“GROWING SWIRLING CLOUDS” By Thea Boodhoo

Visitants

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“Mark died yesterday, Margery.” My tone was patient, sad but not distraught. The time for distraught was past, I thought.

“Coral, don’t joke about those things. He was right here a few minutes ago.”

I found a serious expression in my database and displayed it for her. “It’s not a joke, Margery. He left us yesterday morning. We’re saying goodbye as soon as you’re ready for the ceremony.” Margery wore her work uniform–a faded blue jumpsuit–and had her thin, white hair pulled up in a small bun. The jumpsuit no longer fit her well. It had been made for a younger, rounder woman. I knew she prefered more formal attire for funerals.

“Where is he going?” she asked.

“Into the biomaterials recycling system.”

“Well that seems premature, he’s not dead yet,” Margery said.

“Mark died yesterday, Margery.”

Margery frowned at me, then looked down at the lower panel of her workstation. It displayed five hundred and seven rectangles of streaming data. Each rectangle represented a former inhabitant of the colony ship Ishtar. All except one: Margery herself. She, Mark, Shinji and Elise had stayed behind when the Ishtar reached its destination. They had been too frail to make the one-way journey to the planet’s surface. They had all been left in my care for their final years, and Margery was the last.

There was a second display above the panel of rectangles. It showed live video of aerial landscapes from our six satellites in orbit. Of the six, only one landscape featured squares. The squares were farms. They were near a coastline on the edge of the largest continent. Zooming in on them, one could see buildings, thin ribbons of trails, and sometimes smoke. At the highest magnification, a coffee cup held to the screen could obscure the whole colony.

Margery sat here every day, monitoring the colony. It was her job. Human attention wasn’t strictly necessary, but it made her feel useful and gave her a reason to get out of bed every day. I think it also made her feel closer to her friends and family.

She stared at the small, square farms in the sixth satellite feed, frowning.

“Are you ok, Margery?” I asked.

“Of course I’m ok,” Margery rushed the words to me without eye contact. She looked down at the rectangles on the lower panel and her eyes rested on the one with Jenna’s name on it. Her daughter.

“Would you like to wear something nice to the funeral?” I asked.

“We’ll have to let his kids know,” she said.

“They know. I told them yesterday. They send their condolences.”

“Hmph.” She looked away again, up at the live satellite feeds of the planet’s surface. The coastline of the colony was clear, forest to the west bright green and water to the east bright blue. We both watched it for a moment, in silence.

“They should be here for Shinji’s funeral. They really should be here,” Margery said.

“It’s Mark’s funeral.”

“Oh. That’s right. You said that already, didn’t you.” I took it as a rhetorical question, and said nothing. “I guess that means it’s just you and me now.”

“Yes. But you’re excellent company Margery. I’m glad I have you.” I found a comforting expression with a slight smile.

Her own faint smile answered. “I’m glad I have you, too, Coral.”

“Shall we get ready for the funeral? I’ll help you get dressed.”

“I guess we better do that. Ok.” She stood slowly, one yellow, age-spotted hand on the lower panel for balance. She placed her other hand on the back of her workstation swivel chair. I grabbed the back of the chair to hold it in place before it could swivel out of her grasp. I offered my arm to her for balance. She gripped it firmly with both hands and I rolled, at her pace, toward her room.

_________________________________________________

I’d be happy to explain why I was on a generation ship, if you want to know. I could tell the story of the engineers in California who wrote my program. How they beamed it to the Ishtar, back when Earth still sent us data. I could explain in detail how a team on the Ishtar assembled my body from spare parts. I could tell you how a branding copywriter came up with my name at a pub, while thinking of the sea. I could tell you anything you want to know about me, but not right now. Right now, I want to tell you about Margery, and what happened to the colony. So please, put your questions about me aside. I’m not important.

_____________________________________________

Most of Margery’s activities these days were napping. While she napped, I monitored her workstation. I couldn’t sit on her chair, but I could have the data fed directly to my central processor. I analyzed it while resting near Margery, or patrolling the halls. The halls were always empty, silent, and dark. I didn’t need light to see them, so there was no need to use the Ishtar’s power.

The night after Mark’s funeral, I paused by a window in a dark corridor. I could still see the planet through the window’s century of scratches. It was daylight below. White swirling clouds hid equatorial sea.

I wondered what rain felt like.

The clouds, I realized, were the edge of a vast storm forming. I double-checked the satellite data. The storm was nowhere near the colony. Same ocean, but much farther south. Three years of aggregated data told me the likelihood of it disturbing the colony was low. Less than two percent.

I sent an update to the surface, just to be safe, and asked the Ishtar to monitor the situation. I continued my patrol of the dark hallway.

Moments later, the Ishtar sent me an update. The likelihood of the storm reaching the colonists was now three percent.

I decided to check on Margery.

____________________________________________

She was upright in her bed, leaning against a pile of pillows, eyes closed. She was very still, and the skin of her face and arms was yellow and waxy. I knew her blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and oxygen levels from across the room. She was sleeping.

I didn’t want to wake her. She needed rest.

I thought of lowering the Ishtar’s gravity again, and decided to wait until she woke. I wanted to make sure it was what she wanted.

I thought of raising the Ishtar‘s oxygen level, but if it went much higher it would pose a fire hazard. There were few parts moving on the Ishtar these days, besides myself, but even I could create a spark on accident. Oxygen was already much higher than Earth’s atmosphere. The risk of going higher didn’t outweigh the temporary boost it would give Margery.

