Morpheus Tales 30 Preview

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ISSN 1757-5419 Issue 30 – May 2017 Edited by Sheri White Editorial By Sheri White

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The Grab Bag By Jack D. Zeidman Illustrated By Mark Pexton

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Always A Soldier By Matthew Piskun

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Voices On The High Wind By Michael Reyes Illustrated By Sean Bova

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Candle With A Name By Nick Manzolillo

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Wendell By M. J. Ryan Illustrated By Joe Young

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The Fountain By Craig W. Steele

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Jimmy Google And His Amazing X-Ray Spectacles By Todd Outcalt Illustrated By Max Martelli

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X-Ray Spring By Jared A. Robinson

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Late Night Programming By Stephen McQuiggan

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Cover By Joe Young Proof-read By Sheri White All material contained within the pages of this magazine and associated websites is copyright of Morpheus Tales. All Rights Reserved. No material contained herein can be copied or otherwise used without the express permission of the copyright holders.


The item sat on the coffee table, innocent and nondescript. Packaged in plain brown paper, it wasn’t particularly pleasing to the eye. About half the size of a shoebox, it had been the uppermost parcel in the grab bag, and had virtually jumped into my hand. I had enjoyed a wonderful, sunny Saturday at the carnival, which had been visiting our humble suburb for the Fourth of July weekend. The games, rides, cotton candy and popcorn, the garish colours – blended comfortably to produce a pleasant, exciting day. The surrealistic mixture of sights, sounds, and sensations was topped off by the presence of the clowns who stood at each exit, selling parcels from multi-coloured grab bags. The clown who sold me the package (it cost me ten dollars), acted more like a tall, garrulous pixie, what with his pointed hat, mischievous smile, and sparkling blue eyes. He was Mr. Personality, and told me the articles in his grab bag were “memorable and magical,” and that if I didn’t open the package on the thirteenth day – not before, nor after that day – the magic would disappear. The perfect ending to a thoroughly enjoyable day came when, as I left the carnival, the clown cried, “What you hold in your hand will always remind you of X. Travis Ganza, the greatest carnival in the world!” A week passed. I was getting antsy; I wanted to open the package. Fortunately, as a manager at Best Buy, I didn’t have a lot of time – at least while at work – to ponder the parcel; my everyday duties were time consuming, and required that I address numerous issues at the same time. In my spare moments, however, I was preoccupied with thoughts about what might be inside the package. In fact, I was driven to distraction wondering about it. There were only six more days to wait. They couldn’t pass soon enough. ### “I’m another day closer to opening it,” I muttered to myself, gazing at the mystery parcel. I had moved it to my bedside table, and, with the moonlight shining on it, the package seemed to glow; of course, I knew that was not the case, but my mind had a field day fabricating wacky scenarios as to why it was glowing. That night, a series of shortened dreams speculated on the contents of the package, and ran the gamut from some living thing, to a blob of useless coal, to a giant, shimmering diamond. Before I went to work the next day, I took photos of the package with my cell phone. During my lunch break, and the odd minute or two when I wasn’t busy, I glanced at them. I was growing more anxious to see what the clown had meant by the cryptic phrase memorable and magical. ### I arrived home later than usual, as I had to deal with a disgruntled customer whose warranty didn’t cover the problems pertaining to his personal computer. He actually kept me nearly an hour after our official closing time, following me into my office, harping about unfair agreements and professional integrity (mine, of course). To appease him, I told him I’d talk to corporate headquarters, to see if there was any way his warranty could be adjusted to cover the extensive work that was needed. He finally relented and left, at least partially satisfied. We are told in management training seminars, that customer satisfaction should be our primary goal; their attitude is irrelevant to our treatment of them. We must aim to please. Sometimes, I find it hard to abide by that credo. Now, safely ensconced in my humble abode, my focus was on the package, which I had brought into the kitchen, where the illumination was brightest. I held it up to the light, hoping to see something – anything – that might hint at what was beneath the dull, tan wrapping; my effort proved fruitless. I shook it (gingerly, so as not to damage what might be inside); nothing moved. I pressed lightly on random parts of the package; there were no revealing protuberances. 3


