to find his seat belt and fasten it.

"You see the gun he was hiding?" asked Will.

"What gun?"

"The one on the right hand side behind his desk... I think he wants to kill you."

"Kill me? Why? I didn't do anything to him, and how would you have seen, you weren't there."

"I could see it when the door opened as you walked in, and I don't know why... go ahead and ask him if you want to."

"Now why would I do that?!" exclaimed Aaron.

"Well, just saying, if you wanted to know, he would be the one to ask."

You know damn right that would do me no good, he'd just say no and shoot me in the back a second later."

William chuckled and said, "Well, that is why you have me now isn't it, I look out for you; I wouldn't want my best friend in the whole wide world to die now would I?"

"Thank you for the concern, though this is to big of a deal to pass up off of just your word."

"Whatever you say Aaron, whatever you say."

"Why do you do this, Aaron? Why are you doing this? You know he wants to kill you."

"Because I don't want to go broke off of your word, that's why," said Aaron. Aaron lived in a mansion on Robert. E. Lee street Massachusetts, right by the sea. He often sat out on the porch, which was one of the few places he felt normal. The house was rather contemporary, yet looked slightly rustic at the same time. It had beautiful marble flooring. When you walked through the front door you could see a two pillar supported arch. A set of stairs were directly ahead, the kitchen was to the left, and the living room was to the right. He was dreading the party to come. Aaron paced back and forth through his living room trying to console his paranoias. It was a nice and very spacious room with a high roof about twenty feet high. There was a fireplace that was about six feet by six made of marble that gleamed magnificently when the fire was burning hot. The flames would dance across and kiss the stone as an embracing lover, and the wood would wither like an old man, blackening and crumbling. They seemed to lull and soothe his concerns away at times, but now only seamed to ironically play on his fear. Hours passed by, everything was ready, and five o'clock rolled around.

"You will see what he really wants."

"I don't know, but its too late to change anything, William."

Will sat there rapping his fingers across the sofa looking at Aaron with a frustrated expression. He leaned back in his chair, and began to say, "You're a fool Aaron, a fool. We've made it this far in life without incident and you want to put it on the line for some stupid business proposition."

Aaron began to lean back and then gave an exasperated sigh, "It's always the same for you, Will, there's always someone out to get me. Will it ever change?"

"You know I'm right. What about that time on the city bus you were so eager to use?"

"Well you're bound to find one freak sooner or later if you're always accusing people."

"What about that incident down town, Aaron?"

"That guy was drunk..."

"Maybe, but I was still right."

Once again, Aaron sighed. He rubbed his face and looked over and back at Will. He said, "I don't need to justify my actions to you, or anyone else for that matter..."

"You're always getting yourself into things you know nothing about, Aaron!" exclaimed Will. "You just jump into the dumbest things without giving it a second thought or thinking, 'Maybe this guy is dangerous, maybe I should listen to my friend for once.' But no, you don't."

"And what do you propose I do, Will? Cancel this? I can't do that, this is too important for me, I could make millions if this whole thing goes right. If I get these people to like us then I'll be set, think about this, if this guy doesn't kill me which you're so convinced he will do, and everything goes along without a hitch I'll be able to retire and we will never have to worry about anyone killing us because we won't have to do anything."

Will nodded. "Okay."

Aaron sat there for hours contemplating the conversation he just had. Everything was ready for the visitors, he had planned this to happen before he had even talked to Rodger Paterson, the man in charge of Global Connections, Inc. Aaron was resting when he heard a knock at his door. He quickly sat up and looked around. Will was nowhere in sight. He sighed as he got up. Another knock was heard and he said, "Coming, coming. I didn't mean to keep you waiting for so long." He opened the door and Paterson was there.

"Well, hello, ma' boy," said the man jovially as he shook Aaron's hand.

"Nice to see you, too. Rodger, come in, please, let me escort you to the living room." Rodger was an older man nearing his sixties and had a slight limp in his right leg. Though he had more hair than Aaron, the gray was really starting to show with only a little bit of black left. He was tall and of medium build. He was wearing a nice dark brown suit with a black tie that was tucked in, and black pants. He had an inquisitive but confidant look about him, which is what he was.

"There should be four more arriving shortly, and that's all there will be," said Rodger as he sat down. There was a knock at the door. "Well, there they are," he said smiling.

"Well, I guess I better go receive the last of the guests, make yourself comfortable."

Aaron quickly scuttled through the hall. He looked back and his neck prickled as he saw Will glaring at him from the top of the stairs and then just walk back up and out of sight. He continued to the door where he opened it to welcome the rest of his guests. There were three men and one woman. The men ranged from the ages of thirty-five to fifty, they were all dressed and looked happy. The woman was first through the door, as the men politely stepped aside to let her go in. Her name was Sara, she had long black hair, had a well built face, was thin and stood at about five-six. She was quite attractive. They shook hands lightly and she gave him a quick hug. Smiling, she said. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Gibson; I'm assuming Rodger is here already?"

"Yes, mam, he is, and if I may I will escort you all to the living room where he is right now."

"Of course," she said still smiling.

They came to the living room and Rodger stood up and shook their hands. "It is nice to see that you have all arrived at last. Come and try these, Aaron has set out some amazing h'or d'oeuvres."

"Thank you, sir. If you will please excuse me, I'll be right back. Make yourselves comfortable."

"Sure, of course, Mr. Gibson," said Rodger.

Aaron made his way up the dark stairs. He could look down from the railing at the guests below. He quickly made his way down the hall to his room. It was dark. He flipped on the switch, and out of nowhere William was standing right there in front of him. Aaron jumped. "My god, Will, what are you doing standing right there? I nearly fainted from that little antic of yours."

"Waiting for you, Aaron, waiting for you..." Will had a grim look across his countenance. "Just waiting for you while you greet our..." He paused for a moment, head slightly cocked to the side. "Our esteemed guests..."

"Well, you can settle down now, everything is fine. You don't need to look like you're about to kill someone."

"You still don't see, do you, Aaron? Why do you do this to me?" he said as he stood there. "You just have to put us in this... issue... but, no... I won't let it happen, I won't let this come to pass, and I'll just have to do exactly that. I'll just have to kill the guy."

"You can't do that!" squeaked Aaron. "You can't just kill people!" Aaron had a look of horror across his plump little face.

"Yes I can, Aaron, and I will. I can't allow you to ruin everything that we've done. If you let that man live he will kill us!"

"You have no proof of this," said Aaron, cowering.

"Proof? Ha! I don't need to prove anything to you, I know this is going to happen." A wierd light cast upon Will from the fire in the back of the room, giving him a cool, calm, but evil look.

"You're a monster," whispered Aaron.

"A monster?! The monster that kept you alive all these years, as you waltzed around like an idiot? The monster who always warned you, and yet you never listened?! No I'm not a monster. I'm just logical and I'm going to kill that man down there." Will grabbed a revolver from the cabinet and marched for the hall. Aaron chased after him as he walked out the open door.

"Don't do this, Will, don't do this!"

"I have to Aaron."

"NO! I won't let you!" Aaron grabbed Will, ripped the gun out of his hand, and shot him in the stomach. He dropped to the floor, dead, eyes blank, staring up aimlessly.

Sirens were blaring and lights were flashing outside the mansion, lighting up the boring rural estate like the fourth of July. Cops were bustling everywhere, paramedics were rushing in and out of the house, and radios were going off. "Gun shot heard at 31094 North Robert E. Lee Street, possible homicide, back up has arrived, over."

There was a black haired woman surrounded by four men. She was crying hysterically. One man detached himself from the group and walked over. It was Rodger. He asked, "What happened, Detective?"

The man sighed, looking old and tired. He said, "Seems to be a suicide... Aaron Gibson shot himself."

“In Any Kind of Light” by T.R. Healy

"Sometimes you only realize how much you've lost when it's too late to get it back."

Feiger, startled, turned and looked up at a burly man whose nose was as thick as a butcher's thumb. "Excuse me?"

"The trolley," he said, nodding at the vintage electric streetcar behind Feiger. "I use to love to ride trolley cars when I was a youngster, could travel all over town for a buffalo nickel. Now it costs you an arm and a leg to go anywhere on public transportation. It'd be nice if they could come back but that'll never happen. They're as much relics now as stagecoaches."

"You want your picture taken standing in front of it?" he inquired, fingering the weathered Polaroid in his lap.

Sternly the man shook his head, as if insulted by the question. "What for? As I told you, I can still remember riding the damn things when I was growing up. I don't need any picture to remind me of those days."

"Just asking, mister."

Without replying, the burly man turned and stepped away to watch a loquacious juggler balance the leg of a cardtable on the tip of his chin. Feiger wasn't surprised particularly, the man seemed the sort who visited the Bison Square market without any intention of spending a dime. His wallet was probably coated with dust he so seldom took it out of his pocket. Indifferently Feiger peered at the burly man through the viewfinder of his camera then at others visiting the market, waiting for a customer. He never had too many but, so far, he had not had one who wanted his picture taken in front of the antique trolley. A weekend photographer, he usually managed to make it down to the market a couple of times a month, sometimes more often in the summertime. Besides his camera and film, he always brought along a sackful of caps and scarves and goggles and whistles to make the photographs seem more authentic. A dollar a picture was what he charged. But he was not there to make money so much as to observe all the interesting people who frequented the bustling market that every Saturday occupied an immense parking lot at the edge of the waterfront. Generally it was better than watching television, but not this morning. This morning he barely noticed those who strolled past his booth.

Feiger was sure it was an accident the first time he pressed the shutter button and took his own picture. It was slightly out of focus, making his eyes appear much wider than they were, almost elastic. Frowning, he set the picture on the stool next to him, held the camera directly in front of his face, and snapped another picture. Quickly he looked at it, relieved that it was not blurred. He thought he was in a carefree mood when he took the picture but his face appeared tense and scrunched together, as if he'd anticipated a flashbulb going off in his eyes even though he knew the camera did not require one. He took another picture. His mouth was soft and loose, a pale sliver beneath his bristling russet mustache, but his eyes were sunken and aloof. He pressed the shutter again. Still, his eyes were as inert and vacant as the buttons of his shirt. He was not really surprised, not after what happened yesterday, could not expect them to appear any other way.

He did not earn his living as a photographer but as a concierge at the Bear Mountain Lodge, a popular resort about twenty-five miles north of town. He had been there nearly three years and seldom was able to distinguish one day from the next because the work was so numbingly routine. He found an hour at the market much more interesting than anything that happened at the lodge. Yesterday was different, though, as different as he could ever imagine.

