Dangerous Rendezvous

by Grove Koger

No doubt about it, Eric Francis was my father’s meal ticket. Oh, Dad corresponded now and then with Talbot Mundy and knew Sax Rohmer well enough to have a drink with him when they happened to be in Manhattan at the same time, but the big markets had them sewn up tight. Wonder Tales and its sister mags, on the other hand, featured writers a couple of rungs down the ladder: struggling newcomers and struggling has-beens, tomorrow’s big names (Dad liked to boast) and yesterday’s.

But Eric Francis was the magazines’ bread and butter.

Francis broke into print with “Dangerous Rendezvous,” in which a little party of Francisco de Montejo’s men happen upon a warrior queen and her retinue of slaves in the lowlands of Mexico. “Web of Fate” followed, and featured a sizeable arachnid guarding the entrance to an Olmec ruin. (You may have seen reproductions of the famously sinister illustration.) “Vanished Empire” was about a long-lost colony of Olmecs in Florida. The plots were cheesy, but the details–those huge stone heads, the temples and causeways, the oppressive jungle, the stifling humidity–well, Francis made them real. And was prolific to boot.

The response from readers was more than gratifying, and Dad was able to increase Wonder Tales’ circulation almost every issue for two years and hold it there for nearly a decade. Francis could easily have found a book publisher but instead asked Dad to act as agent and allowed him to collect fees for a series of contracts with Bobbs–Merrill. No problem!

We moved frequently in those years, and we weren’t just moving. We were moving up. Dad owned a succession of Lincolns, each a little grander than the preceding model. We summered on the Cape and even skied in Sun Valley its second season.

When archaeologists discovered the Olmec ruins of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in ‘38, Dad even ran a rare factual piece with photos–it was more detailed than the coverage in the New York Times–playing up what he called the “astonishing” resemblance to the descriptions in Francis’s stories. But in light of what happened next, I wonder about its impact, because it was shortly afterward that Francis retired.

That’s when Dad initiated what I think of as his “letter campaign.” He spent a full page of Wonder Tales describing how he’d collect dismayed readers’ letters and forward them to Francis in Florida. As it turned out, he filled three mail bags in no time.


I don’t dwell much on my father’s life–or my own early life, for that matter. I knew that things had changed, but I was caught up in my own affairs by then–school, baseball, then girls–and I didn’t have much time for anything or anybody else. Maybe my father’s disappearance didn’t have the impact it should have. Everyone thought that I was a heartless young man, and maybe I was.

But it’s in going through Dad’s old papers, his and those of Wonder Tales and the Edwards Literary Agency, Clive Edwards, prop., that I’ve come to realize how much I miss him. I knew my mother, for she had survived my father’s disappearance by two decades. But I had never really known my father, and I regret it.

He had set out one day on a road trip. We had just returned from the Cape–the rental had been a modest one that last summer, and I had just begun the sixth grade the week before. It was normal for my father to arrive home a little before 5:00, at which time my mother would mix martinis and sit down with him for a round of small talk. But that day he appeared unexpectedly early and was pretty excited. It seems that in going through the office mail he had found a letter from Francis’s daughter! It had been sitting in his basket for three days, and since it had no sender’s name or address, his secretary hadn’t bothered to forward it.

My father talked over the details with Mom that evening, so I picked up the gist. It seemed that Francis had died of a stroke the preceding winter, soon after giving up writing, but the daughter had found a trunk full of old manuscripts that my father might be interested in. Might be! Such a trove might revive the fortunes of Wonder Tales and the Edwards Literary Agency at one fell swoop.

If Dad could check into the Such-and-Such Tourist Court in Pensacola that Friday–“Thank God we returned when we did!” I overheard the poor man exclaim–the daughter would send a car around to pick him up. She apologized for such cumbersome arrangements, but pleaded the difficulties of dealing with probate.

No problem! Afterward Dad thought he would continue on down to St. Petersburg to see Talbot, who was getting up in years by then, before swinging back up into the Midwest to visit a few clients. He had asked his secretary to reserve rooms for him in a couple of courts down the coast–we didn’t call them motels until after the war–as well as the one in Pensacola.

Here in the file are the carbons of her notes, yellowed and curling.


Dad left early the next morning in his two-year-old Zephyr after drinking his coffee and giving my mother a hug and me a pat on the shoulder. He would call the next night–which he did–and then again from Florida–which he didn’t. We never heard from him again.

After a week my mother phoned the court in Pensacola to learn that Dad had arrived but had never checked out. His bags were in his room, as the concerned manager had determined after missing him for several days. Would my mother please pay the bill and make arrangements for the car and the bags?


I need to explain that even now only a handful of people know that Eric Francis was a woman.

It seems that his/her first manuscript–what would become “Dangerous Rendezvous”–had come in “over the transom,” as they used to say. Return address P.O. Box such-and-such, Pensacola, Florida. Dad made it a practice to read, or at least skim, every submission. You never knew when the next Talbot Mundy might come along.

Well, the story had possibilities. That’s the word I heard my father use when he told and retold the story of his greatest discovery–“possibilities.” Too much of it read like an encyclopedia article, he said. “Interesting, but flat.” There was a story there, but it was buried. This Francis was clearly no pro, but the story had possibilities.

So he returned the manuscript–this amateur had been professional enough to supply a self-addressed stamped envelope–with a kindly worded note explaining what needed to be done. Then I suspect that he forgot about it.

After a couple of weeks, however, the manuscript came back, and it was–“perfect!” I remember my father’s excitement the evening after he received it and read it over. “I need to take out some commas,” he told my mother over the martinis, “and clear away a jungle of español. Otherwise it’s perfect!” Just as he would that afternoon years later, he fetched a cigar from his humidor and went through his fussy little routine with cutter and cedar spill. To this day I associate Francis with the pungent smell of Bolivar Habanos.

Dad must have sent an acceptance out the very next day, and must have offered pretty good terms by the standards of Wonder Tales. Avarice was forever at war with generosity in my father’s heart, but Francis was a fish he wanted to hook.

Francis wrote right back accepting his terms, and dropped the bombshell in the same letter. And here was the part of the story that Dad never told in public. She–she!–was, she explained, the sole survivor of an old Florida family and had simply been working up some of the notes that her long-dead father, an amateur archaeologist, had left her. She knew that a woman’s name on the story would interfere with its acceptance by the magazine’s male readership. She had chosen Eric C. Francis, she went on to explain, for its resemblance to a family name, and if my father felt it was acceptable, she would ask her lawyer to set up an account in that name at a Florida bank.