The heat in the Iraqi house was stifling, the air heavy with the metallic tang of sweat and fear. I pointed my M-4A1 at the family on their knees before me, my vision blurred from sweat and fear. I tried to steady my weapon from shaking. I didn’t want them to know I was as scared as they were. “Watch ’em, Jackson, Blaylock growled. “Don’t let them move a filthy finger. Not until we finish our search.” A predator had shown insurgents entering Kundar and they were never seen leaving. It was a typical cordon and knock, and it was our third house. Patten and Wilson were tearing the back rooms apart while Blaylock and I kept the family at bay. The son looked about nine and his defiant stare shook me like nothing else. He would grow up to hate us one day and we would be hunting each other in the future. Blaylock pointed his nozzle at the kid. “Look at that little fucker. We better watch his ass. He’s a future al Qaeda if I’ve ever seen one.” The daughter was shaking and she looked like she had pissed herself. Her mother had her eyes closed tight and was mouthing prayers. The father looked scared and nervous. He could have ended this quickly, that coward bastard. It never had to happen. The girl started to cry as a fly buzzed around my face. It darted from my nose to chin and back again. The mother’s prayers grew louder, feeding off her daughter’s fear. The father turned his head slowly, stealing a glance behind him. Blaylock stuck his rifle in the man’s chest. “Give a reason.” The son fixed his eyes on me. Despite the heat and the sweat trickling down his face he never blinked. The girl started to scream and I poked the mother with my rifle. “Quiet her down.” The boy spit on my boots and his father started to tremble. From a back room I heard Patten yell out, “Shit we got one!” The back room erupted in fire and the father jumped up to run. Blaylock yelled and his weapon roared to life, tearing the fleeing man in half, spraying blood onto the clay walls behind him. Small pieces of his gut rained down on his family. I heard Wilson shout, “he’s got a… ” and the wall behind us blew out towards me. The son, daughter, and mother all jumped up. In a panic I pulled my trigger, keeping it pressed down until the clip was spent. Once the smoke cleared I saw what I had done and threw up on my boots. Death could not keep the mother and daughter from clinging to each other. The mother’s body, riddled with huge seeping holes, gripped the young girl who leaked bodily fluids in a sponge-like heap beneath her. Then I saw the boy. The right side of his head was torn off. The other side remained remarkably unharmed, a perfect half-face that simply ended in a ragged, red outline with shards of bone protruding the torn meat. His shoes had been blown off and lay on their sides across the room, dripping with blood. Blaylock put his arm on my shoulder. “I’ll go check on Wilson and Patten.” Then he stopped, looked up at me and smirked. “That little bastard still ain’t blinked.” I looked down at the dead boy’s remaining eye, still open wide and smoldering with hate. ### The smoke was so thick that all I could see were angry clouds of black and grey. Spitting ash rose in angry columns, peppering the mask that allowed me to breathe. I had come in through a second floor window with one purpose, to find the child that was missing inside. The stairwell had collapsed and the flames growled with hunger. I was told not to go in, that there would be no way out, but the sins I held inside burned hotter than any blaze possibly could.


