Imposter Furniture (Part 1)

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“I swear this couch eats my change,” he said, digging his hands into the seats of the sofa. “And then it disappears and I can’t ever find it again.”
Little Tommy watched his father shove his hands into the recesses of the cushions of the living room couch. Tommy was an impressionable toddler— which was a description he would have agreed with if he had any idea of its actual meaning. If someone had impressed the term upon him, however, he would have sworn to it as his central trait, just as he believed in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Jesus, and God because they had been impressed upon him from an early age.
“How many pens have I lost to it?” his father exclaimed. “How many socks? It eats them! The damn thing is bound to.”
“I know what you mean,” answered Tommy’s mother from the kitchen. “I’ve lost so many hair ties in it that I believe it is planning on opening a hair salon.”
“With the money it’s eaten it could!” he replied.
Tommy was certain of it: the couch was eating things. It was eating coins and pretzels and socks and hair ties and pens because it wanted to grow stronger, and it wanted to grow stronger so it could eat bigger things.

The family dog, Weinee, did not trust the couch either. It barked at the couch all throughout the day and night.
“Damn it, Weinee!” Tommy’s father griped. “Shut up!”
Weinee was a Dachshund. He had stubby little legs and an overlong body. He looked ridiculous as he hopped around the couch, barking and growling.
“Must be a mouse underneath the couch,” Tommy’s father said. “Guess I better put another glue trap out.”
He went into the kitchen, his footsteps booming thunderously around Tommy. When he returned he had a glue trap with a peanutbutter cracker stuck to it. Kneeling down, he slipped it in between the couch and the living room wall. He walked away and Tommy watched the glue trap disappear beneath the couch. It made Tommy sad. He wanted to eat the peanutbutter cracker.

Tommy’s parents had to put Weinee into Tommy’s room at night, otherwise the silly dog barked all night at the couch. Tommy liked having Weinee in his bedroom. The dog always laid at the foot of his bed, curled up and quiet. It reassured Tommy, especially when he heard his mother and father making noises. The noises frightened Tommy. Sometimes he dreamt that his father was turning into a Wolf-Man and attacking his mother. He often woke up crying, but then would reach down and pet the Dachshund and feel better. Even though Tommy was a toddler, he knew dreams weren’t real. They could not harm you.
The couch, however, could.

Late at night Tommy sometimes heard the couch moving in the living room, too. He knew it wasn’t the squeaky sound of his mother and father moving their bed. It was the scraping sound of the couch moving through the living room. Weinee often heard it, too, and would run to Tommy’s door, trying to stick his long, narrow snout under it, growling and barking. Weinee would have probably ran into the living room if Tommy’s door wasn’t closed. In the morning Tommy’s parents would ask Tommy what he was doing at night. Tommy could not articulate anything that satisfied them, since he was still a toddler, and so they assumed it was their son playing with his toys in the middle of the night.
“You need to go to sleep when it’s nighttime, Tommy,” his mother said, making a bowl of cereal for him.
His father sat at the kitchen table, eating waffles. “He’ll be fine. As long as he’s not having nightmares…or bothering us.”
“But he looks tired,” Tommy’s mother said.
“Doesn’t look tired to me,” his father said. “I wish I had half so much energy.”
Tommy’s mother put the bowl of cereal in front of Tommy and handed him a spoon. She then ran her fingers through his blonde wisps of hair.
“If you are scared you can come and sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed, okay?” she said.
Tommy’s father nearly choked on his waffles. Coughing, he shook his head ruefully. Tommy feared he might turn into a Wolf-Man. “No, Christina. No. He’s old enough to sleep on his own. If you make it a habit for him then he’ll never be able to sleep alone. He’ll be a sissy.”
Tommy’s mother had one of those looks in her eyes— the look that made Tommy want to cry.
“Eric, that’s not what you’re afraid of,” she said. “You just want…me time all of the time.” She picked up his empty plate and took it to the sink, rinsing the maple syrup off the ceramic. For a moment Tommy did not know if it was the faucet or his mother that hissed so loudly. She turned back to her husband, the morning light through the kitchen window burning in her blonde hair. “Eric, you’re just being selfish. And, quite frankly, I don’t know if I’ll be in the mood tonight. Not if you keep acting this way.”
Tommy’s father stood up and went to his mother. “Come on, Christina. Don’t be like that.” He slipped his arms around her hips and pulled her to him. They kissed and he grinned. “Are you sure you won’t be in the mood?”
She shrugged a little, then began tightening his tie. “Maybe,” she said. “Depends on how you behave yourself when you come home later.”
He kissed her one more time, but she pushed him away.
“It’s almost time for you to go,” she said.
Tommy’s father checked his cellphone. “Damn. You’re right.” He stole one more kiss, then headed into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He left for work shortly thereafter.
“Come on, Tommy,” his mother said. “Eat your cereal so you can grow up big and strong like your daddy.”

Weinee was in the living room, running around the couch and growling at it. Tommy’s mother set Tommy on the carpet in front of the television. She turned it on, the black screen exploding with bright colors from the early morning cartoons. She was about to leave the living room, but paused in the hallway and glanced over her shoulder at Weinee’s antics.
“You really are a silly dog,” she said. She went down the hall into the kitchen.
Tommy watched cartoons. He liked cartoons. He liked the colors and the noises and the characters as they bounced around inside the television screen. He also liked the commercials showing other kids playing with toys. Even with Weinee growling and running around the couch, Tommy could not look away from the television.
And then he heard Weinee yelp. It was a startling sound. Tommy had only ever heard Weinee make it once, weeks ago when Tommy tried to pick Weinee up, but accidentally dropped him.
Alarmed, Tommy looked away from the television and toward the couch. He did not see Weinee anywhere. He knew this was not right. Rolling over onto his hands, he gradually pushed himself up onto his feet and toddled closer to the couch. He did not get too close to it, however. He knew it was not to be trusted.

His mother came into the living room a few minutes later, sitting on the couch to read a book. Tommy tried to tell her that Weinee was gone.
“Momma,” he said.
“Yes, baby?” she said, looking at him from over her Harlequin Romance novel.
He pointed at the couch. “Doggie,” he said.
“No, baby, it’s called a ‘couch’.”
Tommy frowned and tried to babble some more.
“I see you, Tom-Tom,” his mother assured him. “Now sit down and watch your cartoons while mommy rests. In a little while I have to make supper.”
His mother was now wholly engrossed in her book, and while Tommy was only a toddler, he knew enough about his mother to know that unless he was wailing she would not pay attention to him for some time. Babbling to himself, he sat back down and thought about Weinee for a while. It made him feel sad. But then his favorite cartoon came on and he forgot all about the couch and Weinee and his own bad feelings.

The couch was bigger than Tommy. Tommy knew his mother and father were large, too, since they towered over him and could easily pick him up. But he knew the couch did not care how big they were. All that mattered to it was its hunger. And the dark. When sunlight reached into the living room during the day the couch remained dormant. Sunlight hurt it. That was why it moved around at night, looking for things to eat. That was why Tommy never went to use the restroom at night, no matter how much it hurt to hold it.

The next morning Tommy woke up to a wet bed and wet clothes.
“Tommy!” his mother exclaimed, picking him up and taking him into the bathroom. “You peed the bed again!”
She stripped him down and seated him in the bath, filling it with foamy water up to his waist. While he played in the water and foam she pulled all of his blankets and sheets off his bed and washed them in the utility room’s washer. She then took Tommy out, dried him, put him in fresh, clean clothes, and set him on his way.
“You know how to use the potty, Tommy!” she said.

Tommy’s mother smoked. When she went for a smoke she did so outside, on the backporch. Nonetheless, Tommy had watched her from the kitchen many times. He knew what a lighter did. It created fire. Tommy also knew what fire was. It burned. It hurt. That was why he thought he could use the lighter to hurt the couch.
When his mother went to the bathroom, Tommy waddled into the kitchen. He climbed a chair and then climbed on top of the table. He grabbed the lighter and then carefully climbed down. When he tried to climb down from the chair, however, he lost his balance as his feet touched the kitchen tile. He tumbled over and bopped his head on the floor. He started to cry, without meaning to, but his mother was now taking a shower and could not hear him. Still crying, Tommy toddled into the living room with the lighter in his chubby, little fingers.
Coming to the couch, Tommy fumbled with the lighter for a while, trying to get the flame to stick its tongue out. He turned it upside down, shook it, babbled at it, and rubbed it against the couch. But the lighter never lit. He heard the shower cut off and his mother emerged, coming into the living room. She wore a robe and had a towel wrapped around her head. When she saw Tommy holding the lighter, she snatched it away from him.
“That is not a plaything, Tom-Tom,” she warned him. She sat on the couch and crossed her legs, sighing as if exhausted. “I need a vacation.”

By the time Tommy’s father came home later that evening, Tommy’s mother had changed into jogging pants and a T-shirt and had cooked dinner. They all sat down at the kitchen table and ate together.
“More overtime?” his mother said.
His father had not even taken off his suit yet. “More portfolios to look over. The economy is up, so interest in investments is up, too.” He shook his head. “I hate that pun. Simon says it at the office all the damn time. I could throttle him.”
Tommy wanted to be heard, too, so he babbled a few sounds. His mother wiped the mashed peas off his chin.
“Eat your food, Tom-Tom,” she said. “Stop playing in it.”
Tommy’s father sawed off some gristle from the edge of his steak. He pinched it between his fingers and held it under the table. After a moment of waiting a look of confusion crossed his face.
“What’s wrong?” his wife asked.
He glanced around the kitchen. “Where’d Weinee go?”

They spent the last hours of daylight looking for Weinee. Tommy tried to tell them what had happened, but he only confused them. When they returned inside, his mother printed out Lost posters with Weinee’s picture on them. She vowed to canvas the whole neighborhood tomorrow.

The next morning, Tommy and his parents ate breakfast in the kitchen. His father was in a playful mood. He pinched his wife’s butt as she bent over to pick up a fork that fell on the floor. She stood straight up with a jump and a gasp. She smacked her husband’s arm, grinning.
“Your libido is incorrigible,” she said.
He grinned. “Tonight we should go dancing.”
She crossed her arms and tossed her head lightly left and right, weighing the idea. “Maybe.”
“Come on,” he said. “We haven’t gone out on a Friday night in forever.”
“We’ve had other things to worry about,” she said. She glanced at Tommy, but her husband rushed up and hugged her from behind.
“Which is why we should go,” he said. “I have a clubfoot that is just itching to bust a groove.”
His wife laughed. “That’s not what a ‘clubfoot’ is,” she said.
“Then what is it?” he asked.
“It’s when your foot is abnormally shaped,” she said. “Like Lord Byron.”
“Oh ho,” he said. “Lord Byron, huh? Is that one of your lovers in your Romance novels?”
She sighed yearningly—melodramatically— and gazed up at the ceiling as if lost in passionate daydreams. “I wish,” she said.
“You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?” he said. He tickled her until she laughed. She struggled against him, pulling away, then coming forward to hug him, face to face.
“You’re a ne’er-do-well,” she said, beaming up at him.
They kissed. Tommy began to cry. His father went to him.
“Now none of that, Mister,” his father said. “You’re king of the house while I’m gone, so you have to man up.” He picked Tommy up, and Tommy cried even louder. His father looked crestfallen. “He never likes me picking him up,” he complained.
Tommy reached toward his mother, bawling. She took him from his father and Tommy immediately stopped crying.
“All little boys prefer their mommies,” she said. “Isn’t that right, Tom-Tom?”
Tommy nestled against his mother’s neck.
“Maybe Freud was right,” his father said.
“That’s not funny, Eric,” she said. “And don’t be jealous. You’re always at work. I have to spend more time with him.”
“Yeah, but you like being a a stay-at-home mom.”
“Stay-at-home parent,” she said, a little snappishly.
Her husband looked confused. “You are a mom and you stay at home,” he said. “So you are a stay-at-home mom.”
“That is patriarchal bullshit,” she said, her former humor hardening into anger. “The connotations are demeaning.”
“Well excuse me,” he said, his own expression hardening. “I didn’t take any Gender Studies classes to know the difference. I was too busy taking Business classes. You know, so you wouldn’t have to go find a job with your Gender Studies degree.”
His wife’s face reddened, her eyes gaping in incredulous fury.
“Just leave for work already,” she said, coldly. “Get out of here before I take Tommy and go to my parents and never come back.”
Tommy’s father opened his mouth as if to say something else. Instead, he sighed angrily and went to the door. The door slammed behind him. Tommy could hear the minivan roar to life and leave down the street. His mother set Tommy back in his chair, then went to the corner of the kitchen to grab the broom. She began to sweep the floor, then threw the broom down, startling Tommy. She went back to Tommy and picked him up. She tried to smile at him, but there were tears in her eyes.

