The Bells

The Witches’ Bells started to toll as the Senator entered the parking garage under the US Capitol. The Bells were loud today. They had been tuned to the Capitol building.

“It’s the speed of sound,” one of her staff had explained, back when the Witches had first started ringing the Bells. It reminded her of her father teaching her as a child to count off the seconds between a lightning flash and the thunder. He’d explained that it takes sound about five seconds to travel a mile, but light travels almost instantly. So if the lightning was a mile away, you would see the flash the moment the lightning struck, but the sound wouldn’t arrive until a full five seconds later.

There were thirteen Bells located around the Capitol area, and a master computer program timed them all. One stroke every five seconds, but rung at slightly different instants so that the sound would arrive at a location of choice at exactly the same moment. People called it “tuning” the Bells.

When you were at the tuning-point, it was an uncanny, disturbing sound. It seemed to come from everywhere, and nowhere, almost like you were inside the bell. It also seemed impossible to block out the sound. The thick walls and bulletproof glass of the Capitol building only muted it. If you used earplugs, you could still feel it in your chest and belly. The relentless five-second peal got into your head, into your heartbeat, and rubbed you raw from the inside out.

But it wasn’t merely an annoyance. The Bells carried a moral burden. A curse, in fact. An actual curse.

She remembered the first news item she’d seen, five years ago: an unsteady iPhone video from a bystander watching a street-performance, accompanied by the usual snarky commentary from celebrity newscasters. The video showed a portion of the Supreme Court building in the background, and three women, pushing a long cylindrical wind chime that hung from a wheeled framework. All were dressed in full-body leotards, with hooded cloaks: one wore white, one wore black, and one wore scarlet. Their faces were painted in the same colors as their clothing, with stylized features: the woman in white had a cold, pitiless face, like a porcelain mask; the woman in black wore an expression of permanent anguish; the woman in red had the appearance of a vengeful demon from Hell. The women gathered around the wind chime and stood motionless, facing inward. A small crowd gathered.

Then the woman in white pulled a large book from a pocket inside her cloak, and a large feathered quill. She opened the book, and wrote in it with the quill. She raised her face, and called out in a loud voice.

Allison Sue Baker!

The woman in black drew a black stick from her inner cloak pocket, tipped with a dull black rubber ball, and struck the chime. It was surprisingly loud and faded slowly, as the woman in black crouched and threw back her head, hands raised in supplication to Heaven, teeth bared in a grimace of pain.

The woman in red whirled, her cloak spreading out like wings, and she lifted her hands toward the Supreme Court Building, fingers twisted into claws. She called out in a loud voice.


Then all three women screamed.

The women had powerful voices, trained voices, opera voices, and the long shriek they produced caused the entire crowd to surge backward. It seemed to go on forever, then cut off instantly. All three turned back to face the chime.

Nine times they repeated this ritual, each time calling out a different woman’s name, and cursing another of the nine Supreme Court Justices. Then they wheeled the garden chime away, separated, and vanished into the Washington crowds.

The Senator pulled into her assigned parking spot. She knew the tolling of the Bells would continue for at least another hour, perhaps two. That was the real genius — the cruel genius — of the Bells. Each toll represented one young woman’s life lost to a botched self-administered abortion.

Statistics were just numbers. Six hundred thousand abortions per year, before Roe v. Wade was overturned. Divide by 365, and you have 1600 abortions per day. Roughly half of those were now classified as homicides in states around the country, so that’s 800 per day done with a coat hanger or knitting needle, or using deadly poisons. If only half of those resulted in a fatality, that was four hundred deaths a day. Four hundred out of a population of 300 million. Negligible.

But four hundred deaths, measured by slow bell, is 33 minutes.

Every. Single. Day.

And that isn’t counting the suicides.

The Senator gritted her teeth. She threw open her car door violently, dinging the car next to hers, and found she didn’t care. She closed her door partway, and then slammed it into the other car as hard as she could. It made a satisfying scraping sound.

She got out, slammed her car door shut, and strode toward the elevator. The tolling of the Bells echoed in the concrete cave of the parking garage. A curse, a scream, a death, every five seconds.

The Witches’ Bells were all owned by the Church of the Three Sisters, a new church that had registered as a tax-exempt religious organization shortly after the Three Witches had staged their street theater a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court building.

The Church had immediately begun to preach in favor of a national law codifying a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, medical care, and privacy. There was serious money behind the movement — they had been able to purchase the thirteen properties in DC where the Witches’ Bells were located, as well as create a national network of churches throughout the country. Those churches offered places for parents who had lost daughters to come together and grieve and speak freely. That had created a powerful political coalition that had put a lot of pressure on her party to pass today’s Women’s Rights bill.

The Senator was still a freshman Senator, only two years into her first term, but she’d been hand-picked by the Majority Leader to play hard-to-get on today’s vote. It had been a key role in ensuring that today’s vote would fail. She’d felt honored, and flattered.

Her role was to pretend to be on the fence, to act as a honey-pot to attract the attention of the other side. Several of her party had already defected, and if she joined them, the other side would be able to pass the bill directly. That was the honey: the other side knew they only needed one more vote, and she courted their attention. There were other members of her party far more likely to defect under pressure, but she’d managed to draw attention away from them by playing the second-year ingénue. Her vote with her party line today would not only scuttle the bill, it would bring substantial rewards for her.

A sudden instant of overwhelming panic and doubt almost made her stumble.

Am I ready for this?

She took a deep breath, and then continued toward the Senate chambers.

The Majority leader glanced up as she entered, and he immediately moved toward her.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” he said quietly.

“It’s an important vote,” she said.

“It is,” he said. “But you’ve already done your part, and done it well. We could have managed without you today. You should be home.”

“I need to see this through,” she said, her jaw tight.

He gave her a strange look. She broke eye contact and headed toward her seat.

She paid little attention to proceedings until the Majority Leader raised the Women’s Rights bill, S.12. She stood.

“Majority Leader, I wish to address the Senate,” she said, her voice firm.

He looked up, sudden alarm in his face. This was not any part of the script they’d discussed. She waited.

After a long moment, he said, “The Chair recognizes the Senator from Texas.”

She looked around the room.

“Some of you know that my husband and I have very recently suffered a terrible loss. The rest of you should know, as well. We lost our daughter over this past weekend. She is dead. What most of you would never learn is that she died by her own hand. She was a suicide.”

There was a stir of movement around the chamber, but now she had their full attention.

“She was also pregnant.”

The room became deathly quiet. Every eye was on her.

“My husband and I are devout Christians, as you all know, and we are deeply involved with our church in Texas. We have always believed that ending a pregnancy is a sin against God, and we celebrated the overturn of Roe v. Wade five years ago. I entered politics to ensure that abortion would never again be legalized, because we believe that there is always another way, a way that does not end an innocent life. We supported our daughter. We knew her boyfriend, and we felt he was a good young man. We were disappointed that they weren’t willing to wait, but we were more than willing to bless their marriage. 

“She refused. My daughter refused. She said she would not marry her boyfriend, and she would not give birth to the child. She demanded that we take her out-of-state to abort the child.

“We didn’t understand. We tried to reason with her. We told her that we would be there for her, that we could make it work. We counseled with our pastor.

“She finally told us that her boyfriend was not the father of the child. But she would not tell us who had fathered the child. We … we still didn’t understand.”

Her breath caught. She looked down. A tear ran down her face. She straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath.

“My daughter left a note. She explained in writing everything she could not say to us.

“She wrote that her boyfriend was not the father of her child. It was her boyfriend’s father who had sired the child. It was rape. A forcible rape by a man my husband’s age.

“Had our daughter bent to our wishes, she would have quietly, obediently married her boyfriend, and would have lived the rest of her life in the terror of another rape by her father-in-law. Of another child that was not her husband’s.”

The Senator took a deep, slow breath.

“HOW IS THIS JUSTICE?” she screamed.

A babble of shouts and arguments erupted.

“I. STILL. HOLD. THE. FLOOR.” the Senator shouted, each word like a gunshot.

The babble subsided. The Senator waited for complete silence.

“I set my sights on preventing the death of an innocent life,” she said, quietly. “I destroyed two innocent lives. Not one. Two.”

She paused for a moment.

“You do not set a bone before you straighten it. You do not give birth to a child — a precious child — before you at least try to straighten the life that will raise it.

“And there are times when you must amputate a limb to save a life.

“The criminalization of abortion is wrong. It is vicious, it is arrogant, and it is wrong.

“I will vote in favor of S.12. I urge all of you to vote for it as well.

“I yield the floor.”

She sank into her seat as an uproar rose around her. She ignored it. She lost track of time.

When she returned to the room, she found the chamber empty, except for the Majority Leader, who stood in front of her.

“What will you do?” he asked.

“What will I do?”

“Your career here is over. You’ve done some damage. No, I’ll be honest. You’ve done quite a lot of damage. But it won’t really change anything.”

“Oh, that,” she replied. “Yes, once the vote is taken, I’ll step down. Health reasons, probably. I haven’t really decided. I won’t look back. You needn’t worry.”

“So what will you do?”

She thought for a long moment.

“I think I might join the Witches,” she said.

She stood and left the Senate chambers.

She did not look back.

The Last Billionaire

Eric puttered in the garden, idly chipping at the hard, dry earth with his hoe. Sweat ran down his back, soaking his shirt but offering no relief from the heat. The temperature was already 37, and it was still early in the day. It would be in the mid-40’s this afternoon.

“Come on, Papa,” he muttered to himself, glancing again at the steel door to the compound.

Almost as if in answer, the locks on the door disengaged with a loud, metallic clack, and the door swung inward to disgorge his father, dressed — as always — in the formal clothing of his station.

“We’ve got to go, Papa,” Eric said.

His father stepped out into the sun and heat, blinking rapidly. His back was straight, his head held high, but his jaw was tight.

Eric clenched his own jaw and suppressed a flood of anger.

The bastard probably yelled at Dad. Called him names. Maybe struck him, though I don’t see any marks or blood. Well, it doesn’t matter any more.

He let the hoe fall to the ground, and strode quickly to where the two stuffed backpacks lay half-concealed under a dying bush, one for each of them. He donned one — the heavier one — and carried the other back to his father, who stood, staring at the fallen hoe with a faint scowl on his face.

“You need to put your tools away, son,” his father said, his voice cultured and calm. Eric felt another wave of anger, mixed with shame. He hesitated, then bent and picked up the fallen hoe.

It’s not about the tools,” his father had told him once, when he was a hot-headed teen-ager and had thrown a garden tool to the ground in a rage. “Tools can be repaired or replaced. It’s about you, and how you approach the world around you. Are you going to care for the things in your charge, or are you going to neglect and abuse them?

“I’m sorry, Papa,” Eric said.

His father took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

“I’m sorry, too, son. Leave the hoe. Walk with me.”

Eric blinked in surprise. But anxiety won out.

“Papa, we’ve got to go! They aren’t going to wait for us.”

“There’s time. Put down your pack, and walk with me to the lake. I want to sit by it for a moment.”

Eric’s clock was the sun. His father’s clock was inside-time, atomic-time, exact time. The same time as the people waiting for them. If his father said there was time, there was time.

Eric sighed, set down his father’s pack, and shrugged out of his own. His father had already started walking into the forest.

This was the fourth forest. The first — the original forest that had stood for centuries on this land — had burned and failed to grow back, because of drought and the growing heat. The second forest had been made of sterner stuff, manufactured to look like real trees, and the result had been … disturbing. They were close to real in appearance, but not quite — the branches did not bend properly in the wind, the leaves did not rustle the way they should, the bark was too regular, and they did not smell right. Though they were designed to give the illusion of life, in reality they emphasized the deadness of the forest. They had been torn down long before the project was completed.

They were replaced by the third forest, which was made up of gardens and sculpture, with climbing, heat-tolerant vines covering arbors and tall marble columns. The heat had eventually baked the heavily-irrigated gardens and withered the vines, leaving the sculpture standing desolate and alone on bare, sun-parched earth. The sculpture was removed and replaced with the fourth forest.

The artists had this time abandoned any attempt to replicate or incorporate nature. They had instead created an abstract fantasy forest of crystal, metal, and enamel. It tinkled rather than rustled in the breezes, and when the wind rose, it would stroke taut wires and openings in hollow branches, and the forest would actually sing. Lights built into the crystalline branches and leaves would flicker and create complex patterns at night. Faintly-perfumed water was pumped through the boles of the trees, and then misted into the air, cooling the shade beneath the branches.

At the center of the forest was a small lake of clear water. The beachfront was made of natural sand that dipped artful fingers into the water. Strategically-placed benches offered striking views of the lake and its surrounding crystal forest.

It had been both beautiful and pleasing, though it was sterile.

This forest had been completed five years ago, but like any man-made art exposed to the weather, it needed constant maintenance. There had been poor maintenance for the last three years, and none at all for the past year, and there were visible signs of decay. Sand had shifted, leaving bare spots that revealed metal and fabric. Enamel had faded where the sun was brightest, and chipped where wind-borne pebbles had struck. One of the trees on the far side of the lake had lost its exterior shell on one side, blown off in a windstorm, revealing rusted iron scaffolding inside. Wind-blown trash and detritus had caught in branches.

It was still beautiful.

They found a bench in the perfume-misted shade and sat. Eric waited in silence for his father to speak.

“Ramón,” Eric’s father said after a time, pensively. “My mother named me Ramón. She looked it up in a book. She said it meant ‘wise protector.’”

He fell silent.

Eric glanced at the sun’s angle, and fidgeted impatiently.

“I am staying,” Ramón said.

Eric stopped fidgeting, and stared at his father blankly.

“Papa! We have passage arranged!”

His father was silent.

“You can’t stay here! This place is dying. You will die with it!”

His father’s shoulders slumped, ever so slightly.

“Son, I am old, and spent. I will die before long, regardless of where I am. Here…. If I stay here, I may still do some good.”

“What good can you possibly do here?!” Eric cried out.

Ramón turned to fix Eric with a sharp gaze and faint smile that curled one side of his mouth.

“Good does not come of circumstances…” Ramón said.

“…it comes of choices,” Eric finished, with angry tears in his eyes. “As you’ve told me my entire life. But that is just as true whether you are here, or far from here. You can do good here, and you can do good there. Why stay? WHY?”

Ramón sighed, and turned his gaze back to the sterile lake.

“He will not notice the disappearance of another gardner. But if I leave, he will certainly notice. It will frighten him, and he will report my absence. They will hunt us both down.”

“Papa, half the staff is already gone. He has done nothing.”

Ramón smiled tightly, without mirth. “He does nothing, because he does not know.”

Eric blinked. “How… how can he not know?”

“Because I have not told him.”

Eric gaped.

“Papa, this whole place is like an abandoned house. Look at that tree over there — no one has fixed it. No one will. The last real gardens are nearly dead. Fountains have gone dry, and they still gurgle, because no one has bothered to shut off the power to the pumps. The apartments have far more dark windows at evening than lighted windows. How can he possibly not notice?”

Ramón closed his eyes and sighed, and slowly shook his head.

“He doesn’t notice, son, because he never leaves the compound, and has never noticed the staff. He does not bother to learn their faces, or know their names, or what they do, or where they live. He has people — like me — who do that for him. The working staff are as invisible to him as individual tiles in the floor, or bricks in a wall. Years ago, he would have noticed the … decay. The poor quality of service. He would have called on me to answer for it. But he is also aging, just as I am, and has other matters on his mind. He has not noticed, and I have not told him. So he has done nothing.

