Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Type of Short Story: Flash fiction collection
Summary: Fifteen short stories featuring Ghost Dust, Hang Around, Colossus, Suicide Spear, and others.
Hypotenuse: A detective and a witness become acquainted as he investigates the death of one of their neighbors.
Colossus: An arctic scientist explores the habitat of the Colossal Squid, and finds a secret even larger than the cagey mollusk.
Support: An Explosive Ordinance Disposal officer connects with his family as he wrestles with an especially difficult day in Iraq.
Something To Say: A forensic tech examines the body of a woman murdered outside a police station.
Why There Are No More Dragons Or Unicorns: A father's tale of the last dragon and unicorn.
Turing's Test: A computer with a personality disorder mulls its own idiosyncratic existence with its human roommate.
Only Numan: A young man with a genetic predisposition toward unstable genes is given the opportunity to become a part of governmental experiments to develop superhumans.
Prisoners Of War: A forensics anthropologist and a left-for-dead Marine track a war criminal, in post-war Vietnam.
Raider: A woman comes to grips with her own identity and mortality while breaking into an Egyptian pyramid.
Dante's Infirmity: An old man and his family struggle to preserve his humanity and independence, navigating the medical establishment, as he approaches the end of his life.
The Ghost Club: Mr. Houdini and Mr. Doyle explore the question of life after death.
Suicide Spear: Humanity takes the battle to an alien homeworld's doorstep, after decades of a devastating war of attrition.
Hang Around: A cowboy, a Buddhist monk, and others relive the results of one choice.
Ghost Dust: A patient reflects on the aftermath of 9/11.
Bloody Hands: A community shares responsibility and blame after a young boy's call for help.
Sample story from collection:
I always hated wearing neckties, or buttoning my shirt the whole way to the top; it weren’t only that it made me feel like a prick, but it was constraining. I don’t think there’s a man alive, though, who wouldn’t exchange a bolo for the rope around my throat. It's not tight- not yet, and every time I move my head it rubs raw against my skin. But I can’t stop moving and looking around, because I know it’s the last chance I’ll get to.
She’s there, near the back, Charlotte, with our little Robert. She’s holding his head into her skirt, so he doesn’t watch, and her eyes are leaking more water than you’d find in the rest of this whole dry county.
And then I see red, because her no account brother Bill’s standing behind her; his arm’s bandaged from where I shot him, and that makes me even more pissed, because the doc didn’t saw it off. He’s got his other hand around his sister, but he’s glaring at me the way he’s always glared at me- with the sole exception of last week.
Last week that two-faced son of a bitch came crawling on his belly to me. One last score, he said, even though I’d been clean all these years. He owed bad men large bills, and there wasn’t no other way clear through it but this. He acted all apologetic, like he knew he’d been a donkey’s ass all this time, since he was a lousy outlaw and I hadn’t been.
But he sold my ass out. That train car was full of more tin stars than bankers, and I knew the moment I laid a boot on it, what he’d done, and he knew I knew it, I could tell by the way he went yellow. I turned and shot him as he ran, and all them tin men fired at me.
A surgeon pulled lead out of each of my limbs, and there’s a ball he couldn’t get to in my guts, but he said that don’t matter, since I wouldn’t live long enough to get surgical fever. He was dead stinking drunk, too; “Why waste my best work on a goddamn corpse?” he asked me. At the time I hadn’t much of a rejoinder for him.
“It’s time, son,” somebody says, though I can’t be sure if it’s the sheriff, the mayor or the priest because I ain’t been listening to any of the three prattling on. The rope goes taut, and I hear a hand, gentle as an angel’s, alight on the wooden lever to the trap door beneath my feet. I beg the lord not to let me shit myself in front of my wife and boy- but I know that son of a bitch ain’t answering prayers today.
I fall and there’s a crack, a sharp pain in my neck, but I don’t die right off. I can hear the gurgle of my breath barely scraping out of my torn throat. I’m swinging in the wind, now, like a stud horse’s balls in the heat, and each time I reach the end of the rope’s swing that twinge in my neck feels like I’m getting shot again. I don’t know how long that goes, cause I’m drunk from the pain of it, but I get sleepy, and drift off.
I’ve never been comfortable mentoring. “Why have you decided to take refuge in the triple gem?” I remember when someone first asked me the question, and I feel like I’m wearing his clothes and playing dress up.
“Wow. I know exactly what you mean, but could you have said that in a way that made this sound any more like a freaky cult?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling.
