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ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


In as a customer.

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ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


Distractions - 1198 words.

The spokes of the rusting bingo carousel creaked with each turn, white and red and black balls surfing up and vanishing down into the churning masses, until finally one clicked into place and slipped through the chute, a garish pink answer the fish-faced young man silently proffered.

'Customer satisfaction is very important to us!'

"NO." Ken hissed, through a smile that was starting to hurt. "I want to speak to the manager." The wheel started to turn again before he'd finished speaking, the clerk's face a desert of meaning, and Ken broke. It was more than he could stand. Before another sickly platitude could come down the drain, he'd turned to run. His legs were pulling him forward, through the rubbery clouds of the perfume aisles and past great monuments to cookware.
He broke into the main throughway as a horn blared, a roar of light turning his glasses blank, and a red blur whipped by, the exhaust-choked tailwind pulling at his hair. The madness only resolved into a golf cart as the brakes screeched into a turn, and then it was gone again, vanishing between the shelves. Defeated beyond complaint, he slicked his hair back in his own cold sweat and trekked on.

On, through glimmering rows of razor sharp cookware. Past the empty diving skins of swimwear, where Ken found himself digging a finger under his collar, trying to fuss away the familiar choking sensation he felt when he thought of an angry Maurice, thoughts that bled into wide-open waters, rickety boats, concrete boots. Fear always brought out the cliches of his scant imagination. On, past the Matrimony section, with scalloped white dresses and the in-store chapel, spilling into Hygenics in an arguing rabble of soap-box preachers. Nothing but cheap sentiments, prebundled flowers with pre-written notes. Ken had tallied the accounts himself. The whole aisle could be bought on what the blushing bride spent for a dress. It was promising to be an extravaganza of obligation with standing room only for a whoe host of drunken, violent idiots. His collar was only getting tighter.

Not that Maurice hadn't come by that money honestly. Not that Ken had ever worn the clerk's fish-mouthed, deliberate blankness before a jury.

'Guns and Alcohol' had him picking his way over an errant beartrap, scanning hopelessly through rows of springloaded teeth, snubnose revolvers with faux-ivory handles, bottles of important liquor. Now these, these were perfect gifts. Precisely the kind Ken couldn't give, not without breaking the unspoken contract to see nothing but numbers. He needed something thoughtfully clueless. The gift of a well-intentioned moron. The kind of dork every warped reflection in gunmetal blue reminded him he was.

On, past a towering pyramid display slowly taking shape from rows and rows of beer crates, palid ecologies of pimply-faced workers scuttling to and fro across a teetering sprawl of scaffolding. And then, back, nearly tripping up a passing clerk as a row of little red booklets finally made the journey between eye and brain and finally pulled him to a stop. HOW TO FLEE THE COUNTRY, the cover promised, IN TEN THOUSAND EASY STEPS OR ONE PLANE RIDE. Awkwardly dancing between the workers, Ken found himself licking his lips. Folding himself into a line of workers lugging crates, he clambered up the ramparts towards the high shelves where those beautiful little paperbacks waited. Towards the long-delayed promise that maybe, maybe, this would be the year he stopped taking grief and money from a parade of people he wasn't allowed to know well enough to hate.

He grabbed for one, clambering atop a stack of boxes to reach, and reach, and feel something wobble beneath him. One panicked kick for counterbalance, mind and heart both frozen with instinctive panic, and the boxes tumbled out from under him, the shelves lurching as Ken crashed against them. Halogen stars lurched into a blur overhead and the floor swept the breath from his lungs as they reunited, pages fluttering up into the air. Going one way, steady clonk echoed as shelves dominoed down, and from the other direction, a wail of sirens was screaming closer. Ken did what the book clutched to his chest advised.

He picked himself up and bolted on bruised, tired legs.

Past the butchers aisle, past the smell of coffee, through dark and unlit shelving, gloomy corridors of softly humming fridges. When the shelves were low enough, he could see the boxy tops of the little mallcarts chasing behind him, the flashing police lights. He spun at the direction of hanging signs, hooked a hard right at a familiar crossroads.

For the millionth time today, someone else was coming the other way, and Ken dug his heels down until he flopped clear over onto his rear end in a sprawl of limbs. "Well." The lights overhead bloomed in a halo round blondish hair, and a hand with pink painted nails descended to help him up. She spelled out strained patience in pearly white teeth. "I do believe you were looking for a manager?"

"Yeeessss?" He ventured, fumbling, peeling at the sweaty cling of his collar as he strained to hear the sirens. Nothing.
"I think I, uh..."
"You want a gift that's blandly personal, largely unassuming, and universally desired, yes?" She cut him off.
"Yes?" He echoed, down to the sharp way she trilled off the last s.
"You'll want Distractions then. This way!" And she was pulling him along by a fingernail crooked into the cuff of his sleeve. Dimly, Ken saw the automatic motion of doors behind her, the darkness of the parking lot outside, the rows of cashiers waiting to grudgingy usher him onto freedom.