He’d end my life again if I didn’t kill him. I realized this the moment we met. When we locked eyes an intense hatred sprang from the core of my being. I didn’t completely understand at the time, but I do now. He stared at me arrogantly; with a sadistic gleam I instantly recognized. This man knew me as well. He extended his left hand. “Hank Jones. Pleasure to meet you Mr…?” His diction: Ivy League, crisp. “Jones. Kevin Jones,” as I shook his hand, wanting to rip it off. “You’re my supervisor,” his tone wry and lethal. He grinned at me. “Yes. I am your boss.” At that precise moment a long buried scene emerged in my mind’s eye. I was in some dank field, bound, gagged, and being led on by a group of men. They brought me to a large oak tree and tied me up. It was dark and only the fire of their torches cast any light. I was down South, at a plantation. I was naked and afraid, my head lowered in shame. I saw myself look up and stare directly into the eyes of my slave master. They were the same eyes of the man who stood before me. The savage whippings began. The vision faded. “Sir...” “Yes?” “Can I have my hand back?” “Oh. I’m sorry.” I dropped it. The co-workers pretending not to watch us began to glare at me perversely. I understood at that moment. This African-American man, hired to fulfil my company’s affirmative action policy... had once owned me in a past life. He had been the white slave driver and I, the African in chattel, his property. I have always been a sensible man. I’ve leaned toward a Darwinist model of evolution along with a healthy practice of its social application. If there is a God, I highly doubt that it has set the itinerary for this wretched species I unfortunately belong to. I don’t believe in boogie-woogie men or things that go bump in the night. I do believe in boosting quarterly profits at all costs, and spending the considerable amount of money I have in ways that will make me richer or at least appear to. I have loved once briefly, I believe, though I’ve never made a habit of it. I have been married twice, though neither wife I loved. I am alone now. I’m only as racist as I need to be. I believe my race and class is superior to others because I am a part of it, but like all people I am a misanthrope and can hate men who resemble me just the same. So though I generally dislike people who are not like me and are prejudiced toward them, I am not repulsed by their existence and do not want to see them tossed into a death camp. I’m like most men in this way, and not out of the ordinary. I’m not a killer by nature, nor a virulent racist, and least of all a muddle-headed believer of the supernatural. And I’m not insane. But after the first nightmare I begin to question all of this. I’m working the fields, my lean black body glistening under the high noon’s sun. It’s growing season and I’m in line with the rest of the men hoeing the rice crop, rhythmically mumbling some song I don’t care to sing but must. I have a wife and a 13-year-old daughter, and though I can’t recall their names I know that neither loves me and that my master has had his way with them both. I’m planning on escaping and heading North with no intention of taking either. My English is good enough and I can read some. I’m fit and shrewd and my people unravel at the mere thought of my burning temper. I had once cracked a thieving mulatto’s spine with one solid swing. When my master brings me into town I bestow a certain kind of fear on the men and a wanton lust in the women. My master knows this and that is the reason my hate for him is endless. He also knows that the spirit of my old country flows strong in my veins. I can hear the voices of the Loa, I am touched. 6

Two years isn’t much. You will still be the same. They, some faceless they, say that every five years your mind undergoes a complete revamping. So maybe I just need to wait a little longer. It’s been two years and I don’t know how to feel about that. Tomorrow could be two more. There’s a reason to get out of bed, now; that’s what I’ve gotta remember. There are no angry little red numbers beaming across my alarm clock. The power’s gone. It lingers outside, in the streets, below, but not here, not in this room. I’m not sure why this bothers me. I am in bed with but one purpose, but sleep doesn’t mind breaking promises. My phone offers a litte glimmer, a shine, but I have to keep tapping on the screen to keep it bright. Old ways don’t have to be wrong… it’s not Christmastime, but there is a candle… yes, by my bedside. One candle I’ve had for a while now. Two whole years. If I don’t use it now, then, well, how long can scentless wax really hold itself together? Finding a way to ignite the flame is a bare feet versus cold tiles trip through the kitchen, where I come up with a grill lighter. Color doesn’t exist in the dark, but I remember it being blue. My little glow brings me back to the bedroom and the candle takes bites out of the black after a single successful click. There is a large silver someone in the corner of the room, hunched over themselves in a pitying kind of way. It’s a knee-jerk reaction as I scream and leap from my bed. Amidst the flutter of my blankets the idea of someone in my room begins to fade into the logic of my own idiocy. I’m seeing things. There’s nobody in the corner of my bedroom. Nobody here. There hasn’t been for a while. The candle burns brighter than most, besting what my cell phone’s glow has to offer. I toss my phone onto the nightstand and pick up the candlestick. It’s only as long as my wrist to the end of my middle finger. Still bright, though. A shadowy somebody stands in my doorframe. “Hey!” I thrust the candle forward as I rush empty air. The flame flickers from the sudden movement as I steady my hand, and for a moment I’m about to be tossed into the dark, but it regains its composure. There is nobody in front of me. I know what seeing things means. I didn’t think I would ever reach this stage. I slink out into the hallway hesitantly. There was someone in my room and something else in my doorway. As I move onward, my quivering mind’s not expecting the partially illuminated shadows ahead to shift, to move away from me. I don’t call out or run, I just take another step forward and hold my candle up high. My bedroom door slams shut as I whirl around, mumbling a shit when my flame struggles for breath. I reach forward, holding the candle up as if it’s a mighty waxen sword. As I approach my bed the candle takes more rapid chomps out of the dark. Papers are scattered all over my blanket, rustling softly from the slightest touch of air. My windows are closed, and I’m not moving fast enough to create a gust of air. There is a dark grey feather amongst the pages. Some bird. I lean against my bedpost and I don’t need to reach down. These are actual newspaper pages, dated. My name bears its greeting back at me in bold black letters the reaper would be proud of. There is nobody here… no stalkers… no vengeance seekers. I lightly swing a trembling candle to the rest of the room. As soon as it passes and reveals nothing in the farthest left-hand corner, it feels as though theres something there as soon as the darkness returns. I stare into the corner and wait. Something moving, entering the farthest reaches of light. Stepping towards me slowly. I have to believe what I see, until I’m told I shouldn’t. An angel steps toward me. It’s not the beautiful kind. There are dark grey, almost dirty white feathers on draping, cape-like wings hunched over a wiry thin body. A man a few inches taller than me, barefoot and wearing makeshift tan pants that look like they were forged out of a sack. His face is long and thin, and the faintest bits of patchy gray hair gasp from his chin. The angel reaches out a finger and pinches at the wick of my candle. 7