Around ten o'clock in the morning Auerbach, the assistant manager, informed him that a guest at the lodge had reported a body floating in the pool at the base of the twin waterfalls that cascaded above the lodge. Auerbach said that he had asked a groundskeeper to check it out but was sure it was just another mannequin.

"At this time of the year," he told Feiger, "mannequins are almost as common to find in the pool as beer bottles and condoms."

Feiger agreed, mindful of the half dozen or so mannequins shoved over the falls last year by students on spring break.

"It's such a silly joke," Auerbach lamented, "but then I suppose it takes all kinds of people to make up this world of ours."

Other guests reported seeing the body in the water, but they were assured by Feiger and others on the staff that it was nothing more than a display window mannequin. At one point Feiger considered visiting the pool himself but was talked out of it by Auerbach because of the danger of falling rocks. Instead, he got out a pair of binoculars and peered at the ghostly pale figure in the water, and after a couple of minutes decided it was indeed a mannequin.

He was mistaken, however, as he learned a few hours later when one of the guests actually went down to the pool and verified that the body was real. It was a middleaged man who turned out to be a guest at the lodge. He was stunned, furious at himself for not checking out what was in the pool on his own. The fact that he peered through the binoculars at the body and was not able to realize what he was looking at filled him with disgust. He could not believe he could be that dense. He felt foolish, pathetic, thoroughly ashamed of himself.

Ever since his girlfriend moved out of his apartment last month, he had not quite been himself. Increasingly he found it difficult to focus his attention on things, constantly distracted by thoughts about what he could have done differently to have kept Ellen with him. Just the other evening, driving home late from the lodge, he nearly sideswiped a moving van because he was thinking about her and did not notice the traffic light turn red.

"So what do you think?" a plump woman with auburn hair asked Feiger.

"About what?"

"Can I pass for a conductor?"

Regarding her carefully, he leaned back in his canvas chair as the woman lumbered up to the top step of the trolley. She had on one of his black peaked caps, the visor pulled halfway down her forehead, and from her neck hung his clunky ticket counter. Her smile was nearly as bright as the knobs on the machine.

"All you have to do now is shout 'All aboard!'" he cracked.

Her smile then widened as he bent to one knee and snapped her picture.

Quickly, before he handed her the photograph, he glanced at it to see if her eyes were as jubilant as they appeared when he looked at them through the viewfinder. They were, and he was gratified. He just wished the pictures he had taken earlier of himself were as accurate, but they were dour and enigmatic and failed to reveal any of the pleasure he experienced when he attended the market. Incredibly, it seemed as if he could take decent pictures of everyone but himself.

Shortly before the market closed at five, Feiger packed up his gear and started back to his car, which he had parked in a small lot in Chinatown. He had walked only a couple of blocks when he noticed several people gathered in front of the firehouse watching some firefighters practice scaling the north side of the building. He paused to watch the drill for a moment then, on an impulse, asked the woman standing next to him to take his picture.

She agreed, and he handed her his camera. "You a visitor?"

"Excuse me?"

"To our town?"

"Oh, yeah," he lied. "I just got in this morning."

"I figured as much from all the camera equipment you're carrying with you."

He smiled faintly.

"I assume you want the firefighters in the background?"

"Please," he said indifferently.

She peered through the viewfinder and carefully framed him against the men spidering up the firehouse. "Now all you have to do is give me a smile."

Diligently he complied, and she clicked the shutter button and handed him back the camera, and he thanked her and eagerly examined the photograph. The corners of his mouth were curved into a slight, almost diffident smile but his eyes remained as vacant and aloof as they were in his pictures. They looked as if they were through caring anymore, the eyes plainly of someone who would allow a body to float for hours in a pool of water. He was disappointed, scarcely able to recognize the person in the picture. For all he knew, the woman could have taken the picture of someone standing right behind him.

Hurriedly he crossed the street, heading toward Chinatown, his camera bag slung loosely over his left shoulder. He was seething inside, felt a vein pulsing in the middle of his forehead. He knew he was not the person in the picture the woman took, knew it as certainly as he knew anything.

Turning a corner, he saw a stooped Chinese man shuffling toward him, and, at once, he stopped and asked him to take his picture and, grinning nervously, the man did. His eyes appeared as empty as ever, however, and angrily he crumpled up the picture and tossed it into the street. Then he looked at his watch, saw that he had forty minutes of light left, and continued up the street, looking for someone else to take his picture.

“The Unapologetic” by Brittany Durk

I was sitting in her office for the third time that month, wondering how long this one would last. I hadn't spoken the last two times I'd been there, not at all, not one word, like that guy in that movie Good Will Hunting. No reason, just because, just to see what she would do. She sat there, looking me up and down, the whole time. I thought of her panty hose being held up by a dirty black garter belt, a flimsy lace bra underneath her green cashmere turtleneck sweater, and other things, slutty things. It was easy to think of her that way, not a real person, when I wasn't talking. I didn't feel like talking.

"Why are you here, Mr. Bardem?" she asked scribbling something therapeutic (I supposed) on a notepad, sitting in her lap, rubbing up against that filthy garter belt.

I raised an eyebrow; she raised one back. I liked her, I decided. Maybe she wasn't a whore. Maybe she had on granny panties and a white cotton bra, support hose, maybe even a slip. Maybe I could talk to her. I cleared my throat. She leaned forward in her seat. I frowned at her eagerness. No, maybe not. Maybe next week. I held up my hand to say goodbye, grabbed my messenger bag and walked out the door.

"Roger, I don't know what you're getting out of these sessions by not talking. If you want to waste your money that's fine with me. I get quite a bit of work done while you're here," she spoke thirty minutes into my hour long session. She was trying to break me. I thought that was funny. I was creating her. I wasn't ready to talk yet.

I rolled out of bed at seven thirty on the dot. I frowned down at the naked body next to me. Why did she have to stay for so long? I had work to do. I liked my own space. Whatever; she'd be gone in a couple of days. I dressed quietly so as not to wake her and get caught up in some trivial and useless morning after conversation. I knew her by now, but wasn't quite done changing her into something else. I closed the door silently behind me and crept down the hall.

I had decided today would be the day I spoke. Even if she did something dumb like threaten me or try to trick me again, I had made up my mind. It was time.

I walked through the glass doors of the office building and headed towards the elevator. When I was in high school I had this psychology teacher who told us that it was a learned behavior for people to stare at the doors on an elevator, to not make eye contact with anyone else. He challenged us all to face the opposite direction some time, just to see what would happen, just to know how it would feel. I hadn't done this yet, but was tempted every time, especially in this building, with all the crazies walking around. I'd probably give someone a nervous breakdown. I hit the button to floor twenty three.

The receptionist made me wait the obligatory ten minutes before letting me in to see Ms. Howard. Not Miss or Misses, just "Ms." Kind of a mind–your-own-fucking-business sort of thing. That's how I took it anyways. I liked it; worked with my creative process. During this time, she offered me water, coffee or tea. I think her name was Joan or Joanne. I shook my head no and picked up a copy of Golf Digest. I didn't golf.

I looked at my watch and cleared my throat. Joan (or Joanne), with her mousy brown hair and glasses (typical) looked up, startled. I wanted to roll my eyes at her but didn't. We played this game every time. I always looked at my watch after exactly ten minutes, she jumped every time I cleared my throat. Oh yes, she said softly, Ms. Howard will see you now. Go on in.

"Hello Roger, and how are we today?" She looked up from her planner absentmindedly. I hid a smile. She was assuming today would be like all the others. Good.

"I'm doing well today, Ms. Howard, and yourself?" I hated it when people asked how 'we' were doing. I was doing fine; I didn't know how she was doing. We were not a 'we,' we were two separate entities. If I knew how she was I wouldn't have to ask. What if I had multiple personalities? I would be offended by her question. How very un-PC of her in her line of work.

She looked up in surprise, then masked her face quickly with that bland therapist look. Reminded me of a statue in a wax museum, dead eyes and all of that. I wondered briefly if they taught you that look in school or if you only got licensed if you had it already.

"Oh, can't complain. I'm doing well. Anything in particular you'd like to talk about today, Roger?" She was trying to remain casual. She must have learned her lesson the last time, I thought. I looked again at the name plate on her desk. J. Howard, it read. J, maybe Jane? Julie? Janet? I liked Janet. She looked like a Janet.

"Yes. There are a few things I'd like to discuss if that's all right with you." I looked her dead in the eye.

She blinked. She was intimidated by me. "It's your time. We can discuss anything you'd like. Go on. Oh, wait. Would you like something to drink, coffee or tea or anything?"

I smiled broadly, "No. Thank you Ms. Howard."

"Julie, this guy sounds like a real weirdo. All kinds of psychos out there, it's a wonder why I even try to date anymore. Why don't you just tell him you know he's full of shit and he should get another therapist? I have to go. My cousin Sadie's in town and I promised her I would meet her and this guy she's dating for drinks. You'd think she would take some time off of men after getting divorced five months ago, but guess not. Hope he's not an asshole." Tamara stood up and grabbed her jacket.

I smiled at her, even though I sensed she was annoyed by yet another one of my clients, rather than just at her emotionally unintelligent cousin. I wasn't breaking any confidentiality agreements by complaining to her; it wasn't as if I told her their names or anything like that. Sometimes I just needed to sound off, vent. And this new guy was really working me over. I picked up my glass of red wine and took a gulp, on a prolonged lunch break at a quiet café. I needed more of this; the wine, myself, Tamara telling me to quit my day job.

Roger had been seeing me for just over a month, and his last session was the first time he'd ever spoken. He talked non-stop for the entire session, practically. Whenever I opened my mouth to comment, he would rush on with yet another dramatic detail to his story. I knew he was full of shit, though, just like Tamara said. He'd woven this story about how his father was an abusive alcoholic, shot his mother right in front of him. He told me he'd lived in seven different foster homes before he turned eighteen. He used to cut the hair off all his sisters' dolls in these foster homes, had sexual fantasies about all of them; the sisters, not the dolls. He told me he'd joined the army on his twenty first birthday, but changed his mind and allowed himself to get caught giving another soldier a blow job so he wouldn't have to go over seas. He wasn't gay, he said. He just didn't want to go anymore. Changed his mind. Developed Multiple Personality Disorder. The story began to wind down when he claimed to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, because of the war, he said. I told him he never served in the war (when I could get a word in), so that wasn't a realistic diagnosis, but that yes, it was possible he could have it from all his time spent in foster homes. Oh, yeah, he said. That sounds better, I mean, makes more sense. Actually, one of his other personalities had served in the war, in Vietnam, though, not in Desert Storm or Iraq, he told me. After that, he asked me for the coffee Joan and I had offered him earlier. What an asshole. He wasn't abused, a victim of anything, other than being a pathological liar. Maybe slightly sociopathic, as well. I could tell he was a spoiled brat a mile away. Didn't matter; it would be good material for the book. That was the only reason I was still in private practice. All I really wanted to do was write. I'd had it with all these fucked up people; I had my own problems. Most people think therapists are so quiet because they're good listeners. Really, we just don't give a shit.

