Baba Yaga

“BABA YAGA”

CAST:

NARRATOR

FATHER / SKULL

STEPMOTHER / BABA YAGA

CAT

GATES

HUT (X2 Multiple people?)

[In darkness, enter NATASHA, seated on floor. Lights Up.]

NARRATOR

Once upon a time there lived a girl named Natasha. She was the daughter of a widower, and though they were lonely, they were happy together, playing in the endless forest that surrounded their little hut. Such is the way of fairy tales: it always seems as though nothing will ever change and that everything is eternal, until something does, in fact, change. Natasha and her Father never wanted for anything, until one day, her father came to her with strange news. So such stories always go.

[Enter FATHER.]

FATHER:
Natasha, we need to talk, my dear.

NATASHA:
Yes father?

FATHER:
Well, it has been a long time since mother died, and we both miss her very much, but there are… some things…that only a mother can do. So, I have decided to remarry.

NATASHA:
You mean I’ll have a new mommy?

FATHER:
(Nervous Laugh) Yes, a new mommy. I met her in the forest while collecting firewood, and she comes here today to be my wife. I know it seems sudden, but it is not unusual in stories such as these.

Enter STEPMOTHER.

NATASHA:
Hello, Stepmother–

STEPMOTHER:
(interrupting) Little children are to be seen, not heard. Now, Natasha, my dearest…I need a needle and a thread to mend your father’s shirt. Go fetch me them.


FATHER:
Do as she says.

[Natasha exits backstage.]

STEPMOTHER

My dear, handsome, strong, brave husband- would life not be better if we were free of your little one? Then you and I could be alone, where I could sink my teeth into you.

FATHER

I love Natasha, my dear. Please don’t make me choose between the two of you.

STEPMOTHER

You think I mean to make you choose? How insulting- I need to be alone. Now, Go!

FATHER EXITS

STEPMOTHER

One might wonder what a man could see in a verbally abusive woman he found wandering in the woods one day, but this is the way such stories always go.

NATASHA ENTERS


NATASHA:
We have no needle and thread.

STEPMOTHER:

(interrupting) Seen, not heard, Natasha! (sizes up Natasha, pinches her cheek) Well then…Could you go to my sister Baba Yaga’s house and get it a needle and some thread for me?

NATASHA:
Baba Yaga? Baba Yaga, the witch who flies through the night in a mortar and pestle? Baba Yaga, who lives beyond a gate of skulls in a hut with chicken legs? Baba Yaga, who has iron teeth and eats children? Your sister is Baba Yaga?

STEPMOTHER:
Hold your tongue, you little savage. My sister is sweet, beautiful, and kind. I’ll hear no more ill talk of her. Take these little scraps of food and go!


[STEPMOTHER hands NATASHA a handkerchief with food in it. NATASHA takes it, and turns. STEPMOTHER exits. LIGHTS DIM.]

[NATASHA looks into the BINDLE]

NATASHA:

A lump of greasy bread, a hard acorn, and a salted fish? A trio of items, that, at first glance, will have no use to the protagonist in such a story.


[NATASHA moves to STAGE RIGHT. ENTER GATES, SKULL. HUT enters CENTER STAGE, BABA YAGA is obscured by HUT.]

NATASHA:
Hello, is this the gate of Baba Yaga?

GATES:
(Groans) These are the gates of Baba Yaga.

NATASHA:
I’m Natasha, I came to get a needle and thread for my stepmother.

GATES:

(Groans)

NATASHA:

Is something the matter?

GATES:

(Groans) I haven’t been oiled in so long, my joints are aching. I have been neglected by my master, and in need of the kindness only children know in stories such as these.

NATASHA:

You poor thing. I have this greasy bread, let me see what I can do.

[NATASHA rubs grease into the joints of the GATE]

GATES:

I shall remember your kindness, and perhaps you will be rewarded for your selflessness later on. Such it always is, in stories such as these.

[The GATES swing open, and the SKULL steps forward. His eyes are closed.]


SKULL:

Halt! Who goes there? (pause) No, seriously, who goes there? I can’t see a goddamn thing. No eyeballs, amiright?

NATASHA:

I-

SKULL:

Why Baba Yaga wants to hang a skull on her door and use it like some kind of doorman is beyond me, but hey, what do I know? I’m a blind, brainless, reanimated piece of a rotten human corpse, amiright?

NATASHA:

Well, I-

SKULL:

I mean, Witches, amiright? Can’t be happy with a simple door knocker, Nooooo, need to go and dig up a corpse, rip its skull out, boil it in some mystic bullshit and then hang it up as a grisly totem to ward off visitors. Who taught this bitch to decorate, Vlad the Impaler? Not that I’d be any better, not having eyes and all, Amiright?

NATASHA:

Well, I might be able to help with that- will this acorn make a serviceable eye?

[NATASHA stuff the acorn into SKULLS eye. SKULL opens one eye, looks around with it]

SKULL:

Hot DAMN! It’s good to see again. You’re all right, kid, and a little heartbreaker, too. I’ll remember this. You want in? Just tell the stupid chicken-hut to sit its mythological ass down and it’ll do it, but make sure it’s in the form of a rhyming couplet. Huts love that shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to stare out into the forest and count squirrels. Uh…as it always is in stories such as these, or something.

[SKULL moves over to GATE’s position and waits. When NATASHA approaches the HUT, it moves and trembles, and its legs dance around.]

NATASHA:

Hut Of Brown! Now Sit Down!


[The HUT stops moving, kneels, and BABA YAGA steps out, followed by CAT. BABA YAGA is slowly balling up an impossible tangle of yarn. CAT is doing CAT things.]

BABA-YAGA:
Well, well, a visitor. What can your sweet harmless auntie Baba Yaga do for you?

NATASHA:
Auntie, I just came for a needle and thread. My stepmother needs to mend my father’s shirt.

BABA-YAGA:
Why, of course my dear. Why don’t you take over undoing this knot of yarn for me and I’ll fetch it for you right away.

NATASHA:
Yes, Auntie. What a tangle- this could take forever. But, in stories such as these, children are always subordinate to adults, regardless of their obviously wicked intentions. So, I unwind.

[BABA-YAGA walks to the side of the stage, where she meets the SKULL, whose eye is open.]

SKULL:

Oh my god, you’re fucking hideous. (closes eye)

BABA-YAGA:
Loyal servant, I’m going to boil some water to cook this child in. If this girl tries to escape, I want you to bite her sweet little head off.

SKULL:
Wow, that’s graphic.

[BABA YAGA exits backstage]

SKULL:

Yo, I think that bitch it going to eat you. As it always is in stories, etcetera.

CAT:
I haven’t had a bite of food in weeks, yet Baba-Yaga is going to eat a whole little girl? Why do evil creatures always mistreat their subordinates in stories such as these? It seems like a bad way to maintain employer/employee relationships. Me-Ow.

NATASHA

You poor thing. I have a little salted fish, take it for yourself.

CAT

Me-ow. That’s the stuff.

BABA-YAGA (offstage)
You’re still undoing that yarn, aren’t you?

NATASHA

Yes ma’am!

CAT

You know what? I think Skull is right- Baba Yaga has a track record of eating everyone who comes in here. She even disguised herself as a beautiful woman and married some dumb woodsman, gloating about she was going to lure his kid away, eat her, and then eat her husband. Me-Ow.


BABA-YAGA:
Are you still undoing that yarn?

NATASHA:
Yes ma’am.

CAT

Look, honey, you should run. Just gimme that yarn before you do. Cat’s do love yarn-

NATASHA

In stories such as these?

CAT

Don’t be so precocious,

[NATASHA gives CAT the Yarn. CAT promptly starts playing with it and spreading it about, making joyful cat noises]

SKULL

We got your back, homegirl.

NATASHA

Thank you all so much!

NATASHA flees offstage, running through GATES, who let her pass with a sigh. NATASHA stands just beyond the GATES.

BABA YAGA

Still rolling up that yarn for your Auntie Baba Yaga?

CAT

Yes meow.

[Enter BABA-YAGA.]

BABA-YAGA:
YOU!

[The CAT throws the Yarn over Baba Yaga, gives her the finger, and flees off stage making cat noises]

BABA-YAGA (struggling with Yarn)
Traitorous vermin!
( stumbles towards the SKULL)

SKULL

The things I do for love. And free eyeballs. (bites BABA YAGA, who howls in rage)

BABA YAGA

I’m going to gnaw the flesh from your bones, you little brat, and then boil your father into a stew!

[BABA YAGA stumbles towards NATASHA and the GATES, who promptly swing shut and knock her back towards the HUT, which is standing.]

NATASHA
Hut of Brown! Now Sit Down!

[The HUT crushes BABA YAGA. NATASHA flees.]

NARRATOR

As you probably guessed, Natasha ran right home to her Father and explained that his wife had been Baba Yaga in disguise, as the cat had told her. When her Father heard this, he wept and embraced his daughter, and they lived together in peace, playing games in the woods and Natasha never grew older, nor was he Father lonely, and they never knew hunger or sorrow again, till the end of all time. No lesson was learned, no moral was taught, as it is and always should be, in stories such as these.

(LIGHTS OUT)

Breedertown

If Jake didn’t get his delivery across the Breedertown border before the restaurant opened, he wouldn’t get paid. Plus, the package would certainly begin to smell.

Jake pumped his legs with the fervor of a drowning man, grinding the gears of his rusted bike as it crested over the paved hill of Washington street. He allowed himself to coast effortlessly downhill, eying the newspaper wrapped package in his bike’s basket. His ancient, poorly maintained bicycle shuddered with every small imperfection on the surface of the street. He was less than a block away from the border. He came to the bottom of the hill and began the laborious task of climbing the last hill before the checkpoint.

He could feel his visa shifting in the pocket of his dingy gray shorts, and it gave him a little comfort to know that he was prepared for the demeaning procedure that was quickly approaching. Jake had never wanted to be a delivery boy, but it was one of the only jobs that allowed people like him to leave the enclave. He knew that failing to get his package to its destination on time would likely cost him more than just his job.