The old soul shuffled more than walked. Aged shoulders hunched, unprotected head bowed under the weight of the rain beating down from the dark sky. The sodden mud sucked at his feet. Each time he freed a once shiny boot from the quagmire, it was caked with a little more of the soot-black shit. Every step was harder than the last. If he could he would give up. He wondered absently how long he had been trudging along the once well-defined track. Time had lost any meaning almost as soon as he had set off. He thought of stopping, falling to his cracked old knees, letting the cold wetness seep into his body as he in turn seeped into the dirt. It would not take long. Compared to the alternative – going on – it would be much quicker, much less painful, so much easier. It was the memory of the child’s voice that kept him going. That sound was the only thing solid enough to anchor him to his goal. Those five little words. That single question. The worst question. “What did you do, Gramps?” He had to give the boy an answer, and it had to be the right answer. It was the one question he could never answer with a lie. No matter how hard the truth was. How painful the journey. He stopped to brush the wet strands of grey hair from his eyes. He didn’t need to see where he was going, he had walked this path many times before, but it was simply the only one of his torments he could do something about. Pressing his hands into the small of his back he tried to stretch some of the pain out of his muscles. He winced and cursed. Damn to life, damn to time, and damn to the mind for creating worlds so hard to traverse. He turned and looked at the figure in the rickety wooden cart he had been dragging behind him. The small boy was covered neck to toe in a thick blanket but was still soaked to the bone. Lush dark hair, just like his own had been decades ago, in another lifetime. Bright hazel eyes hidden behind closed lids, he looked so tranquil. Sleeping peacefully. Unaware of the torment the old man was going through for him. For the truth. Ignoring the pain ravishing his muscles, he leaned over the cart and brushed a loose lock of hair from the child’s smooth forehead and smiled. He sucked in the faint sweet odour of innocence and youth. A stark contrast to the thick, cloying reek of decay around him. Yes, it was worth it. Once again facing the path, vigour restored, if only temporarily, he picked up the slick handles of the cart and trudged on. All around him, the scene was the same. Dense black mud stinking of age and disease under a dripping dark sky. The only break in the landscape were the countless stone towers stretching to the horizon in every direction. More narrow tracks, some in better condition than the one he was on, but most the same or worse, wound their way between the towers. Each great stone behemoth was as tall and impenetrable and forbidding as the next. Each one bearing its own tarnished name plaque. Simple small labels adorned them: “The day my third wife died;” “The face of the second man I ever killed;” “The tears in the eyes of my son”— because the worst memories, those you most want to forget, never need big signposts. The further he travelled, the older and more solid the towers he passed, and the stronger the smell of decay. He knew he still had a long way to go. The one he sought was far away. He had known it before he began the journey. He had thought back then that he could do it, for the boy. Now he was less sure. He was, after all, just a broken old man. Stealing a glance at the towers as they slid past he cursed them. Each one had cost him. Yet there wasn’t one he had not chosen to build. 8

