Grandma Harken from Jackalope Wives is back fixing things for people who’ve gotten themselves in a pickle in The Tomato Thief in Apex Magazine. Like the first tale, she’s crochety but charming. Not to mention as capable as ever. Ursula’s prose is so easy to slip into and by the end I was craving a ripe tomato sandwich.
I had the pleasure of hearing this story for the first time read by Sarah Pinsker at WorldCon last year. It’s so haunting and beautiful. Enjoy it for yourself: And We Were Left Darkling
If you’re lounging around in jammies with nothing to do this weekend, do yourself a favor and click on this link. Read the story. I love the concept and the natural dialogue. Come back and thank me for sending you to one of my favorite reads of 2015:
Noise Pollution by Alison Wilgus in Strange Horizons
Another of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing prompts today. this time, I rolled a combination of “noir” and “zombies.” Here we go:
With his remaining functional eye, Bostwick Hardcastle looked over the decomposing dame leaning on his door frame. She had curves all right, but they were falling to the floor as fast as he could take them in.
“What can I do you for, beautiful?” he asked.
She blushed and her cheek peeled away like a mutton steak.
“My sister,” she wheezed through lungs like Swiss cheese. “I need you to find her. She’s in L.A.”
Hardcastle frowned and a piece of his forehead hit the desk with a plop, revealing smooth pink skin underneath. He grabbed a hat from the rack and slid it down over his brow.
“Give me the lowdown, lady. Make it fast.” Or he was liable to out himself.
“Sabrina Benson. Thirty-three. She telegrammed.”
“Give it here.” The paper was worn from a thousand foldings and moist with smears of decaying flesh. Hardcastle made a note to wash his hands before lunch.
BEARDED FOX MOTEL IN LA. BEENIE.
A puff of post-mortem gas escaped the woman’s derriere and Hardcastle stifled a gag. The hazards of working with Zees.
“I went to the address, but no one answered,” she gasped.
“She’s alive?” asked Hardcastle, his voice a tad too animated for a dead guy.
“Yessssss,” said the woman, her tongue momentarily catching in her remaining teeth.
“You want me to save her?”
“I want you to bring her to me… in any condition.” This did not sound good.
“Mileage and fees are sixty-five. In advance. Extra if I have to chase her.”
“You’ll have to chase her.” She slid a single bill across the table where it stuck from the goo of her rotting flesh.
“Keep the change,” she added. It was twice his usual fee, but he had a bad feeling about this one.
“When it’s done, bring her here.” She dropped a business card on top of the bill. A beauty salon, of all places. The woman no longer had salivary glands, but a viscous liquid dripped from her mouth as she turned to leave.
After the door clicked closed behind her, Hardcastle turned the bolt and drew the shades. The combination to his safe was 3-15-53: Day One of the apocalypse. He would never forget, even if the putrid brains of every Zee forgot the concept of date and time.
He pulled his kit out of the safe and laid out the contents. More creams and powders than on a working girl’s vanity. He paused, concealer sponge in hand, to consider if there were women of the night in ZeeTown. He’d never been outside late enough to find out.
Hardcastle sponged gray makeup onto his forehead and layered a putty scrap over the top to simulate decay. He put away the kit, then pulled out a spray bottle and a can of sardines, one for each pocket. Sardines were the best meal you could hope for, post-fifty-three. High protein, quick to eat, and the smell didn’t draw Zees like fresh food. But sardines were pricey on the underground market. Today’s job would feed him for just about a week.
“Once more, unto the breach,” he said in a practiced raspy wheeze, staggering out into the hallway.
* * *
The sun felt good on his face, though it softened the putty in his disguise. He peeled off the false eye socket and tossed onto the passenger seat. At sixty miles an hour, no Zee would notice.
He saw a handful of cars on the road; enterprising Zees driving erratically with windows buttoned up tight and improvised air conditioners welded to the back. Mostly, they waited to drive after dark, when the air cooled and their slimy backsides didn’t slide on hot vinyl seats.