Toward lunchtime Tommy’s mother took Tommy outside. They went up and down the street, taping the print-outs of Weinee on telephone poles and lampposts. Occasionally she said hello to a neighbor she knew. Tommy became tired and his mother had to carry him, which in turn made her tired.
“That’s enough for today,” she said, hauling her son back to their house.
When Tommy’s father returned home that evening he had a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates. Tommy’s mother took them reluctantly, setting them down on the couch. The two of them then went into the bedroom, leaving Tommy alone on the living room floor. While they talked, Tommy watched as a long tongue emerged from the cushions of the couch, dragging the flowers and the chocolates down into the cracks between cushions.
Tommy’s parents returned a few minutes later. They seemed to have forgotten about the flowers and chocolates. His mother bent over Tommy, forcing herself to smile.
“Tommy,” she said, “your daddy and I are going out to dinner. Madison is coming over to watch you. I want you to be good for her, okay?” She brushed her fingers through the wisps of his blonde hair. “We’ll be back soon.” She looked up at her husband. “No dancing tonight.”
Her husband nodded stiffly. His grimly gray suit was happier looking than his humorless face.
Tommy’s mother went to their bedroom to get ready. Tommy’s father sat down beside Tommy on the living room floor. He tried to play with Tommy, rolling a red rubber ball to his son. But Tommy was disinterested in his father. The ball bounced off his chubby knees and he let it go wherever it wanted.
“Come on, Tom-Tom,” Tommy’s father said. “Try to give me a chance.” He fetched the ball himself, then rolled it toward his son again. It was a futile gesture. His son did not pay it any mind as it bounced once more off his indifferent knee. Instead, Tommy tottered up to his feet and started toddling toward the bedroom. His father scooped him up. “Your mom is getting dressed,” he said. “You have to give her space. And time. We both do.”
Tommy began to wail. His father set him down on the living room carpet once again, sighing in defeat.
“Maybe I’m not cut out for being a dad,” he said.
Madison arrived shortly thereafter. She wore a skirt and a tanktop with a football varsity jacket over her bare shoulders. It was dark blue with white sleeves. Tommy’s father frowned at it as he opened the door to let her in.
“You a fan of the Quakers now?” he asked.
She smiled sheepishly. “My boyfriend is. He’s part of the team.”
“He goes to the University of Pennsylvania?” he remarked with disbelief. “Aren’t you still in highschool?”
It was Madison’s turn to frown. Instead of answering his insinuation, she walked over to Tommy and kneeled down beside him. “Hey, Tom-Tom!” she said. “Look how tall you are now! Wow!” She smiled up at his father. “He’s going to be tall and handsome, just like his dad. I know it.”
Tommy’s father closed the door and pretended not to hear that.
A few minutes later Tommy’s mother emerged from the bedroom, glittering darkly in a black dress with sequins. Her black stilettos clicked sharply on the hallway tile.
“That’s a pretty dress,” Madison observed.
Tommy’s mother pulled at the dress, smoothing it out over her hips. She grimaced and fidgeted awkwardly. “I haven’t worn this in over a year,” she said. “Does it really look good on me?”
“You look beautiful,” her husband said.
“Yeah,” Madison said. “You can’t even tell that you were ever pregnant. I mean, not if you didn’t know already.”
Tommy’s mother eyed the younger woman coolly. “Thank you, Madison.”
The couple gave Madison instructions and phone numbers, in the event of an emergency. They paid her, too, in advance, and then headed out to dinner. Madison watched them leave from the living room window. When their taillights had disappeared down the darkening streets she called her boyfriend, Dave, on her cellphone. He appeared at the door a little while later. He glanced around nervously as they went inside.
“Why didn’t you drive?” she asked him.
“I did,” he said. “But I parked down the street so no one would know I was here.”
“You worry too much,” she said.
“Are you sure they won’t be coming back for a while?” he asked. “What if they forgot something?”
“Don’t be such a baby, Dave,” Madison said, flippantly. “Even if they do come back, they won’t really care. Not really.”
“I’m not worried about them,” Dave said. “I’m worried about your dad. And why are you wearing my jacket? I told you to keep it a secret!”
Madison pouted, taking his jacket off slowly, playfully. “Boo hoo,” she said. She let the jacket fall to the floor, then pressed herself against him. She kissed him on the lips—a long, lingering kiss. “Don’t worry so much. You’ll give yourself hemorrhoids.”
Dave seemed to perk up a little. He plopped down on the couch and smiled nervously at Tommy. “Hey, little bro. How’s it going?”
Tommy made a cooing sound of uncertainty, then stared at the couch. Dave was taller and bigger than Tommy’s father, but Tommy wondered if the monster would be afraid of Dave. Looking out the living room window, he saw that daylight was draining quickly from the neighborhood. It would be dark soon.
Madison plopped down beside Dave. They clung to each other for the next couple of hours, watching television as the sun went down. At length, the last wink of dusk flashed through the window and the embers settled to cool ash. Madison took Tommy to the potty one final time, then put him to bed.
“Good night, Tom-Tom,” she said. She pecked his forehead with a kiss. “Sweet dreams.” She turned on his nightlight and turned off the overhead light. As she closed the door she wondered aloud where Weinee was. “I like that silly dog…”

Tommy laid in bed for an hour, listening. It was not long before he heard Madison and Dave making noises in the living room. They were the same noises his mother and father made in their bedroom at night. He did not like hearing those sounds. They made him think of werewolves and beasts and other creatures snorting and growling and prowling the darkness.
“Hey, watch where you’re sticking it!” Madison warned. “I don’t like it that way.”
“I haven’t even put a condom on yet,” Dave said.
“Then why are you trying to do that?” she demanded.
“I’m not,” he exclaimed.
Tommy could hear them struggling to rearrange themselves on the couch, and then their gasps of confusion. Then he heard their screams. Their screams were soon muffled, and abruptly silenced.

The Price

The roof flew from the barn and somersaulted down the prairie like a tiller blade, churning up earth and flashing with the sharp sheen of its tin. From the front porch, at a quarter mile’s distance, Maggie watched the tin roof frolic in the March-matted field. The barn dissolved shortly afterwards, the bedeviled twister unraveling its old wooden planks in a spiral of uplifting torque. The tornado’s power overawed Maggie as it undid everything her father and grandfather and great-grandfather had created throughout the decades, erasing their hard work within a matter of seconds. She felt the same winds whip her brown pigtails wildly against her face. The unthinking violence of it all thrilled her, every nerve in her thirteen year old body tingling and vibrantly alive.
Maggie’s momma and daddy had gone to town to buy seeds for the planting season. She was alone with her baby brother, Mike. She could hear his wails over the howling of the winds. She wished he would be silent for once. His shrill voice reminded her of the children at school, all screaming and wailing and shouting for attention. She despised them. She despised her brother. She despised her parents for leaving her alone with him.
She marveled at the tornado.
“The March Hare,” she said to herself, though she could not hear herself over the howling of the winds and the wailing of her brother.
The tornado drilled onward, a massive column of spiraling eddies stripping apart silos and granaries as it continued its rampage toward the old farmhouse. Her baby brother’s wails rose, like a saw on sheet metal. Their farmhouse had no cellar or basement. She knew the tornado could easily tear the house up from its foundation and unfurl it like a moth-eaten blanket across the field. There was no escape. The tornado did as it pleased, unconcerned with trivial human matters.
Frowning, Maggie stepped off the porch and walked out across the field. Her white skirt flapped as if a bird desperate to fly away. She pressed it flat against her legs with her hands— not because of feminine dignity or shame, but because it irritated her with its panic—then she continued walking toward the tornado. Her pigtails whipped her face harder, as if flagellating her for her foolish willfulness. But she was undeterred. She went right up to the tornado. The tornado raged in its circle, as ever.
Then it seemed to hesitate.
When Maggie began to stagger toward the tornado, and started losing her balance, the tornado backed away from her and attempted to go around her, to either side. It was like a bewildered bull coming to a tree, unsure as to whether to go left or right. Yet, Maggie continued marching toward the tornado, stumbling and staggering and fighting to stay on her feet. Her tiny figure pressed the gigantic whirlwind back, as if a horsefly biting at a horse’s nose.
Finally, the tornado began to unwind, its spiraling column of debris and darkness slowing. It came undone, diminishing and dropping all of its playthings across the brown prairie grasses. The last shreds of wind dissolved into still air, at last, and a tall, red-skinned man stood before Maggie. He had dark black hair and wore a pelt of rabbit skin across his shoulders. He wore only a loincloth of rabbit skin upon his lower torso. His body was marked, seemingly at random, with war paint.
“You are a heedless girl,” the man said. “Do you desire death?”
Maggie stared up at the tall man. There were tears in her eyes, but they were not tears of fear. They were tears of envy. “I want the freedom you have,” she said.
The man crossed his arms and pondered the girl. His dark gaze never faltered; he never blinked. “Such freedom is death for mortals,” he said. “It is death for me, but I am born again with each whirlwind, for I am a spirit of the plains.”
Maggie tightened her small fists. They were tanned from years of laboring in the field, and calloused like leather. “I want to be a spirit of the plains,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go to school or take care of my baby brother or spend all Spring and Summer and Fall harvesting and working and breaking my back. You live how you want to. I want to live the same way.”
“It will be your whole life all at once, and never again,” he warned her. “It will cost you everything.”
“I do not care,” she said. “I don’t want to be married and then buried. I don’t want to live in fences and houses built to pen me in like a cow or a sheep or a dog. I want to live the way I want. Free. For myself.”
The man stood in complete silence for a little while longer, then nodded.
“Very well,” he said. He lifted his hands and grasped hold of the winds. He seemed to knead them into threads, then spun them together with his arms, as if coiling rope. He spun them until they began to moan, then howl. He then enshrouded Maggie in the spiraling air, like a swaddling blanket, and watched as it grew into a great spiraling column of destruction.
Live free,” he said.

The tornado rolled across the prairie, spiraling exuberantly with its newfound life. It destroyed homes and businesses and killed many people. Those who survived the storm swore the winds sounded like a young woman cackling in glee. It was a storm of the decade, they said.
When the tornado finally unwound, all that remained was the detritus that the tornado tore up and ripped apart and flung around itself. As the last whisper of wind dissipated into the warm Kansas air, there could be heard a single faint whisper of peace and calm without regret.
Freedom.”

Moksha Part 1

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Forewarning: This story plays with the idea of Buddha’s beginnings for the sake of horror.  If you are offended by irreverence then you should not read this story.  It is not meant to insult anyone’s religion, but is rather a “What-If?” scenario that combines Buddhism with Lovecraftian horror.
Life is misery. Life is sorrow. Life makes thieves of us all, deluding us with its flawed-flesh and its wheel of concatenations. Samsara. We take from the air. We take from the water. We take from the earth and the plants and the rocks and the soil. We take from animals, and from each other. We use force. We use violence. Only through the negation of the self might we find peace for the self— by killing want we liberate ourselves from samsara and cease the struggle that is life. To deny the self is to free the self. This is the way toward Moksha.

My family name was Gautama. My name— before my ascendance—was Siddartha. My father had tried to shield me from the world, from reality. From suffering. Even so, as a prince within a castle I knew of life’s sorrows, though I had yet to experience them for myself. For nearly three decades I remained in seclusion, in my silk-and-oil prison, every want provided except that of freedom. I tired of marriage and fatherhood and the harem that warmed my bed when my wife’s belly became written with wilting youth and her thighs curdled with the stresses of indolence. I did not need to be told of senescence to know the decay of mortal beings. The flowers that decorated my world withered. The silks that softened my world frayed. Mortality, though kept secret from me, was written upon my own father’s face, even as he denied me the wasteful waning of the material world.

My mother was queen Maya of Sakya. It was recounted to me several times how my mother gave birth to me while standing and holding onto a branch of a sal tree. Perhaps it was not a sal tree, though. Perhaps it was a fig tree. Perhaps it was the Bodhi tree. Perhaps it was something else entirely.
Regardless of the nature of my birth, I was bathed in water by the gods themselves and it was prophesied that I would either become a great emperor or a religious teacher. Such did my aunt vow. My mother died seven days after my birth. My father married her sister, my aunt Pajapati. As I grew older I desired coupling with her, for she was so like my mother and it would have been a small revenge against my father for imprisoning me.
But why did my father imprison me? I was no daughter dispossessed of volition; I was no doll to be bartered for wealth and alliance. I was a boy that would become a man— a willful man. No, my father plotted as a contrarion to fate. My father, fearing that I would become a religious teacher, kept me from the world. He wanted me to be a powerful emperor, as my aunt vowed I might, and so indulged me in everything except religion and morals. He feared such flimsy philosophical systems would limit my means of power, and weaken me, not unlike a tiger ensnared by a million fine strands of silk.
My father’s designs were all for nought. Instead of a tiger emperor, my father found himself the sire to a lecherous goat. In my leisure I indulged the redolence of lust. Eventually, however, I would be shown a new passage in life. I was to become the end of samsara and the cruel cycles of rebirth. Through the Bodhi tree’s teachings I would empty the world of Man, liberating souls from suffering.