He reached the top of the last hill and allowed himself the briefest pause to enjoy the view. Past the crumbling tenements of Breedertown, he could see the vastness of the Pacific ocean. Rising up from the sea, a few miles offshore, were the ruins of Avondale, waiting to disappear beneath the waves when the tide came in again. The salty wind seemed wasted on the folks he was delivering too, and he felt the gnawing prejudice of his parents creep into his thoughts for a moment. Can they really appreciate such a wonderful smell?

He shook his head and girded himself for the final downhill to the crossing. His bike groaned and choked in defiance as he navigated it down the shattered street towards the rust-chewed border checkpoint. As he grew closer, he caught the noxious scent of the guards before he ever saw them. The sweet smell of rot.

As his bike slowed to a stop before the border station, one of the guards stepped out of the small booth and motioned him over. The guard was dressed in the standard uniform- brown button up shirt, brown trousers with black boots and a riot officer’s shield-like helmet. They never wore any sort of body armor, and Jake had always assumed it wouldn’t make much of a difference if they did. The helmets were more of a courtesy to bordercrossers like himself. The guard rested one leather gloved hand on his hip and the other hand on the grip of his holstered gun. His badge shone in the noonday sun and read “Officer Swift.”

Jake swung his body off his bike and walked it the last few yards to the checkpoint, the whole time the awful stench growing in intensity. He leaned his bike gingerly against the side of the small building and fished out his travel visa. Inside the booth, the other guard motioned him to the opening in the glass, and Jake slid his papers through the slot. He cast a wary glance at the guard standing outside, and noticed that flies were starting to gather around the package in his basket. He had to hurry. He spoke up.

“Hey, I don’t mean to be a pain, but you guys know me, right? I’m the delivery guy for Papa Ghede’s. Can we hurry this up a little?”

The guard behind the glass grunted, and something black oozed out from under his helmet and splattered on his brown shirt just an inch from the badge identifying him as “Officer Humes.” Jake crossed the border every couple of days, but wondered if the guards even recognized him. Do we all just look the same to you?

The flies were starting to buzz around the officer standing outside, who either failed to notice or failed to care. Jake was getting nervous, and found himself fidgeting and shuffling his feet. The guard behind the glass slid the visa back to Jake with another grunt.

“That doesn’t even look like you,” he managed to growl, spittle and something like old blood splattering against the backside of the tinted glass and dripping down to the counter. “It says you have green eyes, but they look gray to me. Do they look gray to you, Swift?”

The other guard grunted in disgust, and leaned into the booth.

“For God’s sake Humes, your eyes are starting to go. It’s clearly the kid. Let him pass so I don’t have to stand out here anymore, I’m getting the flies.”

Officer Humes grunted again, and a tooth fell on the counter. Jake stifled the urge to vomit.

“Fine. Your papers are in order. Get out of here.”

Jake permitted himself a small sigh of relief, then jumped on his bike and rode out of Breedertown and down the road towards New Phoenix. Waving the flies away from his precious cargo, he mused to himself about Officer Swift’s choice of words: “For God’s sake.”

As if those people believed in God.

He cruised the streets of New Phoenix with his head held high and his newspaper wrapped package carefully tied down. He had been making deliveries to Papa Ghede’s since he was old enough to ride a bike, and was used to the blank stares and occasion catcalls that would follow him as he passed the musty homes and businesses that lined the street. He’d had his fair share of trouble with the locals, but he had eventually become accustomed to his place as a necessary outsider here. He provided a particular service that, in a way, was all that was holding the country together.

Jake was born decades after the Calamity- the series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that laid waste to most of humanity and reconfigured much of the world’s geography. His great-grandparents had immigrated from podunk California during what they had often referred to as “The Real Big Ones” that eventually plunged the old West Coast into the ocean, and they had even survived the Pandemic that followed in its wake. He was the descendant of survivors, and his family had done everything it could to make a life for itself in the new country that was forming.

Before Jake’s grandfather’s passing, he would speak with a mix of awe and fear about the Decade of the Dead, the years following the outbreak of the disease known only as the Pandemic. His cataract blue eyes looked off into unfathomable distances when he remembered the infected rising from their hospital beds, blood cold and hearts unbeating, wandering aimlessly and driven by the need to consume human flesh.

“There were thousands of ’em, tens of thousands, and their numbers just kept growin’. We killed a lot of them at first, fer sure, but eventually they drove us out of the cities,” he’d told Jake one balmy summer night. “Only those that had the disease when they died got back up, see- the dead twernt rising from their graves or nothin. Some small comfort, I suppose.”

His grandfather told many such stories.

Jake rode faster and faster towards Papa Ghede’s, trying to shake away the memory of his beloved grandfather. There was no time or place for Jake to care about the world that came before him. He lived in the present, and had all the problems any regular 22 year old from Breedertown had to deal with. Getting a job, meeting girls- these were the things relevant to Jake. Grandfather never adequetly adapted to the new world, but Jake had no intention of being left behind.

The warm summer wind danced in from Buckeye Bay as Jake propelled himself through the desolate streets of New Phoenix. The ancient husks of ruined automobiles littered the torn streets and collected rust borne on salty ocean breezes. It was early in the day, but slowly growing warmer, so he doubted he’d see many Dead on the streets. He felt a twinge of pity for the guards stuck in the border booth, with the heat and the flies creeping over them. They were destined to decompose faster than the dead that worked indoors.

Jake let the soothing breeze calm him as it passed through his dark wavy hair, and breathed deep. He’d tried to never take for granted the fact he was warm blooded and breathing. Too many of the Living were content to simply be alive, but few seemed to take any joy in actually living.

The dead can’t appreciate the warmth of the sun, Jake thought to himself. He was almost content to stand on the street and let the warm sunlight caress his ruddy face, but snapped to attention when the buzzing of insects broke his revere. A halo of flies had gathered around the package in his basket- a reminder that he was on the job.

From the shadow of a door frame in an collapsed building, a low whistle went up, and Jake looked over hesitantly. A gravelly woman’s voice spoke.

“What do we have here- A little Breeder boy? What’s in the package, boy?”

From out of the door frame a tall woman in a torn red tracksuit stepped out, a nimbus of insects following her like a storm-cloud. She was Dead, her long mousy hair meticulously braided to stave off rot. He face was well preserved, not wet like the guards but more leathery and dry. Her mouth was drawn back to reveal her once pearly and chiclet-shaped teeth. What remained of her lips was stained with fresh lipstick. She watched Jake through her cloudy left eye; Her right eye was shriveled like a raisin. Jake turned away and took a deep breath of the sea air. She smelled like a mildewy towel.

“Just making deliveries, ma’am.”

She stepped out into the sunlight and immediately more insects collected, a swarm of gnats that she didn’t bother to wave away. Jake did his best to be respectful.

“I’m actually running a little late, ma’am. I best be on my way.”

She waved one bony hand in dismissal and motioned towards her porch.

“Now, now, your delivery can wait. Why don’t you come on inside and keep me company? I haven’t seen a Breeder boy in weeks. I can make you some lemonade.”

Jake knew he needed to respect his superiors, but he hated this game. It seemed like the Dead liked to push and push, just to watch him grovel.

“That’s a very nice offer, ma’am, but I really must be going. You have a good day. Stay fresh.”

Jake didn’t wait for her response, but quickly put his feet to the pedals and dashed off towards Ghede’s. The Dead woman watched him ride off down 5th street, clicked her teeth in disappointment, and returned to the shadow of her porch. The gnats followed her like little lovestruck ducklings.

Jake had spent many evenings in his family’s hovel in Breedertown listening to his grandfather tell stories about the way things used to be, when the living outnumbered the dead and you had to have a pulse to vote.

“Nowadays,” he’d repeat like a mantra, “anything that can crawl to a voting booth has a say in the way the country is run. It’s not right.”

Jake’s mother would reprimand his grandfather not to talk like that around him, but it never seemed to matter. One night, after a few glasses of homemade wine, Grandpa had become especially loquacious. He sat Jake down on their tiny porch and bore down on him with the full force of his indignity.

“Just adding insult to injury, they was. It wasn’t bad enough they started eating us, no, then they got uppity about it. A year or two after the first Pandemic the damn dead was talking, organizing. They were saying they were the victims- can you believe that?”

As a child, Jake believed a lot of things.

“Anyway, there was so many of them, and they had figured out that they needed the flesh, see? It was not having it that made them dumb and violent. Boy, that’s when all hell broke loose, dead people talking about Dead Rights and how we all had a responsibility to help them survive. Survive!” Jake’s grandfather had spit and roared at that.

“Ain’t one among them that survived nothing!”

That night, Jake’s mother cut Grandpa off early and sent both he and Jake to bed.

Jake’s parents were not much better. They knew what they had to do to make ends meet, but it they never seemed ready to accept that it was the way things had become. They had heard everyday of their lives about the time before, as he had for most of his. They behaved like they actually remembered it. They were born with a sense of Living entitlement that Jake struggled to understand as an adolescent. Growing up in Breedertown was hard enough, knowing that right outside the enclave’s limits were the Dead, some older than even Jake’s grandfather, and that it was really the Dead keeping the country together. It was the Dead working day and night without rest to keep farms operating and hospitals running- Jake himself had been delivered by a Dead doctor. As Jake saw it, the reality was that the Dead had as much a responsibility to the Living as the Living had to the Dead. Eventually, we all just had to get along.

It was almost 8 o’clock and Jake was speeding along as fast as he could, pushing his bike to its oxidized limits, when he finally made it to Papa Ghede’s. The restaurant didn’t open for almost an hour, and he banged on the steel back door and braced himself for the inevitable scorning. The door wasn’t even open all the way when the yelling started.

“Damn it Jake, you’re half an hour late! That’s the second time this week.”

