FPSE37 – Having Two Spouses: A Practical Guide

Skinner Co.
Welcome to Flash Pulp Special Episode #37.

Having Two Spouses: A Practical Guide

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For the full text visit the folks over at the Entwined Podcast

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP470 – Beneath: a Thomas Blackhall Chronicle, Part 1 of 2

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and seventy.

Flash PulpTonight we present Beneath: a Thomas Blackhall Chronicle, Part 1 of 2

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This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Weekly Podioplex!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we visit with old friends, both human and otherwise.

 

Beneath: a Thomas Blackhall Chronicle, Part 1 of 2

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

It’d been two years since Thomas Blackhall had worn a pair of snowshoes. Not coincidentally, it had also been two years since he’d departed the frontier of the Canadian north and set up a house whose study window overlooked the Lethe, and whose grounds received only enough snow each year to remind him to tell his child some tale of his wilder days.

These indications of time’s passage were important to Thomas largely because he had so little of it left.

Blackhall’s lungs were burning, his back slick with sweat beneath the thick black beaver coat he wore, and yet the great rackets upon his feet continued their rise and fall, and the smile upon his face refused to give out.

Thomas BlackhallHe missed the solitude, the sense of focus, the clarity of the dangers at hand. His days and nights were now filled with planning, politics, and grasping what few moments he still had with his Mairi. Yet, though it might be argued he was losing time to his slow progress even now, all of these things fell away to the simple and immediate necessities of surviving in the wilderness: Raise your left foot, put it down. Now do the same with your right. Ignore that rising pain in your calves, as you’ll only lose heat pausing to rest – and is that a wolf shadowing your progress some twenty yards to the rear?

The cabin, when he finally came to it, was of the simplest log construction. The roof was tall, but only because such had been necessitated by its lack of chimney.

There was but a single hole, high above, through which the smoke of the fire within rose.

It wasn’t that his host had no concept of grandeur, it was that she did not care for the rough constructions of men: The valley no doubt pleased her aesthetics, but the lodgings, fit for his frail human form, had likely been – to her mind – the equivalent of equipping a natural palace with an outhouse. Necessary for her guest, perhaps, but not worth dwelling upon.

As Thomas tromped down the valley’s slope his question regarding a possible companion was finally answered. A wolf, the coat along her spine a steely gray but her belly as white as the snow through which she trotted, made herself known by taking a seated position upon his tracks and issuing a single low howl that rolled across the vale.

A brace of fishers shuffled from beneath low-slung pine branches and burrows within the powder. Blackhall counted twenty among the honour guard as he approached, and, though the four legged beasts might have been manageable by boot alone if taken one at a time – and if his boots were perhaps not strapped into the caribou leather and ash pine platforms that currently kept him afloat – he knew there was little he could have done against twenty of the gnawing beasts, especially without a rifle or even the saber he once wore at his side.

Within the shack he found two blankets laid out by the fire, and upon the furthest, hunkered low on her haunches and watching the door through the flames, sat the Lady of the Woods.

“Welcome,” she said, her words delivered through fangs still decorated with the red remains of the mourning dove whose bones and feathers sat neatly collected to her left. “You are late.”

Blackhall smiled. “Yes, I’ve gotten slow in my time away, and as it happens they’ve yet to run a train this far north.”

“Oh,” she answered, “let them try. Your fellow perambulating picnics will learn the folly of sullying my view if they attempt to lay down one of their metal ribbons and drive a smoking behemoth into my domain.”

“You speak as if you’ve considered the subject before, and yet I thought you’d retreated to a quiet life of reflection?”

“Yes, and I have reflected on how much fuller I would be, and how better fertilized my grasses would find themselves, were I to encounter a team of axe-wielders and pick-swingers within the shade of my pines.”

Thomas, still grinning, slipped off the beaver coat and laid it out opposite the former dove to dry, then he lowered himself to the waiting quilt.

From beyond the breach in the roof a parade of black-eyed raccoons soon followed, peering briefly into the hole, then delivering a thick, well-chewed tree limb onto the fire below. The impacts sent sparks dancing, and, though the timber had been stripped of the snow under which it’d rested, the smoke increased briefly as the outermost layer of frost was sent into sizzling fits at the flame’s heat.

“Do you hunger?” asked the Queen of the Northlands, but Blackhall gave a polite shake of his head. Though he had eaten wild game for the vast majority of his time stomping across Upper and Lower Canada, it still unnerved him to watch his friend summon meat to her table in order to be sacrificed. The apparent joy with which most of the victims – be they quail, buck, or salmon – offered themselves up only further upset his appetite.

“No,” he answered, “though I would not, admittedly, turn away a hot beverage with which to fight back the cold. I had forgotten the taste of jerky, and the salt I’ve consumed since stepping from the comfort of my study, and Mairi’s company, will likely carry me through till I return across the border.”

Sour Thistle snorted once, and he thought it likely that she smelled the lie on his words, but was too gracious a host to say otherwise.

“So to the matter at hand then?”

“I suppose.”

“- and you insist on carrying out your mad plan?”

“What other option do I have?”

“Cut your losses.”

“Cut my losses? Do you not see that my losses are everything? I’ve damned a planet to death.”

The smoke settled and the flame grew. A row of squirrels, nimble despite their winter coats, came streaming through the rooftop hole and along the ceiling in a display of natural acrobatics. At the lead was a gray-furred beast with a small tin cup hanging from one cocked arm, and the half dozen who followed each carried a ball of snow as they scaled the knots and moss-filled gaps. Setting the dishware at the fire’s edge, the head of the parade stopped to watch its followers place their collected flakes within. Once complete the apparent leader chattered twice and the posse scattered.

Even as the frizz-haired cooks clambered again onto the ceiling, the tumult gathering in the trees reached Blackhall’s ears.

“You must look at the greater whole,” said Sour Thistle, and Thomas was not quite sure if it was meant as rejoinder to their conversation or simply a delay as the next step of her hospitality was implemented.

A single crow touched down, negotiating the hole and the flame’s heat with a sloping angle of approach and tight wing control that Blackhall’s history as a huntsman could not help but note with an approving eye – if only because he was not currently attempting to eat the newcomer.

The bird placed a single twig of pine in the cup, then it took to the air, two cracking strokes carrying it into the wind above the shack. A second avian of equal skill set down, dispensing another twig, and then another and another.

As Blackhall’s cup of pine tea came to a boil he considered his words.

“I find it funny that you, above all, are counseling peace.”

Though her friend smiled through his delivery, Sour Thistle’s eyes narrowed as she replied.

“I kill, yes, but I do it out of need. The need of my kingdom, or simply the need for food.”

“Technically I’m not killing anyone.”

“No, you set your sights on a greater crime: Politics.”

He took a long sip, his mug lingering on his lips.

Finally he set it in his lap, holding it with both palms, and said “let me tell you a story.”

He began.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FC136 – Ghost Theories

FC136 - Ghost Theories
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Hello, and welcome to FlashCast #136.

Prepare yourself for: Problematic plot devices, 2016, high-speed horror movie reviews, Turn of the Screw, ukulele love, and The Reason for the Season

* * *

Huge thanks to:

* * *

Pulp-ular Press:

* * *

Skinner Co. Announcements:

  • We’ll be talking more about The Turn of the Screw, so submit your comments!

* * *

Mailbag:

  • Send your comments and questions to comments@flashpulp.com!
  • * * *

    Backroom Plots:

  • Reason for the Season
  • * * *

Also, many thanks, as always, Retro Jim, of RelicRadio.com for hosting FlashPulp.com and the wiki!

* * *

If you have comments, questions or suggestions, you can find us at http://skinner.fm, or email us text/mp3s to comments@flashpulp.com.

FlashCast is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

FPSE36 – Reason for the Season

Welcome to Flash Pulp Special Episode #36.

Flash PulpTonight we present Reason for the Season: A Small Gift for the Skinner Co. Jr. Execs

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This week’s episodes are brought to you by the Mob!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we present a special holiday tale directed at four little meatheads above all else. We love you guys.

 

Reason for the Season: A Small Gift for the Skinner Co. Jr. Execs

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Tonight we present a special holiday tale directed at four little meatheads above all else. We love you guys.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP469 – Mulligan Smith in The Humbug

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-nine.

Flash PulpTonight we present The Web

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This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Weekly Podioplex!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we find ourselves in a chase across the holiday encrusted streets of Capital City.

 

Mulligan Smith in The Humbug

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Mulligan was looking forward to December 26th. He was eager to see tinsel peeking from trash cans and garland rolling down the roadway like a shimmering tumbleweed. He was sick of dodging Salvation Army Santas and the endless flow of shoppers along the sidewalk.

For the private investigator there was no mystery left to Christmas: It was simply the annual period when he was more likely to find the spouse of a client cheating at an office party than in the dugout of the corporate softball team, but this year – this year his father was travelling and the memory of his mother, who’d always been the heart of family celebrations, seemed all too close.

Even as his feet hammered the pavement in chase, thoughts of the dead woman pushed in on his mind.

In his youth he’d known the joy of a country Christmas. The house had been tiny, but Smith Sr. had hauled in a pine he’d cut from the backlot with his own hands. It was snowing heavily that Christmas Eve, so they’d settled on popcorn and a cutthroat game of Monopoly – but as dusk fell the sound of actual bells, not just those of the endless carols playing on the kitchen radio, had reached their ears.

Mr. Abbasi, their neighbour, sat atop a rough-cornered lumber sleigh, and his horses stood blowing clouds of steam into the darkening air. The sled was no show piece – it was ancient and had been used hard in its day – but Anwaar, his wife, and Saeeda, his daughter, grinned at them from beneath heavy bundles of blankets.

