THE GIRL IN THE FOUNTAIN – A Liquid Innovations, Inc. Tale

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On the first anniversary of his employment with Liquid Innovators Incorporated, Oliver Thistle was given a certificate, a pen that changed color when the top was clicked, and a key on a length of blue yarn which granted him access to The Fountain. Oliver had only seen The Fountain from far, far away, from the one window on the thirtieth floor where his cubicle resided. He didn’t quite understand the mystery surrounding it, nor the desperate plug through three hundred and sixty-five days of service in order to see it up close for the first time, but Oliver was not the type of man to look a gift horse in the mouth. So, he pinned the certificate at a place of honor beside his computer monitor, tucked the pen into his pocket, and took the elevator to the ground floor where he was directed by a voice over the loudspeaker to insert his key. It took a humiliating amount of groping to find the hole before he inserted, turned, and a second pair of doors parted, revealing The Fountain.

It was impressive, he had to admit. The center sculpture—a scene depicting the elusive, nameless founder of Liquid Innovations standing atop a mound of peons scrambling for the opportunity to touch his hand—was so tall Oliver had to shield his eyes against the sun to take in the whole marble spectacle. Surrounding the fountain which sprayed brilliant, artificially blue water was a wall which cast a wide berth between the fountain and its visitors. The wall permitted visitors to toss their coins over the side, but made it difficult to see where they fell.

Thieves, Oliver figured. Don’t want thieves wading in and stealing the wishes.

Because even he knew that’s what they were. It was written plainly at the bottom of his work agreement under “Benefits:” After one year of full-time employment at Liquid Innovations without interruption by illness, death, or unusual animal attack, employees are granted once yearly visits to the fountain where wishes may or may not be granted, depending upon barometric pressure and the whims of Human Resources.

Oliver strolled around the perimeter of the wall, studying the markings that seemed to illustrate some kind of war between paperclips and staplers. He was stalling, of course. He had only ten minutes to make his wish, but no idea what the wish ought to be. He could just as easily give his wish to someone else—according to the employee handbook, wishes were transferrable—but, seeing as this was his first, it would be wrong, even ungrateful, to not use it.

At the far end of the fountain, out of sight of the elevator, the wall dipped slightly and Oliver caught a glimpse of movement in the water. A trick of the light, probably, but he had to force himself to blink after a while. Could light tricks make the water ripple like that?

He glanced up and noticed a hand-written sign which read: Coins must be legal tender. No bills! And no wishing for a raise. It’ll reflect poorly on your next review.

It hadn’t occurred to Oliver to wish for money. Even so, it was prohibited. What did people wish for, then? World peace? Seemed boring to him. He considered asking some of the others as they peered over the wall, but he was running out of time. To make matters worse, he’d skipped breakfast and his stomach growled loud enough to draw pitying looks. He fumbled in his pocket and withdrew a handful of change, mostly quarters. Ticking started in his head and he couldn’t focus and he’d never been that good under pressure especially that time in elementary school when the teacher called on him to read aloud from Where’s My Underwear? and bit his tongue halfway through and cripes he just wanted a sandwich…

He pitched the handful of coins over the wall and closed his eyes and pictured a roast beef on toasted rye with lots of vegetables and vinegar and a side of barbeque potato chips. His mouth watered.

“Ow!”

Oliver frowned, but didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t know how long he had to keep his eyes closed for the magic to work and he was really looking forward to that sandwich.

“Take my fucking eyes out, why dontcha?” It was a woman’s voice, hoarse-sounding and far away.

“Um, sorry?” Oliver said.

“We’ll see.”

Oliver opened his eyes and saw the back of a woman’s head, disappearing beneath the water.

Back at his desk, Oliver found a white lunch bag, the corners damp with grease. Inside was a handful of freshly fried chips coated with barbeque flavor dust and a large roast beef sandwich. He bit gratefully into the sandwich and thought, Should’ve asked for no mayo.

With the hunger monster sated, Oliver disposed of the empty bag and sighed contentedly. Then, he thought of the girl in the fountain. How did she get there? Was she lost? Had she fallen in? Did anyone know about it? If so, what was being done? Was there a rescue committee?

The intercom on his phone beeped, followed by the grating voice of his boss’s secretary, Arnold. “Thistle, you’re wanted in the Purple Room.”

There were only two reasons anyone went into the Purple Room. Unfortunately, those two reasons changed on a monthly basis, so as Oliver trudged across the cubicle floor, down the long hallways dividing Us from Them, and into the foyer outside the Purple Room, his stomach danced a complicated tango of emotions, most of which involved a good amount of sweating and paranoia.

Arnold sat behind his desk, a headset dwarfing his already small head. Cords ran from it to various phones placed at strategic points on the desk. He glared at Oliver as he wafted a straw mat over a miniature fire pit. “Wouldn’t look so smug if I were you.”

Oliver thought he looked anything but smug. Constipated perhaps. He’d forgotten how badly red meat messed with his gastro-workings. Still, he said, “Sorry,” because that’s what was expected.

Arnold grunted. “Once I’ve finished with these meeting minutes, I’ll escort you in. Just stand there for now and try not to get in the way.”

Several minutes later, a pale purple light shown beneath the monstrous oak door that led into the purple room. It flickered in a series of short and long flashes which Arnold studied with a mix of relief and frustration.

“She’ll see you now.”

The doors opened as if on cue, bathing the foyer in hazy purple light. The light wrapped its tendrils around Oliver’s shoulders and hips and pulled, gently, until he stumbled into a wonky, walk-drag into the Purple Room.

The Boss was a sentient roll-top desk with eyelashes drawn in black marker along two, small drawers. Liquid Innovations’ official statement was that The Boss had taken the stagnant form in order to reinforce the Buddhist ideals she’d embraced when corporate life interfered in her personal life. Everyone knew it was a lie—The Boss didn’t have a personal life—but no one ever felt the urge to voice these opinions out loud. More likely, The Boss had gotten herself cursed by a rival company—officially, there were no rival companies—and was loath to admit it.

Oliver stood with his hands clasped behind his back. He’d always been a man keen on eye contact—there was integrity in eye contact—but he couldn’t be sure where The Boss’s eyes actually were. So he stared at a stain on the carpet in the shape of Florida.

The Boss’s roll-top shuddered and a voice like wind through glass wisped through the cracks. “We hear you have questions.”

“No, ma’am,” Oliver said.

“You visited the fountain.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You have questions.” She said questions in a way that sounded like contraband.

He shouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that The Boss had been reading his thoughts. Along with a W2 and Safety Release Form, at the start of employment, he’d signed an information waiver. It wasn’t specific, and he hadn’t given it an extra thought.

He pinched his thigh and tried to think only of the pain as he said, “No, ma’am.”

The Boss leered with her drawers. “See that you don’t.”

 

***

 

Oliver thought of only blackness for the rest of the day. Long, stretchy, soupy blackness with black bits in. He thought about black skies and black water and all the different shades of black that could fit in a small closet. After the work day was done, he thought about black holes on the train. He thought about blackboards with black chalk on the walk from the train station to his car at the Park and Ride and black folders with black pages until he was inside his little house with the door shut, curtains closed, and the phone off the hook.

It was finally safe to think about the girl in the fountain. Not that there was much to think about. She had dark hair—black or brown he couldn’t quite remember—and she’d yelled at him with a voice that sounded like… what had it sounded like? A girl’s voice, he supposed. Not that he had much experience. Oliver’s interactions with the female gender tended to be short, curt, and on one memorable occasion ended with him bent over the bathtub, scrubbing lasagna out of his hair. He was a nice guy, and nice guys always got the short end of the pink stick.

But, being a nice guy, he also had a special radar for Women in Trouble. They called to him, these Damsels in Distress, with their minds. So intuitive was this radar that most women he’d saved didn’t know they needed saving until after the saving had been accomplished. They never thanked him properly—and what hero really needs a thank you, anyway?—but Oliver liked to think they wrote about him in their diaries, or told their friends about him, or simply wished they’d thanked him before the moment had passed. As a nice guy, all of these were enough. And the more he thought about the girl in the fountain with her dark brown or black hair and watery voice the more he realized that she was In Trouble.

