A Sneak Peek at "Xinsheng"

Alyssa curled her thin arms and pulled her chin up to the bar. She let out a hot breath and allowed her body to drop. Her bare feet slapped against the chilled foam floor. One hundred. Her last set of the morning. She pulled a towel from the bars of the elliptical and dabbed her head and shoulders with it.

“The more you work yourself,” warned Herod, his voice booming from every speaker in the gym, “the more you’ll need to eat.”

“I have to stay in shape,” she said. “This isn’t vanity.”

“Your skeletal mass has decreased by approximately 12.2% since launch.”

“Exactly.” She swung the towel around her neck and walked into the observation bay. Overhead, Alyssa could see distant stars standing perfectly still, belying the fact that the colony ship Xinsheng was traveling at a little over 250,000 kilometers per second.

“Herod?” Alyssa asked.

“Yes, Captain Arreguin.”

“Time to destination?”

“Nine months, fourteen days, three hours, and thirty-eight minutes. All things remaining the same.”

A drop of sweat stung Alyssa’s eye. “How much do I have to eat in that time to survive?” She wiped her forehead and let her hand slide over her buzz cut, her sweat aerosolizing as the brown hairs snapped back. It would eventually become vapor, travel through the filtration system, and return to her as drinking water. One less thing to worry about. One less is all she could ask.

“Should I limit the parameters to meals including only those items you’ve included in your manual diet?”

“Yeah.” Alyssa thought about how fast she would have to run to break through the glass in the observation bay. Too fast was the answer. She’d have to throw herself at one of the panes at supersonic speed. She’d die, sure, but much of the ship would be vaporized with her.

“Approximately 82.9 kilograms. Assuming that you can hold everything down.”

Alyssa’s heart sank into her growling stomach. She had to drink water now. And she had to eat soon. The shifts before her—before the Xinsheng crossed the Einstein-Rosen bridge, carrying it over twenty light years from Earth—had all enjoyed access to the hydroponics bay. She’d awoken from stasis to find every plant in the hydroponics bay desiccated. Every seed irradiated. Colonel Rahmani, her superior officer, had been on duty. When Herod had awoken her, Rahmani been missing for two days—along with the logs and sensor data for that period of time.

The colony would be fine—their food was stored with other genetic samples within locked compartments in the stasis deck. Alyssa, and anyone who Herod woke up after her, would starve without a new source of food. And there’d only been one viable source of food left on the ship. As a volunteer, Alyssa had sworn to protect her crew. She had failed. Even if she succeeded in leading them to their new home, she knew she couldn’t stay with them. Not now. Not after what she’d done.

Read "Xinsheng" today by purchasing Dark and Dangerous Things III on paperback or Amazon Kindle.

"Home Coming"

I loved meteor showers. When I was thirteen, Aileen and I had climbed onto the roof of my dad’s barn and watched the night sky alight with the glittering rain. I’d reached between her fingers with mine. That night I had my first kiss.

This was my second meteor shower. This time I was alone with my 1985 Ford Bronco, lying on the hood along the side of a lonely, dirt road that connected my dad’s farm with the state highway. The little fires zipped across the sky. I held binoculars in my hand and tried to see rocks bursting into flame as they skipped across the atmosphere. Then, I saw a glinting thing break off from the herd of falling stars. I sat up and watched it crash into a copse of trees a couple of miles away and burst with a brilliant flash of flame and debris.

My heart made a drum roll in my chest. I needed to get to whatever that was, and I needed to do it before anyone else. Thank god my Bronco was made for this. I drove it over a rocky, empty, uneven field that tried my ability to keep the SUV upright and stopped at the edge of the burning forest. I got out of the car and walked as far as I could go before I felt the heat pulsing against my face and arms. I couldn’t see anything through the smoke and heat and finally had to cover my nose and eyes when I started to feel tears and a scratching pain in the back of my throat. Then I heard a whimper through the roaring flames. A twisted, desperate cry. I looked back into the fire and saw a small figure pushing through the inferno. My breath caught in my throat as I watched the tiny, vulnerable creature, with white, uniform skin, no eyes, no nose, no mouth, and stick-thin legs and arms fall at my feet and groan weakly.

I woke from my stupor and pulled the creature up. It was surprisingly light–so much so that I almost threw it into the air. I lifted it over my shoulder and took it with me to the side of my SUV. The creature was very still as I put it back down on the ground, its skin around its midsection rising and falling slowly as if it was trying to catch its breath. Then it reached up with one hand and started to pull on the skin over its face. With a sick squish, it tore off a bit of the white flesh and pulled. Underneath were two large, green eyes over a little nose.

The creature took in a long breath.

Now I recognized the white skin for what it was–some sort of protective suit. And I knew what I had to do. I took the loose bits of skin and pulled, watching it peel and tear off from the body of the creature. Slowly, it was reviving, and it started to help me, pulling its arms and legs out of the sleeves. It was naked but for a small metal cup between its legs. Its leathery, gray skin was wet with some sort of gel, probably to keep the white suit-skin from sticking to his flesh. It looked a lot like a child with malnutrition, with eyes too large and no ears to speak of. Its head had no hair, but some scale-like indentations over its forehead and crown.

I decided that the creature was male because it had a covering between its legs but none over his chest. I took off my shirt and gave it to him. He stared at me for a little bit, then let his eyes slide down to my hand. His tiny, lipless mouth spread into the shape of a ring. Then he said something soft and melodic and took my shirt, clumsily sliding it over his head the way he’d seen me do it. I smiled at him, and he took two of the four fingers on his hand and spread his lips further out, mimicking my smile.

