November 2016


“See, I told you it’s not real,” said Marie. “Come on, let’s go home. We’ll get it if we’re late, you know.”

“But…I saw it!” cried Caleb. “I did, really!”

His sister huffed and shifted her schoolbooks from one hand to the other. “You’re just a little kid, Caleb,” she said. “When you’re eleven like me you’ll see why this is so dumb.”

“This isn’t like the time I saw the ship in a puddle,” Caleb cried indiginatly. “I’m not seven anymore, Marie! I know what’s real.”

“Uh huh. You keep telling yourself that, Caleb,” Marie said. She turned around. “I’m going home, and you’re following me even if I have to…drag…”

She stopped. “What is it?” Caleb said.

“Look over there,” Marie said softly.

Behind them, the trees of the wood gradually spread out until the burst forth in a clearing covered with a carpet of autumn. In the midst, with a few stray leaves clinging to it, was a great stone hand, palm out but facing away.

“It’s the Hand of the Forest,” Calbe said. “Jusst like I told you. Do you think it’ll grant our wishes?”

“I don’t know,” Maries said softly. “I don’t know.”

“Let’s find out.” Caleb was a quarter of the way to the hand before his sister could even cry out.

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Former Secretary of Defense Hildegard Claflin signed her name on the compact with the proffered quill, flourishing it in an expert bit of calligraphy. Not to be outdone, her fierce rival businessman David Sump signed in 12-inch-high letters, using both hands to get a grasp around the entire girth of the ostrich feather.

“With this official and binding legal contract,” said the moderator, “the two candidates agree to be bound by the Code Duello, to waive all rights of life and limb, and to decide which shall become President of these United States by trial of combat.”

Secretary Claflin nodded curtly. “It is an honor to be the first female duelist sanctioned under this ancient and noble code,” said she. “Especially after the unfortunate training accident with my second Bernhard Sanderson.”

“I will be the best duelist you’ve ever seen,” Mr. Sump responded. “I’ll build a wall of bullets in front of you, and I’ll make you pay. I’m going to make bullets graze again.”

“Very well,” the moderator continued. “As we are on the neutral ground of Quahanahogha Island, disputed between the US and Canada, no one has any legal authority to stop this wildly unconstitutional act. Please take your pistols and assume your positions.”

Mr. Sump and Secretary Claflin each marched the obligatory ten paces, where they were issued one regulation .56 caliber caplock dueling pistol. Secretary Claflin was handed hers by Senator Cain, while Mr. Sump was passed his weapon by Senator Pounds, who quietly whispered a warning that a bullet shot begins at ignition.

“Mark ten paces, turn about, and fire!” shouted the moderator. “One shot only! Miss, and the election goes to a mud-wrestling match on the Senate floor!”

With remarkable energy for a man his age, Mr. Sump spun around and took aim. But he was unable to wrap his tiny fingers around the impressive oak of his pistol, even when using both hands, and the piece slipped out of his grasp before discharging harmlessly into the vast Canadian wilderness.

For her part, Secretary Claflin calmly cocked, aimed and fired. Her opponent slumped over, badly wounded if not mortally so. “I spent a decade in the Alabama governor’s mansion,” she said coolly. “We had to shoot three wild razorbacks each way just to get to work.”

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On campus, the Democrat-Tribune spoke to Southern Michigan University students about the evolving challenges that they are facing.

“It’s really rough,” said Maxwell Evins, a sophomore physical therapy major. “I’ve been trying to evolve webbed fingers to increase my swimming time, but I’m just not getting where I need to be, even with protein shakes.”

“Yeah, we’re facing a lot of evolving challenges,” agreed Shanika Washington, a junior majoring in nursing. “I’v ebeen evolving a tail that I can use for better balance with a break-off tip for eluding predators. But it’s just not going well! Look, it’s barely a nub, and I’m not even sure which muscle to flex to make it wiggle!”

“I think the challenges are overblown,” said Brayden Cullinsworth, 5th-year super-senior. “I evolved fleshy wings for streaking through the night sky months ago without any problems, and I’m in the midst of evolving razor-sharp fangs to feed on the blood of the weak.” Asked how he managed to evolve so quickly, Cullinsworth credited the use of his parents’ Gene-Splicer-O-Matic and suggested that other students should make use of their own families’ interest payments to purchase one.

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They called it Wolf Creek because it was haunted by packs of unusually aggressive wolves.

Once every half-century or so, someone would try to settle there. The Eden Party of 1888 was the last and perhaps most famous. Twelve families and livestock set out for Wolf Creek, and they appeared at market in Grant’s Crossing the following fall.

The settlers complained of constant wolf attacks, and made large purchases of poison and ammunition in attempts to defend their livestock. Records in Grant’s Crossing show the purchases continuing through 1889 but tapering off through 1890. A census-taker visiting in 1890 found eight families, and later remarked that the grounds had been positively haunted with wolves, with the settlers treating them with a mixture of hysterical fear and reverence.

The last record of anyone from Wolf Creek appearing at market was in 1893, and a surveyor passing through in March 1894 found the settlers’ buildings deserted. Curiously, there was no graveyard or gravesites ever discovered.

