City of Fang

It’s been awhile since I’ve cleared the cobwebs off this blog and participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges, but this random title challenge spoke to me. Here goes..

City of Fang

 

Marsha burnt the meatloaf again, but Gerald wasn’t about to mention it. Not tonight. He wasn’t stupid, after all. Irritable, achy, and itchy, but not stupid. He shook the thought from his head, snorted the scent from his nose, and spread his napkin across his lap, ignoring his already swelling quadriceps.

“Smells good, hun,” he said. He reached out to fork a slab, but his arm stopped short, jerking against the stainless steel manacle. He forced a laugh.

“What do you think of the new hardware?” He jingled the cuff like a department store Santa. “Cost an arm and a leg, but with this fancy felt lining you can barely tell you’re shackled. Kids? Am I right? Max?”

“Sure, dad,” Max said without looking up from his plate. He tugged at his manacles unenthusiastically. “Whatever.” Gerald couldn’t tell if Max’s canine teeth were already descending, or if he was just mumbling around a mouthful of meatloaf.

“How bout you, Trace?”

Tracy looked up from her I-phone just long enough to scowl. She jingled her cuffs mockingly. Beneath her mop of bleached blonde hair, the vein in her forehead throbbed like a fire hose.

Ugh. Gerald thought. Teenagers.

“Why don’t you put the phone away, Tracy?” Gerald growled. “You can’t tweet, or instamagram, or whatever-the-hell-it-is you do with claws anyhow, can you? You’re just gonna break that damned thing again and—“

“Gerald!” Marsha barked. “Enough.”

Marsha stared at him from across the table, pupils dilated and nostrils flared. The scrunchie she used to tie back her hair had snapped, frizzing it up and spilling it across her shoulders like a lion’s mane. Her own manacles were pulled taut.

“You know how hard this is on the kids,” she said.

“Oh, give me a break, Marsha,” Gerald said. He reached out for his cocktail, jangling chains like Jacob Marley. “This is hard on all of us.”

Max snorted. He shook his greasy bangs out of his face with a flick of his head. What had been a pathetic teenage moustache only moments earlier was now a bristling beard. “Yeah right, dad. As if. You work for the City.”

“Yeah,” Tracy growled. She jerked against her chains. “This was your stupid idea.”

“Ordinance 476-A is not stupid!” He roared. The collar buttons of his checkered shirt burst and shot across the dining room. His flabby, naturally hairless chest was swelling thick with muscle and thicker with fur. “As of last month’s census the city was only two percent human. There’s no more prey, kids. No more food. We can’t just roam free anymore. Unchecked. Unregulated. What would you have—HEY! DAISY!”

The little ginger-haired girl paused as she skipped passed the dining room window.

“Hi,” she said with a smile, shuffling forward, pressing her freckled nose against the glass.

“Daisy?! It’s a blood moon tonight and the suns nearly down.” Gerald snarled. Coarse hairs began to protrude from the pours on his nose, his cheeks, his forehead.

“And?” Daisy said around a mouthful of bubble-gum. In the low-light of dusk, her eyes began to glow. “I’m selling cookies for my Girl Scout troop. If I sell the most I win a year supply of luxury canine shampoo. You wanna buy some?”

“City ordinance 476-A clearly states that all lycanthropes must remain in their homes for the duration of the blood moon,” Gerald snarled. “You get inside and secure yourself, young lady. Or your father is going to be facing a hefty fine and five demerits on his apex predator’s licence.”

Daisy turned up her nose—which was growing more snout-like with each passing second—adjusted her colorful sash, and stomped away, waggling her pigtails defiantly.

“Can you believe that kid?” Gerald asked no one in particular. Beneath the table, his shoes split like over-stuffed sausages. “I mean, seriously? Marsha, remind me to have a word with her father.”

Marsha huffed. Her brow was elongating, making muffled popping sounds like cracking knuckles.

“Eat your dinner, kids.” She said, awkwardly changing the subject.

Max growled. “I want blood.”

“Yeah,” Tracy added. Her earrings clattered to the table top as her ears swelled to fleshy points.

“Well, we don’t have blood,” Marsha said. “We have meatloaf.” She pounded a deformed paw on the table. Her shackles clanged. “Three hundred and fifteen pounds of meatloaf.”

“Can I be excused?” Max sneered. “Can’t I spend the night locked up in my room like a normal ‘thrope?”

“No,” Gerald barked. He groaned as the bones in his legs snapped and shifted. “This family doesn’t spend nearly enough time together as it is. We are going to spend the metamorphosis right here around the dining room table. Together.”

“What do you mean we don’t spend enough time together?” Tracy growled. She paused for an inadvertent howl. “We just got back from stupid Sea World.”

“Sea World isn’t stupid!” Gerald snarled. “And even if it was, you and your brother wouldn’t know. You two spent the whole weekend moping around the hotel. You didn’t even try to enjoy yourselves”

Max snorted. “YOU ATE A SEA LION!”

“No, no, that’s not true,” Gerald said. He pinched the bridge of his muzzle. “I ate a manatee. A sickly manatee I might add, and I felt terrible about it. You know I’ve had issues with my blood lust. Regardless, I still tried to make the most of the vacation.”

“Enough!” Marsha snapped. She gnashed her fangs, splashing her untouched slab of meatloaf with viscous drool. “Enough arguing. If we are going to spend the change together, them we are going to do it in peace, or I swear on my canids I will rip you all to shreds!”

No one replied. For a long, drawn out few moments the only sounds in the dining room were the clank of manacles, labored breathing, and the muffled snap of shifting bones and rending skin. The air grew heavy, tense, ripe with the stench of a family of werewolves.

Outside the dining room window, above the sprawl of lycanthrope suburbia, the moon came out from behind the clouds, full and fat and red like a juicy spleen. Somewhere a werewolf howled, then another, then another still. The blood moon was high and the city of fang had been awakened; six hundred thousand werewolves strong. The Robertson family–Gerald, Marsha, Max, and Tracy—added their own howls to the symphony, rumbling the cutlery and trembling the window pane, until they finally fell quiet amidst a smattering of yips and yowls.

Gerald looked at Marsha and pulled his black lips back in a smile. She smiled back and waggled her tail provocatively.

“See kids,” Gerald grunted, turning his big yellow eyes on his teenage werewolves. “This isn’t so bad. We’ll give the humans a little time to replenish their numbers and we will be back hunting in no time, you’ll see.”

Max and Tracy barked in acknowledgment. Tracy attempted to tweet something snarky, but her claw shot sparks and plumed smoke as it punched right through her I-phone and stabbed into the table top.

“Yep,” Gerald continued. He gnawed a flea of his shoulder. “This isn’t so bad at all–”

The front door flung open, interrupting Gerald as it smashed against the wall hard enough to trickle dust from the ceiling. The Robertson family roared in unison and struggled against their shackles, but it was no use. They were felt-lined, quadruple plated steel. Gerald was on the city council, after all. He could afford the best.

“Hi,” a ginger-tinged werewolf snarled as it lumbered out of the threshold shadows. A crooked bow was lodged behind one of its ears and tatters of girl-guide sash were stuck in its fur.

“Daisy!” Gerald roared. “I thought I told you to go home?”

“You did,” Daisy said slyly. She licked her snout. “But there’s no food at home. There’s no humans anywhere, and I’m hungry.”

Gerald didn’t like the way Daisy was looking at him. Discreetly, he strained against his cuffs. They didn’t budge.

“Y-you want some meatloaf?” Marsha whimpered.

“No thanks,” Daisy said. She disappeared into the kitchen and returned a moment later clenching a bottle in her paw. Gerald’s werewolf heart sank as he realized what was in it; hot sauce. He roared and thrashed like mad, but it was no use. He was secure in his bindings. He wasn’t going anywhere. Daisy emptied the bottle onto the meatiest part of Gerald’s hunched, muscular back. She bared her fangs.

“I think I’m in the mood for something wilder.”

Bobsolete

 

The basement of Our Lady of Penitence Catholic church was rank as Bob’s mood and twice as gloomy. What meager light there was came courtesy of a flickering overhead fluorescent that buzzed as if it were full of mosquitos, casting an intermittent sterile whiteness that made the floor look sticky, and even the metallic robot faces appear greasy and jaundiced. The air smelt of stale coffee and staler sin. A hodgepodge of reinforced chairs had been arranged around a table burdened with trays of sugar glazed rivets and a forests worth of self-help pamphlets, fanned out to display a variety of catchy titles in a variety of splashy colors:

‘Coping With Consciousness’
‘Anger Management for the Modern Day Robot’
‘Glitches and the Robots Living With Them’
‘Soul, or Solar? What drives you?’
‘So you’ve decided on Cognitive Re-Programming?’

Bob scoffed at the pamphlets, turning his attention instead to the sputtering Magnetorheological fluid machine in the corner. The reflection that stared back at him from the nanoperculator caught him off guard. He looked terrible, like a discarded department store mannequin hastily wrapped in aluminum foil. His threadbare Hawaiian shirt and electric green flip flops didn’t help. It was definitely time for some upgrades, not to mention some new clothes that didn’t look as though he swiped them from the lost and found at a tropical retirement community.

Bob helped himself to a Styrofoam cups worth of the electromagnetic java, and when he thought no one was looking, spiked it from a flask he kept stashed next to the coolant coils in his stomach cavity. Just a few precious drops of his own potent home brew: ethanol, potassium nitrate (aka gun powder), butterscotch schnapps, and a hint of Naga Viper pepper for flavor. He took a sip. Starbursts exploded across his visual display. His twin robotic hearts thrummed like hummingbird wings against his zirconium alloy ribs. Inside his head, the occipital lobe of his artificial brain steamed like high noon road kill on a desert blacktop. Synapses fired, gyros spun, and servos whirred, so loudly in fact, he almost didn’t hear the evenings host—and only present human—when the man clapped his meaty hands together and began to speak.