As his for-one frozen turkey medallion dinner spun in the microwave, Oliver considered the girl in the fountain’s plight. Surely she was trapped in the fountain, forced to accept coins in exchange for wishes? And surely someone with equal parts bravery and kindness could rescue her from this terrible fate?

The microwave dinged. Oliver shoveled the bubbling contents onto a plate and considered some more. He swallowed steaming-hot gravy-coated gloop and made a decision.

 

***

 

Oliver should have known something was wrong the second he brandished the elevator key the next day. He hadn’t done a very good job of hiding his intentions and he could feel The Boss probing around his brain, culminating in a sharp pinch just above his temple when he stepped into the elevator that would take him to the fountain.

The doors slammed shut and a voice came over the loud speaker. “Just what in sweet hell do you think you’re doing?”

He’d been prepared for this and had developed a perfectly good excuse. “There was a little mix-up with my wish yesterday. Mayo on my sandwich. I’m not usually one to complain, but—”

The walls shook with the loudspeaker’s sigh. “There are no take-backsies, no substitutions, no refunds…”

“I didn’t pay for it.”

“…no complaints, no arguments, and no just-to-be-sures.”

“But I just—”

“No exceptions, either. Visits to the fountain are allowed once a year. You’ll have to wait until then.” The voice cleared its mechanical throat. “Provided you make it that long.”

The doors opened and Oliver stepped back onto the cubicle floor, clutching the key like a talisman.

A year.

A lesser man would’ve abandoned the task immediately. Who knows what could’ve happened in a year? Wars were fought and lost, apartments rented and abandoned… a year brought with it a lifetime’s worth of detritus and it was hard enough navigating it without the added plight of a lady to think about. But Oliver was a Nice Guy. He could wait. He would wait.

 

***

 

The next year went by at the pace of an elderly tortoise with bad hips. There was a permanent ache in Oliver’s neck from peering out the window into the courtyard during every free minute. At around the four month mark, a blind gentleman by the name of Edward Mouss required assistance to his yearly fountain visit. By the time Oliver had reached Edward’s desk with an offering of a half-dead cactus, Edward had already chosen an escort.

There were moments of weakness, of course. Oliver was only human. At the lowest of the low, he’d almost managed to convince himself that the girl in the fountain probably didn’t even need saving. Thankfully, he shook it off and approached all the days that followed with renewed vigor until finally, the day of his second anniversary arrived.

He was presented with a cotton ball, a box of bent paperclips that, when linked end-to-end, spelled out HELP US, and another key.

Last year’s key still hung around his neck, the blue yarn frayed and retied in places where it’d broken. “Shouldn’t I just use this one?” Oliver asked.

Barney, Oliver’s direct supervisor, snatched it from Oliver’s neck. “It’s expired.”

“Oh.”

Barney blew a kazoo and tossed a handful of confetti. “You have exactly twenty minutes at the fountain. Don’t be late.”

Oliver tied the key around his neck and bolted for the elevator.

“Insert your—”

“Yeah, yeah.” He jammed the key in the slot.

“Don’t let it touch you,” the voice added.

Oliver couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t let a key touch him—it was just a key, after all—but wrapped his sleeve around his hand anyway. There was a damsel waiting and he wouldn’t prolong her suffering.

When the doors opened, he expected to find a madhouse. Instead, he was met with an eerie silence interrupted every so often by the call of a bird or the trickle of water in the fountain. He circled the fountain wall twice before a soft giggle made him stop.

“Hello?” Oliver tried to peer over the wall, but as his nose broached the top an electric shock pinched the tip.

Another giggle. “Careful.”

He looked around, suspicious of everything in his peripheral vision. Was this a trick? Was The Boss testing him?

“This isn’t a test, sandwich boy.” A coin hit the invisible electric barrier and shot back with a spark. “It’s security.”

It’s a cage. He knew it. The girl was trapped.

“Have you come for another sandwich?”

Oliver had thought ahead this time, eating a large breakfast and a snack before his time came. “No, thank you.”

“It’s just as well. I hate cooking.”

Oliver was about to point out that the sandwich had been in a take-out bag from the shop around the corner, but decided it would only distract from his task. “Actually…” He put a hesitant hand on the wall and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I’m here to rescue you.”

When had it started raining? His shoulders were soaked and droplets slid down his cheeks and nose. He looked up to see a face staring back from the top of the wall.

Her yellow (not blonde, but banana candy yellow) hair was braided in an intricate pattern around the crown of her head and trailed down further than Oliver could see. Her skin had an opalescent sheen to it and as she tilted her head, her cheeks flushed different shades of pink and green. But what struck him most were her eyes—bright and amethyst with feline pupils that dilated as a cloud passed over the sun. She leaned forward on her elbows and grinned, revealing twin rows of sharp, white teeth. “Is that so?”

Later, Oliver would congratulate himself for not fainting at the sight of her. Looking at the girl in the fountain was like looking directly into the sun. “Yes.”

“Interesting.”

“Why’s that?”

“No reason.” She disappeared behind the wall.

Oliver was about to call out to her when the ground shifted. He scrambled for the wall only to find that it wasn’t there. Clawing air, he fell forward onto a stone bench. His lip skidded on the corner leaving a trail of red across the seat.

“For a land-dweller, you’re not very good at the standing thing.”

He spit. “The ground doesn’t normally move.”

“How dull.” The girl perched on the bench and patted the spot next to her. “Sit.”

Oliver obeyed.

From the hips up, the girl resembled any other that passed through the doors at Liquid Innovators, Inc., apart from the crustaceans clinging to her breasts. The one on the left peered at him with insect-like eye stalks; the one on the right raised a claw in warning. From the hips down, scales flexed and shimmered with her movement. He was fairly certain the scales ended in a tail, but thought it’d be rude to ask. She tapped the bench with a long, pointed nail and he realized she was waiting for him to say something. Oliver’s throat seized and his brain disconnected from the satellite. He’d never been any good at small talk.

“You could start with my name,” she prodded.

“Name,” Oliver said.

“It’s Shelly.”

He nodded.

“That was a joke.” She tapped the back of one of the crabs on her chest. “Shelly. Get it?”

He laughed once, loud and more like shout, sending birds flying from the trees.

She pretended not to have heard it. “My real name can’t be pronounced by anyone who hasn’t been instructed in the five dead languages, but you can call me Flora for short.”

“Oliver,” he said.

“I like it.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

Water sounds faded into the background and an annoying ring started in Oliver’s ears. He stuck his pinky finger in and wiggled it around. Didn’t help.

The corner of Flora’s mouth lifted. “It’ll go away in a few minutes.” Then, “How did you enjoy your sandwich last year?”

“It was nice, thanks.” The ringing had faded in the left, but intensified in the right. “Hit the spot.”

“Good, good.” Flora patted his leg. “I like to hear that.”

Once the ringing dwindled to a dull roar, Oliver’s mind circled back around to his mission. “Rescue,” he muttered.

Flora’s scaly hips wriggled and her skin prickled. “Ah, yes. My hero.” She grinned. “Shall I tell you about the first time I was rescued?”

Oliver found himself nodding without trying.

Flora opened her mouth but a man’s voice came out. “Oy! You! Time’s up!”

A bulky security guard in a stiff, white shirt lumbered toward them. “You there!”

Flora muttered something Oliver didn’t quite hear before sliding back into the fountain. She gripped his leg and spoke with her eyes straight into his brain and without opening his mouth he promised to come see her again.

He blinked and he was back at his desk, hands working without his mind, shuffling papers and stamping folders.

His cube mate, Charlie, peered over the partition. “You okay, Oliver?” One of her mousy-brown hairs drifted from her head and landed on his hand. “You look a little off.”

“Fine,” he said.

He stared at the hair until quitting time.

