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Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

I'm in. I'll take a prompt too.

Happy birthday. You should stop eating so much red meat.


Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

The Sister and Divinity
2068 words
Prompt: Black Narcissus

"You'll use our standard approach," began The Mother Superior. "You provide education and charity, then you gently, casually slide into the apostles."

Sister Celes raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?" The word echoed in Mother’s well-appointed office.

The Mother Superior frowned and rapped her ring-covered fingers on her desk. "Peter. You know, Paul." She waggled her hand. "Occasionally a little Judas, if the situation calls for it."

Celes sniffed and briefly pondered, incredulous. What situation calls for just a little Judas? "No, I understand. I've just never heard our spread of The Good Word laid out so, um, nakedly."

Mother smiled. "Don’t lose faith, there’s very rarely anything naked about it." The older woman reached into a drawer and placed a sheaf of papers onto the table, then settled deeper into her plush velvet chair and continued. "You won't be alone, of course. You'll have two Novitiates with you. They are the finest help we have currently allocatable. Keeping in mind, of course, the recruitment downturn. And the standard washout rate." The Mother leaned back and waved her hand. "It's seasonal."

Celes’ mind wandered. Ah, the Summer Jesus Downturn. She shook her head and tried to muster some gratitude. "I thank you, Mother, but I confess I’m a little nervous. We’re to bring the Absolute Word of God to the humble village of Rajaput, to carry the blazing torch of civilization, it's such a large undertaking. But I know that the generous light of-"

The Mother cut off the blossoming of a long, anxious speech. "Yes, yes. Now please, get some rest. You leave in the morning." She stood and ushered Celes from the room, then closed the door.

"Absolute words and generous light," Mother said to the empty room. "Good Lord."


Celes exhaled six months' worth of ship-stink and road dust. She'd arrived in Rajaput last night and thought back to her voyage, tossing about on a verminous ship and clutching a slowly molding Good Book. Rats. What’s God’s plan with all those rats?

The Sister paced around her campsite, awaiting the arrival of the two Novitiates. The Sister-Dossier was worryingly sparse.

She stopped and looked down the road. Two small figures approached, hazy and growing larger in the sweltering Indian sun.

The taller one reached her first and gave a quick bow, then began speaking before Celes could say a word. Her voice was high, light, and pressured. "I'm Novitiate Dorothy. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Novitiate Renee will be along." Dorothy wiped sweat from her brow, then looked at Celes. "Sister Celes, is that right? It's much hotter out here than I expected. I’ve read extensively about the area and it's much, much hotter than the books say."

Celes gestured to a small cluster of stumps as Renee caught up. The trio sat down. She mentally shuffled through a list of Novitiate-jazzing icebreakers.

What's your most favorite crusade?

If you could turn water into any liquid, what would it be?

John 14:2 tells us "My Father's house has many rooms" What would your room in Heaven be like?

No, no good.
Celes decided to go direct.

“Why don't you tell me about your fields of study?"

Dorothy spoke up as Renee caught her breath. "Gardening. Well, more precisely, horticulture." She hefted a small satchel. "I've got seeds! Oh, also, as I stated, I'm something of an authority on Rajaput. Did you know, for instance, that their beautiful city has as many libraries as it has children?"

Celes gave a polite smile and nodded. That ratio can't possibly be tenable. She pointed at the seed satchel. “And what have you brought there? Vegetables? Flowers?”

Dorothy opened the satchel and displayed a small collection of cones. “It’s spruce.”

Celes was incredulous. “Isn’t that an evergreen? Like a pine?”

Dorothy shrugged. “Is it?”

Celes was silently, almost imperceptibly hyperventilating. She turned to Renee.

"And you, Renee, which of God's gifts will you be sharing with the Rajaput?"



“Our assignments were by lottery system. But I really do enjoy it!"

A lottery system.

Celes was speechless. Her mind whirled with doubt. Renee continued enthusiastically, despite the seemingly droll subject material.

"I mostly use thread, but anything will do in a pinch." Renee paused. "I also do the tops of pies when it's slow. Same principle, really."


Celes would have very much liked to scream from that moment until the rapture swallowed all of creation.

They continued on to Rajaput.


Two guards in colorful cotton leaned on either side of a large wooden gate. They waved to the nuns as they approached. One stuck out his hand, then thought better of it and bowed deep. “Hello! Our three Sisters! We’ve been waiting on you! I am Nikhil and this is my trainee, Sanjeev” He smiled broadly and Celes relaxed a little.

Nikhil nudged Sanjeev. “Okay, Sanjeev. Give the greeting a try. Remember to relax. Just be natural.”

Sanjeev stepped forward and spoke in a stilted, excessively-English English.

“‘Dear Sisters, I welcome thee to our most resplendiant kingdom, the humble burg of Rajaput, grand imperial cosmopolis of the mid-subcontinent. I am Sanjeev, your truest footman. I offer you our most cordial greeting!” He looked expectantly back at Nikhil.

Nikhil looked to Celes. “Do you mind, Sister, if I offer him some feedback? This is his first time, and well...” he paused, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I’m trying to cultivate an environment of judgment-free scholarship,” he added.

Celes nodded. More organized than I thought they’d be. She looked back to the Novitiates, silent in tacit approval. Dorothy’s eyes were fixed on Sanjeev, visibly smitten.

“Okay, Sanjeev,” Nikhil began. “The friendliness? Clearly communicated. Very welcoming. Nice job.”

Sanjeev smiled.

“Now, the diction. I understand that you’re trying to be welcoming, make them feel at home. That’s good.”

Sanjeev nodded. Dorothy smiled.

“But your verbiage...” He paused, careful not to injure Sanjeev. “You’ve been hitting the Blake pretty hard, but no one, well…” Nikhil paused, trying to soften the blow of criticism. “No one really talks like that. You could just, for example, say ‘resplendent’. More syllables aren’t always better. It shoots right past ‘dignified’.”

Sanjeev frowned. Dorothy frowned.

“However, you really sold the city well. The content? Much better than rehearsal.”

Sanjeev smiled. Dorothy smiled.

Nikhil turned back to Celes.

“Compliment sandwich. I learned it in my night classes,” he said, clearly proud of his management style. “Thank you so much for the time. As Professor Pradesh says, ``There's no training like on-the-job training.”

Celes smiled as her guts twisted into tight loops. One’s in night school and the other took a break from studying Blake for a shift on guard duty. She felt an increasingly-familiar exasperation.

Nikhil moved away from the gate and gestured inward. “The Queen has been waiting for you. Allow us to usher you in?”

Celes looked in. Dorothy was rapidly discussing something with Sanjeev. She looked relaxed. Happy. She turned to Celes and Renee with a slightly apologetic look. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Celes, far past protest, took Renee’s hand and left Dorothy and the junior guard deep in animated conversation.


The Queen’s workspace struck a stark contrast to The Mother’s. It was sparse, almost shabby, but inviting. The Queen reflected the atmosphere with a brilliant smile.

“Welcome, welcome Sisters! Welcome to Rajaput!”

She threw her arms wide, as if the entirety of the kingdom was contained inside this lovely little office.

“We are so pleased to make your acquaintance,” Celes began. “We’re sent by The Mother Superior on a mission of healing, a mission of mercy, a mission to bring our supreme gifts to your kingdom.” Her enthusiasm was a little wooden. The Queen didn’t appear to notice and moved to a tall wooden cabinet, drawing out an enormous ledger. She opened the book and flipped through until she reached a densely packed page.

Celes peered at the header: Missionaries, Evangelists, Assorted and Miscellaneous Disseminators.

The Queen scanned down for an empty row and looked back up at Celes. “Sisters, I’ll be able to place you in the south quarter, between the Fourth-Reformed Amalgamists and the Apocalyptic Contritionites.” She looked apologetic. “It’s been busy.” She turned to Renee. “And you, Sister, where would you like to be of service?”

“I would like to gift you the miracle of lace. I mean to say, I bring our unique gift of lacemaking to your majesty.” Renee tapped her foot nervously. “I subspecialize in doily,” she hastily added.

The Queen nodded and turned to another page in the massive tome. She scanned it, then made a notation. “Unfortunately, the Lace Quarter is currently full.” Renee was crestfallen, but the Queen continued. “However, I’ve placed you in our tertiary Lace District. You’ll fit right in.” Dorothy clapped her hands, delighted.

The Queen showed them out of her office. Celes felt a rising knot of frustration. She was irritated with The Mother, at bringing civilization with lace, and at the idea that these people needed The Sisters’ specific brand of spiritual upheaval. A final thought floated up from the depths of her consternation. And when, exactly, was I supposed to slide into the Apostles?


A week passed.

Celes was adrift with weak Peter, subdued Paul, and absolutely unneeded but occasionally tempting Judas. She opened her door into the late afternoon air and noticed a small package at the doorstep. She picked it up and began to walk, unwrapping it as her heels clicked along the immaculate cobbled street. She read the note affixed to the small box:

“Dearest Celes,

What a singular lace district! The Queen was right, I’ve settled well and I’m making so many new friends. Visit soon!

Your friend,


Celes beheld a fragrant mango pie topped with a pastry-woven peahen, each feather pulled from fresh dough. The bird was wearing a tiny nun’s coif.

She’s doilied and pied her way to salvation,

Celes savored the pastry and walked to the tower in the center of the city, hoping the height would bring her some clarity. She passed a library where, two days ago, she ran into Dorothy and Sanjeev chattering and poring over a teetering pile of books. They’d seemed happy, settled.

She continued on to the tower, climbed to its apex and leaned on a railing. She looked over the city of Rajaput, from bustling ports to busy streets. The floorboards creaked and the Sister looked over. The Queen took a spot on the railing and inhaled the cooling evening air. She smiled at Celes.

“Sister! What a pleasant surprise.”

Celes wiped a few crumbs from her mouth and fumbled for a response.

The Queen laid her hand on Celes’ shoulder. “Tell me, Sister, what ails you?”

The dam burst. Celes’ words came tumbling out. “I don’t know. No, I do know. The Mother told me I’d bring salvation, I’d educate the people, teach them the way to, the way to…” she trailed off, her eyes stinging with tears.

The Queen looked back over the railing. Far below in the street, an Apocalyptic Contritionite set fire to a pile of hay. She turned back to Celes.

“Mmm. You have a catechismal quagmire. A solution without a problem.”

Celes nodded and the Queen continued.

“And now, you’re not even sure if the solution was ever any good.”

The women stood in silence for a while, ruminating in tandem. When the Queen spoke again, her voice was hushed, reverent.

“Rajaput holds a hundred denominations of pilgrims, a hundred different ideological hammers striking one glowing ingot, over and over and over again. And yet, the city doesn’t buckle or twist. It thrives. Did you know that we have as many libraries as we have children?”

Celes was beginning to understand. A hazy impression began to form in her mind. I’m not a restorative sea-change or the glorious herald of civilization. The thought crystallized, sharp and beautiful. But I don’t need to be.

On the street, a crowd gathered around the weakly smoldering hay. The Contritionite profusely apologized to anyone that would listen.

The Queen gestured at the expanse of the city below them.

“We’re running in a thousand directions and yet always moving forward.”

Celes’ tortuous mental jumble, carried from The Mother’s office across miles of ocean and through a strange, lush land, suddenly and gloriously realigned in the gleaming heart of Rajaput. She finished the Queen’s thought:

“It’s Divine.”

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

In, character, hellrule, setting

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Master Key
1561 words
Pro wrestler, train station, (hellrule) can't use the same word twice in a paragraph (besides articles)

“I believe the master key has fallen through the grate.”

Theodore looked toward Mr. Van Cleef. It wasn’t the whole truth, Theo thought, but experiential cowardice demonstrated that all mistakes, once uncovered, had to be unspooled very carefully. This, he considered, would distribute the weight of admonishment, minimizing ego-injury and mitigating any impact on future performance-based cash bonuses.

VC knelt and peered into the small circular grate.

The old railmaster angled around the perforated metal circle, trying to find the optimum mix of line-of-sight vs. station light, then shrugged. “Well, that’s why we have spares, isn’t it?” VC smiled at Theo and glanced back at what must have been a newly installed grate.

Theodore released another inch of blunder.

“I’m, ah, displeased to report that we no longer possess the spares.”

Yes, Theo thought. Integrate ‘we’ verbiage to distribute the gaffe, dispassionately report on your own mistake, and cast it as a condition of indisputable reality. Flawless, managerial-level work.

Van Cleef’s moustache twitched. His sunny countenance wavered for a moment. “You mean, we don’t have them here? Well, get to the engine office and get ‘em.” He checked the huge station clock. Across a lifelong career, three rail companies, and a million miles of track, VC had never run a late train.

Theo responded without a trace of contrition. “In an effort to increase our running efficiency, I placed the spares on the same ring as the master.” Theodore had taken a rhetorical gamble: the skillful deployment of an executive-level blame-reconciliation strategy, a rationale so ridiculous (but concurrently factual) that any observer or erstwhile critic would be forced to assume greater and more intelligent machinations were at play.

At that moment, VC realized that the young conductor had been educated beyond his intelligence. A steam whistle blew in the distance.

He looked down at the large gold pocketwatch from his first retirement, then confirmed the time with the silver wristwatch from his second: thirty minutes to unlock the engine compartment and get Number Six on its way. But something about the grate...

Oblivious to VC’s consternation, Theo delivered his coup de grace: “I’m so sorry for the situation. I’ll get a string and some gum, hook the key that way.” Before Van Cleef could respond, Theodore walked away in wide, heavy strides.

It was beautiful, Theo thought. The ego intact, a responsibility failed successfully. At-large apology, an immediate pivot to a solution, and a rapid extraction from the scene. Inscrutable.

Van Cleef briefly considered a third retirement. His bushy brows came together as he reconsidered the grate, noting for the first time that its holes were far too small to accomodate a laden keyring.


A thousand miles away, Charles Brudzynski pushed his broom in smooth, even strokes across the stockroom floor. He did a little twirl, briefly reminiscing on a short-lived tag team stint in The Ballet Melee, then stood in the corner and surveyed his handiwork. Perfect. But…

His eyes locked on a grate in the center of the floor and the keyring lying atop it.

He ran a hand over his gleaming scalp, an actually-pretty-flattering leftover from long-gone days as The Grapplin’ Otter. The keyring couldn’t have always been there. Charles’ broomstrokes were even, each in line with its neighbor, crisscrossing twice over the span of the stockroom.

He’d have noticed a keyring.

Charles meandered to the grate and hefted the keys. They were solid, heavy brass things, each handle shaped like a miniature locomotive. He looked up to the wooden rafters, wondering if the ring could have fallen from above.

No, he thought. Couldn’t be.

Charles tried the keys on the room’s locks in turn. Back door, no. Side hatch, zilch. He stopped at the cupboard and gently wiped a little dust from Mrs. Hannigan’s silvervines, then slipped a key into the lock. Nothing. He patted the climbing plant.

“Doin’ good, little buddy.”

Tidying handled for the night, Charles tucked the keyring into the pocket of his overalls. The ex-wrestler cleared some space and hefted a sack of flour. He needed to think.

To Charles, retirement wrestling was meditative, almost yogic. He suplexed the bag of flour once, twice, three times, shooting up like a rocket and laying down easy as a feather. Brudzynski noted that there wasn’t a trace of powder in the landing zone.

Charles Brudzynski, formerly known (among many other alises) as Kid Spit (World-Class Rumble), This Impassable Octagon (Black Hole Eye Promotions (an alternative-type league)), Big Hank (half of The Wild Goose Brothers, Aces Low Athletics, LLC), The Transubstantiator (All-Calvinist Wrestling), and Old Man Spittle (WCR, again), exhaled heavily.

Still got it, he thought.

He reached into a pocket and pulled out the folded-and-refolded offer letter from World-Class Rumble. Charles scanned it briefly, though the former wrestler knew every word. An old-timers match, a chance to recapture the glory of the ring. A way back.

For a moment, he could hear the roar of the crowd, chanting for Kid Spit. Charles’ fists shot into the air. The old grappler smiled. Crisscrossing the country, ridin’ the rails from venue to venue, running after the cry of a departing engine to another bout and a sold-out crowd.

But Charles found himself unable to pull his mind away from those train-keys. He tucked the letter away.

He walked back over to the grate and gently pried it up from the floor, then tentatively reached a hand in. He’d never cleaned down here. In fact, Charles had never paid the little hole any mind. The ex-wrestler put his face close, then jerked back in shock.

Was that a steam whistle?


A crowd had gathered around the grate and peppered VC with suggestions as he rubbed his second-retirement watch. Theo was nowhere to be found.

“Just pry the grate off!” shouted a woman as she wrung her hands.

A sharp-dressed man recommended using a high-powered magnet.

A short fellow scooted around the crowd for a better look, periodically calling the number of minutes until the train would be officially late.

Van Cleef’s sigh was lost in the furor. After a lifetime of driving the rails, he finally felt tired. The crowd clamored as the Senior Conductor knelt, futilely trying again to get fingers around the grate. A dismal thought bubbled up from an inky, sulfurous place, silencing the chattering commuters: Well, chief, why don’t you just quit?

VC considered the dark proposition. So many years on well-beloved track, reduced to this: a late train, a lost master key, a hundred stranded passengers, and a no-call walkout.

Van Cleef spotted Theo striding back. He checked both retirement watches again.


Charles had definitely heard a whistle.

His focus on the sound slipped away as he daydreamed to the squared circle. At first, he’d been disappointed taking the janitor gig. A world-class brawler and occasional pugilist, reduced to stocking shelves and sweeping up.

The trainwhistle had called Charles back to a different life. He’d been the star, face plastered on posters and name emblazoned on marquees. He took the letter back out of his pocket, reading it for the hundredth time.

And somehow, Charles knew that the keys were his way back.

A whistle emanated from the hole. It was clearer now, sharp and high. He could almost feel the steam of a departing train caress his face.

Charles considered what he’d left behind. A million fans, sure, but…

Never sleeping in the same bed, always waking up sore, the repeated flips from good guy to villain, over and again. No yogic peace, just a neverending climb for glory and satisfaction.

He looked around the stockroom, its clean crisscrosses, tidy stacks of flour sacks, and Mrs. Henderson’s lovely little silvervine.

Charles lifted the keys, tossed them down the hole, and closed the grate. The whistles ceased. He looked up, smiling in contentment.

Well, Charles supposed, the rafters could use a good wipedown.


Van Cleef dispassionately surveyed the crowd as Theo tried in vain to gum the keyring. The clock continued to tick down. Twenty five minutes gone. The young man’s internal strategizing was finally rendered dumb.

He looked to VC and his stomach dropped. He didn’t see worry, consternation, or even anger. No, Theodore beheld something far worse from the legendary old Railman: resigned disinterest. He leapt to his feet and gripped VC’s shoulder.

“Boss, the, um, gum isn’t working. And the crowd’s getting angry.”

VC barely reacted, only shifting his gaze to the young conductor.

Theodore was out of cards, lingo, answers. Pretense depleted, his eyes locked with Chief Conductor Van Cleef’s. He sputtered a few words.

“Chief, I don’t know what to do.”

Theo’s desperate final plea was definitively not in line with any managerial aspirations:

“I’m sorry. We need you.”

Van Cleef shook from his reverie and acknowledged the young conductor as the station clock tocked down. This was it: walk, or stay.

He looked around the station at Theo, the grate, the crowd, the clock. The kind of situation he’d smoothed and solved a hundred times before.

Just a late train, but not his last one.

VC blew his conductor’s whistle. The shrill silver trill cut through the crowd, the air, and the sibilant cries of departing engines.

Van Cleef’s voice boomed over the throng. “Ladies, gentlemen! I’m your conductor, and I apologize for the delay.” His eyes wandered to the grate.

He blinked, and the keys appeared.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

In. I'll write based off the style of David Foster Wallace's essay Big Red Son. (Thought this was easier to find as a pdf. For readers, the superscript's are the author's actual footnotes as published, the highlights are internet people trying to be clever/informative)

As a young man, I was into The People's Court, Jerry Springer, and other 'subculture in a fishbowl' pieces of media. At the time, I found the piece cleverly written and completely engaging. Rereading it as an adult, I was put off by how incredibly cruel the whole thing is at points, and how DFW forgets that he's writing about real, complete people as he plays a marginal human interest story for yuks, with the gross (generally unwritten) rationalization that they're 'just' sex workers. Despite the solid cadence and technique, it taught me a lot about how not to write (and, to a different degree, consider) characters.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Bounty Bonanza
(Prompt: David Foster Wallace’s Big Red Son)
1991 words

“I’m not saying that there isn’t a craft to advance here, but I think that when you’re comparing the range-to-dollar efficiency of US v. foreign-made net-guns, well, that warrants taking a step back and rethinking the whole thing.”