“Fair enough,” he smiled, too. “My parents are both Buddhists, but they aren’t that spiritual about it, really. So I was raised with all of the aspects of the religion, but in kind of a hollow way. I realized my life wasn’t what I wanted out of it; and I think I was happiest when I was young, and first really embracing Buddhism. I think finding out I was adopted, that was just the cherry on top.”
“Peace does not spring from without, but from within.”
“I know, I totally get that. But that inner peace, getting to it, that’s the point. That’s why I’m here.”
“Then I think you’ll be happy here.”
“Good. I was worried for a second you were going to tell me there’s no room at the inn.” He paused. “You know, you walk funny for a monk.” I looked at him- no anger, no sadness, no anything, and he realized on his own what he’d said. “No, I, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just you walk like somebody more comfortable on a horse than his own two legs. My uncle has that same kind of walk, and he’s spent all his life sitting on a plow horse.”
I smiled. “I’ve spent many lives on a horse, and spent a few being ridden. Perhaps that explains my gait.”
“So you definitely believe in reincarnation, then?”
“Most prefer rebirth, since that implies difference and change in the person’s consciousness. But I recall things from before this life. I like this metaphor: as one candle ignites another, their flames are not identical, neither are they completely distinct.”
“Hmm. You sure I didn’t accidentally wonder into a Branch Davidian compound?”
“No. Unlike a cult, you are expected to find your own truth here. The only one I would insist is paramount is that craving is the origin of suffering. I said you would be happy; perhaps I should have said contented, because peace is the one thing I believe everyone can achieve. Because peace is the absence of suffering, which is the absence of craving.”
It’s a strange thing, growing up near your son, but not being his father, not being anybody he’d recognize. Stranger still, knowing he’s older than you are, and he always will be. I grew up believing I was nuts. Past lives? I just couldn’t square that circle. And feeling like I was related to some Buddhist monk? Yeah.
I tried to kill myself, twice. Apparently, parents groups got search engines to put up improper information on the internet as the highest results, so I slashed my wrists across, deep, but across. Lost a lot of feeling in my hands, a lot of mobility- but not nearly enough blood.
In a different time and place, I would have starved to death, but these days anything electronic responds to thought commands through a chip behind your ear, and anything that’s analog, well, it’s either in an antique store or the crappiest parts of war zones in Africa.
By the time I found out what I’d been doing wrong with my razor blade, I’d started reading about reincarnation and people who felt they’d had past lives. It wasn’t anything scientific, just not feeling alone anymore, knowing that you know maybe I am crazy, but that there are other people with my crazy out there, too- that I wasn’t alone. It helped.
And the more I tried to remember about my past lives, the easier it got. I remembered being that monk- it was the first real conscious thought I remember having. No, even before that, when I was a baby, my mind would just stroke off, and it would be like I was watching somebody else’s home movies.
I started not just remembering, but I was picking out details, really specific details, about people who’d really existed (and people who, like the monk I lived near, still did). And it became clear that I knew more than I should, more than logic and reason dictated I could, barring me being some kind of international spy or psychic.
I remembered the monk’s son. I was his dad but I wasn’t. Then at some point he moved away, to a different monastery, and even though I didn’t really ever see him, let alone talk to him, not being close to him made me sad. So I moved to be near his new monastery. I even thought about joining up, or at least being one of the lay believers. Instead I used an old memory.
The monk liked apples, but where they were in the mountains, it was hard to get apples. So I started up a distributor, but I ran the cart near his monastery myself. It gave us a chance to talk, though rarely did he say more than how, “Apples might be my last attachment.”
We buried him this week. And I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with my life now.
I remember it like the day before, Charlotte, breathy from passion, rolled over in our bed to tell me I was going to get a son. I laughed at her. “You ain’t even swoled up, how can you know it’ll be a boy?” She just smiled and said she knew.
It weren’t the first time a woman told me she were with child. Several times they’ve been mistaken, once, I think she fixed to keep me with the lie. So at the time I paid it no mind. But then she didn’t bleed for three whole months, and she was tired and sick, and got big. I ain’t been a religious man since I was a boy- I don’t think an angel flittered down to whisper it to her- but it felt all miraculous none the same.
The time hadn’t seemed real since the moment near two seasons back, when I recognized I was going to be somebody’s daddy. Seemed like a vivid dream. For the first time I had a string of breaks in my direction: got the farm for a song, and the loan for the land on the cheap from the bank. The horse I’d had for too long got sick, then got better.
Only cloud on our horizon was her brother. I knew her from him, though how that came to be seems a mystery. I never liked him. I suppose there’d been a time when I tried not to dislike him so much.
