Category Archives: Literature

What Are the Most Difficult Books to Read?

In this survey, we will look at popular books, both fiction and nonfiction, with an emphasis on fiction. We will include those books that typically make it onto lists of “the hardest book you have ever read” that are found on the Internet.

To conduct this survey, I analyzed over 4,400 responses from mostly American mostly average reader types on this website. They were then tallied and given one vote for every time they were listed. The results were then ordered according to vote. For instance, Finnegan’s Wake got 116 votes and Ulysses got 89 votes, etc. I also looked at many other “hardest books” lists on the Net and the results were more or less the same as this one.

Hardest or most difficult books typically means the most complex or the hardest to read. However, many were listed as difficult simply because they were tedious, boring, long-winded, etc. Others were difficult because they were so emotionally draining, terrifying, shocking or depressing.

A number of books made the list simply because they were awful. The books of Ayn Rand and a recent novel called Twilight were often listed. I did not list those because this is a list of hardest English language books, not worst English language books.

Many obscure, technical books or books for students such as textbooks were not included on the list. In general, to be included on the list, the book had to win awards, get good reviews, be a classic of some sort of otherwise be of high quality. Many books were eliminated due to the obscurity of the author. Genre books were generally disallowed, but exceptions were made for a few authors like Stephen King. A certain number of well-known or well-reviewed science fiction authors were included.

In some cases, poems, especially long poems, were listed, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

What about you? What is the hardest or most difficult book you ever read? Feel free to list more than one.

How many have you read? I read 87 of the books below and I read part of another 18 books for a total of 105 books.

1. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

2. Ulysses by James Joyce

3. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

4. The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien

5. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

6. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

7. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

8. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
8. The Holy Bible

9. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

10. Phenomenology of Spirit by Georg Hegel

11. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

12. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

13. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
13. Paradise Lost by John Milton
13. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

13. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
13. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

15. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

16. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

17. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by
Douglas Hofstadter
17. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

18. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
18. Das Kapital by Karl Marx
18. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

21. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

22. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

22. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
22. Beloved by Toni Morrison

24. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
23. Trainspotting by Ian Welsh

23. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
24. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

25. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
25. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer

26. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

27. A Brief History of Time by Steven Hawking
27. Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

28. Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
28. Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre
28. Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
28. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney
28. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Lawrence Sterne
28. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
28. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

29. Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk
29. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
29. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
29. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert S. Pirsig

30. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

31. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce
31. Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski
31. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

32. Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes
32. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

33. Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
33. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
33. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstien

34. JR by William Gaddis

34. The Odyssey by Homer
34. The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett

35. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
35. Beowulf
35. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
35. The Golden Bowl by Henry James
35. The Iliad by Homer
35. The Republic by Plato
35. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

36. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
36. The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S Eliot

37. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
37. Dune by Frank Herbert
37. Molloy by Samuel Beckett
37. Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida
37. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
37. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer
37. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
37. The Illuminatus! Trilogy: The Eye in the Pyramid/The Golden Apple/Leviathan by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea
37. The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil
37. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
37. V. by Thomas Pynchon

38. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
38. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
38. Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
38. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot
38. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
38. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
38. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
38. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
38. The Ambassadors by Henry James
38. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
38. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

39. 2666 by Roberto Bolano
39. At Swim, Two Birds by Flann O’Brien
39. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
39. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
39. The Ghormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
39. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
38. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
39. The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
39. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
39. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
39. Umbrella by Will Self

40. A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
40. Ethics by Baruch Spinoza
40. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
40. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
40. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
40. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
40. The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade
40. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
40. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
40. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
40. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
40. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
40. Underworld by Don DeLillo

41. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
41. Écrits by Jacques Lacan
41. Light in August by William Faulkner
41. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
41. Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett
41. Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre
41. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
41. Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
41. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
41. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
41. The Cantos by Ezra Pound
41. The Castle by Franz Kafka
41. The Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
41. Unfinished Tales by J. R. R. Tolkien
41. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
41. Women and Men by Joseph McElroy
41. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

42. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
42. Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
42. It by Steven King
42. Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet
42. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
42. Petersburg by Andrey Bely
42. Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
42. Rayuela by Julio Cortazar
42. Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle
42. Something Happened by Joseph Heller
42. The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
42. The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
42. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
43. The Tunnel by William H. Gass
42. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
42. The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson
42. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
42. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

43. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
43. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
43. Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville
43. Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
43. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
43. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
43. Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
43. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
43. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
43. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginian Woolf
43. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
43. Nova Express by William S. Burroughs
43. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
43. Porno by Ian Welsh
43. The Art of War by Sun Tzu
43. The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard
43. The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future by Will Self
45. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
43. The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch
43. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
43. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
43. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
43. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
43. The Origin of the Species By Means of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin
43. The Prince by Machiavelli
43. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
43. The Trial by Franz Kafka
43. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
43. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

44. 1984 by George Orwell
44. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
44. A Fable by William Faulkner
44. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
44. Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov
44. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
44. Anathem by Neal Stephenson
44. And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave
44. Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson Or an Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man’ by G. I. Gurdjieff
44. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
44. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
44. Blindness by Jose Saramago
44. Correction by Thomas Bernhard
44. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
44. Darkmans by Nicola Barker
44. Dr. Sax by Jack Kerouac
44. Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard
44. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
44. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
44. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
44. Giles Goat Boy by John Barth
44. Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis
44. Glas by Jacques Derrida
44. Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
44. Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
44. Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann
44. Justine by Marquis de Sade
44. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
44. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
44. Metamorphoses by Ovid
44. Metaphysics by Aristotle
44. Negative Dialectics by Theodor Adorno
44. Paradise by Toni Morrison
44. Roots by Alex Haley
44. Silas Marner by George Eliot
44. Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
44. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
44. The Anatomy Of Melancholy by Richard Burton
44. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
44. The Book of Mormon
44. The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler
44. The Geneology of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche
44. The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco
44. The Kalevala by Anonymous
44. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
44. The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann
44. The Science of Logic by Georg Hegel
44. The Stranger by Albert Camus
44. The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence
44. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht
44. Translated Accounts by James Kelman
44. Valis by Philip K. Dick
44. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
44. Vineland by Thomas Pynchon
44. Watt by Samuel Beckett
44. We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

45. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
45. 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray
45. 2666 by Roberto Bolano
45. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
45. A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys
45. A Mercy by Toni Morrison
45. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
45. A Void by Georges Perec
45. Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish
45. American Tabloid by James Ellroy
45. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
45. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
45. Baudolino by Umberto Eco
45. Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy
45. Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
45. Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
45. Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
45. Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa
45. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
45. Darconville’s Cat by Paul Theroux
45. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
45. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
45. Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault
45. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
45. Dissemination by Jacques Derrida
45. Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
45. Dog Years by Gunter Grass
45. Dracula by Bram Stoker
45. Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
45. Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker
45. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
46. Fahrenheit 451 by Kurt Vonnegut
45. Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
45. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
45. Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer
45. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
45. Hogg by Samuel R. Delaney
45. Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
45. In Parenthesis by David Jones
45. In the Labyrinth by Alain Robbe-Grillet
45. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
45. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
45. Jazz by Toni Morrison
45. Justine by Lawrence Durrell
45. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
45. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
45. Letters to a Young Contrarion by Christopher Hitchens
45. Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont
45. Margins of Philosophy by Jacques Derrida
45. Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist
45. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young
45. Money by Martin Amis
45. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
45. Night by Elie Wiesel
45. On Creativity and the Unconscious by Sigmund Freud
45. On Nature by Paramenides
45. Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
45. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
45. Pilgermann by Russell Hoban
45. Pincher Martin: The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin
by William Golding
45. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
45. Red Badge of Courage by Steven Crane
45. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
45. Satantango by László Krasznahorkai
45. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb
45. Shōgun by James Clavell
45. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
45. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
45. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
45. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
45. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
45. Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas
45. Tarr by Wyndham Lewis
45. Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms by Gertrude Stein
45. The 50-Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski
45. The Aeneid by Homer
45. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
45. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
45. The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
45. The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen
45. The Demon by Hubert Selby Jr.
45. The Female Man by Joanna Russ
45. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
45. The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant
45. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
45. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
45. The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
45. The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen
45. The Mahabharata
45. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
45. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
45. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
45. The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso
45. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński
45. The Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
45. The Prelude by William Wordsworth
45. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
45. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
45. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
45. The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs
45. The Son by Phillip Meyer
46. The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan
45. The Stand by Steven King
45. The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
45. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima
45. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
45. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
45. Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau
45. Troilus and Criseyde by Chaucer
45. Ulverton by Adam Thorpe
45. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
45. Violence and the Sacred by René Girard

46. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
46. A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilbur
46. A Brief History of The Universe by Steven Hawking
45. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan
46. A Disaffection by James Kelman
46. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by Barbara Tuchman
46. A Fortunate Life by Albert Facey
46. A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis
46. A Grammar of The Arabic Language by William Wright
46. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
46. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
46. A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka
46. A Meditation by Juan Benet
46. A Midwife’s Tale by Martha Moore Ballard
46. A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava
46. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
46. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
46. A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee
46. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
46. A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
46. A Vision by William Butler Yeats
46. Acquainted with Grief by Carlo Emilio Gadda
46. Against Nature by Joris Karl Huysmans
46. All and Everything by G. I. Gurdjieff
46. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
46. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
46. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
46. Americana by Don DeLillo
46. American Tabloid by James Ellroy
46. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
46. An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
46. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke
46. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
46. And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
46. Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor
46. Animal Farm by George Orwell
46. Antigone by Sophocles
46. Armed with Madness by Mary Butts
46. Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson
46. Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti
46. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
46. Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell
46. Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss
46. Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane
46. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
46. Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
46. Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen
46. Being and Event by Alain Badiou
46. Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace
46. Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov
46. Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns
46. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
46. Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey
46. Book of Dreams by Jack Kerouac
46. Brave New World by George Orwell
46. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
46. Broom Of the System by David Foster Wallace
46. Burn by Vasily Aksyonov
46. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
46. Candide by Voltaire
46. Capricornia by Xavier Herbert
46. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
46. Cartesian Meditations by Edmund Husserl
46. Cat and Mouse by Günter Grass
46. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
46. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
46. Cheri by Colette
46. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
46. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
46. Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs
46. Clea by Lawrence Durrell
46. Closing of the American Mind by Alan Bloom
46. Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami
46. Collected Poems and Other Verse by Stéphane Mallarmé
46. Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
46. Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz
46. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
46. Crash by J. G. Ballard
46. Crossing the Water by Sylvia Plath
46. Crowds and Power by Elias Cannetti
46. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
46. Cujo by Stephen King
46. Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani
46. Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
46. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
46. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by David Dennett
46. Day by A. L. Kennedy
46. Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut
46. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
46. Democracy and Education by John Dewey
46. Demons or The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
46. Detour by Michael Brodsky
46. Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom by Roy Bhaskar
46. Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino
46. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
46. Dream of Fair to Middling Women by Samuel Beckett
46. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
46. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp by Harriet Beecher Stowe
46. Dubliners by James Joyce
46. Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke
46. Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
46. Effi Briest by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
46. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
46. Embassytown by China Miéville
46. Enneads by Plotinus
46. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
46. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
46. Filth by Irvine Welsh
46. Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske
46. Five Spice Street by Can Xue
46. Flow Chart by John Ashbery
46. Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna
46. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
46. Freedom by Jonathon Franzen
46. From an Occult Diary by August Strindberg
46. GB84 by David Peace
46. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
46. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
46. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler
46. Germinal by Émile Zola
46. Glue by Ian Welsh
46. God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert
46. Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan
46. Grimus by Salman Rushdie
46. Gulliverʻs Travels by Jonathon Swift
46. Hagakure: The Book of the Sumarai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo
46. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
46. Hawaii by James A. Michener
46. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
46. Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
46. Her Weasels Wild Returning by J. H. Prynne
46. Herzog by Saul Bellow
46. Hiroshima by John Hershey
46. Histories by Herodotus
46. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
46. Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
46. Hollywood by Gore Vidal
46. Hope Leslie, Or early Times in the Massachusetts
by Catharine Maria Sedgwick
46. Howard’s End by E. M. Forster
46. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics by Ludwig von Mises
46. Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks
46. Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez
46. Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne
46. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
46. I the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos
46. If This is a Man by Primo Levi
46. Imaginary Magnitudes by Stanislaw Lem
43. Immortality by Milan Kundera
46. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
46. In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming
46. In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka
46. Inferno by August Strindberg
46. Insatiability by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz
46. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel by Alexandre Kojeve
46. Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner
46. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
46. Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf
46. Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
46. Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
46. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
46. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
46. Justice as Fairness by John Rawls
46. Kama Sutra
46. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
46. King Lear by William Shakespeare
46. La Maison de Rendez-vous by Alain Robbe-Grillet
46. Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray
46. Land of the Blind by Jess Walter
46. Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
46. Laura Warholic, or The Sexual Intellectual by Alexander Theroux
46. Lectures on Aesthetics by Georg Hegel
46. Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig
46. LETTERS by John Barth
46. Life, a User’s Manual by Georges Perec
46. Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún
46. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
46. Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
46. Lookout Cartridge by Joseph McElroy
46. Lord Leverhulme’s Ghost: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo by Jules Marchel
46. Long Talking, Bad Conditions, Blues by Ronald Sukenick
46. Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth
46. Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel
46. Love by Toni Morrison
46. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
46. M by Peter Robb
46. Mad Man by Samuel R. Delaney
46. Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault
46. Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought by Louis A. Sass
46. Magister Ludi by Hermann Hesse
46. Maiden Castle by John Cowper Powys
46. Manticore by Robertson Davies
46. Mao II by Don DeLillo
46. Marks of Identity by Juan Goytisolo
46. Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Isaac Newton
46. Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson
46. Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin
46. Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky
46. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Eric Auerbach
46. Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell
46. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeymi
46. Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino
46. Mulata de Tal by Miguel Ángel Asturias
46. Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino
46. Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa
46. My Education: A Book of Dreams by William S. Burroughs
46. Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky
46. Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth
46. Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson
46. Nedjma by Kateb Yacine
46. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
46. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
46. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman The Subtle Knife
46. Nova by Samuel R. Delaney
46. Neuromancer by William Gibson
46. Memories of the Irish-Israeli War by Phil O’Brien
46. Oblivion by David Foster Wallace
46. Odysseus by Nikos Kazantzakis
46. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
46. Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass
46. On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche
46. On Certainty by Ludwig Wittgenstein
46. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
46. One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse
46. Open Mike by Michael Eric Dyson
46. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
46. Orthogonal by Greg Egan
46. Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
46. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
46. Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris
46. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
46. Paradise Regained by John Milton
46. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan
46. Passage to India by E. M. Forster
46. Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle
46. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
46. Platero y yo by Juan Ramón Jiménez
46. Poems by J. H. Prynne
46. Poetic Edda
46. Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley
46. Polyphilo, Or the Dark Forest Revisited by Alberto Perez-Gomez
46. Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert
46. Portnoy’s Complaint by Phillip Roth
46. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
46. Posterior Analytics by Aristotle
46. Principia Mathematica by Bertrand Russell
46. Prior Analytics by Aristotle
46. Prometheus Unbound by Percy Byce Shelley
46. Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson
46. Prostitution by Pierre Guyotat
46. Raintree County by Ross Lockridge
46. Rape Me by Virginie Despentes
46. Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo
46. Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss
46. Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.
46. Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
46. On The Hypotheses Which Lie At The Foundation Of Geometry by Bernhard Riemann
46. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
46. The New Heloise by Jean=Jacques Rousseau
46. S/Z by Roland Barthes
46. Sabbath’s Theater by Phillip Roth
46. Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr by Jean-Paul Sartre
46. Sanctuary by William Faulkner
46. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
46. See Under: Love by David Grossman
46. Seeing by Jose Saramago
46. Selected Poems by John Ashbery
46. Self-reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
46. Setting Free the Bears by John Irving
46. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
46. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia
46. Sexual Politics by Kate Millet
46. Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe
46. Shame by Salman Rushdie
46. She: A History of Adventure by Henry Rider Haggard
46. Shikasta by Doris Lessing
46. Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
46. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
46. Silence by Shusaku Endo
46. Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme
46. Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut
46. Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon
46. Snow by Orhan Pamuk
46. Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson
46. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
46. Songs of Enchantment by Ben Okri
46. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
46. Soul Mountain by Gao Xinjian
46. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
46. Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman
46. Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
46. Sula by Toni Morrison
46. Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas
46. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
46. Sword and Citadel by Gene Wolfe
46. Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky
46. Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
46. Tennis Court Oath by John Ashbery
46. The Acid House by Irvine Welsh
46. The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges
46. The Antichrist by Friedrich Nietzsche
46. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
46. The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco
46. The Ballad of the White Horse by G. K. Chesterton
46. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford
46. The Bear by William Faulkner
46. The Beautiful and The Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
46. The Bell by Iris Murdoch
46. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
46. The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn
46. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
46. The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
46. The Bone People by Keri Hulme
46. The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
46. The Book of the Short Sun by Gene Wolfe
46. The Bridge by Iain Banks
46. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert Heinlein
46. The Centaur by John Updike
46. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
46. The City and the City by China Mieville
46. The Clouds by Aristophanes
46. The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy
46. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis
46. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
46. The Complete Poems of Hart Crane by Hart Crane
46. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
46. The Confidence Man by Herman Melville
46. The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil
46. The Crisis of European Sciences by Edmund Husserl
46. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
46. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson
46. The Damned United by David Peace
46. The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips
46. The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away by Kenzaburo Oe
46. The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
46. The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes
46. The Death of Ivan Illych by Fyodor Dostoevsky
46. The Decameron by Boccaccio
46. The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper
46. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Rosa
46. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
46. The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny
46. The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow
46. The Double by José Saramago
46. The Dream Songs by John Berryman
46. The Dunciad by Alexander Pope
46. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
46. The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose
46. The End of Alice by A. M. Homes
46. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
46. The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings
46. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
46. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
46. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
46. The Famished Road by Ben Okri
46. The Fifth Queen by Ford Maddox Ford
46. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
46. The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche
46. The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
46. The Georgics by Claude Simon
46. The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
46. The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
46. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
46. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
46. The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
46. The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslev Hasek
46. The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
46. The Grand Design by Steven Hawking
46. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
46. The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker
46. The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa
46. The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
46. The Grundrisse by Karl Marx
46. The Harroway Reader by Donna Harroway
46. The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia
46. The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault
46. The Human Stain by Philip Roth
46. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna
46. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
46. The Instructions by Adam Levin
46. The Inverted World by Christopher Priest
46. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
46. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
46. The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis by David Chaim Smith
46. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
46. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
46. The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis
46. The Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo
46. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
46. The Little Prince by St. Exupery
46. The Location of Culture by Homi K. Bhabha
46. The Lover by Marguerite Duras
46. The Magus by John Fowles
46. The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
46. The Manchester Man by Mrs. G. Linneaus Banks
46. The Mayor of Castorbridge by Thomas Hardy
46. The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson
46. The Mediterranean by Ferdinand Braudel
46. The Mind of God by Paul Davies
46. The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
46. The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
46. The Need for Roots by Simone Weil
46. The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole
46. La New Life from Dante Alighieri
46. The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson
46. The Notebook by Jose Saramago
46. The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein
46. The Onion Eaters by J.P. Donleavy
46. The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
46. The Order of Things by Michel Foucault
46. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
46. The Parallax View by Slavoj Žižek
46. The Pearl by John Steinbeck
46. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
46. The Phantom of The Opera by Gaston Leroux
46. The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
46. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
46. The Poems of Laura Riding by Laura Riding
46. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
46. The Pope’s Rhinoceros by Lawrence Norfolk
46. The Power Of Horror by Julia Kristeva
46. The Powers That Be by David Halberstam
46. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
46. The Public Burning by Robert Coover
46. The Question Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger
46. The Quran
46. The Rat by Gunter Grass
46. The Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel
46. The Rig Veda
46. The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning
46. The Rite of Spring by Alejo Carpentier
46. The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose
46. The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek
46. The Room by William Selby Jr.
46. The Ruin of Kasch by Roberto Calasso
46. The Satyricon by Petronius
46. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
46. The Sea by John Banville
46. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
46. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan
46. The Society of Society by Niklas Luhmann
46. The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
46. The Story of American Freedom by Eric Foner
46. The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin
46. The Stuff that Dreams Are Made of by Steven Hawking
46. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
46. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
46. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
46. The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzatti
46. The Tempest by William Shakespeare
46. The Theory of Everything by Stephen Hawking
46. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
46. The Ticket That Exploded by William S. Burroughs
46. The Time of the Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa
46. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
46. The Trinity by St. Augustine
46. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
46. The Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche
46. The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts
46. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf
46. The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess
46. The Way Home by Henry Handel Richardson
46. The Way of Love by Luce Irigaray
46. The Web and the Stone by Thomas Wolfe
46. The White Goddess by Robert Graves
46. The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas
46. The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs
46. The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer
46. The Wrestler’s Cruel Study by Stephen Dobyns
46. The Wretched of the Earth by Pearl S. Buck
46. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
46. Theory of Justice by John Rawls
46. Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
46. There Is No Year by Blake Butler
46. This Sex Which Is Not One by Luce Irigaray
46. Three Lives by Gertrude Stein
46. Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
46. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
46. Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
46. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre
46. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
46. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
46. Tomb for Five Hundred Thousand Soldiers by Pierre Guyotat
46. Too Far Afield by Gunter Grass
46. Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud
46. Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy by Edmund Husserl
46. Trawl by BS Johnson
46. Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
46. Truth and Method by Hans Georg Gadamer
46. Ultima Thule by Henry Handel Richardson
46. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
46. Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge
46. USA by John Dos Passos
46. Utopia by Thomas Moore
46. Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis
46. Voss by Patrick White
46. Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett
46. War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat
46. Warped Passages by Lisa Randall
46. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
46. What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
46. What Is the What by David Eggers
46. White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair
46. White Noise by Don DeLillo
46. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
46. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
46. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
46. Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys
46. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
46. Writing the Disaster