Bounty Hunter of the Year candidate Jeffrey Layton leans back, casual in his folding chair. Everything about him seems casual, relaxed. Neither of us mentions his pun. After a pause, he continues.

“Bail jumpers and fugitives don’t get together to compare gear and notes. So, all this?” He gestures from our semi-secluded card table to the packed convention floor. “It’s a little gratuitous. But...”

I look up from my steno as he finishes.

“Well, it obscures the point.”

His remark puts me off balance. “Could you elaborate?”

The theme from ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’ thrums over the hall speakers, punctuated by cut-ins from police radio. A fugitive is at large.

Layton thinks for a moment, then continues.

“Try this: after you’re done with me, take a walk. Past the purveyors of night vision scopes, past the monogrammable stab-resistant vests, past the women in bikinis and dusters promoting 72-hour LamNabber energy gel, and let me know if you remember that’s all ostensibly to rustle a man, beat him down, maybe beat him real bad, and hoist him to justice.”

His candor is unsettling. I conclude with the obvious question:

“Then, why are you here?”

He gives me a good-natured smile.

“It’s business.”

We shake hands, the interview concluded. I make my way back to the convention floor of the Bounty Bonanza, held annually at the Marriott Suites and Extended Stay in sunny Tucson, Arizona. The packed booths seem to stretch for miles and I wonder if the gunpowder scent will come out of the carpet. I weigh Layton’s polemic in my mind and think about the assignment.

In an almost certainly poorly-controlled cohort study of fresh parolees, a near-ninety percent majority would have preferred to be hauled in by a bounty hunter, versus police or voluntary surrender (the option of ultimately not being dragged screaming from underneath a stolen vehicle was, for rationale of study design, reasonably absent).

I doubt that said parolees had time to consider the wanton commodification of bounty hunting (the four-wheel-offroad-night-vision-energy-gelling of the whole deal), but their survey selection reflects Layton’s truth: there is a romanticized outlaw-vigilante story here, a story of grinning violence, sold booth by booth.

Near the convention floor I meet back up with Chet, the Bonanza’s official press secretary. He is a pinkish, chubby man wearing one of the Bonanza’s omnipresent dusters and shifting on his feet, eager to get back to the floor. He looks at me, eyebrows raised with excitement. His tone is haughty.

“So, Layton, huh?”

My response is professionally noncommittal. “Great interview, yeah.”

He sniffs nonchalantly, an attempt to appear casual. I think his drawl is an affectation.

“I’m not biased, see, but there’s no way Layton’s getting it this year. Too preachy.”

I flip through my steno and look back to Chet.

“What about Hugh Trowley?”

The mention of my final interviewee makes Chet’s mouth go grim. “Trowley. Well, some people think he’s the best.” He does not elaborate. I frown at the myriad potential meanings of ‘best’ in the context of hunting humans. We keep walking.

Nearby, the local sheriff’s department’s booth inexplicably offers to put my photo on a faux-yellowed ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ poster. The poster is ringed with tearaway coupons for local restaurants and attractions. Per the souvenir, I am accused of horse rustling and general malfeasance, with a bold-print one billion dollar reward (approximately one-fifth of wild west 1865’s national GDP) for capture/execution. They are playing a Morricone soundtrack on tinny speakers.

Chet and I pass by the sheriff’s deputies and through the packed Bounty Bazaar, casually ambling to Hugh ‘Hunter’ Trowley. I wonder how he, among all his colleagues, scored that coveted nickname.

Chet stops to browse handcuffs and tasers. Nearly every person here is chewing a toothpick. My head swims a little from the array of Hunters’ tools on offer: the Desert Stalker, the Dusk Prowler, the Night Slayer. Chet pauses to look through a rifle scope and suck down a 72-hour LamNabber (hollow-point grape flavor). He grins, then points to the rack of gun accessories.

“Whaddya think? The price point on the Rail Rider is pretty okay, but the Dusk Prowler has that onboard laser sight.”

His question is friendly, genuine. I humor Chet a little.

“If you’re lucky, you could pay for that Dusk Prowler with a few collars.”

My lingo is generally based on police procedural dramas. It resonates with Chet, who picks up the scope, pays with a fat bundle of bills, then gingerly places it into his Bonanza swag bag.

Shortly after the inception of the Bonanza, the organizers added a ‘general interest’ section to the already-cramped floor space. There are some expected inclusions (ex. armed forces enlistment, life insurance sales), some heartening selections (ex. family planning, unionization), and some odd but strangely on-brand choices (ex. a booth hawking a shadow government-type book complete with cardboard standee of a bipedal, nautiloid Illuminati honcho (the seeming contradiction of a shellfish who is also conspiratorially Jewish is sadly but obviously unaddressed)). Hugh ‘Hunter’ Trowley is here, making conversation with a Marine recruiter.

Trowley scans over my press pass and lack of duster, then slaps the recruiter on the shoulder and begins walking over. His movements are viperine, like he has too many joints for just one body. Whatever he said has made the military man go a bony shade of white. Before I can react, Chet is gone.

Trowley throws his arm around my shoulders, nails digging into my skin. The reptilian part of my brain screams to run far, fast, and never look back.

A minute later, we settle around one of the hall’s marginally quieter peripheral tables. Trowley unholsters an enormous revolver and places it on the table, pointed in my direction. I angle my chair away, force general pleasantries, then open with a softball question.

“Why do you think you deserve to be Bounty Hunter of the Year?”

Where Layton’s smile was genial and easy, Trowley’s puts me on edge. He doesn’t speak through it, but around it. He smells of thick, spoiled milk.

“You didn’t hear? I’m the best. Most captures. Highest profile.”

Trowley bursts from his chair, picks up his revolver, and stabs the air in vigorous punctuation.

“Biggest check, fullest deck, thickest neck, and god-drat respect!”

He wipes brownish spittle from his cheek, thumbs his cannon’s safety switch on, and takes his seat all in one motion, leaning and twitching from self-injected agitation. I am frozen. His personal affirmation of a full deck is not convincing.

A silence settles over the table.

I certainly, absolutely do not want to know what this man has done.

He leans in even closer, pupils darting from my eyes, to my lapel, to my press badge, to my hairline. His voice drops to a near-whisper.

“I take it you don’t carry any active warrants?”

I wish Chet was here. I sputter a response.

“Uh, no, of course not. No. I do not.”

Judiciary innocence aside, I am unable to make eye contact. Trowley’s demeanor abruptly ratchets into insincere geniality. It doesn’t carry to his voice.

“Good! Then I guess I’m an open book.”

He is a Necronomicon, a Grand Grimoire, The Codex Gigas.

I want to follow my notes, ask him about his philosophy on hunting, his approach, or his history, but I can’t. I am a field mouse flushed from grass by the sun-blot of a stinking, brutal predator.

I make a shaky farewell and re-enter the general convention floor, barely seeing the queues and dusters. I have failed utterly. I couldn’t say a word. I never want to be guilty of anything ever again.

I feel this notion would make Trowley tremendously unhappy.

Chet appears at my side and matches my weak-kneed stride. He speaks softly.

“So, Trowley, huh?”

We walk a while before I respond.

“Yeah. There’s something really-”

Chet cuts me off. His voice is monotone.

“He’s got the numbers, that’s for sure. That’s the big thing, right? The numbers.”

We continue in silence a while longer. The hall empties as hunters, friends, and admirers file into the center pavilion for the awards ceremony. Chet pats my shoulder and scurries ahead to get a seat.

I look around at the vacant stalls and see the convention in a new, pre-hemorrhagic light. My solitary company is an animatronic cowboy whose moustache has started to peel away. The cowboy’s jaw moves up and down, utterly out of cadence with his looping speech.

“Make your jack with Branner’s barrel grease!”

I have no idea what that means.

I slow to a stop. The booths stand sinister in the absence of a crowd. Trowley’s miasma clings to my clothes. A video on repeat informs me that Branner’s increases round accuracy at 200 yards. The screen shows a groundhog (the presumed ‘jack’) sublimating into red mist, over and over and over again. I am lingering. The idea of entering the pavilion, of applauding and appreciating, makes me nauseous.

It’s too late, anyway. I hear the crowd roar and hoot. I can’t be sure over the din, but I think Trowley has won.

I see Layton approaching from the far end of the convention hall, gently pulling a handcuffed man behind him. The hunter’s got a cut on his cheek, the bounty is sporting an impressive shiner. They reach me and Layton pauses, unwrapping a granola bar and handing it to his captive. He leans on a table, dabs his laceration, and addresses me.

“Was I right?”

I consider the booths, the sales, the crowd. I consider Trowley.

“Yes. Definitely. But it’s worse.”

He slowly nods and turns to his fugitive. Layton unlocks one cuff, then snaps it onto the animatronic cowboy’s wrist. He pats the arrestee’s shoulder.

“Have a snack, sir. Long drive ahead.”

The man begins eating in small, nervous nibbles. Layton checks the cuffs, then walks over to me.

“Bonanza’s a pretty smart hiding spot, I think. Everyone’s too busy looking at all the shiny new violence to check for a bail jumper.”

I’m beginning to understand. For all his prowess Trowley missed the fugitive, basking in the well-polished savagery on display. He was in his element, too deep in it.

Layton smiles and passes me a piece of paper. It is a faux-yellowed, novelty bounty poster from the sheriff’s booth. His captive grins wide at the camera, wanted for horse rustling and general malfeasance. The reward is one billion dollars. I wonder what he’d actually done, or if it matters.

“I don’t know if hiding at the Bonanza is cocky, or just plain dumb,” Layton muses. I hand back the wanted poster. He looks down at it before tucking it away. “Well, at least he had a little fun.”

The crowd hangs around inside the ceremony hall, presumably listening for the also-rans. I hear a faint announcement for the best new non-lethal takedown accessory. I am still at a loss for words. Layton crosses his arms and continues, his tone a little sharper.

“So you, what’d you think? Come in, tap on the fishbowl, write up some cosmopolitan yuks?”

He’s nailed my loose initial thesis, but I don’t feel admonished. Layton is getting somewhere. He continues.

“Can’t say it’s right, but the lights, the sales, the show, they make the brutality palatable. They make the real monsters just a little less frightening.”

I think of grotesque Trowley looking small under the stage lights, lifting a first place trophy and its accompanying oversized novelty check. I smile a little. I try my closing question again.

“So, why are you here?”

Layton walks over to the animatronic cowboy, produces a handcuff key, and looks at me.

“Same as all the rest, I suppose. It’s business.”

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:


Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Become Memory Forever
1296 words

Raju looked out the window of the Big Offroad diner as rain pattered across the vacant parking lot. He listlessly stirred a milky cup of coffee. The waitress had stopped offering to freshen it up about half an hour ago.

He saw a teal sedan jerk over the curb and into about two separate parking spaces. Dr. Stefan Palmer climbed out of the car and shuffled slowly into the diner, not bothering to cover his head in the drizzle. He took a seat across from Raju.

Raju frowned a little. Palmer had stopped shaving somewhere in the right midcheek.

“Dr. Palmer! So good to see you again.”

Palmer smiled. “Please, Raju! Call me Stefan! Or should I call you Dr. Visvabharathy?”

Raju tried to relax. At their last coffee, he’d addressed Dr. Palmer as ‘Stefan’ and was sharply admonished that they “weren’t two chums playing handball at The Pelican.”

Raju was fairly sure The Pelican had been condemned, demolished, and turned into a discount shoe warehouse about five years before he was born.

“Well then, Stefan! How has it been?”

Dr. Palmer put his hands on the table.

“Raju, my boy. I think I’ve cracked it.”

Raju raised his eyebrows as Palmer continued.

“Do you remember our last chat? About my memory? I kept having those horrid little flashes?”

Raju forced a smile. Their ostensibly monthly coffee chats (when Palmer remembered to show up) often cyclically centered around the old geologist’s failing memory. He responded cautiously.

“Well, yes, Stefan. What do you mean, you’ve ‘cracked it’?”

Palmer continued.

“I have these horrible little snatches of thought, see? Like I’ve already done something I’m doing.”

Raju zoned out during the familiar preamble. The first few times, he’d tried to opine that this was just a little déjà vu. Palmer had laughed in his face.

Dr. Palmer reached into his coat and pulled out a battered manila envelope. He placed it on the table and looked back to Raju.

“But the other night I had the most incredible notion. A breakthrough.”

Palmer opened the envelope and dumped a jumble of photographs onto the table.

“I call it Palmer’s First Hypothesis.”

Raju’s informal research on his old professor’s cognitive malady strongly suggested he play along, to not further shake Palmer’s decidedly wobbly mental ground. Still, the temptation was hard to resist.

“Your first hypothesis? Stefan, we worked together years, you had tenure. It’s hardly your first-”

Stefan cut him off.

“First, it’s Doctor Palmer. Have some decorum, we’re not at a cocktail party. Second, this is the first hypothesis that’s really mattered. Look here!”

Palmer pointed to one of the photos and Raju leaned in. It showed what almost looked like a pair of standing human legs. They were a neutral, flat brown. Was that…?

Dr. Palmer smiled.

“It’s sand. Sand, Raju!”

Raju was speechless and Palmer continued.

“Now, I have these wretched cut off moments. But what if they’re memories? Incomplete memories?”

Palmer spread out the photographs as Raju took them in. The front quarter of a car, what looked to be an especially distressed dog, and was that a bowler hat? They were all rendered, albeit imperfectly, in damp sand.

“Sand! The very heart of terra firma, and the heart of Palmer’s First Hypothesis!"

Raju had seen Palmer distressed, worried, anxious, or even angry about his deteriorating memory, but never hopeful. Never like this.

“I’m sorry, but you’re losing me. What exactly is it?”

Palmer smiled gently and Raju’s heart swelled. It had been a long time since the rumpled, slightly damp Stefan had looked professorial.

“I’ll put it simply, my boy. If I could craft the memories in mutable sand, if I could make them complete, real, then maybe…”

Raju’s eyes stung a little, but he forced the tears back. He completed Stefan’s hypothesis in a choked whisper.

“You could remember.”

Raju pretended to clean his glasses, still holding the tears at bay. Out of a combination of genuine affection and incredible worry, Raju had dutifully shown up at the Big Offroad every month, sometimes trying to rouse or reorient Palmer, sometimes waiting hours for him before driving home. He steeled himself. It didn’t matter that the ‘hypothesis’ was ridiculous. Raju couldn’t dissuade him now.

Then, Palmer leaned back and frowned.

“That was Palmer’s First Hypothesis.”

Raju blinked, shaken from his reverie.


Palmer shook his head.

“It never worked, not completely. Oh, I got close! But there is a seed of something there. There is memory in our beautiful sand, I’m convinced of it.”

Raju motioned Palmer onward.

“You’re the best student I’ve ever had, Raju. And now, just one last time, I need you. At my house, tomorrow night.”

Raju felt a distinct sense of unease.

“What for, Dr. Palmer?”

Palmer’s eyes were pleading through his now-proud bearing.

“To prove Palmer’s Second Hypothesis.”


Raju pulled up outside Palmer’s home, a lone two-story with an overgrown yard. He was about to knock on the front door, but noticed it was ajar. He pushed it open and walked in.

A light was on in the basement. Raju carefully took the stairs to the bottom and gasped.

The cavernous room was dominated by an enormous steel chamber surrounded by small bubbling vats and whirring machinery. Palmer bustled around the perimeter of the gleaming edifice, pushing buttons and adjusting dials. He noticed Raju and pointed to one of the vats.

“Raju, check the salinity there.”

Raju peered into its swirling contents. Stefan looked over, impatient.

“It’s Argentinian krill. Very high carapace calcium.”

Raju didn’t think that was much of an explanation.

“Dr. Palmer! What is all of this?”

Palmer stopped and shook his head.

“Call me Stefan. Now, be a chum and open the degassing pipe near the shale smelter.”

Raju shook his head and gripped his former mentor by the shoulder. His shirt was damp, sweaty from radiated heat. Raju’s tone was gentle, coaxing.

“Just, just tell me what this is.”

Palmer didn’t shake off Raju’s grasp, but turned and looked him in the eye.

“The memories aren’t coming complete, not with Palmer’s First Hypothesis. So I decided to go to them.”

Palmer broke away and moved toward the sarcophagus. He threw a lever and the huge edifice groaned open, hissing blistering steam. The thought of correcting Palmer, of deeming it just déjà vu, of chastising the illogical refinement of one bad hypothesis into another, it all seemed so far away now.

But as Raju watched Palmer, he noticed something incredible. They’d been through years of coffee meetings, years of Stefan slowly shuffling through the parking lot and struggling with the diner door.

But not now.

Palmer moved with an old experimental vigor. He triggered erosion engines and tuned metamorphic harmonizers. A vat of Argentinian krill began to sizzle. He called over to Raju, yelling over the laboratory din.

“It’s Palmer’s Second Hypothesis! If there’s memory locked up in all this beautiful sand, then how do I realize it? How do I join it?”

Raju edged away from the sweltering chamber and Palmer followed, insistent. The professor leaned in close.

“Please, Raju. Your task is to pull the lever. You’ll know when.”

He turned away from Raju, then thought better of it and fiercely hugged his former graduate student. He whispered into Raju’s ear.

“I’m finally feeling like myself again, old friend. Thank you.”

Before Raju could react, Palmer turned and dashed headlong into the crucible. The door slammed behind him.

Raju braced himself in the heat and inched forward to honor Dr. Palmer’s last request. He pulled the lever.

There was an incredible groaning, a furious grinding, a smell like sulfur and the sea, then everything went silent.

After an interminable minute, a spout on Palmer’s furnace issued forth a thin stream of brilliant white sand.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:


Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

One Last Good Thing
1382 words

“Pappy Ben, can you tell us about Grandpa Phillip?”

Miles tugged on Benton’s shirtsleeve as the old man rocked slow in his wicker chair. Benton stopped rocking, surveying the porch and gently swaying trees.

“About Grandpa Phillip? Well, I suppose your mother’s gone shoppin’ for another hour. How ‘bout you, Sam? You want to hear about ol’ Phil?”

Sam nodded, her eyes wide at the prospect. Benton smiled. It had been nearly thirty years since his last day with Phil. His voice went low.

“This is about the time your Grandpa Phillip saved my bacon, pulled my whole butt out of the fire.”

Miles raised his eyebrows at the turn of phrase. Benton continued.

“But that kind of a rescue? It wasn’t so simple...”


“ I’m tellin’ em, Benjy, that I’m a right payin’ customer and that it don’t matter if this is the Burgermania or stinkin’ Stevenson’s backroom casino, my money’s as good as anyone else's, family name be damned.”

Benton stirred the embers with a stick and looked across the firepit to Phillip.

“Oh, they givin’ you a lotta pushback at the Burgermania these days?”

Phillip snorted. His voice was a high drawl.

“It’s a turnt phrase, Benjy. Anyway, they slide this rack o’ chips at me and I go to work.”

He picked up a few leaves and spread them in his grip like a straight flush hand. His eyes peeked slyly at Benton as he mimed drawing an extra leaf and discarding another.

“So I deal and play and...bam! Flush! Straight! Flush! Two pair! Next thing I know, I’m sittin’ real pretty. Too pretty. They’s mad, furious even. I get heated right back, I’m winnin’ fair and square. Maybe I started rantin’ a little.”

Benton raised his eyebrows.

“You got heated? What happened? You didn’t start talkin’ about...”

Phillip nodded, looking a little sheepish.

“Well yeah, maybe I did start talkin’ pretty loud ‘bout god-drat Vietnam. It’s where I go to when I’m that kinda heated, you know that. But I’m gettin’ sidetracked. Didn’t call you out here for poker stories. I called you out here for this.”

Phillip reached into his breast pocket and extracted a folded piece of paper. He passed it to Benton, who opened it and read:

‘Marker: Benton Waylon, owing in the amount of ten thousand dollars.’

