Mary Had a Little Plan

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

It really wasn’t clever. Every time that she went out, they followed her together.
On Tuesday morn when she went out, she carried a huge white bag. Not unusual when going to shop, but laden enough to sag. She sallied boldly round the mazes of the Schwarzenegger Memorial Mall, rushing here and browsing there, not really going anywhere at all.
Everywhere that Mary went, the men in grey went too. Barely pretending to browse or pause, waiting to see what she’d do. Her keen green eyes perused so much, but never lost track of her tail. A reflection here, a glance taken there, a peek through a garment rail. So that was how Mary’s day went by, from mall to plaza to café. Two extra shadows in her wake, mirthless all the way.
As evening stained the sky with dusk, some revellers entered the street. Bright party clothes and brighter smiles, each moving to their personal beat. They exhorted Mary to come and dance, to put down her bag and play. Mary just smiled and shook her head, but joined in with a gentle sway.
So Mary, revellers, and grey-suited men went down to the old shunting yard, where illicit pleasures and loud release could throw anyone off their guard. Amidst that colourful throng, Mary laughed and danced a little bit. Never letting go of the heavy bag, nor showing what was in it.
When twilight turned to night the partying turned serious: three hundred happy lawbreakers became ever more delirious. While at the edge of that gay throng, two suited figures stood stern. People thought they were security – they didn’t cause concern. Until their guns came out, and drones dropped from the skies. One of them had met the gaze of this Mary with blue eyes.
Agents stormed in and the crowd erupted, people running all over the place. But no-one managed to get by, everyone compared to her scanned face. The blue-eyed Mary smiled as she showed the white bag full of jewellery and cash, with a rumpled mess of discarded dress and nice shoes left atop the stash.
They searched high and they searched low, all night and on to midday. But all they found at the end of it all was that Mary had gotten away.

The Remarkable Donut

Author: Robb White

The black hole first appeared in Aaron Jesperson’s upstairs room Thursday night and seemed nothing more than a fuzzy donut, a “wobbly thing,” according to Emma, when she went in to look for him. She found him in the kitchen swearing and holding his hand under the tap.

“Forgot to put your mug under the Keurig again? You’ll be leaving your keys in the fridge next,” Emma said.
She was short on pity, long on rebuke. Aaron gave her a baleful stare but worried she might be right this time. He’d only been retired a year and time hung heavy nowadays.
It was an hour later before Aaron entered the room and discovered what Emma was talking about.

Circular, soundlessly moving, it seemed to just hover there. The “donut thing” crinkled the air at shoulder height. At first, he thought it might be a trompe-l’oeil effect, light from the window hitting the back of the screen just right and producing this strange ripple—but, no, a second glance proved that wrong. It was there; it was no optical effect of light or shade. More disturbing, it moved of its own volition—a tiny shift to the right then back to its spot like a runner running in place.

Gently, cautiously like a child’s first attempt to pet a dog, he set the corner of a DVD case against the outer edge of the swirling eye. The DVD disappeared. Gone! Nowhere to be seen. Just not there anymore.
Aaron flushed with exhilaration.

More DVDs went into the tiny black hole with the same result. Each time, Aaron’s mind anticipated the thrill of the item being snatched—almost like dropping a moth into a voracious spider’s maw. No telltale sound in its wake—just the thing ceasing to exist. A pen, a plastic yellow backscratcher, a pocket dictionary, and a glass paperweight with a scorpion inside all went the same way.

But where, though?

The thought he might have been sucked into the donut and transmogrified into an eviscerated strand of human spaghetti made his knees buckle. His mind couldn’t fathom such a fate, and he remained in a stupor until the doorbell below gave its usual trill.
He left the room, gave a nervous backward glance, lest its ravening maw should send out invisible tentacles to lug him toward it from that distance. He peeked over the banister rail to see the top of Emma’s salt-and-pepper head greeting her older brother with a rambunctious hug and noisy smack of a kiss on the cheek.
Hugh openly despised Aaron and let him know it at every opportunity.

“I have something to show you, Hugh. You’ll get a kick out of it, trust me.”

Hugh sighed theatrically and headed up the stairs, his heavy tread increased the smile on Aaron’s face a millimeter with every step.

Minutes later, Emma called up the stairs for Hugh to come down for his coffee.

“He’s not here,” Aaron said, his beaming face appearing over the rail. At a trot, he came down the steps and took the cup from her and sipped.

Ah, perfect, made with heavy whipping cream and Brazilian chocolate.

Emma’s pout replaced the scowl. “He might have said something to me before he left.”

He smiled thinking about life’s wondrous strangeness, how the banal could become so magical, so monstrously eye-opening all at once. In the echo chamber of his memory, he heard once more the half-finished alto shriek from his brother-in-law’s throat climbing high like an aria’s single silver note in that split-second as Hugh stretched forth a contemptuous arm to touch infinity.