In the time it had taken the boy to pull on a sweater, his blue and orange parka, and a hat, Mulligan’s mother had somehow dressed in triple layers and made enough hot chocolate to supply all involved. She had thought the boy missed her wink and grin when she elbowed the eldest Smith and produced a hidden flask with which to top his cup, but Mulligan’s eyes had been sharp even at that age.

They’d ridden between the shadowed pines, beneath the stars, for what seemed like hours, and when he’d crawled into bed that night the warmth of his comforter sent him melting into his pillow.

He’d expected little the next day. His father’s lawman’s salary was just enough to keep them in Monopoly money, and his mother had yet to find a place for herself since their move earlier in the year.

So it was that, when he awoke, he was stunned to discover the space beneath their tree packed tight with brightly coloured bricks. Mulligan had recognized both his mother and father’s hand in the quality of the wrapping, yet the handwriting marking each label was clearly that of Sadie Smith’s alone.

Each one had a date and a short five or six word note. “You are the sweetest valentine,” alongside February 14th, or simply “Spring is coming” for the bland days at the beginning of March, and each signed “Love, Mum.” The count began January 1st, and for a year Mulligan had opened one a day. Inside was always a dessert’s worth of well-sealed pastry, cake, or cookies. The selections, he would realize, had been carefully selected to age well over the course of the year, and he would never understand how she had managed to make so many varied treats without either repeating herself or having flooded the house with cooking before the date.

Another change in employment had pushed his father into a new, distant, office that year, and it would be but another before his mother was dead.

He would never know the joy or mystery of that singular Christmas again, but somehow moving to the city – a place he loved at every other time of year – had somehow made the disparity of what followed worse.

There was no sense of anticipation in the city – just people trying to sell you something. Somehow when the multi-coloured lights were strung up they only served to underline the squalor of the apartment window they were hung in.

Even laying money on if there’d be snow on any given Capital City Christmas was a sucker’s bet. Just the previous year the white had held off till the night before, then, after the children had said goodnight to their yellow lawns, and their parents had snuck out to shuffle Santa’s deposits around their tree, clouds had blotted out the stars like a World War 2 bombing raid.

As the little ones had awoken the next morning their eyes had widened at what they considered a miracle, while, not far off, their elders had made hurried phone calls, to re-arrange travel plans, and determined if they had enough in the fridge to pull together a passable feast without having to shovel themselves out for a trip to the store.

This stood, of course, exactly opposite to the year previous, in which they’d had to Trick’or’Treat in heavy jackets and could have gone bicycling in shorts on boxing day.

This season, however, the weather had decided to make its intentions plain. It was just cold enough to snow almost every day of December, but still warm enough that the flakes were quickly churned into a pool of slush that soaked boots and sent long fans of cold onto the sidewalk every time a bus pulled snug against the curb.

It was in this loose mix of ice and water that Mulligan fought to keep his feet as he ran.

The crowds didn’t help. School children, freed from the bonds of their labours, lingered on the sidewalks, their attentions either absorbed in conversation with each other or locked on the glass of the displays demonstrating the year’s greatest passions. Office dwellers, their expensive shoes and pant legs in endless combat with the muck and water, worked hard to ignore the cheer of the season as they moved with annoyed self-importance between meetings or overpriced coffee counters. Overwhelmed fathers and mothers attempted to maneuver oversized packages from storefront to car trunk.

All of the trappings of the season abounded, but to Smith they seemed no more real than the mannequins in the windows. There was no sense of mystery here, there were only the usual people going through the usual motions as dictated by the changes in their shopping soundtrack.

Yet Mulligan had eyes only for one man: The fellow in red turning to sprint into an alley a half-block up from the riotous Williams-Sonoma that the private investigator was currently trying to thread his way past.

Even if the crowd had somehow not noticed the fire-engine coloured suit and trailing hat, the PI’s target was a big man, tall and with enough meat on his bones to convince people they ought to shuffle aside. Mulligan, however, was having to employ his elbows liberally.

“Yeah, Happy Fackin’ Holidays to you too, dog fondler,” a woman in a denim jacket answered as he leveraged off of her right shoulder to push past a drifting baby stroller. He was fairly sure his apology was lost in the din of the competing Christmas carols blasting from the stores, but he made the effort anyhow.

The alley – tucked between The Mongol Gourd, a teppanyaki restaurant catering to vegans, and The Sprint Store, a running equipment place that had taken over a cellphone shop without changing much of the signage or fixings – was littered with cardboard boxes, reduced to mush by the sleet, and vegetable husks that had been pushed across the pavement by winter winds.

Despite his attempt to make the same turn as the long-limbed St. Nick, Smith’s sneakers lost traction. Sliding across a patch of frozen bean pods, he came to stop against a chill brick wall. His hoodie’s sleeve, already overwhelmed by the cold, provided little protection against the rough surface, but Mulligan considered the scratches along his forearm a fair trade for having avoided landing face-first against the grating surface.

However, by the time he’d recovered from the failed course change Santa had disappeared to the left.

With a sigh the detective pushed off, again picking up speed but now almost wishing the shoppers were crowding this space as well, if only so that he might use them as handholds as he slid his way across the trash-covered cement.

The next turn brought mixed results. This new artery – a back lane that had once been used for deliveries but now saw most of its traffic from loitering staff smoking away their work breaks – was salted down to the blacktop and wide enough to keep most of the garbage piled in the corners or against the business that faced onto it.

Still, Kringle’s long legs covered twice Smith’s pace at a step, and he was turning off into an open backdoor before Mulligan could recover enough breath to shout.

It struck the detective that this was nearly the perfect metaphor for the season. Here he was, just trying to return a dropped gift, and it was the crowds, the sidewalk bell ringers, the endless howl of carols, that had kept him from accomplishing a simple act of kindness.

Where the jolly old elf was off to in such a rush Smith could not say for sure, yet, in truth, he thought it obvious. The gift box he’d scooped from the sidewalk before beginning his sprint was just small enough to be expensive, and it was an easy season in which to propose – though also one in which it was not so easy to reach pre-scheduled romantic encounters.

It all seemed a little cliche – a little obvious – to the off-duty private investigator, and he briefly considered stopping the chase and pawning the thing. He could consider it an early Christmas present to himself. Yet, even while not seriously entertaining the thought, he could feel his mother frowning at him from the depths of his memory. Though there was no one watching when he plunged through the backdoor, Mulligan still offered Sadie Smith an “I’m just kidding” shrug as he surveyed the scene.

A short hall led to the main street, but to his left a flight of grimy stairs rose to a second floor, and the heavy tread above sounded suspiciously Claus-esque.

He took the steps two at a time and entered another hallway, this one providing access to three doors – apparently apartments.

Santa stood at the furthest, waiting for Mulligan’s arrival.

“I -” said the PI, digging for the package in his hoodie’s right pocket, but before he could fish it out the man winked and stepped across the threshold.

Smith followed.

Beyond was not a full apartment, as he’d expected, but a single room, its ceiling low at its midpoint due to the angle of the building’s roof. Lit by a single yellow bulb, he guessed the space had perhaps once been used for storage for the shops below. Now it appeared to have stood empty at least a decade.

Claus’ crossing was clearly tracked in the dust that covered the wood-slat floor. His steps moved directly towards a blank wall, and there they seemed to stop – yet, from the entrance, Mulligan could see there seemed to be something leaning against wall trim at the point where the footprints ceased.

Having to stoop against the encroaching ceiling, Mulligan reached the same spot in the windowless room, picked up the toy he found there, and turned back to the single door.

He stood a long while, one foot in the chamber, one foot without, staring at the tiny chimney he’d collected.

His mind fought with him on the matter. How could so large a fellow disappear from a room with no other openings? Surely the chimney was just a coincidence, or perhaps more likely a joke. A joke by someone with knowledge of some sort of secret exit he couldn’t ascertain.

Though it seemed a stretch, in the end he wasn’t sure it mattered. He’d lost nothing more than twenty minutes, and if he could ever convince himself to tell the tale in public it would at least be worth a laugh from Walmart Mike.

It was at that point in his train of thought that Smith remembered the brightly wrapped present.

Flipping it about in his fingers he realized there was a slip of a tag attached. He briefly wondered if he might find some hint to St. Nick’s true identity in its handwritten text.

Instead he found only the date of the following Christmas and crisp-lettered penciling that read: “No peeking, Snoopy. Love, Mum.”

He stood a while longer, his fingers tracing the familiar loops and lines with his fingernail, and his eyes began to sting even as his lips gave up fighting against his the grin pushing its way onto his face.

Smith could not say how it had happened. He could not provide even a theory. He knew only the truth of what he held.

After a year’s worth of telling the the story he would have to decide if he’d actually open the package, yet even before he’d left the building Mulligan knew the stranger had given him a greater gift: A mystery the detective could not solve.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP468 – The Web

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-eight.

Flash PulpTonight we present The Web

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(RSS / iTunes)

 

This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Weekly Podioplex!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we visit a series of gamblers and the strands upon which they walk.

 

The Web

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

“It’s a decent gig as long as you’re the spider and not the fly,” said Baldy, his elbow on the bar. He spoke with his head at a tilt, a distantly ringing phone at his ear.

Despite his name, the man with the blue towel over his shoulder still maintained a full head of jet-black hair. The title had stuck after he’d found himself, years earlier, holding a razor after losing a small-time bet. Across the mahogany sat his cousin, ten years his junior. They shared the same round face, though her close-cropped scalp was lined instead with blond stubble.

“I just don’t get it,” she replied, lowering her Yuengling to her cardboard coaster. “Everyone here bets on the Hydras. Doesn’t matter if they’re having a good year or a bad year, every drunk in a red jersey is laying down his money on the home team. Now, that’s fine when Ahmed Ribbons has his ribs shattered in the middle of the summer and you’re rolling in money, but what happens – like three years ago – when they actually have a decent season? Don’t you get cleaned out?”