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“From Quonset to Cadillac,” by Joseph Hirsch

Another fine short story by Joseph Hirsch.

From Quonset to Cadillac

By Joseph Hirsch

The five remaining men lived in a Quonset greenhouse, the windows of which were greased black from the smoke of the generators burning outside. They ran the machines for six hours per day. If they didn’t find any more fuel during patrol in the upcoming month, they would scale back their hours on the machine to five per day. And if they lost any more men on patrol, they wouldn’t go out at all, any more. The generators were never run past 6pm, for fear that the light might draw attention from any one of the marauding bands roaming the countryside.

Each of the men had slowly become a prisoner of the habit which had helped him pass his time up until now, and they rarely spoke to each other, because it led to fights. They could fight about anything, from how to tic days off the calendar (some favored an ‘X’, the rest wanted a checkmark), to questioning the reasoning behind even keeping a calendar anymore. There was nothing to look forward to, and if money had lost its value, what the hell was the point of time?

But the men persisted in their isolated illusions, and avoided each other to keep their respective bubbles from popping under the weight of objective scrutiny. Brent and Devin got along the best, and if a reason had to be given as to why they got along so well, it would have to be that their activities kept them outside for the greater part of the day, while the other men remained inside. Brent was a pothead and Devin was a fitness freak. Brent kept his cannabis plants secreted within a patch of waist-high reeds that shielded them from plain view, but not from the sun.

His red eyes and trembling hands were fixed upon a cluster of weeds bent backwards, stomped into the ground by a human foot. It only remained to be seen whether it was a meddler from Fallout (the nickname they had given their shack) or from an outsider, which meant there might be trouble some time in the near-future.

Brent did his best to mat the reeds back into place and walked over to a disused couch with the trundle bed pulled out, a busted cabinet model TV at its foot. He lay down and pulled a hog’s leg from his breast pocket, lighting it with a T-Rat match. He flicked the match-head, reveling in the sulfuric pungency before taking a deep drag, sending out a festive cloud that billowed up and over his shoulder, toward his friend who was doing suicide regimens of close-hand and wide-armed pushups.

Devin’s back flexed, marbleized as he strained his core to hold the position; he coughed as the smoke hit his face. “Goddamn, man. Can’t you do that somewhere else?”

Brent coughed, laughed. “Apologies, man. But you know,” he said, standing, and then walking around the side of the bed, taking a supervisory position over Devin. “This stuff is good for the lactic acid in your muscles.”

Realizing that he would have to budge, Devin merely shook his head, hopped up, and walked off. Brent laughed and continued smoking, thought he heard the first helicopter to break the flat blue plain of the sky in some years; he looked up, saw nothing, and dismissed it as an auditory hallucination brought on by a finely-pollinated and cured strain of the Creeper.

On the other side of the glass panes, reverberating under the strain of the generators, Dallas played video-games on a battery-op TV, while Porter, behind a wall of army rations, read verses from the New Testament, softly and to himself. They were sitting pretty since they had stumbled onto a disused National Guard armory. They had taken what they could that night, loaded it into the bed of the pickup which would die on them a couple of weeks later, and still sat dead on the other side of the greenhouse. They had made off with four M-16s, two crates of spring action 30 round mags, and an ass-load of ammunition.

They hadn’t had cause to use any of it yet, but it gave them all a nice sense of security, a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that they wouldn’t have to make due with only the bolt-action Winchester they had taken from the hands of an old man, whose oxygen tank had failed him where he lay in his trailer, cold and dead underneath the antlered head of a deer he had felled some decades ago.

Carver was the resident Armorer, and at fifty-five he was the oldest man in the group, and the only one who held out any hope of some day being reunited with his estranged family. He could be heard at the other end of the room, fidgeting with his weapons, the click-clack of a receiver sliding back and forth, well-oiled and ready for action, waking one from NBA dreams and another from his Psalms.

The front door opened, bringing with it Devin and Brent. “Din-Din time,” Brent said, under the spell of the munchies. The seated others looked up at him, all with looks of something like resentment. At some level, they all felt he enjoyed living like this, and had probably anticipated the collapse of civilization, as if it was the ultimate form of decriminalization.

“We need a guard dog,” Devin announced, panting and sweaty. Carver entered the picture, his shoulders covered with slung weapons, missing only a bandolier. “I haven’t seen a living animal in over a year,” he said. “And I don’t think they migrated. Something’s up. If we had to rely on them for food, we’d all be dead. Brent!”

He shouted his name sternly, but Brent was too busy tearing a box of MRE’s, foraging for his favorite meal, the Burrito Chili-Mac combo. His rifling through the plastic disturbed Porter’s cross-legged liturgy. He looked up. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all.” Brent smiled, and continued digging. Dallas was still catatonic with his video-games. Devin looked from him to Brent, then at Carver, telepathically letting the old man know that he was establishing, via eye-contact, a route between the two weakest links, and that, if it came down to cannibalism any time soon, these two would be the first to go, and whatever parts of their bodies weren’t eaten would join Caroline in the ground, next to where the garden was supposed to have been planted.

“Brent!” The old man shouted again.

Brent turned around, smiling with a mouth full of crumbling pound cake. “Que pasa?”

Carver sighed, then spoke. “How are the crops coming?”

“You want to know how my garden grows?”

Devin, his massive arms crossed in front of his chest, said, “If he can’t smoke it, he won’t grow it.”

That got a small laugh from Dallas, otherwise dead to the world outside of his games. “This is serious,” Carver said. “These rations aren’t going to last us forever.”

“I know.”

“Dallas, turn off those games,” Carver said. Dallas’s mouth was open, and his hands did little ergonomic flickers of muscle memory, the only part of his body which hadn’t yet atrophied.

“Turn it the fuck off,” Devin said. Dallas looked up at Devin, then looked back at the screen. Devin looked at Carver, commiserating. “This is what we waste our electricity on?” The old man could only shrug. So far, midday muster was a disaster. They could usually avoid this because the roster clearly stated who had guard duty when, but Sunday was a wild card and they were supposed to draw straws.

Porter was out of the running because he was a Pentecostal and refused to work on Sunday, and they had no desire to fight him on that point, since otherwise he was a good worker, and good on foot patrol. But, if the signs cut at the edge of Brent’s plants were any indication, there was good reason to take guard detail seriously once again. Everyone had been slacking lately.

That was something else they needed to talk about. Devin, the natural leader, sometimes deferred to Carver on the basis of age, but he felt like having his say right now, and would have spoken, if the TV hadn’t interrupted them. And not the TV with the blip-blip, abrasive video game sounds that gave everyone but Dallas a headache, but real TV, the stuff that civilization, helicopters and planes were made of.

The voice coming to them wasn’t necessarily the sanest. It was tinged with an orator’s showmanship, could have been anything from a priest to a president, but it was enough to shut them up. This was first time someone had been on television in at least five years.

The man stood in front of a shaky camera, blinkered in and out on some low-fi satellite feed. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the man said. He was an old, white haired, red-faced hustler from the Deep South, the last vestige of a society that had sunk as surely as the makers of the pyramids had disappeared. “Although I mean to speak only to the gentlemen, since what I have to say concerns them most.”

Everyone listened. Devin and Brent joined Dallas on the couch. Even Porter came around from the hiding of his mini-monastery. “I know your pain, and I feel your pain, and I want you to know you’re not alone. And that I want you to join me.”

“Bullshit artist,” Devin muttered, but he kept listening. The man was partially hidden by whatever he was selling. Or, since currency had collapsed, bartering. Whatever it was, it was arranged in boxes, stacked in front of the man about chest high.

“Recently,” the man explained, “I requisitioned a batch of a very potent medicine, which cures a problem that ails us all. This commodity is as rare as the sight of the squirrel flitting across a meadow. As rare as a woman. And,” the man stepped from around his stack of modern day snakeskin oil, the shoddy camerawork struggling to track him, “as surely as I will find a woman for myself, I know that I will be ready for her, thanks to this.”

For those too dense for his euphemism (Dallas among them) the man made it plain for all to see what he was selling, as he stood, in spite of his seventy-some years, with a massive erection bulging against his tweed pants, as obscenely sinister as the tongue of the crimson tie bulging underneath his vest, drenched with golden pocket watch. Who the hell dressed like that anymore?

“Gentlemen,” he said, basking in the propulsive weigh of his pride, “If you are receiving this signal, then you are within walking distance of my magic cure-all. I urge any and all interested parties to seek me out under the water tower you see on the horizon, due east, west, north, or south of your present location. I am currently in possession of some five-thousand pills, available for trade. I will entertain offers of trade on any and all items, from the humblest to the most sumptuous.”

The man squinted and hissed, a pained gesture that burst capillaries on his already red face. A hand from off-screen reached out with something, which the old man summarily took in his own hand. The camera shook briefly as the second hand reclaimed it, and the old man balanced on the cane, with a golden talon for him to grip at the top of the staff. “Razorblades, canned goods, livestock, if you have any. And, gentlemen.” He shook his head wistfully. “I would trade my fortune for a woman.”

His eyes misted, and he gazed toward the ceiling of the shack where he was broadcasting, as if he were staring upon the face of God. “A woman in any repair. From age twelve to sixty. From the dainty weight of one-hundred pounds, to a fertile queen of more than two-hundred kilograms. Beggars, as they once said, can’t be choosy. And we are all, in these dark times gentlemen, beggars.” The man, lost in the poetry of his own words, shook his head from side to side a few times, then stared off to the side of the screen, where his camera man-cum-cane-lackey said something that was inaudible from this end.

“My colleague here informs me that our battery’s life is near its end. And thus I must conclude this transmission. Be at the Tower, gentlemen, at Nine AM tomorrow morning, with serious inquiries only. And, oh…one more thing.” The man’s paternalistic smarm evaporated so that the hustler’s shell was revealed, total alligator animus. “I can only ask you politely. Do the Christian thing, and don’t attempt to tip the scales in your favor. I shan’t be taken for a ride gentlemen. Attempt to rob me of my goods, and you will find yourself robbed of life. Good day.”

His image disappeared, and video games returned. Dallas continued playing basketball, and the four, slightly closer to sane men looked at each other. They were quiet, but only for a moment. Devin, with his arms still crossed, said, “I don’t need it.”

But they knew it was a lie. The only woman in their collective had been a pretty, independent spirit worth at least three of the lesser men. And she had rebuffed them as deftly as possible, but had finally caved to her own urges, and shortly less than a year after the last of the condoms they had found in what was once a guidance counselor’s office at the local high-school had been used, she had given birth to Devin’s baby, and died in the process of childbirth.

None of the men had made good midwives, despite their best efforts, first to search the countryside for another woman, and then to attempt to birth the baby on their own. Her cries had almost shattered the glass of the Quonset, but the baby had been silent, and stillborn, and was now buried on top of his mother, next to where Brent now claimed tomatoes were growing.

After she had died, and thoughts and memories of women had drifted from them, their abilities slowly faltered, and had probably abandoned them. They hadn’t tested them in so long. There wasn’t much privacy, and above that, there wasn’t much reason. Now, since it had been so long, any one of them might have been scared to even try, afraid of even their own touch, and terrified to voice the fear. The best any one of them could do was sit with arms folded like Devin, and lie.

Even bible-thumping Porter wanted in on the action, and they huddled until the sun passed over their glass hut, and dipped west, toward the water tower in question. Firstly, it was a matter of personnel. Devin volunteered himself as spearhead, Carver spoke up on the strength of his position as Armorer, which left Porter to bicker with Brent, while the other two began feeding 5.56 mm rounds into magazines, because they had very little to barter or trade, and they needed those pills, even if they were salt peter. A prolonged, guaranteed erection would be more valued than gold, even without a woman. Just to be able to walk with one would give any of the five men a restored sense of pride.

They packed a rucksack with three sets of T-rats, chem lights, and extra ammo. “Don’t kid yourself. You’ve fried your sperm already.” Porter chided.

“There’s no conclusive evidence that marijuana reduces your sperm count.”

“Ha.” Porter scoffed.

“And I wonder what God would have to say about you setting off on a pilgrimage, in search of the ultimate chubby. Somehow not as benevolent as the quest for the holy grail.”

“Be fruitful and multiply.” Porter went over to the arms corner, drew himself an M-16, tapped a pre-loaded mag against the side of his head, and stalked off with the other two, standing in the doorway. Neither one raised an objection, and all three stared back to Brent with harsh eyes.

His mouth was open in disbelief. He was trumped by both age and ability, and probably only now regretted his horticultural specialty. “I can’t believe you’re going to strand me here with Kid Catatonia.”

But they did just that, turning away from him, heading around the side of the house with the trundle bed, over toward the grave, passing Caroline and the unnamed baby. The distance between here and the water tower was flat and unchanging.

They hadn’t bothered to designate a guard between the two that they were leaving behind, to preclude quarrels between them while the men were away, but the bottom line was that they were expendable, and if neither was there when they returned, assuming they made it back, no one would be surprised, and honestly, no one would have cared.

Their minds were elsewhere, on penetrating the growing darkness, their sudden rebuke of the rules they had lived by until now. No patrols after dark. And they didn’t even have a light-source, apart from the chem lights and the lunar white water tower, which had once borne the name of this small town on its face, and now only bore the graffiti of warring factions who had used all their mental energy to scar the superstructure. A black, spray-painted swastika dominated its surface.

Vandalism was constant and rampant, and took on forms that slowly picked apart the sanity of any wayfaring traveler. Signs had been uprooted, changed and swapped from state lines and waypoints, so that Welcome to California signs could be spotted as far east as Arkansas, the result being that no one knew where they were at any time, and the most any one of these three men could say was they were somewhere in the Midwest. It didn’t matter anyway.

They crossed a stream, kept their weapons at the low ready, tried not to wantonly make noise but couldn’t help crunching leaves underfoot as they went. They scanned, abided by a personally worked and reworked system of hand-signals that had seen them in good stead thus far. They had been involved in some minor altercations with a group of bikers active in the area, two of whom they had killed, and one of whom had given Devin a surface wound to the shoulder with his service revolver.

That was when they had the one Winchester between them. If they ran into those men again, post National Guard armory, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion, and they would have their own fleet of motorcycles to rove on, sans the indiscriminate sense of destruction those brutal Huns rolled with as their only abiding philosophy.

A couple of clicks out from their destination, and a full sun away from the next day, the men set up a bare bones camp along the backside of a rotting log. Devin shimmied out of the rucksack and threw it between his legs, digging into it for one of the T-Rats, which had probably become Z in the intervening years. The eggs were brown, but he ate them.

Carver stroked his weapon, just outside the trigger well, cobalt and smelling of cordite. Porter bowed his head in grace before taking his share of the food. “You know what I want, more than a woman?” Carver asked, breaking the silence that had lasted most of the hike.