The creature looked up, and I followed his gaze. The meteor shower had stopped, and two jet fighters were roaring across the field. We watched them together as they soared around the fire and then started to circle around. All of this–a ship falling out of the sky, this thing that had my red shirt humorously covering him from shoulder to knee, military flying over head, probably men in black on their way–was insane. Something out of the TV.

“Are you an alien?” I asked stupidly.

He said, “Alien.” Then he pointed at the fighters.

“No, no,” I explained. “This is my home. I live here.”

The alien looked up into the sky. “Here. Home.”

I was pretty sure he wasn’t understanding me, but his ability to mimic English was impressive. I’d been told that I had a little bit of a Texas accent, and I swore I could hear it in the alien’s broken words. “Here’s my home. You wanna come with me?” I asked, worried about the fighters.

The alien kept his eyes fixed on the sky. “Home come here,” he said. Then he pointed up.

There were no stars anymore. A loud buzzing sound shot across the field, and both fighters immediately lost control and hit each other on their way back down to Earth. They left a pillar of sparks and smoke as they landed out of view. Then, the black sky was torn by circling lights coming through the darkness like alligators raising their heads out of water. The sky filled with them–circling lights on metal disks, hundreds of them, all suddenly coming into view.

I felt tiny, leathery fingers reaching between mine.

"The End of Callum Raynes"

Everything dies. Callum’s mother had. Slowly, of pneumonia. For Callum, dying of pneumonia meant coughing up blood and phlegm, struggling at every moment to keep from choking on it. It was a futile struggle; inevitably, she’d drowned in her own bodily fluids. He’d thought many times of putting her pillow over her face to help her pain end, but his father would’ve killed him for it. Callum’s father had always been a hard man, and fond of laying his belt against Callum’s back to make a point. It was his belt that did him in. Confronting the inescapability of death can be too great a burden for some people. Callum’s father had confronted it with a belt tightened around his own neck. He had been a hard man, but a coward.

Callum had decided once he had been left alone at the early age of 17 that he would never die.

Many people content themselves to be made immortal by their works, or their children, or their virtues. Callum’s parents had taught him little of any of these. Callum’s father gambled away what he worked, and what his father hadn’t lost in ill-made bets, his mother had put away in drink. They certainly made Callum wish he’d never been born to them, and on one or another occasion, they had informed him in no mixed words that they agreed with him. If going to church was a virtue, it was the only one they had ever practiced as a family; every Sunday morning they donned fancy clothes they never otherwise wore to go to the nearby white, wooden square of a building and worship with a crowd of similarly fashioned individuals who, although they’d made time to dress, had not made time to shower.

So Callum knew that immortality could only really come in one form–he had to experience it directly. Personally. Science was nowhere near close enough to making someone live forever. Callum had done the research, and nothing short of cryogenic freezing would do the trick. And then, it was only a one-in-a-million chance that he’d ever reawaken from the process. Of course, he’d need the money to wake up too, and his parents had left him an inheritance that had been quickly dissolved by their debtors.

Callum’s search led him to an obscure little Coptic bookstore in Giza. There, he met a little man who spoke in very broken English. Callum asked him for the Testament of Blood, a 5th-century book written in Latin that had come recommended to him by an online acquaintance on a forum for conspiracy theorists. The man led Callum right to it, almost as if he’d been expecting his customer all along. Callum was too eager to question him–excited, even.

The Testament of Blood was a book of blood rituals collected from the apocryphal writings of a variety of religious men. Back home, with his references and dictionaries, the words he needed were not difficult to decipher.

It was a simple ceremony; what wasn’t so simple was the collection of the ingredients, which required the heart of a pregnant cow and the lifeblood of a virgin female. Callum thought about it and considered that, speaking purely from a pragmatic point of view, the former would be more difficult to obtain than the latter.

Gina Fleisher was so pretty–little golden bangs bounced over her eyes. She tended to lick her lips while she pushed them away from her nose and towards her ears. Her eyes were blue, her lips bright pink, and her little sneakers lit up when she walked. Callum thought that she must be a studious girl, holding her schoolbooks in front of her like other, less erudite girls might hold a doll. In other circumstances, Gina might have grown up to become a colleague.

But she had been chosen for a different purpose. Gina, of all of her friends, appeared to live the closest to her elementary school. When all of her friends gathered to wait for their buses, the lovely, little fourth-grader would scurry along, skipping to the tune of the music on her pink phone, ignoring all potential dangers–minus the obvious and often-taught injunction to look both ways before crossing any street.

Callum followed her home. He had five blocks to make his move, but there was something in his chest–a pressured tug that threatened to bring his heart down towards his stomach. It made him nervous of being watched. Or punished.

Callum thought to grab her by the arm. To take the small needle in his pocket and shove it in her neck before she could act. He lunged forward with one arm and landed his hand on her shoulder, but he didn’t grab. He tapped instead.

Gina looked up Callum and smiled nervously, pulling her ear buds from her ears. “Hello,” she said. Her school ID with her name and picture dangled on her neck. She had stuck her tongue out when the picture had been taken.

Callum froze. He looked around for witnesses, and he saw none. “Hello. You go to the elementary school.” He could think of nothing else to say.

“Uh… Yeah. I live right there,” she pointed at her home, only half a block away. Callum worried that he’d waited too long.

“My car is parked over there,” Callum said.

Gina’s eyes widened. She took a step back. “My parents are home.”

Callum reached into his pocket. “Would they want to talk to me, do you think?” His hand was shaking as he slipped the sheath off the needle.

Gina shook her head. “They don’t like people knocking on the door before dinner. I should go, Mister.” With that, Gina turned to run.

Callum reached out again and caught Gina by the wrist. She screamed, and Callum pushed the needle deep into her neck. Gina’s arm reached out for her home, but slowly it began to drop. Gina finally closed her eyes and dropped into Callum’s arms.