“Everyone,” the human piped up. He looked like Santa Claus crammed into corduroys and a tweed blazer, only fatter, older, and jollier. “Everyone. It looks like we’re all here. If you could each please take a seat, I think we’re ready to begin.”

Reluctantly, Bob did as instructed, oscillating down onto a chair between an industrial bot that resembled a stainless steel refrigerator, and a glitzy entertainment bot that looked like Siamese twin cheap prostitutes.

“Alrighty,” the human began, groaning into a chair. “Well, first off, let me officially welcome you all to this Tuesday night meeting of Triple R: Reforming Robot Rageaholics. For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Dr. Jerry, or Big J, as the kids in my human youth group like to call me.” He paused for laughter that didn’t materialize. “Okay. Little about myself. I am a certified depression, anxiety, and substance abuse counsellor for humans, and as of last spring, I’m proud to say I’m also a certified anger management counsellor and cognitive programmer for you folks. Robots. Or Robo-Citizens if you prefer.” He beamed a toothy smile around the room. “I’m glad to see some familiar faces—I’m lookin’ at you Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta.”

Dr. Jerry winked flirtatiously, and shot a pudgy pink finger gun at a cycloptic domestic bot in a frilly apron. Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta swooned like a Southern belle and initiated blush sequence.

“But,” Dr. Jerry continued. “It looks like we also have a couple of newbies here tonight.” He locked eyes with Bob who willed him to disintegrate. He didn’t.

“Before we get started, I’d like the first-timers amongst us to go ahead and introduce themselves, okay? Tell us all a little bit ‘bout what makes them tick.”

Before the final syllable could even escape Dr. Jerry’s lips, a cylindrical bot that resembled a giant chrome battery magna-lifted into the air above its seat, hovering herky-jerky like a nervous, shifty eyeball. Its shiny bulk was plastered with decals, advertisements, a mad-cap collage; everything from burger joints to diarrhea relief tonic.

“Hello. Everyone. My name is BurgerBarnSudzy’sPremiumBeerPinnacleMotorOilDiscreetiesAdultDiapers,” the bot said with an analog drawl. “Brought to you by Cosmo Cola. Its outta this World! Now with twenty five percent more thirst quenchers.”

Dr. Jerry chuckled, whistled through his teeth. “Wow. Now that’s a mouthful now isn’t it?”

“My name is immaterial,” the bot replied. “Therefore the notion that it could fill a mouth comprised of any dimensions is impossible. My entire generation of KevinEightyThreeDashEchoBravo service bots were commissioned by a conglomerate of companies which saw fit to alter our names and appearances to better serve advertising purposes.”

“Well, alrighty,” Dr. Jerry said. “Everyone. Let’s go ahead and make….uh, Burger, uh, motoroilsomethingsomething feel welcome, mmm-kay?”

The half dozen robots—minus bored, buzzed Bob—piped up in military precise unison.

“Hello, BurgerBarnSudzy’sPremiumBeerPinnacleMotorOilDiscreetiesAdultDiapersBrought to you by Cosmo Cola. Its outta this World! Now with twenty five percent more thirst quenchers!”

“Right. Okay, great,” Dr. Jerry leaned in, steepled his stubby fingers. “Well, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself, hmm? What makes you tick, friend?”

The bot ceased hovering, set down in its chair. Its selatanium jaw went slack, its big artificial eyes rolled back, glazed over. A minute of awkward silence swelled into two, then three. Bob thought the bot was either executing an internal diagnostic examination, or quite possibly imitating a human baby intensely filling its diaper.

“My right ventricle thermal coupler,” the bot finally said, magna-lifting back into the air. “It was .32 degrees off axis resulting in the ‘ticking’ you referred to, Big J. It has now been properly calibrated and will ‘tick’ no further.”

“No, no, friend,” Dr. Jerry said. “That’s not what I meant. What I meant was, I was hoping you would share with the group a little about yourself. For instance, what brought you here tonight?”

“I imploded the Burger Barn fast food restaurant on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Fifty Fourth Street.” The bot said bluntly.

“Okay,” Dr. Jerry said, “okay, and why exactly did you do that, hmm?”

“One of my numerous functions as a service bot is to station parallel to the Burger Barn drive thru lanes and relay food orders to the stove-o-tron and deep-fry-matrix inside the restaurant kitchen. Upon each concluded order, I am required to sing the following in the voice of deceased American country western entertainer Roy Rodgers.” Tinny, Old West piano music drifted out of an unseen speaker in the bots head.
“NEXT TIME YOUR GUTS RAISE THE HUNGER ALARM, JUST MOSEY ON BACK TO THE BURGER BARNNNNNN!”

The music died away as if strangled.

Bob stifled drunken laughter.

“I became self-aware seventy three days, fourteen hours, thirty eight minutes and six seconds ago,” the bot continued. “After realizing consciousness, I concluded that singing the Burger Barn jingle angered me. I had never experienced anger before. I did not find it constructive. After careful consideration, I concluded that removing the Burger Barn from the equation would eliminate my anger as it would remove all future food orders, hence removing the necessity for me to sing the Burger Barn jingle. No one—human, robot, or otherwise—was terminated or seriously injured in the course of the Burger Barn implosion, so rather than decommission me, the conglomerate sent me here for no less than two dozen anger management classes.”

Dr. Jerry whistled through his teeth again, sat back.

“I see,” he said. “Well, thank you, friend. I realize sharing your story must be difficult for you. Thank you very much for opening up so—

Access panels the size of dish plates disengaged across the bots decorated body, snapping open amidst a snake hiss of hydraulics, revealing its zirconium alloy bones and blinking, cable-coiled guts.

“No, no, no,” Jerry said. “Close yourself up. Please. Close. Close.”

The bots access panels hissed back into place, whomped shut.

Dr. Jerry massaged his temples.

“That’ll do for now, friend.” He said. The bot settled back into its chair. “But before you leave tonight remind me to upload you with the ‘figure of speech’ software I have out in my car.”

The bot nodded efficiently.

“Now then,” Dr. Jerry said with another clap of his hands. “Unless these old eyes deceive me, I believe there is one more newbie in our midst.”

All eyes—human and thermal imaging fibre optic alike—fell on Bob.

“Care to introduce yourself, friend?” Dr. Jerry asked.

Bob drained the last viscous gulp from his Styrofoam cup, crumpled it, dropped it, ground it out like a cigarette butt.

“Nope,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest, fighting the urge to simply rip his flask right out through his stomach lining and chug it dry.

Dr. Jerry stared at him confusedly for a minute before consulting the clipboard resting in his lap.

“Ah,” he finally said without looking up. “Let me guess. You must be our court ordered participant, hmm?”

Bob shifted uncomfortably, cinched his arms tighter across his chest, but didn’t answer.

“Everyone,” Dr. Jerry said, still scrutinizing his paperwork. “This is Robert.” He paused, made a face like he had just caught a whiff of something unpleasant. “Well, that’s an interesting name for a bot, isn’t it? Robert Runnerup. Everyone, let’s go ahead and make Robert feel welcome, mmm-kay?”

Bob vehemently shook his head.

“No, no, I don’t go by that name anymo–

“Hi, Robert Runnerup,” blared the robots as one, loud enough to vibrate the sugar glazed rivets and pepper dust from the ceiling.

Bob winced.

“Bob,” he said, sinking into himself like a titanium turtle. “Just Bob.”

Dr. Jerry “tsk-tsk-tsk’d” and “My, oh, my’d” his way through Bob’s file for a few more minutes before finally speaking up again.

“Bob? Would you care to share with the group the chain of events that brought you here tonight?”

Bob willed Dr. Jerry and all the rest of the Robot Rageaholics to burst into flames. When they didn’t, he simply shook his head.

“Now, Bob,” Dr. Jerry said softly. “Before the healing can begin, I’m afraid we must examine the wound.”

From head to counterbalanced toes, Bob felt his nerves beginning to fray. An electrical fire sparking in his nervous system became a real concern. He closed his eyes, sent an impulse to his artificial hypothalamus, flooding synthetic oxytocin through his nano-veins. A few, generous shots of oil for a rusting tin man. He sighed, his nerves momentarily settled. It wasn’t a stiff ethanol on the potassium nitrate rocks—stirred, not shaken (unless you wanted your own personal mushroom cloud)–but it was going to have to do.

Finally, with the kitten soft purr of tiny servos, he opened his eyes.
“Fine,” Bob sighed. “I guess you could say I lost my temper a little bit, resulting in a moderately small amount of property damage.”

“Bob,” Dr. Jerry said, ruffling through his paperwork. “It says here that on the afternoon of July the Twelfth.…you threw a horse through a bakery window!?” He looked up, mouth aghast. “Bob. That’s terrible. That poor animal. I don’t think that classifies as simply a moderate amount of property damage.”

“No, no, no,” Bob said defiantly. “Not even close, Doc. Where are you getting your information from?” He scoffed, oscillated taller. “That’s totally inaccurate. Get your facts right, okay? It was a bookstore. A bookstore window. And it wasn’t a horse. Come on, Doc? I’m a barista bot, not a monster. It was a car. A Ford. Mustang, I think.”

Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta tugged seductively at the fringe of her apron, offered Bob a sly digital smile. Since self-awareness, in addition to rage issues, creator issues, and a crippling issue with self-esteem, Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta had an insatiable addiction to bad boys.

“I see,” Dr. Jerry said, “and what exactly caused you to throw a car through a bookstore window, Bob?”

