Interlude: And the Blind Will See

A man’s hopes for salvation fade as he reviews his life.

The old man tossed his keys on the table and rubbed the back of his neck. “God, but I feel like shit.” He pulled out a chair and sat roughly down. “Probably doesn’t help that I’m over seventy.”

He laughed, then began to cough. He doubled over from the effort. He sat back, breathing heavily. “Hoo, boy. I uh…” Then the moment he had always feared finally came.

It felt as if someone reached through his chest and grabbed hold of his heart. His left arm first burned, then went numb as the hand squeezed hard. “God, no! God, I…” He slumped off the chair.

He crawled towards the phone on the wall. He collapsed halfway to his goal, the hand squeezing harder and harder. The old man passed away on his kitchen floor.

He opened his eyes again after an indeterminate period of time. He was standing. He looked around in a blind panic. Where in the hell was he?

He was at a lake. A beautiful lake, on a gorgeous summer day. He squinted at the big, blue sky. Not a cloud to be seen. “Hey, Dennis! Well you’re looking mighty fine, ain’t ya?”

The old man stared in disbelief. “Bobby Jackson?” He looked down at himself. He was much slimmer, his hands much younger. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Dennis looked back up at Bobby. “Is it really you, Bobby? You…”

“Died?” Bobby laughed. “Yep. I sure did. One of those V.C. bastards cut me down while I was taking a nap. At least I woke up here, huh?” He grinned, looking out over the lake.

Dennis nodded numbly. “Ayuh. I remember.” He followed Bobby’s gaze. “Wait a minute…” He turned to Bobby. “I’m dead, too!” He clutched his chest.

“Yeah, I imagine. Turned out alright, though. Didn’t it? You ended up at Elmore Lake instead of Hell Avenue.” He chuckled.

Dennis blanched. He laughed nervously. “Yeah! Sure…”

He turned back towards the lake. The gentle ripples suddenly went out of focus. He felt as if the world was spinning underneath him. His vision blurred and darkened. He tightly closed his eyes.

Dennis clutched his stomach as the spinning slowed. He waited a few beats before trying to open his eyes. When he did, he found himself standing a short distance from a big, red barn.

“Come to help me finish up plantin’ for the season?” A middle-aged gentleman smiled gently at Dennis. “Then again, looks like you might’ve started without me.” He pointed at Dennis’ clothes.

Dennis looked down. Sure enough, he looked somewhat sod bound. He looked worriedly at his outstretched hands. They looked less youthful than they had a moment earlier.

He looked back up at the farmer. “You’re Jack Demple! It’s been what, thirty years…”

“I reckon about so. Time passes funny here. So what tore you down, huh?”

“Oh! A heart attack, I think.” Dennis absently rubbed at his chest.

“Quick and easy, I guess. I gotta say, though… I wondered if you’d end up here the way you were heading…”

A sullen look passed over Dennis’ face. “Oh. Yeah, well…” He gazed off towards the barn. The clouds above it were slowly gathering.

Jack stared up at them. “Well, whatever’s the case, here ya are. I better get to droppin’ seed, though.” He winked at Jack. “Might be rain soon, looks like.”

“Sure, sure…” Dennis watched Jack walk off towards the barn. Both man and building became fuzzy. “Oh, shit…”

He squeezed his eyes shut as the world spun again. He stumbled about a moment later, trying to find his footing. Something was surrounding him, pressing in on his legs.

Dennis opened his eyes to find himself in a field of yellowed grass. The sky above him was gray. There was another person standing in the distance. It was his ex-wife. He grimaced. This was feeling less and less like heaven.

“YOU! You worthless piece of shit!” She pushed her way through the tall grass towards him, finger leading the way. “You look like it, too. How in the hell did you manage to live so long?”

Dennis looked down at himself again. His stomach had filled back in, straining against the waist of his soiled jeans. He brushed at his filthy tee shirt with liver-spotted hands.

He lifted his shaking head to meet his ex’s gaze. “I was young…”

She snorted. “Yeah, then you got old… and mean. You don’t belong here! You hurt me, Dennis! You’d get drunk, yell at me, hit me…”

Dennis snarled. “You made me do it! I worked my ass off, only to come home and there would be no dinner…”

I wasn’t your slave!” Tears spilled from her eyes. Thunder rippled in the distance. “I was so glad someone wizened me up, got me out of there. At least I got a few years of joy before God took me.”

She glared. “You’re a bad man, Dennis.” She jabbed her finger at him. “You’ll get yours. You’ll see. You got a stench on you, and it ain’t coming off!”

Lightning crashed close by. The bright-white light blinded him. His scream was lost in the resounding boom. He squeezed his eyes shut as his ears burned.

He blinked, rubbing his eyes. His vision slowly cleared. He was standing on a highway beside a wide-open field, now.

A short distance away from him was a car parked at a funny angle on the side of the road. Rain started to fall. He gasped as realization flooded his face. “Oh… Oh, GOD.”