“What’s that?” Devin asked.

“A cigarette.”

“Amen.” Porter said, without a trace of irony. All three men looked up at the stars, pondered the galaxy within the limits of consciousness, since too much spacey thought could lead to dreams, and three slit throats. The stars twinkled like jewels unrelated to the madness below. But maybe, Porter thought, staring, when God had brought the rapture below, he swapped Sirius and Betelgeuse like he swapped California and Arkansas.

Four hours of light sleep later, the three men humped it to within shouting distance of the tower, approaching solemnly, as if a king or a prophet lived there, and it was their job to shout up unanswerable questions, and his job to shout down riddles. There was no spot to recon from, set up and give themselves the advantage until the old man approached, which was Devin’s initial plan, so they stood, waiting. And when their legs hurt, they sat.

While waiting, Porter watched a dark mass some fifty feet away, which he was sure only he saw. But Carver finally said something. “What the hell is that?”

“You see it, too?” Porter asked. They were in the process of getting it confirmed by Devin, a third sounding board who would make the mirage real, when the demands of something sure and moving on the left periphery caught their attention.

“On our nine.” Porter said, warning Devin. “I see it.” He responded. All three weapons shifted. Their potential enemies mustered in the dark, two deep, with a shotgun between them. One of them was a woman, the one not holding the weapon.

Devin looked to Carver. Both were worried. “Shit.” Devin said, giving voice to their fears. If the woman was part of the bargain, they had the upper hand at the negotiating table. But, if they could manage to kill the old man, secure his pills, and overpower this woman’s companion, would she have the misfortune to service them as long as the supply of 5,000 pills lasted? Were they above rape? Devin sometimes thought that the last of his humanity had died with Caroline.

If the woman was reasonable it wouldn’t have to come to rape. Force wouldn’t even have to be insinuated. Her options were brave the plains alone, or select a mate from one of the five, and do what humans had been doing from the dawn of time until now, whatever year it was.

The three men watched the two through their rear-sight apertures, debating whether or not to fire. The couple didn’t see them, and seemed to be fixated on the dark mass in the distance that had occupied everyone’s attention, minutes ago.

It revealed itself when the sun came up, and the heat made it stink, a pyre of dead dogs stranded, stinking quadrupeds wrapped around each other, fetid and matted, grey bristled fur like the hides of sewer rats, or pinkish opossums; it stank badly enough for the woman to keel to her finer sensibilities, and double over vomiting, as the man with the shotgun patted her back. Now would have been a prime time to blast them both, but the men waited.

“What the hell’s that all about?” Carver asked.

“It’s an abomination against God.” Porter said. Devin stared at it, spoke after thinking. “Maybe something they use to scare off intruders. I don’t know.”

An ancient Cadillac, white walls stripping around hubcaps, burst into view on the horizon, and it had to be the old man, an anachronism driving an anachronism. Both groups of strangers walked forward to watch it, beyond the wall of dead dogs, and in doing so came upon each other.

There was a catch of disbelief in each group, a registering of the weariness of battle, a case of hail stranger, well-met, two civilian militias in a world of pirates. “Hello.” Carver said.

“No Ingles.” The man said. He wore a long-sleeved flannel and lumberjack overalls, an unseasonable wool hat pulled over his head. His wife wore a wide, Aztec striped Baja, intricate and garish pink patterns tiled across the blanket. She smiled, blankly, her black hair as thick and coarse as horse hair.

Devin watched the woman, but with nothing like lust in his eyes. He seemed to detect something in her that neither of his friends saw. Carver spoke to him, but he didn’t take his eyes off the woman. “You speak any Spanish?”

“A little. Hola.” He said to the couple.

“Hola.” The man said. The woman said nothing. The Cadillac pulled off the road, into clearer view, with the lumbering physics of a hearse, revealing its fishtails in a dusty figure eight before straightening up to show a set of bull’s horns mounted on the hood, and two men riding in the front.

The shotgun hopped out first, wearing a cutoff wife-beater and mesh breathing John Deere hat. He took up a firing position on the hood, giving pretty good coverage to two groups spread at a seven-ten stagger. It was red carpet security for the satellite celebrity, none other than the old man, who dowsed the ground with his cane first, before stepping out himself, and walking into the center of the two groups, where he stood and spoke:

“Well,” he began, smiling with dimples that age hadn’t withered. “Never underestimate the power of advertising. Who wants to go first?” He held out the bottom tip of his cane, as gold as the prominent talon he gripped. He pointed to the two Mexicans. “Ah, tu esposa? O no?”

The couple smiled, and he turned to the three men. “Well, boys. Unless you’re sitting on an atom bomb or some super model pussy I’d say you’re about out of luck. Because women are as scarce as mercy in these parts.”

“Lift her wig,” Devin said. “Or her skirt. Either way you cut it, that’s not a woman.” He spoke with certitude. All weapons were lowered, with the exception of the hill jack leaning on the hood, but the Mexican man brought his shotgun up as a retort to the blasphemy of his offering, and he felt the sting of the shot, which hit him full in the face, rotting his skull in a brief elapse. His wife turned to run, and her Baja powdered with red dust on the second shot. The hillbilly spun his weapon back to the three men without missing a beat. All of them were pretty hardened by the times, but none approached this man for sheer, unflinching murder.

“Well, now.” The old, nameless man smiled through the cloud of gun smoke. “Let me just have a gander at her particulars to make sure your statement holds water.” The man sauntered over to the body of the wife, some twenty meters from the husband. He flipped it with his cane, and lifted the Baja, then returned to his sentry in front of the Cadillac. “Well, unless she’s as flat-chested as Susie Plain and Tall I’d say they were trying to take me for a ride. Round eye’s round eye but don’t cut me a porterhouse and call it filet Mignon. I thank you kindly for the head’s up.”

Devin nodded, thinking, two more to go, hoping his comrades were thinking the same, but he could feel Porter trembling from here, and knew both of these sadists wouldn’t miss the smallest hint of fear. “So.” The old man said. “Lay your chips on the table, gentlemen.”

“The product first.” Devin said. Carver joined Porter in flinching on that one. The old man reddened, and his boy choked up on his still-hot weapon, but the snakes slithering under the surface of the old man’s skin finally cooled enough for him to say, as he went around to the back of his truck, “Well, every showman’s inclined to demonstrate the efficacy of his product. For all you know I could be selling rat poison. Well, boys…”

They heard him digging, foraging through his car’s hold. He returned a moment later with some knockoff, generic Viagra. He undid the safety cap, displayed one pill between forefinger and thumb. “To health.” He swallowed, turned to his shotgun. “Man alive. That’s hell without water.” He turned back to the three men and smiled. “Now, I should warn you. Don’t take this stuff if you have a heart condition, diabetes, history of stroke in your family.”

His humor was lost on them, but his tactics weren’t. It was a waiting game. The man loosened his brass belt buckle with the state of Texas brandished in a massive oval. “Now, I don’t want you boys to be offended, but none of you are my cup of tea. When you see Mr. Happy stand up and dance, will you, my good friend, be convinced of my product’s effectiveness, finally?”

Devin nodded, but his eyes were on the distant pile of dead dogs. The old man seemed rankled by his lack of reaction, and felt compelled to explain the pile, if only to bring Devin’s attention back to his own powers as a wordsmith.

“My friend here.” The old man nodded toward the double-murderer. “In addition to being handy with a shotgun, is also a creator of objets de arte, if you will. As demonstrated on the caddy.” He tapped the hood, but was almost certainly referring to the bull’s horns. “He intends to build me a shack composed entirely of dog skulls, some time in the near future. These are his raw materials.”

Devin shuddered. This man was making it easy. “So, now that your curiosity is satiated, and we are only moments away from…liftoff, what is your offer? You men seem a little light in the ass, if you’ll pardon the expression. They say to beware of men bearing gifts, but I find it more practical to beware men who come empty handed, that is, say except for three M-16s. Is that your offer? Arms for pills?”

“Something like that,” Devin said, before firing the weapon he had slowly raised by degrees, with enough subtlety to throw off the shotgun until now, the first succinct, close to point blank clap that threw the man of words against the caddy where he was impaled by one of his own bull’s horns. The crony fired, triceps flexing as he absorbed the kick, and Porter went down, right before Carver raised, aimed and fired, hollowing out the man’s right eye and putting an orbit’s worth of brain on the windshield behind him, before he hit the ground.

Both of the remaining men trembled, switched their selector switches back from burst to safety, and slung their weapons. They scanned the immediate area for backup, gagged on the smell coming from the dogs, folded their dead friend’s arms in lieu of a more Christian burial, and went to the trunk, where they found two scotch-tape sealed boxes, a third open and full except for the bottle removed by the old man for demonstration purposes. They left it all in the trunk, because in addition to the shotgun, the Cadillac was now theirs too.

“If we follow the tracks back we can find out where they keep the gas for this thing, and the satellite they broadcasted from in the first place,” Devin said.

Carver nodded, and walked around to the front of the truck, to the spot where the dead old man was laying, and standing up.

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“House of Crystal,” by Joseph Hirsch

In the violent remnants of what was once the United States of America, two boys are offered shelter from the storm, in exchange for their souls.

HOUSE OF CRYSTAL

by Joseph Hirsch

The house trailers were staggered in a herringbone formation, bordered on one side by a malarial creek and on the other side by a basketball court that pointed cattycorner out to the dirt road which ran alongside of the Elmwood Trailer Park.

The court was mostly empty, host only to an early morning pickup game of one-on-one, a HORSE scrimmage between two old friends who didn’t need words to communicate. A missed basket, nothing but backboard, gave Michael Lawson the rebound, and he dribbled deep into three-point territory, almost to the other end of the half-court.

Robby Huppert, his best friend, moved to the sidelines and into a merciful patch of shade. “Shoot it already!” he shouted, prompting Michael to dribble for a few more beats in defiance.

“Cocksucker,” Robby said in return. Then he shot his friend the bird, stripped off his white tee shirt and used it to improvise a sunshade turban. Michael lined up his shot between pigeon-toed crosshairs, gently finger-rolling the half-inflated ball into a perfect swish.

“Yes!” he whispered, smiling widely, basking in Robby’s contempt.

“Shit,” Robby muttered, head down, hands on the cavernous hollows at the sides of his torso in the curving spaces where a well-fed teen would have sported love handles. He swallowed a bellyful of pride and crossed the court to shake Michael’s hand.

“Good game, Mike.”

“You too, man,” Michael said. A smile flitted across his lips and then disappeared just as quickly.

His mother’s shadow passed across the lone window in the double-wide that he called home, her silhouette bleeding through the American flag which served as an improvised curtain, the tattered Stars & Stripes draped over the shameful domestic nightmare always waiting for him when he came home. As a consequence, Michael Lawson had become a very good basketball player.

Robby caught his roving eye and tried to distract him. He stripped Michael of the ball and dribbled across the bleary asphalt down into free-throw territory.

“Check,” Robby said, weaving a bowlegged cross between the arches of his legs. Michael solved the flamboyant riddle of his friend’s dribbling by stripping him of the ball and dropkicking it, treating the two busted mercury vapor lamps as goalposts, sailing the basketball high over the rusted vinyl encampment.

The basketball continued floating on until it went crashing through a long-dead bug zapper, shattering both the chicken wire and the fluorescent tubing it housed.

“Nice job, douchebag.” Rob adopted his customary slap-boxing stance, the praying mantis pugilist, both of his hands gone limp. “Come on, man.”

And then he dropped his guard just as suddenly, stunned by the tears streaming down Michael’s face. “Mike, man…” If he couldn’t get Michael to stop, Robby knew that he would be joining him soon. “You can’t do this.”

“I’m sorry, man.” Michael’s voice cracked, and he caught a stray tear with a brush of knuckles. “She spends all day banging the ceiling with a broom. She thinks someone’s on the roof. And there’s nothing I can do to make her stop.”
He sagged down to a low center of balance, his head tucked between his knees, his rump only inches from the concrete.

Rob joined him close to the ground. “It’s alright, man,” he said in a soothing, even tone. “My mom is fucked too.” And his eye now strayed toward his own home, and then over each of the trailers. “This whole place is fucked.”

That, he decided as he stood and brought his friend to his feet, was the most accurate summary of this hellhole to ever be uttered. With his arm over his friend’s shoulder, Rob led Michael to a cluster of trees buckling under a light wind.

A gust of hot summer air, infused with traveling sand borne from the furthest reaches of the dustbowl, carried through the rustling grass, and soothed the two as they sat there, lulling them almost to the point that they didn’t hear the low murmur of an engine, a real gas engine growling in the distance, picking up in carbureted increments until the telltale sound had drawn every fiend (including both of their mothers) from the house trailers, out onto the porches and into the middle of the dirt road.
Michael and Rob stood up. Rob said, “They told them not to do that.”

The statement might have sounded cryptic to the ear of an outsider, but Michael exactly knew what he was talking about. Tunk and Spider, those two cretins too putrid for hell, had warned all of the tweaking heads in Elmwood to stay off of the road and to meet up on the basketball court. The heads were promised that they would get their tubes in due time. But the two dealers had found it difficult to convince the people in Elmwood of anything; it was hard to reason with people who brandished brooms, laboring under the conviction that demons lived on their roofs.

The sirens on top of the old police cruiser were still serviceable, and the duo put them to good use, sounding the red and blue wailers, punctuating the screams with some CB foreplay. “Hello, my fine little dope fiend friends. You didn’t think your Uncle Tunk had forgotten about you, did you?” He shared a robust laugh with his partner, and then resumed on the squawker. Spider edged the sedan through the phalanx of needy addicts, crawling at 5mph through their ranks.

“I’m surprised that asshole can work the radio with his one good hand,” Michael said. His voice was now an atonal flat-line, siphoned bereft of emotion. If he let himself feel anything, he would kill both of these motherfuckers at once. After all, they were killing his mother, weren’t they? And Rob’s? He looked over at his friend and saw his face stony, his jaw set, and he knew that together they carried a blood bond of absolute hatred.

“That’s it,” Tunk said, smiling gleefully, displaying rows of uneven, jagged teeth, with many empty spaces between the bucks and molars. His mouth was something like an antebellum cemetery, his grimy bicuspids like headstones.
Both boys watched in disgust as the cruiser drifted past them, rolling from the grass onto the basketball court, where the population of the small town now gathered around the cop car, like peasants around a robber baron’s Rolls-Royce. Rob and Michael remained at the edge of the spectacle.

The car doors fanned open, and the two mutants emerged. Spider was as thin, tall, and seemingly as flimsy as a stalk of genetically engineered corn. His nose was halberd-sharp, his mind much less so. The purple bags beneath his eyes which covered a good portion of his face, spoke more of reanimation than insomnia, as if he were not tired, but rather had died and then come back to life.

Tunk had one arm, his right. The left sleeve of his weathered leather bomber was pinned to his shoulder. There was probably a story behind the amputation, but he was such a perverse entity that his tale was probably best left unearthed. For some reason, Michael hated (and feared) him more of the two.

Even though he was short one appendage, he always seemed to be the more active member of the pair. He had been the one working the radio, and he was now the one heading to the rear of the car, opening the trunk.

“I can already smell it,” Rob said, pinching his nostrils closed.

“Me too.” Michael grimaced.

The odor of phosphorus and ephedrine coming from the mixed batch was anathema to them and aphrodisiac to the rest of their friends and family, some fifteen to twenty people, a few of whom were younger than either of the adolescent boys.

They fought their way to the rear of the police cruiser and would have overwhelmed Tunk if Mr. Spider hadn’t suddenly brought a long-nosed .38 Taurus from its hiding place within the depths of his diamond-quilted field jacket. The jacket was reversible, and he never wore another. Sometimes he sported the reflective roadwork orange side, while on other days he chose the woodland green pattern. The .38 remained the only constant.

“Ease back, gentle brothers and sisters.” He fanned the piece, and it had the desired effect. It was a crucifix, and they were the vampires. The distance the gun had placed between pusher and customer was now a wide enough gulf for Spider to notice the detached twosome and for him to remark on it to his own friend.

“Hey, Tunk,” he said, somehow keeping one eye on the crowd (along with the gun), and the other eye on the boys.
“Speak to me, brother.” Tunk was having less luck with his one arm. He had managed to handle the town’s allotted five tubes, but was forced to resort to using his chin to close the trunk of his car.

“Tweaksville’s got a couple of holdouts.” Spider smiled at the two boys, his eyes twinkling counterparts to the twin dimples at his cheekbones, a startling contrast to his anything but boyish ways.

Before he could ponder the mystery of the two abstainers, Tunk had stolen the show, his voice loud enough to co-opt all the rapt attention on the court. He didn’t need the CB anymore.

“Alright,” he said. “If you got money, we don’t need it. Money’s useless.”

The cylindrical containers that were filled with the white chips of meth proved his point. Else, if banks still mattered, why would they store and transport dope in the same tubes that had once been used for banking transactions at drive-thru windows? At this point, banks meant about as much as the police.

“One at a time,” Spider and his .38 advised, while Tunk continued with his soliloquy.

“Trade isn’t really an option at this point. Maybe when you were younger, sweetheart.” He gave a wink to Mrs. Huppert, and Michael saw her son flinch as he did so. Michael held Robby back. It had happened before. Both men had had their way with almost all of the women of this town.

But the poison they brought with them every week had worn the complexions of the women down to sandpaper, the sultry voices having morphed into the scratchy hisses of whispers oscillated through tracheotomy rings, the jeweled eyes filming to the cloudy milk of dilated addiction.

“I wouldn’t fuck you,” Tunk said to Mrs. Lawson, “with his gun.” He pointed to Spider, and his thirty-eight, and it was now time for Robby to return Mike’s favor.

What neither of the invading men knew and what the town was intent on keeping secret, was that there were two girls in Elmwood, Lily Tidwell and Jennifer Ashton, who had reached the bloom of womanhood while managing to stay clear of crystal. They were now hidden, sequestered in a meadow far from the dirt road. And the signal would not be given for them to return until long after both of the men had departed.

In the meantime —

“And you’ve already given up all your jewelry, your batteries, your TVs…” Tunk had distributed four of the five tubes, but he had possessed the forethought to hold out on at least one lest he should imperil his hold over his audience, leaving no one to enjoy his grandstanding save Spider, who was so taken that he began to lower his .38.

