Toto’s Tale—by Ken MacGregor


Toto—eyes haunted, fur more gray than black—takes a long pull and looks into the camera. “Tin Man’s heart, Scarecrow’s brain, Lion’s courage, Dorothy’s trip home … Nobody ever asked me what I wanted.”

The interviewer checks her notes. “There was that one farmer, just west of the Emerald City. He asked you.”

Toto crushes his cigarette out in the ashtray. There’s barely room for it among all the spent butts. “The guy with the bum leg. Yeah, okay, I’ll give you that. He did ask, but by the time I’d figured out what I wanted to say, the conversation had moved on to another topic and I was ignored again.”

“Did Dorothy … did any of them know you could talk?”

Toto shakes his furry head. “I doubt it. You’d think, right? Being surrounded by talking animals, impossible creatures, and magical shit happening all the time, you’d think somebody would’ve thought to check and see if the dog could talk. But no. Nobody wanted to hear what I had to say.”

“Why didn’t you ever speak up?”

Toto lights a fresh cigarette, takes a drag, and coughs out the smoke. He inhales some more. “A couple times, I tried. I was about to, you know? But Dorothy had already been through so much—the kid seemed pretty emotionally fragile most of the time. I figured she needed one thing that was normal in her life. So that was me. A little slice of Kansas. And her little dog, too.”

The interviewer smiles. “You’ve seen the movie?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“Do you mind if I open the window?” She asks. “The smoke is kind of getting to me.”

Toto shrugs his tiny shoulders. “It’s a free country.”

She breathes in the fresh air for a few seconds and sits back down at the table. “Thank you. My father smoked for years—I’ve never much cared for it. It eventually killed him. Emphysema.”

“Yeah, well. We all gotta die sometime.”

The interviewer shoots him a look. “Um. Sorry. That was insensitive as hell, wasn’t it? I didn’t mean your dad. I’m just … I am a bad dog.”

She gently pats his paw. “You’re not. You’re a good boy.”

Toto’s stubby tail wags. “You know, clichéd as it is, I never get tired of hearing that. Thanks. And I’m truly sorry about your father. That sucks.”

“Thank you.” She consults her notes. “Let’s talk about Oz some more.”

“If we must.”

“When you first got there—when the house fell on the Wicked Witch of the West—what was going through your mind?”

“Oh, man. Can you imagine? I mean, my whole life—which, I admit, had only been about a year-and-a-half in the making at that point—I’d lived in a flat, gray place where the only joy came from a little girl’s laughter. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by all these crazy smells: flowers and exotic foods, Munchkin body odor (let me tell you, those people do not bathe very often!), lush green grass, ripe fruit about to drop from the branch, and stuff I couldn’t even hope to identify. It was overwhelming, but in a good way, mostly.”

He lights a fresh cigarette from the coals of the last. “I mean, of course, since I’m a dog, everything still looked gray, but my nose was having a field day!”

“You adapted pretty quickly, though, right?”

“Well, sure. It’s amazing what you can get used to. It helped to have Dorothy setting the emotional tone, you know? Kids, they just roll with whatever’s going on. Nothing fazes ‘em. Tornado picks up your house, somehow avoids smashing it to pieces, transports you to a magical land, you kill somebody, and you’re just like, ‘oh, okay, cool, what’s next?’, you know? Crazy.”

“So, not too long after you arrived, you met the first of your travelling companions.”

“Yeah. Scarecrow.” Toto looks off into the distance. “He was a good guy, you know? Smart, too. From the get-go, I mean. Oz didn’t give him anything he didn’t already have. That’s true for the whole crew. He knew it, too, the old swindler. It was all sleight-of-hand. But I guess that’s the point, huh? None of us think we’ve got it together until somebody shows us our own strengths.”

“I suppose that’s true. Let’s talk about Oz for a minute. You were there. You unmasked the humbug, showed him to be the great imposter. The story goes, you were frightened by the Lion’s roar and accidentally knocked down the screen. You want to tell your version now?”

“Ha! Yeah. That’s not even remotely how it happened. You see, like the Munchkins, ol’ Mr. Oz didn’t bathe too regularly. I could smell him as soon as I walked in the room. The Lion could, too, I’m sure, but he was too chicken to say anything. This was before he got his ‘courage’, so he was convinced he was still a giant scaredy-cat. I got tired of all the bluster and knocked over the screen so my friends could see it was all smoke and mirrors.”

He smiles. “You should’ve seen the old man’s face. Priceless.”

“Okay, so, getting back to the Scarecrow. You liked him well enough. He was smarter than he gave himself credit for. Anything else?”

“Well, I mean, yeah. I can’t tell you how many times he laid down his own life for us. Guy would take a bullet for his friends in a heartbeat. Not that a bullet would hurt him. Hell, nothing hurt this guy. Except fire. You bring a match near the Scarecrow and he loses all sense of bravery and cool. Otherwise, though, he’d sacrifice himself all day long.”

“And the Tin Man?”

“Oh, he’s a sweetheart. Pun intended. This guy wouldn’t hurt a fly. Literally. Wouldn’t kill bugs. The most compassionate person I’ve ever known. Again, Oz didn’t give him anything he didn’t already have. This guy was already all heart. The Winkies traded up big time when they made him their king.”

Toto pours himself a glass of water and takes a long drink. He seems lost in thought, and the interviewer waits patiently.

“The Lion, now … I honestly thought I was gonna die that day.”

“Right. He came out of the woods and was going to eat you. Dorothy saved your life.”

Toto snort-laughs. “Yeah. I guess she did. She also exposed him for a coward. I often wonder if he really would’ve killed and eaten me if she hadn’t intervened. I guess he probably would have. I mean, he’s a carnivore—and animals gotta eat. It’s messed up to think about that. But we got to be pretty good friends, the Lion and me. Used to curl up together for warmth when we slept. Crazy to think he might have eaten me that day in the forest. I guess you never know where life’s going to take you, you know?”

“He’s another good example of already possessing the quality he thought he had to get from Oz.”

“Yeah. It’s ridiculous. The Lion was the bravest guy I know. Faced all kinds of threats to protect us. I mean, that’s the definition of courage, right? Being scared and doing it anyway? That’s him in a nutshell.”

The interviewer looks over her notes. “Okay. So, all these crazy adventures in the land of Oz, and the close friends you made along the way, and the wild smells of this wondrous place. We’ve talked about so many things, but you haven’t answered the question that started the conversation.”

“You’re going to have to remind me,” Toto says, lighting another smoke. “I forget.”

She reads from the first page. “‘Tin Man’s heart, Scarecrow’s brain, Lion’s courage. Dorothy’s trip home … Nobody ever asked me what I want.’ What do you want, Toto?”

The little dog smokes in silence for a while. Outside, a chickadee trills its song and a car toots one quick beep. Overhead, a thick cloud of cigarette smoke drifts around the ceiling while the camera silently takes it all in. He meets her eyes and sighs.

“I wanted to be the hero of the story, you know? I was always the sidekick. Almost a damn prop. I wanted to be the protagonist for once. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

The interviewer smiles. “I think you would have made a great protagonist.” She closes the leather-bound notebook and slides the pen into a jacket pocket. She shakes his paw, turns off the camera and packs everything up. “You plan on any more adventures? Maybe go to Neverland—or take a trip through the looking glass?”

Toto chuckles. “Nah. You kidding me? I’m an old dog, lady. I have zero interest in learning any new tricks. If you see them, though—Dorothy and the rest—tell them I said hi. Tell them I miss their dumb faces. Say it just like that, too.”

“I’ll do that. Thank you for your time and your honesty. I’m glad you agreed to meet with me. You really are a good boy.”

Toto wags his tail. She leaves, and he leans back in his chair and puts his back paws, crossed at the ankles, on the table; his old joints ache in that position but he holds it anyway because he’s cool like that. “I am a good boy, aren’t I?”

His Insignificant Life and Very Important Death —by Mick Garris


AT A PARTICULAR MOMENT nearly forty years ago, the bowels of the earth moved and shat fourteen billion lives. Not particularly impressive compared to other moments that gave birth to five kazillion, but of particular significance to Dane Carslake.

To a planetary cantata of bursting larvae, cracking eggs, and the ripping open of amniotic sacs, Dane’s mother’s body, having suffered a full ten days of agonizing labor, was finally allowed to pop the pup and serve up its final child.

The earth chose to celebrate the birth in typical fashion: it continued to turn on its axis, had a hundred million creatures draw their final breaths, and birthed a trillion more.

That’s how special Dane was, by golly.