He numbly walked towards the front of the car. He already knew what he’d find once he got up there. He wanted to turn and run in the opposite direction. Something pushed him against his will.

Lying on the ground before the car was a bloodied young woman. An ice-cold wind blew across the road, making him shiver. The steadily-falling rain soaked into the woman’s tattered clothing.

The body twitched. Dennis jumped, taking a step back. The woman suddenly sat up, screaming. A deep gash in her cheek made her gaping mouth unnaturally wide.

Dennis screamed in return, stumbling backwards. Lightning streaked through the air in the distance. “Stay… Stay away! I didn’t mean to…”

The dead woman stumbled after him. Her broken leg twisted at an odd angle with each step. “But you did! Drunk driver… Ran me down!” Her voice was a hellish screech.

He turned to run. The woman appeared right in front of him. He screamed. She screamed back. “Drunk! Wife-beater… Wino! Took my whole life away…”

Dennis walked backwards. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I’ll do anything…”

“You’ll do nothing!” The woman’s eyes turned jet-black. She began to laugh, blood pouring from her mouth. “You’ll just pay!” She shuffled towards him.

He fell backwards onto the slick road. He blinked at the specter through the driving rain. “No, please! God…”

The sick smile faded from the woman’s face. She slowly shook her head. “God turned his back on you a long time ago.” A pair of black forms loomed behind the woman.

“No… No! I repent! I have sinned! God, forgive me…”

Red, glaring eyes opened in the shadows behind the woman. “Too late, Dennis.”

The wraiths lifted up and over the woman. They descended on the old man. The shadowy figures took hold of each of his arms, holding him fast. The road beneath him began to shift and buckle.

The rain hissed off the rapidly heating tarmac. Dennis began to scream as it burned his flesh. The ground violently tore open. Orange light poured out of the fissure.

Dennis hung suspended above the entrance to an immense chamber. Eternal flames burned far below. The heat blistered his skin. Dennis continued to scream.

The wraiths let go. He slapped fruitlessly at the immaterial specters before slipping through the crack. He stared wild-eyed at the woman above before being lost to the fires below.

Interlude: The Blackened Yellow

A young man makes a bid to save his village by searching for a legendary water source.

This is the first time this story has been published outside of the “Interludes” collection. It was originally written exclusively for the book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

– John Prescott

Tired. So tired. So thirsty.

It doesn’t matter, he reminded himself. Doesn’t matter at all. He’ll find it: The promised land. A lush, green, fertile land with all the water he could stomach.

The land of the Blackened Yellow. He examined the empty bottle in his hand. He’d swim in his next water source. Then he’d fill this with legendary water.

He ran his dry tongue over withered lips. He could nearly taste it. Nearly. He thrust the empty bottle into his satchel and pressed on.

His feet betrayed him, fumbling in the deep sand. He crashed to his knees, then collapsed into the scorching sand. It stung his torn and sun-burnt skin.

The pain only brought clarity. He lifted his head, first grimacing, then grinning. He looked up at the hill of sand before him.

It would be over this crest, just on the other side. This time. He knew it. He absently lapped up the blood that spilled from his split lower lip.

“We must do something.” It was the same young man, a number of days ago. He was gazing into a deep well.

“Of course, friend Ezra. But what? We have tried to appease the gods. They will not cry for us.”

Ezra could just make out the glint of sunlight weaving on the thin pool of water at the bottom of the well. He could clearly see the earth below it. Never in his life had he seen the bottom before.

“Perhaps they do not listen. What if they want us to move on?”

Ezra’s companion scoffed. “Do you speak of your grandfather? Surely you don’t believe such crazy stories.”

“I tell you, friend Gerald… I could see it in his eyes. Such vivid descriptions… He was there again, even as he described it to us.”

“The land of Blackened Yellow. What does it even mean?” Gerald kicked at the earth. “A bunch of nonsense.”

“I will speak with the council. They will see the truth in my words.”

Gerald snapped his head up. “The council? Surely the drought has robbed you of your senses!”

“No.” Ezra smiled. “It’s made everything that much clearer.”

The lowering sun painted all it touched in a peaceful golden glow. It was at odds with the increasingly brutal heat that it cast upon the small village each and every day. Ezra turned from it, switching his attention to the creature before him.

A cow, barely alive, returned his gaze with pleading eyes. The sickly creature’s dried tongue hung limply from its mouth. It trembled slightly from the effort of standing.

Ezra shook his head. He placed gentle hands on either side of the beast’s head. “You poor creature.” The cow mewled weakly. “I know. I cannot bear to see you suffer any longer.”

He stroked the creature’s fur. “I will speak with Mother. She will see.”

The young man sat with his mother a short time later. He chewed at the charred lizard meat that was the day’s meal. Difficult to eat on the best of days, it was especially bitter this evening.

He placed his plate to one side and gazed into the fire. He somehow hoped that the answers he sought would manifest within the flames. Perhaps the face of Father would emerge with words of guidance.