I thought of Margery’s memory. There was not much I could do to help the decline of her faculties. I could remind her of things, though. It was part of my job to remember. I remembered the past ninety-one years on the Ishtar with perfect clarity. I also had access to significant amounts of information about Earth, up to the day we lost contact. I knew about Margery’s childhood on Earth from her own stories, and things her long-gone parents had told me.

Yes, I could remind her of almost anything. She would enjoy that, I thought.

On the bed, Margery stirred. Her yellow eyelids fluttered open and her clouded blue eyes rolled toward me. “Coral?”

“Yes, it’s me.”

She murmured something unintelligible. Then, with great effort, she sat up straight and moved her legs, inch by inch, until they hung off the edge of her bed. Her bare feet were swollen and red. They had been like that for years.

She stared at me with a blank expression. “I thought you were a coat rack for a minute.” Before I found a response, she said, “I’m teasing. I’m not senile, you know.” Was that a wry smile? Or a regular smile? Or a smirk?

I found a relieved smile in my expression database and displayed it for her in response.

“Margery,” I said then, “how would you like to go through some old files with me? I have many recordings of important moments in your life. I thought you might enjoy reminiscing.”

“Not right now, dear. I have to go to the bathroom.”

I held out my arm for her and rolled, slowly, toward the small room in the corner. It was few steps for her, but each was slow. Her feet looked like ripe red potatoes, and must have been as hard to balance on. At the door of the room, she gripped the counter, and pulled herself along the edge of it to the toilet. She didn’t close the door. I turned away.

She muttered to herself as she dealt with the appropriate devices. I wondered what would happen if she fell. Although I was a machine, she would likely be embarrassed if I had to help her. Mark and Shinji were both mortified the first few times I helped them in the bathroom. Elise had never needed me for that.

The possibility of injury was real, though. Two years ago, Margery’s left knee had given out as she rose from her workstation chair. I wasn’t close enough to catch her. Shinji was there, but too slow. Margery had needed my help walking ever since. That was the first time they allowed me to lower the Ishtar’s gravity for them.

“Coral, can you lend me a hand?” Margery’s voice came from behind me, in the bathroom. “This is so silly, but I’m having trouble getting my pants back up. Can’t seem to reach that far.”

I obliged.

___________________________________________

We sat (she sat, I lowered my display to her eye level,) in the old lounge area. It still had three tables that the colonists had left behind, and four lounge chairs. The upholstery had been patched and re-patched several times since leaving Earth.

I swapped out my face for a video.

“Do you remember this day?” I asked Margery.

My display showed a well-lit corridor, two people standing by a clear, clean window with a view of solid black. If the camera exposure had been different, the window would’ve shown a field of stars. But it was set for faces, and these faces happened to be kissing.

The woman in the video pulled away. She had long, wavy auburn hair pulled into a ponytail. Her skin was smooth and light, and her figure slim. She was smiling. The man was darker, with straight black hair, a clean shave and a lopsided grin. The woman opened her mouth to say something.

My attention was diverted then, but I kept playing the video for Margery.

The likelihood of the storm on the surface reaching the colony had reached 45 percent. I composed a warning for the colonists and sent it.

“Of course I remember that day,” Margery said. “That was the day I told Shan I was pregnant with Jenna. He was fit to be tied.” She looked away from the video, then toward me. “Where did you put your eyes, Coral? Bring back your eyes.”

“I put my face away so I could show you the video.” I brought a casual smile back to my display. Margery nodded approval and looked at my eyes.

“Margery, it wasn’t Jenna. It was Urma. Jenna came three years later and she’s Bloom’s child. Not Shan’s.”

“Well yes, that’s true. Jenna is Bloom’s.”

“You just said that the video was from when you were pregnant with Jenna. But it was actually Urma.”

“Urma died,” Margery said, as if to remind me.

“Yes, I remember.”

“Why did you show me that video?” Margery’s expression became a frown. I had done something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what.

“You were happy in the video,” I said. “I thought it would be a positive experience for you to remember.”

Margery sighed. “Coral. Sometimes happy things make people sad, if the happy thing reminds them of something they lost.”

“I think I understand, Margery.”

“Let’s move on. What other old memories do you want to dig up?”

“How about this one?” I replaced my face with another scene, from New Year’s Eve twenty years ago. The setting was the lounge we sat in now, but it was far more crowded. There were tables and sofas, coffee tables, side tables, lamps and people. Men and women stood and talked and drank sparkling wine. Children chased each other and ate cake.

I wondered what each of them was doing now.

________________________________________

Eighty-five percent. The storm approaching the colony was now the biggest we’d seen since entering orbit. The colonists made emergency preparations on the surface. I sent them tutorials about how to prepare shelters for high winds and pile bags of sand to keep out the sea. I helped them back up all their data to the Ishtar’s main memory. If needed, they could go inland, but travel was already dangerous in the high winds. They would have to leave behind everything they couldn’t carry. The crops could be replanted, and makeshift shelters could be built from scratch. Communications equipment and generators were a different story. If those were lost, the colony would be unlikely to survive a generation.

A call came from the surface. I saw Jenna’s face, tanned dark from the planet’s star. The sky was gray and swirling with leaves and dust behind her. “Coral,” Jenna said, “put me through to Mom.”

I was already next to Margery, who had fallen asleep in her favorite chair in the lounge. “Hi Jenna,” I replied without making a sound in the room. “Your mom is asleep right now. Can you call back later?”

“No, Coral, this might be my last chance to talk to her if communications go down in the storm, just wake her up.”

I turned my attention to Margery. Her breath was calm and low and steady. I could tell that she was dreaming. I didn’t want to wake her. “Margery,” I said softly. No response. “Margery,” I said again.

“Urma, Mom’s napping go play somewhere else,” Margery said, her eyes still closed.