"Roger, can we talk?" The blonde began. What was her name again? Sally? No, Sandy. Sadie, that was it, Sadie.

"What's wrong, baby?" I feigned concern and sat down on the edge of the bed. Good, finally. It had been five months and she still hadn't broken up with me. I wouldn't break up with her; I didn't do that. That wasn't how this worked. But, I was tired. I had done new things this time, but still I had done them, so I didn't understand what she was sticking around for. Didn't she have any self respect? Like I said before, though, I knew her. Sadie believed in true love, soul mates and all that crap. She was a bleeding heart. I couldn't stand her. At least she lived out of state, though, so I only had to see her once a month. I'd flown out to see her the first time, to get her hooked; she'd been here all the times after.

Turned out I was wrong. She wasn't breaking up with me. She wanted to apologize for the night before. She'd wanted me to go out for drinks with her cousin at some trendy shithole in the East Village, but I managed to persuade her into staying in by saying all the right things, something that came naturally to me. Then we'd had sex and she didn't come. Like I gave a shit. I thought it was funny. Every time I had seen her before, I'd made it all about her, worshipped her, fawned all over her, made insane love to her. This time I was tired and this was one of the new things I was trying. I made it all about me. I made her feel guilty, dirty. She felt like she owed me, I could tell. She'd gone out and bought all this dirty lingerie, danced for me, gave me blow jobs, let me tie her up and twist her around like a rubber band. Then when the bitch didn't come, she got all upset about it. I feel like you don't even care, she'd cried the night before. I was so annoyed I rolled my eyes. Good thing she was face down and I was on top of her at the time. I couldn't be too obvious, that wasn't part of the game. I stood over her naked body and did what I do best, turned it all around on her to make her feel like shit. Every other time has been all about you, hasn't it? Can't it ever be about me? I asked her. Well, yes, haven't I made you happy this time? I did everything you wanted. She was so pathetic. Yes, I liked it baby, couldn't you tell? I grinned at her. She'd smiled back shyly; she was too old to pull that, it was just annoying. I wanted to slap her most of the time. I just feel like you don't care if I'm happy or not, she whined. I feel like nothing I do will make you happy, I'd exploded and went to sleep, content that I'd broken her.

I figured this morning she would end it, like any normal woman would do, but I should have known she wouldn't. I'd picked her after all, chosen her specifically. She never saw me coming. I was out of town at a wedding with some co workers, and I'd overheard her telling her girlfriend how she'd sworn off men since her divorce, how she was going to write a book about it. She was perfect; wounded, naïve, beautiful in an innocent sort of way. A bird with a broken wing. I would use her. I would know her, then recreate her, then she would leave and I could start all over again. That was the game. That was my art. Like I said, all she wanted was to apologize. She flew home a few hours later. I would have to figure out a new plan for the next time I saw her. Oh well. There was time.

"Hey, I'll fly out to see you in a few weeks," he promised as he pulled me in for a kiss.

I pulled back for a moment and looked into his eyes. Would he really? Did it matter? Sometimes I felt like I didn't even know him.

"Sadie, you've flown here three times in a row, it's only fair. Besides, I'm going to be so sad when you leave, I always get used to you being here when you visit. And Oscar misses you every time, too. I keep telling him you're my woman, but he likes to argue," Roger joked and kissed me between the eyes. Oscar was his cat. I let out a deep breath. He loved me. I knew it even if he didn't yet. That was okay... me knowing was enough for now. There was time.

I wished we'd made love that morning, but he'd been quiet since our fight the night before. He'd gotten a little rough with me and I was angry. It wasn't like him to be so insensitive. I woke up feeling silly for overreacting. I also didn't want to go home without having an orgasm, but he said he didn't want me to think he only wanted me for sex, or that every time we saw each other we needed to sleep together. He said he cared about me so much he wanted to try to make this a real relationship. I was moving out there in a few months and he said we could have sex all the time then. What an odd thing to say, I thought.

I cried the whole way to the airport. I don't know why I was crying. The cab ride to Roger's house, I had been so nervous he was going to break up with me I thought I was going to puke. I almost called my cousin Tamara and asked her if I could just crash at her place instead, but wanted to see what would happen when he opened the front door. He told me he sensed my nerves and didn't understand them. He told me it was silly for me to think he would break up with me. He said he was in this thing; that we were doing a great job at this long distance relationship, as good of a job as anyone could do, and that he couldn't wait for me to move so we could be together whenever we wanted to. I guess I was crying because I didn't want to leave him. That first night after he said those things, I cried, too. I was usually the person who had it all together, but since my divorce I just felt so vulnerable.

I wanted to trust him. I wanted to believe in him. I'd told him that it was hard to believe all the good things he said to me when I had been married to someone who said the exact opposite. He asked me why I didn't think he could love everything about me. I told him that my ex-husband told me he didn't like me, didn't like the person I was. Said he felt sorry for himself that he had such a stupid wife. I should consider myself lucky that Roger saw who I really was. I should just let myself be loved. I was trying so hard to trust him. I'd even sent him my book to read.

She told me she was leaving the country. She said she was going to Europe for a while, to write a book. I liked Europe. I met a girl from London once. Dated her for three months, I think it was. Said she didn't have her heart in therapy anymore, but that she would refer me to someone who could help me if I wanted. J. Howard. Jane, Julie, Janet. Too bad I didn't have time to change her. I wondered what the next one would be like. Probably a whore, just like Ms. Howard. That's okay, I still had Sadie to finish anyhow.

“She Was Once A Proctector” by Andrea Carter

The summer sun is beating down hotter than ever. Bumble bees swarm the air and evening thunder storms travel through the clouds. A new day awakens me and all seems normal. I wake up later than usual and the first thing I do is turn over and reach for my phone. I receive a missed text after I turn it on. It is from Dan. He is my boyfriend of three years; we met in high school. He works at the Dairy Queen down the road. He never went to college because he was promoted to manager early on. He figures that nothing can get better than being a manager now, but I still try to influence him to go to the local community college with me. He doesn't want to hear any of that. His motto is "why pay money when you can make money." What a dork, but we are very compatible together. I return his text and give my parents a call about coming over. They don't answer the phone and Dan doesn't return to my text. I will have to go over to visit my parents later today, but first, I have some things to do.

I go out for a run through my apartment complex; just a short run because it is way later in the day than when I usually go out. As I am running back to my apartment I notice a gathering of my neighbors outside. They are listening to a radio someone brought out from their place. The radio announcer is talking about a virus. The man on the radio says that an unknown virus is spreading like a wild fire. New cases have been found in Southern states, but are moving up the coast line. It is moving too quickly to properly evacuate. I jingle the keys in my hand to unlock my door, run inside, and slam the door shut. I grab the remote off of the coffee table. I turn on the TV and there is a public service announcement on every channel. The TV reads:

Attention! An outbreak of an unknown virus has spread throughout the United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico. No more news has been issued about the virus except for several symptoms that lead to serious abnormalities. The symptoms include: fatigue, severe headaches/migraines, loss of hair, skin deformations, and bleeding of the eyes. These symptoms result in a manic state, with increased strength, or death. You can catch the disease by coming in contact with the infected. It is said that the virus is airborne so stay inside and keep your doors locked. DO NOT go outside at all! Here is a video of some people in the Tri-State area who have become affected by this disease within the past hour. The camera crew died from coming too close to the victims that contracted the disease. Caution: the images you are about to see are graphic.

The video comes on and all I hear is screaming. The people with the virus move like the living dead. One of them is covered with blood and he moves too quickly to run away from. He grabs whoever is not infected and tears into their flesh and breaks their bones. He eats so fast while tearing deeper inside the bodies. His eyes are yellow and his pupils are red. His hair is stringy and is falling out. His muscles grow larger as he eats. You can see his black veins pulsing from under his white skin. He runs into a building to find more victims. The glass shatters and fills the speakers. It rattles the T.V. while they feast on muscle as blood pours out of their victims. Then they search for the next life to claim. The camera man captures one of the infected running towards him. The camera falls to the ground, leaving a fuzzy image on the screen.

Attention! Please stay inside and keep your doors locked. Plug up any air leaks that lead into your home and stay tune to WK5 News for any more updates.

I am in shock by what I hear and see. I can't stay here even though I should. I need to go to my parents' house to see if they are alright since they have not returned my phone call. I continue to call them on my cell phone as I go back outside. The gathering of neighbors has disappeared. I guess everyone is too terrified to stay outside, but I need to get to my parents. I feel like I need to vomit. My heart is racing and I am sweating profusely. My vision becomes obscured by my sweat and tears, but I need to get to my parents.

On my way to the car I finally get a text from Dan. He said that he heard about what is happening and that he is locking himself inside the building. What a relief that he is alright, but now I must focus on making sure my parents are alright.

The streets are clear as I travel way over the speed limit to my parents' house; usually it takes about fifteen minutes. I continue to run red lights through what feels to be a ghost town. I take a sharp right turn into their development. I almost hit a guy walking in the middle of the road. I swerve to miss him; thankfully I succeed. I check my rear view mirror and notice the guy still standing in the middle of the road and starring in my direction. Then he starts walking; his walking turns to a hustling gallop. He is chasing me. I reach my parents' house and bolt to the front door. It is locked and I left my keys in the ignition with the car on. I yell, "Mom! Dad! Let me in! It's Audrey!" The guy that was chasing me disappeared. I am worried that he is waiting for me somewhere, but I run around to the back of the house anyways. I cannot get in there either. I don't want to break a window so I try to climb up to the roof to the second floor. I get inside by climbing through my old bedroom window; I used to sneak out of my room so many times in high school so it will be a piece of cake. (The windows don't have locks on them, thankfully). I make my way up to the window, push it in and crawl inside. I run through my room and down the stairs while hollering for my parents. I still don't see them anywhere; they may not even be here. Finally, I find them in the dining room eating. "Mom, Dad, didn't you hear me at the front door?" They turn around and their faces are covered in blood. They are feasting on each others' limbs. Their pupil's fill their eyes and their face looks pale and decayed. They quirk their heads in my direction and let out a terrifying shriek. They start running after me and I dash to the front door. I trip and fall on the plastic runners over the carpet in the living room as (what used to be) my parents continue to get closer. I kick them away and run upstairs because I notice the front door is bordered up from the inside. I run back to my room and lock the door behind me. I stop with my back against the door and begin to breathe frantically; I start to cry. What is happening? This all seems like a bad dream. I hear my parents reach my door. The pounding on the door causes such a force to make me fall from against it, onto the floor. I crawl over to the window to escape, but our family cat crawls from under the bed. I look at her in relief, but she pounces on top of me and bites my arm. I scream in horror; I did not think that animals could catch the virus, too. I have just been bitten; I am going to change into one of those creatures!