Dad was a little puzzled, but he agreed. After all, she was absolutely right. “Eric” would sound the right masculine tone, he said, but added that he’d like to drop the initial. So Eric Francis it was!

The carbon copy of his letter lies in front of me, yellowed and curling.

Mother, I remember now, seemed preoccupied that evening. As I learned later, she had good reason to worry whenever another woman was mentioned.


The police didn’t do much. There was no indication of foul play–they actually said that! There were no leads. People often disappeared, for one reason or another. There was, after all, another woman involved. Dad was an adult. The case would remain open . . .


The private detective Mother hired might as well have been the Invisible Man so perfectly ordinary was he. I remember a brownish hat perched above a brownish suit, but nothing in between, even after he removed the hat. He must have had a very ordinary voice, for I don’t remember the sound of it. He didn’t wear Aqua Velva, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear. He was as unlike the private eye of popular fiction as you can imagine.

What I do retain is a sense of the man’s thoroughness. He asked to see my father’s study, and spent an hour or so there carefully picking up and setting back down one pile of papers after another, one book after another. I saw him at one point sitting in my father’s leather chair, mouth slightly open, simply staring into space. He seemed neither surprised nor disappointed in anything.

His performance at the office must have been quite similar, although it took an entire morning. There, I gathered from what she told us afterward, he asked the secretary to type out copies of her notes for the courts along my father’s route, as well the last few letters from Francis. Father had apparently taken the daughter’s letter with him.

The detective–Paul Smith was his perfectly ordinary name–found more than the police did, and I think he must have felt that he was within striking distance of the truth.


For the firm’s few remaining months my father’s grief-stricken secretary kept up the files, one of which she devoted to his disappearance. It contained a few newspaper clippings, Smith’s final report, and his bill. The last was as ordinary as the man, neither large nor small.

The report was a dry affair, describing the detective’s questioning of each tourist court manager along the way and his perfunctory call on the St. Augustine police. The chief allowed that the department had never been called to the Ponce de Leon–that was the court in Pensacola–“for any reason.” The crucial part comes in Smith’s description of his stay at the Ponce:

Manager Lou DiSpazio repeated his story as reported to Pensacola Police Dept. September 21.

Subject’s former cabin no. 17 being occupied the first 2 days of my visit, I rented cabin no. 19. During this time I acquainted myself with the neighborhood and visited the bank to which subject’s firm mailed checks. The Francis account has been closed, but information re its ownership is held confidential by the bank, and as there is no link to a crime the police cannot be of assistance.

I also consulted library files of the Pensacola Journal for the week preceding and week following disappearance of subject. This yielded 1 item of potential interest in light of subject’s diary (below). Story involved an incident at the Pensacola docks 2 days after subject’s arrival. I have purchased a copy of the paper in question and enclose clipped portion, but the reporter, whom I have questioned, is unable to provide any further details.

Upon departure of occupant I rented cabin no. 17, at which time I was able to examine it thoroughly. I recovered from the interior of an air conditioning unit what appears to be a diary (enclosed) kept by subject over the preceding weeks. I draw your attention to the last entry.

The diary does not provide location of the house to which subject was apparently driven. Despite a lengthy search I have been unable to identify the house or trace the identity of the driver mentioned in the diary. The 2 policemen called to the docks failed to secure the name of the female individual involved.

The freighter Aurora is registered in Vera Cruz, but as a tramp it follows no set itinerary and was not required to file a destination or provide information re passengers. I am legally prohibited from operating outside the US but am able to recommend an agency in Mexico City should you wish to proceed.

Sincerely,

Paul Smith

Enclosed: 1 photo subject, 7 copies letters etc, 1 diary, 1 newspaper clipping, 14 receipts


Smith’s “subject” was, of course, my father. And here is the photo that Smith returned, a studio portrait of a man whose round face was not quite rendered debonair by his pencil-thin mustache. (It’s my face, too, although I’ve never grown a mustache.) And no, Mother did not want to proceed, did not wish to follow the trail to Mexico. There was, after all, another woman involved.

After seven years Mother managed to get Father declared legally dead and collected on a modest insurance policy. In the meantime Hitler and Il Duce sent the world to hell and me with it. Mother shriveled into a little old woman and died, I married and divorced and married and divorced. And here I am today.


The last entry in my father’s otherwise mundane little diary ran this way:

No time to think

Taciturn driver, long drive. Why? Why not book me closer? Old Spanish place, I would write the number down but there wasn’t one. No street sign

A remarkably beautiful woman, Mayan features. Was her mother?

And those monkeys. Stinking. All male. Filthy. One stared at us while it

Her mother’s monkeys, she said

Old manuscripts a jumble of trash. Old all right. Notes, nothing more. No stories. No nothing. She watched me, the slightest smile. Oh yes I said these need some work but I think there are possibilities here and she smiled. She said come back tomorrow morning, when we’ve both rested. The car

How can she know so much? As if I were talking to the writer herself. Am I a character out of Wonder Tales?

Very tired, but I think I’ll find a safe place for this

Tomorrow things will be clearer


And perhaps they were. But that’s it–the entirety of Dad’s last entry.


Smith was right about the newspaper story, which reads:

September 18. Authorities were called to Slip 2B this morning to retrieve an ape that had escaped from its cage while being loaded aboard the “Aurora.”

Happening to be on the scene, your reporter was glad to assist in the recapture of the recalcitrant animal, which endeavored unsuccessfully to bite its captors and its lovely owner. Only when stunned with a handy timber could it be returned to the cage it shared with its gibbering fellows.

We at the “Journal” bid the charming senorita farewell with the greatest reluctance, but wish her noisome menagerie the swiftest of passages.


In reading over what I’ve written, I realize that this has been a tale of many tales–Dad’s, Francis’s, the private eye’s, the reporter’s. And it’s thanks to yet another reporter’s tale–a recent article in our local newspaper–that a pattern has finally become clear. An intern digging through the paper’s morgue read the stories about Dad’s disappearance and tracked me down in hopes of filling out a series about unsolved crimes. So Dad–photo and all, the same one that PI Smith had taken with him–ended up being featured as a “long-lost literary figure” in a moderately accurate account of his disappearance. I dated the intern a few times and added her article to file.

But within a couple of months another story by Eric C. Francis showed up. Or rather, a familiar story in an unfamiliar guise. This one arrived at my apartment in the mail, without a return address but with a Vera Cruz postmark. A large manila envelope. It contained a Spanish-language magazine printed on the cheapest of paper, pulpier than the pulps of my father’s day. Paradoja it called itself–Paradox. The cover was garish beyond description. There were three stories–I know enough Spanish to get a sense of what they were, had the illustrations left any doubt–and a reprint–una reimpresión–of something quite a bit older. It was Cita peligrosa–“Dangerous Rendezvous”–by one Francesca Montejo y Coatzacoalcos.