Nearly all of the living in L.A. had been bitten during the first wave. Two million people living right on top of each other made the city easy pickings. Zees came from hundreds of miles to hunt. Caravans of live people fled during the day and caravans of dead people streamed in at night.
He’d stayed, at first, to protect his family. As much good as that had done. He’d stayed, later on, to rescue the hidden stragglers he’d found. Six in a theater, living on rats. A pair of kids living in a Metro train, sneaking packages from vending machines and automats across the city. A lone woman camping in the silent arboretum.
He’d guided them to the pier in Long Beach where a tender made its nightly rounds. It was rough getting there, and some days you couldn’t make it past the horde of Zees, but if you did, it was the prettiest sight you’d ever seen. The RMS Caronia, patrolling the Pacific for unbitten survivors.
Hardcastle had an open invitation to come aboard, but thinking of those kids in the train, the hidden people out there, and his own kids, he couldn’t… wouldn’t leave the rest of them.
He swung his wood-paneled wagon into a spot at the Bearded Fox. The place was full of Zees sleeping off a night of hunting – he heard their resting moans from every open window and door. Pressing the mangled putty back onto his working eye, he closed the car door with a slow click.
There were ways to tell if a human was nearby using smells and sounds, but the most reliable method was to follow the water. No Zee needed water to live, so when Hardcastle spotted a vulcanized rubber hose snaked across the courtyard and into a window, he knew where to find Beenie.
He knocked gently. Shave and a haircut, so she would know he was a live one.
“Beenie, let me in,” he whispered.
“I’m fine. Go away.”
A nearby shuffling froze Hardcastle in his tracks. A Zee wandered out of a room to watch him. He took a few strips of putty from his pocket and dropped them on the ground.
“Shhhsshshooottt,” he lisped, “Lossst anothththther onnnne.” The Zee went back inside.
“Beenie, honey. We gotta go now. It’s getting crowded out here, doll.”
The door swung open and Beenie stepped outside. If her sister had curves, then Beenie was a goddamned sine wave. Twenty-five never looked so good on a woman… except Beenie was covered in bite marks. Old ones, new ones, in-between ones. At least fifty that he could see.
Hardcastle stepped back as she flicked her hair over her shoulder and crossed her arms.
“You’re bitten,” he said, the fake socket falling to the cement as his eyebrows crinkled.
“But you didn’t turn into…”
“None of your beeswax.”
Hardcastle felt a breath of wind behind him. He turned to see a half-dozen Zees approaching. He extended a hand to Beenie.
“Come on, we gotta run.”
She tapped her foot impatiently and kept her mouth set.
“What are you doing? They’re not going to let you out of here, kid.”
“No, they’re not going to let you out of here, mister.”
A bloated hand clamped down on Hardcastle’s shoulder, spinning him around. Behind him, Beenie continued lecturing.
“Twice a month, my sister sends some private dick over to rescue me…”
Hardcastle kicked and fought. He reached for the spray bottle of hydrochloric acid in his pocket, the one he’d used a hundred times to dissolve eyes and other body parts.
“…as if I don’t have this well in hand.”
The spray bottle was gone. A female Zee on his right had it. She sprayed and a stream of clear liquid hit his arm. He screamed as it ate through his jacket, then through his skin.
“Every one of you rides in like a knight in shining armor, keen on saving me…”
Hardcastle’s back hit the concrete. He lashed out at the things above him. A few leaned in to bite. Others pawed at him with ineffective limbs. He saw the flash of gold badge hanging from the shirt of one Zee. Another had a holster under his shredded suit jacket. He scanned the group; cops and PIs, all of them.
“…and not a single one of you checks the date on the damned telegram.”
And now, through the pain and fear, an image of the telegram came to him. Something familiar about the date stamped in the upper right corner. March 15, 1053. Day One. She’d been here for over a year, gnawed on but unturned.
“Caronia,” he rasped, not faking this time.
Hardcastle felt teeth on his shoulder. His skin stretched as they clenched, then it gave way with a pop.
“Yeah, I’ve been there. Bunch of sissies floating around in circles.”
