Tuesday, May 31, 2011

43/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Citizen Erased" by Muse

"When is this going to stop?" asked Sharon. Her throat and mouth were parched. Her teeth felt loose.

"Shhh!" pleaded the man next to her. He looked up and watched a drone. He cowered as it passed slowly overhead. They both kept digging.

"We have to sleep sometime," said Sharon, looking down at her mangled, bleeding fingers.

"We slept a few days ago," said the woman digging on her other side. Sharon looked at her. The woman was covered in a thick layer of rock dust, like everyone else. She wore what looked like had been a pink ball gown, but it was in tatters. Sharon felt slight comfort that she herself had been taken when she was camping and wearing sensible, durable clothes, though how much longer they would last was debatable. Sharon stopped digging and looked up at the drone. Its blue lights cut two swaths through the night. It was alway night. Sharon assumed they had been brought to an immense cavern since the temperature was always the same.

Behind them two small, dusty children with ratty hair dragged the body of an emaciated man. The man's fingers were worn down to the first knuckle, scabbed and still weeping. His clothes were already scavenged. His eyes were rolled up in his head. The children were dragging him to the body pile, which was cleared out every few days by a machine with scraping jaws. Sharon assumed that the bodies were recycled into their food. There was always hair in the crackers they were given once a day with few liters of water, and some sort of amphetamine tablet, all distributed by the children. She tried not to think about it too much.

One of the children fell, collapsing on a game leg. The other child cursed him. Sharon leaned down and picked him up. As thanks he scratched and spat at her, with a feral look on his face. She stepped back. The boy picked up the arm of the man and they continued dragging.

"What are you doing?" said the man. Sharon stood up fully and cracked her back. Pain shot back and forth along her spine. She sat down on the rock pile and put her head on her knees.

"You've got to dig!" said the woman in the ball gown. The man shuffled away as far as he could. "It's going to see you!" hissed the woman.

"Not for another minute or so," said Sharon. "I need to rest."

"We all do, but if you bring that drone here, it will punish us too! Get up!" said the woman. She grabbed Sharon by the arm and tried to pull her up.

"Get off me!" Sharon screamed. She formed a fist with the opposite arm and swung at the woman, connecting with her in the shoulder. The woman fell and sprawled against the rocks, dazed. Sharon picked up a large rock and held it over her head, about to slam it into the woman's head, but the woman looked up at her, in the eyes, shocked. She held up her hands in front over her.

"Don't," said the woman. Sharon froze, suddenly appalled. She looked up at the rock. It was outlined in the illumination from the returning drone. She lowered the rock and looked at the drone. It started to buzz and pulsate. It focused one of its beams of light on her body, and it sped closer. She extended her hand holding the rock behind her, and she started to run towards the drone. It stopped advancing and pulsated rapidly. She wrenched her arm in the direction of the drone and let go of the rock. She fell forward on the rocks, but looked up to see the rock smash into the drone. It whirled and spun, its lights careening around the near wall. The sound of digging ceased. All eyes were on the machine as it sparked and turned. Finally it fell in a heap. A green glowing liquid seeped out of it. Sharon got up and walked towards it. She picked up another rock, and stood for a moment over the dead object. Then she smashed the rock over and over again into the twisted pile. Green glowing dots arced in the air. Finally she stood up and looked around. Thousands of dusty faces stared at her, motionless.

More pulsating drones entered the cavern. Multiple beams of light lit up Sharon's figure. To the people behind her she was haloed. Thousands of hands picked up rocks, ready to strike.

Monday, May 30, 2011

42/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "The Gentle Hum of Anxiety" by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from The Social Network soundtrack

Something heavy landed on his abdomen and he awoke coughing.

"Ow!" he said.

"Oh, jeez, I'm sorry man," said a man's voice. "I didn't see you there. You all right?"

"Huh?" He couldn't see anything. There was a thick gray haze. The air simultaneously burned and ticked his throat and he coughed.

"You all right?" said the man's voice again.

"What's going on?"

"You musta been outta it man. We're under attack. Here, I'll help you up." He felt arms pull on his shirt, and he struggled to get on his feet. His head pounded. There was searing pain in his ears. A fire alarm started droning.

"Aaah," he said, holding his head. Then he could see a face, inches from his. It was covered in gray ash. Two wide eyes stared at him.

"Looks like you hit your head. Prolly got a concussion. Not that it really matters," said the man.

"Where am I?"

"You're in some office building. Dunno which one. I ran in here when the building across the street was vaporized. Look, we gotta head for the core of the building. The stairwell. That's prolly the best protection we're ever gonna find. What's your name by the way?"

"I don't know," he said.

"Really? Jeez, amnesia. Lucky you. Look, can you walk?"

"I think so," he said.

"All right. Take my hand." The man shoved his hand into his. It was gritty. The man pulled him through the haze. There were emergency lights on. He could read the word 'exit' in several places. They veered from those. There were other bodies moving around. Then there was a loud rumbling and the floor shook. Several people screamed.

"Jeez, that's another one down," said the man. "They must want to take the whole city."

"Who?" he asked.

"It's not really a matter of who," said the man, "rather a 'what'."


"Exactly," said the man. "Hey, does anyone know where the god damned stairs are?"

"Everyone's coming down the stairs," said the voice of a woman. "You can't go there."

"It's gonna be the safest place," said the man.

"No! We gotta get out of the building!" said the woman frantically.

"Trust me, you don't wanna go out there lady. They got this napalm type stuff. They'll barbecue you." There was another rumble and shake. The woman screamed and was swallowed up in dust and smoke.

"I don't understand what's happening," he said.

"It's the end of the world bub," said the man. "We gotta be cockroaches now, if we're gonna survive." There was a closer rumble and more violent shaking. "Jeez! Where the hell are the stairs?!"

"Over there," he said, point into the direction of a crowd of people. "They don't have as much ash on them."

"Good thinking man," said the man. The man pulled him in that direction, and they found the door to the stairwell. They pushed past frantic with faces twisted in fear and stress. "Let us through! Let us through!" The people where trying to push them in the opposite direction. He could see that the air inside the stairwell was clearer, but the stairwell itself was packed with people pushing to get out. The man started punching at people with his free hand, and then they tried to avoid him, and they made some forward progress.

There was shaking without rumbling now, and it was rhythmic. It was getting increasingly louder. Then there was a bright light. It cast their shadows into the stairwell. There were screams, and the crowd stopped pushing. Then there was quiet, just labored breathing. Then someone said "It's here."

He turned around, and shielded his eyes from the source of the light. Something tall walked into the light on four legs. There was a sound like a revving engine. Then the man pulled violently on his hand, and they easily cut through the crowd and reached the stairs. He grasped the railing and pulled himself up the steps. Then the crowd started screaming again, and they changed direction, pushing on their backs. There was a loud hissing sound, and he felt intense heat on his back. He kept pulling himself up on the railing. Another hiss and more heat, more screams. The smell of burning hair and barbecue assaulted his nose. He pulled up on the railing. It was getting hotter and hotter. People stopped pushing against his back. He turned to take the next flight of stairs, and he looked down. There were the shapes of people, now black and glassy and steaming. They were frozen in place, screaming. Behind them was large nozzle with a licking little flame, and behind that was a hulking creature in a silver suit, with several arms. It aimed the nozzle at him, then began to pull back on a lever...

The man wrenched him up by the arm, and an intense white beam shot past his shoulder and hit the wall, searing a foot-wide circle into the concrete. The man pulled him up the flight of stairs, panting. They turned to take the next flight, and he finally found his footing. The ran up that flight, and another. There was more hissing coming from below them. Then the man pushed open a door and they ran out into an office. Papers and dust and debris was everywhere. There was light coming from the blown out windows. The man found a chair and propped it under the door handle.

"That's not gonna hold them," said the man. "We gotta find the other stairwell." The man ran off past a bank of elevators. "Come on!"

"No," he said.

"What?" the man paused looking back for a moment. Then, "Whatever." The man ran around a corner and disappeared. There was hissing behind the door, and then something hard knocked against it. The chair bounced, but held. He turned and ran towards the windows. Vertical blinds were blowing in the wind. He looked out at the street. Smoke and dust and paper swirled in the air. It was hot. There were more creatures out on the street, bathing stopped cars and people with the white light beams. Down the street skyscrapers were falling down. The air above was filled with flying ships that shot out red glowing missiles. Glass and concrete exploded wherever they hit. A massive walking machine crossed at an intersection. More of the creatures were sliding down on ropes from its belly.

There was an explosion behind him. He turned to see the door to the stairwell blow out. The frame was on fire. A nozzle emerged, then the creature. It shook it's arms violently, and he could hear a muffled roar from behind the suit. It pulled the lever, and the nozzle revved up. He extended his finger at the creature, then grabbed the window frame, and jumped out. The beam passed just above his head.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

41/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Happiness" by Goldfrapp

The orientation room was decked out in gray carpet and maroon plastic-seated metal chairs. There were no windows. There were a few other new employees milling about, looking defeated already. Brad entered the room and sat in one of the chairs in the back row. The chair was wobbly and Brad looked down to see what was wrong.

"Ho, there! Watch your head!" said a man with a deep voice. Brad started to look up but the back of his head hit flesh. "Oops!" said the man.

"I'm sorry," said Brad, mortified. He hoped he had just brushed against the man's thigh.

"S'all right, s'all right," said the man. He squeezed past Brad and sat next to him. His girth spilled over the seat and touched Brad's elbow. He wanted to move to a different seat, but thought it might be rude. The man folded his arms over his substantial chest and sighed. Brad noticed that his was making a slight whistling noise with his nose.

"Excuse me," said a woman with scraggly hair and an rumpled pantsuit as she pushed past and took a seat in the corner and tried to make herself look small, but it just looked like her suit was about to swallow her whole.

"I guess no one wants to sit up front," chuckled Brad to the large man.

"I'm far-sighted," said the man. "I hope we get optometry benefits. That's the main reason I'm taking this job. I need new glasses."

"That's...sensible," said Brad, nodding. "I'm Brad by the way." He extended his hand to the large man, who gripped it limply and shook twice.

"I'm Claus," said the large man.

"Claus? That sounds like the name of German serial killer," said Brad, laughing lightly. Claus went red in the face.

