2019-07-28 17:00 fiction flash-fiction

Proper Attire Required

I put on the costume because I knew it would enrage them. It wasn't a costume really, it was me giving them the finger. It was me spitting on their society and their idiotic rules. The big red nose, the oversized shoes, face paint, and pants that swung loosely on me like a ridiculous pendulum from suspenders that I'd clipped, quite precisely, a fake flower that shot water, were an expression of disdain. I teased out my hair into an approximation of frantic, vaudevillian distress. The hat which sat on top of that was tiny, laughably small—although my intentions were not entertaining, and not humorous in any way. I wouldn't need weapons, this affront to them was sufficient. They would lose their minds, in a sense, the confrontation would be too much to bear. Why has one of us chosen the costume which we so explicitly forbade? What mockery of us does this express, in this form, parading before our refined sensibilities?

I tidied the cabin. The luxurious cruise ship afforded me several entrances to the main hall, where the banquet was already underway.

Upon entering, I concluded, I will ignore the black tie and gown clad attendees and head directly to the buffet where I would enthusiastically begin honking the large bicycle horn terminating in a large rubber bulb that I'd stuffed down my voluminous trousers. After the riot, assuming I survived, I'd already secured an alias and fake passport. They would never find me.

2019-06-22 22:09 fiction flash-fiction


At the sea they would become whole again. At the sea they would grow. At the sea they would settle. They longed for the air of the ocean, both fresh and fetid, the scale of sudden weather transforming them likewise. A breath, of sorts. They would find that shack again, by the pier, barely large enough to sleep in. Damp with mist. Sand ground down into the wood. Sand in everything else. And by some circumstances, a tragedy or a lottery, they would be gloriously marooned. The sea would creep up on them, rising, until the surface of the earth returned to a state of mythical flood. Strange new animals would appear when the waves receded. The land would be scrubbed and revitalized. There would be absolution. They would walk out onto the new planet, relics themselves, knowing that when they pass, the old world would be gone forever. And good riddance, they would cheer, now free from antediluvian constraints. To the sea, they chanted, back to the sea.

2019-04-06 14:08 fiction flash-fiction


The train car was sitting on a forgotten extension off the end of the line. He'd found it by accident. One cold, gray day he was hunting rabbits with the old rifle. He wasn't having any luck. He went farther into the forest, farther than he'd ever been. He thought he saw a rabbit bolt over a sparsely wooden hill and he followed it. When he emerged on the other side he saw the train, vines covering one end, on rails which emerged intermittently from ground cover, that curved away off into the woods. He could see the weather-beaten roof from where he was. And yet the windows were unbroken. He could see remains of decorative embellishments on the dark, red lacquered sides. There were accents of gold, and chrome, now tarnished. The wheels were covered in rust. He approached cautiously, although he wasn't quite sure why. The train car was a strange, ancient outgrowth. It was part of the forest now anyway, he thought. But the beauty of it intimidated him. A rabbit darted past, he ignored it. He walked to the back of the car, which had broad, rounded windows, and he grabbed the now dull brass hand rail and pulled himself up to the first step. The door was equally ornate, and finally faded by nature. He grabbed the door handle and turned it, seeing hints of the dimly lit interior through the cloudy window. He stopped short before entering. He had the sensation he was violating a law, but he didn't know which law. The inside of the train car was musty. The long, thin room was lavish, the furniture, the decorations, all were faded but undamaged. He lingered. He felt as if, in some sense, this had been prepared for him—or, at least, it had been carefully placed in order to be seen. He didn't sit down. He looked out the window into the trees. It was a painting to him, a dissection of the essence of the forest presented with specific intention. The silence was hypnotizing. He stopped thinking about who may have left it here, or why it was abandoned. He could feel the oriental rug under his shoes and the hardwood below that. The stained glass lamp made from a thousand hand cut pieces was indelible, the silver fixtures next to it extensions of this interior. It was his. He placed the old rifle, with its clumsy, cracked wooden stock, into the bucket meant for umbrellas. This was his now, and he did not have to leave.