 

***

 

It started as a tickle in the back of his head, like a memory forcing its way to the surface. Two words: Save me, and he saw them everywhere—spelled out in his Alpha-Bits cereal, written in the rain as it streaked his windows, in the drops of urine that somehow always missed the toilet bowl.

In the months following his second visit to the fountain, Oliver cashed in his sick days (even the Only For Use During a Plague day), and spent hours perusing the stacks at the Liquid Innovators Community Library (renamed after a large donation was made last year). Instead of cards, users were relieved of one quarter hour of their lifespan in return for use of the books and materials. If Oliver had been keeping track, he would have realized his life had been considerably shortened in his search for information on Flora.

The books in the library weren’t arranged in any particular order, and in most corners they weren’t even on shelves but stacked high and precariously. One such stack gifted Oliver with a black eye and bloody lip while he reached for a copy of Stanislav Tolyevsky’s WATER IS WET. He read it cover to cover, along with a dozen other water and water-animal related volumes, only to find himself no closer to any answers.

He built a fort out of the books and curled up in the middle with a copy of THE BIG BOOK OF FISH RECIPES as a pillow. Maybe if he rested for a while. Started fresh.

Oliver had just closed his eyes when something sharp jabbed his backside and his limbs flailed, destroying the fort. He spun around, armed with a pencil.

“They’ll see you hanged if’n they catch you with that, boy.” The jabber—a hunched old man with hair like stretched cotton and an oddly pointed nose—waved a letter opener. “Best be hidin’ it before they see.”

Oliver tucked the pencil into his pocket.

“Not that.” The mole-man clucked and snorted and pointed. “That.”

Oliver turned his head and was met with the image of a half-fish, half-human male riding the back of what was either a small whale or another large man. Oliver scrambled to his knees and snatched up the book, which nearly fell apart at the spine. It hadn’t been there before. He was sure of it.

Oliver looked up to thank the mole-man, but he was gone.

Keeping one eye on the office door where the librarians hibernated between supervisory shifts, Oliver tucked the volume beneath his shirt and sprinted for the door.

 

***

 

NOTES ON THE WAR

 

Having much experience in the world of fish, that is, preparing and eating it, I’ve found them to be a docile creature. It boggles the mind how these fish people have come to declare war on each other. Lesser minds have argued that it’s the human half that drives the warring instinct, but all learned men know that the warring gene lies in the middle toe. As these fish people have no toes, it ought to be impossible that they should want to fight.

            But I digress.

            I’ve been stationed at the coast for nearly a month now with little to report. The argument has escalated beyond petty squabbling and reached sharp-stick poking. Occasional flotsam reaches my cabin in the waves, which has been bagged and labeled [redacted].

            So far, the engagement has yet to reach the [redacted] but will report should anything change.

            Oliver flipped through several more pages, most of which were blacked out, scribbled over, and scratched clean through.

She’s back. She might be in trouble.

            And then, on the next page.

Save me.

            The rest of the pages were covered in crude sketches of someone who looked disarmingly like the girl in the fountain, each sketch more hurried than the last.

Oliver read the book through three times before drawing what he believed to be the only conclusion: Flora was a casualty of war. Liquid Innovations had abducted her in order to protect something and kept her as a wish-granting slave. He paid little thought to the fate of the book’s author.

There were three weeks left until his third visit to the fountain. He tucked the book beneath his pillow and dreamed of Flora.

 

***

 

“As I was saying…” Flora brushed a chunk of hair away from Oliver’s forehead. She continued as though they hadn’t been interrupted by a full year’s time. “The last time I was rescued didn’t turn out so well.”

The buzzing was worse this time. It was like his skull was swarmed with mosquitos. “I’ll fix it,” Oliver said.

“I know you will, doll.”

“We’ll go to Florida. You’ll like it there. Lots of water.”

“How exotic.”

“And I’ll buy you flowers every day.”

Flora brushed her nose against his. “What else?”

His chest felt heavy. There was a bug in his eye that flitted every time he blinked. “I’ll cook. I’ll learn how to cook.”

She nodded to herself. “Shush now.”

“Flora?”

“Yes, love?”

“My legs hurt.”

“That happens. It’ll pass.”

“What happens?”

“Shhhh.”

Oliver didn’t feel the water until there were several feet of it over his head. It calmed the buzzing in his head, so the panic didn’t immediately set in. Flora hugged him to her chest and swam and swam and then his chest hurt outside and inside and he couldn’t breathe.

Then he could.

The pain in his chest continued, though, until twin bulges appeared with the relief of a ruptured cyst. Flora stripped his shirt off and wrapped it around herself. He tried to kick away but his legs wouldn’t obey. The watery haze cleared and when he looked down, he saw a fin and breasts and he knew when he touched his hair it would feel the way Flora’s had felt.

She touched his face.

Rather, he touched his face.

Flora’s face was now his and his was hers.

He kissed her.

She sank deep into the fountain, clutching her new, aching breasts until a pair of crabs clung to them and kneaded relief.

 

***

 

Oliver Thistle didn’t stay at Liquid Innovations long enough to see a fourth year. He left without notice and without the few personal items at his desk. Someone started a rumor that he was headed to Florida where he planned to learn how to cook.

After a brief period of adjustment, the fountain was reopened with only one change: rather than coins, wishers were asked to provide a roast beef sandwich with fresh chips, hold the mayo.

THE END

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LOST & FOUND – A Liquid Innovations, Inc. Tale

LOST & FOUND

  He nodded once. “But I’m only gonna warn ye once, unnerstand? You stay by me. Do as I say.”

            “Sure. Got it.”

            “And if ye get kilt, s’not my fault.”

It was only a little thing: a broach about the size of a baby’s fist, covered in glass rubies and emeralds. One of the gems was missing, had been for as long as Charlie had the thing, and the pin back was rusted at the edges. She didn’t even like it—she’d been stabbed by its rusty prong of death more than once—but it’d been a gift from her aunt and the woman had only so many years left and It gives me such joy to see it on you, darling, you must treasure it always…

            Charlie angrily pinned the broach to her shirt this morning because her aunt had invited her to lunch. Charlie argued that she would only have an hour—Barney was a bastard when it came to break times—but her aunt insisted.

But at ten-thirty, after taking her morning pee break, she looked in the mirror and realized the broach was gone. She pawed at her chest, hoping it was somehow hiding within the folds of her blouse. She checked her pockets, her bra (it was like a trap for crumbs and earring backs), the toilet stall… Panic broiled in her chest as she tore apart her desk—memos flew through the air like birds and drawers clattered open only to be slammed shut again. It had to be here somewhere, she reasoned. It couldn’t have just pried itself from her chest and walked away.

She pretended not to notice Barney approach with subdued caution, like a zookeeper approaching an ornery lion. He’d probably fire her for this. Despite her pitiful savings and a backlog of bills coming due, Charlie didn’t care. She needed to find the broach with a savagery that seemed to come from nowhere. She tipped back the computer screen to check under the stand.

Barney cleared his throat.

Charlie didn’t acknowledge him.

He waited a beat then said, “That’s company property you’re destroying.”

“I’m not destroying anything. I’m… organizing.”

Running a finger through his thinning grey hair, he bounced on his heels. “We at Liquid Innovators Inc. don’t hold prejudice against those who practice alternative spiritual methods, but we will not tolerate your Feng Shui weirdness on the clock.”

Of all the things that bothered Charlie about Barney, the worst was his use of the royal “we.” We will not tolerate…; We feel…; We wondered if you were maybe possibly free this Friday…

The broach was nowhere. But it had to be somewhere. This wasn’t making any sense. Maybe she’d lost it earlier this morning and hadn’t noticed? It could’ve been long gone by now, though she couldn’t think of anyone who would want to steal a piece of old costume jewelry.

She dropped the pile of files she’d been sifting through and turned to Barney. “Do we have a lost and found?”

“A what?”

“A lost and found. You know, where people bring things they find?”

“I don’t follow.”

Charlie scowled. “Never mind. I’ll look myself.”

