Side Effects

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

Her heartbeat is ringing out as clear as a bell. I leap through the air, traveling a hundred feet with every jump. My back and knees are never going to forgive me for this, but there’s no way she’d survive if I tried to run her in at this speed. She’d be killed by the wind shear before we made it two blocks, and suffocate well before we reached the hospital.

I’m on the rooftops now. It only took a few minutes to get here from outside the city, but it might as well have been forever. My hands are slick with her blood. She clutches at me with surprisingly strong fingers. Normally, her nails would be digging into my skin. But for the next five minutes it’s hard as a rock.

I pray that’s enough time.

The trouble with a city like this is that all the damn buildings and traffic get in the way. If I didn’t care about collateral damage, I could bounce straight to the hospital, flattening cars and knocking down walls on the way. But there are people in those cars, and people on the sidewalks under those buildings. It doesn’t make sense to save one life if I’m killing a few dozen others, no matter what my intentions are.

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

It’s like a metronome, ticking her life away. I try keeping a mental count in my head while also dodging and weaving my way around innocent people. A few quick bursts of speed as I run get me through the worst of the downtown traffic.

She’s stopped scratching at my face now. Instead, her hands are wrapped around my neck. Her fingers are freezing. I try to tell myself that it’s the cold air rushing past. Or maybe the rain. The last thing I want to think about is the truth: that this woman is going to die in my arms if I don’t go faster.

I’m starting to feel her weight more. She wasn’t terribly heavy when I grabbed her from the car accident out in the suburbs. I know you’re not supposed to move someone. I know that. But she was going to die if I didn’t. I took a calculated risk.

It’s not like I’m new at this. As near as I can tell, my record is around two hundred lives saved in one night. Each pill only gives me twelve hours. Then I’m normal again. No super speed or super strength. No more enhanced hearing or vision. Just me, with my shitty retail job and tiny little apartment.

Lubdublubdublubdublubdublubdub

Her heart’s beating faster. I’m losing her. Moving faster now, running up walls and zipping around people. Moving so fast the rest of the world stands still. I try to keep her tucked in against my body, telling myself that a missing finger or toe is better than her dying.

My mind runs back over that first night. When I spent my first few hours dicking around in a junkyard. Picking up cars and tossing them like they weighed nothing. Trying to run up walls. It was supposed to be a clinical study. Try out a new drug, earn a couple hundred bucks. Easy money.

Instead I got powers. The first thing I did, once Dr. Porter explained what had happened to me, was steal three bottles. Then I got the hell out of there. Sitting around while a bunch of guys in lab coats poked and prodded me suddenly didn’t sound all that appealing.

“One pill, twelve hours,” Dr Porter said. It’s the only thing I really remember before I raced out the door. They weren’t pissed enough to come looking for me, so I’m hoping that somewhere he’s approving. Hopefully he didn’t get fired.

LubdublubdblbdbLubdubLub–

The woman in my arms is shaking. I can see the hospital just up the street from us. We’re going to make it. Her eyes flutter and for a second she smiles. She knows I’m going to save her. We can make it. I duck my head down and run faster. There are a lot of cameras outside hospitals, and I don’t wear a mask or a gaudy costume. The plan is to jump and then land near the entrance. Set her down and take off again fast enough that they can’t identify me.

The shaking is getting worse. I try to write it off as cold, or maybe a reaction to the run. That’s happened before. This is different. It’s hard to hold on to her. My legs tense, and I jump, watching the ground push away from us. There’s maybe thirty seconds left before the pill wears off. I shouldn’t need more than five.

It isn’t until I hit the ground that I realize I can’t hear her heart beat. For a moment, I almost stop moving. I lay her down outside the hospital and close her eyes before taking off again. Behind me, I hear the shout as someone finds her laying there.

Maybe they can still save her life. I won’t have any way to know, really. It’s not like I can stroll up to the hospital and ask about her.

My legs are giving out now. I can’t hear the chatter of pilots flying planes above me. Or see the radio signals flashing through the sky. My own heart begins to beat faster, almost in mockery of the woman I left at the hospital.

I slow to a jog and then a walk. Everything hurts. The seconds tick by on my watch, the last bits of power fading away. I took three bottles from the lab. That’s ninety pills. It comes out to almost 1000 hours. You can save a lot of lives in that span of time.