Rare Satisfaction on a Discount Airline

Author: Keith Downey

Crammed as he was into the middle seat of Row F between two gargantuan human specimens, Zim wasn’t sure that he could even reach the tesseract in his pocket, let alone activate it. Excess tissue, barely contained by overworked athletic pants, reached across the border that should have divided the narrow seats. The oversized humans seemed unaware of their encroachment into his territory.

Across the aisle, a dirty minor with a mop of uncouth hair alternated between sticking its tongue out at Zim and shoving candy into its gullet. Its parental units, unconcerned, stared lifelessly at their electronic devices. A male wearing the headdress of a cattle herder shouted demands at a disinterested flight attendant. A small canine inexplicably occupied a seat and added its yips to the cacophony.

The dingy flying machine should have soured Zim’s mood. The rank smell of compressed passengers and their greasy foodstuffs should have stoked his anger. Two surprise fees, one for possessing luggage an inch longer than regulation-size and another for having the audacity to check in with a human representative of the airline, should have driven him to the precipice of rage. The utter lack of in-flight entertainment should have pushed him right over that precipice.

But none of those setbacks managed to damage his disposition, because Zim was, at long last, heading home. It had taken months of tinkering to determine the precise altitude, velocity, and solar flare schedule to guarantee the tesseract’s effectiveness. That so many dreadful samples would be unwittingly coming along was an added bonus.

Zim finally freed his arms from the confines of his neighbors’ girth. He checked the watch-looking device on his left wrist and smiled; almost there. He pulled his hat more snugly over his antennae, then reached into his coat pocket. Caressing the small silvery cube for a few moments, Zim re-familiarized himself with the intricate patterns on its sides.

Checking the readings on his wrist once more, Zim sighed as he pushed the requisite combinations to activate the tesseract. A faint vibration was the only immediate sign that it had worked.

Several moments later, the commander of the flying machine ordered the attendants to repair to the cockpit, anxiety penetrating his voice even through the tinny speaker. The dirty minor was the first to notice the change in scenery outside the tiny portholes; the purple domes of Xilibander-6, Zim’s home planet, shone brightly in the morning suns. The minor’s sticky appendages tried but failed to rouse the concern of its parental units.

Aghast, the juvenile looked wildly across the aisle. Zim winked at it, a smile now blooming on his face as the minor’s mouth made several fish-like movements. Such expressive features would be most interesting to the research committee. He looked forward to pointing out the peculiarities of this species to his colleagues; the wide disparities in weight depending on sugar and fat intake, for example. Or the ability to sit sloth-like for hours while viewing images flashing on screens of various sizes.

As the minor continued to sputter incoherently, Zim felt a brief pang of guilt at resigning the humans to a life of observation chambers and scientific instruments. Then one of his gargantuan neighbors broke wind, quickly reversing Zim’s train of thought. Advancing the knowledge of a superior species would be a most appropriate fate for these humans. A kindness, really.

After all, the lab cages to which the passengers would soon be transferred were much roomier than the seats on Flight 437, and the probes were hardly more intrusive than a TSA pat-down.

Precious Things

Author: Irene Montaner

She wandered along time caring for the dead. No galaxy was too big, no planet too insignificant. Everything that had ever lived within the boundaries of her universe was worth of her attention, regardless of whether it had existed for eons or nanoseconds.

She found us right in the middle of a singularity, if there’s ever such a place. A point in time and space where the nothing converged with everything, the darkness with the light. A point where the energy clashed with the vacuum.

She found us and released us from the black hole that had swallowed our stellar system. Her long, thin fingers surrounded us, felt us, searched for any sign of life, as feeble as may. Millions of millions of millions of heartbeats reached the strings of her consciousness at once. It was us calling for help, from the first bacteria that ever swam in our oceans to the last human that ever walked the earth. It was us asking for mercy.

She listened closely and heard beyond our heartbeats. She heard us screaming and yelling, crying and lying, abusing each other. She heard the clash of the battles we fought, the crash of the dishes we broke, the bang of the bombs we dropped. She heard us failing at life and hoping there would be a tomorrow for that very same reason. Because we had failed and wanted to try again.

She brought us closer to her, her lips almost touching us. Every string that made her up vibrated as she insufflated part of her life into us. Quarks, hadrons, atoms, molecules formed again in less than what it took for the universe to be born. It will take a much longer time before our hearts start beating. But they will beat again.

Eye of the Beholder

Author: J. David Thayer

I lay in my hospital bed with both arms crushed and my face and eyes cut to pieces. A loose timber from a logger swatted my Jeep into a drainage ditch. The accident should have killed me, but I survived. Didn’t feel like it. Well-meaning people, when void of anything useful to say, often proceed regardless.

“Well, it could have been worse.”

True. And it damn well could have been a whole lot better.
I was once a gifted artist. My right hand would never regain the dexterity that earned me a scholarship to NYU, but that hardly mattered now. Color was fading memory. One day Dr. Gregory Perkins visited me in my new darkness. He had an idea.

