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.

The Last Three Minutes of War

Ruger hunched in the foxhole.

Wet, black heat seeped from the smouldering crater in his Electrum breast plate; hydraulic fuel, mingled with sweat, mingled with blood. He cursed. The suns were going down, and he was a hundred miles from nowhere. His android spotter was a sparking, ruined junk heap at his feet. The rest of his platoon was scattered across the moonscape battle ground like smoking chunks of rocket crash. He cursed again. The blinking red display on his wrist warned him sepsis was snaking a poison path through his spleen, two of his ribs were fractured, his orbital socket was broken, and his nanomedics were completely offline.

Ruger spit out the shattered incisor that had been grating his gums. It plinked off a jagged gash of shrapnel before coming to rest in the burnt orange dust. Where in the hell were reinforcements? With a charred fingertip, he sent the S.O.S signal for the seventh time. For the seventh time, there was no reply. Nothing but white noise static, like the empty, quiet hum of deep space. Was he the only one left?

A distant howl—part war cry, part sobbing jag—roused him, brought him back to the present like an icy slap in the face. Ruger got up, winced, spit blood. He peered over the rust colored dune. The sound was coming from across the battlefield, from a foxhole not unlike his own, from the lone soldier climbing out of it. The soldier looked like Ruger felt. Half his mangled body was limp, scorched, smoking like a forgotten camp fire. He held no weapons. He wore no armor. He left a gory slug trail in the dust behind him, staggering forward like a burning man in the dessert.

Ruger was out of ammunition. No shells. No grenades. No fusion charge. Even his bayonet was missing, forgotten an eternity earlier in an enemy sternum. He tossed his useless weapon aside and struggled out of his sparking armor. The soldier drew closer, barking, frothing, stalking towards him. With steady, battle calloused hands, Ruger emptied a hypodermic into each thigh. Morphine in the left, adrenaline in the right. They stung like wasp stings, but he suddenly felt twenty feet tall and made of steel. He slapped himself across the face. Hard.

The last two soldiers, on a planet with no name, countless light years from home, were about to fight to the death with their ruined bare hands. Fight to the death for a cause, that for the life of him–as he rained blood, and mucus, and tears into the dirt–Ruger couldn’t seem to recall. He closed his eyes, patted the locket that dangled next to his dog tags. Inside, his wife and baby daughter smiled.

The enemy howl was close now, right on top of him. Ruger opened his eyes, clenched his fists, gnashed his teeth. He didn’t believe in God, yet that didn’t stop him from hissing a prayer as he clambered up out of the alien dirt to meet his fate.

“Lord, give me the streng—

Ruger froze.

The enemy–poised to bludgeon him with a chalky orange stone the size of a cantaloupe–froze as well.

In the alien sky, a miles high countdown appeared, ticking down with an ear splitting klaxon, displayed in digital blood red.

10, 9, 8

If Ruger or the enemy soldier had any consciousness left, they might have stared up and wondered at it, or puzzled at the monstrous shadows it cast across their battleground.

7, 6, 5

With a blast of ominous trumpets, colossal letters appeared below it. Horizon to horizon. Letters that the Zandalarian-speaking enemy soldier wouldn’t have been able to read, even if he was still self-aware. Ruger could have read it though, had he still been cognizant and able to sufficiently read backwards.

INSERT ONE DOLLAR TO CONTINUE PLAYING

–4, 3, 2, 1

Ruger’s God ( Taylor, a ten year old girl who didn’t even want to go to the stupid Arcade in the first stupid place but her stupid brother made her ) was a merciless, vengeful God.

She picked her nose as she watched the countdown expire.

She didn’t have another dollar, and this game was stupid anyway.

HalfTime Machine

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 squirming in her chewed nail grip.

“You said at half time you’d throw in the laundry,” she snarled. “Tommy’s spitting up over everything.”

“Come on, Francine?” Earl barked back. “It’s the Super Bowl here.” On the television, a bow-tied cartoon bear was singing the praises of a particular brand of toilet paper. “Can’t it wait?”

“NO!” Francine boomed. Tommy began to cry, loud and unyielding. Banshee scream. Air raid siren. “Unless you wanna wear a puke stained shirt to work tomorrow?”

“Maybe I do,” Earl replied soft as a whisper.

“JUST DO IT, EARL!”

The door slammed. Earl winced, then winced again at the chorus of angry Francine stomps, protesting floor boards, baby wails, and about a half minutes worth of muffled swear words. He sighed, stifled the budding whale song in his gut with a gulp of beer, and gazed across the basement.

Beyond the lovelorn love seat, neglected foosball table, and World War Two era treadmill, the laundry room door was open. Inside, dark and foreboding, a Matterhorn-sized heap of dirty laundry gazed back at him. Beckoned him. Dared him.

Gym sock Everest.

Soiled pajama Mount Doom.

Earl regarded it with the same sour expression he usually reserved for suspicious smells and IKEA instructions. The prospect of prospecting through that festering mess turned his stomach. Or maybe that was just the chicken wings jostling for position? Either way, he decided the laundry could wait.