It’s not surprising that Francis’s works would be reprinted from time to time—there had been a “rediscovery” over the past few years. What was surprising was the illustration. Here was the beautiful warrior queen surrounded by a horde of monkey-like creatures, several in an obvious state of arousal.

A card marking the page bore the inscription “Elogios del Autor”–“Compliments of the Author”–in an elegant feminine hand.

It was easy to find the right issue of Wonder Tales since I’d retrieved it a few weeks before to show the reporter. Now I reread the story, I admit for the first time in decades. Page 18, paragraph 3: “Standing before them was a bronzed, scantily clothed woman flanked by a retinue of grotesque, simian-faced attendants.” The clue had been there all along, hidden in plain view.


I’ve had time to consider any number of questions. Why did Francis start writing in the first place? Was the material really her father’s? How did she manage to get so many of the archaeological details right, details that were still awaiting discovery? Was it really her daughter my father met in Pensacola? And why did she–whoever or whatever she was–lure him there? Did she feel threatened? Challenged? And did she issue a challenge in return?

I’ve been bored for as long as I can remember. I’ve come down in the world and gone up again, and I’m still bored. I know that Dad was bored, and after all, I am my father’s son. I’m even–talk about coincidences!–the age he had reached when he disappeared. Was Francis bored too? Bored with too many years and too many memories? Did she roll the dice when she submitted “Dangerous Rendezvous”? And were Dad’s article about San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán and his letter campaign more than she bargained for? But now that I read over what I’ve written, I know the answer. She gambled. Only a gambler would have let him go that first night in Pensacola, betting that she could reel him back in.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get my affairs in order, and the clock has just struck midnight. It’s the second day of November. I’m dropping these notes in the file, the same file that our long-dead secretary opened so many years ago. Will I be adding another installment? I don’t know, but this afternoon I fly to Vera Cruz, where one way or another I’m going to finish the tale of Dad’s dangerous rendezvous.

 

Dying Day

by Michael C. Keith

Eternity was in that moment.

– William Congreve

TAKE THE DREAD OUT OF DEAD! SCHEDULE YOUR PRACTICE DYING DAY NOW BY CALLING 1-800-DEAD-DAY. DON’T WAIT UNTIL IT’S TOO LATE, read the huge digital billboard along Route 95 between Boston and Providence.

That catches the eye, thought Clayton Gray with satisfaction. The twenty-nine year old Rhode Island native recorded a reminder into his 9G iPhone (“Order more signs.”) while maintaining a speed a good 20 mph above the posted limit.

His franchise of Dying Day Centers was growing rapidly. Three years ago he had come across an article in the Wall Street Journal that set him on a completely new career path. He had worked at a small law firm up to that time but had been eager to get in on something that might substantially increase his income. Now he owned four Dying Day Centers in southeastern New England and had plans to open more.

Before Clayton had finished reading the Journal article, he was convinced the concept was brilliant. It was something everyone wanted . . . needed. Who wasn’t afraid of dying? He immediately went on Dying Day Center’s website, where the home page repeated his exact sentiment and offered a solution to the universal conundrum:

Afraid of Dying? Most everyone is, but you don’t have to be.
A simple one-day Reorientation session will put you at ease as
you face life’s end. You can remove the horror of the final moments
before departing this world and entering the next . . .

The website continued to enumerate the benefits in eliminating the anxiety associated with dying, promising to make it a fear free, even pleasant, experience:

Be at peace as the end approaches. Enjoy the final moments with
your dearest thoughts instead of being gripped by terror and apprehension.
DDC guarantees a happy ending. Call now to set up your pre-Dying Day
interviews. It will change how you view your own demise . . .

Clayton had excitedly clicked the “Business Opportunities” link and soon found himself contacting the franchise office’s 800 number. Two months later, he opened his first location in Warwick, Rhode Island, and three months after that a second in Barrington. The next two followed quickly. The money started pouring in and plans were in hand to expand into surrounding states.

It’s like the movie Soylent Green, recalled Clayton after he had made first contact with the company. Loving science fiction, it had been one of his favorite films, and the scene in which Edward G. Robinson lays atop his deathbed as his most desired experience is fulfilled, had always stuck with him. What a way to go. Dying while your best thoughts are played out. He had been excited to think that soon he would be a part of a business that offered such a humane service.


The road was nearly empty at 3 AM Sunday morning as he returned from his Casual Connect date. It had turned into much more than a cappuccino at the mutually agreed upon bistro on Charles Street. A night of unharnessed lust left him exhausted but content. He pulled off the highway to find a Dunkin’ Donuts for a large blast of caffeine. It didn’t take long to find one. They seemed to have stores at one-mile intervals. Clayton hoped his Dying Day offices would one day be as ubiquitous. He chuckled at the realization that both businesses shared the same initials.

“No one can be finer, ‘cause my Dinah is a minor, Deedee Dinah,” sang Clayton as he arrived at the drive-up window and placed his order. As he sipped his hot coffee back on the highway, he belted out a variation of the tune. “Nothing could be finer than to be in her vagina in the morning.” How good can life get? he wondered as the Providence skyline came into view. Home for a quick shower and then on to the Warwick center. It was Clayton’s practice to participate in as many reorientation sessions at his various facilities as possible, although he had very capable staff members at each location. It was something of which he took great pride and pleasure in being a part. Relieving clients of their greatest fear made Clayton feel like he was making a great contribution to the human race.

“Can there be any greater profession?” chirped Clayton pulling into his driveway. “No, absolutely not!”

An hour later he reached his headquarters at the Warwick location of Dying Day Centers and was greeted by Carla Harcourt, the receptionist and his personal assistant. She informed him that his first REO (the abbreviation had been inspired by Carla’s favorite rock group—REO Speedwagon) was waiting for him in the Pre-REO suite. After dropping some things off in his office, he greeted the elderly client, who had invested the required $2500 for the procedure.

“Mr. Jenkins. You’ve had your DD interviews and now are ready for your Reorientation. Is that correct?” asked Clayton, warmly.

“Oh, yes. I’m more than ready.”