And he knew it. As a child, he wondered if the other kids actually thought as much as he did. It didn’t seem so. They just seemed to do, not to ponder. And they seemed happy doing it. But Dane never considered whether or not he was happy. He thought and did and turned in his homework on time, but if anyone ever asked if he were happy —which, fortunately, they did not— he would have to have thought about that. But he wasn’t unhappy, if that counted.

But significance was always a more important consideration to him than happiness. Once he realized he was capable of independent thought and action, he became obsessed with the concept. There was an infinity of lives and personalities abuzz around the globe in countless phyla and species, and the fact that nature’s random science project chose to assemble him —and allow him the wherewithal to consider the process— taught him to appreciate the pride of man.

He became obsessed with the remarkable uniqueness of every individual, and bored the shit out of his pre-pubescent peers with his fascination. It seemed all they ever wanted to do was put boogers in girls’ sandwiches and watch Stevie Neff drop his corduroys and squeeze out a butt snake from the crook of a tree twenty feet above them.

At a fart-lighting session in the underground tunnel they called The Fort, Dane wondered aloud, “I wonder if blue looks the same to you as it does to me…” Nobody else cared. They just measured butt-torches and ignored him.

Dane began to grow up just weeks before a junior high summer, with the ill-timed and nearly concurrent discovery of several facts of life that would have been better left unrelated: nostalgia, puberty, death, and personal insignificance. It was a heady explosion of education for an adult, let alone a newly-twelve-year-old … and most of his peers did let him alone.

He lay in his bed, hearing the otherworldly theme of the forbidden Twilight Zone drift like Eden’s snake through the heater vent. It very nearly killed him that he was not allowed to watch what he knew would be his favorite show. The music and that clipped, matter-of-fact narrator’s voice bound him in gooseflesh, and held him in its thrall. He didn’t need to see the Zone to love it.

Then it was gone again for another week, and he would ache inside when he heard his classmates talk about it with excitement the next day. And worst of all was that a girl liked it best. Cindy didn’t talk stupid girl talk about dolls and makeup and Elvis and stuff —she had a subscription to Famous Monsters! And her parents gave it to her for Christmas! They didn’t just let her read it, they bought it for her!

Dane’s mom was okay when it came to comic books, figuring at least he was reading something, but she would never knowingly let him bring a magazine in the house that reveled in man-made monsters and hatchets through the head.

But Cindy’s did.

And so Bernard Herrmann’s theme always brought Cindy to mind: a round, green-eyed face that hid behind a fading mask of spray-paint freckles that spattered her squashy little nose. A face framed with rings of gold rope that hung over her shoulders, dangling at her chest. Her chest which, he realized on his back in the bottom bunk under his younger brother, Jack, had swollen to the fifteen-year-old level.

He drew the image out of recent unconscious documentation. He hadn’t really thought about it before, but… Cindy Thompson had a bosom! With that revelation came another: Dane Carslake had a stiffy.

He reached and grabbed it with both hands, and his body spun upon its axis and shot the sheets, washing Cindy’s face from the screen of his mind.

He realized after the fog cleared that the orchestral crash that greeted his first orgasm was not a heavenly choir of naked, Cindy-faced angels, but rather a woman screaming.

His mother.

Frightened and spattered with guilt, he quietly leapt out of bed and almost collapsed on the floor as the blood rushed from his head. Giving the blood a moment to climb back into his cranium, he crept into the short hallway and looked into the living room through the slats of the wall heater where he saw a depressingly familiar passion play well into its second act.

Mom was screaming at Dad, and Dad was taunting her with wordless grins, a provoking skull of cruelty that drove her to increasing violence. Uncle Eddie, Mom’s brother, was trying to intervene, but Mom and Dad ignored him, dancing the Sour Marriage Tango to a familiar beat.

Tiring of the lead, Dad grabbed Mom by the shoulders and shoved her against the wall and she crashed into the heater, kicking dents in the slats right in front of Dane’s face and making him jump back.

So far as the boy was concerned, marriage was about staying together for the sake of the children, so that everyone in the family could keep everyone else from having to suffer happiness. Resentment and exploded dreams and broken promises and “we’ll see”s were what family was about. Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best might as well have been The Twilight Zone to Dane, as fantastical as those families’ lives seemed to him. But it must’ve been that everybody else’s families were like that, because there was nobody on TV like his Mom or Dad or his retarded brother Jack.

Mom cut her ankle on the heater slats, and it brought her to a boil. She launched like a rocket at Dad, cocking her arm to bring it across his face: a face that must have once held some kindness for Mom to ever have married him. But now it was lit with defiant hatred as he easily grabbed her arm in a meaty hand and slapped her face with the other.

Shocked but reflexive, Mom bit hard on the arm in her face, startled to find a chunk of bleeding, hairy Dad-meat in her mouth. As she spat it onto the carpet, Uncle Eddie raced over to her, and Dad charged out the front door.

She shoved her brother out of the way, yelling, “If you go now, don’t you ever come back here!” as she stumbled across the living room and out the door in Dad’s wake. Uncle Eddie followed her outside, begging her to let her husband go, but she was out of control.

Shivering as the cold wet spot on his pajamas made contact with his leg, Dane made his way through the tear-blurred ocean of the living room and stood behind the front door, gripping it with white knuckles as he peered outside.

Dad was already in the car gunning the engine, ready to peel out, but Mom had gone around to stand in front, her hands on the hood, blocking his departure.

“Don’t you dare leave now!”

“Get out of the way, or I swear to God I’ll run over you!”

“Dammit, get in the house and let him go!”

“I’m not moving!”

“I’m warning you!”

Then, slow motion as Dane’s mind slipped into overdrive. The car jerked as Dad dropped it into gear, his foot still on the brake. Uncle Eddie drifted through the quicksand night, throwing Mom onto the lawn and taking her place in front of the car, his eyes going so wide they seemed to bulge. The differential went clank! as the transmission connected, and the Chevy wagon gave a behemoth roar as the accelerator hit the floorboard.

Dad’s skull face locked in a smile as the car bounced over Uncle Eddie as if he were a flesh-and-bone speed bump at the drive-in.

Dane watched Dad pull the car to a halt, never dropping the horrid smile as he looked back to see Uncle Eddie’s body jerking as if the driveway were a hot griddle. Then, he backed up over him! He knew it was Uncle Eddie, but Dad didn’t care. His bloodlust had exploded just like Dane’s penis had moments earlier, but Dad was making a different kind of wet.

Drive, bouncing over the body.

Reverse, bouncing again.

Drive, reverse, drive, reverse, then the wheels just spinning in the crushed, jellied remains… a smoking, tire-rubber barbecue of Uncle Eddie burgers.

The next thing Dane knew, Mom had him in her arms, hiding his eyes. The police were taking Dad away. He had discovered through his father, man’s seemingly limitless capacity for cruelty, and through his uncle, his capacity for goodness and protection. Both examples were vivid, but one was far more potent than the other. And cynic-making.

Dane coped. It was just another thing that happened; another example of how individuals responded differently to the presentation of life. He actually thought it was interesting. For the first time in his life, Dane developed a sense of past. The glow of nostalgia was new to him; he began to remember what it was like when he was little and his Dad used to tell him what to do. And what the all-night drives to Yosemite were like every summer. And when he was in grade school, when he only had one teacher for the whole school year, and no P.E.

After Dad left, Dane was out of school for about a fortnight. When he came back, just a few weeks before summer vacation, he found that the yearbooks had already been delivered and were still circulating. Excited, he got his copy in homeroom, and flipped through the miniature seventh-grade mug shots. He wasn’t in the book. Anywhere. Not even in pep rally or camera club shots. Not even at the lunchtime sock hop. He wasn’t even there. And worse…

… Nobody even noticed.

Oh, he was asked to sign other kids’ books—after all, he had achieved a special level of celebrity when the gruesome details of his uncle’s death began to make the rounds and gather fictive weight. It wasn’t as if nobody knew who he was. They just hadn’t noticed that he wasn’t in the yearbook.

So for all the importance he’d placed on the significance and uniqueness of the individual, he now realized that it just didn’t matter. Nobody cared about what made you different from the others. They only cared about what made you like them. Friendships, romances, conversations were founded on similarities, not polarities.

And so, Dane set out on a personal quest for worldwide significance.

In a quarter-century of attempting to matter, Dane discovered he only excelled at insignificance. It was not that he was talentless, merely that—regardless of what he and his mother thought—he just wasn’t special.