I still have my strength so I grab the rabid cat. She bites and scratches me when I pick her up so I throw her out the window. I probably shouldn't have thrown her out there because I need to go back outside to my car. I climb back down, out of the window, to the front driveway and back into my car. I see my cat waiting behind the bush. She pounces onto the hood when I hop inside my car, but she gets thrown off as I back out of the driveway. As soon as I get her off, the guy, who was chasing after me, returns in my rearview mirror. His speed picks up as I accelerate even faster. His arms are flinging around in the air and his mouth is foaming red. He is catching up to me. I fly past an onlooker who, instantly, blows a tire. He pulls off to the side of the road as I drive past him without any intention to stop. He appears to be screaming NO and he hits the steering wheel. The guy chasing me notices this man on the side of the road. He loses interest in me and goes after his new victim. I cannot see anymore in the mirror; I don't want to see anymore.

Now I avoid anyone in sight. I don't know what to do. I am going to turn zombie like. I don't feel any symptoms, except for again feeling sick to my stomach thinking about my parents. I don't know if they are dead or alive. They seem to be pretty much dead because I don't know how they can come back from this.

My phone rings and I answer. It is Dan, "Audrey, Oh my god, you are still alive!"

"Dan, my parents! Oh god, my parents!"

"What? What happened? Are you alright? Please tell me you are alright!"

"Dan, my parents turned into one of those things. Oh my god Dan, I am so scared; I don't know where to go. I don't know where to go! AHHH!"

"AUDREY! What is happening?!"

"Everyone is one of those things! Why is this happening? Why?"

"Audrey! Listen to me! Come here. Please come here. I need to see you. Everything seems safe here. Please."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I need to see you Audrey. I have to."

"Ok. I will come there. I love you so much!"

"I love you too. Come around to the side cake door…Please be careful!"

I continue to drive as quickly as I can. People come out of their homes, onto the side of the road and try to stop me for help, but they look so sick. Their eyes are bleeding and they walk very strange.

I arrive to Dairy Queen and get out of the car so fast because the car is still slightly rolling. I run up to the cake door and knock as hard as I can. Dan comes to the door and grabs me to bring me inside. I take a deep breath and hug him. "I missed you so much. I can't believe what is happening. It seems like a bad dream." I sit down on the floor and bring Dan down to sit with me. Suddenly, I become sane as I stare into his eyes. I take a deep breath. "I got bit, Dan." His eyes widen and he begins to cry. "I shouldn't stay here long, but I just had to see you one last time. I know those things are coming. They like the smell of fresh meat. This is not a safe place to stay. You have to get out of here."

"I am not leaving without you. I don't care if you turn into whatever they are. I want to be with you as long as I can."

"You have to go, please. I don't know what will happen to me."

I hear a strange noise and go to the window. A football stadium sized crowd, of what looks to be infected people, is running down the road right to this location. "We have to go now, Dan!"

We head back out to the car to outrun the crowd. We drive down the road and a group of them jump out and run into the car, causing it to spin out. My heart races out of control and my vision becomes blurry. I wipe my face and my hands are stained red. Dan looks at me, frightened, like I have on a Halloween mask. I get out and come face to face to one of them. It runs past me to Dan. No! I grab it and throw it over the car. I feel a sudden power boost. My heart pounds harder and I feel stronger each second. Dan gets out of the car and runs away. I run after him and call out for him to come back. Why is he leaving me? I guess it is everyman for himself. As I am running my senses become stronger; I can smell Dan even though he is almost one hundred yards away from me now. I cannot see too clearly, but I can follow the scent of him.

I discover him hiding under a bridge and I go down to him. He tries to hit me in the head with rocks. "Stop it! It's just me, Audrey!" He crouches down, covers his eyes, and begins to pray. I look around and see rustling in the bushes. Two infected people come running out and I run into them to stop them. I grab one by the neck and bite him. He falls on the ground as I trip the other and slam a larger rock into his head. His head bursts open and oozes blood. The other one on the ground feeds off of the one I just smashed in. I turn around and Dan is gone. I still have his scent so I chase after him because he needs my help; he needs to be protected. The crowd from the road that first chased us comes from behind and starts running alongside me. Together, we find Dan fleeing into a building. I catch up to him; his smell becomes more intriguing. I outrun the others to chase him down faster. I want this fresh one to myself.

“Downtime” by T.R. Healy

It was so quiet, for a moment the dogs next door began to bark, furiously, as if something were the matter.

Alma also was surprised not to hear the familiar growl of jackhammers this morning, the whine of electric saws and the shouts of workmen. Something indeed must be the matter, she thought, as she eased into her bath water. Ever since she discovered that the old Dakota Building was going to be demolished, she had worried that something unforeseen might happen. Despite the assurances of her husband and neighbors, despite all the precautions taken by the people in charge, she remained on edge as the blast day approached, still expecting something to go wrong.

"You just can't blow up a building in the middle of a residential neighborhood," she told her husband, "and not expect some damage to occur."

Soon the hammering resumed, silencing the barking dogs, and impulsively Alma slid underwater for a moment, plugging her fingers in her ears. For nearly a week now, she had been listening to that racket coming from the Dakota Building, hour after hour until she thought her ears were going to burn off. It would all be over by the end of the week, the building reduced to rubble and dust, and she just hoped she could hold on until then without going to pieces herself.

The Dakota Building, a relic of red stone and barred windows, was for many years an apartment house for older people in the neighborhood. No one had resided there for several months, however, since it had been sold late last summer to some developers from Canada who planned to build a large office park in its place.

"It's hard to believe the Dakota isn't going to be standing there after Sunday," the mailman said to Jess as they stood across the street from the ramshackle building. "One of my aunts used to live there before she passed away, and I can remember many a Sunday afternoon visiting her there."

Jess nodded pensively. "The place has been there a long time, all right. About as long as anyone around here can remember."

"I understand it's supposed to drop in a matter of a few seconds."

"In the blink of an eye from what I've been told."

"It's hard to believe," the mailman said again as he resumed his route.

Jess removed his old baseball jersey, which was streaked with sweat, then bent over the sawing trestle and cut another large piece of plywood. He was standing in the driveway of old lady Coble's house, sawing and stacking wood that later he would fit over her front windows to protect them from incurring any damage from the blast. Along with several other people in the neighborhood, he had agreed to put up scaffolding for the homes of the older residents who were located within the immediate vicinity of the Dakota Building. He had taken off the past three days from work to gather blisters the size of raspberries on his hands.

Usually he worked alone, but sometimes Midge stopped by in the afternoon, not to help but to talk. He and Jess had met in the Army while being trained in demolitions. That was almost nine years ago, and they had not seen one another since then, until Jess happened to recognize his old acquaintance the other week at the Dakota Building and identified himself. Midge remembered him after a moment, smiled and shook his hand, and quickly they disclosed what they had been up to since their discharge.

"I'm still in the smithereens business," Midge admitted then, explaining that for the past year and a half he had been working for the general demolition contractor on the Dakota project.

"I always figured you enjoyed blowing things up a little too much."

He chuckled. "To be honest, Jess, it's the money I make that helps me retain my enthusiasm for the work. But I can't deny I still get a kick out of dropping something big like the Dakota."

"This is the first time a structure of this size has ever been demolished with explosives inside the city limits."

"So I understand," he said. "I guess this really puts your little neighborhood on the map."

Jess nodded. "Thousands of people are expected to be out here to watch the blast."

"All the attention we get is what makes our work so different from what you and I did as soldiers. Now I sometimes feel as if I'm part of a circus that has come to town. People pester me with questions, ask to have their pictures taken with me, ask for my autograph, want to buy me a drink or take me to dinner. It's incredible."

"The daring young man on the flying trapeze, are you now?"

He laughed. "Believe me, Jess, we get the royal treatment practically wherever we go. And you know what, chum? It feels great."

"I bet it does," Jess replied, also laughing.

"You ought to try it sometimes," he cackled. "Hell, everybody ought to have the chance to be in the spotlight at least once in their lives."

"Guess what?" Jess asked his wife as he rushed into the kitchen where she was rinsing a bowl of strawberries.


"I saw a ghost today... Someone I haven't seen in years. We were in the Army together."

"What's your friend doing here?" She smiled. "Haunting some old house or something?"

"You could say that I guess. He's here to blow up the Dakota."

"You'd think he'd've had enough of that sort of work in the Army?"

"This isn't the same thing at all, Alma," Jess insisted. "He's the toast of the town these days, not some raggedy soldier anymore."

Throughout dinner Jess talked about Midge, so that he almost seemed to be an invisible guest at the table. He recounted some of the projects Midge had told him he had worked on, marvelling at all of the different places Midge had visited in the country and at the enthusiastic reception he had received in many of those places. Midge was as much of a celebrity, he told his wife, as that fellow in Texas who puts out oil fires all around the world.

"He scracely knows anything more about escarcelys than I do," Jess said, "yet he's regarded as some kind of wizard if you will."

You could be him, Alma thought to herself, knowing exactly what was going through her husband's mind this moment. You could be crisscrossing the country, earning pocketfuls of money and being treated like someone special if you didn't have to be stuck here with your pregnant wife.

The more Jess went on about his old Army acquaintance, the more suspicious she became that he was going to leave with him after the blast on Sunday. Ever since she became pregnant Alma had expected Jess to go away again, unable to accept the responsibility of finally settling down and raising a family. She had always assumed he would leave her for another woman, not to blow up buildings, but one served the same purpose as the other she supposed so long as his independence wasn't threatened.

She would not be able to track him down this time, she knew, she was too far along in her pregnancy to be wandering all over the place. She had become as slow as an old woman during the past month, breathing heavily just climbing up the stairs. She grimaced a moment, recalling the long drive she had made last time in search of Jess, finding him barely conscious in a dreary little lounge at the coast with a woman twice his age. This time, if he left, he would be gone forever, she feared.

Late on Friday afternoon, two days before the blast, Midge invited Jess to accompany him as he supervised the loading of explosive charges on the cast iron columns in the basement and first floor of the Dakota Building. They proceeded cautiously through the restricted area, through all the rubble from the walls that had already been knocked down by the workers, slowly circling the exposed columns. They had been trained in the service to demolish targets without regard to the effects of the blast, but the demolition this Sunday had been designed to minimize the damage to other property in the neighborhood.