The fire would not speak with him tonight. He closed his eyes and hung his head. Ezra’s mother took notice, setting aside her own meal.

“You are troubled, child.”

Ezra did not open his eyes. “We are all troubled, now.”

“Of course we are. Never before have the gods tested us like this. That’s not what bothers you, though.”

Ezra finally opened his eyes. “No.” He raised his head. “I wish to end our last cow’s life.”

His mother froze, eyes locked on his. She quickly turned her head away. “She hasn’t been well for some time. The look in her eyes…” The fire made her own eyes glisten in the dark.

“So it is agreed, then.”

“No!” The woman whipped her head back. “She’s her last hope! We need to keep her! We’ll sell her when she…”

“When she what, mother? Dies? Wastes away to nothing? You’ve seen her suffering!” The growing sorrow painted on his mother’s face cut him like a knife. “I’m sorry.”

“No.” Her voice was a trembling whisper. “No, you are right. She suffers.” She lowered her head. “The gods will frown if we prolong it.”

“She was our best…”

“Speak no more of it.” Ezra’s mother stood and stalked away.

Ezra walked slowly home, turning two small clay discs over and over in his left hand. In his right were scraps of beef to be cured. Both represented what remained of their last cow.

He dropped it all as he approached the small mud hut that he called home. Two elders were bent over a woman just outside the entrance. He broke into a sprint, eyes growing wild.

One of the elders stood as he approached. The old man held up a staying hand. Ezra ignored it and plummeted to the ground beside his mother.

“Ezra! You shouldn’t be here. She…”

“Where else would I be! Mother…” He began to weep. His eyes fell on the dagger jutting from her chest. Anger flashed up inside him. “Who did this!

The other elder turned heavy eyes on the young man. “She did.”

Ezra shook his head. “No… NO!” He scrambled to his feet. “She wouldn’t… Who could have…”

The standing elder firmly grasped his arm. “Ezra, it’s true. She felt herself a burden… We tried to save her. I’m sorry.”

The young man tried to pull away. The elder pulled Ezra to him and embraced him. The young man screamed in grief.

So it was, the sole survivor, his family devastated by the curse of the great sun god. The thought was foremost in his mind even as His golden rays painted themselves over the body of Ezra’s mother. Such cruel mockery.

He approached the funeral pyre. She looked serene to him, as if she were enjoying some secret dream. Ezra placed his hand on hers. It felt so cold. The illusion was shattered.

From somewhere behind him came the sound of a fire roaring to life. The sun that had seen the final hours of his mother’s life passed below the horizon. Another glow grew behind him.

A gentle hand pressed on his back. “It is time, Ezra.” It was the elder that had stood to meet him earlier.

The young man lowered his head and closed his eyes. His mouth worked through a silent prayer. His gaze returned to his mother. “I am ready.”

He turned. The other elder held a torch. He held it out with both hands and bowed his head to Ezra. The young man bowed in turn and took the torch from him.

Ezra stood before the pyre. The light of the fire danced off of his mother’s skin. He felt he couldn’t move. His mind knew this was right, but his heart pulled back on his hand.

Inch by inch, he stretched towards the base of the pyre. It caught fire at last. He numbly stepped back as the flames slowly climbed their way towards his mother’s body.

He turned away as the fire reached the body of his mother. He lowered his head. Fresh tears stained his cheeks. He did not look up when the elder approached, but held out the torch. The elder took it from him and quietly walked away.

Ezra’s friend Gerald stood beside him a short while later. “Why do you turn from your mother?”

“That is not my mother anymore.”

“Still… Why do you….”

“I could have saved her!” Ezra looked upon Gerald in rage. “I should have left sooner!” He lowered his gaze to the ground, his face contorting in sorrow, his eyes red.

It was Gerald’s turn to become angry. “After all this, are you still so eager to throw your life away!”

“I will do no such thing!”

“If you still intend to walk out into the desert, you will. The council will never…”

“I am through with the council. I am through with this village! I will leave tomorrow.”

Gerald shook his head. “No, Ezra. You can’t…”

“I will…” Ezra stormed away.

“I tell you again, friend Ezra… This is madness!” Despite his words, Gerald handed Ezra two bottles of water.

Ezra hesitated. “Where did you get these?”

“The council.” Ezra’s jaw dropped. “I… borrowed it. I suppose you are not the only one who is crazy.”

“Borrowed it.” Gerald nodded. Ezra smirked. “I suppose they won’t want it back when I’m done with it. They’ll be grateful for your thievery once I come back.”

“Ezra… Do you really think you’ll find the Blackened Yellow?”

“I must.” He reached into his satchel and produced a small circular device. Inside of it was a needle which appeared to float. Four markings adorned the bottom of the case.

Gerald’s eyes grew wide. “What is it?”

“It belonged to my grandfather. He called it his ‘calmness’. He said he used it to find the Blackened Yellow.”

“How does it work?” Gerald watched, transfixed as the needle inside turned this way and that, seemingly of its own accord.