He drew mediocre pictures of uninspiring subjects. Even the attempts at joining the avant-garde were depressingly familiar. In an attempt to shock his grey visions into bold, paint-spattered life, he merely made a mess. The work was not incompetent, merely boring.

He was equally proficient at music. Beatling away on a Silvertone special he saved a year to acquire, he stepped like a mastodon into the world of rock’n’roll. Though his fingers bled greatness, his amp spoke mediocrity. Or just noise. He was almost good enough take a peel-deep bite out of the sixties in a succession of cruddy bands that were destined for obscurity.

Though the life he lived as a musician in the Haight was chronicled as a hotbed of communal sex, mind expansion, and free-spending tours in psychedelic school buses, it seemed that Dane had blinked and missed it. He read about the orgies in TIME, saw the Summer of Love spread before him in full color in the Sunday supplements; even played twelfth-billed at the Fillmore one night in 1969, but he had yet to experience the multi-coupling flesh pretzels he read about in the letters to Penthouse.

He didn’t sing well enough for leads, but did just fine with backing vocals. Just fine. And though he played in over two dozen bands over the years, he never played lead guitar. He was the rhythm player, the guy you notice after you check out the bass player.

The lead singers, the guitarists, the drummers were constantly having their flesh Popsicles nursed by begging bearded toothless smiles, but Dane was somehow passed by the Love Parade. His hair fell to his ass, his bell bottom paisleys hung from slender hips, and his mother felt he bore a striking resemblance to Rod Stewart, which he could not argue. But his relationship with his left hand was far more rewarding than with any of the women he encountered.

After years of garage symphonies and junior high dances—where the 14-year-old girls’ crushes were too dangerous to consummate, and besides, their love was truer than could be reached on the yucky physical plane—he was asked to tour with Dr. Hook. He bit. Okay, it was as a guitar technician, a roadie who made sure their instruments were in tune and well strung, but it was a tour. The sixties were struggling to hang onto the middle seventies, but polyester, John Travolta Mach II (after Welcome Back Cotter but before Pulp Fiction), and Soul Train were doing their best to pry loose its grasp.

Dane and his decade had one last chance to make good. It was four weeks of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. For Dr. Hook. For the Medicine Show. For their groupies. And on the last night of a grueling month of lugging two-ton amps and sound machinery … for Dane.

He found himself in the fabled land of the Big-0, rock style. Musicians, roadies, groupies and hangers-on were in a homecoming Continental Hyatt suite, a recreational pharmacy spread out buffet-style for the indulgence of all at hand. Satin record company jackets were draped like ghosts from a dead decade across the floor, as legs spread, jaws gaped, lips licked, and lily-white buns played clench-and-release to the Wall Street Shuffle. The seventies were a vampire sucking the Peace and Love from the blood-beating stalwarts in the room, replacing them with Hugo Boss changelings and Italian shoes without socks.

But even if blood were all he’d get sucked tonight, it was enough. He walked into the party, leaving the ignominy of a decade that forsook him in his wake, spread his arms in the sign of the cross, and surrendered.

He was unable and unwilling to hide the erection that stretched his jeans as he tiptoed over the pistoning minions to the smack bar. The sight of all this flesh —much of it still tight and youthful, some of it jiggly and dimpled, all of it shiny with heat and false passion— made him hungry: for food, for sex, for life, for humanity. For eternity.

As usual, they were all doing and he was watching. He stood at the wet bar, doodling finger-pictures in the expensive powders laid out for the guests, when she stood up and made eye contact. Her spider eyes ran tears of sweat and mascara down her cheeks, and her mouth was smeared with crimson, mostly left behind to decorate the throbbing stalk on a desperately greying record executive panting on the floor. She wiped her mouth and her crotch on a towel, wrapped it around her waist, and walked toward Dane.

Certain she was coming for pharmaceuticals and not for him, he gallantly looked away, trying not to stare at the tiny sweaty tits that were all nipple as they stared at him. But she knew the difference between man and woman, and knew he noticed. She fished in a huge snifter filled with parti-colored drugs, gulped down some windowpane, then shoved Dane’s hand in, placing another hit between his fingers. Helping him, she led it to his mouth, pushed it in with her own fingers, leaving them inside his mouth as she made him swallow. And suck.

His erection tested the Levi’s guarantee as she slipped her fingers out of his mouth and into her own, tasting him, then using her insect digits to remove his shoes and socks. She stood wordlessly before him, silently daring him to make a move, and they were standing tall, two trees in a pygmy forest.

He could feel each of the fibers in the shag carpeting under his feet, exquisitely aware of their polyester texture wriggling, struggling to live beneath the crush of his flesh. He looked down to see the fibers reaching up between his toes, and binding him solidly to the floor.

But that was his only heightened experience. He looked at the flesh locomotive that was chugging to oblivion around him, and it was suddenly desaturated of all color. Sound muffled in cottoned reverence, he stared dully at the monochrome movie that lived at his feet. He’d heard about the colors on acid, but it figures that for him they’d been purloined.

He saw his reflection in his twin tree’s eyes, then noticed her bark turn up into a sexy smile. She reached to release a sturdy root below his waist, but as she leaned in to devour it, it shrunk protectively from her attack. No matter how much she coaxed, its retreat was final.

So Dane bade farewell to the Stratocaster, Plaster-Cast world of music, as unfulfilled there as he was in love, life, and creation.

He slept through the eighties, waving goodbye to that decade with ten years’ seniority at Shearson Lehman as an eighth-class drone, a festering, childless marriage under his belt, and a growing paunch hanging over it. Bored to somnambulance by a noncommittal and disinterested planet, he grew plates of armor made up of equal parts bitterness, resignation, and alcoholic indifference.

It was not always so. His marriage began with a frantic coupling and a mutual taste for sweat on skin. He and Andrea coupled often and eagerly, experimentally and exhaustingly, with the laughter, passion, and abandon that signified the non-physical, spiritual side of their relationship as well. Sexually, they were oral obsessives, always eager to fill one another’s mouths with one another’s flesh. Devouring themselves, they kept an uncaring world at bay, and for the first year or so, it was never allowed to intrude.

But it’s a persistent old planet, ain’t it? —and it kept reaching out and grabbing for them in little pinches that over the years turned into big, jawing bites. Sweat and semen gave way to mortgages and taxes, and eventually to sleep, ne’er to dream.

Their mutual fascination with one another became a thing; a sick-making thing, a gradually creeping cloud that slowly darkened their lives. The unannounced sprinkle turned to deluge before anyone noticed.

Those differences that so charmed and charged one another became irritants, that which made them individuals kept them from becoming one, then drove an iron spike between them. Joy turned to boredom turned to anger turned to bitter resentment.

They were no longer married; they just kind of hung around the same house. Not that they didn’t share; on the contrary, the cathode glow of home shone equally on them both, saving them from the monster god, conversation.

Tip-toeing the eggshell floor of their existence, they hid behind the leering wink of Jerry Springer to keep the bullet words at a safe distance. Anything spoken could and would be misconstrued.

It seemed Andrea was always pissed off, and treated each word as an invitation to do battle. They infected one another with a cranky, world-hating disease that brought out the worst in one another, a defensive pit of discontent that masqueraded as polite hatred. Easily ignited, they seldom spoke. Dane had seen the dead hole behind Andrea’s eyes take over what once held the excited light of dreams fulfilled. So he worked to extinguish his own fire with sips of Remy that made him cozy. Well, he never reached cozy, but the blanket wrapped him nonetheless.

Jerry turned into Jay into Conan, then into lights out and better-get-some-sleep. But even with the gentle coaxing of Remy Martin warming his dead stomach until it burned, sleep found only uneasy purchase on Dane’s pillow. Contact with Andrea’s body, once so electrifying and magnetic, now made for cranky grunts and I-was-just-about-asleep!s.

Trying to keep still but wanting to wiggle his foot in his nervous wakefulness, he glared at his wife from behind closed eyelids. And the longer he lay awake, the more okay it seemed to die. He wouldn’t mind it right now if it were just lights out, if he just croaked right here, right this minute. It would be so much easier. Just to die and not have to worry about getting any sleep. If the heavy pounding of his heart would just stop. If it would just burst, and quit shoving blood through his veins in such a noisy rush. If he had a gun, it would be so easy to just shove it in his mouth and pull the trigger, spattering an empty, septic mind all over Andrea’s pillow. If it could all just stop, and let his blood run down her face with her tears, and wouldn’t she be sorry then? And the weight could be lifted, and the pain could stop. Then they both could be happy. Please, God, sleep or death.

Finally, the Xanax unconsciousness, black and dreamless.

