“Hell’s Greater Triumphs”

My dear Wormwood,

You mustn’t ask those sorts of questions. If you entertain faulty notions within your own little mind, just imagine how much greater those notions would reflect on the mind of your patient.

“If they are so eager to exterminate each other, why should we intervene at all?”

Firstly, I would have you recall that the humans’ eagerness is a direct result of centuries-worth of painful labor on our part. We started by introducing a sense of general unhappiness into human lives where the vermin ordinarily found such a disgusting sense of joy. We then began to push further the already-present human instinct to elevate one’s own needs over all else. That instinct, nephew, is one of the easily apparent symptoms of Our Father Below’s first fateful touch on primordial humanity so long ago.

The result was inevitably the general hive-mentality that children ultimately bring responsibility into human lives. I will take a moment here, dear nephew, to momentarily reflect on one of Hell’s greater triumphs over the human psyche in recent years. By conditioning humans to never cease thinking of themselves as children, we have created a multitude of fissures for the human race, which previously only children were naïve or immature enough to plunge into. To necessitate such a change we altered both the physical and mental interpretations of an adult in general culture.

A laxity in parental discipline throughout the entirety of a human child’s home life has introduced a general refusal to mature that now stays with human beings throughout their entire lives. This phenomenon is quite evident if you were ever to take a moment to listen in on the average work-or-schoolplace conversation in the world. A human’s inability to either register or care for one person’s words and experiences, and an all-consuming, overpowering need to twist the conversation until the listener is again the talker, is so petty and delectable to the ears of any respectable hellion. Then there is the laughably evident readiness, even eagerness, to take offense at the slightest perceived wrong; the bellicosity behind every gesture and underneath every sentence.

We have coupled this with suffusing into popular culture an attraction to what is ultimately the physique and mindset of a prepubescent boy, a damning combination now strived after by men and women alike, and which is utterly impossible to attain after twelve years of age. The result is a profound abhorrence in the minds of humans at the symptoms of adulthood. This renders any thought or inclination toward responsibility effectively neutralized.

And so, women are hurling themselves every which way out of the path of responsibility. Especially that awful responsibility, that atrophies their bodies, destroys their careers, that burns checkbooks and shatters intimacy, that is motherhood. They think (never overtly) something like this: If only women can fly from the burden of a child until they cross the safe threshold of menopause– or until such a time as we let them decide they will make ready mothers– then they will be successful and happy for the wispy remainder of their mortal lives. We seeded their irresponsibility, now we simply provide mortals with the tools to maintain it.

You know the tool of which I speak.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

 

“This isn’t what I meant by ‘invisible,’ Sully,” Cooper said.

“What’d you expect?” Sully asked as he stitched the last thread of photo-reflective wiring into Cooper’s ghillie suit. “Grass and leaves?”

“Kind of,” Cooper answered, shrugging. Glints of sunlight glimmered off the synthetic fronds of his suit as they slid over each other.

“That’s ’cause you’re old,” Sully answered. He tightened one of the straps under Cooper’s arm.

“Probably,” Cooper conceded. “I’m from a time before death rays and lasers and Invisible Man suits.”

Sully sighed. “Lasers are so nineties.”

“I was actually thinking seventies.”

“Like I said.”

Sully padded a few keystrokes into the screen on his gauntlet, and with a series of little ripples, Cooper was reduced to glassy silhouette as the fronds of his suit mimicked the ambient light behind him.

“This is disorienting.” Cooper said dryly. “I think I prefer old-fashioned camouflage. You know, green and black and you could see your arms?” He held out his hands, and the wrinkles in the fabric caught the sun and formed unsettling floating shadows in the air.

“I think I remember reading about passive camouflage in history this one time,” Sully whispered distantly.

“Brat.”

“The active camo isn’t for human eyes anyways. The train is going to have sensors. That’s why I can’t be around when it gets here.”

“You didn’t bring your own suit?”

“They’re expensive, and I guess SOCOM didn’t think I was worth it.”

Sully handed Cooper an anti-materiel rifle and trotted off into the hills. “Make it count!” he shouted wryly over his shoulder. “Remember about humidity and wind speed and gravity and all that. Oh! And remember they discovered the Coriolis effect since you were in sniper school.”

Cooper muttered profanities as he settled into a prone position overlooking the tracks, and waited.

 

 

The Blind Spyle

My vision flickers back and I see through the blurry red haze of the wound over my eye. The girl still lies unconscious under the light of a lantern, in the centre of a mess of shattered cobblestones and crisscrossing tracks. The cool night air smarts against the deep cut across my face. I’m on the ground, in the perfect darkness of an alleyway, removed from the light of the street. I know I need to get back into the light. Struggling against bloodless, wobbling legs, I rise and start forward toward the girl.