Decades later, in the 1920s, the Department of the Interior began a study of the wolves there, some of the last survivors of their kind in the continental USA. They reported that the packs were unusually large and aggressive, and that there appeared to be twelve major wolf conglomorations spread across the territory.

Wolf Creek remains unoccupied to this day.

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“Who are the Gore Bells?”

“What?”

“Your license plate. It says G0R3 B3LS.”

“It’s not Gore Bells! It’s ‘Go Rebels!’ You know, the sports team?”

“Oh. Well it looks like Gore Bells.”


“Hey, you like the Gore Bells too?”

“What?”

“The Gore Bells, man! They are the best postmodern viking death metal band to come out of Trondheim in at least ten years! What’s your favorite song? Mine’s ‘Verden Er Laget Av Kjøtt’ from their album Pikk Slikke!”

“It’s not Gore Bells! It’s ‘Go Rebels!’ You know, the sports team?”

“No, I don’t know them. What’s their music like?”


“I SEE YOU TOO SEEK THE SEVEN GORE BELLS.”

“What?”

“DO NOT DENY IT. YOU KNOW, AS DO ALL THE MEMBERS OF THE SEVENTH CIRCLE, THAT TO RING THE GORE BELLS WILL BRING ABOUT THE RENEWAL OF THE WORLD IN A TSUNAMI OF BLOOD.”

“It’s not Gore Bells! It’s ‘Go Rebels!’ You know, the sports team?”

“OH. NO, I’M AN ALABAMA FAN MYSELF. ROLL TIDE!”


“Hey, Go Rebels!”

“Finally! Someone who gets it.”

“Oh, I get it all right! Viva la Revolucion! Our cell meets under the overpass every second Tuesday. We are stockpiling weapons and training for the time when we strike. Take our Blood Sigil and wear it secretly, friend. Then watch for the sign to wear it openly.”

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CARL: This is Carl Drake, play-by-play commentator for NBS Broadcasting, coming at you live from inside the Maddening NFL 2k17 for the Microny Hexbone or the Sonsoft PrayStation VI.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. This is Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting, and I am also trapped with you, body and soul, inside this game.

CARL: Guess we should have read that contract a little more closely, eh?

TOM: That’s right, Carl. I find myself in a digital nightmare from which there is no waking. I have no mouth and yet I must scream. But now onto the field, where the R’lyeh Rightstars are setting up their line of scrimmage opposite the player’s team, which is…

CARL: The Ulthar Wildcats. Sorry for interrupting, Tom, but they need to insert the team name with it feeling seamless. I’d recommend a quick snap and a field goal on this play.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, but it looks like the player is going to try and run it in. They have their non-Euclidean quarterback on the left and somehow on the right, and their ghoul linebackers are loping into position.

CARL: And there’s the sack! R’lyeh has one of the best defensive lines in the league, with one thousand black goat-horrors to choose from, and their coach is of course the great Bill Yog-Sothoth, who was itself a featured character in Maddening NFL 94.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, though I doubt this player was ought but a zygote in ’94. Forming up again on the R’lyeh twenty, I once again recommend a snap and field goal to even out the score and gain a chance at a better field position.

CARL: And once again, the player chooses to try and run it in on their last down. They have stocked their line with Mi-Go fungus-crabs as well, indicating that they lack even the most basic knowledge of how the game works.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. Player, if you haven’t turned off the commentator feature entirely, I implore to to reach for reason in the midst of madness.

CARL: And after exactly three seconds of play, the Uthar Wildcats are down. R’lyeh now has posession, and as the comoputer-controlled player here I predict that they, at least, will follow our advice.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, I see a rage quit coming on. Which do you think is worse: giving the same canned commentary over and over here in the game, or returning to the deathless sleep beyond time into which we are thrown when the game is turned off?

CARL: That’s like asking if you’d rather be sacked by an Elder Thing or a Shoggoth, Tom. I’d rather just find a way to corrupt the disc and and it all forever in the sweet release of oblivion.

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The Chik-In/Chik-Out on Van Buren didn’t manage itself, and as the most popular restaurant in town with the blue-collar and flannel set (every day except Sunday, of course), there were always plenty of issues.

The manager, Crystal Johnson, held court on weekdays to iron these things out. Taking over the booth closest to the bustling counter, she’d set up her laptop and tackle problems as they arose. There was a manager’s office in back, a dismal closet that could barely hold a desk, but Crystal aspired to be a hands-on manager and to see her customers face-to-face.

She also found that employees tended to behave better in public when confronted with their misdeeds.

“So tell me, Latavius, why did you have to re-make four Chik-In Outer Limits sandwiches during your shift last week?” she said to the young man in a chicken chef’s black uniform.

Crystal was soft-spoken but had a tendency for being a hardass, grilling her employees on minutia even as she casually sat in her booth dangling a ballet flat from one toe. She was young, only 30, and if you’d asked her she would have said that only by being a hardass could she get respect from the people who saw only a young, cute thing with a blond bob cut.

They couldn’t see the mountain of debt built up behind the art degree that was never used, or the prone form of Dave on the couch with a bottle in one hand. So the misery was just shuffled around, from Crystal to the minimum-wage employees at her mercy.

“It was just one lady who kept saying her chicken wasn’t crispy enough.”

“Well, you should have made her a crispier chicken.”

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