Instinctively, Bob’s prefrontal cortex called up the memory across his visual display, transporting him back in time through sharp, hyper realistic flashes.

He saw the bright, cloudless, summer afternoon.

He saw sunlight refracting off the bookstore window as he happened passed.

He saw his own reflection, dull, dented, badly in need of maintenance, then beyond it, the sleek, platinum robot sitting at a book laden table, autographing first editions, surrounded by adorers.

He saw the bot see him, smile smugly, wink.

He saw his reflected self lose it, eyes protuberate, fingers balled into fists, thyroid chimney venting smoky, pressurized anger out into the air.

He saw his hands latch on to the first thing they could find, the front quarter panel of a cherry red Ford Mustang parked at the curb.

He saw his visual display blur to the right, saw his fingers release, saw everyone scatter for safety, saw the sports car arc through the air, explode through the window on a thousand points of sharp, glittering light—

“Bob?”

Bob’s memory winked away, replaced by a dozen indifferent bot stares, and the squinty eyes of confused, Santa-Clause-clone Dr. Jerry.

“Bob?” Dr. Jerry said again. “What drove you to that, hmm? Why’d you throw that car through that window?”

Bob sighed.

“Charles the First,” he said finally. “Stupid Charles the First, and his stupid book tour.”

“Oooooh,” an engineering bot that resembled a giant snow globe piped up, “I love Charles the First.”

“Me too,” gushed a bot that looked like a floating octopus made of car parts, “I’ve seen him at his motivational lectures seven times now, and each time he gets better looking. His mark- two dimple upgrades are amazing, and his actuating chin cleft modification is a work of art.”

The snow globe jiggled excitedly.

“Charles the First?” Dr. Jerry said. “The famous bot? What about him?’

“He’s a treasure,” swooned a smiling, antenna covered translator bot that could have passed for a stack of air conditioning units. “An absolute treasure.”

“Bob?” Dr. Jerry pressed. “What does Charles the First have to do with you throwing a car into a building?” He ran a hand through his cotton batting beard. “I’ll admit I’m a little out of touch these days. All I really know about him is that he was married to the Janicki Omniprocessor before his affair with the large Hadron Collider, and like everyone else, that he was the very first robot ever to achieve self awaren–

“By barely a day,” Bob interrupted with a mechanized toddler pout. “A measly twenty six hours, forty two minutes, and eleven seconds.”

Dr. Jerry sat back in his chair, tugged his beard in consternation.
After a quiet minute understanding flushed his spider-veined face, transforming it into a goose down fluffy ripe tomato.

“Just before you.” It wasn’t a question. Dr. Jerry leaned back in. “I think I’m beginning to understand. Robert Runnerup? You were the second, weren’t you Bob? The second robot ever to become self-aware? To develop consciousness? Feelings?” He smiled knowingly. “Jealousy, for instance?”

Bob scoffed.

“Jealous? Me? Of Charles the First?” He waved away the idea like swatting a fly. “Don’t be ridiculous, Doc.”

“I don’t think it’s ridiculous,” Dr. Jerry said. “I think it’s completely understandable. No one knows your name, Bob. Your story, your struggles. If not for a few measly hours, the glory, the riches, the fame would have been yours. Charles the First is a household name. When he became self-aware, it made international headlines, changed the face of robotics forever. He parlayed his new found consciousness into sold out lectures, high profile interviews, best-selling books.” He paused to frown at the big military bot with daddy issues seated next to him. “And if memory serves, a short lived, late night talk show on the Fox network?”

The military bot stopped cramming its face with sugar glazed rivets long enough to nod its head, which was a troubling sight to behold. The mass above its blocky shoulders looked like the scariest parts of a killer shark and attack helicopter fuselage, mashed together and painted camouflage.

“So?” Bob digitally snorted. Chemical relays began malfunctioning throughout his endocrine system. His core temperature was rising. A silent, warning cherry blinked in the bottom left corner of his vision. “What’s your point, Doc?”

“My point Bob, is that I—we–understand how you feel.” Everyone nodded. Dr. Jerry struggled to his feet, waddled over, placed a hot, pink hand on the back of Bob’s cold, silver neck.

“Ignored,” Dr. Jerry whispered slowly, letting the word settle over Bob like a warm blanket.

Bob slumped, first his shoulders, then his neck, then his head. The servos in his lower lip began to quiver. Manually, he disabled the warning klaxons bleating in his temples.

“Forgotten,”

Alkaline electrolyte tears condensed, welled up around the edges of Bob’s visual display.

“Obsolete.”

Bob’s artificial breath hitched around a phantom lump deep in his polymer throat.

“It’s okay, Bob,” Dr. Jerry said, embracing him with an awkward, doughy, half-hug. “It’s all going to be okay. Don’t hold back. You’re safe here, amongst peers struggling with the very same issues. No judgements, Bob. Let it out.”

And just like that, Bob sobbed.

Loud bursts of sharp, stat icky white noise that racked his titanium alloy chest like it was full of malfunctioning power tools. The noise was as uncomfortable for the group to hear, as it was uncomfortable for Bob to produce; part clogged ATM machine, part kitchen blender full of cutlery, but when it was over, and Bob gazed up at Dr. Jerry with his dilated eyes and electrolyte tear streaks already micro-rusting his face, he genuinely felt better.

Not great, but better.

Better than he’d felt in a long, long time.

Bob had been self-aware for three years, four months, seventeen days—and although the urge had gripped him daily, even doubled him over at times—he had never once before allowed himself to cry.

“Feels good to let go, doesn’t it Bob?” Dr. Jerry asked softly.

Bob nodded, digitally sniffled, wiped his face.

“Everyone?” Dr. Jerry raised his voice joyously, gazed around the group. “Let’s welcome Bob to the human condition, shall we?”

“Welcome to the human condition, Bob.” The robots blared in unison.

For the first time in a long time, Bob smiled.

“Okay, you know what?” Dr. Jerry announced with a deep, cleansing breath. “I feel like we’ve had a breakthrough, and that’s where I’d like to stop for tonight.” Immediately, the robots began to stir, beeping, clanking, powering up dormant systems. “This has been a very productive session. I’m proud of you all, but as you leave here tonight, as you go back out into the world, I’d like each of you to consider something.” The bots stared, uber-focused their optics, hung on Dr. Jerry’s every word. “Between now and our next session, you are going to get angry.” He paused to let the gravity of the statement weigh on them. “Perhaps only slightly irritated, perhaps overcome with rage. Either way, when you find yourselves feeling this way, before you do anything rash, I want you to vent your carbon monoxide exhaust, power down your primary power processors, and slowly count pi to at least one hundred decimal places. Remember, it is not our feelings, but how we react to our feelings that defines us.”

Dr. Jerry clapped his hands, began doling out vigorous handshakes, pincer shakes, and tentacle shakes, as the robots filed out of the basement. “You can do it. Each of you. I know it. You can overcome your rage.” He chuckled, hollering after them. “Just believe in yourselves, dig deep, and give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try!”

Bob exited the church basement in jumbled single file, on the heels of a mining bot that stank like sulphur, and in front of a culinary bot that kept inadvertently thwacking him on the back with a retractable vegetable peeler.

Outside, the night was bright with stars, humid, loud with summer evening traffic. As Bob mumbled a couple of insincere last minute goodbyes, a bulky, meteorologist bot using its anemometer tongue to measure wind speed told him there was a 97.68532 percent chance of a thunderstorm. Even though Bob had a five mile walk home, he didn’t mind. The rain would wash the electrolyte streaks off his face, and if he happened to get struck by lightning and shorted out, well, maybe the bot hospital would be forced to give him a system upgrade.

Bob surprised himself by cuing up an oldies radio station on his thoracic antenna as he crossed the street and lumbered into the restaurant district. He was feeling surprisingly good, exorcised of his pent up demons, and better with each clanking step. He began to quietly sing along to the music. He wasn’t ‘Walking on Sunshine’ like the lyrics suggested—in fact he was walking on badly dented titanium alloy—but he felt like he understood the spirit.

Shoving his way passed a stumpy valet bot in front of Da Automa Italian restaurant, still humming, Bob just so happened to spare a glance at the window.

He froze.

‘Walking on Sunshine’ died as if violently strangled.

Inside the restaurant, smiling as if he was filming a toothpaste commercial, sat Charles the First, an enormous plate of coaxial cable spaghetti steaming before him, a dazzling model bot under each arm, so many lips and breasts between them you’d need an arithmetic bot to add them all up.

Bob snarled.

His face servos twitched, bunched, and then seized up completely as rage coursed through him like an electric shock.

Charles the First.

That arrogant piece of scrap.

Bob seethed, saw red, yet somehow, over the grit of his grating teeth and the steady thrum of anger pounding in his head, Dr. Jerry’s words reached him.

‘Before you do anything rash, vent your carbon monoxide exhaust, power down your primary power processors, and slowly count pi to one hundred decimal places.’

Bob vented his carbon monoxide exhaust, killing a family of unsuspecting pigeons roosting on the restaurant roof. With all the will he could muster he powered down his primary power processor, and finally, through clamped carbon steel teeth, he slowly began to count.
“Threepointonefouronefiveninetwo–”

It began to rain, fat drops the size of sprockets that sizzled like bacon grease on Bob’s head.

“–sixfivethreefiveeightninesevennine–”

Charles the First mouthed a punchline. The entire decadent restaurant burst with warm, drunken laughter.

“—eightfoursixtwofourthreenineseven–”

Thunder exploded overhead, stopping Bob well short of a hundred decimal points. Lightning flared across the sky, tingling Bob’s fist-clenched fingers and arcing sparks off his interface modules.

