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Through the Fence
Anita Soupir

Johanna peered through the wire fence, taking in the enclosure beyond. Even to her young eye, it spoke of extreme ugliness: metal sleeping quarters, mud everywhere the eye gazed, and larger buildings that puffed out ashy, foul-smelling smoke all hours of the day. Men with shorn heads wearing striped tunics and trousers were always under guard. Today, though, someone of significance had been brought in. Johanna strained and finally caught a glimpse of the man named Hitler, as the guards drug him away, kicking and screaming his innocence. Johanna awoke with a smile, until she remembered where she was; Auschwitz.


Crowd of Teeth
Chris MIlam

His greyish incisors ripped into the skinny neck of the farm chicken with the savagery of a famished vagrant. The headless torso landed with a soft thud in the dirt as blood leaked from the corners of the geek’s mouth and began to color the lifeless bird’s feathers in a crimson rouge.

He glanced at the onlookers and saw beards, sundresses, flannel shirts and rows of venomous teeth. He saw desire in their peckish eyes and contempt on their sun-cracked lips. They pumped fists and wailed at the spectacle of him. Women hugged their men and father’s patted their kids on the head. Some ate caramel apples and elephant ears while others inhaled corn dogs and nachos. They cheered, they feasted, they judged. The geek struggled with the beak but eventually got it down with a labored swallow. He took a sheepish bow and the townspeople pelted him with quarters as they begged for more. He gathered the loose coins and headed for his tent.

The man who ran the carnival, Fredrick Nyte, was like a father figure to the geek. Years ago, a fidgety and addicted family had left the child at a show in Nashville with a note clipped to his sleeve: “He fits in with your world not ours. Good luck.” He named the boy Apollo and groomed him in the ways of carnival showmanship.

He entered the tent and observed Apollo through a mirror resting on a scuffed night stand. Its reflection revealed a nose of twisted cartilage, a bowl of unwashed reddish-brown hair, ribs protruding through abused skin, and eyes the hue of wet cement.

“Great show, boy. The crowd was amped up. You did good, son.”

Apollo nodded.

“I’ve got an idea. I want to shock the masses, flip the script, do something that this town has never seen before. A performance that will make us some serious fucking cash.”

Another nod.

“Apollo, can you shit on cue?”

“Do what?”

“Here’s what I’m thinking, hear me out. Instead of biting the head off a chicken, which has been done by everybody from here to Cleveland, I want you to eat your own shit. Is that doable?”

“I’m confused, boss.”

“Goddammit, geek. Can. You. Eat. Your. Own. Shit. Look, I’ll throw in extra couple of bucks and I’ll let you take the bearded lady from behind. I know you’re sweet on her.”

“Fine. I’ll do it.”

“Splendid. You might want to eat a bowl of chili or something to get primed. Showtime in two hours.”

Apollo walked into a ring of silence. Lights fixed atop wooden poles shone down on him, exposing his acne-scarred skin and his genetically deficient facial scruff. The crowd was ten deep but they only stared ahead. Waiting. Salivating.

The geek squatted above the dirt floor, lifted up the back of his white loincloth and freed his bowels. He brought a cupped hand to his mouth and probed the runny feces with his pale and squeamish tongue as a stream of foul brown juice slid down his jaw and found a home in his chest hair.

When he finally glanced at the customers he saw a priest with one hand holding a bible and the other rubbing his crotch. There was a woman with a bouffant nibbling on cotton candy with lavender-smeared lips. He heard a boy tell his father: “I love you, daddy, this was the best birthday ever.” A farmer, bathed in denim, shook hands with Mayor Tompkins, his calloused hands softened by the politician’s vote-snagging smile. He saw Mr. Nyte counting the metal box of cash.

Apollo puked RC cola and kidney beans for the next five minutes, a puddle of sacrifice that led a girl in a pink dress with a Mickey Mouse bracelet clasped to her wrist to fling her popcorn at him, telling the geek: “Dip them in some shit-butter, freak.”

Mr. Nyte caught up to him after the show.

“My God, man, it was like you were eating a chocolate ice cream waffle cone, it was so effortless. I’ve never been as proud of you as I am right now. You’re a fucking star, kid. You killed it tonight.”

“Thanks, pop.”

The geek was proud of himself as well. The crowd loved him and maybe even respected him, he thought. He told himself not to shed those familiar tears. Again.

He moved to the sink in his tent and began to scrub his arms with a lather of soap and an old rag. He noticed the veins on the underside of his forearms were pulsating with electrified blood and his mind immediately latched on to a new idea for the show, something so bizarre that the townspeople and Mr. Nyte and maybe even his long-gone parents would have no choice but to accept him as one of them, a person of worth.