The bellowing belonged to Papa, an old Dead man whose legs has turned black and fallen off years ago, confining his remains to a wheelchair that was rustier than Jake’s bike. Papa ate well, so he was preserved better than many Dead folk, but his hair had fallen out and he’d been overweight when he died. Those characteristics, combined with Papa’s bruised and ashy skin, reminded Jake of a slug. Papa’s stained, floral print shirt didn’t do much for Jake, either. A big, rotten, floral printed slug.

“Yeah, sorry sir, it won’t happen again. I got held up at the checkpoint.”

Papa affected a snort and rolled back into the kitchen. Jake grabbed the newspaper wrapped package and followed him, taking a deep breath of the air outside before entering.

Jake had a certain fondness for Papa Ghede’s – particularly the fact that it was very clean. Papa took pride in making sure his establishment, a little diner off Roosevelt, was spotless every morning and cleaned of all decomposed patron-parts at closing time. Papa Ghede’s diner was only open 18 hours a day, which was unusual in a city that never slept. As he lugged the twenty pound package up on the kitchen’s counter, Jake looked around furtively.

Papa noticed Jake’s searching glance, and groaned a little.

“If you’re looking for Helena, she’s in the walk-in.”

Jake laughed nervously, and Papa eyed him through clouded eyes. He wheeled himself into the dining room, shaking his misshapen head.

“No, no, I’m just admiring the décor,”Jake said to no one in particular.

Papa Ghede’s, despite being 1500 miles from New Orleans, had a definite Voodoo vibe. Papa had embraced the once derogatory term of “Zombie” and built his business around it- Images of top hat wearing skeletons and bottles of hot chili oil graced the shelves and walls, and streamers of purple and gold hung throughout the tiny diner. From a small boombox in the kitchen, the brassy sounds of zydeco music blared and filled the place with a nostalgic ambiance. Jake secretly wished there was a place in Breedertown that had a similar mood, but most of the establishments there were moody, poorly lit bars with little joy or life.

“Boy, just set the delivery down and get in here.”

Jake hated how the Dead always called him “boy,” but he knew there was no point making a fuss about it. The Dead were set in their ways. Jake followed Papa into the dining room, where he was punching buttons on the register in a huff. Behind Papa was a large poster of President Luison, who had not only been the first female President, but the first Dead one as well. She smiled that perfectly preserved smile down on Papa’s angry bald skull from beneath her perfectly coiffed blond wig.

“Twenty pounds at four bucks a pound-”

“6 dollars a pound, Papa. It’s fresh,” Jake interuppted.

Papa raised what was once an eyebrow at Jake, and smiled a broken tooth grin.

“Well, well, aren’t we fancy. I’ll set out the candles and good napkins for the guests tonight! I’ll make it the special,” Papa mocked.

Jake rolled his eyes, and Papa pulled a fistful of ten dollar bills out of the register and passed them to Jake.

“You want to stay for breakfast, Jake?”

The hackles on the back of Jake’s neck stood up and he shook his head gently.

“Don’t worry, boy, I think Helena could whip you up something vegetarian, if you are in the mood.”

As if in response, the sound of the walk in freezer closing sounded over the blasting zydeco music, and a moment later, Helena entered the dining room.

Jake felt the blood rush into his cheeks at the sight of her. Helena – pale and beautiful, with high cheekbones and long black hair like a waterfall of silk all the way down to the small of her back. Her skin was the color of milk, smooth and flawless, and her eyes were dark and clear. Jake’s heart beat hard in his chest. She saw him and smiled, her lips parting like they were actually alive.

“Hi, Jake.”

He smiled wide.

Jake had met Helena at a bar in Breedertown three months earlier. He’d bumped into her while trying to cross the border of the dancefloor, a drink in both his hands. He had smiled sheepishly and moved on, but after sitting at the table with his friend Benji, he found his gaze returning to her repeatedly. Her long slim arms moved with a serpentine grace as she danced with her friend and stranger alike. Jake had hardly noticed Benji’s swift elbow in his side.

“Stop staring and go talk to her,” Benji told him.

Jake threw himself towards the dance floor, fueled by desire and liquor and when she saw him she had gravitated to him without hesitation. They danced until Jake could barely stand, and when they fell into a booth together they ended up talking for hours while Benji entertained himself with a local girl. They talked about nothing in particular – the music, the people at the bar, and the weak drinks. It didn’t matter. Jake couldn’t tear himself from the beautiful, passionate energy of the pale girl named Helena.

It wasn’t until closing time when the lights came on and the power of drink had waned that Jake realized she was a Ghoul. His mind had reeled at that. Her laugh was infectious, and her smile was bone white in the blacklight blur of the Breedertown dive. When he’d asked for her number, she looked at him like he was insane but gave it to him anyway. He’d rushed home that night, his bike nearly collapsing under him, and thrown himself into bed. He spent the whole night thinking about her.

The next morning, he’d approached his Grandfather on the porch and asked what he knew about Ghouls.

“New-fangled Dead, that’s all. A bunch of self-important creeps, Jake. They think they’re better than us ’cause they’re Dead, and they think they’re better than the Dead ’cause they don’t have to eat flesh to keep from going to the worms.”

When he’d asked how they came about, Jake’s grandfather growled in disgust.

“The damn Pandemic never went away. The Dead carry it, some of us Living catch it, we die and go Dead.” Jake’s grandfather looked sad for a moment, then continued.

“Sometimes, little children or babies catch it, you know? And they don’t die – at least, not the way we Living do. They just stop living, but they don’t stop growing. It’s against the law for the Living to raise ’em, so the Dead come in when they hear about it and take ’em away to foster homes. The damn disease just keeps mutating, finding new ways to beat us. No surprise it turned into something new. One day, we’ll all be dead, Living and Dead alike.”

Jake’s grandfather had then started coughing, something deep and raw. He waved his hand in dismissal after catching his breath.

“Mark my words, Jake, you stay away from them. They’re a bad crowd.”

Jake nodded, but two hours later he had called Helena.

Since then, they’d seen each other a couple of times a week- mostly when Jake made the deliveries. She’d cross the border into Breedertown with a few of her ghoul friends to slum it with the Living, but inevitably Jake and her would find some private spot where they could talk. On one night in particular, he’d ran his hand through her hair and gasped at its softness.

“It never stopped growing,” she’d purred into the humid night air.

Shortly afterwords, Jake told Benji that he was seeing a Ghoul, and Benji had lashed out and punched him in the temple. Benji and Jake had not spoken since that night. Jake had decided then that it was better not to tell anyone.

A few days after that, Jake had been helping his father exhume bodies from the local dig when he decided to get some advice. “Dad,” he started, pulling his rebreather down so he could speak clearly, but his father simply motioned for him to continue digging. He pulled his mask back up and after they had cracked a few coffins and moved the bodies to the wagon, he tried again.

“Dad, when did you know you loved Mom?”

His Dad had said nothing for a while, looking out over the dozen holes they’d dug looking for something usable to sell. When he did speak, he looked Jake right in the eye.

“When her parents passed away, and we were working together at the butchers. She knew what she had to do.” Jake’s dad had then thrown his shovel in the back of the truck with the bodies.

Jake thought of all this while watching Helena wipe down the front counter. Papa eyed the two of them warily, then waved one fat hand at her.

“Get to prepping the meat, Helena, it’s not going to prep itself.” Papa laughed to himself, clearly pleased with his little attempt at humor.

Helena sighed, then glided back into the kitchen. Jake followed her without hesitation. The package Jake had brought was still on the counter, and a small cluster of flies danced merrily across its surface looking for some port of entrance. Helena swept them away with one motion of her bone-white hand and began to undo the string holding the mass together. Papa’s rusted wheels moaned and silverware clattered from the dining room, but Jake hardly noticed. He was watching Helena’s fingers gracefully undo the knot of string, her movements perfectly lifelike. She looked over at him and smiled again. He cleared his throat.

“I hope that business has been good?”

Helena responded with a neutral noise as the knot came undone. She peeled back the layers of the newspaper until the package had opened like a flower to reveal the mass of white bloodless flesh within. She didn’t react, but Jake had to turn away as the blood drained from his face. Helena separated the cuts of meat into stacks, and then looked up at Jake.

“It was fun seeing you the other night. I hope you didn’t mind my friends tagging along.”

Jake was looking out through the service window of the kitchen and spoke quietly.

“No, it was fun. I was surprised, I guess. Your friends don’t seem to get tired.”

Helena laughed a little as she set one cut of flank to the side.

“No, I guess they don’t. I never thought I’d hear you complain about something like that.” She picked at a bit of spotted skin on a thigh and then turned to Jake. “It’s okay if you don’t like them, you know. I know it’s sort of strange. I just want you to be happy.”

Jake didn’t turn to face her. From the Dining Room, Papa mumbled profanities and the red and yellow glow from a chain of lights flickered across the surface of the wall that Jake could see.

“Jake.” Helena’s voice was wary. He looked over at her right as she slapped a cut of brain down and a grimace spread across his face.

“What? What is it? It’s never bothered you before to see me work.”

He shook his head again and crossed his arms across his chest.

“Yeah, I just had a rough night last night, I guess. Sorry.”

Helena shifted her feet, black cowboy boots on rust colored tiles. “Papa will be pleased it’s so fresh, Jake, but isn’t it…” Helena searched for the words, looking between the liverspotted skin and Jake. “You know, old?”

Jake nodded.

“Yeah. It’s Grandfather.”

Helena made a sad sound and looked down at the slab of cerebellum.

“I’m sorry, Jake.”

The cut of brain oozed gently on the cutting board.

“It happens, right? People die. The Living, I mean. We die. It happens to all of us.”

Helena nodded slowly, then looked at Jake.

“Jake, do you think…” she hesitated, made a cross face, and waved away the rest of her sentence with one alabaster hand. “Nevermind.”

Jake looked right at her, searching her face for emotion, but her gaze was locked in rigor mortis neutrality. He ventured a guess.

“You mean about you and me?” he said softly. She hesitantly nodded. Jake searched for the words, but could not find them.