Barney’s voice carried after her as she abandoned her desk and practically ran for the elevator. “But it’s not your break, yet!”

She took the elevator to the first floor security desk where a skittish old man with a zig-zag scar on the side of his head told her to try the maintenance desk, where a woman the size and shape of a brick wall directed her to the janitorial staff while cursing the security guard for letting Charlie into her sanctum.

It was a long told joke that the cleaning men and women lived in caves beneath the parking garage and popped out of the floor like moles once the last daytime workers had departed. Taking the elevator to level B—basement—Charlie allowed herself a moment to wonder whether the joke had some truth in it. In the blurry reflection of the elevator doors, she adjusted her skirt and buttoned a button that’d come undone on her shirt. She ignored the blaring white space below her shoulder where the broach should have been.

The doors finally opened to reveal a black cavern with faint, yellow industrial style lamps strung across the ceiling. Smaller lamps hung from the walls, though they barely lit the walls around them. It looked like the entrance to a coal mine, all soot and dirt and smelling of mud and sweat. A shadow peeled from the wall behind a small desk, plumping as it drew near.

“Eh?” The shadow grunted. “Whoozat?”

It took several tries for Charlie to find her voice. “I’m, er, Charlie Jenson?”

“Is ye or ain’t ye?” The shadow stood beneath one of the brighter lamps and revealed himself to be not a shadow at all, but a man. Rather, a kind-of man. His shoulders were like boulders and his back curved at an alarmingly steep angle. His face was carved with wrinkles that reminded Charlie of the cuts in the sides of mountains where ancient rivers once ran and was ghostly pale. His nose ended in a bulbous button and his eyes squinted behind round spectacles. “I ain’t havin’ the time fer guessin’ games.”

She couldn’t stop staring at his nose. The brownish tint kept disappearing and, maybe it was a trick of the light, but she swore he had long, grey whiskers. “I am Charlie Jenson.”

“`gratulations.”

“I was told I could find the lost and found here.”

He nodded solemnly. “That ye can, that ye can. Though I ain’t be in no mind to take ye. S’a long journey and if truth be told I’ve no mind te goin’ when dark’ll be upon us afore we get to where needs getting’.”

Dark was at least nine hours away. This man was either insane, or felt himself a philosopher on the subject of time. Either way, Charlie wasn’t letting him off that easy. “Perhaps if you could just direct me to the box…”

“Box!” The man guffawed, puffing out his belly like a balloon. “Who said anythin’ `bout a box?”

Her face burned. “Well, I just assumed—”

His voice became quite somber. “Assume nothin’ in this place, ya hear?”

“Sure. Got it.”

He angled his head forward and his spectacles slid to the end of his nose. He peered over the rims. “What is it ye be missin’?”

She tried to describe the worthless bauble in a way that would present the situation as dire. “It’s a broach. Very old. Been in my family for generations. My aunt gave it to me and I’m meant to have lunch with her today and I know it would break her heart if she thought it’d gone missing.” She studied his face. Was that a tremor in his lip? “She hasn’t got much time left, you see. And there are so few pleasure left to her…” She broke off, letting his imagination fill in the holes.

“Auntie, you say?”

Charlie nodded solemnly.

“She a good auntie? Mend yer socks and stuff?”

“Uh, yeah. Definitely.” Charlie’s aunt, to her knowledge, had never sewn a thing in her life.

He nodded once. “But I’m only gonna warn ye once, unnerstand? You stay by me. Do as I say.”

“Sure. Got it.”

“And if ye get kilt, s’not my fault.”

Now here was a man who took his job too seriously. She wondered if he’d ever met Barney. The pair would either be best friends or the cosmos would explode upon first physical contact. “Need me to sign a waiver, or…?”

He stuck a finger in her face and waggled it angrily. “There’s no call te getting snotty, miss.”

She arranged her face in a more conciliatory expression—eyes down, a slight frown. “You’re right. Sorry.”

“S’okay. She’ll be sleepin’ fer a few hours yet, so we might get lucky. Hand me that there sack.”

It was a large, white sack with GOLD MEDAL FLOUR stamped across the front. A pattern of daisies and daffodils surrounded the label. She couldn’t lift it—the damn thing weighed a ton—so she had to drag it the five feet toward the janitor. It occurred to her she still hadn’t learned his name.

“What should I call you?”

He frowned and his nose scrunched in concentration, as though he’d never had to consider the answer to this particular question.

“You have a name, don’t you?”

“A’course I got a name! Of all the dumb… Silly woman comin’ here tellin’ me…” He bit his lip to stave the tirade. “Call me Jan.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” He rummaged through the sack and withdrew something wrapped in tattered black material. As he unraveled the material, a simple scabbard about the length of her arm was revealed. He gripped the hilt poking out of the top and pulled. An inch of sharp steel peeked out before disappearing again. “Lift yer arms.”

“Excuse me?”

“Ye gonna face her, ye need to arm yerself.” His arms were around her middle before she could protest. A wide belt cinched her waist with the sword dangling at her hip.

“Her who?”

“Bad luck to say her name.”

“Try me.”

He shook his head. “I’ll not be bringin’ omens on our heads now. Alls I can say is her hide is strong as stone, her bite as sharp as this here sword, and her `tude as mean as a snake with a stepped-on tail.”

Charlie almost asked if he meant Brenda from accounting, but decided against it. Whoever she was, Jan was in no mood for jokes. He donned his own sword—the scabbard much more intricate than hers with what looked like a scorch mark along the side—and a helmet that looked torn out of the sixteenth century. “Remember what I said. Stay behind me. No funny business.”

She saluted.

Jan sighed. “Right, then.” He pulled one of the lanterns off the wall, holding it in front of him as he marched deeper into the cavern.

Charlie glanced quickly back toward the elevator, but all she saw was stone. The doors had vanished.

“Move it or lose it!” Jan’s voice echoed in the cavern.

Mostly convinced she’d somehow fallen asleep at her desk and this was all a dream, Charlie jogged toward the sound of his voice. She’d wake up any minute. Yep. Any minute now.

 

***

 

They followed the narrow cavern for what felt like days. Icy water dripped from the ceiling and down Charlie’s shirt, she kept catching the tip of her scabbard on jutting rocks, and she really had to pee. Worst of all, she felt a blister forming on her right heel.

“Can’t we take a break or something?”

Jan harrumphed. “That’s just when she’ll gitcha. No way. We keep movin’.”

Soon the cavern widened far enough she could stretch out her arms and still not touch the walls. The dripping stopped, only to be replaced by stiff, hot air that clung to her face like a pillow. It stank like rancid meat.

“Jesus,” she muttered, “something die in here?”

“Quiet.” Then, “Stick to the walls. Don’t touch nothin’ till I say.”

Charlie followed Jan’s movements as he inched forward, rock digging into her backside. She tried to sidestep a puddle and walked straight into a spider web. She would’ve screamed if Jan hadn’t clapped a calloused hand over her mouth.

“Quiet,” he said. “Or she’ll wake up.”

They continued on, with the cavern growing darker with each step. Charlie could barely see a hand on front of her face while Jan seemed to have no problem negotiating the dips and jagged rocks threatening to take out their ankles. He stopped suddenly and Charlie realized the cavern had opened up into a cave. Somehow, the air was denser here and she had to breathe in short bursts. If this didn’t let up soon, she’d probably pass out.

Jan turned toward her and she gasped. His eyes glowed bright white, like fireflies. “She’s sleepin’ but won’t be for long,” he whispered. “See her tail twitchin’?”

Charlie followed his gaze, but for a long time didn’t see anything. Then her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could just make out a curve like a hill that rose and fell in smooth rhythm. To the left, the curve shrank into a long, snake-like tail which did seem to twitch. To the right, a thick, scaley neck and a head the size of a car with nostrils, which exhaled curls of blue smoke and teeth that could’ve bitten a chunk out of the rock face.

“A dragon.” Charlie’s voice was barely a whisper. “A fucking dragon.”