The pain dulled and the sounds of the world became watery and muted. Beenie leaned close as the color washed out of Hardcastle’s world. He barely felt the tickle as she whispered in his ear.
“You gave it the old college try, dollface, but I’m the gal who’s gonna save the world.”
Chuck Wendig has a fantastic flash challenge up at his Terrible Minds blog. Go. Read. Enjoy.
My random rolls were True Detective and Pokemon:
Detective Pikachu knelt beside the body, his furry head hanging. The dead boy was about nineteen, buried waist-deep in the soft ground of the sand trap on hole nine.
“Pika,” he breathed, and something in the coroner’s gut dropped.
“I know, man. Way too young,” the coroner bent down to look at the boy’s fingernails, but Pikachu already knew. No blood, no skin.
“Yep. Just like the last one. I don’t know how he manages to leave absolutely no DNA behind. I walk through a room and the lab can pin me there two weeks later. This asshole can fuck a chicken and leave an omelet behind.”
A navy sedan slid onto the course, leaving two deep ruts in the otherwise-pristine Kentucky bluegrass. A man got out of the car and tossed his cigarette into the putting green cup.
“Hole in fucking one,” he muttered, pulling off a red cap to run a hand through his spiked black hair. “You okay, man?”
Pikachu nodded at his partner. He fumbled a tiny flask out of his pocket and took a swig.
The coroner shot Detective Ketchum a warning look. Ketchum shrugged and leaned away where Pikachu couldn’t hear.
“What can I do? These cases hit him hard.”
“He’s already on probation.”
“Shit, man. He’s getting the job done.”
The coroner shook his head and went around to the back of the body.
“Here, boys!” he called, holding up something with a pair of tweezers.
Detective Pikachu bounded over, leaning close to the tiny, red object.
“Right. A Pokeball shard. Hot damn. This is the first real clue this guy has left behind in months.”
Pikachu went over to the sedan and got into the passenger seat. Ketchum saw the flask glint in the sunlight.
The coroner sat back on the grass, probably destroying evidence with his ass.
“What happened to him? He used to be the best. Like no one ever was.”
“You know what happened.”
“No one blames him for Misty. He knows that, right?”
“I’ve told him. But he doesn’t yet know it in his bones.”
The motel had placed a prominent “NO POCKET MONSTERS” sign in the office window. Detective Pikachu slid his cash across the counter with one hand while tapping his badge on the surface with the other, daring the clerk to reject him.
The guy looked long and hard at both detectives and tossed a key onto the desk.
Pikachu grabbed the key and walked out, leaving Ketchum to stare down the guy alone.
“Don’t let him shit in the bathtub,” said the clerk, spitting a wad of chew into a mason jar. Ketchum leaned across the desk, so close that he could smell the cherry chew.
“I trained him out of that years ago,” he whispered.
A brown line dribbled down the clerk’s lip. He wiped it off with the back of his hand.
“You trainers are all the same. Crowin’ about your destiny and understanding the power inside. How’s that working out for ya?”
Ketchum jerked upright suddenly, as if he’d been burned.
“Fuck you,” he said, letting the screen door slam behind him as he headed for the restaurant next door. Fuck them all.
* * *
Everything looks better with a belly full of waffles, and murder investigations are no exception.
On his way back across the motel parking lot, Ketchum noticed the sun setting behind the building. The color intensified from the delicate pink of a Charmander to the deep red hue of a Charmeleon.
He’d had one of those, back in the day…
Tires screeched on asphalt. Ketchum braced his feet and put a hand over his weapon. It was the local sheriff, his car outfitted in a most egregious combination of neon yellow and purple. The car slowed as the driver read the door numbers.
“Not 212. Please Jesus. Any one but 212,” said Ketchum, invoking a god in whom he no longer believed.
The cruiser stopped at 212. Ketchum broke into a run.
The sheriff pounded on the door. Ketchum heard a woman screaming behind it.
“Police, ma’am. Open the door.”
Ketchum kicked hard at the door from behind a stunned sheriff. As the door swung inward, he heard a raspy cough near his ear. Putrid breath enveloped his head, which immediately started spinning.