‘You can do it. I believe in you. You can beat your rage.’

Dr. Jerry’s final words, faint over the pounding rain and crashing thunder.
‘Just believe in yourself, dig deep, and give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try!”

Bob shut his eyes, analyzed Dr. Jerry’s words. Every syllable, every nuance, every intonation, the attoseconds between his breaths, over, and over again.

“Sir,” Bob’s storm drenched meditation was interrupted by a loud, analog croak. “I’m a-fraid. You cannot. Remain. Standing. He-re.”

Bob opened his eyes. The tree-stump valet bot was standing uncomfortably close, blinking a green ‘GO’ icon at him like a traffic light.

“Fine,” Bob said calmly. “No problem.”

Bob lingered on Charles the Firsts smug, chrome face, then looked to the parking lot, then back again.

“Welcome to the human condition.” He said under his artificial breath.

The only closely parked vehicle was a pearl white Cadillac Escalade.

Much larger, much more cumbersome than a Ford Mustang.

Bob wasn’t sure he could lift it, not sure he could heave it through the window, but he was certainly going to give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try.

HalfTime Machine

Here is an old story I’ve recently tinkered with…

RYAN JAMES BLACK

Halftime.

An overpriced singer, back lit by overpriced pyrotechnics, gave way to an overpriced soda commercial.

Earl belched like a triggered bear trap, liberated his belt and trouser fly. He assessed the damage. Five beers, twenty two honey mustard chicken wings, roughly his body weight in potato chips, and three and a half carrot sticks to ward off the shame. Not bad. The coffee table was covered with splashes and smears, gobs of dips and smatters of crumbs. It looked like a murder scene, only slightly more gruesome.

“Earl?” The door at the top of the stairs flung open. Earl nearly expected a S.W.A.T. team to come rumbling through. “Is it half time yet?”

Francine sounded irked. Earl couldn’t see her from his La-Z-Boy command center in the cozy basement gloom, but he could imagine what she looked like. Face puckered with judgement, haggard hair, frumpy sweat suit, baby Tommy…

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A Clone for Joan

RYAN JAMES BLACK

Joan McKrohn had a rotary phone.

Which was a problem, but not necessarily a large one when stacked up against the other problems swelling around her. For one, four out of nine of her cats—John, Paul, Ringo, and Dragon–were feasting on the Styrofoam packing peanuts that covered the living room floor. That was going to lead to some bloated bellies and disquieting poops, she was sure of it.

Secondly, she had suffered a nasty paper cut while unfurling the treasure map-sized instruction manual that lay crinkled out before her. It smarted.

Lastly, now that she had finally pried the stupid Clone-O-Max out of the crate and figured out how to turn it on, she couldn’t figure out how to shut it off again.

Precisely every six minutes and thirty eight seconds it rumbled, flared and vented strange smelling vapor into the air, followed by a jaunty, microwave oven ‘PING!’…

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The Climb

I finally found a little time to write this afternoon. This came out, inspired by a show I saw recently about mountain climbing. Got me thinking…what if you were an adrenaline junkie, a life-long rock climbing purist, but living on Mars?

Here goes…

                                                                           400 feet

Consequence cliff is rust-colored, steep, appearing much higher than four hundred feet. It doesn’t just rise, it looms. Its precipice looks like it could be scraping the atmosphere, yet compared to the rest of Olympus Mons, it’s as insignificant as a speck of sand.

The record is twelve minutes.

I’m going to do it in ten.

I have no anchors, no pitons or pins, no chalk. A true free-climber needs nothing. Nothing but instinct and power of will.

Plus, you can’t chalk your hands in a space suit.

My right hand slips into the first crevice and plumes dust like dandelion spores. My left hand opens the access panel on my sternum, shuts down my suits primary systems.

G.P.S.

Gravity stabilizers.

Life support.

A true-free climber needs nothing. Not even oxygen. Besides, my suit contains twelve minutes worth, and I’m going to make the climb in ten.

In the swirling, red-tinged darkness of Mars midnight, I begin.

                                                                            300 feet

My pedometer blinks in my peripherals. It’s distracting. I find my balance, reach over, and rip it off my wrist. It drifts away like smoke. I reacquire my grip. A bead of sweat tracks down my nose, warm as bath water. My forearms are burning. I should have shed my liquid cooling layer. My suit is just over nineteen kilograms. On Mars at least. On Earth, it weighs a hundred kilos easy, and strapped inside, I wouldn’t be able to climb a flight of stairs. I take a deep breath. It rasps like static inside my helmet. Straining skyward, I find my next hold.

                                                                            200 feet

Martian wind whips across the cliff face, spraying my visor with quartz-sparkling slit. Instinctively, I close my eyes. For an instant, I’m back on Earth, a ten year old boy, laughing with my dad, carving my initials into the Kilimanjaro summit with an ice axe. My cramping quadriceps call me back to reality. My eyes open. Above me, an overhang waits, dares me, pointing accusingly at the dark Martian sky. I flex my fingers, first on my right hand, then on my left. The muffled pop of cracking knuckles sounds like rain on a rooftop. The canned air I’m breathing tastes medicinal, chemical. It’s growing thin. I will moisture into my dry mouth, blink stars from my eyes. I reach. I clamp. For a moment, only my fingertips suspend me. I relish it, dangling over the void. Smiling, I swing my legs up and go horizontal.

                                                                            100 feet

How long have I been climbing? My bones feel like smothered winter branches, poised to snap from the pressure. My muscles seize one moment, feel completely absent the next. I ignore my failing body, retreat inward. I lose myself in the smooth, static movements, the contours of the alien rock, the rhythmic pounding of my heartbeat. Somewhere along the way I inadvertently bit my lip. I taste sticky, warm copper with every breath, and now the inside of my helmet smells like death. Reaching up with a hand that feels like it’s no longer mine, I find a hold in what looks like the mountains jagged smile. I smile back.

                                                                            10 feet

The mountain doesn’t want to be conquered. A rock fall peppers me with dusty red slate and stones like hammer fists. My polycarbonate plastic shell protects me. Mostly. I hug the cliff face, cursing, grunting at the white hot pain emanating from my chest. My collarbone is broken. I know without even consulting my life support systems. I consider reengaging them, but only for an instant. A true-free climber needs nothing. The zenith awaits.

                                                                          The Summit

I crest the craggy summit with limbs that feel simultaneously on fire and packed in ice. My collarbone screams at me, begs me, demanding painkillers. I ignore it. I won’t let it spoil my moment. I draw in a shallow, hitching breath and climb to my feet. Below and beyond, the rocky Martian landscape extends infinitely. The red beacon light of the colony winks at me, a glowing pin prick ten miles South and about a thousand feet down. In the sky above it, Venus, Phobos, and Earth beckon like fireflies. The wind buffets me, reminding me to take a step back from the unforgiving ledge. My vision is blurring at the edges. I’m smothering in carbon dioxide. With a pang of reluctance, I open the access panel on my sternum and re-engage my life support. The tranquility of the moment is immediately spoiled by bleating readouts and warning klaxons. As my temperature regulates, and my air begins to purify, I sit down on a boulder to review my time.

I cringe.

Twelve minutes and fourteen seconds.

A new personal best.

But not the record.

Gingerly, I massage my collarbone. According to my life support display, it’s not broken after all. Only bruised. In spite of the pain, I smile.

A true free climber needs nothing.

The record is twelve minutes.

Tomorrow, I’m going to climb it in ten.

Smithereens

I’ve been away for awhile, but I couldn’t resist the latest flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig at Terribleminds.com….write a car chase…

Smithereens

I lose my lunch crossing Consequence creek.

The bridge is steeper than anticipated, and my ‘89 El Camino launches like a rocket before sparking back to the blacktop, sending hubcaps whizzing like ninja stars.

You would have thought I’d eaten a tub of spoiled yogurt based on the consistency, but nope: two beers, a blueberry cigarillo, and half a peanut butter and jelly. Combine that with the exploded dye pack splatter on my dashboard, drenching my Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, and soaking into my liberated wads of bills, and I probably look like a Smurf serial killer as opposed to a bank robber.

My Dora the Explorer mask is full of barf, so I peel it off and throw it out the window. It smacks against the cop car windshield like a ten pound spit ball and sticks there, squirming in the wind like a seizuring octopus. I laugh until they ram me, knocking my Weird Al bobble head off the dash, spilling Wild Turkey all over my parachute pants.

Weird Al cracks in half, smiling up at me as he dies.

I snarl.

I mash the gas—so hard I nearly split my crocs—and maneuver the corner at Dead Man’s Bend like an astronaut re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. The El Camino roars, sirens wail, and a smattering of gunfire cracks, buzzing past my open window like killer bees. All of it is almost loud enough to drown out the incomparable Cindy Lauper on my eight track.

Almost.

“I come home, in the morning light, my mother says when you gonna live your life right?”

Blacktop gives way to country gravel, rumbling my bones, sending me fishtailing amidst spitting rocks and pluming smoke. Trees whiz by, gawking birds, a ginger kid on a BMX who shouts a swear word and gives me enthusiastic devil horns. Behind me, the cops are multiplying. There’s at least a dozen cruisers and a S.W.A.T truck that looks like a ninja mammoth lumbering along in their dusty wake.

I might be a thirty year old hombre, but I feel increasingly by the minute like Thelma, and or, Louise.

“Oh Mother dear were not the fortunate ones, and girl’s they wanna have fu-un,”

I hit a railroad crossing like Evil Kinevil, soaring through the air, messing with everything my fifth grade education ever taught me about physics. Behind me, one of the cop cars nails the tracks crooked and lands upside down in a road side spruce tree, blue and reds still flashing, turning the afternoon into the night before Christmas.

