Emotional Support Animal | sternjosh

Dr. Emerick wiped a streak of grease from his brow, sighed, and reclined into his desk chair. His had been a busy morning: two fuel system tune-ups, three routine mechanical recalibrations, and a thorough vocalization systems inspection — not to mention the other obligations he had taken on — and he still had two more appointments before lunch.

Tabbing through the calendar on his computer and doggedly ignoring the faint sounds emanating from his desk drawer, he brought up his next appointment.

“Hmm,” he said, leaning back. “Late model… luxury pedigree… signs of wear in the rear carriage… and Nancy notes that the owner seems… morose?”

A smile cracked through the grime on his face and his eyes wandered to the desk drawer.

“I may have just the thing.”

He slid the drawer open, plucked out a small object, and shut the drawer, then set the object down on the workshop floor, gave it a pat, and picked up his desk phone.

“Nancy, please send in Mr. Darden.”

A few moments later the door opened and a wispy middle-aged man led a large german shepherd inside. The dog was plainly getting on in age — his actuators could be heard whirring with each step and no amount of polish would ever bring the shine back into his chrome coat — but his LED eyes were still bright and at a glance Dr. Emerick saw no reason the animal couldn’t keep running for years to come. The owner, however, was a different story.

“Mr. Darden, good to see you again! How’s Rover been? Hopefully no major malfunctions?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” said Mr. Darden, slouching into the chair opposite Dr. Emerick. There were bags under his eyes and his movement was sluggish. “Just routine maintenance.”

“Anything in particular I should know about?”

“Well… he’s been moving a bit gingerly. He doesn’t have the energy that he used to.”
Dr. Emerick arched an eyebrow. In contrast to his owner, Rover sat with keen attention, his metal tail a blur of motion, his eyes scanning the disarray of the workshop with interest. The only thing keeping him still was the famous discipline of his breed.

“I see,” said Dr. Emerick. “Well, a shepherd his age and pedigree is bound to have bearing issues. You find that in working-pedigrees the issue is not so—”

“What was that?”

“The working-pedigree versus the show-pedigree. I could go on—”

“No, that.” No sooner had Darden pointed then Rover bounded across the shop, stuck his nose under a tool cabinet, and pulled out a fluffy golden ball. He then trotted back to his owner, deposited the fluffball at his feet, and gave a very cheerful ruff.

“Is that some kind of… flesh-animal?”

Dr. Emerick affected his most exasperated sigh.

“You’ll have to forgive me, Mr. Darden. It seems we have an infestation in our office. Puppies, I believe they’re called. Like proper dogs, but with fur instead of metal plating. Disgusting, I know.”

Darden scooted his chair away as if the puppy were diseased, but the tiny thing scampered after him, its little puppy claws clicking and clacking on the workshop floor. Darden was soon on the floor as well, laughing and smiling.

“She’s actually kind of cute,” he said. The pup nibbled on his finger for a moment before getting distracted by the wagging of Rover’s tail. She mustered every ounce of her puppy ferocity and pounced, much to the amusement of Rover, who hopped away and arfed.

“So sorry Mr. Darden, let me just shoo the thing away and I’ll have a look at Rover.”

But Darden scooped the puppy up and cradled it protectively against his chest.

“Can’t I keep her?”

“Keep her? The flesh-animal? Why, I couldn’t possibly… I’d lose my license, I’d be a laughing stock, I…”

The combined begging of Rover, Darden, and the pup were too much.

“Oh, if you insist.”

Darden’s grin spread from ear to ear and without a single thought for their appointment, he and Rover bounded through the door and were gone. Wearing a smile of his own, Dr. Emerick sighed and slid into his cozy chair once again. When he opened the drawer, four fluffy pups yipped in unison and stumbled over one another to be first in line for scratches.

“You rascals are real labor savers. Although…” His nose wrinkled at the deposits they had made inside his desk. “I never knew a mechanical dog to make such a mess.”

Sabbath of the River | Strange Folk

“She wears her garb at immodest length!” The judge bellowed, spit catching in his beard.

Perhaps if I could have afforded more fabric.

“She tempts the men like Satan’s harlot!”

Perhaps if they could control their own leers.

“She partakes in liquor and temptations!”

Perhaps only to ease the pain after a day’s labor, like so many others.