The two Dying Day interviews involved a lengthy series of questions to determine a client’s greatest fears and joys––in the first instance, something to be avoided, and in the second, something to be fully realized. After compiling a comprehensive profile of the individual, the Center would prepare a digitized virtual experience of what was most precious to the client. During the actual REO session the client would be placed in a sensory deprivation chamber where he or she would remain until acclimated to the absence of stimuli. The DDC termed it Death Simulation. It was intended to create the impression that one was removed from the living world. The oxygen in the chamber would be decreased in prescribed increments to simulate the collapse of the body’s ability to breathe and replenish itself. The client’s heartbeat would be monitored to insure there would be no actual cessation of life. At the peak of the client’s anxiety, the specially created video containing the client’s notion of profound happiness would be rolled. Oxygen would then be fully restored as the client was immersed in his beatific vision. When the client reached what was termed a Bliss Line––as reflected by a very relaxed pulse rate––the video would slowly fade away. A soft, reassuring voice would then repeat––in mantra like fashion––“There was never anything to fear.” REO seldom ran over an hour.

When the chamber door was opened, the client was often found weeping with joy and appreciation. Repeat sessions were available to those who desired them, but for most a single REO was enough to sustain an individual through the balance of his or her life. The service had not been in existence long enough to see if this would actually be the case, but so far only one client had requested a second REO. In the end, he cancelled the session without giving a reason.


Following the day’s first REO session, Clayton had lunch and met with a new client, who looked very familiar to him. Halfway into the first interview, Clayton realized who it was. When he was eight-years old, his third grade teacher, Mr. Houser, had fondled him on two occasions in the cloakroom. Clayton had been too confused and frightened to tell his parents, and then he was saved from further molestations when his parents had switched him to the local Catholic school. Now he sat face-to-face with the pedophile and his heart began to race. He abruptly ended the first meeting, saying that he didn’t feel well. It was either that, or go postal on the man, figured Clayton.

Carla scheduled the client’s second meeting for the next day, while Clayton sat in his office contemplating the encounter. He had always thought about the two shameful incidents with Mr. Houser, but never took any action on the matter, even though he figured his former teacher was still in the area. The more he thought about the childhood incident, the more he wanted to retaliate. Then it came to him. He would give Mr. Houser an REO session he would never forget.

When his long ago teacher appeared for his second meeting, Clayton gathered all the information he felt he would need to execute his revenge.

“So, Mr. Houser, what are the things you fear most in life?” inquired Clayton.

After a long pause, the teacher answered. “Spiders and snakes really freak me out. Even the tiny harmless ones make me feel like fainting.”

Well, we share that in common, thought Clayton.

“What else, Mr. Houser. Try to be specific.”

“Well, let me think. I really don’t fear much. Maybe getting caught . . . ah, for something I really didn’t do.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, you know. Being accused of something bad and being put in jail.”

“What might that something bad be, Mr. Houser?”

The gray haired man shifted in his seat, and then waved Clayton off. “Nothing . . . really. Who knows? Can we get on to the next question, please?”

“What other things frighten you?”

“Like I said, I really don’t get scared by much . . . except by spiders and snake,” said Houser, appearing agitated.

“Okay, let’s shift gears to something much more positive. What gives you the most joy in your life?”

“Children. I used to teach grade school. Retired now.”

“Children? How did they give you joy?”

“They’re so sweet and innocent . . . really beautiful. Just looking at them would raise my spirits. I adored them.”

“All right then, what else contributes most to your happiness?” Mr. Houser?

“Fifi.”

“Fifi?”

“My Shih Tzu. She’s the real love of my life. I’ve never been married, so my pets mean everything to me. I’ve had four dogs and loved each one dearly.”

“Anything else makes you real happy?”

After several seconds of contemplation, Mr. Houser replied. “Can’t really think of anything else. I mean, that gives me as much pleasure as children and Fifi.”

Following several more routine questions, Clayton said he would schedule Mr. Houser’s REO at 8 PM the next day.

“Oh, you do the sessions in the evening?”

“Only occasionally,” replied Clayton. “But our schedule is so full at the moment, we’re forced to do so.”

“Wonderful. I’ll be here then.”

When Clara asked about scheduling Mr. Houser for his REO, Clayton said the man had decided against having one. Despite what he had told his former teacher, REOs were never scheduled after 5 PM. However, for this customer, Clayton was more than happy to make an exception, and he needed to be alone to initiate his plan.


When the center closed for the day, Clayton went to work in the digital mixing suite. His goal was to prepare a video hologram for Mr. Houser‘s REO session that would be like none he’d ever made before. If Clayton’s plan succeeded, it would increase Mr. Houser’s fear of dying tenfold––and Clayton’s satisfaction at least as much. He worked long into the night gathering images that would horrify Mr. Houser while in the sensory deprivation chamber. They included the most ferocious pictures of spiders and snakes he could find, including several action images of large snakes devouring small dogs. He had even come across a gruesome video of an Anaconda gulping down a Shih Tzu.

After a couple hours of sleep in his office, Clayton continued to refine his hologram for the man who had marred his childhood. Fortunately, his day’s schedule was open, except for one client interview, so he had more than enough time to prepare the special REO. By late afternoon, Clayton had completed a video that he felt would haunt his third grade teacher to his grave.

At the designated hour, Mr. Houser appeared at the Dying Day Center for his REO session.

“So this will really make a difference in my life? I’ve always had nightmares about dying, and if I don’t any longer, it’s going to be wonderful,” said Houser.

“Yes, it will certainly change how you see your death. I can assure you of that,” said Clayton, leading his client to the REO chamber.

Mr. Houser entered the small cubicle with noticeable hesitancy.

“I’m not fond of small spaces.”

“Nothing to worry about. I’ll be monitoring you just outside.”

After Mr. Houser took up his position on the padded catafalque, Clayton attached a series of wires to his temples and chest and then departed the chamber.

“Just relax, Mr. Houser. This will be an unforgettable experience for you. You’ll never think of death in the same way.”

Clayton took up his position at the REO control panel and viewed Mr. Houser through a window and also on monitors connected to an infrared camera in the chamber.

“Happy dying, you fucking pervert,” muttered Clayton, leaning back in his chair.

He allowed for a longer than usual period of “void” time to have it’s affect and then activated the hologram. By that point he had reduced the oxygen level in the chamber by thirty percent causing Mr. Houser to gasp for air. Within moments his erstwhile nemesis, was screaming at the horrific images that enveloped him. Clayton averted his eyes from the scene. It had been all he could take to assemble the footage of snakes and spiders, and he could no longer tolerate the sight of them. He thought it ironic that he and his molester shared the same unique aversions.

Sounds of horror and desperation poured from the REO production room speakers for the next hour. By the time Clayton finally entered the chamber, Mr. Houser had fallen silent.

“Mr. Houser. Your session is over. You have been reoriented.”

When Clayton reached his subject, he believed he had fainted from the horrific sights he’d been subjected to. Maybe he’s dead, thought Clayton in a sudden panic. But then Mr. Houser spoke.