Someone had to have heard Gina scream. Callum carried her to his car. He fumbled with his keys, still looking around for people. There was a man outside, watering his lawn. The man and Callum watched each other for a moment. Callum unlocked and pushed open the trunk, and the man reacted by dropping his hose and walking towards Callum.

“Hey!” the man yelled, speeding into a jog.

Callum dropped Gina into the trunk and pulled out a revolver. He fired twice, and the man fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings had just been cut. Callum gasped, realizing he’d been holding his breath. He drove away quickly.

He needed to wait for Gina to wake up. There was no telling what would happen if her circulatory system was contaminated with a drug. The ritual called for the blood of a virgin, and he suspected that the ancients didn’t have access to etorphine hydrochloride.

Callum had tied Gina with her ankles and wrists behind her and her upper body suspended over the bathtub. He’d already etched the requisite arcane symbols into the sides of the tub with a blowtorch, and he had the pregnant cow’s heart on a silver platter. All he had left to do was to wait–and perhaps also to practice the Latin he was supposed to recite. So he sat on the toilet seat and waited, reading the Latin incantation again and again until he started to hear Gina’s muffled moans.

Callum put the book down and knelt around her. Gina’s eyes were open and wet with tears. He smiled. “Hello, Gina.”

Gina cried out something that sounded like “please let me go.” Of course he wouldn’t. Still, Callum ran his hand through her hair.

“It’s okay. It’ll be over soon. I won’t apologize, but I will say that you’re serving a great purpose.”

Callum stood up and grabbed an ornate ceremonial dagger from the next to the sink where he’d put it. He straddled Gina, pulled her head back by the hair, and took in a deep breath. “I will never forget you, Gina Fleisher.” Then he slid the sharp blade deep into the girl’s neck.

Her blood spat out into the tub, leaving a streak that extended from head to foot. The pressure quickly lessened, and what was once a spray became a stream, then a drip, until Gina’s heart would push nothing else out through the slit in her throat.

Callum slipped off the rope that tied her to the bathtub and let Gina’s body fall back into his arms. He took her to his bed and laid her down, untying her and placing her limp and paling arms over her belly. Callum stood over the girl for a moment, silent out of respect for her sacrifice. Then Callum began to strip.

Naked as the day he was born, Callum stepped into the bloody bathtub. He cupped his hands and spread Gina’s blood over his body, slowly and ceremoniously repeating the Latin prayer he’d painstakingly memorized. Then he reached out for the cow’s heart and bit into it. Callum struggled to chew and swallow the dry chunks of raw flesh. He tried to hold back his gag reflex and continued until there was nothing left of the heart. Then he felt a warmth wash over him and slipped away into unconsciousness.

Callum had been born again. When he woke up, he showered and scrubbed Gina’s blood from his body. Then he looked in the mirror. The small wrinkles at the corners of his eyes had been washed away. He smiled to see if the wrinkles at the sides of his lips had too, and they were, in fact, gone. He sighed in relief. He had succeeded, he knew, but he had to check.

Callum went into his room to find pants. He hadn’t closed Gina’s eyes, he realized, and pressed hard against her eyelids to keep them closed. The dead were very resistant to being moved, and his thumb and index finger left small dents in her eyeballs before he was done.

Callum rushed to the kitchen and held a carving knife against his forearm. He braced for the pain, pressed the blade against his skin, and pulled the knife backwards and down with a grunt. Then he watched as the gash in his forearm stitched itself shut and pushed out a trickle of black blood.

He laughed out loud triumphantly. Immortality was his. True eternal youth.

The lights went out. Callum tried to flip the switch up, down, up again. It must have been a fuse, he thought. This was an old house.

“Callum Raynes,” he heard someone say from deep inside the house.

Callum held the handle of the carving knife tightly in his fist. “Who is that? Who’s there?”

“You took Gina,” the voice said. It was a man’s voice, deep and furious and dripping with the desire for revenge.

“For a great purpose,” Callum said, concerned about having been discovered so easily. The shooting of that man–he had made a mistake. His excitement had impaired his judgment. “How did you find me?”

“You left a mess behind you. You shot Rob. And you forgot to turn off Gina’s phone.”

She’d been listening to the music on her phone, Callum realized. In his haste, he’d dumped Gina in the trunk of his car. He’d rushed home, and the phone had probably been jostled out of her pocket. He hadn’t checked for it. He’d been excited, terrified, and had overlooked a crucial factor.

“You can’t do anything to me,” Callum said. The voice was coming from his bedroom, he realized. The man, her father maybe, had found Gina’s body. Callum would have to kill him, and his death would be in vain. Like Rob’s. Callum thought that would be a shame, but necessary.

Callum hugged the wall–whether for comfort or protection, he wasn’t sure. Despite his certainty that the ritual had had its intended effect, he could not shake the ineffable fear of death from his conscious mind. “You’re her father, aren’t you?” he asked the voice.

No response. Maybe the thought of his fatherhood being at an end had shaken the man’s resolve. Callum knew that this would be his chance. He leapt forward, into the room, arms at the ready, but there was no one. The room and Gina’s body had not been disturbed. Had he imagined the voice? Was his conscience playing tricks on him? Callum was certain that he had no such thing.

A shadow passed behind him. Callum turned to look and saw no one in the hallway. Then he was struck from behind by a powerful, piercing blow. He could feel the pressure of something inside of him, cutting sinew and organ in one smooth swing.

“Did you think you’d get away with this, motherfucker?” said the voice, now embodied in a tall, strong man wearing all black and breathing hot steam into Callum’s ear.

Callum found the closeness uncomfortable. “In all honesty…” Callum said, but he was finding it harder to breath with so much blood pouring into his lungs.

