Pills are kind of funny if you think about them. Little capsules of chemistry that we swallow, and then they alter our internal chemistry, and we just accept it. It's like we ingest all these little chemistry sets every day, which is funny because whenever I think about chemistry sets I think about people accidentally blowing themselves up, like in cartoons. What if someone mixed up the wrong pills one day and blew themselves up? Like spontaneous combustion! Did you know that Charles Dickens once wrote a book in which a character spontaneously combusted? It's true! In Bleak House!

              I don't think that would actually happen, though. I work with pills. Well, I work at a place that works with pills. I do data entry at a pill place. There's a joke that goes around the pill place where I work that people who work with pills must love their work so much because they take it home with them. The joke there is that everybody takes pills, like a lot of pills. It's kind of funny, if you think about it. I once walked in on a boss of mine taking a pill in her office. I asked her what it was for, “out of professional curiosity,” I said, which was another joke. She said it was something to “help get her through the day,” so I'm assuming it was some sort of mood stabilizer, like Paxil or something. Although I guess you never really know. All pills look pretty much the same, it could have been a recreational drug, which I don't really think is that different from some of the drugs you can get prescriptions for. One time I asked one of my bosses what the real difference was between recreational and prescription drugs, and he got really uncomfortable and made a note in some notepad he had and walked away. Maybe I hit a nerve.

              I don't take recreational drugs. I bet some people think that I do, but I don't. I only take drugs prescribed to me by my physician or my therapist, which is a lot, actually. I have pills for blood pressure, anxiety, cholesterol, gastro-intestinal correctives, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypertension, mood stabilizers, liver, migraines, a couple others as well. I'm afraid of mixing them up badly, you know, like with the spontaneous combustion thing, so I spread them out throughout the day, which is tricky because a few of them you have to take with meals, so I end up eating more meals in a day than an average person. Which reminds me, I also take weight stabilizers. I keep all my pills in a little pill container my therapist gave me with a guide to what I take when. My work therapist, not my prison therapist. Although I guess my work therapist is still kind of my prison therapist, 'cause I'm working there on a commuted prison sentence. I'm still under pretty strict observation. The apartment I live in is more of a cross between a prison and a hotel, which is fine by me, because I like hotels and, frankly, I didn't mind prison that much either. The only thing is I don't have a kitchen or a dining room or anything, but that's ok, I don't really cook, and I can't imagine myself doing any entertaining. Wouldn't that be a hoot?! Me playing host?! Not on your life, buster!

              It does get a little lonely sometimes, though. But I'll tell you something, here's a little trick I figured out. I like to think of somebody I know really, really well, right? The kind of person where when you have a conversation with them, you know exactly what they're going to say. Then here's what I do: I have a conversation with them in my head, BUT, and here's the trick, I only talk with them about stuff we would disagree on. That way, when I think of what they'd say, I completely have to think differently than the way I normally think. It's interesting, you'd be amazed how easy it is to do with a little practice, thinking something completely different from your normal thoughts. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I concentrated too hard on the other person's thoughts and I got stuck in that other person's perceptions and thought patterns. Would I still be me but just thinking like somebody else, or would I actually be somebody else, like a totally different person? I don't know! Isn't that funny to think about?

              I talk about this stuff with my therapist sometimes. My work therapist. My prison therapist mostly wanted to know how I'd gotten to be so violent. He said it was because I felt disenfranchised and I struck out at people to feel powerful and in control. I said that there were a lot of obnoxious people out there, and maybe trouncing a few of them wasn't the worst thing in the world a person could do.  I don't know that we made a lot of progress, although I do have conversations in my head with my old therapist from time to time. I think I've gotten pretty good at him. The new therapist likes to talk about how I'm feeling right now, which is nice, as I'm feeling much nicer now than I was then. The work therapist is very interested in the pills I'm taking. I have to fill out little charts about when I take them and how I feel before and after. The work therapist wants me to feel content, which I do, by and large. He asks me if I feel any of the rage I used to, and I say I don't, which is true, and he seems very pleased with the whole situation. But you want to hear something weird? I kind of miss it. The rage and stuff. I mean, it wasn't good, I know that, but to not feel it, I can't help wondering - where did it go? It was part of my chemistry, and now it's gone. Funny, huh?

              They get worried about me getting bored. It can be kind of a dull existence, just going to work, going to therapy, coming home. They want me to feel fulfilled, which is kind of funny to me in a way because the most fulfilled I've ever felt is when I was trouncing some jerk who didn't have the good sense God gave a cow. I don't say that, though. Plus, I'll tell you a little secret I figured out. Whenever you get bored, just do something to change things up. Like a couple of days ago I was having a crummy day, the kind of day where I used to go out and get into trouble, but since I don't do that anymore I was just sitting around my apartment, and all of a sudden I thought, “You know what I'll do? I'll put Kleenex boxes on my feet.” And I did! Howard Hughes used to do it! Seriously! And he was super-rich! So I put Kleenex boxes on my feet, and it was great! I got so much done; I cleaned the bathroom, washed the dishes, ironed all my shirts for next week, and it all seemed so different and funny because I was wearing my Kleenex boxes on my feet. It's much more productive than going out and trouncing some dude, I suppose, plus no one gets hurt. Unless Kleenex boxes have feelings?! Just kidding, I don't think they do. But if they did, wouldn't that be weird?

              That dullness can really freak some people out, though. Like there's a few of us around the pill place who are commuted sentencers, and we all go to counseling and we all get the pills, but sometimes one of the others starts feeling kind of paranoid or whatever and feeling like our bosses and the therapists and whoever are trying to control us and take away all souls or whatever, which is of course a bunch of malarkey. They're just trying to make us feel better! But sometimes feeling better doesn't feel better, I guess, to some people. Like sometimes when I'm sad I like listening to a sad song, which you think you wouldn't want to do, but you do. These guys miss those bad feelings more than I do, I guess. Plus you do tend to get a little fuzzy on the pills, which seems totally understandable to me because I think about all the chemicals getting all mixed up inside and making some big hazy cloud of pill chemicals in your head, and so of course you're going to get a little fuzzy. I think the problem with these guys is they can't adapt to their new way of living. My work therapist talks about that a lot. Adapting, acclimating, all that stuff. I think I do a pretty good job of it, probably because of all the practice I've had trying to think differently by pretending to be other people. The thing about this whole fuzziness issue is that you can get lost in it if you freak out, but if you work through it, it's totally fine! I'll tell you a little trick I figured out. Try and focus through the fuzziness by concentrating your mind. It's kind of like those old Magic Eye pictures where you look at a big old mess of colors, and then if you stare through it you see shapes? Well, what I like to do when I'm feeling fuzzy is just go somewhere real quiet and peaceful. Then find something you can really stare at, it helps if it's something really bland, like a beige wall or a crummy landscape painting or something. Then you just concentrate and try to stare through whatever you're looking at. Sometimes it might take a while, like maybe a couple hours or so, but if you really stick with it then all of a sudden things you didn't even know were blurry start coming into focus!

              Take my pills, for instance. No please, take them! Haha, I'm just kidding! Seriously, though, so many people see pills as a big chore that they don't ever think about them, they just throw them down their throats and try and move along. But because of my looking through the fuzziness I started really paying attention to the pills. Before I swallowed them I began rolling them around on my tongue, trying to get to know each individual weight, taste, texture, composition, and reaction, and I noticed something. They changed our pills without telling us. It happened quite a while ago now, and no one noticed but me. It was the mood stabilizer. Same look, same texture, BUT!  Slightly different weight, totally different composition! I think they're testing out something new on us. It's probably a double blind test, which I've learned about here at the pill place. There's a control group, which is given a placebo, and then an observed group (or the out of control group, as I like to call them! Haha!), which gets the new drug. I'm pretty sure I'm in the observed group. Placebos used to be called “sugar pills” because that's what they were, but they had to stop making them out of sugar, I guess because everybody's all fat now. Regardless, they're supposed to be made up to be just like the actual pills, but they never make a truly good replication because they don't think anybody notices. But I do.

              They told me to report any adverse side effects to the medication, but that sort of brings up the question of what's really adverse, right? I think the medication works better than they even realize. It's made my sight so much better. I'm seeing things I've never even thought I could see before. I tried to tell my therapist about it, but he sort of scribbled some notes down in a pad and said “great” and anything that's too outlandish he says I was just dreaming, and that's ok. So I didn't even tell him when I realized this little trick I'm about to tell you. If you look at people real hard, you can take them apart, sort of dismantle them, like? Take off the clothes and the skin and the muscle and the organs, you can whittle everyone down to bones with just your eyes! It's a fantastic simplification. It makes me wonder if I would have done all those things I did that put me in jail if I'd seen everyone as just skeletons. I wonder if I'd have been so upset about my mother dying when I was a kid if she'd just been a skeleton that simply stopped moving? Some days I like to go around looking at everyone's skeletons. Just a bunch of skeletons walking around all day. So many bones! It's like one of those old cartoons where the skeletons are all dancing in a graveyard somewhere. Sometimes the sight of all those skeletons just makes me laugh and laugh and laugh! Once, one of my bosses caught me laughing and asked me what was so funny. I said “farts,” which is true, farts are pretty funny, but it wasn't what I was actually thinking about. However, thinking about skeletons and talking about farts made me think about farting skeletons, and boy did THAT get me laughing! My boss started laughing too, with his big skeleton mouth, and he said “you're all right, buddy,” and then he put his big bony hand on my shoulder. As I was walking away I saw him jot down some notes in a notepad.

              Whatever he wrote, it obviously wasn't too upsetting because the pills are being sent out to market in a couple weeks, which makes me super-happy. One of these days they're going to let me out of here. In my review hearings they say I'm very well behaved, and I'll probably get early release, which is kind of exciting, but it also used to be pretty scary because I was really worried about what it would be like on the outside. It's been a while, you know? But if there's other people like me, other people who can see through the fuzziness, who live among skeletons, I think that would be really exciting. Everything would be so easy and effortless! A world full of skeletons! Sounds like paradise.

Snow Angel

The woman in the large red anorak was fifteen feet behind the monster and gaining. The monster was a large thing with huge limbs that flailed as it ran. It was coated in long yellow fur thickly layered over pink skin. Its face was a broad, flat horror show of wrinkled flesh, horrid teeth, flared nostrils like bullet wounds and large red eyes with deep black centers which were now wild with panic. The creature's hide was mottled and splotched with still-flowing blood coming from the wound made by the arrow sticking out of its lower back.

Were she not chasing a foul creature who had recently changed its diet from caribou to small Inuit children, the woman might have noticed the beauty of the landscape that was hosting this daring chase. The pursuer and the pursued had just torn past the tree line, climbing higher and higher up Mt. Anirniit. The woman knew that if she gave the creature even the slightest advantage it could disappear into any number of caves or tunnels that ran through these mountains. The creature had home field advantage, but the woman was determined to show no mercy.

The creature zigged and zagged with wild abandon, not thinking, only trying to shake the dogged pursuer. The ground was hard and slick from a recent cold snap, and footing was difficult. The creature saw a rise on the distance and made a break for it, hoping that the other side held a slope that would give a moment's respite in a quick slide and maybe even a hiding place.

No such luck. Leaping over the rise, the creature slid a mere twelve feet into a dead end of high walls of ice and rock. The creature stood on its hind legs, its claws searching for some purchase in the rock, some means of escape, but meeting only with slick, unforgiving surfaces. The creature turned around to gauge the possibility of retreat, only to see the woman climb over the rise.

