Darkling

It was dark. He heard strange, chittering voices close by. What happened? He remembered rain, headlights, a guardrail, and then . . .

He was still in the car. He wasn’t alone. Shapes moving, and those voices . . . words he couldn’t understand. Then a head loomed over him, eyes giving off a pale reflection in the night.

“You awake?” a reedy voice asked. “You come?”

Something was odd about the shape of that head, the shape of those words, the shape of his windshield. In his mental fog, all he could mutter was a hoarse, “Where?”

It seemed to suffice as an answer. A flash of steel in the night, and his seat belt fell away. He found himself outside a twisted heap of metal. Behind him, the low drone of highway traffic. Ahead, starlit darkness into which those small, strange figures were retreating. The last one stopped short, looked back. “You come,” they repeated. He wasn’t sure if it was a question or a command.

He followed anyway. Grass gave way to trees, the sounds of civilization faded. Occasionally, trees parted, allowing moonlight to revealed his companion plainly. Green skin, pointed ears, sharp smiles.

Thrilled and terrified, he continued into the darkling unknown.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Piano

It was so rare to find truly good music at these country parties. Belle had been dying to meet the man in the dark suit at the piano, and after an hour of boring chitchat, she finally broke away from her companions.

“Pardon me,” she said gently, then gasped when the pianist looked up. “My goodness! I came here to give my compliments to the brilliant young man at the piano, only to discover that you’re a woman.”

“Am I?” they gasped in feigned surprise. “Goodness, I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“What? Oh, it’s quite alright.” Belle replied. “But why are you dressed that way?”

“Well I always believed the suit made the man,” they answered in a sultry contralto, “but apparently I was wrong.”

Belle’s giggle made all the ringlets of her golden curls bounce merrily. “That’s very droll,” she said.

A grin. “Being droll is my specialty.” A flourish on the keys. “That, and charming young ladies.”

“If I didn’t know any better,” Belle laughed. “I might think you were propositioning me.”

“You might be right,” the answered, “unless you know better.”

Belle’s heartbeat accelerated, suddenly matching the piano’s rhythm. The pianist smiled invitingly. Music filled the night.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Lorenzo Spoleti on Unsplash

Goose

Thumb absently rubbing my finger, I watch him moving through the bar. It looks like a game of “Duck Duck Goose,” all the girls with no dates watching him circle, each ready to chase him the moment he singles them out.

But he chooses me.

“Hey,” he says with a cocksure grin, “you want to dance?”

I follow the rules of the game, I rise to follow him while all the rest watch. In that moment, I want nothing more than to feel like a child again, to throw myself headlong into a carefree pursuit.

I want to, but…

“You’re not having a good time,” he notes after a couple songs.

“I’m sorry,” I answer. “It’s not your fault.”

To his credit, he doesn’t look at all wounded by my lack of enthusiasm. He simply gives an understanding nod, then asks, “The tattoo on your finger?”

Once more, my thumb presses into the black ink line on my ring finger where a metal band used to rest. Somehow, I find myself smiling. “Actually, he was a duck all along.”

I leave alone that night. Looking up at the sky, I see the stars for once and not the darkness between.

* * *

A story by Gregory M. Fox

Pizza

Duncan stared in confusion at the vacant lot, then double-checked his GPS and the order receipt. The address was correct, but there was no house. When he looked up again, half a dozen young girls were staring at him from the sidewalk. Nervously, Duncan rolled down his window.

“You got pizza?” the smallest shouted.

“Uh, yeah.” A brown-skinned girl in an oversize flannel marched forward and held out her arms. Duncan blinked then handed over the stack of boxes from his passenger seat. “Are you . . . girl scouts or something?”

“We’re anarchists!” the little one announced.

“Judy, shh…”

“Oh, right,” she replied, “We’re secret anarchists!”

“Aren’t you all a little young to be anarchists?”

The girls exchanged knowing glances. “We are the women of the future,” flannel girl said.

Another continued, “If we are to be free women tomorrow, we have to dismantle oppressive power structures today.”

“Alright,” Duncan said, “then which of you revolutionaries can pay me?”

One of the girls shoved a plastic bag through the car window. Inside Duncan found a collection of markers and pens, three barbies, and a flashlight.

“Sorry,” flannel answered, “we don’t believe in currency.” And before Duncan could protest, the girls had scattered.

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Jordan Nix on Unsplash

Prize

Derek didn’t mind the cold; falling snow made the moment more romantic. Almost giddy, he declared, “I’m here to win you back, baby.”

Sela remained stiff and aloof on the other side of the threshold. “It’s not a contest,” she replied. “And I’m no one’s prize.”

Derek grinned even wider. “That’s just it though – you are a prize. I was too stupid and selfish to see it before, but I know now. I know how lucky I was, how lucky any man would be to have you.” It was everything he had been wanting to say. The moment was perfect.

“You can’t have me,” she answered.

Snow crunched beneath Derek’s feet as he shifted his stance. “So. Who is it?”

Her eyes flicked away. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re seeing someone, aren’t you? Already?”

“His name’s Jeremy,” she said, shaping the word into a smile.

“I don’t care who he is. He doesn’t deserve you.”

Sela shrugged. “He makes me happy.”

“I don’t care if you’re happy,” Derek spat. “I only care if you’re mine.” The echo of his own words struck Derek like a blow. He turned away from Sela’s shocked expression, and fled into the winter night.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Just

Two men stepped onto the scaffold.