“Margery, Jenna wants to speak with you.”

Her eyes finally opened, and searched the empty room. “Where is she?” Margery asked.

“She’s on the planet.” She had been there more than three years.

“Already?” Margery frowned. “I wanted to spend more time with her.”

“She’s on a call right now, waiting. She wants to speak with you.”

“Oh, oh. Ok. How’s my hair?” Margery asked.

I reached an arm up to her face and tucked a feathery, white strand behind her ear. “You look lovely, Margery.”

She smiled. “You’re too kind, Coral. I know I look awful, but I don’t suppose Jenna cares much. She never has.”

I displayed a smile to match hers.

“I’m ready. Put her on,” Margery said.

Jenna’s face replaced mine. Her salt-and-pepper braids flapped around in the wind. “Hi Mom.”

“Hi honey. It looks like you’re having a spot of weather down there.”

Jenna shook her head. “A spot? Haven’t you been monitoring the displays?”

“Of course, it’s my job.”

“Well the storm’s been coming for days.”

“Days? No that’s not right, I was just checking the weather this morning.”

Jenna looked dumbfounded. “Jenna,” I said to her privately, “Your mom hasn’t been able to tend her workstation for several days. I’m afraid her health has been poor.”

Jenna took a deep breath and started to say something, but Margery spoke first. “Jenna, how are my grandkids? Enjoying the beach? You know I used to live by a beach when I was their age.”

“Mom, when you were their age you’d already been on the Ishtar half your life.”

“Well, close enough. I meant great-grandkids anyway.”

Jenna sighed and rolled her eyes. “Look, mom,” she said, impatience in her voice. “I just wanted to say that communications might go down so… I don’t know. If there’s anything you want to say to me or anyone else before the storm hits…” she trailed off.

“Oh, yes. Well, tell those little rascals to stay out of trouble. And their gramma loves them.”

“Ok Mom. Take care OK? I love you.”

“Are you hanging up on me already? You know I have all the time in the world up here.”

Jenna looked frustrated. “Mom. I just told you there’s a massive fucking storm coming at us and we have to evacuate and get everything ready. There’s a lot to do so no, I don’t have time to chat. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know what I did to make you so upset,” Margery said to her daughter.

“Aaaarg, Mom look I gotta go. Take care of yourself. We’ll talk again when this thing passes. Bye.”

“Bye, sweety–” Jenna hung up, but Margery wasn’t done with her sentence, “–love you.”

___________________________________________

A day later, there was no data from the colony. Their communications equipment was damaged or destroyed–impossible to know which. Clouds still covered the entire region.

________________________________________

“Have I ever told you about the time Jenna got lost when she was a little girl?”

“No Margery,” I lied.

“She was about this high,” Margery held her hand just above where her knee would be if she were standing, “and oooh she was a troublemaker. I’d gone over to Hardy’s–or wait–no. No, it was Hardy. Well, I was just going to have dinner with him, but things, well you know. And I’d left Jenna with Tazkiyah for the day. This must’ve been in the ‘70s.”

“If Jenna was that high, it could only have been 2056.”

Margery squinted at me, with a hint of smile. The first I had seen in a few days. “So be it. ‘56. Well that was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”

“It’s all relative, Margery.”

“Why do you always have to be so… right?”

“Margery, do you want to finish the story?”

“What story?”

“The one about when Jenna got lost. She was at Tazkiyah’s and you were with Hardy.”

“Oooooh right, yes, well. I got a call from Tazkiyah the next morning, and she was so upset. Jenna had gone missing! Well I jumped right out of bed, leaving poor Hardy there, butt naked and startled, and I ran off so fast I barely got my clothes and shoes on. I didn’t even tell poor Hardy why I’d left.”

“He must have been upset.”

She giggled. “I think he was! Well I almost had the whole ship looking for her before I finally went back to my apartment, and would you know it? There was little Jenna sitting by the front door. Mad as hell at me for leaving her behind at Tazkiyah’s! Can you believe it?”

I found an expression with a big, amused smile.

“I guess thinking back on it, I should’ve let her know I was going to stay the night as soon as I realized. But you know how things happen sometimes. Or maybe you don’t. You’ve never been on a date, have you, Coral?”

“Not yet.”

Margery giggled again, then said, “I wonder why I thought of that story just now? Isn’t it funny how memory works?”

“You must have been thinking about Jenna. Are you worried about her?”

“Oh, of course not,” Margery answered, quicker than usual. “Not in the least. Even if we can’t find her right away, she’ll turn up. Maybe she’ll even come right home.”

“Is that why you thought of that story? Are you hoping she’ll come home?”

“What story is that, Coral?”

“Margery, you know the colonists can never come back up. The landers were only built to get them to the surface.”

She was quiet for a moment. All laughter gone, gaze far away. “We were all supposed to go,” she said. “Or die first. One or the other.”

We were both silent. I didn’t know what to say.

Finally I spoke up. “Margery.” Her gaze returned to me when she heard her name. I summoned a comforting, sympathetic expression. “I’m worried about Jenna, too. And everyone else.”

Her expression didn’t change.

_________________________________________

Day broke again over the colony. The clouds had finally thinned and the coast was visible to the satellites.

A smear of debris stained the coast where there should have been a colony. The square farms were now amorphous puddles. The buildings were smears of scattered wood and metal. The paths, gone. I could not zoom in far enough to see if there were bodies.

Margery was asleep.

I would have to tell her.

Or would I? I remembered how Margery reacted when I reminded her of Urma’s death. Perhaps she wouldn’t want to know.

If I told her, the emotional shock could affect her health.