The man–Mr. Fleisher, Callum had concluded–slid a long hunter’s knife out of Callum’s back and let him fall to the ground. Callum struggled to breathe, but he wasn’t feeling himself fade away the way he imagined Gina had–her blood and life trickling out until only her memory remained.

“We can’t call the police now,” a woman said, probably Mrs. Fleisher, stepping over him to enter the room. Callum tried to silence his breaths. He was starting to feel the blood in his lungs receding.

“It doesn’t matter,” Mr. Fleisher answered.

“Look at this. Shit.”

“Is this some demon-worshipping crap?”

Callum felt his blood boil. They’d found his book, but he was no demon-worshipper. He worshipped nothing but his own determination and the strength of his ego. Feeling whole again, Callum slowly started for the door, moving as silently as he could manage.

In the kitchen he searched for a knife and found the carving knife he’d used earlier to cut his arm. He pulled it up and thrust it down, preparing himself for the work of killing. It was significantly easier to slit a girl’s throat and to shoot a man than to struggle with two homicidal adults with a thirst for revenge.

Callum look towards the door. He could escape, but why? He was invincible. He could end them both.

“Where did he go?” he heard Mrs. Fleisher say.

“Not far,” answered Mr. Fleisher. “I didn’t hear the door open.”

“Come and get me,” Callum sing-songed. Then he slipped into the darkness of the hallway near the bathroom. He watched as the Fleishers exited his bedroom. Mr. Fleisher put a finger to his lips then pointed to where he wanted his wife to go.

Mr. Fleisher was headed in his direction. Callum slowly, quietly, stepped into the tub and pulled the curtain closed.

Mr. Fleisher walked into the bathroom. As he stepped closer to the bathtub, Callum tightened his grip over the handle of the knife. How ironic, he thought, that Mr. Fleisher would die in the same place that his daughter had.

Mr. Fleisher ripped open the curtain. Both he and Callum swung. Mr. Fleisher’s knife landed in the middle of Callum’s chest, parallel to his sternum. Callum landed his knife in Mr. Fleisher’s shoulder. A glint of metal dropped from his neck and clattered against the floor. Callum looked down at the handle extruding from his chest, then gave Mr. Fleisher an indignant glare. The grieving father flinched, and Callum took advantage of that moment by pushing him back against the mirror, shattering it with the force of Mr. Fleisher’s body.

Mr. Fleisher fell as Callum reached him, grabbing his head and smashing it against the sink so that front of it cracked and pulverized upon the linoleum floor. Then Callum took Mr. Fleisher’s knife out of his chest and sheathed it between Mr. Fleisher’s ribs.

Mr. Fleisher screamed and coughed blood.

“I can’t die. Not anymore. I’m grateful to Gina, for giving me that. As for you, I regret that you had to die.” He twisted the knife, and Mr. Fleisher gasped and his head went limp against his shoulder.

Between Mr. Fleisher’s legs, Callum noted the glinting metal that had fallen from the man’s neck. They were dog tags embossed with the image of an eagle perched on the Earth with an anchor behind it.

As he examined Mr. Fleisher’s tags, Callum heard the sound of two gunshots and felt as if someone had punched him twice in the back. He reached back with his arm and felt two little holes in his shirt surrounded by growing, wet spots. He touched one and felt something metal inside, being pushed out slowly, causing a sharp, piercing pain. The metal finally slipped out of the wound, and his body sealed the hole.

“Mrs. Fleisher, I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he said, standing and breathing hard from the continual pain of the wounds they continued to inflict upon him. Callum trekked  down the dark hallway towards Mrs. Fleisher, and she shot four more rounds before he reached her, grabbed her by the side of the head, and threw her through the glass door into the backyard of his house. “I told you to stop it!” he screamed as he felt the four little bullets slouch out of their respective holes.

Callum kicked the gun out of Mrs. Fleisher’s reach.

“You’re not human,” said Mrs. Fleisher.

“I suppose not,” Callum answered.

In the dim light of the neighbor’s house, Callum could see her silhouette. She was wearing tight, black clothes and a mask. She looked athletic. Some of her long, dirty blond hair was showing from underneath the mask. He imagined that she was beautiful as he gripped her hair with his fist and started to drag her towards his pool.

She screamed and struggled and scratched at his wrist, which healed almost as soon as she tore at it. Callum was becoming accustomed to the pain.

He barely noticed as Mrs. Fleisher gave up on his wrist to grab a garden hose and aim it at Callum’s head. Water rushed up the hose and into Callum’s nose and eyes. He covered his face with both hands and stumbled back.

Soaked, he looked back at the house and saw Mr. Fleisher leaning against the wall, his hand on the nose valve. He turned back towards Mrs. Fleisher in time to see her swinging the shovel he’d prepared for Gina at his head. It connected.

Callum fell to the floor with a thud. He felt blood pouring out of his crushed nose and torn lips. He tried to put a hand up as Mrs. Fleisher swung the shovel down at him again. And again. And again. Until Callum could stand the sequence of impacts no longer and slipped away into unconsciousness.

Chained to a plank of hardwood at the bottom of a six-foot, dirt hole, Callum considered his situation with the same pragmatic use of reason that he’d become practiced in. He could see the emotional, wronged couple looking at him, wanting to tear him apart but knowing full well that it would do them no good. He felt his lips with his tongue. They were whole again.

“Listen,” Callum argued. “I could teach you my ritual. It’s simple. Anybody could do it with the right materials.”

“You son of a bitch,” Mr. Fleisher exclaimed and he aimed a gun at him.

“Don’t waste your bullets,” Mrs. Fleisher said, touching his arm lightly. They were out of their black clothes now. Mr. Fleisher had cleaned up, his head bandaged and his arm in a sling. Mrs. Fleisher had several stitches over her head where the glass must have cut her.