“Get your fucking Weezing off me,” he said to the sheriff, pulling a badge from his jeans and swinging it in the guy’s face. “Detective Ketchum.”
The sheriff held up a Pokeball. The Weezing sighed asthmatically, then flew inside.
The woman inside had stopped screaming. She bent down over a tiny yellow body on the filthy floor.
“Wake up, Peek,” she whined.
Ketchum shoved her aside, her tiny blue pleated skirt flying up, revealing nothing underneath.
“Hey,” she said, pulling it down and whipping a long blonde pigtail over her shoulder. “Watch it or in the name of the moon, I’ll punish you!”
Ketchum swept the mess out of the way; cocaine-dusted Pokeballs rolled in all directions. He saw at least six – more than even his seasoned partner could handle on his best day.
Pikachu lay still, eyes open but fixed on nothing.
Ketchum dropped to the ground and locked eyes with his partner. “Come on, man. Get it together. Come back to me. You teach me and I’ll teach you.”
Detective Pikachu blinked slowly and took a gasping breath. Ketchum grinned. “That’s right, buddy. You teach me and I’ll teach you.”
It took ten minutes for Pikachu to start breathing normally, and another thirty for him to utter a word.
“Pika,” he croaked. Ketchum fumbled on the nightstand near his head and grabbed the water.
“Here you go, buddy.”
“Yeah. Shit got real back there, didn’t it?”
The sheriff cleared his throat.
“So, uh. We all good?”
“I’ll just report this one as a crank call.”
“You do that.”
“Hey man. I just want to say, I heard about what happened to Misty. Don’t put that on yourselves. It could have happened to anyone.” The sheriff extended a hand for a shake. Ketchum ignored it.
“Whatever. Just know that if we’re called back here tonight, I have to write it up.”
The cruiser pulled away and the woman pulled a purse over her shoulder. She leaned down and rubbed Pikachu’s head.
“I’m glad you’re okay, sweetie. Call me.”
She got to the door, then turned back.
“I’m sorry, this is going to seem really shitty, but I have to ask. About the two hundred…”
Ketchum dug in his wallet and pulled out two crisp hundreds.
He handed her two more bills.
“Anyone asks, you were with some local guy tonight.”
She giggled with a sound like the wind on the surface of a pond. The clouds parted, revealing a full moon.
“Anything you say.”
Ketchum helped Pikachu into the passenger seat in his car, a few more hundreds left on the nightstand to pay for the damage to the room. He looked over at his partner, the brisk night wind ruffling his yellow fur.
“You have to stop doing this to yourself.”
“I mean it. One more line and I’d be driving by myself right now.”
“That’s a bullshit excuse and you know it.” Ketchum tossed his cigarette out the window. It bounced along the road in a spray of orange embers. “We need to talk about Misty.”
Pikachu was silent.
“I mean it. Really talk about her.”
Pikachu’s hand moved toward the door handle. Ketchum mashed the auto-lock button. The car swerved into the oncoming lane.
“Dammit, no more of this shit, Pikachu. What happened was not your fault.”’
“Yeah, you say you know it, but a man with a clear conscience doesn’t try to jump and roll going sixty on the blacktop.”
The silence stretched for five eternal minutes.
“You couldn’t have stopped Team Rocket. It was two on one. No chance. And really, in the scheme of things, a tree shredder isn’t the worst way to go. After a second or two… she was gone. Tell me you understand.”
“No, really. Say it after me. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Good. I’m going to be on you about this from now on.”
“No, not because I care about you. I’m just running out of fucking hundreds.”
Pikachu snorted and Ketchum lit another cigarette. You can’t fix an amputation with one conversation, but you could cauterize the wound a little here and there.
Ketchum spotted headlights in the darkness beside the road.
“Who the hell is that at this time of night? What’s over there?”
“Another one? How many golf courses does this county need?”
“Oh fuck, golf course. Shit.”
Ketchum flipped off his headlights. The moon gave enough light to drive by. He turned the car onto the grass. The bumped through the tall weeds, then glided onto the trimmed green. He kicked himself that he hadn’t opted for one of those silent electric cars instead of this old gas-guzzler that was louder than a jet plane.