If I didn’t, she would keep asking. She would wonder why I wasn’t telling her. She might lose her trust in me. The stress of that could also affect her health.

Anyway, she would find out herself the moment she checked the data.

…Unless I erased the data.

But part of my duty was to preserve all our data in tact. When Margery was gone, it would be my only duty, forever.

I made a decision.

I rolled to her room, and waited for her to wake up.

____________________________________________

She didn’t notice me at first. Her eyelids opened halfway and she looked around, squinting, in the dimmed room. She mumbled for the lights. It was an incomprehensible mumble, but I knew what she wanted and I had the Ishtar raise the light slowly for her.

Her head turned in my direction, and her eyes passed over me, unrecognizing. I waited a few more minutes, motionless. Finally she reached forward and used both hands to shove one leg out from under the covers. It tumbled off the side of the bed, and the other leg followed in same manner. Both her swollen feet rested on the floor, and her hands curled around the cliff-edge of the mattress. She paused, head hanging from arched spine, to catch her breath. Then, with great effort, she pushed herself into a precarious standing position.

“Margery–”

“Aah!” She spun to look in the direction of my voice. Her eyes aimed at the spot on the wall above and behind me, where a human face might have been. She lost her balance. I moved fast, extended my arm for her to balance with. She missed it, and fell back onto the bed.

She held her hand to her chest. Her heart was racing, but not dangerously. Her oxygen levels were OK. She was just frightened.

“Dammit Coral!” she exclaimed after finding her composure. “You nearly gave me a heart attack. How did you just appear out of nowhere like that?”

“I was right here waiting for you to wake up.”

“I thought you were a piece of furniture.” Was that an accusing tone? She had never used one with me before.

I had no response.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. There was anger in her voice, and embarrassment.

“Let me help you.” I offered my arm.

“No, you’ve done enough already.” She fidgeted before standing. “Oh drat. It’s too late.”

________________________________

I helped her clean up in the bathroom. I helped her get dressed. I helped her put on her shoes, which stayed unfastened to fit her swollen feet. When her thin, white hair was pinned up in a bun the way she liked it, I held out my arm for her. She grasped it, and we moved, slowly, to her workstation in the control room.

At the entrance to the room, I said to her, “Margery, there might be data in there that you don’t want to see. You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to.”

“What are you talking about, Coral? I have to get in there and do my job. The colony needs their weather report. You’re not trying to take my job now are you?” She raised an eyebrow at me, then continued, “I’m joking. You know they used to say machines would take all our jobs, back on Earth. I wonder if that ever happened.”

We got to the panels. Margery sat down and looked at the lower panel. “This damned thing isn’t working. There’s no data for anyone.”

“Communications went down in the storm.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sure they’ll be back up soon. We’ll just ignore that panel for now.”

She examined the satellite imagery on the upper panel. She was quiet for several minutes.

Her voice came out tight and low. “Coral, call me a crazy old woman, but can you explain why it doesn’t look like there’s any colony at all down there?”

I rolled up beside her so I could see her face in profile. She was staring, and frowning with deep intensity, at the smear on the coastline where the colony had been.

“It is supposed to be right there, right?” she asked.

“It used to be there.”

She turned now to look at me. I didn’t know which expression would be right, so I wore none. I threw a looping animation of swirling fog on my display, instead. It probably wasn’t right, but it seemed better than a face. Maybe I didn’t want a face just then.

Margery’s voice was a whisper, cracking at the end. “What in the world happened?”

“There was a storm.”

She stared at me, her eyes searching around my fog-face angrily. I tried a human face back on, one with a mournful expression, but she looked away the moment we made eye contact.

“No,” she said quietly. Then she said it again, firmly, “No,” and again, with determination. “No.”

After a long silence, she turned back to me. Her stare was strange. An expression I had never seen before, on anyone. “Coral, my mind isn’t what it used to be. Tell me I’ve imagined this.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Tell me I’ve imagined this, Coral. Please. And take me back to bed. This is a bad dream. It’s a bad dream.”

_____________________________________

I met Margery when she woke up, and helped her get ready for her day. I held out my arm and we traveled, step by step, wheel rotation by wheel rotation, to the control room. She sat, slowly and carefully, in the swivel chair in front of the display. It displayed five hundred and seven rectangles of streaming data. Each rectangle represented a former inhabitant of the colony ship Ishtar. All except one: Margery herself. Margery and I had been alone on the Ishtar for a year.

The upper screen displayed six videos from satellites. One of them showed a coastline. It was sandy white between green forest to the west and blue ocean to the east. In a section of green near the beach, we could see the tiny squares of civilization. The date, displayed in small white digits in the corner of the video, was eighteen months ago.

“Yep, looks good,” Margery said. “This little planet was a good choice for a colony.”

We monitored the data for about half an hour, then Margery was tired, and I rolled her back toward her room.

“Do you think Jenna will call today?” she asked. She gripped my arm and lowered herself into her favorite chair. I’d pushed it all the way into her quarters when she couldn’t walk to the lounge anymore.

“Jenna called yesterday,” I told her.

“Oh.” She sounded troubled.

“She told you how proud she was of you for staying up here and keeping me company, remember?”

Margery had told me to say that. I said it every day.

“Oh Coral. You really are the best robot an old lady could have, do you know that?” Her eyes shined. She only said that sometimes.

“Thank you, Margery. You’re my best friend, do you know that?”

She smiled warmly.

No one had told me to say that.

_______________________________________

I patrolled the empty Ishtar every day. All the lights were out, since I could see in the dark and no one else needed them. The gravity was off, since I could move without it. The air no longer circulated, since there was no one left who needed oxygen. The control room was dark–all the data from the satellites fed to my central processor. My display panel was dark. There was no one to make faces for.