As she finished her question, however, someone picked up at the far end of Baldy’s call.

He raised a finger to pause the conversation.

* * *

In Boston a man named Zucco, his left arm arm clipped at the elbow and his accent holding a hint of Dublin, was wrangling an ancient phone receiver while watching a pair of teens being idiots around a very expensive pool table – it was but one of the thirty in the two-story hall, but it was the only one currently in danger of having its felt gouged.

Grunting a series of agreements to Baldy’s cross-country questions, Zucco split his attentions in case he should have to cover the microphone and shout at the kids.

For the thirteenth time that day he wished his Uncle would let him switch the phone over to something a little more modern – at least something portable. Yet they’d been using the four-line system for thirty years and the old man claimed he hadn’t made his money by messing with a successful recipe.

Signing off on the call with a final snort, Zucco leaned towards his large black book and recorded the bets Baldy had just placed.

“More juice on the Celtics?” asked Matt the Mick.

Matt the Mick was a rarity in the establishment. Despite years of loyalty as a patron – and despite being fully aware of the backroom dealings that took place there – Mick only came for the snooker. His hustle was all in his stick.

“Yeah,” answered Zucco, his eyes still on the teens. “A fellow turf accountant pushing some of the money he’s collected on the Hydras game tonight onto the green.”

“Huh,” replied the Mick, “but aren’t the Hydras up by a thousand goddamn points?”

“Doesn’t matter. Guy like that doesn’t want the exposure, he just wants his vig – his cut from the loss. When those thousand goddamn points were determined there was a bit of extra stretch put in ‘em so that no matter what the loser pays an extra percentage. Think of it as the bookie’s fee.

“Now, my friend there’s bein’ flooded with bets by the locals, who of course are all laying money on their hopes and dreams, not the actual likely outcome of the goddamn game. My chum calls me up to balance his take against the guys I’ve got locally hoping and dreaming that it’s gonna be the Celtics, and that covers his ass in the long term.

“He doesn’t actually care which team wins – he wants to balance his bets against each other so he can get a reliable paycheck out of his slice.”

Matt shrugged. “Sure, but if you’re taking bets from other fellas in your line of work on top of your own pool, doesn’t that put you in an even bigger shark tank? What if they want to lay bets you can’t match off against locals?”

“Well, actually, that reminds me: I gotta make a call,” replied Zucco.

Before he could pick up the phone, however, the sound of a dragging cue, and the ripping of felt, reached his ears.

* * *

Five minutes later a phone rang in a small stripmall office on the west coast. There was no alternate pretense to this room, no legitimate business it paraded as. The windows that fronted onto the pavement were frosted, and no signage had been hung beyond its perennially locked door.

This backroom was better equipped than Zucco’s poolhall – a single long desk carried a bank of four lines, each connected to a wireless headset and labelled with a colour sticker so that the identical units could be told apart for charging. Ahead of each phone sat a quick-handed operator, their fingers hovering over their laptops’ keyboards and touchpads. They said little as they responded to the incoming calls, their attentions instead focused on accurately capturing the numbers they were punching into spreadsheets.

What little response they did make was almost always in the form of numbers.

“Four-to-one.”

“Seven points over.”

“That’s three million total.”

Flash Pulp 468 - The WebThough the group had been working together for months, it was rare that all four found themselves in a moment all were simultaneously unoccupied, and what little conversation they exchanged usually happened before or after shift.

For the first time that night, however, a pause came.

Michigan, who refused to use his real name, Byron, had anticipated this moment for weeks. There were no assigned stations – time of arrival generally dictated the order of their seating.

This was why it had taken so long to finally be able to pose his pressing question: Rosario simply hadn’t been sitting alongside him.

Leaning into the silence, he put a hand on her elbow.

“Steaks and a movie after the night’s done? I know a great chophouse.”

“Well,” answered Rosario, her L dragging in hopes that it might be interrupted by an incoming call. She’d suspected something like this might be coming, after Byron had delivered a few unwanted compliments regarding the tightness of her jeans, and so she’d been avoiding him for weeks.

Rosario thought of herself as a serious person. The people they worked for, she knew, were also very serious, and she hoped one day to do something with them more lucrative than juggling numbers in a strip mall.

There was nothing wrong with Michigan, exactly – he simply wasn’t serious.

She had a career to consider, and being a woman only doubled her need to stay focused. It might be organized crime, but it wasn’t so organized that it felt any need to pay attention to equal hiring practices.

Before the next bet might be laid, or she might arrive at a deflection, the cheap green carpet beneath their feet began to fold. It was as if an illusion at first, the far end of the room rising while Michigan and Rosario watched, but then the wheels on their surprised coworkers’ chairs were overtaken by gravity, and they rolled towards the open-mouthed observers.

Though the bookies had long considered their phone lines the humming silk of their web, they had not known that in the end – in all ends – there was always a greater spider.

As an uncountable mass of refracting eyes burst from its ancient egg sack all debts were cancelled, and yet all was still lost at the rising of Kar’Wick the Spider-God.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FC135 – A Light in a Dark Season

FC135 - A Light in a Dark Season
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Hello, and welcome to FlashCast #135.

Prepare yourself for: Guns for bus tickets,The Transgender Day of remembrance, wizard trains, Pop-Tarts, and Dmara and the Necropolis

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If you have comments, questions or suggestions, you can find us at http://skinner.fm, or email us text/mp3s to comments@flashpulp.com.

FlashCast is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

FP467 – Dmara and the Necropolis

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-seven.

Flash PulpTonight we present Dmara and the Necropolis

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This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Weekly Podioplex!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we find ourselves exploring a land ravaged by many plagues, a place both familiar and distant, at a time of endings.

 

Dmara and the Necropolis

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Dmara had been born on the plain by the sea some five years after her parents’ landing.

In a prior life Ecem, her father, had worked in construction, and Guler, her mother, had been a teacher – then the world had begun to end. Neither had harboured any superstitions, so, when it became apparent that the northern isle, long emptied of humanity by a sweeping plague, had been left to allow its abandoned crops and untended cattle to grow riotous, they had departed their home on foot. Her mother had filled her satchel with books, while her father had gathered no more than necessary to sleep and eat until their arrival.

In the end he’d been forced to trade much of his limited supply to a starving man with a thin mustache who’d swapped a dinghy for a week’s worth of tuna mashed into cans.

Still, though the crossing had been rough, they had left behind the gunfire and looting that marked civilization’s passage into darkness.

That was not to say, however, that there were no dangers left to their existence. Though meat was plentiful on the island, the beasts who carried it upon their bones were greatly reluctant to give it over. Wild hog tracks marked the point of her northernmost adventures, and her parents’ most trusted source of holiday feasts, yet the swine were equally as hungry, and Dmara had once been treed for the better part of the day by a mother and her ravenous children.

There were also signs of the old world – rusting nails protruding from storm demolished ruins, places where wind and fire had left sheets of metal as sure as blades before tangling brambles blanketed the scene and set a trap for mislaid legs.

Worse were the dogs, brutish and patchy, their wolfen nature growing more brazen with each generation further from the leashes that had once held them. As a child she remembered her father scaring them off with little more than a pair of pans clanging together. Dmara even recalled times when they would make a parade of it, the child in her scavenged short pants chasing her sun-baked father about the yard’s perimeter while clanging a spoon upon a pot.

By the age of ten they no longer gave chase to the feral beasts, instead standing off against them with curse words and weapons ready. It was a waste of arrows to attempt to thin the pack. It was rare to retrieve the fired bolt, as the cur would flee as soon as injured, and they were all too aware of the aging state of the bow strings reclaimed from the dead society that had once ruled the territory.

The threat that ate at Dmara’s heart from her youngest age, however, was loneliness. There were no other children upon the island – they were not entirely alone, they had discovered, but the sort who’d also fled to this land were not the kind to easily trust. Distance, it was decided, was best – but the solitude of her existence chased Dmara across every page she read, every game of hide and seek she played with her favoured doll, every secret she whispered to no one under the soft glow of the night sky.

Escape was a notion constantly in her mind, for she understood they were not masters of these wilds, simply its inhabitants. She asked often of the route her parents had taken, in case she might one day reverse it and find someone to talk to, but homesteading was no easy business, and they found scant time, between labour and exhaustion, for such conversation.

In her sixteenth year it became apparent that there was no escaping Ecem’s cough. It was a building thing, too slow and long-lasting to be the sign of a simple cold, and her father would often nod to himself at the conclusion of each fit.

When he would catch sight of her worried face – the tightness about her eyes and the habit of chewing at her upper lip, both a reflection of her mother’s own customs – he would say, “no, fret not. When we left we knew there were risks in cutting ourselves off from the conveniences of the greater world, but, if I am honest, we never would have lived this long if we had remained. I have seen those I love to a better place, and if I can manage to die in my bed I’ll be a luckier man than most of the friends I once knew.”

Though his mattress was little more than hay, bailed by their own hands the previous autumn, he got his wish.

The burial ceremony was a simple one, but it did hold one irregularity: Having spotted the women with their shovels, their sole and distant neighbour, Mr. Dawson, made a rare appearance.

To Dmara the man seemed ancient. He had lived on the island before it had been wiped clean of human life, and had survived only through the coincidence of having been working afar at the time of its collapse.

They had been aware of his presence since those earliest days, but a lack of common language, and the old man’s propensity for privacy, meant they had crossed paths but a few dozen times in the entirety of Dmara’s life. Now, at perhaps that span’s lowest point, he appeared, a basset hound puppy trailing at his heels.

He approached silently, as he knew his words would mean nothing, but he extended a hand for her shovel and pushed her gently towards the dog. Though the beast’s eyes were hidden behind brown folds of furred skin, it danced in place, showing as much excitement as its stubby limbs would allow.