“I didn’t feel any pleasure when I sacrificed Gina. And hurting you.”

Callum saw hate in Mrs. Fleisher’s eyes. It was the same look that his parents would give him–disgusted disappointment that he had ever come into the world. Callum gagged. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Please accept my gift. Gina’s death doesn’t have to have been in vain.”

“Don’t you say her name!” Mr. Fleisher yelled, and he pulled the trigger. The shot clapped loudly across the empty expanse of–wherever they were. Callum felt a piercing bolt of pain course from his forehead to the base of his spine. He writhed and screamed and settled into breathing deeply, blinking to keep the blood from getting into his eyes.

When he calmed down, Callum spat blood. “Stop it. That hurts,” he said.

“Like I said,” Mrs. Fleisher repeated, “Don’t waste your bullets.”

“I’m going to live forever, Mrs. Fleisher. This hole won’t keep me. I’m immortal. You’ve seen it. You believe me. Let me show you.” He struggled against the ropes that bound his wrists and legs the way they’d bound Gina’s. He desperately wanted to touch the hole in his forehead before it closed. He wondered if any pieces of brain had made it out. He wondered how his brain would look like under a scanner after a bullet had torn through it. His mind leapt from thought to thought.

The couple walked away from the hole. Callum could see the stars above, each one flickering through the film of red that was oozing over his eyes. He shut his eyes. They stung now. More than being freed, Callum wanted to wipe his eyes clean. Then Callum was distracted from his discomfort by a number of beeps and the churning sound of machinery. A metal chute appeared over the hole. The woman walked up to the chute and looked down at him.

“I could teach you all that I know,” he said again. “More. You and your husband could be together forever. What’s the life of one child when you have a lifetime to replace her?”

Her lower lip quivered with rage. Then the corners of her mouth turned upwards, and she turned the valve on the chute. Gray ooze spilled from the chute, landing on Callum’s chest and collecting over his body. Callum writhed and flailed. He tried desperately to retreat from the warm, chunky cement that was starting to press down over his torso. “No! No!”

“Dig out of this, you son of a bitch.”

Callum pried his eyes open one last time. There were so many stars out that the sky shimmered like diamonds. He wondered what it would look like centuries from now as the cement slid over his eyes.

"Bloody Lizzie" [NSFW]

This is an extension of the original “Bloody Lizzie.” It is absolutely not safe for work. It contains graphic violence and sex. It is an adult piece written for a splatterpunk-themed contest, and splatterpunk it is! Don’t read it if you’re uncomfortable with very serious thematic elements.

“Come on! What are you–chicken?” Sarah taunted. Bonnie laughed.

Lizzie folded her arms over her chest, but she couldn’t help but feel a little twinge of fear. She swallowed to push it back down into her stomach. “Bloody Mary isn’t real.”

“So what’re you scared of then?” asked Bonnie.

“There’s real stuff to be scared of out there,” she said. Like real life criminals and robbers. Like her dad, too. She remembered the sounds of shattering glass and the thuds of flesh against flesh. She heard them all through the paper-thin walls of the trailer she used to live in. He got real mad when he had his spells. He would throw plates at Mom and at Lizzie. Sometimes, he’d come into Lizzie’s room and call her names. Then he’d leave bruises on her and leave her crying and burning inside. Things were different now: Mom was married to a nice man named Allen, and they lived in a nice house.

“Then what’s the problem?” Bonnie asked again.

“I think she’s chicken,” Sarah repeated, pursing her lips and twisting a golden lock of hair around her ring finger.

“Chicken! Chicken!” they pressed.

Lizzie rolled her eyes. She wasn’t a chicken, and she would prove it. “Fine!” With blind determination, she marched into the bathroom.

“Do you have the lighter?” asked Bonnie.

“I thought you brought one,” said Sarah.

“Gawd!” said Lizzie, trying really hard not to lose her artificial strength of will. She searched through the cabinet under the sink and found a lighter and a mostly empty box of cigarettes in the corner, hidden behind a bottle of Drano and a collection of loose tools. When Mom and Dad were together, she used to smoke out in the open. Sometimes when she got really angry and she’d been drinking a lot she would put her cigarettes out on Lizzie’s butt. Now Mom hid in the bathroom to smoke and made sure to eat a whole packet of gum before Allen got home.

Sarah eagerly reached into the bathroom and fumbled for the light switch. She flipped it, and the bathroom went dark.

Lizzie lit the candles around the sink so that the only light in the small room flickered beneath her, leaving spooky, shuddering shadows on the ceiling and turning her silhouette in the mirror into a pale, ghostly mirage. Her long brown hair looked dull and gray in the dim light. She couldn’t see her brown eyes over the shadow of her nose. She could imagine Bloody Mary staring at her through the mirror, but she reminded herself that it’d just be her own reflection, warped by the candlelight and her struggling vision. If she saw something that wasn’t there, she’d recognize it as fake. Her dad could never do that. During his spells, he saw stuff and it made him psychotic–that’s what the doctors called it. They gave him meds to take, but he said his whiskey was better anyway.

“Remember, you can’t come out until you’ve said Bloody Mary three times,” said Bonnie.

“I know the rules,” said Lizzie, and she forced the door shut while Sarah and Bonnie giggled.

Dad was in the mental institution because he saw stuff and it made him crazy. Lizzie wasn’t crazy, she wouldn’t see anything, and she’d leave this bathroom braver than she walked into it. She knew that was true. And she began, “Bloody Mary.”

Lizzie heard giggles outside, then ghost-like oohs and aahs. Sarah and Bonnie were making fun of her. Lizzie sighed and stared at her own reflection. Again: “Bloody Mary.”