His attention drifted back to the television, to a bulldozer in a grass stained jersey, vehemently grunting about the 110% effort he was going to give in the second half. The side line reporter interviewing him cringed as he proclaimed there was no “I” in “VICTORY,” splattering greasy spit-gobs of chewing tobacco all over the twenty five yard line.

Earl cracked a fresh cold one, excavated a hamsters worth of mystery fluff from his belly button, and settled back deep into his recliner. He sighed a contented sigh. The third quarter was starting any minute. The linebacker with the mailbox shaped head was smack in the middle of a football themed sexual innuendo, when a large metallic orb winked into existence less than six feet from Earl’s recliner.

Earl sat up so fast his mouthful of beer turned to foam and sprayed out his nose. His ears popped. Something simultaneously hot and cold flip flopped in his stomach. Blood vessels burst in both his eyes. He shrieked, choking back shock vomit as he tumbled out of his recliner and scrambled behind it, cowering there like an abused laboratory monkey.

The orb was roughly the size of a refrigerator, flawless, gleaming chrome, dripping with viscous gunk that resembled petroleum jelly, but reeked like burnt ozone. It thrummed like a virus choked computer, vibrating imperceptibly, just enough to tremble the carpet fibers and irritate Earls fillings.

“Earl?” Francine’s muffled voice called out overhead, followed by the staccato wallop of her approaching footfalls. The door at the top of the stairs creaked open. “Earl? I thought I heard sumthin down here? You okay?”

Before Earl could even whimper an answer, a glowing seam appeared down the center of the orb, perfectly even, as if sliced with a surgical laser from within. The seam opened, birthing a figure and a dry ice fog that snaked out across the basement floor. The figure shook himself off like a dog coming in out of the rain. He was roughly Earl-sized, wearing a painted on jumpsuit that appeared to be made from tin foil. A shiny helmet and visor obscured his face. He looked like an alien luge rider from the intergalactic Olympic Games.

“I’m fine, Francine,” came Earl’s voice, even though Earl hadn’t yet found the courage to open his mouth. “Just got a little excited about the game, is all.”

“Hmm-hmm. You throw in the laundry yet?”

“Doin it as we speak, babe,” came Earl’s voice again, sugar sweet.

The door slammed. Francine stomped away. Earl’s bladder let go. He smacked himself hard in the face to ward off unconsciousness.

His voice.

His voice was coming out of the man from the orb.

The man swiveled towards him, strolled over, removed his helmet with a hiss of compressed air.

“Hiya Earl,”

Earl stood up on legs that felt like empty garden hoses. On the television, a football colossus collided with a camera man, sending him flailing through the air like a crash test dummy. Seventy five thousand fans groaned in unison. Earl didn’t even notice. He was far too busy slack jaw gawking at the orb man’s face.

“Like lookin’ in a mirror, huh?”

It was like looking in a mirror. Except for a couple extra crow’s feet around the eyes, and a tad more salt and pepper dusting the hair, Earl and the orb man’s face were identical.

“How?” Earl stammered. His heart was pounding so hard he thought Francine might hear it.

“I’m you, dummy,” orb-Earl chuckled. “From the future!” He enunciated like a bad radio actor, chuckled some more. “You don’t look so hot. Sit down, before you fall down Earl, wudja?”

Earl flopped into his recliner, massaging his forehead with a sweaty palm. Future Earl slid aside a plate of chicken bones and sat down on the coffee table across from him. His metallic suit not only looked like tin foil, it sounded like it too, loud and crunchy. It grated Earls’ already frazzled nerves. Future Earl helped himself to a beer, chugged sloppily. He drained it and belched.

“Oh man, I miss these,” he sighed to the empty bottle. He set it down, bringing his attention back to Earl’s slack face. “We don’t have beer anymore when I’m from. You need grain to make beer, you know. Clean water too.”

Future Earl helped himself to another. A handful of potato chips.

“Uh,” Earl stammered. His head hurt. “You mean where you’re from?”

“Nope,” Future Earl belched. “You know exactly where I’m from Earl. I’m you, remember? I’m from right here. Born fifteen miles away. Went to high school down the street. Met Francine at the burger joint around the corner.” He laughed. “Geez, I guess we’re not very well travelled are we?”

Earl just stared. The vein in his forehead throbbed like a runaway fire hose.

“It’s the when I’m from that concerns you Earl. Concerns both of us. Everyone actually.”

“The when?” Earl asked dreamily.

“Yep. The future. The year 2087 to be exact.”

Earl pointed accusingly at the giant, humming mirror ball. “Time machine, huh?”

Future Earl nodded. Smiled. Winked.

Migraine threatening to split his skull in half, Earl struggled to do the math.

“But? Wait. Wouldn’t that would make you—

“One hundred and two years old,” Future Earl said with a toothy smile, revealing to Earl that at some point in the future, he definitely must have gotten his teeth capped.

“How?” Earl asked. “One hundred and two? How is that possible?”

“Uh, let’s see. Nervous system upgrade, new kidneys, nano-lungs, polymer heart, muon catalyzed fusion Botox,” Future Earl rattled off the list on the fingers of his shiny glove. “Listen Earl, the list goes on and on, but none of that matters. What really matters is the reason I’m here. The very future of the human race depends on it.”