“I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Sadness seemed to well up in Helena at that, and she placed both her hands on the counter and hung her head, a river of black hair cascading down like a veil to cover her face from Jake’s point of view. He flashed a glance back out the service window, saw Papa was busy hanging a poster in the window declaring one of the specials of the day: “Brain Gumbo.”

Jake chose to risk it. He reached out and touched her, tenderly running his hand up and down her back in a way he had to assume was comforting to all beings. A quiet sob rose from her, but no tears flowed from her black tourmaline eyes. Jake’s heart melted, and he moved in close and turned her to face him, drawing her frail body to his and holding her close. Only his heartbeat interrupted the space between them, punctuated by the gentle shaking of her body sobbing in pantomime of life. She wrapped her arms around him and slowly grew still again. The silence clung to them furtively.

“What the hell is this?”

Jake and Helena broke away from one another with an unbecoming swiftness and spun in horror to see Papa Ghede, aghast and wide-eyed watching them. He rolled menacingly towards them at a snail’s pace.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” His voice grew louder and a foam of black spittle formed at the edges of his cracked blue lips. “In my restaurant?” Papa’s corpulence shook with rage in the confines of his wheelchair and he struggled to speak through his anger. Jake put his hands up and attempted to diffuse the situation.

“Papa, it’s not what you think. She was-” Jake began, but Papa waved one hand angrily and rolled forward .

“You goddamn Breeder kids, you think you can do whatever you want? I gave you a job, you breathing hunk of scum, and this is how you repay me?” Papa banged his fist on the arm of his chair. “With this?”

“Papa, he didn’t-” Helena tried to intercede, moving deftly between Jake and Papa’s wheelchair. The elder Dead’s rage refocused on her in an instant.

“And you! I take you in, raise you as my own- and this is the thanks I get?” His dead eyes bulged nearly entirely out of their sockets. “You…You god damn…Vita!” The slur left his lips effortlessly, and Helena flinched at its utterance.

Jake’s blood went cold – It was quickly becoming clear that Papa was going to report them, and then all hell would break loose. His mind was racing- My family’s business, Helena’s job! his heart froze, and he grabbed his shirt in a panic. There were even more dreadful consequences for the Living who consorted with the Dead, and Ghouls were no exception.

Helena was trying to reason with Papa as he wheeled backwards. His wheelchair banged into the refrigerator, and Helena’s pleading became more desperate.

“It’s okay, Papa, please don’t tell anyone, please!”

Jake’s heart was pounding so hard that the argument between the two Dead seemed muted and distant. His hands were shaking as he leaned against the counter for support. The cold bare flesh of his grandfather’s butchered flank filled his vision, and he closed his hands into fists. Something was in his closed right hand, and when he looked down at it something froze in his heart.

He was holding Helena’s meat cleaver. He looked over at Papa, who was pushing Helena away with one fat hand and grabbing at the phone on the wall with the other.

His body moved as though possessed. He crossed the short distance between the prep area and Helena in what felt like slow motion, gently pushing her aside with his free hand and raising the meat cleaver over his head. Everything seemed quiet and graceful. Papa turned his face to Jake just as the cleaver came down and severed the dead man’s phone-gripping hand. Papa looked surprised.

Time seemed to catch up to Jake and all semblance of grace or poise vanished as he kicked Papa square in the ribcage, throwing the wheelchair on its back and sending Papa sprawling across the kitchen floor. Black ichor poured from the place where his rotting hand had been, and Papa pulled himself up and raised his other hand just in time to catch the second swipe of the cleaver in the space between his index and middle finger. The blade caught just above the swell of Papa’s thumb, and Jake pulled it out and came down on him in a flurry of chopping and senseless screaming. When the blood ceased to thunder in his ears, Jake was surprised by his own wordless shouting, and Papa lay motionless on the floor, his skull a mess of terrible gashes and pooling gore. As the pounding in his head stopped, Jake became aware of Helena’s voice.

“Jake. Jake.”

He turned to face her, wiping a mass of decaying flesh from his cheek. Helena’s eyes were wide, and her mouth was set in an inscrutable line. Jake dropped the cleaver and it clattered loudly on the wet floor.

“Helena, I…He would have….We would have…” Jake stuttered and motioned meaninglessly, unable to chain the words into a full stream of thought. The grimness of the moment was beginning to descend on Jake like the swarm of flies that were giddily beginning to explore Papa’s inanimate corpse.

Wordlessly, Helena grabbed Jake by the sides of his face and kissed him. Her lips were cold, but for a moment it felt as though his own warmth was spreading to her. When she released him, he was speechless. She grabbed him by the hand.

“We have to get out of here, Jake, the breakfast crowd will be coming soon.”

He was flabbergasted, and motioned to the body of Papa on the floor and made an idiot noise. Helena turned Jake’s face to hers again.

“We don’t have time, Jake. We have to go. If the police find us like this, we’re both dead.”

Jake understood what she meant, but it was hard to ignore the still coldness of her hand clutching his. He nodded dumbly. From the dining room, there came a rapping of knuckles on glass.

Jake and Helena rushed as one to the service window and peered out. A small crowd of the Dead had formed outside, and several were amiably rapping on the glass and motioning to the sign Papa had hung earlier. Their voiced were muted and tinny from the other side of the glass, a chorus of questioning. Hello? Brain Gumbo Special? Anyone there? Hello? Brains? Helena quietly cursed and pulled Jake towards the steel door that lead to the alley behind the restaurant. The morning sun beamed down on them and began to dry the blood spattered all over Jake’s face. They looked around the alley for an escape route. Jake grunted something and grabbed his bike, wrenching the basket free and throwing it aside.

“Quick, jump on the handlebars, let’s go!”

Helena wasted no time, mounting the front of his bike and settling into the awkward position. Jake pumped his legs as hard as he could and they were off, careening away from the restaurant and the voices of the hungry Dead that waited for it to open. The salty air of the Pacific filled Jake’s lungs and a sea-breeze caught Helena’s hair up in its grasp, tossing it about like a ribbon of ebony hue. They were six blocks away when Jake finally spoke.

“I’m sorry I killed your foster dad.”

He was surprised to hear her laugh – that warm laugh that had made him fall so hard for her in the first place. She looked over one soft pale shoulder at him and smiled gently.

“It’s okay, Jake. He was already dead. But us? We’re alive.”

Love and Dread

Deep within the bowels of the Fortress of Maleficence, the super-villain known as Dread was having a rough time finding love. She had known that “Evildoer” was a lonely career choice when she made it, but when she decided to pursue her passion for destruction she assumed that eventually she would meet her partner in both crime and love.

This had not happened.

Sitting now at one of the many tables set up by the Society for Creative Anarchy in their secret Antarctic fortress, Dread was doing her best to find some hope that she might find someone tolerable enough to go to dinner with, or at least pleasant enough to plot the conquest of the world’s nations with over drinks. This small pearl of hope was swiftly disintegrating as her speed date with the hirsute fellow whose name-tag read “Smashsquatch” was reaching the end of its excruciating fifth minute.

So, what do you think of Bigfoot, then?” Dread asked, swirling her glass of absinthe and watching her green reflection dance circles in the tumbler.

Graaar.” Smashsquatch gave a non-committal groan and shrugged. Dread sighed and looked across the stark gray laboratory that was currently serving as the base of operations for the Society’s dating event. Brushed steel tables were scattered about the hall, illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights and the occasional pulse of Tesla coils. Pulling one matted rope of black hair out of her face, she watched the doomsday clock tick away the final seconds. Smashsquatch was vainly attempting to communicate with hand gestures and guttural noises when the air raid siren sounded three times to indicate this particular date was over. Dread looked over at Smashsquatch with cold indifference as he stood, grunted something friendly, and moved to the next table. She ticked the “Not Interested” box on her chart and gazed aimlessly around.

That was when she saw him. Two tables down and moving through the room with languid grace was the purple-caped man of her diabolical dreams. Narrow eyed with impossible cheekbones and blonde hair, he sat just one speed-date away. Dread felt her heart skip. Before she could catch her breath however, her next date arrived and plopped down in the seat across from her.

Hi there.” Dread’s new date grinned from behind welding goggles and dropped a pile of junk on the table between them. She looked down at his name-tag; “The Trapper.” She sighed softly; she hated men who felt the need to add “The” to their supervillain titles.

Hello.”

So, I see your name is Dread. Is that because of your dreadlocks? Can you, like, animate them Medusa-style and choke your enemies to death?” The Trapper fidgeted with a mousetrap, opening and closing it nervously.

No, I can’t animate my hair.”

Oh. I’m into traps. Booby traps, snares, punji pits – you name it, I can build it.” The Trapper snapped the mousetrap shut, narrowly missing his own finger. “Ambushes, when the mood strikes.”

Fascinating.” Dread sipped her absinthe. The clock ticked away, and The Trapper began to rattle off a catalogue of devices that interested him. He quickly faded into the background and Dread found herself watching the mysterious stranger in purple who was eliciting easy laughter from Madam Catastrophe just a table away. Dread, who had chosen her name based on her own constant sense of unease, felt something stir in her sinister heart. The Trapper was enthusiastically explaining the trigger mechanisms of beartraps when the air raid siren sounded thrice to indicate the end of the date. Dread blinked with surprise at how quickly the time had passed.

Great talking to you, Dread. I think we have a lot in common.” The Trapper grinned like a crocodile and shuffled to his next date, dragging his dangerous luggage behind him. Dread swiftly checked the “Not Interested” box and anxiously looked up. Excruciating seconds passed before her next date reached her table. She smoothed her dreadlocks back as he sat before her.

Hello there.” He smiled and his crystal blue eyes gazed deeply at her. Dread felt the lingering sense of disquiet lift from her shoulders and she smiled for the first time since she successfully infected her nemesis Captain Action with ebola. She looked down at her date’s name-tag, which read “Lothar.”

Hi. I’m Dread.”

Dread? What a beautiful name. Surely because of the feeling you inspire in your enemies?”