Life was full of fragances, musicians, and attendants. My harem of glistening girls, all athwart each other in their olive-oiled limbs and breasts, satisfied my earthly gratification. Wonders of flesh were provided, as were the idle entertainments of a princely life. As an heirloom of jewels I was polished with tender care and wrapped in cashmere for safekeeping.
But my aunt despaired at the stagnation of my existence. As I have said, she vowed that my mother, Maya, had given birth to me while standing, holding onto a sal tree, and having visions of my future. I was, the gods foretold, to become either a great emperor or a great religious teacher. My father wished for me to become an emperor, and strove to prevent me from learning of religion for fear it might thwart my course. But little did my father understand that by becoming a religious leader I would thus become an emperor, too, even as I was a puppet of a great destiny beyond my mortal longevity.

I may have been cloistered, and provided every comfort, but my existence was not spared insights into the truer nature of Man and his insatiable impulse toward violence and misery. I heard tales from servants of warlords butchering each other’s men, and of blood spilling, and of women wailing as they were dragged away from dead children to be raped again and again as their cities burned around them. Death was a shadow that reached far. I sometimes felt its clammy touch upon the nape of my neck, like the cold brief touch of a Rajput’s blade on a criminal’s nape. And Death dwelled in my commands. I could have killed any untouchable I wanted without reason; I could have had any woman I wanted, and any bauble of great worth, and yet it was always from within a cage. My life staled within it, despite its innumerable pleasures, and so I ached for the wilderness beyond those walls. I ached for freedom and the chaos of life.
My father had imprisoned me because he feared that my capacity to rule would be tainted by empathy. He feared religion would weaken me and maim my princely heart. But he was wrong in this. He should have trusted his own breeding. What tiger ever baulked at scripture? My proclivities were mine, and no religion would ever incite regret in me for my pleasurable pursuits or my unfeeling heart. I was of a mind about myself, and about mankind. I did not believe reform could change a man, nor Man. I thought structure and order caged that beast, but it did not tame it, however many and myriad the creature comforts it provided. The idle hours and the consummate comforts nonetheless allowed the beastly intensities to persist. Nothing would change that— not philosophy or religion or God. No Veda ever stopped a tiger from killing a child. No Veda ever stopped a man from mounting the world.
But once I felt the Bodhi mark upon my brow, and my mind’s eye was opened, I knew I was wrong.

My aunt, Maha Pajapati, kept me happy and saw to my every indulgence, as did the servants and the harem girls. When I lusted for my aunt, my father gave me my cousin to wed. Her name was Yasodhara. She did not appease my lust, for my lust was born of deviancy and wished for the spice of rotting morality, but Yasodhara was near enough her mother’s facsimile to manifest upon her my perversions and thus appease my jaded appetite.
For a time.

Yasodhara swelled with child, and with her fruitfulness came the realization of my own rot. My son I named Rahula, for he was a chain upon my life, as was my wife, and I despised the obligations which they signified for me. I despised the incessant wailing of my misbegotten son. And I resented what he signified for me— mortality and supplantation, as much as I represented such things for my father.
Seeing my son’s youth disgusted me, as did his wailing like a pig and soiling himself. I would never again be so helpless and weak and repulsive. His dependence upon others was as an ugly parody to my own, and whenever he wailed and shrieked for attention and attendance I could not dissuade myself from the thought that he was mimicking me in hateful mockery. Yes, he mocked me. There were times when I wished to take him up in my arms and bash his skull upon the bedchamber floor. Where there once were sounds of sensual pleasure, now there were wails of existential distress and helpless impotence. His shrill voice echoed after me, following me in my most secret chambers of solitude and my harem chambers of plenitude. Life, I realized, began in obnoxious sorrow. All life, it seemed, save for my own. My son seemed more knowledgeable about the world than I. It was a demeaning revelation.

Lush and luxuriant though my life was, I felt the keen absence of needful conditions. Pervasive pleasure brought pervasive contempt, and longing for something I could not define in my experience. So, at the cusp of my third decade, I abandoned my palace and stole away with the aid of my charioteer, Chana. He did not help me for sake of fealty or frienship, but for promises of wealth. Nor did I escape my silken life to seek enlightenment. Even now they say I saw a corpse upon the road, and an ascetic, and from the twain derived awareness. But what would a corpse and ascetic know of life, one being denied life and the other in denial of life? No, I sought amusement. I sought to feel emotion again. You see, apathy is the antecedent to atrophy, and I had become quite disaffected in my paradisaical life. The abstractions of suffering tempted me toward the pursuit of actual suffering, hoping their contrast would once again impart meaning upon the pleasures that I took for granted within my princely world. Truly, I had partaken of life’s myriad pleasures and found them curiously empty upon conclusion. Wants were wanting, and wanting was thus my want. A paradox it was, and pungent at that.
No, I had experienced undue pleasures and now sought to balance them with suffering— my own suffering rather than that of my servants. Perhaps, I thought, this balance would awaken my heart and flesh to life once again. When I spoke to yogis and ascetics about my intentions they mocked me, saying I was founding the “Middle Way”, which was what every other human being had experienced beyond the opulent gates of my palace. I was, thus, a newborn babe to them, throned only in my ignorance. They, frankly, asserted my naivete about the world at large, and I allowed their pettiness to persist to a certain degree, but had lost my temper on more than one occasion because of their insolence. Within breaths, I had rendered a corpse from an ascetic, thus exemplifying the extreme by which contrast I knew the Middle Way toward enlightenment. Through my voyage abroad I would steel myself as a finely wrought blade and cut through my own ignorance to the truth, shining brightly upon my bladed self. I would slice through the desires that imprisoned me like a khanda through air, thereby liberating not only myself, but the world from its benighted squalor. No longer would I be the newborn babe wailing about the world from a cradle of ignorance.

Wealth without pretext, or an entourage of soldiers, brought suspicion and, more importantly, unwanted attention. I removed my golden earrings, and let my stretching lobes dangle freely. I doffed my silk robes and replaced them with roughspun cloth. The uncertainties and discomforts of this newfound beggarly life were overbearing at first. My naivete was in believing that miseries would immediately pique the potency of my princely pleasures once again. But it was not so. There was a certain exhaustion in begging— not only physically from malnutrition, but mentally and spiritually. You saw in the eyes of others your own lowborn meaninglessness. Material deprivation was only partial in its devastation, whereas the social deprivation was catastrophic. Were every town a town of beggars then no one would be the wiser, or humbler, but when you witness the hostilities and prejudices of the wealthier citizens exercised against your own person, then you come to recognize a debilitating scorn. And this scorn was as a raging fire that burned away all pretensions of worth, including that of self-worth. You become as you believe, and you believe as others teach you. Society was, after all, a loom of many threads of destiny, and those threads wove around you, confining you; binding you to the waft and weave of intersecting presuppositions. Thus, I became as they perceived me rather than perceiving myself as I ought. It was, therefore, my first goal to disconnect at once from the societal self if I was ever to learn more about the wretched world.
Where once I bathed in fragrant oils and was massaged by comely women untouched yet by maiden blood, I was now bathed in my own sweat and itched by fleas. Conversely, I came to realize that religious beggars enjoyed the most freedom. They went where it pleased them and did nothing for their food but speak religious nonsense. Thus, I babbled for my bread, brokering small mercies with audacious proclamations. The more nonsensical was my gibberish, the greater the portions allotted by those inclined toward charity. Never before had useless chaff produced such a delicious harvest. Each mouthful of stale bread was sweetened by the pangs of hunger. Perhaps I was delusional in this; perhaps I was too proud to admit to myself that I loathed my newfound existence.
I was wistful for my pleasure palace at times. I even became wistful for the sagging flesh of my wife. This informed me that I was upon the right path toward pleasure again. Hoveling in the streets, and begging alms, I sometimes recalled to myself my many myriad comforts, weeping and touching myself, or raging and spitting in spite of myself. Soon, many a passerby eschewed me, thinking me a madman. I stole with impunity, at times, and at other times was beaten like a dog. Part of me welcomed the beatings as I would have welcomed copulation. I exulted in my bodily debasement. To be beaten was to feel a climax hitherto unknown in my luxuriant palace life.
Chana abandoned me in Magadha, realizing that he had erred, for he would receive neither riches for bringing me out into the world nor clemency were my father to discover it. He returned home and, so far as I knew, told no one of my location. No one came searching for me, except for myself. And I did search for myself amidst the rags and the ruin of my former life. It was a glorious degradation, like sickness unto a holy man preaching his virtues. My self-loathing was as pure and simple as any believer’s trust in his gods.
Eventually, I was arrested and brought to a prison cell that was very different from the one my father had given me. It was a bitter, sordid hole, and when the guards mocked me I told them I came of the Sakyas and was a prince among my people. They mocked me more loudly, but when I demonstrated my ability to write they marveled and sent word to local officials. I was brought to King Bumbasara’s palace where I met him. I recognized him from a few years ago when he and his entourage visited my father’s palace. He remembered me, also, having desired me years ago when I was but a boy, and recognized the remainders of what he desired beneath the filth and the starvation. He spoke to me affectionately at first, stating that he wished for me to be bathed in oils and fed sweet fruits. I declined this offer vociferously, speaking of my journey toward enlightenment. His temper flared, then, and he taunted me.
“You seek enlightenment?” he said. “A prince in rags?”
My pride swelled, rallied by spite and self-loathing and hatred against the fat pederast.
“Enlightenment beyond all holy men in this depraved country!” I vowed.
My outburst had amused him. His sneer curved into a mischievous smirk among his oiled beard.
“Why worry about enlightenment when you might have a whole kingdom to rule?” he said. He fluttered his fingers toward a corner of his courtyard where large stacks of silk pillows were amassed. There came from that heap— in feline bearing and suggestion— his daughter. A comely creature, her hips swaying with the gyrations of her smooth thighs. Unlike her father, she was a creature that I wished to embrace upon the instant. Yet, the offer infuriated me, for it was offered by King Bumbasara, and nothing he could offer could induce me to accept it. Perhaps he knew that. Perhaps he was mocking me with my own pride.
“I will not accept her,” I said.
The King grinned vastly. “Such pride amidst such squalor.” He motioned toward the guards. “See that the prince returns to his ‘path of enlightenment’.”
“I will find enlightenment!” I vowed, raving and brandishing my fists. “And when I do, I shall return Magadha and make you grovel at my feet! You will grovel, Bumbasara!”
I was in tears as I left his palace, the King’s laughter following me out as the guards threw me to the streets once again. I vowed, then and there, that I would indeed become enlightened. The inclination had only been vague and self-serving at first, but then— my pride brought low— it assumed the hardened shape of a blade against my enemies and their many mockeries. I would slice through their tongues unto a reverent silence, and that silence would be my deafening cheer of victory.

I returned to religious begging and discipline. I traveled. I experimented. I tried protracting my breath, and thinning it, and strangling myself while gratifying myself. But my headaches were unbearable. I found food not forthcoming, either, and began to starve and lose my hair. Something in my demeanor— or more than likely, the prejudices of the people—prevented me a sufficient diet as a beggar. Perhaps I sabotaged myself, seeking a vainglorious death. My pride was always the sacrificial altar to which I offered my bowed head. Nor did it reconcile itself with rejection easily. When I preached of extremes being destructive, the people mocked and jeered me for a hapless naif. Nothing impressed the jaded masses.
“The Middle Way,” I proclaimed, “is the means to enlightenment! To do anything to the extreme is to suffer!”
“My child knew that on his own,” one woman said, holding her baby to her breast. She pinched the child’s cheek— softly at first, the diminutive creature giggling—but then she pinched its cheek harder until the ill-conceived creature wailed and squealed like a pig. She then pulled out her teat and quieted the fat dwarf with her dung-colored nipple, going on down the street with a disquieting satisfaction. I vowed to have her eventually, and to suck upon her unwilling breasts while her pig-faced child wailed in hunger.
To another woman I announced my great revelations.
“Desire is the beginning of suffering,” I said, “and desires originate in the center of unrest known as self. To want what you cannot ever have is misery.”
“Everyone is born knowing that,” a repugnant woman said, “except perhaps for princes kept in pillowed lives with everything given to them.”
Her observation cut sharply, and I found that my desire as of that moment was to split that tigress open and wear her haughty skin as a robe. But then a merchant passed by, his neck and ears and fingers adorned with flashing jewelry. They were not half so lustrous as the jewelry that gilted my personage in the palace, and yet the sun glinted off of them so insultingly that I could not abstain from admonishments.
“Cast off your wealth to purchase the true value of a contented life!” I said, turning away from the repugnant woman. “To wreathe yourself in material things is to bind your soul to hardship and suffering!”
“You look like you are suffering more than I am,” the merchant quipped. He then laughed heartily, as did several men and women in that marketplace. Their laughter was as a suttee flame that burned away my heart alongside whatever dead dreams I formerly entertained as a wiseman. Their laughter was so merciless that it drove me from that village and settled me elsewhere. How many such villages expelled me in like manner? Too many to count, no doubt, and so my journey taught me more earnestly of humility, and humiliation.

Many drugs had I known, all with their aspect of bliss and release, yet all were temporary— their brevity returning me once again to the monotonous reality I knew, now even more banal and colorless, vexing and baneful in its tedium. I studied meditation to achieve euphoria, but this was much less successful than the mildest opiate. I longed for a reality teeming with sensations exponential and infinitely transcending the previous. For what height was ever so thrilling the second flight? What mountain was ever so excited the second climb? What woman was ever so titillating the second night?