Star bursts filled Earl’s vision. He realized suddenly he’d been holding his breath. He let it out with a whoosh of honey mustard tinged air.

“Okay,” Earl said, stealing a sideways glance at the time machine. “So what’s the reason? Why are you here?”

Future Earl leaned in ominously, steepled his fingers beneath his chin.

“To ensure sure you do the laundry, Earl.”

Earl’s face twitched, erupted with a bark of crazed laughter.

“To ensure I do the laundry?”

“That’s right.”

Earl just stared. Drool pooled in the corner of his mouth, ran down his chin.

“Listen Earl,” Future Earl began. “I know how crazy this sounds but you’ve gotta believe me. I’ve been up and down our timeline, solved hundreds of seemingly more important problems, over and over again. This is it. This is the event that begins the chain reaction that destroys the World.”

“Me. Not doing the laundry.” Earl said dryly. “Destroys the World?”

Future Earl nodded.

“Come on?” Earl chuckled. “That doesn’t even make any sense. I was just about to do the laundry, okay? I was getting up to do it right before you got here.”

“No you weren’t Earl,” Future Earl said, waggling a shiny finger. “Don’t lie to yourself here. You were going to put it off, and put it off, and forget all about it. Later, when Francine finds out you didn’t do it, the two of you are going to get into an argument over it. An argument that grows into the biggest argument of your lives. You both say stuff you can’t take back. Neither one of you apologizes. Francine’s anger festers. Tomorrow afternoon Francine runs into Boyd Buckingham. You remember him?”

“Yeah,” Earl snorted. “He’s that creepy little ginger kid we went to high school with.”

“Well, he’s not a little kid anymore,” Future Earl snorted back. “These days he’s a tech millionaire, soon to be billionaire. The two of them go for coffee. Next week dinner. Dinner in Paris, Earl. He’s considerate, attentive, fit. Everything you are not.”

Earl sat up a little taller, sucked in his gut.

“She leaves you Earl,” Future Earl snapped. “Divorces you. Takes Tommy with her. Buckingham is a terrible step dad. Cold. Never there. Tommy resents all three of you, grows up rotten. He inherits the company when Buckingham dies. Immediately gets outta space-commerce. Takes on military contracts. Weapons manufacturing. Research and development.” Future Earl sighed, shook his head. “To make a long story short, he ends up test firing some kind of experimental dark matter bomb in the thermosphere that knocks the Earth off its axis, resulting in a gravity disruption, oxygen crisis, and the deaths of just under sixty three billion people.”

Earl was holding his breath again. He let it out. With it came a steaming spray of vomit that splashed all over Future Earls shiny shoes.

Future Earl groaned. “Guess I shoulda seen that coming.”

Earl heaved, retched, dry-heaved, and eventually flopped back in his recliner, wiping his sloppy, tomato-red face on the sleeve of his shirt. Shakily, he rose.

“Okay. I’ll do it right now,” he said. “The laundry. No problem. That’ll fix it then, right? Fix the future?”

Future Earl discreetly picked up a handful of potato chips, deposited them in an almost imperceptible fanny pack.

“That’s the theory,” he said. “By doing the laundry, you should be able to avoid the fight with Francine. Tomorrow, when she runs into Buckingham, she’ll remember she loves you and spurn his advances. You stay together, you both raise Tommy lovingly, and you ensure he doesn’t turn into a tyrannical megalomaniac.”

Earl nodded frenetically. “Okay, okay, I can do that.” He ushered Future Earl over to the time machine, which began thrumming louder as they approached. “So that’s it? I do the laundry and we’re done? Will I see you again?”

Future Earl smiled, clapped Earl on the shoulder.

“Quick lesson on quantum mechanics for you, Earl. Once I leave, if I was to return even a nanosecond later, I’d still be returning from the future. The year 2087. The year 2087 that has now been altered by our interaction here today. Whether you believe it or not Earl, you’ve already been altered, which will in turn create a future you conceivably much different from me. Maybe even a future you that never travels back into the past and has this conversation with you? Mind blow, huh? Does any of that make any sense?”

Earl bobbled his head, even though Future Earl might as well have been speaking Japanese.

“Chaos Theory buddy,” Future Earl continued. “Butterfly effect. Everything we do has implications for the future. Maybe you stub your toe on the way to the laundry room and we never achieve interstellar space flight? Maybe you re-direct the flight plan of a mosquito, and a grade 17 Oppenheim-Richter earthquake annihilates New Canada?” He chuckled. “Can’t worry ‘bout any of that now though, can we? Just get that laundry done, Earl. Five star Laundromat quality. Save the World.”

Earl’s head kept bobbling.

“Yep. The only way you should see this handsome mug again is in the mirror in seventy years.”

Earl laughed in spite of himself.

Future Earl snapped on his helmet and shook Earl’s hand before struggling inside the time machine through the luminous seam.

“Okay, uh, bye,” Earl called out. “Have a good….flight?”

A tin foil shiny thumbs up appeared in the opening, disappearing inside as the time machine soundlessly sealed. “It’s gonna work this time Earl,” came Future Earl’s muffled voice. “I can feel it.”