Dread laughed uneasily and nodded. She was having trouble speaking and blood seemed to be rushing to her cheeks.

Uh, yes, that’s it.”

Well, judging from the way I am currently feeling,” Lothar smiled brightly and leaned in slightly. “I must not be one of your enemies. Lucky me.” One flawless golden curl fell delicately across his brow and Dread felt practically faint. She couldn’t wait to tic the box marked “Interested” on her date card.

So, Lothar is an interesting name. Are you an alien or evil magician or something?” Dread rested her elbows on the table and gave him her full attention as the Tesla coils crackled romantically throughout the lab. Lothar placed one of his hands close to Dread’s.

Yes, something like that.”

They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, and Dread found herself awash in chemicals she normally used exclusively for mind-control serums. She was falling in love.

So, do you have a superpower, Lothar?”

I do.”

I’d love to see it,” Dread whispered softly.

It’d be my pleasure, gorgeous.” Lothar gently lifted his pencil up to eye level for Dread to see.

You see, Dread, my power,” He placed the black tip of his pencil gently down on his date card between them, “is heartbreak.”

Lothar checked the “Not Interested” box just as the air raid sirens sounded thrice, and a moment later was gone.

The Lawmakers of the White Tower

The Lawmakers of the White Tower

A short play

by Kevin M. Flanagan

Cast

LAWMAKER ADAMS

LAWMAKER BAKER

CITIZEN

Setting

The White Tower. A large book, THE SACRED BOOK OF LAWS, on a pedestal.

(LIGHTS UP on LAWMAKER ADAMS and LAWMAKER BAKER, in robes. They stand majestically)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I call this meeting of the Lawmakers of the White Tower to order. We are collected here today to create the perfect laws that will eliminate crime in our society.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Here, here.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: How, sisters and brothers, shall we solve the problem of crime with law?

LAWMAKER BAKER: I have an idea.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Go on.

LAWMAKER BAKER: I propose a new law: all crimes shall be punishable by bodily dismemberment.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Elaborate.

LAWMAKER BAKER: A rapist shall be castrated, a thief shall have their hands cut off, and those that commit the crime of vandalism shall be covered in tattoos of the state’s design.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I cannot in good conscience vote for this law.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Why, are you a lawbreaker?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: No, I simply cannot condone any law that inflicts upon a CITIZEN of this great society corporal punishment. Anyone who proposes such a law is a barbarian.

LAWMAKER BAKER: That’s slander. Under my new law, we’d cut out your tongue.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I propose a new law: anyone who condones a law that inflicts corporal punishment on lawbreakers should have one of their fingers cut off.

LAWMAKER BAKER: I am for this law.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Cut off his finger!

LAWMAKER BAKER: Wait, I changed my mind.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: What, why?

LAWMAKER BAKER: This law is barbaric.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: You supported it a second ago.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yes, but that was before I almost voted for it. I propose a new law; anyone who proposes a law that inflicts corporal punishment on lawbreakers should have their finger cut off.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I support this law. Cut off his finger.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Wait, I changed my mind.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Oh?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yes. I simply cannot condone any law that inflicts upon a CITIZEN of this great society corporal punishment. Also, we didn’t actually vote.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I propose a new law.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Go on.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I propose that anyone who proposes or supports a law that inflicts corporal punishment on lawbreakers that fails to pass, should then have a finger cut off. All for the new law?

LAWMAKER BAKER: While philosophically I support this law, I cannot in good conscience vote for it.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Uh, so…cut off my finger?

LAWMAKER BAKER: No, the law didn’t pass.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Oh, good. That was close. We cannot allow our society to lapse into barbarism.

LAWMAKER BAKER: It is our sacred duty.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: But we cannot allow our society to lapse into anarchy!

LAWMAKER BAKER: It is our sacred duty. How best to deter crime, then?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: What if we abolish crime?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Elaborate.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: What if we simply say there are no crimes? That would solve the problem of crime.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Here, here!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I propose a new law: There are no laws!

LAWMAKER BAKER: I vote…wait.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: What is it now?

LAWMAKER BAKER: If I vote for this law, won’t it just abolish itself?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Do you think so?

LAWMAKER BAKER: I’m not sure. Let’s find out.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All for the law that abolishes all laws?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All opposed?

(Silence)

LAWMAKER BAKER: Wait, you didn’t vote.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I didn’t think it would be ethical for me to vote for a law I proposed.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Good point. Then a majority passes the law.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All law is nullified!

(A writes down the law in the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS. They both look around expectantly)

LAWMAKER BAKER: So, did that law abolish itself?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I’m not sure.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Consult the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Huh, it’s still written there.

LAWMAKER BAKER: So, it didn’t nullify itself?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: This law is useless!

LAWMAKER BAKER: We should abolish it.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All for the abolishment of the new “abolishment of law” law?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All opposed?

(Silence)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Majority consensus. (Crosses off the law in THE SACRED BOOK OF LAWS)

LAWMAKER BAKER: Law is easy.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Here, here.

LAWMAKER BAKER: We are no closer to a perfect society, however.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: These things take time. Trial, and error.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Our job is very trying. Should we perhaps consider giving ourselves a raise?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Good idea.

LAWMAKER BAKER: I propose that the wage of the lawmakers of the White Tower be doubled! All for?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Yea!

LAWMAKER BAKER: All opposed?

(Silence)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Oh, good. Write it down.

(LAWMAKER BAKER writes the law in the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS)

LAWMAKER BAKER: That’s better.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I’m not sure that put us any closer to our goal of eliminating crime and creating a perfect society.

LAWMAKER BAKER: We will make better laws now that we are paid better.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Oh, I agree.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Certainly.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Oh, I’ve got something! The new law must be working.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Let’s hear it.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I propose another new law – All new laws must be proposed by the common people of our great society!

LAWMAKER BAKER: That sounds good. I vote Yea.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All opposed?

(Silence)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Then it is law.

(LAWMAKER ADAMS writes the law in the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS)

LAWMAKER BAKER: That’s very clever of you. Less work for us. Now we’ll have more time to consider law as an abstract.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Thank you. I’m quite pleased with it.

(Both nod, pleased with themselves. They stand around for some time, looking about expectantly.)

LAWMAKER BAKER: They aren’t coming.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Don’t they know what a just and great law we have conceived?

LAWMAKER BAKER: (look out the window) I don’t think they do.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Unwashed heathens! What has become of our great society? Do people care nothing for civil responsibility? The people are hedonistic fools!

LAWMAKER BAKER: We have made a terrible mistake.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I propose the abolishment of…oh, wait. I can’t propose law anymore.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yes, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, haven’t we?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Is anyone coming?

LAWMAKER BAKER: There’s someone out there, should I get them?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Yes, hurry! We can’t sit around here doing nothing all day, now can we?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Are you proposing-

LAWMAKER ADAMS: No. I can’t propose laws. Though I must say that’s an excellent idea for a law as well.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Oh! He’s coming up.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Stop gawking. Quick, look wise and powerful.

(CITIZEN enters the room.)

CITIZEN: Uh, hello?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Greetings CITIZEN of our near perfect society! What a splendid example of civil responsibility you are!

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yes, yes, very grassroots.

CITIZEN: What?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: We were just waiting for you to happen by.

CITIZEN: You were?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yes.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Indeed.

CITIZEN: Why?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Why? Oh, CITIZEN. It is your civil duty.

CITIZEN: I was just looking for a bathroom, actually.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Sorry, no.

CITIZEN: What?

LAWMAKER BAKER: We don’t have a public bathroom.

CITIZEN: Seriously?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Deadly serious, I’m afraid.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Furthermore, there’s no time for that. Your great society needs you, CITIZEN!

LAWMAKER BAKER: Oh, right, yes.

CITIZEN: Can it wait? I really have to go.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: This is a matter of the greatest import! We have need of your involvement.

LAWMAKER BAKER: We made a stupid law-

LAWMAKER ADAMS: A great and noble law that dignifies the whole of creation.

LAWMAKER BAKER: That’s what I meant.

CITIZEN: Is that what you do here?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: It was. Until we made that great and noble law.

LAWMAKER BAKER: It’s really quite clever.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: You see, that’s why we need you to propose a law for us to vote on.

CITIZEN: Okay.

(LAWMAKER ADAMS and LAWMAKER BAKER stare expectantly)

CITIZEN: What?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Go on then.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yes, propose the new law.

CITIZEN: Oh, okay. I propose that all bathrooms in our great society be made public.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: That’s not what I meant. I vote Nay.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Nay as well.

CITIZEN: I vote yea.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: You can’t vote, you proposed the law. It’d be unethical for you to vote.

LAWMAKER BAKER: And we outnumber you anyway.

CITIZEN: I’m leaving.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Wait! Don’t go.

LAWMAKER BAKER: We really need your help, CITIZEN.

CITIZEN: I really need to use the bathroom.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Hedonist!

(LAWMAKER BAKER approaches CITIZEN, takes him aside)

LAWMAKER BAKER: Look, good CITIZEN, if you propose a law that puts law-proposing power back into our hands, I’ll propose a law giving you amnesty to our bathroom.

CITIZEN: Is that the law I was supposed to propose? It doesn’t seem in my best interests.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Do you want to use the bathroom or not?

CITIZEN: Fine, fine.

(They break their huddle)

CITIZEN: I propose a new law eliminating the law that eliminated the power of law proposal by the uh…who are you?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: The Lawmakers of the White Tower.

CITIZEN: The Lawmakers of the White Tower. All for?

A & LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea!

CITIZEN: All opposed?

(Silence)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Good work, CITIZEN. (LAWMAKER ADAMS scratches out the law)

LAWMAKER BAKER: Well done.

CITIZEN: Your turn.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Oh, yes. I propose a law that temporarily annexes the bathroom of the White Tower as public property.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: What? That’s madness!

LAWMAKER BAKER: All opposed?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Nay!

LAWMAKER BAKER: All for?

CITIZEN: Yea!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: You don’t get a vote. The law does not pass.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Sorry.