“This needle, when the painted end faces the three lines, will point the way to the Blackened Yellow. I only need to keep it pointed in that direction.”

“So why didn’t he ever return, if it was so easy?”

Ezra smiled sadly. “He was too weak to go by himself, and the council wouldn’t allow anyone to accompany him.”

Gerald looked puzzled. “How could the elders claim this Blackened Yellow doesn’t exist?”

“That was always my grandfather’s point. Everyone always laughed at him when he talked about it, yet nobody was ever willing to prove him wrong. He said they were too scared.”

“Scared of what, though?”

Ezra shrugged. “Of being wrong? Of being lost in the desert, I suppose. I don’t know…” He hoisted his satchel and winked. “I’m not scared.”

“I can’t help but think that you should be, friend Ezra.” Gerald kicked at the sand. “I won’t try to stop you, though.”

“Thank you for that. I’ll see you soon.”

“Soon!” Ezra’s voice was as dry and cracked as his lips. A stunted laugh turned into a coughing fit. He hugged his ribs with one blistered arm and struggled to his feet.

Each step came with sheer force of will. His breathing came in ragged, tearing breaths as he fought to find purchase in the loose sand. He never took his eyes off the top of the hill. He was certain the Blackened Yellow would be on the other side.

Ezra fell to his knees half way to his goal. He was breathing in great gasps. His weary eyes saw two hilltops when he looked up. He dug his hands into the hot sand and clawed his way higher.

Gravity claimed him. The hot sand burned his cheek, but he did not feel it. He was only vaguely aware that he was atop his hill.

The world was slowly spinning, or was he? His eyes sagged shut. It felt good. The darkness. It felt… warm. Inviting. He could just let go.

“No.” It was more of a croak than a word. Ezra opened his eyes. He lifted his head with great difficulty, and peered down the other side of his sandy hill.

He saw dark green. He fluttered his eyes, willing them to work just a little longer. Slowly, painfully, the treeline came into view.

“Grandfather,” he wheezed. The sight and excitement brought forth energy from the very depths of his soul. He pressed himself to his hands and knees and plunged forward.

He stumbled and fought his way down the far side of the sandy hill. Momentum took over, sending him tumbling to the bottom. He came to a stop with half his body lying on cool, green grass. It was a sensation wholly alien to him.

He sucked in a deep breath, eyes wide in wonder. They turned towards the massive, gnarled trees that stood just beside him now. He grabbed at the grass with his hand. It was real.

Ezra willed himself back to his knees. He breathed deeply through his nose. The smell was fresh, organic, damp.

There, in the distance. Water. Standing water, waiting for him to drink. He forced his body forward, gleefully pawing his way through the lush green grasses that grew at the base of the trees.

He allowed himself to collapse at the edge of the water. It was nothing more than a puddle, really. It could have been a great ocean, as far as Ezra was concerned.

The cool water stung his torn and bloody lips. The feel of the the life-giving liquid flooding his parched mouth washed away the pain. He pulled in so much water that he gagged on it, and began to cough.

Still, the water gave him renewed vigor. He leaned forward and lowered his face into the cool water. He rubbed at his eyes. His vision cleared, revealing an amazing sight.

Small, white mushrooms dotted the grass before him. They had the faintest green glow to them. Beyond, he could see a clearing. In the middle of it was a pond.

Somehow Ezra found his feet. He stumbled through the puddle he had drank from. The cold water flooding his threadbare moccasins made his tired feet cramp. He ignored the sensation and forced himself into a jog.

He half-fell, have-dove into the crisp, clear water of the pond. All of his pain washed away along with the grime and the dirt of the desert. He emerged at the far end of the pond, eyes wide.

Ezra had found it: the Blackened Yellow. His grandfather had been right. Here was an oasis, not only of water, but of life. The otherworldly water tingled on his skin, penetrated it.

Burned it.

He looked at his arms. They were covered in rapidly growing blisters. He felt it all over his body. The burning threatened to overwhelm him. He found it increasingly hard to breathe.

Ezra began to grin. He wasn’t dying. He was changing, growing! It would make him something more! He focused his rapidly diminishing vision on the relic before him, standing at the foot of the pond.

It was a paper-thin steel barrel. Faded black paint still clung to it in spots. In the middle of it was a bright yellow circle. In the middle of that was a black circle with three black marks fanning out from it.

“Blackened… Yellow…” Ezra’s lips split apart as his grin widened. He stretched a skeletal arm towards the barrel. The metal split where his fingers graced it.

Brilliant glowing folds of white and green filled his failing eyesight. In the light, he beheld his smiling grandfather. Ezra suddenly found the energy to stand. “I found it, grandfather!”

Ezra’s grandfather smiled, but his eyes were heavy. “Yes, my boy. Come.” The young man did as he was asked, leaving the beauty and pain of the Blackened Yellow far behind.

Finding Dinner

A capricious wee man surprises a mighty ogre, who surprises the little man in return.