Benton’s hands began to tremble as he saw the words stamped over the text on the marker:

‘By confirmation of Callum Stevenson, proprietor, PAID IN FULL’

Benton shot to his feet, nearly knocking over the log he’d been sitting on. He stumbled to his brother and gripped him by the shoulders.

“You got me outta hock, Phillip? All of it?”

Phillip grabbed Benton’s shoulders in return.

“You’re free, little brother.”

Benton’s heart leapt, but his celebration stuttered and died. Outside the exultation, something still ate at his gut. Maybe it was the lingering unease in Phillip’s tone, or the traces of a frown at the corners of his older brother’s mouth.

Benton’s voice grew soft.

“That’s not all of it, is it?”

Phillip gulped. His frown deepened.

“I wish it was, Benjy.”


“With some gumption and a whole lot of luck, Grandpa Phillip had gotten me out of the clutches of some very bad men. But something was wrong.”

Sam piped up.

“What was it, Pappy Ben? Were the bad men still coming?”

Benton nodded his assent.

“Meaner than ever, madder than ever.”

Benton started rocking faster, sinking deeper into the memory. His voice was sharp, tinged with terror.

“Suddenly, there was a faraway screeching and a distant thunder on the horizon. Then, everything went quiet. A shadow covered the forest, covered us up.”

The kids huddled closer around Benton’s chair.

“See, sometimes bad news feels like it comes in on wings.”


“ kept going, didn’t you?”

Benton didn’t know why he’d bothered asking. He already knew.

Phillip got up and turned away, his hands in his pockets. His voice was quiet, muffled even in the stillness of the forest.

“I was on a run, a red-hot streak. I was gonna bring the whole house down. Then I lost a hand. Then another hand. Then I doubled down. Switched from poker to blackjack. And again.”

Benton rubbed the debt marker between his fingers, smearing the ink. He felt nauseous.

“How much, Phil?”

Phillip turned back toward his brother and shrugged, but the discomfort sat in his shoulders.

“All of it. My house. My truck. Then a lot more besides.”

Benton shook the little paper marker in the air. “And how about this?”

Phillip gave his brother a sad smile.

“Yeah, they asked on it. Offered to cash it back out to me, one and a half to one, then two to one, get me to lose that too.”

Phillip shook his head.

“Couldn’t ever do that to ya, Benjy.”

Benton’s eyes stung with tears. Part of him wanted to chastise his brother for the whole rotten scheme. Part of him wanted to just hug Phillip, hold him and not let go.

They walked back over to the fire and sat down. The brothers were silent a little while. Ben rolled the whole thing around in his head, then spoke up.

“So what now? We come out here, you drop this chit on me...” Ben said softly.

Phillip drummed his hands on his knees.

“I gotta go, Benjy. Stevenson gave me a week to pay, then he sics his vultures on me. I gotta get gone and gone for good. But I’ll be fine, see? Don’t have a real care in the world anymore, even with the buzzards circlin’. You know why?”

Benton shrugged, tears streaming down his face. Phillip’s voice was dead even.

“It’s that slip you got there, one last thing from me to you. So you hold on it tight, because you don’t owe anyone a goddamn cent.”

The pair sat, looking into the embers and ash. After a bit, Phillip got up and began collecting his things.

The woods were quiet. The brothers embraced, then Phil was gone.


“...and the shadow got darker, closer, and smaller, but not small at all! It came right for me!”

Miles was on his feet now, hopping with excitement.

“It was a huge vulture, bigger than I’ve ever seen, as big as a school bus! It looked me right in the eyes, swooping down with its terrible claws. I was done for!”

Sam inched closer and gripped her grandfather’s pant leg. Benton’s voice boomed.

“And then, at the very last second, Grandpa Phillip tumbled right into me, right where I was standing. I was safe. But Phil, he’d tumbled right into the vulture’s monstrous claws!”

Miles was shaking his head, repeating “No” in a faint, worried voice.

“I thought he was bird food, but no! Your ol’ Grandpa Phillip didn’t flop like some kinda caught trout, no! He started climbing, pullin’ on feathers and scrabblin’ up until, until…”

Benton paused for effect and put his hand to his head.

“Oh, it’s too exciting to even finish! I can’t even say it!”

He peeked around his fingers at the enthralled children.

Sam leapt up in panic.

“Pappy Ben, no! You have to tell us, you have to!”

Benton paused, nodded stoically, and continued, his voice full of wonder.

“Next thing I knew, Grandpa Phillip was clutchin’ the back of that great ol’ buzzard, riding it like a bucking bronco. They flew up, up, up, and up, until they were just a tiny dot in the big blue sky, far above the trees.”

Benton was standing now, looking up with his hand held high above his head.

He sat down and, after a few seconds, began rocking again. Miles’ voice was pleading but still exhilarated.

“Then what happened? Did the buzzard get him?”

Benton smiled fondly at his grandchildren and thought of his brother, of that last good thing Phillip did before he was gone. His voice light, he concluded the story.

“No one can say for sure, but knowing your Grandpa Phillip? Oh no, son, not a chance.”

The old man looked to the faraway dark hollows of the forest, savoring the memory.

“And if you ask me? I’d say he’s still flying high out there in the wild. And maybe one day, maybe he’ll come home.”

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:


Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

How It Works
1933 words

It’s just after one of my first meetings, three cups of oil-thick coffee deep. My eyelashes are quivering. I am surveying the crowd of ex-drunks when a burly, bearded man walks over and sticks his hand out.

“Hey! I’m Tim. You’re new, right?”

I grip his hand. It is warm and coarse, his shake comfortingly slow. At this moment, I feel new at most everything.

“Yeah. I’m Luis. I’ve been around for about a month.”

It’s actually been sixteen scalding days. I have a suspicion that Tim can see right through the generous timekeeping, but he is taking me at face value, presuming honesty. This is another of the thousand screaming paradigm shifts endemic to sobriety.

Tim chuckles, rubbing a tattooed forearm. He is classic Recovery, ex-dangerous and serene.

“Well, Luis, you working with anyone?”

I grimace, caught off guard. Sponsorship and commitment, that’s what he’s talking about. Being where I say I’ll be and doing what I say I’ll do. It’s a terrifying new outlook. My voice is halting, uneven, shaky.

“Uh, no, not currently. I mean, not ever. I’m new. Like you said, new. See, I’ve been drinking for like thirty years, every day, and-”

Tim cuts me off with a wave of his hand, though his expression is kind and even.

“Plenty of time for that. Has anyone walked you through how it works?”

I’ve been circling the periphery at these meetings, just dipping a hesitant toe in, afraid of what’s in the water. Tim is inviting me for a swim.

“Not yet, no.”

Tim rubs his chin and appraises me. My socks are mismatched, my face shaved in patches, and it is entirely too warm for this hoodie. I’m an alien approximating humanity, making first contact.

He breaks it down for me.

“Well, first you try to convince yourself that the poo poo that’s ruined your life is actually bad for you, then you and me talk about what exactly your problems are, then you try and make amends to the rest of the world. You do all that, then you help another guy who’s as bad off as you are now. Sound good?”

I give a hesitant nod. With that, I have a new sponsor. I am bad off, but slightly better than before.

Tim’s ground rules, recovery roadmap aside, are fairly uncomplicated: don’t drink, be honest, call him if I’m losing my poo poo, don’t fuckin’ drink, and if I do, to come back. Like the old aphorism: simple, but not easy.

We exchange numbers. He looks over my tapping toes, darting eyes, and recently omnipresent flop sweat, all those little harbingers of an emotional dam about to burst. His voice is soothing, gentle.

“I know. It’s a lot. You ok?”

I want to tell him that I am not, that the halogen overheads are burning my eyes, that my fingers quiver like seismograph needles, that the whole goddamn world feels like it’s bellowing “Welcome back!” every second of every minute of every-

I nod.

Tim shakes his head, but not in admonishment.

“You know what we say, Luis? Get sober and you don’t just feel better...”

He pauses for effect.

“You Feel better.”

My new sponsor gives me a cheesy grin.

“Get it?”


In another month, I have painfully, definitely, ‘gotten it’.

After my work with Tim, I have come into being as a self-aware conglomeration of faults. From here, it is supposed to get better.

I am taking the city bus to a meeting. For the past thirty-odd years, every time I’d been on public transportation I’d been swaying hard, riding the razor line between a blackout and a full-on withdrawal seizure, never feeling the greasy sheen of the faux-felt seat covers, the lolling gait of the hanging handgrips, the interface of the easy-wash ridges in the floor with the treads of my shoes. Now, I am hyper-aware of each of those sensations and a thousand more. It is harrowing.

The bus bounces along. I recall Tim’s parting words from last night:

“See, Luis, you’re in the danger zone. Your whole brain’s waking up from a long numb and what’s worse, now it knows what’s wrong with it. There’s gonna be a part of your whole self that wants it all to just turn off, go away, settle down into a fuzz. Every time you feel that and don’t tell someone? Well, the booze does another pushup.”

His farewell hug after the soapbox warning was electric, fully-aware and undulled human contact. Not just touch, either, but care, and love, and fear, and the smell of aftershave, and remembrance, and, and, and…

I grab my phone and call Tim.

“Hey, Tim? Sorry to bother you. I’m on the bus here and, uh, it’s, well...”

I try and fail to tell him that existence is too loud. It doesn’t matter. He knows.

“Let me give it a guess, huh?”

I can feel the geniality in his voice, the patience. It is kind, too loving for me to bear. I am undeserving. He goes on.

“Being honest sucks, your boozy little hidey-hole seems so warm and comfy, and now that you know your faults, all that selfishness and fear and spite, you want to crawl back in with some Old Commodore and put your brain to sleep because fixing the wreckage is too horrible to even consider. Am I close?”

He chortles and pauses. When he speaks again, he is softer, dead serious.

“I’ve been there. For now, just trust me. Do the deal. It’ll be worth it.”

It’s simple advice, but I feel every synapse in my body relax a little, the nerves going slack. Bliss. Then, in a second, it’s replaced. Terror, recognition, shame, and regret, impositional feelings without anything to blot them out. An inky thought bubbles up, a moment of sick clarity:

‘You know, Luis, you could just make it go away. Take a sip of white hot burn and leave for tomorrow what you can’t possibly deal with today.’

I shake it off. There is something about being Present that makes the voice less seductive, even ridiculous. The tinny bus speakers announce my stop. I say goodbye to Tim and get off, then walk a block to a musty church basement.


The meeting is good. Joe S. shares about how ridiculous it is that he, now thirty days certifiably sober, could be fired from his office job just for throwing his cell phone at a wall. The old-timers laugh good-naturedly, the newcomers drum their fingers with fear and doubt. I am somewhere in between, deep inside the weight of both.

I take the bus back to the halfway house.

It’s someone else’s night to cook. We sit down a sober Frankenstein family: sweating dope fiends with face tattoos, hopeless emaciates on their fifth or seventh or ninth go-around, guys with just a hint of brightness coming back to their eyes. The self-identification is almost too much to bear.

The table says Grace. It used to bristle, but Tim explained it succinctly: “You want to get better? Gonna have to do a whole lot of things you don’t want to do,” he’d said. “Luis, buddy? Grace is a cakewalk.”

The dinner menu is set by the house manager and must be intentionally bland: pale overboiled sausages, boxed mashed potatoes, and a side of everpresent black coffee. I think it’s to protect us from orgasm over a single perceptible peppercorn, or maybe even to recall old post-booze heartburn. But the flavor is astounding, near-overwhelming. I taste the pig-grease and a little fennel, feel the coarse grind of the meat in my teeth. My tastebuds are waking from a decades-long tequila fugue.

We have our house meeting after dinner. Eric B. shares that after his upcoming DUI hearing and certain exoneration, he plans on finishing classes for his pilot’s license. We’re all silent for a while after that.

I head upstairs for my nightly call with Tim. We’ve taken what he calls the ‘express lane’ through Recovery, but I have stalled out.

“You decided to start yet, Luis?”

I swallow hard, fat still lingering on my palate.

“Well, I took the first step. Suze picked up my call. She said I could come by this weekend.”

Tim is silent on the other end, so I continue.

“I need to apologize for everything, for all of it.”

He sighs. His response is disappointed, ego-needling.

“Still don’t get it, huh? Let’s try it like this. How do you think you’re supposed to feel after you apologize?”

I’m afraid that I Feel wrong. I try anyway.

“Good, I guess? Like I did the right thing after I hosed up.”

He grumbles a little.

“No, Luis. You’re supposed to still feel like poo poo, because the apology isn’t in the words. Your apology is supposed to be a promise to make things right, to do whatever needs doing. Your problem? You don’t get that you’re supposed to feel like poo poo, sometimes.”

We hang up a little after that. I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, suffused with guilt over every half-sorry and false contrition I’ve ever been a part of. My whole body aches. I think about tomorrow.


Suze’s house, our old place, is a long way from the nearest bus stop, so Tim drives. I ask him to drop me off a couple of blocks away. He refuses. The cobblestone walkway looks a mile long as Tim pulls away.

I get to the stoop and pause. I’ve rehearsed what I’m going to say a hundred times. Before I can decide whether to ring or knock, the door opens. Suze is there. Her tone is even, devoid of emotion.

“Come in, sit down.”

We sit at her dining table. I look around the home, her home. The furniture is new, she has painted the walls, replaced the photographs. I have been scrubbed. I wait a moment, compose myself, and begin my apology.

“Thanks for seeing me, Suze. I wanted to say-”

She cuts me off, still dispassionate, still even.

“I don’t want to hear it. You know why? Because you’re a selfish, inconsiderate fucker, Luis. I called you over because I needed some closure, not to hear you.”

I am flailing.

“No, look, I stopped drinking, and-”

She flicks her wrist. I stop talking. She’s angrier now, but keeping it in check.

“It’s just more words, right? Another apology maybe, or you changed for good this time? No. Just no. After this? I’m straight, I’m good.”

She spreads her palms on the table and closes her eyes. She sounds tired.

“Get out, Luis. If you ever contact me again, I’ll call the loving cops.”

I look around the place, her home, her closure. I am ushered out in a haze.

Tim pulls up as I reach the curb. I get in the car. Neither of us says anything as we drive away.

After a few blocks, he looks over at me. He’s concerned, but hopeful.

“How’d it go?”

I think it over in a tumult. I am hurt, scared, angry, and full of fear, but I feel it all, feel it more thoroughly and more plainly than I ever have before. I feel real remorse, maybe for the first time. Not sadness at not getting away with something, or at not avoiding a sentimental battering, but real contrition.

I feel the emotional rope binding me to Suze fray, twisting and popping. It snaps, the anchor falling down and away. I take a deep breath, easier now.

“I think…”

I pause, searching for the right words. I find them.

“I feel better.”

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Thunderdome Week 479:

Hello, Thunderdome.


They have long been derided by so-called "mainstream science" as deep-rooted objects of amusing folklore, pretty bad photoshops, or hasty excuses after gruesome hunting accidents. But to true believers, they represent the hidden potential of nature, the idea that there is something new out there, some nut of this world that we haven't been able to crack. Sure, aerial photography, radar imaging, and lakebottom debris drags haven't shown evidence of a modern plesiosaur in Loch Ness, but can you say one truly doesn't exist?

I say no.

This week, you'll be writing a story centering around a cryptid.

A flash rule cryptid will be provided on request.


Q : Do I have to write a story about a real cryptid?
A : I don't understand the question.

Q : You know, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster?
A : No, but I think you're missing the point. Besides, everyone knows that Bigfoot is real (and phylogenetically distinct from the Yeti, Sasquatch, and Asian Barmanou).

Q : So I can just write a story about some bullshit mythical animal?
A : Well sure, but cryptids are so much more than that. They are a distillate of cultural memory, fantasy, adventure, fear, and the crackle of distant branches in the deep, lonely woods.

Q : Will you have a fun audio file of the judging?
A : I'd really like to, but I don't know how people have been getting them going. If you know the easiest way, either volunteer to judge or let me know how and I'll put one together.

Word Limit : 2000

Deadline: Signups close at midnight on Friday CST-ish. Submissions close at midnight on Sunday CST-ish with some wiggle room.

Carl Killer Miller

Cryptid Hunters:
Idle Amalgam
derp FLASH RULE! The Hopkinsville Goblins
t a s t e
Idle Amalgam FLASH RULE! Spring Heeled Jack
Chairchucker FLASH RULE! The Mongolian Death Worm
The man called M FLASH RULE! The Lac Wood Screecher
BabyRyoga FLASH RULE! The Jackalope
ZearothK FLASH RULE! The Honey Island Swamp Monster
Pham Nuwen FLASH RULE! The Mothman
Taletel FLASH RULE! The Kappa

Edited in the time zone and flash rule.

Carl Killer Miller fucked around with this message at 22:38 on Oct 7, 2021

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

derp posted:

in, give me a goofy monster

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Crit as promised for This is what it sounds like by The man called M

Using the pundits as a jumping-off point for a story isn't a bad idea, but that sort of opening deserves a better callback than the ending gives it. This sort of device, in my opinion, should tie into the story somehow. As it stands, you could delete the pundit banter and delete the last paragraph of the story and the middle wouldn't lose anything, which is a good sign that the device isn't woven into the story well enough.

There are some tense problems in the first proper paragraph of the story. "However, the banter today hit close to home" should be hits, not hit.

There's a lot of telling rather than showing in the story. For example, "After what happened yesterday, that was no longer the case, for the love of his life was no longer that." could lose the "for the love of his life was no longer that", as you explain it in the upcoming paragraph. Leaving it off also acts as a draw for the reader to continue.

I might be wrong here, but I think you're trying to employ a whimsical sort of storyteller voice. This can work if done properly, but if you lean on it too much the story becomes onerous to read. For example, "On that Day, he received a letter from FedEx. It was a Dear John letter. The kind of letter that basically said, “I’m breaking up with you, now gently caress off”. could be condensed into a single sentence that would flow much better.

The overly-explainy writing also reads (could be wrong here, of course) like you don't think the reader could connect some of these dots themselves. For example, I (and most readers, I think) know what a dear john letter is. Knowing that I know that, the redundancy of the example I quoted above becomes more apparent.

Next paragraph:

"She was all about the talking, while Leo was all about the screwing. They had plenty of sex, but Leo kept wondering, was it satisfactory? After all, whores have repeat customers for a reason."

This is rough to read. If you're going to use loaded words like 'whore', try to make sure that they're worth it. Reading that part left a gross taste in my mouth. It also led me to seriously dislike your protagonist. An unlikeable protagonist is ok if it's paid off somehow, or if the characterization is more complex than Leo just being a creep.

I don't know what to do with the last paragraph. It doesn't fit in the story, it's clunky with the overuse of the word 'doves', and it doesn't add to the story or the characterization in a meaningful way.

Some final notes:
-Grammar and structure are all over the place. The story could use some serious editing just to read cleanly, content aside.
-I don't understand the thesis of the story. I'm no expert by any means, but I usually like to ask myself what the story is trying to say, or what message it's trying to communicate, before I write or early in the process. Then at the end, I check and see if I've "answered" my thesis well enough. This helps me with story cohesion, characterization, you name it.
-Non sequiturs are ok, but due to the dissonance they create for a reader they should be paid off in some way. If that payoff is just the general wittiness of the segment that's ok, but it should be polished and tie in somehow.
-I find some of the content personally off-putting, specifically Leo's musing on his parents' sex life. That's not necessarily wrong for a general audience, but as it stands it doesn't really reflect in the rest of the story.
-Is this whole piece a commentary on Leo DiCaprio being a bad person?

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Idle Amalgam posted:

Lol can I get a flash rule cryptid

Chairchucker posted:

Hello in and gimme a cryptid

The man called M posted:

Thanks for the crit! (Wasn’t sure if he realized that he won, so I sent a PM reminded him. That’s why he offered the crit)
Y’know, each and every Thunderdome I have been in has been quite the learning experience.
If you would give me a Cryptid, then I would like to learn some more. (In)

More information on the LAC WOOD SCREECHER:

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

BabyRyoga posted:

Sounds fun, in with a flash cryptid please


ZearothK posted:

In with a flash.

The honey island swamp monster, AKA the rugarou.