That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Hey, Stone, where y’all goin’?” John Stone, clipboard and red hardhat in hand, paused on his way to the door of the technician’s shed. He looked at Harry Maggert’s slug-like body sprawled in one of the loungers. “To do my job, Maggert.” “Man, it’s over a hunert degrees out there! Jus’ sit back down and relax so’s the rest of us can.” Several of the other instrument technicians nodded in agreement with Maggert. “Can’t — I believe in giving an honest day’s work for a day’s pay.” Maggert sprang to his feet with the speed of a land whale. “Y’all sayin’ Ah don’t do an honest day’s work, Little Yankee?” “Little Yankee” was a nickname Stone had received fourteen years ago, on his first day at the Great Southern Oil Company. He’d moved to Texas from Pennsylvania, right after the Gulf War, to find work. But even in a cosmopolitan city like Port Arthur, inundated with truly foreign workers and merchant seamen, Yankees were not welcome. The nickname was insulting, at first. But the southerners had soon learned that stature and birthplace had nothing to do with courage, ability, and integrity. Now “Little Yankee” was a term of grudging respect. Stone drew his five-foot, six-inch, medium frame to its fullest height. He narrowed his blue eyes to blazing slits and squared off against Maggert. “We’re paid to take the instrument readings every half-hour. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not doing your job, Maggert.” “Hey, hey, hey, y’all, knock it off,” drawled Jasper “Jazz” Lufkin, the foreman and peacemaker on the day shift. “Johnny, y’all know those readings don’t hardly never change for hours. They don’t really need to be wrote down ever’ thirty minutes.” “That’s right, man,” Maggert said in a growling voice. “Yer makin’ the rest of us look bad. Jus’ fill in the same numbers on the sheet for three, four hours at a time, like we do.” “But if ya wanna check ‘em more often, then go ahead,” continued Lufkin, ignoring Maggert. “That’ll just leave more cool air for the rest of us to enjoy. Right, Maggie?” “Yeah, right!” Maggert eased back into the lounger and amoeba-lized himself into a comfortable position. He was thankful that Lufkin had given him a way out, again. “That’s what I want, Jazz,” said Stone. “Especially today when we’re operating at half-plant. You know how dangerous that is.” Operating at “half-plant” was a standard practice in the oil industry. A large portion of a refinery was shut down for pipe maintenance. Hot crude oil and byproducts were diverted from the distillation columns in the closed section using secondary pipes and pipes that normally didn’t carry such materials. Processing facilities in the closed section could still operate, products could be sent to the open section of the plant for more refining or for storage, and money flow was not interrupted. It was a legal crime that went unpunished. The danger was that someone might confuse a “hot” line (carrying products, heated to many hundreds or even a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, to the cracking units for further refining) with a “cool” line (carrying safer products to storage sites) and open the wrong valve. That error could send hot oil leaking through the valve and trigger an explosion. Normally “cool” lines often became “hot” lines in half-plant operations. 9


The kid had a voracious appetite for comic books and an insatiable lust for the toys he could order from their pages: the joy buzzer, the whoopee cushion, the vanishing ink. These—each in their own turn—provided hours of enjoyment, if not essential diversion, in the tedious existence of a twelve-year-old boy. But from the day Timmy Google received his X-Ray vision spectacles—and removed them from his mailbox—his life was never the same. Initially, however, he had not expected the glasses to work. After all, the joy buzzers usually broke—their tops twisting off after a few practical jokes—and the whoopee cushions burst as soon as his Aunt Lizzie sat on them. And as for the disappearing ink—it always left a stain on his mother’s best dress, landing him in detention as a result. Even the black chewing gum went awry and looked more like purple death on his father’s teeth. But, by golly, the X-Ray vision glasses were amazing. The first time Timmy slipped them on he was standing near the mailbox. His neighbor, Mrs. Patterson walked by in a flowing, floral print dress, saying “Hi, Timmy. I like your new glasses”, and suddenly he could see every heart-thumping detail of her womanly figure—right down to her bra and panties. Timmy turned around, noticing that he could count the number of rings inside the trunks of trees, and that he could, in fact, check out the contents of his neighbors’ mailboxes without opening them. He had never known that Mr. Gunther, the surly neighbor who lived on the corner, had five motorcycles stashed inside his garage. (Why didn’t he ride them?) Or that Sara Larkins, the little girl who lived next door, had a collection of dolls inside her tree house. He could see all of these things and more, and the possibilities thrilled Timmy Google’s twelve-year-old-mind to overflowing. That evening, at supper, Timmy slipped his glasses on again and tried to appear nonchalant. But his father—who was not wearing any undershirt to hide his hairy chest—noticed the indiscretion right away. “Hey, sport,” he said, “what’s with the glasses? Why don’t you take them off for dinner?” “No problem,” Timmy said, glancing at his mother to see how she compared to Mrs. Patterson. He was amazed his father had chosen so wisely. Another quick glance at his little brother revealed that the toddler needed a diaper change. Timmy removed his glasses and placed them on the table, studying them as he ate his peas and carrots. They looked so ordinary—those lenses—but they were anything but. He wondered how anyone could make anything so astounding for $5.95 plus postage and handling. He wondered how those glasses worked. But mostly, he wondered how anything purchased from the back of a comic book could turn out to be so grand. ### That evening, Timmy asked his parents if he could go out into the yard and catch lightening bugs in a jar. “That’s fine,” his mother told him. “But be in before nine.” An hour! Plenty of time to check out his X-Ray vision glasses in the dark. He had been wondering about a question all day. Would they work without the sun? Slipping outside through the screen door, Timmy sidled up to the edge of the house and slid the glasses over the bridge of his nose. Much to his surprise, the glasses worked even better at night. Every house up and down the street was ablaze with light. He could see right through the darkness and beyond the walls into the homes. Stone, brick, siding—made no difference. The entire neighborhood was now his own personal fish bowl. Hiding behind the big oak tree at the edge of the yard, Timmy glanced to the west and noted that Mr. and Mrs. Klaussen were washing their dishes as they watched Wheel of Fortune on the television. The Pattersons were relaxing on the couch—and, yes, Mr. Patterson was now easing his hand over to caress his wife’s, well— Timmy looked to the east. 11