“Her brother was surely a sacrifice in her pact!”

My poor sweet Ethan, how the fever burned through you.

I felt the flaxen cord pull snug around my ankle, on its other end sat a heavy stone, bound like me. I looked down from the wooden platform that sat above the river’s edge. The abusive current lashed the bank as dreary clouds sat in silence above the village. My eyes stung and my cheeks burned, chapped from fear and sorrow. I scanned that seething mass of hate filled stares.

I caught a glimpse of Isaac’s face in the crowd. Like a flood, my mind was filled with the bitter-sweet memories of last harvest festival. He asked me to dance. How we twirled in that swell of music, all eyes locked to our orbiting bodies as he smiled at me. Now just another grimace in the mob. The recollection clung like ash in my mouth. A tightness gripped my chest and my jaw clenched as I fought back tears. These friends and neighbors. Twisted up with suspicion. Eager for my death. They thought it would relieve them; they thought I was the weight that crushed them so. It began to rain.

“She seeks to spoil our harvest!”

Do I not eat from the same fields?

“She congregates with beasts!”

Do not the slightest of God’s creatures deserve compassion?

“She taints our hallowed church!”

Did I not pray with fervor? Did I not pay my tithes?

“If this girl is a witch, then by ordeal we shall know it. If she is innocent, then may God have mercy on her soul.”

The assemblage roared and spit and jeered, vitriol seeped from them and the air teemed with it. The judge had said all he needed to. My tears came freely as he placed his boot on the heavy stone, pushing it into the river. I felt my ankle tug out from beneath me. Everything went white as my head hit against the deck. Splash. The ringing in my ears was swiftly replaced by the muted gurgle of submersion. The murky current wrapped around my body, pulling against the rope as I sank to its depths. My lungs ached as their reserves dwindled. Oh that panic. That deep, primal, alarm when the air does not come. Every muscle in my body screamed as I thrashed against my anchor. Blackness seeped into my blurry vision, but I felt no quiet acceptance. I felt something else. A defiance so cold it could make a god shiver. The sadness in me lit like oil as anger sparked through my soul. I was grief. I was rage. I would be the famine and I would be the weight. The rope went taught and the heavy stone dislodged from the murky sediment.

I began to rise, and as I rose, the river rose with me, and as I bellowed, the lightning joined my chorus. Let the fields flood. Let the farmers starve and the charlatans burn. No innocents would be lost this day, for innocence had left this place.

Eighth Street Forever | Strange_Folk

I was conceived when a pretty waitress named Darla fell for the lies of a traveling shoe salesman on a warm July night at a watering hole called Hannigan’s. Oddly specific, right? Truth be told, most of us here could tell you the spot that our road to hardship began. We’re all fresh off the assembly line of Latchkey Inc. Premium products of one night stands. Dumpster dodgers with home lives that never quite let us forget this unfortunate fact.

See Lils over there? Her real name is Lilly. The girl’s got a heart of gold. Literally. Not sure who she swiped it from but she wears it on a knock-off chain around her neck. Then we got Skids. Cute name, I know. His mom ran out on him when he was six; left for greener pastures. Ironically, ‘Greener Pastures’ was the name of the trailer park where she left him and his Pops. Next up at bat, we got Donny. He doesn’t play much baseball anymore. Not after he got kicked off the team for what he did to that preened up pitcher from Uptown. Still dresses the part though, and never shy about swingin’ the bat. Topping off the roster we got Sammy. She’s a goddamn artist with a can of paint. The Da Vinci of the Eighth Street, with a cigarette hanging from her bruised lip. She’s got a gift for providing would-be interlopers with an eloquent warning to stay the fuck off our turf.

Eighth Street is for workers, scrappers, and grifters. People don’t call the police here. Everyone’s got something they’d rather not have looked at too closely. When push comes to shove, we shove hard, and when Jimmy ‘Blue Jay’ Stanton and his private school pretties from Uptown came to our neighborhood for a tutoring session, we were itching to give’em one.