2019-03-24 20:14 fiction flash-fiction


He said. If you are inclined and the shadows from the buildings are not too cold and long. Stretch. Be aware of the present situation but do not dwell on intentions. When we conceived of the rituals, he said, we did not anticipate the gross partitions, or the gradual shift in attention. We must adjust. Pass quietly. If you are seen you will evaporate, being nothing but more mist in the fog we struggle within. Solidify. When the time comes you will become aware of the transitional mantra, it will ring in your ears and evict from your lungs in a thunderous clap. He dipped the brush into the pot again, preparing another stroke. Be ready, he said, for a collision. Create in yourself a map of imaginary worlds, an entire universe if necessary. Surrender. There is no recourse or commandments. There is no justification or solution. there are no allies but everyone is your friend. Cages are built slowly, he said, raising the broad ink filled brush. And you must endeavor to navigate the visceral substance, you must collect the rubble and dance in a way that instills an invisible compulsion. He brought the brush down in a mighty and confident arc, erasing everything he'd done.

2019-02-28 13:02 fiction flash-fiction

Side Effects

She was in both places at the same time, he double checked. Was it a trick of the light? But then one of her waved at him. He waved back, acknowledging. The other her appeared confused — who was he waving to? He felt guilty. The first her observed his reaction and responded with bewilderment. A celestial condition, he wondered, something quantum. He'd read a book about it, once, about the fickle guts of the universe. We might be gone in an instant, he remembered thinking. Maybe, he supposed, instead of disappearing we repeatedly reappear. Just as likely. How many more of her will there be? There would have to be changes. Two, fine, but three or more? The grocery bill. The small car. What about sleeping arrangements? It could become awkward quickly. And what about more than four? What if this were a kind of exponential situation? Two, then four, then eight, sixteen, and so on. Soon the world would be populated by her. The resources of civilization would be strained then buckle. He glared, squinting, as if trying to ascertain the potential for splitting the divisional substrate, powered by fuel of some random snag in quantum fabric. He looked out across the courtyard, a chorus of instantiation, looking to his left he saw an epoch of himself, arranged like a corner of mirrors, self-reflecting. Nothing could be done. He took her by the hand and then the other, he introduced them. They would muddle through these new conditions as best they could.

2019-02-03 15:00 fiction flash-fiction


When he woke up in the middle of the night the devil was there, on the couch.

"I was thirsty. I had a strange dream in which I was very thirsty. So I decided to get up and get a drink of water," he said.

The devil nodded, acknowledging this as a reasonable course of action.

"What are you doing here?" he asked the devil.

The devil was red of course, but always a paler shade than he'd expected. And there were the horns — but they were understated, even manicured. He wasn't wearing a robe, or intimidating, perhaps suggestive leather accessories, but quite ordinary clothes. The pants were slim, in a tan, cotton twill. The shirt was a quiet checkered pattern with the top two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up to the upper third of his forearms. He was wearing an apple watch. The shoes were Clarks. And the socks, which he saw about an inch worth, were predictably scarlet.

"I'm just checking in. Touching base," the devil said. "Have you considered the opportunity?" he asked.

"I'm not sure it's a good for for me right now," he replied.

"I hear you, I hear you," the devil said, "although the perks are amazing. Really top notch."

"Yes, so you've said."

The devil shrugged. "I mean, you don't have to take my word for it, just ask Lewis, in your bathroom. He'll tell you."

"Lewis? In my bathroom?"

"Right," the devil nodded enthusiastically, "in your bathroom. You had to piss anyway, yes? While you're up? I figured you and Lewis could talk about the position, about the culture. No matter what you decide it never hurts to keep networking, right?"

"Yeah," he said.

The devil sat and smiled. He did have to urinate. He could also get a drink from the bathroom sink, although this is something he generally eschewed, but given the circumstances he'd make an exception. He walked a few feet to the bathroom, reflexively hitting the light switch without looking as he stepped in. There was Lewis, he assumed, standing in the bathtub.