Then he went with her. The displays and shelves twisted by, the distant wail returning and fading as they slipped down a crosswise, labyrinth course, rounded one more corner and were there.

'Distractions.'

The land of clean solid-colored simple shapes and the smell of fresh cardboard. Slickly manufactured banners advertising faster and better and smaller without ever implying function. Ken grabbed for one, only to have his hand slapped, an imperceptibly different model plucked from the shelves by his guide.
"This is the one you want." She explained, smiling out on an insult in painful, beautiful clarity. "And this one for the bride, and this one for yourself." One by one she piled them into his arms.

"I'm not sure I want these. I mean, I was really thinking -" The sirens cut out in a rubbery screech, a stomping of boots. Ken turned, but security had already come to a frozen stop in the mouth of the isle, staring up in slackjawed wonder.

"See? You're a trendsetter." Somehow, in the moment his back was turned, she'd gone from smiling to smiling at him. For the first time since setting foot through the automatic doors, Ken felt less like a fidgetting, terrified little schlub with his arms piled full of useless plastics, and he refused to let the reflection in the shiny tile floor remind him otherwise.

"I, um, I happen to need a plus one? If you're free tomorrow?" He tried.

ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


in

ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


Flying Machines - 249

Claire stroked the little fellow's head as he blinked the long, confused blink of a new thing, stretching his wings and settling into his shape. Beautiful wings, blue-gray fading black at the feathertips, with a broad brushstroke of red across his shoulders. The image of a German Wallcreeper. She prodded away, following him as he hopped across the worktable and pecked at wrappers. She brushed the pinions, testing the way they sprung back into formation, caught his beak and swung a penlight into his eyes. They dilated in the light without discomfort, staring back pliant and still.


On her shoulder, another creation chirped. The Wallcreeper warbled through its held beak, and scrambled onto the back of Claire's hand as she let go, pinpricks dancing up her arm as the brothers met. Bartleby was an awkward, lovable thing, meant to be a parrot, his feathers confused, broken in bald spots and colliding in ruffles of tangled green. He wobbled as the smaller bird circled around him, croaked, snapped out his wings. Claire winced, grabbing for the Wallcreeper as he mimicked the gesture. Too late. Bartleby lept into the air and the new brother followed, lunging off her shoulder in an awkward flap that sent him careening over backwards, spiraling into a panicked tangle of feathers that hit the ground with a dry, hard crack as Bart careened in circles overhead.


Someday she'd know what she'd done differently for him. For now, she turned off the Wallcreeper's light.

ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


In

ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


Hell's Other People - 615 words.

The lake had never bothered the people of Hell, Arizona. When school let out, there'd be children out there every day of the year, skating along, and a little yelling and laughter was all it took to drown out the folk beneath. Those wide-eyed, pale and strange folk. On a quiet night, with less children to go around, their whispers could crawl up the hillside and into town, in through the windows. Some people couldn't take that, drifted off and left empty houses and miles of prairie grass for the unpeople to mutter at, but by and large, it was mostly just amusing. Something to bring in tourist money.

It was the visitors who made trouble. Joshua would catch them lying on the ice like beached whales, faces pressed to the cold as all around them the sky shivered with dry, dead heat. Staring down just like the unpeople below stared up. Despite all the signs he posted, there was always one who made the classic mistake. On the unmelting face of the lake, there were plenty of little pink slivers of tongue, left by a lot of dumb people.

On good days, Joshua sold tours, showing visitors through the town with its seven water towers, two statues of rugged founding fathers, the diners and the winery and finally, yes, after they bugged enough, the miracle lake. On a bad day, he'd sit in front of his little house waiting for them to show, for minivans to come crawling over the hillside and follow the signs down to him. Eventually he'd land on the lakeside, flicking breadcrumbs across the eternal ice.

It was just a drat weird day when someone came from the other direction, hiking his way up the hillside from the shore with snow clinging to his hair and built up in the ruff of his jacket. Burbling fishwords and waving his hands. Joshua struggled to mime back the concept of money, tour guides, a hard days work for a hard days pay. In the end, Josh got a fistful of breadcrumbs and reluctantly revved up the bus.

In a way, it was the best tour Joshua ever had. The young man gawked his fishy lips at the water towers, hell, at Norman Green out watering his lawn. Took in every detail of small-town history with a manic grin full of teeth like brush bristles. Waved a webbed hand at the waitress and managed to order hashbrowns.

Then he licked the menu. A big slobbery lick from an awfully long tongue that made the whole diner cringe, made the whole crowd come to peer in through the windows flinch back. They all but screamed when he turned and licked the window too. When Molly lifted her phone to grab a picture, the fish got that and her hand as well, nearly got a fist in his face from the trucker who came storming down from the bar.