Additional information here:

Pham Nuwen posted:

In, gimme a flash please.

Hell of good prompt but I'm kinda pissed you broke into my Google Drive and read the "Prompt Ideas If I Ever loving Win" file and stole the only one that was actually any good.

The one and only MOTHMAN

Additional mothman resources here:

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Taletel posted:

In. Flash, please.

The Kappa.

Additional Kappa resources:

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Signups are closed!

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Subs closed!

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Thunderdome Week 479:

All the judges this agreed that this week was pretty tough times. The majority of the stories had some significant issues in either construction, storytelling, content, or some combination of the three.

The Loss goes to BabyRyoga for a story with a couple good ideas that was very difficult to understand.

DMs go to The man called m, Albatrossy_rodent, Captain_Indigo, and Taletel

The lone HM goes to derp

The win this week goes to Thranguy for The Ranger

An recording of Sebmojo, Chernobyl_Princess and me doing the judging is below. Written crits from me will be up in a few hours.

Thranguy, all yours!

Here is the recap/live-judgin' of week 479.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:


Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

The Case of the Lac Wood Kegger
The man called M

I think that you get a little bit of a boost in your premise by starting with a mystery. The back half, though, is that the payoff has to be proportionally boosted as well. For me, no story feels worse than a poorly paid-off mystery.

There’s no central conflict to this mystery. You have the ingredients of a central conflict, with a villain, a victim, and a detective, but you don’t utilize the ingredients.

I barely feel the presence of the cryptid in this one. I gave you one that was relatively difficult to write, sure, but it could have been very evocative.

Did you have to make him a pedophile? I mean, that’s a note of harshness and darkness that doesn’t ring through the rest of the piece.

The story needs a few strong editing passes. You had another thousand words and another day to look through and line edit. No points for early submission here. You spelled the monster’s name wrong in the last paragraph!

Overall, this shows a good clip of improvement from your prior works. I suggest that after you write the story, read it out loud to check the cadence and language. Keep at it!

The Monster of Coffet

Interesting premise and a good opening hook. Abandoned towns always get me.

Your ‘protagonist’ is gross and pretty awful. This isn’t bad in itself, but unless there’s some kind of payoff, it comes through as being edgy for the sake of being edgy. Pedophilia is an incredibly strong spice to add into a story. If it’s not a theme, it can seriously distance the reader. A character’s monstrousness can be told (or not told) with more subtlety. For complexity, the reader should be able to infer some things about your character. In this case, it’s all in black and white. This characterization is an example of telling instead of showing.

When I read a story with two monsters in it, I expect there to be a measure of duality to it. I was looking for notions that the two were thematically connected. There was something there with them both being on their last legs (har har), but it wasn’t enough.

Did that coyote just walk into a cancer ward?

Grammar and punctuation mistakes throughout. Could use another edit or two.

The Nix

I think the idea of the piece is cool and clever, although I would have liked more hints as to what the climax would be. There were some very compelling descriptions, like Johan being ‘the sacrifice’, and the psychology of just not being last.

The first paragraph doesn’t serve your story. I think it would be better off without. On going through it with the judges, a significant portion of the story doesn’t serve your thesis.

The first segment is confusing, I thought ‘her’ and Lin were the same thing. It clicked later on, but I had to go back and reread the opening to make sense of it.

Your protagonist is a jerk, I get it. A static protagonist isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with the transformative nature of the finale, I would expect some character growth. I couldn’t tell if he was being warped by his desire for greater ability, or if he’d always been sort of a psycho. This is a well-done description of a fantastical event, but the characterization leaves a lot to be desired. I wanted some growth, some change, something in that vein.

I can see what you were going for with the guy offing himself at the end, but it fell flat for me. It read like you had one too many characters and didn’t know what to do with them in a story that required some to die.

Peeky Eyes

Well-written and strong prose as always. I guess if there has to be a pee and voyeurism fetish story in TD, at least it’s one that’s competently constructed.

The middle sagged a little for me, but not too much.

You had such a great sense of intrigue and mystery with the monster early on! The unblinking eye is a great metaphor for the OnlyFans reference later. I wish it had paid off better. The ending of the story makes the protagonist into a punchline and bummed me out hard. I don’t know if it was your intention, but it read like you had some very strong plotting for the first ¾ of the story, then didn’t know what to do with the end.

A leopard moth can’t change its spots
Pham Nuwem

It’s an 80’s teen comedy pastiche starring the mothman. I think you leaned too heavily on the former and not enough on the latter, so the story came out very formulaic. You have so much ground to tread here, so many tropes to turn on their heads, but it wasn’t there.

The segment with mothman using his proboscis and yell-speaking was the strongest of the whole piece.

More than either of the other judges, the epilogue killed any interest I had in the story. While it was on-brand thematically, it fell flat for me in a story structure sense. I like writing jokes into my stories, but making a piece funny is really, really difficult because working those jokes into the story framework is challenging. The end felt like you wanted to showcase some joke-writing chops without working to fit them into the piece as a whole.

The Kappa

The writing is fine and the story is ok. There wasn’t much compelling or inventive here. This is amplified by the amount of really neat stuff built into the Kappa mythology. It was actually worse for me that you referenced some of those mythological aspects (the vegetable eating, the anus soul sucking, the water in the forehead) but didn’t use them well. For a story with a climactic battle and big stakes, it didn’t pull me in.

It might help you to go back to your thesis statement (maybe something like “a monster hunter battles the Kappa for the safety of a small village”) and see how you can buff the story up while still holding strong to the throughline.

More than any other story this week, I could tell you did your research on the Kappa. I appreciated that.

Full responsibility

This story had a neat concept and a good conceit. I liked your take on the jackalope and the app.

I had a lot of trouble following this story. I started and stopped reading a few times because the prose became confusing and hard to parse. I don’t think any of the characters were particularly well constructed and the protagonist didn’t have much of a motivation as far as I could tell. Combined with the difficulty I had reading it, any cool ideas you have in here are lost. This was a week with a lot of contenders for the loss, but I think you clinched it on technical and structural grounds.

I think it would be helpful for you to try reading the story out loud to see how some of the diction comes off. Sentences like “disappointment hitting his face like rocks” don’t sound very good when spoken. I would also give a few passes for editing and formatting.

The Ranger

I thought the prose was solid and I liked that the story was economical in its use of callbacks and references. When I hear that there is a gene-splicing experiment, I’m waiting for a payoff later and you landed that.

I think there were one too many ingredients in this stew: the end of civilization on earth, gene splicing, divorce, a robot companion, and on. It felt muddled and as a result the ending felt rushed.

You have such a great concept here with a yeti finally showing up and its presence (and the consequences thereof) somehow being more terrifying than any possible appearance on earth. I wanted that aspect fleshed out more.

At the mercy of the monster
T a s t e

A well-written slice of life kind of story. I saw what you were going for here, with the subversion of a traditional monster story into one of a town in decline. My problem was that the whole thing wasn’t very intriguing. There wasn’t much momentum, climax, or change and as a result the piece felt hollow. I was ambling through town with this guy, but that was about it.

Your prose is solid and kept me relatively engaged throughout. All your characters felt like individuals.


A well-constructed tale that definitely told a complete story from start to finish. Your narration was pretty good and there were no glaring structural errors.

I could have used about 400% more worminess in the story. We don’t even see the death worm, only hear it and see the results. I was left pretty unsatisfied as a result. This read like a much more advanced version of the Kappa story from this week. Not very much happened and all the meaningful action was in the latter third of your piece.

It also sounded like you were hinting at some cultural practices that would have been interesting to explore. Overall the story felt very dry.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Graven Pastoral
1882 words
Flash rule: Sports horror

The southwest wind roared across the plains of rural England. In long-gone days, its coriolitic humidity carried cold rains, but now it only whipped dust eddies over the barrens.

Arfaa trudged the baked earth, surveying the once-verdant moor. She’d returned empty-handed from her last three specimen hunts after pulling useless scans from dwindling flora. The scientist squinted into the sun and spied a tuft of sickly green in the grey-brown dirt.

“Oh hello, little fellow.”

She knelt low and examined the tiny sprout. Good coloration, fair architecture, and potentially preservation-quality. Arfaa unholstered her hefty Decompiler and held it close to the sprout’s stem. The device blinked through DNA sequences and phylogenies as the plant withered away and evaporated, its biodata absorbed and uploaded to the genetic cloud.

Arfaa sat on the hard-packed dirt and read through the sprout’s data. A nearly flawless genetic sample, ready for cross-checking and reproduction. She looked out over the desolation and sighed, imagining a field of identical, defiant little sprouts. The air in her helmet was starting to smell fishy and nitrous. It was almost time to head back.

She began to rise when she noticed something peculiar: a half-buried tube jutting diagonally from the ground, its lip caked in rust. On closer examination she spied little dots of silver, the remnants of finely hammered inlay. An ancient rifle, way out in nowhere.

The analyzer momentarily forgotten, Arfaa touched the edge of the relic and recoiled in shock.

It was ice cold through her bulky gloves, made colder in the searing desert heat. The chill crept up her hand, her wrist, her shoulder. Her breath fell solid in her lungs.

Everything went white.


Arfaa’s eyes snapped open in panic.

She sat up and took in her surroundings, speechless: a field of stars, the radiant gibbous moon, and gently swaying fields of endless emerald grass. Trembling, she removed her gloves and ran her hands through the abundant green blades, feeling their edges and collars and crispy little sheathes. Arfaa laid back, laughing in sheer delight at the sensation. She spied something up above, flitting against the stellar field. A bird, a real wild bird, the first she’d ever seen. Arfaa worked decades in labs and growth chambers, countless midnights spent trying and failing to reproduce just a single frond. But here, the flora sprawled bucolic.

The scientist tentatively reached up and undid her helmet locks, then whipped off the bulky thing and took a careful sniff.

Cool air, so fresh and sweet she could taste it.

She got to her feet, still taking in the splendor, when a voice split the silence.

“You there, shake from your repose! Come now, come now.”

A man in rich oiled leathers emerged from a copse of oak and sauntered toward her, his expression aristocratically disdainful.

“Introductions, I believe?”

Arfaa tried to back away but found herself rooted to the spot. This close, the man smelled of aged hides and petrichor. She watched wisps of silver smoke rise from his body and curl into the air.

“I am Sir William Heathcote of Hursley, third baronet.”

His voice was high, harsh, and immune to repudiation. William worked off a glove to reveal blue-white bone, his fingers raking spectral contrails in the night air.

“To curtail your impending interrogation, the answer is yes. I am dead, or something quite beyond it. And no, you are not.”

Arfaa’s mouth worked into a scream, but the sound didn’t come. Her chest felt weighty, leaden.

Sir William continued.

“You are here for a most special event, a tradition in old Hursley. Tonight, we shall have ourselves a fox hunt.”

He looked at her expectantly, his eyes a field of shimmering blue. Arfaa swallowed hard, not knowing where to begin. Sir William rambled on.

“The rules are simple, my dear. We shall have ourselves a grand sport, spare of hounds and stallions. We go on foot to the daybreak. The one who returns to this spot with the greatest prize of tails as the sun crests-”

Arfaa cut him off.

“I’m not dead?”

William stopped short.

“No. And it’s a ghastly habit to interrupt. Do you make a practice of it?”

Arfaa took a few steps back, her eyes still locked on the ghoul.

“How do I get home?”

The baronet paused.

“Well, I presume that you need best me at the sport. A presumption, mind you.”

William gave her a humorless grin.

“You see, it’s never happened.”

He began raising his fingers in turn.

“There was the baker from Portsmouth, barely a foxtail there. Then the ‘rail baron’, purchased title to be sure, he got the closest. Killer instinct, that one, but so indelicate.”

William sniffed dismissively.

“New money, clearly. Then some bespectacled chap in a hooded smock, he barely moved the whole night. A humiliating showing. Some poor souls in between, to be sure, but the point stands.”

He moved even closer to Arfaa. His breath was scentless and cold, his voice full of malice.

“I am victor eternal, and mine are the spoils.”

Arfaa shook her head and considered William’s proposal. Her voice rang even, calmer.

“Look, I don’t understand.”

Sir William threw up his hands in frustration.

“Time grows short! Out with it!”

Arfaa’s reply was hesitant.

“Well, what’s a fox?”

Sir William cupped his weak chin and regarded her quizzically.

“Surely you jest. A fox. Vulpes vulpes. Sport.”

Arfaa remained silent. Sir William leaned forward and began miming with his hands.

“Yea long. Crimson fur. Pleasantly dodgy. Come now, be serious.”

Arfaa shrugged, but her mind began working again. This was crazy. Maybe a dream, or radiation sickness. She gripped her Decompiler tight and began inching toward Sir William.

The baronet had moved from sarcasm to worry.

“You’ve never seen a fox? But where could they have gone? Oh, hath treacherous Atalanta-”

Arfaa saw her moment.

She lunged toward Sir William and jammed the Decompiler into the baronet’s breastbone. The scientist thumbed a switch and the device’s display lit up.

It didn’t scroll DNA sequences or phylogenies, only rolling waves of pale blue static.

The specter let out a furious howl, a thousand dissonant pitches all married in sound. Her vision rippled, went dirty brown at the edges. She felt hot and sick, suddenly weak. The Decompiler fell to her side.

William stumbled backward, clutching the luminous tear in his chest. Radiant ichor welled up around his skeletal fingers.

“Devil! Perfidity!”

Arfaa marched toward the dead old hunter, brandishing the Decompiler like a crucifix. Sir William backpedaled, unsteady. He looked at the beeping Decompiler, then at Arfaa.

The phantom spat a frothy quicksilver line into the damp grass, then turned to the treeline. Heels clicking azure, he fled into the forest.

The scientist glanced at the fuzz on the screen, then back to the trees. She trembled from the intoxication of the hunt, every reptilian synapse screaming to give chase, but she paused and thought for a moment. Was there another way out of dead Hursley, another hunt to be had?

Arfaa gripped the Decompiler and gave chase.


The moon hung lower in the sky and the stars were just beginning to dim.

Arfaa moved stealthily through the hedges, prowling low and looking for movement. Specks of gleaming protoplasmic hunt-blood marked a path deeper into the wood. She pressed on, laboriously working her way through the underbrush. Sweat dripped from her forehead.

Time was growing short.

Arfaa heaved through a last tangle of gnarled branches and emerged into a small clearing, then paused to catch her breath. She reached up and plucked a leaf from a winding vine. The scientist considered the fragile little thing, her eyes moving from petiole to vein to margin. Arfaa dropped the leaf, watching it twirl and dance in the cool breeze.

She took a deep breath of sweet air, savoring it.

With a mighty roar, Sir William erupted from a nearby thicket.

Arfaa shrank at the ghoul’s horrible glory, his eyes flickering like lightning in a rolling thunderhead. Blood rang a steady beat in her ears.

He reached back and withdrew a rifle, an ancient thing traced in familiar silver filigree. In shock, she recalled the icy touch of its barrel and her passage into undead Hursley.

Sir William levelled it at Arfaa.

She stepped back and put up her hands in panicked surrender. There was no time to run, no space.

“William! You can’t! The hunt, you made the rules!”

Sir William cocked the hammer. His voice was ragged and pained, but triumphant.

“You’re run to ground, little fox.”

He pulled the trigger.

The rifle’s report rang like a distorted steeple bell and its barrel erupted in sapphire flame.

Arfaa closed her eyes and braced for the ethereal buckshot. The roar faded. The glade was silent. She felt nothing.

The scientist looked down at her chest. She was completely unscathed. Sir William was agog, the firearm hanging limply in his hands.

Arfaa took the opening. She dashed toward the dead baronet and swung the Decompiler like a hammer, driving it hard into William’s face. The screen lit up, a scramble of phantom images flashing by as it drew more data than before.

But this time, something changed.

As William wailed in agony the grass faded brown and went crisp, dying to dust in a matter of moments. The trees dropped branches, their trunks forming huge wounded knots that threatened to swallow the structures whole. A bird plunged dead from the sky, feathers turning to ash as it fell. Arfaa gasped and withdrew the device.

Her vision slowly corrected. The dead sepias of her home dissolved back to lush virescence. She collapsed into the grass.

William’s voice came harsh and slow.

“You yield? Why?”

Arfaa tried to narrate what she’d seen.

“The grass. And the trees, the birds. They were dying. It was like home.”

With creeping horror, she realized the apparent cost of the specter’s annihilation.

The pair was silent for a while. William propped himself up and looked at Arfaa. The rifle laid discarded at his feet. His eyes were dimmer now, his brow furrowed in pain and concentration.

“Your home?”

Arfaa sighed, clasping her knees close to her chest. Her voice was heavy with grief.

“Our home. This place, your land, a long, long time from now.”

She paused and wiped away a tear.

“Nothing runs there anymore.”

The two of them sat and watched the moon set in the sky as the sun traced a brilliant line on the horizon. William contemplated the terrible impending future, a desolation so far from pastoral foxhunts.

Arfaa broke the hush.

“What happens at sunrise, William?”

The phantom let out a long, rattling breath. He looked toward the breaking dawn.

“The hunt lies without a victor, for we are foxless. Perhaps, then, we fade to morning mist? Or perchance we return from whence we came, to deaths respective.”

A bird cried out, the sound ringing and echoing through leaves and branches and grass. Arfaa hefted the Decompiler, feeling its full weight in her hand. She let it tip and drop into the grass.

The baronet glanced at the device, then fixed his gaze on the horizon. His voice was soft and low.

“Or perhaps we remain here, you and I, forever crystallized in this merciful hereafter.”

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

In w flash

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

The Chew
1898 Words
Flash: International Assassin

Jonathan pulled off his shirt and ran his fingers along the seams, starting at the hem and working to the collar. He put the armpit up to his ear, listening intently for a clandestine beeping, or a whirring, or any kind of indication— no, confirmation, that he was being bugged.


He picked up a pair of kitchen shears. A voice in the back of his head piped up.

“The agency warned you about this, you know. They called it The Chew.”

The scissors flew as he diced the shirt into tiny pieces. Jonathan collected them into a small plastic bowl. He sifted through the scraps, as if scrying the bones. The voice spoke.

“You’ve been out in the wind too long, an ocean from home. It’s eating at you, gnawing to the marrow. Sit and wait, that’s what the dossier said. Details will be forthcoming.”

Jonathan walked to the kitchen and tossed the bowl in the microwave. He punched a minute into the keypad, then reconsidered and went with five, setting it on ‘popcorn’. The microwave hummed.

He considered his pants and recalled the first mission briefing, nearly a decade ago.

There should be two to three months between dead drops, those little drip-feeds of clandestine information. But the drops had slowed, become erratic and convoluted, confusingly dense or absent altogether. It was worrying at first, then terrifying. Eventually, he settled into a dull, erosive anxiety.

Inside the microwave, the little scraps of shirt smoked then burst into flame.

Jonathan took off his pants.

His inner monologue ran softer now.

“Wait, just wait a minute. The mission is still good. Contract murder agencies don’t suddenly disappear, right?”

Jonathan looked around the kitchen. It was, objectively, a disaster. The cabinets hung ripped from their hinges, the fridge was unplugged and tipped on its side, and cutlery laid strewn all over the floor. He considered taking a hammer to the countertops and annihilating any bugs his first, fourth, or tenth sweeps had missed. His cover had been blown, he was sure of it.

The voice uttered a final plea.

“People do deep cover for decades! You’re so far in, you have to be close. Stay the course, remember the mission, zero the target. It’s not too late!”

He ran a finger around the waistband of his suspect boxers, then stripped them off and tossed them in the sink. He ran the tap, submerging the underwear.

It was decidedly too late.

Jonathan left the kitchen and stalked naked down the hallway, flanked by busted-out family portraits: Kelly and little Finn at the beach, the three of them in front of a county fair tilt-a-whirl, just the couple on their wedding day. Cameras in all of them. Too small to see, sure, but they were doing amazing things with microphotography. He ascended the staircase.

He reached his former study, now the war room, and stared at the riot of colored strings and mismatched thumbtacks that comprised the master pegboard. His eyes scanned over the avalanche of evidence and settled on the bombshell, the missive that had blown everything wide open.

‘Colonel Chipper’s Chicken Kitchen’ gave every outward appearance of an ordinary establishment. The chipper Colonel leered out at him from the flier, brandishing a rifle at a chicken wielding a white flag. For a fool, perfectly ordinary.