Jimmy had a bone to pick with our Sammy after she turned him down for prom. Kids like Jimmy aren’t used to hearing the word, ‘No.’ He decided he’d ask a second time. He came down to Eighth Street with a handful of his boys. They were hoopin’ and hollerin’ as they went, passing a stolen bottle of his dad’s whiskey between themselves. They came down our alley. Our fuckin’ alley. With whiskey on his breath, that slimeball reached out to grab Sammy by the arm. Shouldn’ta done that. Sammy flicked her cigarette right in his face, and before the sparks even hit the ground, Donny was at the diamond. With a crack of the bat he clipped Blue Jay’s wing. The scene turned into a melee as Stanton rolled on the ground, bawlin’ like a newborn and clutching his pitching arm. I don’t need to tell you who won, but I will tell you that Jimmy’s Old Man has great taste in whiskey.

They never did prove that it was us that put Jimmy Stanton in the hospital, but everyone who matters knows. Papa Stanton pulled some strings to get us kicked outta school, but none of the gang seems to mind. Just more time for extracurriculars.

Strigoi | Purple Cinnamon Roll

The playground is silent.

 

It always is now. Ever since the disease broke out.

 

No kids chase each other around the playset, screaming and laughing. No longer do they sit on the swings, swaying back and forth, the chains creaking as they go higher and higher. None dare climb to the top of the slide and call down to their friends, alerting everyone in the area to their position.

 

To do so now would be suicide.

 

You hurry past this place. If possible, you’d like to avoid the ghosts of the past, but this is the safest route into downtown.

 

You jump over the gate, managing not to stumble and fall. The store is right across the street. You slip through the wide broken window, careful not to step on any of the glass shards scattered beneath it. The front door is still intact, but so is the bell that rings as it’s opened. And best to make as little noise as possible.

 

Inside the shop, you search the shelves, trying to make out what you can in the dark. You notice there are more bare shelves than there were the other day, no doubt the work of looters. In fact, most are empty, save for spider webs and strange red stains that could be blood or jam; best not to look too close. But at the far end of the store,  you see a few cans still there and snatch them up, not bothering to read the labels. A bottle of wine, unopened, catches your eye as well. A valuable find, one that both guards against them and provides your kind with pleasure. You remove the bag from your back and dump the finds from your plunder in it.

 

As you swing the bag around your back once more, you hear a ringing sound, and the door slams open. You duck behind the nearest aisle, knees pulled to your chest, and backpack pressed against the shelf. You reach for the stones you keep in your pocket, your hand clenching around one. Those who have survived encounters with them say stones will ward them off. But you can only keep them at bay for so long.

 

The footsteps grow closer. You peek around the edge of the shelf and see one headed down the back row, dragging its tail on the ground, passing all of the aisles as it comes closer to yours. Its ears are sharp and pointed, its skin gray and leathery.

 

It stops. Its eyes have met yours.

 

With a screech, it lunges. You jump to your feet and chuck the stone, taking off in a run before you can see if it was hit or not. Out the window, over the gate, through the playground.

 

You chance a look back and see it leap out the window, running on all fours, tail swishing back and forth.

 

You know you can’t outrun it.

 

You scramble to get the bag off your back as you run, pulling out the bottle of wine. The creature jumps, its mouth opening to reveal rows of sharp teeth. You raise the bottle to shield yourself and intercept the attack.

 

Its jaws crush the bottle, and red liquid sprays on its gums, cheeks, eyes. It shrieks, clawing at its face, and you take this chance to flee back to the cabin. A shame that you had to give up such a resource, but a necessary sacrifice.  

 

You return to the cabin and lock the door before you set the bag down and empty the contents. Three cans, all beans. It’s less than usual, both in variety and quantity. But it’s better than nothing, and you’re safe now that you’re here.

 

Why they don’t leave the main section of town you don’t know. Maybe because they can’t, maybe because all the food is concentrated there. But one thing is certain as you pry open one of the cans with a sigh.

 

Tomorrow you will have to venture farther in.

Rain in the Desert | Strange_Folk

The constant din of cicadas filled the air as towering cloud formations drifted high above. The desert was alive with anticipation as the scent of creosotes foreshadowed rain. Saguaros, several hundred years old, reached their many arms towards the sky, eager for the coming storms. I had been out in the Sonoran for a week with Clement, my research assistant. We’d seen all manner of wildlife – rattlesnakes, scorpions, gila monsters – but we weren’t here for them. In my line of work, ‘strange weather occurrences’ was synonymous with spiritual activity, and the region had been rife with unusually potent monsoons.