I was in a residential hallway, passing the empty quarters of humans I’d once known. I watched the morning’s satellite images while I patrolled. It was daybreak on the empty coast, and the water sparkled with light from the system’s steady, bright star. The terminator inched across white sand, hit the forest’s edge, and made the trees glow green, one by one. They began their photosynthesis for the day.

Deep in the forest, many kilometers from the coast, near a river, I noticed something new. A single, immaculate, brown square.

 

 

 

Thea Boodhoo is a writer based in San Francisco, California. Her previous work has appeared in EARTH Magazine, Art + Marketing, JMWW, The Offbeat (forthcoming) and others. She is a 2018 workshop graduate of The Writer’s Grotto in San Francisco, and has been accepted to the 2019 Futurescapes workshop in Utah. When she’s not writing, Thea enjoys nature photography and gardening.

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“WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE GREAT FISH CAME GNAWING?” by Cavin Bryce

Visitants
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“To Bloom Not Bleed” by The White Deer

The Earth existed then as one all consuming ocean spotted with a single island near the equator. It was a thin strip of sand only four feet in length at its widest point, but warm and soft so the native boys never complained. The sky was only ever perfectly covered in thick, morphing clouds. It rained incessantly.

On this island lived a pack of feral boys, the last of the humans. Their skin was honey colored, a hue reminiscent of sunlight refracted through amber. The boy’s sported differentiating features spare their skin tone; the colors of their eyes, shapes of their bodies, and thickness of their hair all varied greatly

In front of their beach was the ocean and behind it existed a world of vines and trees. Eyes of all sizes watched them from both the ocean and the forest. This observation was constant. Sometimes, these glaring eyes carried voices with them, starving voices from a dead world. If ever they wandered too far into the brush, or the ocean, the boys were quickly hunted and ripped to shreds by the monsters that watched them from afar.

At first the boys would travel deep into the jungle, swim out into the blue expanse of the ocean, in an attempt to uncover any evidence of their forgotten past that may still remain undamaged. Many of them perished during those endeavors, and the curiosity of the remaining children was eventually made obsolete by the drive to live. Their food sources were thinned to tiny fish, the children of colossus parents, and an assortment of berries. The boys ripped into the slick bodies of fish with a near animal instinct and consumed everything raw; scales, flesh, bones, and fins, everything but the eyes. Even the youngest of the pack would snap the head off of whatever he could catch and slurp their organs up savagely.

Water was collected in crudely woven baskets, or in containers that washed onto their shore. The largest of these containers was labelled: 2% Skimmed Fat. It held a lot of water.

 

 

One of the boys was named Gardner. He was gentle, with soft eyes and a light touch, one of the few who took initiative to look after the smaller children. One morning he woke up before all the other boys and waded into the shallow water bordering himself and the great beasts. There, he rinsed his hair and stared into the rising sun’s rays. He heard the whispers of lesser creatures, as one always did when they neared the water or forest. They whispered promises of a kingdom in the sky, above the infinitely raining clouds, where he would reside after death. The sirens talked of a place where hunger and pain didn’t exist, where the sun kissed your skin. Amidst these whispers came a great booming voice that drowned out the lesser creatures.

“It’s over,” the dominating voice said.

“What is?” Gardner thought.

“Your life. Your species.”  Gardner scoffed. Nothing could reach them on the shores.

“Come, boy, swim out here and see what is left of your people.”

He hesitated, straightening himself in the shallow water.

“Come, come and see why you are so content on your puny island.”

  ⧫

The rest of the boys awoke to see the eldest of them paddling out into the ocean. They screamed bloody murder at their comrade. His name, Gardner, clung to the moisture in the air, vibrated with the force of their confusion and sadness. He hoped, as he paddled, that they would be safe without him.

When Gardner reached the trench he turned to the shore of his beach. He could see nothing but a blur, heard nothing but distant screeches and pleads. When he looked down into the ocean, he saw nothing but an encompassing blackness and jagged rocks. As he plummeted into the water, deeper and deeper, there still was nothing but rock and water.

“You lied to me,” he thought, “there’s nothing here.”

“And that is what’s left. My siblings and I, along with the boars and great apes, consumed your civilization long ago. Out of sheer pity, we have allowed your pack to survive all this time on that pitiful island.”

Dead, glowing eyes each the size of the moon appeared suddenly from the blackness. Beneath them, a mouth cracked opened and revealed aisles of jagged teeth that emulated, in size and shape, an ancient mountainscape.

“We can’t stand to see life so idle any longer. Before you were demolished, your people found meaning in activity. It is cruel to keep you like this, unchanging and unmotivated.”

It was hard to admit, but the beast was right. Day after day the boys ate, washed themselves, and played. Then the next day they did it again. It was all without purpose, without an ounce of understanding.

Inside the intestines of the monster, Gardner saw entire cityscapes in crumbles. There were vehicles and neighborhoods, even entire islands floating in gastric acid. Memories of a time long ago flooded Gardner’s brain. He remembered his brother, his mother.  He hoped that this beast would take his home in one fell swoop and that none of this brothers would feel any pain. There was the slightest feeling of hope, as his last breath oozed from his lips, that he would see them again in that place where it never rains.

Simone’s Sermon by Jennifer Chukwu

Visitants

 

Simones Sermon

Before judgment, I am obligated to inform you of Heaven’s updated terms and conditions. Humans keep killing each other at unprecedented rates, and to help with our population surge, angels like myself are working unpaid overtime to pilot a new program.