Upon my journey I met two ascetics who taught me little. Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramputta.. They wished for me to stay with them, saying the would teach me more, and wished that I would teach them, but I knew that they were lovers of boys the instant I saw them, and only humored their advances to ultimately mock and deride them. That is not to say that I did not learn from them. To the contrary, I learned their manner of semblance. And semblance was a crucial aspect of attaining the aspect of a wiseman. As with anything important in the social minds of people, presupposition is more important than substance. Mimicking Alara and Uddaka, I gradually embodied forbearance and self-possession, even as others might test me with their skeptical derision. It was a gradual battle, of course, overcoming skepticism in the minds of men and women too arrogant to witness one’s transcendence, but I gained traction and was capable in my slow-marching campaign. Nor was I a general unprepared for such spiritual warfare. I studied beneath several fools that deemed themselves yogis. They taught me nothing but how to pick pockets with one’s tongue. And yet that was enough…for a while, at least.
Yet, King Bumbasara’s words echoed after me, taunting and angering me from day to day.
It was my little village girl, Sujata, that changed everything for me; her skin as pale and smooth as the milk she had offered me. Here was a creature more naive than even I; almost as naive as I had been when of equal age. And so I turned upon her all of my self-loathing and hatred and self-ridicule and took her delicious innocence, divesting upon her my vengeance against my own ignorance.
Sujata did not want me. In truth, she was too young to want any man. But her lack of desire, of want, made the bedding of her all the more desirable. Many among my harem also loathed my coupling, but they came of sycophantic families seeking favor in my father’s heart, and so accomplished their duties with the conceit of pleasure. But my sweet Sujata was all wide-eyed terror and abhorrence, unmitigated by the needful theatrics of political posturing. Her pure innocence and horror piqued my desires more greatly than any opiate or perfume. Her innocence rendered her all the more delicious, each muffled scream beneath my hand a Vedic song that Kali herself could not have equaled. My lust proved my worth to the pipal tree. It appeared to me shortly thereafter, its eight branches towering over me. I was exhausted with the exertions and it was the darkest of hours. I let Sujata return to her parents, sobbing and trembling with her childish complaints. Overcome with fatigue, I laid beneath the tree, hoping to be found and punished in the morning. I had no wish to live after so much disappointment in my journey as a wiseman. Death was welcome to its claim.
Death came, but Death did not come for me. The pipal tree was Death. It spoke to me from its all-encompassing dimensions. But I was, at first, irreverent.
“You seek to be more than you are,” it said. “I will help you realize what you wish, if you only worship me. Serve me. Obey me.”
“Of course,” I said. “I promise to worship you. Why not? You are only one more god among the thousands in this land’s crowded, stinking air.”
“You may call me Bodhi,” it said. “For I know what you most desire and I offer to awaken you to Nirvana.”
“A tree that knows the path to Nirvana, hm?” I said, grinning in nihilistic disregard. “The ascetics will be jealous, then. No matter how enlightened they are they can only meditate in one spot for so long, yet you are rooted in place. No man could ever meditate like a tree.”
The tree said nothing else. One of its branches reached for me. I tried to flee, but it clasped me against its trunk, nestling me in its roots. I felt I was being drawn down, even as I felt my consciousness surge upward—heavenward and beyond. The pain and the ecstacy obliterated my sense of self and all that remained was a distant awareness of cosmos and nebulas and stars as my mind was flung across the living void of Brahma’s breath. I lost sense of self, of meaning, and of life, and with this loss came liberation. I felt free at long last, for I did not feel myself at all. I was, instead, consciousness amplified beyond mortal measure and limit; such as cosmic gulfs without end, achieving total union. Non-distinction. It was as if I was a bird taking flight, and then I was the sky, and then I was all spaces within and without, elevated beyond form and temporality.
But the Bodhi tree did not wish for but a minor expansion of my being. Soon I was nailed into my wretched corporeal form once again with a pain I had never known. That pain was living, and I knew I was living because of that pain. It was as a bore through my forehead; a nail driven between my eyes so that my consciousness was trapped once again in profligate flesh. It gave me a fig— not for my hungry belly, but for my hungry mind. It opened my mind’s eye, drilling into my imperfect meat and prying open my senses to the radiance of the cosmos. I screamed in silence, the gulfs gaping before me and within me. With a trembling hand I gently touched the spot where I had been forcibly returned to myself, and I found a fig embedded in my brow; a fig connecting me to the Bodhi tree, and thus a fig that connected me— however fleetingly— to that outer cosmos of liberated consciousness. Thereafter, I existed on two planes of consciousness; one that was woefully human and the other that was sublimely not.
The experience winnowed me like straw. For forty-nine days I slept beneath that tree. I rested. I recuperated. In the meantime, the tree illuminated for me the world beyond, and the world within, and the world that was not. Brahma was revealed, and the war of the gods, of which the pipal tree was one, but weakened and now having chosen me to spread its enlightenment. I would be the plow for its seeds, it told me. I contemplated this fate. I did not look forward to the next life, knowing I would be reborn as an Animal or a Titan, or worse.
I saw the tree’s many branches dance and sway in their array above me. They were branches, weren’t they? Yes! Of course they were, though they reminded me of the trunks of several elephants, yet engorged and ever more limber with their undulations.
“You and I are alike,” it told me. “We have suffered. We have fallen far from what we once were. We are starved. We have been cast aside by those who we sought to aid. We are frayed strings, but together entwined we will ensnare the world.”
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“Worshipers,” it whispered to me, each whisper resounding loudly through the unvaulted caverns of the cosmos. “They must give themselves to me willingly. They must worship me with their imperfect bodies, and their perfected souls.” The Bodhi tree writhed as it said this, and I felt terror and exultation twinned together at long last. I felt everything so powerfully after my Awakening. “Let them come to me as cups emptied of all but form, pouring their hallowed emptiness into me. Let them come as the higher realms exist: full of void. Brimming with sacred hollowness…”

Take It Easy

Take It Easy

Floyd did not mind much that his trailer was floating down the Mississippi river. He had put it on the flood plain when he first bought the land twenty years ago and so he knew the risks involved. Moreover, the river had risen by the grace of God. Who was he to question the Lord? The ride was quite relaxing, in its own way, especially at night when he went to bed. During the day he would catch a cockroach and hook it to his fishing line, casting the line out his front door. More often than not he caught a catfish or a carp. They had muddy flavors, of course, when he cooked them on his kerosene grill, but Floyd didn’t mind. Floyd didn’t mind much of anything, really. He was as easygoing as the river. Whatever the Lord willed, he accepted. He was by himself, anyhow, and so he needn’t have bothered to worry what anyone else thought or believed. Not that he was contentious. Throughout the year of marriage to his exwife Mabel he had been the most accommodating, agreeable husband a woman could have asked for. The only reason Mabel divorced Floyd was because he “had no ambitions”. He only wanted to exist as he had done for years, neither wealthier or in a better neighborhood. He aspired toward nothing and Mabel resented that aspect of him. Mabel never once thought that, had he ambitions, he would aspired for someone better than her. Not that Floyd ever thought such things. He was too easygoing for grudges and insecurities and the other petty emotions of Man.
The trailer swayed gently in the current. It was like living on a houseboat. Floyd did not mind it at all. He thought himself possessed of no reason for unease or upset as he was swept downstream. If the trailer sank, it sank. If not, that was fine, too. It wasn’t that Floyd was suicidal, passively or otherwise. He just accepted things the way they were. On the spot. At face value. It had galled his exwife somewhat. It also galled his coworkers at the rock quarry. Sometimes they thought working the rock had softened his brains. But Floyd had always been the way he was. His mother always said he never cried once when a baby, even at his birth. She attested that it was because of his “Cajun stock” that he was so mellow. Their long line of New Orleans ancestry had lived in places where others dared not, and consequently their blood found life easy nowadays no matter how stressful the modern world could be. After all, wrestling gators and eking out a living on the bayou with mosquitoes always at your neck was a good way to condition the blood to flow slower when other bloodlines would gush in a panic. If gators taught a bloodline anything, it was patience, tolerance, and abidance.
The river widened and rushed onward, faster. Yet, the trailer did not sink. Naturally, Floyd had no electricity since becoming unmoored, but he lived in Louisiana, and it was Summer, so he didn’t need electricity. It wasn’t cold. When it was hot he simply sat at the door with his feet in the water. For entertainment he watched the trees and the banks roll by. Occasionally he saw a riverside town or city. Gobsmacked people watched him with gaping mouths, pointing incredulously. He waved at them in easy friendliness. Sometimes he would climb up on the roof of his trailer and lay down beneath the sun. So long as he was on the Mississippi, he had a source of water. He drank it without much caring about germs. He knew they existed, but, again, he thought it up to God whether sickness killed him or not.
It was on his fifth week of his journey that land disappeared altogether. Curious, Floyd climbed atop the trailer and gazed out over the horizon. End to end without end, the horizon was only oceanic water. The trailer had floated out to sea. Not even a smudge of land shadowed the horizon. Floyd put his hands on his hips and gazed out to sea. It was beautiful. Nor did he feel overpowering dread, nor fear for his life. Instead, he caught another cockroach and went fishing. He caught several fish over the course of the next month or so. He did not know any of their names. He cooked them on his kerosene grill and ate them calmly while the briny scent of the ocean filled the trailer. Nor did he lose one wink of sleep knowing that he was adrift at sea. Sometimes when he woke up in the early morning hours he saw shark fins through the front door. This caused him no alarm whatsoever. Rather, he fished as he usually did, and if a shark stole his catch he would hook another cockroach on his reel and try again. There were plenty of fish in the sea for Floyd and the sharks. Eventually, they all ate their fill.
And then came the storm. It started as choppy waves that tossed and shook the trailer like an impatient child trying to open a tin of chocolates. The winds howled like beasts incensed by blood-thirst and madness. Calmly, Floyd closed the front door and sat on his sofa, wondering what would come next. He had never been in a storm at sea before and it was a novel experience he accepted as he had accepted everything else in life.
The trailer tossed left and right. Floyd’s sofa slid to and fro with the direction and momentum of the waves. He accepted this, too, sitting at ease upon that sofa as it paced back and forth restlessly like a caged animal.
The storm lasted for three days. Floyd did not have much to drink, since the sea was saltwater, and he could not catch fish, since the sea was a jagged-toothed shark in frenzy, but he accepted all of this rather easily. It was easy to accept, too, since his trailer was like a bronco in the bug-bitten madness of a rodeo. His stomach was queasy; his lips parched. His body accepted this as much as his mind, however, and so he was only mildly sick from this incessant rollercoaster ride.
On the fourth day the sea laid down to rest like a child after a terrible tantrum. Still feeling queasy and dizzy, Floyd climbed on top of his trailer and sat there for a while, beneath the cloudy sky, letting his stomach and brains slow in their churning spin. In time he saw an island toward which the trailer drifted. Had he been anyone else he might have thought it a delusion brought about by dehydration and hunger and fatigue, but Floyd accepted it for a real island. So, when the trailer struck the white sands, he climbed down and stepped foot on dry land.
It was a tropical island. There were palm trees and mountains and exotic flowers abloom everywhere. Birds flew above, and he heard boars rummaging through the bushes. He saw coconuts and accepted everything he saw as it was. He even accepted that a band of short men in boarskin loincloths were approaching him, holding their spears out as if skewer him like a kabob. When they pointed their spears at him, and then pointed up at the mountains, Floyd understood and followed them through the forest and up the slopes. All of this he accepted, too.
There was a village on a foothill leading up into the mountains. Clay huts roofed with palm leaves huddled atop the flat crown of the foothill. Women and children waited there; the children playing while the women cut fruits and cooked stews in large stone pots. The men motioned for Floyd to sit. He did so. The women brought to him clay plates filled with fruit. He ate it obligingly. They also brought him stew, which he accepted in turn. While he ate he looked around the village and saw artwork made of bones— marine bones, boar bones, bird bones, and even human bones. Actually, there were lots of human bones. There was a pyramid of human skulls tucked away in one corner of the village, behind what seemed to be a stone altar. Blood had stained the stone.
Floyd accepted all of this as easily as he had the storm and the river. Whatever God willed, he accepted. So, when the men pulled him up to his feet and began marching him up into the mountains, he did not fight or reject his lot. The view from the mountainside, at least, was very beautiful. He could see all over the lush island, and even far out to sea.
The pygmy men halted at the cresting slope of the highest mountain. They then pointed Floyd forward, holding their spears at his back lest he escape. They did not look at him, however, but kept their heads turned away. It was obvious to Floyd that he was meant to proceed forward alone.
Floyd walked forward. Atop the mountain he found a tarn with the deepest, darkest, blackest waters. Where the sun touched the waters no light shone nor penetrated. It was like a well of black ink, fathomless as lightless space between stars. Floyd stood at its edge, watching. Accepting. Unafraid.
And then the inky waters began to churn. Something rose from it— an eldritch entity beyond human comprehension. Floyd saw it, and it spoke to him, and he accepted the Cosmic Truths that it gave to him. It then submerged again, the inky water flattening to a smooth onyx surface once again. Floyd descended the mountain.
The pygmy men waited for him in the foothills, as did the women and children. They had spears and stones hoisted, at the ready. Yet, when he descended— waving and smiling in earnest friendliness— they dropped their spears and stones, and then dropped to their knees, bowing and wailing for forgiveness.
The tribal elders directed Floyd to a special throne they had made for the predestined prophet and avatar for their god. Floyd could not understand any of this, but he accepted the seat offered to him as tribal hospitality. The native people served him fruits again, and coconut milk, and roasted boar. For the next ten years they treated him as a god-made-flesh. They genuflected before him and thanked him for rains, or else clasped their hands together, wringing their fingers worriedly as they begged him mercy when lightning struck during the sea storms. Floyd did not want them to worship him as an avatar, but he also did not wish to question or rebuff their beliefs. He believed that people should believe what they wished to believe, and who was he to muddy their religion with doubt? It was rude to question another person’s cherished beliefs.
Some of the women offered themselves to Floyd, too, and he accepted them. They seemed as pleased about the copulations as he was, so he saw no reason to reject them. It would have hurt their feelings to push them aside when they mounted him in the privacy of his own hut. They wanted his children, and he gave them children. Even the married women wanted his children, for the tribal elders wished to mix their blood with his so that the subsequent generations could commune with their God without being driven mad. Floyd eventually learned to speak their language, but never convinced them of their error. He was too easygoing to attempt to correct them in their (mostly) harmless habits. They said he had been sent by their God, and he agreed that God had sent him. It was God’s will, as was everything in Floyd’s world view. Things were as they were, just-so, and Floyd accepted them as always. He even spoke to the God in the mountains, though he was not sure the God even saw Floyd or acknowledged him. The God in the mountains was more like a weather system than a sentient creature. It was not that it did not like Man, but rather, it did not think of Man at all. Yet, it did embody the Cosmic Truth, and so it imparted that knowledge, whether it intended to or not.
All of this Floyd accepted, also, living in contented acceptance for many years. His newfound family grew, alongside the tribe, and they faced no better or worse circumstances than any other tribe of equal technological advancement.
Eventually, a boat arrived from America. It was an exploration vessel belonging to a team of anthropologists seeking to better understand the island tribe. For a long time the tribe had been known, but never studied. Now a group of twenty-somethings intended to make what they presumed to be first contact with the tribe. The pygmy warriors met the anthropologists on the shore, their spears at the ready. They escorted them up to their village without delay, much to the delight of the Americans. The anthropologists were very pleased about all of this…until they saw Floyd sitting on his throne.
The pygmy village bowed before Floyd, but the anthropologists refused. They accused Floyd of colonialism and slavery and cultural appropriation. Floyd, on the other hand, accepted all of these accusations also, as he did the accusations of “cultural genocide” and “white male entitlement”. Who was he to upset the anthropologists with counter-arguments? He kept his silence. On the other hand, he also accepted it as God’s will when the pygmy people took umbrage at the way the strangers were squawking at their God’s avatar and marched them up the mountainside to face their God’s judgment. After all, who was Floyd to intercede in another culture’s edicts? He had no aspirations toward that maladjusted cause.
The anthropologists went mad from the Cosmic Truth. Afterward, they wandered down the mountainside, laughing maniacally, or else sobbing uncontrollably. Some fell to their deaths. Others threw themselves willingly from the mountainside. Some had to be put out of their misery by the pygmy people, their heads smashed on the altar and their skulls cleaned and bleached in the tropical sun before being added to the pyramid. All of this was God’s will, Floyd thought, and so he accepted it as such. There was no need to be willful, himself. Taking life as it was was the best way to live. Not even an Eldritch God could ruin his peace of mind.