Something flip flopped inside Earls stomach again, and with a dry pop and a whoosh of air, the time machine vanished, leaving nothing but a small charred smudge in the basement carpet. Earl’s eyes watered. His nose began to bleed. Dark and clotty. He mingled it with the blotted vomit and chicken wing seasoning on his shirt sleeve as he shambled towards the laundry room.

Earl smiled despite his rolling guts and the pounding in his head.

He was about to save the future.

Earl reached the base of laundry mountain and was about to dig in, when a rough hand clamped onto his shoulder and spun him around, bringing him face to sternum with a seven foot tall humanoid, comprised entirely of sparking wires, whirring sprockets, and rusty metal.

“EARL!” The robot barked, loud and analog. Bullfrog croak. Laryngectomy patient. It released him with a hydraulic hiss and Earl fell backwards into a pile of questionably stained baby blankets.

“Wha?” Earl mumbled. “What are you?!”

“I’m you, dummy,” the robot said. A compartment slid open on its stomach, revealing a human brain encased in smudged glass, bobbing around in thick goop, the color and consistency of maple syrup. “From the future!” The compartment slid shut. “The year 2087 to be exact.”

Earl craned his neck. Behind the robot, a Buick-sized, red glowing hexagon hovered two inches above the basement carpet.

Earl pointed at it accusingly.

“Time machine, huh?” He whimpered.

Future Robot Earl clink-clank nodded. Clink-clank smiled. Clink-clank winked.

“What do you want now?” Earl sobbed. “Why are you here?”

Future Robot Earl’s legs telescoped, lowering him closer to where Earl cowered in the dirty laundry.

“To ensure you use fabric softener, Earl. For the love of all humanity, to ensure you use fabric softener.”

wishdotcom

Liability Disclaimer
WISH.com does not provide liability insurance for the protection of individuals, groups, organizations, businesses, or any others who may participate in the wish granting process.
In consideration for your participation in said wish granting process, the individual, group, organization, business, or any other, does hereby release and forever discharge WISH.com and its officers, board, and employees, jointly and severally from any and all actions, cause of actions, claims or demands for damage, loss, injury, death, degeneration, transmogrification, transmutation, transubstantiation, which hereafter may be sustained by participating in the wish granting process.

Roland Rothschild III crammed his face full of truffles, washed them down with a gluttonous gulp of Dom Perignon, snorted at the concept of liability, and greedily mashed the “I ACCEPT” button.

His screen flashed with Technicolor, so dazzling he had to shield his eyes. Thunder boomed overhead–thunder just for him–rumbling first editions off bookshelves, upending artwork, rocking the huge chandelier like it was dangling with monkeys.

“Welcome to wishdotcom,” a voice mumbled impatiently. “My names Ben. I’m your genie. You got three wishes. What’ll it be?”

Roland rubbed his eyes. On the computer screen, a window had opened. Inside it, a man hunched behind a sterile white desk, within a sterile white cubicle, under sterile white light, peering out at him with all the enthusiasm of a colonoscopy patient. A name plate sat on the man’s desk.

“B. EVOLENT – Certified Genie, C.P.G.”

Ben Evolent had the bleak, vacant look of a man proof reading his suicide note. Sloppy, bruise brown suit, crinkled tie, wispy comb over. He could have passed for a weary insurance salesman, maybe an abused accountant, except for his eyes. They were devoid of pupils, devoid of lids or lashes, oval pools of smouldering lava.

“You’re on the clock, sir,” Ben sighed. He absently picked his nose. “First wish. What’ll it be?”

“HEY!” Roland barked. “This is costing me a fortune, genie. Don’t rush me.” He leaned back in his wingback chair, helping himself to another tall glass of champagne. It bubbled over, spilling onto his bulbous gut, spilling onto the chair, dripping onto the imported Persian rug that once belonged to Farrakhan the Great. Roland couldn’t have cared less.

“Alright,” he sighed after a noisy slurp. “First wish, hmmm?” He sat up tall, stroking all three of his chins. “You know something, genie? My wife Delia. She absolutely refuses to be civil with any of my mistresses. Even her own sister. I wish she was dead.”

Ben smacked himself on the forehead.

“Seriously? Ugh. Billionaires.” He loosened his already loosened tie. “Let me take a wild guess here. You didn’t read the rules and regulations at all, did you?”

Roland took another sip of bubbly, didn’t answer.

“The rules and regulations, sir,” Ben said irritably. “You know? Two dozen pages of legal mumbo jumbo you were supposed to read and agree to before the liability disclaimer?”

“I skimmed em,” Roland said disinterestedly.

Ben scoffed.

“Well it would seem you didn’t skim them well enough,” he said. “Because if you had, you would have learned that killing someone is completely out of the question. We don’t wish people dead, sir. It’s bad juju.” He dug a stress ball out of his desk, white knuckle squeezed it. “So then? Moving on. Wish number two. What’s it gonna be?”

Roland spit out a mouthful of champagne, drenching Goliath, the best in show Tibetan Mastiff slumbering at his feet.

“WISH NUMBER TWO!?” He spat. Goliath growled at him before padding away. “Whattayamean wish number two?”

Ben stopped massaging his stress ball and started massaging his temples.