The two stared at each other for a moment. The woman had the sun at her back and new the advantage it gave her. The creature saw only a vague, dark outline of the woman, but it was enough. The creature expanded itself as much as it could, spreading out its limbs and reaching up to its fullest height, then let out a bellow. The woman was unshaken, and with one fluid motion of ease and grace readied her bow, reached into her quiver for an arrow, readied and fired.

The arrow struck the creature above its right breast. The bellow turned into a howl of pain so forceful the woman staggered back a step. She heard the howl echo throughout the many caverns, valleys and walls of the mountain range. Then she heard something else. It was a low rumble that grew louder. It came from a new, unsettled snow fresh from last week's flash blizzard. It came from an onslaught of snow and ice rushing down from the mountain's peak heading directly towards the two combatants.

Briefly distracted by the sound of encroaching danger, the woman and the creature stared at each other again. The panic in the creature's eyes had turned into the narrow focus of desperation and survival instinct. There was only one way out and it was through the woman. She saw this and new that there was no time for another arrow. She dropped the bow and had barely enough time to unsheathe her bowie knife before the creature barreled over her. The force of the impact as beast hit woman threw the woman down the other side of the rise.

Flat on her back the woman saw the creature heading towards her, then past her as it tried to outrun the force of nature coming down from the mountain. As the animal's hind legs passed her she struck out with the knife, digging it deep into the thick meat and muscle of the creature's leg. The creature let out another howl of pain and rage. It forced itself to continue moving forward, but the woman held fast onto the knife, allowing herself to be dragged behind the creature. After a few paces the animal tired of the extra weight and the pain of the knife's serrated edges cutting an increasingly longer gash into its leg. It was time to be done with this.

The creature stopped and turned back towards the woman. He lifted his leg and kicked backwards, its heavy paw connecting with the woman's face, shaking her loose. The creature rose up and bore its teeth. Its fur stood on end. The woman crouched low and prepared for battle.

The creature swung first, a mighty, lumbering blow that the woman easily dodged. She tucked herself into a ball and rolled by the creature's foot, retrieving her knife by extracting it painfully from the monster's hind leg. The monster continued the momentum of its first strike into a complete circle and came around to land a fierce blow against the woman, throwing her off her feet and sending her sprawling. She hopped back up to her feet, but the blow had caused her to lose the bowie knife. She took an arrow from her quiver, figuring that if nothing else if the beast got close enough she could jam the stone tip into its eye. If she jammed it hard enough, she could possibly hit brain.

As the woman assessed the situation, she only then noticed that the rumbling was now an almost deafening roar. She looked past the creature who was positioned up mountain from her and saw behind it a rushing onslaught of white. Within her brain she felt her fight or flight instincts wrestle with themselves, arguing whether to go for the death strike now that it was just her and the beast, or leave it up to nature and run while she still could. She decided to run, figuring that the creature's injuries would surely diminish any chance of surviving an avalanche. Now all she would have to do is survive it herself. She turned and fled.

As she ran she could hear the creature running behind her, panting and growling, its massive form beating a tattoo into the earth as it ran. Then she couldn't hear the creature any longer. She didn't want to look behind her, she knew it was a bad idea to look behind her, but she felt the pinch in the back of her neck urging her to turn, and so she did. Behind her she saw the creature stretched out flat, riding the front of the avalanche like a belly surfer. The creature had its eyes set on the woman and was directing itself towards her on a wave of white.

She knew it was over the minute she turned around. Her chances had been slim to begin with, but the look back had broken her pace and the snow tide was almost on her, as was the creature using it as a shuttle to overtake her. She had maybe twenty yards before she was caught. If this is the way it was going to be, she wasn't running any more. She turned around and faced the avalanche.

The beast was surprised to see her stop, and even more surprised to see her run towards him. It quelled the surprise quickly and bore its teeth, readied its claws. The woman leapt into the air. At the top of her arch she reached into the bag on her side with her climbing gear and pulled out a spike. She landed on the creature's back. The creature turned its head around and snapped its jaws at the woman. When its mouth was wide open to woman shoved the spike inside so it propped open the creature's mouth. For a moment the creature was baffled and panicked, unable to close its mouth or remove the spike from its position. Then it looked at the woman with resiliency in its eyes. It clamped down its jaws with such force that the spike broke through the bottom of its jaw. Now it was the woman's turn to panic.

The creature contorted its body to get at the woman, and its change in surface area broke its position at the head of the avalanche and caused the woman and the creature to be swept over by snow. The woman tossed and toppled in the snow, flailing her arms and legs, attempting to both stay close to the top of the drift and keep loose space and air around her. Finally the snow had washed over them both, covering them in cold, wet whiteness. The woman felt the snow pushing on her from all directions and she felt her mind get thrown by being unable to tell which way was up. Then she remembered a trick the natives had told her. Please let me be right-side up, she thought, as she let loose her bladder. No such luck, as the urine worked its warm trail up her body, past her waste and then she felt her shirt begin to soak. At least she new which way was up. She clawed at the snow until she had righted herself and then worked her way up.

She was relieved to the point of tears when only a few minutes later she broke the surface and crawled out of her premature burial. She sat and took a moment to collect herself. Looking around she saw the slope of the avalanche. It had ended slightly below the tree line. She thanked the heavens that she hadn't run into a tree, seeing some of them that had been overtaken by the avalanche bent by its force, their tops sticking out of the snow at awkward angles.

She stood up and shook herself off. After a moment of taking in the surroundings she had oriented herself and readied for the trip back to town. She leaned against a tree nearby and wondered if there would be anything edible nearby, as she'd lost everything in the events of the day. She heard something first, a rumbling, then felt that the tree was shaking. Then the ground beneath her was shaking. Then there was no ground beneath her. It was pulled aside as the creature pulled itself through the snow, climbing the tree up through the snow.

The woman found herself standing for a brief moment with one foot on the animal's head, the other on its shoulder. The creature looked up and roared at the woman, pulling itself harder and faster out of the snow that surrounded it. The woman jumped onto the tree and shuffled up it with expert ease. She was only about twelve feet above the new ground the creature was pulling itself out of. It would be fully emerged in only a moment. She felt her jacket and pants, hoping for some lost or forgotten item that could possibly be used for a weapon. All she found was some jerky, which would have solved her problem of a moment ago, but was useless now. The creature could certainly climb up the tree after her. If not it could probably just knock the damn thing down. She reached up to the branch above her to see if she could pull herself up any further, but the branch broke off in her hand when she put her weight on it. She held the branch in her hand and looked down the tree.

At the bottom the creature was loosed from the snow. It looked up at the woman and smiled, the bottom of the climbing spike still sticking out of its lower jaw, looking like a strange goatee. It knew that it had her. It made a lazy swipe up at her feet, which she pulled up and avoided the claws by inches. The beast looked up, beat its chest violently and let out a roar of triumph, loud and long. The woman looked down at the creature, filled with a boiling anger that this stupid, brutish beast would overcome her. She was better than this. She shouldn't die this way, with this crude mistake of nature chewing on her flesh that had bathed on some of the most exclusive beaches in the world, tearing at muscle that had defeated some of the greatest fighters alive, swallowing a mind that had made a small fortune hustling chess amongst some of the great military strategists of the age. She grabbed the branch with both hands until she heard the bark crunch, then she bared her own teeth and let out her own roar, a sound of rage and frustration so strong it shook the tree she sat in.

The creature stopped. It looked up at her with confusion. It had obviously won, and yet this pitiful little animal was roaring back? Offering some sort of challenge? The creature enjoyed supplication in its victories, and would certainly not allow this one to be an exception. The creature stood on its hind legs and put its front paws on the tree. It looked up at the woman and let out another mighty roar. It shook the tree with its paws, nearly unseating the woman from her branch. She put one arm around the trunk to steady herself, keeping the broken branch in the other. She looked down at the animal shaking the tree, into its massive open jaws, filled with saliva and teeth. The creature stopped its display of dominance and looked up at the woman in the tree.

The woman was smiling.

"RAAAAAAAAARRRRRR!!!!!" said the woman, bouncing her butt up and down on while holding the broken branch above her head, shaking it triumphantly. "RAAAAAAARRRRRRR!!!!!!!!"

The creature could not believe the arrogance of this mite, this miniscule morsel, this beaten little thing. It would have her trembling if it had to roar so loudly it burst the cursed thing's eardrums. The creature reared back, opened its mouth and set itself to show this troublemaker who ran things around here.

But there was no roar to come. As soon as the creature had opened its mouth the woman had thrust the tree branch into its throat. The creature looked up at the woman, its jaw held comically open. No forcing this through its lower jaw. No biting through. No escape. Its eyes connected with hers. She wanted to discover exactly what was there in that moment. Fear? Resentment? Anger? She believed there was perhaps some pleading in those eyes, some attempt to call for mercy. Something, she imagined, like what had been in the eyes of the Inuit children it had stolen from their mothers for over a month now. She hoped this was there, and she hoped her eyes had the same cold, merciless stare it had inevitably given those children back. She pushed the tree branch further, down into the throat of the monster. Its neck expanded to an unnatural width. Its claws grabbed at the branch, trying to gain some sort of hold and failing. Blood began to pour from the side of the animal's mouth. The woman wrapped her arms around the branch and jumped out of the tree, putting all her weight into the final downward push. The branch slid further into the creature, past the throat, down into its torso. The woman let go of the branch and fell to the ground. She looked at the creature, which was now sitting on the ground, quite straight, its head looking up into the sky and only a couple feet of branch extruding from its mouth. The creature's body let out a small series of shutters and shakes, then was still.

The woman stood up. She'd have to move fast if she was to make it back to civilization before dark. She took out the jerky package from her anorak, released the zip-locked seal and bit off a chunk, chewing it for a moment, relishing the flavor. She looked back at the creature for a moment. She took the rest of the jerky out of the package and put it into one of the anorak's pockets. Returning to the creature she looked at its stiff, lifeless form. Taking off one of her gloves she flexed her fingers for a moment to regain dexterity, then quickly plucked out both of the creature's cold, dead eyes and put them in the bag.

"A little something to remember you by," she said, then sealed the bag and stuck it into her pocket. Town was about seven miles west, and if she hustled she could get back before the boys had left the local tavern for the night. She had a story to tell, and damn if it wasn't a good one. She figured it would be well worth a pint or two.


The day James Tarwood was released from prison the sky was black and the rain fell in thick sheets. He was officially let go as a ward of the state at two in the afternoon, but it had looked like midnight. The bus to take him to Eustis was supposed to arrive at two thirty. It was now six, and James sat on a small wooden bench, a Stetson hat pulled low over his eyes and drops of rain dripping through rust holes in the tin roof above him made little pathways along his brown duster jacket. The entire time he had sat stock still, his hands folded into his lap and his large, muscular frame straight as rail. Rick, the gate manager, stepped outside his booth and lit a cigarette.

"Sorry about this, Jimmy," said Rick, taking a long drag of his cigarette and exhaling a slow puff of smoke. "We tried calling central about that bus, we can't get a hold of anybody." Rick checked his watch. "We don't hear anything in the next half hour or so we're going to send somebody out there."

"Been waiting twenty years," James spoke with a voice gravelly from infrequent use. "Don't mind waiting a few more hours."