There’d been no such offer of assistance two years later when, after having her right calf opened by a froth-mouthed mongrel, Guler had said her goodbyes from the same bed that had held her husband.

Once she’d laid her mother beside her father, the notion had come to Dmara that there was no one left to keep her from her northern boundary, but the memory of her mother’s injury was still too fresh.

It was a week of silence that finally drove her to Mr. Dawson’s distant cabin.

As she approached she turned a dozen excuses for her intrusion over in her mind, but all were voided upon her arrival: She found the old man’s remains sprawled in his dooryard, and his hound howling from the gaping entrance of his cottage.

She could but guess how long the vigil had lasted by the prominence of the dog’s ribs.

Dmara had never known the animal’s original name. She called it Hadir, or, more simply, Had.

For a time the sole words she heard spoke aloud were her own, and usually: “Had, get out of there.”

Though the plot her parents had cultivated was now producing more than she could eat, its lone survivor made no effort to reduce its size. Sometimes she told herself it was because there would inevitably one day be, by land or sea, a visitor. Sometimes she simply acknowledged that it was better to keep busy and find herself with a surplus than run short and be pressed into scavenging the countryside during the cold months.

At night she dreamt of the boat – of pushing off and retracing her parents’ steps, but each time she landed her slumbering mind turned up only shattered homes and burning garbage along her route.

Here she had food, and a known routine – and, yes, loneliness.

She read, and when the books ran out, she scrounged paper and began to write her own. Dmara read them all to Had, but he was an easily pleased audience that offered little in the way of critique.

Then, on the first warm day of the third summer following her mother’s death, she heard a rumble upon the horizon.

Dmara was aware of the existence of machines. She had read of many, and in her youth they had often gone on what Ecem had called camping trips. In reality they were excursions to sift the remains of the old world and collect tools. Eventually belts snapped, batteries died, or the gas ran dry, however, and in each instance they had inevitably found it necessary to find or construct a manually operated replacement.

Yet the noise of the tilling engines her father had once operated were whispers when compared to this new sound. It was as though she felt the rumble as much in her feet as she heard its roar in her ears.

On the fifth day, the droplets upon the spout of her pitcher of morning water now trembling with the commotion, Dmara set out to discover the source of the disturbance.

Had followed.

Dmara had focused her recent hours on experimenting with frying patties of shredded potato spiced with chives and sea salt, and she bundled enough to carry her and her companion through several days of journey. She knew not how long she’d be, nor if she’d be forced to hide for some time to allow for a threat to pass.

They were sharing such a patty, and muttering about their aches at having spent the night in a stony field, when they first encountered the towering structures. Each ceased their chewing immediately.

Dmara and the NecropolisThe roar had become immense. Dmara had been forced to sheer a length of cloth into scarves, which she wrapped about both her and Hadir’s ears, to make their approach more bearable, but their progress had been slowed by creeping from fallen wall to thick-limbed oak in an attempt to keep themselves from sight.

Despite their precautions they had seen no sign of ravenous hogs, nor of Had’s feral cousins.

This close it became apparent that the calamity had not just one source but many – here were a horde of great maws that opened wide and scooped the countryside into a boxy throat whose jaws glinted with barbed spinners. Behind these tracked machines roamed yellow monstrosities that crushed the barren countryside with a single thick wheel, pressing anything that might have escaped the ravenous mouths into the muck.

In the third and final tier marched a row of towers, ten across, that stood over even the house-sized rollers. Dmara had seen buildings of similar heights in books, but she had never included any such in her own stories because she had, until that moment, been unable to entirely convince herself anything so large could truly be erected.

There was no speed in their advance, however, as the invaders apparently prized thoroughness over forward progress, and so Dmara sat patiently, chewing slowly at her potato and watching the giants dance.

A beeping began, nearly lost in the cacophony, and one of the towers lifted high. Beneath, no more than a quarter of its height tall, sat a pristine two-story house. Its exterior appeared to be constructed of brown brick, but its shutters were a crisp white, and its roof was covered in flat black tiles.

Dmara spotted the massive wheels that marked the tower’s source of locomotion as it crawled forward – then, like a mother bird having shifted upon her nest, it resettled just beyond the walls of its previous egg.

The cycle continued. The maws ate, the rollers flattened, and the towers gave birth. Sometimes they would stop and turn, creating corners to the useless neighbourhood that they would then continue to stitch with houses.

As she considered, the blockade of churning metal stretched from horizon to horizon.

Had began to whimper.

“Not now,” she replied, but an errant hand rose up to soothe the animal.

How far the houses extended beyond the line of iron, like a snail’s trail, she could not say, but if they were to continue their march – and she had no reason to believe they would not – then one day, one day soon, they would reach her home by the sea.

Ten towers forming an endless ten block stripe across the landscape would be enough to flatten everything her parents had worked for – and there was no chance of planting crops in a fresh field in time to survive the winter months.

She was still stroking Had’s right ear when she spotted the gap.

The maws and the rollers had judged a certain rocky outcropping, really no more than a high ridge of stone, too much of an obstacle to eat or flatten, and the tower in their wake had adjusted course as necessary.

Dmara had no interest in running the gauntlet of the machines, as the tide had already rolled over this little island, so she instead began to cast about in the underbrush that acted as their concealment. Finding a second such spine of stone, she climbed to its peak.

It was still a two day wait for the flood to overtake her and Had. The hound whined his way through the ruckus, but otherwise sat stoically at her side.

There’d been much to learn at the approach – less visible, much smaller vehicles seemed to act as ferries between the larger concerns, but eventually the noise became too much, and all she could do was hold Had to calm his quaking.

The towers loomed, rolled forward, settled their massive girth onto the freshly shorn and flattened land. At the base of their boxy corners she caught sight of another beast, low but long, that trailed hot blacktop in its wake, laying out a road even as the monolith to her left completed its delivery.

Finally the thing seemed to exhale then lift away, and she found herself in the calm of the wake of the grinding curtain.

Had danced from paw to paw as they descended from their stony island. Rather than set foot on the still-warm roadway, however, they tread the flattened grasses to the nearest front door. Inside all was pristine: Hardwood floors reflecting the trees that had once grown in the dirt upon which the structure stood, a chimneyless fireplace whose gray slate was echoed in the stone-upon-timber kitchen counter and island, and everywhere white walls carrying freshly baked panes of window glass.

The situation was not entirely without precedent in Dmara’s mind. Her father had told her of such sights, in the final years of the world’s collapse. Automated factories meant to replace the unsafe wreckage left in the wake of plague and warfare, the machines were thoughtless brutes meant to be fed a plan which they could carry out unattended across a week or month. Here their advance had somehow been engaged without proper instructions, and so they’d stamped a straight line of civilization’s shadow across the countryside.

It was obvious there was nothing here for her, but it was only in the silence provided by a shut front door that she realized escaping this barren necropolis would not be so easy as entering it.

There was no food here, and the tight rows of houses meant she’d have little room to grow some even if she had seed. The place was as good as a desert, and she had no idea how far she might have to go to reach its opposite boundary.

Worse, there had not been, as she’d hoped, any further clue as to how she might halt the march.

This was the first Dmara had ever truly felt cut off from her home, from her imagined route of escape, and her heart began to pound. She longed for someone to talk out the problem with. She wished to be calmed by her father’s sarcastic teasing or her mother’s exasperated tenderness.

The hound licked her hand, and she took some moist comfort in his effort.

He was mid-lather when his nose overrode his focus. Wheeling in place, Had began to bark and sprint from the hollow living room in which they’d been standing.

Pulling wide the handle at which the dog demanded exit, the woman came upon a scene so unlikely she slammed the door shut again.

There was no time to reconsider before the knock came.

The stranger was perhaps sixteen, her blond hair filthy but held in a tight knot fastened by a leather strip. She wore what Dmara suspected had once been a set of coveralls, but repairs and modifications had driven the gray fabric into a new existence. Pockets abounded, and where pockets would not fit she’d mounted metal rivets and clips to allow for carrying. The newcomer jangled with hanging wrenches, screwdrivers, and tools less familiar to the recluse’s eye.

Her cheekbones had been made sharp by lingering hunger, but she offered Dmara a welcoming smile.

Behind her stood a dozen more men and women, each dressed in scraps of the old world, each brandishing an array of scavenged equipment.

“Hello,” said the girl.

“Hello,” answered Dmara.

They would quickly realize these were the only words of understanding they shared, but the thread was enough to pull Dmara and Had out into the street to greet the rest.

Her discoverer seemed the youngest of the party, and the teen chattered endlessly at her elbow in a dialect that meant no more than bird song to the solitary woman, but Dmara’s need for understanding pushed the pair into a game of pantomime.

Dmara began with the most obvious step, an introduction. Pointing to herself she repeated her name twice, and the group echoed. Then she pointed up and over the receding spines of the construction towers with her left hand while pointing to herself with her right.

There was a brief bit of chatter among the tool-bearers, then they seemed to agree on a translation. The blond threw up a finger in an encompassing circle that included all of her companions, then she waved towards the horizon to the north. She kept waving.

They had clearly traveled a great distance.

This, to Dmara’s mind, explained the slight limbs and sunken cheeks that seemed as much a part of their uniform as their coveralls and tools. What was there to hunt or harvest along the endless streets? If they had come chasing the machines, as it seemed they must, then they would have had to have begun from some place beyond the houses, and their supplies must be nearly at an end – or, at least, their pockets seemed to carry more metal than food.

Having apparently conveyed the notion of distance, her new friend took up a new mime, pointing first in the direction of the rumble, and then placing a beaked hand to her mouth and chewing.

They must, Dmara concluded, be asking for food. She hesitated – but it was a brief pause. Opening her belt-hung sack, she handed across more than half of her remaining potato patties.