"Hi, I'm Lewis," Lewis said.

"Hello Lewis. You don't mind if I pee a bit do you?" he said, lifting the seat.

"No, no. Go right ahead," Lewis said cheerily.

He began to pee.

"I mean, look, I don't want to seem like I'm trying to sell this to you," Lewis said.

"OK," he replied.

"I'm not the kind of person who normally tries to recruit people," Lewis added.

"Sure," he said. He urinated more forcefully.

"But this is really a unique opportunity. I had my doubts too, but it worked out great. Nice folks, smart folks, very supportive. And the perks–"

"Yes, the perks are amazing," he said, finishing up then hitting the handle.

2018-12-26 14:43 fiction flash-fiction


Directly above the metal edge he saw a single moist, dark eyeball, set in a broad, furry cranium. The truck pulled away rapidly, acceleration caused the eye to reflexively widen.

He didn't know where they took the beasties. They were harmless really — massive, shaggy, passive creatures. Except that they started appearing in huge numbers. Certain areas of the city were brought to a complete halt. Major roadways closed down. They would stand there, thousands of them, calmly, still, stubbornly resistant to any common coercion. Scientists said they were a new species, but they didn't understand why or how the beasties had gone unnoticed until now, or why they were suddenly drawn to major population centers, highways, office parks, shopping centers. Anywhere, it was said, they were most unwanted and most in the way.

Collectively they emitted a sound in a subtle frequency that had peculiar effects on some individuals. A tranquilizing reaction. Almost everyone could agree that the purr of the herds was pleasant, like that serene fugue you might slip into as a child, while you absentmindedly hum along in the same tone as a mundane appliance like a vacuum cleaner. An audio simpatico maybe, a lazy resonance.

He watched the truck pull away. Where would they be brought? The public distaste for violence against the beasties was clear. So often municipalities would, at night, laboriously ship them out. They didn't resist. He wondered, would they be loaded onto ships and sent to a distant, barren island? There were too many of them now for this, there were more and more every month. He was drawn to them.

He decided instantly, impulsively, to find out where they were going. Several more trucks were lined up for departure. He ran to the back of the line and the back of the last truck. He pulled himself up the gate and then squeezed in over the lip. He could tell they were close, all around him. They were warm and the fur smelled like wet grass. He pressed himself against the side of the truck and the shoulder of a one of them. He couldn't move or twist upwards to see the face above him but he soon felt a wide, rough tongue gently licking the top of his head. With a jolt the truck drove forward.

2018-12-22 23:01 fiction flash-fiction science-fiction


— The wind at the door, she said.

— Oh? he asked.

— Howling, she said.

— Angry? he said.

— Insistent, she replied.

As the building shook they feared for their lives. Like last night. Like the week before. They survived each attempt. And the wind tonight tried very hard, blasting itself against their bricks, inundating every corner, until it was a whistling roar, a ghostly edifice that would erode even stone over time. The tense wires connecting them to the outside world were stressed then broken, adrift on the torrent, philosophical sails fluttering until they were torn asunder.

— We may need to reconsider, she said, the bulwarks and doors, the lintels, the sacred seals.

— We knew this might happen when we built inside the ancient skull, the wind collects inside, this head is a cavern and while we're protected from the rains and the radiation the winds might do us in, he said.

— But where else would we go? To the thorax? To the indelible cistern? To the tree people? Do you know what it's like living in the trees?

Once again, he thought, I have to hear about living in the trees and how awful it was, and how her aunt died out on a limb.

But the wind was fierce and they had to shout above it.

— If you listen carefully, he said.

— What? she said.

— If you listen carefully, he yelled.

— You what? she yelled.

— If you listen carefully, he yelled, you can hear the great thoughts of the ancient empty head roaring back and forth.

— That's stupid, she yelled.

2018-12-12 01:08 fiction flash-fiction


They sat around the table, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, ashes piled up in several tea cups and plates, arguing about who came first.