"I'll bet," Rick said, grabbing the front of his sky blue correctional facility-issued button up and moving it back and forth to relieve some of the stifling humidity that now permeated his little box. Although he was much better covered than the former inmate sitting on the bench just outside, he appeared more drenched, sweat sticking his oversized clothes to his thin frame. Rick pondered over the recently released man sitting an arm's length away. James had been in this prison over a decade before Rick had even begun working here, which in itself seemed like ages ago, and now here he was, hours after his release, and the poor bastard had only made it a hundred yards outside the prison walls. The guard reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the box of cigarettes, shook them slightly to get one slightly out of the opening and then leaned out the booth's window, offering one to James. The ex con shook his head, then reached into the duffel bag they'd given him which contained all his personal effects. He pulled out a box and opened it, then removed a cigar.

"Could use a light," he said. Rick tossed his lighter to James, who lit the flame and took a few puffs to get the stogie going, then extended his arm and leaned slightly to hand the lighter back to Rick. After taking a few more inhales James took the cigar in his hand and admired it, making sure to keep the burning tip protected under the brim of his hat. "Warden gave this to me. I was saving it. For when I got to the new digs. But what the hell." As James continued smoking there was a crack of lightening across the sky and a loud succession of thunder bursts out towards the west. The two men stared out at the landscape, following the long, two lane side road that ran from the prison to the highway. About four miles down the road there was a hill that hid the rest of the horizon behind it. A strange luminescence was emanating from the land just past the hill, swirling and flickering just behind the torrential rains, strange and distorted like the reflection off some bright metal trinket at the bottom of a stream.

"Weird fucking weather," Rick said, shivering. "Warden thinks that's why the bus ain't showed yet, why we can't reach central. Maybe there's flooding or something's taking out the phone lines or whatever. That light sure is something, though. Had a cousin once in the air force, stationed way out in Alaska, used to tell all about the Northern Lights, sounded something like all this. Course, I don't know what the Northern Lights would be doing in Nebraska."

"Strange," said James.

Rick checked his watch again, sucking on his teeth as he did so. "Well, shit," he muttered. "I'm going to give the warden a call, see what the hell he wants to do about this mess. You sit tight, Jimmy."

Rick went to return to his booth when Jimmy suddenly rose from his seat.

"I said sit tight, Jim. We're gonna get this settled…" James's eyes had narrowed to thin slits and he was staring out to the west, his jaw set so firm the long hollows of his cheeks took on a rigidity that made them look carved from wood.  Rick followed his gaze to the horizon, then felt a sudden shiver pull down from the base of his skull to the small of his back. Standing on the horizon were four giant horses, and atop each horse a rider. Even from a distance it was obvious the men were abnormally large, twelve foot a piece at least. Rick's cigarette fell from his mouth.

"Oh shit," said Rick, turning around and running inside. He picked up the phone to dial inside but got no dial tone. "What the hell?" he said, staring at the phone. "This phone is closed circuit, why am I not…" He looked out the window and saw the horsemen riding towards the prison, trailing the otherworldly light show after them like a bridal train.

The sweat that poured down Rick's back had now taken on an icy coldness. It seemed as though all his weight ran into his feet and he barely had the strength to lift his arms. After the interminable moment of paralysis passed he grabbed an oversized key ring and fumbling through a series of keys. "James, inside!" he yelled as he found the key he was looking for. Rick ran to a small metal door a few feet down the prison's outer wall, unlocked it, and was about to run inside when he noticed James was not behind him. He ran back to find James still standing, unmoved. "Let's go, James! Inside, where it's safe!"

"Ain't going back inside," was all James said. Rick could see there was no use in trying to argue with the man and turned back, running through the door and locking it behind him.

Once he was sure he was alone, James moved, slowly and with purpose, to the guard booth. He gave it the once-over and found what he was looking for in a drawer underneath the desk. A Remington 11-87 shotgun, attached to the underside of the desk by a small latch. James unhooked the gun, threw it over his shoulder and went out to meet the horsemen.

As James walked down the road he pulled his coat tight around him and lowered his head, fighting hard against the rain. In the early days at the prison his fantasies of the day when he'd finally be freed were big and cinematic. Sarah would be there to meet him, waiting outside the gates of that godforsaken penitentiary in one of those pretty sun dresses he'd always liked to watch her put on, just about as much as he liked watching her take them off. That scarred-up Judas of a partner Milton would be there, too, giving him his due both in credit for sticking out the sentence on his own and of whatever remained of the take. Then, of course, there was the most vivid part of the dream. Freedom. Open expanse and the ability to move through it, possibly in a convertible car with the top down. Going somewhere, anywhere, far away from any place that had you marked down as some kind of number, then stowed away and peered at like some kind of moth pinned down to a kid's insect collection. That dream had died slowly, like most do after years inside. Sarah had stopped writing years ago, said all the waiting and worrying was too painful for her, which he supposed he could understand. It certainly hadn't been a picnic for him, either. He hadn't heard word one from Milton the whole time he'd been in, so the prospect of getting his due had seemed untenable for a long while. He now considered himself a fool for ever even thinking it. No one got what they deserved. All he'd allowed himself to hope for now was merely the smallest bit of movement. A nice, leisurely ride to Scottsbluff. Actually watching the scenery change outside a window instead of seeing the same static image outside the same rueful, barred hole every shitty, solitary day. He'd eat a meal in a restaurant. He'd turn out the lights when he wanted to. He'd sleep in a real bed. And these fuckers had ruined it.

James stopped and stood in the center of the road. He placed his legs shoulder length apart and took the shotgun down, holding it at his side. He bent the brim of his hat to let the rain slide off to the side so that he could get a good look at the four horsemen who stood before him. On a white horse rode a man carrying a longbow with arrows that had no arrowheads. On a black horse was a man carrying scales with wheat on one side and gold on the other in equal measure. The rider on the red horse carried a glowing sword. The rider out in front, the leader, rode on a pale green horse, in his hand was a long, slender scythe that he pointed straight at James.

"Stand aside, mortal." James could feel the rider's voice drumming in his gut. "We ride towards the Armageddon. Judgment Day approaches!"

"Don't think so," James said. He took the cigar out of his mouth and flicked it at the lead horsemen, who reflexively swatted it away in an inelegant panic before regaining his composure. The man on the white horse let out a small burst of laughter, prompting the lead horseman to turn sharply, chiding him with an explosion of green flames igniting from his eyes. The white horse's rider collected himself and shamefacedly begin picking at the hide-wrapped grip of his bow.       

"We have many miles to travel and much to do," the lead horseman said. "We bring the message of the world's end!"

"Not today, you don't," said James. He gave the shotgun a quick toss and grabbed it by the barrel, then swung it like a baseball bat, connecting the stock with the front legs of the lead rider's horse. With an audible crack the legs snapped out from underneath the horse and the lead rider toppled to the ground, pinned underneath his steed. The rider on the red horse raised his sword, but before he could strike James flipped the gun back around and released a shot straight into the red horseman's torso. The rider flew backwards off his mount, his sword flying from his hand. The rider on the white horse began shaking with intense anxiety. He grabbed for his arrows but fumbled them in his hands and dropped them to the ground. While the horseman searched his packs for some other form of weaponry James grabbed the bow itself from out of the horseman's hands and hooked his head between the stock and the string and yanked the rider off his horse, giving him a few solid kicks to the face to keep him down.

James walked back over to the red rider, who was beginning to come to. The rider stared down at his torso, poked it tenderly for a moment, then looked at James with incredulity. "What stupid insolence to believe you could actually harm one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with one of your silly little toys!"

"I figured as much," said James. He reached down to the ground beside the red horseman and picked up the glowing sword that had fallen from his hands in the impact of the gunshot. "So maybe I'll give this toy a try." James held the sword tentatively in his hand, testing its weight and movement.

"No!" said the red horseman. "Impossible! What devilry is--" James cut off his words by bringing down the sword straight down upon the red horseman's throat. The rider gurgled and spat, silver shining liquid dribbled out of the opening in his neck. Then he was silent.

"How dare you!" shouted the black horseman. He gave his horse two sharp kicks in the side, spurring him into a charge. James turned around, bent down in a lineman's pose, and charged right back at the horse. Startled, the horse reigned back onto its hind legs and James plunged the sword into the horse's belly, cutting a line straight down the underside of the horse and releasing a torrent of blood and viscera. He dodged to the side as the horse collapsed, its rider tumbling off to avoid being trapped. As the black horseman struggled to regain his footing James came up behind him, quick and quiet, and swung the sword in a long arch that separated the rider's head from his body.

James then walked back over to the horseman still trapped underneath his pale green steed. "You have no idea what you've done," the horseman gasped between short, belabored breaths.

"And you do?" asked James. The horseman was silent. James studied the rider, noted his look of bewilderment and saw within the ethereal warrior the terrifying realization that things had irreversibly strayed far, far away from the plan.

"Which one are you, anyways?"

The horseman smiled. "Death," he replied, then coughed out a broken laugh.

James smiled back. He had to admire a man with a sense of humor. Then he raised the sword and ran it through the horseman's throat.

With one knee firmly planted on the white horseman's chest James reached down and grabbed the rider's right ear and then twisted it sharply. The horseman moved slow and groggily, then suddenly bucked and squirmed with pain.

"Ow! You accursed human, unhand me!" cried the horseman, grabbing feebly at the hand that held his ear until he felt the cold metal of the sword at his throat. His hands fell slowly to his sides and he stared up at James with a look of fear and resentment.

"I don't care who you are," said James. "I don't care what side you work for, I don't care what some book somewhere tells you you gotta do. I want you to go back and tell whoever the asshole was that sent you that this ain't happening today. It ain't happening tomorrow, it ain't happening for a long goddamn time yet, comprende?"

"They'll come after you," said the horseman. "Both sides. A transgression like this will not be tolerated."

"You just go and make your report, and you let them know that if I see any of you big men again, coming around thinking you've got the right to run smooth over a man's life, I will put this sword straight through their neck. No hesitation. Now," James rose to his feet and kept the sword trained at the white horseman. "Get."

The horseman rose and began to move towards his white horse. "Nah-uh," said James. "No horsey for you. Walk." The horseman turned to protest, but James held fast with the sword still raised at neck level. The rider began walking.

James looked at the two horses left standing. "Like it's even a question," he laughed to himself. He picked up the shotgun, put the sword in sheath on the saddle and mounted the white horse. He sat for a moment, listening to the rain thump against his hat. He looked down the road towards the highway. Somehow, Eustis didn't possess the same meager appeal it had only a short time before. Maybe Mexico, James thought. He turned the horse to face south, and as he began to ride the storm began to break and small rays of light burst through the clouds like buckshot against tin siding.

The Shirt

The shirt had fit last year. Not only that, it had fit comfortably. Nigel stared aghast at the shirt in the mirror as it hugged his frame so tight it turned every bit of excess weight into its own exhibit in the Nigel Museum of Failure. It has been a bad year, he'd known this, but he hadn't realized the affect it had had on his body, which, as he thought about it, was even more pathetic. How could he not have realized this? Was he so out of touch with his own body, had he so given up on even contemplating the idea of attracting a mate that he had slipped this far without being at all cognizant of it? Perhaps it had shrunk in the wash, he thought, although he knew it wasn't true. Dammit.