CITIZEN: What? You mean to say-

LAWMAKER ADAMS: You abdicated your power without considering the consequences. That’s what you get for being a hedonistic, uneducated idiot.

LAWMAKER BAKER: I tried my best.

CITIZEN: This is an outrage!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Probably.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Certainly.

CITIZEN: I propose-

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Uh, what are you doing? You gave up that power.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Don’t you trust us to make laws in your best interest?

CITIZEN: If you won’t let me use the bathroom, then I’ll just go in the streets.

(CITIZEN starts to leave, LAWMAKER ADAMS & LAWMAKER BAKER say their next lines very quickly)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I propose a new law: Public urination or defecation is punishable by death. All for?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All opposed? The law passes.

CITIZEN: Come on!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: We do what is right for our great society.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Here, Here.

(As LAWMAKER ADAMS & LAWMAKER BAKER deliver their next few lines to one another, CITIZEN undoes his belt and squats)

LAWMAKER BAKER: Didn’t you say you couldn’t condone any law that inflicted bodily harm on CITIZENs earlier?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Well, that was before I met one.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Good point. This has been a rather busy day for us, hasn’t it?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Yes, it has. I was thinking about proposing another pay-raise law. How do you think you’d vote?

LAWMAKER BAKER: It would apply to me as well, right?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Yes, of course, of course- What are you doing?

CITIZEN: Engaging in civil disobedience

LAWMAKER ADAMS: You can’t do that here! It’s against the law!

LAWMAKER BAKER: Are you certain? I don’t recall ever proposing a law that specifically banned defecation in the sacred hall of the White Tower.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: We just passed it.

CITIZEN: (grunts)

LAWMAKER BAKER: No, that banned urination and defecation in public.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: This is a public space!

CITIZEN: You specifically said this wasn’t a public space.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Actually, we just stated that we didn’t have a public restroom.

CITIZEN: That suggests that the space is private.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: It’s implied, yes- Oh! That means you are trespassing!

LAWMAKER BAKER: What’s the penalty for trespassing?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I’m not sure. Check the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS.

CITIZEN: Well be quick about it, I’m not sure if I can handle the suspense.

LAWMAKER BAKER: (checking book) I’m not sure we’ve proposed a law addressing penalties for trespassing.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: I propose a new law: The penalty for trespassing is public humiliation!

CITIZEN: This whole process has been rather humiliating- I’d argue I’m being punished as I commit the crime.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: You stay out of this! All for the new law?

(Silence)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Are you serious?

LAWMAKER BAKER: He has a valid point.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Who’s side are you on?

LAWMAKER BAKER: The people’s, theoretically.

CITIZEN: Thanks, man.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Well, the people as an abstract, at least.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All opposed?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Nay!

CITIZEN: So, I’m currently being punished for a crime that doesn’t exist?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: What? No!

LAWMAKER BAKER: It does seem that way.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Look, fine, you can use the bathroom.

CITIZEN: Finally.

(CITIZEN stops squatting and walks backstage)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: This is becoming a circus.

LAWMAKER BAKER: We could empower The CITIZEN to vote on laws but deny him the power to propose laws. Then The CITIZEN might feel like they have a say, without abdicating any real power to him.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: What purpose would that serve?

LAWMAKER BAKER: It seems nice. He might be less likely to defecate on the sacred floors of the White Tower.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Good idea. I propose we allow The CITIZEN to vote on new law proposals. All for?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All opposed? The law passes. Record it in the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS.

(B scrawls in the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS)

LAWMAKER ADAMS: We have done this great society a powerful service.

(CITIZEN returns)

CITIZEN: Thanks.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Good news, CITIZEN! We have empowered you to vote on laws.

CITIZEN: I propose-

LAWMAKER ADAMS: We did not empower you with the power to propose laws. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Sorry.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Where were we? Ah, yes. I propose a new law that doubles the wages of the Lawmakers of the White Tower!

CITIZEN: Wait, does that include me?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Of course not. All for?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All opposed ?

CITIZEN: Nay!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: What? What are you doing?

CITIZEN: Why would I vote for a wage increase for you two?

LAWMAKER BAKER: He has a valid point.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Have we not demonstrated we have your best interests in mind?

CITIZEN: No, not really.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Again, a valid point.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Hedonist!

LAWMAKER BAKER: Let’s not be rash.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: How could we convince you to vote for the proposed law?

CITIZEN: Well, you could cut me in.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Make you a lawmaker?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Scandalous- but fair.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Fine. I propose a new law that makes The CITIZEN a lawmaker, with voting and proposal powers. All for?

CITIZEN&LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea!

LAWMAKER ADAMS: All opposed? The law passes. Transcribe it in the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Welcome aboard.

CITIZEN: Thanks. I propose a new law.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: We haven’t passed the pay raise law.

CITIZEN: I know. I propose a new law, that anyone who votes against this law proposal remains a lawmaker, while those that vote for it lose their lawmaker status- additionally, if this law fails to pass everyone who voted on this proposal lose their lawmaker status.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Wait, what?

LAWMAKER BAKER: That’s confusing.

CITIZEN: All against?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Wait, I’m not sure I understand.

CITIZEN: All against?

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Uh, Nay!

CITIZEN: All for?

(CITIZEN looks at LAWMAKER BAKER)

LAWMAKER BAKER: Abstain.

CITIZEN: Abstain. The vote fails.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Transcribe it in the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Wait, wait. The law failed to pass.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Right, so everyone who voted loses their lawmaker status.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: That can’t be right.

CITIZEN: Emergency proposal. Does the previous law pass?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea.

CITIZEN: Yea.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Nay!

LAWMAKER BAKER: The law passes. Transcribe it in the SACRED BOOK OF LAWS.

CITIZEN: This, over here? The thing with all the scribbled out stuff?

LAWMAKER BAKER: That’s the one.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: This is an outrage! If the proposal passed and you voted on it, you lose your position as lawmakers!

LAWMAKER BAKER: We didn’t vote on it.

CITIZEN: We voted on an emergency proposal to pass a previous proposal.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: This is an outrage! I propose-

LAWMAKER BAKER: You no longer have the power to propose laws.

CITIZEN: In fact, I’m pretty sure you are trespassing.

LAWMAKER BAKER: Here, Here.

LAWMAKER ADAMS: Outrage! Hedonists!

CITIZEN: Please show yourself out.

(LAWMAKER ADAMS leaves in a huff)

CITIZEN: I propose a pay-raise for the Lawmakers of the White Tower. All for?

LAWMAKER BAKER: Yea!

CITIZEN: Transcribe it in THE SACRED BOOK OF LAWS.

(LIGHTS OUT)

Encyclopedia Show AZ: Invasive Species

Last night I had the pleasure of showing a few dozen college students giant pictures of wasp larvae bursting from the body of an adorable and helpless baby caterpillar. This was in the context of a lecture for the Encyclopedia Show AZ, but none the less I found the event personally edifying. Filling the Empty Space, a small black box operated by ASU, with a huge glowing projection of a female Costa Rican wasp injecting an orb-spider with her eggs reminded me of why I initially became attracted to performance.

It isn’t the power to shock or disgust (though both these lesser pleasures are endearing to me) but the magical bubble that surrounds all works of performance — the audience is both at your mercy and in your care. I did my best to fill them with obscure and obtuse knowledge about parasites and mind control while alternately disarming and disturbing. I hope they enjoyed themselves.More importantly, I had the unexpected pleasure of sharing the stage with Jack Evans, a storied and skilled poet from Phoenix. While I am not personally acquainted with Jack, I have always taken delight in seeing him perform. He has a whimsical puckishness that his demeanor belies, and is unafraid to experiment. I recall with some fondness a showing of Murnau’s “Faust” presented as a multidisciplinary display of dance, poetry, and music that featured Jack reading over the silent film while the RPM Orchestra played their particular brand of noir-noise-score. The experience of incidentally opening for Jack Evans reminded me that Phoenix is a unique sort of metroplex — one can share space with giants if one possesses only the commitment to simply show up.

The Haunting of Eight Oaks

Ambrose was beginning to feel stifled by the coziness of the parlor. Reclined uncomfortably in an overstuffed rosewood sofa, Ambrose sighed deeply. The air was thick with the smell of old cigar smoke. He felt like he was practically marinating in it. The wooden mantel clock ticked away unceremoniously, and Ambrose rested his head in his hands. After what seemed like ages, Ambrose’s reverie was broken.

Sorry to have kept you waiting, my boy.”

Ambrose looked up from his hands quickly, setting himself in as dignified a manner as possible. Before him stood a man easily six feet tall in a chestnut-colored coat and dark trousers, possessed of a stately beard and slick black hair. Ambrose rose and extended his hand.

Ambrose Monroe, sir.” The older gentleman took Ambrose’s hand in a firm handshake. The heady smell of cigars nearly crippled Ambrose’s senses.

Colonel Landon Davis, my boy.” The Colonel released Ambrose’s hand and casually inspected him. “So, you’re the one whose come to teach my daughter. You’re younger than I expected- but you come highly recommended. Is this your first time in Louisiana?”

Ambrose nodded nervously. The Colonel eyed him carefully, and spoke again.

My daughter is a headstrong girl, as her mother was. Do you care for a cigar, Mr. Monroe?” The Colonel motioned to a small box set alongside a pristine crystal decanter on a mahogany table. Ambrose shook his head.

I appreciate the offer, sir, but I must politely decline. You mentioned the girl’s mother?”

The Colonel turned towards the window as if to look out it, though the heavy curtains were drawn. Ambrose noticed a weight descending on the Colonel’s brow. It seemed to Ambrose that he was struggling to remember something, but his expression quickly passed back into stern formality.

Sadly, she’s passed. Drowned. A terrible accident.”

My condolences, Colonel. Was it long ago?”

The Colonel made his pained expression once more, and Ambrose immediately felt foolish for pressing the matter.