“Terrible hungry,” the ogre muttered to himself. “Just terrible. Got to find a closer village. I…”

The ogre lumbered to a stop. He looked down, way down, on the ground. A very small something was standing in his way.

A wee man, no taller than a foot is long, stood with his tiny arms crossed over his chest. His bright red tri-corner hat partially obscured his face. His one visible eye glared ominously at the giant.

“Oi! But you look a bit cross…” The little man picked distractedly at his pale blue tunic, but otherwise remained transfixed. The ogre bent over, rubbing at his stubbly chin. “Hmm… Do you talk, then?”

The look on the wee man’s face faltered. “Waking up, are ye?” The little man’s arms started to drop. “That’s it. Out with your words!”

“Ha!” The little man squeaked. He firmly crossed his arms once more. He stared down the giant more ominously than before.

“You’re likely to pop an eye out, doing that. Look…” The ogre stood erect, scratching the back of his head. “You can either talk to me, or I can punt you across the wood. What have you, then?”

The ultimatum clearly caught the wee man’s imagination, if the look on his face was any indication. He let his arms fall to the side. “Have it your way, then!” He stomped his tiny foot, sending a minute cloud of dust wafting into the air.

The ogre laughed. “Who’s to say my way doesn’t see you flying through the air like a bird?” The little man trembled at the thought. “Easy, now. I’ve not come to that just yet.”

The little man sighed dramatically. “It’s just so embarrassing, you know.”

The ogre grinned. “So you do talk! Splendid!”

“Well of course I talk!” He lowered his head. “It’s just that I wasn’t supposed to, is all.”

“Not supposed to?” The ogre sniffed. “Bad manners, to stand and stare at someone you meet… Especially when they can eat you.” He grinned broadly.

This set the wee man to trembling once more. “Please don’t! I’ve not finished my quest, yet!”

“A quest, you say?” The ogre crossed his mighty arms. “It’s a bad start you’ve had, crossing an ogre such as I.”

“Begging your pardon sir, but that’s precisely what I was supposed to do… Well, I think.”

The ogre lowered his brow. “I’d think once more, if I were you.”

“I’ve thought many times.” The little man lowered his head and dragged his foot through the dirt. “Many times I thought I shouldn’t do this, but the village elder commanded it.”

“Ah! Answering the will of your elders, are you? Hmm… What exactly were you told, little one?”

“Well… He said I was to seek out the ogre. That’s you, I suppose. Then I was to stand and face you, which I did. I probably should have asked what came next, but it all seemed so simple.”

The ogre was smiling. He crouched down. “So you thought you were to literally stand before me.” The wee man nodded. “Then you were to face me.” Another nod. “Then gods know what happens next?”

“I suppose that’s a fair way to call it.”

“Suppose, then, that to face someone also means to oppose them in battle.”

A look of horror eased onto the little man’s face. “Surely not! I wouldn’t stand a chance against an ogre in battle. Just look at my sword!”

The little man produced a petite sliver of wood, sharpened to a point, with nary an edge to be found. The ogre guffawed. “That? A sword? More like a splinter, I’d wager!”

“A splinter!” The little man looked scandalized. “I spent a good hour honing this fine blade!” The ogre hooted. “You offend me, good sir!” The wee man jabbed at the ogre’s bulbous nose.

The weapon stuck fast. The ogre stood up, slapping at his nose. “Gah! You terrible little man!” He plucked the makeshift sword from his nose with thumb and forefinger.

He briefly examined it before snapping it in twain. The ogre dropped the pieces before the frightened little man and glowered. “Tell me, small man… Why shouldn’t I eat you and be done with it!”

The little man looked about him as if looking for the answer written in the sand. “Because, um… Because… Because you don’t know my name!” He sounded sure, but appeared uncertain.

“Don’t know your name? Are you mad! Shall I name my cooked goose Jennifer before I feast upon her breast? Perhaps the chicken would taste better should I salute it as Thomas before supping!”

The ogre’s face softened. He began to laugh. This confused the little man, who nonetheless nervously joined with the ogre.

“You’re a strange little man, but you amuse me. What’s your name, then?”

The wee man stuck his chest out with pride. “William, of ShortEnd.”

“William the Wee Wanderer!” The ogre guffawed. “I like it!”

William didn’t. “And you, sir?”

“And me… I suppose that’s fair, isn’t it? My name is Edgar.”

“Just Edgar?”

“Just so.” Edgar chuckled. “Us ogres like things simple, you see.”

“I do see. Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Edgar the ogre.” William offered a brief but courteous bow.

“I wouldn’t be so sure. I’m going to your village for a midday supper.”

William tilted his head. “Well, I suppose the elders would be happy to feed you, but I’m not sure we’ve enough at the ready to… What’s so funny?”

The ogre stopped himself laughing, then sighed. “I’m more apt to eat your elders, than anything they offer me in a bowl.”