“If I leave, he will notice. He will report it. Contract Authority will hunt us down. They will find us. They will treat us as traitors and terrorists.”

Eric stared blankly ahead, silent tears on his face. They he scowled.

“You’ve always known this. Yet you agreed to escape to freedom with me. You helped me plan our escape. Did you ever intend to come with me? Or was it always a lie? To send me off to safety alone?”

“I have never lied to you, son.” Ramón’s voice was quiet, but suppressed fury rang in his tone, and reproach covered his face.

Fresh tears sprang to Eric’s eyes. “Then something else changed. What is going on, Papa?”

The anger and reproach on Ramón’s face blew away like dust in a hot summer wind.

“What changed, Papa?”

Ramón was silent for a long time. Eric waited.

“Elon is dead,” Ramón said at last, as though that explained anything at all. Eric merely shook his head.

“Who is Elon?”

“His friend. They were the last two of their kind. They were working on a final project together, he said the most important project he had ever attempted. He did not want disturbances. He barely wanted to eat. But Elon has been ill, and this morning, when he did not answer, I reported it. Contract Authority confirmed that Elon is dead, of natural causes associated with old age.”

“I don’t understand. So he lost a friend. We’ve all lost friends.”

“You are not thinking clearly, son. Work it out.”

Eric scowled and looked at his feet.

“I see,” he said at last. “He was distracted by his project with this friend. He would not have missed you right away. We could both have left, and would have been beyond reach before it was reported. Now, he has no friend, and no project, and he’ll be calling for you at all hours. If you aren’t there….”

Ramón smiled and nodded. “Remember in the future to think before you speak. As I’ve told you countless times.”

Eric shrugged off the rebuke.

“We should still take the chance, Papa. Contract Authority has lost a lot of men, and they are overworked controlling riots and massacres in the gated enclaves. They are stretched very thin. Why would they look for us?”

“Because of who he is,” Ramón replied. “The Contract Authority was created to serve men like him. Their charter is to track down runaway employees, not quell riots among employees who have stayed. His report of a runaway will gain their full attention. Even if the enclaves are burning.”

“But what about the people giving us passage? Can’t they protect us?”

Ramón shook his head.

“Much of the passage fee is to bribe the Authority to look the other way. If he reports us, Authority won’t honor the bribe.”

Eric began to sob openly, and he clenched and unclenched his hands as he wept. Ramón pulled Eric’s head into his shoulder and held him close. Eric clung to his father like a child.

When Eric’s weeping was done, he released his father and pushed himself away. He stared at Ramón with reddened eyes.

“Then I must stay, too. I can’t go without you.”

Ramón smiled with sudden tears in his eyes.

“No, Eric. You don’t need me any more. You are no longer a boy. You are a man, and you will thrive in your new home.”

“That’s not what I meant, Papa. I meant I can’t go, and leave you here. He is a cruel man. Things will get worse, and he will take out his rage and disappointment on you, as he has in the past. I can’t leave you to face that, all alone.”

Ramón glanced at the shiny disk on his wrist, then rubbed his face with his other hand.

“Eric, there is so much I want to tell you, but time is growing short.

“Yes, once I rose out of the lower echelons, he noticed me, and was cruel to me, and many nights, especially after a beating, I went to my bed dreaming of my hands tight around his throat. But by that time, I had you, and your mother had died, and I knew that if I showed so much as a hint of my murderous thoughts, they would tear up my contract and send me to the slums, and sell your contract on the open market. As a child. You know what that would have meant.

“So instead, I swallowed my pride, and endured. I continued to rise in rank. He came to trust me, and then to depend upon me. I grew close enough that I could have killed him. Perhaps even made it look natural. But I was always afraid I would make a mistake, and they would find me out, and execute me, and I can only guess what they would have done to you. Something unbearable.

“I endured. I adjusted staffing quotas to ensure you had work, and rations. I’ve kept you close to the compound and off the hard labor lists. I’ve structured my life so that you could live until a real opportunity came along. That time has come. You must take passage. You must go. Because you are right: this place is dying. The entire civilization is dying. If you stay, you will die with it. You will make everything I endured meaningless.

“Please, Eric. Go. Let me stay and do what I need to do, so that you can go, and be free. Please.”

Eric studied his father’s face for a long moment, then took a deep breath.

“I will go, Papa. And you will stay. And I will tell my sons, and daughters, and anyone who will listen, what you did for me.”

Ramón smiled, and the smile at last caused the unshed tears to fall and rain down his cheeks.

“Then it is time, my son,” Ramón said, and rose.

They turned and walked back through the metal forest toward the compound.

“Once I’m safely en route, will you kill him?”

Ramón walked in silence for a while.

“No,” he said at last. Eric glanced at him in surprise, and saw that his father also had a puzzled expression on his face.

“Why not?” Eric asked.

Ramón said nothing for a long moment. Then he spoke, hesitantly.

“I saw the project he and Elon were working on. They had decided to fix the climate. Just the two of them. They would put their vast financial empires together, and get the job done. They had a plan. I don’t know enough to tell you if it was a good plan, or a bad plan, or just a fantasy of old men. They spoke as if they thought it would work. But they were stuck on one, final point, something they could not get around.”

“What was that?” Eric asked.

“They could not figure out how to make it profitable.”

Eric stopped walking, his mouth open. Ramón stopped, and turned back to face his son. They stared at each other. And then Ramón’s lips twitched slightly, and they both burst out laughing uncontrollably.

The laughter at last subsided, and they quickened their pace toward the compound. Ramón’s face grew sad as they walked.

“When I understood that they could not move forward with a plan to save the Earth because it would not make them wealthier, I understood something about both of them that I had never imagined. 

“They were afraid. Their lives were consumed by that fear. They were like dogs that keep eating, not because they are hungry, but because they are afraid of becoming hungry. They eat to try to quell, not their hunger, but their fear. They eat until they are in pain, and then eat more until their stomachs burst, and they die. Their fear does not allow them to do otherwise.

“He has always had apple pie on his birthday, since he was a boy. A few years ago, his chefs could not prepare his birthday pie, because there were no apples to be found, at any price. 

“He screamed at the cooks. He had the head chef beaten. When he finally grasped that we couldn’t find apples, he ordered us to plant an apple orchard, at enormous expense, in a special climate-controlled garden with seed we acquired from a seed ark: the seeds never germinated. Then he wanted us to buy a biotech company to create new heat-resistant apple seeds — but there weren’t any such companies left, and their employees’ contracts had all been scattered to other industries.

“He is the richest, most powerful man in the world, and he can’t have apple pie on his birthday. And he can’t seem to grasp why this is the case.”

They had reached the compound door, and Eric shouldered his pack.

“I no longer hate him,” Ramón said. “I pity him. He’s caused himself far more pain than he ever caused me. And he has nothing to show for it. His last friend is dead, and all his wealth cannot buy him a final taste of apple pie. I’m the fortunate one: I have a son, who is going to make a life for himself in a place where the rain still falls.

“So no, son, I’m not going to kill him. I’m going to continue to serve him as I have for so many years, and try to make his last days more comfortable.”

They embraced. Then both wiped away their tears, and Eric turned and strode away without looking back.

One More Day

I stepped into the fortuneteller’s parlor, irrationally worried that someone would recognize my car parked out front. The house was trimmed in a ghastly shade of pink against white wooden siding, and sported a huge sign that proclaimed “Kay’s Psychic Readings.” It screamed “loser” without apology; it advertised a place of empty consolation for desperate people who have run out of even straws to clutch.

That sounded like me.

The parlor smelled of a pleasant blend of sandalwood incense and coffee. I’d expected patchouli and pot.

“Be right there!” called a cheery voice from some back room.

A moment later, a woman came through the open French doors and smiled at me: mid-forties, pleasant face, dark hair with a single broad streak of white in it, tired blue eyes that matched her neatly-pressed jeans and denim vest. Hardly the bejeweled, bescarved, over-made-up harridan I’d expected.

“Hi, I’m Kay. How can I help you?” she asked.

She must have seen sarcasm on my face, because she interrupted before I could speak, her cheery smile marred by annoyance.

“Right, I’m the psychic, why don’t I tell you?” she asked. “I’m afraid that’s lost its punch for me. I’ve heard it too many—“

She stopped talking, and I watched her face go pale.

“Oh, my…” she said. Her mouth worked a few times.

“Look,” she said. Sweat gleamed on her lip. “I really can’t tell you not to do it, because it is your life. But I’d like you to wait until tomorrow. Please. Will you promise me that?”

My hands went ice-cold at her words. I’d spoken to no one about my plans. If she’d picked up that much from my face, she was good — awfully good. Or maybe she was the real thing. 

“I… I…” I stammered like a guilty child. 

“Just promise me you’ll come back tomorrow,” she said, insistently.

“Uh, sure…” The words popped out of my mouth before I could call them back — a promise made.

She rushed me out of her parlor, and said, “Tomorrow. Four o’clock. Eat a light lunch, early.”

Then I was standing on the porch, staring at my bright red Corvette. I blinked a few times in the hazy sunlight, as cars blurred by on the highway and exhaust and oil and dust stung my nose in the brutal summer heat.

Numb depression descended on me like the greasy smog that hung over the city. Even this roadside fortuneteller had thrown me out on the street, just like the doctors this morning — another sign that this world had no place for me.

“Just you and me, Bud,” I said to my car. That, and my good word, were the last two things I possessed. Once I’d fulfilled this last unintended promise, the Corvette would be on its own. 

I decided to go get drunk.

My hangover had faded by four o’clock as I pulled into the parking area. The summer heat blistered the concrete highways again, but today the smog really pressed on the city. It burned my nostrils and lungs. 

The parlor offered a welcome relief from the heat and the reek. The smell of sandalwood still hung in the air, but the coffee smell had been replaced by something bitter and unpleasant, like mold or rotting bark.

“You’re early!” Kay’s voice floated through the house. “Come on back.”

I stepped through the French doors and followed faint sounds until I found the kitchen. Kay slowly stirred a sauce-pot with a thermometer in it. 

“Grab a seat,” she said, and gestured with her chin to the stained Formica-topped table and its array of cheap kitchen chairs. 

“When did you last eat?” she asked.

“Lunch. A sandwich, around noon,” I responded.

“Good. This is almost ready, and then we can start,” she said.

“Start what?” I asked, but she ignored me and continued to stir. At last, she tasted the brew and nodded, then emptied the pot into a large mug. It looked like dirty grey tea with flecks of bark in it.

“We can talk while this cools,” she said as she seated herself across from me. 

“What is it?” I asked.

“Why do you care?” she snapped, a trace of anger in her voice.

I turned her question over in my mind. I’d kept my promise by coming here. Nothing more held me to this earth. Jasmine tea or rat poison or LSD, what difference did it make?

“Good point,” I replied, simply.

“Tell me why,” she demanded, and her tone was thick with anger. I hesitated, confused, and she went on. “Look, I really can see into the future a bit, and the past. But I don’t read minds. I know what you are planning to do, but I don’t know why. Tell me why.”

Her directness and urgency startled me. 

I took a deep breath. “I have an inoperable brain tumor,” I said, quietly. “No treatment. My only chance is spontaneous remission, which is extremely rare. They can’t tell me how long I have — they think months, while my mind is eaten away a spoonful at a time, though it could come more quickly. I don’t have anything to live for, though. That’s all been eaten away, too. My family is long gone. I never married. I have no real friends. I spent the last ten years building a colossal business failure — now the business is in receivership, my employees have moved on, and I have nothing. The question isn’t why. It’s why not?”

Her angry glare softened.

“I see,” she said. “I could try to tell you this is a mistake, that you have a future, but I’d be wasting my breath. You wouldn’t believe me. You need to see.”

She pushed the mug toward me. “This should be cool enough, now. I’d recommend you chug it. It tastes awful. Drink down everything, even the bits at the bottom.”

I swirled the cup, took a deep breath, and chugged it. It went down easily enough, but it tasted like I’d swallowed a mouthful of dirt from a grave. 

“Yuck!” I said, and made a face. “What was that stuff?”

She ignored me. “This is going to take hold pretty quickly, so come with me.”

She led me to a small, warm room with two psychiatrist-type couches side-by-side. One of the couches had wide-mouthed buckets on the floor on either side.

“Why two couches?” I asked. “You didn’t drink anything.”

“I don’t need to drink anything,” she said, shortly. “I’m already journeying.”

Her words made no sense to me. “So, what’s with the buckets?”

“The buckets are for when you heave up the stuff you just drank. It doesn’t stay down. It has a lot of alkaloids in it, and they’re—“

Talking about it triggered a wave of sudden nausea. I just made it to the bucket. When my stomach stopped cramping and I looked up, the room looked strangely off-center. Objects had started to glow.

“BEST GET ON THE COUCH,” I heard her voice say, slow and deep. She had already stretched out on her couch. I’d somehow grown larger than my skin, which felt tight, confining. Do as the nice lady says, I told myself. My own voice echoed in my head. ECHO…Echo…echo…, I thought. I want you to build an ark…ark…ark…. For some reason this struck me as hilarious, and I giggled uncontrollably as I lay back on the other couch and watched the stars painted on the ceiling dance away into the distance.

I regained consciousness after only a few moments. The vile taste still punished my mouth, but the psychedelic effects had vanished. Kay’s couch was empty, but I could hear her singing in the kitchen. She had a nice voice. I followed her voice back to the kitchen, and saw her washing dishes.

“Hey,” I said. She shrieked and dropped the pot she had been drying, then whirled to face me while the pot clattered against the floor tiles. 

It wasn’t Kay. The woman appeared to be in her late twenties. Like Kay, she had short dark hair and bright blue eyes, but without the white streak in her hair. Perhaps she was Kay’s daughter. Her face went sickly-pale as she looked at me.

“Daddy…?” she whispered, her eyes wide.

What the Hell? I thought, the hairs on my neck rising. What kind of scam is Kay running here?

“Who are you?” I asked aloud. “And why are you calling me Daddy?”

She blinked and looked hurt, but then her face cleared.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You haven’t had me yet, have you?”

For the second time today, the words made no sense.

The girl slowly dried her hands on the dishtowel. She smiled at me with unshed tears in her eyes.

“You told me to keep an eye out for you,” she said. “It was always a little joke between us, but you seemed so serious sometimes. You told me that if I ever saw your ghost, I was supposed to show you something.”

She held out her hand and guided me into the parlor. She retrieved a wooden box and a photograph from the mantle of the fireplace, and then sat down with me on the love seat.

The room spun as I examined the photograph. It was a picture of me — an older me, probably in my forties with grey in my hair. I seemed fit and very happy. On a tricycle beside me sat a gap-toothed girl who sported an enormous grin — the girl beside me, but only seven or eight years old. My hand rested on her head.

The box contained a sealed letter, a letter opener, and an item that made my heart jump. I pulled out the item, a painted toy soldier, which carried one of my few memories of my father, who had died when I was six. He’d come home from a business trip in Germany, and he’d brought me a toy lead soldier. I’d dropped it once, and dented the base. I ran my finger over the familiar dent. How had Kay gotten hold of this?

The letter-opener had belonged to Grandfather. My hand shook as I carefully opened the letter, and read.

You are wondering how Kay faked the photograph, and how she managed to obtain personal items from your past.