In the past, if you tried your best with your childhood and other circumstances, you would have been granted entrance into Heaven. Back then, we believed your soul and its experiences were the best indicators for salvation; however, we were too lenient. After the Salvation Board reviewed our population data, they realized by 2049 Heaven will have reached capacity. Therefore, the board has put me in charge of deciding who will and will not enter Heaven.

If I feel you represent humanity’s potential for evil or if you wasted your time on earth, you are going to Hell. If you have any questions or complaints, after judgment you are allowed to submit a ticket to HR. If your ticket gets reviewed, it is then escalated to the Salvation Board, where you might gain entrance into Heaven or a second chance at life. Now that we have reviewed the new terms and conditions, Brian, Sister Scholastica, and Elaine, I need all of you to line up in that order. Let’s begin before my lunch break.

 

book of brian

Book of Brian

Often your classmates asked, “Why are you so Black?” and your only response was to bury your head deeper into your algebra book until your nose touched the pages. You learned this tip from HALP.org, your favorite anti-bullying site. The users called it “turtling,” and it was great for ignoring bullies, teachers, and parents. You learned to trust the HALPers, but only after ignoring their initial advice. At the beginning of your freshman year, you tried defending yourself.

Your head shot out of your book and you said,

“’Cause Black is beautiful.”

“Not when it is covered in acne,” a classmate responded, and the class laughed.

After school, your parents asked questions they believed were encouraging. Was today better?” “Are you at least getting straight As?”  “Are you thinking about re-trying out for the basketball team?”

You nodded yes and no answers and headed to your room, but before you made it upstairs, your parents reminded you of your upcoming appointment with Dr. Lanning, the dermatologist.

When it came to your skin, they were desperate.

Your parents hoped that if the acne went away, then you would start looking better. From the infomercials, they heard of a new drug: Radoxin. It did wonders for people with acne. There were possible side effects, things like hair loss, feelings of depression, or severe skin rashes. But, all the pimples went away! Your appointment was the next day. At first you were excited, but after reading the side effects, you became terrified. That fear was for good reason. You became the third wrongful death lawsuit.

 

The day before you started your medication, you stared at your ceiling, waiting for daylight to disappear. You tried dreaming of your future, but you could only imagine ways to survive another school week. That week, you had already survived Thursday and only Friday remained. Fridays were great because there was pizza and Ms. Elaine, the associate teacher, always gave you a slice of pepperoni even though your parents only paid for cheese. Sometimes, if you had the courage to ask, you got a free soda, too. Ms. Elaine understood your pain. After her haircident in elementary school, she was never the same. Things became a bit better when she started following her favorite social media star, Lissa Evans’ accounts and her Inspirational Monday Message.

I know…humans will believe anything another human creates, but ask them to believe about God and angels and they say “LOL.”

Anywho, whenever she saw you, she hoped one day you would also find your cure.

After Fridays, it was the weekend, and you loved sneaking out the house. The first time your parents caught you sneaking out you told them you were meeting your girlfriend. They were too thrilled to question. Your dad gave you a condom and then winked at you. Your mother said you were becoming the man of the house.

The truth: the few times you talked to a girl happened when she wanted to play connect the dots. You were excited, even when she started tracing your pimples with her fingers. Once, she could’ve sworn she found The Big Dipper on your left cheek. Your simple ass laughed along with her.

Instead of meeting up with a girlfriend, you waited by the sides of the streets, bored. During these bouts of boredom, you thought about your options. You were not good at sports; last time you tried to shoot a basketball, you hit the coach on her head. You were a straight Bs student, the definition of average. Killing yourself was not an option—the lead chatter in HALP said so. Also, it took too much effort. You would have to pick a place, and then a thing to do it with, and you did not want to be a news story like the school’s secretary, Ms. Denora Johnson.

After you finished wandering and thinking about your options, you visited your friend, Mr. Elt, who lived between First and Pleasant Avenue. He was only seven years older than you, but insisted on the title of Mister because he was an “experienced” man. You trusted him because he looked like you and understood your struggle. Together in a coffee shop, you counted his earnings from playing overturned buckets as drums while cars waited in traffic. For his friendship and wisdom, Mr. Elt asked for a favor.

Lately, New Yorkers had been stingier than usual, and he needed an income other than playing drums. Per Mr. Elt’s request, you told him whenever you spotted a woman with a purse walking alone. Things were fine until one day a teenager caught him and called him an “ugly son of a bitch.” He had been called ugly before, but this time was the last. In his eyes, this woman was no Beyoncé, and you agreed.

You went over to help the woman. She did not recognize you, but you knew her. She was a senior at your high school. She was never particularly mean or nice to you. She reminded you of all the girls in your school. You figured getting revenge on one would right all the wrongs. By Mr. Elt’s third incident, you started having fantasies about hurting women. You imagined pushing them in front of buses.

After Mr. Elt’s fifth incident, more women you spotted started appearing on the news and your fantasies became darker. The reporters told women to travel in groups and look out for a man that matched Mr. Elt’s description. You should have reported him, but instead you listened to his shitty and depressing advice. He told you it did not get better. Your face would not change. The only hope was to treat women the way that everyone had treated you. Eventually, the goal was to trap a woman and make her feel like she was nothing without you. He told you that you had to achieve this goal by any means necessary.

Know what, this review is dragging, and a bunch of killed clubbers were just added to the Heaven queue. Brian, here are your take aways: you had a growing resentment for women because people made fun of you, if you are lucky and get another chance at life, read Chicken Soup for the Soul and How Not to Be a Sexist Pig, and turn in Mr. Elt. Before your acne medication killed you from Steven-Johns Syndrome, you enjoyed hearing about his exploits, and started planning ways to become just like him. At least you died before you completely followed in his footsteps.