William’s face went white. “No! I mean, you can’t! That’s… That’s…”

“That’s what?”

“That’s uncivilized!”

“And I am uncivil.” The ogre strode past the wee man. “More so when I am famished, which I am!”

William sprinted to keep up with the lumbering giant. “Please! Don’t hurt my friends, Edgar! PLEASE!” The little man leaped onto the ogre’s mighty boot and held fast.

“Enough!” The ogre came to a stop. He shook his leg with gusto. Little William held on with all his strength and determination.

Edgar growled a bit and snatched the wee man up with one meaty hand. He held William before his face and frowned. “Should I eat you instead? You’d barely be a snack, wouldn’t ye?”

William gazed at Edgar with such a look of sadness that the ogre was given pause. The little man’s voice was small, even for his size. “Please, sir.”

The ogre sighed, ruffling William’s hair with a wild, somewhat fragrant breeze. “I must eat. What have you that would satiate the likes of me, hmm?”

“I, uh…” William looked about, grasping for a thought. Lucky for him, he found one. “A um… a whatsit. A… a double-cow!”

“A what now? You’ve gone daft from fear, haven’t ye?”

“You know! A huge creature of four legs. And a set of horns. And they eat grass and the like!”

“Double-cow…” The ogre burst into laughter. “You mean a bison!”

“YES! My goodness, but I was scared.”

“So you were. And your people have a bison to offer me?”

“We have many! Well…” William bowed his head. “They wandered near the village. And they may wander away again, yet.”

He raised his head, hope in his eyes. “But we’d be happy to let you have one!”

“You’d let me.” Edgar smirked. “Indeed.” He planted the wee man on his shoulder and resumed walking.

“Wait. Where are we going? Are you still going to eat us?”

“Perhaps. That depends on what your elders have to say about the bison.” Edgar grinned. William nearly swooned.

It was a short time before they entered the village of ShortEnd, and what an entrance it was. The guardsmen at the village gate gave only brief resistance. Many ran for their lives at the sight of the giant ogre easily straddling their defenses.

Other little men strung their bows and fired their missiles at the giant. Edgar grimaced at the pricks and pokes. One good, earth-shaking growl was enough to set them to other tasks, however.

Soon, Edgar stood before the chief elder of ShortEnd. A trembling William still sat upon the ogre’s shoulder. The elder waved his staff angrily. “William! You dare to bring an ogre to finish us, do you?”

The little man despaired. “No, your honor! Surely not! I tried to stop him. I stared at him just as hard as I simply could!”

“Stared? I told you to face…” The elder turned his eyes to the heavens. “Oh ye gods. William, you have your father’s brains!”

The ogre cleared his throat, cutting both men short. “I’ve no interest in squabbles! I must eat! Now…” Edgar plucked William from his shoulder and placed him next to the elder. “I’ve come to learn you have bison?”

The elder looked from the ogre to William and back. “Aye… After a fashion. They’ve wandered a bit, but they’re there. We don’t have the strength to herd them, alas.”

“I suggested to the ogre… Edgar he is. I told Edgar perhaps he could take a bison instead of us for his supper!” William smiled.

The elder turned white. “For supper… Please, Mister Edgar! Take a bison, take them all! We do not wish to be eaten!”

Edgar laughed. “I suspect not! Hmm…” The great ogre thought for a time. He turned to the elder with a grin. “I’ve a better idea.”

The elder spread his hands before him. “I will hear it, Mister Edgar.”

“I will take one to make into a fine meal, but…” He knelt down on one knee. “I’ll help you to herd the others.”

“You will?” Both wee men stared at the ogre, dumbfounded.

“I will… so long as your villagers feed them and care for them as best you can. Farming is a fair bit easier than conquest, especially on an empty stomach.” He winked at William.

The elder scratched at his lengthy beard. At last he nodded. “It will be so!” He offered the ogre his tiny hand.

Edgar allowed the little elder to grip his finger. He gently moved it up and down. “Indeed it will. Now let’s be quick. I’m famished!”

And thus the deal was struck. That day, a wee man showed a village elder that not all fools are such. And a gentle ogre showed a whole village that a measured discussion is worth a thousand arrows.




Do Your Part! – If you think your loved one has revealed a state secret in this document, report it immediately to local authorities. Don’t let your love for your family member cause the death of someone else’s!

April 21, 2031

Dear Mother,

How are things back home? I hope you and the old man are doing all right. I got a letter from Uncle Jerry saying that Jenna got accepted into the state college. Well, that’s just all right, isn’t it? Send her my love.

Things could be better here. War is war, of course. It was hard flying into London and seeing the devastation those damn Chinese fools wreaked there.

The hard part is England wasn’t even with us when this whole war broke out. Can’t say that I blame them, after how we did them wrong. I suppose the Chinese didn’t want them changing their mind. Still…

Heathrow airport is still a shambles, but is beginning to be rebuilt by our boys. The locals still looked at us like filth. I understand that many of them blame US for the attack.