“She’d be beautiful if she weren’t s’damn bitey.” Jan clutched Charlie’s arm, pulling her closer. She felt his breath on her ear. “Yer broach’ll be in that pile there behind her.”

It looked like a pile of junk. She caught the silhouette of a shoe and what looked like an old computer monitor. “I’ll never find it.”

“If it’s yers, it’ll come to ye.”

“How?”

“You gonna keep askin’ questions or go get your trinket? We’ve got minutes maybe before she—aw, shit.”

Charlie didn’t want to look. If she looked, it was real, and if it was real, it would probably try to eat her. But Jan’s whimpering forced her to turn her head. The dragon’s eyes were bright green and the size of windows. The smoke curling from its nose thickened as it huffed in warning. The tail snapped back, forming a protective barrier around the pile of junk.

“Dammit,” Jan muttered.

Charlie couldn’t feel her legs. It wouldn’t be long before she peed herself. “What do we do?”

“We? Missy, this is yer business. All I do is bring ye here.”

A low rumble began in the dragon’s chest.

Jan drew his sword and brandished it like a broom against a cat. “Now looky here, Doris—”

“Doris?!”

“—you got somethin’ here that don’t belong. You know it. I know it. And this here lady would like it back.”

The rumble became an indignant belch, followed by a stream of blue-white flame. The heat knocked the air out of Charlie’s lungs.

Jan threw up his hands as he trudged back toward Charlie, the hair on his knuckles singed. “Well, that’s that, then. Yer gonna have to slay her.”

She became uncomfortably aware of the weight of the sword at her side. She could barely move the couch when she wanted to use the outlet; how was she supposed to slay a dragon? “Can’t you just, I don’t know, make her give it back?”

“Ha!” He tipped his helmet back. “You try reasonin’ with a fifty ton beast of female resentment.”

The dragon—Doris—raised her head as if to say she didn’t like being talked about when she was right here, thank you very much. Maybe if Charlie appealed to her as a woman…

“Doris?” The dragon peered at Charlie, eyelids drooping in a long, languid blink. Her black, forked tongue flicked the air. Probably tasting Charlie’s fear. It wasn’t until this moment that Charlie realized she’d never been very good at girl talk. “You’ve got nice eyes.”

“Oh, fuck me runnin’.”

But the compliment seemed to have some effect. Doris batted her lids—there were no lashes—and her tail’s grip around the pile loosened every-so-slightly.

Charlie took a cautious step forward. “And, uh, I love what you’ve done with the cave. It’s so… homey.”

“Keep it up.” Jan inched toward Doris’s flank, still holding his sword. “See the way her belly’s gone all pink? She likes you.”

The scales on Doris’s belly had indeed gone an alarming shade of fuscia, only to revert to black when Charlie stared too long. “Sorry. It’s just… I’m jealous?”

Doris purred, vibrating the ground and shaking a few overhead stones loose. It was unsettling.

“So, maybe, since you’ve got that cool color-change thing, you could spare a little bauble?” Charlie didn’t add, seeing as it’s mine anyway.

But Doris wouldn’t have it. The muscles in her massive body rippled as she lurched onto her feet. Her back scraped the ceiling and the sound was like nails on a chalkboard. Charlie felt it in her teeth.

“More a’ them nice things!” Jan shouted.

Charlie clenched against the urgency in her bladder. “Uh, yes. Nice. So. You’ve got to be quite intelligent, right? Luring all those things down here.”

Was that a nod?

Jan crept flat against the wall, one step for every few seconds.

“And I bet you’ve been doing it for—” Fuck, cornered herself into an age thing. “—a while now. You must be an expert.” She chanced a step toward the hoard. Doris watched, but didn’t move. “Bet a boy dragon couldn’t do that.”

Doris’s belly burned red with pleasure.

Jan thrust his sword toward the deepest splotch of red. “Run!”

Charlie’s body reacted without her mind. She sprinted for the hoard, sword slapping her thigh. Doris roared with the strength and decibel of a bomb, nearly knocking Charlie off her feet. In the corner of her eye, she saw Jan rush at Doris’s middle. She didn’t see his sword make contact, but Doris’s squeal was enough to tell Charlie the dragon was pissed.

The tail whipped over Charlie, nearly taking off her head. Somewhere to her right, Jan shouted something that was either ancient Celtic or a string of expletives spewed too fast to decipher. The hoard was only a few feet away, but it didn’t mean squat unless she could find the broach before Doris decided to give Charlie her full attention. Jan had said it would come to her.

So Charlie shouted the first thing that came to mind. “Oy! Broach!”

The hoard split, spilling half-empty wine bottles and picture frames and bent up wire hangers down the sides. Something small that glinted in the cave’s half-light flew at Charlie, landing painfully in the palm of her hand. She didn’t have to look at it to know. “I got it!”

Jan’s winded voice came from somewhere near Doris’s bitey end. “Fan-fucking-tastic. Let’s get outta here.”

Charlie ignored the pain in her calves as she bolted for the cave entrance. Jan’s jalopy footsteps weren’t far behind. They reached the cavern just as Doris’s flame ignited the mold growing along the walls. They didn’t stop until they reached Jan’s desk at the end of the cavern, panting like heat-stroked dogs.

Jan tossed his helmet on the desk. “You get it?”

Charlie glanced at the thing in her hand. “Oh.”

“Nuh uh.” Jan shook his head. “No take-backs. Whatever it is, it’s yours.”

 

***

 

Miraculously, Charlie made it to the restaurant only a few minutes late. Auntie Sophia was already seated, interrogating the server. Part of her wanted to turn back and call from the office claiming one excuse or another, but the other accused her of being a wuss. That part sounded strangely like Doris’s grumble.

She approached the table wearing a thin grin.

Auntie Sophia clutched her fists to her chest. “Charlie! Oh, dear it’s so good to see you! But, where’s your broach?”

Didn’t even give her the chance to sit down. Probably for the best. This way, she could run for it, should Auntie Sophia start swinging her cane.

The server disappeared to wherever it was servers went to spill dining room drama. Charlie stood next to the table and withdrew the thing she’d rescued from the dragon’s hoard. It was exactly like Auntie Sophia’s broach, except the backing wasn’t rusted and, in fact, gleamed in the light. All of the stones were present and accounted for and, though Charlie wasn’t an expert, looked worth about the gross domestic product of a small island country.

“I’m sorry, Auntie, I—”

Auntie Sophie shushed her. Tears welled, threatening to spill over her plump, rosacea ridden cheeks. “I thought it was lost forever. They took it… your Uncle bought that ugly, worthless thing to replace it and now…” Her voice caught. “Where did you find it?”

 

THE END

Liquid Innovations, Please Hold : A Liquid Innovations, Inc. Tale

alice04a

 

The Liquid Innovations, Inc. call center was, at her core, a jealous place. So jealous, in fact, she switched her last two letters to read CENTRE, all caps, to steal some attention from that pompous tart, THEATRE, with her cheap velour seats and ratty curtains and obscene ticket prices. For years, THEATRE got all the phone calls, while dippy Call CENTRE listened to the echo of a dozen agents dying of boredom.

Because, as it turned out, Liquid Innovations, Inc. didn’t have a phone number.

Well, Call CENTRE wasn’t about to let a little thing like that stop her, so she wriggled and clawed and snatched and coerced and bribed and fluttered her blinds until she had a nice collection of numbers. Just wait, Call CENTRE thought, until THEATRE hears about this.

But THEATRE had heard and wasn’t ruffled in the slightest because she knew something that Call CENTRE didn’t – when the phone rings, someone has to pick up.

 

***

 

“Liquid Innovations, please hold.”

“Liquid Innovations, please hold.”

“Liquid Innovations, please—no, I can’t… hold please.”

Chloe leaned back in her lumbar supported rolling chair and admired the festive lights on her switchboard. They changed colors according to how long the caller had been on hold, but no one knew exactly how many colors they would cycle through before starting over at bright, two-seconds-on-hold, red. There was an office pool meant to go to the first person to get purple on their switchboard. Chloe had gotten a pale blue once, but so far purple remained elusive.