Shell Game Part 1

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The sand was golden as the Atlantic ocean lapped at its curving slopes, the sun dazzling on the rippling water like the golden navel jewelry of a belly dancer. Andy walked behind his three cousins, following them down to their parents’ private beach. Tiffany led the way: tall, lithe, golden brown like the shore, her long blonde hair tied in a ponytail that trailed all the way down to her pink bikini bottom. She was carrying a basket in one hand— holding sunscreen, her beach towel, and her cell-phone—and her free hand was slapping her upper thigh as she walked. Andy was carrying her beach parasol, which he wanted to do, despite how long, heavy, and unwieldy it was. He would have done anything for her. She was the most beautiful thirteen year old he had ever seen.
A sudden tug on the parasol and Andy almost fell backward. Startled, he glanced behind himself and saw, to his irritation, his youngest cousin, Seth, grinning devilishly.
“Watch out, Mary Poppins!” Seth said. “Those winds are strong.”
Seth was tanned brown, like his eldest sister, and sandy blonde. He was eleven years old— one year younger than Andy— and it was, so far as Andy reckoned, because Seth was younger that Seth deliberately irritated Andy so much. He constantly badgered him, and mocked him, and slugged his arm, and acted like they were buddies while also submitting Andy to bullying antics that bordered on controlling. Andy tried to let his irritation subside since he was staying with his cousins for the rest of the Summer. Or at least until his mother and father called him back to Georgia. He was at the mercy of his aunt and uncle until then, and they played favorites. In fact, if they had had a pet worm it would have probably been more favored than Andy was.
Seth pulled on the parasol again, making Andy wobble, lose his balance, and nearly fall.
“Don’t drop the umbrella,” Samantha snapped.
“Seth keeps pulling on it,” Andy said, defensively.
“Then you need to be more careful,” Samantha countered. She was red-faced from sunburn and anger. Andy did not know why Samantha was so spiteful toward him. Was it because she had a sunburn and he didn’t? Well, her siblings did not have sunburns, either, and were tanned. On the other hand, Andy had darker skin than all of them, and not because he played in the sun all of the time. It was hard to play outside in the trailer park back in Georgia; there were too many broken glass bottles and rusty detritus that required tetanus shots. Then again, just about anyone’s skin was darker than Samantha’s. She was as pale as a peeled apple and freckled like a cinnamon bun, taking after her father rather than her mother. Nor did she have blonde hair. Her hair was a drab mousy brown that always seemed to spiral spitefully in natural curls.
“You should know better than blaming other people for your mistakes,” Samantha continued. “I know that, and we’re the same age.”
Andy ignored her, just like Seth and Tiffany and her parents ignored her. It seemed to be the best option for her middle-child tantrums and outbursts. She was sensitive about everything, and that sensitivity was more than skin-deep.
“Put the parasol here,” Tiffany said, pointing to a slope of sand.
Andy unwrapped the parasol, letting its radial ribs expand, the blue-and-white striped bloom blossoming wide. He nearly lost his balance with the unwieldy canopy, wobbling left and right. He then impaled its shaft into the middle of the sandy bank.
“No, not there!” Tiffany said. “There!”
She pointed at roughly the same place, so Andy uprooted the shaft and thrust it into the slope a few inches higher, where her finger pointed.
“Ugh!” Tiffany exhaled in disgust. “You are useless.” She stooped down and uprooted the parasol and carried it farther up the slope, then impaled its shaft into the crest of the slope and angled it downward. “This is where I wanted it,” she chided him.
It was nowhere near where she pointed, but Andy did not say so. He watched her as she crouched and unrolled her towel beneath that little pool of shade in that otherwise starkly bright stretch of sand. He watched her in fascination, not knowig why he was so entranced by her long legs. Until this Summer he had never met his cousins before. For some reason, of which he did not understand, there was some “family drama” that kept his mother and his aunt apart. In fact, they had been estranged his entire life, so coming to stay with them was, for Andy, like staying at a stranger’s house. Somehow, though, he thought a stranger would have been more friendly to him than they were. They treated him like not only an inconvenience, but like something they were ashamed of being seen with in public. They never let him leave their private house, and only agreed to let him accompany his cousins down to the beach because it was their private section of the beach. No humiliating eyes.
“Don’t let anyone see you with him,” his aunt admonished his cousins. “If any of our neighbors happen by, tell them he just showed up and you don’t have the heart to tell him to leave.”
If his aunt and uncle spoke to Andy at all it was in commands, like he was a dog. Generally, however, they spoke around him rather than at him. Sometimes he felt like he was in the hospital, on the sickbed, while adults spoke about his condition while not speaking directly to him.
Seth ran into the white surf, shouting. Tiffany called after him.
“You need sunscreen, idiot!”
“I’m letting Samantha have it all,” he said. “She needs all the sunscreen she can get.”
“Shut up!” Samantha yelled, even as she begrudgingly lathered herself up in the stinky white lotion. “I’m getting a tan. It’s just taking time.”
Andy waited for his turn for the sunscreen. Tiffany frowned at him, almost as if in disgust.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Sunscreen,” Andy said.
Tiffany almost laughed— a mirthless laugh of cool disbelief. She shook her head, making her long hair play peek-a-boo on either side of her hips. “You don’t need sunscreen.”
Andy was confused. “Why?”
“Because it would be a waste!” she said. “I mean, you people are made for being in the sun all day.”
Andy did not understand, but since Tiffany was the one that said this, he accepted it as a truth, and walked across the burning sand, glad when the warm surf crashed over his feet. No sooner had he waded waist deep then up popped Seth beside him, pouncing on him and wrapping his arms around his neck, trying to piggy-back on him.
“Let go!” Andy tried to shout, half-choked.
“Getty up!” Seth cried.
Andy peeled Seth’s arms from around his neck and let him drop, floundering, into the water. Coughing, Andy rubbed his throat, wondering if he would have a bruise there tomorrow. It had felt like he had been hung with a noose. He walked away, putting some distance between himself and Seth. In doing so, he accidentally bumped into Samantha, who was standing nearby.
“Watch where you’re going!” she snapped. She pushed him, but since she was so scrawny she could not budge him. Still, he obliged her by stepping away from her. She obliged him by stepping toward him. “You’re really clumsy!”
“Okay,” was all he said.
She did not relent, but seemed provoked at his neutral response. “I thought you were supposed to be athletic and stuff.”
This confused Andy, too, because he had never played any sports. He never watched sports, either. He spent his time reading and helping his mother around the trailer, making dinner, cleaning, and repairing things. His mother had taught him how to stitch.
Thinking he should stay away from both of his cousins, Andy walked a little farther out into the ocean. It swelled up to his collarbone. He felt nervous being out this far. He knew how to swim, but as he gazed upon the expanse of the Atlantic he felt like the ocean surrounded him. It dwarfed him— dwarfed the sun in the sky— and made him feel small and insignificant in the saltwater wash of the world. What mysteries lurked there in those silent waters? What monsters?
Fearing the ocean, Andy turned toward the beach. He saw Tiffany walking toward the water; tall and slender and long-legged. She walked with a poise that was so mature and ladylike, similar to the way fashion runway models walked. She dove into the shoals and then emerged, glistening and golden like a bronze statue. Andy was transfixed; so much so that he did not see Seth wading toward him until it was too late. Seth leapt on him again, this time on his head, and, with his whole weight, his cousin shoved Andy down into the saltwater. Andy had been so taken by surprise that he had not had the chance to breathe in any air, and in fact gasped, thinking a shark had clamped him in its jaws.
Andy struggled to throw his cousin off. The pressure in his vacant lungs was too much. His chest ached. His nostrils and eyes burned in the saltwater. He panicked and felt the strength go out of his limbs. Seth had entwined his arms and legs around Andy too securely to be broken or even loosened. As a last chance effort—before his lungs should explode—Andy turned his head and bit Seth’s arm as hard as he could. Seth instantly released him and Andy burst up through the water, coughing and choking and trying to regain his breath. Blindly, he walked toward the shore.
“He bit me!” Seth yelled. “He bit me on my arm! Dad was right. He is an animal.”
Andy was too grateful for air to take umbrage at what his uncle may have said. He trudged toward the shore until he came to the frothy edge of the ocean, then collapsed on his butt, coughing and wheezing, the surf lapping against him as if the ocean’s bosom, too, was trying to regain its breath with every painful contraction.
“Hey!” Seth said. “You bit me! Apologize or I’m telling dad!”
“You almost drowned me,” Andy said between ragged breaths. “You wouldn’t let go.”
“You bit me,” Seth said, again. “Apologize.”
“You better apologize,” Tiffany said, with a tone of distinterest, “or dad will just send you back home.”
Andy was bewildered by the water glistening on the flat of her chest, above her heart. In that moment he would have said anything she told him to.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You better be sorry,” Samantha said, revving up for one of her outbursts. “If you’re not sorry you will be, because we don’t tolerate things like that in our household!”
“Give it a break,” Seth told his sister. “He said he was sorry. I’m not worried about it.”
Samantha was so off-balanced by her brother’s sudden change in mood that she could only gawp like a pale-faced fish. “But…but…”
Tiffany turned away, not interested in anything other than taking selfies with her selfie-stick. Seth had lost interest and was chasing a pelican that had landed a few yards down the way, the big bird somewhat indifferent to the rowdy child. Only Samantha remained next to Andy, outraged that no one else was outraged anymore. Andy stared at the lapping water, trying to ignore Samantha’s lingering scowl. She tarried a bit longer, her shadow draping itself over his legs, before hesitantly turning away from him and shuffling back into the shoals.

