July 2016

In my dream, I am wandering a garden idyll. The leaves are the shades of pink one finds in the finest flower gardens, yet at the slightest breath of wind they tumble from the boughs like the reapings of autumn. I ramble along a path, unpaved but for the steps of those who have come before, between these ancient and gentrly weeping trunks and a still river that, but for the occasional ripples, would seem a silver mirror.

I am approaching a stately manor house, hewn from the local stones, the sort of luxury that only the wealthiest could afford in a time when lives came cheap. It is tall and narrow, its windows clouded by age and assembled in courtly checkerboards. The stonework, the craftsmanship, is astonishing. Whoever lives there is clearly the lord of this place, and when a reach their door, an audience will be mine whether I want it or not.

The dream always ends before I reach those great banded oak doors. Sometimes I am so far away I can’t even see them; once, my finger was closing around the knocker.

I have no idea what waits for me in that manse surrounded by all the rosy shades of the world. I have no idea if I will ever reach it. Someone once told me that perhaps it is a metaphor for my own approaching death; if that is the case, I will walk those paths willingly all the same and cross under impossible branches to knock at a stranger’s door.

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In the movies, the man would gently remove my glasses in by our third date and I would never need them again.

In reality, I’m blind as a bat without them and contact lenses irritate my eyes to the point of self-inflicted conjunctivitis. I look and feel like a junkie coming down from a major high.

In the movies, the man would let my hair down in the middle of a romantic dance, and I would never pin it up again, not even at our wedding.

In reality, I keep my hair up because otherwise it gets in the way and frizzes everywhere. If it were up to me I would shave avery follicle off, but my dress code at work is from the 1950s and women need to have shoulder-length hair.

In the movies, I’d be dressed all frumpy until the man somehow provided me with a designer dress that there’s no way he could afford in his career as part-time photographer and part-time slacker.

In reality, I think that frump is a synonym for comfortable. I don’t care how I look as long as I’m comfortable, especially since work requires me to strictly avoid comfortable clothes because 1950s.

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There’s a lot of things people tend to gloss over in survival stories.

When I got lost, deliberately lost, in Pexate National Park out west to try and kill a few weeks of summer after Angelina left, I found this out. Keep in mind that this comes from someone who gets antsy if she doesn’t spend at least two weekends a month roughing it. I have a Boy Scout Fieldbook and I know how to use it.

First: latrines. They stink, literally and figuratively. You have to dig them, you have to fill them. If you don’t, you run the increasing risk of stepping in your own shit, and that’s before something you eat out there gives you trots like the Kentucky Derby. And let’s not forget the various and sundry creatures that like to stop by for a taste. Plus, toilet paper. It’s finite, and our species does a lousy job of adapting to life without it.

Next: lady parts. Cover your ears, gents. When Aunt Flo comes to visit, what do you do with the used bits? I’ve learned that a variety of woodland denizens that I hesitate to call “cuddly” seem to enjoy them as a snack or a pretty curiosity. Not sure if that’s just my life being weird or not, but there you have it. Also, as light and easy to pack as they are, you run out. And the medicines for cramps, which never seem to surface in civilization as often as they do in the wild? You. Run. Out.

Youd think food would be tough, and maybe for vegetarians it is. But if you don’t mind a little fishing–make that A LOT of fishing–you can get by okay. No, the problem I keep running into is exhausting my environment. What do you do when you’ve fished out a stream, snared out a clearing, eaten all the berries? Our ancestors moved on, but they were also old hands at it. In my experience, food starts to become scarce as soon as you have your campsite running like a Swiss watch. And don’t even get me started on the critters. You wonder what they eat when they can’t get garbage from gutting fish!

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“Another one,” said Helena. She leaned over to extinguish her cigarette in an ashtray shaped like a pig. She’d brought it from home; smoking wasn’t technically allowed in the Violet Hill City Council chambers, but as the mayor she considered it to be the least of her concerns.

“Yeah,” said Chief Strong of the VHPD. “We found her in her bathroom. Marble, this time, not granite like the Smithson lady.” He cleared his throat. “We think. It’s not like we had a minerologist chipping at them.”

“We’ll hold her at Memory Fields along with the rest of them, for now.” Annette, city council member #4, was owner and operator of Violet Hill’s most robust growth industry: the local tombstone maker. They’d been concealing the victims in her back lot for three weeks.

“That brings us to, what, 17?” said Helena, lighting a new Marlboro with the smouldering stub of the old one.

“18,” said Strong. “You’re forgetting the Kettering girl.”

“Right,” said Helena. “Anette. How much longer can we keep this under wraps without creating a panic?”

“I’m not know for statuary, Helena. People are starting to ask questions. I’ve already turned down three offers to buy one of them.”

“We haven’t had any missing persons reports aside from the two already on the books,” said Strong. “But we’ve been lucky. This one might be too much.”

“Dammit, that’s not good enough!” cried Helena. “Women in my town are turning to stone, and I can’t have this town dissolving in a panic!”

“The only connecting thread we’ve found is the anti-aging skin cream found in the abodes of the various victims,” Strong said. “But there’s no trace of the actual products anywhere to be seen. And they’re not even the same products.”

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“Orngba Lobeclip lost the point of her ear when she was young, I’ve heard,” the orc said. “She was taken by traders who wanted to pass her off as a comely human to sell to the Gaizans, so they planned to clip her ears and smear her with clay. I’ve heard it said she took the ears of every last man in the caravan as recompense.”