Suddenly there was a loud slam at the door. Lizzie jumped. She heard a squeal and a gurgle, and then felt the door shudder and jolt a few more times. “Stop it, you guys! This isn’t funny!” Lizzie looked back at her reflection and finished. “Bloody Mary!”

Lizzie yelled proudly at the door, “I did it! Nothing happened. I wasn’t scared!” She pulled the bathroom door open triumphantly. Something leaning against the door plopped wet and warm against her legs. A barefooted man in muddy white clothes stepped over two slumped shapes and into the bathroom. He had a screwdriver in his hand, and in the candlelight, she could tell that his arms were covered in something dark red. His head was bald and glistened under the amber hallway light.

Lizzie’s breath stopped cold. “Daddy?”

The man grinned and grabbed Lizzie’s arm. “We’re going home.”

Lizzie froze and looked at Sarah and Bonnie. They hadn’t had much time to struggle with her dad. He’d caught them by surprise–first getting Bonnie in the back of the neck. The screwdriver tore into her skin and through cartilage and nerves. She collapsed into a heap without much pain. Sarah, he’d grabbed and held close. Daddy had pressed his calloused hand against her lips so hard they had been ripped open by her teeth. Then he put the screwdriver to her neck and pushed it deep, feeling it touch and then crack through her windpipe. She’d gurgled in torturous pain as he turned it to widen the hole. She’d bled out in seconds. As Lizzie stepped over their bodies in shock, her white sneakers were getting sticky and wet and red.

“Where’s Mommy?” Dad asked.

Lizzie looked up at him, still in a sleepy stupor. “She’s asleep. She took some pills.” Allen wasn’t home though, and she prayed he wouldn’t come.

Dad smiled and held Lizzie’s arm tightly, his fingers leaving bruises as they left bloody footprints all the way to the master bedroom. He opened the door slowly with his left hand. The room was dark, the carpet a light beige, and the curtains closed. A thin sliver of streetlight cut across Mom’s chest.

Daddy put his index finger to his lips and pointed at a small chair by the mirror. “Sit.”

Lizzie did as she was told. The tiny chair was where Mom sat when she was putting on her make-up. Lizzie had tried to put on some of her mom’s make-up when she was younger. She’d made a mess, and Mom had taken her belt out and beaten her red. Allen walked in on them and yelled at Mom to stop it. He made her promise she’d never hit Lizzie again, or he’d call the police. That was the last time Mom had hit her, but she still gave Lizzie glances that made her butt and back sting.

Dad crawled onto the bed and covered Mom’s mouth. Mom’s eyes jolted open, and she started to struggle groggily because of the sleeping pills. “Shh,” Daddy said. With his right hand he pulled her nightgown up around her waist. With his left hand, he held her mouth closed and the screwdriver against her face. Mom wasn’t wearing any panties, and she wasn’t shaving either. Her cunt was black with coarse hair. Dad grinned and grabbed a fistful of her pubic hair, giving it a forceful yank and making a muffled scream pour out of Mom’s mouth.

Lizzie wanted to cover her eyes, but it didn’t work. Her hands weren’t obeying. First, Dad switched hands, letting the screwdriver feel its way across her belly and thighs. Mom was crying now, but not speaking. This was too familiar, Lizzie thought. When you’re used to something, you stop screaming. It was the same way with Lizzie. She only screamed the first few times that Daddy thrust his dick into her pussy. After that, she winced and whined a lot, but she tried to stay really quiet.

Then Dad slipped the screwdriver in her cunt, letting its tip part the lips before pushing it further in. He went slow at first, and then he pushed in hard. This was new, and Mom started to scream. Dad’s grin only grew wider as he pulled and pushed the screwdriver out and in, out and in, until blood soaked the sheets between her legs. Mom tried to fight back, clawing at Dad’s face and arms. Dad ripped her nightgown off and put his teeth around her right nipple, then he bit down. The fleshy knob fell into his mouth, and he swallowed it while Mom grabbed her tit and sobbed.

Lizzie turned around to face the mirror. Her dad was now running the screwdriver up her mom’s face, pressing its sharp end against her cheek. In her quietest voice, she whispered: “Bloody Mary.”

Dad pushed the screwdriver further up her cheek and let the tip run around her eyes. Mom reached up and gripped a chunk of Dad’s long brown hair. She desperately ripped a chunk of it out.

“Bloody Mary,” Lizzie said, a little louder.

Mom begged, “Don’t, baby. Please! Mommy told you she’s sorry!”

“Bloody Mary!” Lizzie yelled as loud as she could. Daddy pushed the screwdriver deep into one eye and turned it round and round. Then he pushed the screwdriver into the other eye. And when he was done, he held the screwdriver in the air and let it fall again and again on her face until Mom could only be recognized by the bloodied tattoo of a white rose over her mutilated nipple. The bed was wet and sticky, and it made a slush sound as Dad pulled himself off of Mom.

Lizzie looked at her mom’s body and reached out with her fingers. She wanted to touch her, but her arms were sore and bruised and there were scratches. She looked at her dad, unsure of what to do. He looked at back at Lizzie with brown eyes and licked some of the gore off of the length of the screwdriver’s shank. It was an ecstatic motion, and Lizzie felt sick and wet between her legs.

The chime over the door jingled. Allen was home. Dad put his blood-and-brain-soaked index finger to his lips and said, “Shh,” as he walked quietly towards the bedroom door. Lizzie ran ahead of him. Not Allen. He couldn’t hurt Allen. “Allen! Daddy’s here! Go away!”

“Lizzie?” he asked from the foyer with some confusion.

Dad frowned. “We’re gonna go home. You and me. Allen’ll keep us apart.”

Lizzie shut her eyes and shook her head hard enough to give her a headache. “No! Don’t hurt him!”