“We have found a suitable pair of eyes to attempt a radical double transplant! It may result in the full recovery of your eyesight. The eyes of an artist, as I understand it.”
The nurse unscrolled the gauze like an archeologist undressing a mummy.

“Alright, Jonathan, tell us what you see?”

My lids fluttered. The new pupils began to orient themselves. My first dose of light since Highway 61. Light! Precious light!

I began screaming long before I recognized my own voice.

“Purple! Why are you all purple?” I looked at my hands. “Why am I purple? What the hell is this?”
My donor, whoever she was, saw in a completely different spectrum. All was alien and awful. When she said, “blue” did she mean “orange”? My green sure as hell wasn’t her green! There were also other colors I never saw before. Neat, huh? I couldn’t take it. None of it. I screamed like I was on fire every time I opened my after-market eyes. They would not reboot. This was my world now.

“You Quack! What the hell!

“No one really knows for certain that we all see things exactly the same. Maybe we just have a relative vocabulary for describing relationships. The idea’s long been on my mind. My father’s color blind. He can tell whether something that is red or green, but his brain only sees distinctions of gray. He doesn’t know green grass—not like the rest of us do. As an ophthalmologist, I know that color blindness affects the cones and rods. Even so, I’ve always wondered if colors are absolutes at all! Seems they’re not.”

“Well! Good for you! Get out.”
After ten days my new left eye began to reject. The right eye soon followed. I was actually relieved. I couldn’t accept Jane Mincy’s world. That was her name: Jane Mincy, age 23. Dad pulled some strings and found out that much.
After leaving the hospital, I started working clay with my left hand. NYU honored their scholarship, and they were rewarded with a promising new artist who tells an incredible story. Crowded lecture halls. People wanted to hear what it was like to see through another set of eyes. At least they thought they did.

‘It’s a good thing I didn’t end up with the eyes of a cubist!” This line always killed ‘em. “I probably would have fragmented instantly and never recovered.”
After graduation, Dad drove me out to a cemetery in Rochester to find Jane Mincy. I made a small sculpture to place it on her headstone. Funny thing about my work now: I refuse to let anyone tell me the color of the clay. Just give me a lump of anything and keep your mouth shut.

Why not? You don’t really know what color it is either.

Travels with Stacy

Author: R. J. Erbacher

Another excursion. Another plane flight. Another jungle.

He called Stacy his heedless girlfriend because she didn’t care what anybody thought. Probably not even him. She didn’t want vacations like your average girlfriend. Never a weekend in the Hamptons or trips to Disneyland or a relaxing cruise. No. Stacy wanted African bush tours, third world village slogs, and deep tropical rain forest treks. Places he had to get shots to go to. Shots! The only shots he desired were shots of ‘Jack.’ Not hypodermics. Then, they had to get exams when they got back to get checked for diseases. Vacations shouldn’t require a doctor’s referral.

But here they were again waiting on line in some remote location, worlds off the beaten path, with a bunch of other nutty tourists waiting to cross a brown river in a pole pushed skiff, operated by some half-ass native boat captain. Where were they even going? He couldn’t remember. Stacy had made it sound so thrilling when she showed him the pictures of their little getaway on her laptop.

Oh, I can’t wait for you to actually see this ancient ruin or some monkey habitat or the like.

Well, he could wait.

An awful lot of people had already gone across and they all shuffled about waiting their turn, at the end of the queue, for the boat to pull up to the rocky shoreline. The thing appeared to be a flimsy means of transport and the other side of the river looked none too inviting either. Something over there would probably bite him, stab him or sting him and then he’d be rushed to a backwater hospital. Another doctor. Another shot.

Not this time. He was going to tell his heedless girlfriend that he wanted to go back to civilization. Back to a legitimate hotel, take a shower, have a drink, sleep in a regular bed and have coffee and tons of free bacon at the continental breakfast in the morning.

Just then the boat beached itself onto the river bank with a horrendous screech and everybody started chain-gang walking forward and he followed…with trepidations. The first person to get on was a guy in a gray pinstripe suit. What was his deal? Next an elderly couple, old-style camera in hand. Then a family; mom, dad, and two kids. There was a woman in a blue jumpsuit, name tag on the upper left breast, with a yellow kerchief knotted loosely around her neck. And it was right then and there as they all gingerly stepped into this flat-bottomed canoe that he got up his nerve and decided, ‘No way, man.’

He was about to tell Stacy that he wasn’t going, and at this point, it probably wouldn’t matter to her, when she took the proffered hand of the local and climbed aboard. She thanked him for his help, tipped him a coin and joined the others on the wooden pews. The boatman hesitated and looked him dead in the face, waiting for him to choose his path.

‘No’ he decided and started moonwalking away. Unconcerned the guy shifted his posture, dug his pole into the ground and pushed off from the shore and began punting to the other side. He watched Stacy vanish into the mist that shrouded the river and he felt an icy chill and he turned away.

And opened his eyes; still strapped into seat 23D, on a burning mountainside strewn with ripped aluminum and shredded fiberglass batting, seated next to his headless girlfriend.