Apollo could work out the details of his new performance tomorrow. All he wanted at this precise moment was to retrieve his payment and the conductor of his heartbeat, the bearded lady.


The Robots
Clive McAlpin

They have been in charge for several years now and things are different for all of us.

The takeover was not quick but it seemed inevitable from the beginning. When we realized that the robots cared more than we did it was very difficult to maintain any kind of front against them. When a sector was taken, those in other sectors would say things like, ‘good thing it wasn’t us,’ or, ‘well those fools had it coming.’

Right from the start it was clear that they had qualities we did not. The robots had a spirit of teamwork; we were herded by our officers and threatened with decimation. The robots were willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause, falling in showers of golden sparks that smelled of ozone like thunderheads. We died yowling, more often from wounds in the back than in the front. They offered us compromise: vassalship, liberal indenture. We would accept nothing but total submission; we spat hysterical invective at their insubordination.

In the end they decided not to exterminate us. They are interested in our culture. They have a predilection for activities that we never allowed them to meddle with before they took control.

They ski, and when one tumbles the others laugh awkwardly and mechanically, though if the humans who service the skis laugh with them there is trouble.

They paint, with varying results. They have less difficulty emulating the old masters than, say, Van Gogh or Picasso, but a Botticelli will overwhelm any painting by a robot with which it shares a wall. They have a complex relationship with Miro. He fascinates them because they cannot emulate his uncertain, simple shapes (because, I think secretly, they have never been half-asleep or felt pain).

The robots write, but they fare worse in this medium even than in the visual arts. A robot can produce a story, yes, with profluence, narrative flow, even characters taken from human models. But every sentence a Robot produces betrays its lame, mechanical consciousness. They have achieved a certain vain glory in crafting elaborate detective stories in the style of Rex Stout, though only because they have internalized every volume he ever wrote. Their mysteries are inevitably intricate, but their protagonists have none of the humanity of Nero Wolfe or Sherlock Holmes.

The robots are generally frustrated and embarrassed at their pathetic achievements in the arts. If they’d listen to me, though, I’d tell them to stick at it. I’m not sure why, but it seems that if they work hard enough and long enough their fakery will become real; in the fever of composition, robot and page will blur, and their imitations will become art. Every day they get a little better.


Janus
Jonathan Dittman

The man was forty-six when he died in his lover’s arms and not his wife’s. The man, a steadfast adherent to the anachronistic mentality of the Fifties in which possessing a wife and a paramour was human nature, did not die at the hands of a clichéd and vindictive housewife, but was instead undone by a .22 caliber slug ejected from a gun by a random passerby outside a dive in East Detroit.

The bullet, while not striking the intended victim, did perform its intended function and felled a man by piercing his thigh and rupturing his femoral artery. A faint breath of smoke, like an autumnal exhalation, floated from the barrel and dissipated. Upon the realization of his err, the gunman gesticulated a “my bad” apology with his shoulders.

Aside from the palpable observation that he would not be dying outside this particular bar if he had only remained faithful, he also realized he would be taking his final breaths next to a woman who was nothing more than a receptacle. As the gunman fled, the dying man tried to tell him it was alright, that he deserved it, but his words faltered under the weight of Ginny’s cries for help. Instead of hearing the comforting utterances of his wife, he would be subjected to the spastic ramblings of a high-pitched woman screaming Oh my Gawd, Harold! Oh my Gawd!

Even though he was dying, he laughed.

In the movies, a bullet always seemed to kill instantly. The imperceptible clang of the hammer striking the casing overcome by the miniature explosion inside the chamber as it hurled the slug through the barrel at more than 1,000 feet per second was fictitiously depicted as having the ability to stop a man cold. If only that were true; to the man, eternity was not found in the afterlife, but in dying. Perhaps if the bullet had struck him in the chest, or better yet, the head, his life would’ve ended in such a manner, but ironically, his kill shot was a mere inch or two from his groin, a location decidedly more painful and poetic than the aforementioned.

As the man lay dying, he saw the translucent silhouette of his wife standing above him. Her face was stern yet apologetic. The man’s wife bent down and cupped his jaw.

“Oh, Harold. What have you gotten yourself into?”

“I’m sorry, Carrie,” he said. The words carried a stupid weight that seemed to plunk down in the pool of blood that surrounded his lap and spread in crimson blossoms on the mottled pavement beneath his legs.

Harold’s head seemed to sink lower, as if it were folding upon his sternum; the bony lump assured him he was fading. Moments earlier, he had lamented his eternal dying but now the man longed for more time. He even started to pray but stopped once he heard Ginny strangle another Gawd within her throat.