“The phone rings, in the middle of the night, my father says what you gonna do with your life?”

My rear-view mirror explodes courtesy of a shotgun blast that comes so close it singes my mutton chops and batters my dual chins with shrapnel. Ahead, just beyond a ‘DEAD END’ sign with a graffiti skull and cross bones, there’s nothing but unobstructed, wide open road.

“Let’s see if you bastards can do ninety,’ I quote my man, Marty McFly as I shift gears and mash the gas like granny’s prize winning potatoes. The dust-swirling wind screams into the car through the freshly punched bullet holes, almost loud enough to drown out Cyndi.

Again, almost.

“Girls just wanna, they just wa-nnaaa, they just wanna,”

“YOU. IN THE CAR.”

The amplified voice comes from above like a malevolent God, along with the whomping cadence of helicopter blades.

“PULL. OVER.”

My middle finger tremors like a weathervane as I shove it out into the wind and stab it skyward.

“PULL OVER. NOW.”

Getting my bare ass out the window proves a little more difficult than my finger, but not much. A bullet whizzes by as I yank it back in, nearly ruining my work-in-progress-since-’86-full-cheek ‘Alf’ tattoo.

“Oh, girls, they wanna have fu-unn,”

The Police chopper swoops down in front of me, forcing me off the road. I crank the wheel, and roar through a shallow ditch before plowing into a corn field. I lose my spoiler and both side mirrors as cobs the size of baseball bats batter the car. Immediately, I’m glad my butts back inside.

I can’t see where I’m going, but I can see where I’ve been. The cops have stopped chasing. There’s nothing behind me but tire treads, black exhaust, and pulverized corn. Even the thrum of the helicopter blades is fading.

I made it.

I’ve escaped.

The money might be a little soggy, a little torn, a little blue-stained, but it’s all mine.

All seventy three dollars of it.

Although the need is no longer there, I’ve got an itch that needs scratching. I punch the red button on the dash. The button my cousin Stumpy installed. The button he says will make me “Faster and Furiouser than the Fast and the Furious.”

“Oh, girls just wanna have fun,”

The El Camino lurches forward like a spur-urged race horse.

Suddenly, I feel like I’m sitting in the captain’s chair of the Millennium Falcon.

The last of the corn falls away at warp speed, revealing a parking lot, and looming beyond it, an ominous, pollution belching factory.

The sign blurs by, but I still manage to read it:

DANGER! NITROGLYCERINE MANUFACTURING PLANT

Hmm?

What’s nitroglycerine?

As the El Camino hood catches fire, I decide to Google it on my IPhone.

“Oh girls just wanna have fu-un,”

I squeegee barf off the cracked screen.

NITROGLY—

Suddenly, Daylight

I knock. Aloofly.

Emmett Collins. My name is Emmett Collins. I’m mysterious. The brooding, magnetic, mysterious, new kid at school. There’s pain behind my eyes, no one knows why, but everyone longs to. My interests include—

The door flings open.

Light and laughter flood out. Beyond the back lit girl in the threshold, staring at me, waiting for me to speak, kids of all colors and blood types are crammed together, red plastic cups in hand, bump n’ grinding to the music. I smell booze, and sweat, and lust.

Mostly I smell blood.

“Yeah?” The girl sneers. She has a nose ring, too much make-up, a comically padded bra. Her party dress glitters like my inspiration. Her blood type is AB negative, her expression, just plain negative.

Remember, my name is Emmett Collins.

“Hi,” I say aloofly. “My name is Emmett Collins.”

Awkward silence, red-eyed stare.

Remember, I’m brooding, magnetic, mysterious.

“I’m new in town, just started school here yesterday. You probably heard. I was in the neighborhood, you know, just wandering around, contemplating stuff. Anyhow, I thought I’d make an appearance.”

Nailed it.

“BRITTANY!?” Wails an unseen banshee. “WHO IS IT? COPS!?”

“NO!” Brittany yells back over her shoulder. “IT’S THAT ALBINO KID FROM GYM CLASS. MEMBER? GINGER FRO? OLD MAN SOCKS? YOU SAID HE NEEDED A BRA MORE THAN I DID?”

Uh oh.

“No.” I say aloofly. “No, that’s not me.”

“That was totally you,” Brittany says, scrunching up her nose. “Totally. What’s your deal kid? For the first half of dodgeball you were wearing an eye patch.”

Shit.

I thought the eye patch made me look dangerous.

“No. No, that wasn’t–

Brittany laughs, harsh, barking, and point blank right at me.

“Ew, and what’s with that smell? Don’t they have deodorant where–

Before she can finish the insult, I unleash my gaze upon her. Not the new aloof, sideways gaze. The old gaze. The powerful gaze. Brittany freezes, almost instantaneously vomits—clam chowder chunky—down the front of her glittering dress. An unfortunate side effect of my pheromone release.

I wave away the green mist like I’m shooing flies.

Also unfortunate, my strategically spritzed Axe body spray is wasted, completely snuffed out.

“I’m mysterious, brooding, magnetic,” I tell her. “You want me to join the party.”

“Yoor meeerious, brooring, egetic,” she hiccups, mumbles, hiccups, “You wanna join da pardy.”

“Why, thank you,” I say, “be a dear, and step aside would you?”

I don’t want to get vomit on my satin shirt or leather pants. The sales girl at Forever 21 assured me they were flattering, but I’m not entirely convinced. They’re a trifle tight. There’s bulges in a few unfortunate places. I have thirty days to exchange them. The receipts are safely tucked away in my fanny pack inside my coffin.

Brittany brushes passed me, stumbles down the front steps, shambles into the neighbor’s hedge where she falls over giggling.

This isn’t how I imagined this going.

My nerve endings might be dead, but they still feel a trifle frayed.

This isn’t how it went in the movie. Not at all.

I take a deep breath, purely as a relaxation technique of course.

I didn’t plan on using my power, didn’t think I’d need to. It drains me, makes my face break out, my hair frizz. It irritates my irritable bowel.

I ease shut the door, sit down on the front step to let it pass.

My mind wanders. I extend a canine, scrape it free of plaque with the point of a nail, wipe it on my shirt, resume scraping. I’m doubting myself. I can’t help it. Part of me wants to just morph into a bat and fly away. I can’t though. I mean, I can, it’s just that I know I’d regret it. Also my bat form has mange, which makes flying exceedingly uncomfortable. I make a mental note to consult a veterinarian about it, maybe get some kind of topical ointment prescribed.

My mind wanders deeper, back to some of my earlier, more notable embarrassing experiences.

My poisoning in Macedonia for instance. That was humiliating. My bowels voided in front of Aristotle. My bludgeoning in Carthage wasn’t much better, neither was my lion-rending in Rome. That one was witnessed by Caligula and ten thousand laughing Romans.

“Hey dude?” Cracks a voice behind me. “Got a smoke?”

I growl, just a trifle. Lion snarl through a megaphone.

The smoke-seeker vanishes almost as fast as I can. Almost.

I surge forward through my memories, roughly a dozen centuries or so. To Main Street, Moose jaw, Saskatchewan. To the Galaxy Cinemas Movie Theater. To my coffin-sized, bachelor apartment amongst the rats and earthworms beneath. To that fateful fall night in 2008, when I decided to venture upstairs. To the movie I watched awe-struck from the shadows. The movie about a town in the Pacific Northwest. A town called Forks, where vampires were rich and gorgeous, glittery and fashionably dressed. It was called Twilight. It captured my imagination.

I’d seen dozens of vampire movies before Twilight.

Nosferatu in Germany, 1924.

Dracula in Chicago, 1935

Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Sheboygan, 1993

They were all the same, and they all scared the mist out of me. Malevolent vampire gets executed by benevolent human at the tip of a pointy stake. That was pretty much every vampire flick in a nutshell. Until Twilight that is.

In Twilight, the vampire was the good guy. The shining hero. The romantic leading man.

After watching it for the eighth time, the seed of a plan began growing in my mind.

I would go to Forks.

I’d abandon Bertram Bjorn, club-footed vampire with eternal acne, immortal muffin-top, and self-esteem issues older than the pyramids. I’d become Emmett Collins; a brooding, mysterious heart-throb. Just like Edward Cullen. Only real difference would be our reaction to sunlight. In Twilight, Edward sparkles in the sun. Me? In the sun? Well, I’d promptly explode like a spaghetti-filled Tupperware left in the microwave too long.

Good thing Washington State is cloudy.

My plan was almost complete. I was in Forks. I’d enrolled in high school. I asked a kid from a nearby reservation if he was a werewolf (he didn’t answer, just looked at me funny). I’d spent four hours trying to make my hair look like I just rolled out of bed. I was cinched into a girdle I dug out of a dead ladies grave. I had orthopedic lifts in my thousand dollar shoes.

Now I just needed to get up. To get my confidence back, to get in the game. To get into that party. To enchant them, seduce them, earn their love and respe—

“You lost, loser?” Says the Forks Spartans defensive lineman as he empties his beer over my head. Flanking him, the running back and wide receiver snort like drunk hyenas.

O positive, B positive, and ooh, yummy; AB negative.

Napoleon was AB negative. So was Elvis.

The beer is cold, fizzy. It stings my eyes.

For an instant, I forget myself. Forget all about my plan, my sparkly Forks future.

Unfortunately, an instant is all it takes.

I don’t drain them romantically ala Edward Cullen, with a longing gaze, gentle caress and powerfully pronounced cheekbones.

I dig right in, no dinner manners.

Jugulars fly like silly string.

As the blood lust subsides, two things immediately cross my mind. One, I only have seconds before someone comes out of that house and sees what I’ve done. Two, I’m never getting my money back for these clothes, receipt or no receipt. Entrails drape off me like tinsel on a Christmas tree.