 

book of scholastica

Book of Scholastica

At 8:30 AM, the school bell rang. At 3:00 PM, your students stampeded toward freedom. Both your and your students’ days were repetitious. When the children left, you remained seated at your desk and repainted your paddle’s handle. Since you were young, you wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by friends in Heaven. The moment that Jesus saw all the souls you saved, you knew that He would do the right thing and make you the new Right Hand in Heaven.

Oh, Honey, what were you thinking? That was never going to happen. If it makes you feel better, I think you have a great chance of being Lucifer’s Right Hand.

While still believing in this impossible dream of being the Lord’s Right Hand, you joined the covenant and then became a teacher at Sorrows Academy. At the beginning of the day, you picked up the wooden paddle and had your third-grade class recite John 3:16. The uniform sound of their voices uplifted your soul. Though they were children of God and angelic at times, you felt that they needed a guided path toward salvation.

When you first started teaching, you thought the path was paved by stern lectures, group prayers, and reduced recesses. But for months, the children would not behave no matter what you did. They drew on their desks, they swore when they thought you were not listening, and terrorized you with crude jokes. In your darkest hour, another older Sister talked about her glory days in the 70s and recommended the paddle. After this recommendation, things were never the same.

In your eyes, every day became blessed.

The children listened, prayed, and obeyed. At times, children were children, and they tried to revert back to their playful habits. During those times, which happened once or twice every school day, you tightened your grip on the paddle. Whenever you struck, you made sure the forces of Heaven and Hell were behind you. Whenever the child howled, it was for God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. These children learned how to cry out for mercy and repentance. The Old Testament workbooks and Father Cooke’s sermons failed them. The children were young and still had terrible lives to live. Nothing could save them but God, and paddling them was the only path toward redemption.

 

Your classroom had the dumbest rules:

First rule: No doodling in your workbooks.

From seven years of teaching, you learned that children doodle foul pictures—such foul things would not be tolerated in Heaven. Children who wanted to doodle in their workbooks could either go to Hell or to transfer to Sister Angelica’s class.

Second Rule: Outside was outside. Inside was inside.

News, unless it pertained to the Pope, did not belong in the classroom.

Third Rule: Bad behavior is never rewarded.

 

Your students were two hours away from dismissal and before they would escape, you decided to teach Elaine, one of your students’, a lesson. In order to save her, you needed to ensure that she understood her transgressions. While you sat behind your students during Mass, you caught Elaine playing with her pigtails. You heard rumors that Elaine allowed classmates to play with her hair and braid it in exchange for free juice boxes, cookies, and sometimes the answers for the day’s Tree of Knowledge question. To match Elaine’s light brown skin, she had long brown hair that all her classmates, especially the boys, marveled over. You worried for Elaine. If this behavior continued, what type of woman would she become once she left Sorrows Academy? She had no respect for her God-given soul and body. Not only did she distract herself from Father Cooke’s sermon, but allowed the students to buy her happiness. These were actions only allowed by future Whores of Babylon. You spent the weekends checking every single lesson plan to make sure the Devil never had a way of accessing your future friends through careless words or mistakes. But somehow, right under your nose, the Devil had attached himself to Elaine’s hair.

While tapping your pilgrim shoes, you ordered Elaine to walk to the front of the classroom. Your students’ hands twitched; they wanted to cover their ears. However, after the second blessed day, each of them learned that covering their ears was bad behavior. In order to completely understand their fellow classmates’ depravity, they needed to hear the screams of repentance. Your students’ hands gripped their desks. Elaine closed her eyes and her pigtails swung forward. The children watched them, the pendulums of her sin. You refused to stop until Elaine reached salvation. This child needed to learn her lesson or lose her soul.

Elaine said, “Please stop.”

You replied, “I cannot. John 15 verse 9. ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.’”

Elaine began screaming and you smiled. You hesitated for a moment. Perhaps Elaine finally learned her lesson and could return to living in God’s light. But in that moment of hesitation, she ran to the door and out of the classroom. The students looked at you and did not know whether to cheer or beg her to return. You set your paddle down, and walked after Elaine. This was not the first time one of your future Heaven-friends tried to escape. You fixed your habit and walked to the classroom across the hallway. There, you saw Elaine banging on the locked door of Sister Teresa’s classroom. Her class was away at recess, a spoiling reward for all her students getting above an 8/10 on the Tree of Knowledge quizzes for an entire week. With a calm smile, you took her by the hand and both of you walked to your classroom. You placed your paddle back into your desk drawer and grabbed a pair of scissors.

“You must remain in my love,” you said as you snipped off the two pigtails, and then tossed them into the trashcan. When Elaine returned to her desk, the other students tried not to look at her. Visibly mourning Elaine’s pigtails was bad behavior and would result in all being brought to the front of the classroom. The students watched you as you picked stray hairs off your hands.

So, you are definitely Hell-Bound.

 

book of elaine

Book of Elaine

Ever since your haircident with Sister Scholastica, your hair never grew back, and you never felt the same. Bless her soul, but your mother never wanted a child and did not understand how your hair worked. And then, your father, though Black, was not interested in teaching your mom about Black hair. The only hope was Mr. Marc, your hairdresser, but the bastard kept you in the Ringo cut.

After the haircident, you begged your mom to change schools, but Sorrows Academy was the best in its district. Also, she was secretly happy your hair was shorter and much more manageable. After a few fake sick days, you returned to school. Your haircident became legendary, and for years, your classmates stayed away from you. Partly out of fear of Sister Scholastica, partly because of the terrible haircut, and lastly because you were your grade’s suspected lesbian. Things changed a little in college—you found a different hairstyle.