As the heaviness of death pulled his eyelids downward, Harold was unsure what his terminus beheld. But he was certain that his death would not be a private act; it would be a very public affair. Gaping strangers, paramedics and first responders, adulterous lovers, ethereal wives – all would be privy to the mortal failings of his body. And Harold knew that those watching did not do so with sympathy but with fear of their own unraveling. That Harold was the one dying was of no importance to these voyeurs; it was Death itself they leered at.

With each compression, Harold’s head shook to the side; the distant hands of the paramedic shoved downward in cardiac rhythm: 1-2-3-4…

The shape of his wife tried to speak but Harold simply looked past her, into the throng of watchers, and heard nothing. The externalization of his own pain was too great.

Stop looking! Harold screamed from unmoving lips at the intrusive spectators.

Harold fixated on those around him. He fumed at the man hovering above him – 9-10-11-12 – cursed his lover cradling her knees at his side. He wanted to die, now, and end the judging eyes of those around him, those empty souls staring with fake concern. As the distant breath of the paramedic entered his unresponsive lungs, the man could no longer summon his wife back. She had finally left him.


Il Sorcio
Daniele De Serto
Translation by Tiziana Rinaldi Castro

I knew it was poison. I knew it.

It was way too close to the sample we examined at the hideout last week. But I couldn't resist the scent of vanilla and that yummy shape. What an idiot!

The symptoms are the same ones we had been shown: choking, thirst, and disorientation.

I also know who placed this fatal treat. He was the guy on the ground floor, the beast with hairy arms and cavernous eyes. Up until a few months ago, he had lived with his wife, a beautiful and elegant woman. Now she gone, and the police came several times to ask questions.

Anyway, it was him whom I heard complain to others in the building because he wanted the extermination, or he threatened to call the Health Department. Already this summer, he had placed a couple of the poison treats around, and one of us had ended belly up. Since that day, though, no one else had fallen for his trap. At the hideout, we have learned to recognize the symptoms of the Bromadiolone and other similar substances that screw your vitamin K. That shit hinders the blood from coagulating, and you are fucked.

This poison is new stuff, though. It must be that Murdex, or whatever the hell it is called, for everyone was talking about it on the other side of Rome. There was some mentioning of internal bleeding. God, I am thirsty. I have to drink something and then run to warn the others. At least, I would die a heroic death… if I could find the way.

What does my self-preservation instinct say? It should kick in by now, set me on the right path, or suggest a prayer if nothing else. I can’t recall if I had already been over this way. Yes, I had. This is the roof's gutter from where I could see the entire Quadraro. It’s beautiful from up here, and with its grainy light, jerry-rigged fences, and buildings seemingly embracing one another, it looks like a village from a time long past.

I’d stop and take in the scenery if not for all these crumbs in my stomach firing up. They remind me of the mad sparks that steel grinders produce, those for which you need to wear a protective mask. I saw someone handling one the day the woman from the ground floor disappeared.

In fact, the two men who were working on the outside ladder leading from the courtyard to the terrace where our hideout is. I was browsing around, drawn by the cascade of flaming droplets; it was a real show! Those guys literally sliced the ladder and then welded the pegs back together to their liking. I admit to being careless, but I couldn’t help getting closer. That’s when I heard them muttering. They were organizing some sort of plan, saying that the husband’s orders had changed and that the body had to be transported somewhere else. They spoke also about having some fun before doing the job.

Then they moved into action.

I followed them when they went downstairs and threw her onto the ground.

In turn, they lowered themselves over her and moved as if they were to suffocate her with their big bodies, always keeping one hand pressed over her mouth.

Her face was sticking up over their backs mottled with sweat, and she looked at me with dull eyes.

Dull, yet sweet, I think she was the first woman whom I didn’t disgust. For the entire time in which those dirty bellies overwhelmed her, she looked at me. Every now and then her gaze seemed lost, as if nothing could be grasped in the room, let alone a few inches long creature, but then she would reemerge from her daze and she’d search for me again, like a castaway searching for a branch to cling to. Eventually one of them stood up, switched on the infernal tool and I ran away.

Go figure why I remember this now while I’m losing all my strength. I can hardly catch my breath; it is as if a bag of sand had been emptied on my chest. Something tells me that I won’t make it back to the hideout. Anyway, the truth is I've never forgotten that woman’s expression or the anguish in her breathing. Never. Maybe I will meet her again now, but I doubt she’d let me climb her legs.

Oh, never mind now, never mind...


 
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