With childlike excitement, Ralphie watched the muscles flex beneath her pants as she walked. I just want to see through, just for a moment. Ralphie expelled a series of heavy breaths, and on the third, a lining of drool from his open mouth kissed the window glass. Her name was Brianna, and she lived across the street, but whether he had faintly heard someone call her by that name or had given it to her himself, he did not know. She’d been leaving around this time since early May, about a month, wearing tight black workout pants and a t-shirt a size too small. She must have gotten a membership at the gym up the street, he thought. It’s one of the few businesses in their small town that’s close enough to walk to, and Ralphie was grateful. Since his window didn’t face her enclosed backyard that held the pool, he hadn’t seen much of her, but because of this recent development he got to look her up and down as she walked up and down the street. She was an average-height brunette of about nineteen with a muscular frame and pallid skin. Today, her stride exhibited just a pinch of haste, and Ralphie concluded that she must have been running late. It would be a shorter glimpse, so he had to make it count. Struggling to keep Brianna’s swaying hips in view, Ralphie flattened against the glass while his bulbous stomach consumed the window sill. As the sidewalk curved out of sight, so did she. Ralphie detached himself from the window and waves of lard and laziness rippled through his skin as his gut flopped back to home position. Ralphie turned around, and the string of yellowish drool tethered to his bottom lip snapped and latched to the window, providing a stem for the blooming flower of mucus above it. The stubble on Ralphie’s shaved head coasted just inches from his bedroom’s slanted roof while he shuffled his way to the couch. He kicked a peeled apple out from under a mess of children’s books and taxidermy magazines. It rumbled across the floor collecting dirt and dead ants, and then hit a wall and stopped. The black ants and exposed seeds shined up at Ralphie like the eyes of a wrinkly brown spider. He landed on the couch and engulfed an amply furred teddy bear in a mushroom of dust. Reaching underneath himself, Ralphie pulled out a now-creased comic book. Band-aids on each of his fingers stuck to the pages as he flipped to an ad that read Gain Amazing X-ray Vision Instantly with a picture of a man and a dog’s head, both wearing yellow glasses with perforated purple swirls on the lenses. He lifted the page, peered through the empty square where the order form used to be and released a salacious giggle. Ralphie, the middle-aged boy next door, had sent for them two weeks ago. A childish smirk spread across his face, accompanied by a sparkle in his eyes, and he lumbered to the stairs. Ralphie opened the front door to find a medium-sized package too big to be x-ray glasses and continued toward the mailbox. He could see Brianna’s dad across the street, unearthing a rock from a circular indentation he had dug with a spade. Brianna and her family had moved in shortly after the winter months ended, but Brianna’s dad was still adding some finishing touches. He was tall, skinny, and balding with thick spectacles. His complexion was usually rather pale, but today it was covered in dirt, a landscaper’s tan. He gave Ralphie a look of obvious disapproval as he approached the end of the drive. Ralphie ignored him, gazed into the mailbox, and found some mail, but no glasses. Turning back toward Brianna’s house, he observed a cat half-emerged from a pet door survey the yard and jettison out after a butterfly. The cat chased the winged assailant, bounding across the road into Ralphie’s yard. It leaped, plucked the butterfly from the air, pinned it to the ground, freed its head with a piercing bite, and chewed wildly. After checking to make sure Brianna’s dad wasn’t watching, Ralphie hurried over and scooped up the cat. He scurried back toward his house with the squirming hunter under his arm, still wrenching its jaws up and down trying to pinpoint the succulent head with its narrow teeth. 12