“That ear is one more thing we lost to the Hamurabashers. When Riw Iax fell, they took her and tortured her until she agreed to submit to the Hamurabash.”

“Is that so,” said Myn. “I heard otherwise.”

“I have it on the word and authority of her great uncle, who would know. She took the ears of every last Hamurabasher when she escaped, and Nyirtirat take my tongue if that’s not the truth.”

“That ear, you know she lost it in a fight with a lion.”

“How many times did it get cut off?” cried Myn.

“Not cut. Bitten. The lion got the drop on her when she was in the foothills and even then all it could get was one eartip. She cut the ears off of its dead body and hunted down its cubs to do the same. That’s direct from her half-brother’s ex-wife.”

“You’ve heard about Orngba’s ear, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, it was cut off by slavers, or by Hamurabashers, or by a lion,” said Myn. “They must have been very careful sewing it back on aftwrwards.”

“No, no. She cut it off herself in a show of power. Her cousin’s son was there, even has a droplet of blood on his mail. Orngba said she’d take the ears of any orc who opposed her, and none did. But the offer still stands to this day.”

“Do you wish to know how I lost the upper part of my ear?” Orngba said.

“I’ve heard a…few theories,” said Myn. “But I’m sure none of them do justice to the truth.”

“One of the pariah dogs had a litter in the citadel, and one of the pups was the cutest, fluffiest little thing you have ever seen. I wanted him for my own, but proud Scatha Scarfurrow insisted that the dog was hers by right. We settled matters.”

“You fought over a dog?” said Myn.

“Not a dog,” said Orngba. “A puppy. He was cute and fluffy and we wanted him. Scatha took the tip of my ear; I took her head. I made the puppy its first dish out of her skull.”

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The superstition people was correct, it seems. Taking a picture does steal the soul of its subject, if only a little bit of it. When I died, though, I found that I could move between any photograph ever taken of me.

Unfortunately, as a paranoid recluse, this meant spending eternity jumping between yearbook photos, unopened books on dusty shelves.

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A former sous-chef, Michel Sanscullotte walked away from his life and into the wilderness one day, determined to create the perfect dish without the distraction of diners or kitchen accoutrements. He lives there to this day, affable but isolated, and those who successfully seek him out are rewarded with sundry delicacies denied to lesser palates. On days when the wind is right, the scent of venison fillet mignon can often be sniffed downwind from his hut.

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Dennis Villanueva is rather young, especially compared to his two immediate neighbors at Journey’s End, but even by their standards he is reclusive. He puts out letters for Mr. Ramirez, the postman, daily. Dozens of them, in fact, each addressed on computer-printable labels acquired for him by Mrs. Soule. He also receives many letters in return, and–to judge by the cool glow in his trailer after dark–he lives his life mostly online.

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Linda Linman lives in #2, and she is never seen without her skin treatment thickly slathered, curlers in her hair, slouched over and shuffling in her slippers. Never without her designer gloves, through which long bony fingers can be seen, she smokes like a chimney and receives a constant supply of beauty products shipped to her. Communication is through the occasional rasp only, or fluent South African Sign Language.

Mrs. Soule had done her best to learn SASL but mainly communicates through notes. She also is well aware of the inside of #2, papered almost entirely with photographs of Landa from an earlier time. Smiles abound, coiffed blonde locks over ivory-white skin, and the latest fashions of yesteryear proliferate. There are snaps from Paris, from Milan, from New York and Los Angeles.

One might wonder how the hunched figure of Ms. Linman, barely four foot eight with her slouch, could possibly descend from the same frame that, to judge by the old snaps, stood six feet and change. The answer is, of course, unusual.

Only two people know of Van Djyk, the primatologist in Pretoria, who captured a female bonobo in 1948. One of them is Mrs. Soule, and the other is Linda herself. She has given Mrs. Soule Van Djyk’s old Luger and asked her to use it, when the wig with curlers no longer fit, when she no longer responds to language, when every bit of her ascension has been wiped away. Mrs. Soule, for her part, sees the strain on Linda’s body and is of the opinion that she will not live to see such an eventuality.

But the Luger remains locked in an inner drawer in the manager’s office all the same.

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Frail old Herr Albert Schreckenstein sits on the porch of #1 for hours at a time, watching the skies. He has that look about him that men get after the age of 75 or so, where age has nothing left to inflict upon them. They become, in a way, ageless. No afterglow of youth, but no further down to sink into decrepitude, either.

Herr Albert, as he insists on being called, lives for his post. He has subscribed to a large number of catalogs and other free items and eagerly looks through them. A few are menswear, or free newspapers, but most are meant for young women. The mailman, most recently Mr. Ramirez, jokes about this but secretly he fears that he is quietly feeding some sort of predator. The only other thing that arrives is a pension check from Germany. The address is in Leipzig, and once every few months someone will call, across continents, to make sure Herr Albert is in fact still alive.

Mrs. Soule doesn’t blame them, though cutting through the thick accents is often a pain. Sealed in an envelope under the bed is Albert’s birth certificate, for 1902. It is a lie, a forgery that he paid well for once he realized that his true birthdate would draw too much suspicion. But the time when that date, too, will be too suspicious is fast approaching.

Luckily, he needn’t wait that long. He has but a year to live, give or take six months or so. This is because the last of the life energies he sapped from prisoners high atop Berg Shreckenstein–Mount Dreadstone–is finally fading.

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