Michael thought of dashing forward to steal the tube from Tunk, but he found himself preempted.

“Take him!” Michael heard his mother’s voice, the same strained croak that constantly asserted that there were in fact demons crawling around on the roof of the trailer.
And he heard his own shouts. Not now, but the memory of his voice, pleading with her to please shut up so that he could sleep, to please stop scratching at the scabs that she was making worse with her incessant tweaked clawing, the holes she shredded in her skin that only made it that much easier for the airborne malaria to find purchase on her body.

He regretted his anger toward her and bore his mother no ill will, even as Spider approached him, led by the dowsing of the praecox woman’s finger. He pulled Michael away from Robert, who stepped forward to join his friend.
“Not you,” Spider said, his threat backed by the revolver. Rob remained standing firm, despite the ventriloquist murmurs coming from the crack in Mike’s set jaw. “What the fuck are you doing?”

His friend’s response leaked out in grinding syllables. “Coming with you.”

Spider, impressed by the unnamed boy’s resolve in the face of the barrel, lowered the Taurus and pivoted toward Tunk. “What do you think, man? Looks like a twofer.”

Tunk, after a moment’s faltering, shrugged and relinquished the last plastic tube to the strawberry blond skeleton that had once been Michael’s mother. He didn’t give her so much as backwards glance as Tunk joined his scarecrow brother, surveying the gawky teens as if they were slaves on an auction block. The irony of the appraisal was not lost on him, and he separated Mike’s lips, observing the inside of his mouth as if he was a prize filly, and the quality of the thoroughbred’s diet could be gleaned from the gums.

“You boys don’t like meth, huh?”

They let the rhetorical question pass, and it was just as well. Choice was no longer a luxury afforded by fate. Spider, enthusiastic about the live bartering, opened both of the back doors. Tunk, with his one massive arm, ushered the two boys into the back of the cruiser, minding them to “watch their heads,” as if they had been arrested and not stolen.

“Back when I was a rug rat,” Spider began, as he pulled out, “they used to have something called ‘Child Protective Services.'” A half-laugh leaked at the remembrance. “If they was still around, you boys would’ve been scooped up a long time ago.”

The police cruiser reversed off of the basketball court, up the grass ramp and onto the dirt road. Through the kicked up clouds of swirling dust and monoxide, Michael could barely discern the townsfolk, his mother among them, as they scattered back to their trailers to smoke, spike, or sniff the contents of the plastic bank tubes. Robby kept his eyes forward, his hands looped through the grating of the cage that separated the front seat from the back.

Spider and Tunk blotted out the view through the front windshield, leaving the character of the road to be revealed in blurring glimpses as it flew past their windows and then faded through the rear windshield.
On Michael’s side, a water tower had collapsed on its stilts, toppling into furrows of razed crops like a flying saucer that had crashed on impact.

On Robby’s side, the yellowing fallow acres were littered with dead cattle, the bloated contents of their spotted bellies exposed. In some cases, the udders had been ripped entirely free of the bovine corpses, and at least one cow had been decapitated.

Tunk wasn’t claiming credit for the tower, but Spider had a few choice words for the cows. “Yeah, me and Tunk was bored a few hours back…” He winked at the boys in the rearview. “Had ourselves a little bit of target practice, didn’t we, brother?”

His partner gave a noncommittal grunt, and then Spider said, “Too bad we didn’t find a farmer.”

For the first time since they had been abducted, Michael and Rob exchanged a look. Their eyes searched in groping panic for some kind of answer. Neither of them wanted to provoke the men who were now their guardians, fathers more sinister than the ones who had abandoned them and their mothers in the first place.

After some silent deliberation, where the sound of the Crown Vic was the only one to be heard, Rob finally took the bullet. “Where are you taking us?”

“The compound,” Tunk said.

Rob looked to Michael and shrugged. It was now his turn. Michael leaned forward. “You going to teach us to cook?” He wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to know the answer.

Spider tilted the rearview, leered at him, and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, little doggie! Slow your roll!” He switched lanes, easing the cop cruiser into what would have been oncoming traffic if there had been any other cars on the highway. They had transitioned from dirt to hardball a half-mile back.

“That’s privileged information,” Tunk said. “We don’t just teach you to cook. You have to work your way up. Earn that trust.”

The driver’s side window creaked open, and Spider jettisoned a thin line of spit from the gap between his two front teeth. “You cook without getting The Man’s okay, you’re in a world of hurt. In fact…” He looked over to Tunk. “We got us a little detour to take, don’t we, boss?”

“Yes we do,” Tunk concurred, snapping open the glove compartment in front of him. He rifled through papers and empty spring-load magazines as Michael and Rob looked on, waiting to see what he would produce. When he had found what he was looking for, Tunk slammed his fist against the crosshatched wire separating the front seat from the back, startling the boys until they jolted to the rear of the car. He laughed and kept his hand against the wire.

After overcoming their flinching reflexes, Michael and Rob leaned forward, a little more calmly this time. And now that they were calm they could see what Tunk held, and they could see for themselves that it was a grenade.

“Holy shit,” Rob mouthed breathlessly. Tunk, appreciative of the compliment, held the grenade out for a few moments longer. Rob stuck a tentative finger through the wire, rubbing an index over the ribbed body of the ordinance, which was about one-third of the size of a pineapple.

“Who wants to throw her?” Spider said, as if it were not an inanimate object but a maiden awaiting christening. Rob had already informally volunteered. But his shit-eating grin, which spread from ear to ear and surprised even Michael, made it official.

Tunk withdrew the grenade and replaced it in the glove box. The boys shifted in their seats, the foam upholstery crinkling beneath them as they moved about in the cabin. They stared out of their windows, while Spider and Tunk watched the road in front of them as the cruiser ripped through space.

Michael and Rob had sat in cars before but never cars that moved. Driving without tires, moored on four cinderblocks, always seemed to prove a very difficult proposition.

Outside, the sun had faded, bullied to the edge of the sky by heavy gray clouds, which hung above the car and followed them all the way into what had once been a city. As they pushed through downtown, Tunk explained that the building covered with glass skin was a “skyscraper.”

Another brick building was a “schoolhouse.” According to Tunk, the fact that he’d had to explain that to them was proof of how “fucking stupid” Rob and Michael truly were.

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“Below the Triangle,” by Joseph Hirsch

Below the Triangle

by Joseph Hirsch

Camp Killeen, located in Southern Iraq about 150 miles north of the Kuwaiti border, was probably the least dangerous place in country. The Americans didn’t care much about it, and it didn’t seem to be on the insurgent agenda either. It had gone without a single attack since its inception as a fueling point some four years ago. It was jointly guarded by the Army and the Air Force, who didn’t seem to notice or care when local Iraqis placed wooden planks on the concertina and hopped over to have a look around. Base command said not to shoot, as it was clear that they were there for discarded scrap metal and not to scout for mortar positions.

The base was compact, protected from windstorms on all four sides by storage containers. There was one small helipad near the center of the camp, buttressed on one side by a volleyball pit and on the other side by a basketball court. There was a morale center, a motor pool, and two satellites; one tactical, one tropospheric. There wasn’t much else. The few soldiers visible during the daytime wandered casually and without purpose.

The only recent development that posed a threat to the peace which had reigned here since the beginning of the war was the circulating rumor that Syria had been funneling money to the local insurgents in order to challenge the coalition. The two reservists relaxing in PTs under the smoking camo shielded their eyes and tightened their lips against the dust that rose as the Chinook touched down. Usually it was a Black Hawk.

“That’s the first one of those I seen,” the one said, flicking the cherry from his Newport into the sand.

“Probably a general,” the other one said, standing up from the picnic table, just in case. Both men were old, outranked by active duty soldiers half their age.

The rotors whirred, slicing above and below each other, sonic whap-whapping that split the natural silence of the desert. Two men in desert camo stepped off first, in full battle-rattle and carrying a sizable tough box between them. They squinted against the kick-up of dust and did a straight line for the two smokers.

Both wore earplugs and one shouted. “Where is the VTC?”

The one reservist pointed a short-distance to where the basin of a satellite served as a landmark above the sand-battered corrugated tin. “Over there.” The other nodded his thanks, nodded to his compatriot, and they took off.

Shortly thereafter a slower, older man with a more determined bearing came out of the hatch, striding as if each step could serve as the eternal pose for the statue he one day aspired to become. They saw the star above the cat eyes on his Kevlar and their assholes puckered. Their first salute in six months, unless you counted the lazy half wave they gave their L-T.

“Sir,” both of them said.

“Relax, gentlemen.”

They did their best not to look uncomfortable in his presence and he did his best to pretend it worked, secretly enjoying the way it put them ill-at-ease. He disliked the idea of being intimidated by men he outranked, but that had been the way it was with this damn private they’d had riding with them the whole time. And he got the feeling that it was only going to get worse when they got down to brass tacks. He wasn’t looking forward to it.

He dealt with the two fat shit bags before him, presenting his question, confident that he would get an answer if their girth was any indication. “Gentlemen, what time does the chow-hall open?”

“For lunch, sir?” The first one asked. He realized his idiocy too late and could only squirm while his friend rebounded for him and fought through his own jitters to say, “Eleven-thirty, sir.”

“Thank you.” He smiled, a tiny, intimidating man. He followed his bearers, and the last of the retinue came filtering out of the black innards of the Chinook, two…privates?

“What the fuck?” The bald reservist who smoked Newports said, voicing the thoughts of his friend. Two unkempt infantry men (neither one with weapons) marched out of the back. The lead one struck them as battle-shattered, the other one battle-hardened, but both came across as tested. They ignored the brass and headed over for the smokers.

The shattered one took a seat on the edge of the bench, facing away from everyone, not bothering to acknowledging them. The other one made up for his friend’s bad manners and went up to the two, shaking their hands one at a time. “Y’all got a couple cigarettes, man?” He took his Kevlar off and wiped his hair. He dropped down, sighing and sitting his helmet between his legs.

“Sure. Marlboro lights okay?”

“You got any menthols? My boy only smokes menthols.”

The other reservist thought it was strange that Crazy should consider himself too good to ask for his own cigarettes, but he volunteered, “I got Ports.”

“That’ll work.” The friendly newcomer said, much obliged and tapping his buddy on the shoulder, who reached over with a mud stained hand, accepted his square and puffed without a word, his back still to the group.

“So what are y’all here for?”

Jeffries (his name was stitched on his cat eyes) said, “He knows,” nodding his head toward his friend, “but he won’t tell me.”

“Huh,” was all the other one could say.

The first two off the Chinook, lighter a tough box, came back from the Video Teleconference Center, shouting and motioning for their cares to get a move-on. Jeffries debated putting out his cigarette, couldn’t bear it and puffed desperately to replenish his lungs in the few seconds it would take to get his partner moving, and said as he smoked, “ Come on, Gates. You dragged my ass out here, now be cooperative, homeboy.”

Staring off into the distance, the one with his back turned asked, “Are we going to do it now or what?”

“Nah, I think it’s chow time first, dawg.”

“I want to get it over with.”

“I’m fucking hungry, man.”

Gates sighed, stood up, stretched to emphasize the time he could take, the strange superiority he exuded in a rank-conscious world where he was supposed to be at the bottom but for some reason was on top, in intimate contact with the sun even, whom he stood and stretched before. Then he followed his friend, and his complaint to hurry the fuck up.

Curious and grateful for the relief from the unbroken boredom of eight months of deployment without violence, the two reservists followed them to the chow hall, and sat at a respectful enough distance to monitor the goings-on without undisguised eavesdropping.

A stray mongrel dog crossed their path at the hand washing station. Fur sprouted randomly from where it hadn’t been ripped or rotted away from the beast. It was thin, legs stilts and ribs skeletal fingers. Jeffries feigned to rush and strike and it flipped to its belly. Gates crouched down to the dog in that position and rubbed it.

It’s nice to see he doesn’t hate animals as much as people, the Reservist thought, squirting sanitizer into his hands and keeping an eye on them from where he stood. Less than six months ago there had been a standing order to shoot any dogs caught wandering around post. They were magnets for Lechemoniasis and a host of other health risks including rabies. He wished it was still like that. He was from the countryside, and though it would have been a poor substitute for hunting, it would have been something. He definitely wasn’t going to get a chance to shoot any Iraqis. If he wanted to see Iraq, he had to go back to his room and turn on Fox News.

There were five ceiling-mounted televisions in the dining facility. All blared some reality television with a news ticker scrolling across the bottom. The kitchen staff were Nepalese, brown men with starch white chef hats and plastic gloves. They served food, collected trash, and wiped tables with a smiling obeisance that bordered on slavery. Sometimes you could catch them staring at the soldiers with pure hatred, but the soldiers never seemed aware of it.

By this point the two Reservists were livid with Gates, though they couldn’t understand why. Their inability to understand only made them hate him more. It was the way he sat apart for one thing. There was the general with his two staff sergeants, who with their armor off could be visibly identified by their sashes as MPs, and the other private, all sitting together and eating in harmony.

And then there he was, all alone at the other end of the table, eating…what else would a childish, fucking child eat? Ice-cream! Ice-cream piled decadently with whipped cream and nuts and maraschino cherries, and he only appeared to pick at it. How the hell did a man not develop an appetite in a war zone?

Despite his small meal, he was the last to finish, and he took his time sauntering over to the VTC building, stopping to pet the dog, which apparently had approved of his tenderness sufficiently enough to warrant meeting him at the other end of the chow hall. Though they hadn’t seen him secrete it, the two angry Reservists saw him feed the dog a piece of lunch meat. Jeffries shouted for him to hurry up. He stopped to finished the second half of the Port he’d been forced to snub over at the picnic table. Then he disappeared into the building with the camo-mesh draped satellites on its roof…

Sergeants Hernandez and Beck finished setting up the machine, checking and double checking connections while Brigadier General Harvey paced back and forth. His blouse was hung over the backs of one of two chairs. The other chair was intended for Gates.

Jeffries set a half-frozen Gatorade on the table. “Can we smoke in here?”

“Get that off the table and away from the equipment.” Sergeant Beck said sternly. Jeffries yanked it up, uncapped it and guzzled. The AC roared in the small room. The floor was tiled and inlaid with intricate Arabic writing. There was only one small window that gave a view onto sandy rock bleaching a skeletal white, burning eyes even behind sunglasses. There was no wavy blurring of the horizon. Horizons didn’t exist. Neither did clouds.

“Are we ready?” The General asked. A huge sweat stain reached from his Spartan upper-body, hardened chest, to the gut bequeathed by time that not even a five mile jog four times a week could efface.

“Should be, Sir. Just let us confirm.”

Sergeant Hernandez took the cue and opened the manila file, standing in the center of the table. Sergeant Beck gestured for Private First Class Gates to take a seat. He sat across from him. The Sergeant took out a felt-tipped pen, uncapped it and placed it around his subject’s arm. This seemed to clear it up for Jeffries. Gates had probably raped some girl and now they were flying him out of Baghdad because they didn’t need this affecting the morale of the company. That would explain why he was so down the last few weeks. He had ruined his life and the life of some girl. But who? Diaz? She was a candidate. Gates didn’t seem like a rapist, though.

“Is your name John Crawford Gates?”

“Yes.”

“Are you a soldier in the US army?”

“Yes.”

“Is your social security number Two-Niner-One?”

“Don’t read his full fucking social.” The General said, cupping his sweat-marinated face with withering patience.

“Sorry, sir.” Sergeant Hernandez choked. Sergeant Beck had a full mustache of sweat now, though he didn’t notice it until the beads dropped onto the results ticking out of the mouth of the polygraph. He quickly wiped at his face.

“Just read the last four.” The General said.

“Yes, sir.” Sergeant Hernandez said, continuing. “Are the last four of your social security number ‘Eight-Five-Niner-Three?’”

“Yes.” PFC Gates said.

“Right, then. Moving on.” Sergeant Hernandez rifled to the back of the file, to the prearranged, scripted question handed all the way down from Lieutenant General Cleary’s office, a boss to the brigadier general, impossible to fathom. The question on this post-it carried the weight of the world.

“Did you have a hand in coordinating the attack on the South Gate at Camp Zulu, Baghdad?”

The room tensed. “No.”

“Do you know anyone involved in coordinating the attack?”

“No.”

“Is it true that you went to your company’s staff duty desk at around oh-twelve hundred hours on the night of September Eighth to report that the South Gate at Camp Zulu, Baghdad would be attacked on September Ninth at 0845 am with a vehicle born IED?” Sergeant Hernandez exhaled.

“Yes.”

“Do you know how you came to acquire this information?”

“Yes.”

The proctor looked to the General. This is why he had been shepherded away three hundred miles south in the dead of night with only a nominal explanation given to his chain of command. This was a war, and wars were concrete. Anything intangible brought in the ether, which brought in a fog that not even the night vision goggles could cut through. The next question scared the shit out of all of them and no one wanted to ask it. Gates looked happy to answer it, sitting there placid as a camel.

“Are you re-affirming your initial statement, that the exact time, nature, and location of the attack came to you in a dream?”

“Yes.”

The General reddened, turned away and looked out of the tiny window, his arms folded. “Have you told the truth during this session to the best of your ability?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, man. Your done.” Hernandez tucked the manila folder under his armpit, Sergeant Beck continued annotating, and Jeffries asked, “Sir, you mind if I go to the shoppette and get some cigarettes?”

“Sure, son.” He said. “Take this soldier with you.”

“Can I take this off, sir?” Gates asked, pointing to his arm. The General nodded to his staff sergeants. “Yeah, man.” One said, helping him with the Velcro. He shrugged to the silent trio and went outside to join his friend.

“Fuck, man.” Jeffries said, “I need some cigarettes.”

“Me, too, homey.” Gates said, feeling refreshed now that he had escaped from the dubious and high-ranking inquisition. If they had asked him if he was psychic he would have said ‘No’ and probably would have passed with flying colors. Weird shit happened. That didn’t make you psychic. Sometimes you thought of a song and then someone next to you started singing it. So what?

It took them less than two minutes to traverse the entire post. As it turned out, there was no shoppette, only a small Hajji shop that sold bootleg DVD’s (pornos if you could communicate to the vendor, through a mixture of body language, air humping and pidgin dirty talk, ‘flick-flicky’), souvenir prayer rugs, and custom-stitch combat patches. They had cigarettes, but they only sold them stale and by the carton. Gates hung out outside while Jeffries went inside and haggled with the fat Shi’a man.