The blond girl’s mouth formed a surprised O, but the group fell upon the offering with lips upturned in a universal sign of gratitude. All attempts at conversation stopped until the strangers had completed licking the last of the crumbs from their dirt-encrusted fingers, then the self-appointed diplomat repeated the same actions of pointing and chewing, although the look of frustration on her face made clear she understood she wasn’t conveying her point.

Had, still at Dmara’s side, tilted his head.

Was she trying to say the group was intending on eating the machines? This seemed unlikely. Was she somehow referencing those gnashing engines that led the column? Was it something else? What the machines themselves ate?

What did, in fact, the invaders eat?

Dmara was aware that the world had once run on electricity. In her youth Ecem had shown her flashlights by which they could read at night, and for many years he had collected instruments that required an increasingly arduous search for batteries to maintain – clocks doomed to endlessly count to twelve, tiny screens playing out images in a language she didn’t comprehend, radios upon which her father would waste his night hours hunting for a voice that never spoke.

If the giants had come this far their own batteries, it stood to reason, must be colossal.

If the travelers had risked starvation to chase them this far, their reasons must be equally colossal.

What if there was still a world, somewhere, in which they had need of such power? Dmara could not picture it, frankly, but she did not care – if they needed the food upon which the monsters ran, then the monsters, it stood to reason, would stop.

Moving forward, she pointed to one of the girl’s wrenches, then to the machines. Finally, she tilted her head sideways and shut her eyes while pushing her tongue out slightly. It was a greater imitation of playing dead than she’d ever been able to teach Had, and the girl smiled her agreement while nodding her head.

Hope blossoming in Dmara’s stomach left her wanting to start chasing the slowly receding destroyers immediately. She signed the circle, then pointed in the direction of the threat, then, finally, she drew a thumb across her neck.

The hunters all nodded, but the girl added her own understanding – she set her head upon her hands and closed her eyes, then, as a separate action, awoke and repeated the miming of a sliced throat.

Night was close at hand, they would attack in the morning.

The teen, eyes widening, slapped her forehead with an open palm and pointed.

“Dmara,” she said, then, turning her finger towards herself, “Bex.”

Producing an axe, the tallest of the group entered the house from which they’d exited and set to tearing up the bathroom walls – apparently the wood from this portion of the construction being considered the easiest to remove for the effort – and then they set it aflame at the road’s center.

Dmara wondered how many such ash piles marked their path home.

As sleep descended upon the party – some breaking into groups of two or three to cuddle for warmth, others setting up solitary beds where they could be alone with their thoughts, Dmara considered the ridiculousness of the situation: Even though they were surrounded by hundreds of the finest shelters the previous age had to offer, it was still more comfortable to find a strip of grass and spend the night beneath the stars.

Bex, it seemed, was not yet ready to sleep. Settling into a cross-legged position, her back to the warmth of the guttering fire, she pulled back her sleeve.

Upon the pale pink flesh of her left forearm was a single black stroke. Bex rubbed at the marking, demonstrating its permanence, then lifted a single echoing finger. Dmara nodded even if she did not fully understand.

The girl pointed at the axman who’d gutted the bathroom, already snoring to their left, and held aloft four digits. Pointing at the oldest of the group – a woman with graying hair who seemed to hold suspicion of Had in her tight lips – Bex raised both hands to count ten.

Dmara repeated the counting – one, four, ten – indicating each member in turn, but then followed it up with a raised brow and a shrug.

Nodding, Bex pointed down the roadway, in the direction they’d come, and then at the mechanical devourers.

She repeated the motion once for herself, four times for the tallest, ten for the eldest.

Dmara nodded. This wasn’t their first hunt, and apparently each wore their expeditions as a mark of pride. Whatever they were using the power sources for – given their size she could only guess it was running whatever settlement they called home – the distance of their journeys was growing greater and greater.

More pressing to her mind, though, was a separate question: If they had no food now, and were apparently exhausted by the distance so far covered, could they survive the journey home?

She repeated the motion Bex had used earlier – the eating that indicated the machine’s batteries – then stood to feign carrying a heavy load on her back towards the strangers’ point of origin.

After a time Bex nodded, but her face held a frown. She mimicked the carrying, but inserted a stumble, rubbing her belly. Then, tongue lolling, she pretended to die. Finally she waved again as she had earlier.

Others would come to finish the carrying if, or more likely when, they starved along the road.

Dmara’s mind flooded with thoughts, but she could not seem to derive a reasonable way in which she could convey her notions through the frustratingly slow process of fluttering hands. As her mind attempted to make some order of the matter, Bex leaned close, wrapping her arms about her.

Shocked, Dmara sat rigid throughout the hug, then the girl retreated saying something in the language that made no sense. She was still trying to frame her wordless argument when the darkness and Had’s warmth at her side finally coaxed her into unconsciousness.

Dawn soon punctured an unusually cloudless sky.

A second bathroom was savaged, and a sack of water was passed about, straw extended. When it was offered to her, Dmara accepted, but she also turned out the last of her own supplies. It would have been easy enough for any of them to have snatched them in the night – or for the group as a whole to simply overwhelm her – and somehow the knowledge made parting with the last of her resources easier. If she were going to escape, she’d realized, it would only be with their help – and if they were going to, she realized, it would only be with her’s.

There was but a smattering of chatter between the hunters now, and what there was to understand was easy enough to read in their taut shoulders and pursed lips.

Dmara had decided she was going with them. The answer had not come easily, but if her sole chance to return to her home was to cast her lot with theirs. She could see no other way. Besides, if she did not learn their technique for disabling the beasts, she would, in a matter of weeks or months, no longer have a home.

Yet she had lingering concerns.

With a smile and a wave, she summoned Bex, and the flailing was enough to draw the attention of the rest of the group. She guessed they welcomed the distraction from what was to come.

Dmara drew a circle in the air intended to encompass the entire party, then, at its end, included herself in its radius. Finally, she pointed at the nearest tower and raised her brow, a motion which the girl seemed to accept as conveying the asking of a question.

Bex smiled and raised her hands, then caught herself. Turning to the graying women, she offered up a series of bright words. Though she hesitated in her delivery, the apparent leader gave a nod as she answered.

The teen repeated Dmara’s motion, and, with a smile, she too included the outsider before pointing at the distant tower.

Thus accepted, Dmara had but a final question before she was ready to depart. At least, she reflected, it was an easy one to convey: She pointed to Had and raised open, uncertain, palms. Bex looked to the dog, then reproduced the same sagging and exhausted motion Dmara had used the night before.

The worried woman raised an eyebrow in reply. Was carrying him really a reasonable suggestion?

Bex only shrugged, and the graying woman, whose expertise and experience Dmara knew she now relied upon, made no argument.

Instead she rose from her crouched position beside the fire and stamped out the last of the flame.

In moments they were on the road, the rumble increasing in their ears with every stride.

Soon each of the party produced matching cases from the depths of their pocketed coveralls. From within they retrieved a pair of orange nubs, no bigger than a pinky finger’s tip, which they snugged in their ears. At the realization that Dmara had no such case Bex took on a look of concern, but, understanding their use, Dmara was ready to deploy the same scarves that had carried her and Had through their initial crossing of the cacophony.

Though they had lingered in place throughout the night, the machines’ advance had not quickened. Whatever distance they had was more the result of the hunters wishing to stay outside the deafening roar than any progress in the endless construction.

It was an easy thing to reach the base of the nearest tower. Less so to linger at its edge, shoulders hunched, waiting for its rise.

Bex held Dmara back some ten paces, and Dmara, in turn, held back Had. In her free hand the blond girl held a wrench, and the rest of the party busied themselves checking and re-checking the locations of their equipment, a duplicate of the same wrench gripped at their side.

There came a shift in the grinding before them, almost unreadable to Dmara’s ear, but the line raised their empty hands to cover their nose and mouths, and so she followed suit.

Despite her held breath the stink that the tower’s movement unleashed penetrated her nostrils as if a spear. She was reflecting on her appreciation for their precaution of distance, when her friends rose as one and began storming forward.

They made for the house’s freshly constructed door, the frame of which they shattered with their approach, then half of the gathered began hammering at structure beneath the kitchen counter while the others sprinted to the upper level.

Dmara chose to stay with those heading to the second floor, as the direction Bex was heading seemed as good as any, and there she stopped at the sight of a westward-facing window. Beyond the gaping pane the nightmare image of the tower’s interior workings could be seen rising in slow inches.

Those who’d she’d followed shattered the glass then, knocking away the shards and maximizing the width of the hole.

She was quick footed enough to pull Had aside when the kitchen-delvers arrived, the long flat panel of the counter held between them. Setting themselves at the newly formed opening, they waited, as one, then hoisted the panel into the breach.

It’s long tongue landed in a gap in the tower wall, creating a slowly rising ramp. There was no pause as the hunters began to pile onto the bridge, one after another.

Bex helped hoist Had, who followed the tallest across with oblivious compliance.

If anything Dmara felt, as she mounted the platform herself, that she held more hesitation than the mutt.

She still could not help but look briefly up as she passed.

In the gloom overhead hung a series of spouts, in an array of six-by-six, and from each corner descended a metallic arm, their original exteriors lost to a film of dust the same colour as the bricks they stood poised to arrange.

Before she could see anything more, Dmara was across, Had at her side, and they were running again.

While the light beneath the rising hem had been dim, the tube through which they stooped, hand locked in hand, was absolutely black. Once they’d rounded the corner and begun to climb – the angle being not so steep that she had to gather the dog again, but certainly skewed enough that she felt a need to lean into its angle for balance – there was no hint of glint or glow to lead their way. There was no escape here – at least, not without the expertise of the hunters.

An unknowable distance ahead and above them, their low corridor began to shake, and a furious grinding began to descend towards them.