Abruptly, the light of the street blacks out as something moves between me and the girl. I freeze, and catch the rising gasp in my throat by clamping a hand over my mouth. A cold surge crawls through every individual branch of my spine. The reeking breaths of disintegrated flesh waft into my face and worsen my horrific nausea. If the thing were any closer, I would be touching it. Even in this dark, I’m so close that I start to make out the thing, and I immediately shut my eyes.

I shut my eyes so I won’t see the bony, plate-like structures protruding from its eye sockets, covering most of its blind face. I won’t see the taut folds of skin around its mouth which is pulled into a constant, demonic grin, or the clefted upper lip that further disfigures its visage and showcases several sets of small, jagged teeth. I won’t see the purple tongue that twitches eagerly in the putrid recesses of its maw.

I do chance a fleeting look past the thing, and I see the girl starting to stir. But my eyes stray too close, and I can make out the raised tendons in the thing’s neck vibrating as it begins to growl, softly, unsure. Slowly, soundlessly, I stray my free hand behind me for something– anything– and my heart twitches between its pounding beats as my hand closes around a spur of rebar left among the detritus of the alley.

It must smell the tang of my blood in the air because it won’t leave. I draw the spike of metal toward my side more slowly and hesitantly than I’ve ever moved. The thing seems to grow ever so slightly less confident, and it cocks its head in a birdlike motion. Just as the bar is about to rise totally free of the ground, it rasps almost imperceptibly against something in the dark. I jerk my head back as far as I can without stumbling backwards because the thing surges instantly forward, looses a snarl echoing down the alley. The pale, rippling body is about to crash into me. The rebar is entirely free now, and as fast as I can I whip it in a furious arc towards the thing.

Small Talk

The uncaring sea roils around the mazelike archipelagos of synthetic coral that support the floating city’s looming skyscrapers, which are being perpetually buffeted by massive sprays of brackish water. Lich-like rays of pallid light struggle through the low, black clouds and fall onto the buildings, painting the city an unholy green. A flash erupts from within the clouds, and a rumble echoes through the skyscrapers. A curtain of icy rain begins to sweep into the city, further reducing the visibility in the ill-defined light of the storm.

Both the authorities and the city’s employs have long since vacated the vast rooftop plazas and commons and have taken shelter inside the plastic-steel walls of their gigantic ivory towers. The only places where people can still be found outdoors are the slums, on the edges of the city, where the skyscrapers seem to fall away into the ocean and leave only the exposed homes of those residents who are either unable or unwilling to work for the city’s regime, and have been forced out of public view. Somewhere within the mountains of storage containers and sheet metal homes, a boy steps through the door of the slums’ bona fide clinic which is nestled in the carcass of an old fishing trawler, in what used to be the vessel’s medical bay.

Inside, Tommy folds back the hood of his tattered jacket and blinks the rain from his haunted eyes. He is greeted by the familiar sight of the slum’s resident doctor. She has just emerged from behind one of the suspended curtains that cordon off the place.

“Hey, handsome,” she says numbly. Her scrubs are stained and splattered almost black, as are her mask and gloves.

“Do you have it?” Tommy asks.

“No small talk? Tsk,” murmurs the doctor as she slides a sealed medical bag across the counter. “What a surprise.”

Tommy ignores her as he slings the bag onto his shoulder and turns for the door. “Take it to the hospital on 9th,” the woman sighs to Tommy’s back, and then he’s gone.

He sprints through the labyrinth of rusted hulls and stacked one-room houses, navigating the slum with memorized efficiency. The pack on his shoulders is pulled tight to his body, but its precious cargo still bounces muffledly from within. The rainfall grows heavier, pinging off all the metal of the buildings in a metallic din.

If he was in any legitimate part of the city, Tommy would have travelled several blocks by now, but the different districts of the slums are far too disorganized to be regarded as blocks. Tommy navigates by way of landmarks; he makes the particularly difficult leap across the nearly abutting construction cranes south of an abandoned, collapsing section of the shanty town, passes the always-crowded illicit corner bar in the belly of a cargo barge by the slum’s water filters, circumvents the conveyor system that the fishermen use to haul their catches higher up into the city proper. Only, no fish are being hauled in today.