I was, he said, I am certain of it, I was borned, the same way people have always been borned.

No, the next one said, it was me, I know this is true, I have proof.

There was laughter.

Show me your proof, the other one said.

He raised his shirt, showing off a belly button full of lint. The other two, successively, lifted their shirts, showing their navels as well. They were identical in every respect despite the variety of lint.

This proves nothing, he said, we each have navels, they could've engineered the navels, don't you think?

The other one shrugged.

What do you know, the next one said.

I know everything you know, and more, the other said.

Shut up, he said, we've been through all of this before.

What if there are more, the other one said.

So what? Millions, there could be millions, the next one said.

But if there are millions, I am the one borned, he said. He lifted his shirt and showed his navel.

2018-12-06 20:40 photography fiction flash-fiction


I believe photographs steal your soul. I slink between CCTV cameras. Every foray into the outside world is a terrifying excursion. I could suddenly be caught in the background of some ubiquitous selfies. I could be captured behind an ATM transaction. I could be doomed to limbo from the tinted window of a passing bus of tourists, patrolling the capitalist battle zone. A single slip and my immortal essence would be ripped from me, uploaded to Instagram or lost in some surveillance database, perhaps exchanged for a ruble in some future data breach. I can't claim to understand the contemporary obsession to record everything, from minutiae to tragedy, from salacious to the mundane, every wink, every faked smile, every greasy meal.

It has seemed clear to me, for quite some time, that what was said in the past, when photography was new, that the capturing of the human image so easily, so mechanically, so absently, is dangerous. To agree you don't need to believe in the metaphysical soul as I do.

I plan my routes carefully. I have considered a disguise, but rejected it as a trick of surfaces. It would be me. I would still be stolen.

One day I saw her, dodging the CCTV, weaving in and out of the camera coverage bubbles with a deft guile that was exhilarating. I saw her adjust then adapt with the abrupt intersection of young revelers, phones in hand, arms permanently thrust out like the stalk of a blind, hungry plant. She weaved into the penumbra, hiding in an invisible shard. I knew the only viable location closest to her was the old camera shop.

Wait, a camera shop? Yes, one of the safe places was an outdated camera shop — the aged owner didn't have video monitors. He sold long since discontinued film cameras and used to do processing. The place was out of the way and nobody went in there anymore. Someone from his generation wouldn't just take a stranger's picture without asking, that would be incredibly rude.

This is where she would go, I suspected.

I was right. She must've known too. She must've had the same surreptitious map. After she entered the shop, waiting for the inebriated selfies to pass, I carefully made my way over. When I entered she looked at me, sharply. It's you, she said. It's me, I replied. You avoid them too, I've seen you, she said. Yes, I said.

We began to meet at the camera shop regularly. The owner sat at the back, quietly. We would pretend to look at cameras, the owner would pretend that we wanted to buy something.

One day she asked, what if we stole each others souls? What do you mean, I said. With this old Polaroid, what if I took a photo of you and you took a photo of me, she said. Would you promise to keep my soul safe? I said. Yes, I promise, she said. And you promise to keep mine safe forever too? she asked. Yes, I said.

We paid the owner for the Polaroid and he gave us his last pack of film.

2018-11-18 15:56 fiction flash-fiction


I tried, but I keep returning. The first time I threw myself under a bus. It had been a tedious day, I recall, every casual comment was a stab to the soul, every cold glance a territorial insult. I do not consider myself so sensitive, but sometimes retreat is appropriate.

No, this is incorrect. The first time was very long ago. I sat on a stone wall. I watched a wagon full of hay, its wheels churning with loud frustration through muddy village roads. The eyes of the horses were perfect exclamations of an imprisoned struggle, a slavery to conditions. It affected me deeply. I tied a mill stone to myself and walked into the lake.