“That was good . . . really good. It has changed my thinking about death just as you promised.”

Clayton was perplexed by Mr. Houser’s response.

“Good?”

“Yes, just what I needed. Now let’s give you something you need.”

His former teacher stood and looked at him across the short expanse of darkness. His eyes cast an eerie glow, causing Clayton to take a step backward. In that instant, Houser lunged at him striking Clayton’s forehead against the wall. The force of it made Clayton fall onto the cushioned recliner. As he did so, he felt the hands of his attacker groping his genitals. Before he could react, he received another powerful blow to this head, which rendered him unconscious. As he sunk into a nightmare state, he heard a hideous, otherworldly cackle.

“It’s time for your Dying Day session, my little third grader,” growled Mr. Houser, leaving the chamber and locking its door.

Before he fled the control room, he pressed the activate switch on the equipment console and saw the chamber come alive with the grisly images that had been assembled for his exclusive benefit.


When Carla returned to work after the long weekend, she discovered her boss’s self-mutilated cold body lying in the REO chamber. On the video monitors was a grainy photograph of Clayton as a happy eight year-old.

Montalov’s Box

by Michael Griffin 

Some wives fear losing their husband to an office affair, some to a heart attack. Each morning Sveta watches her husband leave for work and thinks maybe today’s the day he annihilates the universe.

While Dmitriy’s at his lab on campus, Sveta stays home on Uni Row, spinning old records, or working number puzzles with a purple pen that smells like grape.

She thinks Dmitriy’s glad she quit teaching. Their accomplishment gap bothers him. Her lofty IQ and advanced degrees aren’t enough to keep her in the same ballpark as Dmitriy’s towering level of genius. It’s not her fault. Nobody understands Dmitriy’s work but Dmitriy.

Still, Sveta hides Physics books and reads them sometimes.

More often she plays Liszt concertos and worries about how it will feel, that first moment when reality dissolves.

She communicates with Dmitriy all day through matching neural node implants, exchanging messages via a mind interface. Sometimes they send text, other times EyeshotTM images or AuralclipsTM soundbits. Sveta’s impatient when too much time passes between messages. Her mind strays to horrid visions of unraveling. It’s hard to imagine never seeing him again, not even in dreams, because her mind will be nothing but quanta scattered through spacetime at the speed of light.

Today Dmitriy’s first message describes the usual mundane observations. The lab, coffee. Tidbits, but no meaningful details.  Project security restricts Dmitriy from sending an EyeshotTM from the lab, so Sveta has never seen it. She reads the text over and over, pacing in front of the living room’s picture window. Finally with a mental gesture she files it away.

She switches to a digital slideshow and flips through an album of their young-couple-in-love years. Honeymooning in Prague. Holding hands on Ytvar bridge. The party for Dmitriy’s Dirac Prize. The post-lecture party at Eötvös.

Sumac the cat makes room for Sveta on the window seat and together they watch the rain. She ponders the way the drops are impeded by the leaves of the tree, make their way down and fall with a pattern, like complex music. She’s sure Dmitriy would understand. He could probably explain it in math.

After disabling the neural interface, careful to avoid distracted driving, she leaves the house to send copies of Dmitriy’s book to friends in Ukraine and Hungary. The friends probably won’t read it, might not even try. In fact Sveta hopes they won’t. It would make her feel better.

The moment she’s back in the driveway she reactivates the interface. She’s sure a new message will be waiting.

Subject: I miss my beautiful Sveta!

Dmitriy complains about Carlo, and though he refers to Carlo as his “colleague,” Sveta translates this as “helper.” He speaks of needing to restrain Carlo’s Mediterranean passion. He means this as a joke, a Ukrainian describing another culture as too passionate. Carlo keeps pushing Dmitriy to pursue some new angle in the experiment.

This presumption makes Sveta angry.

Re-reading the text she feels tension in her shoulders. Her teeth grind, and sweat trickles from her armpit down her side.

Sveta shuts down the interface and heads upstairs. Spinning on the stationary bike helps.

She pushes beyond fatigue. The tension falls away.

Dmitriy comes home early.

Sveta asks if he wants wine.

He talks absently, not really explaining, something about nonlocal measurement. “I hate complaining to you about work.” Then he goes on rapidly about control routines, incremental improvement, N-band something-or-other.

What really bothers him is how Carlo keeps pushing to sidetrack.

Sveta bites the inside of her lip. “It’s your experiment, not Carlo’s.” She wants to hide her rising anger.

Dmitriy leans back against the kitchen counter. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t give you my stress.”

If only he knew.

“Most of the department can’t stretch far enough to understand this. Even those strong enough in QM theory to understand a little, they say it’s more metaphysics than real science.”

This makes Sveta burn. She smiles. “That only proves how advanced your work is. They lash out at what’s beyond them. Even Carlo just wants to ride coattails of your reputation.”

Dmitriy looks at her appreciatively.

“What’s Carlo doing right now?” she asks.

“When I left, he was trying to convince Amanda of his angle on this. He was talking so fast, sketching out his ideas on a whiteboard.”

“Amanda Beart?” She stood back. “Right now Carlo’s in your lab, convincing the Dean of the department to change your experiment?”

“He suggests a human element, intention in place of randomness.”

“Go back there.” Sveta asserts herself so rarely, they’re both surprised. “Do what you must.” She picks up his jacket from the back of the chair and hands it to him.

Dmitriy hesitates.

“Go!” She prefers Dmitriy think her overprotective, even prideful of his status, to revealing her fear. “Call if it goes very late.”

 Too distracted to work puzzles, she paces the hallway, but this doesn’t dispel her tension so she goes outside to soak in the hot tub.

After a while her muscles go loose. Her mind feels off-center.

An EyeshotTM-AuralclipTM bundle arrives. The EyeshotTM means he’s not at the lab. Maybe on his way home?

Playback.

Her thoughts jump, an unnerving shift. Not just perception, but physical disorientation. Like flipping through a tricky, twisting dive.

Dmitriy’s vision. Some kind of argument, or scuffle. A man lunges, steps back. It’s Carlo. Dmitriy crashes to the floor.

The place looks like the way Dmitriy described the lab.

Carlo’s breathing hard. “It was so… exhilarating!”

A blond woman beside Carlo holds out her arms, regaining balance. Amanda Beart? She staggers, hyperventilating, wide-eyed like someone just off a rollercoaster.

Carlo looks down to Dmitriy. “Did you feel it the same?”

“I told you not to open that up, Carlo!” Dmitriy’s voice, trembling. Pleading. “Once it’s let loose it won’t be contained.”