Andy did not know how to please any of them. It seemed that Tiffany wished him to simply disappear until something needed to be carried. Meanwhile Seth wished Andy to be a toy that did what he wanted, regardless of how painful or humiliating. Samantha just wished to…chastise him. His uncle and aunt wanted him to go home. They had said as much the other night, when he was laying on the couch in the living room and they were in the kitchen, drinking.
“Andy.”
Andy was surprised to hear Tiffany say his name.
“Yes,” he said, looking up at that tall girl with the long hair and longer legs.
“Why don’t you go pick some seashells for me?”
Seeing her in the bright sunlight, with the sand glowing around her and the water glistening on her slender arms, Andy would have done anything for her, including diving into the deepest part of the ocean as sharks spiraled around him.
Well, maybe not with sharks.
“What kind of seashells do you want?” he asked, knowing the difference between a conch and an auger and a scallop and such.
“The type that come from the sea,” she said with a shrug. “Put them in my basket.”
Andy immediately leapt up and began picking up the seashells that had washed ashore with the tides. There were countless shells cluttering the beach; some brilliantly colored with red stripes and yellow hues and burnished brown, and some blanched white with the kiss of the saltwater and the gaze of the sun. Tritons and mitres and cones and bonnets, figs and frogs and harps and spindles: he collected what he could. Yet, while the more simplistic shells were whole, the more elaborate conchs and spindles were shattered, some looking more like spiral bits of bone rather than shells. The lunatic tides were merciless in their anxious tossing and smashing of shells. They broke the more elaborate shells like a passionate woman breaking plates after news of her sailor husband being lost at sea. Only the plainer, more solid shells survived her passions.

The sun beat upon the children’s backs as it rose toward its midday peak. Tiffany retreated under the shade of the parasol. Samantha began to pick up shells, too.
“That one’s mine,” she would tell Andy when he was stooping to pick up a shell. Invariably, however, she would forget about the previous one and then claim the next one he was stooping to pick up. “That one’s mine too.”
She shadowed him throughout his hunt, her pale legs always nearby; her little freckled feet in his periphery as he picked up shells. Sometimes she would put her shells in Tiffany’s basket as Andy carried it around, since she had nowhere else to put them.
“You better not mix up my shells with Tiffany’s,” she said, tossing her shells in carelessly.
Somehow Andy knew he would be blamed for their inevitable squabbling later, when it came time to divvy the shells amongst the two sisters. This fret so overwhelmed him that when Seth nearly tore the basket out of his hand, Andy almost punched his cousin in the face.
“Stop it!” Andy said.
“You can’t tell me with to do,” Seth said with a smirk. He pulled at the basket again and Andy stepped away, trying to put distance between the two of them. Seth stepped forward, a look of mischief in his blue eyes. Everything was a game to him. “I’m going to get it,” he said, gleefully.
Samantha grabbed her brother by the wrist. “Quit it, Seth. You’ll break my shells!”
Seth shoved his sister and she went sprawling on the sand. Tiffany, overhearing the fight, stopped taking selfies and emerged from under her parasol.
“Stop fighting!” she said. “Or I’ll tell dad!”
Seth just grinned and ran into the surf again, undaunted by the threat. Samantha was sniffling, and trying not to cry. Andy helped her stand up, but she shoved him once she regained her feet.
“Don’t touch me!” she snapped. Still sniffling, she stormed up the beach and into the shade of the palm trees, her back to the ocean so no one could see her face. Andy knew she was crying. He thought about going to talk to her, but Tiffany called to him and he forgot all about Samantha.
“Let me see my seashells,” she said.
Tiffanys voice was musical in its chiming cadences, like a lullaby, and Andy immediately obeyed. When he reached her, he held the basket up in both hands. She rummaged through its hoard with a finicky, fastidious eye. Her small delicate fingers danced through the shells like a sea creature scuttling across a mound of underwater treasures. Andy felt her fingertips tickling him along the inside of his belly.
“They’re not bad,” she said. “But a lot of them are broken and small. You can get better shells in the water if you dig around for them.”
Andy nodded without hesitation, set the basket down, and went out into the water.
“In the deeper water!” Tiffany shouted after him.
Andy could not resist her siren song and so he went further into the ocean. He was up to his waist when he took a deep breath and submerged to the bottom, digging around in the drowned sand for whatever his hands might lay upon. His fingers found nothing and he emerged, his vision blurred with saltwater and his lungs chugging air. He glanced around blearily, making certain that Seth was nowhere near him, and then he took another deep breath and dropped himself into the water, searching once again. He did this several times in several different locations. Meanwhile, he thought about his mother and his father and his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He drowned in his own thoughts and frets.
Tiffany, Samantha, and Seth weren’t Andy’s real cousins; not by blood, anyway. Their father had divorced their mother in order to marry Andy’s aunt. The drama of it all happened over a decade ago. Andy had never met his “cousin’s” birth mother. Whenever Andy’s mother had spoken about it to his father she said that her brother–in-law wanted a smaller sized baby bed to play in— whatever that meant. Consequently, his three cousins rarely saw their mother since their father “out-lawyered” her in court. It was much the same as with Andy and his father. He rarely ever saw the man that had given him his name and his face and his skin. Like the seashells scattered beneath the sun, there were many things broken in this world.
Andy rose again from the water, snorting saltwater through his nose. He sneezed it out, but it burned in his sinuses. He hated the thought of drowning in the ocean. He had read somewhere that saltwater took a very long time to drown you. It could take up to half an hour, which seemed cruel to Andy. But at least the ocean did not hate you. It might drown you, or smash you with a tidal wave or capsize your boat; but it did not do it because it hated you. He knew only people could hate other people. They might help you live; they might provide you food and shelter and a place at the table, but if they hated you while they were doing it then it was like they were drowning you; drowning you for days, weeks, months, even years. And that was even crueller than what the ocean did to you.
Steeling his nerves— and remembering how beautiful Tiffany was as she emerged from the water—Andy dove down into the water once more, digging into the sand with his feverish fingers. To his surprise, his hand happened upon something big, heavy, thorny, and hard. It felt like a large crown. Emerging, he lifted the shell out of the water and looked at it with his blurry eyes. It looked like a large murex shell, or something similar enough to be labeled one. In the blinking, blurry moment that Andy held it he saw that it was large, with great heft to it, and its thorny back gave it an elaborate Poseidon crown-like appearance. It was an impressive shell, and his heart leapt at the prospect of Tiffany’s delight.
But before he could stare long at it, Andy was startled when a slimy black appendage darted out of the shell’s serrated mouth. With a cry, he dropped the shell and it plunged back into the water. But before it could be lost to the depths forever, Seth— who had been sneaking up on Andy—dove for the shell and grabbed it, hauling it out of the water and up above his head, the black appendage flailing wildly toward the sky.
“You scaredy cat,” Seth exclaimed. “It’s just a shell snail!”
Before Andy could say anything, Seth ran ashore, shouting in triumph about his prize.
“Look at my shell!” he shouted. “It’s the best shell and it’s all mine!”
Naturally, his two sisters wanted to claim it for themselves. Before they could, though, Seth ran off toward the house. Tiffany stomped after him. Samantha paused, looking at Andy.
“You better pick up everything,” she said. “Especially my shells!”
She then ran after her sister and brother. Andy watched her go, coming ashore once again. He picked up the basket, and collapsed the parasol, and folded the beach towel. But even as he did these mundane things he could not shake the image out of his head. It was disturbing, and Any wondered if he had only imagined it; if the saltwater and the sun and the gleam of the slimy thing within the shell had deceived his eyes.
What Seth had not noticed, and what Andy had seen in that blinking flash of a moment, was that the appendage inside the shell was attached to a body, and that body had a face with features not unlike that of a baby’s.