It’s a little mystery for you to ponder.

While you are thinking, I want you to promise your daughter here and now that you will wait just one more day. I know your promise will hold you. After that, your life is your own. Do with it as you see fit. But give her one more day.

Return here at four o’clock tomorrow afternoon, and meet Kay on the porch. Your last doubts will be resolved.

P.S. — Watch out for the rotten board.

My signature appeared at the bottom. I re-read the letter four or five times. Then I stared at the girl.

This young woman could be a future daughter. She had my jaw and mouth. If Kay was scamming me, it was all far too elaborate to pass up the finale.

“Do you know what this says?” I asked. She shook her head. “The letter asks me to make you a promise. I’ve decided to play along. I promise I will wait one more day. Does that mean anything to you?” She shook her head again. “It doesn’t matter. It means something to me. “

I put everything back in the box, and handed it back to the girl.

“You can keep this,” I said.

As the box left my fingers, I felt a powerful vertigo grip me, and the next moment, I found myself bent over the edge of the psychiatrist’s couch. A thin dribble of saliva hung from my mouth. 

I heard Kay move on the other couch, and stand up. She helped me to the kitchen, where she gave me a glass of water to rinse my mouth. 

“What was that all about?” I asked, as I leaned heavily on the sink.

Kay smiled, nervously. “A reason to live one more day?”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why do you even care?”

Kay said nothing.

“Look, you can’t keep stringing me on, day by day. That was a sweet little post-hypnotic suggestion you gave me, or whatever it was, and you got me to wait one more day. But it stops here. Fantasies about an imaginary daughter don’t change my medical condition, and I refuse to end my life as a vegetable.”

Kay remained silent, but her tense shoulders relaxed and two tears tracked down her cheeks. 

“What do I owe you?” I asked.

“Pay me tomorrow,” she said, her voice rough. I sighed.

I called a cab from my cell phone. I’d pick up my car tomorrow, too.

One more day.

It had finally clouded over, and rain fell fitfully and quenched the heat, the dust, and the smog. Cars crawled along the highway like angry beetles hunched against the rain. The cab came to the frontage road turn-off from the highway, and I pointed to my Corvette, just visible ahead. The driver stopped; I paid him, then got out of the cab and turned to find Kay.

I stopped, frozen, and stared in utter confusion at the house.

The pink trim was gone. The sign was gone. The building was there, a dilapidated farmhouse that stood amidst a cluster of abandoned buildings. A small, rusted real-estate sign stood in the front yard. The realtor’s phone number had faded.

I stepped onto the creaking wooden porch. It was the same house I’d visited twice before — through the dirty window I could see the familiar parlor, but empty, without a trace of furniture. I could just see the fireplace and mantle where the box and the picture had stood in my drug-induced dream.

I heard the crunch of gravel behind me as a small Toyota pulled to a stop next to my car. A dark-haired woman stepped out and popped open an umbrella against the rain that had become a gentle mist. 

“Kay!” I called, and the woman waved back, and moved swiftly up the walk. She closed the umbrella as she came under the porch awning, and looked up at me.

“I’m glad you were able to meet me here on such short notice!” she said, energetically. “I think this will be the perfect location, and the price is right….” She trailed off.

I had never seen this woman before. In her early thirties, she had a very pretty face framed by shiny dark hair cut short, and her bright blue eyes could have belonged to the girl I’d met in my vision yesterday.

She looked at me curiously, and said, “I’m sorry. I thought you were the real estate agent.”

“That’s alright,” I replied. “I thought you were Kay.”

Confusion covered her face. “I am Kay.”

I scowled.

“I was supposed to meet another Kay on the porch —“ I said, and took a step back to look around. The porch shifted under me, and I felt as much as heard the crack of a board under my foot. I fell hard.

“Oh, dear,” she said, eyes wide with concern as she quickly knelt beside me. “Are you alright?”

“I think so,” I said. Nothing seemed broken, and I got slowly to my feet. I stared in disbelief at the broken board, the dry rot now clearly visible.

Kay breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ll definitely need to get that fixed. I’m thinking of opening a business here, and I can’t have my clients killing themselves on my front porch.”

“What kind of business?” I asked, still distracted by the improbability of the rotten board.

She smiled. “I’m a psychic. I’d like to go at it full-time.”

“’Kay’s Psychic Readings,’” I whispered. She looked at me strangely.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s what I was thinking of calling it.”

She broke the silence between us. “I’m sorry, this is terribly forward of me. But now that we’ve met, I feel we were somehow supposed to meet today. I owe you for that nasty fall, at least. Could I buy you dinner, say tomorrow night?” She blushed.

In another decade, I’d be in my mid-forties. More than enough time to have a little girl with dark hair and blue eyes. Enough time to watch her grow to at least seven or eight and ride a tricycle. Enough time to write a letter and put a few items in a box. A good reason to live one more day.

“Yes,” I said. My heart felt lighter than at any time I could remember. “Yes, wherever you’d like to meet. I’ll be there. I promise.”

Kay leaned over the edge of the couch and retched into the bucket. She rested in that position, trembling. After a while, she stood and made her way to the kitchen, where she sat quietly at the table. She could see the single lock of snow-white hair that fell forward over her face, taste the bitter rasp of the drug on her tongue, and the sour burn of vomit in her throat. She felt exhausted.

I’m too old for this, she thought, as she stared at her hands. The drug is getting harder on me. But I think I found the right moment this time. Maybe. Maybe I can finally stop searching.

She walked into the parlor and stepped to the window. She took a deep breath, drew back the curtains, and looked out. Tears stung her eyes at the sight of the familiar high-speed commuter tubes, instead of the featureless grey mist that had surrounded the house since she’d become unmoored. Home. She collapsed into a chair.

Her eyes fell on the photograph of the man and the girl on the tricycle where it stood on the mantle. She retrieved the picture and gently ran her finger over the faces. So he was the key. She hadn’t even recognized him at first — he looked so much happier in the picture, and older. He had decided to end his own life, and that decision had wiped out an entire branch of the future. A branch that had included her.

I walk the paths of time, she thought, but I don’t understand them at all.

She had watched her clients make their decisions, guided by the journey-drug and her visions; she had seen thousands of potential futures evaporate into nothing. Children, grandchildren, sometimes even major historic events, would turn to mist and disappear, while new people came into being and shaped different events.

She’d always assumed those unrealized futures simply vanished. But she hadn’t vanished: instead, she’d come unmoored, drifting up and down the timelines, dragging the house with her like a mythical Grail Castle, the house that could be found anywhere, anywhen, but never twice in the same place.

 It must have had something to do with her gift, she thought. So long as any possibility of amending the past had remained, she had existed as a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat, half-real, half-imaginary, trapped in a featureless limbo. She couldn’t leave the house; the doors and windows could not be moved. But she could use the journey-drug to re-enter the time stream and anchor the house for a day or two in some piece of reality that still existed. She’d had to stab blindly into the past, trying to find the point where her existence had come unraveled.

She touched the face of the man in the picture, tenderly. He’d died when her mother was young, but not of brain cancer, and not a suicide. Her mother had spoken of him fondly as a cheerful man who kept his promises, and her namesake grandmother had always smiled when anyone mentioned his name.

She smiled and spoke softly to the picture.

“Thank you, Grandpa. Thank you for waiting one more day.”

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

The Long Winter

No light seeped in around the boards nailed over the window — they had stuffed the space with rags and blankets and nailed through the fabric into the studs. He walked around the rest of the empty top floor and glanced briefly at all the openings that had long ago admitted daylight and soft breezes. All had been sealed in the same way. Stirred by his movements, irregular flecks of sparkling rainbow brilliance drifted lazily through the bright beam of his wristlamp: water ice crystals glittered like diamonds at this temperature. The thin layer of dry snow — precipitated carbon dioxide — that dusted the floor squeaked under his feet.

He expected nothing much on the top floor. The inhabitants would have abandoned and sealed it off first. The entire floor became nothing more than a large attic.

A sheet of heavy plastic covered the stairwell opening, brittle in the cold. A blow from his ice axe shattered it, revealing another sheet. They had stapled plastic to the edge of each riser and run it to the ceiling, preventing the stairwell from becoming a chimney that funneled precious warm air into the abandoned upper floor. He slashed through layers of brittle plastic until he reached the ground floor, also abandoned.

He glanced at his wrist, where faint patterns of light danced on the fabric of the sleeve. The latest forecast said he still had two hours before sunset. That much they usually got right these days. If they were wrong and an early nightfall caught him out here, he would have to hole up and pray that the erratic sunrise was also early.

A faint line of worry creased his brow beneath the thin transparent mask. Perhaps he should leave now and return tomorrow, just to be safe. But this was the last house on today’s list, and he was just being paranoid. They hadn’t missed a sunset in a long time. He shrugged to himself and continued through another gauntlet of plastic sheets to the basement.

He counted ten bodies in the basement. Six children had huddled in a puppy-pile between two women. In their final hypothermia the women would have felt uncomfortably warm; they had thrown off the blankets, exposing all eight figures. A man sat in one corner on a pile of blankets, an ice-frosted bottle in one hand. A second man sat against the opposite wall, a bottle in one hand and papers clutched in the other. Their poses told clearly that the men had known death was upon them: they had made no attempt to fend it off with blankets. As always, he felt the cold hand of guilt around his heart at the sight of the frozen bodies, as though the ghosts of the dead had suddenly clutched at him for the help that had never come.

He smiled bitterly at the rush of emotion. He always expected to be inured to this work by now. Lord knew he had gone through the motions often enough. Yet it always surprised him that the emotions were so fresh and painful, every time. It was part of the price.

He spoke softly to activate his recording equipment and walked around the room, dictating notes. He approached each body and carefully scraped away frost and sometimes fabric until he exposed frozen tissue, then pressed his sampling tool against the rock-hard flesh. When the light turned green, he moved to the next body; when it turned yellow, he scraped in a different spot and tried again. None showed red today. This was a good find.

He glanced at his wrist as he worked, but the forecast held steady and the work was going smoothly. He should be able to finish and return to the compound long before nightfall.

He reached the man sitting against the wall last. As he scraped, he glanced idly at the papers in the man’s hand. He stopped scraping. Slowly, he brushed the dry snow from the top sheet. He could just make out a photograph of a face, with the word “Time” above it in large red letters. His own face.

He’d seen his picture too often over the years, usually pinned to a wall with curses scrawled over the smiling face, often slashed to tatters. But this was his little-known first cover of Time, not the second one that everyone had cursed. And this man had held it in his hand as he and his family died. Unusual.

Long ago he had stopped looking at the people he sampled. The momentary ghosts he felt were bad enough; if he looked at the faces, they haunted his dreams. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then forced himself to look into the face of the man before him. His eyes widened. His gloved hand rose hesitantly to brush frost from the frozen features.

Tears welled suddenly in his eyes and ran down his face; the transparent mask fogged over as his garment tried to compensate, leaving him weeping in a vague, pearly void. He wondered momentarily if his mind had finally snapped, hallucinating the face. He also knew that wasn’t possible. He could no more go mad than he could become inured to the work. It was part of the price.

His mask cleared, and the frost-rimed face was still there. He stared at it for a long time. His mask fogged and cleared and fogged again as tears flowed. At last he resumed his careful scraping. He drew a tremulous breath, and held it as he triggered the tool. When the light turned green, he released his breath in a long sigh. He again caressed the frozen cheek. Then he stood and checked his sleeve. Still more than an hour until sundown. He needed to get back to the compound with these recordings. These precious recordings.

He made his way back up the stairs and carefully climbed through the hole he had cut in the roof that protruded above the flat expanse of ice, stark white from the thin layer of dry snow that lay atop the water ice. The sun appeared as little more than a bright star at the moment, so faint that stars glimmered in the nearly black sky. Some days the sun was bright enough to give the sky a purplish-blue color that hid the stars. Not today; it would be a very cold night. He clambered into the gravity-sled and set the automatic controls to take him back to the compound, two thousand miles away. The thin atmosphere screamed faintly through the hull until the sled passed the speed of sound, still accelerating.

As the miles flew past in silence, he expanded and studied a holographic image of the man leaning against the wall. His eyes drank in the familiar features, and tears fell again.

I stopped looking for him. I stopped looking, but he died staring at a picture of my proudest moment.

Shame and grief pierced his heart; memories came in a swift tumble of emotions, fresh and clear and undimmed by age:

Uncontainable pride the day he received his copy of Time, the issue that explained in layman’s terms his seminal work on quantum gravity. Champagne corks had popped simultaneously that night on both ends of a giddy phone conversation across the width of the continent.

Smug satisfaction when Time lauded him a second time for his bold leadership in the Global War on Warming. That was the picture he usually saw nailed to walls, slashed and defaced.

Horror as he realized that the devices in orbit around the Earth, devices he had helped design, were not behaving according to theory. 

Desperation as the endless winter and the panicked migrations began; as he used all of his contacts, all of his influence, in a futile search for the man whose face hung in the air before him now.

Despair as weeks became months, and months became years, deep in the nuclear-warmed government bunker where he worked obsessively to understand what had happened — and where he finally realized he would never understand. His theory was simply wrong. Completely wrong.

He had destroyed the Earth.

And that was when the extraterrestrials had appeared and demanded to speak with the one responsible.

He sat with the mantis-like creature in a small room aboard one of their vessels. His chair was uncomfortable, made for a different anatomy. The creature rested its weight upon a stool of sorts, perfectly motionless. Its faceted eyes gazed everywhere and nowhere; he could not tell whether it even knew he was in the room. Then its voice buzzed inside his head.

“Why?” was all that it asked.

He slowly explained: the planet-wide warming trends, the famines, his theories of gravity and time, the devices they had built, how it had all gone wrong. When he finished, the mantis-creature remained silent.

“Please!” he spoke into the silence. “We need your help!”

“We have been helping your species for tens of thousands of years. You do not learn. Your species is not teachable.” 

He recoiled at the harsh judgment. “What do you mean, you have been helping us? Where? How? How are we not teachable?”

It paused, as though to consider its reply. “Our assembly consists of many thousands of species spread throughout this galaxy. Among all these civilizations, we do not make war. You no doubt find this hard to believe.”

“I find it impossible to believe! All living creatures make war.”

“Your species does not grasp the difference between conflict and war. All living creatures experience conflict. Few living creatures make war. Even your own species did not always make war. Now, you cannot stop. You view all of existence through the lens of warfare. We have come among you quietly, again and again, to instruct you in other ways of living. You have not listened. Now we have been forced to intervene because you threatened other star systems in your War on Warming.”

“But that’s not a war! It’s only a metaphor!”

“Why do you use such a metaphor?”

He had no ready answer.

“Your species has embraced the metaphor of warfare as a philosophy of existence. Instead of adapting yourselves to change, you attempt a war of conquest over nature. You have damaged your world, and now your star system. You have endangered other species. Your species is insane and dangerous.”

“That isn’t true! We can learn! “ he cried.

It made no reply.

“What will happen?” he whispered at last.

“You created self-amplifying wrinkles in the fabric of your local space-time. From the surface of your planet, your sun now appears more distant; time flows unevenly; the planet cools. We have contained the damage, damped the amplification, so that it will not spread to other star systems. In time your local distortion will fade. Within twenty or thirty thousand years it will be gone, and your Earth will gradually return to its normal conditions. Life may well return, as well, though not life as you know it.