“Look at this,” Amanda says.

Something covers Dmitriy’s eyes. The clip darkens, but not before  Dmitriy says, “Carlo, stop!”

Message end. The world skews around her, like a sudden reversal of gravity, then rights again. A fault in the neural node? Sveta hopes that’s all. Her heart pounds, fearing something worse. Even now, seeing things with her own eyes, something feels terribly broken.

A plain text message arrives: Did you see/feel that?

She hurries a reply: I’m OK but everything’s crazy, spinning.

Sveta anticipates his next message, but what comes instead tackles her like a concussion. A scattered mess of sounds and images.

Dmitriy’s voice: “… no control apparatus!”

Static.

“– machine parameters — human interface –”

Skip skip skip.

“– just a test — wanted to show Amanda!” Carlo, pleading.

“We have to stop, Carlo, now!”

Sveta feels a twitch in Dmitriy’s consciousness in real time. Not their usual connection, not discrete messages back and forth, but a yank on an invisible line. The deep whoomp of a great engine knocked out of alignment.

All visuals twist, the world’s film projector flipped sideways.

Dmitriy is here in the hot, bubbling water. A moment later they’re both back in the lab. Sveta’s not just seeing it in EyeshotTM this time. She’s actually there.

“I shut it down,” Carlo cries. “It’s not my fault!”

Sveta shouts to Dmitriy, who seems not to hear.

Dmitriy says to Carlo, “Your intention was enough.” His voice pulses, his very body vibrating heavily. “These physical conduits are just lines of thought now.”

Another skip. White walls flash, then fade away. Silence, other than Sveta’s breathing. She looks down, suspended over a great expanse. A wisp of cloud drifts below. Below that the ocean, quietly seething, perceptibly curved.

Hundreds of feet up? Thousands?

She flashes between locations, passively, without intention. Something clicks and she transports by merely wishing.

Something’s wrong.

Sveta’s only wants to go home, wait for Dmitriy, but every change she imagines rattles into conflict with outside intentions. She tries to send herself nearer him, and he tries to move her away. To safety.

World-conceptions jostle, a conflict like disorganized argument.

Dmitriy merges with her for an instant, then he’s far away.

Deep space. Brittle, Arctic cold. Intangibility. Dark water.

She’s alone again.

Carlo solidifies the mind-machine interface by mere thought, imagines others breaching the quantum order, and this initiates a struggle for dominance. Equilibrium is too complex for a single mind, yet a multiplicity of intentions fall quickly out of sync.

Dmitriy tries to take over what Carlo set loose.

Outside, brisk wind pulls her hair, bites her face.

Sveta’s aware of Dmitriy’s struggle and he becomes aware of her. He shares control. There is no time to plan.

Sveta flashes upon a conception of God. She has never believed, so why this idea, now? The question feels absurd.

She recalls a dinner party overseas, years ago. Dmitriy holding court, his brash drunken promise. A box once opened, can’t be shut.

“One day I’ll prove God to be Man’s invention.”

The lab again. The walls waver, disintegrate. Sveta sees this through Dmitriy’s eyes, then through her own eyes, from another angle.

Sveta is with Dmitriy, home.

A strange quality of light outside the window, a wavering glow on the horizon from the west, toward campus, warns her of what’s coming.

Now she’s angry. She wants more time.

The living room, stairs, the bed. Dmitriy joins her, warmth upon warmth. They stay close, press together into one. Sveta knows he wants to explain but there’s no time.

Somehow she always knew.

They hold each other hard. Her arms tremble. His grip bites Sveta’s shoulders. She feels his resolve, equal to hers.

Never let go.

They’re both completely sure of this intention when everything, everywhere comes loose.

 

Assignment

by Sayuri Yamada

‘Well, you’ve done a sloppy job. Unless you do something, you’ll fail this module.’

‘But, teacher, I’ve spent so much time on this. Please, please be kind to me.’

‘All the students have spent their time on this project. It’s not only you. Look at this. The temperature is rising unnaturally. The air is dirty. Many species are disappearing. It’s a shambles.’

‘But, it’s got good quality. The sky is blue. The clouds are white. From a distance, it’s a nice blue and white. Only one species has gone wrong. Only one.’

‘That only one is the predominant one that is destroying everything. You’ve got to erase it.’

‘Do I have to? I love those small creatures. They started as the obedient ones. They are still good in a way. They are . . .’

‘You’ve got to erase it, start again, and put the process in the rationale. That’s the only way you can rescue your messy project.’

‘Do I have to? I’ll be sad to destroy them. Do I really have to?’

‘Yes, you do. Also, you have to do it artistically. You can let me know how you’ll do it beforehand if you don’t want it to fail again. I’m being very kind to you, just because your last project was unique and very good. I don’t think you can get a first again this time, but you could get a lower second if you do a good job now.’

‘I understand. I’ll book a tutorial again when I’ve got an idea how to destroy them. Bye.’


‘Here is what I was thinking about. I’ve got two ideas. One is wars. Even now, some of them are killing each other, so, I thought, if I make them do it more, they’d kill themselves at the end. I’d just push some ringleaders a bit, then they’d start all over the place. I mean all over the place, not just a part of it like the last two times. How’s that?’

‘It’s risky. Don’t you understand those creatures possess nuclear arms? What if they used them all over everywhere and destroyed the whole planet? You won’t be able to start again on the same one. What’s the second one?’

‘Well, I don’t know if you’d like the second one. It’s not natural. It’s that I’d erase things in red, one by one, like red cars, red bridges, red shirts, red buildings, and red blood at the end. They’ll all die for sure then. Oh, I’m still sad just to think about it. I couldn’t sleep last night.’

‘I’m sorry you have to erase your creation, but that’s what you’ve got to do. Your second idea is good. Just do it slowly. Take your time. Enjoy it if you can.’


‘Hiya. Yeah, I’ve done that. No, I’m not sad anymore. When my teacher told me to erase my creatures, it was a shock. I wanted to cry, “What’s wrong with them? They’re fine beings.” But I’m happy now. Well, because the process was so exciting. I should’ve done it earlier. But if earlier, there wouldn’t have been that many, so it wouldn’t have been as exciting, then. I’ll put everything in the rationale tonight. Do you want to know how I’ve done it? Have you got time now?’

‘I’ve got only three millennia. Is it enough?’

‘I think so. If not, we’ll meet again later.