Around her the group chattered in clipped sentences. Did their tense tone mean they had miscalculated? What exactly did they aim to accomplish tramping along this bowel?

With a cooing word of satisfaction, apparently from the gray haired woman in the lead, the blind parade stopped. Without warning both of Dmara’s hands were free, and the disorientation of darkness and sudden freedom nearly sent her tumbling backwards. By the time she’d righted herself her ears were judging a race between the approaching rumble and the grunts and scrapes that marked tool work.

Then, when it seemed the impending roar could grow no louder, a sliver of glow appeared before her and slid from a thin crescent into a full moon. The wrenches each member had held ready, she could now see, had been used in unison to unbolt their escape hatch, and the necessity of their coordinated work became all too apparent as they fled onto a metal staircase.

Again they sprinted as crushed stone began to flood the compartment into which they’d entered, and none stopped until they were a good half-dozen floors higher.

Here the trill of their language bounced between them, at first on edge, and then saddened.

Though Dmara and her canine companion had made their exit, there was no sign of the tall axman.

They began an ascent of spiraling stairs, ducking in places to avoid protruding pipes and low-slung cables, their path illuminated by infrequent bulbs of plastic that cast a flat yellow light.

At the head of the long climb they came to a door. The markings on its face were unreadable to Dmara, but the red text on its surface made clear that this was an entrance that had once been considered both important and dangerous.

The handle would not give, but their leader had no patience for its resistance. Retrieving a gray hammer from her belt loop, she gave the lock three arcing blows before it surrendered.

Beyond was a narrow room stretched across the width of the tower. To their left stood a wall of screen faces, providing an endless stream of updates that seemed, if Dmara understood the iconography, not only about its own progress, but that of the eaters, the rollers, and the rest of the insects that buzzed between them.

Without a word, the hunters spread out, some running their fingers across the displays themselves, some removing panels beneath them and digging into the exposed electronics with a pocket-emptying array of tools.

Had took to sitting on Dmara’s feet as she turned her own attention to the window that ran along the opposite wall. Time and exposure to the elements had left a gray film on the outer glass, but the view was too familiar to Dmara to be misidentified.

There, on a low rise at the horizon, was Mr. Dawson’s homestead. It was the greatest height at which she had ever stood, but she was still left feeling that if she could but grow a few inches taller her own farm might be spotted beyond.

It was as she was on her tiptoes, her hungry eyes reaching for a glimpse of home, that the fortress shuddered once then let out a sound like an angry exhalation. It was only as they began to descend that Dmara realized they had still been rising. Their reversal, however, came at a much greater pace, and it seemed they dropped feet in seconds. Had looked to her and she set a reassuring hand to his jowls.

Around them work ceased. Even as the hunters stood, dusting their knees or turning to take in the view from the window, the tempest at the tower’s base ground to a halt. Silence seemed to flood in from without – first the hush of the grinding maws, then the squeal and crunch of the roller wheels halted, as too did the endless shuffling of stone, vegetation, and rubble between the workings.

Finally the hum of the monolith itself fell quiet.

The dim yellow bulbs winked off, replaced instead by infrequent, but strategically placed, stark spears of white light. This included above the exit, opposite their entrance, through which the group began to shuffle.

This second staircase was also of wrought iron, bolted to the tall column of the factory’s workings, but here most turns of the spiral provided access to a round hatch, and into these dim boltholes the north folk began to split and disappear.

Again Dmara found Bex at her elbow, leading her onward – downward.

When they had run short of stairs they came to a chamber larger than Dmara’s own home. Here were further consoles, as she had seen above, but their screens stood black and empty. Bex moved past them, approaching the far end of the room, and pulled open a square metal panel mounted at shoulder height. Within was an orange-handled lever. It took the girl setting both her feet against the wall to pull it wide, but then, beside her, a slab of the tower itself peeled away and fell open, creating a broad exit ramp.

Bex smiled as Dmara returned to the dirt, but she did not follow. Instead she sent the message of running in place, then pointed upwards. With a wave, the girl turned and disappeared.

Unsure of how long they’d be, Dmara quickly grew restless at the ramp’s foot. Had’s endless pacing was no help. Though they’d stopped the roar of the machines, the rumble in her stomach worked hard to fill the void.

Soon she decided upon an expedition of her own. Though his garden had run riot, Dawson’s raspberry bushes had survived the feasting birds well enough, and a bit of digging turned up some fat carrots she thought she might roast if she could borrow use of her new friends’ firestarter.

Half of the group had gathered at the ramp’s edge by the time of her return, two dozen blue cylinders having been stacked within the tower’s shadow, but the rest of the hunters remained at their labours.

It was as night fell, and their bellies filled, that she began the long act of laying out her plan to the assembled group. Often the slow process of arm flailing and dirt diagrams fell into meaningless chatter between battery collectors, and here she would pause and rub at Had’s sputtering snout.

In the end, however, with her plan unfurled, they all simply nodded.

Wildfires and the settling of the land would eventually wipe away any trace of the march of houses, and scavengers would one day strip clean the lifeless machines at the towers’ bases, but the line of monoliths – having attempted a flight of inches as the hunter’s did their work in the weeks following her proposal – would be forever be known as Dmara’s Teeth to the northerners who made the sacred journey south, and, as they reached the storehouse known as Dawson’s Outpost, they would each pay thanks to the gardens, and the hamlet that had grown up around them, that provided the means of their escape home.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP466 – Thirsty

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-six.

Flash PulpTonight we present Thirsty

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(RSS / iTunes)

 

This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Gatecast!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we seek to quench an endless thirst and learn the risks of bending low to the stream.

 

Thirsty

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Extracting herself from the couch was no easy matter. The build team was about to reveal the house they’d constructed for the Taylors, a family of ten whose youngest suffered from a tragic skin disease, so Ira’s attention was divided between the glowing screen and his failing attempts to cover for the fact that, behind his glasses, his eyes were welling at the tenderness of it all.

Amalia, however, was a master of escape. Swapping in a throw pillow for her lap, she managed to settle her boyfriend without upending the bowl of Cheetos resting on the sofa’s arm, nor awakening Mr. Bungles, the Labrador Retriever sleeping at her feet.

“Everything okay?” asked Ira, his gaze lost behind the reflection in his lenses.

“Yeah,” she replied, her phone slipping into her pocket, “I just need the phone charger and something to drink.”

It was technically Ira’s charger, as she’d long ago misplaced her own, but, if she were honest, her battery was still brimming.

“Grab me an orange Fanta while you’re there?”

“Sure.”

Heading down the short hallway that led away from their apartment’s living room, she swung right into kitchen’s stark fluorescent glow. While it was true that her throat was dusty, it was actually an unexpected text that had sent her towards the chill black and white linoleum.

“Busy?” was all it had asked.

Her toes curled for warmth as she retrieved her cell.

Pulling open the fridge door she grabbed a pair of Fantas and considered the previous weekend. Ira had been called back to his mother’s home to move through the dance of supplication necessary to keep her co-signing his students loans, and boredom had driven her online. It had been a conversation about the closing of a local pub that put her into a back and forth with Alton Pierce, but it was his shirtless profile picture that had caused her to send him a direct message.

“You local?” had turned, over the course of two hours, into a meeting – a meeting that had, over forty further minutes, concluded roughly on his kitchen table.

Her thirst might have been what had pulled her from the couch, but the memory of his flexing abs was what caused her to hesitate in responding.

She regretted the incident, or so she’d been telling herself since, but now, with Ira limp on the couch and Bungles snoring on the hardwood, her thumbs hovered over the onscreen keyboard.

Stalling, Amalia opened her bottle and took a long sip, then the calamity of the family’s arrival at their new home finally drew her back into the hall.

Though she did not reply, neither did she delete the question.

The second message arrived three days later. She was at work, bored and willing the clock to swing its hour hand around to five, when Alton said, “I need to talk to you.”

In truth, Amalia had been thinking about him. Not constantly, but in these quieter moments, when her brain was desperate for something fun – something exciting – to attach itself to. Still, she was glad he’d broken the silence first. There was something satisfying in being wanted.

She smiled, having missed the connection with that morning’s events.

It’d been dark when she’d risen and stumbled into the bathroom. Her cubicle position, third stop in designing the company’s Excel charts, did not demand much in the way of physical presentation – so long as she avoided band t-shirts and ripped pants no complaints would be raised. Yet, as she’d rubbed a hand across her forehead in an attempt to wake herself, she’d heard a series of tiny, almost imperceptible snaps. When she’d lowered her palm, she found it filled with her right eyebrow.

Her fist had closed, instinctively hoping to unsee what had happened, and in doing so she’d felt the grinding of each strand into powder.

As the fingertips of her free hand touched her remaining brow each hair gave way with a pop and drifted down onto the white counter.

A full sixty seconds of panic set in, and her feet dug into the plush brown mat Ira had set before the bathroom mirror. She’d had to work hard not to give in to the alternating temptations of shouting for her boyfriend’s help or simply letting out a loud string of “fucks” in reaction to the mess of the situation.

Amalia had a bus to catch, however, and so, after that initial shock, she’d stopped herself from worrying about the why and had to focus instead on some sort of solution. The result was a six-minute YouTube tutorial that worked well with the materials sitting under her sink, and a ride to work caught just in time.

Three hours after the incident, with no coworkers questioning her sudden new styling and a promise to herself to up her vitamin A, she’d almost forgotten the scare.

Still, her lack of eyebrows dampened her enthusiasm to chat up Alton – at least for the moment.

She rose the following day to the smell of eggs and bacon cooking. Amalia shared only one day off a week with Ira, Saturday, so they often took turns rising early enough to make coffee and an extravagant breakfast for the other. Frying protein was her preference, but he was a bigger fan of her waffles.