“Thirty…thousand…years…” His words were barely audible, his lips dry. “Is there nothing we can do?”

“Nothing. Your species will die.”

“And you will do nothing to help us?”


“Then why…why am I here?”

“We wished to understand from your own minds the reason for your actions. You have answered our question, and we have answered yours. You may go now. We have nothing more to say to you.” With a sharp mental click, the mantis-creature ended the conversation.

“But we do,” said another voice, soft and musical in his head. He felt a movement of air, and turned. A creature of a different species had entered the room from behind him, humanoid with spindly limbs and enormous almond-shaped eyes of featureless black. “Most in the assembly believe your species is not worth saving. We feel otherwise. We will help you. But a burden will fall upon those of you left alive.”

“A burden…?” he whispered.

“We are fond of your Earth. It has been as … a pleasant garden to us. We intend to recreate it much as it was before — the plants and animals, many of the beautiful and clever structures you humans made. It is a small enough matter to bring back humans as well. But we will not bear the responsibility of reviving your species. You must choose your own successors.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It is simple enough. The humans who still live shall choose individuals from among the dead — we will restore whomever you choose when your Earth is once again habitable.”

“You can restore the dead to life?” Wonder filled his voice.

“Of course. It is much easier to replicate what has already existed than to create anew. We need only the proper measurements.”

“Can we choose to restore everyone?”

“There are certain physical requirements. However, much of your population has died by freezing, rather than starvation or violence. When the surface temperature becomes low enough, many of these will meet the necessary conditions. Perhaps even most of them.”

“So it will become even colder?”

“Yes. We predict that the average surface temperature will settle at eighty degrees below zero on your centigrade scale. In roughly one thousand years it will become cold enough to begin your selection.”

His already-pale face turned gray, and he choked slightly. “That’s…colder than dry ice. Carbon dioxide will precipitate out of the air.” His eyes grew wide. “We’re going to lose the atmosphere entirely, aren’t we?”

“Not entirely. But you will not be able to breathe what remains. Restoring the atmosphere will be part of our project.”

“We can’t survive those conditions, even underground. Not a single generation, much less a thousand years. We won’t live long enough to even begin.” He put his head in his hands.

“Of course not. But we can offer assistance. Food. Shelter. Power. And we can provide extended life that will allow you to live without aging for as long as you choose. Even thirty thousand years, if you can bear such a span of years. We cannot restore any who choose extended life, nor will they possess the ability to breed. But they can live long enough to choose their inheritors.”

He stared into the obsidian eyes as hope and terror fought within his heart. “A thousand years or more of darkness and cold and ice…or death now with a hope of resurrection. If we are chosen.”


“And if no one chooses immortality…”

“Then no one will be restored. Your species dies.”

“But those who choose immortality: how should they choose who will live again? How should they judge?”

“That is precisely the responsibility we will not bear. We have done enough in offering your species a second chance. You must make your own use of it.”

He brought the offer back to earth, and as news spread through the different nations’ survival bunkers, nearly all of the living chose immortality. Most of them squandered it within the first century, striving for power over each other. More succumbed to despair in the growing darkness and cold, and released their grip on eternal life.

When the dry snows at last began to fall, fewer than a thousand ageless humans remained. They had debated their choice for centuries: in the end, they chose to bring back everyone they could.

Like Valkyries, then, they began the long labor of picking over the bodies scattered about the Earth, searching not for fallen heroes, but for anyone the alien sampling machines said could be saved. House by house, shelter by shelter, they searched and sampled. Years became decades — decades, centuries — centuries, millennia.

And then, they were finished.

John shivered, once, violently, and tipped over the empty Tequila bottle in his hand. The papers in his other hand crinkled. Just a moment ago he had started to feel warm for the first time in weeks. A part of his mind had known he was experiencing terminal hypothermia, but he had not cared. He had instead reveled in the sensation of warmth. Now, he felt mildly chilled, and a little angry. He should not feel anything, dammit.

Emily and Chloe and the kids had thrown off the covers. He remembered seeing that, too, but he’d been too drowsy to care. He heard Emily and Chloe stir, and one of the girls whimpered in her sleep.

Bob stared at him from the corner, his brow knit in puzzlement. John suddenly wondered about the light in the room. He’d drifted into his final sleep with his flashlight turned on. The room was far too bright.

Moving air brushed the hairs of his hands, and he panicked when he saw the gap around the window seal, where both the air and the light now entered. He stood and rushed to close it, but then stopped. That scent… Sweet Jesus, he hadn’t smelled that in years! The smell of spring, of green things growing. He looked at Bob, who gazed back with frightened eyes.

“You smell that, too?” he asked. Bob nodded silently; his Adam’s Apple worked as he swallowed. Taking a deep breath, John pulled open the insulated window hatch.

The shaft of warm sunlight blinded him. He lost his balance and fell on his backside with a shout. Both women shrieked, waking the children, who began to cry.

When his eyes adjusted to the light, he looked out in wonder. Instead of the upward-sloping ice tunnel with its series of warmth-conserving doors, he looked up into the branches of the Chinese Elm that had once grown outside this window. He clearly remembered felling it for firewood when they’d first arrived and decided to make their last stand here.

He clambered out the window and stood in the midst of a spring garden. Daffodils — irises — tulips — buds on the tips of the tree branches — the smell of damp, fertile earth. He fell to his knees and sobbed in disbelief. Bob crawled out and fell, weeping, right beside him; he dug his hands into the soft soil and pressed the rich loam to his nostrils. Both wives wept and screamed with delight as they emerged, followed by the children; the women hugged each other, hugged the children, hugged their husbands. 

John stood and took another deep breath of the rich air. That’s when he noticed the man sitting quietly in the gazebo, staring directly at him with a smile on his face. He wore strange clothing covered with shifting patterns of light, and his face….

John swallowed hard and walked unsteadily toward the gazebo.

“John,” the man in the strange clothing said, still smiling, but tears ran down his cheeks. 

“Jacob,” John replied, sudden tears in his eyes, as well.

“A beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Jacob…” His voice caught. “What…what in God’s name happened? Are we dead? Is this Heaven?”

Weariness swept across Jacob’s face, though the smile held. “You have all been…asleep. We woke as many as we could. The world you knew is gone. But you are alive, and the Earth is alive. Your children have a future.”

“They said you killed the Earth,” John said. “I never believed it. You were always trying to save the Earth.”

“Oh, John,” Jacob said, and the smile fled. He shook his head slowly. “You always believed in me.”

“Hey, it’s okay, little brother. We’re together now.”

“No.” Jacob’s tone was sad. “No, John. My time is done. I’m…tired. So very tired. But I wanted to see…to see you…to see…” He stopped, his lips trembling.

John ran forward to embrace his younger brother. Jacob rose and clung to him as he sobbed like a child.

After a while, Jacob pushed himself away, gently. The weariness in his face was deeper. “I tried so hard to find you, John.”

John’s face was grim. “They tried to round us up and put us in the emergency camps. The Death Camps. You know about those?” Jacob nodded. Disease, starvation, and violence. They had never recovered a single green sample from any of them. “We got away, and ran. Met up with Bob’s family on the road. Figured we’d die anyway, but we wanted to die free, not penned up inside a fence. What about you? I imagine you went underground with that gang of fascists you got mixed up with?”

Jacob nodded with a weak smile. He picked up a thin book from the bench beside him, and handed it to John.

“What’s this?” John asked. He glanced curiously at the title — The Long Winter: A Brief Memoir of 27,000 Years of Ice.

“A gift. There is a copy in every household. People need to know what happened. But I…wanted to deliver this one in person.”

John’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension. “Twenty-seven…! Jacob, you can’t be… that isn’t possible!”

“I’m tired, John. No human should live this long. But I had to see you alive again. I had to…apologize–“

John cut him off by embracing him again. “Oh, just shut up, you little moron!” he growled through fresh tears. “You’re here. That’s all that matters.”

Jacob pushed himself away again, weakly this time, and sat heavily. His face was lined with fatigue, and his eyelids drooped. One eyelid fluttered.

“What’s wrong with you, Jacob? Are you sick? What can I do?”

“John, listen. All of you who are left — you were all left behind, abandoned. You were ‘non-essential’ people. The ‘essential’ people went to the bunkers: the leaders, the elite soldiers, the top scientists, the important people who kept the old ways going. They’re all gone. Everyone who died violently is gone. Everyone who clung to life and died of disease or starvation is gone. Everyone who jumped at the chance to live forever is gone. The old ways are gone. It’s a new start for the human race, a chance… to do things… differently…”

Jacob’s eyes closed as he slowly tipped sideways. John caught him as he fell, cradled his head and stroked his hair, tears falling unnoticed. A peaceful smile crept across Jacob’s face, and his eyes suddenly opened to look directly into John’s.

“Blessed are the meek,” he murmured, “for they have inherited the Earth.”

He closed his eyes, inhaled the fresh spring air deeply and, still smiling, exhaled for the last time.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

Class Reunion

Evan laughed at the lame joke.

He’d heard the joke before, and it hadn’t been funny the first time. But everyone else laughed. He joined in. He hated his laugh. Too loud. Too high-pitched. When he was sober, it wasn’t so bad — he’d learned to hold it in, lower his pitch. But he was hardly sober, and it rang out now like a woman’s drunken cackle.

As if cued, the small crowd dispersed. Evan was too wasted, and missed the cue: his perennial problem, always missing those damned social cues. He found himself standing alone with the joke teller.

Evan summoned the energy to drain the scotch and swirl the ice in the empty glass.

“I’m gonna go get a refill.…”

He gestured vaguely at the cash bar and walked away. That was the problem with being the last one to leave. You had to make an excuse. 

Evan bought his third scotch of the evening, this time a double without soda or ice, and retreated to a corner table to watch the crowd.

The last ten years had wrought havoc on the crowd. At the twentieth class reunion, they’d still looked and acted young. He’d felt young, despite the gray that had crept into his hair. At least half the women had been downright hot, and most of the men could still see their shoes. The dance floor had churned with writhing bodies and tense sexual energy. Ten short years ago.

Now, the intertwined forces of gravity and time were taking over. The few women who still had trim figures seemed artificial, marvels of cosmetic surgery and long hours on Stair Masters. The men’s bellies sagged over their belts; hair had thinned, features had softened. The dance floor was littered with small, stationary clusters of people making small talk.

They look so old. I feel so damned old. Why did I come?

Ten years ago the organizers had gone from door to door and collected childhood snapshots from doting parents of their old classmates. Everyone had howled at the pictures of bare baby bottoms and first teeth and pigtails. They’d trotted out the same pictures this time, but they flickered, ignored, on the big screen at the front of the room. Evan glanced at the pictures, but they brought no laughter, only pain.

I buried Mom five years ago. Gave her a nice eulogy. God, I miss her. Dad would miss her, too, if he remembered her.

Evan watched the sedentary crowd. Bursts of loud laughter came from different parts of the room.

Evan watched Brenda the Cheerleader walk directly toward him. Her Stair Master conditioned body still had all the right curves in all the right places, and her bright blue eyes formed a startling contrast with her raven-dark hair. She could easily be in her thirties, not pushing fifty.

“Evan Johnson.” Evan shook his head to clear it. In the old days, Brenda would never have spoken to him at all. She was popular. He had been a geek. Oil and water.

“Brenda Schmidt.” He bowed, slightly. He was startled to notice what looked like tears in her eyes, but did not have time to ponder. Her open palm swung. He heard a sound like a firecracker, and found himself unexpectedly looking over his right shoulder. His ears rang.

“You pervert BASTARD!” she screamed. “I never liked you, and now I know why!”

The room had gone silent, but for the sound of Stardust from the DJ’s speakers. Evan slowly turned his head to face Brenda. His cheek began to burn through the haze of alcohol. Angry tears ran down Brenda’s face.

“What the Hell was that for?”

“What you just said to me. About my brother.”

“What are you talking about? I haven’t spoken to you all evening. I’ve been over here, listening to John tell a stupid joke.”

“Bullshit!” Brenda shouted. “Other people were right there. They heard every word.”

Evan set his drink down on the bar with a more force than necessary.

“Brenda Schmidt, I didn’t even know you had a brother. I have not said one word to you all evening. I have been over here, minding my own business. And I sure as Hell don’t appreciate having my face wiped off because of your goddamned hallucination.”

“Liar!” she screamed, and turned and stalked away. 

“Jesus,” Evan muttered. His face was starting to ache, and he touched it gingerly. He thought he felt welts rising under the hot skin. He reached for his drink and placed the cool glass against his cheek.

“Might want to slow down, big guy.” Evan felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see his oldest friend staring down at him from his six-foot-six vantage. “My old man couldn’t hold much more than you’re putting away, and that man could drink.”

“Cheers, Eric. Privilege of age. Unlimited misery, and the right to an anast- ana- an-es-the-tic.” Evan’s tongue felt thick and uncooperative in his mouth.

“I don’t know, Evan.” Eric didn’t look amused. “You’ve been drinking a lot since your Mom passed. Maybe you ought to cut back a little–”

“God damn it, Eric, you are not my mother or my father. I came here to party with my old friends and remember the good times, but they’ve all turned into old farts. And I’m one of them. Then that cheerleader bitch tries to put my face on the back of my head. I ought to file charges.”

“What was that all about, anyway?”

“Not one clue. She claims I made some nasty comment about her brother. She has a brother?”

“Oh, come on, Evan. Everyone in our class knew about her brother.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was in all the local papers, what, two years after graduation? He got hold of a gun, shot both parents, then killed himself.”

“My God. And Brenda…?”

“On a date. Came home and found them all. She and her sister were a wreck afterward.”


“You really didn’t know?”

Evan shook his head. “Two years after graduation I was drowning in classes at MIT. I didn’t follow local news from here. I wasn’t planning to come back.”

“Wow. That’s weird that you didn’t know. It was such big news. Hey, listen, I just spotted Jamie and Pete. Catch up with you later, man. And don’t drink so much.”

“Yeah. Later. And bite me.” Evan wandered over to the full bar and sat down to nurse his drink in privacy.

He felt someone take the seat next to him. He looked up to see Brenda smiling coyly at him. He started.

“Oh, Jeez, Brenda! Listen, I’m so sorry to hear about your brother, I really had no idea….”

A faint wrinkle appeared between Brenda’s eyebrows.

“My brother?” She sounded puzzled.

“Yeah, Eric just told me about him, I was away at college and I didn’t know.”

Brenda smiled. “Evan Johnson, your friend Eric is pulling your leg. I don’t have a brother.”

“You… don’t… have… a brother….”

Brenda shrugged and shook her head, still smiling. “Nope. My folks told me I was supposed to have one, but he died when I was little. It’s just me and my sister. And my sister’s daughters, both married now. Mom and Dad are all goo-goo-eyed over their great-grandkids, especially Ricky. He just turned five.”

“Your mom… and dad….”

Brenda’s smile slowly faded. “Evan, you should switch to soda. You’re getting wasted.” She stood to leave. Evan grabbed her sleeve.

“Brenda, wait.”

“Let go of me, Evan.” Evan released her sleeve.

“Brenda, something weird….” He rubbed his left cheek, which still felt hot under his hand. “Did you slap me?”

“Did I what?”

“Did you slap me? About ten, fifteen minutes ago?”

“Evan, this is the first time I’ve seen you here tonight. Are you okay?”

“I’m not sure….”

“You should definitely lay off the booze — it’s messing with your head.”