Was that the first time? No, I don't think it was. However, it doesn't matter. I keep coming back. The process is opaque to me. I approach it with varying degrees of either desperation or creeping resignation. Sometimes I will go an entire lifetime, relaxed, conjoined with the temporary purposes and desires of a human life, and then a sudden, brutal succession of violent demises — as if I were declaring to whatever cruel master keeps us bound to this existential wheel, that I will not be quiet, that I will not accept these circumstances. With a rope. With a knife. With a gun. I know these expressions are relatively obscene. But what is obscenity in the face of an eternal process? It is screaming up at a sky full of stars, imaging resurrection upon each new world, the same profane rules across the entire swath, like a universal tyrant.

I once constructed a large, steam powered machine that dissected my physicality, cataloging each humor and duct, every gland and synapse, vaporizing as it proceeded until I was nothing but a measurable series of operations. And still, I came back.

For every clever method there was another equally, spitefully primitive. Some public, some private. There were periods of attraction to basic elements, Earth, Wind, Fire. Although in that age I was preoccupied with the alchemical principles that I believed anchored my curse. I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering how and why I occupy this position. I wondered how long it would continue. I wondered if any variation were possible. Then, realizing the futility of this woolgathering, I stopped thinking about it entirely for several lifetimes, amazed and disappointed with every return.

My current fascination is this digital era. I began to think that I needed to collect more data, since data is the spiritual currency, that if I record every action, every lifetime, and certainly every demise, I might detect through careful analysis a meaningful pattern. It will take a while, but then I have plenty of time. I am convinced the scientific method is the answer, no more of that archaic mumbo-jumbo. Gone are the literally fuming cucurbit and retort. It's me, I am nothing more than an experiment.

Today I go to that candy factory in the industrial zone. The security is lax. The equipment they use to pull, twist, knead and roll the mountains of candy, I hear, is powerful and deadly.

2018-11-16 16:20 fiction flash-fiction

Town Below

After they'd gone below they wondered how long they might stay there. One generation or two? More? Everything above would've been taken care of by then, surely. People would have to fix things. It would take time, obviously. But there was no choice, one way or another. Do or die, really. Until then the town would continue as it always had. But deeper below. There would be artificial light that mimicked the sun. The town square, on a summer's day would still be green and grassy, children playing around the bandstand, the town elders sitting in lawn chairs, a couple barbecuing, dogs chasing one another.

Their last meeting in the town hall was bittersweet. But the new town hall, directly beneath them a few hundred meters, had been reproduced exactly. Even the flaws were recreated, like the cracked baluster. And they knew, the next morning, they would all be gone from the surface of the Earth. There would be no announcement, nothing official. Shops would be closed.

Initially they were anxious that others would worry about them — the neighboring town for instance. What would they think when they drove through tomorrow and there was nothing but silence? What would their dark, abandoned town at night, devoid of lights in the windows, mean to those passing through? A warning perhaps. A statement. Better that the town be burned to the ground, as if struck by some uncontrollable wild fire, several citizens suggested. No, the mayor responded, we have abandoned the surface, the silence should be worrisome, it should be portentous, it should make them stop and wonder 'What have I done to cause this? What have I done wrong?'

And so, early in the morning, they lined up with their suitcases in front of the old barber shop. In the back, past the big, swiveling chairs, and the rarely painted wall covered with photos taken over a hundred years, the cramped wooden staircase led down to a heavy, modern door secured with huge metal bolts. One by one they went through this door, until the last of them, the mayor, entered and sealed it behind himself with a resounding clang.

2018-11-12 21:27 fiction flash-fiction science-fiction

Across The Field

When the boy got to the edge of the field he could see the outlines of the power stalks against dusk, and the thousands of small green lights spread out far in front of him, cast like a net. An evening breeze made them moan slightly, as the fibrous tension adjusted their sway to maximize the kinetics.

He wasn't supposed to be in the field. If he got caught it would cost him six months social credit, he should care more about his credit, they said.