"If you kick the supports out of a building," Midge reminded Jess, "the only way it can go is down."

Jess remembered. "Kill the body and the head dies."

"There you go, chum."

After a moment, Midge paused before a column on the first floor then looked at Jess, smiling tautly. "Do you want to decorate this tree?"

"Are you serious?"

"Sure, why not? You're qualified. You received the same demolition training as I did."

"All right, if you say so."

"I say so."

Jess mounted the stepladder beside the column then helped another worker secure the explosive charge to the side of the column. Surprisingly, he was relaxed, sure of himself after all these years.

"It appears you've still got the knack for this kind of work."

He nodded. "It's like riding a bicycle: once you learn you never forget."

"I guess you learned well, Jess. I guess both of us did."

For the past three years, Jess had been sitting at his desk on Friday afternoons, sipping a mug of coffee, sorting through and reviewing different policy claims, and not once had he ever experienced this kind of satisfaction in his work. He felt at this moment as if he had really been doing something that mattered, not simply putting in time until it was five o'clock and he could go home. Suddenly he considered the possibility of leaving the insurance business and going to work for Midge on a regular basis, even though he knew Alma would object, not wanting him to be on the road all the time and fearing he might become injured working with explosives. He tried to shake the idea from his thoughts, but it remained there, like a dull ache at the back of his head.

That evening, at dinner, Jess told Alma that he had been invited inside the Dakota the night before the blast to help Midge attach the firing mechanisms to the explosive charges. He was barely able to contain his enthusiasm as he told her, nervously tapping his steak knife against the edge of the table. "He also invited me to watch the blast with him from the command post," he said.

"I'd assumed you were going to watch it with me?"

He looked at her, his face clouded with confusion. "I didn't know you were really interested in watching it. You never acted as if you did."

"Maybe you weren't listening to me, Jess."

"Oh, I was listening all right. I was listening with both ears, and you weren't showing the slightest bit of interest until just now."

She swung her legs out from under the kitchen table, leaning back a little in her chair. "You really want to go, don't you?"

"Well, I told Midge I'd help him out, and I don't see any reason to renege now."

Her eyes sizzled in anger. "I mean, Jess, you want to go away from here... from me... from this child of yours I am carrying."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I know you, Jess. You'd leave with your Army friend in a heartbeat if he asked you because you find things here too small and confining."

Jess slumped in his chair, his shoulders turning in as if he were suddenly being embraced by someone. "I can't deny I've thought about it, sure. But it's not because I want to leave you or the child. It's because I believe I could provide a better life for us with the money I'd be making with Midge."

"This time, if you go," she fumed, "don't expect me to be coming after you. Not this time, Jess."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," he said again, wondering if she might be right after all.

It was dusk. The first floor of the Dakota Building was almost as dark as the basement. Carefully, workers crept across the dusty floor, making the final preparations for the implosion tomorrow morning.

Jess, holding a flashlight, watched as Midge rigged a firing mechanism to the base of another column, considering to himself whether he really wanted to go to work for Midge as he had speculated the other afternoon. He thought so, but he wasn't sure. Obviously the demolitions business didn't promise to make him rich or famous, but it did offer at least the prospect of gaining the sort of attention and prosperity he could never gain working in an insurance office. If not a step into the spotlight, he thought, it was at least a step out of the shadows.

Moments later, as they moved on to rig another column, a worker came up to Midge. "We've had an unexpected visitor, boss."

Midge sighed with irritation. "Who is it now? Another neighbor trying to take pictures of the inside of the building?"

"Not quite, boss," the man grinned. "A kid was spotted climbing the fence at the north end and throwing something into the building."

"What was it?"

"He said it was just a stick so we checked it out, but instead of a stick we found a dead snake."


The man laughed hoarsely. "At first the kid denied he threw it, but after a little persuasion he admitted the snake was his pet."

"So why in the hell did he throw it into the building?"

"Because he wanted to give it a memorable burial, he said."

Midge glanced at Jess, shaking his head. "You think you've heard it all, then something like this happens."

"What do you want me to do with the snake?"

"Let it lie," he laughed. "And tomorrow morning it'll have the most memorable burial this kid could have ever hoped for. Under six stories of dust."

"You're the boss."

Midge proceeded to another column, still laughing about the incident with Jess, who continued to hold the flashlight as Midge installed another firing mechanism. Time passed slowly, and as it did Jess recalled an instructor he and Midge had in training who used to tell them before they began a field exercise, "Now get out there, troops, and make some memories." He was still trying to carry out that order he supposed. Otherwise why else was he here tonight with Midge, if not to make some memories, like the boy with the snake. He regarded the preparations for the demolition as a chance to revive some of the special moments he had shared with Midge in the service. But he was only fooling himself, he knew the past could not be repeated. Now it was necessary to make some new memories, and thinking of the child Alma was carrying, he was confident the future would be full of such memories.

"It's time to go," Jess said as he touched his wife on the shoulder.

She rolled over on her side, groaning softly.

"It's time for the big bang everyone's been waiting for," he whispered.

She rubbed her eyes. "I thought you were going to watch it with your Army friend."

"I changed my mind," he said tersely. "Now let's got a move on. Rise and shine."

It was still dark out, but already the streets were filled with spectators, pressed as close as possible to the barriers that had been set up to cordon off the immediate area of the blast site. By the time Alma and Jess had made their way to the porch of one of their neighbors around the block, however, a sliver of sunlight began to appear through the clouds. Strings of balloons were visible from some of the surrounding houses, along with carpets that had been hung in the windows as protection against the blast. And to their right rose the Dakota Building, appearing as if it would be there forever.

A warning siren was sounded at the two-minute mark, which was greeted with a chorus of cheers and whistles from the crowd.

Alma, startled by the siren, edged closer to Jess. "Don't you wish you were up closer to the front row?"

He shook his head as the siren issued another warning. "I can see everything just as well from right here."

"You're sure?"

He gripped her wrist, gently stroking her hand. "I'm positive."

Then, with fifteen seconds to go, the siren sounded for the last time.

"Here we go, everybody," someone shouted anxiously from the driveway. "Hold on tight."

Suddenly then, after what sounded like an enormous drum being beaten, the old building shuddered and collapsed in a black cloud of dust. At once, there were cheers and shouts from the thousands of spectators. Some also rang bells and blew horns, as if it were New Year's Eve.

"It fell so quickly," Alma marvelled. "Like a house of cards."

"It's always faster to tear something down than it is to put it up."

"So it seems."

Jess stared at the thick cloud of dust that had already begun to envelop the crowd. "Alma, I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"For ever thinking of going away with Midge. I didn't mean to upset you. Honestly, I didn't."

She pressed a finger against his lips. "Let's not talk about it anymore. That's all in the past, Jess, just like the Dakota Building."

“Public Complacency ” by Randall W. Pretzer

"My goal is the destruction of public complacency." Volsen said. Volsen and Michelis sat across from each other Indian style in a one room apartment. The room itself was empty. Volsen was a heavy set man with a thick, dark beard and thick-blacked rimmed glasses. He was dressed in a torn up suit. He had no tie or jacket. It was just the shirt, pants and socks. He had taken off his boots.

"What is freedom? An illusion. The right to care only for yourself? You work alone. The world at large doesn't matter? This must change," Volsen said.

"Why would you want to destroy the right to feel self-satisfied?" Michelis said. Michelis was dressed in black jeans and a white t-shirt. He was wearing black boots. He was a watch maker. He and Volsen had met up in school. They were assigned as partners for a school project and from there they developed a close friendship. Michelis didn't understand Volsen at this point and his new atittude. However, he was a loyal friend and if this meant that much to Volsen, Michelis would go along with it.

"How can anyone feel self-satisfied when this world is destroying itself?" Volsen said.

"I don't know, but is it not their right and privilege to feel a sense of self-satisfaction?"

"In our society, it is their right but that doesn't make it right. Their self-satisfaction has caused them to not care. It has destroyed their hearts. Their feeling of satisfaction has destroyed their desire to help the world. We must rebuild it. We must feel satisfied for everyone and not just ourselves."

"Can we not just try to convince them that those words are what we all should live by?"

"The time for talk had passed. We have reached the point of no return."

"We always have options."

"We have options but there is only one right option."

"We may not convince anyone, but wouldn't it count for everything that we made the effort? It matters only that we do our best."

"I want results. I don't want a wish unfulfilled. A dream that remains only a dream. I want the fantasy to be the reality. It will happen. We will make it happen."

"This world has so little talk now."

"Because it is so ineffective. Words don't create, actions do."

"Actions come from words. I think talking would be worth a try."

"The effort to talk put me in prison."

"You did something. That is what counts."

"Where did it get me?"

"Does it matter?"

"I said I wanted results, not just the satisfaction that I tried. We still have nothing."

"We got something."

"No more talk. It is time to act. You can come with me or I will go alone."

"I am with you no matter what, Volsen. I just disagree."

"We must act soon."

"Yes, Volsen."

Michelis and Volsen were walking through a department store called Wilson's. They were dressed the same as before. Volsen had put his boots back on. The sections of the store were each separated by a small walk way. The areas were square. There were signs hanging from the ceiling over each of the areas identifying what was sold in each area. They stopped in Men's ties. They both stood side by side right in front of the counter and waited for an employee to come help them.

"I want to show you an exercise in futility, my friend." Volsen said.

"It is the effort, not the result. This employee may not be self-satisfied in this world and that could be a start for a brave new world." Michelis said.

"He doesn't care. He wouldn't be working here if he did."

"We all have to survive. You don't work and you don't get paid and since there is not any government aid anymore, you won't survive. You have to give them a break. We have so much time on our hands because our parents take care of us."

"We all should be willing to make sacrifices."

"What good is anyone when they are no longer alive?"

"They died with their boots on... with meaning... for a purpose... that is what it is all about."

"You can accomplish more by living."

"Enough. This man will illustrate my point." Volsen banged on the counter.

"Is there anyone here?"

An employee came in front of Michelis and Volsen.

"I am sorry about that guys, how may I help you?" Volsen read the employees name tag. It read Johnston.

"I want to ask you something, Johnston."


"How do you feel about the world?"

Johnston looked at Volsen with a funny look. He didn't know what to think about the question.

"I never really thought about it..."

"You should."

"What is there to think about?"

"The violence... the decay... it is all around us..."

"The store seems pretty quiet to me today."

"The world is falling apart. The fact that a store like this exists proves my point."

"I am sorry, sir, I just work here. I don't have any answers for you."

"I am sorry about this, sir." Michelis said.

"It is all right."

"Let's go, Volsen. I think the point is made."

"You will understand." Volsen said looking at the employee.