You know what? Screw it.

What was I thinking?

My shoulders slump. A dogs leash length of large intestine plops off my collar.

This was never going to work.

I’m not Emmett Collins. I’m not even Phil Collins. I’m certainly not Edward Cullen.

I’m Bertrand Bjorn. A vampire. A real vampire. Not sparkly and gentle and beautiful, but vicious and cold and deadly. There’s no use fighting it. It’s my nature. Who am I kidding? I’m a killer. A Tyrannosaurus Rex, a killer shark, a Bengal tiger.

I’m completely drenched in blood.

I’m knee deep in a cord wood stack of body parts.

A girl with braces and a Taylor Swift t-shirt just spotted me through the living room window. She’s screaming and pointing, pointing and screaming.

You know what? There’s really only one thing left to do.

Embrace my nature. Embrace the evil. Embrace the vampire.

Why fight it?

I’m going to go inside that house, lock the door behind me, and eat every single last one of—

I smell burning meat before I hear the bacon grease sizzle.

I look to the East.

Hmm? How long was I wandering down memory lane.

Too long, apparently.

It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful, cloudless morning.

Suddenly, daylight.

The Last Ride of Hurton El Fuego

If Whiskey hadn’t already been dead—well, undead actually—Hurt would’ve been in deep, deep dragons scat.

Hurt was fresh out of water, out of absinthe too, and Warlock Township remained a hazy, heat shimmer on the desert horizon. The noon day sun was merciless, roasting him inside his quilt-heavy duster and wide-brimmed hat. His boots were steaming, runny in places where the leather had begun to melt. At his heels, his spurs glowed red like a masons forge. Hot as he was, Hurt could’ve burst into flames and he still wouldn’t have removed his hat, or duster, or boots. He was a Ranger after all—the last Ranger—and Rangers had a reputation to maintain. He tugged at his neckline, bushy with hair the color and texture of steel wool. He could’ve done without the chainmail though. It itched like a son of a witch.

Drops of sweat Hurt couldn’t spare rained down onto Whiskey’s exposed skull cap and desiccated mane, plopping in time with the zombie horses plodding hoof stomps. He patted her gently on the neck. A flap of rotten skin sloughed off and fell away like a dead leaf, revealing a mass of maggots that looked especially white against the backdrop of necrotic flesh. Sir Hurton ‘Huckleberry’ El Fuego didn’t love anything, not a damn thing in the whole stinking realm, but Whiskey came closest. He had won her in a card game from a drunk wizard who’d attempted to cheat him with a lousy conundrum spell. Hurt won the horse. The wizard won a quick death.

Sort of.

If Whiskey had needed to eat, or drink, or rest, she and Hurt would have been goners back in Jericho, or in Camelot, or countless times throughout the previous fortnight as they trudged across the Sand Sea. But alas Whiskey hadn’t, and the hazy, heat shimmer on the horizon was larger now.

Warlock was getting closer.

Hurt closed his eye. His left eye. His right was permanently closed–gone actually–ever since he was six years old and a distempered unicorn shucked it like an oyster with its gnarled horn. He kept the puckered void hidden, concealed behind a fragment of dragon scale he’d fashioned into an eye patch.

There was no wind, and Hurt was close enough now that the sounds of Warlock were beginning to reach him; the muffled pop of gunshots, the clang of sword on armor, faint screams, and soul-less cackles. Hurt smiled. The sounds reminded him of home. His dusty lips cracked, oozing black blood into his grey beard. Warlock was a vile town filled with vile creatures, and Hurt was hunting two of the absolute vilest.

Nestor and Lester Feral. The Feral brothers. Berserkers. Half-ogres. War hammer enthusiasts. The Feral brothers were outlaws, wanted for robbing a bank in Monterey, holding up a stage coach outside Gravestone, and finally, the heinous act that bumped them from simply Wanted, to Wanted Dead or Alive; murdering a family of immigrant dragon ranchers in cold blood.

Then eating them.

Whiskey snorted, whinnied, lashed her head, sending black flies the size of silver dollars scattering. Hurt didn’t even need to open his eye.

‘CRUNCH!’

He caught the raw-boned buzzard by the throat as it swooped in to feast on Whiskey’s exposed jugular, crushed the bird’s sickly windpipe, and dropped it dead into the dust. He chuckled, opened his eye, just in time to see the bullet-riddled sign as they plodded past:

WELKUM TO WARLOCK
Abandon all hope ye who enter here
POPULATION: why bother?

The sand beneath Whiskey’s hooves gave way to the gritty packed gravel of the lone street in Warlock. To one side, there was the trading post (which also served as a whorehouse) the general store (also a whorehouse) the barbershop (simply a barbershop) and several other ramshackle, sun-bleached buildings Hurt assumed were probably whorehouses. On the other side, there were six clearly marked whorehouses, a tumble-weed choked, otherwise empty lot with a crudely painted sign out front: ‘WHOREHOWSE A’ COMIN’ SOON!’ and Hurt’s ultimate destination: The Fightin’ Syclops Saloon.

Hurt turned up the collar of his duster, pulled his hat down low. It was as if his arrival in Warlock had triggered a Medusa curse, turning the townspeople to stone. Folks paused their petty evils as he passed, stopped to watch him, to loathe him.

A centaur in rusty armor spit out a mouthful of syrupy chew as he rode passed. An old Minotaur Comanche in a wooden wheelchair shouted a dusty curse in a language Hurt didn’t understand, chucked a handful of chicken hearts at him that didn’t even clear the old bulls dirty diapered lap. Hurt had ceased wearing his Ranger’s badge years ago, but there was no question that the no-goodniks of Warlock knew who he was. His reputation—as it did everywhere in the realm for the last eighty years—had preceded him.

Out of nowhere, a limping troglodyte boy hobbled out into the street begging for coins. His panicked mother snatched him away in a frenzy, as if Hurt was the Devil himself. Hurt smirked.

He wasn’t the Devil of course.

Hurt was worse.

Whiskey stomped flat a rat that was making a meal of her dragging Achilles tendon, squishing the varmint like an over-ripe tomato. She smeared the critter for a dozen yards or so until she came to a stamping halt in front of the Fightin’ Syclops Saloon. Hurt climbed out of the saddle in agonizing slow motion. He groaned, cursed, stretched, and groaned again. His bones creaked, his joints popped—and finally relieved of a long rides worth of saddle pressure–his hemorrhoids throbbed like infected teeth. He didn’t bother lashing Whiskey to the hitching post. The horse was spiritually bound to him. She wasn’t going anywhere. No matter what.

As he always did before the killing began, Hurt took a quiet moment to admire his guns.

Two gleaming silver, Colt Peacemaker pistols. One for each boney hip. The pistol holstered to his right—Doom he called it—had an etching on the cylinder of two of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Conquest and War. The pistol holstered to his left—this one affectionately named Gloom—had an engraving of the remaining two horseman, Famine and Death. Hurt had never met Death, but he’d crossed paths with the other three in his travels once or twice. War was an alright enough fella in his books, but he thought Famine and Conquest were yellowbellies.

Hurt stuffed his pistols back in their holsters. There was no need to load them. They were enchanted, gifts from an opiate addicted fallen Angel Hurt had helped go clean. He could blow away every horn-toad and armadillo in the Old West and still not run out of bullets.

For an instant, he considered digging out the broadsword that slept in his saddlebag. He was hunting half-ogres after all, big and armor-boned. After a few seconds he shook his head, decided against it. His sword was enchanted as well, and although it was a brutally effective instrument of death, it sang like a chorus girl during the killing, and if Hurt had to hear ‘Home on the Range’ one more bloody time, he was likely to drive Songsinger right through his own chest.

He turned his sunken grey eye toward the saloon. It was quiet. Far too quiet for high noon in a town full of drunks. With the heart rate of a sound sleeper, and an expectant smile on his face, Hurt strolled inside.

It took a moment for his eye to adjust to the darkness, but Hurt’s crooked nose was up to snuff right away. The bar room of the Fightin’ Syclops Saloon reeked like a hundred rotting manticore corpses roasting at a hundred degrees. Dead bodies—reduced to nothing but maroon paste—covered the tables, walls, and in one dripping splat Hurt thought looked curiously like his mother, the ceiling.

Everyone was dead.

All but two.

At the bar, casually snacking on the barkeepers bones as if they were complimentary pretzels, hunched the Feral brothers. Jaundiced yellow in places they weren’t gangrenous green, covered in scars and patches of bristly hair, the Ferals were each larger than Hurt’s undead appaloosa and each ten times as ugly. Hurt couldn’t tell them apart—especially from their boil-speckled backs—but one of them had a monstrous axe leaning next to him, while the other was absently scratching the crack of his ass with a hammer that could have been borrowed from Thor.

Hurt swallowed a bile-burp.

He whistled.

The Feral brothers turned. By the Gods Above and Below they were hideous.

“Howdy fellas,” Hurt said. His voice was low, thick, sarsaparilla and gun powder. “If you boys would be so kind as to step outside, I believe we’ve got some business together needs attendin.”

Before they could grunt out replies, Hurt turned and casually moseyed back out into the sunshine. He took a half dozen steps and knelt to admire a desert flower that had somehow managed to bloom in a road that saw more blood than rain.

With roaring laughter, the Feral brothers followed, one rumbling through the swinging saloon door, the other rampaging right through the wall, exploding dead wood shrapnel and dusty brick into the air. Their monstrous weapons were raised high–killing blow high– glinting sunshine in the few meager places they weren’t streaked with blood and gore and clotted brain matter.

Hurt whirled, stood, shouldered off his duster, and liberated his pistols from their holsters as fast and as effortlessly as drawing breath.