Tommy finally emerges from the slums as a vein of lightning streaks white and violent across the sky. He races for the entrance of the community hospital building just as the thunderclap reaches him. He bursts through the glass doors and slides to a stop as a jarring boom! explodes out of the sky. A nurse waiting in the lobby starts at Tommy’s appearance and the nature of his entrance; her eyes widen and her lips part as she intakes a sharp breath. Almost instantly, she steels herself and rushes to Tommy, who is doubled over, panting. The nurse places a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey… hey! I need the bag, okay?”

Dumbly nodding his understanding, Tommy struggles to slide off the pack as he looks up for the first time.

Their eyes lock and the heavy breaths momentarily catch in Tommy’s throat. He chokes and blood rushes to his cheeks before he can regain his breathing. A little smile dances on one corner of the nurse’s mouth, and she reaches out for the bag. Tommy gingerly places it in her hands, passing to her the still faintly-beating responsibility within.

“Thanks for this,” she whispers, then she turns and is gone.

Still panting, Tommy gazes after her through the swinging doors that lead to the OR. “What?” he mumbles between breaths. “No small talk?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

?

Shadows bloom across the muraled walls and spill like ink onto the floorboards, seeping into the seemingly thirsty mahogany and filling the whole place with gloom. Small golden lights at frequent intervals on the walls do little to light the grand old manor. The only noises to be heard are the distant clangs of the cleaners and the steady footfalls of night guards. The day’s employs have long since cleared out of the reconstituted atrium which spans several floors and is still draped with lavish standards and banners, towered over by a decrepit chandelier that sways weakly over all the floors of geometric paintings and the arrays of unused furniture of silver and glass.

In one still corner on the first floor of the atrium, a guard circles the room, checking door locks and flashing his belt-clipped torch around arbitrarily. The gritty polymer of his boots pads softly as he moves away into the velvet darkness of a hallway leading elsewhere in the building. After a span of heartbeats, a low whistle sounds out of the darkness, and with a blur of motion, two small figures materialize from their hiding places in the guard’s wake. I join them, emerging from under the exquisite love seat that’s been sheltering me.

“Is that it?” came a tense whisper. One of the figures gestures at an ancient, stained grand piano, gilded with brass and blanketed with a layer of slowly rising dust. I recognize Mitch’s voice: clipped, world-weary, constantly hoarse. He sounds older than he should. I try to remember how old he should sound. I think he’s twelve.

“Yep,” comes the reply, this time a girl. Ash. “Help me out guys.”

The three of us converge on the instrument and begin to roll it toward the exit of the manor. The great rotating doors, ever-spinning during the day, are frozen in place at night by security. Mitch slinks to the doors and inspects the latch that holds them closed. After a moment, he draws a piece of copper wire from within the latch and gives a yank. A spark jumps into existence for a moment, and then the doors begin to rotate. We hurriedly pushed the piano through the doors and out of the manor.

We emerge not onto the street, but onto the rooftops of a vast network of buildings. Cities haven’t had streets since before the seas rose, back when people lived on land and farmed and had countries. Now the vast, reaching skyscrapers are connected by bridges and junctions and gondolas. Bright pulses of neon lights shine out everywhere. Billboards flash the news, the current freshwater rations, designer clothing ads, adjustments to curfew, the newest restaurant openings.

I watch Ash as she steps away from the piano and takes a deep breath of the high, briny air, stretching her arms above her head. In the glow of the vibrant city lights, the first thing I think when I look at her is the word “bones”. More are visible every day. I can see ridges pressing out from her threadbare clothes, and I know that Mitch and I are in a bad way as well. We’ve never actually worried about starving; we have been courting starvation since we were born, and we’ve always found enough food to survive. Growing up scrounging on the destitute rooftops of the city’s slums has left the three of us clever and maybe a little jaded. But sometimes wits aren’t enough to fill your belly, and often we go hungry. But things were never as bad as now. And seeing Ash in such a state, an unfamiliar feeling roots itself under my skin. It feels like what Mitch describes when he whispers to me about Ash when she’s out of earshot.

I feel a pang of guilt for allowing myself to feel anything for Ash. I cast a sidelong glance at Mitch. Mitch, who has sacrificed so much for us lately. I eye the hand Mitchell holds to his abdomen; the thin split down the front of his stomach is still so fresh it pulses to his heartbeat. It is expertly hidden in the seam of his abdominal muscles and sewn tightly shut by Ash’s experienced hands. The only thing that betrays the scar’s presence is its pink discoloration and the little peak of raised flesh at the bottom of Mitch’s navel.

He is still weak from the knife wound, and I know he hates to appear weak in front of Ash. We tried to steal meat from a butcher two weeks ago, and it cost Mitchell dearly, but it fed us for days. We haven’t eaten since. This piano is our next meal ticket. It’s going to a black market collector with more money than anybody in the city needs, and access to more than enough food to feed three diminutive urchins.