It would be a minute on those cigarettes. He could tell from the haggling tone that Jeffries was in the process of buying jewelry for his on-again off-again fiancée. When he got paranoid about her fucking other men he would attempt to re-sell it to another Hajji shop down the line. That had been the cycle so far, en route here. They had stopped at Foxtrot, a joint-multinational range, where he had bought her a faux Cameo with a very real price, called her on the morale line, detected something in her voice that made him think she was fucking one of her coworkers, and attempted to resell the jewelry to another vendor at Camp Jericho, a little bit north of Basra when they had stopped to refuel.

Gates wasn’t a sadist, but he derived some comic relief from the back and forth. But that wasn’t the only reason he wanted Jeffries around. He was alright peoples, in general. They hadn’t been close friends. Gates had no close friends in the unit and had been standoffish even before he turned into Nostradamus, but Jeffries had been the only one in the unit who hadn’t pissed him off at some point, so when they brought him into the Multinational conference room in the palace and told him he needed someone to come along and be a third-party witness, Jeffries’ name popped into his head, and now here he was.

He didn’t know this, as he leaned against the side of the shop, posted and itching for nicotine, but he had saved Jeffries from a detail that had been killing him for the past six months. He was on Perimeter Lights, which entailed walking alongside an aging Bobcat manned by an old Iraqi man, dressed in Kevlar, ballistic vest and gloves, plus full combat load, eight to twelve hours a day in the sun, watching the old man replace lights on the inside of the wall. The job was a farce.

The old man had no interest in anything but his five dollars a day, and here he sat, eighty pounds of gear in one-hundred and forty degree weather, four-thousand rounds a minute devoted solely to a geriatric who had probably known the Prophet Mohammed when he was a teenager.

When Jeffries heard he was packing up and heading down south, minus most of his gear, Gates could do no wrong in his eyes from that point onward.

He came out of the shop with two bags, pulling a carton of Newports from one and splitting it open for his partner. “There you go ‘bro.” Gates was afraid to ask what was in the other bag. Jeffries was shitty with money in realms beyond jewelry: magazines, computer accessories, I-pods, Amazon.com, he manages to remain as broke in Iraq as he was in the states. Most men and women in uniform ensured Iraq wasn’t a total loss by at least getting out of debt. Jeffries would have nothing to show for it, except for his life, which was a lot, now that Gates thought about it.

“Thanks, Jeff.”

“No problem, cuz.”

They tore the cellophane from the packs and walked slowly, temporarily free from the brass. They were supposed to rendezvous back with the bigwig at Chow. After they broke bread together, it was back to the VTC to evaluate the results of the polygraph. So they had from now ‘til 1700 to kill, and not a lot to do.

Jeffries took a square from the pack and tamped one out for his friend. They crowded his OIF Zippo and blew out smoke. Jeffries scratched his right eyebrow with his cigarette hand and mumbled as smoothly as he could, “Holy shit.”

Both of the female airmen turned their heads, one down, and one away, revealing the chocolate chips of their boonies. Their earrings stood out, majestic femininity like perfume after a deluge of sewage.

“Yo, you take the black one, I’ll take the white one.” Jeffries said.

“Dude, you’re black. The black girl’s not going to be feeling me.”

“How do you know until you’ve tried, white chocolate?”

“Yeah…” He laughed for the first time in awhile, waving smoke away and happy for the futile diversion of women he knew had no interest in fucking him. The Army (or the Armed Forces since they were in the Air Force) was like society, in that women generally fucked up and men down; Air Force fucking Army was down. But maybe they wanted to slum it…

“Bitches.” Jeffries said. “They’re here for four months, six months tops, if they get extended.” Both of them had already been in Iraq for six months. Six more to go. Unless they got extended. Then twelve more months. A year. Jeffries stared after them, torn between lust and jealousy. Gates tapped him on his shoulder, a gesture that told him to let it go.

They came over to the sandpit, where a half-assed volleyball game was in progress. A few airmen in PTs were scrimmaging with Army on the basketball court. Since their PTs were packed, Jeffries and Gates took up spots on the bench. Gates let his feet dangle between the slats, kicking the underside of the rail.

He listened to the basketball bounce, and the volleyball thud, and thought about the dream that had gotten him here. He had been upside-down in an up-armored Humvee and Specialist Rose was already dead from the impact of the rocket, in two halves. Sergeant Merrick wasn’t dead yet, but he was on his way. He had somehow instinctively yanked Gates down from the turret as they reached critical mass in the rollover, just barely missing the ravine where he would have most certainly drowned.

A small fire within the cab had ignited a pin flare which ricocheted around inside. He thought it was an accidental discharge from one of the dead men’s dislodged M-16s but no evidence of rounds had been found in the aftermath. The lead and third truck had formed a textbook box around them, Dustoff was alerted, and spotted a daisy chain of IEDs off to their right.

They were given the order to cordon the area, all remaining gunners would secure the area from their vantage (the Singars inside the truck hadn’t been disabled, and Gates had heard the whole thing lucidly, thinking I’m not remaining. I’m the gunner that’s not remaining. They think I’m dead.) For some reason them thinking he was dead was more unendurable than being dead. The only thing worse, and this he was sure now and forever was the worst thing, was burning flesh.

It penetrated you, if you had any sympathy, the way your drunken friend puking next to you made you want to puke. Burning flesh invaded you, against all reason, it felt like a sin to breathe it in; the horror of realizing that it was the same as eating someone. He thought of Eucharist in grade school, sitting upside-down and feeling like he would be cut in half if someone didn’t bring in the Jaws of Life soon, thought about how he could never eat fast food again, no meat, no celebration meal with his family when he got back. How could he tell them? I breathed flesh. I breathed Sergeant Merrick and Rose. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t forget what burning flesh smelled like. He wouldn’t forget what it tasted like.

Either Dust-OFF or Recovery called in EOD and fed them the nine line. Gates hadn’t recognized the voice so it had probably been Dust-Off. The chain was determined to be at a great enough distance, though he still should have been recovered first, if they were going off the SOP. Whatever the case, someone triggered the chain, but they hadn’t anticipated how close the chain crept to him. There was no way they could have known that the rest of it was submerged underground.

The Terrorists were usually as lazy as the Americans. This had been a bang-up burial, no tell-tale Bugs Bunny mound of dirt, wrong turn at Albuquerque. It went off twenty feet from his upside-down head where the blood was rushing, not close enough to kill him, or even really hurt him, just close enough to give him a concussion that knocked him into a dream that told him Camp Zulu, Baghdad would be attacked on September Ninth at 0845 am with a vehicle born IED. He remembered a phrase his father had ingrained in him since about age five: smack some sense into you. That’s what the concussion had done. He wasn’t psychic. It had smacked some sense into him.

Besides, potentially being psychic didn’t bother him. He laughed. He could become a superhero. Locate Bin Laden through Afghani caverns with his X-ray eyes.

“What you laughing at, man?”

He shook his head. “Nothing.”

He hit the Port hard, knowing there was a whole carton there if he needed it. “Hey, look who’s here.” Jeffries spun around. Gates spun too. The dog was following them, a nomad who knew life outside the wire better than either of them, yet still managed to wag its tail.

Gates bent down to pet it, him. “Don’t ever touch me again.” Jeffries said, smoking and disapproving. Gates ignored him, patted the dog’s stomach, and spotted a pink knot in the middle of the dog’s belly.

“This dog’s got a hernia.”

“What are you, a fucking vet? Come on, man. He probably got it lifting weights, which is what I feel like doing. Let’s go.”

The dog seemed to mistrust the change from affection to investigation, and limped away from Gates, who turned back to his friend. “Let’s go.” Jeffries was already peeling off his blouse, revealing heavy muscles, bowed and corded with veins like tree roots. He was a gym rat, spent what money he didn’t waste elsewhere on supplements (both legal and iffy) and he came in third on the Camp Zulu Strongest Man competition and actually managed to take the Humvee Lift event in the male category.

Gates, on the other hand, did the minimum to pass the PT tests. “You go ‘head, man. I’m gonna check out what passes for a library on this shit heap.” They passed the clearing barrels where two flyboys charged their sidearms into the bins before heading inside.

A Hindi man who seemed transcendentally beyond the everyday woes of Iraq stood at the counter where he signed out ping pong paddles. Behind him were board games like Risk and Monopoly that no one ever played. The main room was set up with couches divided between Play Station and X-Box loyalists, crouched like zombies temporarily galvanized by a brain thrown their way. They played mostly sports and World War Two simulators, with one or two committed Role-Playing devotees finding quiet solace in an epic adventure off in a corner.

They both signed the clipboard, and Jeffries took a towel. “Alright, man.”

“Laters.”

They walked in separate directions down the corridors painted with symbols representing all of the units that had come before them. The names of casualties were written to the sides of the various symbols. All of the KIA belonged to units that were passing through. This post had never known violence.

Gates walked into the library, the only other habitué a middle-aged woman in PTs who had to be an officer, probably in the medical field. He tried random books from the shelf, knowing that he wouldn’t find anything good. He took a book and went to lie down on one of the couches, letting his feet hang off the edge. He stared at the ceiling, fixing his eyes on an overhead fluorescent transom. He had a headache. He fell asleep.

Later, he didn’t know how much later, he felt someone tapping his foot. Gates sat up, propped on his elbows. It was Jeff. “How was the gym?”

“Fucking sucked man. They got all their equipment from English soldiers, so it’s all in kilos. I don’t know the metric system,” Gates reached up his hand, and Jeffries helped him up, “Except when I was stationed in Germany. Someone taught me how to convert kilometers into miles and back. I forget how. It’s helpful on the autobahn, though. How was your nap?”

Jeffries only stopped talking because he realized that he’d asked a question and was therefore compelled to wait for a response. He would have kept going, amped as he was on a heady mix of endorphins and testosterone, having lifted after the long hiatus imposed by their trip down here.

“It was bad.” Gates said, referring to the nap.

“Oh, yeah. Why’s that?”

They walked back out the front. Jeffries waved goodbye to the Hindi. “I had a bad dream.”

Suddenly Jeffries stopped and Gates walked on, toward the dining facility and their 1700 meeting with the general. “Oh, yeah, about what?” Jeffries waited, as if for a life-or-death prognosis on his own health.

“Let’s get this fucking thing out of the way.” Gates said.

Dinner was a grim standoff, a silent affair. The Televisions all blared the same news, two talking heads with opposing viewpoints on Iraq, the chattering argument cast a few feet above the heads of those enduring it and ignoring those who talked about it. The general and his non-commissioned officers sat on one side of the table, Jeffries on the other, staring at Gates expectantly, tortured and hating his friend almost as much as the General. They all watched him pick at his Sundae, run the plastic spoon along the top, coating it with Hershey’s syrup. He finally ate the maraschino cherry.

Gates was the first one out, pitching his mostly-intact dessert into the trashcan held by a smiling Nepalese man. The General was next, followed by the NCOs, then Jeffries.

Back in the VTC room the general laid it out for him simply, conceding a defeat of kinds, and the process pained him, thus his medium. “Hernandez.” He said.

Hernandez, who was apparently in charge of all paperwork, unfurled the results which dropped well to the floor like some kind of medieval decree. The pages were littered with pen marks and post-session footnotes in a shorthand of waves it would have been impossible for anyone not trained in the art to interpret.

The general spoke. “These results indicate that you are telling the truth. Or at the very least you believe you are telling the truth. I don’t know everything there is to know about the polygraph machine, but Sergeants Hernandez and Beck do, and according to what they tell me, no one knows everything there is to know about the polygraph. It’s not infallible. Am I right, sergeants?”

“Yes sir.” They conceded.

“So…” Gates asked, “what are you telling me?”

The general flinched at the omission of ‘sir’, but continued all the same. “Either you are a very good liar, in which case you did have prior knowledge that an attack was to take place at Camp Zulu, in which case you are a traitor and will be punished to the maximum extent under UCMJ, probably sentenced to death…”

For some reason, even though it wasn’t his life at stake, Sergeant Beck gulped audibly. “And, in addition, you are a sociopath…Or.”

“You’re psychic.” Sergeant Hernandez spoke, hope for this contingency forcing him to speak out of turn.

“Or,” The general said, choosing to ignore him rather than get angry. “You’re psychic.”

There was silence. Then Private Gates said. “So what you’re telling me is…” He looked to Jeffries. They exchanged mutual looks of confusion. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Look, son.” The general’s double-chin, more a result of gravity than fat, trembled. “ We can either rule out or confirm your psychic abilities, right here, right now.”

He marched over to the paper, snatched it from Sergeant Hernandez, who sought to protect it like a baby and cringed as the general tore at it. “To hell with all this. What I want from you right now, is to tell me something else. Tell me something that’s going to happen tomorrow. And if it happens, hell, I’ll go to the chapel and kick the cross off the alter, you can get your happy ass up there and I’ll start praying.” The general looked around. Catching his breath, and gauging the effect of his words, he continued again, albeit this time more carefully. “Look, none of you were even in the Army as long ago as the Bosnian conflict. Maybe Sergeant Beck.”

Sergeant Beck shook his head, though it seemed to be a rhetorical question, the way the general carried on. “My point is this. The Cold War wasn’t so long ago that I’m not willing to entirely rule out psychic phenomenon. If what you’ve got can save American lives, I’m all for it, son.”

Gates, opened his mouth, looked to the others for help, which wasn’t forthcoming, and spoke timidly. “…So?”

“SO GIVE ME SOME GODDAMN PROOF, YOU LITTLE SHIT!!!”

“That’s easy.” The private said, the placid camel again. “I’ll be dead tomorrow by noon.”

Sergeant Beck interjected, his training kicking in. “Are you saying you intend to hurt yourself. Because if you are, I’m required to inform your chaplain and place you on suicide watch.”

“Jesus.” Gates massaged his temples, and headed for the door.

“Private!” The General shouted. “You give me something to go on now, if you want this project to continue. Otherwise, we’re on the next thing flying back to Baghdad. I’ve wasted enough time, money, and resources on your ass. Now if you don’t want a court martial for colluding with the enemy, you give me something.”

Private First Class Gates said, “I’ll have something for you tomorrow at 1300, sir.”

He left, not slamming the door behind him, but closing it gently. Jeffries stood outside with him, pulling a cigarette from his pocket. He handed one to Gates. “Here you go, dawg.”

“Thanks, dawg.”

They leaned against the wall, hearing the continued tirade of the general rain down on his remaining men. “Hey, man.” Jeffries said.

“What’s up?”

“Thanks for getting me out of Baghdad. This is some pretty funny shit. I like watching that guy blow his top.”

“Me too. Hey.” Gates tapped Jeffries.

“What up, man?”

The sun was relaxing its hold, throwing a more endurable gold and casting back its white, the phosphorus replaced by a chilly sepia. “Give me a couple packs to take back to the tent. Where the fuck do they got us staying anyway?”

“I don’t know. Let’s go talk to Billeting.”

“Alright, man.”

They headed off in a random direction, looking for someone who might have the key to a room where they could lay down. “Hey, Gates.” Gates was preoccupied. Jeffries toyed with his name in the interim it took for him to come back. It was the interplay. No one else called him Jeff. “Gates of heaven, Gates of hell, the gayness of Gates.”

“What up, Jeff?”

“If you’re thinking of suicide…” Jeffries grew somber, centered himself in front of his friend. “Can I have your DVD player?”

Gates laughed, the second time in eight months. “Sure Dawg.”

Night came, without mortars or helos, the pulse of silence, the mild twittering of insects in the stagnant reeds, somewhere outside the rusting concertina and the ease of Iraq’s secret, this place where nothing happened. That was the subject in the General’s tent, where he lay with his two aides. They were using the polygraph tough box as a makeshift table for a game of spades. They threw down their cards and bullshitted, engrossed enough to give up on the psychic, at least for the time being.

“This post goes four years without an attack, and then the day after he shows up, you expect me to believe…” He stopped, his words were falling on deaf ears. He lay with his head in the direction of his mini-fan. A goddamn General without air-conditioning.

With Jeffries asleep, Gates was the lone soul taking advantage of the 24 hour internet café. He had sent an e-mail to his father, something about a football game he’d caught part of in the dining facility and for his father to please comfort his mother if something happened to Gates; he’d sent one to his sister, wishing her luck in law-school, good luck with the bar, and with all her life, and if something happened to him, to keep on going; one to his brother, saying that he knew how bad it sucked to be living at home with mom and working a shitty job, but it could be worse. You could be in Iraq.

Then he sent one to his mother. But he didn’t know what to say. Opting for laziness and brevity he sent, I Love You. He stood up, rubbed the sides of his head, and said ‘Goodnight’ to the female airman running the Internet Center. She looked up from her game of Solitaire and wished him a good night. He headed back to the tent where Jeffries was snoring loudly with his stinky-ass feet exposed. He dug all of the Newports out of his pocket except for one cigarette and left the packs on Jeffries’ gently heaving chest. They jingled slightly when they touched the dog tags hanging outside of his shirt.

The soldier who’d given them their linen had claimed that the tent had been treated with a highly flammable material in order to ward off mosquitoes, but when he lit the cigarette, he did not meet the pre-noon doom. So he smoked, killing himself and time. Then he slept.

Morning woke him with a tongue on his hand, gently along the knuckles, then tickling the palm into consciousness. As animal friendly as he was, he was startled by the dog. He jumped up and woke Jeffries in the process.

“What’s up?”

“We’re under attack, dawg.”

They got their towels, sandals, and hygiene kits and headed for the latrine. Jeffries smoked a cigarette with the hand not holding his loofah and Gates chewed his toothbrush.

“So you made it through the night.”

“I’m not supposed to die until today.”

“You’re crazy, dude.”

“I hope so.”

“If you die,” Jeffries said, “Then I’m gonna die, too. ‘Cause I’m gonna be shadowing you all day.”

“If you try to follow me when I tell you not to, I’ll beat your ass.”

“Ha.” Jeffries busted up, his face toward the sky. Then, when that position got to be too much, he leaned over. “It’s going to be hard, considering I’m an ex-golden gloves contender who can bench twice what you weigh. I bet you can’t bench half what I weigh.”

They stopped short, noticing that their three friends were coming from the other direction.