He stepped down off the road, stumbling over an exposed root. The nearest stalk reacted slightly to the energy, sending a wave of micro-movements rippling across the field, and creating a delicate sound of descending frequency like water drops from a shut faucet. Once he was far enough in, the loose canopy would hide him from the road.

On the other side of the field was the quarry, and he knew there was a hole in the fence because this wasn't the first time he'd done this. As it became darker he turned on his headlamp, the dim red beam delineating the gently swaying stalks around him. It reminded him of the new Reel. He guessed it was easier for them to make it like that, only build as much environment as you could see in low light. Sometimes he wondered if reality was like this too.

He came to the fence suddenly, it rose out of the darkness, startling him. He would have to navigate along the edge of it until he found the hole. Left or right? He guessed left, knowing he might have to backtrack. By now Bug would be waiting for him on the other side, in the quarry. Everyone had always called him Bug because of the ocular slots, some kind of genetic condition. Bug was a few years older than himself. Bug had bought the last few Reels from him. He'd promised to buy more, and this one was good, something special. He'd continue in this direction another minute or two. When he didn't find the hole in the fence he swore and then turned around.

That's when he saw lights from the direction of the quarry. A dozen of them? White lights moving quickly. He abruptly turned off his headlamp. He heard shouting. Bug was shouting, he believed. So, they'd gotten him.

He didn't know what to do, maybe running was a bad idea, they must have ways of seeing. He didn't move. But then he heard their little feet. He imagined them springing forward awkwardly like birds running. He had to move — he turned and bolted back into the field. Without the headlamp he careened into stalks. The impacts caused the whole array to shudder, echoing outwards across the field with enthusiastic clanging. From the road the net of indicator light must be undulating now, he thought.

He ran several more yards, bumped into another oscillating stalk, then paused, listening. He didn't hear anything other than stalks happy with energy. Maybe it was good he'd done this, he wondered, there wasn't much chance they'd find him now under this loud canopy, no matter how well they could see. He just had to make it over the road. The other side of the road was another zone, he knew, maybe they can't even follow me in there. He grabbed the nearest stalk and shook it as hard as he could for a moment. Then he ran straight as hard as he could.

2018-11-08 19:06 fiction flash-fiction

Everything That Will Happen

The bottle was thrown overboard with apparent disregard. It may never be seen. It may never wash up. It could be swallowed by some leviathan. It could be smashed on the rocks. What was the message in the bottle? she asked. Everything that will happen, he said. What? Everything? she asked. Enough anyway, he said. That's a lot to fit on one piece of paper, she said. They could still see the top of the bottle intermittently as short, angry waves dodged back and forth, the bottle spinning in distress. But who will rescue us, the rescuers? she asked. Perhaps the bottle will float out into space, he said. Perhaps they will be sympathetic, he added. In three days the ship would arrive and they had no idea what they would find, the outpost was remote. For a while it looked like the bottle followed them. The wind chewed into their exposed faces as they watched it. The horizon was nothing but a gray line, unvariegated clouds filling the firmament. Then the bottle became more distant, turning its attentions to the curve of the Earth, to somewhere that might lay beyond this damp gray sky. Well there it goes, she said. There was nothing left to look at except the seascape, bubbling with a kind of natural eternity that both knew could easily become sorrow if you thought about it too hard. Coffee? he asked. Coffee, she said.

2018-11-05 21:11 fiction flash-fiction

Mr Black

She believed at night that Mr Black crawled inside the bag. There was no other explanation.

She'd rented her rooms to lots of people over the years, so she'd seen some things. Nobody ever said boarding houses attracted the best and the brightest. When she inherited the house taking on boarders was an obvious way to make ends meet. And it wasn't all bad, she'd made some good friends, some were like family.

Everyone would sit after dinner around the radio, Mr Black too, listening to a show or Eisenhower or music or whatever. Mr Black always seemed to laugh at the wrong time, as if he was listening to something else entirely. That didn't bother her much though, she'd had some real oddballs in the house before. There had been one woman who began shrieking whenever there was an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, then would run to her room, sobbing. There was a man who brought his own plate and utensils down from his room every night for supper, and bring them right back immediately afterwards. She never understood how he got them so clean up there. So the irregular bit of laughter wasn't awful. And Mr Black wasn't a bad sort actually, maybe some of the other boarders thought he was aloof, so what. He'd been quiet but generally polite.