“Page thirteen of the rules and regulations,” he said. “Section eight, sub section two, paragraph “F”, clearly states: Any wish requisitioned which falls outside the designated wish parameters shall be declined, and shall therefore constitute a forfeited wish.”

Roland stared at him, wide eyed, red faced, the vein in his forehead writhing like a runaway fire hose. “Dammit genie, speak English.”

“What I’m saying, sir, is that because you wished for something on the prohibited list—a death–you forfeited the wish. You lost it. It’s gone. You have two wishes remaining. Would you like a refresher on the prohibited list before we contin–”

“NO!” Roland howled. “NO! How dare you!? You can’t do that! Do you have any idea how much that wish cost me?”

“I’m sorry sir, but I’m afraid that what’s done is done. Wish number two? What’ll it be?”

Roland stood up, knocking his champagne glass to the floor, shattering it.

“You think you can take my wish?” He yelled. “Just take it? From me? Do you know who I am? Who you’re messin’ with?” He flopped back into his chair, rubbing his chest, huffing and puffing.

“Please, try and calm down sir,” Ben said dryly. “That pain your feeling in your chest right now is what’s called a coronary artery spasm. If you don’t get control of yourself, it’s going to develop into a fatal heart attack three minutes and eighteen seconds from now. Heart disease runs in your family remember. It’s what killed your Father as he was teeing off at Augusta, June fourth, 1968, and what would’ve killed your Grandfather, had he not shot himself, twelve minutes to midnight, the evening of the infamous stock market crash, October 24th, 1929. I’d say you might want to make an appointment with your cardiologist, Dr. Reynolds, but he’s actually going to lose his medical licence next Friday stemming from a malpractice suit, so if you want to see him, you’re going to want to do it this week. Just don’t do it Wednesday around 3:17. There’s going to be a six car pileup outside his office involving a truck hauling chemical waste.”

Roland chuckled evilly.

“Alright genie. Fine. I’ll play your little game.” He paused long enough to guzzle the last of the Dom Perignon right out of the bottle. “I got wish number two for ya. I wish for a million wishes. Boom. How’s that?”

“Wow,” Ben said, unsuccessfully hiding his smile. “You are really not going to like this.”

“What?”

“I’m afraid,” Ben sighed. “That wishing for additional wishes is also prohibited.”

Roland just stared, the blank, glassy eyed stare of a plane crash survivor. His face was so red it was purple. The vein in his forehead looked poised to burst.

“Are you tellin me?” He hissed. “That my second wish is gone too?”

“I’m afraid so, sir,” Ben said. “But try and look on the bright side. You do still have one wish remaining, and it only takes one wish to forever change a life.”

Roland’s right eye twitched like it was connected to jumper cables.

“Listen,” Ben said softly. “I know you’re upset. You’re not thinking clearly. Your anger and the pain in your chest are clouding your judgement. Take a deep breath. There are infinite possibilities as to what you are going to say next. What you are about to wish for. I can see them all. I can’t let you forfeit all three of your wishes. It’s bad business. It doesn’t do a thing for my quota.” He leaned in close, steepled his fingers. “I’ll tell you what. With your final wish, why don’t you go ahead and wish for whatever you want. Anything at all. If it’s something on the prohibited list, well, I still won’t be able to grant it, but I’ll bend the rules a little and you won’t lose the wish. I promise. I’ll catch hell from my boss Carl for it, but hey, anything in the name of customer service, right?”

“You demon,” Roland seethed. If he wasn’t so angry, he might have noticed his left arm had gone numb. “Tricking me into wasting two of my wishes. Stealing my money. From me? You know something? Forget about my wife. I wish you were dead.”

Ben perked up, sat up tall in his chair.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. His voice quivered. “Could you repeat that please?”

Roland snarled.

“You heard me, genie. I. WISH. YOU. WERE. DEAD.”

Ben smiled. He threw his head back, laughed like a madman. His eyes flared, impossibly bright, filling the screen. He leapt up out of his chair, toppling it, and began dancing around his cubicle.

“What are you doing?” Roland demanded, but Ben had forgotten all about him.

“YEAH!” Ben screamed to the heavens. Thunder boomed, both inside Roland’s computer and in the sky above his sprawling estate. “YEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!”

“GENIE! LOOK AT ME! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

“I’m gonna miss you Francine,” Ben shouted into the call center depths. “You to Barb,” he blew a big kiss. “Suzy, Jackie, Steve.” He shot each name a wink and a finger gun. “Gary, consider my parking spot yours. And as for you Carl–”

“GENIE?!” Roland screamed. “Look at me!”

“—SCREW YOU CARL!” Ben shouted. “SKA-ROOO YOU! You can take my lamp and shove it. I’m outta here!”

Finally, Ben returned his attention to Roland.

“Thank you,” he said. “Even though you’re a rotten, hateful, vile little creature, and didn’t mean to free me, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU.”

“Free you?” Roland wheezed. Inside his chest, it felt like a snake made of fire was constricting his ribs, his lungs, his heart. “I didn’t free you.”

“Oh, yes you did,” Ben laughed. “Look.”

He held up his hands. They were transparent, vaporous, and fading by the second. As was the rest of him. Arms, legs, comb over, sloppy brown suit. Everything was disappearing. Everything but his glowing, red eyes.