His mom had made the shirts for the whole family last year for Christmas. The day after Christmas they had all gone to Amish Country. They were cheap t-shirts with iron-ons that said "I'm a Holcomb" in big ugly bubble letters. She was always doing something like this, buying the entire family some sort of uniform, as if they all needed reminding that they were joined together by the unbreakable ties of genes and being confined to the same home for years. Like they were all members of a godawful sports team. Team Reject. The Holcombs were unsuccessful. Generation by generation they were a family of failures. Which, of course, hadn't stopped each generation from putting undue pressure on the ones after it to break the cycle. Nigel's father had put the screws into him young, telling Nigel he had all the advantages that his father hadn't, which seeing as how Nigel's father had never starved and had as much education as Nigel had, the only real difference between their childhoods was the presence of television, which frankly hadn't been much of a help to Nigel at all.

He was going in to work, where he would bring his suitcase with him and then go straight from work to his plane, which would take him back home for Thanksgiving. His mother had told him to wear the shirt when he came, and she would meet him at the airport with his father and brother, all wearing the same shirt. "Won't that be great?" she'd said to him on the phone. No, it wouldn't be great, it would kill him, slowly, from the inside out. His heart would die and he would lose all will to live.

He couldn't wear this shirt to work. Not because he would look like any of the other guys there, but that he probably would. He worked administration at a plumbing company and one of the small victories in life that stopped him from going insane and killing all the neighborhood pets was that he didn't look anything like those overweight, slobby, poorly dressed bastards who came in and out of the office every day. He would change at the airport.

At work he sat at his desk with his small carry-on suitcase sitting right beside him. All he could think about was the shirt, the red, size L soul trap waiting for him inside the luggage. After everything that had happened this year, the break-up, the job issues, all the construction on the apartment, deciding to go back to school and then not getting accepted, even to his back-up, after all of that this shirt had to come around and kick him in the nuts. Of course he'd gained weight, all the stress he'd been under. Why wouldn't he have? He certainly hadn't been exercising very much, never played any sports, and Janine certainly wasn't there to cook for him anymore. He'd been eating out a lot. He'd have to stop that, he told himself. Learn to cook. Maybe he'd buy some cookbooks or something when he got back, get one of those George Forman burn-off-the-fat grills, there were probably classes at The Learning Annex he could take. You don't have to apply for The Learning Annex, do you? Nigel thought to himself. No, of course you didn't. But could they expel you?

"How's the work treating you there, Nigel?" Nigel's boss, Don Schreiber, ambled over to his desk. "Getting everything squared away before the holiday?"

"Oh yeah. Sure," said Nigel.

"Good lad! Don't want any unfinished business hanging over my head on turkey day! An upset mind yields an upset stomach, Nigel."

"Yes, of course it does," Nigel agreed.

"You're going home, ain't ya?" Don asked. Nigel nodded. "Nothing better than home cooking! Going to have to add a couple extra holes to the ole belt, right?" Don stuck out his stomach, causing his button-up shirt to rise above his undershirt, and rubbed his stomach. Nigel could only nod again, thankful that today Don had decided to wear an undershirt and not expose his hideous belly as he usually did. He must be going somewhere nice after work, like Applebee's.

"Whelp, finish up here and then check out when you're done. We're not going to be watching the clock too close today." Don winked at Nigel and then walked off.

Suddenly it occurred to Nigel that, damn it all, he WAS going home for a nice home cooked meal. A meal prepared by his mother, who doused everything with salt and butter and cooked nothing but starches and meat. If he was overweight now, in four days it was only going to be worse. A lot worse. Shit. He'd have to join a gym or an intramural baseball team or something to work this off.

Nigel finished his work and hopped in his car to drive to the airport. Long term parking at the airport had gone up in price and Nigel cursed inflation under his breath and wished he knew more about how it worked in that prices for things kept going up but he didn't seem to be making any more money, which is what inflation was supposed to mean, right?

It wasn't a long ride and Nigel got to the airport about three hours before his flight took off. He sat in the waiting area looking at everyone else waiting with their families or reading some big novel or listening to their i-pods. Nigel wished he had an i-pod. They seemed so cool. Everyone looked cooler when they were flipping through their i-pods, shuffling through songs or playlists or whatever. Maybe if he got a bonus this year that would be his Christmas present to himself. He'd go and sit in the park and listen to Glenn Miller. Maybe he'd listen to it while jogging. That would be the deal he'd make with himself. He'd buy himself an i-pod if he swore to himself that he'd use it while jogging. Nigel had brought a book to read, a collection of ghost stories written by some pretty famous authors whose names Nigel vaguely recalled from high school English class. He took the book out of his bag but didn't open it. Instead he stared at the cute girl sitting down the row from him, listening to her i-pod and reading a book called Kafka on the Shore by some guy whose name Nigel didn't trust himself to try and pronounce. It had a pretty cover on it and a bunch of quotes on the back about what a great book it was. Nigel wanted to point out to the girl that the book he was reading had stories in it by Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and a whole bunch of other pretty smart people, but he figured he wouldn't really be able to approach her, and all she'd see was the cover, which had a really terrible picture of an old man in pajamas and an old-style lamp being scared by some stupid-looking ghost with the title Spooky Stories! written in big goofy letters across the top. He thought about buying, but when he went up to the newsstand nothing really interested him so he bought a soda and a Snickers Bar. He was half way through his Snickers and was just about to crack open his soda when he remembered the t-shirt waiting for him in his suitcase. He looked down at his gut and sighed, then threw away the candy and soda. He didn't have any more pocket change and didn't want to use his bank card just to get a magazine, so he figured there was nothing left to do but change into the shirt and then wait.

Nigel dragged the suitcase into the bathroom and waited for an empty stall. Finally one opened up and he crammed himself and his suitcase inside. Once in Nigel took of the shirt he had one and exchanged it for the t-shirt. He stood there with the shirt in his hand, looking down at both it and the roll of flesh that was hanging out over his belt line. Maybe it wasn't as bad as he remembered it. So he'd put on some extra weight, so what? Everyone's weight fluctuates, nobody really notices. Surely the guys at work must have gained or lost some what, but Nigel hadn't noticed, so no one had probably noticed his. No big deal at all. Nigel put on the shirt and stepped out of the stall and checked himself out in the mirrors. And there it was. Just like before, only it seemed worse now. He could only see the other guys from work. He thought about the cute girl reading the smart-looking book. He thought about his family waiting for him at the airport wearing the same stupid shirts, only his looked like someone crammed a walrus into a leotard. Nigel ran back into the stall and took off the shirt. He shoved it back in his bag and put his other shirt back on. It wouldn't be that big a deal if he showed up without the shirt on, right? His mom couldn't care that much, could she? It was just a shirt. He'll say he lost it, or maybe that it was in the laundry and he'd just dropped it off without thinking about it because he wears it all the time. Maybe that would work.

Nigel left the bathroom and sat back down in his chair. He looked at the girl and she looked back. Nigel gave her a little smile and a nod, and she smiled back. "Good," thought Nigel. "If I'd been wearing that damn shirt she'd have thrown up. Now I got a smile from a cute girl. Good. Good for me."

The flight was uneventful. As the plane began to taxi Nigel felt guilty. Maybe he should have put the shirt on and just sucked it up. But no, it was ridiculous, he wasn't going to sell out his self-image just for some dumb family shirt. It'd be fine. They'd buy his excuse, he'd pick up an extra shirt from an outlet store or something and it'd all be fine. He'd lose some weight and wear the shirt for Christmas, maybe, after it was miraculously found in a drawer or something.

Nigel pulled his suitcase down the corridor past the security checkpoint. Then he saw them, all the family lined up, mama bear, papa bear, baby bear. All wearing their shirts.

"Hello, Nigel!" his mother said, running up and giving him a hug and peck on the cheek. "Oh no. Where's your shirt?"

"Yeah, gee, wouldn't you know, I couldn't find it?" Nigel said, hearing his voice come out forced and questioning. He was a terrible liar. "I think it might be in some laundry I sent out. Maybe next time."

"Oh. Ok," said his mother.

His father looked skeptical. "Looks like you put on a little weight there, son," he said.

"Oh shush!" his mother chided. "He looks fine."

"He's going to have cholesterol problems," said father. "I've got cholesterol problems and I was a good thirty pounds lighter than he is when I was his age. And I played ball. You getting any exercise, boy?"

"Some," shrugged Nigel.

"Some," repeated father, rolling his eyes. "Hand me your bag, princess. Wouldn't want you to get winded."

At dinner that night Nigel barely touched his food. His mother asked if he was feeling all right. Nigel shrugged. His father speechified about the hard work his mother had put into that roast and how excited she had been to be cooking for her two boys again, and how in the days of the Old Testament it was legal to stone children to death for such impudence. Nigel wasn't really listening. He was concentrating on his stomach, trying to feel the hunger he was driving himself towards, hoping that the uncomfortable ache in his stomach meant that he was burning fat.

Later in the evening when Nigel passed on dessert his mother began to get worried. "You've never turned down apple turnover before," she said, clucking her tongue and putting the back of her hand on his forehead. "Are you sure you're feeling all right?" Nigel brushed her hand away and tried not to get annoyed. She was just being mom, after all.

"No, ma. I'm fine."

Nigel went to his room to get ready for bed. He opened his suitcase and took out his pajamas. After he had changed he sat on the edge of his old bed and looked down at the shirt. It seemed to sum up life for Nigel at that moment. A little too small, a bad fit. Nigel threw the shirt on the floor. "Goddamnit," he muttered.

Just then his mother opened the door. "Hey sweetie, just wanted to tell you before you go to bed..." Nigel started. In a panic he grabbed the shirt and stuffed it in the suitcase, which only too late occurred to him was the surest admittance of guilt.

There was silence for a moment, then Nigel stuttered out, "Gee, mom, you scared me. Hey, so, I found the shirt, apparently I, I guess I packed it, then I forgot I packed it and, geez, I guess I totally goofed on that. You know me, if my head wasn't attached I'd lose it, right?"

"Sure," said his mom. She began backing out of the room.

"Weren't you going to tell me something, mom?" Nigel asked.

"Oh, I just, we're going out to breakfast at Maude's Café, so wake up early, I..." his mom closed the door. Nigel collapsed back on the bed. That pretty much nailed it. He'd never hear the end of this now. There goes Thanksgiving. There goes Christmas. There goes family time for the next couple years at least. He knew it instantly, saw it when his mother started doing that breathing-through-her-nose thing she did when she was really upset. She'd tell father, and boy he wouldn't be happy.

Nigel curled up in the bed and drew the covers over his head. He felt ashamed, but didn't know exactly why. He remembered when his mom had caught him looking at porn when he was eleven. He remembered that look of disappointment. He had cried that night, telling his mom that he was sure he was going to Hell. His mom had rubbed his back and told him that she didn't think he was going to Hell, she knew that it was a temptation a lot of young boys fell prey to. She had just thought that her boy was better than that. It seemed to Nigel at the time that that was worse than Hell. He wanted to be better than that. He wanted to be better than some sleazy kid who looked at porn, or some jerk who got too fat and too ashamed to wear a t-shirt his mom had given him. Nigel found himself crying again, in the same position on the same bed that he had when he was eleven years old. Only this time, his mother wasn't there to rub his back.

The next morning Nigel got up early. He showered, he brushed his teeth and straightened his hair. He went into his room to get dressed. He put on his pants, his socks, his shoes. Then he stood in front of the mirror and looked at himself. He put on the red t-shirt. There it was. Still too small, still stretched like the skin of a drum. He noticed for the first time that he could actually see his belly button the shirt was so small.