“Yeah.” She turned and walked away. He ordered a plain seltzer from the bartender, and left his drink on the bar.

What the Hell just happened? I need some air. Evan headed through the crowd for the doors leading to the parking lot.

“Doctor Johnson!” The speaker was rotund, with a young face and curly black hair that belied the crows’ feet around his eyes. “What an honor to see you here! We didn’t think you’d make it!”

“No sarcasm, Gabe, I’m really not in the mood.”

Gabe looked flustered. “Sarcasm? Jeez, man, I’m not being sarcastic.”

“Then don’t call me doctor.”

Gabe blinked. “O-kaayy….”

Evan took a calming breath. Still stings, washing out of grad school. You’d think I’d be over that by now.

“So what’s up, Gabe?”

“Well….” Gabe was suddenly diffident. “Hey, I know it’s kitch and all that, but it’s for the kids, you know. I bought a copy on the stands last Spring, and I was hoping I could get you to sign it. For the kids.”

“Gabe, what the Hell are you talking about?”

“Your issue, man.” He handed Evan a magazine in a plastic sleeve, the sort that comic book collectors use. Evan stared at the face on the cover. It was a little heavy in the picture, with a solid white goatee, but it was clearly his face. He’d shaved that goatee years ago, when it had started going gray.

“What the Hell is this?”

Gabe’s nervous smile faded, replaced by confusion. “It’s the March issue of Time. You know, the one that covers your big theory. Not that I understand a word of it, you know, but…”

Evan ignored Gabe’s nervous babbling, and slowly drew the magazine from the sleeve. Evan Johnson, Man of the Year. He flipped through to the article, The Arrow of Time, which described in layman’s terms his theory of closed timelike loops and encapsulated universes.

“Interviewer: So where did you get the idea for this theory? Your colleagues say it’s a pretty radical departure from the mainstream.

“Johnson: I always say it came to me in the heat of inspiration. Literally. I got very sick one semester during graduate school, my second year. None of the clinics wanted me in their offices, and they told me to take aspirin and stay home…”

Evan remembered that semester. It had been chicken pox, and he’d run a fever of a hundred and five. He’d hallucinated vividly and recurrently. Physics and math fever dreams, bizarre, quickly forgotten.

“…when I got back to class, I showed my thesis adviser the doodles I’d started drawing after the fever broke. He got really excited…”

The magazine fell from Evan’s numb fingers.

But that isn’t what happened. He’d been in bed for three weeks, and useless for another two. He’d spent his convalescence learning to solve the Rubik’s Cube, not doodling. He’d failed most of his classes that semester, and it had marked him. His adviser had told him to find a different adviser. No one else on the faculty was interested in taking him on. He’d dropped out at the end of the next semester.

“Jeez, Evan, you don’t have to mess it up,” Gabe said as he bent to retrieve the magazine. He looked at Evan’s blank stare. “Hey, man, are you okay?”

“Tell me,” Evan said in a quiet, steady voice, “is Brenda here?”


“Brenda Schmidt. Cheerleader. Dark hair, blue eyes.”

Gabe paled. “Oh man, don’t tell me you didn’t know.”

“Tell me.” Evan’s voice remained calm, but his face was pale and sweaty and his eyes were fixed on nothing.

“She died a couple years after graduation. Her brother wasn’t quite right in the head, you know, got hold of a gun, shot her and her parents, then killed himself. Only her sister survived. It was in all the papers….”

Evan’s cheek throbbed.

“Hey, man, you don’t look so good. Maybe you ought to go lie down or something?”

Evan walked away wordlessly, and found a table to sit at.

These guys have decided to mess with my head.

Evan nodded as he pondered the idea. That made sense. It was the only thing that made sense. They’d arranged an elaborate practical joke on him. A pretty cruel one, but some of them had been pretty cruel people.

“You got one Hell of a nerve, coming here tonight.”

Evan looked up, startled, and his face drained of color as his mouth slowly dropped open.


“Why are you here?”

Evan blinked. “Blom… you’re dead!”

Jeff Mellblom stood up straight, his eyes narrowed. “Is that some kind of weird-ass threat?”

“You died. Jesus, you died over twenty years ago, in the Persian Gulf. I went to your funeral!” Evan’s voice rose until it cracked.

“The only funeral there’s gonna be around here is yours, buddy, if you stick around. I don’t know why they ever let you out. They should have thrown away the fucking key.”

Evan stood and swayed. Jeff stepped back and raised his fists. “You want a piece of me, you bastard? You want a piece? I’ll give you a piece!”

He lunged forward, but two of his classmates grabbed him and held him back. Evan felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Let’s go for a walk, Evan.” It was Eric.

“I don’t want to go anywhere.”

“I wasn’t really asking.” Eric’s strong grip tightened, and Evan found himself forced to turn and march out the door. Eric led him to a short concrete wall across the parking lot. His grip relaxed as they walked. They sat. Eric pulled out a cigarette, and offered one to Evan, who declined.

“Since when did you start smoking?” Evan asked.

“Since when did you give it up?” Eric replied.

Evan stared at him in silence.

“Look, Evan, I told you it was a bad idea to come here tonight. It was an accident, I know. You served your time. It should be over and done. But Blom…. He’s still all torn up about it, and a lot of people…. It’s a small town, Evan. There really is no place for you here.”

“Eric.” Evan’s voice was small.


“Look at my left cheek. What do you see?”

“Turn your head a little, I need some light….” Eric whistled. “Wow. Told you, man. Lots of people are still pretty upset. Who laid that on you?”

Evan closed his eyes and took a slow breath.

“What if I told you it was Brenda Schmidt?”

He opened his eyes to see an expression of shock and disgust on Eric’s face. “That is sick, dude. It isn’t funny at all.”

“I’m dead serious.”

“Then you need to see a shrink.”

“Why, Eric?”

Eric stared at him in disbelief.

“Why do I need to see a shrink, Eric?”

“That’s it, man. I’ve stood with you through this whole shit storm, and I’ve had a lot of nights where I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I should have listened to myself. You are one messed up motherfucker.”

He stood up.

“Eric. Tell me why I need a shrink. Then you can leave and never come back. But I need to hear it. Please.”

Eric’s eyes glittered, with anger or grief, Evan couldn’t tell. “Fine. You need to see a shrink because Brenda Schmidt didn’t slap you. She’s dead. You of all people ought to know. You spent eight years in prison for killing her.”

Evan stared at the door of the convention center, his face expressionless. He nodded slowly.

“Thank you, Eric.”

Eric turned to walk away, then stopped and dithered uncertainly. “What’s going on in your messed up head, Evan? What are you thinking? What are you gonna do?”

Evan drew a breath and let it out slowly.

“Do? I’m going to slip back in to take a piss and splash some cold water on my face. Then I’m going to take a walk, find a room, and sleep off this drunk. And tomorrow I am going to go see that shrink. You got a recommendation?”

“You’re serious.”

“As a judge. I’m either off my rails, or I’m stuck in the Twilight Zone. I honestly have no idea which. There was a Twilight Zone, right? You know what I’m talking about?”

Eric stared at him. “You mean the TV show? Yeah. Scared me to death as a kid.”

“Yeah, well it’s scaring me to death right now. Go on, go back to the party. I want to sit out here alone for a minute.”

“Okay, Evan. Do what you said. See that shrink.”


Evan sat on the wall under the parking lot lights as Eric walked across the lot and vanished into the convention center. The moon was rising, a thick crescent that seemed dim and distant. It must be getting late.

I’ve never smoked a day in my life. And neither has Eric.

But Eric had drawn the cigarette smoke into his lungs with the slow relish of a lifelong habit. That was more disturbing than anything he’d seen yet. Everything else could be explained away as a vicious practical joke. But he knew Eric, knew him like a brother, like a part of his own body. This wasn’t an act. He’d lost his mind, or he was stuck in the Twilight Zone.

Evan rose and walked back to the convention center. He stepped through the doors, and was startled — but somehow not very surprised — when a cheer went up, and he was dragged up to the podium on the stage. A microphone was thrust into his hands. A chant rose from the crowd, “Speech, speech, speech!” He blinked and tried to think through the fog of scotch in his head.

Who am I now? Somebody popular. I can probably get away with saying anything.

“My good friends” he shouted into the microphone, slurring a bit. The class cheered. “I’d love to stand up here and talk, but … I … have … to … pee.” He crossed his legs as he silently mouthed the last word, and the crowd went wild.

“Pee, pee, pee!” they chanted.

Evan handed the microphone back to Doug, the class president, then staggered off the stage and toward the restroom. He made it just in time. He fell to his knees in front of one of the pristine porcelain bowls, and his stomach heaved. He was thankful to be alone.

He felt better afterward. He made his shaky way to the sinks, where he rinsed his mouth and splashed cold water on his face. He heard the door swing open, and a moment later, someone else was bent over one of the bowls. Evan kept his face buried in the sink and the clean smell of fresh running water.

Hell of a night for everyone, I guess.

The other made his way to the sinks and buried his face in cupped hands full of cold water. They both looked up at the same moment, and saw the other’s reflection in the wall-length mirror behind the row of sinks. Both froze, water dripping from their faces.

The other spoke first. “Who the fuck are you?”

He’s like a twin brother.

Evan stared at his own likeness reflected twice in the mirror. The other was thinner, and the lines in his face were deeper and gave the face a hard and bitter look. A twin who spent eight years in prison, maybe.

“I’m Evan Johnson. Who the Hell are you?”

“No, no, no.” The other shook his head, his eyes fixed on Evan’s reflection. “I don’t think so, buddy. I’m Evan Johnson, and I don’t know who the fuck you are. I don’t know what the fuck you are.” 

The door swung open, and Evan Johnson walked into the room. He was heavier than the other two, almost portly, and wore an expensive suit. He had a self-absorbed air about him and only glanced at the other two as he strode to the latrine. He planted his legs well apart in a stance of confident conquest, and let out a loud sigh.

“Nothing like a good piss to clear the mind, eh, boys? Garrison Keillor even wrote a poem about it. Good man, Keillor.” He zipped up with far too much showy motion, and turned to find the other two staring at him with open mouths, water slowly dripping from their faces.

“What?” he demanded. He glanced down to look for unsightly splashes or a shirt tail hanging out. Finding nothing, he glowered back at the other two, and finally saw the two faces he was looking at. His own face went white. “Oh my God.”

The door swung again, and the three turned.

“Come on, I’m sure no one is in here!” They heard giggling feminine protests. An obviously drunk Evan Johnson backed into the restroom, grinning fecklessly while trying to hold onto the flailing arms of the woman they couldn’t see.

“Oh, Evan, come on. We’ll get a room. Go do your business.” She finally broke free, and the drunken Evan blew her a kiss and stumbled back against the wall, smiling blissfully. He slowly turned to find three copies of himself staring at him. The smile slid from his face and his eyes widened.

“Holy shit.”

The door swung again, and Evan Johnson stepped in.

“Ah, gentlemen, here you are!” This version was not drunk at all, nor did he seem surprised or confused by the other four faces. He was heavyset and sported a neat goatee, gone white.

“Relax, gentlemen. You aren’t crazy. This is all quite real, but it’s … let’s call it temporary. It isn’t part of the main sequence. Not yet.”

“Who the fuck are you, professor, and what are you talking about?” the thin, hard-bitten Evan snapped.

“How many of you contracted chicken pox in your second year of graduate studies?”

Thin Evan’s eyes narrowed. “How the fuck did you know about that?”

“In a moment. All of you?” Four heads nodded.

“How many of you went on to study closed timelike loops after you recovered?”

Four heads shook in bewilderment. The professor nodded and smiled with satisfaction. “Twenty-four years. As I expected.”

The portly Evan in the expensive suit stepped forward. “I want an explanation. Now.” His tone did not invite argument.

“Or I kick the shit out of you,” added thin Evan.

The disheveled Evan slowly slid down the wall and passed out.

Professor Johnson scowled at thin Evan. “We seem to have some time. Short version, then. We’re all from separate micro-universes extended randomly into the future from the real present, which lies approximately twenty-four years in our common past — right around the time we were all suffering from chicken pox. Each of us represents who Evan Johnson might become twenty-four years from that moment, depending on certain events and choices. When those choices are actually made, one of us will continue to exist, and the others will all vanish. Actually, all of us will vanish shortly, because our current existence is only temporary. A Johnson Resonance.”

Several of the Evans around him blinked. The professor blushed.

“The name doesn’t matter. We’re like tiny droplets of water kicked up by a speedboat moving through the water, flung into the future a little way in front of the boat before we evaporate.”

“Why are there only five of us?” asked Evan in the expensive suit.

Professor Johnson nodded. “Good question, and I don’t know the answer. My theory is that it’s how choices are actually made. I think of it as a playoff, and we’re the last five contestants standing, out of countless billions who started. One of us will be chosen as the Evan-to-be, and the speedboat will turn in that direction. The other four will become … might-have-beens.”

“So what the fuck am I doing here?” thin Evan burst out. “Why in God’s name would my life make it to the finals? My whole life is completely fucked up. I’d never choose this life!”

The professor looked at him sadly. “I said this is how choices are made. I didn’t say we did the choosing.”

The door swung again, and a five-year old boy walked in. Evan saw the dark hair, the bright blue eyes, the strong jaw, and immediately thought of Brenda Schmidt. The boy looked at the five adults in the room, confused.

His eyes lit on thin Evan, and grew wide. Thin Evan growled at the boy. The child’s lip started to tremble, all his attention focused on the Evan who had killed Brenda. Brenda’s sister’s grandkid. Brenda’s sister — the one who had survived in all five futures. Evan felt his head go light, and the room grew dim.

The boy’s name. What is his name? Brenda told you. Robert? Rick? Ricky.

“Ricky,” Evan called softly.

The boy’s eyes turned to Evan, and he suddenly ran to him and threw his arms around his leg. The light returned. Evan’s head pounded from the scotch. He was alone in the restroom with the little boy.

Evan heard a timid knock on the door, and it pushed open a crack. Brenda Schmidt looked in, embarrassed.

“Ricky?” she called. “Are you in there? Oh, I’m so sorry. Is there a little boy…? There you are, Ricky. Your mother told you not to run away from me like that.”

“He’s fine.”

“I thought I heard voices in here.”

“Just might-have-beens.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing, Brenda. It’s been a strange night. I had too much to drink, and I was talking to myself.”

“They say talking to yourself is a sign you’re going crazy.”

“Nah. Only if you argue with yourself. And lose.”

Brenda giggled.

“Listen, Brenda, I’m pretty hungry, and Ricky doesn’t look like he’s going to let go of me any time soon. Would you like to get something to eat?”

Brenda smiled. “I’m starving. The restaurant is closed, but I think the bar serves sandwiches and fries until two.”

“You want some fries, Ricky?” The boy nodded fiercely. “Okay, then let go of my leg, and we’ll get some fries.”


Evan slowly opened his eyes in the darkened room. Sweat soaked the mattress, and the stink of illness sang in his nostrils. His mind seemed clear, however, and he realized he felt pretty good.

Fever finally broke.

He slowly levered himself out of bed and made his way through the cramped apartment to the refrigerator.

I actually feel hungry. Maybe a glass of milk.

The milk was fresh, left by his landlady who lived right across the hall. He poured a small glass and sat at the tiny table. As he sipped it, he found himself doodling abstract designs on a scrap of paper. Odd designs, geometric shapes that might be resonance modes in an outer electron shell, but weren’t. He shook his head.