It was long ago, and yet not. The serenity of our home at Eight Oaks can play strange tricks of time on you.” The Colonel looked back at Ambrose, his face reassembled in a mask of sternness. “You are the inquisitive type, I see. I suppose it will be a good influence on my daughter.”

From somewhere in the manor a sudden cry went up, and Ambrose felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up at the shrillness of it. The Colonel looked unfazed.

Speak of the Devil — If you’ll excuse me a moment, Mr. Monroe.” The Colonel affected a crisp bow and exited swiftly, the lingering smell of cigar smoke hanging in the room behind him. Ambrose stood in silence a moment, waiting for the hackles on his neck to relax and for the Colonel to return. From somewhere nearby, he could hear muttering voices, muted as if on the other side of a wall.

Drowned her, though it was never proven…

Ambrose looked around the room in surprise. Ambrose shook his head and pressed his fingers to his brow. The trip to Louisiana had been long and tiring, and he suspected his mind was beginning to play tricks on him. It felt as though he had been sitting in the parlor for ages. Just as he was turning to check the mantel clock, a woman’s voice echoed from somewhere down the hall.

Ambrose.”

Startled, Ambrose leaned out the door of the parlor and looked down the long hall adjoining it. An door down the hallway lay wide open, and the voice spoke again.

My Ambrose.”

Ambrose felt a strange recollection – for a moment he almost recognized the voice, though he could not place it with any certainty. As if drawn by invisible hands, he walked down the hall against his better judgment and sense of propriety. Muttered voices seemed to coalesce and dissipate around him, and he thought for a moment he could hear a Yankee woman speaking softly.

Rumored to have had an affair with their daughter’s tutor…

Ambrose reached the door and peered inside. A small bedroom decorated with heavy curtains and a modest bed was illuminated by a hurricane lamp on the bedside table. Ambrose looked about, but saw no one. Drawn by curiosity, he stepped inside and walked towards the bed.

My sweet Ambrose.”

Ambrose turned sharply to the sound of the woman’s voice in the room. Before him stood a beautiful middle-aged woman in lavish spreading skirts. Her beauty was arresting, and her crisp emerald eyes seemed to look right through him. His body move towards her as if of its own volition, guided by a force unseen. Before he knew what was happening, he felt himself locked in an embrace with her. His lips moved as if remembering something long held in a fugue at the tip of the tongue.

Olivia, my love.”

Her lips were cool against his as they kissed for what seemed like time immeasurable. The woman whose name he somehow knew to be Olivia smelled of lavender spiked with the smell of cigar smoke. There was something beautiful and painful welling in his chest, and he struggled to place its familiarity right until the moment that the Colonel spoke.

Lost, Mr. Monroe?”

Ambrose snapped to attention and spun to face the Colonel, who was leaning against the frame of the door with an expression of mild bemusement. He caught his breath and struggled to speak, making a small sound of fear in his throat.

Colonel, I…”

I see you’ve found the room you’ll be staying in, Mr. Monroe. I hope it suits your preferences?”

Ambrose turned his head sharply to where Olivia stood, but there was no one there. He turned back to the Colonel, whose bemusement was slowly shifting to impatience. Ambrose croaked a response.

Yes. It’s very lavish, thank you. May I ask what that cry was all about?”

The Colonel looked at Ambrose as if he were mad.

What cry, boy? Have you been sneaking into my private spirits?”

Ambrose went flush in the cheeks. “No, sir. I would never dream of such an impropriety.”

A woman’s gentle laughter resounded from the hall, though neither Ambrose nor the Colonel took any note of it. The Colonel stepped out of the doorway and Ambrose followed him, looking back into the room in confusion. The scent of lavender clung to his lapels. The Colonel motioned to a door across the hall with barely-concealed pride.

Only the finest amenities are to be found here at Eight Oaks, Mr. Monroe.” The Colonel turned to face him, indicating the door. As he spoke, Ambrose felt as though the Colonel’s voice reverberated with a distant one in chorus. “Indoor running water, and indoor facilities.”

While Ambrose was certainly impressed by the rare and luxurious existence of an indoor privy, he couldn’t shake the encounter he’d just had, nor could he account for the Colonel’s casual manner. The distant voices rose softly again, and Ambrose suddenly felt as though he were moving within a crowd of muttering strangers.

…After doing so to the tutor. No one really knows, but we all enjoy a little speculation…

Colonel Davis, forgive me if I seem dull for asking, but you mentioned your wife…” The Colonel interrupted Ambrose with a brusk laugh and clapped one mammoth hand on his shoulder.

Where are my manners? Of course, Mr. Monroe, let me introduce you to my wife and daughter.” The Colonel turned Ambrose down the hallway. At the end of the long stretch of hallway stood two women, one lovely and young and the other beautiful and in her prime. Both wore spreading skirts but Ambrose barely noticed it – from all the way down the hall the emerald eyes of Mrs. Davis captured him, and as he walked with the Colonel it felt as if he might drown in the turbulent tides of her inviting gaze. As he approached, Ambrose felt a distant recognition but struggled to place from when and where.

Mr. Monroe, my daughter, Chloe.”

Ambrose broke his gaze and faced the younger girl, but he could hardly see her through the haze of Mrs. Davis’ presence. He smiled politely and she curtsied in response. He vaguely recalled the sound of her crying out earlier and the Colonel’s egress to find her, but made no note of it. He quickly turned to face Mrs. Davis.

And my wife, Olivia.”

Mrs. Davis offered one gloved hand to Ambrose, who took it politely. He could feel the warmth of her body, alive and thrumming, through the gentle fabric of her white glove. “A pleasure, Mr. Monroe. We are all quite thrilled to have an educated man from Pennsylvania staying with us.”

Ambrose spoke, and the words left his lips as if in a dream.

The pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Davis.”

A silence descended upon the group, and from somewhere nearby, voices rose up, muffled as if behind walls, and the sound of their conversation passed through the Ambrose and the Davis family – though if any of them heard it, none made indication of its passing.

I’ve heard rumors that Eight Oaks is haunted.”

Melanie Pearl turned to face the group of tourists as she led them down the long central hallway of Eight Oaks and laughed gently. The young woman who mentioned the local legend smiled timidly. Melanie addressed her with the polite dismissal only tour guides have ever truly mastered.

That’s a legend we here at Eight Oaks often hear. The owners in the late mid-nineteenth century were the Davis family, and Colonel Davis’ wife is rumored to have had an affair with their daughter’s tutor. It’s also said that Colonel Davis drowned her, though it was never proven and there are no records to indicate any such foul play.”

Melanie walked slowly backwards as the group of a dozen tourists admired a crystal decanter on a table in the hallway. She forced her smile to remain rigid and polite.

It’s also said that Colonel Davis shot himself after finding out, after doing so to the tutor. No one really knows, but we all enjoy a little speculation. Here, however, is something of real interest, a unique rarity in the antebellum south; Indoor running water, and indoor facilities.” Melanie deftly changed the subject, as she was trained to do, and indicated the door of the bathroom. The tourists made impressed noises. She continued down the hallway into the parlor, still decorated in the style of the time it was built.

Here is the parlor, where guests would have been received. As you can see, the curators of Eight Oaks have done a brilliant job of maintaining the décor in a period-accurate style.” A two-backed sofa sat, empty, in the corner of the room. The tourists spread out to admire the artifacts of a past age, all but forgetting any mention of hauntings. The young woman who had addressed Melanie in the hall sneezed abruptly, then stifled another sneeze, and another. Melanie smiled as politely as she could manage. The woman approached her, sniffling slightly.

Miss…” the woman searched to recall Melanie’s name. Melanie indicated her name tag.

Ah, Miss Melanie? Why does everything smell like cigar smoke?”

The Treasure of the Arama Maru

It had taken a tremendous effort to get Ms. Amy Bierce to leave her beloved seaplane, The Osprey, unattended on the turquoise waters of Lake Titicaca. Her argument for staying with the plane was that someone might steal or damage it, which Howard had assured her was not only unlikely but somewhat preposterous.

“The people of Puna are not savages, Ms. Bierce. They’ve had a railway some six decades now – since 1870, if I’m not mistaken. Furthermore, should someone decide to steal your seaplane, I sincerely doubt that they would have the technical training to get it up in the air.”

“Her,” Amy responded, chewing her gum menacingly.

“I beg your pardon?” Howard did not look up from the map he was consulting, which depicted the 16 kilometer journey south to a location marked “Arama Maru” as a line drawn in blue pen across a field of green. He squinted against the brightness of the newly risen sun and adjusted his wool scarf. He had not expected the high plains of Peru to be so cold in the summer.

“The Osprey ain’t an ‘it,’ Professor. She’s a lady. It’d be in your best interests to call her by her rightful name if you plan on leaving South America after this little bug-hunt of yours. ” Amy slowly blew a large pink bubble with her gum and deflated it. Her cheeks were flush from the early morning chill and nearly matched hue of her brilliant red hair.

“Yes, quite – give The Osprey my sincerest apologies.” Howard pushed his glasses up his nose and looked up at the Quechua boy he’d sent to bring them pack animals, who was just now arriving with two llamas and a satisfied grin. Howard took the llamas by their leads and paid the boy in four crisp 5-sole bills.

Solpayki, Urpichay sonqoy, Howard thanked the boy as he ran off. Amy eyed the llamas warily, and chose this moment to offer up her second argument for staying with the plane.

“I have about as much interest in riding those things as I do in slogging through the Andes to help you capture bugs,” Amy said. Her llama, shaggy and roan colored, thoughtfully chewed its cud and stared back at her. Amy swallowed her gum.

“I must again insist that you cease referring to all insects as ‘bugs,’ my dear. Based on what I’ve gathered from local legend, I believe the insects we seek are not members of the ‘true bug’ order Hemiptera at all, but are more likely to be members of the Coleoptera family,he said. “As a counterargument to your dogged determination to stay with the plane, I submit the following – I’m only contractually obligated to pay you the full week’s wages if you accompany me to the Arama Maru. You agreed to keep me safe the entire trip.”