But there were inconsistencies.

The uniform, for one: confederate grey, signifying an enemy.

The insignia on the mascot’s epaulets: three yellow bars on a blue field, the insignia of a Captain, not a Colonel. Ridiculous, but an obvious feint.

The chicken, a brazen image of his foe’s cowardice.

Lastly, the ad’s lack of any franchise location whatsoever. His target was hidden, lurking amongst the suburban blocks.

The chicken ads had continued to roll in as The Chew nibbled heartier chunks from his sanity. Jonathan dutifully saved the mailers in the study’s big oak bureau, building a profile of his doomed target.

But he’d made a critical mistake.

Kelly had brought it up so many months ago, just as the couple settled into bed.

“Honey? I found all these advertisements for a chicken place in one of your desk drawers. Are you doing the books for them or something?”

She’d clearly been calling him out, flaunting her knowledge that his cover job as an accountant was blown, that he was burned. He’d mumbled some meek agreement, then turned over to sleep.

What a rube he’d been.

It was classic counterintelligence: an innocuous question begging an answer, giving him just enough rope to hang himself.

But he’d never broken.

Not after she suggested he see a therapist, not after she’d demanded that they see a therapist, not after she called him “erratic” and “sick”, and not after she’d taken Finn and gone to her “parents”, leaving a tantalizing phone number taped to the nightstand.

Jonathan broke from his reverie and looked back at the pegboard to the most recent dead drop, the agency’s clearest missive, the final nail in the Colonel’s coffin.

“We’re proud to announce our newest cluckin’ location at 1893 W Fullerton Avenue!”

Jonathan studied the gray-moustachioed Colonel and the speech bubble next to his head. It couldn’t be more obvious.

“Target these great deals!”

The mailer offered a six piece meal free with purchase of a drink. It was a ludicrous bargain, far beyond the chicken industry’s razor-thin margins. No, it declared something far more important.

Jonathan moved to the study’s walk-in closet. He slipped on some gloves from a drawer, then pulled a shirt and pair of pants from their rack. The clothes smelled strongly of grease, the remnant of a bug-frying hour in the oven. Next he opened a suitcase, withdrawing a red jerry can of sweet gasoline and a plastic lighter. He crept out of the walk-in and surveyed the study.

It would all have to go.

Jonathan wantonly spattered fuel on the master pegboard, the carpet, the ceiling, and out into the hallway. The splashback soaked his hair and saturated his clothes.

The Chew was in full effect.

He started to make a gas trail to the stairs, but stopped outside Finn’s bedroom.

Jonathan dropped the can and poked his head in.

The room was sparse, cleaned out. He’d spent a lot of time here after his family had left, pacing paranoiac intervals on the bright blue carpet and talking to no one about codes, stations, and honey traps.

Jonathan sat down on the twin bed and took it all in. The Zapping Fuzzoids poster, a lamp shaped like a crescent moon, and little Captain Jerbo, who was ignoring his hamster wheel for a dwindling supply of pellets and water.

He walked to the closet and felt way back on the topmost shelf. He got up on tiptoes and pushed a loose board, then reached into the small hollow, removing the agency-issued handgun and tucking it into his waistband.

Jonathan walked to the door and gave a farewell look over his shoulder.

The hamster wheel squeaked on its axle as Jerbo began a run. Jonathan was halfway down the stairs when he stopped short.

Captain Jerbo, the lone audience to his ceaseless pacing.

Captain Jerbo, three yellow bars on a blue field.

He raced back up the stairs, burst into Finn’s room, and regarded the terrarium. The hamster blinked back at him.

Such clever listeners, these days.

Jonathan moved to the bedside table and picked up the crescent moon lamp, then slowly walked back to the terrarium.

“Mortem traditoribus, Captain Jerbo.”


The house burned as Jonathan raced to 1893 West Fullerton.

Colonel Chippers’ lot was nearly empty in the mid-afternoon. Jonathan pulled into a spot, put the car in park, and tucked his handgun into his waistband.

The husky teen at the register scratched an acne scar and regarded him with fatigue.

“Welcome to Colonel Chipper’s, home of the Eight Wing Salute. Can I take your order?”

Jonathan was dripping in sweat and reeking of gasoline.

“I want to see the Colonel.”

The teen raised his eyebrows.

“Uh, you missed it? The meet-the-Colonel thing was like six weeks ago. Besides, aren’t you a little old for that?”

Jonathan had begun to pant, his tongue lolling out between his teeth. He started to reach for the handgun.

So much for subterfuge.

“I said I want to see the Colonel.”

The teenager started to protest, but seemed to think better of it.

“You know what? They don’t pay me enough for this poo poo.”

He looked over his shoulder at the back office. His voice rang loud over the sizzling fryers.

“Ron? Ron! There’s some guy out here who’s asking for you. He, uh, really smells like gas.”

No response from the back. The teen jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“Just go on back.”

Jonathan nodded his assent. He wound around the counter, past the fryers and coolers, and nudged open the back office door with his foot.

Ron was taking a nap at his desk. Jonathan regarded the man. Flabby, with the Colonel’s telltale gray moustache. He considered putting a hollow point into the manager’s greasy forehead, ending it right here.

Jonathan had started to untuck his shirt when Ron awoke with a start. He looked up, wild-eyed, and pushed back from his desk. A half-eaten chicken leg rolled off his lap and onto the floor.

“What the poo poo? Look, mister, you’re not supposed to be back here.”

Jonathan fixed Ron with a cool stare, radiating lethality.

“Why’s that, Colonel?”

Ron put his hands up, though Jonathan hadn’t drawn on him.


“Look, if this is about Ramon’s money, he’s gonna get it. I just don’t have the cash today, this free six piece deal is killing us!”

Jonathan had heard enough. He whipped the pistol from his waistband and levelled it at Ron.

Ron started screaming, high and shrill.

Jonathan pulled the trigger.

The hammer landed on an empty chamber. Ron screamed louder.

“Okay! Okay! loving poo poo, I’ll pay!”

Jonathan grimaced and sized up the situation. The Colonel was out of shape, sure, but a close-quarters fight back here, so close to registers?

It wouldn’t do. He opted for a more drastic measure.

Jonathan withdrew the lighter from his pocket and touched it to his chest.

Ron stared at him, agog.

The lighter clicked.

Jonathan’s gas-soaked clothes burst into flames. The polyester crackled and popped as he began lumbering toward Ron, arms open.

Ron pushed further back, scrunching himself as deep into the corner as his bulk would allow. He peeked between his fingers at the horrible effigy lurching toward him. Jonathan burned bright, his hands grasping for the chicken shop manager.

The Colonel was close, so close, only a few agonizing steps—

The sprinkler system burst to life, dousing the men in a dark torrent of dirty water.

Jonathan howled and collapsed, his clothes still smoking in the flood.

Ron slowly got to his feet, edged around the perimeter of the room, and left his office. He looked over his shoulder, then walked out of the restaurant. The cashier was nowhere to be found.

He ambled shakily to his car and went for the glove box, removing a cheap smartphone and pressing an icon at the center of the screen.

He held the phone to his ear. His voice was low and soft.

“I need out.”

Ron paused to take a deep breath, then continued.

“I’ve been burned.”

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

I'm in.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Insecto phantasmal
994 words

“What the hell, Rudolph? Again?”

Dr. Rudolph Timber and Dr. Anton Terry looked over a scorched patch of blown-out jungle, over what had once been the village of Pequeño Manaus.

Anton gestured toward the desolation, the latest in a series of baffling tragedies during their search for the legendary Insecto phantasmal.

Rudy’s response was dispassionate, clinical.

“It’s burned, Anton. Annihilated. So, shall we begin?”

Rudy started to kick through the entryway of a ruined longhouse, noisily scattering smoking debris.

“Rudy! Have some respect for the dead.”

Rudy lowered his foot and glared. After weeks in the jungle, his patience with Anton was wearing thin.

“Respect for the dead doesn’t make for scientific breakthroughs, Anton.”

He gave the charred door a decidedly unethical punt. Anton frowned.

“No, that’s been a pretty problematic viewpoint. Historically speaking.”

Rudy stepped away. The pair sat on a burnt log. Anton spoke up.

“Let’s take a breather, okay? It’s been a stressful few days and this…”

He gestured to the destruction.

“It’s horrible. We can go over what we’ve got so far, refocus.”

Rudy rolled his eyes. His tone was haughty, sarcastic.

“Oh yes, let’s go over this wealth of certifiably credible information on the Insecto phantasmal, shall we?”

He began flipping through his notes, turning each page with an exaggerated flourish.

“It’s six or twelve or fifty inches long. Maybe it gives people aggressive glaucoma? A head like a goddamn coconut. A predilection for water wells and wood piles; that’s totally, and I mean totally, useless. And the coup de grâce, it has three legs and nine arms.”

Anton smiled.

“At least it’s something, right?”

Rudy gave him a dead stare.

“It’s loving phylogenetically unfeasible.”

Anton’s smile vanished. He stared at the ground, his voice soft and low.

“This is the fourth village that’s either been deserted or torched, Rudy. What if someone else is looking for the Insecto? What if they did all this to cover their tracks, so no one else could find it?”

Anton sighed.

“It’s too much. I think we should just quit.”

Rudolph shot up from his log, incensed.

He’d heard enough.

Rudolph began circling Anton, fully ranting.

“There’s a hundred explanations for what happened out here and none of them have anything to do with you, me, or the Insecto. Quit!?”

Anton gave Rudy a dark look, shaken by his partner’s lack of compassion.

“A hundred explanations? Name one, Rudy.”

Rudolph paused for a moment.

“Underground methane pocket. I was tenure track, Anton!”

Anton snapped. He spat and let loose at his colleague.

“Oh, your precious tenure track. You were never going to make tenure!”

Rudy gasped. Anton softened.

“That was low. I’m sorry. Tenure is, uh, hard.”

Rudy slid his fieldbook back into his pack, then surveyed the treeline.

“Well, Anton, this is where we part ways. I’ll take the path to fame and academic glory. You’ll turn back and conduct a few more of your ground-breaking interviews about the Insecto. Why don’t you poll some goddamn parrots?”

Rudolph paused and took a deep breath, composing himself.

“You’re dead weight, Anton.”

With that, Rudolph traipsed into the jungle. Anton didn’t move, watching his ex-partner dwindle into the foliage.


Rudolph knew that Anton was the problem. He didn’t have the insatiable hunger, that need for immortalizing glory that, in Rudy’s mind, defined a tenured scientist.

He vaulted over a small hill and came upon a clearing.

And, simple as anything, there it was.

The Insecto phantasmal lounged on a log, dicing the air with nine curved arms. It was six inches long, twelve including its bulbous head, with antennae that seemed to stretch on forever.

Five legs, Rudy noted. And covered with fine brown hair, not unlike a coconut.

The Insecto turned and fixed the awestruck scientist with a piercing stare.

“Hello, Rudolph.”

Its voice was deep and sonorous. Rudy sputtered a response.

“You, you can talk?”

The creature’s multifaceted eyes rolled like kaleidoscopes.

“No, Rudy. I’m projecting my thoughts into your mind.”

“What? Really?”

The Insecto chittered.

“Heck no. That’s ridiculous.”

It gently patted Rudy’s leg with a hooked claw.

“It’s okay! I lie, like, compulsively. It’s really been working for me.”

The Insecto began skittering around Rudy, scrutinizing him. Satisfied, it looked up.

“Well, how about we kill Anton?”

Rudy could only stare, agog. He forced the words out.


The Insecto separated its blood-red mandibles, approximating a smile.

“He’s holding you back, Rudy. It was obvious from the moment I spotted you two, just after I torched Pequeño Manaus. We both know you’ll never make tenure while he’s around.”

Rudolph took a step back, Anton momentarily forgotten.

“You burned Pequeño Manaus? But how?”

The Insecto waved its arms in glee.

“Underground methane pocket! Now, I say we follow him. You act all sorry for ditching him. Then bam! Hit him with a rock. Or a log. Or stab him! With him out of the way I’ll let you snap a bunch of photos of me, and we’re even. You’ll be a shoe-in for tenure. It’ll be epic. You ever really beaned a guy with a rock, Rudy? It sure beats poisoning wells.”

Rudy sat on the ground, mulling over the Insecto’s proposal.

“You’re offering a trade? Anton for tenure? But why?”

The Insecto considered the question, waving a pedipalp as if searching for just the right word.

“I’m kind of a dirtbag, Rudy. Can’t help it. Besides, you need me; you’ll never do it alone. So?”

It was within reach, Rudy thought. A legendary discovery, fame, wealth, everything he’d ever wanted.

Tenure, for sure.

He extended a hand to the Insecto. It scampered up Rudy’s leg, coming to rest on his shoulder.

Its voice was soft and sweet.

“Who knows? After Anton, maybe I’ll even let you take me home.”

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:


Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Transportive Ovonics
1439 words

Patrick Barnes desperately needed help.

The Senior Ovonics Researcher briskly walked to the Thermal Dynamics department. He hoped that someone would be inside, working late, but no such luck.

He checked each office in turn: Transubstantiative Broiling, Convective Appropriation, he’d have even settled for one of the late-hire dullards in Warming Tray Management, but the building seemed empty this far past midnight.

Barnes spied a lone light at the far end of the south wing. He rushed over and threw open the heavy door to Clocannone Development.

He heard a sharp yelp.

A husky young man with a mop of greasy brown hair leapt to his feet, wiping the sleep from his deep-set eyes. The man’s voice was shaky, about-to-get-fired nervous.

“Uh, hello! I was on a mandated wellness fifteen.”

Barnes’ tone was curt.

“Well, break’s over. I need your help.”

Nocturnal security specialist Stan Hartwell had expected an admonishment, at the very least. He furrowed his brow.

“Help? Look, I can’t make you coffee. The union was, like, super clear on that.”

Barnes shook his head and gestured to the door. He looked at the man’s nametag.

“No, Stan. I’m Patrick Barnes, Senior Ovonics Researcher. Tonight, you and I are going to make history.”

Stan shrugged; he would have liked a snack beforehand.

The two men began making their way back to Central Ovonics. Barnes spoke up first.

“Stan, do you know what we do here at Ovonics Incorporated?”

Stan relaxed. He thought for a moment, still half-asleep, then replied.

“I dunno. You’re building a better oven?”

He took Barnes’ silence as an encouragement to continue.

“Like one that knows when I’m coming home and has the coconut shrimp ready?”

Barnes thought that Stan was, in his peculiar way, not so far from the mark. He decided not to encourage him.

The pair strolled into Central Ovonics. Barnes turned on the lights, pointed to an office chair, and assumed a professional stoicism.


Stan obliged. He looked around the office, from racks of beakers filled with murky liquid to whiteboards scrawled with riots of equations and derivations.

The guard considered his surroundings, then looked back to his companion.

“Oven technology’s come a long way, Patrick.”

Barnes’ expression softened. He moved to one of the whiteboards and cleared a space, ready to brief his conscripted colleague.

“Before we can begin, I need you to understand some basics. I’m going to keep it as simple as I can, but you need to tell me if I’m going over your head. Think you can do that, my friend?”

Stan nodded. Barnes smiled and continued.

“Good. First, a discussion of ribose-”

Stan’s hand shot up. Barnes sighed.

“Yes, Stan?”

“What’s ribose, Patrick?”

“It’s a sugar, Stan.”

Stan nodded sagely. He patted his snack-laden fanny pack, a reassurance that he had more than a passing familiarity with sugar. Barnes continued.

“So, ribose. It is a component of the genetic backbone and the key to the development of the transportive molecule now known as clocannone-”

Stan’s hand rose again, more tentatively this time. Barnes shuddered.

“Yes, Stan?”

“Okay, so I know all about genetics. My cousin Randolph, he breeds pitbulls, and he’s always talking genetics. One time, this chicken got loose-”

Barnes cut him off, more out of excitement than irritation.

“Maybe we skip the background and just get started, hm? Now Stan, this next part is extremely important. I need your full attention.”

Stan leaned forward in anticipation, pitbull-chicken carnage momentarily forgotten. Barnes moved to the far corner of the room and gestured to a steel table hooked into an armoire-sized computer.

“This will be your station. Due to the, ah, complexities of spatial relocation, I will be across the hall. First, you must put on these gloves; it is imperative that there is no cellular cross-contamination. Then, when I instruct you to, I need you to take the ingredients in this fridge and place them on the table. Lastly, you press the red button.”

Stan looked at him quizzically.

“Uh, that’s it?”

Barnes nodded, then patted the security guard on the shoulder.

Stan got up and moved to the table as Barnes walked out the door and across the hall. The security guard heard a low mechanical groan, then Barnes’ voice.

“Okay, go!”

Stan bent over and opened the fridge. He looked through its contents: a gleaming filet of pink salmon, a small cluster of broccoli florets, a few slivered almonds, and a small bowl of dark brown sauce. He pulled them out one by one, but paused at the sauce. His stomach growled.

Stan dipped his bare pinkie into the sauce, then took a taste. Salty and heavy on the umami, but with a subtle sweetness.


He dipped his finger in again, then called out to Barnes.

“Uh, Patrick?”

A weary response came from across the hall.

“Yes, Stan?”

“Do I pour the teriyaki over everything, or put the little bowl on the table?”

Barnes thought for a moment.

“Pour it over!”

Stan obliged, gingerly bathing the ingredients in sauce. Satisfied, he moved to the computer and pressed the red button.

The room filled with a terrific whine. As Stan watched in astonishment, the ingredients blinked once, twice, then disappeared from the table. Barnes let out a cry from the other room.

“Stan! Get over here! It worked!”

Stan wiped a trace of teriyaki onto his coveralls and dashed across the hall.

Barnes was standing beside a glowing oven. As Stan approached, the scientist clapped him on the back.

“We did it! Look!”

The pair peered inside the oven, beholding the steaming, well-composed plate of teriyaki-glazed fish paired with fork-tender broccoli, all tastefully garnished with toasted almonds.

Barnes beamed at Stan, but his expression slowly shifted into one of worry.

“Stan, how did you know that it was teriyaki sauce?”

The oven rumbled.

He looked at the security guard’s hands.

“And where are your gloves?”

The oven door burst open, spraying the men with shards of tempered glass.

The salmon rose from its platter and tottered precariously on succulent broccoli legs. It reared up, evaluating the men with dark almond eyes. Stan looked at Barnes.


The men scampered out of the room back across the hall, slamming the door shut and throwing the deadbolt. They heard successive crashes from the oven room, accompanied by a high wail.

The door rattled on its hinges, the wood creaking with stress. Stan looked to Barnes for direction. The scientist was frozen in shock, his head in his hands.

The security guard grabbed Barnes by the shoulders and shook him.

“Patrick! What do we do? What do we do, man? That salmon looked at me!”

A hinge shot out from the doorframe, shattering a rack of beakers.

Barnes was silent, near-comatose.

Stan’s mind raced as he tried to glean salvation from anything Barnes had said, anything that could save them.

A second hinge blew off the frame. Brown fluid sprayed from under the door.

Stan froze, struck by a thunderbolt of inspiration.

He ran to the table, unbuckled his fanny pack, then dumped its contents onto the steel surface. He looked over the motley collection: three gummy worms, some loose cheese curls, half a joint, and a few miscellaneous pinches of long-stale crumbs. He moved to the button, then stopped.

The third hinge blew across the room as the door dissolved into a mass of splinters.

Stan cleared his throat and hocked an enormous loogie onto the snack pile, for clocannonic good measure.

He slammed the red button.

The computer display blinked then flared bright. A deafening pop rattled the walls of the laboratory as the junk food blinked out of existence.

An enormous roar erupted from across the hall.

The murderous salmon matched it.

Stan ran to Barnes, cradling him as the building shook with tremor after tremor, explosive evidence of the pitched battle occurring just across the hall. The air filled with a sweet-tinged miasma of cheddar and burnt fish.

After a few more minutes of violent thrashing the men heard an earsplitting death knell, followed by a report of shattering glass and the wet thump of something hitting the ground outside.

The lab fell silent.

Barnes slowly got to his feet, bracing his arm across Stan’s shoulders. The scientist was dazed, his voice shaky but full of gratitude.