We set up a handful of shrines, made from wash stones and mesquite branches. Local spirits found them irresistible, a token reminder of the respect they once commanded. At each shrine we buried an array of silver plaques to bind whatever spirit might come to inspect them. After days of failure, we finally caught something.

Calling what we found in our trap a ‘thunder lizard’ would be cliche, but no one had ever documented a monsoon spirit before. Clement and I carefully made our way down into the dry wash where we’d set the shrine.

“Light the sage.” I whispered.

“Right away, ma’am.” Clement set to work.

The smell of burning sage was used to put spirits into a docile state, and the smoking bundles hissed and crackled in the light drizzle that seemed to follow the creature. It was big. Larger than a buffalo. I wiped a strand of wet hair from my face as I documented every aspect of its physiology that I could safely observe. Like cold steam, each of its heavy breathes seemed to secrete condensation from its skin. The scent of petrichor hung heavy and the air brimmed with static. It made the hair on my skin stand at end. When the spirit opened its mouth to yawn I could see the arcs of electricity crawling between its jaws. I dictated notes to Clement in a hushed tone as I tried to sketch the texture of its leathery scales onto a notepad, sheltering the pages from the rain with my body.

“Twelve feet from snout to tail. Quadrupedal. Predominantly brown coloration with cyan patterning along the dorsal ridge. Semi-porous skin used in production of localized cloud systems. Electricity produced in oral cavity – unknown wattage. Estimated weight, two to two and a half thousand pounds. By all indication, solitary.”

Most of the world would never hear of our discovery, classified to all but a select few. Never the less, I grinned thinking of the handful of other academics in New York who would be begrudgingly buying me drinks when I returned with my findings.

As the wind picked up around us, the sage fires began to dance and dwindle. Clement cast a worried glance my way as the spirit let out a low, reverberating bellow. There was a clap of thunder in the distance. Then another, closer this time. Heavy rain sprinted across the landscape, pelting us like stones. Rain like this doesn’t exist back east. It came on with purpose, like the desert was taunting it. The wind began to roar and my notebook was ripped from my hands. Dirt and water stung my eyes as the gusts thrashed the wash. The sun was gone, replaced by the deep blue darkness of a storm. The creature breyed towards the sky, it’s resonant cry vibrating the air.

Everything went white. A spear of hot lightning lanced from above, obliterating a nearby palo verde tree. The clap of thunder knocked me from my feet. My ears rang as everything came back into focus. I looked up into that howling tempest. I saw it then, a great behemoth, like a mountain looming in the fury. It’s heavy footfalls shook the ground, rocks tumbling into the wash as water poured in from all sides. It opened its cavelike mouth and another fork of electricity rattled through the sky. A crescendo of thunder shook the desert. Panic set in as the realization dawned. The spirit we had snared was only a hatchling; now we were meeting its mother.

First Communion | rho

I walked among giants today.

 

The monoliths above me swayed gently in the wind and spoke to each other in whispers, in the quiet language of old couples who began the same habitual conversation one morning decades ago. Hello, they said: hello, welcome, we hoped you would come, hello. I inhaled benedictions that smelled of moss, and wood, and the earth after rain; I drank in the sunlight filtered from above and hummed along with the birds invisible overhead.

Running my fingers along the rough wooden railing, I greeted each knot and whorl like an old friend. My sandaled feet balanced on a single plank to spare its neighbours the indignity of being stepped upon – in case they minded, although I was informed later that they did not. My fingers ran into a cold, smooth wall: a plaque cheerfully declared that the name of this grove was Cathedral, and that its age was measured in thousands of years.

Cathedral. Most of the community here was born long before such a word was spoken on these shores, and yet the description was more suited to this sheltered place than to all the monuments to be found in Europe. I dared to touch the thick, grooved bark of one cedar by the path. It was warm.

Where were the treetops? Craning my neck to make eye contact with these elders, I saw myself as a child again. The air was perfumed with decomposition. Breathe in, hold, breathe out. A light in my chest quieted into embers, waiting. For a moment I felt human enough to call a cedar my mother.

 

An edge on the breeze caught the corner of my eye. I was not alone, but we were alone; there was no presence here except the forest around me. Did I hear laughter or the song of a little bird?