“You wished me dead,” Ben said. “You freed me.”

“No,” Roland snapped. “No. No. No. You said wishing someone dead was prohibited. You said it couldn’t be done. You said it was bad juju.”

“True,” Ben said. His voice was a happy, hollow echo. “Very true. But there’s a loophole if the person you wish dead actually, truly longs for death.”

Before his hands vanished for good, Ben flipped Roland double middle fingers.

“I guess you probably would’ve known that if you’d read the rules and regulations, huh?” He laughed. “Anyhow, I’ll see ya in Oblivion in twenty three seconds. Keep an eye out for me. I’ll be the ecstatic guy with free will, not granting any wishes.”

With a final crack of thunder, Ben vanished, his eyes snuffing out like dying embers.

Twenty three agonizingly long seconds ticked by.

As the heart attack consumed him, the last thing Roland Rothschild III saw before everything turned black was a message flash across his computer screen.

“YOU’VE MADE YOUR WISHES!
YOUR NEW LIFE STARTS NOW!
CONGRATULATIONS FROM WISH.COM!”

The End of the World, except for Bill, Chuck, and Harry

Three men stand around a table.

They were seated a moment ago, but sit no longer since each of their chairs toppled as they leapt up and pulled out their guns.

Chuck’s gun is a Heckler & Koch HK45 semi-automatic pistol that he scavenged out of a pawn shop display case. He has no idea how to use it. It’s pointing in the general direction of Bill’s head.

Bill’s gun is a .357 Magnum that in actuality is not a gun at all. It’s a movie prop. A replica. A rather poor one at that. Regardless of its realness, it’s pointing dead center at Harry’s chest.

Harry’s gun is not a gun at all. Not even a replica. It’s a hand grenade he dug out of the WWII display at his local history museum. It’s a real grenade, but unbeknownst to Harry, a dud. He’s waving it at Chuck, the way a Priest might brandish a crucifix at a vampire.

What’s got these three a-holes wound so tightly? Ready to kill?

Each of them blame the other for the end of the World.

Actually, the end of the human race, I suppose, is more accurate. The World remains. The Starbucks, the Wal-Marts, the McDonalds, they’re all still there. Mossy, rank with rotten food, and chalked full of wildlife, but still there. It’s the people that are gone. POOF! All of them. All except for Bill, Chuck, and Harry.

I know this because I did it.

I did it, but don’t misunderstand. I’m not responsible. No. One of them is responsible. Bill, Chuck, or Harry. One of them summoned me.

Who am I? Well, I have lots of names. Leviathan the Dimension Devourer, the Merciless Void, the Infinite Gaping Pustule, the Fathomless Grotesque. The list goes on and on. You can just call me Levi.

Like the jeans.

Before I take us back to the Gassy Narwhal Pub & Eatery, to the Mexican stand-off between these giant turd sandwiches, let me explain, how in the big empty world, they managed to find each other.

Bill, Chuck, and Harry each checked their email…

This is an automated message from SOULMATCH.com. Sir/Madam, your profile indicates that you are seeking a female, ages 21 – 45 as a friend/hook-up/mate. Regrettably, all 3,742,567 SOULMATCH profiles save the following 3 have expired due to dormancy:

Chuck, age 23 – “Whassup ladies? Meat your night in shining armor. Good looks, brains, manners, humblnicity, I got it all. I don’t wanna brag, but broads tell me all the time how imbecilic I am. Interested?”

Bill, age 37 – “My Mother’s making me do this”

Harry, age 52 – “Hello. I am a recent divorcee who is anxious to climb back up on the horse. Not that I’m saying you’re a horse. Whoever you are. I’m sure you’re extremely un-horse-like. Also, I didn’t mean to imply I’d be climbing up on you. Unless you want me to. Ha ha ha. Please inbox me. Please?”

Would you like to adjust your sexual preference?

That awkward email led to some awkward online chatter, which eventually led to their face-to- face-to-face sit down/stand up, which led to their weapons being shoved in said faces.

I’m not getting involved here.

Not yet, anyhow.

I may be an all-powerful, interstellar deity, but I don’t actually know who’s responsible for summoning me any more than you.

All I know, is one instant I was slumbering soundly outside space and time, the next I was gorging myself on an all you can eat buffet of human life force.

Yummy.

One of them did it. Ended the World.

Which means, strangely enough, that two of them are completely innocent. How did those two avoid my intergalactic digestive tract? Well, that’s a bit of a noodle scratcher also.

Bill, Chuck, or Harry?

One of them did it. The question is, which one?

Let’s return to the Gassy Narwhal.

Harry’s finger just wormed its way into the grenade pin.

Chuck has five and a half pounds of finger pressure on a six pound trigger, and he’s about to sneeze.

Bill has had to pee for the last four hours. He’s about to say something stupid.

Let’s see how this plays out.


“This is stupid,” huffs Bill. He lowers his foam rubber hand cannon. “Maybe none of us is responsible. Maybe it was the Rapture, or spontaneous human combustion, or Asian bird flu, or something?”

The tension deflates.

Chuck shrugs, stifles a sneeze, lowers his gun a little.

Harry’s finger squiggles off the grenade pin.

The three of them stand there for way too long, considering it.