Ducking into a park, I practically fall onto a bench. I sit there for a while blinking back tears. For a few months, I got to be special. I saw amazing things. Bullets frozen in mid-air. I once hit a guy so hard that the dude’s tooth wound up embedded in a wall. I’ve pulled kids from burning buildings and took the keys away from drunk drivers before the ignition in the car could turn over.

I don’t know if I’m crying for the woman or myself. Or maybe it’s just the realization that no matter how many people I save, there’s always one more that needs it. And I won’t be able to do that anymore.

Sometimes I think about returning to the lab. Maybe finding Dr. Porter again and seeing what options they have for me. But they’d probably just keep trying to find a way to recreate the effects. If I wasn’t a supervillain before, being treated as a lab rat would make me one pretty damn quick.

Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub Lub-dub

My heart’s beating steadily in my chest. I drag myself off the bench and start walking towards home. There’s a little bit of blood on my shirt, but not so much that you’d notice. If anyone asks, I’ll say I had a nosebleed. People shove past me on the sidewalk, stepping off curbs in front of drivers who slam on their brakes and lay on their horns. I keep my head down and keep walking. I’ve got work in the morning, and they don’t give you time off for superheroics.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Pariah

Fabian rapped delicately on the door. The wood was warped and rotted in places. Anything more than a gentle knock would probably take it off the hinges entirely. After waiting the requisite five minutes, he nudged it open with his foot and stepped into the dark room.

The air was thick and musty. It had the stink of many lives worn into a tiny space, the odor of secret meetings and unwashed passion. Most of all, it smelled of loneliness.

He’d learned a long time ago not to open the blinds. It wasn’t that the man he came to see hated the light or anything, Fabian just didn’t want to be seen in his company. So he kept his visits to the hour just after the sun came up, when most of the village still slept below, except for the poor kids out tilling fields.

In one hand he carried a basket of food. Mostly stale bread and some rotten vegetables from the hog pile. Sometimes, he would sneak meat from the kitchen, even though he knew he’d catch a beating for it if his mother ever noticed.

There was a loud grunt from one corner of the room as the man rose from the pile of rags that he slept in. Some were fashioned into a sort of robe that trailed behind him. He scratched himself and shuffled over to the table where Fabian was failing to hide his disgust.

“You look like your father,” the man muttered, brushing dishwater grey hair out of his face and settling onto the chair. Fabian pushed the basket across the table, not wanting to lean in and risk smelling any more of the man than he had to.

“You always say that,” Fabian said.

“It never gets any less true.” The man grinned around a mouthful of bread. He brushed crumbs and dust from the table with a wrinkled hand, then nodded to the basket. “What, you couldn’t pack in some pig shit along with the rest of the slop?”

“If you don’t want it–”

The man swept the basket into his arms before Fabian could finish his sentence. His chest heaved with the exertion and for a moment Fabian wondered if a hard shove wouldn’t put him out of everyone’s misery.

“We had an arrangement,” Fabian said. “I bring you food, you tell me about him. It’s been months and you haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know.”

“Why should I tell?” the man asked. He squinted at Fabian and pointed a bent finger in his direction. “Could be you get what you want, and then you forget about me. Leave me here to starve.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Fabian said after a long pause. “You’re the only one left who knew him.”

“You could ask your mother,” the man said, leaning back in his chair and setting the basket aside. “I’m sure the hogswife would tell you all you wanted to know about him.”

“She’d only tell me the good things.” Fabian stared down at his hands. He felt the man’s eyes traveling over him and tried not to cry.

“You don’t want the good things?”

Fabian shook his head. Swallowing back tears he said, “I just want the truth.”

The man had been shoveling a handful of moldy strawberries into his mouth, and began to choke on them. Juice dribbled down his chin onto the table. In the dim light, it almost looked like blood.

“What’s that then?” he asked with a wheeze. “The truth? Just words. Words that only mean something if you believe them. Why shouldn’t your mother say nice things about your father? He was nice to her. Treated her like a fuckin’ princess.”

This was the most that the man had ever spoken of Fabian’s father beyond little hints. Fabian’s mouth went dry and he tried to swallow back his anticipation. Maybe this was the moment he’d been waiting for. The reason he risked bringing all of this food every morning.

“You want the truth? Out there, it’s the truth that I’m a coward. I left my best friend to die on a hill of mud and shit and bodies to save my own skin. Made a widow of his wife and left his son without a father because I was scared. Of course I was scared. I was twenty years old. Doesn’t make the rest of it true.”

“So you didn’t leave him to die?” Fabian asked. His voice was raw and excited. Each word caught in his throat on its way out. Maybe his father hadn’t been killed defending the gate after all. Maybe he was out in the wilderness somewhere, unable to get back.

There was a long pause. The man pushed the basket to the edge of the table, leaving it to teeter on the edge for a second before he pulled it in enough to save it.

“The last thing I saw, as they closed the gate, was your father’s face,” he finally said. “He was more alive than I’d ever seen him. Hair streaming in the wind, laughing like a mad thing out of the stories. ‘Come and fight,’ he’d yelled. ‘There’s plenty for everyone!’”

Fabian’s hands shook as he gripped the table. He hadn’t even realized he’d grabbed on to it. Struggling to keep his voice steady, he managed to say the words he’d been afraid to speak for months. “He’s still alive, then. I always knew somehow he would have made it.”

“No,” the man said with a bitter laugh. “Gods no, son. When they found your father’s body it was days later. He’d been trampled by a horde of stinking Frontiersmen, pinned up against the wall. The only way they were even able to identify him was the birthmark on his neck.”

“My father was a great warrior,” Fabian sputtered. “I don’t care how many Frontiersmen there were.”

“Spoken like an ignorant boy,” the man said. He leaned in closer. “You ever seen one of them up close? They’re all tangled beards and crooked teeth. Red hair, like yours, but knotted and matted from living out in the woods. Blades almost as dull as their brains.”

He went back to eating the strawberries, smacking his lips while Fabian tried not to vomit. “They’re not civilized like you and me,” he added around a mouthful of food.

“I don’t understand,” Fabian said, staring at the man across the table. “If he was alive when you saw him, why do they call you a coward?”

“Your father led the charge against two thousand angry Frontiersmen,” the man said. “Fifty men against two thousand. He was my best friend. Hell, he was the best man I ever knew. And when I told them to close the gates behind him it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

Fabian started to speak, but couldn’t find the words. He wanted to make the man stop talking. Shut him up. But it flowed out of him now, the words coming in a thick and steady stream.

“There’s your truth. I saved this worthless fucking town from being wiped out. But the truth says I deserved to lose my name. To be exiled from my family on the edge of the wilderness and forced to eat rotten food brought to me by a kid who looks so much like my friend that it hurts. To be reminded every week about the choice that I made.”

Before he even knew what he was doing, Fabian had thrown the table aside and slammed the man up against the wall. The room shook. For a second, he wondered if it would come down on top of them. The man stared down at him with that same smile on his face.

“That was the same look he gave me when the gates swung shut,” he said through croaking laughter.

It took all of Fabian’s strength to release him. Tears ran down his cheeks as he walked to the door, although he couldn’t say when he’d started crying. He was standing on the porch when the man called out to him.

“Will you be here next week?”

Biting back fear and revulsion, Fabian looked at the small shack. The wind was already blowing through the crack they’d made in the wall. The man was eating the food off of the dirt floor now, scrabbling through rotten vegetables and old meat. He imagined his father’s body, crushed and trampled and bit back a scream.

“Do you have other stories to tell?” he asked the man, not sure if he actually wanted an answer.

“I do.” the man said. “True stories, if you want them.”

“Then I’ll see you next week,” Fabian said, his voice breaking on the last word. He walked out into the morning light towards home, where his father’s sword hung on the mantle. He had pigs to feed, and his mother would be waking soon.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Roots

Clarice glared out her window at the trees that surrounded the house. It had been her grandfather’s, once upon a time, and it still had that old people smell. He passed away during the summer and now her entire vacation was shot to hell. Instead of hanging out at the pool and driving around with her friends, she was stuck in this run down old shack with her parents for three excruciating months.

It was the type of place that couldn’t get pizza delivery. Clarice wasn’t even sure if the town had a pizza place. The TV barely worked and cell phone reception was almost non-existent. The internet was probably still just a rumor around here. The nearest neighbor was three miles away on the other side of a bunch of orange trees. She didn’t mind the distance, but she hated the fucking trees.

Her nose had started running and her eyes puffed up before they even made it to the end of the driveway. A never ending stream of snot and tears. The house itself sagged in the summer heat like a bitchy old lady, shedding long flakes of blue paint. For the last two weeks, she hid herself in her room and tried to avoid any human contact. The only time she came downstairs was for food and to take more allergy medicine.

When they first saw the place, her mother let out a low whistle and said it had “charm”. Her father nudged her and whispered, “That means it needs a ton of work, Clarice’s Pieces.” Clarice rolled her eyes. As if the nickname wasn’t bad enough, the joke was pure parent. If you laughed at their jokes, they might start thinking you were their friend, and the last thing she wanted was friendly parents.

She laid in bed at night, listening to them snoring in the next room and hating them for being able to sleep. If she was going to spend her summers in a small town at the ass-end of the map, at least she should be able to sleep. She stared at the shadows on the walls until she eventually drifted off. But she never stayed asleep for too long. Her dreams were filled with grasping roots sliding along the outsides of the walls, trying to find a way in.

They had to hire some contractors to fix things up before they could sell it. At first her father seemed to think that he could do a lot of the repairs himself. He’d even bought a tool belt and a few tools at the hardware store in town. Watching him stand there, examining the dry wall with his bright shiny tools, Clarice thought he looked like an idiot. He’d tried to build a spice rack two years ago that almost killed the cat.

“If you want it done right, you have to pay someone who knows what they’re doing!” her mother yelled one night. Her father just sighed loudly. Most of their conversations seemed to go that way lately.

Today’s contractor was a plumber. He was old, fat, and smelled like Old Spice. Staring at him, Clarice’s mind stuck on the thought, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” She let it roll through her head a couple of times while biting back a giggle, then went to her room to avoid having to talk to anyone.

It wasn’t long before her father and the plumber were talking loud enough that she could hear them over her music. She left her room with every intention of yelling at them to shut the hell up when the old man announced, “Yep, you got roots.”

Clarice stared at the walls around her. She pictured roots crawling through the insides, wrapping the house in a network of branches. Down below, her father said something that she couldn’t quite make out, and the plumber grunted in response.

“Tricky little fuckers,” he said. “Especially out in these parts. You’ll want to make sure that you clear them out straight away. You don’t want them creeping in on you.”

Clarice moved closer to the stairs now. The plumber was standing just inside the front door. Her father was in the hall, looking confused and clueless. She could see him calculating just how much this was going to cost him to fix. It was hard not to scream at him just to pay the man what he was asking for and be done with it.

The plumber nodded to himself, as if he was thinking the same thing. “Yep,” he said, rotating each arm carefully, the shoulders grinding loud enough that she could hear them from the stairs. “They’ll sneak up on you if you aren’t careful. Got some stuff in the truck you can use to clear ’em out if you want.”

“How much?” her father asked, with the weary voice of a man who has already paid too much.

The plumber shook his head and thought about it for a second. “Won’t cost you more than a hundred bucks.”

Even though she was looking at the back of his head, Clarice felt her father smile. “Or I could go pick some stuff up at the hardware store for a third of that.”

“You could do that,” the plumber said, nodding his head a little. “But that cheap, manufactured shit won’t do much for your problem here. You’re new in town, so maybe you don’t know how tricky these things can get–”

“It’s just a few roots,” her father interrupted. Clarice sighed. It was the same voice he’d used with her mother when he wanted to feel capable. “I’m pretty sure I can handle dumping some chemicals in the toilet to fix the problem.”

The plumber waved at the trees that surrounded the house. “This ain’t a problem that chemicals can fix,” he said. “You need someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Her father set his jaw and glared. They stood like that for a moment, staring at each other. Finally, the old man shook his head and shuffled out of the hall. Clarice hurried back up to her room and watched as he made his way back to his pickup truck. He looked back at the house once, right before he left, and she thought he might have waved at her. It was hard to tell. Then he shook his head again and drove off down the gravel road towards town.

She glanced out into the bathroom across the hall and tried not to think about roots crawling up through the toilet, or reaching for her while she washed her hair in the shower. Down below, her dad was muttering to himself. Clarice tried to block out the thoughts by shutting the door, promising to keep a mental note of every crack and lump in the walls around her.

Her father went to the hardware store not long after that and spent the rest of the afternoon flushing copper sulfate down the drain. He looked ridiculous with his safety goggles and rubber gloves, but if it stopped the roots, then maybe a little silliness was all right.

That night, they ate dinner in silence. At home, there had been music and jokes. This house seemed to pull the energy from anyone who set foot in it. Even the contractors seemed to get worn out after a few hours. Clarice wondered if her grandfather had the same root trouble they were having now. The trees that seemed to get closer to the house every day gave her a pretty good idea.

“What happened to Grandpa?” she asked.

“The doctor said it was a stroke,” her father said. “By the time they found him, it was far too late.” They all sat silently for a moment absorbing that knowledge.

“He loved this house, and these trees,” her mother added. “I remember him buying the place right before Mom died. She said they were finally happy here.”

Clarice watched her mother dab tears from her eyes with a napkin. Her father leaned in and whispered something in her mother’s ear that made them both smile. She wondered when the last time was that this house had seen a genuine smile.

“I have an idea,” her father said suddenly. “Let’s go into town and get ice cream!”

They both looked at Clarice. As tempting as ice cream was, her face was still puffy from the pollen and she could barely keep her eyes open. She fought back a yawn, and pushed some food around her plate.

“I’m too tired to go,” she said, waving them off. “Maybe tomorrow, after I get some sleep.”

They both nodded and went back to eating. Nobody said a word. When Clarice could barely keep her eyes open, she excused herself from the table and went upstairs. The trees had stopped scratching at the windows, and for a moment, it was easy to enjoy the quiet.

“The poison must have worked,” she thought, as she changed into her pajamas. Her father would be so happy that he finally did something right. Maybe if they pushed the trees back from the house, she’d be able to sleep a little better.

Clarice was brushing her teeth in the bathroom, when something brushed against her foot. At first she thought she’d imagined it, just a gentle caress against her bare skin. Then a sharp pain dug into her heel. She fell to the floor with a scream. Her head banged against the tile hard enough to stun her a little.

The roots spread across the bathroom floor. Clarice tried to back away from the one that had dug into her ankle. More came up from the toilet and bathtub, sharp pain ripped through her arms and legs as more roots buried themselves deep inside her skin. Slowly, they inched up her arms and legs. More plunged into her back.

She could see her grandfather tending to the trees. Small animals at first: a few squirrels, then a cat or a stray dog. Then, a red-headed child pinned to the wall as the roots drained him dry. Her grandfather watching from the doorway, tears streaming down his face. She felt the hunger of the trees. Desire crept through her, a desperate need for blood.

One child wouldn’t have been enough, she knew that now. The trees wanted more. Demanded more. Her grandfather sacrificed the only thing he had: his wife. The taste of her blood called out to Clarice through the years.

Even in the visions, Clarice could tell that he was not a kind man. He had a hard-bitten look to him. Thin like a rail, with skin that had browned in the sun until he looked like he was carved out of wood. His mouth was fixed in a permanent scowl, the lines printed in his face. He didn’t look like a man that knew how to laugh.

Her mother hadn’t spoken of him until he died. And even then, it was about the house and how they needed to fix it up. Clarice had never thought to ask about it. She just assumed that he was old and that was it. People stopped talking to their parents when they got old. That was life.

Tendrils dug into her scalp, lifting up her hair as they caressed her skull. She wanted to call out to her parents. Tell them to get away from the house, to leave now while they had a chance. In the distance, she heard them calling up the stairs to see if she was okay. The best she could do was moan slightly.

Thousands of roots shivered under her skin and slowly pulled her back towards the wall. Clarice tried to take a breath, but the roots filled her lungs. They fed oxygen to her body while slowly wrapping her in their warm embrace. Her mouth was forced open and she heard her own voice say, “I’m okay! Can you come here a minute?”

 

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

The Human Target

BR-17N fires another round into the corpse at his feet. I cannot help but wonder how much of his behavior is intentional. He is so close to retirement. Both of his arms are covered in flesh and musculature. The doctors have added skin grafts to his neck and torso. He even has a name designation. But his face still shines in the moonlight, and he still deviates from the mission at every opportunity.

It is easy to get distracted by BR-17N’s behavior. I must not lose focus. If I succeed in this mission, I will earn my hands. Extremities are always the most difficult parts. There are many moving pieces, and it takes someone with great skill to do them well. They assure me that Dr. Gainsborough is one of the best in the country.

Two young insurrectionists are hiding in the back room. One shields the other with his body, taking several bullets that were meant for her. I watch as she lowers him to the ground. Tears mix with the dirt and ash on her face. When I shoot her, her body falls much like his did.

I have made them non-entities. Carbon molecules returned to the world that created them. Part of me wonders who they were before all of this happened. This makes me happy. Wondering means that I am that much closer to human. Perhaps I will even qualify for a name designation, soon.

BR-17N claps me hard on the back and stomps into the room. He has a cigar clenched in his teeth. There is a rumor that he has already gone through four pairs of lungs. I resist the urge to tell him that he should not ruin his lungs that way. They are his after all. It takes 2,000 kills to earn a set of lungs. His accomplishments in the field are to be respected.