L’chaim …

… And with grim inevitability, Dane’s life continued its statistical course with a divorce, a depressing bachelor apartment near the office cubicle, an allergy to the milk he needed to fight the festering ulcer that had seized his gut, and an addiction to the alcohol that deadened the fire and fanned its flames at the same time. He felt like a cigarette butt, slowly being ground out by the Birkenstock of life.

He worked and drank and tried to sleep, his paunch broadening, his hair thinning on top. His part slipped lower by the month, until soon he combed it from his ear in long strands over the shining desert that was his scalp, waxing it in place and avoiding winds that would lift the stiff hair-hat into a wave of greeting. He knew it wasn’t fooling anyone—certainly not himself—but he couldn’t bear a hairless reflection in the mirror.

The night his divorce was final, he didn’t need the Xanax to sleep. Not even the Halcyon. As soon as he flicked on the bedroom TV, his own lights went out. The entertainment was far superior that night on the dream-o-vision that spun laughing faces around his careening bed. When it settled, he was with Cindy Thompson again, for the first time since school. She was a freckled twelve, but with a high school body, and it was all in his hands. Hands that rolled the socks from her ankles, slid the Catholic plaid skirt up legs flecked with fine little sunny-gold hairs; hands sneaking under a thick white bra that offered no resistance, pulling long crumples of toilet paper from the wads underneath. Fingertips burning as they made contact with the hiding alabaster bulge that had never seen the sun. The jolt of contact with tiny nipples, hardening under his touch into miniature towers barely larger than good-sized goosebumps. Then, his own flesh tower, hidden by the girth of encroaching middle age, plunged into hitherto unexplored territory, exploding within as soon as it was engulfed.

Then, awake.

And he remembered another time many years back when dreams of Cindy Thompson soiled his sheets. Pavlov’s dog barked, with Uncle Eddie’s dying face and skid-mark body. Cindy Thompson, semen and blood. Death and taxes. Time and tide.

For the first time in a quarter century, and under circumstances depressingly similar to the last, Dane wept, washing away a life unlived, unearned. Though the tears eventually dried, his pain never did. He bolted back a shot of Remy to soak up the blood.

It was the next morning that, despite the rain, shone sunlight on him. He got the morning mail, still rubbing the sleep-crust from his eyes, brought on by the duct-draining of the night before. The notice was there: an invitation to his high school class’s reunion. His mind immediately vacated the present, dumping his work, his divorce, his alimony, his ubiquitous bottle of Remy, and the crush of the planet itself on his shoulders into a subdural dustbin.

The headcheese of his brain grunted memories, painted them with a rosy watercolor, and convinced Dane he was being transported into a better time. An easier time. A happier time. And better than that was the signature of the reunion committee chairman at the bottom of the invite: Cynthia Thompson.

Cindy Thompson.

Not Mrs. Cindy Wiederhorn, or even Cynthia Thompson-Applewhite.

Cindy Thompson. Singular. His silent partner in two of the most important solitary orgasmic experiences of his life. He had two months; he would lose weight, buff up, and see Cindy Thompson. And go back to when he was happy. He’d forgotten that there was never such a time.

The plane spat him onto the parapet, and he knew he was coming home. Tonight was the big deal on Madonna Street. The city had grown and blighted, just like all the others in the world. Emptied of life and filled with activity and industry, it belched in his face, replacing the scent of spoiled cantaloupe from his youth with the choking diesel air-wick that darkened the sky. But Dane was oblivious. All he could smell was the carob-tree-and-Clorox musk of Cindy Thompson wet dreams. He was going back to school, back to his friends, back to his innocence, and back—for the first time—to Cindy Thompson. His step was sprightly, his body ten pounds lighter than it had been eight weeks before.

He let Hertz put him in the driver’s seat, and headed to the hotel where the gala was to be held, checked in, and began to get ready. Six hours early.

He was sit-upped and showered and blown dry and tied and polished and raw-silk-jacketed by four, and the soiree was not until eight. He fidgeted with the room service cracker-dough pizza, and let himself be bathed by the magic glow of SpectraVision as he popped a Diet Sprite from the mini-bar and kept from drinking. There would be enough of that later.

Party time.

His heart pounding a pre-detox Ginger Baker solo, he stepped into the crepe-paper and winking-white-light past, and found himself in the progeria ward.

The faces were all familiar, and mostly corrupted by time’s passage. The recognition was immediate, but each of them looked like children painted over with practical joker’s dust of time. A layer of wrinkles, a jacket of fat, powdered grey wigs. They were not adults, they had not grown; they’d merely been dipped in age.

The men had suffered the worst. Shining pates, broad beams, thick glasses. Dane actually felt he had survived the ravages of the past two decades better than most as they pinned his senior picture to his lapel. But most of the women had taken care of themselves. There were many who were unable or unwilling to combat the bodily backfires of multiple births, but a surprising number had nipped, tucked, and aerobicized to look even better than they had in school.

He smiled as he recognized faces, scanning the crowd for Cindy, with hopeful eyes. He walked up to old chums with a grin and a greeting, and made a remarkable discovery. Each one reacted the same way: a quick, sneaky glance at the picture on his chest, a vacant lack of recognition, a glad-handed howdy, and an excuse to move on after an awkward, conversationless pause.

No one recognized him.

Not merely that their reminiscence was vague … they truly could not for the life of them remember him. Apparently, Dane was a master of the delible impression.

As the band played Beatles, Badfinger and Beach Boys, and graying, overweight slobs embarrassed themselves with a drunken jerk and a side of mashed potato, Dane wandered like a ghost through the strangers-by-choice. He had stepped from the time machine, and been ambushed by Morlocks.

And still no sign of Cindy Thompson. But who cared? If she weren’t married, she’d probably be fat and bald and saddled with a dozen brats. Or more likely, she’d be more beautiful than ever, tantalizingly available, and when their eyes met… that same light would click off. She wouldn’t know who the fuck he was, either, the bitch. And he sat down to nurse a drink, hating her. Wishing her dead.

The band stopped playing, right in the middle of “Without You.” Danny Turner stormed the stage and took the microphone for some no-doubt earth-shattering announcement. Dane’s eyes were going rheumy as he glared at the former A.S.B. president, Mr. Track-Star-With-A-Hundred-Girlfriends, Mr. Handsome-Glad-Hand-Superman-Smile-And-Spitcurl-Straight-A-Valedictorian-Dickhead-Voted-Most-Likely-To-Succeed. Dane was getting drunker. Fucking self-important jock with the 170 IQ gained fifty pounds, four kids, and more chins than a Chinese phonebook. Dane gloated about the creep’s fall from grace. Okay, Daniel T. Tuner, esquire. High school was the best time of your life. It’s all downhill from here. You manage the garden section of the Sears at the mall, pulling down—what?—a cool 25K a year? Bitchen. Dane gloated, watching the chins warble, but not hearing the song. Quivering, even frightened. What the fuck was this feeb blathering about now?

The room had gone silent, and the P.A. rang with feedback around the words: “…is dead.” Big gasp, Dane perked up. “… friend to all of us, and who worked so hard to make this event such a special one for us. But her limo crashed through the guardrail on 248, and by all accounts, it was all over very quickly.”

Dane went white. No.

“Who among us did not love Cindy?”

No! Not that Cindy!

“I know we’ll all wish the Thompson family…”

My Cindy!

Dream lover, wet sheet, heart-squeezing, happy-making, death’s head Cindy Thompson. Dane had killed her.

He was suddenly at the center of a very tiny universe, and it revved up into a wavering spin around him. Centrifugal force tried to throw him against the far wall, but to protect himself, he threw up all over the table in front of him.

And that led him home, clicking his heels and hoping Toto would join him. Off the plane and back into town. Making a choice. Not going to the house, the unbearable shrinking prison. Going to a better place, a more important place, a more spectacular place… for a spectacular act. He went downtown, riding the elevator in the tallest high-rise to heaven.

Monday, lunch hour, traffic, both on foot and on wheels. The streets choked with zombies that lived on carbon monoxide and anal-retentive schedules. Clockwork automatons that clocked in at eight and out at five, melted microwave meals blocking their bowels and clogging their arteries. It was time for Dane Carslake to be noticed … if not in life, then surely in death.

He stood out on a ledge on the library tower, forty-six stories above the insect grid. Acrophobia whirled about him, tugging at his clothing, and he felt a King Kong surge of power. Wind whipped at him, and he felt strong, decisive, conclusive. He would matter with a splatter.