The game was especially difficult because a series of whistles blew in the boss’s office whenever a call had been on hold for longer than ten minutes. (Ten minutes was goldenrod, with glitter.) If someone was caught with a full switchboard and nobody on the line, they were sent Upstairs. Chloe had been Upstairs once, during her first week on the job. She didn’t remember exactly what went on, but she hadn’t been able to feel anything in her two pinky fingers since.

When it sounded like the boss’s office had been replaced with a tiny train station, Chloe donned her headset and jabbed the first button.

“Liquid Innovations, thank you for holding.”

A timid voice came on the line. “Uh, sorry, I was trying to get the Kitty Corral?”

Dammit. Chloe scrambled for the folder studiously labeled “KC” before he had a chance to hang up. She was way over her monthly limit on hang ups and if she lost this one… Aha!

“Yes, sir. Um.” She flipped through the script, choosing a topic at random. “If possible, induce vomiting using a long plastic or wooden rod. Avoid metal, as it can puncture the esophagus.”

“I just wanted to know if—”

“All Calico cats are female.”

“But that’s not—”

“If you can’t get your iguana to eat his usual food, try deli turkey. Not the cheap stuff, though. Too many fillers. Thank you for calling. Have a great day.”

She checked the automatic timer on her computer screen. One minute, fifty-seven seconds. Shit.

“Wait! Sir!”

“Yes?”

Fifty-nine.

Two minutes. Bingo.

Chloe smiled. Callers can always hear a smile. “I meant have a really great day.”

The line disconnected.

Almost instantly, lights on her panel flickered to life.

Hi, is this Rituals Spa?

“Do not, under any circumstances, ingest the lemon bath salts.”

Julie? Julie Edelson?

“Julie isn’t home right now, but I’d be happy to take a message.”

Can you tell me the difference between grey with an ‘e’ and gray with an ‘a’?

“One is the color of storm clouds. The other is the color of existential dread as it creeps slowly up your spine before finally devouring your mind like that alien from Alien.”

I need movie times.

“Twelve-thirty. Also, probably eleven. Or seven-fifteen.”

The next time Chloe looked up there were five minutes until her lunch break. Her stomach growled thinking of the leftover pizza sitting in the breakroom refrigerator (all congealed cheese and greasy pepperoni. Yum.). One last call. She punched the pick-up button.

“Liquid Innovations, Inc. How can I help you?”

The voice that came through the receiver was so loud it made Chloe flinch. “Oh thank gawd. I tell ya, I been callin’ and callin’ and all the robots were givin’ me the go around. You know how it is. Press one for English, Press two if you got a question about the collapse of the Amazonian ecological system. Blah, blah. Can’t tell you how good it is to hear a human voice.”

Chloe paused, one finger hovering above the disconnect button. Thirty seconds.

“Anyway.” The woman paused to take a breath. “I got this box on my patio. Says Liquid Innovations on it, but I didn’t order nothin’. Hopin’ you can tell me what’s what.”

“What’s what.”

“Yup, yup. Like, for starters, what do y’all do over there anyway? How does a person innovate liquid?”

An alarm went off in her head. She knew without looking there wouldn’t be a script for this call. During the thirty-minute training session she’d had on her first day, her supervisors made it terrifying clear that there was zero information regarding the actual day to day workings of Liquid Innovations, Inc. on the premises of Liquid Innovations, or probably anywhere so far as they could tell.

“Don’t worry,” they’d said. “No one ever calls for that.”

“Ma’am, can I—”

She coughed once, loud, and it took a minute for Chloe to realize it was a laugh.

“None of this ma’am business. I’m only a hair past a calf’s dawn. Name’s Caroline. Not Carol. Caroline. Mama took the time to write out the full name, s’only right people make the effort.”

Chloe fought the urge to frantically wave for her boss’s attention. She was still six and a half years away from the end of her official probation—the last thing she needed was for him to think she couldn’t do her job. She had to deal with this on her own.

“Caroline…”

“Yes?”

Damn. Chloe was hoping to buy some time with another long-winded response.

“What does the box look like?”

She could almost hear the woman roll her eyes. “Brown. Boxy. Taped up real good, too. Broke one of my good steak knives.”

Oh! She knew this one! “Liquid Innovations is not responsible for any damage caused adjacent to, in relation to, on top of, inside of, or in the general vicinity of Liquid Innovations properties, employees, products, namesake, etc…”

“Oh relax, doll. All I want to know is what’s in the box. I don’t particularly like surprises. Once, my daughter-in-law, bless’er, threw a surprise party for my birthday. She’s always been heavy on good intentions but a bit light in the smarts. She rigged up some kind of lights display—bulbs shaped like artichokes or some other nonsense—set to go off the minute I walked in the door. Well, they went off all right. Exploded right above my head. I was near bald when they’d finally put the fire out.”

While the woman spoke, Chloe panicked. She’d said Liquid Innovations, clear enough for even their shitty recordings to pick up. There was no way she could hang up now, even though the call was pushing five minutes. Another few seconds and the boss would come over anyway. Some of the other agents figured out how to call each other, though it should’ve been impossible. Their direct lines changed every hour. They’d spend all day playing Guess The Fruit without having taken a single call. Now, anything over five and a half minutes was flagged.

“—and it’s got nothing to do with the quality of her apple crumble. It’s in the name, isn’t it? Crumble should crumble, not turn to wallpaper paste on the tongue. Poor girl takes everything to heart—”

Chloe stood just enough to see the boss’s office, a triangular glass room in the corner of the main floor. A blue light flashed silently on his desk.

“—that was when the dog died. Well, not right then. But, hand to heart, it started with that smell—”

The boss stood.

Chloe did the only thing she could think of; she relayed the call from the stationary dock to a mobile, clipped it to her belt, adjusted the headset and left her desk.

“Ma’am?” Chloe tested.

“None of this ma’am business. I told you, the name’s Caroline. Anyway, when we looked at the fine print on the coupon, it was her that decided a twenty percent discount was worth shopping in a mesh onesie—”

Eyes followed her as she tore through the maze of desks toward the breakroom. The boss never step foot in there, claiming a deathly allergy to the smell of burnt popcorn, so it was a safe place to hide until she could figure something else out, though she didn’t hold out much hope. She couldn’t stay in the breakroom forever. The call would have to end eventually, and with it, her job.

She rounded the eighth cluster of desks and hit a solid wall.

The breakroom had moved.

“—so I told him that if he thought he was keeping a llama in the spare bathroom, he’d soon find himself without his left—”

But it couldn’t have moved. That was impossible. Except this was where the door ought to have been. The Mysterious Brown Stain all of the second-shifters toe-tapped for luck on the way in to see if their lunch had somehow survived the first four hours in the company fridge was right there. She tapped it. It squished just like always.

There had to be an explanation. If not a good one, then at least something to convince her that she hadn’t lost her mind. She touched the place the knob should have been—

—and fell forward into a room blacker than black. The door that wasn’t there slammed behind her.

Caroline stopped her barrage long enough to ask, “You okay, darlin’? I heard a noise.”

Chloe peeled herself off a cold, hard floor and adjusted the headset. “Fine. What was it your sister said about yard gnomes?”

Caroline scoffed. “As if they had anything to do with when the package was delivered. How was I supposed to know the delivery man was skittish? It’s not as if I talk to them, invite them in for lemonade and a drink, if you catch my—”

Having bought herself some time, Chloe stared into the darkness, willing her eyes to adjust. It was like trying to see through ink. She stuck her arms out, nerves itching to feel something, anything, other than cold nothingness. She couldn’t see her breath, but knew it was coming out in clouds.

She clicked mute. “Hello?”

She expected an echo, but her voice was swallowed.

A single violet spotlight clicked on above her head, revealing a blackboard on shaky wooden stilts. A piece of chalk floated up from the sill, twitched and struck the board with quick, stabby movements.