Oh well, thought Nigel. Why not? What's the use? He trudged downstairs. This is what life was now, wasn't it? Compromise. Sacrifice. Putting family before self. Coming down the stairs he saw them, all three of them, sitting around the family table. His father, reading the stock page although Nigel knew for certain the old man didn't understand a damn thing about it other than arrows pointing up or down, didn't even own a damn stock a day in his life. Then there was his brother, reading the funnies. Then mom. Drinking her orange juice and reading the Style section, commenting on this and that celebrity, as though she knew them. Judging outfits as though she had a degree from the Fashion Institute. Mom. She looked up and saw him. She smiled, a soft smile, a conciliatory smile.

"Look what I found," said Nigel. "I packed it and forgot about it, so..."

Nigel's father looked up over the paper. "Jesus, son, you look like Baby Huey."

"Oh, come now!" said Nigel's mother.

"Whelp, we better get moving," said Nigel's father, putting down the paper and rising towards the door. "Everybody pile into the van."

Nigel headed towards the front door when his mother grabbed his arm with her hand, cold and smooth like marble. "My boy," she whispered into his ear.


Piano Lessons

Fiona Palmer sat down at her small upright piano and prepared to practice her scales. She breathed in heavily, her small frame expanding and then collapsing into itself. She whipped her head back and forth, popping her neck. She adjusted her posture, making her back straight as a board. She set her fingers in the proper positions, struck the first few notes, and then broke down in a fit of quiet, rolling sobs.


It had been three months since her boyfriend, Todd, had died after being struck by a negligent driver while he was riding his bike. Since the accident Fiona had been unable to play the piano without crying. She had always been an especially talented but humble pianist. She had been playing the keyboard in her college rock band The Snowdens of Yesteryear when she’d met Todd. He was in college as well, working part time as part of the tech crew at Viglione Music Hall for some traveling money and, by his own admission, to meet cute musicians. He had approached her after the show with a beer and a smile.

Two years later they had both graduated and decided to try moving in together. On moving day Todd had suggested that he carry Fiona over the threshold. Fiona had laughed and then jumped into his arms. The endeavor proved more difficult than they had first expected as the front door was locked and Todd refused to let go of Fiona as he fished the keys out of his pocket. Complications furthered as Todd realized that these being new keys he was unsure of exactly which one unlocked the front door. As Todd flipped through key after key Fiona fell into a cavalcade of laughter, only making it harder for Todd to hold onto her body, now spasming with peals of laughter. As the door finally opened Fiona’s laughter came to a sudden halt. At the far end of the empty living room, standing against wall and dominating the empty space, was a small upright piano. Fiona looked up at Todd, who shrugged his shoulders, a gesture which also brought her closer to him.

“Sort of a housewarming thing, I guess. I got it for free off of Craigslist, I just had to pay for the movers or whatever, so…”

She threw her arms around him and kissed him.

It had been like that for three years. Life around them had occasionally gotten hairy, but their relationship remained smooth and natural, almost effortlessly easy. They had talked of marriage, going so far as to have a meeting with the minister of the Methodist church they attended to discuss the prospect. Pastor Dahl, although not thrilled about the two of them already living together, was very encouraging. The two had been a frequent presence at the church, Fiona had even occasionally took over for the church’s pianist when he was indisposed.
It had been Pastor Dahl who had officiated Todd’s funeral. He had even used the church’s discretionary fund to help cover some of the costs of the burial and such, seeing as Todd had no family and the two of them were a young couple without much expendable means. The pastor had tried to comfort Fiona, making frequent visits and offering any further help he could. Try as he might, Fiona continued to draw within herself.

In the three months since Todd’s death friends and family had come out of the woodwork to try and help Fiona through her grief. Not a day went by without a phone call from someone to “just check in.” She had been given truckloads of food, so much that one night she took nearly half the contents of the fridge and drove around town handing vittles out to any homeless people she came across. Seeing as she lived in a very small community she still had a whole passenger’s seat full of food after she’d found every street person within the 10 mile radius of the town. On her way back home she passed a group of high school kids skateboarding off of picnic tables in front of town hall. She pulled over and rolled down her window, then asked the kids if they wanted any food. After a moment of processing this unusual offer one of the skaters, a tall, good looking boy who was obviously a sort of ringleader of the group, came over to investigate further. When he leaned over to look into the car and saw the attractive young woman in the driver’s seat he cocked his head and flashed a heart-melting smile.

“That’s mighty nice of you, ma’am. Might I enquire as to the exact nature of this generosity?”

Fiona set a leveled stare at the young Adonis. “It’s left over sympathy food. My fiancé is dead.” The boy’s smile faded into an arched moue of confusion as Fiona passed him five plastic grocery bags full of food and then drove away.


Fiona tried to collect herself. She grabbed three tissues from the box on top of the piano and began dabbing her eyes and blowing her nose. She took deep breaths and began to calm down. She would do it. This time, she would do it. She had to move on.

She began running through her scales. She did it automatically. As her fingers moved thoughtlessly across the keys Fiona’s mind wandered. She imagined Todd sitting in the trashy overstuffed chair next to the piano. He had loved that chair, and spent many nights lounging in it, doing the crossword while Fiona played the piano, making occasional requests both for songs and for assistance on particularly difficult clues. She could almost see him looking up at her through his shaggy hair, asking to hear You Can Leave Your Hat On or for a six letter word for “want.”

Her mind having wandered so far that her fingers struggled to keep up Fiona instinctively began playing the opening riff to You Can Leave Your Hat On. After a moment she realized what she was doing and grew a sad, sideways smile. She had been playing the Randy Newman version. Todd, against his own better judgment he would frequently say, preferred the more raucous Joe Cocker version. Fiona raised her hands off the keys for a moment, quickly balled and unballed her fists to stretch out her fingers, and decided to play the Joe Cocker version. For Todd. What was it he’d say? “Rub a little funk on it,” Fiona reminded herself aloud, and then laughed. She put her hands back down onto the keys. She went back into the opening riff.

Something was wrong. Although she had certainly set out to play the Cocker rocker version this was still certainly the Newman opening. Slower, with more sadness and pathos. She shook out her hands and tried again, but the sound still wasn’t right. She decided to go with another Cocker song, You Are So Beautiful. Once again she took a breath, rolled her shoulders and started to play.

Once again, something was wrong. She played the song slowly, listening carefully to each note and chord. She couldn’t quite place it. There was something off. Perhaps the piano was starting to go a little flat? It was certainly old enough to need a tune up. It had been third or fourth generation when they’d gotten it three years ago, who knows how long it had been since it had been tuned. Fiona stopped playing and closed the key cover. She’d have to call a tuner, it would be another ordeal she didn’t want to deal with, but felt that she should. This piano was a piece of Todd. She needed to keep it around. She sighed. “Things fall apart,” she said to no one, and went into the kitchen to make herself some food.

Three days later the piano tuner showed up. He looked less like a piano tuner than a mechanic, dressed in overalls and flannel with hair like a Brillo pad and a posture so short and squat that he had a definite waddle to his walk. Despite his harsh appearance he seemed nice enough, making pleasantries with Fiona as he went to work on the piano.

After about fifteen minutes of tinkering and pounding the tuner began to pack up his tools.

“That’s it?” asked Fiona.

“Ayep. She’s not in bad shape for her age and mileage. Had to make a few little adjustments, but she’s a good old gal, she’ll last you a while,” replied the tuner, who then sat on the bench and banged out a jaunty rendition of The Cheese Stands Alone.

“Huh,” muttered Fiona. The tuner made a grand gesture of moving off of the chair and giving it over to Fiona. She sat down and repeated note for note the tuner’s The Cheese Stands Alone.

“Huh,” muttered the tuner. He had watched her play the same song, but undoubtedly it had sounded different. Wrong, somehow. Dismal. The tuner leaned in to the keys, Fiona skootched over to make room. He went through the song again. It sounded fine. He nodded to Fiona, who then went through the song herself. It sounded dismal.

“How’re you doing that?” asked the tuner.

“I’m not! That’s why I called you over here, there’s something wrong with the piano!”

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said the tuner. “I’ve checked her thoroughly. The piano’s fine. If anything it’s a bit tinny, not…” He searched for the right word. “Depressed.”

“What are you implying?” challenged Fiona.

“All I’m saying is we’re playing the same notes,” retorted the tuner, “But my cheese is merely standing alone. YOUR cheese is standing alone at a funeral procession, and it’s got nothing to do with the piano, I checked it…”

“Get out,” interjected Fiona. “Get out right now.”

“Ma’am?” inquired the tuner.

“LEAVE,” yelled Fiona, physically pushing the man out the door.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but… my payment?” pled the tuner.

“I’LL MAIL IT,” finished Fiona, shoving the tuner out of the apartment and slamming the door shut.

All that week Fiona hammered away at the piano. She drug out every songbook she had. She even went to the local music shop and bought some Disney songbooks. Everything she played turned out dark and morose. Chopin’s Waltz No. 4 in F Major sounded like a dirge, Nina Simone’s Feeling Good felt anything but, even Hakuna Matata came across as a nasty piece of business.

On Saturday Fiona called Nancy, one of her former bandmates.

“Hey girl!” Nancy’s voice came in chipper and encouraging over the telephone. “It’s so good to hear from you. We’ve all been thinking about you. I was absolutely devastated to hear the news. How are you holding up?”
Fiona hugged the earpiece to the phone close to her as she gave a quick look around her. She was in her pajamas, curled up in a fetal position around the telephone on the living room floor. Emanating out of her like a fractal were piles of sheet music and songbooks.

“Not so good, actually, Nancy.”

“Hey babe, anything you need, you let me know,” said Nancy.

“Actually, Nance, you couldn’t, maybe, come over could you? For a bit?” asked Fiona.

“Sure thing. I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

When Nancy arrived Fiona greeted her at the door with her hair done up in a sloppy bun on the top of her head and a forced, uncomfortable smile on her face.

“Hey there!” Fiona said, obviously pushing it a bit. “It’s so good to see you! Come on in!”

As Nancy entered the apartment she took a quick look around. She was a bit on edge after the phone call and had come over expecting some sort of disaster. As far as she could tell everything looked all right. Fiona was clearly a bit of a mess, but that was to be expected, after all. The only thing that looked slightly off was the massive pile of music that had obviously been hurriedly shoved into a corner of the living room between a rather ratty looking overstuffed chair and the piano.

“So,” Nancy said, staring at the music pile. “Been playing the piano a bit, huh?”

Fiona let out a short, shrill laugh that took Nancy completely off guard. Fiona had obviously noticed this as well and placed her hands over her mouth, as though trying to hold something in. She looked at Nancy with wild, uncertain eyes. Nancy tried to shake it off.

“That’s good, right? Playing again? You were always so good. It’s a shame the band thing didn’t work out. Well, maybe not a shame, I mean we weren’t very good. But you were.”

Fiona was still just staring at Nancy. Nancy opened her mouth, but then stopped, not having actually thought of anything to say. She stared back at Fiona. Silence.

“Hey!” Fiona said, finally breaking out of her staring stupor. “Why don’t you give it a whirl!” Fiona skittered over to the piano and threw back the key cover. “Fun! Right?”

Nancy didn’t seem so sure.

“I played drums. I don’t really play the piano. I mean I do, but there’s a reason I played the drums and not the keyboard. And I didn’t even play the drums that well.”