Wind rammed up his pantlegs, cooling his erection, frigid but proud. The city ran its business, oblivious to him. But not for long. An animal inside him made Dane howl at the top of his lungs: no words, merely raw emotion. But the city drowned him out.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, letting it drop to the sidewalk below. Generating twenty-six stories of momentum, it nearly cracked the newsboy’s skull when it hit. The kid fell unconscious across a bundle of the Times, making crimson headlines.

An old woman rushed to help the boy, picking up the wallet and pocketing the cash before she looked up.

Even from that height, Dane could see activity below. The ants were pointing up: a bird? A plane? No… it’s street-splatter man!

He pulled off a loafer and gave it a toss. It crashed through the windshield of an uninsured ‘69 Datsun, which screeched across three lanes in startlement, ramming a Mercedes and a school bus into the sidewalk. Score: 1 unemployed wife-beater, 3 upper-crust matrons, returning from group-rate lid lifts and tummy tucks at the finest plastic surgeon in the city, 5 pedestrians—including one in a wheelchair that should have been worth at least double points, and 14 students from a school for the mentally challenged.

Now, people were looking up, pointing at Dane. Already there was a Metro Traffic report on the unusually heavy downtown backup. Gridlock spread out at Dane’s feet, widening across the city’s expanse, and his satisfied smile at its fulcrum beamed across his face.

Hell swarmed in the streets below, much to his delight. He knew it was time to act, that there were no doubt cops and shrinks in the elevators now, rising to the occasion to talk him down. And he could hear the chuffing of the waspy helicopter in the distance.

High in the sky, he could hear the honking, the voices, the city symphony that was composed just for him, and he prepared to dive. But another sound caught his ear.


And a scream.

Pop! Pop!

And even more madness below. Running, screaming, cacophony.


And Dane spotted its source. Across the street, a full three stories below him in a window in the Citibank tower. A sunburned gunman was firing randomly into the crowd … a red sniper.

As if he could feel Dane’s eyes on him, the sniper looked up, and their eyes locked. The gunman smiled as he raised the weapon and framed Dane’s face in the crosshairs. Dane leaped … but not before the bullet crossed the street and dove into his body.

Unbelievable force threw him against the huge glass plate that shone indirect sunlight on the Members of the Board within. Executives looked up just in time to see the safety glass shatter into spiderweb cracks as Dane’s body bounced off the window. His head cracked like a soft-boiled egg on the concrete ledge, and his body flailed gracelessly through the air.

Never had Dane been more aware of his environment; his brain cataloguing every detail, his nerve endings scrabbling to the surface, magnifying everything. As death beckoned, his life was heightened. Blood was rushing from the crack in his skull, rosy eyewash that prettied the view of the smog-choked concrete city. The bullet had blasted a hole the size of a Granny Smith apple through his diaphragm, just below the heart. He was aware of the wind whistling a C-sharp through the tunnel wound. The hole played a scale as unfamiliar body parts found the exit hole and came to the surface.

The fall was endless and unglamorous, as Dane’s body fell against ledge after ledge, bright lights of concussion when his head met concrete, hot rips of pain as limbs shattered, shards tearing through the flesh. And always the electrical current of awareness turned up to 11.

So slow. So endless … until the end.

Then, the pavement rushed at his face at a million miles an hour, shoving his teeth through his brain and out his back. It all went black as he swallowed his palate.

It took nearly ten hours to clear the gridlock. Drivers cursed one another, praying for each other’s death so they could get home a minute or two earlier. And a chorus of radio reports sang a round of the day’s events, a new tragedy to tabulate, a new mass murder to chronicle, prosecutorial careers to make, fodder for a new book, six-figure TV-movie rights, agents, and other ghouls picking their teeth.

There was a new name to add to the list: Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Juan Corona, Angelo Buono, Ted Bundy, Henry Lee Lucas, Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Whitman, Richard Ramirez, and now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our special guest, Andrew David Bigelow, the Citibank Sniper.

A piker in the mass murder game, really, a tally of ten dead, and merely by bullet, no sex, no direct contact with knives or axes or chainsaws; hell, he didn’t even eat any body parts or hail Satan with their blood. Just got dumped by a girlfriend who was sick and tired of being beaten up and fucked raw whether she liked it or not, and ol’ Andy just got pissed and blew off a little steam.

An unspectacular showing in the big-time human hunt, and soon forgotten. But at least he was there in the news morgues, interviewed in an HBO documentary on multiple murderers on death row.

But what of the victims? Okay, there was Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas. But she was a movie star and they were a part of the evening’s festivities. Dane Carslake was merely the sheet-covered foot, out of focus way in the back corner of the picture on the newspaper, one of ten victims whose identities were being held pending notification of the relatives.

In fact, Dane was never identified. His wallet was now in the possession of a sweet old lady who welcomed lonely old men into her guest house, fed them homemade wine laced with battery acid, and collected their social security checks for them. Accordioned by the Main Street trash compactor, Dane’s features were far from recognizable, and the truth of the matter is, the cops really didn’t give a shit.

So they scraped him off the street, slopped him into an anonymous pine box, and laid him to rest under six feet of earth.

And a miraculous thing happened: the body decomposed, bacteria bred, worms fed, and his body broke down into a primordial jelly that made very good baby food for the million-and-a-half new lives that were spontaneously generated within him.




Photo by Ryuhei Kitamura

Copyright Mick Garris

First published in A Life in the Cinema, by Mick Garris, Gauntlet Press, 2000.



The Backwards Path to the Limbus —by Betty Rocksteady


If he kept slurping like that, Miranda would kill him. She’d have to. Between the dead fruit stench of the tea and his incessant old man noises, if she sat here one more fucking minute she’d scream. She wouldn’t be able to help it. Frustration bubbled in her throat but instead she bit down until she tasted blood.

Just one night. She’d sit here patiently until the old widow up front got things started, and then she’d wait and wait and wait and she would get a taxi and listen to the radio while rain pounded against the windows and then she would lay on her dead son’s bed and she would scream for as long as she fucking wanted.

Dr. Hopskin was right about a lot of things, but not this. She had never been a people person. Yeah, she had liked to read, but reading didn’t mean she liked being surrounded by a dozen people she had nothing in common with, listening to the noises they made, and waiting, endlessly waiting while they small-talked and sipped tea and it was already quarter after six and they hadn’t even started talking about the fucking book yet. The group leader, Carrie, had been standing there fucking around with her notebook since Miranda had walked in, underlining passages and adding post-its and highlighting sections with an agonizing precision. As if any of this could take her mind off Riley.

She would never come back. Fuck Dr. Hopskin —and fuck all these people.

The woman sitting beside her grabbed her knee and Miranda jumped, sloshing her third cup of tea over the rim. She gritted her teeth, managed not to snap at the woman, and smiled instead.

“What did you think of the story?” The sad-eyed woman smiled, her lips drawn thin. Miranda shrugged. “It was okay.”

No, it wasn’t. Literary fiction or something. Reading should be for pleasure. Beach books. She would never have picked this one up by choice. The Backwards Path to the Limbus. It was just endless meandering that put her to sleep. A protagonist —never named or gendered— walked a labyrinth. Overwrought description of the path, the sounds of the sky, the bones underfoot. She had forced herself to read it, to be prepared, but she fell asleep more often than not, with twisted dreams of pathways opening up to her and spiralling down, down, down. “You’ll appreciate it more the next time you read it,” the woman assured her.

“I doubt I’ll read it again.”

The man next to her butted in, a smear of chocolate on his face. “Oh, you will. We’ve all read it lots of times. You’d be surprised at what you see on a second and third reading.”

“Or a twenty-eighth.” That was Carrie. Everyone laughed. Miranda tried a smile but it felt wrong on her face. Jesus, who the hell read any book twenty-eight times? Not to mention one as boring as this. Maybe she just didn’t have the attention span anymore. But at least Carrie had tuned in to them and maybe now the meeting would start so it could end. Dr. Hopskin would just have to set her up with another activity. One without so much talking.

Something brushed against her leg and she flinched. Mercifully, it wasn’t Harold or any of the other weirdos here. A small calico cat wound through the crowd and darted beneath a chair. “Is there supposed to be a cat here?” It seemed unsanitary somehow, but it was a bookstore, not a restaurant. Still …

“Oh yes,” said Carrie. “Every bookstore has a cat. Or had a cat. Or will someday have a cat.” The group laughed as if she’d told a joke, and the animal darted off somewhere behind the shelves. What a weird fucking thing to say; it could hardly be true. But the group looked at her like they wanted a response, so Miranda smiled and pictured stabbing a knife straight through the woman’s chest.

Fuck this place.