The curve of a vine was the small of her back as she ducked behind one of the great trees. A spray of white flowers behind the tree reminded me of a lock of her hair. If a rustle of wind from above was her leap into the treetops, the hush that followed could be her landing somewhere behind me. I turned around and around and there she was, always chasing the edge of my vision, dappled sunlight dancing like vitiligo over her face. My heart beat in time with her rapid footsteps.

Around and around, the wind scattering raindrops still beaded on the leaves, clear sunlight catching a rainbow in each one as it fell. My mother lifted her arms like branches and conducted the birds like a choir of bells. Golden sounds rang out from high above, and although I could not speak their language I was happy to be in the audience.

 

Voices made themselves known as a young family approached. I scrambled to my feet and brushed the dirt off my knees, and two young children ran past me, smiling and laughing. There was no other presence here except us and the forest – but still, I was alone again.

I learned how to speak again as I walked a little faster. My family waited at the edge of the grove. The thick roots somewhere under my feet asked me to linger, but already I could hear the sounds of traffic beyond the treeline. Afternoon would take me away. Evening would come, and morning, and the cedars would welcome each other once again with voices of moss and rain.

Road Trip of Dreams | fictionalpieces

The wind bullies its way in through the narrow opening of the cracked window, roaring through the car while it rolls down I-90. Snippets of songs breakthrough in the ebbs of gusts, small instances lasting just long enough for me to tell that the rock station I put on as I crossed the state line was still going strong. Sun breaks through the expanse of grey that makes up the sky here and glints off your sunglasses. I bat them away. You don’t even notice.

I’ve set the car to cruise at a solid eighty, way above the speed limit, but I haven’t seen a cop for hours and you don’t seem to mind. Trees, crowded by tangled brush, rush past us as we continue our journey east. They form a solid wall of green and we drive this narrow corridor bound by the grey beneath our tires and the sky melding into one eternal loop. I’ve said nothing to you in hours. You haven’t spoken in days. What a right pair we make.

This road trip was supposed to be fun, an escape from the busy city into the green mesh of mountains and forests we always said we’d move to, but never did. We kept delaying due to work, stress, school, or finances, and time slipped by until we got too comfortable in our city life and stopped looking backwards at the dream of leaving and instead got caught up in the drive towards some artificial success. Until finally, success gave up on us. Gave up on you. Seemed like the perfect time to take this trip, but your silence is deafening.

“Hey, I was searching around on Google Maps last night and saw a place south of here with a ton of waterfalls. Want to go?” I say, taking tiny glances towards you.

You stonewall me, continue to sit balled up and silent.

The exit looms.

Fuck you.

We’re going to see waterfalls.

 

It took a silent argument of accusatory eyes to get you out of the car. The accusation was all me. You sat, a shell of your former self and only left the car when I lifted you from it. On the edge of a gorge we continue our silent conversation under the sound of rushing water. You’re looking around, taking in the trees, the water, and the birds fluttering from branch to branch. It’s all reflected in the smooth metal of your container and sitting here, alone, I can no longer hide from the fact that you’re gone.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I murmur, voice carried away in the swirl of the stream below.

I imagine you respond in agreement.

When I got the call, from an overworked and overtired nurse at the ER, I didn’t believe that you were gone. That the woman on the other end of the line, who struggle to inject care into a limp voice, had called the wrong person. She refused to tell me over the phone what took you. Seeing the mangled wreck of your body was enough to tell me why.

Some things are too hard for words.

Your parents demanded your body be returned to Ohio, a place you left as a teen with the hatred of corn rooted in your veins. Ohio was backwards, past the land of our dreams and into the realm of your nightmare. I can’t leave you there.

The top on your urn pops as I pull it free and there you lay, a pile of ashes making up the most important thing I could have ever dreamed. I sit with you between my legs, overlooking the water, and throw you out into the wind. You scatter, landing on bush and rock, water and dirt, but this is better for you. You are not one to be spread among the corn fields of your ancestors, on a land you never loved. It is better for you to be one with our dream. My dream within our dream. Forever at peace.

 

It’s dark by the time I get back in the car. The wind blusters its way through the open windows, swirling into your open, empty container. There is no music to guide me, no sun to glint off your discarded glasses. Just me looking down the long road illuminated by my headlights as I turn back towards the city. And a life without you.