The walk back to the house was hard on Andy. He had to carry not only the parasol, the beach towel, and the sunscreen lotion bottle, but also the basket full of seashells. Everything was so heavy and cumbrous. He walked at a slug’s pace, the clutter in his arms making him teeter and tremble. Eventually, and with great effort, Andy arrived at his cousins’ beach house.
His cousins’ beach house was like a mansion, and not just because Andy had lived the majority of his life in a trailer park. It was larger than most of the houses he saw around his hometown in Georgia. It had two storeys, a large wraparound porch with awnings jutting here and there over the chairs, large windows letting the sun in, and the whole estate was surrounded by a low fence to keep the alligators out of the grassy lawn. Toward the back of the house, facing away from the ocean, was the beginning of the mangroves. Floating among them, in the deeper waters, were manatees, those gentle giants with the mysterious eyes.
It should have been a paradise. Yet, Andy always had to be on his guard; always watchful of his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He was in a strange world and at the mercy of their merest caprice, and so felt like a newly hatched seaturtle besieged by seabirds on all sides. They reminded him, nearly ever hour, that he did not belong there. He was a whim away from being besieged on all sides by thunderously loud, fault-finding factions.
And yet, when Andy opened the sliding door to step into the kitchen, he found that it was the shell, and not himself, that was embattled at that moment. All three of his cousins were fighting over it. Seth ran around the island in the kitchen while Samantha chased after him. Tiffany stood by, scowling and demanding that she be given the shell since Andy had been the one to first find it and so, by extension, she had greatest claim to it.
“And I’m the oldest,” she said. “So I get to choose.”
“No way,” Seth said. “It’s mine, fair and square. The scaredy-cat dropped it in the ocean. Finders keepers.”
Samantha, meanwhile, tried to wrestle the shell from her brother’s hands.
“I never get a good shell, ever!” Samantha moaned.
But when she saw the black appendage emerge from the conch, she yelped and sprang backwards, crashing into Andy as he came into the kitchen.
“Yuck!” she cried, bouncing off of Andy. “You keep it! I don’t want the nasty thing!”
Seeing the snail’s appendage once again startled Andy. It was black, but also mottled brown and had bright luminescent yellow stripes that looked like they probably glowed in the dark. It still looked vaguely like an infant’s arm, and even had tiny stalks that undulated like fingers at its end. Yet, unlike sea hares or sea slugs, there were four such stalks, and were strangely prehensile in their weird array.
“Yeah, I don’t want that thing,” Tiffany said, having a change of heart. “It’s too gross. I only want the shell.”
Still, the two sisters remained, watching Seth as he held it aloft as if bearing the Olympic torch. After a few moments of his parading, the sisters turned their attention to the basket of seashells that Andy had brought in with him. Tiffany pointed to the kitchen’s island and Andy obediently hoisted the basket—with a grunt—and set it there. He fumbled the rest of the things in his arms— the parasol and towel—and they tumbled to the floor.
“At least I have all of these shells,” Tiffany said.
“They’re not all yours,” Samantha said. “Mine are in there, too.”
“Do you actually know which ones are yours?” Tiffany retorted.
“I…” Samantha faltered. “I’ll know them when I see them,” she said.
“No you won’t,” Tiffany said. She looked at Andy. “Do you remember which ones are mine and which ones are hers?”
Andy felt like a cornered cricket, and that any chirp he might give would earn him the bottom of someone’s shoe. He shrugged one shoulder meekly.
“Great,” remarked Tiffany. “Well, there is only one way to know. I will go through them and take whichever ones I want, and then you can have the rest.”
“But that’s not fair!” Samantha cried.
“Then you shouldn’t have mixed yours in with mine. You should have brought your own basket.”
Tiffany took the basket and walked upstairs, disappearing into her room.
Samantha turned on Andy, her brown eyes twinkling with tears. “This is all your fault!” She ran upstairs, too, slamming the door to her room.
Meanwhile, Seth was lording over his prize, grinning with great satisfaction as he watched the strange arm-like tentacle writhe out of its wickedly thorny shell.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Ain’t it?”
Andy did not know what to say, other than it was a hideous creature. He kept his silence, which Seth mistook for envy.
“You’re just like my sisters,” Seth said. “Jealous of what I found.”
Andy could have corrected Seth, and recalled the fact that he was the one that found the shell, but he thought that argument too meaningless to pursue. Moreover, he was too overcome with a sense of foreboding from the shell. Seeing it in the kitchen made him feel uneasy for the entire house.
“It’s the best shell I’ve ever seen,” Seth said, watching the snail sway. “Just got to get rid of the snail.”
Standing aside, Andy watched as Seth searched around the kitchen. Seth found a saltshaker in the cabinet next to the refrigerator. It was a large saltshaker; the kind that you twisted to grind up its pink salt crystals in order to season food. He held it over the shell and began grinding the salt, showering the snail, the shell, and the island. He made a mess.
“It sure as hell doesn’t like that!” Seth exclaimed with a laugh.
The snail instantly lost its black luster and began to shrivel and withdraw into the shell. There was no refuge for it, however, even within its own home. The salt dried out its slimy, liver-colored flesh until it looked like a black banana left out in the sun. Seth took the shell to the trash can and, using a spork he found in a drawer, began prodding and scraping and scooping the snail out.
“That is one weird looking snail,” he observed as it began to slip out of the shell.
Andy was mesmerized and appalled by the ghastly thing. To him it looked less like some tubular snail and more like a small, lumpy, shriveled infant. There even seemed to be a face where the head should be, wizened by the ravages of the salt that dusted its viscous flesh.
Seth cussed as he scraped
“Damn, it doesn’t want to come out!”
Andy stared at that shriveled head, and thought he saw a luminescent eye open. Before he could gasp in fright, the petal-lipped mouth parted like a flower and a long tube slithered its way out, tapered at the end with a sharp black barb. It darted out wildly and struck Seth in the arm just as he had dislodged the snail from the shell.
“Ow!” he cried. He dropped the shell on the island. He clutched his arm with his other hand. “Ow! Shit! It burns! It burns!”
Seth’s voice heightened, as if he might begin to wail at any moment. Andy ushered him to the sink and ran cold water over the puncture point. It was small, like a spider bite, and had a swollen whelp that was red. Seth cringed as the water ran over the mark. He breathed through clenched teeth, his face wrung in pain.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Andy said, panicking at the thought of Seth dying from a venomous sting and his aunt and uncle blaming him for it.
“No,” Seth said, trying to put on a brave face. “The pain’s going away. It’s feeling better.” After a minute of washing the wound with cold water, Seth left the sink and went over to the island, reclaiming his shell with a gleam in his eye. “Now I just have to boil it to get that stink out.”
The snail itself was nothing but a dried-out husk reeking in the trash can.
Over the next ten minutes Seth boiled the shell in a large pot on the stovetop. Andy sat at the island, watching Seth for any telltale signs of fatigue or lethargy. The whelp on his cousin’s arm was darkening.
“You should go to the hospital,” Andy said.
“Stop being such a worrywart,” Seth said. He had a pair of tongs and was turning the shell around inside the boiling pot. He seemed to do this out of boredom and restlessness rather than purpose. “It’s just a bruise.”
Andy was not so sure. The whelp had blackened, and appeared to be “sweating”. That was the only term he could think of for the dark bump’s wet shimmer.
“Hey, why don’t you get me a glass of water?” Seth said. “I’m thirsty.”
Andy would have pointed out that Seth was next to the cabinet with the glasses and right next to the refrigerator with the water purifier, and so Seth could have gotten his own water, but he knew Seth was stubborn and would not have gotten his own water, especially if challenged on it, and besides Seth looked peaked, the dark circles under his eyes deepening in his strangely gaunt face. In short, Andy fetched a glass of water for his willful cousin.
“Here,” Andy said.
Seth tipped his head back and gulped the entire glass down in one go. This was impressive considering he was only eleven and the glass that Andy had filled was a glass intended for an adult.
Seth immediately handed the glass back to Andy. “Some more.”
Andy filled the glass once again, and once again Seth drained it with one extended tip of the head. Seth’s Adam’s apple was like an oversized hamster racing up and down a narrow water hose. His body began to sweat all over, from his forehead to his feet.
“More,” he said.
Andy obliged him, all the while eyeing his cousin with alarm.
After downing the third glass, Seth retched and ran to the sink. He threw up, expelling all of the water he had recently drank.
“I’m calling the ambulance,” Andy said, heading into the living room. He glanced around the living room, his eyes wandering upstairs, past the rails and from door to door on the second floor. He remembered that there was no house phone. Tiffany was the only one, besides her father and stepmother, that had a cell phone. So, Andy ran upstairs and knocked on her door. Her voice cut through the door, and through Andy’s heart, like a sword.
“Go away!”
“Seth’s sick!” Andy said.
Another door opened down the hall, Samantha stepping out in shorts and a tanktop. Her eyes were rimmed red and her brown hair was matted to her imprinted forehead. She had been laying in bed, crying.
“What’s going on?” Samantha said, somewhat warily.
“Seth’s sick,” Andy repeated.
“So what?” came Tiffany’s reply.
“Really sick,” Andy said.
He heard Tiffany sigh, and the creaking of her box springs as she got up from bed. When the door opened she stood before him with her hair wrapped up in a towel and a long white shirt on, and seemingly nothing else except underwear. Andy glanced at the interior of her room, and saw that it was cerulean trimmed and white-walled and had a large seashell-shaped mirror in one corner, the vanity table crowded with makeup and brushes and jewelry. It was a mermaid’s bedroom.
“He better be dying,” Tiffany said. Huffing irritably, she went downstairs. Andy followed her, and Samantha followed him.
When they came into the kitchen, Seth looked at them in surprise. They looked at him in surprise, too.
“What?” he said.
He looked completely normal. He was no longer sweating; no longer retching. Even the whelp on his arm had lightened and shallowed.
“What’s wrong with you?” Tiffany demanded.
“Wrong with me?” Seth said, scoffing. “Nothing’s wrong. What’s wrong with you?”
Tiffany turned on Andy, her hands on her hips and her arms akimbo.
“Are you trying to annoy me?” she demanded.
Andy was too baffled by Seth’s miraculous recovery, and the swells beneath Tiffany’s shirt, to offer a coherent explanation. He stammered for a few moments before Tiffany, in a hissy-huff, stormed upstairs and disappeared once again into her mermaid bedroom.
“You shouldn’t play tricks on us,” Samantha said, having recovered enough from her previous defeat to feel aggrieved at this new turn of events. “It’s not funny.”
“I didn’t ask you to come downstairs,” Andy retorted, too overcome by the bizarreness of the situation to be diplomatic.
Samantha’s face turned bright red, her eyes a tempest of fury and tears. She stormed upstairs once again and slammed her door shut.
“My sisters are drama queens,” Seth said, still stirring the shell around in the steaming pot. “It’s all melodrama with them.”
Andy opened his mouth to ask whether Seth really was okay, but hesitated. He wondered if he had imagined the situation as being worse than it actually was. Perhaps, he thought, he had succumbed to his own alarmist melodrama.
But then his eye caught something peculiar in the kitchen; something that he could not rightly account for. The saltshaker was on the island, where Seth had left it, but it was now nearly empty. Where did all of the salt go?

Wave Of A Lifetime

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“I don’t know, man,” Bo said. “Sometimes I just feel like I’m drifting in open water.”
“That’s because you are drifting in open water, dude,” said Tyler, his grinning teeth as bright white as the surf breaking on the Hawaiian beach. His sandy-blonde hair was a nest of sun-bleached curls. The silver lenses of his shades reflected Bo’s exasperation as clearly as a mirror. “This water’s glassy as fuck today. No gnarly waves at all. The ocean’s taking a breath and holding it, man. We aren’t going to get any good barrels today.”
They both floated on their surfboards, belly-down, arms hanging laxly over the sides. Tyler had been smoking marijuana all morning long. Bo could smell it on him through the salty air of the ocean. He had probably popped a pill, too. Bo was trying to stop taking drugs altogether.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” Bo said. “Dad’s really pestering me to go to Business school, but, damn, I can’t stand those kooks. He keeps threatening to take my allowance away. He thinks he can scare me straight or something.”
“Your dad’s got mucha moola, dude,” Tyler said. “But, yeah, I’d hate to work around a bunch of kooks all day.”
“I was wanting to do something that would let me stay in Hawaii,” Bo said. “The only thing I really like to do is surf, and even that is starting to let me down.”
“Don’t worry, bro,” Tyler said. “There’ll be more waves to ride.”
“Even if there were,” Bo said, sighing, “I don’t think I’d care about them.”
Tyler looked at Bo for a long time, then shrugged. “You sure this isn’t a problem with Rae?”
“What about her?” Bo said.
“She’s going to school, too, isn’t she?”
“She graduated from highschool, so, yeah.”
“What’s she going to study?”
“Marine biology,” Bo said.
“At least she’ll be able to keep on the ocean,” Tyler said. “And studying whales and stuff would be cool…if I could do it from the back of a surfboard.”
Bo laid his face on his surfboard, left-cheek down while his eyes wandered over the landless horizon to the West. “We had an argument last night. She said I wasn’t taking anything seriously anymore.”
“What did she want you to take seriously?” Tyler said, grinning mischievously.
“School,” Bo said. He closed his eyes and sighed. “And our ‘relationship’.”
“Relationship?” Tyler exclaimed, chuckling. “You’re friends with benefits. That is more like an arrangement than a relationship!”
“Yeah, but now she wants something serious. Don’t get me wrong. Rae is a cool chick. I like hanging out with her. I like the sex, too, but she wants me to meet her grandparents.”
“Whoa-ho!” Tyler laughed, grinning and shaking his head as if he had sandfleas in his hair. “Talk about being in the pocket. Her dad is loaded with cash. Hell, if you two marry then neither of you would need to work again, man.”
“Her dad’s a hard-ass,” Bo said. “One of the big Kahunas. He hates that Rae hangs out with me. He thinks I take advantage of her. He’d kill me if he knew I was shagging her three days a week. But I’m only a year older than her, and she knew what she wanted when she started this thing. Still, he gives me the whitewater treatment. Whenever I do go to her house he tries to bog me bad. Always saying shit like he’s going to hurt me. Rae thinks he’s kidding around with me, but he doesn’t play.”
“Oh yeah. He’s actually one of the elders, isn’t he? Like, he belongs to one of the oldest tribes on the island.”
“And her mom is Japanese,” Bo said. “She’s nice and everything, but she’s very traditional. Can you imagine having in-laws that are tribal Hawaiian and old-fashioned Japanese? Man, that’s like surfing over coral!”
Tyler brayed like an ass. “That’d be a cheese-grater for sure, man! Ha!”
“And it’s not like I don’t like Rae,” Bo said. “But sometimes I feel like I don’t have any passion for her, ya know? I don’t have passion for much of anything. To be honest— and you keep this to yourself, man, I mean it— the only reason I have sex with her is because it feels like I’m accomplishing something. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. It feels like I’m building up to something.”
“Yeah, man,” Tyler said, laughing, “building up to creaming in her face!”
Bo thrashed his hand through the water, splashing Tyler in the face. “You can be a real dick, sometimes, man.”
Tyler just grinned through the water dripping down from his face and shades. “Just being honest, bro. Not trying to steal your waves or anything. It’s just that you got a good thing going with her. And, like, you could get your dad’s money and her dad’s money and you could just surf for the rest of your life. Or just coast. Or whatever, man. If I were you I’d be shacking out of my mind. Plank in the ocean and plank on Rae. Ride the waves out to oblivion.” He lifted his hands and made the choka gesture, pinky and thumb extending out while the middle fingers curled in. “That’d be totally gnarly, dude.”
“Do you have to be such a stereotype?” Bo said. But he laughed and then sat up on his surfboard. He glanced back at the shore. There were lots of kooks in the shoals, and a few trying to catch the nonexistent waves. Little grommets hauled their boards ashore, upset at the lull in the ocean. Bo thought for a moment about his future, and nothing looked good.
“You got it going on, dude,” Tyler said. “You shouldn’t be worrying about nothing right now, man. Just marry Rae and call it a day.”
“But her mom will want grandkids,” Bo said. “Hell, my mom will want grandkids. And if we do that then I will have to get a real job. No more wave-riding for me. No more coasting. Just the 9-to-5 grind. Everyday, five to six days a week until I can retire, roll over, and die.” He punched the water.
“Fuck that, man,” Tyler said. “Stay on the pipeline. Kiss the spray. Throw buckets at it all. I bet Rae doesn’t even want kids. I’m telling you, man, it’s not a bad deal.”
Bo opened his mouth to say something else, but then saw something terrifying. Shark fins— fifty of them, at least—all cutting through the water in a helter-skelter, zigzag non-pattern of frenzy.
“Fuck!” Tyler screamed. “Total sketch balls!”
The sharks did not pay attention to Bo and Tyler, even as the two surfers flailed to turn about and flee. Instead, they swam around them and headed toward the island. Even at the distance Bo could see the sharks slam into the shoals, then up onto the shore. It was like a mass-suicide of sharks. But he had never heard of sharks doing anything like that. Maybe, he thought, he could ask Rae about it.
Before he could contemplate it more, however, something struck his feet. He nearly tumbled off his surfboard in fright. He and Tyler both gasped as the schools of fish rushed by, so thick in numbers that they were like a moving landmass beneath the ocean; dense and frenzied as a mosh pit. This massive front of wildly diverse fish clustered around the golden sands while parents, screaming, fled with their children in their arms. Other surfers and kooks staggered frantically out of the water, retreating from the waves of marine life all throwing itself ashore.
And then the water became darker. Large creatures passed beneath Bo and Tyler. They could do nothing but watch as the pods of whales surged beneath them in feverish flight. Stunned to incredulity, the two teenagers watched as the whales stranded themselves with the rest of the creatures, crushing fish and shark alike to escape the ocean.
“What the fuck is going on?” Tyler said.
Bo and Tyler felt the ocean suddenly draw back, pulling them far out to sea as if on a riptide. Bo looked out over the horizon. He saw a white crest, as long as the ocean’s horizon, and knew upon the moment, with an instant dread, that it was coming their way. It was a rogue wave. It may have even been a tsunami. It was difficult to discern at the distance, but it confirmed itself rapidly with the passing of one moment into the next.
“Jesus Christ!” Bo cried. “That’s, like, a hundred foot swell!”
“No way!” Tyler said, gawping. He took off his shades and strained his eyes against the West Pacific as the sun glared along the concussive waters. “Fuck! That’s a monster wave, man.”
The wave was not something Bo or Tyler had any experience with. Bo did not believe they could ride it, and even if they tried he knew there would be no telling where the wave might take them. It might sweep them to the wrong side of the island, where rocks and coral waited with sharp, jagged teeth.
“We gotta’ dive under it,” Bo said.
“Fuck no,” Tyler said. “I’m riding that monster.”
“It’s too damn dangerous, man,” Bo said. “Go under it, or you’ll be just another cracker crushed in the soup.” Bo laughed giddily at his own joke, never having meant to make it.
“You can’t duck-dive everything, man,” Tyler said. “Me, I’m gonna’ face this thing head-on. Deep in the pit. Tickling the chandelier. Riding the pocket. Know what I’m saying?”
“Fuck that,” Bo said. “This isn’t necessary. It’s not worth the ris…”
But Tyler had already started paddling out to meet the large wave. Bo watched him in disbelief, wondering if he would ever see his friend again.
The sea went from glassy to choppy in seconds. Bo waited until he felt the ocean surging beneath him and then he took a deep breath and dove downward, abandoning his board and going down as deep as he could in the darkening ocean. He had trained for years to hold his breath for long periods underwater. It wasn’t so much his lung capacity that was the danger, but the panic of what he was trying to avoid as it rushed above him. He felt the wave pass, pulling him upward with it, but by the time he broke the surface the wave had already tumbled down into its own impact zone. He breathed out the old air and then sucked in some more. He regained his breath just in time to dive again and avoid another wave— somewhat smaller than the first— and repeated this until the waves finally subsided enough that he could ride the smaller ones shoreward. He yelled for Tyler in between each surge.
And then he turned around, looking seaward, fearful that he might see Tyler’s lifeless body drifting in that foamy calm. But instead of seeing Tyler, Bo saw a large shadowy figure on the horizon; a shadowy figure that dwarfed the sun sinking behind it. The shadowy figure was gargantuan in size. Reticulated wings spread from its humanoid back, whereas its face was a writhing tangle of tentacles. Its massive eye looked balefully upon the world and then its body lurched forward, wading through the deep ocean as a child might wade through the shoals. Had Bo not been awash with the briny waters he would have been soaken with sweat. Panicked, he swam shoreward with a frenzied flurry of his arms. A wave of terror carried him without end.