Too much like problem sets in quantum. I need something a little less challenging.

His eye fell on the Rubik’s Cube puzzle that a friend had given him for Christmas. It would be a good way to pass the time while he recovered. He crumpled the scrap of paper and pitched it into the trash. He finished his milk, and took the cube back to his bed. 

Plenty of time for coursework later. Plenty of time.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved


The gray jays and squirrels should have tipped me off sooner. I’ve never figured out how critters with a brain the size of a peanut could tell when guests were coming. But they can, and if you pay attention, they’ll tell you.

I’d had plenty of time to learn their lingo. I pretty much lived in the high country any more, and wandered from campsite to campsite. Not the regular Forest Service sites — they’re expensive, and packed with people all the time. But there’s lots of remote areas around the country where no one ever goes, except maybe during hunting season, and I’d been to most of them on my annual circuit. I’d just found this one, and it was big, open, and best of all, completely deserted.

I sat in my camp chair and enjoyed the afternoon thunderstorms as they rolled in, snug under the awning of my pop-up camper. I always love the smell of rain in the pines. The wind picked up, and I heard the patter of raindrops as the front rushed over me. That’s when I noticed all the squirrels and camp robbers. There were lots of them around.

Too many.

I’ve only seen two things that will fill up a deserted site like that. One is a natural disaster, like a fire. But then, you know, they’re all sort of passing through in a big hurry. These critters were settling in. That could only mean one thing: dinner’s on the way. With jays and squirrels, that meant people coming. Lots of them.

I cursed and dashed out into the pouring rain to break camp. I had just rounded the back of my camper, crank handle in hand, when a Dryad stepped out of her tree and planted a big kiss on my lips.

Never been kissed by a Dryad? Think back to that year your hormones took over and girls suddenly went from creepy to enthralling. Think of that special girl you had in your sights — you know, the nice one who treated you halfway like a human being and maybe even liked you a little bit: the girl you desperately wanted to ask to the Saturday matinee. You’d buy the popcorn, and your fingers would touch when you reached into the bucket, and then your eyes would meet shyly under the flickering light of the big screen, and she’d give you a Mona Lisa smile and close her eyes, her lips just ever-so-slightly puckered, waiting; you’d lean toward her, feel her soft breath on your lips. 

Remember that kiss? No, no, not the real one — that one turned into a crawling-away-on-your-knees disaster, which first kisses have a way of doing. No, I’m talking about that perfect kiss you imagined over and over as you lay in bed under a thin sheet on hot summer nights while the crickets sang love songs to each other. That kiss.

Well, a Dryad’s kiss is a lot like that. Only better.

Of course, then you get sucked into her tree, never to be seen again in the mortal world. 

So I growled and bit her tongue, hard, and she jerked away immediately with a squawk.

“Wah wath thah foah?” she shrieked as I spat out the taste of pine tar and turpentine.

“No offense lady, but I really don’t have the time for this.”

She stomped back into her tree, which shook and dumped several dozen pine cones on me. The tree was tall — they stung when they hit. Dryads can get a bit touchy when you turn them down.

I had the camper top cranked down and was working on the hitch when the first RV pulled into sight. The rain fell in buckets, so all I saw were the headlamps and a shadowy square bulk behind it, like the glowing eyes of the fabled Questing Beast struggling to drag itself out of a giant cracker box. Another pair of glowing eyes appeared behind it, and another behind that. A whole bloody goddamned caravan.

My feet went icy cold, and the hitch pulled free from my hands. I looked down. Water covered my feet: a miniature torrent raced at a strange angle across the hillside, through my campsite and under my truck, which slipped sideways as soil and gravel washed out from under the tires. I heard a grinding thunk as the rear axle high-centered on a big rock that had been buried deep beneath soil a moment ago.


I glared at the river, which had been diverted by a swarm — or do they call it a nuisance? — of Naiads, who grinned maliciously over their shoulders with their pointed little teeth bared, and waggled their shapely naked little tushes at me. Mischief done, they let the water return to its normal course.

I glanced back at the Dryad’s tree; she stood with her fists on her hips and a satisfied smirk on her pretty face. She stuck out her tongue at me. I noticed she’d sprouted two tiny branches on either side of her tongue where I’d bitten her. I stuck out my own tongue and with my fingers pantomimed two branches sticking out of it. 

She glared and shrieked and ran back into her tree. Two more pine cones fell on my camper.

I didn’t need to see the pentacle decals on the RVs, or the bumper-stickers that read, “My other car is a broom,” to know that a passel of nature-worshipping Pagans had invaded my campsite.

You see, this is the reason I avoid other people. Somehow, other people’s beliefs take on solid form around me. The sudden appearance of Dryads and Naiads told me everything I needed to know about my new human neighbors.

Don’t ask me how or why this happens. I have no idea. Back in the days before it got so bad it drove me out on my hermit’s pilgrimage, most people said it was just my imagination. They twirled their fingers and rolled their eyes when they thought I wasn’t looking.

Then one day these nice young Mormons came to my door, and right in the middle of our conversation the Angel of Death materialized on my doorstep — complete with wings, scythe, and gauzy black robe that fluttered in an invisible breeze. One of the Mormons fainted dead away, the other went white and peed his pants. Turned out the angel wasn’t there for any of us, he’d just lost his way and wanted directions. It made sense, in a way: streets were pretty tangled in that neighborhood, and we always had lost pizza delivery guys asking directions. I’d have thought a divine archetype like Death would at least have access to a good map, though. Maybe it’s some fine point of Mormon theology. At least their Angels stop to ask for directions — don’t get me started on the Catholic Angels.

At any rate, that incident put an end to the idea it was my imagination.

Things only got worse after that. I had UFO’s ruining my lawn and smashing the begonias, aliens with disgusting ideas of “fun” camped out in my bathroom, Communists under the bed who smoked those hideous little European cigars and demanded espresso during the day and vodka at night, black helicopters that buzzed my house at six in the morning — “stealth” my ass, they’re as noisy as a blender full of marbles — and I don’t even want to talk about what lived in the basement. Or what it cost to feed it. Fortunately, it liked dog food.

One day I got tired of it all and jumped in my car and drove away. As I got away from people, the UFOs veered off, the black helicopters took off after them, and the gremlins who had stowed away in my trunk pounded on the lid until I let them out. I had a completely normal weekend for the first time in years. Not long after that, I bought my little pop-up camper and became a solitary nomad.

Now I was suddenly and completely surrounded by Pagans, and Dryads were coming out of the woods. Literally.

The lead RV stopped, and the door swung open. The driver was a bear of a man, completely bald with an untidy blonde-gray beard that poured out over his enormous belly and covered most of the tie-died wife-beater he wore. He stayed inside the cab and out of the rain.

“Merry meet!” he bellowed over the roar of rain that pounded on his RV.

I growled back something, as I contemplated what irresistible force might get my immovable truck to move again.

His eyes grew wide when he saw my truck. “Bummer!” he exclaimed. “When this rain stops, we’ll help you get that thing unstuck.”

I sighed and resigned myself to fate. I was drenched, cold, and wasn’t going anywhere right now. I unfolded my camper and went inside to change out of my wet clothing.

The rain let up just after sunset, and the air warmed suddenly as it sometimes does after a rainfall in the high mountains. By the time the first stars showed, the weather was almost balmy. The campfires leapt high, and the drums started.

Pagans are fun to be around, I suppose, at least for ordinary people. They live at the wilder edge of urban society, and you can easily score some free booze or some ‘shrooms or even a hot night in the sack if you’re polite. But they have the weirdest beliefs. I hated running into Pagans in the woods.

As the drums got going, the whole place grew thick with fairies — so thick that some of them were forced into the updrafts from the fires and took off like bottle rockets with little fairy shrieks as their hair caught fire. They came back down bald and smoking and mad as hell, and tiny fistfights broke out.

Gods and goddesses wandered around — generally identifiable since they were nine feet tall and glowed in the dark — and they blessed people as they tried to pick up free booze, ‘shrooms, and women or men (or occasionally both); one of them handed out four-color brochures for time-share condo opportunities on the astral planes.

Strange shapes lurched in the dark forest around us, like this dude about eight feet tall with antlers, or the short pudgy guy who walked bent-over as he played an enormous flute about the size of a didgeridoo. Then I got a better look at the short guy, and I realized it wasn’t a flute at all…. Well! Maybe he’d keep my Dryad busy tonight. All in all, it seemed pretty innocuous, and since I was stuck here, I cadged some booze and relaxed into the spirit of the thing.

After a while, I wandered over to the biffy to relieve myself. It was an old outhouse that went back — according to the carving on the wooden seat that I’d seen earlier today — to the Works Project Administration under Franklin Roosevelt. It certainly smelled that old. I opened the door, and immediately slammed it shut again, my heart racing. Very carefully, I opened it a crack, and shone my flashlight in, pointed up to reflect off the ceiling. It had not been my imagination.

Seated on the WPA seat was the biggest damned fly I’d ever seen. No, that isn’t right. That conjures an image of a really big fly, maybe an inch or two across. This one sat upright on the seat, and it brushed the ceiling. Its wings were all scrunched against the walls, but it managed a loud buzz nonetheless. I slammed the door again and looked around frantically for a big rock to wedge it shut.

As I listened to the aircraft drone inside the biffy, I could make out words. I listened harder. “Commmmmm innnnnn, zzzhooommmmannnnn,” it buzzed. “Worzzzzzhip mmmmmeeee.” 

“Who the Hell are you?” I asked as I pounded a rock into place with my foot. Not the best way to phrase things around a bunch of Pagan deities, I suppose, but my heart still raced. I wasn’t in the mood for polite.

“Beellzzzzhebuuub, looorrrd uvvv zheee fliiezzh,” it buzzed. Beelzebub? Wait a minute, wasn’t he some kind of Demon Lord from Hell? What kind of Pagans…?

Oh, crap and double-crap.

Sure enough, more RV’s crawled up the road. I’d bet good money these would be emblazoned with crosses and Bible verse bumper stickers. I was not disappointed. The only thing I hate to encounter in the woods more than Pagans is Born-Again Christians. 

The Christians pulled into the next clearing over, and soon had their awnings up and campfires burning. In short order, they had four Guardian Angels who faced outward at the corners of their site — mean-looking bastards with enormous wings and big hands that rested on the hilts of the nasty Roman-style short swords that hung from their belts — and a soft golden glow rose up from the center of their camp as the Christians started to sing hymns. Several of them cast scowls at the Pagan group, no doubt irritated by the drums and the theology over here.

The drums petered out, then started again in a slower rhythm. I could see that the whole Pagan group had formed a circle, surrounded by a glow of mystical blue light like a gas ring on a propane stove. The Pagan drums picked up speed, and the Christian hymns picked up volume.

I heard a howl from the forest followed by a string of some of the vilest language I’ve ever heard. It was hard to see in the firelight, but I thought I saw the short guy with the … ahem, didgeridoo up in the low branches of one of the big pines, screaming at something dark and sinuous and very large on the ground. He threw pine cones at it. A Dryad popped out of the tree to scold him, saw his target, and ran straight back into the tree with a squeak.

A blood-curdling shriek rose from the center of the Pagan circle and the dark form of a banshee drifted through the blue flames into the woods where it put up an absolutely awful racket. The hymns faltered, and most of the Christians fell to their knees to pray.

I decided then and there to make for the top of my camper, despite the little sticker that cited a maximum load of seventy-five pounds. It held my weight just fine.

I saw a light appear in the sky, and wondered if someone in this crowd had brought the black helicopters or UFOs into the mix, but it turned out to be an Archangel: Gabriel, I think, the one with the horn. He cut loose with a doomsday riff — damn, he was good — and three or four of the Christians vanished simultaneously with a muffled pop, leaving their clothing behind.

A cheer went up from the Pagans, and they began to chant, “RAP-ture, RAP-ture, TAKE ‘em ALL, TAKE ‘em ALL…” in time to their drums. No more Christians vanished, but I could see that those left behind were sorely vexed. They stood and belted out “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at the top of their lungs, so fiercely that even their Guardian Angels glanced nervously at each other.

They’d picked a martial tempo for their song that happened to match the beat of the Pagan drums, and next thing I knew, the banshee had drifted into the Christian camp and joined the singing with a fairly tuneful descant, despite the fact that a banshee sounds mostly like someone torturing a rusty hinge. The guy with the big flute settled back on his branch and picked up the melody. Gabriel flew down into the tree and jammed with the flute guy: the two of them together were hot. The four Guardian Angels abandoned their posts and started a Morris Dance with their swords, and the Eden Serpent — maybe it was the Midgard Serpent, I can’t really tell the difference — rose up like a cobra and swayed in time to the beat. The big guy with the antlers minced a minuet in the moonlight — now, that was bizarre. The fairies spread out and swarmed and swooped and swerved like glowing whirlwinds.

Way cool.

I’d forgotten entirely about Beelzebub. The fly in the ointment, so to speak.

The outhouse exploded in a flash of dull red fire and the most awful stink — truly a Smell from Hell — and dozens, hundreds, thousands of dark shapes crawled out over the WPA seat and swarmed the surprised Guardian Angels, taking them down before they could untangle their swords. Gabriel blew a raucous blue note and leaped from the branch to assist his angelic brothers: his baldric caught, and he ended up swinging upside-down over the Serpent, who seemed hypnotized by the motion. I wondered what would happen when he stopped swinging. The Lord of the Flies Himself stalked toward the Christians on his skinny hind legs, buzzing ominously, and the swarming black shapes swirled around both groups and pressed hard against the golden and the blue light. The Christians screamed. The Pagans screamed. I think I screamed.

And then Beelzebub’s eye popped off.

It hit the ground and rolled a bit and then wobbled around like a metal colander. It was a metal colander: you could see the little handles on the rim. The other eye popped off, and a scared human face looked out through the enormous eye-holes, white against the dark fabric of the costume. Beelzebub turned tail and ran. One wire-and-gauze wing fell off.

The rising moon cleared the shoulder of the great peak to the east, and the swarm of black-footed ferrets that circled both camps, now clearly visible in the moonlight, scampered off into the woods as the whirlwinds of iridescent dragonflies dispersed. The eight-foot guy tripped over his platform shoes with a muffled curse and left his antlers caught in the branches of a tree, chin-strings dangling. I heard the didgeridoo deflate with a flabby sound, Gabriel’s baldric ripped and he landed on his horn with a sound like a beer can being crushed, and the giant Eden Serpent ripped in two and disgorged a bunch of Chinese guys with sparklers, who ran screaming incoherently into the woods. 

What on earth?

Another vehicle crunched its way up the gravel road. It stopped in the center of the camp area, and a slender, athletic, very pretty young woman stepped out. She glared at the shocked Christians, who stood in the dirty yellow glow of their Coleman lantern. She glared at the stunned Pagans inside the ring of blue glow-sticks scattered on the ground around them. She scowled at the smoldering remains of the outhouse with its wooden seat that dated from the Roosevelt administration. She sniffed, and her nose wrinkled. She tapped her foot.

“That’s it!” she shouted. “Everyone out. Site’s closed. Douse your fires, pack up and move out. NOW!” Her Park Ranger badge flashed in the moonlight. Both groups moved slowly, like rusty wind-up toys, but they doused the fires and took down their tents and awnings and started back down the mountain road.