“Oh pish!” said Fiona. “Have a seat! Play something sweet! Play me a ditty!”

Nancy shrugged and sat down at the piano. She collected herself and tried to remember something nice to play. She placed her hands on the keys and ran through a quick selection of notes and keys to get herself placed on the piano. Then she began to play a bit of Rhapsody in Blue. It was a simple rendition of the piece, but pretty and sweet in its simplicity. Nancy surprised herself with how well she’d been able to pull it off. She ended with a bit of a campy flourish and turned around to see Fiona curled up in the armchair with her head in her hands, crying.

“Sweety, what’s the matter?” asked Nancy.

Fiona looked up from her hands, her eyes huge and red, her nose running and spittle collecting at the edges of her mouth. “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?”

Nancy began to attempt a response, but Fiona leapt up and pushed her off the piano bench. Nancy could only watch as Fiona pulled a large clump of tissues out of the front pockets of the sweatshirt she was wearing, gave her nose a hard blow, and then replaced the clump of tissue into the sweatshirt pockets. She then wiped her eyes off with the sleeve of the sweatshirt and turned to look up at Nancy.

“Listen,” she said.

Then Fiona began to play Rhapsody in Blue. Only once again, it was wrong. It was sad. It was more than sad. The song, Nancy felt, seemed to ache.

“Fiona, why don’t you just stop, huh?” said Nancy. She tried to put a hand on Fiona’s shoulder, but Fiona threw up her arm to knock the hand away.

“There’s more,” she said.

Fiona began to play more songs. She went through a whole rundown of music, classic, country, pop, showtunes, folk music, bluegrass. The sounds coming out of the piano made Nancy uncomfortable. They seemed to be wrenching raw, painful emotions out of her. It wasn’t just emotional, it was physical. There was a weight that grew in the pit of her stomach that became so heavy Nancy had to lean against the living room wall. She began to sweat. Her breathing became labored. Her head started to swim.

“Fiona, please,” she begged.

Fiona stopped playing and turned, staring at Nancy. Fiona’s eyes seemed to be burning holes into Nancy’s. “You think that’s bad?” challenged Fiona. “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

Fiona turned back to the piano and began to play, with great intensity, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee. However, long gone was the fun, fleeting melody of the piece. Instead there seemed to be a creeping, consuming dread. The song didn’t come to the listener through the ear so much as straight through the stomach, climbing through the lungs and heart and lodging itself somewhere in the throat, making it difficult to breathe.

The force of the song pushed Nancy back onto a couch. She looked up to see Fiona not even looking at the keys, but instead keeping a steady eye on her. Nancy had never felt such a tight grip of fear in her life. She jumped off the couch and ran out of the house, slamming the front door behind her. She collapsed against the door and began sobbing. She heard the music still coming from inside the house. She had no idea what was wrong with her friend, but Nancy knew one thing. She was never going back into that house again.


It became clear to Fiona that at some point, and at some point fairly soon, she was going to have to leave the house. The sympathy food was rapidly depleting, as were the finances. Every time Fiona attempted to leave the house, however, she could not help but start worrying about the piano and the music that she made on it. She wondered if other people could see it on her, this ugly despair that turned the most beautiful of music into harrowing aural nightmares. At first she had hoped that the problem was with the piano, but more and more she was feeling that the problem was with her. The piano could obviously work fine in the hands of others. Why did it sour and curdle under her fingers? She had a plan that would both get her out of the house and, she hoped, shed some light on this piano problem.

When Fiona arrived at the Woodlawn Mall she paused a moment to examine herself in the mirror. Although she'd cleaned herself up a bit before she left the house the last few months hung heavy on her. There was only so much a long shower and change of clothes could do. This was all right, she told herself. She wasn't coming in here to win any beauty contests. She had come here to prove to herself that this was all in her head.
Fiona made her way through the mall with a firm sense of determination. She knew precisely where she was going. She breezed through Dillard's, passed the food court, the Electronics Etc., Kay's Jewelers, Hot Topic and Waldenbooks. Finally she arrived at her destination.

The store was large for a mall store. The sign above the door read in big letters designed like piano keys "The Piano Man." The storefront was all big glass windows that displayed the store's wares in a fashion that had always reminded Fiona of grazing cattle. In a twist on typical gender roles Todd had loved shopping and Fiona was the one who frequently finished early and ended up needing to kill time while Todd scoured the new Brookstone gadgets or comic books. Fiona always ended up here, sitting down and playing away on the display pianos until Todd came to collect her. She came in with enough frequency that the store manager always recognized her, but she was fairly certain never remembered her name.

"Hey there, pretty lady!" said the store manager, a large, gregarious man of about 50, as he came over to give Fiona a squeeze on the shoulder. "Seems like I haven't seen you in quite a while. Waiting on that slowpoke boyfriend of yours again, huh?"

"Not really," replied Fiona.

"Well, pull up any bench you like," said the manager. "It's always so nice to hear you play. We got a whole lot of songbooks in since you were here last. There's a new one from that Avril Lavigne, you like her?"

"Not really," replied Fiona.

"What? She's so fun!" implored the store manager. When he saw he was getting no response from Fiona he shrugged. "Well, to each their own, I guess. You want anything you let me know, ok?"

She nodded and the manager walked away. As she sat down she became overcome with uncertainty. What should she play? Something light and poppy, better not to tempt fate with anything that could even remotely be considered sad or bittersweet. She decided to go with The Beatles, Good Day Sunshine.

She began to play. At first the playing was simply technically sloppy. Fiona's fear and hesitation made the notes warble and stumble over each other. Soon the song began to smooth out. The notes began to resonate throughout the store. The song began to become terrifying. The store manager, who had been on his hands and knees restocking the Beginners playbook section, slowly rose to his feet to see exactly what could be producing such a horrifying, apocalyptic rendition of such a pretty song. He saw Fiona, the only one in the store, hunched over her usual sleek black baby grand. "Jesus," he said under his breath.

As the song ended Fiona simply stared at the piano keys. "Even here," she thought. "This is it. I will forever be the girl with the cloud over her head who can whither the rose of any song. This is the end of me." She began to close the key cover when something occurred to her. In all this time she had been struggling with songs that didn't fit her temperament. She wondered what would happen if she played a song befitting her current state. "Couldn't be any worse," she said aloud to no one. Somewhere though, in the back of her mind, she knew this probably wasn't entirely true. However, she had nothing left to lose, and turned back to playing.

Deciding to run with the general Beatles theme, she broke into the opening of Maybe I'm Amazed. It was a song she'd always loved, and always found sad in its way. Quite sad, actually. She'd never truly been able to express how it had made her feel, how perfectly she believed it displayed the fear, confusion and strange solitude that she felt always seemed to come with being truly in love with someone. She couldn't express it before, but she could certainly express it now. The music still felt formidable and unnerving, but the maliciousness, the wrongness off before seemed to be gone. Now the harsh, perverted melodies became focused. They were destructive and productive at the same time, beautiful in their awfulness, like a regenerative forrest fire or a controlled demolition. Never before had McCartney's howling "Maybe I'm a lonely man who's in the middle of something that he doesn't really understand" felt so personal, so tremendous and harrowing. She began to play with such force and passion that the piano bench had started rocking back and forth as thought it were now hosting a small, feminine Jerry Lee Lewis.

Now it wasn't just the store manager who was staring. Everyone within hearing distance of the store was now gathered at the store windows, watching Fiona as though she were some awe-inspiring animal at a zoo, some new creature brought out of the deepest jungles of sorrow. Desparius Gargantuous. Fiona finished the song and realized she was almost out of breath. As she collected herself she became aware of the host of eyes staring at her. She turned slowly to look at them. She saw people of all types looking back at her. A father had his daughter clutched tightly in his arms. A teenage girl had dropped her American Apparel bag sloppily on the floor and had her hands and forehead pressed against the glass. Fiona locked eyes with an older woman who was standing stoically in the center of the window. The woman looked almost regal, with rigid posture, a stern countenance and her resplendent grey hair coifed perfectly atop her head. Fiona saw tears, still and silent, running down her cheeks. She noticed the woman absently, mechanically twisting a wedding ring around her right ring finger.

"I'm sorry," said Fiona, so quietly she was basically mouthing the words.

The woman looked at her and smiled. "Keep playing," she mouthed back.

Fiona turned back to the piano. As her mind raced through what to play next she smiled at the thought of being barely able to constrain the sudden, overwhelming desire to play. She was filled with a need to play every single sad bastard song she could think of. And so she began. She started with Lullaby by Billy Joel. From there she played The Sound of Silence, Me and Bobby McGee, Silent All These Years, Old Man by Randy Newman, Wish You Were Here, Time in a Bottle, and Tom Traubert's Blues. As Fiona played the crowd grew larger. People from other stores began bleeding out of their various shops and gathered around The Piano Man. When Fiona had begun playing in earnest a young man who had been listening from the beginning had run out of the mall. He returned now, dragging his girlfriend behind him. As they approached the girlfriend was heard grousing that she didn't understand why she was being pulled out to the mall just to hear some girl play piano, but as soon as she was close enough to hear she stopped. The girl listened with great intent as the boy watched her expectantly. after a moment she turned to look at the boy.

"Oh my god," she said.

"I know," he replied.

People began pulling out their cell phones. Some called to tell people that they had to get to the mall, NOW. Others used their phones to record the music. Some dialed and then once the other party picked up simply held the phone into the air. The clerks at Suncoast Music closed the store early and went to listen. Soon Brookstone, The Gem Shop and Hot Topic followed suit. The crowd began to fill the entire area in and around The Piano Man. Soon even Dillard's closed up shop and gave in to the draw of the small, bereft girl in the piano store who was releasing an unstoppable tornado of music from a sleek black baby grand. There was a definite stir in the air. Something was happening here. Some enterprising young men from the electronic store grabbed some sound equipment and set up a crude but functional hook up into the mall's PA system, and soon the entire mall was filled with the sound of Fiona playing her music. Soon the only stores left open in the whole mall were a handful of shops in the food court who were passing out lattes, giant cookies and cinnabons to the crowd of gatherers. The main entrance to the mall was left open and people continuously trickled in. People began arriving with lawn chairs and blankets. Someone brought a grill and begin cooking hamburgers just outside.

The whole time Fiona kept playing. Song after song, one after another, hour after hour. About four hours in she took a pause and someone handed her a cappuccino and a giant cookie with musical notes drawn on it. As Fiona munched on the cookie she felt someone approach her. She looked up and saw Pastor Dahl standing above her. One of the parishioners had been in the mall that day looking for a birthday present for her grandfather and had called the pastor as soon as she heard Fiona playing.

The pastor was shifting from one foot to the other, cradling something in his arms. "I was wondering," Pastor Dahl began, unsure exactly how to proceed. "I was wondering if perhaps I could make a request?" Fiona stared at him blankly, crumbs stuck on the sides of her mouth. "A hymn," clarified the pastor. "The Old Rugged Cross. It's my favorite." Pastor Dahl put out an earmarked hymnal to Fiona, who smiled, took the book, licked her lips and began to play. The pastor sang along, and some people in the crowd who knew they hymn sang along with him. When it was done the pastor leaned over and kissed Fiona on the forehead, patted her on the back and walked away to join some of the other church members who had been drawn to the mall.