But I’d gotten away from my outlaw roots, figuring that his sister deserved better- hell, demanded better. He’d seen the both of those facts as betrayal, and spent most of this last year in a bottle. He was propping up one of the walls in my house, a bottle all that was propping him up. “That your bastard?” he asked.
“If I weren’t holding my newborn son I’d punch you square in the jaw; I ain’t going to bloody the day up just because you feel an asshole. And I ain’t going to tell you to lie to your sister about being happy, but if you’re going to be sour and drunken, you ain’t going to do it in my home. Not today.”
He moved to put a hand on my shoulder, but I got a hand on his gun still in his belt, twisted til it pushed into his belly. “I’m not fixing to take you out of this world the day we brought Robert in, but you so much as give me another sideways glance while I’m holding him and I swear I’ll fill you full from your own six shooter.”
He took another long hard pull from the bottle to kill it, gripped the neck like he might swing it at me, then thought better of joining the bottle among the dead, and dropped it. The bottle shattered on the floor, and Robert started crying as Bill stumbled away.
“So you remember being a cowboy? In the old west? Spurs and six-shooters and all that? And you were an outlaw who got hung? And you had a son?”
His tone was mocking, and I knew that it was my wounded pride that begged me to recite the proverb about tongues causing wounds as grievous as knives. But suffering is craving, even if it’s only craving respect. “I have one now,” I said.
“Wait. How do you have a kid?”
“I was married. In the flesh, I still am, though I do not see her often.”
“What happened to that whole, ‘Attachment is craving that which you already have’ shtick?”
“None of us are born into the Sangha community; I had another life before this one.”
“So you’re being flowery this time, not meaning a past life.”
“Yes. Not a past life, a different one. I had a wife. We had a son. I discovered the man who murdered me in that past life had become my son. I could not kill my son despite the consciousness that lived within him, but neither could I look past that consciousness and love him the way he deserved. So I sought a third way, a life without craving for revenge or for love.”
“And how’s that worked out for you?”
“Bumpily. The Sangha is invaluable in keeping me on the good, upright, knowledgeable and proper way, but I am not always as detached as I wish. As an example, I miss my wife at times; I miss the life we shared. I miss past lives, as well. Not always, but enough that I suffer for my craving. That is why I am not in Nirvana.”
I ended up back home. I sold controlling shares of my fruit distributor to a local businessman. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t settle into doing anything, ever. I found my way into finance, banking actually. Normally they wouldn’t hire someone my age for an entry level posting, but because of my distribution experience, they talked about grooming me for bigger things.
Then, this last Thursday, a man came in. He handed me a money card and told me to route it through an account and then into his, but when I checked the ownership of the money card, it came back with a woman’s name on it. He made a hurried excuse, how he “Must have grabbed my girlfriend’s card off the counter instead of mine.” I wrote down his name, thinking I’d forward it to the cops, but instead I filed the number in my personal memory.
When I got home I realized why the man seemed so familiar, not in his look, or his voice, not even in his walk, but something about his manner, bent over, mumbling, a bubbling anger. He was Bill. He had to be.
And I thought to myself, I had to be crazy. Getting flashes of memory from dead people was one thing, but meeting up with a man who had you killed was another- especially with what I found myself fantasizing about doing to him. But there was one thing, one concrete thing that I knew couldn’t have come from anywhere else, that would prove once and for all I wasn’t sizing myself up for a straight jacket.
See, I knew where the hanged man’s gun was. Because after he was reborn, the hanged man grew up, and dug the pistol out of his old body’s grave, then he tracked his killer down. See, Bill got to die in the 20th century, by the gun of the man he’d killed. And that man, that time, had buried the pistol again. This time, he put it in Bill’s grave.
Or at least that’s how I’ve rationalized standing out here, in the damned rain, shoveling away mud off a hundred and fifty year old grave. I hope I don’t get caught out here; I can’t imagine it’s fun trying to convince the police that you’re not a necrophile.
Bill started life as a horse thief, and I remember knowing him when he was old enough to know better but still too young to know it. I told him why they hung horse thieves- why even outlaws looked down on them that took horses- because taking a horse was abandoning a man to the elements, and a long, slow, hard death.
We took him in from a pup, on the thinking that a wolf in a pack ain’t as dangerous as a lone, rabid dog. He seemed grateful for that, but every day, every job, I question the wisdom in it. Just this Tuesday he smashed a teller’s teeth out for the sole reason that he weren’t hurried enough for Bill’s liking.
As I said, though, the boy’s been grateful. And tonight, as a show for it, his family broke bread with me. Seems he’s told them I gave him a job at my stable, at a good wage, to explain his recent excess; quite a feat, seeing as I don’t own my own stable, or even room for my head.