“—cat videos, not that I watch of course, but—”

Chloe barely heard Caroline’s voice as the chalk smacked the board, clouding the room in white dust. It took ages to clear and when it did, the message on the board read: So you want to know about Liquid Innovations, Inc? Below it, two boxes had been drawn—Yes and No.

There were stories, of course, because for as long as there had been Things that People Shouldn’t Do there were stories of people who’d done them anyway. These stories rarely had happy endings.

For the stories involving Liquid Innovations employees who’d decided they really needed to know what it was that Liquid Innovations did, there were less than unhappy endings. There were no endings. People were there, asked a few questions, and then they weren’t. Any suggestions that these people had simply been fired or quit were met with ugly grimaces and the classic spin-and-spit warding off of curses. There was the odd rumor, obviously. Chloe’s favorite involved a man who’d been tricked into becoming a fish in the company fountain because of a sandwich, but even she knew it was all nonsense.

There were certain questions that just shouldn’t be answered. Surely the boss could understand why she had to hang up on Caroline and walk directly out of there having forgotten completely about the wandering breakroom and the chalkboard and mysterious boxes that stood up to really good steak knives.

But when her finger grazed the disconnect button, she hesitated. Just for a second. A millisecond.

“Not tryin’ to be rude here, darlin’, but the box is, um…”

“Yes?” Chloe prodded, though every cell in her body lit up like Bad Idea sirens.

“It’s movin’.”

She snatched up the chalk before she could change her mind and drew a furious circle around Yes.

“Totally normal,” Chloe said, not even bothering to try to sound convincing.

“If you say so. Only I’ll just leave it on the porch for now because it’s making a real racket and my orchid is a light sleeper. My daughter-in-law thinks I’m off my nut, but you don’t see her orchids bringing home blue ribbons, do you? The thing to remember is—”

The edges of the chalkboard began to weep at the sides, melting into a kind of black soup. Chloe jumped back as the puddle reached her shoes.

She covered the headset’s mouthpiece. “I changed my mind! I don’t want to know anything!”

The walls shook, like the room was laughing at her.

Rude, she thought.

The puddle sizzled at the edges, eating away at the floor until giant chunks of it crumbled inside itself. The hole widened faster than she could stumble away and with one misplaced step, she

F

E

L

L

—until it wasn’t so much a fall as a gentle drift down. The line crackled in her ear.

The darkness was so thick it was like swimming through a black lake, with shiny black ripples issuing away from her as she flailed her arms, looking for purchase. Soon a light appeared below, soft yellow. It let her see the walls of the tunnel, white ceramic tile with marker scribblings she could only read the first or last halves of.

Monica eats—

—and I never said it.

Touch the red—

—don’t listen to him.

“Whoa.” Her voice echoed down the length of the tunnel.

Caroline’s horrified voice came through the receiver. “Are you in a bathroom?”

“No! No. I just—the line is wonky.”

“Because germs can travel in ways we will never understand. I read that they can leap over a hundred feet if given the proper motivation.”

Chloe wondered out loud what the proper motivation might be, setting Caroline off. It gave her time to panic.

Though not for very long. Like a tape on fast-forward, the light rushed at her and she finally hit the bottom hard enough to knock the wind out of her.

“—and just because they don’t have proper brains doesn’t mean that don’t want revenge for—”

She groaned into her shoulder. Nothing felt broken, but her lungs ached with the effort of breathing in. After testing first her legs and then her arms and finally the mobility of her neck, she gathered herself together enough to stand.

The room was a larger version of the tunnel, with white tiled walls and a chilled linoleum floor. The light she’d seen while falling came from a sign near the ceiling. Brighter than neon, it hurt to look at, but she forced herself to make out the words the twisty bulbs spelled out.

EAT ME.

A crooked arrow in black paint pointed from the words to a table that, if pressed, she would swear hadn’t been there a second ago. A plate of stale donuts sat at the center of the table. The iced ones looked like someone had swiped a finger through the frosting.

Her thoughts went back to that leftover pizza she never got to eat and her stomach snarled. A donut would go a long way to stanching the pain in her middle, but eating office food—even ancient, awful-looking office food—was like eating from the hands of a fairy. One bite and she would be enslaved for life.

But she was so hungry.

And glazed with sprinkles were her favorite.

And it wasn’t like her employers were actually fairies. Devious, twisted, and occasionally seen at the bedsides of infants, yes, but not pointy-eared, iron-fearing, revel-dancing fairies.

At least, she didn’t think so.

As she pressed the chewy, sticky pastry between her lips, she struggled to remember a time she’d heard anything about her employers, normal, round ears or otherwise.

“—and so I says to her, ‘Sweetie you can’t sit on that porch forever. You’re liable to get a blister in your backside before too long now get in this car or so help me Lord—”

Too right, Chloe thought and bit into the doughnut. Saliva flooded her mouth and she moaned in sugary ecstasy.

The line went deadly quiet and for a frightening second she thought she’d been disconnected.

“Are you… eating? Now?” Caroline asked, incredulous.

No sooner had she swallowed in order to answer than her arms and legs shot out from her trunk like they were cartoon limbs, stretching and widening with, not exactly pain, but adjacent to pain. She wasn’t comfortable, that’s for sure. The headset snapped and the phone base clattered to the floor, which was getting steadily further and further away, though she could still see her feet (albeit barely) still planted on the ground.

When the growth finally stopped, with her head pressing against the ceiling and her neck bent at an odd angle, she bit down on her tongue to gain a little focus. The room felt like it was spinning and each time she reached out to touch the walls her body moved with such exaggerated slowness that she nearly toppled over, disoriented.

Caroline’s voice came from somewhere below, tinny and squeaky as a mouse.

“I’m still here!” Chloe bellowed in a voice much deeper than her own.

She didn’t know what kind of hallucinogen they’d slipped into those doughnuts, but she was damn sure they’d be paying for the therapy it was going to take to get this nightmare out of her mind.

She was the kind of dizzy that settled on her after a night of drinking, when she knew closing her eyes was a bad idea, but she couldn’t look anywhere without a wave of vertigo knocking her off-balance. It made her edgy and anxious. Worst of all, it made her cry.

Chloe hated crying.

She squashed the sniffles beneath her giant hand—God, what if it stayed that way? How was she going to get back into her apartment?—and bit back the worst of the sobs. But still the tears came; fat globs of wet that streamed down her face before puddling at her feet. And the more the puddle grew, the more she cried, an awful damp cycle that didn’t show any signs of stopping until she got a grip or drowned.

Drowning was looking more and more likely and she probably would’ve resigned herself to it if a bottle hadn’t fallen from the ceiling, bonking her directly between the eyes. She gasped in surprise, her mouth opened just enough, and the bottle fell in. A tag reading DRINK ME fluttered by, as small as her fingernail.

Against her better judgement, she swallowed.

Her insides felt like they were on a rip-cord, springing back with a ferocity that sent her reeling. She hit the water—SMACK—and, arms wrapped around her stinging middle, it was lights out.

The last thing she heard before darkness took her was Caroline’s incessant hello-ing as it turned to gurgles under the waves.

 

***

 

“Hello? Hel-LO?” Caroline pulled the phone away from her ear to check the connection. She frowned, wondering how it’d gotten so damp. She wasn’t usually a big sweater, but this heat and Lord how she’d gotten herself all worked up over a little ol’ box…

She waited on the line until it clicked off of its own accord. She knew how these companies worked. If she hung up, they’d have no qualms with making her go through the whole rigmarole of robots and things before telling her there was nothing they could do. They’d hung up on her, which meant she was owed something. And no one had ever wriggled out of settling debts with Mrs. Caroline Dollaker.

She dumped her phone in a bag of rice (because those phone company yuppies weren’t any better; one hint of water damage and they’d take her for all she was worth over replacing it) and fixed herself a cup of coffee, stirring in a bit of extra cream. She deserved it, what with the afternoon she’d had.