Sharks, whales, fish, dolphins—the beach was strewn with dying sealife that had stranded itself in its wild flight. Their slick, glistening flanks expanded and contracted desperately, but their eyes were empty of anything except instinctive terror. Many more animals had gutted themselves on the reef break. Bo came ashore slowly, gradually navigating the coral on this side of the island. He found Tyler waiting for him. They greeted each other with openmouthed dismay.
“This is some crazy shit, man!” Tyler said. “And one hell of a wave! A wave of a lifetime!”
“Wave?!” Bo cried. “Wave? Didn’t you see that…that…thing coming out of the ocean?!”
“These crazy beasties?” Tyler said, gesturing to all of the sealife dying on the shore. “Course I saw them. Hell, some of them were riding the wave with me. I managed to ride the barrel to the shore before I could hit the impact zone. Was pretty damn gnarly, man.”
“No!” Bo said. He pointed toward where he had seen the shadowy figure sloshing through the ocean. “I’m talking about the monst…”
Whatever it was, the monster was gone, and the sun had set. Dusk flared over the frothy sea. Tyler walked between a Great White Shark and a marlin, then tiptoed gingerly between a humpback whale calf and a Tiger Shark. He grabbed an opah that was the size of a bicycle tire and lifted it up.
“Dude,” he said, “does Rae’s mom know how to make sushi?” He gasped, awestruck by a sudden thought. “Dude. Dude. There’s enough fish here for the whole island to have a luau.”
Bo kept staring out toward the ocean; staring hard to see the creature again while also dreading the sight of it.
Tyler had now exchanged the opah for a Yellowfin tuna that was the size of his leg.
“We could have both, you know?” he said excitedly. “Like, a sushi luau, that way Rae would feel at home. You could propose to her! That’d be…”
“That’s it!” Bo cried suddenly. He stormed up the beach, farther inland. “I’m going to Kansas to be a farmer!”
Tyler followed after him, fumbling with the Yellowfin tuna. “What do you mean, dude?”
“Or a businessman,” he said. “An insurance salesman in Idaho! Or a pig farmer in Kentucky! Anywhere else but here!” he screamed, stomping between the hundreds of animals that had beached themselves there. “Away from the ocean! Away from that thing!”

***

Bo rode that wave of terror all the way to Denver, Colorado. He bought some land and grew pot for his own business. He was known as a savvy businessman that was fair and amicable. His father was proud of him for becoming a businessman, but also resented the fact that he never visited his family in Hawaii. Tyler married Rae, but that marriage lasted only three months and ended in divorce when he happened to see something rising out of the water one day, too. He joined Bo in Denver eventually. Rae married a doctor in Honolulu. Her father, and his tribe, were very pleased and no more gigantic monsters were seen off the coast of Hawaii.

Moontide

Moontide

“There’s something wrong with the moon,” Sophie said, staring out the window. “It’s almost green-looking. Apple green. Sweet, delicious green.”
Austin did not bother looking up from the television. He was tired. He was tired because it was nighttime and he was watching a BBC Nature program on Netflix. He always did this on a weekday to put himself in the mood for bed. He inherited the habit from his father, who would follow the same habit on weekdays. Only, his father had watched PBS Nature programs, since that was all that was available to him back then. Since Austin and Sophie lived in the Valley, it was hard to get a signal from any local stations. All of their neighbors in the subdivision used Netflix or satellite tv.
“Its so green,” Sophie said. She stood at the window, with her fingertips planted on the glass. Ever since the birth of their first child, Dallas, she had a hard time losing weight. Where she was once lithe and lean she was now plump around her hips and stomach. Where she once wore tight, contour-conforming blouses and jeans that made her husband hungry for her curves, she now wore loose, curve-flattening hoodies and jogging pants that rendered her a unisex tomboy. She had been trying to lose weight every day, but the only thing she lost was hope. She tried to exercise in the evening, but it was hard to find time when she had to sit at a cubicle for nine hours, juggling HR spreadsheets and payroll accounts, and then had to come home to look after their son.
Austin was an oil rig man who worked on the coast. It was a job his father did, and his grandfather. Three months on, one month off. This was his month off. Coming home made him relieved, but he always felt a bit disappointed, too.
“Maybe I should wake up Dallas,” Sophie said.
“Let the boy sleep,” Austin grumbled, his own eyes dragging heavily up and down in uncertain wakefulness. “And let me sleep.”
“It might be one of those once-in-a-lifetime events,” Sophie said, never once taking her eyes off the moon as it reigned above the Valley. “He might miss out.”
“Let the boy sleep,” Austin repeated, drifting off. His eyes went in and out of focus on a gigantic flock of birds going on migration. He was so tired, and lacked so much concentration, that he could not remember the name of the birds. The Narrator of the program— some Brit with a silken voice that cradled Austin’s mind like a hammock—lilted in a swaying song of syllabic cadence.
“I think I will go get Dallas,” Sophie said. Yet, she did not leave the window.
For Christ’s sake, Sophie,” Austin growled, rousing again. “Leave the boy alone. No wonder he ain’t growing at all. He isn’t getting enough sleep to grow.”
“That’s not true, Austin,” Sophie said, too wonderstruck by the moon to be defensive or even peevish about the assertion. “The doctor said his hormones just haven’t kicked in yet. He’ll have a growth spurt eventually and maybe he’ll be almost as tall as you.”
The thought that Dallas would not be taller than Austin bothered Austin. He took a deep, disgruntled breath and sighed through his nose; noisy with aggravation. He folded his arms across his chest and adjusted himself on the sofa. “Maybe we should put him on some protein drinks,” he said. “At this rate we’ll be lucky if he’s five foot tall. And the kid needs to eat something. Jesus, a strong wind would blow him away.”
“He’ll get better,” Sophie said, still staring out the window. “Just give him time to fill out.”
Austin almost said “Fill out like you have?”, but he knew it was meanness and did not want to say it, however much he thought his wife was now a jelly-belly. His son was a sore spot for him, and often provoked him in ways nothing else could. Dallas was asthmatic. He was sickly. Austin had wanted a son like himself: a rough-and-tough football player always getting high-fived by the guys and handjobbed by the cheerleaders. He wanted a son that was happy. But Dallas was a nerd. He liked computers. He liked looking at the stars. He liked playing videogames. Granted, the videogames had half-naked women strung throughout them, but that was a mere shadow of what Austin enjoyed in highschool. And at this rate Dallas was going to be like those awkward, quiet kids that Austin mocked throughout highschool. He was going to be a loser.
Something flew past the window, faraway. Despite the brightness of the moonlight, the thing flying was too faraway to discern as it floated above the concave neighborhood. It became lost in starlight and distance. Whatever it was, it did not move like a bird. It floated like a balloon on a gradual rise. Austin wondered if it was a birthday party balloon or a bachelor party balloon. Part of him wished to see a stripper dancing in front of him.
“Wow,” Sophie sighed. “Look at all of them. They’re really going…”
Austin inhaled and exhaled laboriously, then settled in again, trying to fall asleep. The Nature program had shifted from birds to some jellyfish in the sea, all gathering under the pull of the moon.
“I need to see better,” Sophie said. “It’s just so…so beautiful.”
As if sleepwalking, she went upstairs.
“Don’t wake the boy up,” Austin muttered, half-asleep. He drifted in and out of sleep. One moment he was watching a group of tentacled lights dancing in dark waters; the next, he saw a small fish chasing a glowing lure in utter void, only to be devoured by a horrific mouth. Then came Canadian Geese flying high above drafty, plummeting depths. Then came salmon swimming upstream, leaping toward breeding grounds. Bears caught them as they passed, and tore them apart with easy demeanors. He was not sure if he was watching a Nature program with ADHD or whether he was simply dreaming about all of the Nature programs he had watched throughout the years.
He roused a little when he heard tapping on the window upstairs.
“Jesus Christ, woman,” he grumbled, more to himself than anyone else. “You never quit, do you?”
He leaned forward on the sofa, rubbing his face with his hands and growl-sighing in annoyance. Standing, he stretched his arms, ready to walk to the master bedroom and crash, hard, upon his bed.
But then something caught his eye. There was a greenish glow upon the Valley. He could not see the moon, but he could see down the sloped neighborhood and over the rooftops that swooped down along the Valley’s crater. There were things floating into the green-tinged air. Hundreds of them. Their bodies were slack, hunched over, and rising slowly as if pulled upward by the shoulders on gentle ziplines. They were not birds or balloons. One flew past the window and he recognized it as Mr. Peterson, his nextdoor neighbor. Austin shook his head and rubbed his eyes, and still he saw them rising— rising into the sky.
Suddenly remembering Sophie, Austin hurried upstairs. He found her in Dallas’s room. She was tapping her forehead against the window. She floated a foot off the ground, as if gravity meant little to her pudgy body anymore.
“Sophie!” he gasped.
She turned around, in mid-air, still hunched over, her body lax. Her eyes were dilated utterly black.
“Time to go home,” she said. She turned away from him and touched their son, Dallas, on the forehead. “Get up, honey,” she said. “It’s time to go. It’s time for all of us to go.”
Dallas looked up at his mom, then toward the window. The little near-sighted boy became gawp-mouthed, like his mother, and floated up from his bed, the blankets and sheets slipping off of him. Austin ran to pull them both back. Pulling on them, he screamed. But then he, too, glimpsed the moon through the window. It was so large and green and close to the earth. It peered so closely at them— at all of them—and Austin finally understood.
It was time to go home.
He felt himself rise, alongside his family, and huddle against the window. He felt, distantly, the window buckle and shatter, falling away, letting the cool air of the Valley caress his face as he and his family rose above their house, and their neighbor’s houses, and felt the whole of the earth dissolve into a dream beneath them, their eyes and their brains and their thoughts full of nothing but that green light. Flying away like a great flock of…something. Words lost meaning. Images lost meaning. Life, as it had been on earth, lost meaning. Nothing mattered but the green light of the moon. Instinct dictated all, and all that mattered was to pass where that great lurking hunger had been waiting for them to come to it, one final time, for the harvest of a million millennia.

 

Author’s Note:  This story came to me in a dream; not all of its particulars, but the main thrust of the story.  I woke up this morning and typed it down in one go.  I doubt I captured the raw horror I felt upon dreaming this story, but I hope I conveyed it in a manner that makes it understandable.  Unfortunately, it was a very image-heavy story and I do not know if such things are “paintable” by words alone.  Vladimir Nabokov said he painted with words, and he certainly did, but I am not the literary virtuoso that Nabokov was.