"Excuse me?" he said.

"Uh, oh, I didn't mean to imply that you were...or anything..." said Brad.

"I'm a little offended," he said, getting up. He shuffled down the row and sat next to the woman in the pantsuit. She disappeared behind him.

Just then a stout and diminutive older woman in a shapeless dress walked into the room. Brad always thought of this type of woman as a 'dot-dot' for the way they walked, especially in heels, in a slow, swayed, double staccato, dot-dot...dot-dot...dot-dot. Brad thought that chiropractors must have a field day with these old gals. She dot-dotted her way to the whiteboard at the front of the room. She clapped her hands once.

"Everyone take a seat please," she said in a genuinely sunny, high voice. "Let's get started, yes?"

"Yes!" said Brad. The dot-dot looked at him funny and cocked her head. He wondered why she had asked a question if she didn't expect an answer. A man with buck teeth and a brown tie that looked like it was from 1975 sat next to him. He cleared his throat, and kept doing it every twenty seconds or so.

"Are we all seated now?" said dot-dot. Brad forced pressed his lips together, blocking the urge to answer. "Good! My name is Shirley! How are all of you?" She looked expectantly at other people seated in the room. There were several monotone mumblings of "fine."

"Oh, are we supposed to answer now?" asked Brad.

"Haha," said Shirley nervously. "Well you should all be excited because this is a big day! It's your first day at Spencer/Gaskell!" She started clapping. There was some scattered claps among the new employees. "Now today you're going to fill out all your benefits forms, and we'll also get you sorted into your departments.

"Do you think there will be a sorting hat?" Brad asked the man in the brown tie with mock enthusiasm.

"What?" said the man, clearing his throat again. "We have to wear hats?"

"No--" said Brad.

"I get traction alopecia when I wear hats. I can't wear hats!" said the man, with some degree of fright. "When I applied for this job they didn't say anything about hats!" Brad jaw fell.

"It's okay dude, no hats. I was just joking."

"You shouldn't joke about a thing like that," said the man. Then he noisily sucked back some post-nasal drip. Brad suppressed a gag.

"Can I have your attention again?" said Shirley. She pointedly looked down her nose at Brad.

"Yes sir," said Brad. Shirley rolled her eyes and suddenly looked tired.

"Okay. Now you will have to fill out your W-4s, your health plan selection, your dental benefits provision, optical provision," said Shirley.

"Yessss!" said the large man under his breath.

"You will also fill out a new employee survey. This will tell us about how you perceive Spencer/Gaskell. If and when you leave the company, you will fill out a similar exit survey," said Shirley. "Now if you have any questions about any of these forms, feel free to ask me. You will have the next hour to fill everything out."

She proceeded to hand out a series of thick benefit information packs, than sat in a chair next to the whiteboard, staring daggers at Brad. He whipped through the forms, choosing options at random. On the entry survey he drew a caricature of Shirley and gave her octopus arms. Each arm held a thick stack of forms. He wrote 'Don't Call Me Shirley' in block letters above the drawing. When he was done, there was still forty-five minutes left. He spent the time looking at his watch, listening to man next to him clear his throat, and watched a bug crawl across the whiteboard. At one point it veered near Shirley's hair and Brad got excited, hoping that it would find it's way into her hair, but alas, through Brownian motion, it wander off in the opposite direction.

Finally the hour was up. Everyone was long ago finished with their forms. Someone was snoring.

"Everyone done now?" asked Shirley standing up and adjusting her dress. There was a dull chorus of 'yeeeees'. "Excellent!" Shirley collected the forms, then left the room. A few minutes later she returned with three other people and a clipboard in hand. One was a tall fit man in a suit and black turtleneck shirt. Another was a short man with an impressive beer belly that made him waddle. The last was a mousy middle-aged woman in a black suit and pink shirt.

"Thanks for your patience everyone!" said Shirley. "Now I'd like to introduce your managers. This is Victor Morten," she pointed to the man in the turtleneck, "he's the head of invoice management!" Victor looked bored, but bowed curtly to the room. "And this is Bert Crestwell!" she pointed to the man with the beer belly. Bert took a little awkward hop and waved, all with a ridiculous grin on his face. Brad thought that this is what gnomes must look like. "He's the head of billing management! And finally, this is Eudora Aitken," she pointed at the woman. "She's the head of data integrity management!" Eudora nodded sagely with her head. She did not smile.

Shirley turned to her clipboard and started to call out names of the new employees, and assigned them to their new managers. Brad's name was the last to be called. He was assigned to Eudora. He walked up to her and shook her hand firmly. She withdrew her hand and wiped it rather obviously on her pant leg. The only other new employee assigned to Eudora was the woman in the rumpled suit. Eudora led the pair out of the room, down a hall, and then into a maze of gray cubicles. Brad goggled at the size of the area, thinking you could park a 747 or two in the space if it were cleared of cubes and people. Eudora walked them through part of the maze. Brad was already getting lost.

"Do you have a map?" he asked.

"What?" said Eudora.

"Nevermind," said Brad.

Eudora stopped at an empty cubicle. There was no computer, just gray fabric walls, a coffee-stained, lopsided task chair, and plenty of dust.

"You'll have to share," said Eudora.

"There's only one chair," said the woman in the rumpled suit.

"You'll have to requisition one from the office manager," said Eudora flatly.

"How do--" said the rumpled woman.

"Don't worry about it now. I'll be right back, I'll just go and get your work," said Eudora as she left. Brad and the rumpled woman both stared at the pathetic looking chair.

"I have sciatica," she said.

"You can have the chair," said Brad. The woman quickly sat down as if she thought Brad was going to change his mind.

"Thanks," she said, as she once again began to sink into her suit.

"What's your name by the way?" asked Brad. "I don't think I caught it."

"Cora," she said.

"Nice to meet you," said Brad.

"I guess," she swiveled around and pulled herself into the built-in cubicle desk. Brad leaned against the cube wall but it gave easily so he stood up straight and folded his arms.

"I hope we get new computers," said Brad.

"I don't like computers," said Cora.

"Really?" asked Brad, a little perplexed she would sign up for a job in an office.

"They make that buzzing sound," she said, moving her hands randomly around her ears. "And they give off a lot of bright light." Brad leaned out of the cubicle entrance, hoping Eudora was on her way back. There was nothing but gray carpet and a gentle background cacophony of ringing phones and dulcet, sleepy voices.

"I can see how that would be annoying," said Brad. He leaned back in.

"Oh it is," said Cora, tapping her hands on the desk. A plume of dust rose into the air. Cora coughed.

"Yeah," said Brad, not sure what to do with the conversation next. Finally he determined it was dead and unlikely to be revived. Then there were muted footsteps on the carpet. Eudora returned, carrying a large stack of wide printer paper. She deposited it on the desk.

"Here it is," said Eudora. She looked at Cora and Brad expectantly.

"What is it?" asked Brad.

"This is your work for the week," said Eudora. "I need you to go through each line and add up the numbers. Start with the first line on the top of the page, then the next. Then next week I'll give you another set of printouts and you will have to check that the sum of each line matches the sum on those printouts."

"Seriously?" asked Brad.

"Why wouldn't I be serious?" said Eudora.

"But, what's the point?" asked Brad. Eudora smirked.

"Well, the point, young man, is to make sure the sums are correct. You are in the data integrity department afterall," said Eudora. Brad scratched his head. "It's not that hard to comprehend," she continued.

"Okay then," said Brad. He looked at the printouts. The printing was faint, and the paper was striped blue and white. Along the sides were tear-away strips with holes. He pointed at the stack. "I didn't think they made these printers anymore," he said.

"No, of course not. This is from 1982 I believe. You will be checking it against a printout from 1993," said Shirley.

"Why?" said Cora.

"Because that's your job," said Shirley. "There should be a calculator and some pens in the desk drawer. If you don't find them, just requisition them with the office manager," she said, starting to leave. Cora opened the desk drawer.

"Where's the office manager?" asked Brad.

"Next to Bert's office," said Eudora, not looking back or stopping.

"Where's...Bert's office..." said Brad. Eudora had turned the corner. "Great."

"There's nothing in the drawer," said Cora.

"Fantastic," said Brad.

"I have my own pen though," said Cora. She pulled the stack of printouts towards her. "And I can do math."

"That's nice," said Brad. "I'm going to track down that office manager."

"Okay," said Cora, already engrossed in the numbers. Brad stood on his tiptoes and looked for anything resembling sunlight. He found the top of a bank of windows about two football fields away. He walked directly towards them, and left the monstrous, squat Spencer/Gaskell building as soon as he was able to.

Two weeks later, after many blissful days sprawled out on his sofa playing violent video games, Brad found a paycheck from Spencer/Gaskell in the mail. It was for the full 80 hours he was supposed to have worked. He immediately made appointments for a dental cleaning, his yearly medical, and to get new glasses.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

40/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Panic, Shear, Bloody Panic" by Hans Zimmer from the Sherlock Holmes sountrack

Runt pushed against the loose white tile at the bottom of the shower. He slid it an inch to the side and squeezed out of the hollow in the wall. He blinked up at the bare lightbulb in the middle of the room. That's strange, he thought, usually Foodbringer is asleep by now. Runt padded through a tiny pool of water ringed with a coil of Foodbringer's white hair. He stopped to take a sip, then sat up on his haunches sniffing the air. The neighbor's dog is or was recently outside. The nasty smell of it wafted through the cracks around the bathroom window.

The tile moved again. Runt looked back. It was Beta. He waddled over to the water and lapped, then washed his hands. He looked up at Runt and grunted.

"What are you looking at?" said Beta gruffly.

"Nothing," said Runt, turning away. "But don't you think it's strange that the light's still on?" Beta looked dull-eyed up at the lightbulb and blinked rapidly.

"Dunno," he said after a moment. "I'm hungry."

"Yes, of course," said Runt. "Should we wait for Alpha and Twofoot?"

"Nah," said Beta. He scurried to the lip of the shower, pulled himself up with some effort, and plopped down the other side. Runt heard his nails scritching on the bathroom tile as he ran into the bedroom. Runt clasped his hands together. Normally he would have no compunction about traipsing around the house at night when Foodbringer was asleep, but if Foodbringer was still up they all risked being whacked by Big Broom. Runt thought back to the time when he was just a few weeks old, when the bristles of Big Broom scraped his back. He didn't leave the nest for three whole days after that.