Carrie smiled back and shuffled the books on her desk until she had The Backwards Path to the Limbus in front of her. Miranda noticed the ragged line of a scar snaking down the woman’s wrist as her sleeve shifted. Dr. Hopskin had mentioned that most of the members had been patients of his at one point. Did they all carry around the same sort of pain as hers? It was hard to believe, looking at them now, with their bland faces and casual conversation.

“Well, I guess we’re ready to get started,” Carrie said.

Instead of feeling relieved that things were finally getting underway, Miranda felt the next endless expanse of time stretching out in front of her. Every time she’d tried to read the book, a headache had pierced through a deep part of her brain, triggering endless dreams of trudging an eternal path, the walls getting tighter and tighter as she spiralled ever inwards. She had muddled through, but she certainly didn’t have anything to say about it, at least not anything they would want to hear.

“Miranda, would you like to start us off?”

“Uh… no, just do things however you usually do them.” All eyes were on her, all these other social rejects stuffing down their pain to come to a bookstore and make small talk about boring books as though this was a reason to be alive, to keep on going.

Carrie smiled at her. Her smile was too wide in a way that made her look a little crazy. “We’ve all read this book before, it’d be nice to hear a new take on it.” She waved the thin volume in front of her face, as if it would jog Miranda’s memory. “You read the whole first section, yes?”

“Yeah, I read it.” And she had felt every moment of it, too. The book had been divided into three sections, and the first concentrated on a man winding through a trail of tiny bones. Kinda morbid maybe, but not even in an interesting way. It took her forever to read, as though she had to experience every single step he took, forcing herself to read each word, one at a time.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t like it. Nothing happened.” The group kept their eyes on her, chewing their lips as they waited for more. “Maybe I didn’t really get it? I used to read a lot of thrillers and stuff, but this was kind of … literary?” She felt like she was rambling, but she had nothing to say that was of any substance. “It was written cool, I guess.” She didn’t really think that, but being stared at was driving her nuts. She had to keep talking so they could move on to the next person and stop fucking looking at her. “Like, the rhythm of it, if that makes sense? The words felt like they rhymed, even if they didn’t.”

It had agitated her, actually, and the words had echoed through her dreams, and then she had been walking the path, the bones crunching beneath her feet. “It was weird to have the author focus on the mundane for so long. I spent the whole section just … waiting for something to happen. The author described every detail of the footsteps but there was nothing to really anchor the story, to let me know where it was happening, or why.”

“You’d be surprised how much you’ll get out of it when you read it again. What did you make of it this time? What did it mean? We’ll talk about some of our own theories later.” Carrie leaned forward, as if Miranda’s opinion of this stupid book were the most fascinating thing in the world.

“I don’t really know … I even looked it up online, and I couldn’t find anything about it.” That was weird, too. She had checked Amazon for reviews, to give her a hint at what she was supposed to be getting out of it, but the book hadn’t been listed. “Not even anything about the author.”

“Oh, that’s a pen name. Not all authors want you knowing who they are.” Everyone laughed again, and the sound was grating.

“What did you think of the bones?” Harold asked eagerly. “Did you work out what kind of bones they were?”

The bones had reminded her of Riley, of course, but everything did. They were too small, far too small, but they reminded her of him still. The bones that showed through his thin skin and the bones that by now filled his grave.

To her absolute horror, her eyes began filling with tears. She didn’t want these people to see her cry, oh God, that would lead to sympathetic looks and soft voices and a whole event she just couldn’t take right now. And would her doctor hear about it? Somehow, she believed he would.

Miranda stood up. “Is there a bathroom here?”

“Yes, just down the back.” Carrie gestured to the rows of bookshelves criss-crossing behind her, in a way that made Miranda slightly dizzy. Still, better to wander lost among books than be stuck with these people for another five minutes.

The bookstore went back farther than she’d expected. She just needed to breathe, to get back to herself. She stumbled deeper in, her pulse pounding hot in her head. What had she been thinking coming here, among these strangers, trying to heal herself?

As if they could ever understand.

The place was old; it had been here since she was a kid. She had visited once or twice with her parents, but they had hurried her out quickly and she’d never had the opportunity to properly explore.

She had never brought Riley here. He hadn’t been much of a bookstore kid. He was busy, so busy, always wanting to be outside. She had become that sort of person for him. And after the disease struck, well, books were the last thing on her mind.

The tightly-packed bookshelves insulated the sounds of the others talking, as if they were farther away than they really were. She was grateful for this moment of quiet.

She strummed a finger against the spine of a hefty set of children’s dictionaries. Something was moving behind the shelves. Footsteps, Riley’s footsteps, as he stumbled from his bed to the bathroom to vomit blood into the toilet. No—probably the cat. Her throat felt thick and pasty. Had they mentioned the cat’s name? She couldn’t remember. “Kitty?”

She could still picture Riley, his beautiful eyes gone flat as he gazed up at her over the toilet seat, changed, as if he had vomited out some essential part of himself and she had no choice but to flush it away. It nagged at her. She needed to see the cat, to prove to herself she was crazy, to prove to herself Riley wasn’t hiding just around the corner. Her head spun with the kind of paranoia usually reserved for the darkest moments of the early morning. She took a left turn around the shelves, away from the bathroom and towards the noise.

The cat sprinted away, so light on its feet it could have been floating. Then it peered back around the shelf right at her and she stifled a scream.

Its eyes. The cat had Riley’s eyes. Not the dead eyes that haunted her every night, nor the eyes of the last few months when everything that had made him her son was drained out of him and he lay limp and unmoving in the hospital bed. No. These were the bright blue eyes of his childhood, when he had been his real self. And they had seen her. Known her.

A wave of nausea swept through her. Dr. Hopskin wouldn’t like this, she shouldn’t do this, she was imagining things, but her brain was chattering and the impulse could not be controlled. Besides, she wasn’t following the cat because it had Riley’s eyes, of course not, it was to prove that the cat didn’t look like him, that she was imagining it, to confirm just how ridiculous she was being. They aren’t even shaped like cat’s eyes.

She turned a corner and listened for the padding of paws, then turned again. A flicker of a white-tipped tail guided her further. Was it possible to get lost in a bookstore? To become lost among the shelves and never find your way out again? She didn’t see the cat anymore. All the shelves looked the same. They’re probably wondering where I am by now.

The bookshelves stretched to the ceiling, and when she looked back, she wasn’t sure which way she had come. Like the labyrinth, forming tighter and tighter spirals, the walls were closing in, the tiny bones crunching beneath her feet, but now Riley’s eyes peered out from the darkness and she was chasing him through the dimly-lit pathway and—

—this was ridiculous. Time to go back.

Miranda retraced her steps as well as she could remember and stumbled almost immediately upon a dead end. Not exactly a dead end, though, because a narrow door yawned open onto a dark stairwell. A basement? Something dripped, and she heard a strange yowling that could have been a child’s cry but must have been the cat.

The light switch was near the door and as Miranda fumbled for it, the dim light cast a shaky path down the stairs. As though in a dream, her body moving on its own, she found herself descending, each footstep slow and deliberate to avoid tumbling. She reached the dirt floor almost immediately; her neck cramped forward uncomfortably in order to clear the ceiling. The room was small and crammed full of crates spilling books. And in the furthest corner, Riley, his hands in his lap, sitting quietly on a box. Beautiful. Healthy. She couldn’t breathe.

Immense relief, overpowering relief, weak jelly-legs that could barely stumble across the floor. She was at his side, this wasn’t real, but it didn’t matter, she had to hold him, pull him as close as she could, feel his warm cheek against her own. She was sleep-talking, words pouring out of her mouth, smearing tears onto his clothes, pushing his hair away from his eyes. He was still and silent, but his breath puffed onto her cheek. His eyes were sharp blue, not the dull grey they had turned before he died.

He let her blubber over him for a moment longer, and then he was speaking, in a soft gravelly voice she had never heard before.

“I need to tell you something.” But she couldn’t stop touching him, his soft cheeks, the tiny hands that moved in hers, and the life that pulsed beneath his skin. He didn’t move, didn’t respond, and something about his frail coldness terrified her.

“Riley, what’s the matter with you?” Her voice was sharper than she intended. “You’re not acting right.”

“Please, stop talking. I need to tell you something and I don’t have long.”

“What do you mean? Why don’t you have long? Don’t leave. Don’t leave.” It wasn’t enough. She wanted to look at him forever, his cowlick sprig of hair, the sprinkle of freckles over his nose. She rained kisses and tears on his brow, but he didn’t move.