“You want me to kill you?” the prisoner asked.
“To execute me in your place, yes.”

Both wore hoods, one black and menacing, the other a simple burlap sack.

“Then what happens?”
“You get to keep your head,” the grizzled older man replied. “Freedom within the jail and an indefinite postponement of your sentence, at least until you give the job to someone else. Don’t know how long it’s been, but way back someone decided that no righteous souls should be tarnished by killing, even for the sake of justice. Now only someone sentenced to death can carry out that sentence for someone else. Leave it to those already damned to ferry other foul souls off to hell.”

An axe blade rose, glinting in the sunlight.

“How long has it been for you?”
Eyes stare blankly at stone walls. “Thirty years.”
“And how many have you killed?”
“Enough,” he answered “to grow weary of death.”

The axe fell with a sickening thud.

“So what do you say? Free an old man from his torment?”
The prisoner looked into dark, weary eyes, saw a soul in agony. He answered, “No.”

Blood ran across the boards.

Lucky

I remember stars. I remember the world cracking open. I remember voices. “Come here . . . Did you see that? . . . Wake up . . .”

“You’re very lucky,” the doctor had said. Conscious, but still heavily medicated, I had struggled to comprehend why I felt like a fly in a spiderweb. Later I would understand about the hospital, the ambulance, and the collision. And while the doctors pieced me together, I tried to piece together my memories.

I remember a broken heel. I remember twisting, crunching, crashing, rending. I remember a tinkling rain of falling glass.

“The EMT’s said they found you alone on the sidewalk. Do you have any idea how you got there? Do you have any idea who might have placed the 911 call? Do you have any idea what happened?”

I remember a hand reaching out. I remember twisting shadows, glowing red eyes, claws, fangs, laughter. I remember a celestial light, trumpets sounding in the night, sheltering beneath wings.

“Do you have any idea how lucky you are?”

Lucky . . .

“Hey beautiful, where you going? Stick around—this is your lucky night. What, you don’t want to talk to me? Come here, bitch. I said, come here.”

I try not to remember.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Puke

Leah rubbed Aaron’s back gently as he puked over the deck railing. A wave of cheers drifted out of the warmly lit banquet hall.

“What are they doing now?” Aaron groaned.

“Looks like they’re cutting the cake.” Another choking groan followed by a distant splat. “You’re feeling pretty shitty aren’t you?”

Aaron spit out a stray chunk of regurgitated food and mumbled, “You think?”

“What’s going on?”

“I drank too much,” he said, dragging himself upright.

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about.”

He shrugged and pulled out a flask. “What about you?”

Leah blinked out into the darkness. “I’m fine.”

Aaron unscrewed the flask, then held it out. “There’s no way you’re fine with how awful I’ve been tonight. Pretty sure you need this more than I do.”

She glanced at the flask and frowned, then looked back at Aaron. He was a mess, but his eyes were warm, kind, generous. She snatched the bottle and took a long swig.

“That bad, huh?” Aaron grinned when she finally offered it back. “I guess you know I’m in love with the bride. Who are you in love with.”

Feeling like she was going to throw up, Leah answered. “You.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Again

Their eyes were ringed red and bloodshot, staring blankly into the half-empty cup of cooling tea.

“How many times are you going to do this, Cal?” she asked.

A lazy shake of the head. “Shut up, Jane,” they muttered.

She leaned forward to speak, then sighed and relaxed back into her seat. Cal’s thumb drifted back and forth across the lip of the mug. Jane tried again. “I’m just sayin…” she began.

“No you’re not,” Cal interrupted.

“E-excuse me?”

Cal’s eyes turned deliberately away from Jane, out to the window. Out to empty darkness. “If you have to tell me that you’re just saying something, that hundred percent guarantees you’ve got something even worse that you’re not saying.”

Jane leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. “Like what?”

They gave a lazy shrug. “Fuck if I know.”

She rose, snatched up Cal’s mug, and carried it to the sink. “I’m helping you, aren’t I?” she asked. “I’m letting you stay here, right?”

“Don’t make it sound like such a threat.”

Jane leaned wearily against the counter, head low. “What do you want, Cal?

Cal’s eyes were wet with unshed tears. “I don’t know, Jane. I wish I did.”

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox

Heart

The day they turned on the Machine, the company made three million dollars. In the first month, the value of their shares increased twenty-fold. Meanwhile, the country was in turmoil from civil unrest, looming war, and rapidly rising unemployment.

Then someone mentioned the Machine to the media. Connections were made, conclusions drawn, outcry raised. They turned off the Machine.

But the project was too profitable to abandon. The company hired an army of programmers to somehow teach the Machine empathy. Even more money was spent on marketing. “The Heart,” they called it now. Once connected to the fine network of veins that composed the internet, it would pump information in and out, making decisions in a way that caused no harm.

Finally, they plugged it in.

Analysts watched their screens. Traders watched their phones. No transactions were made. Not in the first five minutes. Not in the first hour. Meanwhile, a custodian at the largest server farm in the country watched the reading on the thermometer rise. By the time the technicians there got in touch with management, servers were already failing from overheating. Every processor was working at 100% capacity. Thousands of spinning discs, making a sound like screaming.

* * *

Story by Gregory M. Fox
Photo by Lars Kienle on Unsplash