Crawling from beneath their overstuffed ivory duvet she raised an arm to brush her hair from her face. The black strands shattered at her touch, falling in thick clumps as if her finger was a blade, and her throat locked with surprise. Amalia watched as the bundles hit the pillow with a plume, as if the bed was covered with a thick dust – but upon closer inspection she realized the soot was, in reality, the result of her locks crumbling upon impact.

Amalia was bald by the time she stumbled into the kitchen, having been unable to stop herself from checking the entirety of her skull – and discovering the same reaction across her now-barren scalp.

Worse, she found it wasn’t her only hair she was worried about – she was thirsty, so thirsty. Instead of answering any of Ira’s questions, at her entrance she simply tilted her mouth beneath the sink’s chrome fixtures and began to fill her belly with cold clean water.

Finally, when her thirst seemed quenched, she came up for air.

“What happened!?” repeated Ira.

FP466 - Thirsty“I don’t know,” she answered. Having taken care of her need she moved close for his comfort.

He hesitated only for the briefest of seconds before wrapping her in a hug, saying, “I hope it’s not communicable, but I guess it doesn’t matter much anyhow. We can be bald together.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“I’m not sure, but we’ll head to the clinic. I’m sure they’ll have an answer. Besides, you seem fine beyond, you know, the obvious, so hopefully it’s just a nutritional thing.”

Her face buried in his shoulder, Amalia’s voice cracked as she asked, “what if it’s cancer?” – but she would not allow herself tears.

“Whatever it is,” Ira answered, “we’ll work through it together. Still, generally people lose their hair because of the treatment, not the illness. Waking up looking like Captain Picard isn’t the first symptom of any form of cancer I can think of.”

They decided, after a time, to finish their meal before heading out to see a doctor. The line was usually long, and at least she would have a full stomach. It was after her third cup of coffee, as Amalia used Ira’s shoulder to balance while pulling on her right shoe, that the knock came.

It was rare that salespeople made it this far up the building before being ejected by the rental agent, a smartly dressed woman whose eyes patrolled the lobby from her glass-walled office, but occasional cable company reps or tenacious Girl Scouts were known to slip the dragnet.

“Who is it?” she asked, unwilling to surrender her wobbling position to check the peephole.

“It’s Alton. I need to talk to you about – you know, about what happened last weekend. I may have, uh, given you something that night.”

“Wait,” said Ira, “is this guy saying – did you sleep with him?”

Her brain wanted to run, but instead her mouth said, “I am so sorry.”

Her boyfriend’s face moved rapidly through a number of possible responses, but eventually his quivering lip gave way to bared teeth.

Alton knocked again. “Hello?”

“To hell with this,” said Ira. “To hell with him.”

Ira – Ira who made soup every fall and froze it in individual servings to easily thaw when she caught a cold, Ira who had patiently taught her the butterfly stroke at the Y, Ira who felt so uneasy at heading to sleep without telling her that he loved her that he occasionally woke her expressly for the purpose – Ira took on that set of his cheeks that meant he’d made an unpleasant decision.

“To hell with you,” he said, disappearing into their bedroom.

He returned with Bungles’ leash, a plastic bag hastily stuffed with clothes, and his cellphone’s charger.

Passing by Amalia he spat out, “to hell with all of this. Take what’s yours and be gone by Monday.”

Then he pulled open the door and whistled for Mr. Bungles, who exited with a wagging tail that spoke of an expected walk. Alton’s eyes went wide at his appearance, and for a moment the interloping stranger seemed share the same thought with Amalia: Would Ira hit him?

Instead her departing ex-boyfriend only shrugged, repeating, “Monday.”

He did, however, slam the door behind him.

Without thinking through her instinct, Amalia slapped the deadbolt into place and retreated to the far end of the apartment – to the depths of her – their – his bed.

If Ira wished to return he had a key, if not – well, she needed time to think somewhere away from Alton’s renewed knocking and conversational attempts.

Silence finally found her, fifteen minutes later, when she heard Mrs. Clark’s buzzsaw voice in the hall. The words were indistinct, but Amalia knew what her neighbour wanted, because it was always the same thing: Quiet.

She would likely also threaten police intervention. This had worried Amalia once upon a time, back when the woman had first complained over the volume of their viewing of Love Actually, but she had eventually come to think of it as simply how Mrs. Clark ended conversations.

“That paint colour clashes – it’d be a shame if I had to call the police!”

Despite the new hush, Amalia’s mind continued to thrash its way through a steady cycle: How could she have let this happen? Was there any way to convince Ira to take her back? Was that what she wanted? Would she have cheated on him if she was entirely happy? Then she’d conclude that yes, her act was simply one of selfishness not a cry for help, and she’d question how she could have let it happen all over again.

She thought, she paced, she planned; give him time to cool then tell him how important he was. Better yet, show him.

After a day of churning considerations and exhausting despair the thought gave her enough hope to cling to that she might sleep, but, as she was drifting into unconsciousness, she finally fully processed Alton’s words. He had answers to what was happening to her hair, but any conversation they needed to have she wanted over with as quickly as possible. Besides, she hadn’t checked for messages in hours – perhaps Ira had sent something?

It was enough to drive Amalia from her sheets and through a sleepy-eyed search for her phone, and, after five servings of tap water chugged from Ira’s Jurassic Park mug, the hunt ended at the kitchen counter.

Her battery was dead, and, of course, the charger was gone.

Step one in taking ownership of her situation, Amalia resolved, would be either finding her missing cord or buying a new one – but in the morning. Now the weight of the day seemed to rest entirely on her eyelids, and she wanted nothing more than sleep.

Nothing more, that is, until shortly after three that morning.

She’d been dreaming of a desert of salt. In the distance, over the horizon, she saw sails – but no matter how far she marched she could not reach them, nor the water on which she assumed they sailed.

Finally her mind could no longer mask the reality of her thirst, and she woke.

The heat of Amalia’s nightmare had caused her to push away all coverings, and she stood unimpeded. She made it so far as the darkened kitchen without incident, but the act of brushing the switch was too much for her fragile fingers.

As she watched the white plastic nub passed through her pinky and lodged at the midpoint of her ring finger, then the severed digit tumbled to the ground, splashing into a sandy powder.

She stepped backwards, wishing to pull away from the sight, and her left shoulder landed on the door frame with little resistance. The unevenly painted corner sheared away her arm as if it were a broom parting cobwebs.

Amalia fell to her knees, but these too betrayed her, the impacts sending flakes of leg into the air and forming cracks across her calves. She attempted to crawl forward then, but her crumbling hands turned the effort into a fight to prevent the impending crush of her face landing upon the linoleum.

When Ira returned, that Monday, he found only another mess to clean.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP465 – The Long Tail

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and sixty-five.

Flash PulpTonight we present The Long Tail

[audio:http://traffic.libsyn.com/skinner/FlashPulp465.mp3]Download MP3

(RSS / iTunes)

 

This week’s episodes are brought to you by Chrononaut Cinema Reviews!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we present a tale of pets and prey.

 

The Long Tail

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Lewis had always lived his life as a man trapped by the tides. His father had provided him a body strong enough to keep himself afloat, but neither parent had been able to impart wisdom enough to make him head for shore.

Now, standing at the rear of the stripmall pet shop with Irena at his side, he had never felt so far out of his depths.

She wore her hair in a short black bob that hovered over her black suit jacket, which was in turn matched by a black skirt, and the outfit completed by a pair of knee-high black boots. The only spot of white in the arrangement was a patch of white collar at her throat, and yet the rise of her cheeks and the point of her jaw made her look immaculately precise, as opposed to a funeral mourner.

They had been seeing each other for the better part of the year, though it was only in the last six months that he’d begun to invest a little more in new jeans and shirts with buttons. He’d even largely ceased flirting with the bartender at O’Gobbler’s.

Despite the knot in his stomach, his mouth swung open and his spiel began rolling out.

Thrashing forward had been the only way he’d ever lived.

“Hey, babe, I was thinking – well, remember what I was joking about a couple of weeks ago?”

They’d been lying in his bed at the time, sweating into the darkness as they caught their breath. He’d said, “you should just move in, you know?”

Though he’d been there a dozen years, he’d never considered sharing the loft he rented with any visitor till just that moment, and the thought had escaped his lips before he’d fully turned it over.

He’d felt her smile, her neck on his arm, and she’d nuzzled his jaw, but the room had remained silent until both had drifted into sleep.

“What do you think of this one?” she posed instead of replying, an amber nail against the glass. The kitten she was pointing at was mostly paws, its white toes stark against the rest of its black coat.

“All kittens are cute, right?” answered Lewis, “That’s basically their job.”

Again her lips slid upward into a smile, yet her eyes seemed to hold questions.

“What were you saying?” she asked as she waved over the bored teen at the counter.

“Well, I was thinking – you know, maybe you really could move in? Or I could go to your place, I guess.”

The smile held, as did the lack of answers in her eyes, then the teen arrived and used a ring of keys to retrieve the ball of fur.

Having raised the issue was exposing enough, Lewis had no interest in pressing the point with the mop-headed stranger so close at hand.

She straightened. “Will you always take care of this cat?”

FP465 - The Long TailHe tensed, wishing that she’d just, this once, give him a straight reply instead of edging about his words and leaving him to wonder where he was at. Rather than let frustration sink in, however, he held his tongue. The water was too deep to be drowning in his own mistakes – there was something in the question he knew, if only on an instinctual level, that was critical to the answer he would receive.

“Yeah, of course,” he answered.

Her head tilted briefly, then her smirk gave way to flawless teeth.

“Okay, I’ll pay and then we can get some boxes. We can figure out most of it this weekend, but there are a few things I’ll want from my old place before then.”

* * *

Two months later she was calling from a brown-furniture-on-a-brown-carpet-accented-by-brown-curtains hotel room in Pittsburgh. Work had her on the road quite often, but her regular distance did little to negate the sudden bouts of fierce intimacy that were the hallmarks of her affection.