A couple of flights on and we landed in Iraq in the middle of the night. I imagine the folks there would be a might more comfortable with us, if they’d been up. I heard Congress might bring up a vote on making it the 52nd state. Wouldn’t that be a thing?

I don’t know how much longer they’d be happy, though. Sounds like Russia is looking to get into the fight. They’re just about close enough to spit on them, thanks to Turkey and Iran.

The main battle’s in India now, I guess. China took Japan easy last year of course, so it’s slim pickings coming in from that side. The higher-ups said they’re worried about the Chinese having our bot technology now.

That’s what we’re in Iraq for, I guess: bot training. Well, it’s bot-suit training if I’m being accurate. Not sure how much I’m supposed to be talking about it.

It’s something else to see, mama! The old man would love every moment of it, being an old bot fighter and all. These are a bit larger than what he got to play with, and you get to wear them.

I’d say they’re about fifteen feet tall and look meaner than all hell. The trainers put it best, saying it’s not unlike wearing a tank. I don’t know why we don’t just use tanks instead, but I ain’t in charge of the military, so…

I’m getting pretty good at it, though. They have us run simulations through this Chinese town they pieced together. We have to gun down everyone, including the kids. I know they’re just bots under that skin, but it just feels wrong.

I guess we had to come up with something to show up the boys in blue. The air force has been bringing in these ultra-sonic jet bombers. They look kinda like what I suppose a UFO would look like.

They’ve flown overhead a couple times since I’ve been here. It’ll be all quiet at first, then you hear this low rumble. That builds up to this loud warbling sound.

The planes fly so fast that you can only kinda half-see them. They’ll be there for a minute, pause, then suddenly be halfway across the damn sky. It’s supposed to be something to do with quantum pockets in subspace or something.

It sounds like the government is trying all sorts of things just now. China has us dead to rights and they know it. Now I know that it’s just rumors they have nuclear bombs, but just look at the situation.

They’re real friendly with Russia, now ain’t they? Got real close ever since the US dropped the ball on trade relations. I bet they got enough to cause us some real headaches.

That’s the real reason both sides are getting so fancy with the ground fight. We could blow each other away any time we wanted. Nobody wants that.

We still have to demonstrate our power without pushing them too far, I guess. They see what we’re doing and push back. Then we build bigger bots and faster jets… You get it.

Something feels different lately, though. Seems like both sides have been turning up the heat with their spying activities. I’ve heard some crazy rumors about the Chinese, lately.

You ever seen that classic science fiction movie with the jungle alien? He could make himself invisible to the army guys and all that? Dad has a copy of it if you haven’t.

That’s the rumor, right there. They have some sort of cloaking device that makes it so you can’t see them. They just turn it on and sneak into a troop transport and whatnot.

Then they can do whatever they need to. They take pictures, copy papers, things like that. Then they leave the same way they came in, the army none the wiser. They’re supposed to be nearly undetectable.

It’s got everyone plenty paranoid. Seems like wherever I go, I feel like I’m being watched. Then again, we got our own thing going, now.

You see, we got our own spy program here. They’re being super-secretive about it, of course. In fact, you have to be specially selected to participate. You know, selected like me.

It’s a hell of a deal, mama. They said that being a part of the program doubles my pay, halves my tour commitment, and promises early retirement with full benefits. It’s hard to believe, I know.

I looked it over real careful though, just like Daddy taught me to. I didn’t see anything that sent up alarm bells, other than the offer itself, naturally. It’d be a damn felony not to do it, as Grandpa used to say.

Now, naturally I had some concern about the risks involved, being how generous the offer was. They set to reassuring me almost immediately. I still think I got reason to worry, all the same.

With the program having a name like [REDACTED], I feel I have all the reason in the world to worry. They reassure me it’s just a name, though. It’s just meant to scare the Chinese, they tell me. Seems to work both ways, though.

They were a little light on details of course, but it sounds like more quantum mumbo-jumbo. They put you in this magnetic resonance chamber and flood it with antineutrinos. This causes some sort of phase shift in your atomic structure, I guess.

Long story short, you end up just as invisible as those Chinese spies, but there’s no known way to detect you. The most they’ve been able to pick up on is a slight change in something called EMF. They said it’s about the same energy given off as an incoming text message.

As if that isn’t good enough, supposedly you can go through solid walls! There was more talk about quantum states and so on. It was hard to follow. I just can’t imagine it!

Now obviously it’s a little scary, thinking I’m going to be reduced to the equivalent of a text message. The scary part is they kind of agreed with me. They admitted they’ve had “problems” reversing the process at the end of the soldier’s mission.

So right there is your reason why I’m being so richly rewarded for volunteering. That’s why I’m writing, too. They said it’s best to write a letter home while I still had the fingers to do it. Haha, right?

I’m sure I’ll be right as rain, though. I go through the process tomorrow. I have to admit I’m as excited as I am scared. It’s almost like having superpowers, isn’t it?