Allen started to trek up the stairs. “Lizzie, your father isn’t here. You know that.”

Lizzie cried, “Allen! Go away! I don’t want him to hurt you!”

Allen made it all the way up the steps. “Lizzie, your daddy died. Remember? We talked about this.”

Lizzie had told on her dad to one of her teachers. Allen. He’d called the police, and they’d come for him. Daddy had a spell and attacked a police officer, and his lawyer couldn’t get him put into a hospital instead of  a jail. They called him a child fucker in prison, and someone put a filed down toothbrush into his chest seven times. Mom had been relieved. Lizzie couldn’t help missing him a little. Sometimes, when Bonnie and Sarah would talk about their dad’s buying them presents, Lizzie would think about her dad and touch herself a little, letting her finger pass between the lips and tap on the bump along the top of her pussy.

Lizzie looked at her hands. They were covered in blood and translucent eye juices and bits of brain. Allen stood at the end of the hall, frozen and examining her, trying to understand what he was seeing. Lizzie let the screwdriver roll out of her left hand. “Daddy was here. I called Bloody Mary, and he came, and he tore up Mom’s face. And he killed Bonnie and Sarah. I saw it.”

Allen put a hand over his mouth. Behind Lizzie, he could see the two bodies of her best friends. “What did you do?”

Dad stood next to Lizzie and gripped her arm tightly. It was both painful and comforting. He grinned, teeth sharp and shiny. “We’re going home.”


Adam Levy hated change. There was a reason the morning news called him the Immovable Object. But the economy was bad, his school budget had been cut, and the former middle school chemistry teacher had been laid off. His second job–saving innocents and stopping criminals–didn’t pay very well, so Adam had to go where there was work.

“You’ve been here how long now?” asked Mr. Gomez.

Adam had forgotten the English teacher’s first name. He had never been very good with names, especially since he’d grown up with pretty much everyone he had ever known. Being a new teacher at a new school in a new town was difficult for him. He didn’t know anybody, he was lonely, and he was still trying to get a handle on the nighttime subculture–always necessity for a superhero.

“Two months,” said Adam.

“How come you never go to the union get-togethers?”

Adam shrugged. Carl, he remembered. His colleague’s name was Carl Gomez. He was tall, thin, and young. With spiked hair that he bleached the front of. It made him cool. Adam’s fourth period traveled across the hall from Carl’s third, and there was a small group of girls that sat near his desk who spent the first half of chemistry fawning about their English teacher. They’d met when Adam had approached Carl to complain about how disruptive his attractiveness was being.

“You seeing anybody?”

Adam wondered for a moment whether it was appropriate for an English teacher to drop an auxiliary verb like that, but mostly because he was trying not to think about how awkward he must be seeming right now. “Uh… no. Not really.”

Adam hadn’t seen anybody since the accident. Three years ago, he’d pushed a girl with her eyes fixed on her iPhone out of the way of a hydroplaning SUV. The vehicle had hit him–its nose had ground and twisted around his frame. The girl had seen him and screamed. When Adam had opened his eyes, he had found himself completely unharmed and surrounded by glass and hot metal. He hadn’t found much time to date after that. His nighttime responsibilities–stopping bullets with his chest and abruptly ending car chases with his outstretched arm–kept him busy.

“Well, I’ve got a proposition for you.”

“I’m not gay,” Adam said quickly. Not too quickly, he hoped, but he wanted to make sure there hadn’t been any misunderstanding between them.

Carl laughed. “That’s not what I meant. I mean, I am, but actually it’s my best friend.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Oh.”

“She’s lovely, but she’s been kinda offish. I wanna help her get out there, you know? And you’re adorable.”

Adam chuckled. “Adorable? I’ve never been called that before.”

Carl shrugged. “You’re in the big city now, love.”

The Big Bustle was busy at nine-o’clock on Friday. Adam sat at a small wooden table, on a stool that made Adam–who was tall and broad-shouldered–feel tiny. He tried to look at himself through the reflection on his beer bottle, making sure that his hair remained tightly combed. He was supposed to meet Angie, who would be wearing a white blouse and a red skirt. She would have brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses.

Adam found himself nervous. He would probably be sweating, if he could sweat.

In order to distract himself, Adam looked at his phone–at first for the time, and then for the police feed he had subscribed to. Smartphones made it too easy to be a superhero these days–or a news blogger, depending on your interest.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her: red skirt, white blouse, red high heels, red lipstick, and brown hair. Her eyes were an unusual blue.

Adam waved sheepishly at her. Angie looked over the crowd of people with a mix of curiosity and fear. She saw Adam’s wave, smiled, set her glasses firmly over the bridge of her nose, and made her way through the mob to Adam’s table.

Adam considered moving to pull out Angie’s seat for her. He went as far as to stand before realizing that pulling out a stool in a crowded bar would probably be more awkward than chivalrous.

“Hi. You’re…” She paused as if searching for his name. “Adam, right?”

Adam nodded. “And you’re Angie.” He added nervously, “We both have A names.” He had stood in front of the mirror for an hour before the date, memorizing her name out of fear of losing it in his unconscious at some key moment. Clearly, she had the same issue, which relaxed him somewhat. “Please, take a seat,” he said, motioning to her chair.

“Oh!” Angie said, as if she’d suddenly become aware that there were chairs. She sat carefully. “So, Carl tells me you’re a teacher?”

“He tells you that right now?” Adam asked, then cringed at his own stupidity. He had meant to make a joke but had certainly just come off as a smart ass.

Angie smiled with a mix of apology and offense. He was off to a terrible start. “Well, not right now. But he said that’s how you know each other.”

“Oh yeah. We do. Know each other. Teaching. I’m across from him–across the hall from him. I do chemistry.” He stopped himself, realizing that he was rambling in infantile, simple sentences.