He could hear her occasionally sipping at her tall glass of milk as she listened to his responses.

“Yep,” Lewis was saying, “all good here.”

In truth, however, he was struggling to come up with his half of the rent. While, in the three months of their cohabitation, she’d only climbed the ranks of the drapes distributor at which she worked, he had just been fired from his job wrangling a UPS truck. He’d told his mom his boss was a dick who’d been out to get him since his first day. He’d told his friends that he couldn’t be too mad about the whole thing, as he hated the job and he really had stolen the packages he was accused of scooping.

He told Irena nothing – at least not until he had a way to make up his missing funds.

“You know,” she said, her voice a hum tickling his ear even across the wires and airwaves,”If there was something you could tell me. I’m happy to help in any way I can.”

It was tempting to say yes, and he knew if it had been any of his previous relationships he absolutely would have – yet with Irena it was different. She was making more money than him, but it wasn’t just his notion of manhood that was rankled; there was something, too, in the way she so breezily departed for the airport, so easily rented a car to carry her out of town.

There was definitely fondness there – moments of intense closeness while talking on the couch, her head in his lap, and even a few bite marks along his neck from when things grew even closer – but these flashes of heat were only deepened by her comfort with distance.

He had never been so close to a woman like her, and he knew somehow – by her laughter during the boxing matches which he bet too heavily upon, by the fact that she was the only woman he’d ever met who shaved her legs with a straight razor, by her gentle teasing whenever he was struck by a cold – that to admit he needed her help was to lose her. Maybe not today, he knew she cared enough to carry him, but eventually and inevitably.

“Really, everything’s all good,” he replied.

“Okay, just be sure you’re looking after Canary.”

“Of course.”

She never said goodbye, their conversations were usually curtailed by her tone – affectionate but receding.

After the click, however, he recalled her reminder and shook out a meal for the cat.

* * *

His rent money came that month on the back of a guy who’d only introduced himself as Little Earl. There’d been nothing particularly interesting about the man’s size – if anything Lewis thought he should have been named Medium Earl – but so long as the cards kept pulling money from his pocket Lewis was happy to call him whatever he liked.

The back table at O’Gobbler’s had been a last ditch effort. Lewis had played some poker online, but he’d never gone so far as to bet with real money. He did not consider that this was only because credit card companies’ were reluctant to issue him any plastic. He resisted returning long enough to hand over Little Earl’s well-thumbed bills to Irena, and to confess his lack of of employment, but that next morning, after convincing himself he would finally get on with job hunting, he landed again at the bar rail.

With just under two hundred left of his victory fund, once his Coors was removed from the tally, it struck him that he’d feel a lot better about his job hunt if he could pad his egg some more.

There was no sign of Earl, in any shape or size, and only one of the four tables behind the Employees Only door was occupied. The two bearded men at its edges were exchanging lazy words and half-hearted card tosses. There was no money on the table.

At least, until Lewis arrived.

Less than two hours later – and that only because of Lewis’ breaks to retrieve a fresh beer and strategize uselessly while staring at the news unspooling on the TV over the bar – he was down to his last pair of twenties.

Despite the noon hour he spent the rest of his day cursing himself and wandering the city aimlessly. To his mind the only greater sin than having lost his cash would be to return before Irena so that she would think he’d wasted his day sitting around at home.

He was up early the next morning.

It seemed important that he leave well before she was due at work.

Hearing the slide of the hallway closet, and the squeaking of his shoes on the tile, however, Irena stepped out from the kitchen and caught him at the door. She was wearing only his off-gray sweater and a glitter in her eye.

With a raised brow, and a twitch of a smile at the edge of her lips, the woman asked, “where are you off to?”

“I’m on the job hunt.”

Her gaze raked his need of a haircut, his facial stubble, the ripped denim over his right knee, but her tone remained sweet and light. “In that shirt?”

As if he’d always intended to, Lewis extended a hand and lifted out his only suit jacket.

“Blazer over t-shirt is in these days,” he replied.

She leaned in close, as if she were about to deliver a kiss, and the tips of her bob brushed his cheeks – yet, despite his puckering, she instead gently bit the tip of his nose. Then she turned, moving down the hallway on swaying hips.

* * *

Six weeks later he was still wearing the jacket. He’d managed to play his forty into four hundred, and that was enough to convince Lewis the change of wardrobe had brought him luck.

His opinion did not shift when the four hundred drifted away in a run of bad hands, but it certainly got the credit when, a few days later, he managed to put himself over the thousand mark.

So life continued for six weeks. The waves only grew. The highs were huge, and there were moments when he had more money in his pocket than he’d ever held with a regular job. The troughs were equally as massive, however, and eventually he finally bottomed out.

Irena was already home when he arrived back at their shared apartment. She was curled up on the bed, one of her black and white movies unspooling on her laptop as she dipped a hand into her popcorn bowl with enthralled regularity.

“Hey, babe,” he’d said, pulling off the blazer, “I, uh, you know I hate to ask, but could I borrow maybe a hundred bucks til payday?”

She slapped the pause button, her features taut – yet there was still a hint of a smile upon her lips.

“Payday? You found a job?”

“Uh,” he replied, “yeah.”

There was a long silence in the room, then Canary jumped up onto the bed and mewled.

“Of course,” answered Irena, then, with a pat of the space beside her, she continued, “come watch this, it’s almost done.”

Though he’d intended the lie to somehow relieve pressure, in truth it only made him feel a need to work twice as hard at the tables.

By the time she left for a two-week training stint in Cleveland he barely noticed her departure. Panic had settled into his bones. The hundred had gone quickly, but he’d been lucky in finding a fellow – everyone simply called him Squint – who had, with some haggling, lent him a grand. Even after a couple of defeats this had allowed Lewis to cover another month’s worth of rent, but after that his losses had come hard and fast. He felt as if he was attempting to sprint up the down escalator.

He began to return home just long enough to sleep, and his departure was only slowed by Canary curling himself about his leg to ask for food.

Then the bag ran dry.

“Hopefully I’ll have some cash to spare tonight,” he’d told the cat, but that day was no more lucky than the last.

Irena called that night, and there was amusement in her voice as she mentioned that she’d been trying to reach him all evening.

“Sorry, this new job has me pretty busy. Training and stuff, you know.”

“Sure,” she replied.

“Do you mind if I use that twenty on the dresser?”

“Sure,” she replied again.

“Thanks babe.”

“How’s the cat?” she asked, but he was already gone.

* * *

The session went so well, Irena told him, that they requested she stay back to help the with following group of staff from her office, due the next Monday. She never presented it as a question – there was a purr of affection in her voice as they spoke, but there seemed to be little concern about the distance between them.

He, on the other hand, was consumed with his own troubles.

Squint had also had some recent bad luck, and he wanted his money back – every bite-sized loan, with interest. Five grand was a total beyond Lewis’ grasp at the best of times, and the rent clock was ticking.

The argument began outside O’Gobbler’s, but Lewis’ usual tactic – of simply walking away and ignoring the problem – did not work. Squint stayed at his elbow, his demands growing louder and more insistent.

Lewis had spent five minutes, that morning, searching for Irena’s straight razor before realizing she had packed it. He’d settled, after a hunt through the kitchen drawers, for the paring knife from the countertop block that had come with her move.

The alley had seemed a safe shortcut. It was midday and the sun was bright for the hundred steps or so – but he had not reckoned on the way the stone walls cut off all street noise, or how Squint’s breath had suddenly smelled so close.

His mind was jumbled as to which had pulled their blade first. He thought he’d reacted to Squint reaching into his jacket, but perhaps Squint had been suspicious of the motions which Lewis used to show his pockets were empty.

Well, almost empty. Squint took one broad swipe at his face, narrowly missing his neck, and Lewis reacted with an upwards thrust that was actually intended to bring his weapon into view.

He left the handle protruding from the moneylender’s belly as he sprinted from the brick canyon.

There was no time to feed the cat when he got home – no time for anything but to scribble a short note and toss the majority of his dresser drawer into a gym bag.

Riding the bus as far as west as it ran, he found a truck-laden parking lot adjacent to a greasy spoon diner and offered half of the contents of Squint’s track pants for a ride to the coast.

The rest of the money was still enough to carry him through four weeks of eating bagged chips and hiding in a flop motel room. Most of the residents of Moto Pines were permanent, but few paid any attention to the newcomer. They had arrived at the two-story building, just off an otherwise unremarkable section of highway, because they had problems of their own that consumed them.

Still, it was impossible not to occasionally bump into each other while grilling hot dogs on the second-floor walkway, or stumbling up the adjoining stairs in a whiskey haze. Lewis found himself remarkably lonely, and in need of funds. He couldn’t call Irena – it was too likely the attempt would be traced back to him by the police – but he could, at least, accept Mr. Gizal’s invitation to his regular Thursday night poker game.

These were not the sharks of Lewis’ old waters, and some of the skills he’d learned had stuck. By the time he’d exited, three-hours later and stinking of cigar smoke, the fugitive’s pockets were a hundred dollars heavier.

Fumbling for his key, he did not recognize Canary at first sight. He thought, perhaps, someone had dropped a black purse at his door – then he had spotted the ribs protruding from the bundle of fur.

Even then recognition eluded him. His thought was simply to get to his phone and call management to remove the dead cat on his welcome mat.

It was dark as he entered, the smell pushing him towards the dial and away from the light switch, but the glow that had slipped between the curtain crack highlighted Irena’s green eyes.

“I asked for only one thing,” she said, her voice calm.

Yet in the black glove of her left hand her straight razor swayed like an eager tail, and he thought he heard her hiss as he stood.

There was no time to consider it, however, as there ended Lewis’ struggles.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.