Runt looked back at the tile hole. What's taking Alpha and Twofoot so long? he thought. Aren't they hungry? Runt thought they had been spending an inordinate amount of time together in the far hollows of the walls. He couldn't imagine what they were finding to do there. It was all just dust and insulation.

there was not a hint of motion or sound behind the tile, so Runt decided to follow Beta before he got too far away. Runt ran to the lip of he shower and jumped over, landing gently on his forefeet. He ran to the jamb of the bathroom door and peeked around the corner. The light was on in this room as well, but Foodbringer was not here. Her bed was smoothly made. Beta was gnawing on the wooden bedpost foot. He always liked to do that to clean his teeth and work up a proper appetite before venturing in to the kitchen. Runt didn't quite see the same joy in it. The bits of wood just abraded his gums and he would spend the rest of the night licking his teeth. He didn't usually partake of the activity.

"There...you...are," said Beta between gnaws. Runt ran across the white shag carpet to join Beta.

"Where is Foodbringer if she's not in bed?" asked Runt. He looked about nervously.

"Dunno," said Beta. "Don't...care."

"I think we should go back," said Runt. He pulled on his whiskers out of nervous habit.

"Nah," said Beta. "We'll...be...fine."

"Maybe we should at least go back and wait for Alpha and Twofoot and get their opinions," said Runt.

"You...worry...too...much," said Beta.

"I like to stay alive," said Runt. He ran around Beta and ducked under the bed.

"Ahhh," said Beta, "that's much better." He rubbed his cheeks with his hands, then licked his lips. "You really should try this!"

"No, thanks," said Runt. He ran to the opposite bedpost, and clung to it. Beta followed. Runt sniffed the air carefully in the direction of the bedroom door. "I think she's still here."

"This whole place smells like Foodbringer," said Beta.

"I know, but it smells especially strong," said Runt.

"Maybe she fell asleep watching the light and noise box," said Beta. "That's happened before."

"We would hear it," said Runt.

"Well I don't know, maybe not," said Beta. "All I know is that I'm hungry." Beta ran across the open carpet to the relative safety of the bedroom door jamb. He sidled around it and disappeared into the hall.

"Wait!" said Runt. He heart was pounding. He glanced back at the bathroom doorway. There was still no sign of Alpha or Twofoot. Runt thought he'd rather be with Beta than with no one. He leapt across the open carpet and nearly faceplanted against the jamb. He slid across it, and ran down the hallway wall as furiously has he could. Beta was waiting for him at the other end. As soon as Runt reached the end of the hall, Beta went running into the kitchen. Runt panted and tried to catch his breath. The light was on in the kitchen as well as the living room. It was all so odd. He watched Beta disappear behind the counter over hang. He was going for the bread. There was probably a fresh loaf out. Beta liked to chew through the plastic, and Runt was happy to let him have the first bite since he didn't care for the taste of plastic any more than he cared for the taste and texture of wood.

Runt started to run across the hallway floor to the kitchen, then he heard a quiet, tremulous sound. He froze, and turned and looked in the living room. There was a large pile of Foodbringer's clothing on the floor. Runt cocked his head, trying to discern where the sound had originated. Then it happened again, and the pile of clothes moved slightly. Runt's heart leapt and somersaulted. He ran back to the wall, and stood on his back legs trying to hide completely behind it.

"Beta!" hissed Runt, "Beta!!" There was no sign of Beta. Runt took a deep breath in and out, then peered around the corner. The pile of clothes was still there, but now Runt wasn't sure that it was just a pile of clothes. He sniffed again. He smelled Foodbringer's scent very strongly. "Beta!" he called out again. Finally beta waddled around the counter. He was carrying a partially eaten Cheeto his hands.

"What?" he said. His open mouth exposed a half-masticated wad of orange. Runt pointed wordlessly towards the pile, and twitched his whiskers frantically. Then the pile made the sound again, slightly louder. Beta stopped chewing, and let his mouth fall agape. "Is that..."

"I think it is," said Runt.

"What is she doing on the floor?" asked Beta. "Is she sleeping there?"

"I don't know!" said Runt. He pulled down on his whiskers again. Then Foodbringer made an even louder sound, and moved one of her arms. She was reaching for a glossy black object, but couldn't get her arm near it.

"Aaaaahhhhh!" screamed Beta. He dropped the Cheeto and scampered off down the hallway and back into the bedroom. Runt fought the urge to run as well. Instead he dug his nails into the wall, clutching it tightly, as if he felt he could merge right into it for protection. Foodbringer made another sound, this time lower and longer. Runt watched her. She tried several times to reach her fingers towards the glossy object. Runt remembered when his mother was ill. She made a similar sound. That was a few days before she fell asleep for good. He felt suddenly sad. Foodbringer scared the water out of him, but if she fell asleep for good, there would be no more food in the kitchen. What will we eat?

Foodbringer made a gurgling sound, then coughed. She tried reaching again. Runt looked around for Big Broom. It was not in the living room. Runt let go of the wall. He padded a few steps towards Foodbringer. Runt saw her hair, which then rotated, and then there were eyes. Foodbringer made a frantic sound. Runt hadn't realized before the Foodbringer actually had a face. She wasn't that much unlike the members of his family group after all--just a much bigger version.

Runt padded closer to Foodbringer. Her eyes were wet with water. He sat back on his haunches and studied her face. One side looked lax, and the other was twitchy. She shrugged her shoulders, and moved a half inch towards the glossy object. She tried reaching again, but she still could not grasp it. Runt saw that she wanted it, but could not understand why she wanted it. It was not food, and it didn't seem to hold water. It was clearly not suitable as nesting materials. It didn't look like she could clean her teeth with it.

Out of shear curiosity, Runt padded up to the object. He touched it with his hands. It was slight warm and smooth. He pushed it with his foot, and it slid a couple of millimeters. Foodbringer watched him, and was quiet. He pushed it again, into reach of her fingers. He stood back an inch, and looked at her hand, then at her face. Her mouth closed and opened, but no sounds came out of her. Then suddenly she reached for the object and flipped it over. Runt raced back to the hallway wall, and peeked back at her. The glossy object lit up. Foodbringer was touching it's smooth surface. Then the object started to make lots of sounds. Then Foodbringer made sounds. Then the object made more sounds. This continued for awhile. Then Foodbringer glanced back over at him. Runt ran down the hall and towards the bedroom, afraid she would get Big Broom and find him. He ran into the bathroom and up over the lip of the shower. He ran for the tile hole, stopped only briefly to resecure the tile in its place, than he ran down the hollow and climbed up the wood to his nest. He curled up as tight as he could and hoped to forget what he had just done. He wondered how he had the courage to approach Foodbringer so closely when even Beta ran? Stupid, stupid, stupid he thought, pulling on his whiskers. He stomach growled as he tried to fall asleep.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

39/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Hands Remember" by Sea Bear

Cold, white winter sunlight shone obliquely through leafless trees. Cole's hard breath hung heavily in the air. He pushed a wheelbarrow up the hill that stood behind the town he had spent seventy years living in--most of his life. HIs chest ached with the cold air. There was no snow yet on the ground, but it was crusted over with frost. The wheelbarrow tracked through well-worn ruts. The forest on the hill was quiet of any wind or sounds of fauna.
At the top of the hill, in a clearing, Cole let the wheelbarrow rest on it's struts. He tried to stand up straight, but his back refused. As he caught his breath, he surveyed the town below. It too was quiet. The roofs of houses were covered in white frost. Only three houses in the town had smoke coming from their chimneys. So few left, he thought.
Cole stamped his feet, then reached into the wheelbarrow and carefully pulled out the shovel so as not to rip the plastic garbage bag and disturb it's contents. He walked to a spot that he thought was suitable. He looked back towards town, and made sure that he could see his own house through the branches.

"You won't be able to see it in summer," he muttered. "Oh well. Best I can do."

Cole started digging. The top few inches were frozen and hard, but he scraped through that. When he had dug a foot down, he stopped and rested next to an oak tree. He looked at the black bag. He started to cry again, they he quickly wiped them away with the fringed end of his scarf. He went back to digging. At noon the hole was about four feet deep, and about four feet in circumference. He leaned the shovel against the oak tree, then picked up the wheelbarrow and rolled it towards the hole. He set it down again, and laid his hands on the top of the bag.

"I'm so sorry this had to happen to you," he said. "I don't know why this had to happen." He started sobbing, then looked up at the tree branches above him, trying to stem the flow of tears. He looked out over the hill. There were dozens of grave markers. The town started burying bodies taken in the epidemic up here about five years ago when the two town graveyards filled up. There had been debate about creating a mass grave, but the town voted to use the hill instead. Now it too was almost full.

"It's not fair. You didn't get to live a full life," he said. He looked down at the bag. "I remember when you were little. You were small for your age, but you were strong. You wanted to do everything by yourself. You got mad when your mother or I tried to help you do things you wanted to do. We were irritated sometimes by it," he chucked, "but we were proud of you. We thought you'd be able to do anything you put your mind to. And you did," he smiled.

Cole looked back down on the town and his smile faded.

"I'm done with praying," he said quietly. "There's no sense to this." He thought of his grandchildren who died in the first wave of the epidemic. He could barely remember their faces anymore. He looked down at his hands. They were beginning to twist from arthritis. The skin on the back of his hands was loose and spotted and thin like vellum.

"You should have got the chance to outlive me. And you should have got the chance to outlive your babies," he said. "It's not right!" he yelled, "It's not right!" he screamed. Then he started sobbing again. "How could this have happened?! How could this be the end?!" He work to try to catch his breath from his choking sobs.

"Why were the elderly the only ones immune? It's so cruel. So cruel..." he trailed off, looking off into the distance at nothing in particular. He sighed heavily, then looked down at the wheelbarrow again. He picked up the handles, and slid the body into the grave. He looked at the curled up figure outlined in the bag and wished he had the strength to do a proper job of it.

He walked to the tree and picked up the shovel, then started filling the grave back in with dirt. When he was done, he contemplated what to do for the marker. He looked around and saw a large dead branch on the ground. He picked up up and shoved it down several inches into the loose soil. He took off his scarf and tied it around the top of the branch. A chill breeze picked up and jostled the fringe of the scarf.

"Goodbye daughter," he said. After a moment he tapped the shovel on the ground to get rid of the caked dirt on the scoop, then he put it back in the wheelbarrow, picked that up, and started down the hill towards home.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

38/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Extraodinary Machine" by Fionna Apple

Five minutes after getting onto the freeway, red taillights lit up and traffic started to snarl.

"Oh, come on! Not today! Why today?" exclaimed Ava. She pressed down on the brake pedal of her decades old import with peeling paint and rust. She checked her mirrors for upcoming traffic, to see if she could switch to a different lane, but semis and SUVs quickly hemmed her in. Her lane slowed to a crawl, while the neighbor lanes still flowed about thirty miles an hour. Soon she was inching along. The taillight of the truck ahead of her tapped out a staccato, then went a continuous red. The truck bed contained three large doberman pinschers, who stared at her directly, unblinkingly. Ava could only see their shoulders and heads, and the thought briefly crossed her mind that they could be Cerberus. The car behind her honked, as if the slowdown was her fault personally. She flipped the driver via the rear-view mirror. The driver, a red-faced man, honked more, then unrolled his window and tossed a half-full slushy cup at her rear window. The icy red beverage sloshed down onto the trunk, where Ava assumed it would dry into a sticky ant-attracting stain.

"That's lovely," she said. She twisted her grip on the steering wheel. She fiddled with the radio that often cut out. She squirted water onto her windshield, and turned on the wipers. They smeared bug parts in arcs. She sighed. The neighbor lanes were now down to a crawl. Her lane was no longer moving at all, so she put the car in park. Her phone ran.

"Where are you?" it was her boss.

"I'm stuck in traffic, I'll be there as soon as I can," said Ava.

"You need to learn to leave earlier," said her boss. Ava wanted to say that she left at the last possible moment because it meant she wouldn't have to spend anymore time at the office in her miserable job than she was minimally required to do. She refrained.

"Yes Jane," she said.

"You're going to have to take a full sick day if you're not here in ten minutes," said Jane.

"Does that mean I could just take the entire day off?"

"No, of course not. It's your own fault if you're late. You can't just make your own schedule! That's madness!"

"Uh, okay, but I don't think that's fair," said Ava.

"Life's not fair. Deal with it. And get in here ASAP," said Jane. She hung up.

"Screw you too," said Ava before dropping the phone on the passenger seat.

There was the sound of a revving engine behind her car. Ava looked out her side mirror. A motorcyclist was weaving up through traffic. Ava hated it when people did that, without any concern for anyone's safety. She unlocked her door, and slid down slightly in her seat. When the motorcyclist reached the back of her car she flew open the door. The motorcyclist skidded, and swerved into the adjacent car, scraping the paint. She closed her door, and suddenly felt like an idiot. The driver of the other car got out and started screaming at her. The motorcyclist righted his motorcycle and knocked on Ava's window. She slunk into her seat and tried to hide behind her sunglasses. The angry driver walked around the front of her car, trying to get a view of her license plate, but she put the car back in drive and closed the gap between her car and the truck with Cerberus. The car behind her moved up as well. The driver tried to shove himself between her car and the truck, but then the dogs started to snarl and bark. The man walked back to his car, swearing and gesturing towards her. The motorcyclist meanwhile took out a piece of paper and wrote something on it. He slapped it on her windshield and secured it with the wiper blade. It said "BITCH!" in block letters. He got back on his bike and zoomed off.

Her phone rang again. She looked at the caller's name on the display. It was her ex-boyfriend. Ava assumed he probably wanted money. She ignored it. The ringing stopped. Ten seconds later he called again. She turned off the phone.

Ava played with the seat-back adjustment, and tried to ignore the feeling of a rapidly-filling bladder. She opened the glovebox and fished out a pamphlet for camping in Roswell New Mexico, that the previous owner of the car left in there. She folded over one of the corners of the pamphlet diagonally, then tore off a square of paper. She folded it into crane, spread out it's wings, and set it on the dash.

She started to nod off, but was woken by the smell of barbecue. She sat up straight in her seat, and looked around. A few cars ahead, there was a group of people clustered around the back of a truck, chatting next to a charcoal grill. Smoke wafted up into the air.

"Oh come on!" said Ava. She gently bumped her forehead against the steering wheel several times. "I'm never getting out of here." She wished she was tall enough to just stride over the traffic. She closed her eyes.

The dogs started barking frantically, then they started to yelp. There was a series of crunches, and Ava felt her car buffeted by something, on all sides. She opened her eyes and and sat up. She couldn't see the cars around her, just sky. She sat up straighter and leaned forward. She could see the freeway and the cars ahead, but it didn't look right. The freeway looked narrower. Confused, she rolled down her window (laboriously since it had been defective for some time), and peered out.

"Oh my gosh!" She exclaimed. "What the--" The cars were tiny. Her car now took up the whole width of the freeway. Somehow, her car, with her in it, had grown enormous. She looked out again. Tiny people were running from under her car, screaming in tinny little voices.

Ava rolled up her window, closed her eyes, and wished to be small again. She opened her eyes and looked out again. There was no change. She put her hand to her mouth, hoping she hadn't killed anybody in the expansion. She opened her door, and stepped out on the freeway embankment, being careful not to step on anyone. She grabbed her purse and phone, and turned the car off. She walked along the embankment, looking down at legions of screaming people in tiny vehicles.

"Sorry, sorry," she said, "oh God." In a few steps she could see the cause of the traffic slowdown. The freeway was shutdown, with teensy little orange cones siphoning traffic to an off-ramp. After the closure there were several while trailers, and what looked like a film set. When the people on the set noticed her, the turned their cameras in her direction. Ava, embarrassed, put her hand up to shield her face and identity. Then realizing she was wearing a flowy dress, she bent down and gathered up the fabric. Walking awkwardly, she left the freeway in one step and went on the regular streets, trying not to step on any cars. The width of her feet took up the entire road. Little cars swerved and screeched as they tried to avoid her. One of them crashed into a hydrant, and the spray of water tickled her ankle.

"Oh no! Sorry! Oh jeez," she muttered, not sure if her voice was normal or booming in their ears. After several paces she was at the center of town. She found the office tower she worked in. She counted the floors and crouched down to her boss's floor on the tenth. She cupped her hands against the glass to block out the light and peered in. She could see people running around, papers flying, screaming silently. Suddenly she started to shrink. There was no sensation to it, which Ava thought was odd; she just got smaller and smaller. She quickly wished to end up slightly taller than she was originally.

Finally she was normal-sized again. A crowd of terrified people pointed at her, wordless, afraid to move. Ava forced a smile and waved at the crowd awkwardly. Then she curtsied clumsily, and immediate regretted it. The crowd stared at her, with their mouths agape. Ava cleared her throat and walked to the entrance of her building. She caught the elevator, and rode up alone. When she got out on the tenth floor, her appearance elicited a fresh wave of screams and pointing. She walked to her boss's office, and knocked on the door.

"Come in," said Jane, muffled by the door. Ava opened the door. The room was dark, the vertical blinds were drawn. Jane was seated on a mat on the floor cross-legged. She was putting away headphones. "Since you were late, I took the opportunity to get in some meditation."

"That's nice," said Ava. Jane peered at her sideways.

"You should take up meditation Ava," said Jane. "You get too stressed out."

"Okay," said Ava flatly.

"So what took you so long?"

"I'm not quite sure," said Ava.

"Isn't that the way it always is?" said Jane. "You think there's some horrific accident up ahead, and then it turns out the traffic is slow because it's slow--like a zen feedback loop or something."

"I guess," said Ava. There was suddenly a loud commotion behind door. "Jane, I think I need to leave."


"I just think I need to leave town--" Suddenly the door burst open. Policemen swarmed Ava, knocked her down, and pressed her face into the berber carpet. Jane screamed. Ava wished she was stuck back in traffic.

37/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by O Fortuna by Orff

On his first day of school, Jeremy was optimistic. That sentiment soon dissipated.

"Are you wearing a girl's shirt?" asked a smirking girl leaning against the cinderblock wall of the school. "He's wearing a girl's shirt!" She pointed at Jeremy and laughed. Other kids turned and looked. Another girl said "Did your mommy want a girl? Is that why she dresses you like a girl? Har-har-ha!"

Jeremy walked away and sat by a tree, waiting for class to start.

The next day, "Hey, sissy! Sissy!" said a boy with sandy hair and freckles. "Har-har-har-ha!" Jeremy walked to the rusting playset in the yard and sat on a swing. He watched the cars driving too fast past the fence.

Later he sitting on the carpet inside the classroom, lining up a series of little trucks and cars. The sandy-haired boy and another boy with a crewcut came over and stood over him snickering. Then the crewcut kid kicked the cars and they went flying. "Sissy-boys don't play with cars! Har-har-har-ha!" Jeremy got up and walked to a table and sat down, and put his head on the table.

"Are you going to cry?" said a girl.

"No," said Jeremy.

"I thought all sissies cried," she said. "Har-har-har-ha!" Jeremy put his hands over his ears.

In the yard, the next morning, a girl with missing front teeth shoved him into the wall.

"What are you doing?" yelled Jeremy.

"You're an ugly girl. I don't like you!" she screamed. Jeremy turned around. His cheek was abraded and bleeding.

"I'm not a girl!"

"Yes you are!" she punched him in the groin. Jeremy crumpled to the ground. "Now you are!"

"What's wrong with you?" he said wincing. "I never did anything to you!"

"I hate you!" she screamed. Jeremy scrambled up and ran towards the relative safety of a tree. He crouched behind the trunk. He could hear peals of "Har-har-har-ha!" from various onlooking children.

The next week, he was in the bathroom, in a stall. He flushed the toilet and opened the door. Five boys were waiting for him by the sinks. He went over to the sink and washed his hands under the steely gaze of the boys. He wiped his hands on his pants.

"You pee like a girl," said Crewcut. Jeremy was silent. He debated trying to run past them.

"Did you hear what I said?" asked Crewcut.

"Yes," said Jeremy.