“Please …” that voice was so awful and so unlike him that she stopped. He wriggled from her arms and squirmed away, but he let her take his small, cold hand in hers.

“I need to tell you … that time I was really, really little and we went camping. Me and you and dad. We had the tent and we were in that campground near the ocean, but we had to walk that path in the woods to get to the beach and I liked the woods so much more than the beach so we went back there for lunch. There was a picnic table. I ate my sandwich really, really quick, and you guys kept eating, and you said I could go play but not go too far. I had my bucket and I peeled back the bark on some trees and looked at the bugs and put the bugs in the bucket and then I turned over a rock and there were salamanders. And most of them ran away but I grabbed one and put him in my bucket but he didn’t want to eat the bugs.

“I was gonna ask you if I could keep him. I loved him. He was shiny and his eyes were dark and he ran around in the bucket so funny. I’d name him Sal and put him in the old aquarium that my fishes died in and he could be my friend.

“I wanted to put him on my shoulder to show you me and him being friends, and I reached in and grabbed him and he flipped over in my hand and I tried to pet his belly but I pushed too hard and his guts came out, I pushed too hard and I killed him, he made a squishing sound and it all came out his mouth and he was dead and I couldn’t tell you and dad why I was crying because I was a murderer and I didn’t want anyone to know that I killed him, I killed my little friend.”

A thin, bitter fluid filled Miranda’s mouth. “Riley, that’s not true.”

“It kept coming to me forever. Until I died, every time I closed my eyes I saw his guts spurt out and his beady little eyes go dead.” Riley closed his eyes. He looked like he was carved from marble. He didn’t speak again.

Miranda opened her mouth. She didn’t know what she was going to say, but she had to say something. Instead, she gagged. Bitter fluid flooded her mouth and took her breath away. She started coughing and Riley gazed impassively at her, barely blinking. She swallowed and thought the worst was over, but her words dribbled over a thick swelling in her throat.

The stink of panic rose from her armpits when she couldn’t catch her breath, that familiar stink which had kept her awake so many nights. She couldn’t breathe, and her son was just looking at her with those eyes that had haunted her for far too long. She tried to cough and finally something loosened, and then something in her mouth was moving and it was slimy and bitter and she spat, and a salamander, squirming and dead-eyed, raced away. She screamed, and Riley didn’t even flinch.

“Miranda? Where are you?” Reluctantly, she tore her eyes away from her son. That old creep Harold was snooping around looking for her. She didn’t want to answer, not now, so she looked back toward her son, but he was gone. The cat sat on the box instead. She blinked normal green eyes at Miranda.

“Miranda?” A female voice now. The cat blinked again, slowly, and hopped off the box and padded up the stairs.

Everything got blurry after that. There was screaming, and there was crying, and there were boxes torn apart in Miranda’s hands. Eventually there were people all around her and she was clawing away from them, screaming his name, pounding her hands against the walls.

Then Carrie was there, stroking her back, intoning something about the labyrinth, her voice low and calm, and the adrenaline spike faded, and Miranda slumped into her arms.

They led her back to the seating area. Someone placed a hot mug in her hands and helped her sit down. It was hard to breathe. All their eyes were on her, their dull brown eyes and dark green eyes and pale blue eyes, but none like Riley’s. None even close.

“Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?” Carrie thumbed her book open, the one with all the post-its and the meeting notes. She had a pen in her hand, like there was going to be an accident report or something.

“No, it’s not … my son was down there.” Panic erupted in her chest again and she started to stand up. She had to find him. The group shifted and looked at each other. “You don’t understand. He’s dead. My son is dead.”

Carrie jotted something down in her book, then peered closer at Miranda. “What color were his eyes?”

That bitter taste rose in her mouth again. “Blue. They were his eyes. They were blue.”

“I knew it!” Harold said, “I had a feeling they would be, we haven’t had blue in a while.” Carrie was furiously flipping through the notebook, marking things with highlighter. Her brow was furrowed in concentration but her mouth hinted at a smile. “You’re right, it’s been nearly six months.”

“What are you talking about?” Murmured concentration went on around her. Carrie ignored her and flipped back to a new page. “Did he say anything?”

Miranda stood up, but her knees wouldn’t hold her. She slumped back into her chair. “What the fuck is going on here?” Tears streamed from her eyes, beyond her control. “I don’t feel right …” Shelves blurred and twisted in her peripheries and she had to close her eyes to control the dizziness.

“It’s fine. Please. What did he say?”

“He told me this story about a salamander. It wasn’t true. Riley never lied, but this wasn’t true.” She opened her eyes to more of those simpering smiles, but felt too tired to be mad. “He never met his father. We never went camping. Why would he say those things?”

“Oh no, honey, it’s not meant to be literal.” Harold patted her knee.

“Camping and a salamander,” Carrie was still writing. “Any other themes?”

“What do you mean, themes? He told me he killed a salamander and he couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Carrie flipped through the book. “I think we’ve had salamanders before, haven’t we?”

“What do you think it means?” Harold asked. He wasn’t talking to Miranda. He was looking at Carrie. A dribble of drool shone on his lips.

“What does it mean?” asked Miranda. “What does any of this mean?” Something deep inside her wanted to scream but everyone was so calm, and the tea was sweet and strange and instead she stifled a yawn. Idly, she wondered if she could retrace those steps through the shelves. She wondered about the book they had read and if she mapped out that path, and mapped out her own and sat one on the top of the other, how closely would they line up?

Everyone kept talking incessantly around her and she caught fragments of the conversation; cross-referencing, and codes and riddles and how things came together, piece-by-piece-by-piece.

She remembered her son’s face. The first one, the fresh one, the one full of promise. She remembered how it had fallen away, day by day, and morphed into his dying face, the one with hollow cheeks and holes for eyes. That dead face was the one she saw when she closed her eyes now, his eyes gone flat and dark. His new face, the one she saw today, was better, even if those blue eyes wouldn’t quite look at her.

“Miranda?” Her eyes shot open. They were all looking at her again. The book had new flags and notes. She wanted to read it, to see what secrets it could possibly hold. “Can we expect you back next week?”

“Oh, yes. Absolutely. Yes.”  








Artwork by Coco

What are you Doing Hanging ‘Round? -by Jessica McHugh

Unitil you entered Mexico last week, your grasp of Spanish was limited to señorita and cerveza. Now, with the tips of your toes scraping the footstool and the noose doing its life’s work, you know the word muerte all too well.

You spent weeks bragging about all the women you’d meet in Tijuana, how they would drip at the mere whiff of your Texan sweat, but the moment you clamped eyes on Carmela, you forgot about the hundreds of women fated to be yours. Like a tall Tequila Sunrise, her refreshing beauty made your mouth water. With one slender hand clamped to a popped hip, her scarlet fingernails digging into her olive skin, she smiled at you as if to say, “You could dig in, too, baby. You could leave your own impressions on my hips. You could leave scratches down my back. Just don’t leave me wanting.”

She twisted her raven hair up off her neck and pinned it to the top of her head, but tendrils broke free of the clip, cascading back to her shoulders like corkscrew waterfalls. She was more woman than any you’d seen in San Antonio—maybe anywhere—and, with a single glance, she changed every plan you’d ever made.

She couldn’t have been much older than eighteen, a naive girl still wondering what amazing experiences lay ahead. Sitting down in her section of the Restaurante Lorca patio, you decided you had to be the first. Her nametag read Carmela, but if her blouse hadn’t been so low-cut you might not have noticed. She had the kind of breasts that put push-up bras to shame, her comely cleavage making propositions you hoped she would fulfill.

She took your order without a word, probably because she assumed you wouldn’t understand her anyway. You told yourself she didn’t think you were stupid; she’d just heard too many Americans fumble over food names like Champiñones Sacromonte, which your brain pronounced as “Champion’s Sacramento.”

What a darling she was to cut you a break.

Your drink came first, a crisp smack of lime accenting the watery beer, followed by a basket of tortilla chips and salsa. She was too busy to linger at your table, but as she sashayed around the patio you realized how often her gaze slipped back, and how little her labor inspired it. Desire glimmered in those glances, and who could blame her? At the center of the circular patio, you appeared an ivory statue for idolaters, and Carmela was the doting maiden willing to sacrifice her virginity to your prowess. You’d come to Tijuana for an affair just like this, and she knew it. Your shared fate was as easily detected as the cumin boldly perfuming the restaurant.

After she set down your enchilada, you grabbed her wrist. Not violently, just hard enough to let her know the kind of take-charge man you were. Fear seized her, and she tried to pull away, but you didn’t allow it. It was a bold move, maybe overzealous, but beauty like hers demanded urgency. You weren’t about to let another man snatch her up.