“You...saved us.”

Stan looked over the devastation of the laboratory, then to Barnes. He forced a smile.

“Well, sorta. I’m pretty sure that cheese curl-gummy worm thing is like, way worse than the salmon.”

He thought back to the half-smoked joint among the collection of snacks.

“And it’s probably really hungry.”

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:


Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

(6021 words)
Flash rule: your piece must have characters

A note before playing: all events referred to are amalgamations of reality and fiction. There are no true ‘places’, ‘characters’, or ‘events’ in this adventure, and the following representations are to be considered archetypal and illustrative in nature.

This experience is fully HIPAA compliant.

The complete internal truth of another human being is forever unknowable.

So do your best.


Pick Your Path: An End-Of-Life Experience

How to Play: as you read through this interactive text journey, you will be confronted with a series of choices. These will add to certain scores (illustrated as ☼, ♥, and ◘), which will be defined at the end of your path.

Kindly keep track of these scores on a notepad as you play.

This adventure contains multiple branching paths and is not meant to be experienced in its entirety during the course of a single playthrough.

Follow your path by searching (using CTRL+F) for the numerical code listed next to each choice.


It is eight in the morning. You’re supposed to begin your shift at the hospital around 7:15, but through a combination of traffic, indulgence in bathing, and extreme emotional fatigue, you are late.

You are a general internist, a physician who takes care of patients admitted to the hospital for a variety of severe ailments. You are relatively fresh out of training and have been doing this job for about a year, but it’s been a good year.

You think that you are a pretty decent doctor.

Ms. Brown was admitted to your medical service late yesterday. As you hastily read through the history taken by the overnight physician, the following facts from her case become apparent:

-She is clinically demented, though the degree to which this condition has impaired her decision-making abilities is not well-articulated in her medical chart.
-She is bleeding from the lower intestine, the colon. This is not the first time she has bled from her colon.
-She will need a colonoscopy, a visual examination of the lower portion of her intestine, to identify and potentially control the source of her bleeding.
-She also has multiple myeloma, a ravenous bloodstream cancer that is consuming her bones, marrow and all. In a physiologic sense, this is unrelated to her bleeding.
-The intermittent bleeding will, on this occasion or another, abruptly end her life.
-The myeloma will reduce her to a fragile husk over a months-long excruciation. This will painfully end her life, in time.
-No one has conclusively discussed the matter of certain death with Ms. Brown.

Pick Your Path:
-The patient is ready, but you are not. Spend time that you do not have and read through the finer details of her case. You will be even more tardy, but the time may be well-spent.

Go to #001

-You could probably use a little coffee. Besides, the new barista is pretty cute. Not that it factors into your decision making. The coffee is an anti-burnout pro-quality of life kind of thing. You’ll probably be better for it.

Go to #002



As you read on, a few more clinical clues come to the surface:

-After her last colonoscopy for bleeding (her sixth), Ms. Brown firmly stated that she was “done with this fool business”
-She makes some of her own medical decisions, but only with the assistance of her daughter, Aretha. In her family’s own words, Ms. Brown is “a little demented”.
-She is not a candidate for chemotherapy to cure her myeloma.

Though you haven’t changed Ms. Brown’s condition by sitting and reviewing her chart, you feel better prepared to handle her situation.

Add 1 ☼ to your score

Go to #003



You add a little cream and a little sugar to your fresh cup, then take a sip. Things with your patient must be stable, or at least not critical, or someone would have paged you.


Because that’s the way it works at the hospital.

Coffee’s pretty good. That barista wasn’t working today.

Guess it’s time to get to work.

Add 1 ◘ to your score

Go to #003



The hospital is bustling; 8:30 is prime time for healing.

You wash your hands and walk into Ms. Brown’s room. Her daughter Aretha stands next to the bed, as if guarding her mother from some lurking specter.

Ms. Brown is reclining in her hospital bed. She’s nearly ninety, but doesn’t look a day over seventy. She has powerful hands, big brown eyes. She calls you “dear” and “honey” and “young buck” all in the span of a single sentence, so gentle that it hurts. You’re not sure whether she’s just sweet and greets everyone this way, or if dementia has obscured the absolute lethality of her situation.

You take an immediate liking to her. She reminds you of your own grandmother, before she got sick and wasted to bones over that grotesque year. You can’t make the comparison out loud; it’s untoward.

You make an introduction, then proceed with a physical examination. The rote activity of examination is centering, but it tells you little.

Aretha is tapping her foot.

The exam concluded, you open Ms. Brown’s plastic bedside commode with a gloved hand.

There’s blood in there, a lot of blood. It’s not the sticky tar of congealed stomach-blood, but the bright, electric red of free-flowing colonic hemorrhage.

You check Ms. Brown’s vitals on the screen above her head. Aretha follows your gaze.

Ms. Brown doesn’t need a transfusion just yet, but it seems shortly inevitable.

Silence settles over the room.

The floor is yours.

Pick Your Path:
-Address Ms. Brown directly. She has dementia, sure, but she is the truest repository of her own wants and needs.

Go to #004

-Address Aretha. She’s not the established decision-maker, but hopefully you’ll get some more concrete information. Besides, she looks like she wants to be addressed. It’s a little frightening, honestly.

Go to #009



You speak softly, attempting to match Ms. Brown’s aura of calm, but not so calmly that you’d appear passive.

It is a delicate, difficult balance.

“Hello, Ms. Brown. I’ll be taking care of you while you’re admitted. Let’s start at the beginning: why don’t you tell me what you know about your hospitalization?”

Aretha rolls her eyes. She’s been through this before. Ms. Brown’s voice is even.

“I think the bleeding started a year or so ago. I was living in a house on Brook street. We inherited it from Bill’s parents a little after we got married at the Baptist. He worked at the Union Steel plant, but they closed it down a little after Carlton was born. Bill’s long-gone. Carlton was a fussy baby…”

Add 1 ☼ to your score

Pick Your Path:
-Let her go on.

Go to #005

-Gently redirect her.

Go to #006



Her story is long, so incredibly long. She covers children, grandchildren, a charming anecdote about a late-model Cadillac, and absolutely nothing that is germaine to the matter of fatal colonic bleeding, or even referential to her unrelated but similarly terminal myeloma.

You maintain alertness through a combination of compassion and sheer force of will.

She hasn’t added much specific context to the overall picture, but you understand that Ms. Brown has lived a full, satisfying life. Despite the dire circumstances, she seems happy.

Still, there is grave business at hand. Your voice is still kind, but a little firmer.

“We have to discuss the reason you were admitted. We have to talk about the bleeding.”

Add 1 ☼ to your score

Go to #007



It’s difficult to cut off what may be a person’s final recollection of a well-lived life, but it is a necessity. You try to be gentle.

“That’s beautiful, Ms. Brown. You’ve had such an interesting life.”

It’s a coldly calculated statement: you’ve never heard someone refute the idea that their life has been captivating. You segue into a more immediate topic.

“I’d love to hear more about it, but we have to discuss the reason you were admitted. We have to talk about the bleeding.”

Add 1 ◘ to your score

Go to #007



Ms. Brown begins to describe her perspective.

“I’m bleeding again. I think they’re gonna give me blood, they usually have to. It gives me a wallop of a headache. I feel okay right now, though. I just want to go home; I’m hardly ever there anymore. Do you think you can send me home today?”

Her question is clearly premature.

You mentally weigh the bother of a headache against the brutality of a life-ending anemia, and try to let her down easy.

“I think we have a little work to do before you can go home. Is it okay if we complete a consent form for a blood transfusion?”

Aretha nods vociferously. Ms. Brown gives a hesitant assent.

You get up and return with the necessary forms. You explain that there is a roughly one-in-one-point-five million risk of contracting HIV from the transfusion and a one-in-two-million risk of contracting hepatitis C, but that she needs the blood to save her life.

Ms. Brown is alarmed. Her voice is high and, for the first time, full of fear.

“Well honey, I don’t want to get either of those. That blood doesn’t sound safe.”

Her application of risk makes you want to laugh, or maybe cry.

In the calmest possible terms, you reiterate that in her case, the benefits outweigh the risks.

She reluctantly agrees.

Aretha glares at you. She senses her opening and speaks up.

“Look, mama needs another colonoscopy and I haven’t even heard you mention it. What are you waiting for?”

Ms. Brown raises her hand, shushing her daughter. She winces; the myeloma burning deep in her shoulder and arm. She looks to you.

“I think everyone should just calm down.”

She stares a dagger at Aretha, then continues.

“I’m okay, really. Besides, I’d have to drink a whole jug of that awful stuff to clean me out before they put that camera in my rear end, and I don’t know that I want to. Let me sleep on it tonight, I’ll tell you in the morning.”

As the transfusion runs, you consider your options.

Pick Your Path

-The blood seems to have stabilized the situation, but only briefly. Let Ms. Brown stay overnight to think it over.

Go to #008

-The situation requires immediate action. Call a consultation with a gastroenterology physician and make preparations for a colonoscopy to control the bleeding.

Go to #013



Your boss calls you on the way into the hospital.

The insurance company has somehow already reached out: a night in a hospital bed for careful contemplation of mortality is decidedly non-reimbursable. Your length-of-stay and yearly relative value unit calculation has taken a hit from this gross financial oversight. It is a black mark on your professional record, from an earnings-to-expenditure standpoint.

Still, Ms. Brown greets you with a smile. Aretha does not. You address both of them.

“I hope you’re feeling a little better after the blood. What are your thoughts on what we discussed yesterday?”

You are intentionally light on specifics. Everyone knows the material of the matter at hand, and repetition won’t help. Ms. Brown shakes her head from side to side, then frowns.

“I still don’t know. I feel better, sure, and I know that colon scope-thing will stop the bleeding for now, but I don’t want to drink that jug of stuff. Maybe the bleeding won’t come back this time? And I talked to my cancer doctor, she says I can’t do the chemo. So, that’s…”

She trails off and looks up.

You are fairly sure that her dementia was oversold.

Aretha perceives a conversational vacuum and jumps in.

“Mama, you need that colonoscopy and I won’t hear another god drat-”

Ms. Brown shoots her daughter a vicious, chastising glare.

“Aretha, I will wash that tongue out your mouth. Hush.”

She turns back to you.

“I was saying, I know I’m not going to fix the cancer, and that someday it’s going to take me to the Good Lord.”

You wince. It was inevitable.

She’s brought God into it.

Things are getting muddled, as they so often do. Thankfully, Ms. Brown cuts to the quick.

“What do you think I should do?”

It’s a tough decision, but it’s yours to make. You look down at your patient list: twelve other human beings, all in various stages of critical illness. They need you, too.

Add 1 ☼ to your score

Pick Your Path:

-In your expert medical opinion, a colonoscopy now could staunch the bleeding, buy Ms. Brown time. It’s the unequivocally correct decision.

Go to #013

-In your expert medical opinion, Ms. Brown has been clear in her self-advocacy: she’s tired, she’s at peace. Defer the colonoscopy, give another unit of blood, order an ambulance to take her home, and manage the rest of your patient list. It’s the unequivocally correct decision.

Go to #012



You speak directly to Aretha.

“Can you tell me what you understand about your mother’s illness?”

Ms. Brown gives you a dirty look. Aretha smiles.

“Well, mama’s had the bleeding off and on for a long time. We come into the hospital, they give her some blood, they do the colonoscopy, and we go home. She complains a lot about the drink she has to take to clean her out before the scope, but I tell her that’s just life. You know?”

It’s perilous to agree wholeheartedly, so you aim for lukewarm. It’s not alienating, but it’ll invite her to continue.

“I can see that, yes.”

She nods and continues.

“So me and my brothers, we take care of her since she got the dementia. It’s not that bad, but she forgets things sometimes. She doesn’t want to do what’s best for herself.”

You realize that it’s not dementia, but senility, benign forgetfulness of old age, combined with personal agency. You turn to address Ms. Brown, but it’s too late. Aretha keeps going.

“She’s always saying no. No to more colon scopes, no to more scans for the myeloma cancer, it’s stupid.”

You try not to be harsh. Aretha is putting herself in her mother’s shoes, or trying to, but a rush of blood from the anus will do a lot to change a person’s perspective.

Aretha winds it up.

“We’re doing the colonoscopy. Call the G.I. man.”

Ms. Brown has crossed her arms. She is glowering at the pair of you.

This could have gone better.

Add 1 ♥ to your score

Go to #011



You arrange Ms. Brown’s paperwork and place her discharge orders. She flits through your thoughts, but there’s little time for contemplation. You order antibiotics for a woman’s severe pneumonia, chat with an infectious disease specialist about a horrid disseminated fungus, manage a man with thirty pounds of excess fluid secondary to heart failure.

You receive a page later that evening. It sends a chill down your spine.

Ms. Brown’s heart stopped in the ambulance home after a massive re-hemorrhage. The medics sent an electric shock through her heart, shoved a tube down her throat to push air into her lungs.

She lived, if you can call her current condition living.

You sit at home that night, rolling over your choices with a third glass of scotch.

Could you have done more? And in the long run, would it have made a difference?

Add 1 ◘ to your score

Go to #E N D. When you search, remove the spaces between the letters.



You call a consultation with the gastroenterologist. Over the phone, he’s clearly peeved; he has a busy schedule and this procedure, with the inevitability of recurrent bleeding, is bordering on what he considers futile.

You bite your tongue.

You receive an annoyed text message from the gastro after he chats with your patient. Ms. Brown has still not made a decision, and his schedule is filling up.

You make another stop at her bedside to see how things are coming along. She regards you with an amused smirk.

“That G.I. man needs to work on his bedside manner.”

You laugh together, but her countenance becomes serious.

“I still don’t know. I’m going to ask you again, and I want you to be honest with me. Is there anything else I should do before I make this choice?”

Aretha erupts.

“No, mama. There’s nothing else. You do the scope and you save your life. Ronnie, Edmond, Carlton, we all think you should do it. Stop putting it off.”

This time, Ms. Brown doesn’t seem to have the energy to fight back. She looks back to you.

Pick Your Path

-The situation has gotten too complicated and you’re drowning. Delay things further and call the palliative care physician to help mediate the family situation.

Go to #012

-Enough is enough. Go forward with the colonoscopy.

Go to #013



You gently propose the idea of palliative care to Ms. Brown and Aretha.

“I think that with all the moving pieces here, we should talk to an expert. I want to consult one of my colleagues from palliative care.”

Ms. Brown looks grave. She’s scared.

“Palliative care? Isn’t that for dying people? So you’re saying I’m going to die?”

Aretha sputters, but composes herself before she rears on you.

“Mama is not going to die. What the hell are you playin’ at? You’re just talking about a scope and the bleeding, now you’re talking about her dying?!”

Ms. Brown does not correct her cuss. You choose your words carefully.

“Palliative care isn’t just for people who are going to die.”

It’s true, in a general sense. More accurately, absolutely everyone is going to die, but palliation can make the impending process significantly less grotesque. You continue.

“It’s for people who have diseases that are going to end their lives, for when they need guidance and support, medical or otherwise.”

You take a deep breath, then make a gamble.

“Ms. Brown, you’re going to die. If it’s not the bleeding today, it’ll be bleeding down the road, or the myeloma cancer sometime after that.”

You pause at the acknowledgment. Your tears are welling up, like they always do.

You fight them down, like you always do.

“Please. Trust me.”

A silence falls over the room.

Ms. Brown nods.

You call the consultant. She arrives a few minutes later.

Palliative care physicians seem to walk on air.

She talks with Ms. Brown and Aretha for twenty minutes while you attend to other patients.

The palliative doc grabs you in the hallway with a frown and a shake of her head.

“Geez, what a mess.”

You think that is an accurate summation of the situation. She provides a few more recommendations, then floats to her next consultation.

You carefully walk back into Ms. Brown’s room and test the air. The atmosphere of fear and panic has calmed, if only a little bit.

Ms. Brown turns to you.

“Thank you. That talk helped a lot. I think I’m ready for the procedure.”

Add 1 ♥ to your score
Add 1 ☼ to your score

Go to #013



Ms. Brown drinks the huge jug of colonoscopy prep over the rest of the morning. It’s labelled as ‘lemon-lime’, but gives off the distinct scent of chlorine.

You check in on her as the morning flies by. Near noon, she’s wheeled to the endoscopy suite for her procedure.

Your stomach rumbles. You used to be able to work right through the lunch hour, back in residency training, but these days you’re no good without some food.

Pick Your Path:

-The medical school cafeteria has teriyaki chicken on the menu today. The accompanying broccoli is always a little overcooked.

Go to #014

-The hospital cafeteria actually does decent al pastor tacos. The onion-cilantro topping is a little rank, though.

Go to #015



You tuck into a plate of chicken teriyaki. It’s not bad, if a little dry. The broccoli is limp and anemic, as expected. You’re putting away your tray when you hear a page called overhead, shrill and piercing:

“Code blue in the colonoscopy lab. Code blue in the colonoscopy lab.”

A beat.

“Code blue in the colonoscopy lab.”

A mentor once opined that there is only one acceptable reason to run in a hospital:

Someone’s going to die and they need you.

You dash to the gastroenterology lab, but it’s too late. The room is packed with a surprisingly orderly jumble of physicians, nurses, and techs.

Code blues are run solely by algorithm and despite your involvement up to this point, the algorithm doesn’t include you.

You hear the concussive thumps of CPR, the high whine of a defibrillator, the calls for pulse checks on a precise two-minute clock.

The algorithm runs.

Ms. Brown is wheeled out less than ten minutes later, whisked to an intensive care unit with a tube down her throat. A clearly terrified medical student pumps a bright green air bladder, each squeeze sending an artificial breath into your patient’s lungs.

You take a break. As you stare into the halogens in the endoscopy waiting room, you wonder if you did anything wrong, what exactly you did wrong, what choices you could have made to counteract the irrefutable forces of mortality.

And you come up with absolutely nothing.

It’s the capricious reality of caring for a human being:

You do everything you can. You spend your entire twenties, your most bountiful years, learning in schools and hospitals. You listen, and ponder, and speak from the heart. You choose the teriyaki chicken instead of the al pastor tacos.

And it feels like none of it mattered at all.

Go to #E N D. When you search, remove the spaces between the letters.



The tacos aren’t bad, though the tortillas are definitely stale. You put away your tray and have the sudden gut-twist that you have dodged a bullet somehow. You can’t quite place it, but it will likely lead you to eating al pastor tacos more often.

Superstition is wild in matters of life and death.

You finish your rounds and check the report from the colonoscopy.

The G.I. docs examined the entire length of her colon, inch by laborious inch. They find charred evidence of a few dozen prior cauteries, a handful of scattered clips from past arterial bleeds, and two small ulcers, exposed vessels spurting bright blood in time with the rhythm of Ms. Brown’s heart.

Their report closes on a chilling note:

“Due to extensive evidence of past hemorrhage, we predict an extremely high likelihood of a subsequent bleed. We recommend intensive conversation regarding the extent of future medical care.”

In plainer language: it’s controlled for now, but she’s going to bleed again, and again, and again. One of those will be her last.

You walk to Ms. Brown’s room. She’s already recovered from anaesthesia and is putting on a wool sweater, one foot basically out the door. Aretha is packing her things. Your voice is warm, but with an edge of concern.

“I’m so glad the scope went ok. I’m sure that they discussed the findings with you.”

Aretha nods. Ms. Brown begins pulling on a pair of sweatpants.

A pall hangs over the room. There’s one more thing to discuss, but you don’t know if you’re the one to be discussing it.

Pick Your Path:

-Ms. Brown is exhausted. She’s been through enough, more than enough. Save your sanity and hers: defer this excruciating conversation to a more experienced physician. Let her go home in peace.

Go to #010

-You haven’t truly discussed the matter of the end of her life. You’ve only briefly known Ms. Brown, but some part of you feels that this conversation must occur.

Go to #017



“We need to talk about what happens next.”

It’s your countenance, your posture, your tone: they convey finality.

After Ms. Brown settles back into the hospital bed, you continue.

“Has anyone ever talked to you about it before? I mean, frankly? Has anyone ever talked to you about what’s called a ‘code status’?”

Their faces show a particularly blank variety of grief. Two dozen oncologist appointments, nearly a dozen colonoscopies, and no one’s ever asked.