“Great,” Gates said. But it was unavoidable on a small post. They all continued into the latrine, as civil as possible under the circumstances. Any awkwardness was compounded by them being forced to strip naked in front of each other. Minus his star and plus a stretch-mark ridden paunch, the General seemed less commanding. They all took their stalls.

“Oh, yeah.” Jeffries said, continuing their earlier conversation. “I know Akido, too. I bet you don’t even know what Akido is.” His voice echoed, the only one at ease enough to talk. It reverberated through the silence imposed by the others. They stepped out, toweled and dried off, all five of them occupying the mirrors simultaneously. Someone else came in to shave and had to wait. Gates wondered if he might have to take on all four of them.

The groups parted and went back to their respective tents. They began changing into their duty uniforms. Jeffries had on his DCU top and his boxers, and was in the process of putting on his socks. “You going to chow, Ice Cream Man?”

“Yeah, man.” Gates said, reaching down to one of the adjacent folding cots and extracting one of the metal bars from the cross-hatch teepee it formed. “Just give me a minute.” He waited until Jeffries was faced away, bent over and tying his shoe.

He heard the sound as he was bringing the metal bar down, his friend about to form a question, cut into a plaintive whine that garbled as he caught the bar flush on the protruding bone at the rear of his head. Gates cracked him one more time, bringing it down like a club and stabilizing the sledgehammer force by going down on one knee. The bar fell from his hands and dropped to the floor, where it rattled. His heart beat fast. He crouched down to feel his friend’s pulse. It beat steadily, but he was out.

Gates walked out of the tent, into the day. The dog was on his doorstep. He bit his lip and kicked it with his steel toe on its snout; it snarled, betrayed. The contortion from love to the bared hatred of its teeth was not the note he wanted to go out on. He stared up at the sky, hoping for something, but there were no clouds and the sun hurt his eyes. He walked the post, searching for a spot away from people, but it was hard when it was this small. He settled for a small mound near two storage containers, with two guard towers equidistant from each other, some fifty feet away. He put his head in his hands and breathed. He should have kept a cigarette.

As of Monday, at least 2,112 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an associated press count. The figure includes two military civilians. At least 1,870 died as a result of hostile actions according to the military’s numbers.

The AP count is 4 higher that the Defense Department’s Tally, last updated Monday.

The latest deaths reported by the military:

- Marine Corporal Thomas D. Jones Jasper River, Oregon, died in a helicopter crash in Anbar; assigned to the Marine Medium Helicopter squadron 354, Marine aircraft group 35, 1st Marine Aircraft wing, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

- Army PFC Jason R. Gates Cincinnati, Ohio, died from direct mortar hit near Talil; assigned to Rough Riders, 35 Inf BN, 12 Inf Bgd. Camp Gradier, Colorado

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“The Claustrophobic Detective,” by Joseph Hirsch

Another short story by Joseph Hirsch. This story was originally published in Underground Voices Magazine in 2008 – Robert Lindsay.

The Claustrophobic Detective

by Joseph Hirsch

Tongue Town, so named for the mishmash of cultures that kept it from being called solely Little Italy, Chinatown or Turkey Town, was fifteen square blocks of food smells and banners strewn like clotheslines between old buildings. It was a small borough of differing Gods who were either at war with each other or were unaware of the other’s existence. And maybe in the case of the most Zen deities, the right to disagree was respected intact.

The Law rarely came down here. Policing, for the most part, was done internally. If one of the squad detectives touched the tip of the Tongue, it was usually for a cheap lunch. Junior Detective Bishop deliberately avoided the place when he could, because it was equally hard to enter or leave. His dissatisfaction with being forced to come down here was now palpably written across his stubbly pale face, which was partially concealed by steam emanating from the grates at his feet, moistening the weatherproof sheen off his loafers, and combining with smoke from the cigarette he kept in his mouth. That was the one good thing about this part of town. It was still legal to smoke here.

He craned his neck upward, to the sliver of clouds banked between the walls of the brownstones piled shoulder to shoulder all the way down the street, like an eternally reflecting series of mirrors. The only available light was coming from the crime scene, which gave off a sickly purple neon that overshadowed the neon coming from even the riskiest venture of food poisoning at the shadiest of restaurants, or any case of VD from the battery of whorehouses, both human and robotic, populating the city. It was something that he didn’t want to understand. And this one, this womb, was apparently owned by a Chinese man, or at least one pandering to a cliché as old as the coolie. Won’s Womb.

Clever. But moving closer to the pumpkin-shaped chamber, throbbing iridescent light, stronger than the reds and blues of the beat cops’ cruiser, he saw that the man detained in flexi-cuffs was indeed Chinese, or at least of Asian extraction. Bishop drank in the smoke from his cigarette, and navigated around the gawking crowd. He thought he could faintly detect the victim through the venous skin of the pumpkin, which was about half the size of the brownstones abutting it on both sides.

The two cops holding the perp-proprietor must have divined Bishop’s occupation from his bearing alone, because he flashed no badge, and said nothing to them, but they still let him through the cordon. “You want to talk to him?” They asked, of the man held between them, chomping at the bit to plead his case, and maybe hang himself without the benefit of a lawyer. Bishop held up the hand in which he carried his cigarette, and said, “In a minute. Let me take a look at the victim first.”

“You don’t want to do that.” The second cop said, his stomach souring in sympathy for Bishop. The proprietor struggled, and shouted. “No smoking in my womb!”

The two cops pinioned his arms behind his back, in full ninety-degree uncles. “You got bigger problems, now, chief.” Bishop continued smoking his cigarette, and for the first time, stepped inside of one. He had resisted them until now, content to remain simple of this habit. The more mystified he remained by it, the better off he was. At least, that was how he reasoned it.

There were twelve licensed wombs in the city proper, with talks of zoning space for another three within the upcoming fiscal year. Most moral watchdogs considered the things eyesores, or the craven province of men (usually men) too weak for reality. But from the sky, in a plane or in a rocket, their beauty could not be argued, and they formed a tryst of purple lights, a skyline whose unintentional shape could be argued as endlessly as drifting clouds.

Bishop, who had never even left the country, let alone the planet, could not appreciate their beauty. And if he ever had appreciated them at some point in the past, all such thoughts would have been banished, washed in the blood of this victim, now a formless pancake of melted bone, and skull so thoroughly crushed that it had been flattened almost to two dimensions. Bishop didn’t lose his lunch, but the way the close confines incubated the corpse did test the veteran detective’s stomach. He countered the impression with cigarette smoke, and the small satisfaction that the man who had crushed this poor bastard didn’t want him smoking in here.

Could he possibly burn this place with one careless ember, the way someone might fall asleep in an armchair, and burn their house to the ground? It was a thought.

The warmth of the place entered him, but he was only conscious of it when he realized that he would have to leave at some point, and be forced to walk back outside filled with the knowledge of death, before Forensics and the photographers had their turn with it. The feeling was something like the hard, hot needles of a shower in a cold room, steaming ridges of goose bumps all over your body, and urging you to remain where you were. He gave into it, then, because he so rarely caved in to anything. Take away cigarettes and he was without vice. He was of the Christian minority, attended a church in a dense nest of mosques, was loyal to his wife, and was one of the few men in the department who was not an alcoholic, closet or open. But still he gave in, for now, allowing himself to slide along the wall, into a crouch, staring at the final obstinate cherry of his cigarette. It warned of its impending death by burning his fingers, and staining the nails black.

He began to understand, against tough will, why some men paid a quarter month’s wages to scurry here, to the very essence, which had finally been expanded, ballooned to the size of a home, and then exploited by men like the handcuffed proprietor outside.

Overpopulation, man stacked upon man, racial unease, war, disease, the live broadcast feed of footage that rolled into every home when the work day was done, and it was time to repose with horror… He understood these men, could even see himself becoming one if he didn’t get the hell out of here, soon. Now the only thing that remained to be understood was why the proprietor had felt the need to kill this sad case, who had done nothing but patronize his business.

If it wasn’t a case of cold murder, then it was a case of negligence. And in that case the man standing outside would be fined heavily, and his shop would be closed down. Either way, he had some music to face. Bishop ditched his cigarette on the fleshy floor of the chamber, and stepped back outside, down the gangway to the ground, where the crowd had thinned some. The owner was still animated in his protest, and the two policemen were still struggling to keep up with their care. Bishop glistened with condensation from the womb. Now all I have to do is chew the umbilical cord with my cigarette-stained teeth, he mused. He stepped to the proprietor, who lunged forward with his neck, as if he could bite Bishop with his very words. “I told you not to smoke in there!”

“And we told you you’ve got bigger problems, now.” One of the cops said, pinching the man’s forearm along the shoulder, until he could only concentrate on his pain. Bishop pulled the man away to a neutral corner, giving the cops a look of weary brotherhood, conveying his need to have a crack at it his way, while also hoping the man now somewhat viewed him as his deliverance.

“Could a man spend twenty-four hours in there?” Bishop asked, in a low, commiserating tone. It seemed to put the proprietor at ease, and he leaned in, speaking into the detective’s tie, as if it were a listening device. “You mean, physically?”

“Sure.” Bishop said, genuinely curious. His question wasn’t really pertinent to the investigation, but only he knew that. The proprietor, the Won maybe, gave a shrug, and then spoke. “I would imagine so. After all, it’s not a sauna in there, but…” He paused with a chess-master’s sense of deliberation, then spoke, “But you’ll never find out.”

Bishop leaned in, so that they were almost kissing. The cops watched the dialogue, perplexed. The few remaining bystanders also watched. Bishop spoke. “Why not?”

Screams rent the city street, tearing the air like the clatter of a municipal garbage truck’s metal-on-metal retrieval. It was a woman, fine crows’ nests on the sides of either eye, stretching out to weathered sandpaper skin. She looked to be older than her husband. She shouted, threw her fists, and her hair flew, and both of the cops restrained her, reaching the limits of their patience, itching to use the mace bobbing on their utility belts. The husband turned from Bishop, shouted something to his wife in Chinese, and she immediately receded. He then turned back to the detective, whose question he had forgotten. But Bishop hadn’t forgotten it.

He asked again. “Why don’t you know if a human could withstand twenty-four hours inside your womb?” He realized how insane the question sounded, but he had already asked it, and the suspect had an answer. “Because.” Won said. “Even if it is physically possible, it is not financially possible for most men. It would cost far too much. Any man who had that much money probably wouldn’t need the comfort of the womb. He could probably find solace, elsewhere.”

But if not? Bishop suddenly thought about it, glad that he was not a billionaire, since a millionaire probably couldn’t swing it these days. But a tycoon probably had enough money to simulate gestation, give himself a full nine months in there. For some reason the thought made him shudder, and he latched onto the investigation, for its sense of reality.

“Okay.” Bishop said. “Since you haven’t shouted for a lawyer yet, you might as well talk to me. What happened? Did the thing malfunction? Or did you contract the chamber on him because you wanted to see what it felt like to kill a man? Help me out.” Bishop placed his hand on the pack of cigarettes in his pocket, remembered how his defiant smoking had angered the man moments before. He thought better of it, and left the pack where it was, and waited for an answer.

“Neither.” The man relished the pregnant mystery of his pause, with a wan smile, and spoke. “He asked for me to contract it, all the way. And I did, and he died.”

Tires screeched, car doors slammed, and men climbed from two plainclothes sedans, pulled into cattycorner herringbones formation. It was Forensics, and the photographer. Something grisly for you boys, he thought. A giant squashed fly, to put your own lives in perspective, and make your Sunday prayers a little hollower.

“So assisted suicide, huh? That’s your story and you’re sticking to it?”

Won smiled. “It’s in writing. I’m no fool. The money was right, and with a signed and notarized contract, I consider my case more than airtight. If you would let me…” The man struggled with his cuffs. Bishop drew a serrated K-Bar from his jacket pocket, and cut the flexi elastic. The two cops got jumpy, and he pulled out another pair to allay them. “Got my own.” He smiled. The cops eased back along the side of their cruiser. Forensics and the photographer did a beeline for the womb. There was no media yet, but there was definitely a story developing here.

With shreds of cuffs dangling from his wrists, Won extracted the folded paper from his pocket, and presented it to Detective Bishop, who read:

I, Jonathan Lanfree, do sign my life over with full knowledge and forethought, to Won’s Womb…

Bishop refolded the contract, tucked it in his breast pocket, gave the man a grace period to massage the red burns along his wrists, and then he placed the second set of flexi-cuffs on him, and led him over to the two cops, who were salivating over the chance to restrain him once again, for whatever reasons. Bishop then dug the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, extracted one, lit it with a match, and walked back into the purple pumpkin, flashing with the strobe from a camera, over the sounds of the screaming proprietor. “I told you ‘no smoking’! You respect my property!”

Bishop entered, listened to the interplay of voices, grizzled banter to see who felt the least about the situation, or who could make the biggest joke out of it.

“Quite the miscarriage.”

“This is why abortion’s legal.”

Flashes, strobes, light. His vision tunneled, paramedics entered the domelike chamber. He thought he could detect veins in the onion-like skin of the ceiling. The more people entered, the greater his sense of panic, until the entrance was entirely blotted out with bodies, and he fought the tide, as reasonless fear mounted in his stomach, turned him toward the wall, and he saw the smug face of the proprietor, like a hologram, contract signed and little smile, the admonitions about the cigarette, which he now ground into the wall. It hissed and extinguished, leaving a blotch that promised to wear all the way through the tent-like material to the other side, if enough force was applied.

Bishop swung, punched, and his hands became sticky, his mind blank and fevered. One of the forensic crew looked up, someone who recognized him from a double-body job a few weeks back. “Jesus Christ, Bishop! What the hell are you doing?”

He lifted on his haunches, the force of his punches sliding off the lubricating walls, until he tore through, making a finger-sized hole, which he widened by parting it with both hands, pulled outward in a breaststroke motion.

“Be professional, man! This is a crime scene!” Then, when it became clear that words had no effect, his inter-departmental friend shouted, “Someone get him!” Everyone but the photographer laboring over the corpse rushed to the opposite side of the room. But it was already too late. He had torn through the wall, and when he fell through to the other side, it was without the benefit of gangway or plank.

Upon impact, he found that his head hurt, his ears rang, and his neck was stiff with impending pain, which would probably last for weeks, but he was now free, or at least freer than he had been moments before. He didn’t know why he had done it.

Above him stood Tad Mercer, head of the Forensics team. His beer-belly bulged against the twin confines of his suspenders, splashed with a loud, garish design. The cigar jutting from the side of his mouth definitely trumped the cigarette which Bishop attempted to fish from his jacket pocket, when it became apparent that he wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down. Mercer spoke. “Well, Bishop…That’s one hell of a Caesarian.” He laughed, and Bishop laughed, looking up at the little bit of sky, where it was trapped between two buildings.

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The White Hole, by Joseph Hirsch

A short story by Mr. Hirsch. This story deals explicitly with race. It was controversial at the time, but the editor liked it and I think it has held up well with time. It first appeared in 3 AM Magazine in 2007. – Robert Lindsay.

The White Hole

By Joseph Hirsch

Before his death, Anton Walters III had been one of the most powerful and influential voices in the White Power movement (though he would have preferred the term ‘Separatist’). In fact, Federal sources revealed that he had taken part in a telephone conference from within the confines of his compound in Spokane, Washington, concerning the Nazi Low Riders, a notorious prison gang, and whether or not they should allow members with Latin blood into their ranks.

His vote had been a predictable ‘Nay’, but it had fallen on deaf ears. The drug trade and changing times had drowned out his vote, and it was best he died when he did before having to witness any further decline within the movement he had helped build.

Walters had first made his presence felt in the mid-Eighties. Before that, his writings mostly concerned big game hunting and the best methods for defense against nuclear fallout. He printed his manuals at his own expense, though the costs must have been offset or eaten by his bread and butter enterprise, which was, conveniently, running a printing press.

His works frequently showed up at Gun Shows and Trade Expos, though they weren’t displayed prominently, and he didn’t begin to receive feedback until his thoughts, and his pen, turned to the question of Apartheid during the height of the tumult in South Africa. He gained his fair share of supporters, and a few critics, after calling for the assassination of Nelson Mandela.

But he continued on, undeterred, until he contracted throat cancer in 1986 after a lifetime of indulging in both smoking and chew tobacco. He underwent radiation therapy and beat the disease despite his advancing years. And maybe the brush with death could explain the shift from hard-line essays to the dreamy speculation of his fantasies, which would go on to arouse the minds of his extremist readership.

His flagship character made his first appearance in a book entitled, simply, The Norseman. The book concerns a put-upon farmer whose wife leaves him for a strapping young black man, taking both of their daughters with her in tow. The distraught farmer, after having lost everything, goes into his backyard, falls among the furrowed ranks of corn and beseeches Christ for mercy. The farmer’s crop turns fallow the next day, leaving him without a harvest.

Embittered now, and dark of mind, the farmer turns to the Old Gods, and he summons Odin, pleading not for mercy, but for revenge. Against all logic, and told in a prose that keeps it from becoming laughable, a galleon with twenty-four oarsman rows its way onto his farm, a Viking to match the greatest of black virility at its helm. Cloaked in the pelts of fierce beasts and wearing a horned helmet, the Norseman vows to succor the poor farmer’s hatred.

The Viking then goes on a tear across the plains, until he finds the wife and the ‘moor’, as the Viking refers to him. Happening upon the couple as they are in congress in a sleazy motel, the Viking proceeds to decapitate the black man and then orders the wife to fellate him, after which she joins her lover in a heap at the foot of the bed. The novel ends with the Norseman returning to the farm, the farmer’s children in tow, clinging to his strong body…

The Norseman became a runaway success and went through five printings before Walters realized he would need to find a legitimate publisher to handle the demand. The first installment was followed by five sequels, all of which were equally successful and relied heavily on the same formula of a white nuclear family disrupted by an outside influence, usually in the form of a black man.

All of the follow-up novels sold just as well, or close. Walters’ proudest hour came when the original installment appeared in a reversible omnibus with The Turner Diaries, the only other Separatist/ Supremacist tract to surpass his own books in sales.

The success of the series allowed him to move from his single-wide trailer to a log and cedar split-level situated on ten acres of verdant wilds, with enough room for a shooting range and a small tribe of deer, each of whom was assigned an appropriately Nordic name. His favorite, was, of course, Odin….