“Neat. What do you like about chemistry?”

“Lately I’ve been looking into electromagnetic variance in complex chiral molecules.” Adam had been convinced that anomalous electromagnetic readings coming from his body correlated with his superpower, but now he was worried that with a sentence he’d bored Angie. “What about you? What do you do?”

Angie looked like she was about to say something, but then she picked out her phone and looked at Adam. “Do you want a drink?”

Adam looked at his beer. It was almost empty. “Sure.”

She left his table with a strange and eager speed in her step. Adam worried he was already messing this up. He checked his phone again. No news. He looked up again. Through the window front, he could see a woman rushing along the sidewalk. Immediately after her was a man with a sinister gait.

Adam looked over at Angie. She was waiting at the bar, and there was a long enough row of people clamoring for the bartender’s attention that he suspected he’d have enough time. Adam rushed to the back door, walked out into the alley, and pulled his shirt off. Underneath his clothes was his skintight silver costume. He slipped a hooded mask over his head and rushed after the woman and the man.

He followed them to a dark alley, where the woman was already screaming and the man held a gun at her chest. “Shut up,” he said, and pressed his body against hers and his dirty hand against her mouth.

“Let her go,” said Adam in a  deep, growling voice he’d practiced precisely for these kinds of situations.

The man turned his gun towards Adam. “You better walk away.”

Adam defiantly marched towards the man.

The gun fired once. Twice. Three times. Small flashes of light burst from Adam’s chest where the bullets struck him. Then a fourth bullet hit him between the eyes. Adam covered his face and stumbled back. “Dammit! The face? Really?”

The man’s mouth fell open, and he emptied his clip.

Adam ran towards the man and gripped the barrel of the gun. He pushed it forward quickly, smashing the gun against the man’s nose. The man let go of the gun and cursed as he pressed both hands against his face.

“Doesn’t feel too good, does it?” Adam wasn’t especially strong, so he held the barrel of the gun and smashed the butt of it against the man’s head twice, so that the man fell to the ground. Then he looked at the terrified woman. “Uh… shit. Normally I deal with this, but could you call the police? I’m kinda in the middle of something.”

“W-what?” she stuttered.

Adam didn’t have time. Angie was probably heading back from the bartender right now. “Just call the police,” he repeated. And he ran back into the bar, pulling his dress shirt back on and pulling his mask off, tucking it behind the collar of his shirt.

“Where did you go?” she asked when he returned to the table. There were two cold beers on the table.

“I…” He thought for a moment. Why had he left? Why had he left? “I was smoking,” he lied.

“Oh.” Angie seemed disappointed. “You don’t smell like smoke.”

“E-cigarettes. They don’t leave any smells. I’m pretty partial to smells.”

Angie smiled. “Oh. Well that’s cool. Sorry, you asked a question.”

“Yeah!” Adam answered. “I was about to ask what you do.”

“I…um…I’m a real estate agent. It’s nice because it opens up my schedule for other things.”

“Like what?” Adam asked.

Angie looked up, as if she was thinking of how to reply. “You know, hobbies. I like to run a lot.”

Adam smiled. An athlete–no wonder she looked so fit. This girl might normally have been out of his league. He hoped that Carl had talked him up some. “That’s cool. I did cross country in high school. Mostly because my best friend was in it, and he wanted company though.”

She smiled again. Then she checked her phone and quickly turned in her chair. “I have to…go to the bathroom,” she said.

This wasn’t going well, Adam was sure.

“I’m sorry.” And with that, Angie was gone. Again, way too quickly.

Adam looked at his phone. There was a news update: a silent alarm at a jewelry shop had gone off about a half-a-mile away. Adam glanced towards the restroom. There was a line of women waiting in front of the pink, wooden door. Angie wasn’t there. Adam furrowed his brow. He’d just been ditched.

Adam downed his beer and ran outside, again pulling off his shirt and slipping the silvery hood over his head. The Immovable Object had work to do. Less than five minutes had passed before he made it to the jewelry shop. The front window was broken and the aluminium grating had been cut open. Adam rushed inside to see three men rummaging through display cases, taking everything they could and filling several dufflebags with their loot. The men paused to look at Adam. One of them pulled out a pistol. The other a shotgun.

“What the hell is this?” said the man with a shotgun. “Halloween?”

“It’s your unlucky day,” Adam said in his growling voice.

The man with the shotgun replied by shooting Adam in the chest. The buckshot blasted against his frame in a shower of sparks.

“No cigar,” Adam said. He loved one-liners.

Before he could react, a blue and black blur shot through the shop. The three men went flying into the air, and their guns fell to the ground, the barrels bent and crushed by some invisible force.

With the men out of commission, the blur settled in the middle of the room. A woman in a striped, blue-and-black costume and a small blue cape stood in front of him. “Who are you?” she demanded in a throaty superhero voice.

“The Immovable Object,” Adam said defiantly.

The woman grinned. “Funny. I’m the Unstoppable Force.” She rushed at him.

They smashed against each other, releasing a shockwave that cracked the walls of the store and shattered every bit of glass in the place. Adam felt pain for the first time in his life, and he fell to the ground. In front of him, Unstoppable Force was on the floor holding her head. Her mask had slipped off.

“Angie?” Adam said, his eyes wide and his mouth agape.

Angie tilted her head. “Adam,” she answered.

He smiled. “So you’re a superhero?”

Angie smiled back. “You are too.”

“I thought you’d ditched me,” he said, appreciating the fact that he’d been wrong.

Angie shook her head. “No. I like you. I just… Well, I had this to do.”

Adam looked at his surroundings. Shattered glass and wood and precious jewels littered the floor. “So. Second date?”