You feel the scrabbling pulsation of a burgeoning headache, just behind your eyes. You press on, trying to recenter; this next part can sound rote, businesslike, unless you focus.

“Okay, let’s talk about it. The code status. It’s a very specific answer to a very specific question: what do we do if your heart stops or if you can’t breathe on your own?”

For now, the daughter is silent. Ms. Brown sighs. Her voice is worn, but resigned.

“Listen, honey. As much as Aretha doesn’t want to think about it, I think we all know how the wind’s blowing. Tell me more.”

You look to Aretha. She gives you a weary nod, but something is brewing. You turn back to Ms. Brown.

“Well, there are two options. One’s something we call ‘Full Code’. That means that if one of those two things happen, your heart or your breathing stopping, we do absolutely everything to keep you alive. We start CPR and we put you on a ventilator, a machine that does the breathing for you.”

You briefly consider pausing for questions, but discard the thought. This needs to come out, all of it, right now.

“And it’s not like you’ve seen on TV. We don’t lightly press on your chest until your heart pops back to life. We pound on your chest. When we do it, really do it, we break ribs. Maybe all of them. I remember the first time I ever compressed someone’s chest. I couldn’t walk the next day.”

You know that there’s no way to be fully honest about this without invoking images of psyche-shattering gore. You give them a few seconds, then tumble into what comes next.

“The ventilator isn’t just a machine, either. You can’t wave hello to your family from one, you can’t interact with anything you love in the outside world. You’re sedated, deep enough so the instinctual part of your brain doesn’t yank the tube right out of your lungs. It’s not living. It’s being kept alive. I need you to understand that.”

Your pause for a beat. You never liked the calculated pauses, but there is a theatricality necessary to the explanation of savage resuscitation.

“The other option is what’s called ‘DNR and DNI’. It’s a Do Not Resuscitate order. It means that when you get to one of those two precise moments, about your heart and your breathing, we make you as comfortable as we can. We give you morphine, fluids if you need them, but we don’t do anything…”

You hate this word.

But it is codified.


Silence. For a minute, two. Then, Ms. Brown turns to you and asks you the most difficult question of all.

“No one’s ever told it to me like that before. I...I can’t decide. If I was your grandmama, what would you do?”

Add 1 ☼ to your score

Pick Your Path:

-You’d want your grandmother to hope for a miracle and fight for her life. Full Code, all measures.

Go to #018

-You’d help your grandmother accept the end of her life. Do not resuscitate.

Go to #019



“I think that for now, if you’re not sure, you should opt for full code. It’s your decision.”

There’s no paperwork for a full code option. “Heroic measures” are the default.

Ms. Brown nods. She’s come to trust you.

She gets out of bed, wincing as the myeloma eating her hip sends a jolt of lightning through her right side. She starts to put out her hand, then reconsiders and grabs you in a tight bear hug. She whispers into your ear.

“Thank you for everything, doctor.”

That close, with her body pressing into yours, you feel her fragility, the paper-thin skin and aching bones that hang on tenuous joints.

Two weeks pass.

You receive a message from the oncologist regarding Ms. Brown. She died last night.

A recurrent hemorrhage at home. A desperate ambulance ride. Eight brutal minutes of resuscitation, with split ribs and bruised lungs. One week of near-disasters on a ventilator. An infusion of vasopressive medications to cinch her blood vessels taut, feeding her brain as her toes turn black then grey. Another attempt at resuscitation until her heart gives out.

A vigil.

Add 1 ♥ to your score
Add 1 ◘ to your score

Go to #E N D. When you search, remove the spaces between the letters.



“I’d help my grandmother with all the details, spend as much time with her as I possibly could, then let her pass in peace. I only recommend a ventilator if I have a good feeling that someone will breathe on their own again. I only recommend CPR if I think someone can survive it.”

You take a shaky breath. This has never gotten easier, never even a little less harrowing.

“I can’t recommend them for you.”

Aretha steps to you, furious.

“Oh, so you want to give up on her? You want my mother to just die!?”

You silently curse the idea of the “fight”, execrate the framing of the dying into “winners” and “losers”, revile the notion that fate can be wrested from the universe at large.

But you understand what Aretha is saying. Your response is gentle, but firm.

“I’m not giving up on her, it’s not that. I just don’t want her to suffer.”

Aretha cools. Her tears start flowing now, hot and profuse in salty rivulets that carve through her makeup and drip off her chin.

Ms. Brown takes her daughter’s hand, then addresses the both of you.

“Aretha, I’ve had such a good life. He’s right. You know he’s right.”

She gets out of bed, joints creaking and popping.

Ms. Brown grabs you tight in a bear hug. You feel her go limp.

There’s a moment of absolutely nothing, then you are crying together, crying about providence, and illness, and pain, and truth.

One month later, you receive a message.

She’s dead.

Add 1 ☼ to your score

Go to #E N D. When you search, remove the spaces between the letters.



Thank you for playing Pick Your Path: An End-Of-Life Experience. Throughout your journey, you have accumulated points in three categories: ☼, ♥, and ◘. These scores are explained below.

◘ : Your personal condition at the end of Ms. Brown’s life
♥ : The family’s condition at the end of Ms. Brown’s life
☼ : The end of Ms. Brown’s life

Calculate your scores, then refer to the outcomes below.

◘ : Your personal condition at the end of Ms. Brown’s life

A score of 0 ◘ :

You have sacrificed your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being to attend to this dying person in a manner most would consider to be ethical and compassionate.

Over the days, months, and years, this sacrifice will erode most of what you considered dear in your personal life, though in a professional context people will refer to you as a ‘very caring doctor’.

Early on, you will find immense comfort in this compliment.

So you keep doing the right thing.

Over time, you come to some peace with the vastness that is firmly out of your control.

You are able to sleep at night.

You are a very caring doctor.

A score of 1-2 ◘:

You aren’t considered negligent, per se, but you are never satisfied with your commitment to either your personal or professional life.

Due to an egotistical faith in your own moral compass, you convince yourself that you have done the ‘best you can’, though the ‘best you can’ is, in reality, a nebulous concept whose definition seems to change on the eddies and currents of the situation at hand.

Your colleagues do not have anything in particular to say about you. Your patients find you adequate.

You bristle eternally. You did not go to medical school to be adequate.

A score of 3 ◘

You find comfort in the idea that death is universal. You tell yourself that the unknowable and infinite Beyond does not pay heed to any effort you could have made in the direction of compassion.

Though there is a high likelihood that you are a technically competent doctor due solely to the rigor of your profession, you are never fully trusted by your colleagues. They will not say why, but you presume that they consider you negligent, lazy, and focused on your own comfort above all.

You’re content, though. Nice car, big house, all the important things.

There is a high likelihood that you are sued at least once a year.

♥ : The family’s condition at the end of Ms. Brown’s life

A score of 1 ♥:

The family sits in silence around a cluttered dining table. They feel stripped of agency, torn from any control (real or imagined) that they could have had in the death of the one they held so dear.

You hope that they are mentally occupied enough to not hate you, even though their mother or grandmother or aunt or sister just died two weeks before Christmas and how kind or calm or reasonable or helpful you were or weren’t is the absolute furthest thing from anyone’s mind but yours.

Oh no. You've made it all about you again.

Because you never really considered them at all.

A score of 2 ♥:

The family gathers at a local restaurant, steeped in a clashing melange of horror and comfort. Some wonder if they could have acted as stronger advocates, or been given the opportunity to make better choices on the road to this inevitable end. Others sit back in the lukewarm winter sun, content in the notion that they did all they could.

They think of you, from time to time. They think of the hesitant hand you extended, or your weary spurts of occasional kindness.

But mostly, they don’t think of you at all.

A score of 3 ♥:

The family gathers at Ms. Brown’s favorite park, where she would talk nonsense at the ducks and make her grandchildren laugh. The mood is melancholically festive, in that odd emotional space between celebration and mourning.

You wonder, sometimes, if your efforts are truly best spent on those with life ahead of them, instead of on your patients who stand at the precipice of everlasting silence. You convince yourself, over time, that peace and comfort and security could be components of a zero-sum equation, that there is only so much of each to go around.

And that becomes okay.

☼ : The end of Ms. Brown’s life

A score of 0-6 ☼:

This death is not a mercy.

This death is a brutal, messy thing. It is the depth of desperation, the threnodic wailing of bereaved family, the hideous staccato of ribs separating from sternum in a last, futile attempt to revive a heart that is long past natural life.

This death is a question without an answer.

It is a week or a month or a season on a ceaseless ventilator, where bedsores swell and flesh putrefies on the bone, the body (not a person anymore, no) going waxy and yellow-reflective in the cold light of an overcrowded room.

It is being forgotten.

It is horrible.

A score of 7 ☼:

This death is peace.

There’s no thrashing, no wheezing death rattle, no furious scramble for just a few more minutes.
The eyes close slowly and the last breath is easy.

Maybe it’s the carefully measured morphine, just enough to take the edge off without being lethal. Maybe it’s the huddle of beloved ones, all paying their last respects, all having made some faint peace with the unknowable thing at hand. Or maybe it’s something divine, something faithful and warm and full of light.

It’s death, under her favorite blanket, wearing her favorite shawl, in her own bedroom, on her own terms.

It’s the last thing a human being can truly possess.

It’s Dignity.

Carl Killer Miller fucked around with this message at 13:56 on Nov 15, 2021

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

In. Defense! Defense!

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Long-tardy crits:


Author: SurreptitiousMuffin
Title: Bear-y my dick in the nation’s rear end in a top hat

Ok, your title sets this up as a story that's going to focus around a single comedic premise: a bear becomes president. The material of the story is ok, I guess. It didn't get a laugh out of me, but maybe this kind of humor just isn't my cup of tea. The story's technically ok as well, although there are some grammar/misplaced modifier issues. I'll focus on the humor.

I think that some of the best humor I've read in TD isn't baked into the entire story, but is woven throughout. The trouble with a story based around a single joke is that the joke really has to have legs; there has to be room to explore the premise that's unexpected or the funnies have to be really well-crafted. Otherwise, the joke (and so, the premise, and the story) gets exhausting to read. I think that's what happened here. None of the jokes were particularly surprising: bear can't speak english, bear mauls some people, the electoral system is broken, etc. I'm not a fan of the framing device of a guy reacting to the bear's funnies, either. It seems almost essential to a story like this to present that sort of perspective, but it felt stale.

The story was DQ'ed for reasons unrelated to my crit, btw.


Author: QuoProQuid
Title: That's Democracy!

Some of your language/structure choices aren't so good:

"Morris smiled, his teeth creaking." -I see what you're going for here. Maybe 'jaw' would be better?

"The Vice-President found his speech and cleared his throat. “Mr. Chair. Distinguished representatives of the estates and government. Fellow citizens.” He had delivered a similar address when first campaigning for governor, but then JonBenét went missing. CNN had opted to broadcast dark, lurid photos of the dead child instead of his speech. “I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to speak with you today.”" - Not a bad joke (2/5 hahas), but the intervening sentence doesn't work so well. Maybe an ellipses after "citizens"?

"He imagined the pair building a tinder in the Rose Garden." - Don't know what this means. A fire?

"There were more people looking at the thuggish youths than him." - Thuggish, oof.

I liked some jokes:

"Waco was one of Morris’s happiest memories. He had once given a very well-received speech about it. The New Yorker had described it as, “sobering.”" -3/5 hahas. Sobering is good, but I think you could do better.

The story overall suffers from too much telling, not enough showing. There are plenty of sentences that should have been replaced with quotations to help us get closer to your characters. The central conflict of the story is wound up too quickly and the three quotes regarding the proposal being approved don't land for me. Morris could actually be a pretty compelling character: he's got this political bloodlust that clashes well with his task at hand. I'd explore that more deeply.

It feels like the first half or so of the story doesn't need to be in the piece.

Middle of the pack or DM, week-depending.


Author: Ironic Twist
Title: More Impossible

This is a nicely story, the characters feel well-realized, and there is an arc for me to follow.

The sentimentality of the piece feels real to me, the situation is unique.

I see what you're trying to do, but I got a little confused with the idea of a found-footage action star. The throughline of the story gets a little muddled and while there are hints and drips of the daughter, she doesn't feel like a fully-composed character to me. Is the daughter an actor? Is this an actual movie? Is the central conflict her daughter's upbringing, or this new pregnancy? Why doesn't the daughter have a name? I think the story could use a pass for clarity.

Would have been middle of the pack.


Author: Kaishai
Title: 323.6, Citizenship and Related Topics

I know it was handed to you by flash rule, but ooooooooo do I like the conceit you've started with here. Technically well-done, great characterization, a cast that borders on too large for flash fiction, but still holds together. Callbacks are risky here, but I think you nailed it.

Overall, I really dug this piece. You were flirting with a premise that's too big for your space, but I think the ending was great. You did a classic flash fiction move in writing a fulfilling ending that's not THE ending of the larger story, the larger world hinted at by your piece. I think the slice of world you've created is juuuuuust big enough. A pleasure to read.

HM, consideration for the win.


Author: dmboogie
Title: it's a metaphor for procrastination

The story has a very confident voice and barrels ahead, sometimes to its detriment. It's a tough balance to strike, deciding how much is too much. Some examples:


"Monsters are a lot like humans, in the sense that they’re apt to lose their bleedin’ minds when a representative from the king comes to diplomatically inform them that they are obligated to hand over a percentage of their hoard, no no I’m not just trying to steal it, you get to keep most of it, honest, oh god help me I’m on fire and or bleeding from every orifice and or a zombie now."


“Okay,” Reality said in a chorus composed of the voice of every person I have met in my life, also writing the word over and over on the walls as the concept of things being pretty alright in the end filled our brains, like when your day wasn’t perfect and you had to talk to an rear end in a top hat for a while but then you made a pun you were very proud of and you saw a cool dog and we sighed contentedly, and then it was over.

Could be better with excisions:

"“Please take a number and we’ll be with you shortly, assuming that both you and reality have similar definitions of the word shortly, and in fact the concept of time itself, we are not legally responsible for any misunderstandings this discrepancy may cause, please have a seat on the black hole over there.”" (I'd remove the "we are not...may cause" in there)

The voice is a little disjointed here. In portions of the story it seems like we have a protagonist driving things along, then we have these paragraphs of narration that take away the protagonist's agency and slow things down. This can work if the paragraphs are compelling (which a few of them were), otherwise it takes time to snap perspectives back and can get tiring for the reader. I think this shifting is the most difficult part of the story and really detracts from your otherwise good language and humor.

Middle of the pack.


Author: Chili
Title: The Rabbi's Dove

Some quick notes as I read:

-It's unclear whether the dove said the word 'faith' in Yiddish. The subsequent paragraph makes it sorta clear that it is, but not definitively.
-Some of the action beats are a little clumsy: "Rov Moishe prepared his coat and as he readied his galoshes the dove continued its message "!אמונה"". 'Prepared' and 'readied' are odd choices here.
-The insanity called for in the flash rule makes an abrupt appearance partway through the story. It's great flavor, but maybe work it in a little earlier in the story?
-Run-on sentence: ""this evening a dove crashed into our house, when we brought it inside, it behaved as no ordinary dove has, sitting patiently on our coat rack while we ate our Sabbath meal." If you're trying to convey that the words are sorta tumbling out, I'd make that a little clearer.
-I could use more showing and less telling in the first half of this story. I know that some telling is essential to setting the ambiance (or at least it feels like it), but I think there's a slightly better way to set the scene.

You used humor sparingly, but adroitly. 'A dove of significance', beyond being a great forums username, is exactly the kind of joke that should be in a story like this. It helps to dial in the overall tone of the piece. What's more, I think that by using a joke like that, you understand the tone of your story and make the act of getting yuks subservient to that tone. This actually makes the joke better.

I really enjoy the arc of this story. I go in expecting that the elder Rabbi will help clarify the meaning of the dove's word, but I get more of a heartwarming meeting between your two characters. I wish that this portion had more substance (although it's quite good as-is), over the substance at the beginning of the story. I think that honest storytelling, independent of its mechanics (although your mechanics are mostly good here) conveys a stronger message and is more pleasing to read. I feel like I've learned something about you as an author (and your culture, though I could be wrong about this assumption) after reading this story, which adds a layer of lovely complexity to the whole thing. On that note, this reads like an allegory, like a story about friendship in a culturally/religiously-bent book. I think that's great.

I enjoyed this. It deserved the HM.


Author: Tyrannosaurus
Title: Love if possible

"Water resistant makeup was expensive but important for it always seemed to rain when Limbo had a case to solve. He was a clown by trade but primarily he considered himself a romanticist. He explained as much to the gangster."

Writers of thunderdome, take note: this is a great opening line. The mechanics are just a touch awkward, but it tells me so so much about the protagonist, the setting, and the situation he is in within that setting. Excellent.

The clownterization/clown voice in this story is very well done. Example:
"Limbo pretended to frown. “Is that what they called a punchline around here?” he asked."

This is not a funny joke. This is, however, a joke a clown would tell. That you seemingly recognized the distinction is a serious credit to you as a writer.

Whoa, that's a serious tonal shift. It's foreshadowed well and doesn't exactly come out of nowhere, but there's still just a little whiplash. I'm on the fence as to whether I enjoyed the breaks in this story. On the one hand, you lead into them well and I'm never 100% surprised at what's coming (though I am surprised enough for it to be enjoyable), but I think there's a lot of meat on the bone here. I'd particularly like some more between the second and third segments.

This is a minor nitpick, but the ending line of the rain stopping altogether feels more like you wanted to write an atmospheric sort of conclusion, and less like one that fits the story. I guess it's thematically consistent with the forthcoming death of the gangster, but there are a lot of ways to convey that message. Again, pretty minor and only because I don't think there's a lot to criticize here.

I'm surprised that this didn't HM.


Author: sebmojo
Title: Wild Horses

Notes as I go:

-"Bingardl didn’t have to notice her, and so was about to throw the ball a two hundred and eighty fifth time when something about the way Helena was leaning on the door made him stop," reads a little awkwardly to me.
-"She was clutching the door handle too, he thought, like she didn’t want to, like she wished she could slam the door and make the Nirvana calendar flap up in a big dispirited flap like a one-winged eagle that had had just about enough and would you please just leave it be." I get what you're going for here (I think) and the sort of voice you're setting for the story, but the density of this sentence doesn't work for me.
-There are a few more run-on sentences in the story that I think allllllmost work with the tone but not quite.

The ending is quite sudden. I was ambling along the story thinking that the demon was invisible, or at least not corporeal, but suddenly he is and I'm not sure what to do with that. The ending feels tidy and hammers home that the real conflict in the story is not necessarily the dead person in the bathtub, but I found the dead person more compelling than the demon's story.

The prose is pretty good in places, cute when it can be cute and hard-edged when it needs to be hard-edged. You have a pretty fair sense of that in the piece. Overall the story didn't grab me, but maybe I'm just not in the headspace for it.

Middle of the pack.

Final note: this is a set of crits on some pretty old stories (over five years now) and it's just wonderful to see how much some of you folks have matured as writers. TD...good?

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

798 words
Prompt: Defense, Cornerback

Phillip stood bathed in the solitary light of the open refrigerator, its low whine whirling around his skull like a serrated pinball. He stared with blood-blown eyes at the bottle of vanilla extract, at its three mahogany beans suspended in sweet, noxious grain alcohol. He grabbed the bottle and readied himself for a solid, skull-rattling slug.

The kitchen lights flipped on.

His father stood at the foot of the stairs looking rumpled, half-asleep, and completely, utterly defeated. Roger’s voice was low, bleary.

“Aw, Phillip. Not again. What the poo poo are you doing?”

Phillip considered spinning a desperate alcoholic confabulation: that he was planning on baking a surprise cake the next day, or, even better, that he liked the brand of vanilla extract so much that he just had to creep down to the refrigerator in the dead of night, hands shaking like a leaf in a hailstorm, to make note of it so he could buy some later, for some absolutely mendacious future cake.

They were calculated, archetypal addict lies: brutally unbelievable and reliant entirely on the blind eye of piteous sentimentality. His voice came out jagged and pitchy.

“Oh, dad! I, uh-”

Roger softly cut him off, exasperated.

“Just...just stop. What, you were going to bake me a cake? Come on, Phillip. Can we talk?”