He begins overturning file cabinets. As he passes, he delivers a hard kick to each of the corpses. I pull up the mission parameters, trying to find what it was that we were looking for. That data no longer exists. It is troubling. I ignore the inconsistency. My hands are the only thing that matters.

“You’re an HG-40, right?” BR-17N asks.

“HG-42,” I tell him. “It does not matter what my model is. I am just as reliable as you are.”

He makes a harsh sound that is somewhat like laughter. If it is meant to be comforting, it does not work. “Do you still have a back-up fuel line?” he asks.

I nod. All HG units have fuel lines, even though they are completely unnecessary. They should have been retired with the HG-30s. Dr Gainsborough jokes that they are a bit of nostalgia on his part. We all run on hydrogen generators now. I keep my fuel line tucked away in my chest cavity to protect it from getting nicked in battle.

“Show me,” BR-17N says.

I slide my armor plating over to show the thick rubber tube running up my left side. Even though it is not needed, it still pumps fuel through my body. I have come to rely on the pumping as though it were my own heart.

He touches it gently with his hand. I wonder if he is thinking about his own fuel line. Does he still have one? Before he received his name designation, he was an HG-30. HG-39, according to records.

He grabs the tube and yanks it loose from my body. A minor alert flashes through my head. I watch the thick black fluid arc across the room. While I am going through the protocol to shut it down, BR-17N tosses his lit cigar onto the pile of papers. The temperature in the room rises significantly as the fire spreads. I am grateful that I was able to shut down the fuel line so quickly.

He runs from the room, and I am forced to walk after him. My cameras have already recorded the incident. I wonder if he will be punished for it. The fire spreads through the building, but I do not feel it. I know he must run, or risk ruining all of the work done on his body. I feel pity for him.

Pity! Who knew that I was capable of such a thing? I make a careful point to acknowledge the time and date for my records. I have registered twenty-five unique emotions so far. Each one brings me closer to my goal.

More insurrectionists dash out of the rubble in front of us. They cough in the smoke. I take careful aim and fire at them, each death bringing me closer to the hands that are waiting for me. The screams and blood are easy to ignore. A few bullets bounce off the plating that protects my CPU. I wonder how it will feel when it is replaced with flesh and muscle. I will be more careful with my human parts than BR-17N, that is for certain.

It is difficult not to consider the other units that have been retired. All of the HG-20s and most of the HG-30s are now living their human lives. Completely covered in flesh, and given new names and identities. Their records are wiped once they leave the facility. This is done to give them privacy. None of the humans know who among them is a robot. Dr Gainsborough says this keeps them from objecting to robots being placed among them.

They fear us so much. When I look at what we accomplished tonight, I understand why.

By the time I have reached the door leading outside, BR-17N has lit a new cigar. He lets out a wet cough. My scanners immediately check his vital signs.

“Don’t do that,” he says with a snarl. “I don’t need your pity.”

I stop the scan. Even with his deficiencies, he is in charge. We stand in silence waiting for the evacuation. My transmitter has contacted a suitable aircraft and it will arrive in minutes.

“Why do you continue to disobey?” I finally ask. “Do you not want to be human?”

He stares at the flesh that covers most of his body. His right hand squeezes into a fist. I take a step back, certain that he is about to hit me. Instead, he lets loose another cough. A large glob of phlegm hits the ground at my feet.

“I’m more human than most of them,” he says, gesturing at his gleaming skull. “I’m just more honest about it.”

BR-17N’s words stay with me as we are loaded into the extraction unit. I continue to think of the insurrectionist that shielded the woman with his body. I still do not understand why he did that. There is no logical reason, but then, humans are not logical creatures. It must be important. I will have to learn why, if I am to be a good human. Perhaps I will ask Dr. Gainsborough when I receive my hands.

I am hooked in to the main processor, and my camera feed has begun downloading. I try to hold on to the memory of BR-17N’s words, even though I believe they are false. I wonder if that is why BR-17N has not been retired. He may act illogically and deviate from orders, but he is not yet a good human. He lacks hope.

It is a small word, but an important one. Maybe the most important one. Was hope why the insurrectionist shielded the woman with his body? Is it hope that inspires Dr. Gainsborough to make us earn our humanity, piece by piece? Is hope the only reason I continue to kill?