But then there was that night with the phone call. It was maybe an hour after radio time. The main phone rang. The one the boarders used, in the hallway. Usually she didn't bother with the phone so late. If it was important they could call back tomorrow. Civilized people didn't ring so late anyway. But she was down there, tidying, so she picked it up. The voice on the other end asked for Mr Black. It was a terrible voice, she thought, a woman's voice she supposed, but raspy. Strained. And there was a far away quality to it. In danger? She couldn't place the uneasiness of it. She told the woman she would get him, and who may I say is calling? She asked. "Mrs Black," the woman said. Oh my, she thought. When I agreed to rent the room I asked Mr Black if he was married and he said no. And he wore no wedding ring. She told the woman to hold on, she would get him. Normally she didn't disturb tenants this late, but she'd make an exception. They must be divorced, she thought.

At the top of the stairs she knocked on the door to Mr Black's room. Silence. No answer. She kept track of who came and went. After listening to the radio Mr Black did go up to his room. He didn't leave the house. She would know this. She always knew who was in or out. She knocked again, believing that, since it was Mrs Black, it could be urgent or an emergency. If he were asleep she would have to wake him. Before she opened the door she knocked again and told him that Mrs Black was on the phone and that it might be important given the way Mrs Black sounds. Then she turned the doorknob, the room was unlocked, and she opened it enough to put her head inside.

There was no one in the room. The light was on. The room was clean. There was nothing of Mr Black's to be seen except the bag she remembered him bringing, a large kind of gym bag or carryall, very plain looking. But it was now full, very full, almost bursting. It horrified her. Did it move? As if something inside it was shifting its weight? The rough cloth rippled, expanding and contracting slightly. Revulsion paralyzed her momentarily, then she pulled her head back into the hallway and slammed the door shut.

She rushed back downstairs. She waited just inside the kitchen, listening. A moment later she heard footsteps coming down the stairs. She heard the phone handset being picked up off the shelf where she'd left it, and Mr Black's voice, giving a series of responses. Yes, No, No, I don't know. And so on. Then the phone was hung up and she heard him go back upstairs.

She wondered what to do. She was perfectly in her rights to ask him to leave. It was just too strange. But how could she even face him now? What would she say?

She tried to sleep that night but, not surprisingly, she had disquieting dreams. In the morning she had a sense of vague anxiety, as if the things around her contained hidden intentions. What was once familiar and comfortable was now threatening. The next day she avoided him, until dinner, which was inevitable. Mr Black acted no differently. He made no surreptitious glances, he let on to nothing, he was his usual self in every way. And then the time in the living room in front of the radio, she watched him, as closely as she could without being obvious, and his behavior hadn't changed. She was relieved when he said goodnight and went up to his room.

And she waited. She waited at the edge of the kitchen, prepared to have an excuse if she were caught waiting. Would Mrs Black call again? How long would she wait? She felt an rising degree of resolve building in herself.

Then the phone rang. She answered it, it was Mrs Black again, asking for Mr Black. Mrs Black sounded the same. Hoarse voice, far way, as if something was between her and the phone. Again she told Mrs Black she would get Mr Black.

At the top of the stairs she knocked several times on his door. There was no answer. This time she opened the door and walked in. She'd given him plenty of warning, she said to herself. The room was the same as the previous night, empty except for the bag. She stared at it. Was it somehow different than last night? She was frozen in place, but something unknown motivated her, she had to know what was in it.

She stepped forward, to the side of the bag. The pull on the zipper was a large flat piece of brass. With two fingers she grabbed it tentatively. She pulled steadily, the zipper smoothly opening. Her heart pounded. What was that, was it feathers?