The old man rubbed his chin and continued.

“Besides, you tried that one last time. It’s condescending enough, trying it once. Let’s go to the den.”

Phillip’s mouth moved pneumatically, wordless. The old man noted his son’s deathgrip on the bottle of extract.

“Jesus Christ, Philly. Leave the fuckin’ vanilla.”

The pair walked down to the cramped den. Phillip crashed onto an overstuffed recliner. His father moved to a cherrywood cabinet against the far wall.

Roger withdrew a bottle of Old Commodore from the cabinet and held it to the halogen light overhead, studying a near-imperceptible pen mark right at the interface of clear glass and booze meniscus. He turned to Phillip, glowering.

“What, didja refill it with water like last time? So when we get company and I make cocktails, I have to put together some bullshit lie about how the gin went bad, like there’s anyone who thinks that gin goes bad? Huh?”

Phillip sank into the recliner. The den lights were rapidly accumulating those little astigmatic halos that heralded full-on withdrawal convulsions. He tried in vain to calm his jittering vocal cords.

“N-No. I-I-I didn’t touch it. And, uh, I’m s-s-sorry about the last time.”

The young man was fully shaking now, his brain sparking like an overcharged transformer. Roger grimaced and walked to the recliner. He held the bottle of Old Commodore out to his son.

“Just drink it, level yourself out. Don’t have a fuckin’ seizure on my recliner.”

Phillip snatched the bottle and went voraciously for the cap, his hands wavering and jumping and utterly failing to remove it.

Roger hesitated a moment, watching the liquor slosh back and forth with the residual momentum of his son’s tremulous effort. He cursed under his breath then hastily unscrewed the cap and thrust the bottle into his son’s hands.

Eons beyond shame, Phillip chugged. The gin snaked a molten path to his stomach, laying like a white ember before he was suffused with its merciful, neuron-tranquilizing heat.

Hands momentarily stilled, Phillip drummed his fingers on the arm of the recliner as he tried and failed to get the bottle of vanilla extract out of his head.

Roger plopped down in a chair opposite his son. He sat deep in consideration for a few seconds, studying his son’s obvious jonesing, before breaking the silence.

“I talked to your mother about all this poo poo before I came downstairs, you know? She wants to cut you off, says that she’s done. She says you don’t learn, or maybe you won’t, that you’ve hosed up too many times for me to keep trying to stop a bottle from sailing into your hands. It hurts her too much, watching you do this to yourself.”

Roger paused to regard the empty Commodore before looking back to his son. He spoke in a mournful near-whisper.

“I love you, Philly. Maybe too much. Maybe that’s what hosed everything up.”

Phillip broke from his reverie with a plaintive reply, almost a refrain after all this time.

“It’s not your fault, dad. I mean, I’m trying. It’s’s hard.”

He wanted to say more, that he felt far beyond human aid, that he needed some intangible holy something to jam into his gaping aching ravenous thirst, that-

Roger snorted derisively, but caught himself. His expression softened.

“Is it that hard to tell your dad that you’re gonna get better, and mean it?”

The question seemed to hang, clinging to the air.

Phillip tried not to lie.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

In, Hellreign thing

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

The Culture
1935 words

Voodoofly posted:

FJ HellReign smiles upon you, granting D.C.'s atomic banshees Soul Glo, and their song "(Quietly) Do the Right Thing"

On the morning of the first day, the Crucible poured orange juice into its cereal.

Arixis looked at me, eyebrows raised. I met his gaze, my voice cautious.

“Do we stop it?”

He sighed.

It wasn’t like the Crucible would eat the cereal; it didn’t ‘eat’. But after a month of increasingly complex cultural trials, it would be launched off into some far-off creche of civilization in the hope that it would radiate its newfound conscience and influence those fledgling people to make better choices.

The Crucible looked over its breakfast and emitted a low, agitated trill. It extended a thin metal arm and slowly, deliberately shoved the bowl over the side of the table. The pulpy mix hit the floor, scattering sodden cereal over the hardwood.

I slapped the table.

“Arixis! Did it just throw a tantrum?”

His response carried a harsh needle of irritation.

“Toben, the debrief said that we can’t treat it like a child; it’ll ruin our objectivity. Our role was clearly delineated: we set up the iterative cognitive challenges, we record the Crucible’s responses, and we make sure it doesn’t get stuck under the refrigerator. That’s it, we don’t interfere. Besides, the most predictive thing is its reaction to the situation. Obviously.”

Arixis’ tone bothered me. Before we’d been locked into the testing habitat, a droll Central Monitor infovid had walked us through the early Crucible trials. Those Crucibles, trained by a pair of highly qualified but pretty similar C.M. scientists, had invariably spawned rigid technocracies that ended up nuking, earthquaking, or nanobotting themselves to death. So now, the Central Monitor always paired a scientist with a thoroughly screened and well-compensated layman, to add diversity to the Crucible’s development. Still, I could already tell that Arixis considered me dead weight.

I tried to break the ice.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Hey! That beeping was kinda cute, huh?”

He tilted his head quizzically, then gave me a curt nod.

Swing and a miss.

The Crucible carefully hovered off its chair, tilting ailerons to land right next to the mess. After a moment of cybernetic consideration, it scooted to the cabinet under the kitchen sink, withdrew a small dustpan and broom, then busied itself cleaning up the shambles of its breakfast. I reached across the tabletop and grabbed Arixis’ arm.

“Aww, I think it feels bad!”

The Crucible began warbling a gentle, lolling tune as it gave a little sweep here and a tiny brush there. I recognized the song as a bright transposition of our morning wake-up call. I gripped Arixis tighter.

“And it’s singing! Look at how jaunty it is!”

Arixis grunted and shook off my hand.

“Stop personifying it. It’s a Crucible, it can’t be jaunty.”

He busied himself taking notes. I looked across the narrow table at his pad; he was building a flowchart. He methodically worked his way to the bottom of the page, forking into two conclusions:

Takes responsibility for its actions, next to Imposes strict (but joyous) order.

I raised my eyebrows at him, though I felt a little naked questioning his interpretation.

“Strict but joyous order? Isn’t that kind of, you know, fascistic?”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s possible. The Central Monitor will eventually decide whether this Crucible gets launched as a cultural seed, and I don’t want to beget some kind of potential totalitarian state.”

His self-assuredness about doubled my insecurity. Still, best not to lean into it.

“Uh, sure. That’s smart,” I said. “Anyway, we’ve got twenty minutes until the next cognition trial. I’m gonna take a break.”

He nodded, still focused on his flowchart. I reached down and surreptitiously stuck my hand into my pocket. Before we’d been locked in with the Crucible, both of us had undergone a fairly thorough decontamination with confiscation of any outside material, anything that could influence the development of our little cultural seed.

But they made such tiny music players these days.

I double-checked that Arixis was completely occupied and slid the miniscule orchestrion from my pocket. I selected a particularly brutal track and prepared to key it to my aural implants.

The Crucible let out a high, painful whistle.

The orchestrion slipped out of my fingers, time slowing to a crawl as it tumbled to the floor. The micro-jukebox hit the ground and, unpaired, defaulted to its surprisingly loud onboard speaker.

poo poo.

The kick drums came abrupt and heavy with hell-hot guitars, vibrating the hardwood at a hundred beats per minute. The vocals hit next, deathly echoes from a miles-deep well. For a moment, the tiny test habitat was saturated with guttural, overdriven sonic savagery.

Arixis leapt from his chair, scattering his notes all over the table. He shot me a bewildered look. I panicked and stomped on the orchestrion, shattering it and slicing the track into silence.

But the damage had been done.

We trained our eyes on the Crucible. It let out a cheery beep.

Arixis looked at me. His brows were furrowed, his anger barely contained.

“What. What the gently caress?”

I had absolutely no defense: I’d smuggled in a music player, thereby taking a long hot piss on what I figured was the scientific method, and subjected the precious Crucible to an unforgivably bone-melting single. My reply was meek as I tested the waters.

“Don’t swear in front of the Crucible, Arixis.”

His expression went blank for a moment, then flipped into rage. He sputtered a severely vexed, barely-coherent response.

“Don’t swear...and you do that? Then you tell me, in front of the Crucible, that I can’t, to not swear. Oh, we are so hosed.”

Okay, damage control. Our options were fairly limited; the laboratory was completely sealed and by design, we couldn’t even pass a message to the Central Monitor. My pride dictated a single remaining option:

“Look, let’s just forget it. We keep training the Crucible, hope the Central Monitor’s cameras didn’t pick anything up, and never, ever, ever mention this again. Besides, it was what? A couple seconds of music? I bet the Crucible didn’t even notice.”

Arixis picked up his pen. He clenched it rhythmically in a desperate attempt to self-soothe.

“The Crucible is a compulsive data interpretation construct, Toben.” His voice went low, a furious spittle-laced whisper. “If it didn’t ‘notice’, it’d be pretty loving pointless.”

I noticed that the Crucible had been watching us bicker. Its crystalline core shifted from a light blue to a deep indigo. Arixis grabbed my shoulder, his fingers digging into my deltoid.

“We have to discuss this situation,” he said, jerking his head toward the Crucible. “In private.” He steered my limp body into the bathroom and slammed the only functional door in the testing habitat.

Arixis took a deep breath, then sat on the toilet lid and stared at the ceiling in deep contemplation. I wasn’t sure what to expect: maybe he’d reel off another admonishment, or maybe he’d brutally murder me in the bathing cabinet and tell the Crucible that I was taking a monthlong nap.

He looked down after what felt like a full minute, his eyes fixed on a point slightly above my head. His voice was still a little shaky.

“So, we agree that you’ve basically ruined everything through near-terminal carelessness and idiotic indifference, right?”

I nodded. He continued, on a vicious tear.

“Tell me, do I need to pat you down? Maybe turn out your pockets? Oh, let me guess: did you also smuggle in a micropad loaded with a thousand hours of teeny, tiny pornography?”

I stayed silent as he finally slowed down. After a minute he relaxed and regarded me. His expression had gone cold, his voice even.

“I think our course is fairly clear: we work through all the remaining cognitive iterations, strictly as designed. I’ll train the Crucible best I can, you try not to savagely gently caress up again, and we finish out the thirty days. When the Central Monitor unseals the lab I’ll absolutely throw you under the bus and then they’ll shoot both of us into the sun anyway.”

I almost wished that he’d bashed my head against the toilet tank. I desperately tried to settle Arixis’ worry.

“Look, maybe the Crucible will turn out fine. We had a single screwup, it’s still got a lot of time to learn. Besides, I listened to a lot of death metal growing up and I turned out ok.”

Arixis let out a deep, shuddering breath.

“For absolutely the last time, it’s a culture-templating supercomputer. It’s not a child. How did you even pass the screening? How can one man fail so vertiginously upward?”

I opened my mouth to respond, noted his expression, and shut it. Arixis patted his knees and rose from the toilet.

“God, Toben. Let’s just get on with it.”

We filed awkwardly out of the bathroom. The Crucible was sitting where we’d left it, its central crystal still cycling through hues. Arixis’ displeasure seemed to come off of him in waves.

I walked to a small cabinet and rifled through it, looking for the items needed for the second learning trial. I pulled out a hardbound copy of Erelard van Troeph’s The Solitary Quarry of Man and a viewscreen preloaded with Bumpo and Herm’s ‘Goofin’ and its totally classic sequel, ‘Goofin’ in Space’. I set them down in front of the little robot and awaited its choice.

The Crucible seemed to ignore the media entirely. It whirred, tilting upward to regard the two of us. I looked to Arixis and whispered.

“What now?”

Arixis tapped his foot impatiently, refusing to look me in the eye. I sidled a half-step toward him and tried to nudge him with my elbow.

He slapped my arm away, still fixed on the Crucible. The tension between us was untenable, almost violent. I took a deep breath; I knew what I had to do, further experimental disruption be damned.

“Look, I don’t know why the Central Monitor chose me to work this Crucible with you. You’re obviously a great scientist, and-”

He took a step back as his eyes widened in a clear signal: not in front of the Crucible.

I kept going.

“-and I think we can fix this if we work together. I just wanted to tell you-"

Arixis’ face contorted in a mixture of disgust and pity as he cut me off.

“I don’t know what you’re doing, but just stop. Stop. Haven’t you done enough already?”

The Crucible was cycling through colors faster now, its crystal a prismatic whirl. I sighed. Here it was, all or nothing.

“Arixis, I’m trying to say that I’m sorry. This mess is my fault, all of it, and I’ll do whatever I can to make it right. I’ll follow your lead, I’ll confess to the Central Monitor, anything. I promise.”

He stared at me for a long moment. I winced, preparing for the deathblow. Then, Arixis softened. He moved toward me, laid an awkward hand on my shoulder, and gave me a soft squeeze.

“I, uh, suppose that I’ve been overly harsh. You made a mistake, Toben. A supremely brash, completely baffling mistake, but it was a mistake.” He sighed. “I accept your apology.”

My legs went wobbly and my eyes stung with hot tears. I grabbed his hand and vigorously nodded my head. Right then, things felt salvageable, even hopeful.

We looked down at the Crucible; it beeped merrily as its crystal radiated a solid sky blue. The little robot scooted toward me and briefly hesitated. Then it extended a thin, reassuring probe and gently patted my leg.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Orb me!

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

The Lesson
1254 words


crabrock posted:

this is your standard, run-of-the-mill orb, but the wizard who owns it is weird and a normal orb with a weird wizard ends up being a pretty fuckin weird orb

Hux held the silver orb aloft, scrutinizing its surface under the sputtering shop lights. After a moment, he smiled and clucked his tongue. His voice was gruff, but kind.

“Well, you’ve definitely got a wizard in there.”

Nathaniel groaned and walked frustrated little circles. He kept a cautious distance from the shop’s jumble of runed artifacts and assorted phylacteries. He turned back to Hux.

“You can get rid of it, right? Like kill the thing?”

Hux rapped his gnarled fingers across the orb’s surface, oblivious to the question.

“Ooh, he’s jammed in there real good, too. It’s a nice find, mister. You see how my reflection is all, mmm, malevolent-like? With the eyebrows? Aw, will you look at that: it’s growing me a little goatee. What a dramatic! How lovely.” Hux paused, suddenly wary. His eyes darted up to Nathaniel. “Hold on, kill him?”

Nathaniel loudly cleared his throat. His voice carried an edge of harrowed desperation.

“Look, I’m a little strapped for time. Can you fix it or not?”

Hux set the orb down and leaned back. It rolled back and forth, reflective distortions dancing across its surface, then stopped all on its own. Hux favored Nathaniel with a gentle grin, warped and oblong in the inflected mirror of the orb.

“Sir, do you know why wizards orbulate themselves like this?”

Nathaniel’s voice dripped with discomfited sarcasm.

“Uh, I dunno, it lost a bet with a dragon? I don’t really care, why don’t you just-”

But Hux went on, passing right over Nathaniel’s condescending protestation. The orb twinkled merrily.

“They learn, they study for centuries; that’s what wizards do. And then, one day…”

Hux snapped his fingers; Nathaniel flinched.

“...they’re done. They’re gnarled and gruff and tired, and they shrink down into a repository, just like this one. Then, when an opportunity appears, an important lesson to be learned by a compelling student, their orb makes itself known.”

Nathaniel was silent. Hux continued, incredulous.

“Nothing? You’re not even a little curious? I mean, those words, “opportunity”, and “lesson”, they’re loaded, they really beg some kind of-”

Nathaniel threw his hands up.

“Listen, if I had literally anywhere else to take this thing, or the cash to buy a real gift, I would; this whole deal grosses me out. Is there a manager back there I can talk to?”

Hux regarded Nathaniel with genial perplexity.

“Oh, so it’s a gift? In that case, I suppose I could do it on the quick. If you don’t mind me asking, why the rush?”

Nathaniel scowled, but with more than just frustration: there was malice in his eyes.

“I mind. It’s personal.”

Unperturbed, Hux smiled wide and slapped the table.

“Well then, sir, I do believe I have you over a barrel.”

Nathaniel shuddered violently. Hux continued.

“Let’s make a deal, how about that? You tell me why you want this orb ‘fixed’, the whole story. If your reason is convincing enough, I’ll do it.”

Nathaniel bristled; the whole shop suddenly felt hostile and cramped, its racks of shrouded knicknacks ignoring the overhead lights and casting aberrant shadows over the dark wood floor.

“God drat it. Fine. See, it’s my kid Rudy’s birthday. I forgot last year, and, well, I kinda forgot this year, too. So I’m driving home and I see this orb just sitting there in a pile of junk on the street. Money’s tight and I figured that he would like it...”

Hux nodded; kids really love orbs.

“...but I start driving home and the drat thing starts whispering at me from the backseat. It makes my ‘check engine’ light go on, it’s messing with my blinkers, and being a real pain in my rear end, but I don’t have time to get another gift. I always heard that you know what to do with this stuff, that’s the only reason I’d ever come into this place.”

Hux leaned forward now, his wild eyebrows narrowing. His bemused expression had changed; now the shopkeeper was deadly earnest. Nathaniel’s stomach jerked. Hux spoke softly.

“You tried to avoid my question, sir, and I don’t appreciate it.” Hux was stone-faced now, his voice carrying a hint of restrained agitation. “Exactly what is your problem with the orb?”

Nathaniel shifted in his chair. He distinctly loathed the way Hux had enunciated the word “problem”.

“Okay, so Rudy’s a He doesn’t make friends. He cuts class and reads these strange, stupid books all day. He’s always trying to enlarge the cat, or animate the kitchen appliances, and it’s not normal. I’ll give my son a gift, but I’ll be god-damned if I let some orb-stuck wizard encourage him.”

Hux began polishing the orb with a tattered rag. He peered into its surface.

“Oh, the orb doesn’t like that. Doesn’t like that at all. Here, take a look.”

Nathaniel shrank away in disgust, but Hux pressed the orb forward, almost shoving it into his chest. He took a hesitant peek down.

Nathaniel saw his own face in the pulsating reflection: cold but furious, gone grey behind the eyes. The image undulated, dissolved, and came back into sharp relief. Hux pulled the orb back and Nathaniel took a deep breath. He glared at Hux, contempt writhing into his voice.

“It’s always the same with you people, isn’t it? You act all charming, all harmless, but you get off on this poo poo. Rudy was just fine, he was a good kid before your kind got your claws in him. You’re like a loving virus.” He crossed his arms, as if restraining himself. “Now, we had a deal.”

Hux looked down at the countertop as he cradled the orb in the crook of his arm. The old man was clearly unsettled after Nathaniel’s outburst, and tenderly patted the glinting orb.

“Rudy still sounds like a good kid.”

Nathaniel burst from the chair and leaned close to Hux, his breath running hot and sour over the old man’s face.

“Okay, you loving monster, new deal. Keep the orb, keep the wizard, and keep all the cryptic bullshit. Gimme something normal for Rudy off the shelf and I promise that I won’t come back here tomorrow with a gas can. Agreed?”

Hux didn’t rise to meet him. Instead, he peered into the orb for what, to Nathaniel, seemed like a very long time. The old man nodded, as if in response to something only he could hear.


Hux hobbled to a shelf near the back, past shelves of musty curios, and rustled around for a minute. He returned holding a plain wooden horse on wheels, its bridle trailing a long plain thread. Hux placed it on the countertop.

“This is all I have. I think it’s balsa, or something equally insipid. It’s just as requested: exceedingly normal and completely unstimulating.”

Nathaniel snatched the horse out of Hux’s hands. He glowered at the wizened old man.

“If this thing so much as winks at my son, I’m coming for you.”

Nathaniel stomped out of the shop and slammed the door shut, cursing all the way to his car.

Hux was silent for a while, listening to the wind playing through the branches outside. He heard Nathaniel’s car start, then squeal away. The old man looked into the wizard’s orb: its surface had gone opaque. After a moment, it weakly gleamed back to life. He sighed.

“Poor kid. Well, I do suppose he’ll get a lesson out of all this.”

Hux tipped the faltering orb between his hands.

“I just hope it’s the right one.”


Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:


A story about one of the richest men on earth except he's seriously just a nice guy and he's just like us! We should all feel bad for making fun of his dumb bald head and the story is about how cool and misunderstood he is and how maybe we could all learn something by just being a little kinder.

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