After college graduation, you realized how much you owed in student loans, and decided to become a teacher. You returned to Sorrows Academy because they enjoyed hiring alumni, paid for your masters, and every other job said “No.” You figured you would protect students. Though you were overworked, underpaid, and somehow in even more debt, you were able to remove Sister Scholastica from Sorrows Academy. The principal and the Father knew about her disciplinary methods, but they overlooked them because of her classroom’s consistently high test scores over the years. After your independent investigation, you exposed the truth: Sister Scholastica gave students answers on test days. She believed the only test that mattered was the test of faith. She was fired that day. She was so bored during her forced retirement that she died earlier than expected.

As a reward, your roommate and “best friend” convinced you to finally use your vacation days for an eat, pray, love trip. Her reasoning: you were exhausted, recently dumped, and she was tired of listening to you cry through the walls. For your eat pray love trip, you went to NYC, then New Orleans, and then Vegas for some lovin’.

One day, while waiting for your margarita at a bar, you saw your idol—Lissa Evans. Two years ago, she moved to Vegas to work as a social influencer. She had dedicated her life to helping people like you. She posted photos of her daily adventures at clubs, exclusive restaurants, and expensive stores, with captions like, “Be your best self,” “Life is your adventure,” and “Beauty is subjective and you are always the subject.”

She had 6 million followers, and they worshipped her. She was beautiful, free, and made you feel like you could be that, too. Following her on social media for a year made your vanity return to what it was before the haircident. During your trip of self-love, you took on her philosophy and emptied your savings. You bought things and took pictures with things to show your worth. While in Vegas, you hoped to spot her but never imagined meeting her face to face.

After two years of living in Las Vegas, Lissa met fans like you everyday. To cope with how boring the day-to-day became, she came up with a set of routines to start her morning. While your mornings started with liking her most recent pictures, hers started at 11:00 AM with inserting her CD “Summer Loving” into her entertainment center. The only song on it was “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry. After listening to it endlessly, she left her apartment and drove down the Vegas strip to watch the gamblers, beggars, and vacationers stumble down the street. Eventually, when she finished observing, she parked her car and joined her favorites at the bar to talk them up. After she saw you snapping pictures in front of every store on the strip, you became one of her favorites.

When she sat next to you at the bar, you wanted to take a picture with her as proof you met your idol, but Lissa told you put your phone away. She said,

“A day like this you want to barely remember.”

Though you did not understand her, you listened. She was your idol, and taught you how to live your life. While together, she told you that you were beautiful and you became comfortable, wanting to do everything she suggested. You left the bar and went clubbing. The two of you danced together. Although there were moments that you felt uncomfortable, you overrode your fear because this vacation was becoming the perfect story. You would not only nod yes or no when your roommate asked if you had a great time; finally, you would have a fun story to tell that was better than all of hers combined. Five minutes into this friendship, you called Lissa perfection. Fifteen minutes in, you cried about your recent breakup that was caused by your insecurity-fueled paranoia and your ridiculous work schedule. After twenty minutes, she got bored of you and your compliments, and after thirty, she knew you served part of her purpose. She grabbed your hand and asked,

“Are you here with anyone special?”

You tightened your grip and said,

“I’m by myself. This is my own eat, pray, love trip. I went to NYC, then New Orleans, and now I’m in Vegas, baby.”

Woman to woman, you should not have said that.

Lissa became even more excited than before.

You were another Vegas Virgin, and the fourth eat, pray, love girl that she had found in the past two months!

She ordered another round of drinks, and then left for the bathroom. With the stupidest smile, you swayed back and forth on the dance floor to the latest hits as you imagined her freshening up. In reality, she key-bumped in the stall, and then stared at herself in the bathroom mirror as she savored the minutes before her next steps.

For Lissa, last night was good not great. She killed you. She killed you with kisses, a plastic bag, and a spool of nylon rope. Before the night reached its climax, she sat you down on the couch and said it was time to try something different. She put on “Summer Loving” and tied your hands together with rope and placed a plastic bag over your head. She promised that when you tapped her back, she would take the bag off.

This moment was intoxicating so you put your fear away. While the bag was over your head, she ate you out and her lips became slippery with your cum. You gasped. Banged your fists on her back. Then you stopped.

Your roommate filed a missing persons report because you did not pay rent. She is still looking for you, but you are decomposing in the trunk of a car. You should have loved yourself, been more cautious, and etc. I am not sure if you learned your lessons and I do not have time to keep lecturing.

 

book of judgement

 

Book of Judgment

Sister Scholastica, Lucifer has been expecting you since the day you were born. Why are you looking surprised? I already told you that you were going to Hell. Then Brian, your death means two blonde girls in Manhattan live to text another day; so, I won’t have to deal with their paperwork until they die of toxic shock syndrome or alcohol poisoning. Brian, stop crying, trying to use your victim card will not help here because somehow in in Heaven every human is some sort of victim. Elaine, honestly, I don’t have time to fill out the paperwork for your second chance at life or onboard you to Heaven, so I’ll send you to Hell. Once I’m back from lunch, it is the round up, and all of you will go down together.

“May I please speak with another angel?”

Elaine, do not interrupt me. It is always the same with you humans. You come here pleading; meanwhile, we constantly save and are overworked while you destroy and indulge. Then, we have to explain why what you are doing is wrong. You all are violent, brutal, and ugly. It is in my professional opinion that Heaven needs to close its doors, but that is above my wings.

If anyone has a problem with this judgment, please direct yourselves to HR. I am not answering any questions. It is my lunch break, and today the cafeteria is serving milk and honey.