"Har-har-har-ha!" they laughed in chorus.

"He said he pees like a girl!" said one of the other boys.

"I didn't say that," said Jeremy.

"Let's teach him how to pee like a boy," said Crewcut. The boys ran towards Jeremy, and took hold of his arms and pinned him to the wall. They each unzipped in turn, and urinated down the front of Jeremy's pants. In horror and pain he started to cry. "Har-har-har-ha!" Finally they let go, and he ran out into the hall. They followed. He ran to the teach, and tried to form words of explanation but could only sputter.

"What have you done!?" she exclaimed. "What's wrong with you!?"

"He peed his pants!" said Crewcut. "Har-har-har-ha!"

She dragged him to the nurse's office, where he was cleaned up and given a pair of old sweatpants to wear. The nurse wrote out a note for his parents, and pinned it to the front of his shirt, then wrapped up his wet clothes in a grocery bag and handed it to him to carry. The nurse escorted him back to his classroom. The teacher sat him down at a table and put a coloring book in front of him. There were a few other children at the table coloring. They stared at him.

"I don't want to sit next to him," said the girl to his left.

"Then go play on the carpet," said the teacher. The girl got up slowly, and glaring at Jeremy, she walked off to the play area. The boy across from him wore thick glasses, and his eyes looked huge as he stared at Jeremy in silence. The boy to his left had a severe runny nose and stared as well. He wiped his nose, rubbing mucus across his face. Then he reached into the communal crayon tray at the center of the table, took a handful of crayons and deposited them on top of Jeremy's coloring book.

"Thanks," said Jeremy. He looked at the crayons as if they were vectors for Ebola.

"Har-har-har-ha!" said the boy with the glasses. "Har-har-har-ha!" said the boy with the runny nose. Jeremy pushed the coloring book away and laid his head down on the table, and used his arms to block out all the light. Then the teacher tapped him on his back.

"Why aren't you coloring?" asked the teacher. Jeremy looked up at here. The light from the ceiling lights reflected off her glasses, so that her eyes looked like big unfeeling blank orbs.

"I'd like to leave now," said Jeremy.

"You can't leave," said the teacher. "You can color, or you can play with your friends on the carpet."

"Their not my friends," said Jeremy.

"Hrmmm," said the teacher. "I'm going to have to talk to your parents." She leaned over and opened the coloring book randomly. Then she picked up one of the mucousy crayons and wrapped his fingers around it. She tapped on the page, then left. The kid with the glasses was was absently making circular scribbles with a purple crayon while he continued to stare at Jeremy. The kid with the runny nose busied himself pulling long strings of mucous from his nostrils.

Jeremy snapped the crayon in his hand in half. The sensation felt good. He pulled over the tray and pulled out another crayon, then snapped it in three pieces. He did the same with a third crayon.

"You can't do that." It was the girl with the missing front teeth. She was standing behind Jeremy. "I'm going to tell the teacher." Jeremy took out a fourth crayon and snapped it. "What's wrong with you?"

"There's nothing wrong with me," said Jeremy. He snapped a fifth crayon. Then Crewcut came up behind him.

"You cry like a girl," said Crewcut. "You were crying when you pissed your pants!"

"I didn't do that, you did," said Jeremy, cracking another crayon in two. Suddenly Crewcut lunged for the crayon pieces. He grabbed them and threw them in Jeremy's face. "Har-har-har-ha!"

Jeremy clenched his fists, then before he knew what was happening, he had picked up the table and flipped it over onto the boy with the glasses, who screamed in shock. Jeremy stood up and grabbed his chair. He swung it at Crewcut's face, and the legs hit flesh--Crewcut went sprawling, blood spraying from his mouth. Jeremy swung again in the other direction, at the toothless girl, and hit her in the chest, knocking her down. She burst into tears. The teacher ran over and grabbed Jeremy by the shirt. The other children all started to scream or cry. Jeremy struggled. The teacher grabbed him again by the hair. He dropped the chair, twisted around, and started punching the teacher in the thighs. She cried out and released her grip. Jeremy ran for the door. He ran into the empty hall, and towards the two squares of white light at the end of the hall. He pushed through the doors, and daylight greeted him. He ran onto the steps and threw up his hands, free.

Monday, May 23, 2011

36/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Excuses" by The Morning Benders

Thunder rolled and cracked and rumbled. Rain spattered down on the magnolia tree. The air was dark gray and depressed. Agnes surveyed her her backyard from the safety of the enclosed veranda with a forced bitter grin. She brushed a lock of white hair from her forehead. The radio crackled and hissed from the other room. She was waiting for a tornado. She always waited for tornados each spring. She was hoping one of them would take her away someday. She detested the idea of dying in her bed, and then having some embalmer poke and prod and drain her body then dress her in some horrible uncomfortable fabric and paint her up like a hussy. Being sucked up into the air was a far more dramatic and tragic way to exit. She also often thought of taking a cruise and jumping over the side in the middle of the night and being enveloped in cold salty water, entangled in seaweed and stray fishing nets if at all possible. But that cost money, and she didn't like spending money.

"Tck!" she clicked her tongue. "The roses are getting too much rain!" She looked down at her drowsy persian cat, who was idly nuzzling her loosely besocked ankle. "I wish it would either rain harder or not at all Ferdinand." She looked back out at the yard. "I don't like storms that can't make up their minds what to do."

She bent down, with some effort, and picked up Ferdinand. He went limp in her arms. She went to one of her wicker chairs and sat down, with Ferdinand on her lap. She dutifully stroked his coat and and he purred and stretched, and rolled over onto his back. He reached to the arm of the chair and started scratching at the wicker weave. Ferdinand was in heaven.

Then the lights flickered and went out. The radio continued on. Agnes sighed, and wondered where she had last put the flashlight. She continued to stroke Ferdinand. There was a flash of white light in the sky, and Agnes braced for a loud crack and Ferdinand tensed up, but no thunderclap came. Then an object dropped from the sky and landed behind the magnolia with a thud.

Agnes got back up and let Ferdinand slump to the floor, where he immediately fell into a nap. She crossed to the broad screen window. Another object fell with a thud. Then there was another, and another. Then something hit the veranda roof with a sickening crunch, then a series of thuds as the object rolled down the roof. It dropped to the ground in an uneven heap. It started to move. Agnes screamed.

She ran into the kitchen, frantically opening drawers, looking for the flashlight. There were more crunches and thuds on the roof. She felt like she was in a bag of popcorn in a microwave oven. Finally she found the flashlight, and then she opened a cabinet door and took out a metal box with a combination lock. Her fingers were shaking as she dialed the correct combination, Ferdinand's birthday. She opened the box and retrieved her gun. She checked the clip, then took a deep breath.

Agnes slowly crept back out onto the veranda. The thuds had slowed down. In the gloom, she saw forms moving around her yard. She switched on the flashlight, and held it up with one hand and the gun in the other. She swept the beam of light across the yard, and in landed on naked human bodies. She screamed again.

The people were both men and women, all adults in their early twenties, skin gleaming from the rain. They were in perfect shape although they varied greatly in height. And they were all completely hairless. They started to walk towards her slowly.

"Don't you move!" screamed Agnes. "Get back!" The people stopped and froze.

"Agnes?" asked a young woman. "Is that you?"

"What--how do you know my name?" said Agnes.

"Oh sweety, I'm your auntie Millicent," said the young woman.

"The hell you are! You've got thirty seconds to get off my lawn or I shoot!"

"She doesn't understand," said one young man.

"Why would she?" said another. "It would be an awful shock."

"Please lower the gun dear," said the woman claiming to be aunt Millicent. "There's no need to get into hysterics."

"I'm going to start counting down--"

"Agnes dear, do you remember the summer you spent up in the cabin, when you were ten?" said Millicent, "when it did nothing but drizzle for a whole week, and we were all so bored to death and we got sick of playing cards?"


"So I taught you how to smoke. And I told you not to tell your father."

"How could you know--" said Agnes, lowering the gun a few millimeters.

"Because I was there dear. Don't you remember my face?" The woman stepped closer, and Agnes crossed the veranda to look at her closely through the screen. She was young and hairless and free of wrinkles. But the eyes were there, exactly the same as she remembered. Agnes straightened her posture and smiled slightly. She let the arm with the gun fall to her side.

"Have I died?" she asked hopefully.

"No dear, you haven't," said Millicent.

"I don't understand." Agnes's smile faded. "Am I having a stroke?"

"No," laughed Millicent. "There's nothing at all the matter with you. In fact you're going to live another twenty or so years, and in reasonably good health."

"Millicent, you shouldn't tell her that!" said a shorter woman.

"How could you possibly know how long I'm going to live?" asked Agnes.

"We just do. I can't really explain it. It's just like remembering the past, only we can remember the future, but only down here," said Millicent.

"Down here?" asked Agnes.

"On Earth," said Millicent with a smile.

"Can we come in?" said one of the men. "It's really cold out here."

"Oh, well, I don't know," Agnes bit her lip and raised her gun to her waist level.

"Please Agnes, let us in," said Millicent. "We're all your family."

"What?! All of you?"

"Yes dear. We were in what you call heaven, and we decided to fall to Earth. And we were--"


"Don't interrupt, dear. We were thinking that maybe we could live with you for awhile. You have this great big house all to yourself and there would be room if some of us slept on the floors. I promise we'll all go out and find employment as soon as we can so we won't be a burden on you." Millicent smiled broadly. "And dear, you do have some obligation because we are after all, family, and many of them are your direct ancestors."

"I don't understand that. I don't have anymore family. You died forty years ago in a skiing accident in Biarritz."

"Ooh, don't remind me of that. But like I said, we were all in heaven, bored stiff--"


"Yes I know, and I'm bad when I'm bored, so I figured out how to escape and come back to Earth, fresh as daisies."


"Yes dear! My goodness, don't you understand?" Millicent opened the screen door and stepped, dripping wet onto the veranda. She put her hand on Agnes's shoulder. "We've come back."

"So you're all back from the dead. In new bodies?"

"Yes!" said Millicent clapping her hands.

"But where are mother and father?"

"Oh, they didn't want to come," said Millicent.

"We didn't ask them," said one of the men. "My son was always so pious. He would have had a fit if he'd know what we were planning to do."