My eyes trail upward, and I see the way Mitch looks at Ash. Yearning but reserved. I know him too well. Well enough to know he’ll never make a move. My guilt intensifies.

That’s why I lie. The next morning. Once we’ve finally carted the piano to the collector’s loft. Once we’re in the kitchen of his hotel building, pockets lined with money, gorging ourselves with more food than we’ve ever had in one sitting. Ash tells me how thankful she is that I had the piano idea. That’s when I tell her it wasn’t me. Mitch has never been the idea guy, and Ash’s eyes widen with realization before she flies to him and wraps her arms around him. I start to worry she’ll break his ribs, she’s squeezing so hard. I allow myself a humorless smile when they aren’t looking. But I have a full stomach, and Mitch is happy. And that’s enough.

 

 

 

Polaroids

The speedometer on the GPS blinks red.

She remembers back to when she felt the terrible, bitter hollow in her stomach when November wind bit at her face and clothes. She remembers the tracts of nauseous suspension that gnawed into her as her toes felt nothing but open air.

She is taking fast, shallow breaths, each one leaving her a little more lightheaded.

She remembers a blurry sky full of lights and planes, and the coldness of the concrete as it seeped into her feet. She can still feel the soft rasp of her dress against her painfully taught skin as it billowed in the uncaring wind. What she cannot remember was what had brought her off the ledge.

She blinks, and finally notices the halted taillights she is barreling towards.

***

Bullets whistled like furious hornets, punching holes through the dirt walls. One sheared past Corbin Gates’s head and snapped a long splinter of ceramic off his helmet, staggering him. He swore and sagged against a wall, his armor gouging the yellow dirt. His ears rang, and his vision blurred.

“Gates, get your head on right!” his sergeant screamed.

Corbin pushed his helmet up and saw his squad disappearing through the exit of the shack. He rushed after them, still dazed. As he emerged, a blinding light shined all around him, accompanied by the painful cacophony of battle. Then his eyes adjusted and he saw his squad piling into the back of a personnel carrier, gesturing wildly for Corbin to run.

“Gates, get in the truck!” he heard someone shout.

Corbin dashed for the vehicle as its wheels began to move. More rounds pummeled the buildings behind him, and billowing clouds of dirt and cement dust filled the air. A jagged trail of bullet holes raced after him along the walls as he sprinted for the open hatch. The vehicle began to pick up speed until it matched Corbin’s pace. For a pair of heartbeats, neither the soldier nor the vehicle could gain any ground. Then, with a final lunge, Corbin grasped the edge of the hatch and heaved himself inside as the carrier accelerated, rumbling out of the ruined town which seethed like a hive.

***

Mary was horrified. “They shot you in the head?” she whispered into the webcam as she saw the long, hollow scar across the surface of Corbin’s helmet.

Corbin made a face as he realized he had forgotten to take his helmet off. He unstrapped it from his chin and let it fall to the ground, out of camera view. Mary could hear it rocking back and forth on the floor. Corbin inhaled, then replied playfully, “Yeah they did. Just gave me a headache though.”

Mary wasn’t amused. A flicker of static rolled across the screen of her laptop, momentarily distorting Corbin’s face.

“They shot you in the head,” she repeated as the image resolved.

Corbin looked away from the screen. “Not really,” he murmured.

Mary stared expectantly. Corbin sighed. “Helmet, not head,” he finally said.

“Baby, you know what I meant,” Mary said. “They shot you in the head!”

Her anger came on stronger than she expected. “What would’ve happened if you were an inch to the right?”

Corbin fake-guffawed. “Then I’d be very dead right now. But I’m not, because I wasn’t, because I dodged it.”

Mary pursed her lips to hide her smile at his incongruity, but her eyes remained angry. “And how many times can you dodge it before something kills you? she demanded. “I am not going to be a single mother- I can’t- this baby needs someone more than a stranger who comes home once a tour. Or a VA-funded education because you forgot to dodge it when it mattered!”

Corbin gazed knowingly at her flushed face, then, gently, “Dodged it.”

It wasn’t funny, but Mary couldn’t help but laugh in a release of pent-up emotion that was also a baring of teeth.

***

Corbin shuffled to the barracks, battered and exhausted from day after day of fighting. One of the men in his squad lay sprawled over a cot, reading a magazine. The soldier scoffed when Corbin entered. “The second we get back, you’re running to find a laptop. I think you must’ve forgotten what it is we’re doing here.”

