Bibliography — Stories — Freebies

Stories | Twenty-Four Flavours | Freebies

Many of my writings can be read online for free, whether they were originally published on the Internet or reprinted there after paper publication. You can find “Read” links for these pieces on my Bibliography page. However, over the years, I’ve also found it necessary to host some stories myself, and you can read these below.


Creative Commons LicenseAll of the works on this page are copyrighted © by Jason Erik Lundberg, and are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Licenses. You are free to share these stories, as long as you don’t alter the text or make any money from them, and as long as you attribute them to me.


“Most Excellent and Lamentable”

Sometimes I’ll be driving the Z3 on the highway and imagine my brakes cut, unexpectedly, unexplainably. And the gas pedal will get stuck, maybe with superglue, like in that Blues Brothers movie, and the speed, the speedometer keeps rising, past ninety, one-twenty, one-seventy, and the cars I’m racing past are just blurs, streaks of color which barely register before they’re gone, and the fluid for the steering wheel has evaporated and I’m careening now, careering across lanes, across the median, and I’m heading straight for an eighteen-wheeler, knowing that when I hit that there’ll be nothing left of me to identify, no fingerprints, no teeth, just a liquefied mass that used to be a person, knowing all this but completely helpless, unable to do anything about–

But of course none of that happens. It’s a fantasy. When you’re immortal, all you can think about is death.

***

To Julian, I’m Lucas. He sees me as a student of the world, a wandering poet. He thinks I’m misunderstood, unappreciated in my own time. He thinks this because I want him to think this.

I write haiku and pantoums that make absolutely no sense. I fill up trendy Moleskine notebooks with unintelligible, incomprehensible verse. He nods and makes interested noises while reading my “poetry,” calls me brilliant.

When I use arcane symbols, he looks at them thoughtfully, trying to divine importance, unaware I’m only using letters from the Cyrillic alphabet. He’s been threatening to publish a book of my poetry for years, but he never has any money.

“Lukey-duke!” he shouts as I step into Java Jive. He’s unshaven, hair all aimed to one side as if he’d been standing behind a jet engine. His clothes come from sometime in the mid-1980s, thrift store chic. Rimless eyeglasses.

I ease into the chair opposite his at the table. Julian smells vaguely of cloves.

I say, “You look happier than normal, Jules. Get laid last night?”

Julian just smiles, teeth broken and spaced too far apart.

“I see Queen Mab hath been with you,” I say.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“No, no, it’s not like that. I’m in love.”

“Love?”

“The girl, the one I told you about, she came into the bookstore again today.”

“Which girl?”

“You know, the girl. Last week she bought a raggedy-ass copy of Sartre. Her.”

“Oh.”

“Today she bought Camus.”

“So?”

“Dude! She’s a deep thinker, man. She’s beautiful and she has a brain.”

“I’ve seen plenty of women like that.”

“Well, I haven’t. They’re pretty rare for me. Especially ones that dig me.”

“Hold that thought.”

I get up, walk to the counter, order a chai, pay, get the drink, and sit back down. I imagine it’s poisoned, and take a gulp.

“Okay, where were we?”

“Romy.”

“Romy?”

“That’s her name. The girl. Her name is Romy.”

“And you know this because.”

“Because I asked her out.”

“Isn’t that against the rules?”

“It’s a used books store, Lucas. No one cares if you date the customers.”

“Ah.”

“I’m taking her to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead tomorrow night. I still have my student ID, so we’ll get in cheap.”

“Beautiful?”

“Dude, she’s gorgeous.”

“Pippins and figs.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

***

To Romy, I’m Marc. She sees me as a painter, a refugee from the Paris art scene. She thinks I’m unconventional, controversial, willing to tear down the boundaries of realism. She thinks this because I want her to think this.

My seduction starts after Julian’s date with her, me following behind in the shadows of lampposts. Watching as Julian drops her off in his Chevette, too nervous to lean in for a kiss, talking a bit too animatedly with his hands. She gets out of the car, thanks him for the date, and disappears into her apartment building. He sits there for a moment more, then rolls home.

I emerge from the sliver of shadow, ring the bell for her apartment. She says “what” through the intercom speaker, tired, wishing the date had gone better maybe.

“I’m an itinerant seller of pigeons,” I say, giving myself a French accent.

She laughs, a sound like rain, or a river.

“Who is this, really?”

“I want to paint your portrait,” I breathe, flooding the intercom with charm, drowning her in my charisma. You know that story about the man who sells ice to the Eskimos? It isn’t a story. I did that.

“Come on up,” she says.

The first thing I notice is her eyebrows, plucked and thinned, wisps, hints of eyebrows, memories of eyebrows. Romy is a redhead, but not a fiery red, or a deep red, more a pale red. Not strawberry blonde, not pink, but the lightest dusting of redness in her hair. Her eyebrows share this lightness, adding to the effect.

We move to the living room and stare at each other. I’m facing away from the windows. I feel the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle on the back of my head. Those little nape hairs stand up and the base of my skull crawls, a caged animal scrabbling to get out. I can envision my brains becoming Romy’s makeup, adding color to her pale face, her eyebrows.

“It will be hard for me to trust you, Marc,” she says. “I’ve been hurt before.”

My teeth are a gentle massage. My eyes are a nice Ceylon tea. My hands are a beloved blanket, a stuffed animal plumped with security.

“If love be rough with you,” I say, “be rough with love.”

The sex is raw and uninhibited, articulated with animal primacy. I scream. She screams. We all scream. The mattress screams.

Julian’s right. She is gorgeous.

***

The next morning, leaving Romy’s place, I slide into my Z3 and turn the key in the ignition. The car explodes. Someone has planted C4 under my transmission. Glass, metal, plastic, and bits of me spray in all directions, an eruption of technology and humanity. We turn the street, the buildings black and red. Charred and sticky. We set off a dozen car alarms. We make the earth tremble–

I open my eyes, but I am intact. The Z3 is intact, always was intact. The street is quiet except for the birds in the trees. A bunny rabbit hops along the sidewalk.

A sigh, and I put the car in gear.

***

Julian is manning the counter as I step into Bibliophiles. Dust and old paper and, faintly, cat. I sneeze.

“Hey Lucas,” he says, less emphatic than usual.

“Jules. Something wrong?”

“She won’t return my calls,” he says. “It’s been three days since we went out. I think she’s blowing me off.”

“Who?” I pretend I don’t know.

“The girl. Romy. It sucks. I bet she’s seeing someone else.”

“It’s possible. Like you said: beautiful and a brain.”

Another employee, laden with trade paperbacks, shuffles behind the counter, commences the avalanche of books, an imploded building of books. He’s Mediterranean maybe, prone to tan easily. Dark hair, cut close to the scalp. Earrings up one side and down the other. He wears a green shirt with BUCK FUSH in white block letters. His glasses have rims, thick and black.

“Hey,” I say.

He nods.

“Lucas, this is Ty,” Julian says. “He just started a few days ago. Ty, Lucas: a local poet.”

We shake hands, testing grips, measuring each other’s masculinity. I imagine his strong Mediterranean hand on my throat, squeezing, tears in his eyes, revenge for an injustice, some unintended offense, cutting off my air, crushing my voicebox, snapping my cervical vertebrae, black spots coalescing in front of my eyes, his teeth gritted so hard they crack, I’m almost gone now, a beautiful asphyxiation–

A quick pump, up-down, and we let go. He turns and heads toward the back of the shop. I hate him, abruptly, suddenly, on a cellular level.

“Maybe he’s the one,” I say to Julian.

“The one what?”

“The one who stole your girl.”

“Ty?”

“Why not? He’s a good-looking guy.”

“I don’t know, Lucas.”

“Didn’t you say he only started working here a few days ago?”

“Yeah . . .”

“And wasn’t that when you went out with Romy?”

“Yeah.”

“And isn’t it possible she saw him while she was in here, and they hooked up later?”

Julian punches the counter and the books resting there slide to the floor.

“Son of a bitch! Why would he do that to me?”

“O, he’s the courageous captain of compliments. A Prince of Cats.”

“What?”

“A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a whoreson, glass-glazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

I take a breath. “Poetry,” I say.

“Oh. Okay. Man, you’ve got to write that shit down.”

“It’s already been done.”

“Wow, you had that memorized?”

“So now we know he stole your woman,” I say. “Let’s talk about how to get even.”

***

An exhibit in a warehouse gallery, which I take credit for. When Romy looks at the names of the artists below each painting, she sees only my name.

“These are incredible,” she says. “They’re so textured and real. I love how you used mixed media in these. Is that from a Chinese newspaper?”

We stroll down the wall, pausing at respectable intervals, examining each piece, the deep colors, use of black, and foil, found objects like trowel blades, rusted forks, barbed wire, dental appliances, radio-controlled car motors, scissors, butcher knives, machetes.

Stopping in front of a Cornell box, filled with a clipping from The New York Times (September 12, 2001), a pigeon skull resting on a pile of grey feathers, a phial containing grey ash, and a die-cast toy jumbo jet suspended from the top by fishing line.

Romy gets quiet, staring into the box, peering, poring over the contents, as if the harder she looks, the more meaning she’ll glean.

“And what were you hoping to accomplish with this piece?” she asks.

The answer is one I’ve been saving for years, just waiting for the right circumstances, the right question to justify its brilliance. Romy’s eyes are the hue of a scorched sky.

“I wanted to show that after a disaster, even a cataclysmic, life-changing tragedy, art and beauty can still be made.”

We go back to Romy’s apartment after that, her running five red lights, narrowly avoiding a stray dog and three parking meters, and she’s laughing and I’m laughing, and we run upstairs and rend our garments, her wanting to be on top, and she’s squeezing her pelvic muscles right, right there, and when I come it’s a universe-creating explosion, it’s a mortiferous heart-attack, turning the little death into a big one, it’s looking into the face of Death and laughing, and yes laughing yes, and tears are trailing down my face from this unexpected apoplexy, and I never want it to stop, never, never, never, never, never!

***

To Ben, I’m Wile. He sees me as a filmmaker, a connoisseur of pretentious independent short films. He thinks I’m a renegade, an auteur whose works will be microscopically studied centuries from now. He thinks this because I want him to think this.

We sit in a dark booth at the back of the Hibernian Pub, and I’m showing him my latest creation on a portable DVD player: a compilation of commercials about children’s charities, spliced, edited, all hosted by that same bearded actor, sincere, imploring, wanting my money, for ten cents a day you can feed a family of four, the shots, the endless shots of impoverished kids with bloated bellies, the wide eyes, pleading for a break, for fairness in the world, knowing that ten cents a day won’t actually do shit for improving their lives, knowing that they need more, much more, and knowing that they won’t get it.

“Very powerful,” Ben says. “The guy uses almost the exact same spiel every time.”

“There are actually only a handful of separate commercials, from the poorest countries, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Somalia, Cambodia, but they’re aired so often that you think there must be dozens, hundreds of different ones.”

“You talked to Julian lately?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Nope.”

Ben and Julian are first cousins, close since they were kids, but incommunicado after Julian said Ben’s wife was a cruel bitch. Turns out Julian was right, but even after the nasty divorce, they haven’t spoken a word to each other. I’ve never met Ben’s ex-wife, but the stories about her are many.

“So who are we meeting here? Some new hotties for the ravishing?”

“No. This guy Ty. We’re going to ruin him.”

“Sounds fun.”

The film is still playing on infinite loop in my hand, the endless procession of gaunt faces, faces of those who have given up, faces waiting for release, and all at once I’m exhausted, just fed up with it all, my stupid pranks, the manipulations, the whole world. In that moment, I envy those starving children, wish for the loving embrace of deprivation, madness, the slowing of the blood. I sink back into the booth, hoping, praying that I’ll continue to sink, the cushion enveloping, smothering me, pushing itself into my mouth, my nose, my eyes, cutting off the world, delivering me from life.

“You okay?”

“I’m so tired,” I say.

“You look like you ate some bad oysters.”

“What’s the point? I mean, what’s the fucking point of it all?” I turn off the DVD player. “We all turn to dust and bones eventually. President or poet, it doesn’t matter. At some point even I’ll be gone. Whether it’s the Big Crunch or the heat death of the universe, we all go back to atoms, to nothingness.”

“Death comes for us all someday,” Ben says.

“Life’s a tale told by an idiot,” I say, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“Bullshit,” Ben says, smacking the table with an open palm. “I don’t buy that at all. This existence does matter, however short it might be. We all have a role to play, and it’s how we play that role that gives our lives meaning.”

“And what’s my role?” I ask.

Romy, from nowhere, maybe hiding in the shadows all along, sits down beside Ben.

“You are the Trickster,” she says. “You make sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously. You bring laughter, and mystery.”

“And what are you?” I say.

“The Beauty. She who is sought after, pursued, the object of lust.”

Julian sits beside me, and Ty stands at the edge of the table.

“The Fool,” Julian says, hand on heart, “destined to be deluded over and over again. And the Doppelganger,” he motions to Ty, silent, pale, face smudged with clown makeup, “your opposite and equal, who always gets blamed for your actions.”

“And you?” I look to Ben.

“The Fraud. Scaramouche to your Harlequin. Your lesser version.”

This is all very familiar now, the umpteenth iteration in an endless repetition. I’ve been here before, too many times, a purgatory of repeated experience.

Romy, Julian and Ben produce painstakingly-crafted handmade half-masques from thin air, an archetypal conjuring. They tie the masques to their faces with black cloth, their mouths still visible, but something unmistakably changed in their aspects, a more-ness. Ty stands mute, his face pancaked white, a checkered dunce cap on his head.

“The dance must continue,” Julian says, another masque in his hands, my masque, my true essence in bright primary colors. I know that I can decline, deny my nature and flee the bar, live a normal life and die in my bed sixty years from now. I could give it all up, refuse to play the cosmic game any longer, hang up my spurs.

I could, but I won’t. I just wouldn’t be myself.

I pluck the masque from Julian’s hands and tie it onto my face with a flourish. Through the eye-holes, the world looks more alive, brighter, energetic, full of sound and fury and slings and arrows, but beautiful all the same. I smile and wait for the music to start, for the amnesia to settle in, for the dance to begin once more.


Originally published in Text:UR – The New Book of Masks, ed. Forrest Aguirre, March 2007.

This story has been posted online for free
in honor of the second annual International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.


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“Jury Duty”

From the journal of William Leash, written in the margins of Popular Rutabaga Magazine, October 2005. Date of entry unknown.

look in the margins...
I sit here in the jury lounge, waiting, waiting, waiting to be called. It’s my first time. When I arrived twenty-seven years ago, they showed us all a video narrated by Charles Kuralt, a message from beyond the grave, emphasizing the importance of civic duty. He told us what to expect in the courtroom, and how to tell if a defendant is lying. They used to pop the video in every three months to remind us. Charles Kuralt never got older, but we did.

There were thirty-two of us when I first arrived, but only seven of us remain. In the beginning, we were one big happy family, but after the strain of timeless anticipation, factions formed. When the television stopped working, war broke out. After the snack bar around the corner ran out of food, we formed a treaty.

Men and women paired off, even those who had been married before being called to service. Love bloomed, couples copulated, children were born. I fell for Amy early on, and our son Connor has just celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday. He and his and mate Belinda are expecting a child. I will be a grandfather.

***

A new set of numbers is called. The other six jurors are escorted out of the room to do their duty for the judicial system. I sit here alone. My wife was called nine years ago, my son and his mate last autumn. The room contains fifty-three chairs, and I rest in each of them. I have read all of the magazines at least fifteen times, and the copy of the King James Bible more than thirty. I look out the window at the people below going about their business. I turn on the television, but it is still broken. I wait. I wait.


Originally published at the Eggplant Literary Productions’ Library, January 2004


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“Ghost Dancing”

When I was seven years old, I had a best friend named Fiona. She had bushy brown hair that stuck out all over like an exploded Brillo pad, and told me lots of stories about Ireland, where she was born. How her father had been a military man who’d gotten killed fighting the British, and how her mother had tried to get Fiona and Fiona’s brother Brian out before the bombing. But she hadn’t, and they all three got crushed when the ceiling of their rented house fell in, and Fiona had died.

She looked like a normal kid most of the time, except when she turned diaphanous and I could see through her. The first time she appeared was on the playground after some older kids made fun of my lack of a father and pushed me into the dirt. None of the kids at school liked me very much; for whatever reason, they had collectively decided that I was different. There was one kid, Derek Frazier, who let me play with his Matchbox cars one time, but the other kids made fun of him for playing with a “doo-doo head,” so he stopped.

I was crying in the dirt after the older kids had pushed me down, and Fiona appeared on top of the monkey bars next to me, sitting cross-legged and curious. “Why you crying?” she asked in a light Irish brogue.

“Some big kids were picking on me ’cause I don’t have a daddy,” I said. “They’re mean boys.”

A fierce expression passed over her freckled face, and she looked in the direction the boys had just gone. “Don’tcha worry,” she said, “I’ll get even with those hooligans for ya.”

I smiled, stood up, and dusted myself off. I finally had an ally.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Fiona. Wanna hear a story?”

“Okay.”

“When people die, they don’t always go ta Heaven or Hell. Some stick around ’cause of unfinished business,” she said, “and some liked living so much that they couldn’a leave even if they wanted. Then there’s those like me, sent by loved ones ta protect their kin. Mostly those sendin’ us are dead themselves, but not always. Sometimes we get bored, and cause mischief. Ya know, in South America, we’re mistaken for goblins. Folks down there use charms and other nonsense ta protect themselves. But we aren’t goblins, just the souls of children died before their time.

“I’ve been sent here ta look after you, Stephan.”

***

My mother called Fiona my imaginary friend, but I thought that might have been because she couldn’t see her. Fiona could become invisible to people if she wanted; she said not all ghosts could do it, but that she was talented and had been practicing since the 1920s. Sometimes she snuck around and made faces at Mom and dropped forks on the floor and hid the butter. Most of the time it was just funny, not mean.

But Fiona got me in trouble too. About a month after she’d first appeared, she wanted to show me something down by the creek in back of our apartment building. She said, “Don’t tell yer mum; ’tis a secret, trust me,” so I grabbed my jacket and went outside with her. We were having a strangely cool Spring, and I had to dress warmer than I wanted to at that point in the year. The wind made the trees hiss and shake like a nest of snakes. The sky was overcast but the light was harsh.

We went down the hill to the creek, real slow. The slope was steep, but there was a path that led down at a safe angle, cutting across the hill like a scar. Fiona ran down as fast as she could, arms outstretched, a raucous cry in her throat. I knew how easy it was to skin your knees when running down a hill and not being able to stop, so I went more slowly. The light was dim at the bottom even though it was noon, and the trees stretched up farther than I’d ever seen them, reaching for the sky. It was cold in the shade.

Fiona ran toward the sharp boulders on the creek bank and hid behind one. I tiptoed over the gravel, mud, and twigs and slipped around the rock, but Fiona wasn’t there. I called her name, and she tapped me on the shoulder and yelled, “Boo!” in my ear. I fell to the ground in surprise, and she laughed at me. There was mud on my new pants now, and I’d gashed my right palm on the side of the boulder. I was about to yell at Fiona, but she bent down and blew on the surface of my palm. Her breath was like ice, and the cut tingled and itched like a dozen ants were crawling all over it. Before my eyes, the wound stopped bleeding and healed over, leaving a thin line slantways down my palm. It stopped hurting as well.

Fiona beckoned me to follow her, and started down the shore of the creek. She skipped and sang a song about Cuchulain, whom she said was a great Irish warrior, and soon she was dancing on the surface of the water. She neither fell in nor caused a splash, but the small fish swam away from where Fiona danced. She was letting the fish see her.

At the creek’s deepest point (around six feet), she trotted over to the shore and took my hand, which was very warm in her cold one. The wind rippled the surface of the creek as we approached the bank, and I abruptly broke out in goosebumps. Fiona smiled at me and once again took a step onto the water’s surface, as if it was a sheet of glass, tugging on my hand to follow her.

“But I’ll fall in,” I said, watching the fish underneath her swim up, curious about Fiona’s feet, then scurry away.

“Not if ye’re holding my hand and ya don’t look down,” she said.

I wasn’t sure if I believed her. She had an impish glint in her eye, but she sounded earnest enough to me. I took a breath, then took a step. Since I was looking in Fiona’s eyes, I couldn’t see what walking on water looked like, but it felt like stepping onto any hard flat surface. For all I felt, I could have been walking across my kitchen floor.
Fiona led me to the center of the creek, holding my hands tight. A tingling sensation traveled up from my feet and gathered at the base of my neck. The only sounds that could be heard were the gentle trickle of the creek and the twittering of birds far up in the trees. I could smell the leafmold and loam on the banks of the creek, things damp and decaying. Something, mostly likely a brave fish, broke the surface near my right foot with a plop. My curiosity got the better of me, and I looked down to see it.

I appeared to be standing on nothing at all. The water was perfectly polarized, and no reflections greeted my gaze. I could see to the bottom of the creek bed, could pick out the rocks and twigs on the silty floor. The small fish who had come to investigate flicked its tail and sped away, seeming to swim in a weightless nothing. My legs trembled and a wave of vertigo overcame me. I overbalanced, my right hand slipped out of Fiona’s, and the creek’s surface turned back to liquid under my feet.

I plunged into the icy water, the temperature knocking the breath from my lungs like a punch to the stomach. I flailed my arms and legs, but all it did was make me sink faster to the bottom. My clothes weighed me down and tangled up my limbs. I could see Fiona above me on her hands and knees, yelling something which I couldn’t hear. My lungs burned with internal fire. Darkness crowded the edges of my vision. I distantly heard a second splash, and felt strong arms pulling me up hard, jerking me to the surface.

We broke and I sucked in air, inhaling until I thought my lungs would burst, then coughed violently. The strong arms dragged me back to the bank and deposited me onto the ground. I hacked and rasped for a full minute before regaining my breath, then looked up. A tall man with blazing red hair and sopping wet clothes looked down at me, smiled briefly, then disappeared with a small pop of displaced air. The ground where he had been standing was sodden and muddy.

Fiona walked over to me, squatted down, and shook her head. “Toldja not ta look down,” she said.

“Who was that?” I sputtered, still breathing hard.

Fiona looked away, as if hearing something that was inaudible to my ears. She stood that way for several moments before looking back at me and saying, “Gotta go.” She turned translucent before my eyes, then faded away completely.

I got to my feet and started back the way we had come, eventually making it back to the path up the hill. I trudged up the hill, then up to the apartment I shared with Mom. I went inside and closed the door behind me.

From the rear office, Mom called, “Stephan? Is that you?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, stepping into the kitchen for some milk. All the coughing had made my throat incredibly parched. I took three strong pulls from the bottle, then put it back in the refrigerator. I closed the door and Mom was standing there with her arms crossed. I looked to the floor and saw what she was angry about: I’d tracked in a definitive trail of mud, leaves, and water from the front door to the kitchen.

“Stephan, what on earth have you been doing?”

“Nothing,” I murmured. “I fell in the creek.”

Her demeanor instantly changed. She bent down and grasped me by the arms, her expression shifting to concern. “Are you all right? Did you get hurt?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said, then bent over as another wave of racking coughs overcame me. Mom slapped me on the back as my lungs squeezed themselves dry. My chest and throat felt scraped raw from within. As soon as I stopped, Mom began stripping me of my clothes, starting with my shoes.

“Let’s get you in a warm bath. You’ll feel much better after that.”

***

Two weeks later was Mother’s Day, and I was all excited because I’d made her a great present at school, a birdhouse constructed of popsicle sticks. It was a special day, so I’d woken up extra early to make her breakfast in bed. I pulled the orange juice out of the fridge and the bread off the counter, then the peanut butter and the pickles from the pantry. I clambered onto a chair to get the ice cream out of the freezer, since I figured she’d probably want that as well. The dishes were clean in the dishwasher, so I pulled out a glass for the orange juice. There was a thumping noise behind me, like a sack of dog food dropping on the floor, and I swivelled around. Fiona sat on the kitchen table, swinging her legs back and forth.

“Hello, Stephan,” she said. “Sorry I been away so long. How are ya?”

“Fine,” I said. “How are you?”

She didn’t say anything, just hunched her shoulders up and blew air out her mouth. She looked distracted, like something was on her mind, but she didn’t want to tell me. She also wouldn’t look directly at me, as if she were embarrassed about something.

“Where have you been?” I asked.

She sighed and said, “Oh, way away.” She didn’t say anymore so I asked her again. She was silent and still avoided my eyes. I turned around to the counter again, and Fiona asked, “Whatcha doing?”

“I’m making breakfast for Mommy since it’s Mommy’s Day.” I poured orange juice into the glass.

Fiona blew a raspberry with her lips, like an explosive fart. “Every day’s Mommy’s Day,” she said. “Why ain’t there a Kid’s Day? Or a Little Girl Ghost Day?”

“I don’t know,” I said, placing the carton of orange juice back in the refrigerator. “Maybe you should ask the person who makes up holidays.”

“I’s in Ireland talking with your da,” she said and I paused with the fridge door open. Cold air leaked out, chilling the exposed skin of my arms and my face. Fiona was smiling.

“What?”

“Your da,” she said. “We had a chat.”

“What’s a da?” I asked. She rolled her eyes and blew air out again.

“Your pappy,” she said. “Your father.”

A shivery feeling wiggled into my stomach and chest, making my legs shake. “My daddy?” I said.

“Yeah, your da. That’s where I was. He was mad about the creek thing, wanted to make sure I was taking care of ya properly. He’s the one sent me to protect ya.”

I thought about Fiona’s story of the protector ghosts. “Is he alive or is he a ghost too?”

“Oh, he’s very much alive. Having a rough time being away from you, but he’s coping. Practically lives at the pubs now.”

“But Mommy said he was dead. He died in a big train accident when I was a baby.”

“No,” she said. “That’s a lie. Your ma didn’t want you finding out. Your da left you. He didn’t die.”

I shook all over and curled my hands into fists; I wanted to hit Fiona in the face. My father wouldn’t have just left me.

“You’re a liar,” I breathed. “Daddy loved me and Mommy but he got in a train accident and now he’s dead. He’s dead!”

I turned around to grab the glass of orange juice and hurled it in her direction, but it just passed through Fiona’s ethereal form. The glass landed on the linoleum floor and shattered into a thousand pieces, spraying shards and pulpy orange juice.

“Shut up!” I yelled at her. “Mommy wouldn’t lie to me! I don’t want you for a friend anymore!”

I picked up the bottle of pickles, but Mom came in at that moment and said, “Stephan, what are you doing?”

I was sobbing now from anger. “Daddy’s dead!” I yelled again at Fiona, and Mom hugged me tight. I hoped she’d never let go. I cried and cried until my whole body hurt. Mom rubbed my back and hugged me and said, “Shush, shush, it’s okay. Everything’s okay.”

“Don’t leave me like Daddy,” I mumbled into her bathrobe.

“No no, honey, I’ll never leave. I’ll always be here. I’m not going anywhere.”

I looked over Mom’s shoulder to see if Fiona was still there, but the kitchen table was empty.

***

A few days later at school, I noticed that the older boys who’d pushed me down two weeks ago were back. Word from their mothers was that the boys had broken out in blotchy red rashes all over their bodies, and their heads had been infested with lice. They had to be sent to a special hospital in Raleigh. The other kids wouldn’t even look at them now. At recess, I saw them on the playground, but they turned away, like they were afraid of me.

Mom took me out of school that afternoon for a doctor’s appointment. She looked particularly pretty in the car, wearing a nice black dress and the slightest amount of Chanel No. 5 that she only used for special occasions. I looked out the window when she stopped the car, but the building was unfamiliar. The structure where my doctor held his practice was low and flat and gray. This building was tall and bright white and had vertical stripes of opaque windows. I couldn’t see inside.

“Where are we?”

“Doctor’s office,” Mom said. She had a strange look on her face, like when she saw me in the kitchen almost throwing the pickles at Fiona, so I didn’t say anything.

She held my hand and we walked into the frigidly air-conditioned building. I rubbed my hands up my arms at the gooseflesh that had appeared. We took the elevator to the tenth floor, then walked down a hallway and through a large wooden door. The room inside had lots of plush, comfortable couches and chairs and Mom told me to go sit on one. I picked a couch and hopped onto it, and sank down slow as the air hissed out. It smelled of rich leather, like Mom’s wallet.

Mom stepped over to a window set in the wall and said, “Stephan Sullivan.” Murmured voices of the nurse at the window and my mother drifted over, though I couldn’t tell what they were saying. Mom walked back over and sat next to me on the couch. “Won’t be but a minute,” she said.

“Am I sick, Mommy?” I said.

Her face blanched slightly and she said, “No, honey. The doctor just wants to talk to you for a bit.” She didn’t say anymore, so I played the drums on my legs. “Stephan, you’re being too noisy,” she said. “Why don’t you find a coloring book on the table over there in the corner?”

I jumped off the couch and ambled across the room where she was looking. There was a kid at the table already, but I couldn’t see his face because he was bent over, coloring. I sat down next to him and picked up a coloring book. The kid looked up and I saw that it was Derek from school.

I opened the coloring book I’d picked and asked if I could share his crayons, which were in a box on the table. “They’re not mine,” he said and gave me a Blue. “They belong to the shrink’s office.”

“What’s a shrink?”

He stopped coloring and said, “Don’t you know why you’re here?” I shook my head, and he looked over at Mom, who was reading a magazine. “They think you’re crazy,” he said in a quiet voice. I didn’t know what this meant, but I was tired of feeling stupid, so I didn’t say anymore. Maybe I was here because I was stupid.

After a while, I heard Mom say my name and that they were ready for us. I put the crayon down and got up.

Derek said, “Don’t act crazy.” He looked serious, and I trusted that he knew what he was talking about.

Mom and I walked through the waiting room door and down a long white hallway. At the end was an office with lots of books, and a man with a bald head and a bushy mustache sat behind a big mahogany desk. He was looking at something in a folder, but closed it when we walked in. His smile was full of giant pearl-white teeth. He said hello to my mother.

“Stephan,” he said and I could barely see his mouth under the mustache. “Nice to meet you. Have a seat.”

I sat on a leather couch near the wall, which was not nearly as comfortable as the ones in the waiting room. Mom sat next to me and the mustache man sat in a chair in front of us. He said, “My name is Doctor Astor, Stephan, and I just want to ask you a few questions.” I grabbed Mom’s hand and nodded my head.

“Okay, Stephan. Now, I understand you threw a glass of orange juice across the kitchen the other day. Can you tell me why you did that?”

I almost told him about Fiona, but then thought of Mom not being able to see her. Doctor Astor probably wouldn’t see her either. I said, “I was mad.”

“And why were you mad, Stephan?”

“‘Cause . . . ’cause it was Mommy’s Day but Daddy wasn’t there to help me make her breakfast in bed ’cause he’s dead.”

“Do you miss your daddy?”

“Sometimes.” I shrugged.

“He died when you were just a baby, Stephan. Do you maybe miss having a daddy more than you miss your daddy?”

I shrugged again.

He looked in his folder and said, “Are you sure it wasn’t because of your imaginary friend Fiona?”

I stiffened and my hands got sweaty. “I don’t see Fiona anymore. She went away a long time ago.” I wished it were true. I didn’t want to see her anymore.

Doctor Astor smiled and stood up and said, “Thank you, Stephan. Would you go stand outside in the hall for a moment while I talk with your mother?”

I exhaled and jumped off the couch. That hadn’t been so bad. I left the room and closed the door behind me gently, then stood in the hall and walked in a circle. Mom soon came out and she was smiling. She bent down and hugged me hard.

“Sweetie, Doctor Astor liked you so much that he wants to talk to you some more, once a week. But it won’t be too bad, right? He was a nice man, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, and he had a big mustache too.”

Mom smiled. “Let’s go home now.” She took my hand and we walked out of the office. Derek was still in the corner of the waiting room coloring and I waved to him. He waved back, then someone said, “Derek Frazier,” and he stood up. Mom and I took the elevator back down, then got in the car and headed for home.

“Don’t I need to go back to school today?” I asked as we passed by all my classmates on the playground.

“No, honey, we’re going for ice cream. Won’t that be nice?”

***

That night, I woke up when something poked me in the shoulder. I opened my eyes and saw Fiona sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed, looking forlorn. The Mickey Mouse clock on the bedside table read 3:04. I sat up and rubbed my eyes.

“Hiya, Stephan,” Fiona said.

“Where you been?” I whispered.

“I thought it’d be better if I stayed away for a while. I’m just making yer life more difficult, and you don’t need that. I’ll check in on ya every so often, make sure you’re staying safe. But I’m not sure when.”

“Good,” I said. “You always get me in trouble. Besides, Derek is my friend now.”

Fiona looked dejected, as if she’d been fishing for forgiveness. “Thought I’d bring ya something as a parting gift,” she said and opened her hand. A gold lump of metal rested on her palm, and the top flipped open when she pushed a button. It was a pocket watch, though it seemed to be broken; neither of the hands moved inside. A shiny gold chain hung down from the side of the watch.

“It’s yer da’s. It don’t work anymore. He thought ya might want it.” She closed the lid and dropped the pocket watch into my hand. I turned it over and ran my finger across the name etched into the bottom: Connor Sullivan. My father’s name.

“You take care o’ that, now,” she said and blew me a kiss. I pushed the button and the lid flipped open again. I wanted to hug her and thank her, but when I looked up again she’d disappeared completely.


Originally published in Four Seasons in One Day, October 2003

Reprinted in Znak Sagite (Serbian trans.) no. 15, October 2005


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“Scarlet”

Scarlet by Janet ChuiWho says Trickster has to be male?
The role can easily be filled by a faery
barely taller than a shrub
with hair the dappled hue of the most elderly of oaks
and wings the fiery reds and yellows of a phoenix feather
and a sleeveless dress the crimson of freshly spilt blood.

She is the harbinger of Autumn
Waking from her summer slumber
to flit from tree to tree with her paintbrush
transforming green to yellow then orange then red.
She works swiftly and silently
moving too fast for human discerning
shifting the follicles of her arbor brothers
down to the lower end of the rainbow spectrum.

But her paintbrush contains rather than paint
the stored flame of primeval fire
left in her care since before recorded history.
She touches the tip of her brush to each leaf
setting alight the slow internal blaze
which consumes moisture and growth
leaving behind a dried-up husk
no longer photosynthesized.

The process takes months
but sooner or later she will visit them all
then stand back with head cocked
her paintbrush gripped lightly like a cigarette
her lips curled in a mischievous smirk
and admire her handiwork.


Originally published in Four Seasons in One Day, October 2003

Artwork is © 2002 by Janet Chui


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“Shiny Diner Blues”

They had an overwhelming flood of complaints when the Shiny Diner was first built. Not from the citizens of Kildaire, who found the retro fifties diner very charming, even delightful. After all, wasn’t this the third most popular restaurant chain in the country? No, the complaints came from the town managers. Your diner is too shiny, they said, your silver aluminum siding too reflective, too gaudy. They tried to shut the diner down, citing town regulations and long-winded arguments, both of which failed. Eventually, tall bushes were planted in the front of the building facing Erin Road, as a compromise.

I brush the top of one of these bushes on my way to the door.

On the curb, next to the front door, sits an older man with a pepper-and-salt beard, sipping delicately on a take-away paper cup of coffee. The man wears a light blue tee-shirt and wrinkled, bleach-spotted jeans, which ripple in the night breeze. A faded blue cap with a mesh back perches on top of his head, kilted slightly to the left. There is also a big black smudge on the top of the old man’s left hand, the result of either a night of frenetic club-hopping or a botched tattoo attempt. My guess is the latter. The man nods in my direction as I open the door, immediately turning his attention back to his coffee as if the Secret of Life is hidden there.

I step inside and the aroma of fried eggs and waffles hits me like a wave, sending little shivers down my spine. I walk up to the counter, take a stool; there are only five seats at the counter, but the other four are empty. I grab a laminated menu and scan the choices, pretending really, because I always get the same thing. I peek over the menu at the new cook in front of me; the man has his back turned to me, busily cooking up four orders at once. He has bleached-blond hair tied up in a ponytail, black at the roots and a little gray at the temples. When the cook turns around, I notice that the name on his tag reads MR. ASS.

After a few moments, Linda appears with a kerchief on her head, brandishing a Bic pen and a pad of paper. Her red apron is spattered with food remnants and her shirt is unbuttoned at the top. She smiles at me, and I return the favor.

“What can I get for you, hon?” she says.

“Hey, Linda,” I say, “I’ll have a Denver omelette with toast. And coffee.”

“You like grits or orange juice with that?”

“Not tonight,” I say, “just coffee.”

Linda scribbles on her pad of paper and looks back up. “That it, shug?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Whoa,” she says, looking down at my hand. “That’s some tattoo you got there. I can’t believe I never noticed it before.”

I splay my fingers so the tattoo stretches out. The black pentacle writhes on the top of my hand, undulating with the movement of my knuckles. “Thank you,” I say. “It’s a gift.” I don’t tell her I got it.

Linda glances back up and takes me in. “You don’t seem like the tattoo kind of guy.”

I shrug. “No. I don’t, do I?”

Linda puts the pad in her apron pocket. “I’ll be right back with your coffee.”

Most of the booths in the diner are empty, but an unusual assortment of people make up the small clientele hungry for a twilight breakfast. To my right, a group of boisterous college students overflows into two booths, laughing hard, mangling the English language into slurred non-syllables. In the booth next to them, a squat, balding man with big ears slurps loudly from a bowl of runny grits. Across from him, a man and woman with matching purple hair sit on the same side of their booth, sucking face like one of them is going into the army tomorrow. I turn, a strange embarrassment overcoming me. I can feel my ears getting hot.

At the booth in the back corner on the other side of the diner, a pair of hard-looking men talk quietly. They wear windbreakers, though it’s the middle of a muggy North Carolina summer, into the nineties even at night. A bluish haze of cigarette smoke hangs over their heads, almost obscuring them from view. They look strong enough to snap me in half and barely break a sweat.

“Here’s your coffee, babe,” Linda says, setting the unadorned white mug in front of me with a rattle. “I forget, you like cream and sugar?”

“Lots of cream, lots of sugar,” I say. She grabs three cream containers and a few packets of Equal from her apron pocket and dumps them on the counter.

“Your omelette’ll be right up.”

“Thanks. Hey,” I say, touching Linda lightly on the arm. “The new guy. Is his name really Mr. Ass?” I motion to the busy cook with my chin.

Linda smiles. “Probably not. But that’s what everyone around here calls him. I think he likes it.”

My ears pop as if from a pressure change, and I crane my neck to see who has just come in the door. The old man from outside steps into the diner, his paper cup empty. He takes the stool farthest from me, and Linda walks over to refill his cup. He puts the cup to his nose and inhales loudly. A look of contentment spreads across his face, and he turns to me.

“Life’s blood, this,” the old man says and gives me a toothless grin. He takes a big gulp of the coffee and puts the cup on the counter. His eyes squinch shut and he lets out a series of loud coughs that sounds like a bull snorting, a deep rattle that doubles the man over.

“Hey, man,” I say, “you all right?”

The old man stops coughing and breathes deeply for a moment. He looks up at me as a tear drips down his face, and smiles again. “Yup. Little cough ain’t enough to get Old Jake down.” He picks up the coffee again, takes a smaller drink, and lets out a loud exhaled ahhhhhhh.

“Hey,” Old Jake says, “you got a quarter?” He digs in his pants pocket and produces two dimes and a nickel. “I come here mostly for the music.”

I reach into my own pocket and produce a dull New Jersey quarter, the one with Washington crossing the Delaware on the back. “There you go,” I say, taking Old Jake’s exchange. I notice that the old man’s hands are rough and nicotine-stained, the hands of a man used to a hard life.

“Thanks,” Old Jake says. “I just love the music here.” He edges his way off of the stool and over to the jukebox. He slams the quarter in the slot and punches the buttons, so quickly that it has to be from memory. “Hound Dog” immediately drifts down from hidden speakers and Old Jake climbs back up on his stool.

“Hey, you look kinda down, fella. You feeling all right?”

I exhale. “Not really. My life’s been pretty much turned upside-down lately, and I don’t have anyone to talk about it with.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it, kid,” Old Jake says with another smile that hurts to look at. “Loneliness is temporary. Trust me. These things have a way of working themselves out.” With that, Old Jake turns back to his coffee like I’m not even there, staring into the liquid depths hard enough to divine the future.

I sip at my own coffee. The old man is right; this is good stuff. I close my eyes as the warm liquid flows down my throat, warming my insides, giving me the shivers again.

I snap out of my coffee-induced trance as a plate clatters in front of me. Errant cubes of ham and green pepper line the plate; the omelette looks good enough to kill for, and I say so to Linda.

“You need any ketchup or anything?”

“No, thanks. This’ll do.”

I pick up the fork, ready to dive in, when I’m bumped from the right. I look up into the grizzled face of one of the hard men from the corner; the man looks straight ahead, twitching slightly, a bead of sweat trickling down the side of his face. The smell of tobacco is strong.

Another waitress, this one called Kay, walks up to the cash register behind the counter. “Y’all ready to pay?” she says, holding her hand out for the check.

“N-No,” the man says, reaching into his jacket. He pulls out a dulled .38 Special and aims it at Kay’s face. “I think y-you’ll be p-p-paying me, bitch.”

The room goes dead quiet, broken only by the sizzle of eggs from the range. The stuttering robber’s partner also has a gun out, pointed at the patrons in the other booths. His eyes dance in his sockets and he can’t seem to keep his feet still. Behind the counter, Kay’s eyes roll backward, and she collapses to the floor.

“Y-Y-You!” the stutterer spits and points the gun at Mr. Ass. “O-Open the fuck! shit! cash register!” Mr. Ass just stands there, his eyes wide as saucers, his hands clamped onto his apron. Linda is nowhere to be seen. I exhale. Like so many recent incidents in my life, this won’t end well. I cut a piece out of my Denver omelette and pop it into my mouth.

The stutterer spins and shoves the gun against my head. “Hey f-f-fuckhead, what do you think you’re doing? Are you eating?”

I swallow and turn the stool until I’m looking directly into the barrel of the .38. A flutter of hatred wells up in my stomach. Why did I have to be in the mood for an omelette tonight? And why did these two idiots pick this particular night to pull off their heist? I was pissed off, not just that they were endangering lives for a few hundred bucks, but that they were forcing me to make a choice. Either let them rob them place (and maybe shoot someone in their ineptitude) or abandon the pretense of being an ordinary person and show the midnight diners what I really am. The first choice would mean a black mark on the reputation of my favorite restaurant, leading to fewer customers, and possibly bankruptcy. The second choice would exile me from this diner forever, the loss of a regular eating spot and extended family, a home away from home.

I take a deep breath to calm my nerves, and choose.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m eating. That’s what people come to diners to do. People don’t come to diners to have guns aimed at them, so one of us is doing something wrong.”

“Eddie!” the dancing gunman yelps. “Man, what the fuck are you doing? Just get the money!”

“N-No, Ned. I’m gonna t-teach this mouthy bastard,” he taps me hard on the shoulder four times, “a lesson.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I say and lean back. I can hear Old Jake chuckling softly behind me. The old guy has probably been through this before.

“Oh yeah? W-W-Why not?”

“Because,” I growl, the tattoo on my right hand glowing blue, “you might end up dead.”

copyright 2003 Gary W. BryantThe next few seconds stretch and become viscous, more like a series of connected images than real life. Stuttering Eddie pulls the trigger and screams as the gun explodes in his hand. As he cradles his mangled appendage, he falls backwards into Dancing Ned, causing the second gun to go off. I flash a hand out and the bullet stops in mid-air, still spinning. I point my finger at Dancing Ned, who is now halfway to the floor with Stuttering Eddie, and the bullet rotates to point at the duo. I close my fist and the bullet resumes its flight, plunging deep into Dancing Ned’s thigh. He shrieks.

“C-C-C’mon!” Eddie shouts, pulling Ned to his feet with his one good hand. The pair bolts out of the diner, leaving a trail of blood that glistens in the overhead fluorescent lights. There is a sound of screeching tires, several gunshots, then silence. Blue lights pulse in the reflection of the windows.

Linda pokes her head cautiously out of the back. “Are the police here yet?”

“Yep.” I spin back around to put another forkful of omelette into my mouth. “Sounds like they got ’em.” I stand up and reach into my wallet, produce a fifty. “Hey,” I say to Mr. Ass, who still has that deer-in-the-headlights look, “I was never here, all right?”

“How,” Mr. Ass says in a throaty whisper damaged by too many cigarettes. “How’d you do that?”

“It’s better the cops don’t find me,” I say. “It would complicate things.”

“Stephan.”

Shocked, I turn at the mention of my name to look at Old Jake, who appears strangely vibrant, almost luminescent. The old man stands without a sign of the strains of old age, rising smoothly. The specks in his eyes disappear, revealing clear blue irises that hold immense knowledge. My own eyes widen and I try to catch my breath; the old man is growing healthier before my eyes.

“Save your money, son,” Old Jake says, his voice now full of deep confidence. “I’ll take care of this.” He quickly whispers some words to himself, words too fast or quiet to be heard by the normal ear.

“But, what–”

And that’s when I look around. Everyone in the diner is frozen in the act of doing something. Linda has one hand on the door leading to the dish room, staring straight at me. Mr. Ass is in the process of scratching his head to express his bewilderment. The group of college kids stare as well, as do the punky couple with the purple hair. The man with the big ears has a spoonful of grits halfway to his mouth, oblivious to everything that’s happening. The inside of the diner has taken on a glossy sheen, as if I’m seeing it from behind a sheet of Saran-Wrap. Only Old Jake is sharply in focus.

“I’ve got a little gift too,” he says and turns his left hand over so the back of it faces me. Carved into the rough, wrinkled skin, no longer smudged by illusion, is an exact duplicate of the tattooed pentacle that I wear. And even as I watch, the wrinkles begin to dissolve as the skin stretches tight. “Besides, you can’t afford to pay off everyone in here. I’ll handle it.”

“How is this possible?”

“It’s possible just like you stopping that bullet was possible.” I notice Jake starting to sweat lightly; a brief look of strain flits across his features. “I’ve momentarily stopped time, but I can only hold us here briefly, so if you have questions, make them quick.”

“So you and I are the same?”

“Yes and no. The gift is a little different for all of us.”

My stomach flip-flops and a tingly feeling travels all up and down my chest. “So there are more of us?”

“Unh…yes. Most of us are very good at hiding in plain sight. We impersonate the homeless, the downtrodden, the invisible. We are the people that most normal folks gloss over or outright ignore. We are everywhere…and we are nowhere.”

“How many?”

Old Jake smiles, and I see that he now has a mouthful of teeth. “Lots.”

A warmth rises from the tips of my toes all the way to the top of my head. I feel like I can fly.

“Now,” Old Jake says with an impatient tone, “you need to beat it. I can’t fix this situation with your energy here.”

“How can I find you? I mean, I have so many more questions…”

“Don’t worry,” he says, the world becoming clear and full of movement again. “I’ll be in touch.”

I turn and step out of the Shiny Diner onto the asphalt, and repeat the words from Jake’s lips. The world takes on the Saran-Wrap sheen again, but I can feel no strain at all. I walk out to my car and see the two would-be robbers lying face down in the parking lot, hands cuffed behind their backs, barely breathing. Movement, then. I haven’t stopped time, but stepped sidewise, outside of time. Jake’s words ring in my head: the gift is different for all of us. One police officer, a pretty brunette with high cheekbones, has her Beretta aimed at the two criminals, yelling something which sounds muted to my ears. Her partner leans on the open squad car door and speaks numbers and initials into the radio.

I open the door to my own car, bringing the beat-up Dodge onto my side of the sheen, and look over at the female officer. She’s looking in my direction, a perplexed expression on her face, like wasn’t there a car over there a moment ago? I smile, blow her a kiss, and close the door.


Originally published in The Dream Engine no. 6, February 2003


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“Watersnake, Firesnake”

There was a boy named Chan who loved his parents, though they did not love him back; he was not even given a first name. He had been born in the wrong month, during the wrong phase of the moon, his parents told him, and had brought them nothing but bad luck. The promotion at the factory promised to his father was taken away at the last moment. The garden his mother worked in nearly every day never produced anything more than the most meager of weeds since Chan’s birth. It was often sunny in the little Chinese village, but there was an almost constant gloom over their house, as if a rogue cloud were blocking the sun only over their property. And his parents, of course, blamed Chan for everything.

He was small for his age, and usually quiet. He liked to listen to people instead of talking, filling himself with stories. He was a good boy and always did as he was told, and could see the good in his parents, even if others couldn’t. Every so often, his mother would allow him a sweet, or his father would bring home an origami folding kit. They didn’t like to show it to others, but his parents could be kind. Chan was patient and knew they would love him eventually.

He was digging one day between the fence and the west side of the house for grubs to feed to his pet chameleon, Rainbow. It was a warm July day not long after his tenth birthday. He often went there because it was cool and damp from the shade of the trees, and the worms seemed to like it there. He never took more than he needed, then he thanked the grubs for sacrificing their lives so that Rainbow could remain living and being his pet. Chan was very kind-hearted when it came to grubs.

As Chan was digging with his stick, he hit something hard and it made a loud clang. He brought the stick down again and heard the same metal noise. Chan thought it might be treasure, since his aunt had found a jewelry box filled with pearls in her garden last year. He scrabbled and dug for ten more minutes before uncovering the egg. It was heavier than it looked.

The egg was the size of a goose egg, but black with flecks of silver and red running across its surface. When he held it, a warmth spread throughout his body, and he had the momentary impression of flying. It seemed to be unbreakable as well, since it remained whole after Chan tripped over his own shoes and dropped it on the ground.

He snuck back to his room and set the egg on a small pillow, then surrounded it with old shirts and socks so that it would be warm. Then he placed the pillow in the top drawer of his dresser. He would peek at the egg every chance he got, which wasn’t much because of all his chores. But on those occasions, he would look at the egg, and stroke it with a finger, and all the hairs on the back of his neck would stand on end.

After three weeks of having the egg, strangers came to call. Chan’s mother was ripping out the weeds in the back garden and didn’t hear the knock, so Chan answered the door. Before him stood a dark man with a bald head and a serious look on his face, and a beautiful woman with brown hair and a brilliant smile. The woman looked slightly Asian, but her skin was paler, nearly translucent in places, revealing strong blue veins underneath. Her grey eyes were round instead of almond, and she wore deep blue robes. The man had skin the color of burnt umber, and was dressed in a white shirt and dark green slacks; Chan guessed he came from Hong Kong, since most Westerners in the area lived or visited there.

“Greetings, Master Chan,” the woman said in perfect Mandarin. “I understand you have just unearthed something rather valuable.”

The man next to her smiled briefly, then placed his hands in his pockets.

“I’m sorry?” Chan said. His voice shook slightly.

“I believe you have found a rare egg that we have been searching for,” the woman said. “It is a very precious item, that egg. May we see it?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” said Chan. He was always told never to talk to strangers, let alone bring them into the house. He had already broken the first rule, and his mother would be upset enough about that . . . “No, I’m sorry.”

The woman’s smile dropped slightly. “But Master Chan, we could compensate you for it. Our Master is very wealthy and would like to reward you. We have a mirror edged with the finest gold scripting that was given to the Emperor as a gift from the Czar of Russia.”

“No, thank you.”

“We have a maple seedling that will grow and spread and will never die. It will be the envy of the entire neighborhood.”

“No.”

“We have gold, enough gold that your family will never be hungry.”

Just then, Chan’s mother, having heard the voices from the back yard, appeared in the doorway behind Chan, looming over him.

“Can I help you?” she said in a voice that indicated how much she disliked strangers who came to call unannounced.

“Yes, my lady,” the woman with blue robes said. “I believe your son has discovered something of great worth to myself and my brother.” She indicated the dark man next to her with her head. Chan found it difficult to believe they were related. “An egg, quite a rare one.”

“My son has found no such egg,” Chan’s mother said. “Have you, boy?”

Chan shook his head. He had not told his parents about the egg, and he was sure to be punished if they found out. They might even take the egg away from him.

“There, you see?” his mother said. “Now if you have no further business here, I will bid you a good day.”

The woman’s smile disappeared and she turned to her brother, who was clenching his fists. “Very well,” she said. “We will be on our way. Thank you for your time, my lady.” The man and woman turned and walked past the gate to the street, and then were gone from view.

Chan’s mother stepped back inside the house and said, “Get back to your chores,” before disappearing into the back garden again. Chan picked up the small broom he had left against the wall and began sweeping the front room again. He thought about the strangers, about the beautiful smile on the woman, about the big strong hands of the dark man, and started to shiver. How had they known about his egg?

A week later, Chan had just blown out the candle and was preparing to sleep when he heard a small scrabbling sound from the corner of his room. He looked up, but his eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark. The sound from the corner came again, and he leapt out of bed to push the window up and out on its hinge. Moonlight flooded into the room and lit upon a large figure clothed entirely in black, peering into the bottom drawer of his dresser. Chan let out a loud yelp and backed against the wall. The robber turned quickly at the sound, then burst into a brilliant green flame and disappeared. A scorched outline of the intruder stained the wall next to the dresser, then faded away in a wisp of smoke.

Chan’s mother and father entered the room a moment later, put out and sleepy.

“What’s the matter?” his father said in a thick voice.

“A man!” Chan shouted. “A man was in my room!”

Chan’s father looked in every corner of the room, underneath things and behind things, then said. “There’s no one here.”

“No, he’s not here anymore,” Chan said. “He caught on fire and went away.”

Chan’s father looked at his mother, who gave an exasperated sigh. “You were having a nightmare,” she said.

“No, I wasn’t! There really was a man in here!”

Chan’s father made for the door with his mother behind him. “It was a bad dream, boy. Go back to sleep.” And then, Chan was alone again.

He couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night, jerking upright at every little sound. He dozed off just as the faint glow of daylight seeped through the cracks in the window. In the morning, his mother came in two hours after he was supposed to wake, and chided him for staying in bed, for wasting the day away. She pulled him out of bed, spanked him twice for his laziness, then told him to get dressed.

Before he went out to cook breakfast, he opened the top drawer of his dresser and looked inside. The egg still lay bundled in the nest of shirts and socks, but a small crack had appeared lengthwise on the surface. Chan frowned. The robber must have jostled the dresser and knocked the egg against the walls of the drawer. But then Chan remembered how the egg didn’t break when he accidentally dropped it. If the robber hadn’t cracked the egg, then it must be starting to hatch.

After he was done with his chores, Chan went into his room for Rainbow, so that he could take the lizard outside to run around and get some fresh air. Rainbow curled up in Chan’s front pocket, then ran in great circles once released into the back yard. Chan laughed as he scurried up and down trees and over every bit of land in the yard. Rainbow was the most curious lizard Chan had ever seen.

Chan stopped laughing when he saw Rainbow at the edge of the small pond in the back corner. It was Rainbow’s favorite place to go, where he could swim around, or sun himself on a large flat rock, or munch leaves. But he wasn’t going in. He stared at the water and bobbed his head up and down a few times. Then with a furious rush, he leapt into the water and bit at its surface.

The pond exploded in a geyser of water, leaves, twigs, and rocks. Chan heard something like a burbling scream as the rush of solid water streamed at him, then turned away at the last second. The living water twisted and writhed and rose into the sky, higher and higher until it was nothing but a dot, then nothing at all.

Chan found Rainbow by the side of the ruined pond, weak and breathing quickly, but otherwise all right. The pond itself was a mess. Mud and rocks had been thrown everywhere. Chan held Rainbow and stroked his head and told him what a good chameleon he was. Then Chan’s mother surged out of the back door, and Chan knew he was in for the worst spanking of his life. Even if the garden had never been successful, Chan’s mother still took pride in the work she did. And as Chan guessed, she was furious about the state it was in now.

Chan was sent to bed early, with only a bit of rice and some water for his dinner. He curled up on his bed and listened to his parents arguing down the hall in the kitchen, and tried to sleep. Eventually, he got up and went to his dresser drawer. The crack in the black egg had lengthened, and produced many other cracks that splintered off in all directions. He touched a finger to the main crack, and instead of the warmth he normally felt, it was as if his insides had caught fire. He no longer felt like Chan, but like a magnificent bird, soaring high above the earth and trailing fire behind him in the sky. Wind rippled through his hair and feathers, and the sweet smell of burning leaves filled his nostrils. He was free from responsibilities, from chores, from his parents. Free.

He came back to his body as his finger left the crack in the egg, and he breathed hard. He walked over to his homemade wooden and glass terrarium and lifted up the lid, but Rainbow shrank from his touch. Chan closed the lid and looked inside. Rainbow shook like a leaf in the wind. Chan sighed, then crawled back into bed. By the time his head touched the pillow, he was asleep.

The next day, he was put to cleaning the mess left behind at the pond. There was no water left, except for that which had turned the ground to mud, so Chan straightened up the area as best he could. After four hours, the dent in the ground had come to somewhat resemble a pond again, and his mother let him inside for lunch.

After eating, he stole to his bedroom to check on the egg. The crack was much larger, and chips of eggshell lay on the shirts surrounding the egg. As Chan watched, the egg moved slightly. It was time.

Chan crept out to the kitchen, but his mother was no longer there. He could hear faint snores coming from his parents’ bedroom, and guessed she had gone in to take a nap. He went back to his room, scooped up the egg in its shirt nest, and took it outside.

He watched it for hours. The sun slowly made its way downward, and by evening, the egg still had not finished hatching. The entire surface was now covered with tiny cracks. It was extremely hot to the touch, and the heat radiated outward. Chan could feel it from where he was sitting, three feet away. He hoped that what hatched would be interesting; a tortoise maybe, or another chameleon as a playmate for Rainbow.

Footsteps landed behind him, and Chan expected to see his parents. He flinched, knowing that they would be upset. He turned around and prepared to face his punishment.

It wasn’t his parents. Instead, the strange man and woman from a week ago stood there. The woman’s blue robes dripped water in a constant dribble, as if the water was coming from within her. And the man’s skin seemed to glow with a green light, which flickered and wavered, giving the impression of a low fire.

Chan stood up and backed away.

“So, Master Chan,” the woman said in a burbling voice, taking a step toward him. “It appears you lied to us.”

“No . . . ”

“Give us the egg, or we will kill your parents,” the man said, the first words Chan had ever heard him say. “We have them bound to their bed, and will slit their throats. We have killed before, and will have no trouble doing it again.”

A shiver traveled the length of Chan’s body and settled at the base of his neck. He could just imagine his parents tied up and helpless, and he almost started crying.

“You must give us ownership of the egg willingly,” the dark man said, his voice deep and rumbling. “We will have the phoenix bird, and control the fate of the world. It is the key to releasing our Master. Give it to us, now!”

Chan shook his head, wishing his parents were there. The strange man and woman advanced on him, and Chan took another step back, not paying attention to where he was going. He stepped on the egg, which gave slightly with a crunching sound, then, overbalanced, Chan toppled onto his back. He looked up in time to see the man and woman stop, their faces frozen in surprise.

And in that moment, the egg hatched.

A burst of flame erupted from the egg, and shot into the sky. It circled the house three times, taking the form of a great bird, then descended toward Chan. Chan screamed and threw his arms in front of his face, ready to be burned alive. But all he felt was a slight thump as a very large bird landed on his shoulder. Chan opened his eyes. The bird’s feathers were the bright reds, oranges, and yellows of flame. As it gripped his shoulder, Chan realized it was talking to him, a birdlike voice in his head.

“What do you wish of me, my master?” it trilled.

Chan looked over as the man and woman shimmered. A bright light seemed to unfurl from the both of them, lengthening and growing until they were twenty feet in length. They hovered over the ground, and as their faces resolved, and whiskers sprouted from their elongated muzzles, Chan understood that they were dragons, but not the kind he was used to hearing about. Chinese dragons were usually benevolent, and protected mankind, while these two definitely wanted to hurt him. Maybe foreign dragons were not supposed to be good. The woman had transformed into a snake-like dragon made entirely of water, and the man a dragon of green fire. They snapped their jaws open and shut several times, then flew like loose ribbons toward the house. Chan saw where they were headed and yelled to the phoenix bird on his shoulder.

“Save my parents!” he commanded, and the phoenix lifted off, igniting in mid-air. It streaked toward the two dragons, and rained fire upon them. The water dragon hissed and spat as its form sizzled, and the green fire dragon howled as the phoenix fire burned through it own flames. The phoenix pecked and dove, and lured the dragons away from the house. The three creatures lifted high into the sky, and disappeared into the clouds. Chan could see bursts of flame like lightning within the clouds, and the air filled with electricity. The fine hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. The battle seemed to go on for hours, then things went quiet, and Chan could sense no activity above him. A solitary speck drifted down from the clouds, gliding down and down and then crashing to the ground at Chan’s feet. It was the phoenix. It had won.

Chan picked the phoenix up and cradled it in his arms. Its feathers had been singed badly, and large gashes appeared on its chest and head. Its breath rattled in its throat.

“Thank you, phoenix,” Chan said, carrying it across the yard.

“They will not be back,” the phoenix warbled in Chan’s head. “It is time for me to die, but do not fear. You will need me again, and when the time is right, I will return to you.” It exhaled one more time, then was still. Chan placed it on the ground and watched as it burst into flame one final time, reducing its body to ashes. After the flames had died down, Chan saw that an egg peeked through the ashes on the ground, identical to the last egg. A small sprout of green stuck out of the ashes as well, no longer than the length of his thumb; a single spark of plant life in his mother’s fallow garden. He picked the egg up and held it to his chest. A pleasant warmth wiggled from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes. He took the egg inside, and placed it back in his dresser drawer.

Chan closed the drawer, and walked across the hall to his parents’ bedroom. They lay on the bed with their arms behind their backs and their feet bound together. Dirty rags had been stuffed in their mouths. And instead of looking happy to see Chan, their eyes blazed with anger. If he freed them, he would still be punished; they had not seen that he had saved their lives with the phoenix. He would show the small sprout to his mother later, and hope that she would believe that her luck in the garden had changed. Chan briefly wondered how much better his life would be if he left his parents like this. A smile crept across his face, then he sighed, and began loosening the nearest rope.


This story was written in 2002, and has been posted online for free
in honor of the first annual International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.


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