He turned off the engine and put it in park.
“We’re hoofing it from here.”
The moonlight that helped a minute ago now seemed like a thousand-watt bulb hanging over them. There weren’t many trees on the course for cover.
They circled around to stay out of the other car’s headlights. The two people digging in the sand trap were oblivious to everything except themselves.
“You’re digging like an imbecile.”
“Don’t call me that. My hair looks all right, doesn’t it?”
Ketchum lifted his weapon and called out of the darkness.
“Police. Put your hands up.”
The pair in the sand cursed, dropped their shovels, and put up their hands.
“I told you this was too close to the highway.”
“You picked this place!”
Ketchum felt the revolver disappear from his hands. He groped in the darkness, and then heard a sickening click next to his head.
“Rawr, I used Pickup on his pistol,” something cackled near his shoulder. One of the two diggers stepped into the light. Her magenta hair throwing a large shadow across the green.
“Is that?” she asked.
“It is,” replied her companion. He wailed with glee. “If only we had a tree shredder handy.”
Ketchum’s throat tightened as they both laughed.
“Luckily, the hole we dug is big enough for two,” said the woman, yanking Ketchum’s shirt to drag him toward the pit. The edge was soft and started to give; he half-slid, half-fell to the bottom. Sand poured in on top. He spat it out and flattened himself against the side of the hole.
“Toss the other one in.”
The sky suddenly lit up like lightning and stayed lit for thirty seconds. It looked light daylight from the bottom of the hole.
“Peek? That you?”
A pair of ears poked over the side of the hole.
“Oh yeah. I’m fine. You Volt Tackle those two?”
“That’s a fine job, partner. A night well spent.”
Ketchum looked up at the stars, coming back into focus as his night vision returned.
“You’re right, a lotta dark out there. More darkness to chase and one more evildoer to bring to the light, but it’s okay, man. You can’t catch ‘em all.”
We’re halfway through the #SummerofDone and I’ve learned a few things:
1) You cannot afford to be a beautiful and unique snowflake when it comes to writing. If you wait for six silent hours to yourself, uplifting classical music on in the background, no dishes in the sink, and cherubs floating overhead, there won’t be a single word on the page. Some days, if you wait until all of the children are fed and clothed for the day, there won’t be a single word on the page.
2) Older children are mightily good at caring for younger children for short periods of time. Fifteen-year-old boys included.
3) The dollar store has a buttload of cheap toys and activities that, when packaged into numbered bags and given out via ping pong ball lottery daily, become the highlight of a kindergartener’s day.
4) Except the color-your-own velvet painting with markers set. No one likes that shit.
5) The occasional pricey Michael’s crafts (tie dyed shirts, kinetic sand) are received like the Ark of the Covenant. And at $15+ a pop, you shouldn’t be surprised.
6) Some authors find that spoken words stop their flow. Some like to have the murmur of conversation in the background. Some like to drown in a sea of words, clawing their way out by flinging them at a page.
7) There are actual human beings who behave like cartoon villains and wreak havoc on your life and your family for personal gain. That same person might endorse you on LinkedIn afterward. And then your brain will explode.
8) COBRA costs $1,800 a month. Unemployment benefits are $2,000 a month. Even with severance and savings, that equation does not work for very long.
9) You need to have less than $2,000 in assets to qualify for food stamps. No matter how little income is coming in.
10) The local food shelf requires no proof of income, but their website is terrible and it’s unclear how to get assistance.
11) Like the woman in this article, it’s weird/shaming/awkward to have a late-model fancy car, yet need help to get through a tough time. If the car is paid off, do you sell it because of a month without work? What about a year?
12) A trip to the beach is free. July 11th is free Slurpee day. A local casino gives out free comedy show tickets hoping you’ll stop to gamble (you won’t.) The library has free passes to AAA baseball games. Home Depot sometimes gives out free hot dogs and water at lunchtime.
13) The promise of selling a novel in the future does not put money in the bank now.
14) You still have to keep writing, no matter how screwed up things become.