Volsen and Michelis left the area and then left the store. They sat down on a nearby slab in front of the store and waited for their parents to come pick them up.

“Report on Humanoid-666” by Robert T. Tuohey

Humanoid-666 is a crossbreed species consisting of native Third Stone life-forms inter-laced with a dash of our own divine Avarian genes. It is my contention that the non-inclusion of feathers, resulting in flightless-ness, has caused this experiment to be such a horrendous botch.

The destructive, violent tendencies of humanoid-666 are well documented. "These featherless freaks," to quote a colleague's recent address to the Elder Council, "are the only life-form in the Universe that delights in wanton slaughter – even of their kind!" In fact, very strange to report, all humanoid-666 languages contain a word to describe their own unnatural behavior: they term it "murder".

The savage proclivities of this experimental species are thought to be the result of the design-feature of intellect out-weighing emotion: humanoid-666 possesses one-tenth of the average Avarian intelligence with less than one percent of our intuition. Thus, these pitiful creatures, having no relationship with their environment, each other, or even themselves, fall into bloody rages.

Next, the sexual wet-wiring of humanoid-666 is naught but a tangled nightmare. The fundamental problems are 1) rampant, uncontrolled reproduction (Third Stone resources are currently at near breaking-points), and 2) an entire catalogue of sexual deviations and abnormalities. To be humanoid-666 means to be obsessed with sex – and that obsession is likely aberrant in nature.

No Feathers! My fellow Avarians, I here lay it down as a Universal Law: Any creature without feathers is naturally doomed to idiocy.

The disturbing trends adumbrated above find crystallization in the rapidly declining humanoid-666 social system. Several millennium ago, these godless beings worshipped Fireball-21 (which they term "the Sun"), and then, in what was their one brilliancy, they represented this celestial rover in the form of a Bird-God (e.g., "Horus"). By the present time, however, they have degenerated to worshipping god-men (a ridiculous contradiction), or, in many cases, nothing at all.

Humanoid-666 is a dismal, pathetic failure.

Happily, however, we need not worry ourselves in terminating this experiment, as, in all likelihood, these creatures will soon exterminate themselves.

The Third Stone, however, is wonderfully resilient, and will be entirely salvageable. With rosy anticipation, I look forward to the development and introduction of feather-based life forms.

// end //

“Breakable Big Brothers” by Mary Modney

I awoke with a sinking feeling that followed me all morning. It hovered over me as I brushed my teeth and slurped my Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It gnawed at me as I looked up at the photos of my big brother on the refrigerator... Michael clenching a baseball bat in his purple uniform, Michael with his arm wrapped around Mickey Mouse and another of us lounging in a pool.

Ignoring the bad feeling, I began to prep for rollerblading. The neighborhood kids were already out, flying past the window on all kinds of wheels. I didn't waste a minute.

Out in the garage, I armed myself with knee pads, elbow pads, wrist pads and a pink helmet. And somewhere in the process of strapping them all on, I noticed that my brother's skates were missing from the red wagon where we stored our gear.

My mother, hearing the heavy door close behind me, poked her head into the garage to make sure no bare joints were showing. Her face relaxed a bit when she heard the soft ripping of Velcro and saw my brown bangs smashed against my forehead.

"Is that tight enough?"

I nodded.

"Your brother is already down there."

Our steep driveway swept me all the way to the top of the cul-de-sac. I skidded to a stop. The circle was at the bottom of a steep hill. Two sidewalks framed the road like ladders to the top of a tall slide. Kids of all ages piled at the top with skateboards, rollerblades, bicycles and wagons, waiting to fly down again.

My brother Michael was one of them. His long hair flowed as he skated backward in effortless figure eights, unhindered by plastic padding. He flashed his big, buck-toothed smile to one of the older boys and flew back down the hill like a professional skier down a black diamond slope.

I admired my big brother. He knew all sorts of facts--like what planet Luke Skywalker was from in the movie "Star Wars." And he wore the coolest styles--high-top sneakers and flannel shirts. But most of all, I admired him because he looked out for me. Once, when I swam too far out in Lake Ontario, he even saved me from drowning.

My bad feeling returned. It was my turn. My toes rolled over the edge of the hill, and there was no turning back. Faster! Faster! Faster! I rolled. My wheels glided smoothly to where the hardtop leveled off. I'd made it!


My head twisted around. My brother was lying on the blacktop, rocking back and forth, hugging his arm. As I inched closer, I could see the tears streaming down his hot cheeks. I looked down at him and was panicked by something strange in his bloodshot blue eyes: Fear.

It was my turn to save him. My whole body froze.

"Go get Mom! Get her! Go!"

The rest of this day is a little blurry. I can see snippets of my mother racing to the bottom of the sidewalk and bracing Michael as he walked home. She would slip between sympathy for his injury and anger over his lack of pads.

An hour later, in a dim, cramped hospital room, I watched a doctor wrap my brother's arm with a slimy white bandage that would harden into a cast. Michael's face was still red, still vulnerable.

My brother's arm eventually healed, but after that day he never stopped being fragile in my eyes. A year or so later he would be diagnosed with mental illness. But this was the day he stopped being my big brother and became someone I had to look out for.

The days of skating with the neighborhood kids became a thing of the past, just as seeing my brother during the day became a thing of the past. Daytime was now a time for sleeping, not playing. I would tiptoe past his room, careful not to wake him. Months would go by before I'd catch a glimpse him. And for those who wondered where he'd disappeared to, we'd say he "just happened to come down with something." This simply meant his manic depression had locked him in his dark room once more.

No new photos of him ever appeared on the refrigerator again.

“A Conch Wedding, Part Deux” by Brittany Durk

"A Conch Wedding," because Jen was marrying Nick, and we were all in Atlanta for a week of partying; "Conch" because that's what the girls and I called ourselves, due to a spring break spent in Key West, otherwise known as the Conch Republic; Part Deux because I had been the first Conch to bite the big one. Truth be told, I was missing my divorce hearing for the wedding; a Circle of Life, I'd say. So far this trip had been filled with drunken hilariousness, but there was an underlying tone of despair. Not only were we sad that our once wild and carefree Jen was settling down, but we weren't too sure about the guy she was marrying. Apparently he had a small drug problem, and we hadn't seen much affection between the two of them, so we were more than a little wary. Jen hadn't been too forthcoming with us in regards to Nick's shortcomings, either. Whatever the case, no matter if she had shared with us or not, you can't change fate. She was going to marry Nick anyhow and all we could do was be there for her and try our best to like him.

Soon the Day of Reckoning was upon us. The pictures of us standing at the altar were priceless: Megan, picture perfect as usual, the eternal actress; Linda, looking as if she wanted to throw down with the groom (which I know she did); me, dazed and confused; Lisa, making eyes at her boyfriend; Jen's sister–in-law Kristi, also looking as though she wanted to punch the groom; and last but not least, Anna, the groom's sister, strangely hopeful. Was she thinking that perhaps Jen could save Nick from himself? Who knew; maybe she could.

The wedding reception consisted of dancing, more drinking, and me trying to get with one of the groomsmen. I thought I was going to be victorious, when all of a sudden he disappeared without a trace. Dammit. Another one bites the dust, I suppose. At least I was adequately lubricated to deal with the heartache. No one had seen Nick all night, including Jen, and I was trying to steer clear of that drama as well.

"Oh, it's you! Did you find a place for us to go?" I asked, resigned to the fact that the rest of my night would include Daniel (Nick's brother) drunkenly following me around, me being depressed over Chris and, of course, more alcohol. One of Daniel's friends joined us for the plan making. I recognized him as the guy who'd drunkenly invited me to after bar while I was talking with Chris earlier. I think I called him Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger or something. Chris had laughed, telling me that at least I had plans for later that night, if all else fell through. Little did I know he would be the thing to fall through and I would be stuck with this fucking freak, the drunkest man alive.

After much debate, we decided to head back to the hotel bar. When it was my turn to crawl into the shuttle, the only seat left was next to Daniel, and his loser friend. The loser friend had managed to sneak a double of scotch for the ride. I muttered something about Southern men and their scotch. Daniel heard me and took that as an invitation to start talking again. He asked if I liked wine; I told him I did, I enjoyed Italian wines. He told me he had been to Italy. I imagined him in his polo shirt and khaki shorts, loafers with no socks, drinking wine from a carafe in Tuscany. Somehow it didn't all fit together. I giggled to myself, his Southern drawl in a sea of Italian accents. My thoughts were interrupted by his friend, whose name I found out was Peter, screaming at the driver to play some "mother fucking Widespread Panic." "Didn't he know they were from Georgia?" "Where was the mother fucking Widespread Panic?" I giggled until Daniel made the mistake of touching my leg, full palm. I wiped his hand off of my knee and told him I didn't think he needed to drink anymore.

Once at the hotel, the bartender was closing up and wouldn't let us order glasses of wine anymore, so Peter (aka Ralph Lauren, Widespread Panic) bought a few bottles. I was a little surprised that Daniel hadn't offered to buy, but he was so drunk at that point it was a miracle he could stand.

Speaking of Daniel, I finally called him on his weird staring habit. "What?"

"What, Brittany?" he asked back with that glazed look on his face.

I sighed; this could go on all night. I decided to attempt conversation. "So what's a day like in the life of Daniel?"

He laughed drunkenly, then stared blankly into space. I fought the urge to roll my eyes. "Well," he said after a very pregnant pause,"work, golf, family, that's really it."

He wasn't giving me much to go off of, although I can't imagine what else I thought he might say. Daniel was the type of guy who would run for President someday; reminded me of a young Bill Clinton, only not as smooth. I was about to excuse myself to the ladies room when David (Nick's dad) slid a hand around my waist and laid a sloppy kiss on my cheek. I caught his wife's eye in the distance, playing warden, although I couldn't blame her. David asked me for the twentieth time if I was having a good time. After assuring him that I was, I escaped to the bathroom to stare at myself in the mirror, trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me that a nice guy like Chris would run away from me, but guys like David and Daniel couldn't seem to get enough of me. I felt like Marilyn Monroe, always attracting the wrong type of man. Maybe I had a sign on my forehead that read "damaged" or "easy" or some other warning that made available men run out of my path.

When I sat back down at the bar, Peter swooped in. Make that available men who weren't ass holes. "Hey, baby, gimme a cigarette," he whined, stroking my arm with his forefinger.

I grimaced and slapped his hand away. "I don't have any."

"I can see them in your purse!" He pointed out, indignant.

"Well, the one that I would have given you is gone, so you're out of luck. Ask someone else," I muttered back and took a sip (gulp) of wine.

He checked out the people at the bar, calculating who else might give him one. "Baby, ask that gay guy if I can bum a smoke."