Joshua hauled him out by his snowy collar and pushed him back into the truck, lecturing all the way down to the next stop. Not a word sunk in. The handsome, pioneering faces of Hell's forefathers got licked. City hall got licked on the doorknob. His windshield got licked, when the fish thought he wasn't looking. By the time the tour was finally wrapped up, and they were bumping their way down the dirt road to the lake, Joshua felt pretty licked himself.

Still. As the fish waved goodbye and slipped back down through the ice, past those little bits of tongue left behind by all the people who came and gawked, Joshua had to admit, fair was fair.

ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


In with cockroaches.

ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


In and can I get a flash rule?

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ThirdEmperor
Aug 7, 2013

BEHOLD MY GLORY

AND THEN

BRAWL ME


Fifty Years and a Wake Up 774 words

For a week solid Johnny had dreamed dull, percussive dreams, ships tossing atop an ocean rocked by great undersea blooms of atomic fire. On the day of, Christmas day, he drank his orange juice sweating, festive mug in clammy fingers, staring across at a man three years his junior trying to get a spoon all the way from his bowl to his mouth. Gramps' arm stopped at the elbow, replaced by a smooth piece of chrome twisted into a half-cylinder, exposing the simple little pistons and pulleys that articulated his clumsy plastic hand. His left cheek caved down, the skin wrinkled black and teeth below gone from freezerburn.

"So." Gramps seemed surprised he was saying anything - the spoon paused, almost there, soggy cheerios leaping the sides as it shook. "Scary as hell, right?"
"I'll be fine." Johnny pulled his eyes down, glared at his toast. It was hard to take him seriously, this kid who was also his grandfather, who was also older than the colony, who had seen a war John could hardly remember except for the day his parents had been smiling and it was over.

It was weird and John stared at anything but his grandfather as he chewed away on automatic, at the two portraits sitting on the wall. One old and grey, one younger but still angry, the same strict glare in both sets of eyes. A dead emperor and a warmongering prince trying to fill his shoes.

The windows rattled, shuddering in their frames as another ship lifted off in the distance.

"I was really busy trying not to look scared for, I dunno, a week? Then everybody broke down a little and we all just.." A big shrug, and the kid, Gramps, gave up and went back to fighting his breakfast, worn down against the wall of silence.

"The first decade." Johnny added, before he could help it.
"Try not to think like that." Grinning pulled all that weird, loose skin taught as a drum. It hurt to look at. Seeing the effort that smile was taking, that hurt worse, the low burning panic in the kid's eyes. "Just stay in your own head on your own time, or you'll get all bent out of shape."

Positive thinking didn't save his arm or his face.

"So you're never taking that jackass down." Angry was easy and here was the cheap, easy shot to angry.
"Reg says I'm entitled to it." Gramps snapped back, so fast it was couldn't help but sound petty. Almost funny. From world weary wisdom to clinging to Regulation's boots.

"Becausw they're scared you'll snap. Heck, I - I'd let you forget that, do let you forget, so eat your loving cornflakes. I don't need this." It took him a second, with the blood rushing through his brain, to settle back into breathing and thinking and that general sense of self awareness, to start sinking from mad down into shame. To sink back into his seat and let his shoulders slump.

"So it's gonna suck, yeah, and for loving everyone else on that boat too. Not just you. Good luck. You don't wanna hear the bright side, you can be going crazy and depressed. Good luck if you give everyone the loving cold shoulder. People on the boat -" The spoon wobbled at him. "Only people you're gonna know."

"You've got dribble." Johnny traced the spot on his own cheek.

"If you wanna win, you win." The kid shrugged his skinny shoulders, the cotton wifebeater clinging to them showing the wasted-down muscle on his left arm, the clustering bubbles of scabby flesh on his stump. "I wanted out."

"So, you what." So Johnny did win, and every mean little assumption he'd ever made was right. "You signed just to run?"

Gramps squelched an awful sound out of his ruined jaw. "Yeah. Yeah kinda did." He grinned and it hurt worse. "gently caress."

"gently caress."

And after a minute. "gently caress. So I'm scared."

"Fuckit, you're scared of something real. loving scary, tiny metal tube in big space, tiny people."

"Not helping."

"Ain't I?"

"gently caress."

The alarm buzzed, all through the little rows of identical houses, all down the suburbs sprawling out from the airbase. Johnny stood, slid his jacket on, and saluted the emperors on the wall. Stuck his hand out to Gramps.

"Merry Christmas."
"Nice meeting you." The kid pulled him - or stumbled into - a terse, weak hug, and that was that.

But the dreams were calmer, at least, as John slept that night in a little cold capsule beside a thousand others, and light years jumped past.

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