****

Walters had a younger brother, Edgar, who lived some few-hundred miles away in Missouri. Walters the Eldest had tried to impress upon his brother the perils white womanhood would face in the coming century, but Edgar was a happily married and well-adjusted state trooper with two sons of his own whose beliefs ended at the Methodist Church he and his family attended every Sunday. He regarded his brother with some fear, and couldn’t for the life of him understand where he had gotten his ideas, as their parents had been of tolerant stock, especially considering the time and place from whence they came.

Unfortunately, Edgar’s wife left him (though not for a black man, as he repeatedly assured his older brother), and he contracted the cancer which was a part of their shared heredity. When it spread to the lymph nodes, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to beat the disease as easily as his brother had, Edgar found himself with no choice but to remand his children over to his older brother’s care.

John and Eric Walters came to live with their uncle in the Spring of 1995. John had been twelve at the time, Eric eight. After showing each of the boys their rooms, and making them feel at home, Anton proceeded to indoctrinate the children in such a way that Edgar, if he could hear it from within the confines of his coffin, would have probably rolled over in his grave.

No one knows for certain what went on at Compound Walters, but if we were to speculate, certain shows of youthful normalcy such as hunting and sports were allowed. But the pickup basketball games and the laps swam around the lake were probably greeted with caveats from the sideline: “Good, grow strong for the white race.” And the outings with the shotgun might have been prefaced: “Pretend that deer’s a black man,” or something along those lines.

The boys were home-schooled. Most of the outside world was filtered out. The one exception may have been the satellite TV, which Anton couldn’t resist, with its constant stream of damnation that fed his mind whatever thoughts of impending apocalypse or greed it needed for confirmation of Society’s collapse, everything from the spinning Wheel of Fortune to the wild fires in Arizona, Armageddon spelled out on the big-screen with closed-captions to boot.

The extent of the abuse the children suffered, or even if there was abuse, is unknown. We can assume there was some form of abuse, else why would Anton Walters the Third’s body have been found tied to a chair in front of the television? As to how the children took their White Pride education, when Walters was found, dead and starved, attached to the chair in front of the TV, the screen was blaring BET, an assault of Rap Videos in surround sound, gloating in front of his incontinent body. No one could mistake this ironic finish for an accident. When you consider that the Satellite package included more than three-hundred channels, the erstwhile Walters brothers had obviously intended to send a message to whoever found the old man, his body lighter a few credit cards.

The trail of the aforementioned credit cards stopped somewhere in Seattle, and no one had seen or heard from the brothers for at least a year. If they were alive, or where they were…it was all an unknown….

….But that wasn’t the bank’s business. Their job was to foreclose on the house, and bury its history. After the injunction was waived, a crew was ordered to restore the inside, another crew to handle the grounds outside, before the log mansion was to be set on the auction block; for Walters, in the white-heat of his creativity, had neglected to give the federal government its due.

The under-the-table atmosphere of the conventions where his books were sold only encouraged his dodgy behavior, and it was only after the IRS discovered that he owed eight years of back taxes that the body had been discovered. God knows the state of decomposition it might have been found in had it taken longer to uncover his fraud.

As it stood, the body had been taken out of the house months ago. After they removed the SS regalia and everything else that flew in the face of the man’s repeated statements that he was merely a ‘Separatist’, the rest of the home’s contents were auctioned off. The final detail was the lawn, which still needed cutting.

The two foreman, both beefy white men, stood posted on the side of the pickup where they kept all the landscaping tools. Their six-man Salvadoran work crew had undone the flatbed, pulled out the mowers and weed whackers and had gone to work. The two men shouted over the sound of their crew. Grass as fine as dust blew out from under the rusty machines, groaning out a stream of fuel that mixed with the sun and spelled Spring.

“D’ ya hear they found the kid?”

“Who?” The other one asked, lighting a cigarette and wondering if it was a safe thing to do with all the fuel residue around here.

“The nephew. You know the story here right?” The boss looked irritated, quizzically staring his friend down and wondering if he was going to have to explain the whole fuggin’ thing again.

“Yeah, yeah. I know. Crazy-ass clansman.”

“No. Wasn’t no clansman. But close.”

“Yeah, so anyway. The nephew.” The second one said, prompting him again.

“Yeah, right.” The first one said, picking it back up. “They caught his ass in Arizona. Dumb fuck was using his uncle’s credit cards to buy himself lunch at a Burger King.”

“Huh.” The other one said, leaning his elbows against the side of the truck. He noted that only one of the Salvadoran crew was wearing a mask to protect himself from the fumes. Was he some sort of foreman among them? he wondered. The hierarchy for him ended right here. He didn’t know anything about them. The Salvadorans were Mexican to him. Among these musings, the light bulb went off.

“Wait.” The second one said.

“What?” His boss said. His friend’s voice sounded contradictory. He didn’t know they were having an argument here.

“I thought there was two of them.”

“Two what?”

“Nephews.” The second one, whose name was Chet, said.

His boss, Harmon, wanted to argue, but knew he was right. It was his turn to say it. “Huh.” He said.

Huh, it hung in the space between them. Which was alright, since it was too hot to speak anymore. The chips of grass flecked up and stung their faces, like thorns or mosquitoes, pesky inanimate insects unearthed as the ground was brought back to proper manicured form. It was too hot to even look at those Mexicans, Salvadorans, let alone do what they were doing, God bless them, working without a sound usually, except for the one now, coming toward them, the one wearing a mask.

He spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. They wouldn’t have understood him even without the mask, but that only made it worse. “Good God, man, what?”

The man overcame his panic enough to pull the mask from his face, let it slide down to his sweating neck. He pointed to a spot where his countrymen were gaggled together. “Aqui!” He shouted. The foreman and his underboss brought themselves up from their sticky idle alongside the pickup truck and headed over to the point where the men were gathered like mourners around their dead.

“Okay. What the fuck?” The first white man said.

“Aqui.”

“Yeah. A key. A key to what, man?”

A nuclear symbol, the black and yellow triangles, a yellow jacket warning harkening from the Cold War days, stood out on a metal bubble, protruding from the ground, a circle riveted with steel bolts, like a shield. Around the circumference of the steel bubble, were the words White Power, traced like the outlines of reflected smiles or the most primitive of fish.

Both of the men exchanged glances. What the hell? With the bank’s consent, and with two of its representatives present, a welder was called in, a friend of the foreman’s. All in attendance gave him and his torch a respectful berth, the Salvadorans marking the furthest reaches of the perimeter, the foremen a little closer, the two bank reps the closest, as this promised to be of the most relevance to them. Whatever it was, it would either raise or lower the value of the property as a whole. They wouldn’t know until the man with the torch, faceless beneath the mask, had burned a hole in the bubble.

The sparks reached their apex as it popped, then yielded. The welder gripped the manhole cover in his gloved hands and threw it to the side. He pulled the lid of his mask from his face, revealing sweaty eyes that could barely do more than squint.

“Who’s going in?”

No one had to. Someone was coming out, stooped, mistaken for a midget, since the gait was that of age, but it was the cramped space that had wizened the boy. They all stood and watched him. He visored his eyes with his hand, stared at the circle of people around him, and spun three-hundred and sixty-degrees. It overwhelmed him, and he fell in his dizzy spell onto the grass. Two of the Salvadorans ran to him. Another one went for the water in the trunk of the pickup. The boy’s chest was heaving. He was hyperventilating.

One of the bank reps, the woman in her mid-thirties, stepped around the boy and the group gathered around him, and she peered inside. It was cool, a dank cave, counterpoint to the heat outside; the cool, mixed with her own curiosity, beckoned her further, and she descended within.

A motion sensor triggered and brought her out of the dark. The subterranean eight by six world illuminated, and she saw what the boy had seen for…how long? The answer was there, above a shelf where a bible, a bottle of vitamins, and a 9mm Beretta semi-auto handgun were resting. Fortunately the gun (which looked loaded from here) seemed untouched. The teddy bear, on the other hand, appeared to have been snuggled until mangled, a source for the child’s fear that had endured until one of the black sequins that was its eye fell from the socket, under the wear of spit when it wasn’t wrapped around a sucked thumb. Better the teddy-bear than the gun, she thought, before marveling at the digital face which was precise down to the second….

13:10:05:23:09

Thirteen months, ten days, five hours, twenty three minutes and nine…no ten…now eleven seconds the boy had been down here, alone. With foodstuffs, a teddy bear, vitamins, and a handgun. A pulley hung from the ceiling. She clutched the base of the square knot, and walked from one end of the six by eight cell to the other. She immediately felt a breeze as slats yielded in the ceiling, revealing a most-primitive form of cross ventilation, which sent her to the other side of the room, and the child’s only other form of entertainment: a military-issue, World War One style gas mask.

Up above, the other man cradled the boy who had been forced to grow to pubescence in a space too small to even use the bathroom. The boy stared into his eyes, looking like he was about to die, more probably about to pass out. He mustered some words for the man, too faint to hear without reaching down.

“What, son?”

The boy repeated it. “Did the n—— take over?”

The man winced and drew back, maybe because he was black, and the boy had spoken in commiserate tones, as if they were on the same team. The man fought his repulsion, looked up to make sure no one else had heard, then leaned back in. The boy didn’t know what the word meant. Or, if he had at some point, he had somehow forgotten in the intervening year. The man cradled him and knew the words meant nothing, didn’t know whether the boy’s brother or the boy’s uncle had locked him down here. But he wanted to kill somebody.

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Filed under Guest Posts, Literature

The Last Slice of Pizza, by Joseph Hirsch (A Dystopian Science Fiction Novel)

Brief Synopsis:  Michael Fermi is what many people would uncharitably describe as a “loser.” He is in his mid-twenties, living at home with his mother and delivering pizzas for a living. His life is about to change, however, as he has been selected by an alien race which intends to install its parasitic spearhead in his body in order to use him for their own purposes. This unseen race, known as the Grand Arbiters, will use this method of bilocation to observe humanity through the eyes of the lowly pizza man, in order to determine whether or not Man should be eliminated, and his precious Earth destroyed alongside of him.

The Last Slice of Pizza

By Joseph Hirsch

What the Reader Doesn’t Want to Know

The President of the United States of America walks into the War Room, flanked by two four star generals and the Secretary of State. While there is an impressive, massive table dominating the room, this is not the War Room we have grown accustomed to from countless movies and TV shows. There is a stainless steel carafe of water on the table, centered on a tray with three drinking glass that have been left untouched. The White House Press Secretary and the Vice President of the United States are the only people in the room who are seated. Everyone else stands, either uneasily against the wall or off to the side of the President.

The Press Secretary says, “Mr. President, at three-forty five am this transmission was intercepted at Cape Canaveral along with a decryption cipher, which arrived via radio signal at ten second intervals over the course of the following forty-five minutes. At that time, all communications ceased.”

The president has his ring finger pressed against the side of his skull, the fingertip flush against his hair which became shot with gray roughly a year into his second term. His golden wedding band is dull from being rapped repeatedly against the surface of his desk in the Oval Office.

The message is then played: “Homo sapiens, you are being contacted because we wish to inform you that several tons of radioactive explosives have been placed in the molten core of your Earth. This bomb cannot be defused, and requires no secondary trigger mechanism. It has been activated by the positively charged ions, rotation, and convective motion of your Earth, which are responsible for producing your magnetic field. The bomb will detonate in twelve hours.”

A terrified murmur makes its way from one to the other of those assembled in the room. The most powerful man on Earth has been reduced inwardly to a whimpering child, though he is still man and leader enough to conceal his terror from those who look to him for guidance, and who still want to believe that he can get them through this.

“In order to dissuade you from your doubts, reticence, or your suspicion that this may be a hoax, we have decided to incinerate a star whose coordinates we have provided to your scientists at NASA. This incineration will take place roughly eleven hours before we destroy your Earth.”

The president has clasped his hands together, as if praying, though he is more likely deep in thought, as those close to him know the Ruler of the Free World to be a closet deist, a yuppie agnostic who attended church more to plug himself into the political pipeline when rallying for his senate run, than out of any sort of religious ardor.

“Each of you who have been made aware of this message is to meet at coordinates which have been provided in a document accompanying the cipher of this transmission. You three-thousand humans will be spared and taken aboard our ship. Your immediate families will also be spared. If, however, you inform anyone not included on the manifest of either what is to happen to the Earth o he manifest of either what is to happen to the Earth or of the coordinates where the airlift is to take place, you will be incinerated along with all of your unfortunate Homo sapiens friends. End…”

Static ripples, and the Vice President turns the volume down. The President looks over at the Press Secretary, who removes his bifocals and wipes the fogged glasses with the triangular end of his paisley tie. “Mr. President, a star was in fact incinerated a little bit more than two hours ago.”

“Which star?” The president is grim, but still not panicking.

The Press Secretary swivels in his seat, undoes the half-Windsor knot of his tie. “It was a star we hadn’t even located or named until its coordinates were provided in the encrypted signal.”

The president is deep in thought, pondering the greatest crisis his nation, his planet, has ever faced. The irrepressible conflict between the North and South which claimed more American lives than any other war, the Cuban Missile Crisis whereby mutual destruction may have just been narrowly averted, the banking meltdown in which economies from Reykjavik, Iceland to Manhattan Island almost collapsed due to bad credit default swaps-all of it pales in comparison to the calamity he now has to face.

Every one of the other people in the room is grateful that the decision rests with him. Never has the crown laid heavier upon the head, or the political chalice for which men competed seemed more poisonous a drink. The President of the United States of America thinks about his constituents, about his enemies, about the hardy souls who came out to shake his hand when he did his tours of the heartland damaged by tornadoes and floods. He thinks about his responsibility to them, and he is tempted to ask one of his generals if they might not be able to triangulate the source of that signal and perhaps fire upon the target. He knows that the languishing Star Wars program is a pipe dream, and that some Hail Mary fantasy of sending a nuclear payload aboard a satellite toward the hostile aliens would make a good yarn in a popcorn flick, but this is not a movie.

The President stops thinking about his voters, his friends and enemies in Washington, the sycophantic press corps. He shifts in his seat, and the Presidential seal stitched into the leather headrest frames his head for a moment like a halo. He thinks about his wife, his children, his shaggy spotted Cocker Spaniel, and the choice becomes obvious. He glances at everyone in the room, and finally lets his eyes settle on his shiny loafers, because he is too ashamed to meet any gaze right now.

“Have Air Force One readied, and give the pilot the coordinates listed in the cipher accompanying the signal from space.”

An audible sigh goes up from those assembled in the War Room. There is the sound of papers shuffling, and then they all disperse. No one makes cellphone calls or sends emails, since those can easily be intercepted thanks to programs the president himself has signed off on via executive fiat. His decision has alienated him from his liberal base, and garners him no credit from his enemies who see him as too dovish, but he has done what he thought was right for the American people. It was easy, he muses as he walks through the halls of the White House, past the presidential portraitures, to be a protestor when one didn’t receive the kinds of briefings he got daily. But to stand on that carpet and hear about the terror cells, the loose uranium, the new surface-to-air shoulder fired rockets, day in and day out, and to keep those secrets to oneself, that made the decisions that much harder. It was his second term anyway. Better to alienate the base in order to protect them.

All of it had been for nothing, though.

He runs out to his helicopter and salutes the marine as he boards, a boards, a final wash of guilt making its way over him before it is drowned out in the roar of propellers as he takes off into the sky.

The termites dance away. Another one of the little maggots makes communion with the others, sharing his secret with them, bearing tidings from aboard a vessel where the unseen until now Arbiters are assembled to speak. They wear the same metal shells as Mama, but Wichman, Mars, Kammisch and I can sense alien life pulsing beneath the scaled metal armor. One of them speaks, its voice oscillating through some kind of modulator:

“Mercury we need only for the mining of calcium and magnesium.”

This motion is seconded, and each of the steel-sheathed Arbiters vibrate as a harmonious accord flows across their ranks. A canister filled with the pseudocoelomate rotifer Nanobots recently jettisoned from Earth appears in their midst. One of the Arbiters cracks the glass case like a giant opening a walnut with his massive hands.

A scattering of thermal termites, like floating tinsel, shows the Arbiters a scene of destruction which excites them, makes their slimy, pestiferous bodies writhe inside of the steel shells that make them seem so much stronger and more o much stronger and more formidable than they actually are. The Earth explodes, and something like a gestalt orgasm makes all of the extraterrestrial trolls applaud.

The Earth is now a radiant sun, and through the observation window a fleet of ships drifts into view to form a colorless bulwark that blots out the stars. Their force fields deploy, tessellated striations of jagged lightning, a kinematic orchestration which pushes the Earth until it sits where the sun once was, shoving the sun into an adjacent galaxy. The ships groan and turn to face the other direction. Their ballistic waves of purple light press Mars until it moves where the Earth once was. The moon stays in place.

From within this vision which has been brought to us thanks to our shattering of the little bank teller’s tube, I can hear Wichman laughing. “Clever, evil bastards.”

“That was not Earth we just visited,” Mars says.

“Captain Obvious,” Wichman shoots back. Kammisch is silent, as am I. We watch the Arbiters, sated on that main course of destruction, now treated to a desert which consists of a sadistic show well beyond man’s conception.

The President has done as the Arbiters have commanded him. He has managed to beat Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice about men and secrets, and he has assembled an intergalactic Noah’s Ark, this collection of senators and their families, generals and aides-de-camp, speechwriters and their spouses. They wait patiently for their starship to come. It arrives, a facsimile of the drop ship where we now sit watching this scene unfold, only of course much larger. They board quietly, frightened, like obedient cattle, forming the shape of a new docile animal which is composed of all of their shuffling bodies, a pachyderm bound for God-knows-where.

Once aboard, their vessel launches into space, and as quickly as a rifle tracking skeet, the Arbiters watch them through the display window of their own ship and one of the aliens presses a button which sends a ray out to intercept and obliterate the vessel filled with the only Earthlings besides us four men watching in terror, as a satanic orange and red mushroom cloud consumes itself and then dissolves into shards, fanning out into the vacuum of space.

The Arbiters roil and slither inside their steel suits, pleased and hissing, tearing themselves into shapes which resemble uncoiling strands of especially pliant taffy or fiberglass insulation. They are not so much hideous as imbued with a primordial ugliness which should not know sentience. Each of us sees bits of them slithering around in their suits, thanks to the diligence of the thermal termites worming their way into cracks and joints, and though I haven’t spoken to the other men, I can feel their anger rising as just I can feel my own.