Regardless, I’m ready to get on with it. Sometimes when I’m alone, I swear I can hear screaming. It’s real quiet though, like through a wall or a great distance.

I heard the Chinese are using psychological warfare, too. Maybe this is that, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s all the folks going through that machine.

I sure hope not, though. They don’t sound very happy wherever they are. I guess I’ll find out soon enough, won’t I?

I love you, Mama. Send Daddy my love, too. Try not to worry too much about me. I’m sure I’ll see you in time for Christmas.

Love, Dennis

FILED: 22 – 4 – 2031

SENT: 31 – 5 – 2031


Refer to Subsection 8, article iii for more info.

NOTE: This section to be REDACTED for the sake of the recipient.

Fred and Jacob Save Christmas: Part III

Part 1 | Part 2

So it was that the wrinkled old Santa substitute and his young, vaguely unwilling assistant sped from house to house, delivering tainted Christmas cheer to the good boys and girls. Fred became increasingly expedient, if slightly more tipsy, with each delivery. Jacob, however, became more nervous.

“I don’t know if we are going to have enough time to deliver all these presents, Fred. We’ve already been at this for a couple of hours, and we’re in the same state.”

“Ha! We have all the time in the world, chunky-nuts!”

“Chunky-nuts…” Jacob shook his head and looked at his watch. He shook it, holding it up to his ear. “That’s not right.”

He looked at the clock on the dashboard of Santa’s sleigh. “It is! According to this, we’ve only been delivering presents for about… Two minutes?”

“Well duh. Haven’t you seen ‘Rudolph’s Shiny New Year’? Father Time can do whatever the fuck he wants, and Father Time loves him some Christmas.”

“That… makes sense, somehow?”

“Shit. I hate it when that happens.”

The unusual pair of heroes continued their mission with renewed vigor. In time, Fred caught on that he should drink more milk than scotch, and Jacob grew enough sack to lift Santa’s sack for Fred. But of course, trouble has a knack for finding its way to Fred and Jacob before too long.

“I don’t like this.” Fred’s sizable mustache twitched. “Don’t like this at all.”

Jacob followed his gaze. “What? It’s just New Jersey…”

Fred shook his head. “No. That’s bad enough.” He pointed a crooked finger. “This is where the snow monster Frosty can be found.”

Jacob scoffed. “Fred, I told you, it’s Frosty the snow man. He’s supposed to be friendly and well, kind of dumb, frankly. Also fictional?”

“Fictional my ass! Keep your eyes peeled. Shit could get real. YAW!” Fred cracked the reins, spurring the reindeer on.

The first few deliveries in this new town went according to plan. Fred was noticeably more sober. Jacob rolled his eyes at first, but became increasingly concerned at the old farmhand’s unusual demeanor.

Things came to a head when they reached the more genteel part of town. Fred got out of the sleigh and slowly walked towards the edge of the roof. “You…”

Jacob nervously followed after him. “Fred? What is it?” He strained to see what it was the old man was staring at.

Fred jabbed a finger at something on the ground as he crept forward. “YOU!” He walked straight off of the edge of the roof, landing feet first two stories below with a sickening crunch. “…Ow.”

“Fred!” Jacob scrambled to the end of the roof. “Are you okay?”

“Um… I broke both of my ankles but… You know, great.”

Jacob looked beyond Fred and saw what the old farmhand had been glaring at: a snowman in the front yard. “Are you kidding me?”

“No. They’re pretty well broken.”

“I mean the snowman! Jesus, Fred!”

“That’s no snowman, son. That’s Frosty.”

The hat atop the snowman began to glow and vibrate. The glow extended to the rest of the snowman, which spun around. It blinked its coal eyes and flashed a garish grin. “Happy birthday!”

Fred shook his ankles furiously, which crunched and cracked beneath him. “No. Not today. Come on, damn it!”

Jacob grinned from the roof. “Holy shit, Fred! It really is him! HEY! HEY FROSTY!” The young man waved towards the magical snow creature.

“Happy birthday!” The snowman started moving towards the house, dark eyes locked on Jacob. “Let’s play!”

Fred started forward, ankles crunching all the while. “FUCK OFF, ball boy!” He slammed his hand into the snowman’s chest.

The snowman looked confused. “Ha… Happy birthday?”

“Not today, you frosty son of a bitch!” Fred landed a hay-maker across the snowman’s face, sending its head spinning.

The snowman was no longer smiling when its head finally came to a stop. “Angry birthday!” The words came out as a growl. The black coal eyes sparked, igniting into flame.

“Fred… What did you do?” Jacob stepped back from the edge of the roof.

“ANGRY BIRTHDAY!” The snowman howled, starting to grow. Its features morphed, changing into something more sinister. Its mouth stretched into a demonic rictus.

Fred turned towards Jacob and pointed at the rapidly-growing snowman. “TOLD YOU! Snow monster!”

Jacob looked up and up as Frosty the snow monster’s height surpassed that of the house. “Fred… I think we should be going now.”