“That means you, too, Mister!” She glared up at me where I sat on top of my pop-up camper. I gestured to my truck, which remained high-centered on a rock. She frowned.

“How on earth did you manage that?” she asked as she examined the truck.

I stared at her, enthralled. “If I told you it all started when I turned down a kiss from a tree spirit, you wouldn’t believe me, would you?”

She made a rude sound. “No,” she said.

“What do you believe?” I asked.

“Damned little,” she replied, and looked me straight in the eye with her level gray gaze. I’ve always loved gray eyes. 

“So you’re a skeptic.”

She grinned. “My mama once told me I wouldn’t even suckle ‘till I checked out both nipples to make sure I wasn’t getting cheated. Yeah, I’m a skeptic.”

A skeptic with enough Disbelief to completely mute two camps of warring True Believers. How interesting. How … wonderful.

“Look,” she continued, “you’re going nowhere in your truck tonight, but you can’t stay here — health hazard.” She gestured toward the smoking outhouse. “There’s a couch at the ranger station. We’ll come back in the morning and get you out of that hole.”

A nice girl who treats me like a human being. My heart raced.

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” I blurted out. She stared at me in silence for a long time.

“It’s probably the only thing I do believe in,” she answered with a Mona Lisa smile.

Around me, other people’s beliefs become real.

“Then I think,” I said, carefully, my heart in my throat, “that you and I were made for each other.”

And by the way, I was wrong. A Dryad’s kiss is not one bit better than the real thing.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

The Last Wizard

I gently touched the aged face on the hand-painted Tarot card. Tears welled in my eyes.

“Where did you get this?” I asked. My fingers traced the flowing lines of the white beard beneath the smiling eyes on the card.

When no answer came, I glanced up from the painting. My daughter — Sasha, the feisty one, always in trouble — stared back at me, defiant and embarrassed at the same moment. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen that look on her face.

She dropped her gaze. “I found it in your big old trunk in the attic,” she said.

“The one I told you never to open?” I asked, mildly.

She put her finger next to mine on the painting to evade the question. “Momma, was this Grampa?”

“Yes, this is a painting of Grandpa.”

“Was he really a wizard?”

I glanced again at the painting. The artist had painted him in his dark blue robes with the pointy hat perched atop his head.

I smiled. “Yes, Sasha, he was a real wizard.”

Her eyes shone. “He could do real magic?”

“Yes, he could do real magic.”

“I want to do real magic, too!”

A painful twist of sorrow went through my heart. “No, Sasha, you can’t. There are no more wizards. Grandpa was the last.”

Her face fell. “How come? What happened to all the other wizards?”

I studied Sasha’s nine-year-old figure, all angles and elbows and big front teeth. Grandpa had once told me that apprentices were always chosen at the age of nine. Young enough to learn the Art, he said, old enough to begin to learn the difference between right and wrong. Sasha was old enough to hear the truth.

“Grandpa,” I told her, “killed them all.”

I heard Grandpa’s deep voice at the front door. I dropped all the silverware in a pile on the table and ran to give him a hug. He always came on Sunday afternoon for dinner, but today was special — it was my birthday! I rounded the corner, then skidded to a stop. Instead of the old-fashioned gray suit with the dark red vest he always wore on Sunday, he was dressed in a dark blue robe and a pointy blue hat, both covered with moons and stars and strange markings. He looked just like a storybook wizard, but it didn’t look silly on him. 

His eyes lit up when he saw me. “Eleanor, my dear child! Where is my hug and kiss?”

I ran to him and hugged him hard. “Are you really a wizard, Grandpa?” I asked.

“That is precisely right, young lady.” He had a deep voice, and a funny accent that Mama said came from the Old Country. “A fierce old wizard of the olden days, I am. Ogres and dragons beware! But lovely young maidens have nothing to fear!”

He waved his arms, and fresh flowers appeared in his hand out of nowhere. I giggled. Grandpa always had the best magic tricks for me. 

“Why the robes, Grandpapa?” asked Mama. She smiled at him, but a worry-line creased her forehead.

“It’s her ninth birthday, Claire,” he said, his bushy white eyebrows rising. “Have you forgotten?”

Mama blushed, then got pale. “Oh, Grandpapa. She’s just a little girl. Is it … really necessary?” Grandpa scowled at her without answering. Mama lowered her eyes. “I’ll get it for you, then,” she said, and left the room quickly.

I had never seen Grandpa angry with Mama. It gave me a nasty hollow feeling in my stomach. He stared after her, and I stood perfectly still, afraid to move.

Mama came back carrying a small wooden box. She handed it to Grandpa. I saw tears in her eyes. She wouldn’t look at him or at me. As soon as he took the box, she turned and hurried out of the room.

Grandpa kept staring at the empty doorway, but now he looked terribly sad. Claire, his lips formed my mother’s name. His shoulders slumped. 

Then he sighed, made a strange gesture with his hand, and turned to me. He smiled, the same gentle smile he’d given me all my life, but for the first time I was afraid of him.

“Eleanor, this is your ninth birthday. Nine is a sacred number for wizards. In olden days, a wizard would choose his apprentice from children your age. We don’t do things that way any more, but I do have a magical gift for you. I gave it to your mother when she turned nine, and now, I am passing it on to you. Will you accept it?”

Even though I was scared, I was curious. Papa said that Grandpa’s magic tricks were Pure Hokum, all done with mirrors and hidden wires. Grandpa laughed when he said that, like the two of them shared a grown-up joke, but Papa never laughed back. Now Grandpa wanted to give me a Magic Box! I could feel the magic in the room, like static electricity. I wanted to reach out and touch the box. But I remembered Mama’s tears.

“What is it?” I asked, cautiously.

Grandpa’s eyes grew serious. “In this box lies the salvation of the world,” he answered.

I blinked. Grandpa loved to play little jokes on me all the time, but this didn’t feel like a joke. 

“I don’t understand,” I said in a small voice.

“I know that, little Eleanor,” he said, gently. “It will be years yet before you really understand. But here is what it means: someday, you may be called upon to save the world. I will teach you how — your own heart will tell you when. I trusted your mother with this, and now I trust you.”

“Is … is it dangerous?” 

Grandpa looked at the box, and for just a moment, I thought he looked scared. Then his eyes found mine, and he smiled again. “To you — no, it is not dangerous. Not in the least. It is only dangerous to someone who would try to destroy the world.”

Curiosity won. I reached out and took the box. As I touched it, all the magic drained out of the room. I wondered if I’d just imagined it. The box was plain and roughly-made, with brass hinges and a brass latch on the front. The only decoration was a strange mark carved on the top, a circle with three dots and three slashes like sun rays inside it.

“May I open it?” I asked. “Please?”

“Of course, dear Eleanor,” he answered, his eyes twinkling once more. “It is your birthday present, after all.”

I flipped the latch and opened the box.

“It’s empty!” I complained.

He scowled and peeked over the top. “Tarnation!” he grumbled. “Close it and try again.”

I closed it, and when I opened it again, a beautiful necklace lay on a piece of crumpled black velvet inside. I looked up at Grandpa, who gave me a knowing wink. I threw my arms around his neck and buried my face in his bushy white beard.

Grandpa and I sprawled on a checkered blanket in a little clearing in the woods behind his house. I had just turned twelve, and I was proud of making the whole picnic lunch by myself. Grandpa had brought a small bottle of his mead. He let me taste it, once, after making me promise I wouldn’t tell my parents. I liked it — it was sweet. He said it was made from honey. 

I loved our summer picnics, especially when Grandpa brought his little bottle of mead, because he’d tell stories. Grand stories, usually, about the olden days of wizards and kings and dragons. This time he’d told me a story about one of his wizard-friends in the Old Country. 

“Do you ever get to see your old friends?” I asked.

Grandpa’s face grew sad. “No,” he said, “they’re gone. All gone.”

“What happened to them all?” I asked, surprised.

Grandpa studied me.

“I killed them,” he said, as calmly as if he had said he had eggs for breakfast.

“Why?” I blurted out, shocked. I wondered if he was playing one of his jokes on me.

Grandpa smiled, but he still looked sad. “How old do you think I am?” he asked instead of answering my question. 

Grown-ups are funny about getting old. I remember when Mama made a big fuss about turning thirty. “Maybe… sixty?” I said, but I knew he was older. Grandpa shook his head, and pointed up with his thumb.

“Seventy?” I said. Grandpa kept his thumb up. He stopped me at a hundred.

“Eleanor, my dear child, I will truly die of old age before you guess the number at this rate. I am nine hundred and fifty-three years old.”

After a while, I remembered to close my mouth. 

“Wizards live a very, very, very long time,” he continued. “No one really knows how long a wizard could live, left to himself. Maybe forever. But like everything else on Earth, we get old, and with age comes … infirmity. Do you know that word?”

“It means like Grandmama, when she was in the wheelchair before she died. They said she was infirm.”

“Yes, exactly. But with wizards, it plays out a little differently. It would be easiest if I showed you. May I show you?”

I nodded. Grandpa breathed on his thumbnail, and then polished it against his vest. “Look at your reflection,” he said, and held out his thumb. His thumbnail was polished to a brilliant shine, so shiny that I really could see my reflection in it. Then my reflection vanished, as well as Grandpa’s thumb and everything else. I was in a different place.

The ground shook. Waves of heat rippled along the stone walls like the inside of a forge. Only wizards still breathed within the fortress. The servants, the guards, the musicians were no more than pale ash.

“Can we do nothing against him?” the youngest asked.

“He was strongest among us,” one of the elders answered.

“But if we combined our powers…?”

Another elder scowled. “You know better than that! Our powers do not combine that way. It would take years to forge a useful weapon from our combined powers. Without a weapon, since no one of us can overpower him, all of us together cannot. He has evaded all of our traps — even in his madness, he is cunning. He has killed his own apprentice and half our number. He will destroy every last one of us, and then his madness will turn upon the mortal world. He will blast armies, burn the fields, boil away the very oceans if he can.”

The youngest scowled back. “I will not die like a rat in a hole. I will face him.”

“You will die.”

“That will happen, anyway.”

He turned, his blue robes swirling, and strode to the heavy iron door, which glowed almost white with heat. A swift incantation passed him through the portal. The walls began to shudder in the violence that suddenly erupted outside.

I felt a moment of dizziness, and then I was somewhere else.

Wizards sat around the outer curve of the annular table that inscribed the high-ceilinged room. Pale light streamed from a miniature sun that floated high above the center of the space. Half the seats around the table were empty. Faces were grim. The eldest stood.

“Are we agreed, then?”

A murmur of assent swept the room.

“This must be unanimous. If any of you feels this is the wrong course, speak now.”

No one stirred.

“Then let it be so. The line of wizards is ended. There will be no more apprentices. Our youngest, who has proven himself our mightiest, will carry the burden for us all.”

The young wizard in the blue robes stood and bowed to the assembly.

“But who will carry the burden for him?” asked one of the wizards.

Grandpa’s thumb slowly came back into focus in front of me. I studied his lined face, and recognized the young wizard in blue.

“You see what happens when a wizard becomes infirm of mind,” Grandpa said.

I struggled to understand the terrible vision. “He went crazy. He started to destroy everything. But you fought him and killed him. So when you said you killed all the other wizards….”

He nodded. “It was my sacred duty. They were my friends, my brothers, my kind. One by one, they aged and lost their minds, and it was my burden to end their suffering. Now, I am the last of the wizards, and I am also growing old.”

I suddenly understood what he was saying. “NO!” I cried, clutching his hand. “No, no, no!”

Sasha sat on the floor in her cross-legged story-pose and listened raptly as I told her of the unbreakable cycle of wizard and apprentice. A wizard could die only by another’s magic. Each wizard knew he would eventually become a threat to the world, so he chose and trained an apprentice whose duty was to watch for signs of madness and end his master’s life before the madness took hold. The apprentice then took the master’s place and trained another apprentice to watch for his own eventual madness. So it had been from the misty beginnings of humankind, when the first wizards appeared.

With Grandpa, they had chosen to end the cycle forever. They had given him the responsibility to end each of their lives as madness overtook them. One by one, he had done so. Finally, he was the last of the wizards.

I could see Sasha ponder the obvious question. With a nine-year-old’s candor, she asked. 

“So who killed Grampa?”

I was changing Sasha’s diaper when the phone rang. I answered, juggling diapers and safety pins. Grandpa was on the other end, panic in his voice.

“Claire!” he cried, calling me by my dead mother’s name. “Help me! I’m lost! I’m lost in my own house!”

I left Sasha with our neighbor and drove straight over. By the time I arrived, he had recovered from his fright.

“Come on, Grandpa, let’s go for a walk,” I said. “It will do you good.”

“Yes,” he replied. “Yes, Eleanor, that would be wonderful. I’ve been cooped up in this house too long.”

We visited all our favorite places: the little picnic clearing behind his house; the bare hill where he had taught me the names of all the constellations; the Dairy Queen on the far side of the woods, where we had shared sundaes and root beer floats on hot Saturday afternoons.

As we walked, we laughed. We bought ice cream, and wandered the streets of the small town. We stopped at the tiny church where Grandpa had given me away in marriage, and spent a quiet moment at my parents’ graves. He told me briefly, for the first time, of the three women he had truly loved in all his centuries of life; he spoke of them with such longing in his voice that I wept.

At last the sun began to set, and we turned to go home. As we passed the old Johnson house, Grandpa suddenly stopped. The house had been an eyesore when I was a child, when Mr. Johnson had lived in it. Abandoned years ago when Mr. Johnson died, it had sat on the market, year after year, slowly falling into ruin. Grandpa glared at the house, muttering to himself.

“You were a cheap, small-souled man, Elmer Johnson, and your house shows it. An eyesore like that should not be allowed to stand.” He made a small gesture with his hand. I watched in shock as the entire house fell in on itself and vanished into the ground. Not even a mound of earth showed where it had been buried. Shock turned to horror as I noticed the realtor’s car parked in the driveway.

“Grandpa….” I pointed to the car, unable to continue.

Grandpa’s gaze followed my pointing finger, and his face went almost as white as his beard. He held out his hand, and I saw the earth ripple, then settle again. Grandpa’s face turned sickly gray. He clutched his hand into a fist and shouted a strange word; a few broken floorboards and splinters of siding churned up from the ground, and threw clods of earth all the way to the sidewalk where we stood.  I felt the hairs on my arms stir. A wild anger shone in Grandpa’s face, and I thought I heard the sound of a thousand bees swarming around my head.

“I command the elements,” he growled, “and you shall bend to my will.”

“Grandpa!” I shouted. He glanced at me, saw my face, recognized me.

“Eleanor?” he said. His anger collapsed into confusion. The sound of bees vanished. “Where am I?”

I heard a door open. My knees grew weak as the realtor and her client emerged from the detached garage at the rear of the property. They stopped and gaped at the roiled earth where the house had stood only a moment before. I took Grandpa’s arm firmly and walked him away from the newly-vacant lot and unanswerable questions, my heart pounding.

When we reached Grandpa’s house, he was as calm as if the incident had never happened.

“Claire, will you come see me again tomorrow?” he asked, his face open and hopeful.

“Grandpa, I’m Eleanor.”

“Eleanor? Who is Eleanor?”

“Grandpa, I’m Eleanor, Claire’s daughter.”

A sly expression crossed Grandpa’s face. “Ah, Claire, now you’re having fun with me. You’re not old enough to have a daughter.”