Things that look like these Arbiters, formless ooze, should not rule over us, should not control who lives or dies or the manner in which we perish. Those politicians who fed off the blood of the people deserved to be booted from office, sure, and one could maybe make a Guy Fawkes argument that they even deserved death for the betrayal of their constituents, but killing their families, their wives, and children is beyond the ken of even Old Testament Yahweh in all but his most vindictive mood.

I am, after all, something of an authority on God, as much as any man can be short of knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that He empirically exists. God did not, in that Gutenberg Bible I keep by my nightstand, tell the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah that they would live, only to kill them anyway. If Lot’s wife had not turned around and disobeyed him, if she had kept her eyes forward, then God would not have turned her into a pillar of salt merely to amuse himself.

I dig my fingernails into the lifelines of my palms until they begin to bleed, cursing the slime bags for their formlessness, which leaves them no necks to even wring. I want to throttle them, too, to strangle one, but I have to keep my anger in check, because the silkworms are still spinning their web, showing me that I am in fact wrong in my assumption that we four aboard this drop ship are the only human beings left alive. The Arbiters in fact decided to keep a certain number of human beings alive for their own purposes, which were cruel, but not without a cold logic that I find hard to refute.

Several hundred sport utility vehicles, like the ones I saw around the neighborhood where I had once lived with my mother by the lake, are arranged in a long line on the rusted tundra of the Martian basalt. “Stau,” Kammisch says.

“Ja,” I reply.

But how? How or why is there a traffic jam on the surface of Mars? One of the Nanobots, not hindered by atmospheric concerns, weaves its way across the rocks toward the line of SUVs. Each of the drivers, men and women shanghaied from Earth, marooned now on Mars, grip the steering wheel of their car. Each vehicle’s porous doors and sunroofs are sheathed in a cocooning membrane of elastomeric seals reinforced with a space age polymer, like the doors on our mother ship. Nothing can get in and nothing can get out, but these men and women who have been abducted from carpools or crosstown errands do not need more oxygen than they already have, because the thermal termites will provide that, just as they would continually rewire the digestive systems of the drivers so that hunger would never become a problem, either.

Gas would certainly not be an issue, as I already know from experience. The termites are rerouting all of the atoms and molecules into a feedback loop, whereby any gas that is burned will in turn create more gas in a cycle of perpetual motion better than any sort of zero point energy theorized by Barry Mars in his most outlandish mood. The people drive in circles for days that turn into months, which become years that in turn morph into generations. They beg for death, but the termites keep their hands sealed to the wheels. The red clay of Mars looks so much like the brimstone of Hell, but nothing from Dante or Sisyphus could rival the punishment these commuters are forced to endure, as the worms in the engine blocks pump more and more fossil fuel into the Martian atmosphere.

Co2 gases form a greenhouse shell over Mars, and the Arbiters observe and laugh, this multi-century project a diversion that lasts them in their infinite cruelty the equivalent of only a few hours. Their hideous voices, rasping and scarred, carry across the desolate Martian expanse. Over one-hundred Mbar of surface pressure is realized, the temperature rising degree by degree, until the Nanobots are forced to vacate and the drivers are finally released from their torment, melting to the liquefying hulls of their Denali and Expedition and Yukon utility vehicles.

From an astral perch the Nanobots watch, nesting like lapdogs on the contours of the metal suits that the Arbiters wear. After the cars melt, the rocks begin to undergo thermal decomposition, and hissing C02 and H20 make noises eerily similar to the laughter of the monstrous aliens, gases coming in wavering steamy fingers from the ground where it cracks with molten volcanic life.

Our hatred for the evil Gods melts in that moment. No matter how wicked we consider them to be, they are giving us something that had been the provenance of no man, no matter how holy and faithful to God he was, or devoted to science he might have been. We are seeing the beginnings of a new world, the new world in fact.

A tundra region opens above the regolith, and life as small as the Nanobots appears, little pioneer biota that appeal to the part of each man that he keeps hidden, the part that wants to pet butterflies but fears how that might appear to other men.

“Oh, shit,” I think I hear Wichman say, and he starts to cry. It is contagious. We hear each other’s voices, but see only the memories of the termites, each passing on a bit of knowledge to the next in case it prematurely senesces or is consumed in flames.

The little butterflies with their purple and blue patterns are resistant to the ultraviolet rays which lash the cragged surface of this new Earth, and they excrete acids that further dissolve the rocks and flatten the mountains into low naked hills, and banded marble cliffs which form a rim around the first ocean. We can taste the nitrogen and oxygen as they are introduced, across the chasm of centuries and despite the limited sensory perception of the little wormy hosts sending back data one broken image at a time.

The one ocean of New Earth breaks into two oceans, forming an aqua-frothed Pangaea wreathed in salt in the northern boreal area and a second sea in the southern hemispheric Hellas Planitia zone. Minor tweaking is performed by the bulwarked convoy of drifting sky fortresses, which casts a giant shadow over the Earth which has become the new sun, and Mars, which has become a home for the Arbiters. Giant louvered parasol sunshades emerge from the abysses inside of the great ships, and they adjust the orbital eccentricity of every planet until the Council of Arbiters achieves that revolting harmonious accord again. They writhe in their elemental suits, and rap their chainmail knuckles against the top of their table.

The millions of aliens who have moved into the Milky Way are happy with this new living arrangement. We four remaining humans above this drop ship are less so.

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Filed under Guest Posts, Literature, Novel

Two New Thomas Pynchon Videos

This is one from his new novel Bleeding Edge which is going to come out in only 6 days on September 17, 2013! Very, very weird, and I kind of like it.

Above is a video advertising all of Pynchon’s books on one ebook. The video lists the first lines in all of his books. Some go by so fast that you can barely even read them.

I have read:

  1. V.
  2. The Crying of Lot 49
  3. Gravity’s Rainbow
  4. Slow Learner
  5. Vineland

I have not yet read:

  1. Mason and Dixon
  2. Against the Day
  3. Inherent Vice

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Filed under Literature, Novel

“Jonah, The Series,” Chapter Outline for Serial Work of Novelettes

A friend of mine is working on this work of fiction. I haven’t read much of it, but I did read the chapter outline. I wasn’t wild about his earlier work (movie reviews), but I really enjoyed this chapter outline. He has a BA degree in English from South Carolina State University. He has given the work to a professor who has published several novels and the professor liked it.

This work has “pulp” elements, but I like it anyway, though I am not much into pulp stuff. To me, this seems like it is publishable. It is at least as good as a lot of the pulp stuff out there and maybe even better.

Each novelette is 17,500 words or 70 pages.

Perhaps you are wondering what the limits are for various forms of fiction. Here they are, approximately:

  1. Short-short story – 1-8 pages (under 2,000 words)
  2. Short story – 8-30 pages (2,000-7,500 words)
  3. Novelette – 30-70 pages (7,500-17,500 words)
  4. Novella – 70-160 pages (17,500-40,000 words)
  5. Novel – 160 pages+ (40,000 words+)

Feel free to offer any comments on it.

SEASON ONE: GOLD STAR RISING (1-22)

Welcome to North Hill, South Carolina. In the day it’s a glitzy city and a cheap vacation spot. At night it’s ruled by criminals and cursed by darkness.

15-year-old Jonah Singleton is an angst-ridden petty thief, running with a group of misfits who steal for profit under their friend Bert. One night Jonah’s life is forever changed when a harrowing encounter leaves him with the superhuman abilities of an otherworldly being. Soon Jonah’s amazing powers make him a local legend amongst the lowlifes and hoods, earning him the street name ‘Gold Star’ and driving Bert away.

But Bert’s not going away quietly. He quickly resurfaces as ‘King Bloodlust,’ having gained demonic powers of his own, and conscripts nearly all the gangs in the city on a vengeful crusade against Jonah. Meanwhile, Jonah’s aura affects his closest friends, granting them unique gifts of their own. Selena (‘Daughter Nature’) Reiner gains the ability to control and become the four elements; David (‘Duck’) Morris can download information into his brain simply by tapping books and computers; and Steve (‘Seeker’) James can psychically locate any object or person he’s touched.

With war brewing and the lives of Jonah’s family and friends at stake, he must seek out allies for the coming conflict and learn what it means to be a ‘hero’ before everything he knows is lost. Along the way he’ll fall in love, and of course, eat plenty of Slim Jims.

1. EPISODE ONE: “The Lost Ones”

(1). I Am…
(2). The Lost Ones
(3). The Super Feedbag Raid
(4). The Price of Power
(5). By These Hands

EPISODE TWO: “Origins.”

(1). The Altercation
(2). Mama
(3). The Test of Wits
(4). The Test of Silence
(5). The Operation
(6). Surrounded
(7). Changes

EPISODE THREE: “On Becoming a Legend”

(1). Karen
(2). Backseat Tiger
(3). The Legend Begins
(4). Healing Hand
(5). The Legend Spreads
(6). Hot and Heavy
(7). Apprehension

EPISODE FOUR: “Rescue.”

(1). [Bert] Inauguration
(2). The Really Lost Ones
(3). Paying the Rent
(4). Ransom
(5). Pro Bono Rescue
(6). Highway to Hell
(7). Comfort Food
(8). [Bert] Succession
(9). Light and Pain

EPISODE FIVE: “Fixing the Hurt”

(1). Story of the Year
(2). [NHPD] New Assignment
(3). The Man in the Woods
(4). Control Freak
(5). Carry On Wayward Son
(6). [NHPD] New Lead
(7). The Incredibly Strange Zombies Who Became Mixed Up Creatures
(8). Who’s Your Daddy?
(9). [????] Problem Child

EPISODE SIX: “Touch.”

(1). [Duck] Nerds, Dummies and Mutants
(2). [Duck] The Accidental Scholar
(3). [Duck] David: Portrait of a Serial Book Toucher
(4). [Duck] It’s a Date
(5). [Duck] Dip into Darkness

EPISODE SEVEN – “It’s Elemental”

Chapter List
(1). [Selena] The One about the Preacher’s Daughter
(2). [Selena] A Very Reiner Thanksgiving
(3). [Selena] Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, Heart
(4). [Selena] Daughter Nature Rising
(5). [Selena] Good Girls Don’t…
(6). [Selena] …But I Do.
(7). [Bloodlust] Vetoed

EPISODE EIGHT: “Seeker.” (Incomplete)(1). [Steve] Brain Synergy
(2). [Steve]
(3). [Steve]
(4). [Steve]
(5). [Steve] The Girl, the Park, and Other Things
(6). [The True Coming] Hands of an Angry God

Episode 9. “Three Shades of Red”
Episode 10. “Race.”
Episode 11. “The 1.44 MB Nuke Adventure”
Episode 12. “Beating.”
Episode 13. “Old Scars”
Episode 14. “Closer.”
Episode 15. “King Bloodlust’s Court: A Winter Rumble”
Episode 16. “Vigilante.”
Episode 17. “The Virgin Surgeon”
Episode 18. “Prelude.”
Episode 19. “The Knightfall Effect”
Episode 20. “Equalizer.”
Episode 21. “The Pure Light”
Episode 22. “Goodbye.”

SEASON TWO – LAST SACRIFICE (23-44)

Bloodlust has been beaten and the Red Deaths all subsequently exorcized. But in the aftermath, North Hill is far from safe. While Selena struggles with her near-death experience and Jonah deals with his family and personal life, Duck finishes ingesting The Book of Last Remnants, and the truth he reveals spells out even worse trouble for Team Gold. Now Jonah must face off against Master Vel, the man behind the Bloodlust Curtain—a demon whose death could mean the deaths of everyone.

Episode 23. “Cruel Summer”
Episode 24. “Words.”
Episode 25.
Episode 26.
Episode ? “Final Phase”

SEASON THREE – EQUILIBRIUM

Selena heads off to college, and with her boyfriend Jonah still in high school that can only mean one thing: an inevitable breakup. But Team Gold will need each other more than ever this time. With Master Vel out of commission and Etea slaughtered, The Order of the True Coming is, to put it bluntly, not happy with Jonah and company. For that matter, neither are the ever-watching dark gods, who have an agenda of their very own.

Open war is declared on Team Gold from two fronts; further complicating matters is that Etea has thrown the positive/negative energy spectrum off-balance, turning North Hill into a beacon for paranormal activity as it attracts the remaining Last Remnants. As the True Coming searches for a final solution to bringing down the Barrier, and poltergeists, curses, and exactly one vampire make life for North Hill a living Hell, Team Gold makes a pact in the midst of the chaos: to expel the dark gods once and for all, at the understood risk of breaking the world apart.

Episode ? “There Will Only Be One…”
Episode ? “There Went My Hero”
Episode ? “Expulsion.”
Episode ? “Purity Ring”

SEASON FOUR – DISPLACEMENT

A crucial moment of truth that could change the course of Jonah’s life forever is interrupted when he is stabbed in the back with a magic knife and snatched from his dimension by a foppish, green-skinned creep. Now under direct control of The Hopper and with no discernible way to return home, Jonah has no choice but to be bounced through a series of incredibly oddball—and often quite poignant—parallel Earths.

Jonah’s final stop lands him in a dimension overrun by the Hell Realm, where he comes face to face with Abigail Braxton, a girl whose strength and abilities rival Jonah’s own. And not a moment too soon, either, for Abigail is on a collision course with destiny, her own world’s fate hanging in the balance. Fortunately for Gold Star and the Guardian, hope appears in the form of a legendary sword with power of cosmic proportions.

Episode ? “Sister Golden Hair”
Episode ? “The Guardian and the Gold Star”
Episode ? “Heavenblade”

SEASON FIVE – CONTAMINATION

Jonah returns to his Earth for a bittersweet reunion. But following close behind him is the Heavenblade, and following close behind that is a confused Abigail…and serious complications. Before Jonah can wash his hands of a love triangle he never intended, the Multiverse is thrown into its darkest hour. An existence-destroying force known only as ‘The Corruption’ has been sprung free of its prison. Its ultimate target: the Chrysalis, a pillar that binds all that is and all that could be together. Doom approaches faster than Jonah can prepare, but with the Pure Light lost and the Heavenblade exhausted, our hero is backed into a corner as the ground literally vanishes beneath his feet.

The bells have rung and the carpet has rolled out for the final battle. This time all creation is at stake. Failure means not only the end of existence, but the possibility that existence could ever bloom again. Do the good guys always get a happy ending?

Episode ? Sharp Edges
Episode ? Transfer. (Final episode.)

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Filed under Literary Excursions, Literature

Good Versus Evil, Film at 11

In the battle of Good versus Evil, who wins?

In Herman Melville’s works, Good and Evil often play a large role and they are pitted against each other. However, in many of his works, in the battle of Good and Evil, paradoxically, Evil somehow wins. This was one reason why his books were attacked as “immoral,” and “evil,” in his time. Melville was no Satanist. He was raised Christian, but his belief kept waxing and towards the end of his life, there was little remaining of it.

Nevertheless, he read extensively in the Bible, in particular, Song of Songs, Solomon and Ecclesiastes. All of these were written by or were about King Solomon, the son of King David. He also read extensively in the Book of Mormon. Biblical and other Christian religious allegories are sprinkled liberally throughout his books, in particular, the 600 page poem Clarel, about a journey to the Holy Land.

When Good and Evil go to war and Evil wins, this poses a serious problem for most religious people, in particular the Abrahamic religions which believe in an activist God. For if God exists and is an activist, when Good and Evil go to war, in most if not all cases, Good is supposed to win over Evil, as God is always thought to be stronger than the Devil. After all, no religion suggests that the Devil rules the world. All Abrahamic religions hold that God rules the world. The Devil tries to intrude and do his mischief of course, but when they go mano to mano, God ought to be able to deal with The Evil One quite handily.

Therefore, if there is a fight between Good and Evil and Evil wins, something has gone horribly wrong, and this poses a dilemma for most religious people. Melville interpreted this to mean either that there was no God at all or that if He existed, He was more or less sleeping on the job, and perhaps he ought even to be fired!

The religious have all sorts of explanations for how an activist God allows bad things to happen. They say he is testing us. They say that the Good people are not so good. This is reminiscent of how Puritanical feminists say Nice Guys (TM) are not really so nice after all, this is why women treat them like crap (and this is not the only way that feminists are similar to modern Comstocks). For instance, the Abrahamic Orthodox Jews said that the Jews rebelled against and defied God, and God responded with the Holocaust to punish Jewish rebellion. The solution is for the Jews to act better.

As you can gather, these explanations are quite weak when they are not grasping for truth and morally repugnant. I think we ought to just reject them all for now as lacking evidence and so strange as to seem false on their face.

So we move to Melville’s moral dilemma. We can either go towards atheism or agnosticism, or we go move into Deism. My father was actually a Deist, at least towards the end of his life, but he always hated Christianity and generally refused to go to church much to my mother’s chagrin. Deism was popular around the time of the US Revolutionary War, but it no longer has much popularity. After all, it is rather depressing to feel that you are on your own.

Another possibility is some sort of modified Deism. When I was working as a linguist for an Indian tribe, I asked a prominent anthropologist, Sylvia Broadbent, about the religious beliefs of the local Indians. They are now all fundamentalist Christians, but this is a modern thing. They also insist that they believe in a Great Creator, but this is another modern addition, as I deduced after a while. After the Indians became Christianized, many Indians across the US decided that they believed in a Great Creator, a notion that they took from Plains Indians tribes who apparently did have this notion pre-contact.

Yet pre-contact, there is little evidence that California Indians were much more than animists who believed that the world was alive with magic and spirits which could be manipulated by those who could do so. They did believe in life after death. Souls went to the West, to the Land of the Dead.

However, there was little belief in an almighty God. Broadbent felt that there was some notion of a Creator God, but this was more Deistic than anything else. Broadbent described the theory as Deux Obtusa, or the Lazy God. This was sort of the idea that God created the world, but He has not done a whole heck of a lot ever since. He mostly just sits up there in Heaven taking bong hits. Every now and then, when he is not too stoned, he wakes up and intervenes in our world a bit. Then he goes back to the bong. I like the notion of a lazy God, and even though I am a Christian, this is the sort of a God that I believe in.

How can we reckon that Evil often defeats Good? We can say that we live in a naturalistic world, and bad things happen to good people, by chance more than by design. And in a naturalistic world, a lazy God could indeed exist.

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Filed under Amerindians, Anthropology, Christianity, Cultural, Judaism, Literature, Metaphysics, Novel, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion