Bundts and Bolts, Part 2

kellyiconThe robot stares at me with two yellow, digitized eyes. Are those even its eyes? It looks more like a display, like one of those faces they give robots working in construction and road work to make them seem more human. If that’s the case, than whoever built this thing fucked up royally. It was short, about five feet tall. The robot stood on one, thick metal leg, which was probably motorized to let it get around. The torso – if you could call it that – was made up of a rotating selection of spatulas, knives, various cups probably used for measuring, and any other tool for baking you could imagine, like the Swiss Army knife of baking. The robot probably attached and detached them from his hands as needed. On top of this was the screen that made up its face. The screen’s expression was pleasant enough, a bemused smile, but put the whole thing together and it was like a machine out of a nightmare. A cake-baking nightmare.

“What the actual fuck,” I said. I still hadn’t moved from my spot at the door. Too busy gaping at the world’s first baking robot like an idiot.

“Can UB help you, human? Perhaps you would enjoy one of our many types of baked goods?”

“Uh, yeah, actually,” I said, and eased open the door; the robot’s big yellow eyes followed me as I closed the door behind me, so maybe it really did see through the TV screen it called a head. I glanced this way and that, checking to see if anybody living was waiting to jump out of a corner and bust me. It looked clear enough. This was going to be the easiest robbery in history. “Do you have one of those little one-serving cakes? Strawberry with cream cheese frosting?”

“Indeed we do, human!” The robot sounded excited, but they were programmed to express – simulate? – positive emotions when helping humans. I always thought that just made them creepier.

The robot puttered over to a large, industrial size wheeled shelf and picked up a tray of small cakes. Bigger than you’re average cupcake but still meant for one person, the little things were the rage of all the town. Expensive as all hell, but treating them as a special treat just seemed to make people love them all the more.

The robot picked up the little strawberry cake so gently it reminded me of someone picking up a small kitten.

“Here you are, human,” it said, a digital smile now plastered over its face-screen. “Would you like UB to box this for you? Extensive research into our customer response surveys has shown that many humans enjoy being presented this cake as a gift.”

“No thanks, robot,” I said. I took the cake from it. It was really a thing of beauty. The frosting was white and smooth cream cheese, and someone had drawn a strawberry onto it with strawberry topping, and the whole thing was topped off with a little pink frosting flower next to the strawberry.

“Did you make this, robot?”

“I did, human. It brought me much satisfaction to see many humans enjoy this one’s creations.”

“Satisfaction? You’re programmed to feel pride of your work?”

The robot didn’t blink, but if he had working eyes, the silence that followed my question made me think it’d be blinking.

“That question does not compute, human.”

“I mean – “

“Oh, shit!”

I whirled around to see a woman in a white baking apron standing at the door I had just walked through. Her eyes were huge with shock and her mouth kept contorting from anxiety to anger and back again.

“What the hell are you doing here?” She practically yelled at me, so I guess she settled on anger.

“I, uh…”

The woman slammed the door behind her, and the resounding boom that echoed off the walls filled me with a pit of dread, like I had stumbled into something I wasn’t supposed to see. It occurred to me for the first time that there was probably a reason why they had never made their robo-baker public.

“Is something the matter, Creator Agatha?” the robot asked.

“No, nothing’s wrong, UB. Everything’s fine,” the woman said, waving away the robot’s question. She stormed past me toward the front of the store and stuck her head through the door that separated the store front from the kitchen.

“JESSICA! Get your ass in here! We have a problem.”

Excuse Me, Princess, Part 1

kellyiconThe church bell rang in great, thundering tones, the bellows of a giant echoing across the city. The whole capitol was in a frenzy; along with the church bells belting out that ungodly racket, there were the shouts and curses of the city guards, the barking of excited dogs, and the clattering of hooves and cart wheels against the stone streets. Winona imagined the city – built into the side of a hill and crowned by a castle built of stone so white to this day the people swore it was built with magic – as a great anthill, all its workers running around in a panic at the behest of its queen.

Every single one of them was looking for her.

To be more specific, they were looking for what she had just stolen. The princess sat obediently on the horse, hand tied to the reigns and dressed for all the world as a simple peasant’s daughter. Winona led them down the dirt path leading away from the capitol, trying not to smile at her latest success. God, she was good. It would take the guards ages to search the city and realize the princess was long gone. By the time they had realized the princess was gone, Winona and the princess were already on their way to the next town.

“You’re a villain,” the princess sniffed. She had the most miserable expression on her face, and she had looked that way ever since her last escape attempt. She had slipped off the horse and ran to a traveling merchant ahead of them, begging him to believe she was the princess. Winona had simply apologized to the man for her ‘younger sister’s’ wild imagination, and explained that the girl was just a tad touched in the head. He had smiled at them, handed the princess a bright red apple, tipped his hat and went on his way. Winona made sure the girl was tied tight to the reigns from then on.

“Guilty as charged,” Winona said.

The princess apparently didn’t know how to respond to such a confession of Winona’s moral failures. They traveled in silence for the next mile, where they came upon a fork in the road. Winona took them off the main Royal Highway and onto the little dirt road that would lead them to one of the smaller villages far from the capitol. They were making good time, and less than two days away from their destination.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Money.”

“For such a reason you’d kidnap me? Your queen’s daughter?”

“Your mom’s no queen of mine, princess.”

“I have a name! It’s Rosa!”

“You can call yourself Sweet Pea for all I care,” Winona said.

“What’s your name?”

Winona suddenly had a vision of the next twenty miles being nothing but a game of Twenty Questions with an indignant fourteen-year-old.

“You can’t be stupid enough to think I’d tell you that.” The princess huffed, and probably would have crossed her arms if she could have. Winona wondered what it must be like living in a castle, filthy rich and with a small army of servants catering to her every will. Well, after this job, Winona would have the money and the servants, too. Two out of three wasn’t bad.

“What will happen to me?”

Winona glanced behind her. The girl’s face had fallen, all haughtiness forgotten.

“I hand you off to my employer, he pays me, he sends a ransom note to your dear mama, your mama pays it, and we all go home happy and filthy rich.”

“Do you promise?”

“Promise what?”

“Promise me I’ll be okay?”

Winona didn’t glance back this time. Instead, she kept her eyes focused on the road.

“Yes, I promise.”

* * *

The inn wasn’t pretty, or spacious, or even particularly clean. There was one bed and one thin, ratty blanket, and Winona could hear the wind whistling through gaps in the walls.

“You can’t expect me to sleep there,” Rosa said. She looked at the bed like one would regard a mangy, rabid mutt.

“Either that or the floor,” Winona said. She forced off her boots with her foot and crashed onto the bed. “Here, you can even have the blanket. Just remember, if you try to escape, that these roads are full of bandits who’d love to get their hands on a pretty girl like you.”

Rosa slipped into bed a few minutes later, and Winona blew out their bedside candle. Winona didn’t stay awake long enough to know if the girl hard fallen asleep; when she had finally drifted off, Rosa’s breathing was still curled into a tight little ball and her breathing was harsh and shallow. Was she crying? Winona dismissed the thought. The girl would be fine; hell, she’d be back home and under her down-feather comforters in less than a week.

“Help!”

Winona started awake to find a knife held against her throat. A man – or woman, she couldn’t tell in the darkness – stood over her, holding the knife, while someone else pulled Rosa toward the window.

“Help me! Please! You promised!”

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing, Part 3

kellyiconJackson checked his watch for the fifth time in a half-hour.

“You’re sure this is the right time?” he asked.

“I’m positive,” Madeline said, though she felt nothing of the sort. She was sure she had heard the voice tell her to meet at the park at three in the afternoon, but heard wasn’t the right term at all, was it? Someone had sent her a telepathic message in a coffee shop, and here she was, hopeful at meeting someone like her – thank god, she wasn’t the only one – and nervous that he or she would turn out to be an evil super villain or something. Weren’t telepaths usually super villains?

“No,” Jackson said when she asked him. He was still scanning the park as if he could spot the other telepath by sight alone. “Professor X is a telepath, remember? So is Jean Grey.”

“Didn’t she eat a planet?”

“No, that was the Phoenix Force. Kind of. Look, there are plenty of heroes who are telepaths.” Jackson took her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry, Maddie. Chances are this person is just like you – excited to meet someone else with your kind of power.”

“Right,” Madeline said, and squeezed his hand back. “Thanks.”

You guys are cute.

“Ah!”

Madeline jumped from the park bench, sending their bags tumbling to the grass. Jackson jumped up beside her, looking this way and that. Madeline concentrated harder than she ever had, hoping that her frustration would carry over with her words.

Where are you? This isn’t funny anymore!

Okay, okay! Sorry! The voice sounded genuinely sorry, and Madeline softened a bit. I’m actually right in front of you. Look across the pond, on a bench – there! There I am!

Madeline had followed the voice’s instructions until she spotted someone waving from across the pond. It looked like a woman, a little older than her, with dark skin, and long, wavy brown hair done up in a loose ponytail. She was wearing a long, loose skirt, a spagetti-strap top, and the most marvelous, bright blue, large-rimmed hat Madeline had ever seen.

Madeline grabbed Jackson’s hand, who himself only managed to grab their bags from where they had fallen, and sent off down the path that led to the other side of the lake. She wove in between young couples and families with babies in strollers as fast as she could, tugging so hard on Jackson’s arm she could feel it pulling at his shoulder.

“Hi, there!” The woman smiled down at Madeline as she and Jackson struggled to catch their breath.

“Hi,” Madeline panted back.

“Sorry about all the games,” the woman said. “I just couldn’t help myself. Also, I wanted to check out for myself what kind of person you were before I met you. My name is Sabine.”

“I’m Madeline, and this is Jackson.”

Jackson, still bent over trying to catch his breath, gave a little wave.

“So you’re…just like me? You can read minds, too?” Madeline asked.

“Sure can!” Sabine said. “As far back as I can remember. I was told there were others out there like me, but you’re the first I’ve met. Here, sit!” Sabine swept aside her books (thick, heavy ones that said things like Advanced Physics on them. Maybe she was a grad student?) and patted the seat. Madeline sat down, and as soon as she looked into Sabine friendly, brown eyes, a well of emotion overcame her. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes, and it was all she could do to stifle a sniffle.

“What’s wrong?” Sabine asked, those big eyes full of concern.

“I thought I was the only one,” Madeline said. Now the sobs came out in full force, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I thought I was the only one like this.”

“Oh, baby.” Sabine put an arm around her shoulders and drew Madeline into a hug. “You’re not alone anymore.”

Must Be This Tall to Ride, Part 2

kellyicon“Now, listen. You’re going to let me on this bus, then you’re going to sit down and drive like nothing’s wrong. Understand?”

Between the beads of sweat breaking out along the bus driver’s brow and the way her eyes locked onto the barrel of the gun pressing into her cheek, Artino doubted the bus driver had understood anything the young Altairian had said at all. A nervous murmur rippled throughout the bus. Was this for real? Artino could hardly believe it himself. It was illegal for Altairians to own weapons. Any human caught selling them faced imprisonment; any Altairians caught selling or owning a gun faced the rope.

Fear gripped Artino’s stomach like a vice. If the humans managed to take that gun away, there would be no arrest and no trial. His family would find his body in a ditch on the side of the road.

“What is this, some kind of joke?”

A square-jawed man with clipped blond hair rose from his seat and strode toward the front of the bus. The young Altairian eyed him warily, but the gun remained firmly planted into the cheek of the bus driver.

“This is some kind of alien rights shit, isn’t it?” The man stopped just short of Artino, towering over them with his six feet of height. “If it is, you can take your little toy gun and march your stump ass right out of here. If you’re so damn angry about the life we let you live on Earth, just go back to your own fucking planet.”

The air in front of Artino exploded. That was the only way to describe it. One second the man was towering over them, hand raised as if he was about to strike one of them; the next, there was a sound next to his ear so loud it pierced his ear drums like a knife, and the man was one the floor, screaming and cursing and gripping his bleeding knee. The murmur turned into a chorus of screams as the humans in the front seats rose and tried to flee to the back; all three dozen human clustered around the back few rows of seats like a flock of sheep threatened by an angry dog. Blood flowed in rivets from the man’s knee, following the slight slope of the bus floor until a shallow pool of blood formed around Artino’s feet.

“Any of you try anything else, and you’ll end up worse than him,” the Altairian said. He turned back toward to the bus driver, who had fallen back in her seat and given over to panicked blubbering, tears and snot dripping off her chin as she begged him not to kill her.

“Drive. Drive until you reach the Capitol building. You stop for anything, I’ll shoot you and do it myself.”

The bus driver complied, and the doors closed behind Artino with a swoosh. The engined revved and the bus eased out of the station and onto the highway, gliding swift and silent toward disaster.

Inside, the bus was full with the sounds of whimpers and sobs. The man who threatened them had finally stopped screaming, but started to let out a low, continuous moan as he doubled up over his knee. It occurred to Artino that he should have left when he had the chance, should have jumped out the doors before they had closed, should have never stepped out of bounds in the first place, but all he could focus on was the blood. Everything other thought in his head seemed vague and muted in comparison, like hearing someone shout from the other side of a closed window.

Next to him, the Altairian slipped a small, square contraption from his coat. He flicked a switch and a small display lit up and began to count down. He turned to Artino and smiled.

“Never fear, brother. Today is a glorious day.”

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing, Part 1

kellyiconThe coffee shop was packed, and Madeline resisted the urge to back right out the door. People were everywhere: standing in line, talking and laughing with their neighbors or staring off into space while they waited for the person in front of them to decide on their order; people shuffling past one another, drinks held high in the air as they mumbled a chorus of sorry, excuse me; and all the while the baristas and cashiers bustled back and forth between the cappuccino machines, shouting out orders and filling cups as fast they could. Every table in sight was occupied by no less than a half-dozen people laughing and chatting about their day. Just standing in the doorway, countless thoughts began to creep into Madeline’s mind, like a thousand whispers only she could hear.

Her heart caught in her throat, but she resisted the urge to flee. When she was younger, being in any place with more than a dozen people was torture; immediately their thoughts would fill her head and push out her own until her mind was nothing but a confused jumble of the emotions and anxieties of strangers. She could still remember her mother holding her, begging her to explain what was wrong while Madeline curled into a ball and pressed her hands to ears so hard her skin bruised.

That was a long time ago. Her parents, God bless them, never quit looking for answers, and after years of help from a professional telepath and a very open-minded therapist, she could even walk down a busy street like a normal girl enjoying her first year of college in a big city.

Madeline took a breath and focused her mental defenses, battling back the invading thoughts of others until her mind was relatively quiet. Rooms full of people were still a challenge. Heightened emotions and tensions built up in the air with no where to go, and fear and tension all but oozed from the walls of even the most laid-back of places. A coffee shop full of college kids on final exam week was like a powder keg of barely-repressed anxiety; typically a place Madeline avoided at all costs, but therapist wanted her to try feeling comfortable in busy places. Besides, it’s not like she’d be here long. Jackson just wanted to meet up and get some coffee before heading to the library. Jackson had been so understanding so far – for one, he didn’t run away or think she was crazy when she first told him about her powers, and so far he accepted she was just never going to be comfortable at parties or sporting events or midnight showings of popular movies. Waiting ten minutes in a crowded coffee shop was something she could do to show him it wasn’t always going to be constantly running away from anyplace fun.

Madeline took her first step over the threshold, then another. So far, so good. She took a few more small steps toward a small table in the corner, waiting for the rush of nausea and the hit-with-a-freight-train headache that always accompanied an onrush of other people’s thoughts, but her mind stayed blissfully quiet. Just another normal college girl killing time while waiting on her equally normal boyfriend.

“Babe, I’m so sorry,” Jackson said some twenty minutes later, swooping down to plant a kiss on her cheek. A grin lit up her face as she felt Jackson’s rush of affection for her. “If I’d known it was going to be so crowded, I’d of been here sooner.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I feel pretty good, actually.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I think it’s like a muscle. The more I practice, the better I get at keeping it under control.”

“At this rate, you’ll be ready for the Super Bowl in no time.”

The thought of being stuck in a closed space with tens of thousands of drunk and excited people made Madeline want to gag, and Jackson laughed when he saw her face.

“Just kidding. I’ll go get the drinks, and then we can be on our way. Hey, you don’t think you can look into the future and see what my grade on my English final’s going to be, could you?”

“I’m a telepath, not a psychic, thank god. Can you imagine being able to see into the future all the time?”

“Honey, I can barely predict what I’m going to have for breakfast in mornings, let alone the future. Be right back.”

He slid off the stool and shuffled his way toward the line. Madeline rested her cheek against her palm and watched people walk, jog, and rush by the window, content to not know what any of them were thinking about. She could just about imagine a quiet future where she never had to know what another person was thinking ever again, where the terrors of her childhood would be far behind her.

Just as soon as she imagined that future, her peace of mind was shattered. The thought was like being struck by a bolt of lightning, and her whole body seized with the shock of it. Usually what she heard were half-formed and vague, more emotions than fully-formed thoughts. But this…this was a message, and it was aimed right at her.

You can hear me, can’t you? You’re just like me.

First, Do No Harm, Part 3

kellyiconIt was the restraining order that pushed me over the edge. The good doctor reached across his desk to hand me the papers, and I took them with shaking hands. Dr. Lowe leaned back in his chair, a foot over his knee and his hands loosely folded in his lap, his eyes on mine, waiting for my reaction.

I skimmed the documents quickly, taking in little but Emily’s loopy signatures. There was the restraining order, just like Lowe said, along with instructions that it not be served until after her final procedure. Under that were statements from two different psychologists claiming Emily to be of sound mind and that she was looking to file a restraining order because she feared for her safety if I learned what she was planning to do. Neither name was that of her regular psychologist.

“This is absurd,” I said, looking from the papers in my hand to the doctor. A small grin had crept onto his face, and looked for all the world as self-satisfied as a cat who had just caught a bird. “I’ve never hurt or threatened Emily in my life. It’s obvious she took this out to keep me away from her while she goes through with this. It’ll never stand. No one willing to do this to themselves could be considered in their right mind!”

“Perhaps,” Lowe said. “But you’re missing the point, Mr. Jones. My procedure is completely legal and Miss MacIntyre underwent it of her own free will. You’re free to press charges, of course, but I can’t imagine what it’ll accomplish.”

It was right there, right then, that I had had enough. Emily’s anxiety had always been a problem for her, and she had been seeing psychiatrists for as long as I had known her. Was this what she had been telling them all this time? That I was hurting her? In the past few weeks she had seen so calm, so much more relaxed. Was it because she had decided to go along with this madness? And now…and now…

“You son of a bitch!”

As soon as I said it, I was up and over desk, grasping at the lapels of Lowe’s coat and throwing us both to the floor, his chair spinning wildly from under us. Spitting and cursing, he tried to put up his hands to push me away, but it was too late. I reared back my fist and slammed it into his eye as hard as I could. We both let out a howl of pain: Lowe reached up to cover his already-purpling eye, and I pulled back my fist – it was like hitting a cement block. It felt like I had cracked all the bones in my knuckles, and the skin around them had split and was oozing blood. Hell, even my shoulder was hurting from the impact.

But it didn’t matter. I pulled back my fist, truly ready to beat him into submission, when a hand much stronger than mine grabbed my wrist and threw me back against the far wall like I was a rag doll instead of a six-foot, two hundred pound man. Before I could so much as process what had just happened, two huge men in black jumped on me like NFL linemen, pinning my arms and legs beneath them. Through the tangle of limbs, I could just make out Lowe rolling on the floor, hands clutching at his eye while Brittany the secretary crouched over him and spoke frantically into her phone.

Twenty minutes later, the office echoing with the sound of sirens, I was finally allowed to take a breath without five hundred pounds of security guard pressing down on my chest. Dr. Lowe was sitting at his desk again, but his calm collected demeanor was gone. The eye I had smashed was covered by a cold compress, but I could still see bruising around the edges. The other was wild and wide, and as soon as the cops had me on his feet he started to rant.

“You come in here, into my place of business, and you try to kill me? No wonder your fiancee thought she had to take out a restraining order on you!” He was pointing wildly in my direction, much to consternation of the EMT trying to tend to his eye. “You’re the one who really needs the procedure! People like you are the reason people like me have a career!”

He was still ranting as the cops led me out, my hands cuffed behind my back. Truth be told, the cuffs weren’t necessary. What was the point? Emily was gone.

That’s when I saw her. The cops were leading past the double doors, the ones that hummed with some kind of energy and chilled my heart cold just looking at them. The door was slightly ajar, and from behind it someone was peeking out into the hall.

Emily.

“Emily!” I tried to run toward her, but the cops held me back. I could only see part of her face – one amber eye, part of her small, upturned nose, and her short, cropped, black hair – but it was her.

“Emily!”

The cops were all but dragging me toward the front door. I kicked and struggled, anything that might get me loose. If only I could get to her…

“Emily, please!”

But it was no use. Emily looked away and slid back to where it was she came from, leaving me kicking and screaming back into the sunlight.

Meet Janice, Part 2

kellyiconCoffee day usually came every couple of years, or whenever Satan and Jehovah could find time to slip away from work for an hour or two. Jehovah’s favorite place was a little diner off one of New Jersey’s turnpikes. Satan usually stuck to coffee and some soup, but Jehovah always bought the largest stack of pancakes the diner offered and slathered them in so much maple syrup it flowed over the rim of the plate and dripped onto the table. Jehovah never appeared for their lunch in the same form, and today Jehovah looked like a middle-aged woman, dark brown hair graying at the sides and dressed in a long, flowing cotton skirt and a blouse with a flower pattern.

“You know, when I first created the Earth and all that,” Jehovah said, stabbing a fork into the mountain of pancakes, “Pancakes weren’t really on my mind. I know they’d come along eventually, but I was always looking forward to the books and the music and the math, to watch people grow and discover the universe.”

“The meaning of life stuff,” Satan said, remembering an old conversation. He usually took the same form every time he came to Earth: slicked-back black hair, sunglasses, and a sharp suit, and always in the current style. Janice always scolded him for his vanity whenever he sent her to look up the latest fashion.

“Exactly,” Jehovah said, cutting out a towering wedge of pancakes. Through a mouth full of breakfast bread, Jehovah continued, “But who would have thought breakfast foods would be so splendid? Scones, pancakes, french toast, waffles, cheese, fruits, omelets, cereals, tea, coffee – the varieties they’ve come up with are endless. So much for omnipotence, eh?”

“So you say.” Jehovah never passed up a chance to play down the omnipotence thing, and Satan never had decided if it was to tease him or to try and make him feel more at ease. Was God capable of false modesty? There was a thought to keep one up at night.

“So I do,” Jehovah said. “How’s work?”

“Same as it’s always been. Hot and full of sinners.”

Satan considered telling Jehovah about Mrs. Timely. The angry, rebellious eons after his fall were behind them now, but still not far enough behind them to match the eons Satan spent cursing his creator’s name and working to undermine the Creation. Eden was still a sore spot between them, and bad habits died hard. Satan still considered Hell to be his, run without the interference of outside powers and resented the very idea of Jehovah butting in on his business. On the other hand, Satan liked to considered himself an adult now. Adults didn’t shy away from helpful advice, right?

“There is this one woman,” Satan said,

“Oh?”

“A suicide. Took her own life because she thought cheating on her husband with a woman was irredeemable.”

“Inadvisable, certainly, but not irredeemable.”

“That’s what I told her. I don’t think it got through, though. She believe she belongs in the Pit and I’m not sure what’ll get through to her. Any thoughts, O wise Creator?”

Jehovah swirled a wedge of butter through the syrup with the fork, seemingly lost in thought. Again, Satan couldn’t help but wonder if it was a show put on for his benefit – after all, God would know all the answers, right? – or if Jehovah truly needed a moment to think. It was one of the things he found most infuriating about dealing with the deity.

“That kind of thinking runs deep,” Jehovah said, finally. “She didn’t cheat on her husband and then suddenly decide she needed to die. These things build with time, you know, like steam in a stopped-up kettle. You might have to take extra care with this one. Go back, see what started it all.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Jehovah said, finishing off the last bite of pancakes. “The rest is up to you. Do you want to take the time to help this woman, or just shake your head and tell yourself what a shame it all is? I can’t answer that for you, I’m afraid. Never could. But I know you. You’ve never just sat by a day in your life.”

First, Do No Harm, Part 1

kellyiconThe receptionist-slashed-counselor ran her long, manicured nails through her hair, thoroughly fed up that I was taking up her time. An hour had passed by since I stepped into her small office, and since then the meticulously put-together and initially polite woman now looked like she was at the end of her rope.

“Mr. Jones, we’ve been very clear about this,” she said, and to be fair, even though her lips were pursed so tightly the skin around them was white, her professional tone never faulted. I wondered how many angry family and spouses she had dealt with as part of her job. “We don’t typically allow significant others or even family members to see the patient at this stage.”

On the wall behind her were several medical degrees in dour, professional-looking frames. A betting man could make good money wagering on how many of them came from the internet.

“The patient is still too unstable to receive visitors at this stage, and Dr. Lowe…”

“Wouldn’t want me calling my lawyer after seeing how you people operate?” I said, cutting her off. Whatever sympathy I had for her was cut short by the fact that she was standing between me and Emily. “You might be seeing a lawyer at this rate as it is. I don’t think I have to remind you that the last case brought against people like you did not end favorably.”

“Mr. Jones, there’s no need to threaten legal action. Miss Benson was fully aware of the full range of consequences of the procedure and consented willingly.”

“Ma’am, I know that at this point there’s little legal action can do. It won’t be for Emily, you see. It’ll be for me and the joy I will get from watching you and your boss being dragged kicking and screaming into court. Everyone knows that you people prey on the grieving. Do you really think any jury is going to be sympathetic to you?”

Now the woman’s face was completely white, liked someone had sucked the blood from her skin. Her frustration and professional tone were gone, and her hand shook as she reached for her phone.

“I’ll get the doctor for you.”

“Thank you.”

Twenty minutes later she led me down a hallway. It looked just like a proper doctor’s office if you didn’t know what was going on here. Besides the receptionist office, there was an examination room, a recovery room, and a room for X-rays. Beyond that, though, was a larger room behind two double doors. An audible hum came from behind the doors. The receptionist didn’t lead me through the doors, though. Instead, she turned left and led me to the office of Dr. Lowe. She hovered just outside the door and knocked lightly.

“Dr. Lowe, the fiance of Miss Benson would like a word with you.”

Dr. Lowe was a handsome man, with wavy brown hair curling around his chin, warm brown eyes, and a professional-looking lab coat. He looked up from his paper work covering his desk and frowned.

“You know we don’t see family until after the procedure is done, Brittany.”

“Yes, Doctor, but Mr. Jones was quite insistent.”

Dr. Lowe let out a little “ah” and waved her away. He motioned for me to come inside. He leaned back and rested his arm over the back of his chair, his eyes roaming over my face as if he could figure out what I was here for if he just looked hard enough. I took every fiber of my self-control not to throttle the smug-looking bastard.

“What seems to be the problem, Mr….Jones, was it?”

“I think you know very well what the problem is. I demand to see my fiancee.”

“You can demand all you want, sir, but we can’t let you see the patient until the procedure is finished. She’s too unstable. Upsetting her now could cause permanent damage to her psyche.”

“And removing her soul somehow isn’t permanent damage?” I said. “You hacks have stolen my fiance from me, and I’m here to save what’s left of her.”

Dr. Lowe’s eyes flickered and stared at something over my shoulder for a minute, and I didn’t have to look to know Brittany was probably there, her finger hovering over the button to call for the cops.

“Insult my profession all you like, Mr. Jones. As much as you would like to believe it so, we never deceive our patients. In fact, we try our very best to convince them to pursue less drastic means of dealing with their emotional pain. But for some, like your fiancee, find that traditional therapy and psychiatric treatment does not work. Instead of living with so much unnecessary grief and emotional torment, they turn to us so they can go back to living productive lives.” Dr. Lowe spread his arms wide and smiled. “We don’t remove people’s emotions to be cruel. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s a mercy, if you think about it.”

How the Years Go By, Part 3

kellyiconA pink and orange dawn rose over the lake, and the usually brown and murky sparkled like so many diamonds. The air was cool, a brief but welcome reprieve from the heat, and in the shade of Madame B’s porch it was almost chilly. I rocked the porch swing back and forth with my toes, hot tea in my hands, and stared out across the lake. During the night, Madame B and I had stayed up looking through her old photographs one by one. Each photo brought a wistful smile to Madame B’s face. Sometimes she traced her fingers ever so lightly over the faces of the men and women who had meant so much to her and were now long since dead. Dawn had broke by the time we finally closed the last of her albums.

Madame B sat down next to me, a steaming cup of coffee in her hands. The swing creaked as she leaned back, swinging back and forth on its old chains. She raised the cup to her lips and drank deep, then looked out across the lake with such genuine affection it warmed the heart to see.

“Beautiful, is it not? This is always my favorite day in this part of the world.”

“In this part of the world?”

Madame B laughed.

“Yes, in this part of the world. In the mountains I love the evenings, when the stars were so clear you could see them all in their millions trailing across the sky. And then there are cities with markets that, come afternoon, teem with every sort of human you can imagine. But here I like the mornings. There are few places as still and quiet as little towns in the early morning. And after such brutal heat, it is like being touched by God’s own cool grace.”

I sipped my tea, more to gather my thoughts than anything else.

“You never…get bored? Or tried of living?”

“Never. You could travel to every corner of the world and meet every person worth meeting, and after a few years everything would change so much it’d be as if you never left at all. In fact, one could say I look to the future more now than I ever did. Imagine if I had given up on living before movies were invented? Or planes? To see man fly across the sky like the gods of old in their chariots – there is a dream made real.”

“How did you become immortal?” My tongue stumbled over the last word. It seemed almost childish to ask her such a question. I expected her to answer with something profound, like ‘The first step is never as important as the journey,” but again she surprised me.

“This era doesn’t believe so much anymore, but once there were such things as gods. Great and terrible creatures they were. Millennium ago one such creature took pity on me and my short life, and gifted me with a life that has yet to end.”

I tried to imagine Madame B as a young woman, walking the streets of Babylon or Sumeria or Egypt. I waited for her to continue, but she continued to stare out across the lake, lost in her memories of so long ago.

“It doesn’t seem like much of a gift if you have to outlive all the people you care about,” I said.

“No, but the gods never did understand humans very well. She thought she was being very kind. And in my own way, I have a lived a life more fulfilling and full of wonder than I could have ever imagined.”

“Then what are you doing here?” I didn’t mean it to sound so incredulous, but if I were so old I could have visited the Sphinx when it was new, I don’t think I would have chosen to live in a little house outside New Orleans. I told her so. I expected her to laugh again at my naivete, but instead her eyes grew misty with tears.

“It’s hard to explain to one who has never known any place else but where they were born. I loved France, and I loved being French, even if in a way it was only ever a pretense on my part. Then the war came.” She paused to take a great, shuddering breath. “Many people ask me when they learn about my secret, ‘What happens if the world ends and you are still alive?’ I can tell you that the world has already ended once already. Whole cities were leveled to their foundations, and millions walked the roads headed they knew not where. They only knew that they had to keep walking on and on, a great shambling mass, but as silent and dead-eyed as corpses. I will never forget. I thought I knew how cruel men could be, but after the war I knew I needed to go far away from Europe. I couldn’t bare to see the cities I loved in ruins and the people I loved reduced to skeletons and shades. So I came here, to this country seemingly so untouched by war, and bought a little piece of land where I could be alone with my thoughts.” She wiped the tears from her cheeks. “I’m sorry. You probably don’t want to hear of such terrible things.”

“Do you still feel that way? About people and Europe, I mean.”

“I thought I would. So old I am, and yet even I keep forgetting that things change, least of all the hearts of men and women. I have gone back to France several times, and though it grieved me to think of all those who were lost, it brought joy to me heart to see the country so full of life again. But in the years since, this has become my home. So here I stay until I feel I must move on again.”

“What will you do,” she asked, “now that you know my secret?”

I turned to her, and for the first time since she sat down I managed to look her in the eyes.

“I would never tell anyone,” I said.

“Good. There are…stories I could share. Stories of people and places I have met. That would be nice, I think, to have someone to share my life with again.”

“I would love that more than anything.”

Parchment, Part 2

kellyiconThe cops let me go after an hour of skeptical questioning. The police captain who got stuck with me crossed her arms and stared at me with the most disdainful expression while I told that yes, I really did know just how to throw a fork and hit a moving car more than two yards away from me and send it cartwheeling away from a small child.

“Captain, I’m not trying to be rude here, but am I under arrest? I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t committed a crime.”

“You’re right,” the captain said, though the way her frown managed to get even deeper suggested she still thought I had some sinister motive behind what I did. “Beats the hell out of me how you did it, kid, but without you, I suppose I’d be filling out a death report instead of a ‘weird-shit-that-happened-today’ report.”

“Do you really have a report like that?”

“No, but God knows we should. Beat it, kid. You’re free to go.”

Outside, he lines and strange writing were still there, imposing themselves over the the front windows of store fronts and the concrete walls of office buildings. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head for the upteenth time, and that did about as much as it did the last four hundred times I tried that. I had played it cool – or at least hope I did – with the cops, that they were ones making a fuss over nothing. On my own, walking home as the sun set below the city skyline, I wasn’t nearly so calm. Fear started nibbling at my mind. What if having strange powers was the first signs ofa some weird brain cancer or something? There was a John Travolta movie like that once. Or maybe, I thought, I could go home, pop some aspirin, and sleep it off like a head cold. Yeah, that sounds like a plan.

I never did get as far as my apartment. A block out from the police station, I saw another one of those copies the old man had made posted to a telephone pole. My eyes burned when I looked at the strange symbols, like they were being seared onto my retinas. Oh, fuck no. Not again. I shut my eyes until the burning went away. When I opened them again, I noticed there was more. Below the copy of the parchment were a string of little slips of paper with the old man’s telephone number. Gained superpowers lately? Find yourself using your brain in ways you never thought possible? Call the Morally Skeevy Professor today!
Calling the old man was probably a bad idea, but I didn’t know where else to turn. What if this….whatever it was really was harming me? Any doctor I tried to explain my situation to would chuck me in the nuthouse as soon as I got done with “ancient parchment gave me superpowers and now I can slow down time.”

I tore off one of the numbers and dialed. The phone rang once, twice, three times before a man with a bleary, just-woke-up voice answered.

“Hello?”

“Uh, hi, it’s me. I mean, you probably have no idea who I am. I’m the guy who helped you with your copies this afternoon.”

“Ah, yes,” he said. “Was there a problem?”

“Oh, no. Not with the copies, anyway. Uh, well, it’s just after you left…”

“Yes?”

“Um, something seems to be happening to me.”

“Like what?”

There really was no point in beating around the bush, was there?

“Well, I managed to save a kid’s life by throwing a fork at a car tire and sending the car in question spinning into the air like a toy attached to a bottle rocket.”

Well, that woke him up.

“Is that true? Yes! Splendid! This is far more than I could have hoped!” I think he might have even shouted “Hurrah!”

“Excuse me?”

“There is so much to explain. I never expected to see a result so soon. Listen, you must come and meet with me at once. I live on Eighth Street, across the street from baker. The apartment number is 42. Please come as soon as you can! Oh, there’s so much to prepare!”

And then the line went dead, with me standing in the street with a pit in my stomach and no more answers than I had before.