I stared at him silently in the deepening twilight. Uncertainty fluttered across his face.

“Where are we?” he asked, a quaver in his strong voice. “Where are you taking me, Claire?”

“Home, Grandpa,” I answered, my voice husky. “I’ll stay with you tonight.” 

“Will you take care of me?” he asked. He searched my eyes, pleading.

“Yes, Grandpa. I’ll take care of you.” His eyes brimmed with tears, and he smiled. His face was that of a child, full of trust. We went inside.

I sat in a chair at his bedside and watched him all night as he slept fitfully. It was a warm summer night, but I felt cold. I could not erase from my mind’s eye the image of jagged timbers protruding from violated earth. Grandpa fell into a deeper sleep just before dawn, and I slipped out. I returned as the eastern sky began to glow rose-pink.

As the pale morning sun lit the wall opposite the lace curtains in his bedroom, Grandpa woke with a start.

“Who’s there?” he shouted. “Claire, is that you?”

“I’m right here, Grandpa.”

He stared at me in alarm. “Who are you? I don’t know you!”

“I know, Grandpa,” I said. “You’ve forgotten. But I have a present for you, one that you wanted me to give you. You told me I’d know when the time was right.”

His old eyes lit up. “A present? Is it my birthday?”

I could not speak around the lump in my throat. I handed the present to him wordlessly, the rough wooden box with the symbol carved on the top. His brow knotted as if he were trying to remember something. Then he shook his head in annoyance and opened the box.

“It’s empty!” he complained. 

“Look again, Grandpa,” I said in a broken voice. As he looked into the empty box, I drew a deep breath and spoke the word of release, the meaningless syllables he had made me practice again and again until my pronunciation was perfect. 

Who will carry the burden for him? the wizard in the council chamber had asked. I knew the answer, as had my mother, and her mother, and her grandmother before her. We had all carried it: the granddaughters — generation upon generation of us, each bound magically on our ninth birthday to the wooden box, each adding to its deadly spell the power of our love for the man we called Grandfather. I could hear in my mind the whispers of all my forebears as our love was forged by the spell into a cruelly sharp weapon that slipped past Grandpa’s every defense and pierced his soul.

Grandpa trembled. He looked up in surprise and our eyes locked. I saw clarity and sudden understanding in his gaze.

“I love you, Grandpa,” I whispered. 

A tender smile flickered on his lips. Then the life drained from his eyes, and he was gone. The last wizard. My beloved grandfather.

“Who killed Grampa, Momma?”

My cheeks were wet. Sasha had crossed her arms and now stared at me impatiently, demanding that I finish the story. She’s just a little girl. I heard my mother’s voice in my mind, saw her tears. For the first time, I understood what Mama had felt at that moment, passing the burden to her own daughter. 

The wizards were gone; the granddaughters’ curse had ended as well. Sasha could keep her innocence a little longer.

“Later, Sasha. When you’re older,” was all I told her.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

Saint Jake – Epilogue

Rudric crouched on the ground, fingers locked in a death grip around the shattered haft of his hayfork, still-warm horseflesh pressed tight around him, holding him upright. Several of his companions who had been in the second rank were still alive. He was the only survivor from the first rank, the one on which the horses had broken for the critical seconds it took for the Jakes to destroy their riders with their fleschette rifles.

When the foot soldiers realized they were up against two Jakes, they had broken and fled, and a few of them had doubtless escaped. But only a few. The Jakes had pursued them, and wherever the Jakes went, Death followed.

His friends helped him out of the tangle of horseflesh and corpses of men, and helped him pry his fingers from the hayfork shaft. As if releasing his grip had loosened all the tendons in his body, he fell to the ground and the world went dark.

He recovered just as the Jakes returned, and rose slowly to his feet.

One of them rode up to him, and dismounted. The late afternoon sun, tinted almost blood-red by the dust in the air, gleamed off the Jake’s silver armor. Rudric started to kneel, but the Jake gripped him by the arm.

“No,” he said. “You do not kneel to me. I slew your enemies: I sat on a horse on a hill and spat Death at them from a safe distance. But you saved my life, and your village, and you did it with naught in your hand but a stick of wood, facing certain death. You displayed more bravery and honor today than I have ever possessed. You do not kneel to me. I kneel to you.”

The Jake went to one knee before Rudric, removed his shining helm, and bowed his head. The other Jake had rounded up Rudric’s surviving companions from the hayfork line and brought them to stand beside Rudric. Then he, also, knelt beside his fellow Jake, and removed his helm, and bowed his head.

After a moment, the two Jakes replaced their helms on their heads, and mounted their horses.

The village mayor stepped forward, and behind him the rest of the village drew close.

“Won’t you stay and celebrate this great victory with us?” he asked.

The Jake’s expression could not be read beneath his helm, but his voice was gentle and tired.

“This is your victory, bought at a dear cost to you. You should well celebrate, and then mourn your dead. It is not our place to join you. We have merely done our duty, following the rules of our order. Duty now bids us leave. Be mellow.”

“Be mellow,” the people answered, and the Jakes turned and rode away into the shadows of the east as the last rays of the sun gleamed on their armor.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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Saint Jake – Pilgrims

The old woman shuffled toward the attendant, her pilgrim’s passport in her palsied hand.

“Welcome to the Shrine of Saint Jake,” the attendant said in a bored voice, and flipped open her passport so that he could stamp it with the Mark of the Shrine. He stamped hundreds of these every day, week in and week out, and as great an honor as it was to attend the Shrine, it was hard to keep one’s devotion at peak pitch all the time.

The first page was full, so he flipped to the next page. Then the next. A small crease appeared between his brows, and he flipped to the last page. There was only one space left in the lower right corner. He flipped back to the beginning and examined the pages more carefully.

He’d never seen some of these stamps. His eyes grew wide as he slowly realized she had done the full Pilgrim’s Route, following Saint Jake’s route from the Door to Nowhere, to the Blue Lady’s Garden, to the Bank of the Damned, to the Shrine here on the shores overlooking the submerged ruins of the Great Apple, where Saint Jake had finally faced and defeated all twelve Dragonlords in the Arena of Fate that lay beneath the waters in the heart of the ruined city. His eyes, full of wonder, rose to meet the old woman’s.

“You must be very devout,” he said.

She smiled.

“I knew him.”

The attendant nearly dropped the passport.

“You… you knew him?” He looked at her more closely. Yes, she was old enough — it was possible, however unlikely.

“Yes. We met walking the old highway. I was a young girl in the company of my brothers, and we all walked together for a day. I heard the Tale of Eris from his own lips as we walked. He had just decided to seek out the Blue Lady, and I wanted to join him on his quest, but he told me he had to go alone. That he had amends to make before he met her.”

The attendant slowly turned the passport back to the first page, and his hand trembled. Her name was there on the first page.

“You are Miranda.” His voice was a whisper.

The old woman smiled.

“I am.”

The tale of the star-crossed but undying love of Jake and Miranda was known to every child. Overcome, the attendant sank to his knees.

“There, there, young man, there’s no need for that. I haven’t that many hours left in this world, and I’d hate to have them run out while I’m waiting for you to put the last stamp in my book. Be mellow.”

“Be mellow,” the attendant murmured, and then rose to his feet and carefully, reverently placed the Mark of the Shrine in the exact center of the last space in the book.

“May I assist you to the Shrine, my lady?” he asked.

“Yes, I’d rather like that.”

He took her arm and slowly led her to the Shrine, and the final resting place of Saint Jake.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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Saint Jake – In Time of War

Jake never saw the men who captured him.

He’d come this far north to try to find the fabled Big Apple. He wanted to see it before it collapsed into rubble. Between the ocean level rise and the fierce Autumn hurricanes, the great coastal cities of the past were vanishing like sand castles on a beach, and he thought he ought to pay tribute to them before they were gone.

Or before he got too old to make the trip. He’d been thinking that this might be his last trip on the Road. He was over sixty, now, and a lifetime of walking had done his knees no favors. It was probably time to settle down.

He’d been walking up a tree-shaded highway, and then he was suddenly here, hands tied behind his back, head pounding with a headache like he’d never had before, clothes dripping wet from the cold water that had been thrown in his face. He coughed and shook his head to clear his eyes.

It was a room dimly-lit by a single oil lamp on a rough, stained table. Two men in worn army fatigues stood in front of him, one with a bucket that he set carefully on the ground, upside down. The other saw that Jake was awake, and walked past Jake. He heard a door open behind him.

Be mellow.

It was harder than usual to be mellow. This was not a good situation. Jake had heard tell of a vicious war brewing between the Yanks and the Grays in this part of the country. He’d given it wide berth to the west, expecting to pass by the troubles and approach the Apple from the north. Seemed he hadn’t gone far north enough. Or maybe the battleground had moved.

He heard quick footsteps behind him. A short, muscular man strode into view, then turned and sat on the overturned bucket. His head was bald or shaved close; his face was broad and fleshy, marred by a deep scar that ran from his right eyebrow to his lip. His right eye socket was empty. His expression spoke of disgust and boredom.

He looked so much like Captain Renfrew from the Keep of the Northern Dragon Waste, that Jake nodded to him without thinking and murmured, “Captain.”

The other man grew very still.

“Should I know you?” the bald man said, his one eye sharp with sudden interest.

“Jake, sir.”

The one eye blinked, and the man took a quick breath, then held it.

“Jake? You claim to the Jake?”

“I’m the only Jake I’ve met in my travels, sir.” Which wasn’t exactly true. But he was the only Jake he’d met who was anywhere close to his age. Though he’d met an uncanny number of children with that name.

A slow smile spread across the man’s face, pulling at the scar. It was not a pleasant smile, but a cruel one.

“The Jake who has inspired a thousand rebels, ten thousand thieves, and a hundred-thousand discontented citizens of the Lawful Nation of the Yewsay. The Jake who is wanted for crimes of propaganda and treason. The Jake who has a gold price on his head. The Jake who will make me a full Commander, if you are — indeed — who you say you are.”

Be mellow. God help me, be mellow.

Jake had been in a few serious scrapes before, but he’d always been able to talk his way out of them. Nothing like this, though. He knew there were times to keep his mouth shut. If ever there was such at time, it was now. He turned his mind to the ignominious defeat of Captain Renfrew in the Dragon Wastes, trying to run from rabid chipmunks with his pants around his ankles, and stared back at the bald man with a level gaze and a faint smile, though his guts felt like water. The silence stretched out.

“Well,” said the bald man at last, “we shall have to see if you are who you say you are.”

He stood and spoke to the soldier who still stood behind him.

“We won’t be needing that just yet,” he said, gesturing to the bucket. “Take this prisoner to the VIP accommodations, and make sure you don’t damage him. Then see if you can find Vince. Vince will get the truth out of this bastard. And if he IS the Jake….” He pulled a toothy grin, then strode out.

The soldier dragged Jake to his feet, then marched him down a series of concrete hallways to a cell with a door made of steel bars. The bars looked familiar, and Jake had a sudden memory of his youth, visiting a bank with his mother. They were in an old-world bank.

The soldier untied Jake and pushed him into the dark room beyond the steel bars, then pushed the gate shut. He had to put his weight against it to get it to close, but it closed with a mechanical click that sounded complete, and final. Then the soldier left, presumably to fetch Vince.

Jake sat on the floor. There was a faint, flickering light that filtered through the door, doubtless from some candle or lantern down one of the corridors. The floor was smooth and cold. He remembered the floor in the bank, some shiny black stone, polished until you could see your reflection in it. Banks had been made to keep money safe for the bankers, as he recalled, so they were like fortresses. There would be no escape from here.

Jake’s hands sought his pockets, and he realized they hadn’t searched him at all. He still had his pouch of Tangerine Dream, his pipe, and his flint. He set about the comforting ritual, hands working easily and automatically in the dark. Soon, the familiar musky scent filled the close confines of his cell, and he let his terrified mind rest. Time passed without markers.

A sudden commotion in the hallway pulled Jake out of his mellowness. Running feet. Dancing light that grew brighter. Shouting.

The bald man was suddenly at the bars, surrounded by men in fatigues, his face stretched in a grimace that his scar made into a leer. He was shouting for someone to get the damn door open. There was a muted bell-like sound followed by a whickering like a whole swarm of flying insects, and then there was blood all over the steel bars as soldiers fell. The bald man, showing sudden bone-white patches on his skull, shrieked and ran down a corridor into darkness.

Jake’s guard appeared at the door, produced a key, and then pulled the door open. A small group of people bearing torches surged into the cell, and then stopped to stare at Jake, still seated on the floor.

Jake blinked at them.

At last, he took a deep breath, and said, “Be mellow.”

“Be mellow,” they chanted back in unison. Then one stepped forward.

“Jake, begging your pardon, but we have to go, and quickly. We’re here to rescue you. Will you come?”

“Fuckin’ A,” Jake muttered and put out a hand.

The next hour was a blur of running and hiding. Two of the men carried heavy backpacks and long tubes with a grip and a trigger. They were only used once, to get through the guarded main gate of the compound. Standing so near, Jake could hear the preliminary high-pitched whine, and then the bell-like sound of the discharge, as hundreds of sharpened metal slivers were propelled out the muzzle at just under supersonic speed, to flay anything in their path.

They’ve build their own fleschette rifles. Just like the one I used against the Dragonlords. Only bigger. Clumsier. Real.

They eventually reached a flat cart on steel wheels with what looked like an old see-saw on it. Jake was glad to stop running. His lungs burned.

The men jumped onto the cart and pulled Jake aboard, then two of them began pumping the two ends of the see-saw. The cart began to move, and quickly built up speed.

Jake sat with the wind in his face as a late crescent moon rose in the sky and the horizon in front of them turned gray, then pink. The men took turns pumping the handles, and would not allow Jake to take a turn, but instead passed him strips of salted meat and a leather skin filled with a surprisingly good beer. There was no conversation, and all of the men were watchful and tense as the light grew.

In mid-morning, the men suddenly relaxed and allowed the cart to slow. One of them called out a long string of nonsense syllables, and there was an answering cry from the woods around them. They drifted to a slow halt. A moment later, they were surrounded by people, including women and children.

A tall, thin man in a clean uniform pushed through the crowd. His face was as sour as a wedge of lemon.

“What in Hell’s name is going on here?” he shouted. “You’re not supposed to be here. What’s gone wrong?”

“Nothing, sir!” It was the soldier who had taken Jake to his cell. “Something has gone right.”

“Don’t be a smartass,” the thin man snapped. “Report, damn you.”

“It’s Jake, sir. We found Jake. The Yanks had him. We rescued him.”

A dozen emotions chased themselves across the officer’s face. Disbelief. Astonishment. Concern. Horror. Anger. Disbelief again. He scanned the passengers on the cart, and his eyes locked on Jake. Disbelief tinged with anger warred with something in his expression that looked like hope.

“Is it true?” he asked Jake. “Are you Jake? If you’re lying, God help you.”

Instead of answering, Jake rooted through his pockets, and pulled out the last of his Tangerine Dream and his pipe. He carefully packed it, lit it with his flint, and then extended it toward the officer, stem-first.

“Be mellow,” he said.

The crowd, grown silent, breathed a great sigh in reply, “Be mellow.”

The officer took the offered pipe with fingers that trembled, and there were tears in his eyes. “Be mellow,” he whispered, and took a long pull on the pipe.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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