He hadn't even tried to be quiet, and the guy was sitting two bar stools away. "Stop calling me baby! And you don't know if that guy is gay or not, you can't say things like that! I hope you get your ass kicked," I whispered furiously in his ear.

"What? That asshole is totally gay! Look at him," he pointed. I grabbed his finger as he smiled slyly at me, like a damn fifth grader.

"Well, you can ask him yourself."

Peter turned on the charm and the guy gave him a handful of Capris. Must be nice to have been raised Southern, used to getting whatever you want and charming the hell out of people when it's not so easy. We walked outside and sat down on the pavement.

I spotted a golf cart. "Wouldn't it be fun to cruise around the grounds in that?"

Daniel immediately rose from his own spot on the pavement, grabbed me by both hands and dragged me over to the golf cart.

"Daniel, what are you doing?" I cried, as everyone stared on in amazement, except Peter, who was laughing his ass off. Daniel didn't answer, only unzipped the plastic cover on the cart, took a seat inside and started fiddling around.

"Hey man, you might want these. Not going to get very far without them." The shuttle driver had seen Daniel and was waving the cart keys in the air, laughing.

"Get in," Daniel winked at me as the cart started to roll backwards.

"Oh my God, it's moving! Get out of there, you're going to get into trouble!" He wasn't ever going to be President carrying on like he was, that was for sure. Who would have ever thought a conservative Southern void would know how to hotwire a golf cart? Although I suppose if there was anything he would know how to hotwire, a golf cart would be it. He laughed with more than a trace of cockiness and stepped out of the cart. I walked past him to go to the bar for more wine.

After bribing the bartender with a twenty for a glass of wine, I complained to Linda about my unlucky evening. I think she thought I was going to make out with Daniel or something. She and I stepped out again, just as Daniel climbed into a cab. About time. I noticed Peter, though, was not joining him.

"Aren't you leaving, too?" I asked rudely.

He winked at me (damn those Southern men with their winks and their baby's) and drawled," Nah, I'm staying in y'all's room."

"The hell you are!" My southern diva was coming out. "You need to get a cab to take your drunk ass home. No way are you staying in our room!"

Linda laughed and said, "Oh fuck no," while walking away, leaving me to deal with the impending disaster.

"C'mon, I'll sleep on the floor! Let me stay in your room. We can order pizza!" He persuaded suavely.

More words were spoken or yelled, I think I blacked out or Peter cast some sort of spell on me, because suddenly I heard myself saying, "Fine, fine! You can stay in our room, but you're sleeping on the cot. Don't look at us, smell us, touch us, nothing. Dammit, you better not piss me off, I swear to God! I will make you get your own room! And you better order me a pizza!"

We walked up to the front desk to get Peter a blanket, and to find out where we could order a pizza at three in the morning; apparently nowhere. Peter kept cussing at the lady at the front desk; I kept cussing at him for being so rude. He kept calling me baby; I kept freaking out on him. I swear the lady working the desk must have thought we were married or something. Linda had ditched us. She said she was going to keep drinking for a while, but I had had it with the whole night and wanted to sleep. Peter kept whining about how he wanted some drugs and he was going to call Mr. Hathaway.

"Daniel?" I'd asked in shock.

"No, Nicholas," he slurred. "I need some fuckin' coke, baby."

"Leave the man alone, for Chrissake, it's his wedding night," I snapped on him.

"No, no, no you don't! Get your ass up and pull out the cot! Get off my bed right now!" I shrieked as Peter plopped down on the bed, discarding his shoes, sports coat and Ralph Lauren tie.

"Relax, baby," he murmured, eyeing me suggestively.

"Dude, get the fuck up and stop looking at me like that! Order me my pizza, I'm fucking hungry!" I snapped.

He sighed and picked up his phone. After being on hold for awhile, he threw the phone at me. "I'm drunk. You talk." Then he fell back down onto the bed.

I huffed in anger and waited for the options over the phone. It was asking for his account number. I threw the phone back at him. "I'm not your wife. I don't know your credit card number. Who are you calling anyways? Why don't you just call Information?"

"It's my American Express card. They can get you anything, anytime, anywhere, baby. Wait and see." Another wink, and I guess I didn't realize rich people have means poor folks like me don't. I have directory assistance, Peter had concierge service with American Express.

After cussing out three different people at American Express, including one manager, Peter finally got hung up on for requesting a pepperoni pizza, a bottle of red wine and some cocaine. The woman on the line asked him if he also wanted the number to the police station because that was who she planned on calling next. I laughed my ass off; Peter may have been an asshole but he was entertaining. Linda had ordered this weird BLT pizza for lunch that day and I remembered I had three slices left in the hotel fridge. I thought it tasted like a Cousin's sub. I had no desire to finish it, but Peter and I were so drunk and hungry we did anyhow. Guess what he said? "This pizza tastes like a Cousin's sub."

I‘d yelled at Peter so much in our brief time together that night, I think I managed to subdue him, but I didn't want him to pass out on my bed. After more nagging, I realized it was a losing battle and went to change into some comfortable clothes. Of course I couldn't get my dress unzipped so I had to ask him to help, which sucked because he, I'm sure, took it the wrong way. I followed up with a slew of insults to set him straight in any case.

When I came out of the bathroom in a t-shirt and gym shorts, I sat opposite from him on the bed. Good thing it was a king sized; he was sprawled all over the damn place and I was hanging off the edge. I wondered if he could feel my rage from where he was laying. He turned an eye towards me and said, "Hey baby. What are you wearing over there?"

I sighed. My endless attempts at getting him to stop calling me "baby" had failed, so I gave up trying. Maybe it was a Southern thing; maybe they just called everyone "baby." I was being such a jerk to him it would be a wonder if he was truly still hitting on me anyhow. I decided to loosen up and responded, "Pajamas. I couldn't sit around in that dress for one more minute. Check this out."

In an effort to become a little less than enemies, I tried to strike up a conversation about the fun he missed by not attending the bachelor/bachelorette party. I started by showing him the massive bruise on my leg. During a game of ladder golf and an impromptu bathroom break, I had fallen down a hill, taken out two people, the game, and ended up with a wedge sandal up my butt. He rolled over and looked at my leg while I told him the whole story. He laughed, but then made the mistake of taking his hand and caressing my leg with it.

I slapped his hand away. "Don't fucking touch me!"

"Then get your sexy legs out of my face!" He shot back. If he were anyone else, this would have seemed like foreplay, but I was still depressed over Chris and so annoyed with Peter, I was about to kick him out of the room for good.

Red in the face, I sputtered, "What? They're not in your face. Pull out the cot!"

He ignored me and played with his phone. I pulled out my own and started texting Linda furiously, asking her where the fuck she was, please come up and rescue me, etcetera. All of a sudden, Peter threw his phone down and said, "Dammit!"

"What now?" I asked through clenched teeth.

He sat up and leaned against the headboard. "You know, you're really beautiful… but Goddammit, you're an asshole!" He shouted, getting louder with each word.

I was stunned speechless as he stared me down. I gathered my wits and shouted back, "Me? I'm the asshole? You're an asshole, not me! And who calls a girl an asshole anyways?"

"Well, that's what you are!" He snatched the room phone and dialed the operator. "Yes, I'm in room 332 with an asshole and I need my own room. I can't stand another minute with this woman. Dammit, I don't care if the hotel is full, I will sleep on the floor. She's going to kill me in my sleep!"

This went on for another minute or two, and had the appropriate affect; me laughing until my sides hurt, my head shoved in a pillow. When Peter hung up the phone, I giggled, "Fuck you."

Peter snorted back, "The chick asked if I was having issues with the Misses!"

He stood up and kept it going by announcing, "I can't take this anymore. I don't deserve to be treated this way. I'm leaving!"

I laughed out loud as I said, "Good! Leave then. Get your own damn room!"

Peter stood up and walked towards the door, sans jacket, tie and shoes. I heard a door slam, but looked up in time to see in the mirror across from me that he had walked into the bathroom. He'd opened the door a crack to see if I was watching.

"I can see you, idiot!" I rolled my eyes. "The door is to your left!"

He walked back out and frowned. "Why do you have to be so mean?"

He settled back onto the bed and asked, "So, asshole, what's your story?"

Since I no longer felt the threat of molestation, I gave in and started talking. I told him I was a writer, had just gone through a divorce, that I was moving to New York to start over. He told me he worked for Nick's dad and loved his job, golfed, of course, and loved David Sedaris. Funny, I didn't even think he could read. Finally, Linda entered and headed straight for the cot.

"Linda, no! You're sleeping in the bed honey, he was just moving. Get up," I hissed at Peter, who continued to lay there like a sack of potatoes.

Linda proceeded to pull out the cot and fell into it, fully clothed. I sighed. She would most likely pass out in three minutes. I walked over and knelt down beside her.

"Linda, Peter is sleeping on the cot. Come on, I'll help you get out of this dress."

I stroked her hair with one hand as she started crying. "My best friend has just made the biggest mistake of her life, and there's nothing I can do about it," she moaned.

I took a deep breath. "I know honey, I know. It'll all be okay."

She looked up at me. "How?"

"I don't know, it just will. It has to be. Things work out however they're supposed to, but there's nothing we can do about it."

"I know," she whispered and fell into dreamland.

I shot Peter a look, though he pretended not to see me as I walked past him and into the bathroom. When I got out, I turned on the TV and began looking for a movie.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Getting a movie, can't sleep now. Your friend Nick better not fuck my friend over," I added as I stared at the list of movies available for rental.

Peter was quiet for a minute. "What movie are you getting?"

"He's Just Not That Into You," I replied and pressed purchase on the remote, fifteen dollars for a couple of hours of mindless activity. A fitting movie for my night.

"Total chick flick."

"Yeah, I'm a romantic, what can I say?" Jaded, cynical me.

"Me, too," he said back in a surprisingly honest tone. I looked over at him with one eyebrow raised, but he'd finally passed out.

The next morning, I opened one eye and felt around to make sure Peter hadn't ventured towards my side of the bed. He hadn't; he'd stayed on top of the covers on his side, I was safely tucked in on mine. I gave him a small bit of credit. Maybe he wasn't such a jerk, maybe he was just drunk and didn't feel like going home, or going home to be alone. Maybe we had all been in a weird place after witnessing the wedding that never should have been.

"I feel like hammered shit," he groaned to confirm that he was, indeed, joining the land of the living.

"Me, too. I think I'm still drunk." I buried my head back in the pillow and cursed that last glass of Merlot.

Linda stood up in her wrinkly taffeta dress, hair everywhere. "What time is it?

Before I could answer her, Peter picked up his phone to call someone. "Hey Mama! Happy Mother's Day..."