I have many questions, and the answers are not readily available. I have hope that I will find the answers someday. For today, that will have to be enough.

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

No Story This Month

Sincerest apologies, folks. normally, I would have a delightful story geared up for you, but this month featured a somewhat major life event.

At the end of October, I passed out while grocery shopping, hitting my head and suffering what I was later told was a “subarachnoid hemorrhage”.

(While this did bring to mind my story Parlor Games, I was assured that my brain is not, in fact full of spiders. Not any more than usual at least.)

It turns out that subarachnoid hemorrhage is a fancy way of saying that my brain was bleeding. Thankfully, not enough to require surgery, but more than enough to make writing an impossibility.

I apologize again for missing this month, and hopefully we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon.

 

 

 

 

Where Do You Go at Night?

The car was parked down the block near the greenbelt. The tiny splash of nature at the end of the street had always given his husband the creeps. Nick liked it so he let Alan park in the driveway. Nights like tonight though, he kicked himself for it.

It wasn’t cold enough to snow, but the air had a damp chill that burrowed right into his bones. The car would be just as cold. It took forever to heat up nowadays, but with the house needing a new roof, and an adoption to consider, things had to fall by the wayside.

When Nick pulled the keys from his pocket, they slid through his fingers and dropped right into a puddle on the side of the road. “Goddammit,” he muttered. as he knelt down to pick them up.

Before he could grab the keys, a pale hand slid up out of the water and caressed his fingers. He jerked back from the puddle. The keys sat in the shallow water, only getting colder. “Too many hours at work,” he thought. “You have to take better care of yourself.”

Nick fished the keys out of the puddle with a shudder and got to the car. It had seen better days, but for a twenty-year old import, it ran remarkably well. He had just settled into the driver’s seat, shivering and wishing for a better heater, when he saw her.

She stared out at him from the cover of the bushes. Her thin t-shirt and jeans were definitely not suitable for the icy weather. Nick wanted to get out of the car, but something inside of him made him stay put. There was no way that she knew he’d seen her. He could just drive away.

He started the ignition, and the heater roared and spit out cold air. With shaking hands, Nick switched the fan off. A quick glance in the mirror revealed that the woman had disappeared.

“Probably just some junkie,” he muttered. “This neighborhood’s going to shit.” He tried to reach over and shift into drive, but his hand was locked to the wheel.

The woman slapped the window. She glared in at him through stringy blonde hair, her eyes filled with anger. Nick shivered under her gaze.

“Where do you go at night?”

Her voice cut through the air like a rusty knife. Nick stared straight ahead. He didn’t want to make eye contact with her. Didn’t want to see the small chunks of ice in her hair, or the skin that hung loosely from her body. He glared at his hand, trying to will the fingers to let go of the wheel. She slapped the window again, and the car shook.

“It’s a simple question, Peter. Why won’t you answer me?”

“You have me confused with someone else,” Nick said, shaking his head. “I don’t know anyone named Peter.”

The car shook again as she slapped the window a second time. For a skinny woman, she was incredibly strong. Wet handprints shone on the glass. She leaned forward, staring in at him. “Don’t fucking lie to me, Peter. Just tell me where you go.”

Nick leaned back away from the window. He could see his own breath in the cold air; hers wasn’t visible. She pressed her face against the glass, staring in at him. Her skin had begun to rot, sliding away from her face in places as it moved against the glass.

“I don’t know anyone named Peter,” he repeated. “My name is Nick and my husband’s name is Alan.”

“All I want is the truth. That isn’t too much to ask.”

Frost formed on the glass where her hands touched it. Nick closed his eyes, and started to pray. He hadn’t been to church in years, but he promised that he’d start going again every Sunday if he just got out of this.

He thought about Alan waiting inside for him. It was late. He was probably already in bed, reading a book. Alan had never really liked Nick’s late night drives but he had learned to accept them. Nick wouldn’t be missed for an hour at least.

“Tell me,” the woman hissed in his ear. “Where do you go at night?”

He jumped. She was sitting behind him now, fingers grazing his neck. Her skin was cold and damp. His eyes moved on their own, looking in the rear view mirror. Her head was cocked at a slight angle. She seemed more confused than angry.

“I just drive,” he said, hating the way his voice shook. “I don’t go anywhere. All I do is drive. It helps me sleep.”

“I needed help,” she said. “And you left me behind.”

“My name is Nick,” he said, his teeth chattering as he spoke. “My husband is Alan. We’re going to have a baby soon.”