As soon as the pastor had stepped away people started to approach the piano, making requests. Fiona played the ones she knew. People began grabbing song books off the shelf and bringing them to the piano. Fiona, who had always been a rather exceptional site-reader, continued playing. There was an understanding throughout the crowd of what was appropriate, and all the songs were of a piece. A girl in a tattered dress and army boots requested Me and the Minibar by The Dresden Dolls. A man in dark denim and flannel asked for Johnny Cash. The woman who had called Pastor Dahl requested Sinatra's One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) and sang it into her phone to her grandfather.

Fiona noticed the regal looking woman from earlier, still off to the side, still standing strict and stern.

"Any requests?" yelled Fiona, the first words she'd said in hours.

The old woman thought for a moment.

"You wouldn't happen to know Tea and Sympathy, would you?"

Fiona took a sip of her cappuccino. "My mother loved Janis Ian," she said, and began to play. The old woman sang along in a voice both smooth and weathered.

The night progressed in a similar fashion. Fiona played, people sang, and though people came and went. Hours passed by and hardly anyone seemed to notice. The only tell tale sign of the hour was the occasional child asleep on their parent's lap.

After hours of playing, Fiona stopped. She had just finished CCR's Someday Never Comes, and suddenly the weight of it all came crashing into her mind. She felt a fluttering in her chest, and for a moment she thought she might cry. She didn't, however, and instead glanced at her watch. It was nearly 6 AM. Fiona stood up from the bench and let out a long, painful, satisfying stretch. She moved slowly to the back of the store. She could feel people watching her go, but no one moved, no one said a word. She reached the back exit and stepped outside. The sun was beginning to rise, and the parking lot was filled with a warm, orange promise of morning.
Fiona returned and once again sat down at the piano. She ran through a list of songs in her head. She chose with great care, and began to play. Throughout the mall the bright, lilting music of Here Comes the Sun rang out over the PA. In a tiny, tired voice, mostly to herself, Fiona sang along.

When the song was over Fiona stood up, gave a small wave to everyone around her, and went home.

The Lord of Old Manse County

He was dead, that was certain. Caroline Auger's father was pronouncedly dead and buried. The funeral had been earlier that day, and she had been there to suffer through the whole affair. It was brought off well, with typical New England Protestant solemnity and directness. The minister, who had known the family for years, kept the whole service nice and compact, speaking to the patriarch's place in the community, the particularities of his character, and his assured place in the Holy Kingdom of God. Then the whole thing was moved to the grave site, and the old man was officially returned to the ground. Her mother had cried. Her two brothers had their faces contorted in grief, wanting to be strong, not wanting to show how they felt so lost and alone now that they were without the old man who always seemed to have the answers. All Caroline could think about was sleep.

Now she was at the reception, standing in the living room of her childhood home, now filled with her father's friends, old business associates, fellow lodge members, people he had served on various community boards with, strangers, family members of various kinds and degrees. A second cousin twice removed (or at least that's what she thought he was, pretty sure anyways, regardless, a man of some relation) who had also been on a city planning committee with the old man came up to her and gave her a full hug, nearly spilling her glass of wine with his ardent sympathy. "I'm so sorry," the man said, nearly vomiting sincerity. "If there's anything you need, you let me know. Anything. Got me?" She assured him that she did. He gave her a pat on the shoulder and walked off, more likely than not to tell the other sorrow gawkers how well she was holding up, all things considered.

She had wanted to laugh at him. Well, perhaps not at him. Certainly not with him, but she had no desire to be cruel, either. She had wanted to grab him, pull him close, stare him down, and whisper conspiratorially into his ear, "Anything?" Then drag him over to the one bookcase in the house no one was standing near, the one that housed volumes of books her father had collected on the occult (one of her father's more odd hobbies). Then pull a random book from the shelf and say to the man with all possible intensity, "He knew this was going to happen. He earmarked an old witch’s spell that would bring him back. Meet me tonight, midnight, at his gravesite. Bring a shovel, a goat and a 12 inch knife."

Just when it seemed like everyone was running out of steam and perhaps the party would break, someone put Creedence Clearwater Revival's Chronicles, vol. 1 on the stereo. Suddenly conversations picked up anew. CCR had been Harold Auger's favorite, and it seemed like everyone had a story about Harold and his love of the band. An old high school friend told the story about how Harold had shown up at his house in his father's car, borrowed without permission, and hijacked him to see Creedence play a huge outdoor concert in Connecticut in 1970. Her mother, who had the good fortune to be named Susan, recalled how Harold had proposed after his college band, The Snake Charmers, had played "Suzy Q" at a frat party their senior year.

Caroline knew what was coming. The mirth would only last so long, and once the album came around to "Long As I Can See The Light" the weight of death would be back on everyone's shoulders. Certainly by the album's final number, "Someday Never Comes," her brothers would be drunk and blubbering and everyone else would either run away or dedicate themselves to Sympathy Duty, and then they would never leave. Caroline knew she had to be somewhere, but she'd be damned if it was going to be in the midst of that mess. She made her way to the one room in the house where she would be able to get the contemplative silence she needed. She went to her father's study room.

Harold Auger's study had always been a bit of a family joke. Harold had been a constant reader and scribbler, filling every room in the house with books and notepads filled with anything and everything that had ever struck his fancy. The only room in the house completely devoid of literature, notepads or desks of any kind was the study. That room had been chosen to house Harold's toy train landscape, a terraform he had tinkered with since childhood. The whole structure was built on a base of supports that came about four feet off the ground. The landscape was pushed to every corner of the room so entirely that as soon as one opened the door to the room one was met with four feet of woodwork topped with a fake forest that Harold would immediately tell any young entrant to not touch, because it was rumored to be haunted.

In order to get to the central viewing area it was necessary to crawl underneath the fake earth, getting down on hands and knees to enter a designed crawlspace. As Caroline made her way through the tunnel, she ran across the only other member of the Auger family who seemed aloof and disconnected in the midst of this mourning dance. Cotton Mather, the large white cat of dubious origins her father had rescued from underneath a dumpster six years ago, lounged fat and content in the middle of the crawlspace. "Move it, Cotton. Come on, buddy," Caroline pleaded, trying to gently nudge the cat along, until finally she had to resort to pushing the feline the final three feet into the room's center.

Caroline stood and purveyed the expanse of territory her father had dubbed Old Manse County. Harold Auger had ruled over the area like a god, creating the world out of his imagination and the many enthusiast catalogues he would buy every few months. He was a benevolent god, but he was no coddler. The inch-tall residents of Old Manse County were born, bred and died under the watchful eye of Harold Auger. Harold Auger giveth Thaddeus Merriwether, the town's miller, a windfall due to a mysterious and unknown uncle's passing in a faraway county. Harold Auger taketh away the infant son of the mayor and his wife, a tragic case of crib death. "Just because they're an inch tall, doesn't mean they should get it easy," an impressionably young Caroline had been told after witnessing Lord Auger enact a terrible draught on Old Man Swanson's corn harvest. "How can a man an inch tall hope to become big if he gets all the breaks?"

Despite his penchant for dramatic pragmatism, the god of Old Manse County was not without a sense of magic or whimsy. There were, of course, the hypothetically haunted woods of the south. There was also Old Lady Flanagan, who lived in the remote western territory. It was strongly believed by the locals that she was a witch due to the strange occurrences that would happen near her residence (odd isolated storms, large gatherings of sheep and wolves together without incident, and in one particularly overstated case the spelling of the word “witch” in flowers on her lawn). However, since none of these incidents seemed particularly malicious, the townspeople just chalked it up to local color and outside of a few bored kids, Old Lady Flanagan was left to her own devices.

The real treat, though, was the mountain pass. In the east portion of the room was a piece of mountain that Old Manse County’s oft-dependable train would go through. There were times, though, when the train would be running its usual course, but when it entered the mountain it would stop, remaining hidden within its unseeable innards. Lord Auger would ignore this event until one of the children noticed the train had gone.

“Dad! Dad!” Caroline would yell. “Where’s the train?!?”

“Holy smokes, I don’t know!” Harold Auger would yell back, throwing his arms to his head in panic. “I can’t see inside a mountain! ANYTHING could be happening in there!” And thus the game would begin. The children and the old man would run through the many theories as to what could possibly be occurring within the large chunk of fake rock that could be holding up the train so.

“Train robbers!” Sam, the youngest, would guess.

“No,” Tim would interject. “They’re helping Frodo Baggins.” Often Tim would mold the contours of Old Manse County to fit whatever particular book series or television show he was into at the time. His Doctor Who years made these exercises particularly painful.

“It’s a unicorn parade!” Caroline would say, always the one to get most excited about the game.

“Unicorns? That’s ridiculous!” Her father would counter. “It would obviously be a howler monkey parade!” Harold would break into his howler monkey impression, and the children were instantly thrown into fits of hysterical laughter. Once the hysteria had reached its highest point, Harold would flip the train back on undetected, and the train would once again leave the mountain. Although the children begged and pleaded with their father, he would always insist that the train passengers were sworn to secrecy about their mountain experience. In that fashion the game was played for years.

Caroline sat staring at her father’s personally crafted domain. She contemplated the power switch that would start the train, but decided against it. She peered at the entrance to the mountain tunnel. She wondered what her mother, who had never quite understood the fascination with Old Manse County, would do with it. What sort of terrible Salvation Army apocalypse awaited the inhabitants? What would the destruction of the mystical mountain reveal? Caroline was fairly certain that the inside of the mountain was probably made of the same stuff as the rest of the design, all wood, foam and cardboard. Yet even now as a young woman out in the workaday world, she hoped that her father had perhaps taken the time to fill the mountain with something. She hoped that there actually was some secret within it that had kept the children guessing all those years. Whether there was something there or not, she did not want to find out. She made a mental note to herself that if mom were going to take down the study, she would make sure she wasn’t there when it happened.

Just then the door to the study opened and a somewhat drunk Curtis Tiptown leaned against the doorframe.

“Figured you’d be in here. You really should get out there, everyone’s wondering where you are and your mom’s doing one of her things. You know, her concerned hostess things. Only moreso, you know, since this is... what it is.”

Caroline had grown up with Curtis and was well aware that he had always had a bit of a thing for her. He was a good guy, a bit of an oaf, and Caroline certainly loved him in her way. That way, however, wasn’t that way. The way Curtis had wanted. This had caused a small number of spats between them, but nothing they hadn’t been able to overcome, and they still considered each other best friends. However, there were certainly times, particularly drunken times, where these undertones in their relationship would surface.

“Thank you, Curtis. I’ll be out in a minute. If you would please let them know I’ll be there soon. And shut the door.”

“How you holding up? Need any help?” Curtis asked, his lean beginning to sway, suggesting that if he finished the bourbon in his hand he would be the one needing holding up.

“No Curtis. I’m fine. Thank you.”

“You don’t have to be this way, you know. Look, I’m coming in.” Curtis began to stagger his way down to the crawlspace

“Curtis, don’t come in. I’m fine. Please go away.”

“No, look. I’ll come in, we’ll hang out. We’ll run the train.”

“Curtis, I love you, but if you come through that tunnel I will kick you in the face until you go back. I am not joking, Curtis. I will kick you in the face.”

Curtis straightened, sobering up a bit. He nodded in understanding, and began to back out of the doorway. “I’ll tell them you’ll be out in a bit, then. Some of us are going to be grilling out back, doing some hamburgers for everyone who’s staying. So. I’ll... see you there. Ummm. All right.” He closed the door slowly, sneaking in one peak before it closed all the way.