Once the caffeine buzzed kicked in, she decided to take another stab at the box, this time with her Pioneer Woman cleaver, specially ordered last Christmas when George got all excited about some bird-monster thing he’d wanted her to cook up. Turducken, it was called. Devil’s work, more like, but she’d made the damned thing and they all ate it up like they were the ark oOne’s own. But they were happy, that’s what had mattered.

The box jumped a little as she approached, but she whispered to it, she wasn’t going to hurt it, this big knife wasn’t for it, then when it’d just about reached a point of complete calm, Caroline jabbed the tip of the cleaver into the tape and dragged down, tearing the lid completely apart. A whimpering sound came from somewhere nearby, but she figured it was only the neighbor kicking his dog again. Heathens, everywhere she looked. It was unseemly.

She folded the flaps aside and reached in. Part of her already guessed what she’d find, but she didn’t like to presume.

The figure was about the length of her forearm, with an expression painted on its face somewhere between pain and awe. This one was a girl, with hair carved into the shape of a long ponytail. There was a plastic headset glued on her head, with a moveable mouthpiece. It didn’t look as nice as the others, but was just as lifelike. Caroline smiled, content, as she stood the figure on the mantle with the others. That made seven, now. She’d amassed quite the collection.

 

THE END

Lamb Cake: A Prison Story

Some authors find their books on banned books lists and feel a strange giddyness, a tremor in the weirder, sillier parts of their brains, tickled that someone would take offense at their little words.

Me? I get emails from CORRECTIONS INSTITUTES.

That’s right. They’re taking me away. CUFF ME.

Kidding. Mostly.

Red Adept, the publisher of Sacrificial Lamb Cake, received an email from Arizona State Corrections, offering the chance to APPEAL a decision on disallowing the book in the prison.

Here’s a snippet of the email:

To Whom It May Concern:

The Arizona Department of Corrections has determined that your publication described below contains Unauthorized Content as defined in Department Order 914.07 and, as a result, may be released in part or excluded in whole for the specific reason(s) given below.

Publication Title: Sacrificial Lamb Cake

ISBN: 9781940215426 Volume/Number: Publication Date: 2015

Reason: DO 914.07 – 1.2.2.4 Masturbation, Lewd Exhibition
DO 914.07 – 1.2.2.5 Incestuous Sexual Activity
DO 914.07 – 1.2.15 Cipher/Code

You and/or the inmate subscriber may appeal the decision by notifying us via email or U.S. Mail within 30 calendar days after you receive this notice. By appealing, you consent to allowing OPR to redact any Unauthorized Content within the parameters set forth in Department Order 914.06 § 1.13. Your consent is strictly limited to authorizing ADC to alter by redaction your publication. It does not constitute consent to the substance of the actual redaction(s) subject to this Notice.

Lewd exhibition? Guilty.

Incestuous sexual activity? Uh… no?

Cipher/Code? FALSE. LIES. IT’S ALL LIES. (For real, though. No ciphers. No “Get out of Jail Free” cards slipped between the pages.

So it seems Lamb Cake will not be seeing the inside of an Arizona prison anytime soon. I have to wonder, though… HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? I didn’t send them a copy. Red Adept didn’t send them anything. Did a prisoner somehow order it? Was it gifted to someone with a hastily scribbled cipher for dismantling the whole prison system in the margins?

We may never know, and that, friends, is a goddamned tragedy.

FIN.

WE WROTE A THING (A Giveaway!)

We wrote a thing.

It’s a little thing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get the job done.

wink

For those of you not in the know (and really, where have you been?), Deviant Dolls Publications is a group of speculative fiction writers, but we use the term “speculative” broadly. In our new anthology, Echoes & Bones, you’ll find a mish-mash of horror, bizarro, humor, and a little bit of heart—there’s something for everyone in here (even you erotica lovers. That’s right. Get you some).

eb cover art

In addition to some great stories centered around a single theme (a psychic and a teacup), most of the dolls have contributed bonus content, including excerpts of novels and entire short stories. Flip to the end and you’ll find a brand new story in the Liquid Innovations universe in which a call center employee falls down the rabbit hole in search of the answer to the question that must never be asked: What do we actually do here?

Get your copy TODAY for $2.99, or throw in a couple extra dollars and get a shiny, new paperback to display at a place of honor on your shelves.

OR IF YOU’RE CHEAP LIKE ME, share this post and tag me for a chance to win an e-copy of ECHOES & BONES and ALL DARLING CHILDREN. Winners will be chosen on Halloween. Muahahahahaha.

evil laugh

It’s October. Get your creep on.

Shut Up. I’ve Been Reading.

Over the last year I decided to keep track of all the books I read in a journal. The process had its good points and its bad. On the one hand, it was nice to be able to go back and find the name of “that one book with the bear” without having to autopsy a vague list of Google results. On the other, I’m HIGHLY competitive, even with myself. A lot of the time, I found myself buzzing through books just to get them on The List without actually losing myself in the story. That sucked. On the other, OTHER, hand, I get to make this cool list. It all evens out. I’ve included the cover art and buy links for my favorites of the year.

 

AUGUST 2016

 

The Three by Sarah Lotz

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

Swamplandia

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Magic foe

Just Like Beauty by Lisa Lerner

 

SEPTEMBER 2016

 

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Kingfisher

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne M Valente

Evil at Heart by Chelsea Cain

Coconut Cowboy by Tim Dorsey

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiassen

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Razor Girl by Carl Hiassen

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

 

OCTOBER 2016

 

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood

darkest secret

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

damaged

The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti

vanishing

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

rivers of

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Broken Piano for President by Patrick Wensink

Red Queen by Christina Henry

 

NOVEMBER 2016

 

Mile Marker Zero by William McKeen

Leisel and Po by Lauren Oliver

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

51ewu-9sril-_sx329_bo1204203200_

Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Shrill by Lindy West

Eric by Terry Prachett

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Moscow but Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

moscow but

Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch (His Peter Grant series is addicting, obvs.)

Best State Ever by Dave Berry

Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente

Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

hidden bodies

Under the Big Top by Bruce Feiler

The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

 

DECEMBER 2016

 

Speak Easy by Catherynne M Valente

speak easy

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

lie tree

New Yorked by Rob Hart

How to Ruin Everything by George Watsky

Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King

Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick

The Resurrectionist by E.B. Hudspeth

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

grace keepers

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

bone gap

 

JANUARY 2017

 

From the Forest by Sara Maitland

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver

little nothing

City of Rose by Rob Hart

Walk Through Walls by Marina Abromovic

The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz

calamity

Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum

The Good, the Bad, and the Smug by Tom Holt

The Morning They Came for Us by Janine di Giovanni

The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker

clay girl

The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

The Apartment by S. L. Grey

Only Daughter by Anna Snoekstra

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

 

FEBRUARY 2017

 

Behind her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

behind

The Last Place You’d Look by Carole Moore

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

bear and

Crime Beat by Michael Connolley

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

The Song is You by Megan Abbott

song is

Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

 

MARCH 2017

 

The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

jack sparks

Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

girls on fire

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healy

elizabeth

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Tell Me Exactly What Happened by Caroline Burau

tell me

The Collector by John Fowles

Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood

hag seed

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

 

APRIL 2017

 

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Day Four by Sarah Lotz

Faithful Place by Tana French

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

The Secret Place by Tana French

secret

The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

 

MAY 2017

 

Burntown by Jennifer McMahon

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

rooms

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple

bernadette

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling

This One is Mine by Maria Semple

Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge

In the Woods by Tana French

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

 

JUNE 2017

 

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

darker shade

Before This is Over by Amanda Hickie

The Facts of Life and Death by Brenda Bauer

Danger to Self by Paul Linde

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

I Crawl Through It by A.S. King

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

down among

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

Amp’d by Ken Pisani

ampd

 

JULY 2017

 

Party of One by Dave Holmes

The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt

good daughter

Lucky You by Erika Carter

Abroad by Katie Crouch

Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon

The Rathbones by Janice Clark