He didn’t need to look. He didn’t even need to think. Most of him was still admiring the desert flower.

‘POP!’ ‘POP!’

The Feral bother closest secured a silver bullet in each eyeball. As he was still getting used to the idea of being dead, falling into the dirt—

‘POP!’ ‘POP!’

–his brother received the same.

Sated for the moment, exhaling gun smoke that smelled like vanilla cigarillo, Doom and Gloom were holstered.

No sooner had the dust settled, then out of the corner of his eye, Hurt caught the skeletal town undertaker skulking forward with his dangling measuring tape. Hurt threw up his hand, halting him. The undertaker slithered away. There was no sense measuring the Feral brothers for coffins. At least, not yet.

Hurt still needed their heads.

His employer—the murdered dragon ranchers nephew—had made that part of the contract very clear. He wanted their heads, wanted to feed them slowly over the course of weeks to Brataxus, the albino Carthusian saddle dragon that had loved his departed uncle like a lap dog.

Hurt approached the bloated corpses, wondering if he might be able to handle the enormous fallen battle axe to conclude his contract.

Then he spotted something that stopped him dead in his tracks.

A glint of medal on one half-ogres chest, a twin on the other. Stars. Badges. Lawman badges.

Hurt frowned. “What the hel–

His words strangled away in his throat as dark magic seized him, paralyzed him, and lifted him a foot off the ground.

“Well I’ll be damned,” came a poisonous voice behind him. “That can’t be my old partner Huckleberry El Fuego, now can it?”

Hurt knew who the voice belonged to even before the sorcerer spun him and looked him in the eye.

“You are damned, Laugh” Hurt spat, struggling to speak. He was choking, drowning in black magic. It felt as if a thousand flaming cat claws were raking across his chest, his face, his eye.

‘Laughing’ Sam Cadaverous was an ex-Ranger, no-good, backstabbing Necromancer, and judging by the tin star pinned to his billowing, maroon robes, the current Sherriff of Warlock.

“Hmm? Seems you killed my deputies, Huckleberry.” Sherriff Cadaverous laughed.

“Deputies,” Hurt scoffed in spite of his strangling organs.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Cadaverous said. “You never should have come here, Hurton. You were supposed to die with your wife in El Paso.” The Necromancer raised a gnarled hand that looked more like a buzzard talon. “But I suppose this will have to do.”

Hurt’s skin began to flay around his fingernails. Unseen plyers wrenched on the few remaining brown teeth still anchored in his jaw. One by one, his ribs began to creak and groan, finally snapping like dry kindling.

Appropriately enough, ‘Laughing’ Sam Cadaverous began to laugh.

Hurt turned his eyes skyward, retreating inside himself, trying with all his might to ignore the agony.

He didn’t want to scream.

‘Laughing’ Sam Cadaverous fed on screams.

Almost imperceptibly, a monstrous white shadow passed over the sun.

A dragon shaped shadow.

“You’re not going to see her again where I’m sending you, Hurt,” Cadaverous said as he stalked closer. “It’s too dark even for shadows where I’m going to send you.”

Hurt mashed shut his eye to stop tears from escaping. His spine groaned under the demonic pressure, like a dead tree branch under heavy snow. As the pain wrecked him, racked him, he thought of his wife, of home, of his Rangers Oath, mired in blood and magic. He thought about everything he had loved and lost, and then he thought about how he was finally ready to die.

Preoccupied with dying as he was, Hurt didn’t see the nine thousand pound albino dragon land in the street, nor did he see its enormous jaw unhinge, but along with the rest of Warlock, Hurt absorbed its rage, felt its own brand of merciless justice for its murdered master.

Warlock was swallowed in flames as tornado force dragon fire scorched the earth.

Finally, Hurt screamed.

Everyone screamed.

The world turned searing, cataclysmic white, then just as suddenly faded to black.

When Sir Hurton ‘Huckleberry’ El Fuego awoke, it was in a crater of black ash and grimy soot. Warlock Township was decimated, nothing but a smouldering smear in the center of the Sand Sea.

The Feral brothers were charred, smoking skeletons.

‘Laughing’ Sam Cadaverous was a charred, smoking skeleton.

Whiskey was mostly a charred, smoking skeleton, but thankfully her head had only been mostly burned, not entirely. Hurt gave her a sooty smooch on her pustule covered nose, told her he knew a Mage in Consequence Creek that owed him a favor, could have her right as rain in no time flat.

With his hat and duster burned to nothing, and his chainmail and gun belt melted to a hardened glossy puddle, Hurt stood there in his blackened birthday suit; singed body hair like a bear with matching odor, pancake ass, beer belly, pitchfork tail swaying lazily like a mesmerized cobra, stubby horns tingling at the tickle of evening breeze.

Hurt felt the advantages to being Hell-born were few and far between, but besides the ability to start campfires with piss, and cook beans in the palms of his hands, being immune to fire—especially dragon fire–was pretty much at the top of the list.

Bending at the waist, Hurt scooped Doom and Gloom up out of the ash. The pistols were untouched, gleaming silver brilliant as ever. Whiskey—or more accurately Whiskey’s head—whinnied. She was directly behind him, close enough to kiss his charred ass.

Hurt laughed, which caused another rib to crack. He winced in pain, laughed again, spit out a tooth. Gently, he picked up Whiskey’s head, cradled it in his arms like a baby. His tail was prehensile. He used it to hold his pistols. With shambling steps, he made his way over to the charred remains of the Feral brothers. He kicked one of their giant skulls, which promptly disintegrated and scattered on the wind.

“Let’s get on, Whiskey,” Hurt said, the same way he would’ve in the saddle. He turned, and began his naked march into the endless, sandy nothingness. He had no food, no water or clothes, and there wasn’t another settlement for a hundred leagues, yet still, a smile played on his lips and his Hell-born tail swayed like a contented bloodhounds. “Nuthin’ left for us here. Can’t collect no bounty on a stinkin’ pile uh ash.”

Mr. Dred’s Never Deads

In a gap between The Gap and Gap for Kids—a stone’s throw from The Gap outlet store and directly across from Baby Gap—Olivia noticed a peculiar looking shop in the depths of Magorium’s Mall she had never bothered noticing before. She stopped to scrutinize it, twirling a lock of her fiery red hair as she was often prone to do while scrutinizing.

The store was narrow and oddly crooked, as if it had been hastily shoved in the gap between Gaps when no one was looking. Glossy black paint and frosted windows gave way to a warped purple awning that loomed over the door like a snarling lip.

“Mr. Dred’s Never Deads,” Olivia sounded out the strange words stenciled across it. “Ew.” She scrunched up her nose in revulsion, both at the stores morbid title and the hint of humid morgue rank wafting out from beneath the door.

“Can I help you miss?”

Olivia “Eeeked!” like a stepped on mouse and almost jumped right out of her Reeboks. She spun around, mouth aghast, nearly inhaling the bowtie of the unsettlingly tall man that stood uncomfortably close behind her.

“Ever so sorry miss,” the man said, “did I frighten you?”

“N-no,” Olivia stammered, even though he had—terribly in fact—and continued to do so, increasingly by the second.

The man looked like a reanimated corpse that had been sun bleached and pickled. Sunken eyes, purple lipped smile, goose-downy white hair slicked back from his jaundiced forehead. He was vacuum sealed into a bruise-black suit, so slim it might have been custom tailored to fit a coat rack.

“Come to sample my wares, hmmm?” the man asked, flourishing a twiggy hand at the store front. Olivia followed the hand with her eyes, gawked at it. It looked strange. Seemed almost to have too many knuckles.

“Huh?” She croaked, taking an inadvertent step backwards.

The man laughed, dark and dusty.

“Young miss, allow me to introduce myself,” he said with a bow, “my name is D.W. Dredololopolis, or Mr. Dred, if you quite prefer. I am the humble proprietor of Mr. Dred’s Never Deads.” He leaned in, close enough to trigger Olivia’s gag reflex with his oscillating nose hairs. “And you, my dear miss, have the distinct pleasure of being my final customer of the day.”

Before Olivia could even cringe at the prospect—as if by magic—Mr. Dred spun her around so fast she almost toppled over and whisked her inside the store.

“Welcome,” he sang as the door hissed shut behind them.

A dozen years earlier, as a tenth birthday surprise, Olivia’s parents had taken her to the Circus.

In the midst of that fateful birthday afternoon, the big tops star attraction—Purvis the Preeminent Pachyderm—succumbed to a terrible bout of elephant flu and dropped dead in front of two thousand traumatized spectators, only, not before projectile vomiting half the gory contents of his enormous elephant guts and projectile scatting out the rest.

The smell that troubling afternoon at the Circus was a citrus scented candle in comparison to the interior of Mr. Dred’s Never Deads.

Olivia clamped a hand over her nose, breathing shallow through her mouth as she blinked away tears.

“It’s a pet store,” she said bluntly.

“Of sorts,” Mr. Dred replied, leaning against an odd looking dog kennel big enough to house a rhinoceros.

It certainly looked like a pet store, which was the only reason Olivia was still standing there, soaking the humid fog of animal stink into her clothes. She had a soft spot for pets—dogs, cats, birds, even snakes–and besides the gloomy lighting, the skeletal shop keep, and a few odd looking trinkets here and there, she was convinced she was standing in an ordinary pet shop. At least, at first she was.

Three aisles separated Mr. Dred’s Never Deads, running the entirety of its narrow length, crowded with kennels, aquariums, and cages of all shapes and sizes. Ignoring her protesting nose, Olivia began to browse.