Caroline sat down on the stool her father used to sit in. She grabbed Cotton Mather up from the floor and began to stroke his fur. What a joke her father would have found these whole proceedings. Harold Auger hated any ceremony devoid of magic or purpose, and this was exactly that sort of ceremony he railed against. If the old man were here right now, Caroline thought to herself, he would destroy this place. He’d kick off the stereo, put away all of the wine and fancy desserts. He’d drag everyone out into the backyard and force everyone to have a beer. He’d even sneak the youngsters a few sips. Then he would tell ghost stories. He would tell stories about Old Manse County. He would scare the kids. He’d make everyone laugh.

She saw the old graveyard her father had made behind the Old Manse Episcopalian Church. She realized that she had never actually seen her father bury any of the Old Manse citizens. She had born witness to nearly every other event the landscape could have provided, had even been there when citizens had died, but she had never seen them buried. She had no idea what an Old Manse funeral had entailed. It was, she realized, the one secret her father had kept that she wished she knew.

She began to reach out her hand to run it over the gravestones of the burial ground when Cotton Mather began to twitch and claw in her lap. She straightened up quickly, picking up Cotton and holding him away from her so that his claws would be unable to snag her again.

“What’s up with you, Cotton?” Caroline asked the cat. Suddenly the cat gave one of those full-body twisting contortions that only cats and some sea creatures seem capable of, and was thrown loose from Caroline’s grip. The cat landed haphazardly on the landscape, knocking over a couple of trees and sending Reverend Porter’s truck tumbling down Church Rd.

Then. Oh, then. Then, with a slow calmness and precision, just like her father used to use, Cotton Mather used his paws to very deliberately correct everything he had upset. Caroline watched the whole thing in a mystified silence. When he was done, Cotton turned to Caroline and stared directly into her eyes. Caroline stared back. Slowly the cat opened its mouth, but no sound came out. There sat Cotton Mather the cat, mouth wide open, staring straight into Caroline’s eyes. Then, slowly, a noise like the release of air from a slashed tire seemed to escape from the cat’s mouth. Caroline suddenly became very uncomfortable. Cotton suddenly looked very embarrassed. “Maybe I should be socializing,” Caroline said to no one. She looked down at the crawlspace leading back to the outside world. She got down on her hands and knees, and slowly began to crawl deep underneath the earth of Old Manse County.


He was dead, that much was certain. Harold Auger had died. He knew this because he had been there. He WAS Harold Auger. Perhaps he still was. He wasn’t quite sure how these things worked.

His death, as far as deaths go, had been a good one. He’d fallen asleep in his favorite overstuffed chair while reading a book on Aaron Burr and had simply not woken up. Surely there was a technical name for what happened, some failure of this organ, or fuck up of that organ. In the big picture, it didn’t matter. Harold didn’t care, and neither did anyone else. He’d died comfortable, and everyone agreed that, as he frequently had throughout his life, Harold had made the smart play in his death.

After death, however, had been tricky. Everything had gotten blurry. He’d heard voices that he was pretty sure he recognized, but couldn’t really place. There had been a warmth, but not a particularly comforting one. It was as though he were being tie-dyed in warm water, just out of earshot of loved ones who were wondering where in the hell he was. He was being asked questions in a language he didn’t understand, but could catch the drift. The whole time, all he could remember thinking about was Caroline. And suddenly there she was, all dressed in black and standing over his gravesite.

Harold Auger had been a fair and judicious man. He tried to treat people respectfully, was frequently brought into disputes to be an impartial judge, and was considered by all to be a stand-up man. However, impartiality flew out the window when it came to his little girl. It’s a dirty, filthy lie that parents don’t have favorites. They all do, but certainly to different degrees. There was no question as to who was Harold Auger’s favorite. He loved the boys, but he was smitten with Caroline. She was certainly the most like him of all the Auger children, and had turned out more clever and beautiful than anyone had had any right to expect.

As he found himself there, floating light in the ether, he knew it was because of her. The voices in the soup, the questions, the push and pull of it all; it had been about her. It was the only downside to a death so pleasant - no good-byes. No final words, no summation of life wisdom, no big moment. Just... gone. He had been given a chance, a chance to relay his final message. If only he could come up with one.

The graveside service was over, and Caroline was getting into the black funereal sedan with the rest of the immediate Auger family. The ether-Harold moved (moved? Floated? Ambled? He still wasn’t quite sure how this worked) into the car with them. As the car began to move, Harold tried to think of what his final words should be to his beloved daughter. Would a simple “good-bye” suffice? Or maybe “I love you.” It seemed so cheap, though. Did he really need to say good-bye? Was there any doubt that he had loved her? Maybe it should be more practical. He could remind her to make sure she read a good book every now and then. Pay her taxes on time. Fuck. He was smarter than this. Obviously he was allowed this... whatever it was, this opportunity, to come back and say something meaningful to his daughter. That the love you take is equal to the love you make? Shit. He needed something quick. Who knows how long he had?

He got as close as he could to Caroline. This was it. This was his moment. A lifetime of experience and wisdom, culled into one final sincere message whispered on the breeze into the ear of his daughter at his very funeral. And that message was... DAMMIT. Umm... Shit. It was... Be nice to people. Well, certainly there was more to it than that. But maybe he was onto something.

Caroline had always been one of those individuals who tended to expect too much from people and was, consequently, consistently disappointed in them. Harold had watched over the years as many of his daughter’s friendships and relationships had imploded due to other’s impossibility to live up to her standards. She was lonelier than she should be, and it was by and large her own fault. Harold had always hoped she’d mellow with age, but at twenty-five she showed no signs of easing up.

That was it. That was the message. “Ease up!” He’d gotten it! He concentrated on it. He concentrated hard and long on sending the message to Caroline. “Ease up! Ease up! Ease up! Ease up! Ease up!” He thought, over and over again. Suddenly, Caroline seemed to be thinking of something. She cocked her head ever so slightly and scrunched her eyebrows together. Had she heard him? Had his message gotten through? She adjusted herself in the seat, leaned over to Tim, and said, “Is there going to be pizza at the reception?” Tim glared back at her. “I just don’t want to be forced to eat stupid mourning food. Salmon platters and pate and whatnot. What, like pizza isn’t serious enough? Pizza will offend the dead? I just want a fucking slice of pizza, that’s all.” Silence in the car again. Shit.

No. Wait. This was good. That was a TERRIBLE final message, what was he thinking? Ease up? What, on the brakes? Was this Driver’s Ed? He could do better. He could definitely do better. Couldn’t he?

The reception was awful. Exactly the kind of pomp and circumstance he had hated. Everyone was miserable and mopey. Caroline had been correct in both assuming that there wouldn’t be pizza and in thinking that everyone would have been better off if there had been. He had been relieved when Caroline ditched the party for the study. He eagerly followed.

In the study Caroline sat staring at the train. Ether-Harold stared with her. He thought back on all the time he’d spent with the children in this room. A lot of important things had happened here. Not the big important things, but the small ones, the ones that were the structure of what the children would become. The conversations, the realizations, the confessions, the decisions, so many of them had taken place right here. As Harold’s thoughts rambled, Curtis poked his head into the room. Harold had always liked Curtis. He was a dupe, but a good-hearted dupe. He was also the only other person whose love of Caroline seemed close to matching Harold’s. Poor Curtis.

Then suddenly it struck him. He knew what his final message would be. He would tell Caroline that what everyone needed was in this room. What everyone needed was a space where they could feel free to ask those questions, and have those conversations, and possibly come across as stupid, or afraid, or lonely, but that in this space, that was ok. That people by and large were good, but that they were all looking for a place to hide, and that if you ever truly wanted to love people, if you ever truly wanted to have those deep, meaningful relationships, that was all you had to do - give people a place to hide. Give someone a place to hide, and they will be yours for life.

It wasn’t the greatest final message, but it was his. It was what he wanted to say, what he felt Caroline needed to hear. Only now he had to figure out how to say it. The concentration thing hadn’t worked. He began searching around the room, trying to find some sort of vessel, something that could carry his message. Then he felt something. Something that reminded him of when heroes in old gothic romances felt a breeze inside an old castle that revealed a hidden doorway. There was a doorway.

Cotton Mather. The feeling was coming from Cotton Mather. “Ah well,” Harold thought. “Here goes nothing.”

He moved towards the cat, and suddenly it was as though he was being pulled towards it. He was disoriented. There was thrashing and tearing, a brief and violent battle for control. Then suddenly, there he was. Inside the cat. Standing on all fours in the midst of Old Manse County. Somewhere within the whole scuffle the place had gotten upset, and cat-Harold quickly righted everything with the paws he very quickly adapted to using. Then he turned to face Caroline. She was staring at him with a look of confusion and possibly terror. He froze. Suddenly the weirdness of the situation caught up with him all at once. What in the hell was happening? He tried to shake it off and speak, but when he did only a hoarse wheeze escaped his newly inherited mouth. God, this was embarrassing. Caroline, now obviously terrified, slowly sank underneath the terrain and left the room.

Cat-Harold grew desperate. He trotted out of the study and began searching the house for Caroline. He was beginning to feel his control loosen, and he felt the fear of time slipping away. He had been given a second chance, and he couldn’t ruin it. He finally found Caroline on the back porch, sitting in a chair watching the boys attempting to start the gas grill. It was now or never. He felt it. Cat-Harold jumped into Caroline’s lap, stretched himself so that his hind legs rested on her legs and his front paws were on her collar bone. Caroline was looking at him with that same mixture of curiosity and terror. “Caroline,” he said, his own voice coming out of the cat. It had worked! This was it! His final moment! “Caroline, there’s something very important that I...”


What happened next, the family would later chalk up to the extreme sorrow of the situation upsetting people’s mental states. Caroline, swearing she heard Cotton Mather speak with the voice of her father, proceeded to push the cat off of her as hard as she could with both hands. The cat went flying through the air, landing flat on the grill just as Sam’s match caught the gas. Sam, understandably shaken by the sudden appearance of a flying cat, screamed and stumbled backwards, falling over Curtis, who was on his knees adjusting the gas level. Curtis, knocked by Sam, fell forward onto the gas nozzle, twisting it under his weight and sending a small fireball into the night sky that contained within it the now cindered form of Cotton Mather. Although neither would ever admit it, both Curtis and Sam could have sworn they heard the voice of old man Auger yelling “FUCKING HELL” as the fireball dissipated, leaving the scorched body of Cotton Mather to land smoking on the lawn, stumble for a moment, and then expire.


He was dead, that was certain. Cotton Mather the cat had been consumed in a fireball. But here he was, floating around in a multi-colored soup. There were voices he could not understand, asking him questions of which he could only perceive the tone. Then he was there, in the back yard. Watching as the family, now absent a father, put the British Knights shoebox that contained his mortal coil into the ground. He had been brought back for some purpose. He knew it. But what?

As he made his way around the yard, he saw it. A raccoon. Now that he was ether-Cotton Mather, he could sneak up right beside the feral beast. Relishing in his newfound stealth Cotton crept close to the raccoon. As he did so he felt a slight wind, like a draft coming from the opening of a secret passage. Then there was a pull, as he was tugged forcibly into the form of the raccoon. There was a brief, violent fight, and then it was over. Cotton Mather now inhabited the raccoon. The ex cat made a check of his newly inherited body. Suddenly, everything seemed brighter again. He had returned with a purpose. He had been given a second chance. He had been given a gift.