Ugh. I can’t hold my tongue.

My seventy square mile, abyss black, anti-matter tongue.

“Nope,” I boom like thunder.

The Gassy Narwhal quakes like a house of cards before an asthmatic mouth breather. Bill, Chuck, and Harry, whip their panicked faces skyward, getting their eyeballs seasoned with falling ceiling dust for their troubles. Nearby, a herd of grazing elk drop dead from shock. Sixty miles to the east a fault line rips open, burps magma. The ocean recedes two inches.

Who knew my voice had so much oomph?

I decide to whisper.

“One of you summoned me,” I explain mid-back stroke in the Earth’s atmosphere. “Musta. And nobody’s goin nowhere till we figure it out.”

Bill pees his pants.

Chuck vomits.

Harry’s sanity shatters into a trillion sparkly pieces. He laughs uncontrollably.

“Get comfy fellas,” I command. “Chillax.”

Shakily, the three men nod, collect their chairs, and sit down. Bill’s seat squishes.

I materialize a pitcher of beer, three glasses, and a plate of venomous snakes—OOPS!—POOF!—my bad, make that jalapeno poppers, on the table.

I snicker.

Every window within a hundred mile radius shatters.

Bill, Chuck, and Harry guzzle the beer like frat boys. I materialize some more. Some more after that. Rudely, nobody touches the jalapeno poppers.

“Okay,” Harry finally peeps up, glancing skyward as if a piano is poised to drop on his head. “Okay, let’s talk.” He deposits his hand grenade into a pelican shaped ashtray next to him for safe keeping. “According to the,” he gestures upward. “Well, whatever that is–”

“Levi,” I help the little fella along.

A tad loudly.

A tsunami swallows Maui.

“Right,” he whimpers. He guzzles another mug of beer, staring sideways at the jalapeno poppers. “Levi. According to. Levi. One of us summoned him. One of is responsible for the end of the World.”

Chuck and Bill nod drunkenly.

“Well. I don’t suppose anyone wants to confess?”

Chuck and Bill stop nodding.

The conversation dies.

A solar wind crops up, maddeningly tickles my toes. I’m a celestial being after all, an infinite mish mash of dead star chunks, ethereal deep space gases, and fleshy gobs of conquered worlds, which as everybody knows, makes one exceptionally ticklish.

“Why don’t you each tell us a little about yourselves?” I offer. The International Space Station collides with my left butt cheek, crumpling like a soda can. “Maybe the truth will reveal itself?”

Bill nods again, rises to his feet. His pants have become a swamp.

“Okay. Hello, my name is Bill—“

“Hi Bill,” I say a little too enthusiastically. The Grand Canyon collapses in on itself. The Grand Canyon 2.0 opens up in downtown Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

“Uh, hi,” Bill squeaks skyward. “Uh, yeah, like I was saying. My name is Bill, and I’m a dog groomer from Dickey, North Dakota. I collect T.V. Guides, I enjoy live action roll playing on the weekends, and I live with my mother. Or at least I did before she imploded into a shock of white light and got sucked up into the sky.”

“My bad, Bill,” I whisper.

I offer up another round of brews to express my condolences.

Bill squishes back into his seat.

“I’m Harry,” Harry says without rising.

I’m pretty sure I’ve nudged the Earth off its axis a degree or two, so I decide to keep my mouth shut for a little bit.

“I’m a Proctologist,” Harry continues. “And moderately successful romance novelist from Gladstone, Manitoba. I’m divorced times three, my cholesterol is through the roof, and I’m pretty sure I officially went insane about five minutes ago.” His face ticks like a clock. He crams a jalapeno popper in his mouth and bursts with crazed laughter, spitting cheese gobs all over the table. “But who cares, right? The worlds been eaten by a giant sky monster. And we’re next.”

I snicker loudly. “Sky monster.” Australia drifts over, gives New Zealand a smooch. “Nice one.”

“How bout you, hair-do?” I nudge Chuck with a gust of stale bar air. “What’s your story, huh?”

“Meh?” Chuck burps. He gets up, falls over, gets up again.

Chuck’s drink, drank, drunk.

“Wellll” He giggles. “Lez seee…okay, okay, ok-ay. Imma ‘hic’ shroood crooood droood who’ma looooooves ‘hic’ ta scrooooooge.”

Chuck pirouettes, falls backwards unconscious, crashes through a table.

“Did he just say he was cool and shrewdly fluent in Jewish?” Harry asks around a mouthful of cheesy jalapenos.

“No, no.” Bill says, shaking his head drunkenly. “He said he’s a skewered brute who loves his school.”

“Wait. Nope. I got it,” Harry slurs. “I got it. He said he’s a brooding, shrewd druid who can’t be ruled.”

Bill shrugs. Before he can moronically rebut, the realization hits me like Jupiter to the solar plexus.

Druids.

DRUIDS.

Those sneaky little robed buggers and their quirky curses.

“Oh, wow,” I groan way too loudly.

A chunk of Moon the size of Texas crumbles off and floats away towards Mars. The water logged ruins of Atlantis froth up to the ocean surface, ten miles off the coast of Spain. Every sky scraper in North America topples over.