Corbin’s mouth twisted, and he said, “Lay off, Sully; I just got shot in the head.”

Corbin moved to his own cot and unfastened his armor as Sully glowered at him. Sully cocked his head as he noticed the corner of a photograph pull away from behind Corbin’s shoulder pad. Sully knew even before he saw it that it was a polaroid of Mary, and presently the photo rested precariously over the heap of Kevlar and nylon on the floor next to Corbin as he fell face-first into bed, exposing the mat of bruises and welts along his back and legs. Corbin was asleep almost instantly, but not before he had reached over and crossed another hash mark on the back of the picture, counting off the days until he went home.

***

Mary shut her computer with a wordless exclamation. She ran her hands through her hair and inhaled poignantly. Corbin had always been exasperating. She thought of just how many different kinds of difficult he was. She had always found his stubbornness endearing- even when she was furious, and right then she hated that he knew that.

Stressed, Mary walked down the hallway of their apartment, one hand on her belly, the other on the small of her back. She glanced sidelong into the kitchen as she passed, wishing she could still drink; she couldn’t shake the image behind her eyes of Corbin being an inch to the right. Over and over, she saw a bullet splitting into the fiber of his helmet and ending the love of her life. Mary felt sick; maybe it was a good thing she couldn’t drink. Blowing a strand of copper hair out of her eyes in what was more of a sigh than anything, she snatched her keys and slipped out of the apartment.

As Corbin’s day was ending on the other side of the world, Mary braced herself for another draining shift at the hospital. She wanted to call in sick, but she needed what money she could earn before her maternity leave kicked in; Corbin’s checks only cleared so fast from Afghanistan. The steps down to the street jostled her overburdened hips, and she grimaced. She slumped into her car, glaring at the polaroid of her and Corbin that leaned against his old ball cap on the dash. With a deep breath, she picked it up and added another hash mark to the back of it. But seeing Corbin’s face renewed her worry. She pressed her forehead to the steering wheel and groaned; she couldn’t lose anyone else.

As she pulled out, she eyed the small, faded scar that wrapped down her thumb and along the side of her wrist. She still remembered the auto accident that had killed her parents and left her broken and alone in the world. She remembered the pain that had driven her to the roof, looking down at the sleepy streets below, willing her stubborn body to take another step. But she hadn’t. And she had found Corbin.

The speedometer on her GPS blinked red.

She braked hard, biting off a curse. Horns blared, and she had to swerve up onto the curb to avoid hitting the car in front of her. A violent bump sent a painful jolt through the car. The vehicle came to rest halfway over the sidewalk. Mary’s wide eyes stared unfocusedly in shocked silence as her already quickened breathing doubled. Warm blood rushed to her face, along with tears of anxiety, and she struggled not to heave. What’s wrong with me? she thought, almost gasping.

Long, agonizing minutes passed. Gradually, the attack receded. Only once she had regained enough breath to clear her head did she notice the pronounced discomfort in her abdomen; her entire body was tense and refused to relax. She realized with stupid shock that it wasn’t just a panic attack. Then, the contractions started.

Carl

First, let me start by saying that I’m no saltier than you would be if you had to go through what I’ve dealt with. That’s not a defect, it’s a default. Sometimes you have to choose whether to exhaust yourself trying to rise above your circumstances, or to just roll with it and let your environment mold into what it will. I wasn’t always like this. I used to be a bleeding-heart idealist. Now I like to call myself a closet idealist. Don’t start; you’re not better than me, you just haven’t really had struggles, not like me.

There are many thing to blame my condition on. Now, I don’t want to throw my parents under the bus if I don’t have to, so I won’t drag them into this just now. The real saboteurs to my sanity: gingers.

It’s a love-hate relationship. On one hand they fill an important gap in the Caucasian sphere, preventing an annoying and potentially catastrophic excess of blondes and brunettes. On the other hand they inundate the world with their salt and suntan lotion, destroying lives and aloe fields alike. Shut it; I’m allowed to hate- I’m Irish. Don’t get me wrong, I’d kill for my family. But I accept that our genes contribute to the epidemic.

I’ve been married seven times, all redheads. The one thing I’ve taken away is this: gingers are like socks with holes. There’s a homey sentimental quality to them that can’t be filled by new socks. Other times, they’re so annoying you just want to grab them by their flaws and rip them apart. But would you be happier barefoot? No.

So you let them leave you with little blisters where their holes are until you can’t take the pain anymore. Then you tear them up and throw them away, buy a new pair, and move on. And it’s their fault for having holes. I told you before, I’m a closet idealist.