“Baby, you don’t gotta be scared ‘round me,” you said. “I don’t wanna hurt you. I just wanna—” You loosened your grip and gave her a soft smile, confident it would sell her on your charm. And if it didn’t, finishing your sentence with, “I wanna worship you” was sure to do the trick. Her lips parted before the corners curled, and her olive cheeks blushed with infatuation. Jackpot.

“What are you doing hanging ‘round here? A girl as beautiful as you?” Tilting your head, you said, “I could take you away from this place. Would you like that?” Carmela looked down at her manicured toes, but her giggle was your go-ahead. “What time you off work, baby?”

Excitement was evident in your voice. Elsewhere, too, which is why you dropped your napkin onto your lap when she bent over. Her breasts fell farther out of her blouse, so close to complete exposure that your imagination easily filled in the blanks.

She hadn’t answered your question then. Instead, she’d slipped a note in with your check. “Twenty minutes. Out back,” the note instructed. Although she hadn’t spoken a word, her grasp of English titillated you; it was somehow sexier seeing how her hand made words before her lips could. You were happy for your napkin’s placement when you beheld her flirty note, as well as the flourish she’d drawn around the postscript, “In the garden.”


How slyly you snuck around the side of the restaurant to the lush garden out back. How mysterious and compelling you must have looked to anyone who spotted you—not that anyone could have; you were too stealthy for that.

When you penetrated the gated labyrinth of greenery, Carmela was already there, sitting on the edge of a fountain. You joined her on the stone lip, not even trying to conceal how deeply you were breathing her in. Touching your thigh, she’d giggled like a teenager. With a smirk, she leaned back and loosed her ebony hair. The silken waves bounced and tumbled down her shoulders. Fixing her eyes on yours, she licked her lips as if starving for your kiss.

You were about to grab her, to pull her into a monumental embrace that would quench her longing, but she bent to the water before you could. Submerging her hand, Carmela looked back at you, winking when she withdrew a chalice from the water. Out of respect, you fought against recoiling from the cup she held to your lips. You had no intention of partaking. You’d heard enough stories about Mexico to know you shouldn’t drink the water, especially from some random stone tub behind a restaurant.

“No es agua,” she said. “No es agua. Son mis bebés.”

God…her voice. You had to admit the gossamer sound rolling off her tongue made you dizzy. And how she called you baby—you recalled never swooning in your life until that moment.

“I think you’re great, too, baby,” you’d said, touching her leg. “But I’m not thirsty.”

Carmela pouted. What kind of magic was it that made her more beautiful when she was sad, and how could you resist it? Wincing, you figured the prize was worth the pain and took the chalice from her hands. Examining the water, you found it was clean, but gave it a subtle sniff. Detecting a pleasant floral scent, you tilted the chalice against your lips.

Neither water nor wine had ever quenched so many hidden thirsts. You felt every inch of its chilly passage to your stomach, but your body flushed hot when Carmela crushed her lips against yours. If the fountain had tasted like heaven, Carmela tasted like God. It was appropriate considering how she handled you, pushing and pulling your body, making you stand and kneel at her command. A woman had never treated you like that, and you found it somewhat emasculating until she exposed your manhood with a grateful gasp.

She was yours then. Forget other women. Forget seeing the sights. Shaded by topiary hedges in a Tijuana September sun, all you needed was to spend the afternoon inside a beautiful girl named Carmela.

The next six afternoons, actually.

One round of lovemaking was all it took to hook you. After setting up another date, you returned to your motel room where you thought only of her.

It surprised you how fast withdrawal set in. You’d never acquired a taste for woman like you had for her, so intense your body revolted against any other sustenance. That first night without her brought shivers. You huddled under the scaly motel blanket and imagined yourself beside her, stroking her thigh, kissing her throat. It wasn’t until your shivers became cold sweats that you eventually drifted into a tortured sleep.

Facing a drawn complexion come morning, you worried only of Carmela’s reaction to your appearance. But when you met her the next day, she didn’t call attention to it. No, if possible, her hands moved over your body with greater passion. Like wanton children in the garden, you drank from the fountain and made love until sunset. She didn’t speak much, just called you “baby” and other pet names, but she didn’t have to speak her love for you to know it. Her kisses touched the core of you, a place no one before had even tried to reach. She had awoken something in you. For the first time, you felt the vitality of being part of something greater than yourself—until you left Carmela’s arms.

You spent the second night in the motel struggling to breathe. Your lungs felt like paper, every haggard breath a flint. You were too weak to walk, even to go vomit. As it spilled over the bedside, the regurgitated enchilada too closely resembled what you’d been served the previous night, but thinking of the dish made you think of her, and those thoughts filled you with energy enough to get up the next morning.

The third tryst breathed new life into you. The fountain water tasted even better after sex, cooling your sweat to a soothing frost as the waitress’s kisses radiated pleasure throughout your body. It was a stark contrast to the sensation that struck when you returned to the motel that night. The pain wasn’t so bad when your left ear peeled from your face. It hurt more to clamp it back on. Cinching the necktie around your head, you knew how deep you’d sunk—and how much it terrified you.

You steadied yourself with thoughts of love and warmth—and none ventured close to home. As much as you’d told yourself you were destined to be a great Texan, staring at your ravaged reflection made you realize you hadn’t even grazed greatness in San Antonio. As hard as you exercised, as regimented as you were about hygiene, you weren’t nearly as special there as Carmela made you feel in the fountain. Your health had declined since meeting her, but as long as she joined you in the garden and covered your face with kisses, how could you care about losing one measly ear?

The more you fell apart, the more time you spent with her. She was the only one who didn’t recoil at your deterioration, which suited you fine; you didn’t want any other gaze. Although Carmela couldn’t restore your ear, or the thick panel of flesh that sloughed from your face during your fourth night at the motel, she gave you a totality you’d never felt when your body was intact.

By the fifth morning, you weren’t sure your creaking knees would last the walk to the Restaurante Lorca, but your heart urged you on. When you collapsed at Carmela’s feet in the garden, she pulled you into her embrace, kissing your emaciated cheeks as she helped you into the water.

Making love in the fountain made you feel immortal, rewriting the destiny you’d long believed rooted in Texas. You’d come to Mexico for a love like hers, to escape a world spinning further from your grasp with each passing year. No matter who you bribed, bowed to, or banged in San Antonio, you couldn’t find happiness there—you just hadn’t realized it until your brittle bones cracked in Carmela’s arms. In Mexico, in freedom, in a beautiful stranger, you touched a joy you’d long forgotten.

That desire is still written on your face. Even sloppily piled in the motel sink, your face tells the sad story of the man who used to wear it. Carmela knew that sorrowful longing the moment she saw you—and likewise, knew you were just the man to house her gestating baby.

So why have you come to this, hanging yourself in a motel closet? The pain of decomposition is extreme, but it’s not worth ending your life—or the life growing inside you. You shouldn’t feel like a rube. How could you know the fountain’s powers of fertilization? If you’re honest, you know this work is better than anything you’ve ever done. Like thousands before you, your body will serve a greater purpose. By nourishing Carmela’s child, you’ll show her the utmost love a person can for another.

So what if you’ll probably go blind soon, and it hurts to breathe? Why should you care if you’ve lost four fingers to accelerated gangrene, or your throat feels like acidic cottage cheese? Carmela’s love is that valuable.

What are you doing hanging ‘round here? You should take the noose from your neck, lower yourself to the footstool, and go see her. Drink from the fountain just one more time, and your suffering will end. With one more sip, I won’t be just a voice in your head. I will reach full strength and break free of this human cocoon.

Go to the garden. Go love Carmela one last time. It’s better to hang on a woman than a noose, even if the result is the same.

Slipping the rope from your neck, you know you’ve made the right choice. Even when you hear a pop, and a chunk of spongy bone falls from your forehead, you shuffle on. The spiky antenna now protruding from your cranium might worry some men, but not one as strong and smart as you. Shuddering through the new pain, you think of your prized señorita and know the best course of action.

Accepting the sacrifice of parenthood, you cover your head with a sombrero and limp from your soggy motel room. It’s better this way, Father. I only regret you won’t live to hear my first gracias.


The End


Jessica McHugh is a novelist and internationally produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-three books published in ten years, including her bizarro romp, “The Green Kangaroos,” her Post Mortem Press bestseller, “Rabbits in the Garden,” and her YA series, “The Darla Decker Diaries.” More information on her published and forthcoming fiction can be found at