I turn down the volume. “Wow, you guys, you know what? This is really embarrassing.”

“Huh?” Harry grunts.

“Whazza?” Bill asks.

“Prophecy,” I sigh. “See fellas, I completely forgot about this kooky little Druid death cult I had worshipping me here on Earth back around the fifth century. End of the world enthusiasts. Nasty little suckers. They sacrificed a butt load of virgins to bring me here, but they got some wires crossed, delaying my arrival by about a thousand years. Yep. Totally. That’s it. It’s all coming back to me.” I chuckle. “Crazy, huh? I guess that explains why none of you is owning up to summoning me. Cuz none of you did.”

I rip off the Gassy Narwhal roof and glare down at the three pasty specks with a curious eye the size of Lake Superior. The sudden gravity disruption empties a nearby marsh, dumping fish and frogs from the sky like a heavy snowfall.

“So why can’t I eat your life force? Hmmm?”

Harry and Bill dive under the table, scream themselves hoarse. Chuck giggles in his booze-fueled sleep, farts, rolls over.

And that’s when I see it.

The mark on Harry’s lower back, partially exposed as he turtles in a sniveling heap. I suck the table up into the sky. It burns to ash as it enters the atmosphere, leaving a pin prick soot smudge on the tip of my nose.

“Harry, what is that on your back?”

He doesn’t answer, so I “POOF” turn his shirt to spiders. He springs to his feet, flinging arachnids, hailing most of them into Bills hair. Bill jumps up, rips off his shirt along with two fistfuls of salt and pepper hair.

Bill has the mark as well.

I roll Chuck over. He calls me “Sugar Lips”. I lift his shirt. You guessed it.

Bill, Chuck, and Harry each have the mark.

The sacred absolution mark of Leviathan branded on their lower backs.

The mark that’s preventing me from devouring them.

The mark that in most dimensions is horrifying to behold, has been known to melt pupils and liquefy frontal lobes, but on Earth, just so happens to exactly mirror the Taco Bell fast food restaurant logo.

“My tattoo?” Harry mumbles, digging a spider out of his belly button. “Got it in college. Wazza a radio contest. Get a Taco Bell tramp stamp, free Taco Bell for life.” For an instant, he seems to forget all about the spiders parading towards his butt crack, not to mention the interstellar god glaring down at him. “Know something? I could soooo go for a cheesy gordita crunch right now.”

“Mmmm, that sounds good,” Bill chimes in, rubbing his furry gut. “I got mine after I blacked out at a bachelor party.” He looks around the ruined bar with watery, red eyes. “Any beer left?”

“I jus really like Taco Bell,” Chuck mumbles, goes back to sleep. His mark has the words “LIVE MAS” stenciled beneath it.

“So if I can’t eat you,” I muse. “What the H, E, double hockey sticks am I gonna do with you boogers, hmmm?”

As I ponder, Haley’s Comet darts by in my peripheral. Voyager 1 bounces off my right ear lobe. A solar flare singes my tentacle hair.

I got it.

I start with another round of beers and a mountainous pyramid of cheesy gordita crunches.

The crowd goes wild.

As Bill, Harry–and a suddenly very conscious Chuck–attack the fast food like velociraptors, I send out my consciousness, delving deep into each of their minds.

Ugh.

There’s some messed up stuff in here.

What am I searching for? Well, if you must know, I’m searching for their SOULMATCH.com online dating profiles. Specifically, the descriptions of their ideal mates.

Within attoseconds, I have everything I need to know.

Next comes a teeny, tiny construction project.

I pick up the White House, the Taj Mahal, and the enchanted castle from Walt Disney World, and deposit them gently into a lovingly formed cul-de-sac a quarter mile from the crumbling remnants of the Gassy Narwhal Pub & Eatery. Bill, Chuck, and Harry hear the ruckus, but don’t bother gorge pausing to investigate.

“Okay, fellas, here’s the deal,” I tell them. “It’s your lucky day. I might be an intergalactic Chaos God, but let it never be said I’m a buzzkill. Just a ways down the road, you are each going to find a brand new home, stocked full of beer, cheesy gordita crunches, and housing your perfect mate.”

They each perk up, stop eating.

“Billy boy, you get the White House with the intelligent, out-doorsy gal, who looks sorta like your Mother, but not quite enough to make it weird. Harry, you get the Taj Mahal with the athletic, artistic gal who doesn’t judge when you wear your sweatpants out in public, and Chuck, well, you get my closest guess to whatever “a lady in the streets, but a freak in the sheets” means.”

Chuck, Bill, and Harry smile drunkenly, teeth camouflaged behind mangled beef and cheese.

“Well what are you waiting for?” I ask a little too enthusiastically. Alaska sinks into the Bering Sea. “Get outta here and meet your soul matches already, you lil scamps.”

That’s all it takes.

Bill, Chuck, and Harry flee the Gassy Narwhal as if it’s on fire, scrambling, tripping, and shoving their way towards their sparkly new homes and patiently waiting mates.

I wonder if I should have mentioned that since they’re the last three people on Earth, I had to borrow their new lady loves from a particularly nasty neighboring dimension?

Nah.

I am a chaos god after all, remember?

I’m sure they’ll figure it out once they spot the mandibles.