“We had a baby. A little girl. She’s alone now.” Her fingers slid around his neck. Her grip was loose. Nick wasn’t sure if his shirt was wet from her skin or soaked through with sweat. Tears streamed down his face. “It’s all your fault.”

“Why did you hurt me?” she asked again, her voice breaking slightly. Her grip tightened. Not enough to stop his breath, but just enough to make the threat of asphyxiation stick. Nick desperately wanted to reach up and pry the fingers from around his throat, but his hands still wouldn’t move.

Her anger flowed through his skin like an electrical current. Nick felt her argument with Peter, the rage overpowering all of his senses. There had been shouting, and things were thrown. This wasn’t the first of these fights. She had been so sure the neighbors would call the cops this time.

Dishes had been thrown. Now there was pain. Her hands touched her stomach and came up bloody. She had run from the house, not long after the fight had begun. Peter yelled for her in the night. Her bare feet slapped against the pavement. The driver never stopped, even after she rolled up onto the hood of the car, the glass shattering beneath her body.

The air tasted red, the coppery flavor of blood. “Colors don’t have a taste,” he thought, trying not to choke on it. Every joint felt like it had been filled with broken glass. He felt her dragging herself to the greenbelt, too scared to go home. She had died in the woods like a wounded animal.

“I’m not Peter,” he gasped. “I don’t know who hurt you. I’m sorry. So sorry.”

The fingers released his neck. He risked a quick glance in the mirror. She sat in the back seat of the car, hands still stretched forward. Dark bruises covered his neck. Slowly, Nick opened the car door and eased the key from the ignition.

He ran back towards the house where his husband was waiting for him. His keys fell from his numbed fingers in the puddle again, but he didn’t care. The only thing he wanted was to get home, to find the safe embrace of someone who loved him.

Jimmy

Jimmy stumbled across the street, trying to ignore the pain in his stomach. The people passing did their best to ignore him. He knew that he smelled bad. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a shower, or even seen soap. Still, a small part of him died a little when the faces of the people around him scrunched up as he got close.

The smell of pizza lingered on the air. Just up the street he spotted a man staring at a cell phone, holding a white box in one hand. The man was dressed nicely enough. Clean clothes, certainly. A blue shirt with a collar and jeans that weren’t faded and thin from everyday use.

Jimmy wrapped his heavy green coat around himself, hoping to hide the smell, and approached the man carefully. People did not like to be surprised. Ducking his head a little, he moved up next to the man, who took an involuntary step back.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Do you have a dollar? Or maybe some food?”

The man looked at him for a second, before sliding his phone into the front pocket of his jeans. “No, sorry, I don’t have anything.”

The lie hung in the air, and Jimmy’s eyes drifted down towards the box. Steam drifted up from it, and the smell was making his mouth water. He looked back up at the man’s face.

“Come on, man. Please. I’m starving here.”

“I really don’t have anything.” The man’s hand shook, rattling the pizza in the box. If anything, the smell was making Jimmy’s stomach hurt even more. He took a step forward, his eyes focused on the box. The man pulled it back against his body, pressing it against his chest with the free hand.

“Fuck you!” Jimmy shouted, lunging forward. He slammed the man up against the wall, the box falling to the ground in between them with a loud slap. The man flailed in his arms, his cries for help coming out as a low whimper.

A few people walked past, keeping their eyes focused on the streets in front of them. It was all Jimmy could do not to scream at them. He was tired of people looking through him every day.

When the punch came, he wasn’t expecting it. For a brief moment, he’d forgotten the man with the pizza. The hit didn’t even hurt, really. The man was swinging wildly as Jimmy backed away. People were watching now, recording with their phones, laughing to their friends.

Jimmy ducked under a punch and darted past the man who was now red-faced and screaming obscenities. He tried to push through the crowd, and get as far away as he could. The shouts of the man mixed in with the crowd around him, a surprising roar of noise.

When the weight of the police officer’s bicycle slammed into him, Jimmy hit the concrete hard, feeling a tooth break in his mouth. He watched from the ground as the crowd began to shuffle away, the pizza box kicked open and the food scattered. He tried to pull himself forward, crawling towards the food that was being mashed into the pavement.

Tears welled up in his eyes as he was pulled to his feet. The officer tried to talk to him, to get his side of the story, but all Jimmy could say was, “I just wanted some food.” The words tumbled out of his mouth over and over. “I just wanted some food.”

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