‘First, I erased a red suspension bridge in a city on the left-hand side of the most powerful country. The bridge was famous all over the world. It was a symbol of the city. Hundreds of cars cross it everyday. Before doing it, I looked at the little creatures in those cars, with their tiny fingers clutching the steering wheels, with their small eyes looking ahead through the windshields. I almost decided not to erase them. To hell with the module. They all had families and friends. They sometimes behaved badly, but they were basically good. So I almost left them as they were. Then I thought if I fail this, I might fail to get a scholarship. I can’t afford to pay the tuition fees. So, I sighed, shut my eyes, and said, “Let there not be the red bridge.” I opened my eyes. Cars were in the water, sinking. Some creatures managed to get out of them. They were screaming and drowning with their front paws frantically bashing the cold water. The creatures on the ground were watching them with their eyes and mouths wide open. Some were crying as if they themselves were dying. It was awful. I wanted to wind time backwards. But the scholarship. I stopped myself and looked at them dying in the water. I don’t know how many died. I should’ve counted them for my rationale, but I was too sad.’

‘Oh, you poor thing. You shouldn’t have attached to your creation so much. When I had to do it to mine, I just did it without blinking an eye.’  

‘I know. But it was too late. I loved them. I didn’t really want to kill them.’

 ‘Why? They were ugly when you showed them before. They hated each other. They hurt each other. They killed other species. They were simply a mistake.’

‘I know. They weren’t nice. I didn’t mean to make them that bad. Something must’ve happened to them while I wasn’t  looking. But I don’t know why I loved them so much. Anyway, I went for a walk after that. I needed a rest.

‘When I was back, I erased red fruit. I know erasing fruit wouldn’t kill the creatures, but I couldn’t do any damage to them then. Do you know they’d named each fruit like apples, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, tomatoes. It was cute. You know, they didn’t have to give each fruit a name, but they did as if they were their pets. Some of them were just eating them. Some were picking them from trees. Some were carrying them in their cars.

  ‘I said, “Let there not be red fruit.” I didn’t have to shut my eyes then. An apple disappeared from a small female hand and she was surprised, with her big eyes watching where the apple used to be. It was funny and cute. A sliced tomato vanished from a dish cooked by a popular cook in a live TV show. He ran around in a panic and the audience booed. Strawberry pickers lost their picked fruit and got angry. The overseers lost theirs and got angry. They started fighting each other with red faces and loud voices. It was like watching a comedy. How I laughed then. But, I don’t know if I should put it in my rationale. What do you think?’

‘It’s not a good one, but you shouldn’t skip anything. Your teacher’ll find out sooner of later. You should be honest. A guy I knew omitted one thing and got erased right away.’

     ‘Oh, yeah? My teacher wouldn’t do such a thing to his students.’

‘You never know. What do you know about him? I wouldn’t take a chance.’

‘Oh. . . . OK. I think, I understand. So I’ll put it in the rationale as well. But the next one was not bad.

‘It was red vehicles I deleted. Most of them had four wheels with often only one creature inside, sometimes two or more. After “Let there not be red vehicles”, all the creatures inside got hurled onto the tarred ground. That destroyed their body parts, and then, most of them got run over by different-colour vehicles moving right behind them. The most efficient places were on long meandering tarred places where only vehicles existed. All of them moved fast, so all the creatures got killed. Their innards spread in red liquid on the tarred surface.’

‘That’s red. Did you erase it later?’

 ‘Yeah, red liquid from their bodies. They all had it inside. I’ll tell you about it later.

‘I was sad about them. One moment, they were manoeuvring their vehicles happily, thinking about their future and the next moment they were just smashed body parts. They were so vulnerable. They didn’t have hard skins like other smaller creatures with six limbs. I shut my eyes and stayed still for a moment. Do you know something? When I opened my eyes again, their crushed bodies looked repugnant. I couldn’t believe they had such ugly things inside. I know I created them, but I didn’t construct the details. I just made them exist.’

‘That was your mistake. Do you want to know how I did mine? I painstakingly built everything, bit by bit, molecule by molecule. So I knew everything about everything: what they were doing, what they were going to do, how they were going to do it.’

‘Oh, I should’ve done like you did. But why are you using the past tense. Don’t you like them anymore?’

‘I neither liked them nor disliked them. I didn’t have special feelings about them. They were just my creation. When I go bored, I erased them all with one swipe of my arm. They were just one of my seventy-nine creations. That was all.’    

‘I envy you. You’re so cool. There might be something wrong with me. Do you think I should go to the infirmary?’

‘Don’t go there unless it’s urgent. You’d be entirely remade. This guy went there with just a slight headache and came out a totally different guy. Don’t go there. You’ll do a better job next time. Back to your story.’

‘OK. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Some survived, especially in big cities where all the vehicles were moving slowly. But many died.

I almost forgot. The red vehicles in the air vanished as well. There weren’t totally red ones, only partly red ones. But the red parts disappeared, the entire vehicles dropped to the ground and all creatures died, some of them died even before hitting the ground. They were so weak. The good thing was that they didn’t have time to scream much. So it looked not too bad.’

‘Good. You were being more mature. What was the next?’

‘The next one was red fire. I said, “Let there not. . .’

‘Oh, skip your mantra.’

‘Sorry. I thought I should tell you everything. Anyway, they used to use red fire a lot in cold seasons. But recently they used other sources to get warmer. So I wondered if it would work. But it did. Red lava vanished as well. So the whole planet got cold. And they didn’t have red fire to warm them. Many died, especially old ones and small ones. I didn’t feel sad so much. I felt sad that I didn’t feel sad. You know what I mean?’

‘I think so. You’re getting better, anyway.’

‘Thank you. The next and the last one was red blood. Most of creatures died at once. It was spectacular as if they all timed it. The surface of the planet was covered with limp bodies everywhere. It was something.’

‘You said most of them. So it wasn’t all of them?’

‘Yeah, some creatures with blue blood in the sea survived. I hope they’ll evolve and make a better world.’

‘Well done. You’ve matured quite a lot during the process. Your teacher’ll be pleased about your rationale and you.’

‘You think so? Well, I’ve got to go. I’ll write the rationale now. See you.’


‘I thought I made it clear that you were to erase only those bad creatures, not most of others.’

‘Oh. . . .’

‘I’m afraid you’ve failed this module.’

-PHILE

by Osmond Arnesto

The wall stands, as it always has. That is what it was made for, after all. But one summer afternoon – August 19, 2011 to be exact, sometime after the European Union issued an embargo on Syrian crude oil but well before the Chicago Cubs fired Jim Hendry, who had worked for them for twenty-five years – the wall decided to drop the ‘it’ and become a ‘he.’ It – excuse me, he – felt like it was just time. He blinked for the first time, causing a dull picture of a Mason jar to shake from its perch and drop to the ground. “Sometimes it is a good thing when the airport loses your baggage.” It is something he heard once, during a time when students sat at the tables.