“Fine, but call me ‘my dear’ one more time and I’ll shoot you.” Amy pushed back her bomber jacket and placed her hands on her hips, revealing the matte black Colt revolver at her side.

“Duly noted, Ms. Bierce. Now, if you’re done threatening me, it’s best we set off while the day is still young.”

Within the hour, they had loaded the llamas with water and supplies for the trip. When they finally left the town of Puna, the sun was shining warmly and each distant little island on the lake seemed to glimmer like a jewel. As they led their llamas down from the high plain where Puna was seated, the landscape quickly gave way to the lush valleys of the Andes. Howard grew quiet as he struggled with the map, and hours passed before either of them spoke.

“So,” Amy said, “what makes you think you’ll find anything at this Arma Mara place, anyway?”

“It’s the Arama Maru, Ms. Bierce. To answer your question, the local legends claim there have been what people describe as balls of blue light creeping about the walls of Arama Maru, which my research suggests may be a bio-luminescent subterranean insect.”

“Or ghosts,” Amy said.

Howard adjusted the weight of the satchel that hung at his side. “I sincerely doubt there will be any ghosts.”

Amy shrugged and gently tugged on the lead for her llama, who was gently navigating the rocky valley floor. The incline downhill was getting steeper.

“What is this place, exactly? A temple or something?” Amy asked.

“Honestly, I have no idea. I’m an entomologist, not an archaeologist. My interest is less historical and more biological, but my research indicates the site was believed by the ancient Inca to be a ‘gateway to the gods.’ Realistically, it seems more likely that it is a subterranean storage for…” Howard caught himself, and went silent. Amy perked up considerably.

“For what?”

Howard flinched and collected himself. From what he had gathered of the lovely Ms. Bierce on the flight into Peru, her interests were less scientific and more fiscal. He surmised there was no use in hiding the possibility from her.

“Well, it is a matter of historical record that the Incas were rather fond of hiding their treasures in subterranean tunnels.”

Amy moved so quickly to Howard’s side that her llama stumbled to keep up with the pressure on its lead. Howard kept his eyes on the meager trail headed southwest as she maneuvered into his field of vision.

“Treasure? You never said anything about lost Inca treasure, Professor. Are you trying to chisel me here?” Amy leveled her gem-green eyes directly at Howard and he stopped abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that his llama failed to stop walking and bumped into him just hard enough to thrust him forcefully into Amy. The impact caught them both off guard, and they lost their grips on the leads as well as their footing. They tumbled awkwardly down the grassy valley floor, rolling over one another several times on the way down the hill. When they finally did come to a stop, Amy was entangled in Howard’s scarf and Howard was entangled in a mix of joy, injury, and embarrassment. The llamas looked down on pair with stoic indifference. Gasping for breath, Howard was the first one to speak.

“Are you alright, my dear?”

In one fluid motion, Amy shot bolt upright, disengaged herself from Howard’s scarf, snapped her pistol from her waist and pressed the barrel into the tip of Howard’s nose.

“I told you to stop calling me ‘dear,’ didn’t I?” she growled. Howard’s eyes widened considerably and he threw his hands up. They locked in this position for several seconds, until Howard wordlessly gestured with one finger past Amy and made a small, helpless noise. Amy hesitantly looked over her shoulder, never taking the gun off Howard.

Behind her, the face of a great stone hill rose up some twenty feet or more. The hill’s escarpment was perfectly smooth, with one exception. Cut into the center of it and surrounded by veils of flowing vines was a t-shaped alcove tall enough for a man to stand in. The late afternoon sun cast a golden sheen over the smooth red stone. Amy gasped softly and lowered her revolver, much to Howard’s relief.

“I believe this is the place,” he said.

Howard stood and reverently approached the structure, the creeping undergrowth crunching under his careful footsteps. Amy blinked away her awe and climbed up to where the llamas stood listlessly chewing their cud and led them down to the valley floor. As the animals walked over the mossy ground, she sensed their uneasiness. She shared their hesitancy. Howard looked back at them and motioned with an open hand to her as he stepped forward.

“Come, Ms. Bierce, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Amy stepped forward just as Howard plunged out of view, crashing through the vegetation and revealing a dark entrance below-ground. The brown llama made a shrill noise of alarm and Amy rushed over to peer into the hole.

“Howard! Are you alright?”

Just five feet below, Howard was getting back to his feet and brushing himself off. He pushed his glasses back into position and looked up at her, a wide grin spreading across his face.

“Coming, Ms. Bierce?”

Amy laughed brightly, stood and tied the llamas loosely to a nearby tree. She lowered herself down the rugged stones that lined the pit and reached Howard’s side just as he pulled flashlight from his pack. He switched it on and the beam illuminated a dusty stone hallway heading back further than the light could reach. Amy nudged him slightly, and her voice echoed down the hallway.

“There aren’t going to be any booby traps or anything, right? I didn’t sign up to deal with any booby traps.” Howard had already begun to walk down the hallway, and he laughed gently.

“Ms. Bierce, I do believe you have been reading far too many pulp novels. No matter how fine Inca engineering may have been, everything here has been left without custodial maintenance for several millennia. The odds that there are any traps set to ward off interlopers is miniscule as best.”

As they proceeded through the cool dark corridors of the subterranean tunnels, it seemed to Howard that the grade of the tunnel was bringing them upwards towards the surface with every step. As they walked, he pointed his flashlight at various patterns on the wall and made small sounds of affirmation. Amy kept close behind, watching him survey the tunnel walls. Shapes reminiscent of spiders or insects danced in the narrow spear cast by Howard’s flashlight. Howard stopped abruptly when the beam revealed a tight grouping of several distinct holes in the wall. He nodded sagely.

“See this? Surely you assume these to be a primitive crossbow trap or other such rubbish, but it is far more likely that these were cut to allow fresh air to flow into the lower levels of the shrine.” Howard stepped forward as he spoke, and laughed. “Traps, indeed.”

As he placed one foot in front of him, something clicked. From somewhere above and nearby, an unknown mechanism stirred for the first time in centuries.

“Oh, my.”

A great stone tablet wrenched free of the ceiling and crashed down several feet to Howard’s left. Guttural groaning noises issued from the bowels of the structure. Howard looked at the man-sized slab of stone in shock.

“Howard!” Amy tackled him with enough force to throw him to the ground just as another slab of stone fell from the roof. The pair staggered to their feet as the ceiling of the tunnel began to collapse behind them.

“Run, Amy!”

As they sprinted down the tunnel, the walls and ceiling seemed to unravel. Huge slabs of stone crashed down, throwing clouds of dust in spirals that were momentarily illuminated by the bobbing circle cast by Howard’s flashlight.

“You said no traps!” Amy shouted as she dodged a falling tile that cracked the stone floor as it crashed down. As they fled down the hallway, a familiar series of holes in the walls issued a spasm of darts. Howard twisted awkwardly to avoid them.

“I seemed to be mistaken, Ms. Bierce!” The tunnel swerved left and then right, and the crashing of stones gradually came to a stop. Howard and Amy came to a stop, winded. The tunnel behind them was sealed with debris, and the flashlight barely illuminated the way before them through the cloud of settling dust. Howard turned to face Amy.

“Are you alight, Ms. Bierce?”

“We could have died, you putz!” Amy shouted between gulps air.

“Yes, that’s true. My apologies,” Howard said between spasmodic coughs. Amy gasped, and pointed past him.

“Howard, look.”

About twenty feet beyond a curtain of slowly settling dust, the tunnel opened up into a wide chamber. At the light’s edge, an azure blue haze dimly illuminated the room with a dream-like quality. As Howard slowly advanced into the chamber, he pulled his insect collection kit from his satchel and stepped forward.

Crawling across the stone walls of the open chamber were countless orbs of phosphorescent light. Each one shuddered and skittered as Howard moved slowly forward. Amy stepped into the chamber behind him, and caught her breath. Only a single column of silvery sunlight penetrated the room through a hole in the ceiling, and when Howard flicked off his flashlight, the walls pulsed with a dim glow. He slowly unscrewed the cap of an insect collection jar and approached a lone orb of light. It moved a few inches across the wall as he approached, but in one quick movement he swept it into the jar and clamped the perforated lid down. Inside the jar, a blue beetle crawled aimlessly, pulsing bright blue light from two spots on the back of its carapace. With scientific precision, Howard collected three more specimens, placing each jar gently into his satchel.

Amy finally managed to whisper, “They’re beautiful.” After safely stowing the insects, Howard allowed himself a deep breath. The beetles pulsed gently as Amy approached him. “Are they worth anything?”

“Oh, yes, Ms. Bierce. Fame and recognition throughout the entire world of entomology.”

“Good, because I don’t see any gold down here.” Amy sighed dejectedly, then looked up to the low lying ceiling. “Can we get out this way?” She motioned towards the manhole-sized gap in the ceiling. Howard looked about the room, then climbed on a rectangular stone dais. He motioned for Amy’s to come closer.

“I’ll boost you up,” he said, offering his linked hands for her to stand on.

Howard boosted Amy up to the ceiling. She scrambled through the hole, then turned and offered her hands to him. He passed up his satchel first, eliciting a sigh from her. With some effort, Howard squeezed through the hole and they found themselves atop a great stony hill, looking across the valley they had passed through. In the distance, Amy could make out the shape of two indifferent llamas. The sun was just beginning to set, casting amethyst and gold waves across the sky as the pair gently climbed downhill.

When they finally reached the llamas, the cool night of the Andean summer was creeping upon them. They set up camp, and in the flickering campfire light Howard inspected the jarred specimens.

“They’re beautiful. What are you going to call them?” Amy asked. Howard gave them a long look, then smiled at Amy.

“I was thinking Coleoptera Biercei. Or, to the layman – Bierce’s Beetle.

Amy smiled and leaned in close to Howard, her eyes glimmering like emeralds in the firelight. She pressed the cool barrel of her gun to his chin and whispered.

“Just pay me, Professor.”