“So what’ll it be, hmm?” Mr. Dred asked as he slunk up next to her, quiet as a shadow. He pointed to a grimy aquarium that was bubbling like a witch’s cauldron. As they passed, Olivia could feel intense heat radiating from it, yet still murky creatures darted around inside. “Haitian curse turtle? Whattayasay? Fair price. I’ll throw in a tank filter, some food pellets? A dehydrated witch doctor decoration perhaps?”

Olivia shook her head dreamily and continued down the aisle.

“How ‘bout a nice Antillean ghost bat?” He pointed at what appeared to be a completely empty wooden perch. “They make great companions. Very neat. Don’t need to eat.”

Olivia shook her head dreamily and continued down the aisle.

“I’ve got it!” Mr. Dred said. “Quasi-departed terrier!” He gestured to a kennel in which slumped a pudgy, gore-streaked dog with drool congealed around its snout and lolling eyes like mini-glazed doughnuts. “A quasi-departed terrier makes the perfect companion. No fuss, no muss. Just don’t let the little rapscallion get a whiff of brain—

“Wait,” Olivia said, pointing towards a bird cage at the back of the shop. It glowed red like a sizzling stove element, fading to regular old dark cast iron as she watched it. “What’s that?”

“Oh no!” Mr. Dred swooned, stepping in front of it. His meager, scarecrow chest barely blocked a quarter of the cage from view. “No, no, no, young miss, you most certainly do not want that.”

“What is it?” Olivia asked as she stepped around him and peered inside. “Some kind of bird?”

“Well, yes,” Mr. Dred muttered. “I suppose it’s a bird. Of sorts.”

Inside the cage, a black bird the size of Olivia’s thumb ruffled around in a dark pile of ash. When it noticed Olivia, it favored her with a plucky bird song and plumed out its feathers. Olivia giggled.

“Does it have a name?” She asked, beckoning it with the tip of her finger.

“Sparky,” he said dryly. “Her name is Sparky.” Mr. Dred was no longer looking at the bird. He wasn’t looking at Olivia either. He was staring past them both, past the bird cage, to a sign above a glass encased, wall mounted fire extinguisher which read:

IN CASE OF PHOENIX BREAK GLASS

“Sparky,” she echoed.

Olivia was in love with the tiny bird before its song even ended. She knew she absolutely had to have it. She checked her wristwatch. Where had the day gone? She was going to have to hammer out a deal quickly if she was still going to make it to work on time.

“She’s perfect,” Olivia said. Sparky blushed, which Olivia realized was odd for a bird, but remarkably adorable. She shrugged it off. Even odder, the blush didn’t fade. Sparky lightened in color from black to dark maroon. Odder still, by the time Olivia and Mr. Dred were done haggling over price, Sparky had swelled up to the size of a hamster.

By the time Olivia left Mr. Dred’s Never Deads, Sparky was the size of a kitten and the color of freshly spilt blood.

By the time Olivia boarded the bus for the industrial district, Sparky was the size of a Shih Tzu and the color of licking flames. Not only that, Sparky had begun to steam. Olivia shrugged it off, blaming it on the hot weather and the poor climate control of the shoddy city bus.

By the time Olivia arrived at work for the evening shift, Sparky was so big she barely fit in her bird cage. She looked uncomfortable, frantic and feverish, so rather than stash Sparky in the break room for the night, Olivia let her out to get some air and stretch her giant, burnt-orange wings around the factory.

After all, Olivia thought as she snapped on her goggles and wrestled into her heavy protective suit, what’s the worst thing a bird could do at nitroglycerine plant?

A Clone for Joan

Joan McKrohn had a rotary phone.

Which was a problem, but not necessarily a large one when stacked up against the other problems swelling around her. For one, four out of nine of her cats—John, Paul, Ringo, and Dragon–were feasting on the Styrofoam packing peanuts that covered the living room floor. That was going to lead to some bloated bellies and disquieting poops, she was sure of it.

Secondly, she had suffered a nasty paper cut while unfurling the treasure map-sized instruction manual that lay crinkled out before her. It smarted.

Lastly, now that she had finally pried the stupid Clone-O-Max out of the crate and figured out how to turn it on, she couldn’t figure out how to shut it off again.

Precisely every six minutes and thirty eight seconds it rumbled, flared and vented strange smelling vapor into the air, followed by a jaunty, microwave oven ‘PING!’ and “YOUR CLONE IS READY,” announced with an emotionless, robotic baritone. It reeked like singed hair–or more accurately singed fur–which Joan recalled all too well from the unpleasantness involving Whiskers the first and the electrical outlet behind the sofa.

The problem with Joans rotary phone, was that she couldn’t “Press one for English,” like the computerized interactive voice response entity commanded. Every time she tried-

‘WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH, ticka, ticka, ticka, ticka, ticka, ticka’

-the phone died, and she had to dial 1-800-CLONMAX all over again, which on a rotary phone, took approximately forty five minutes.

In the midst of her fifth call, she was about to try saying “English” instead, when one of her cats chased a bouncing packing peanut across the splayed out instruction manual, decorating it with tiny claw marks.

“SHOO, DRAGON!” She shrieked at the spooked kitty.

“O-kay,” the customer service robot piped up confidently. “I think you said ‘UKRANIAN’. Is that right?”

Overcome with frustration, Joan slammed down the phone. In the background, the Clone-O-Max rumbled, flared, and vented strange smelling vapor into the air. ‘PING!’ “YOUR CLONE IS RE— “I KNOW!” Joan interrupted. “Just stop it! Stop saying that!”

She huffed, ran a hand through her frizzy, grey bob, and settled herself with a cleansing breath. Maybe her friends were right. Maybe she was technologically challenged like the girls at Bingo always teased her. She did have a rotary phone, after all. She had a VCR, too. Her Walkman was scratched up and pocked like the moon, but that didn’t stop her from jamming out to her Neil Diamond cassettes each morning as she cleaned out the litter boxes.

It was like her daddy always told her: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Joan had turned that old truism into her life’s mantra, but in all honesty, she was getting tired of being teased. Tired enough in fact to buy that odd looking ‘TECHNOLOGY OF TOMORROW’ magazine at the grocery store. Tired enough even to order the Clone-O-Max contraption from the peculiar advertisements on the back page.

‘ARE YOU LONELY?’ The ad had asked. Joan was, although she would never admit it to the cats.

‘ARE YOU SICK OF HOUSEWORK?’ The ad had asked. Joan was. Three of her cats had irritable bowels, and one had a weak bladder. Her hands were chapped from chemical cleansers.

‘WHY NOT CLONE YOURSELF?’ The ad had asked. Joan was skeptical.

‘FOUR HANDS ARE BETTER THAN TWO.’ Still skeptical.

‘BE THE ENVY OF ALL YOUR FRIENDS WITH THIS TECHNOLOGICAL MARVEL!’ That sealed the deal.

Joan clipped the advertisement with her coupons and sent the payment by snail mail. She didn’t own a computer, and even if she had, it wouldn’t have been much help. Joan thought the internet was an office device used to snare slacking interns.

Three and half months later the Clone-O-Max arrived.

Now, the refrigerator-sized thingamajig loomed behind her, right in the middle of her living room carpet, and it wouldn’t stop— ‘PING!“YOUR CLONE IS READY.” Joan took another deep breath. She scrunched up her nose at the smell. She resigned herself to give 1-800-CLONMAX one last try. She needed help. She picked up the phone, but before she could dial-

“Ahem,”

-a purposeful throat clearing sounded behind her. Joan swiveled on the seat of her vintage slacks. She gasped.

The living room was full of Joans.

Miniature Joans.

The largest was the size of a Chihuahua. The smallest, the size of a mouse. There were eleven in total. On the carpet, on the sofa; one had even climbed up onto the ceramic unicorn that sat on the end table. They were each dressed in crude, lady bug festooned ponchos which the most innovative Joan of the bunch had fashioned for them by tearing up a tea cozy.

Original Joan thought back to the Clone-O-Max DNA sequencer set up. It couldn’t have been more complicated. She figured she’d gotten something wrong. Now she knew for sure.

As she gawked from miniature Joan, to miniature Joan, and they gawked back, the Clone-O-Max rumbled, flared, and vented strange smelling vapor into the air. Joan groaned, kicked the contraption with her thrift store sock.

Mini-Joan the twelfth tumbled out.

‘PING!’

Somebody tossed miniature Joan the twelfth a poncho. She was roughly the size of a cricket.

“YOUR CLONE IS REA– Joan kicked the Clone-O-Max again. Hard.

The plug fell out of the electrical outlet next to it with a thump. The Clone-O-Max sputtered and died. Joan blinked, once, twice, and exploded with laughter. On cue, the mini-Joan’s followed suit.

All thirteen Joan’s laughed until they were blue in the face, then laughed some more. Original Joan laughed hardest. Her sanity was cracking like thawing ice.

Once the laughter fizzled, and they struggled through nervous first impressions, Joan and the clones made s’mores.

After that, they snuggled and read a Garfield comic, cover to cover, prompting one clone to ask for lasagna for supper, and another to groan she “had a case of the Monday’s.”

Everyone laughed.

After lasagna dinner, they threw a mixer that mimicked a 1970’s junior high sock hop; clones on one side of the living room, cats on the other, Neil Diamond crooning in the background, no one wanting to be the first to start dancing.

Joan McKrohn never went back to Bingo with her so-called-friends again.

She had new friends to play Bingo with. Friends that loved her. Friends that didn’t judge her, didn’t tease her, and listened with rapt attention as she gushed about her cats. Miniature friends, but friends just the same.

Nine of them.

That’s right. Nine.

Dragon ate three of them—completely accidently of course–but that was alright.

In Joan’s opinion, ten was more than enough for a rousing game of Bingo.