He remembered a certain young woman’s attention directed out the window, oblivious to the discussion going on inside. Some of the students would have called her pretty plain. Others would have said she possessed a subtle beauty, and he knew of one student in particular that looked at her like she was Elizabeth Taylor herself. But what he knew for sure was that if he had to return to the existence of a forgettable piece of architecture, he could stand another few decades if she was in the room. So he left the Mason jar on the floor and went out to look for her.

A person can tell a lot about the infrastructure of a building if it is still standing after one of its walls forces itself out of its frame. Not to say that there wasn’t a lot of confusion and abject terror, of course. The janitor on the third floor huddled under a doorway after the building started to shake, praying to a God he hadn’t prayed to since childhood. Daly Benson and Vahini Ganapathy, grad students whose idea of a cheap thrill was getting to know each other Biblically in an empty office on the second floor, more or less didn’t notice. Helena Moretti, who was just breast-feeding her child on the other side of the country, was just looking outside of her apartment musing on how peaceful Central Park was in the evening.

Regardless, the act was as easy as getting out of bed. He stretched, and the roof caved in. He stepped over the rubble and was disappointed to find that he could not fit through the door, which was swinging wildly off of its hinges. More baggage. He tore off the excess – confetti strips of drywall and puffs of calcium drifting into the air like balloons – until a lean figure remained. He admired his new look in the remains of the window. He decided to take the stairs down. He did not want to pop his elevator cherry just yet – that will be with someone special. Besides, it had been a very long time since he got exercise and today seemed like a good day to start.

The first things he learned as he took timid steps out of the building was that the wind was cold when you were naked and fire engine sirens were loud when you were not prepared to hear them. He decided to seek shelter in a building to the west with large glass windows. It represented a new haven. A new beginning. The wall hummed a tune and in doing so found out that he could. He would not enter this new building as a piece of construction supporting the ceiling. He would not enter it and be forgotten. He would enter it as an individual with purpose. He would be noticed. Remembered. Celebrated, even. This, truly, was an important step in figuring out who he was and why he existed. According to his students: “Oprah calls it empowerment.”

Also, the young woman might be in there so all the more reason to go.

Upon entering, he found the place to be full of people already. It was some kind of food court. Linoleum floors, neon signs. And the people. They were all talking, and chewing, sometimes gesticulating, and the amount of energy inspired him. Friends. The word tasted nothing like gypsum board and white paint. He relished it, and sighed for the first time in his existence.

He would start off slow. Test the waters. Take baby steps. He approached an older woman whose black hair was pulled tight into a bun. The sheen coming off her head was pointed towards the book in her hands. “First impressions are often the truest.” His students had never steered him wrong so far, and he remembered a rather bold yet honest introduction he had heard from a young man who often spoke out in class.

“Hey baby,” he said as he laid a hand on her shoulder. “Are you an angel? Because I have an erection.”

The second thing he learned was that a slap to the face could hurt in many more ways than a punch to the gut ever can. He retreated to an empty table next to the window panes. He wondered if there was anything that could ever cause a window pain. Perhaps the window was in lust with a co-worker. It had spent time at the office Christmas party talking to and drinking with this co-worker, and when it asked if the two of them could get to know each other better away from the party, the co-worker – breath smelling like five parts vodka, two parts coffee liqueur, and three parts fresh cream – laughed and called it unfuckable, sending it into a shame nose-dive that crashed into an inability to form any kind of meaningful connection with any other person up until it was fired in disgrace for propositioning a co-worker and it would spend the quiet nights after that renting shitty romantic comedies and freeze-framing the sex scenes in a desperate effort to rub one out before crying itself silently to sleep with only its pillow beside to make believe that there was someone out there who loved it and trusted it enough to share nights with it.

The wall wondered whether this was pity or sympathy in his gut. Never one to let fellow furniture wallow in its own self-inflicted misery, he had a silent conversation with it.

“,” he grumbled.

“,”, the window warned.

“,” he argued.

“,” the window replied.

“,” he demanded.

“,” the window assured him.

“,” he conceded.

He had to admit that the window raised a good point. He stayed there long after the people filed out of the doors, and he stayed there long after he had licked down the free ice cream cone he was offered by an elderly fast food employee around 4:23 in the morning. She had patted him on the back and told him, “This one’s on the house, sweetheart.”

The wall stepped outside at 6:04 am, eleven minutes before the sun was due to rise that morning. Iran will sentence two hikers from the United States to eight years in prison, and a suicide bomber will kill forty worshippers in a mosque in Pakistan. But at the same time, two lovers will wake up and find out that she is with child and he has a tendency to take the Lord’s name in vain when he receives surprising news. They will decide to keep it – the he or she that it may be – despite their rocky financial situation. They will have dinner together that night for the first time since October 7, 2010 and remember why they started sleeping with each other in the first place. The child will be known as Evelyn, after a woman who will have trouble deciding whether to kiss her daughter or strangle her future son-in-law after receiving the news.

“You’re going to have a good day,” that young woman would say as she looked outside the window, well before class would start and the rest of her peers would trickle into the room. So the wall looked to the sky. It was a clear blue mirror – cracked only by the points of stars and the pink of a newborn dawn. He felt something catch in his throat, and his view blurred. This was her gift to him. He wiped the tears falling from his face. He reached up to grab the day, but found that his reach wasn’t long enough. So he stripped off the rest of him, insulation and wiring and all. He looked back to the windows and could not find a body there to admire, but saw that he had everything he needed.

He lifted himself off the ground, and kept going.

The buildings fell away. So did the trees and the window pains, and soon after that whole cities and countries. It was night-time in China, and the lights from the buildings in Shenzhen blinked in farewell. He felt that he might be going too fast, but that implied that there was something he was leaving behind. There wasn’t. There won’t be. In nine months’ time, Mars will be leaving the house of Aries to enter Taurus. Evelyn will be a stillbirth. The DOW Jones will close, down 0.13% from the previous day. The wall fell into the curtain of clouds and rose from the ozone layer. He sped away from the planet, as it grew smaller and smaller, until it was a pale speck of dust in the corner of his vision. Past the many moons of Jupiter, the great dark eye of Neptune, and the now-defunct Pluto. Past the countless white dwarfs and the red supergiants, noting how many of them were half of the way to super-nova. Past the swirls of the Milky Way Galaxy. Past 40 Eridani.

Until he was surrounded by warm nothingness. And he was left with the steady thrums of distant drum beats and the rush of the wind. And he felt what was left of him curl up into a ball. And he waited for the light.