"Grandfather?!" exclaimed Agnes.

"Yes," said the man, matter-of-factly. "And just because I'm back, don't expect me to spoil you."

"You never spoiled me to begin with!"

"You're right," said the man. "I wanted to make sure you were tough enough for all the rough spots in life. Now, can we please come in?"

"Well, I guess I don't know what else I can do with you," said Agnes.

"Oh thank you Agnes dear," said Millicent. She slid past Agnes and padded barefoot in the kitchen. Agnes's grandfather came through next.

"Put that thing away!" he said, pointing grumpily to the gun. "You're going to hurt someone."

Then another man opened the screen door, shivering.

"And who are you?"

"I'm you're baby brother," said the man.

"Fred? But you died the day you were born..."

"That's why I'm happy to be here now," he said. "And it's nice to meet you." He quickly kissed her on the cheek and ran into the kitchen. A woman followed.

"You don't know me either dear," said the woman. "But I'm your great aunt Caroline. And aren't you just a peach!" She pinched Agnes's nose, to Agnes's chagrin. Then there was another man.

"I'm your great-great-grandfather Sylvester," he said gruffly. "I fought and died in the war. I took a minie ball right here." He pointed to his sternum with his thumb. "Died instantly. Glad to be back." He bowed slightly. "I hope I won't trespass on your hospitality for too long."

"Uh--" Agnes stood speechless as the parade continued. In this time the electricity came back on. There were seventy or so family members and ancestors that arranged themselves in her kitchen and living room, all naked, soaking the carpets with rainwater. Some stood chatting, and some, to Agnes's horror, lounged on the furniture without any obvious care that they weren't clothed. Ferdinand was making his way through the ankles, hustling for hands eager to pet him. Millicent quickly went to work and made tea. She fawned over the glasstop range and the microwave oven. An early ancestor from the days of the revolution was absorbed with turning the water taps on the sink on and off. Another one was remarking on the strange shape of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Agnes took in the ridiculous tableaux.

"Stop!" she yelled, her voice crackling. Everyone stopped talking and turned her way. "You can't all possibly stay here!"

"There's six bedrooms," said Millicent. "Plus there's the barn. I don't think some of the senior men would much mind sleeping there."

"No, we wouldn't mind," said Sylvester. "I like fresh air."

"I'm on a fixed income!" shouted Agnes. "I can't feed or clothe all of you!" Some of the people looked down at their bodies and suddenly looked ashamed. "I can barely afford all my prescription medication as it is!"

"Well, dear, I told you we would find jobs just as soon as we can--"

"There's a recession! This town's unemployment rate is astronomical!" Agnes threw up her hands for emphasis. "Plus I don't think a single one of you has a college degree. How are you going to find jobs with skills that when out of usefulness decades or more ago? And you don't have any identification! You can't get jobs without identification!"

"Agnes, don't get upset," said Fred. "We can learn things. I really want to learn things."

"He's right, Agnes," said Millicent. "You have to be reasonable. It's not like we can go back."

"Reasonable?!" screamed Agnes. "You just come out of nowhere, and barge into MY house, and start making yourself comfortable, as if you still owned the place! If there were one or two of you, maybe I could be reasonable, but this is outrageous! How dare you impose on my time and space! I'm going to have no choice but to call the police and have you all removed as trespassers."

"But...we're family?" said great aunt Caroline, on the verge of tears. "Doesn't that count for anything any more?" Agnes stared blackly at her.

"Don't you want people around?" asked Fred.

"Not really," said Agnes. "I have Ferdinand."

"What if we promised to stay only a week?" asked Millicent. "We'll get clothes, and sort out the identification problem, and then we'll move out."

"I don't think you could all do it in a week," said Agnes.

"Well, ten days then. And if we're not gone in ten days, you can report us to the police," said Millicent. "How does that sound?" Agnes felt suddenly hollow inside. She took in a deep breath, then sighed deeply.

"You don't all have to go..." she said quietly. "But you can't all stay! And you have to pay for your own food."

"Thank you sister," said Fred. Millicent hugged her. A cheer went through the living room.

"And no one touches my bathroom or goes into my bedroom!"

"Okay," said Millicent, nodding gravely.

"And no rearranging the pots and pans and silverware while you're here."

"Got it," said Millicent. "Oh, I knew we could soften you up!"

"Don't push it," said Agnes, before stalking up the stairs to her bedroom.

35/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Vertigo" by Anya Marina

"The usual please," he said, head down, eyes peeking up.

"A large Americano?" asked Diane.

"Yes," he said flatly.

"Can I have a name for that?" she asked. He thought a moment.

"Zelig," he said. He came in everyday and gave a different name. He was Ward and Xander and Javier, not to mention York and Zygmunt. He was once even Helen. Tomorrow he would probably be Abraham or Alaster since he always picked names in alphabetical order and was careful not to reuse anything.


"Yes, Zelig," he said. He shuffled his weight from foot to foot and pushed up on the bridge of his glasses. "Zelig."

"Zelig," she said again, writing on the cup. He shoved a five dollar bill in her direction.

"Keep the change," he said.

"Thanks," she said.

"I'll be up..." he pointed up to the loft area of the coffeeshop. Apparently it had the best wifi access.

"I'll bring it right up," said Diane, smiling. She rung up the order as she watched him depart for the spiral staircase. He was extraordinarily eccentric, but there was something about him that was attractive. She thought he probably had Asperger's disease, which she thought was less a disease than an endearing trait. He dressed well, and obviously showered frequently despite his social avoidance behaviors. He came in and sat all day tapping away on his laptop, and mouthing words under his breathe. He was on the cusp of creepy, but he didn't seem the least bit dangerous or unstable to Diane (and the coffeeshop had had plenty of off-kilter regulars that had to be banned at one point or another--he wasn't like them).

"Those fifteen cent tips adds up," said Sonya, the barista, as she foamed milk for another customer's order. Diane glanced over and rolled her eyes. "We really should price beverages at five cents over a full dollar amount, that way people would give us almost a full dollar when they dump their pesky change in the tip jar."

"Sure," said Diane. She glanced back up at the man, then wrote 'Zelig' on a cup and handed it off to Sonya.

"He's never going to notice you," said Sonya. "Unless maybe you laid across his laptop keyboard like a cat."

"I don't care if he doesn't notice me," said Diane. "He's just a customer."

"You're fascinated with him, I can tell," said Sonya smiling impishly as she tamped down some coffee.

"I'm not," scoffed Diane.

"I bet you'd love to lay across his keyboard..." said Sonya, arching her eyebrows.

"Shut up!" said Diane, flushing red and trying to keep her voice down. "Are you almost done?"

"Not quite," she said as she simultaneously pulled two shots. "I dare you to ask him what his real name is--no wait, I dare you sit up there next to him for five full minutes and try to have a conversation."

"That's all?"

"I'll cover the register for you."

"What do I get if I do it?"

"The full fifteen cents he tipped, instead of the seven point five cents you would normally get."

"Oh come on," said Diane. "Something real."

"All right, five bucks."

"Dollars," said Diane.

"Um, yeah," said Sonya.

"Well it's just that knowing you, you'd probably just draw five stick-figure deer with antlers on a piece of paper."

"That's good!" exclaimed Sonya. "I'll have to remember that one. We have a deal?"


"Okay, well get to it, while it's slow in here. Here's his drink." Sonya handed the hot cup to Diana. She walked out from behind the counter and smoothed the front of her apron with her free hand. She looked down and cursed the espresso and milk stains. She nervously headed for the spiral staircase, ascending it slowly.

When she reached the top she crossed over to the mystery man, and placed the cup down on his little circular table. He lowered his laptop screen and glanced furtively up at her.

"There you go," she said, not knowing what to say.

"Thanks," he said quietly. She continued to stand there, even though her feet itched to leave. He shifted in his seat, sidling a half-inch away from her.

"Do you need anything else?" she said.

"No," he said. She folder her arms, and he sidled another half-inch.

"So, uh, we were wondering, what is your real name exactly?"

"Uh, Zelig," he said. He pushed the bridge of his glasses again. He turned slightly towards her, crossed his legs, and reached for the cup of coffee. When she spoke again he quickly retracted his hand and stuffed it under the opposing arm.

"I don't think so," she said smiling. "Come'on, you call tell me. I won't tell anyone."

"I uh, I don't like my name," he said.

"It's not as weird as Zelig or Xander is it?"

"No, I like those names," he said, somewhat quickly.

"So that's why you use fake names?" asked Diane,

"That and it's fun and challenging," he said, turning his head up slightly. Diane turned around and pulled a chair towards his table. She sat down and he scooted his chair a few inches from her.

"Do I make you, uncomfortable?" asked Diane, "because I don't mean to."

"Sort of," he said.

"I'm sorry. Do you want me to move back?"


"Uh, okay," said Diane, confused.

"So you're just hiding your name, not your identity or anything?"

"Something like that," he said.

"So what's you're real name?" she asked. He moaned under his breath.

"It's uh, Baxter," he said.

"Really? That's not so bad. I bit stuffy maybe, but not bad."

"I think it makes me sound like a butler," he said. Diane laughed then clapped her hand over her mouth. Baxter smiled back.

"So is that your first or last name?"

"My full name is Baxter Smith Worthington the fifth," he said, looking down at his hands.

"That's quite a mouthful," said Diane. "I think I see the problem."

"Yeah," he said, sighing.

"So what do you do up here all day?" asked Diane.

"Uh, stuff," said Baxter, folding his arms.

"Are you are writer?" asked Diane. "Oh that's stupid question. Ninety percent of the people who work all day in coffeeshops, freeloading the wifi are writers."

"I'm not freeloading," said Baxter, looking concerned.

"Oh, no, I wasn't accusing you or anything..." she trailed off, and looked down to Sonya. She had her elbows on the counter and her head in her hands, staring up with some glee. "I was just curious about what you do." She looked back at Baxter.

"Yeah, I write stuff," he said vaguely.

"Well, let's see!" She quickly flipped up the screen...to see a photo of herself.

"No!" he slammed down the screen, and grew red.

"What the--" she knitted her brow and reached over to open the laptop, but he put his hand on hers. It was with a warm and gentle touch and something indescribable zipped up her arm and into her chest. She sucked in a breath with haste.