His father’s a nice old man, though he eyes me suspicious; mother’s a sweet, plump thing, who eyes me worse than the old man, though you’d never know it by the look. But I couldn’t be forced at the end of a gun to care for either, or Bill, for that matter, because across that table was an angel Bill’s parents named Charlotte.
She didn’t talk much over dinner, and neither did I, but there was something in those big blue eyes I couldn’t keep from looking into. And at the end of dinner she mouthed one word to me, “barn” before she told her parents she was slipping off to bed. She met me out back a few minutes later.
She didn’t say a thing, but stole a kiss before I could, and I’m an old hand at that sort of thing. Then she told me, “Good night,” and went to bed. Now I’m certain the only thing of worth Bill’s ever done is to have a sister. I could die a happy man tonight, but if I live just one more day, I’ll never be able to let her go. God himself will have a difficulty shuffling me off this mortal coil without her.
I’m dying. I’ve known for months, though I’ve tried to hide it. I tried to hide the truth, as well, always dangerously close to violating the fourth of the five precepts. But my son is clever. He woke me in a panic this morning, and I found I could not move. “You’re dying,” he told me.
“I know,” I replied. He’d known for some time; I wondered if he sensed the hour as I did, felt the King of Death’s wind blown against my neck.
He was silent for a time. “I’m a lousy student. I’ve become attached to you; I suffer because I will miss you when you pass.”
“The fault is mine,” I said through lumped throat. “I’ve been a lousy teacher. Through my craving, I insisted your mother adopt you to Buddhists. To feed my craving, I watched you grow from afar. For my craving, I insisted I teach you the Sangha’s ways. A good Buddhist would have given you away to someone else, as your mother and I did once before, but I craved time with my son. You suffer for your father’s failures, and I’m sorry for that, because I can’t suffer enough to compensate.”
I expected surprise, but he was, as I said, clever. He had deduced his lineage, as he had my frailty. “I suffer for the loss of my father, my teacher, and my friend. And I suffer gladly.”
I smiled. “I am not lost. I will be again- but I hope my rebirth does not become your attachment. Let this be the last we say goodbye.”
Bill’s a bastard. Maybe I’m rationalizing again. I spent a little time sneaking around, following him, until one day he confronted me and kicked the hell out of me; took my wallet, too, just to be a bastard, I think. I let a PI do the rest.
He beats his girlfriend, who pays the rent. He’s not a drug addict, only because he can’t afford to be, and he’s too lazy to make small-time breaking and entering a career to pay for it. But that’s not justification. All that means is I should cripple the bastard before he hurts someone seriously; no, what it is… is confirmation. If I needed anything to tell me this was Bill, a few lifetimes removed, this is it.
The gun was in old Bill’s grave, packed in a cigar box. It’s a Colt Single Action Army. I’ve spent time cleaning it, learning it, getting so the weight of it and the recoil come as natural. One of the men I asked for help getting it ready offered more money than I’ve ever seen for it; apparently it’s a collectible.
My daddy from a different life had tried to buy it from an Indian (or Native American, I suppose) who claimed he got it from a dead soldier at the Little Bighorn, but he wouldn’t sell it. So my daddy got the Indian drunk, then won it off him in a game of cards; my bad apple didn’t fall far off that tree. It was friendly if mean, or it was supposed to be, but the Indian, once he’d sobered up, came at him with a knife, and got shot with his own gun. Out of shame, Dad put that gun away, and I never saw it until he was dying of cholera. That’s when he told me the story, and gave it to me.
I’d used it for no good, at least until I used it to put a bullet in the old Bill; that was an undertaking long overdue. So’s this. New Bill’s curled in a ball, whimpering like a broke-legged mule. He thinks I’ve got him wrong, that I don’t see him for what he is. But I’m getting tired of his blubbering- not that I expected him to man up.
“Figured you wouldn’t remember any of this; if most people did, that would change the nature of the world. I know I’m supposed to be seeking enlightenment, searching for a grander purpose to existence, but I don’t want it. Only thing I want is to hunt you down and kill you, over and over and over again. You’re not my son; y'ain’t even Bill, just pieces of him, stirred up and reset. But you’re built from bad parts; I’ve seen enough already to know more often than not, the bastard you’ll come back to be. I think the point of this here life is letting go, just not yet.”
I pull the hammer back; it all feels like a dance I know, with a girl I’ve loved, and that brings back Charlotte and the life that son of a bitch took from me, so I take this one from him.
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