That’s just not like me, thought Karl as he walked out of the store leaving the young cashier in tears. I haven’t been sleeping well lately, that’s why I snapped at her. That wasn’t merely a flimsy excuse – he had been struggling to get three hours decent shut-eye a night for weeks now and the only remedy he had found for his burgeoning insomnia had been to put the television on a timer so that he could drift off with some chattering company, safe in the knowledge it would switch itself off when he eventually reached the Land of Nod and its attendant sweat-lashed dreams. Not that the young cashier would appreciate that, especially after he had called her a “thoughtless little cunt” (really, he would never usually dream of using such a word) because she had been gabbing on her phone the whole time she had served him. The look on her face (her plaster-cast makeup had almost cracked) was the part Karl struggled with most; it had made him feel so good — so goddamn good he had burst out laughing at the oily tears in her little ratty eyes. That really wasn’t like him at all. On the way out, on a whim, he pushed the young boy leaning over the freezer face first into the Choc Ices and his sudden yelp of fright gave Karl the most orgasmic rush of satisfaction he had ever experienced. I really need some sleep, he told himself through peals of giggles. He changed his routine when he got home, pottering in the garden for hours in a bid to extricate the guilt pangs, and doing laundry in lieu of a nap when his exhaustion began screaming in his ear. He even went out for a brisk walk before bed, downing a large glass of warm milk before finally retiring. He put the telly on low, set the sleep mode for sixty minutes, and mumbled a fervent prayer to whatever indolent deity presided over slumber, drifting off before he was even aware he’d reached a slurred amen. He was equally unaware of the wet-lipped mouth that filled the television screen as soon as the tenuous anorexic void he called sleep dragged him raggedly under. The mouth began to move, its voice barely audible over a low hum of static but loud enough to snake its way into Karl’s ear and course through the shallow waters of his dreams. It whispered terrible things to him, curses and prophecies, planting poisonous seeds and fertilising them with a steady drip, drip, drip of subliminal bile. Karl moaned in his sleep as the wet-lipped vendetta flooded his circuits. On screen, the mouth broke out into a rotten-toothed smile. Karl went to work the next morning buzzing with inexplicable anger, convinced he would punch the first person to so much as wish him Good morning; it really wasn’t like him at all. The banality of his job soon smoothed out his prickles though, and the day would have blended into the numb grey sludge of every other if Harper, the manager who was more chin than skull, had not called him into his office for one of his monthly pep talks. Karl went in like a lamb but came out like a lion. Harper’s den was a smug haven of calm authority; the stapler pointing to its accustomed east, the family portraits lined up like Russian dolls in order of attractiveness. Karl stood with his head bowed, apologetic and compliant, ready to flail himself bloody with whatever shortcomings Harper had spotted in him since their last tete-a-tete. But this penitent’s paradise came crashing down with a single word that spewed unbidden from Karl’s lips; a darkly magical word that, once uttered, could never be taken back. “Cunt!” Karl spat it in Harper’s astonished face, carried on yelling it until Harper looked as if he might cry, and the more he yelled the more he could imagine overturning the desk and ramming the stapler up his manager’s quivering arsehole; making sure it still pointed eastward, of course. To think Highbrow Harper, who acted so goddamn mighty, could be reduced to a trembling mess by one solitary little word. Karl could see Val by the water cooler, staring at him in a mixture of shock and awe. It was obvious she had overheard, and equally obvious she was suddenly reappraising him as a potential playmate — and why not? She had literally exhausted every other option in the firm. 13