"Please don't--" he pleaded.

"Was that me?"


"Are you stalking me or something?"

"Not really," he said quietly.

"Can I see please?"

"Don't get angry..." he slipped his hand off hers, and let her flip up the screen. It took a moment to come on, but then she saw a photo of her that she posted to Facebook a few months ago, used as his desktop background.

"I need to redo my privacy settings," she said.

"I'm so, so, so sorry," he said.


"You might think this is strange," he said.

"At this point, I think I'm prepared for strange," she said.

"You're my muse," he said.

"Huh? I'm your what?"

"My muse. You inspire me."

"Inspire? What exactly do I inspire you to do?"

"I write poetry," he said.

"Oh, thank goodness," she said sighing. Then she laughed. "I thought maybe you were like a serial killer or something, and you killed other women and put wigs on them to make them look like me or something. That would not have been acceptable."

"I'm not that strange," he said, after a long awkward pause.

"No. Poetry. That's cute actually," she said. He blushed. "Can I see something?"

"Sure," he said. And for the next two hours he read her his poems. And the next day when he came in, he gave his name as 'Baxter'.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

34/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Inferno (Instrumental)" by J Boogie's Dubtronic Science

The bags chinked and crackled against the metal coils as they were inserted rhythmically, efficiently into the vending machine. Irving made it a point to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Luckily now all the vending machines were digital and took credit card or PayPal so he didn't have to empty any cash boxes or refill the change box. Marco stood silently guard a few feet away. He would look from side to side, confidently, his hand resting over the large gun slung around his larger chest. Irving was glad he had the more physically demanding tasking of refilling. If he guarded, he would likely sweat through his shirt and not look appropriately confident or dangerous, and that would just invite trouble.

"Almost done?" said Marco glancing over his shoulder at Irving.

"Just one more row man," said Irving.

"Could you hurry it up?" said Marco.

"I'm going as fast as I can," said Irving.

"Speed it up. We got a patron who looks like he can't wait."

"What?" Irving paused and looked back. A toothless stringy man bobbed from foot to foot a few yards away. "Oh, geez."

"Don't stop," whispered Marco. "I don't want to have to plug this guy."

"Yeah, yeah," said Irving. He suddenly felt hot. His fingers shook as he plucked bags from the cardboard boxes and deposited them in the coils.

"These animals smell fear," said Marco.

"I'm not an animal," said the stringy man.

"Then back up a few feet, dude," said Marco.

"I have every right to be right here, just like you," said the man.

"Sure you do," said Marco.

"Don't you make fun of me!" screamed the man.

"It's all right dude, I just don't want no trouble," said Marco. "You'll get your fix in a few minutes, just hold on."

"I wish I didn't have to," said the man. "I wish I never saw that machine." There was a commiserating murmur from the waiting crowd. Irving briefly looked around. There were a lot of them. Shabby skinny toothless people in tattered, nasty-dirty vestments, adults and kids, all google-eyed and staring at Irving's hands, following them hungrily from box to vending machine. Finally he reached the last bag in the last box and put it in a bottom coil.

"Done," said Irving. He stood up, shuffled the empty boxes onto his dolly, and reached for the door to the machine. A hand grabbed his wrist and twisted. "Aaah!"

"Get off him!" yelled Marco.

"No!" said a woman, the owner of the hand. "I'm not paying for this anymore! It's not right! I'm taking what's mine!" She pulled Irving to the ground with inhuman strength.

"Get off me!" screamed Irving. Brrrraaaaapp-brap. The woman flew back from Irving, and crunched, lifeless, to the ground. Irving scrambled up quickly, and stood frozen next to the vending machine. The customers looked angry and uncertain.

"Close the door Irving," said Marco calmly.

"Yeah, yeah," said Irving. He reached for the door and pulled it closed, locking it with a loud thud.

"We're leaving now," said Marco to the crowd.

"Screw you!" said someone in the back of the crowd. "We ain't paying!"

"They got more in the truck," said someone else. Marco and Irving had more deliveries that day, so their armored truck was still more full of filled boxes than empty boxes.

"Let's get the truck," said another.

"Stay back," said Marco. "If you got a complaint with the prices, call corporate. We don't have nothing to do with that."

"We don't care about you," said the stringy man. "You're incidental."

BRAAAAAAAP! Marco shot into the air.

"Consider that a warning. Make a move towards that truck or us, and I'll mow you down."

"You can't do that and get away with it. We're still human!" said a woman with a half-dead looking infant hanging limply from her arms.

"Not really," said Marco, "and it's not illegal to kill one of your kind. So back up!" No one moved.

"Let's not antagonize them," said Irving. He quickly packed the boxes and piled them haphazardly on the dolly.

"Yeah," whispered Marco. "I shoulda never opened my mouth. Never turns out well."

Suddenly a man lunged for the truck, and hit it shoulder first. He grunted and collapsed on the ground. Then the crowd closed in on the truck, rocking it back and forth. It all happened in a matter of seconds.

BRAAAP-BRAAAP-BRAAP-BRAAAAAAAAAP Marco shot into the air again. No one in the crowd seemed to notice.

"Scatter if you value your lives!" screamed Marco. His face was flushed, and the veins in his thick, muscular neck stood out.

"We haven't got a chance. Let's just run for it," said Irving.

BRAAAP-BRAAAP-BRAAAAAAP-BRAAAAAAP-BRAAAAAAP This time Marco shot at the crowd. Emaciated men, women, and children dropped like wooden marionettes relieved of their masters. The crowd noticed now, and turned from the truck towards Marco.

"No man! Let's run for it!" said Irving.

"Bastards! You're gonna get what's coming to you!" Marco pulled the trigger again. Irving ran in the other direction. The customers took almost no notice of him, and instead were fixated on the strapping Marco, a Mad Hatter with a machine gun strafing the crowd.

Irving only had to run to the next block before he heard Marco's guttural screams. He imagined him down on the ground, being plucked apart by the crowd, being eaten, because that's what they did when they didn't get their drugs on time. Irving unzipped his jacket with the company logo emblazoned on the back. He threw it to the ground and kept running. The screams would have drawn dozens more by now, attracted by fresh blood and a clean meal. The cold air was refreshing but his chest started to hurt. As nervous as he was, in general, and as useless as he was in a fight, he wasn't used to flight. He slowed to a jog, looking furtively around.

This part of the city was unclean; it was fully tainted by the effects of the product he helped to sell. It was a drug used to ameliorate the effects of poverty. It satiated the feeling of hunger. It made the user satisfied with even the most menial and demeaning work. It generally killed libido so the poor would stop reproducing so quickly. It also made most pregnancies unviable, and those babies born addicted to it were unhealthy and didn't live long. It changed their bodies too. All the calories they did ingest went straight to the building of sinewy muscle. A man on the drug had enough strength to snap a human femur in a matter of seconds. And they didn't really care where their calories came from. They had a form of pica, where they would chip away at the walls in their dingy tenement apartments, eating chalk from drywall, and washing hunks of fiberglass insulation down with dirty water. They would cook up rats, and fry cockroaches in rat fat. If someone in their family became sick, they'd carve up that individual and have a real feast. They didn't care.

Irving slowed to a quick walk. No one took notice of him. The people who were out shuffled towards the truck. Irving headed for the gate. He punched in his security code, and the gate slowly slide open. He ran out to freedom, and decided to quit his job.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

33/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "The High Road" by Broken Bells

Electron kicked electron and got kicked back. Light traveled barely impeded through glass tubes. The conversation was established.

"We should meet," said the male voice.

"You know I can't," said the female voice.

"I have to see you."

"You can wait."

"At least tell me where you are."

"I can't. You know that. I've told you before."

"Why? Why don't you want to see me?"

"You ask too many questions. I have to go."

"Wait, wait! Don't go. Not yet."

There was staticky silence on the other end. Finally, "I have things to do," she said.

"I know, but we need to talk about the future."

"There's no future for us."

"It's not to late to change your mind."

"No, it is. But I don't think we ever had a chance."

"I think we do. You keep answering."

"You keep calling."

"There's still time for you to change your life."

"I can't change who I am."

"You're not who you think you are. You have a soft side, you know."

"I'm hanging up."

"No you're not."

"You're right, I'm not. I must be..."

"You must be what?" There was another long span of almost silence. He could hear her drawing on a cigarette.

"Goodbye Garry." There was a click.

Garry turned to the others in the room. It was a shabby hotel room, with decaying red velvet curtains, a faded, crushed and worn down carpet, and two queen beds he would never risk sleeping in. There were five other men in the room, other police detectives and analysts.

"Did you have enough time?" Garry asked one of the analysts.

"Yeah but..." said the analyst, vibrating his leg nervously.

"But what?" asked Garry. He was hoping it wasn't enough time to trace the call. He wanted to keep talking to her. He was addicted to her, to the pursuit of her. Maybe if he actually met her, had to interrogate her, had to see her go to prison, had to see her stand up in court, and had to see her in the execution chamber, strapped to a stretcher, ready for lethal injection, it would be sad for both of them. But this way, while she still ran, she was in some way, still his.

"I don't know how to tell you this," said the analyst, "but, uh, the call came from inside this room."

"Can't be!" exclaimed one of the other detectives. "You've obviously messed up something."

"No, I'm certain. It's the same phone number that Gary was using."

"It's impossible," bickered another analyst. "You don't know what you're doing."

"It doesn't matter," said Gary. "She outsmarted us. She always outsmarts us. It's just smoke and mirrors." Then he smelled a faint lingering whiff of cigarettes. He smiled.

Friday, May 20, 2011

32/365 -- Playlist Story -- inspired by "Ooh La La" by Goldfrapp

Up above them was the slowly rotating blue neon halo. It adorned the facade of the local Blue Madonna outlet, a post-modern glass and black stone edifice. Housed inside was a spacious salon. The front sold lower quality entertainment gadgets. The back hosted rows of immersive experience chairs. The upper level was were you could get more permanent options. George had avoided the place for years.

"I feel like I'm breaking a rule," said George.

"That's just ridiculous," said his friend Eldon. "You're just being stubborn. You wouldn't be a hater if you actually gave it a try. Come'on. It'll do you a world of good. Blue Madonna loves you," he said with a smirk.

The contrast between the friends was stark. Eldon was fit, well-rested, fashionably dressed, and employed. George, was overweight, slovenly, constantly tired, and unemployed. Eldon and George were, at one time, two peas in a pod, and Eldon chalked up his current state to his time spent inside the cold walls of Blue Madonna. George pondered these facts.

"Alright, fine," said George.

"Great!" said Eldon. He steered George through the glass doors and they were received by two incredibly fit greeters, a man and a woman in well-tailored white suits, who welcomed them warmly and offered them bottled French spring water. Eldon took his, but George refused, afraid he might have to pay extra for it. He looked down at his faded t-shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops, feeling suddenly, very out-of-place.

Eldon conversed with the woman, slightly out of earshot of George. There was light laughter. The male greeter smiled at George insincerely, and George began to look at the ceiling. After a moment, the woman motioned for Eldon to follow her, and Eldon motioned George to follow him. They proceeded through the sales floor and into the back where the chairs were. They were much like old-fashioned barber's chairs; they were made of brushed aluminum, and well padded white leather. There were a few other customers in some of the chairs, leaning back, motionless except for their hands which were resting on large clear plastic balls that they could rotated in place.

The woman showed them to adjacent chairs.

"Please take a seat," she said with a graceful smile. Eldon slid into a chair, then looked over at George expectantly. George went over to the other chair, and climbed in clumsily. He found it comfortable enough, but was a little cold.

"Would you like enhancements?" asked the woman to both of them. She asked it like a waiter at an Italian restaurant asks you if you want parmesan cheese on your food.

"Yes, the full spectrum please," said Eldon.

"What is it?" asked George.

"It's a series of experience-enhancing herbal drugs," said the woman. "You can get the basic version which includes B vitamins and melatonin, or you can get the full spectrum, which includes those as well as a super dose of caffeine, THC, and our special nootropic blend."

"When did THC become legal?" asked George.

"Last month," said Eldon, "but only in Blue Madonna outlets."

"Really?" said George. "That seems--"

"Sir, would you like them or not?"

"I don't know, does it cost more?'

"George, I suggest for your first time that you skip them, so that you can get an unadulterated experience," said Eldon. "But definitely get them later. It will blow your mind."

"I'll keep that in mind," said George. He was getting antsy. He started to nibble on his fingernails. "I guess not then, ma'am. Miss."

"As you wish," she said with a smile. She then went to a counter behind Eldon's chair, opened a drawer, and withdrew a sterile sealed pack of pills. She tore it open and placed the pills in a little glass cup. She brought the cup to Eldon.

"Thank you," he said, then poured all the pills into his mouth, took a swig on his bottled water, and swallowed everything at once. He washed it back with a second swig, then handed the cup back to the woman. "Thanks."

She deposited the cup back on the counter, and opened a lower drawer. She took out a stretchy cap that was attached to a thick cable. She put the cap on Eldon's head, and adjusted it. Then she put Eldon's hands on the plastic balls on the chair.

"When you're ready, let me know," she said, standing over him, with her hands on his.

"I'm ready," said Eldon smiling up at her. Suddenly she forced her weight down on his hands. Eldon's eyelids fluttered and his body went still. The chair slowly rotated into a reclined position.

"Why did you do that?" asked George. "Is he in it?"

"Yes," said the woman. "He's in the experience. It's takes two people to turn on the machine. It's a safety feature."

"Safety feature? Why do you need a safety feature?"

"The experience requires two hands to operate. You have to have both hands on the controls or you could end up in a sup-par experience. By requiring the switch to be turned on by weight, it ensures that the client's hands are on the controls."

"Sub-par? What do you mean?"

"A nightmare," said the woman.

"Does that happen often?" asked George, squirming in his chair.

"Only if you don't have both hands on the controls," said the woman smiling.

"This is my first time. I don't know how to use the controls," said george, biting at his nails.

"Don't worry about it. You're body will know what to do automatically. You won't even be conscious that you are using the controls."

"Oh," said George. He didn't understand how that would work, but he gave up the point.

"Are you ready?" asked the woman. "You seem a little nervous."

"Yes, yes I am."

"It's perfectly safe," said the woman. "And you are perfectly safe here."

"How long does it last?"

"You can leave at any time you wish," said the woman. "Some people stay in for five minutes, and others for an hour or two."

"Does it cost more to stay in longer?" asked George. "I don't have a lot of money," he added quickly.

"No, not at all. Right now you are on you're friend's guest pass, so you can go through the experience at your leisure, and for free. If you chose to purchase your own membership, your experiences can always last as long as you want, and you get a good discount on any home experience devices you wish to buy."

"Okay," said George. There was something about the sales pitch that made him anxious to just get on with it. "I'm ready."

"Good!" said the woman. She went to the counter behind George's chair and pulled out a cap and cable. She put the cap on George, and tightened it. She grasped his hands and placed them on the plastic balls.

George looked over at Eldon, motionless. Then he looked around the room at the other customers. None of them had stirred since they got here. He wondered how long they had really been under.

"Let me know when you're ready," said the woman. George sucked in a deep breath of air and swallowed several times. The woman was leaning over, a few inches from his face, smiling beatifically, her warm hands gently covering his own. Under other circumstances he would have been ecstatic in this sort of position, but she creeped him out a little.

"Okay," said George. The woman smiled more deeply, then she pressed down hard on his hands. The controls gave, and then he felt the sensation of falling.

The room was suddenly black. He couldn't see his hands. An intense white light turned on, in what looked like the distance. He started falling towards it. It grew bigger and bigger. Rays of different colors shot out towards him. They glowed with intense light, but he could not see his body. He wanted to scream, but could not say anything at all. The white light grew into a ball, then a roiling star. He fell towards it fast, and soon the flares and spots took up his entire field of vision. He felt heat, then it grew in intensity, burning, then so hot it felt cold. He felt an involuntary orgasm somehow spread over his mind, for he had no body. It dulled the pain from the heat and he was grateful, but wondered about any embarrassing effects it may have had on his body in the chair.

Then the star enveloped him. There was nothing but white. And then there was the sound of wind. Dark spots flew past him. There were more and more and George struggled to make out the forms--they were winged people. A darkest ebony black, with shiny obsidian eyes and black feathered wings. They were taller than real people, and they were proportioned like superheros. Dark angels. They swooped in on George, touching his mind with their wings. Then they closed in and blocked out the light from the star. The pulled at him with their hands, and they turned him inside out, and then he had a body.

He found himself standing on a solid surface, naked. The dark angels flew up and away. The star was now a safe distance away in the sky now. He looked around. There was nothing but a gray plane in all directions. Then he heard padding footsteps behind him. He turned around. Walking towards him, tail wagging, was the dog he had as a child. He crouched and dog came running and leapt into his arms, licking his face and each lick was electric. George was overcome with the sense of being loved. He started to cry. The dog smelled just as she did when she was alive. Her fur felt exactly the same. He hugged her, but her form collapsed. With horror, he looked down at the loose fur he held in his hand. The wind picked up and it blew the fur out of his hand, and it disintegrated in the air.

He stood and looked around. There were trees now. The smell of the forest assailed his nostrils. He breathed in deeply. He could smell the wood and the rot of the forest floor. He felt moss under his feet. Then a path formed under his feet and led off through the forest. He looked at the path, and felt overwhelmed with sensation. He felt an intense urge to follow it.

"No," he said. The forest faded. The smells dissipated. The wind died. The Blue Madonna room returned. The woman was no longer standing over him. George quickly removed his hands from the controls, and instinctively inspected his palms. Then he looked over at Eldon's chair. It was empty. George looked around the room. Eldon was no where in sight. There were new people in the other chairs. George stood up, and walked to the front of the store. The woman was back to greeting customers.

"Where's Eldon?" asked George.

"He's finished with his experience," said the woman.

"I gathered that," said George. "Where is he?"

"You were in for a long time," said the woman.

"I was? How long?"

"About three hours," said the woman.

"That was three hours? You're kidding."

"Mastering your sense of time within the experience takes some time," she said.

"That's really weird," said George, "but nonetheless, could you tell me where Eldon is? Where did he go?"

"He purchased a premium membership," said the woman. Then she pointed up.

"No," said George. "I thought we were going to go to lunch after this. What happens up there exactly?"

"It's a premium membership," she said.

"You just said that," said George. Then the woman reached up to her hairline, and pushed back, removing a wig. Underneath, her skin was heavily tattooed with metallic lines that crisscrossed her skull. George could see all the capillaries in the scalp, because underneath her skull glowed. "What is that?" he asked with some horror.

"The skull is replaced by a composite implant. It contains all the processing power that we have in the salon."

"That's a really serious surgery--" said George, aghast.

"The tattoo is an imprinted antenna which is in constant communication with Blue Madonna."

"Um, with the store?" asked George, confused. The woman laughed lightly, then replaced her wig.

"No, with the Blue Madonna," said the woman, "she who helps you create experiences, who helps you create your dreams." George stared at her blankly, not sure what to say. He looked up at the ceiling, towards Eldon. "Obviously you haven't met her yet," she said. George turned back to the woman.

"I thought that was just a branding thing. Can I go see Eldon?"

"He'll be in post-op recovery by now. He'll be down in an hour or so."

"That fast? Really? To get your entire skull replaced?" George was getting a bit angry.

"I was skeptical at first as well, but it's an automated procedure. Computer controlled. You'll want one soon too," she said.

"I don't think so," said George. He turned to look at the chairs in the salon.

"You want to go back, don't you. Already you want to go back," said the woman.

"No..." George trailed off. He did want to go back. He took a step in the direction of the chairs. "I don't want to," he said, as she took his hand and led him back to the chair. "No..." he said weakly, as she eased him into the seat.

"There's no harm if you just sit here until your friend is finished upstairs."

"No," said George. She put the cap back on his head. "Tell me, what's it like, after the surgery I mean?"

"It's wonderful," she smiled broadly. "You feel the love of the Blue Madonna constantly. Everything is calm. Every problem is solvable."

"What is Blue Madonna?" he asked, as she placed his hands on the controls.

"Technically it's an algorithm. But in reality, She is God." The woman smiled, and pressed down on George's hands, and the room went black.