Oh, shit! I'd almost forgotten. I was going to take my mother out for dinner after flying home that night, probably with one of the more noteworthy hangovers of my drinking career. These Southern boys cracked me up. Peter, sleeping in a stranger's room after a night filled with bad behavior, still calling his mother first thing in the morning. Were they all Mama's boys? I snickered as he glared at me to shut up.

After he hung up, he rolled over and looked around the room. "Who took my tie off last night?"

Just as I was about to say something smart like how I would rather kill myself than have taken off one article of his clothing, he went on dryly, "Don't worry, honey. I know it wasn't you!"

I smirked; even with a hangover he was funny. I relaxed once more and felt bad for coming down so hard on him. "Sorry for being such a jerk last night. I didn't mean to be so evil, but I don't even know you and you wanted to stay in our room, and…"

He interrupted,"It's okay. We had a good time, right? I probably was an asshole anyhow."

"Yeah," I said and left it at that.

"You guys want to get some breakfast?" Linda asked. We all stood up, patted down our ratty hair and headed towards the lobby. Linda and I caught a glance at Peter's curly blonde locks standing every which way. She smoothed them down, then roughed them back up again. Peter was turning into our little pet, a toy for our amusement. We all giggled, obviously still slightly inebriated.

As soon as we made it down to the lobby, I headed straight for the food. Peter went to the front desk to call a cab, just as Linda got hijacked by David himself, who had seen us getting off the elevator with Peter. Shit; so much for not looking like cheap white trash. Oh well. Linda tried to tell him we had all just passed out (I don't know how that sounded better than what he was envisioning), and he told her that Peter was nothing but trouble, as if we couldn't tell that for ourselves.

Linda and I sat down to eat. "Where's Peter?" I asked.

She spotted him at the front door, walking out without saying goodbye. "There he goes." A fitting end, I thought.

Jen called me just as we were on our way to the airport. She told me that she and Nick had fought the whole night of the wedding. She said that she'd had a picture in her mind of how her wedding was supposed to be, but that it hadn't matched up at all. I told her that was what everyone thought. I didn't have the heart to tell her I knew how she felt, because I didn't want her to think I was comparing her marriage to my own, doomed from the start. I didn't have any words of advice for her, I just listened. She hadn't confided in me in a really long time, I think because she and I are so similar, and because we'd been through a lot of the same things. She didn't want to curse herself by seeing if we were still parallel. That's what I would think if I were her, anyhow. I wished her a happy honeymoon and told her to have lots of sex and call me when she got back. She and I texted for the rest of the day about Chris and Peter, and I wished her more happiness than I think I've ever wished anyone in my whole life. What else was I going to say? You can't change fate.

“Imaginary Friends” by Matthew Dexter

Where are my imaginary friends when I need them? They're never here when you really need them. I jumped the fence leading into the neighbor's backyard, approaching the swing set with caution because I wanted to blend in like a ghost, invisible and any evidence only circumstantial. I cut the black rubber baby swing with the butcher knife.

Not all the way across but just far enough to break when the baby picked up velocity. I wanted her to go down in the dirt with a snap, but not get hurt. Revenge can be hurtful, but never physical. As a mother myself of two little darlings, with no husband anymore thanks to this swing set and the unforgivable cloudless things that happened yesterday morning about forty minutes after midnight inside the yellow jungle gym tent on top.

"They thought they were so smart and silent," I said to myself.

"With the doggies barking a few houses down and an awkward animalistic position of submission I didn't even recognize old Harry was capable of."

"She looked like a defeated wrestler about to be beaten into submission when I made the decision to run downstairs for the camera."

She thought only the full moon was watching, but I didn't even need my telescope to see the dark side of the moon that night, the binoculars were perfect, and as soon as I develop the pictures from her teenage son who works at the photo mart this afternoon she won't be singing any more scriptures in the Our Lady of Perpetual Paradise choir downtown, where her husband is the pastor, or was until I decided to meddle in my neighbor's business. (She has certainly been meddling in mine.)

Anyway, I knew how precious little ones were and safety was my second concern, right behind vengeance. Or maybe it was my third priority, humiliation being the inspiration for settling the score. I first met my late husband Harry in the hospital delivery room when he was busy pulling me into this dizzy world while I was crying and screaming my eyes out, wishing I was anywhere else.

"Well, I guess we don't have to worry about another Rainy male tearing up the neighbor's prize winning tulip garden with tennis racquets or breaking my damn apples and mailboxes into a million little pieces with wiffleball bats," he said, gently smothering me inside the complimentary blankie and placing me against my mother's chest.

Decades later he would carry me in his arms and smile that same expression of wonderment, but with a different weight in his hands when he took me to bed for the first time and made our marriage official. Twenty beautiful years together when I get an unusual message in the mail last week during a midday thunderstorm from an ex lover banker suggesting that Harry's deeply in debt from some risky investments made during the recession and now the bank is considering the situation and it's possible they might even have legal jurisdiction for seizing some of my own assets, even foreclosing on our home if Harry can't manage to pay off all of his growing expenses and past debts.

PS: (she writes) You might want to check the jungle gym on Thursday and Monday evenings a little after midnight if Harry's not sleeping in bed next to you. Don't drink that glass of wine he gives you after dinner on those nights.

I write back to her immediately and decide to deliver the letter personally into her pretentious little mailbox, grabbing the fattest plastic yellow baseball bat I can find off the porch swing, reasoning that the aluminum one might attract lightning bolts, and besides, just because we were both born on the same day in the same hospital does not mean that we're anything more than neighbors living on the same slippery street. Spring training is just around the corner and just because she's pregnant doesn't mean I have to order her expensive congratulatory flowers or offer to take her some of my homemade apple-scented aromatherapy candles to better weather out this passing storm.

I don't care who the father of her baby is because I have other babies to worry about, but she hinted it was Harry when she came over wearing her six inch stiletto heels to complain about the broken flowers. She carried no umbrella and her hair was soaked and dripping through her white blouse. Her nipples pointed at me and seemed to grow larger and harder as more rainwater collected on her chest.

"Those flowers are a reflection of the incestuous street we've all become," I said.

"To each her own..." the botox banker with the collagen lips answered happily, pulling her pregnant stomach above her waistline for some fresh air. She stretched her breasts out almost far enough to poke my eyes out, while actually splashing me with water from her hair so she could make even more of an impact with the words waiting to roll off her salty pink tongue.

"...we've all had a little piece of Harry inside of us on this side of the street."

She backed away just before I decided to slap her; my hand only catching wind and finally a piece of her expensive blonde extensions.

"Damn you, Mary Margaret," I said. "Once a whore always a whore - taking advantage of a man with Alzheimer's - real classy thing to do."

She laughed all the way to the bank of the shallow brook at the bottom of her front yard and then jumped across the flowing current like a schoolgirl, her dress in the air as she straddled the rocky waters and the rainbow trout below.

"Thanks for the moon and nice of you not to wear any panties this afternoon sweetie - did you go commando for me or the benefit of the fish?"

"Hahaha," cackled the neighborhood slut like a demented witch; and I knew from that point on that war had just been declared on Sweet Tranquility Lane and I would get my just deserts.

I jumped the fence back into my yard and waited for Harry to come home from the hospital. I had the revolver loaded in the holster attached to my pocket and the sawed off shotgun sitting on my lap as I rocked back and forth in the antique rocking chair we inherited from Harry's parents. All I had to do was cock the gun and aim it at his head.

Too simple really, and even if I didn't know how to use it the imaginary friends told me how to do it. They knew I was lonely and my children will disown me, but nobody deserves to get away with that monkey business on the jungle gym. It's for this reason that I'm signing this handwritten confession and my attorney has advised me to plead not guilty on grounds of temporary insanity, and deliver us from evil; thy will be done.

“The Last Stump” by Edward Rodosek

A sharp morning frost woke me up from a restless slumber. I rose stamping my benumbed feet and put a thick bend branch on the glowing embers. Now remained only one great stump from the whole pile of firewood that he'd gathered last evening. Soon he has to set off to the shore and look for some driftwood, to–

I shook my head without finishing my senseless thought.

I looked at my sleeping father. When I stooped down to him I noticed his slightly trembling eyelids.

"Why don't you sleep, daddy? You should rest so you'd be on your feet soon."

Father's turbid eyes stared at me. I clearly felt he sensed my deceit as always when I'd as a child tried to lie to him.

"Do you remember–" A spasmodic cough interrupted his sentence and he had to wait till he recovered his breath. "Do you remember, many years ago, when you and I searched something edible all day long? But we found nothing except a tiny squirrel."

"How could I forget that day? Then you allowed me to shoot the animal but I missed it – what a shame!"

My father shook his head. "No harm done, sonny." The squeeze of his hand was surprisingly firm. "And then we suddenly–" His gasping prevented him from continuing talking.

"Yes – we heard a distant howling of a wolf. There must be more then one, probably a whole pack of wolves. Oh, god, how we ran! And then I stumbled and hurt my knee so you had to keep me from falling and then carrying me up to our hamlet. But then my uncle emerged with a burning branch in his hand – and the wolves took flight in panic fear."

My father nodded feeble. "The wolves are not afraid of yelling or drumming, even the shooting wouldn't scare them for long. Only the fire..." He sighed and the squeeze of his hand released. Only the hardly audible gurgling from his throat showed he was still alive.

I stepped to the lessening fire and with some difficulty managed to roll the last stump on to the ember. I shouldn't wait longer for later it probably wouldn't inflame at all.

I put my snowshoes on and meanwhile my malamutes leapt up, shaking the snow off their fur, and whimpered from eagerness to haul my sled. They knew I'd give them their first meal of frozen fish only after two hours of the trip.

At that moment I heard from the distant the well-known sound – a dreadful howl of the leader of a wolf's pack.

I wasn't able to look back to the linen shelter behind which my father was lying on the pine branches. How far the others could arrive till now? Probably up to the 'Two creeks' if they've travelled all day. All their sleds were fully loaded and I worried if they'd manage to overcome the Moose Slope. Who knows how many of us would succeed to come to Fort Laradell, where food and shelter were waiting to us.

I said, hoping my voice wouldn't tremble, "You have two dried salmons within reach."

My father's eyes avoided meeting mine. "Off with you, Kanak. You have to catch them up before dark or else–" A fit of cough interrupted him.

I didn't look back when I shouted at the dogs and cracked a whip over their heads. I heard the wolf's howl again, nearer than before.

I wiped my humid eyes with the backside of my fur gloves. Luckily, my tribe was far ahead of me so at the moment nobody could see my face, an image of their best hunter and bravest warrior.

Anyway, these tears must be from the cold wind.