Max Sets Forth to Kill God (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

The hardest part of that whole night is the show.

One quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower is a jumbled ruin. Claire’s scalp won’t stop bleeding even though she’s used a Sesame Street bandaid. Broderick is coughing and coughing because he’s allergic to disaster.

Nobody’s seen Sid, Mr. Schiff, or Rahu.

Martin says that the imago’s fallen—that when the tower started shaking, she just canted over and fell into a giant hole in the floor.

Max’s room is a wreck and his nerves are a jangle.

And amidst all this they must put on a performance of Hamlet 2: The Arrows of Fate, to be broadcast from the tower to a hypothetical audience outside the boundaries of the world.

“Why?” says Max.

Martin looks at him blankly.

“Dude,” Martin says, “haven’t you ever watched that play and said, ‘How can anyone possibly make a sequel?'”

Martin’s got a crushed pinky, which makes him substantially better off than Max in the current wounds department.

“The machinery’s barely even working!” protests Max.

Martin twists his hands into various positions, thinking. “You’re worried about Sid,” he says.

“Yes.”

Martin’s hair is all over masonry dust.

“Then try not being all freaky about hypothetical vivisections,” Martin says. “Sometimes you’ve got to torture somebody to death. Just look at Hell, or Guantanamo, or that old riddle about whether you’d rather torture one guy to death or let everyone in the world die. It happens.”

Max stares at Martin.

Martin looks back at him.

“It’s an inevitable byproduct of adequate force,” Martin explains.

So Max goes backstage and he helps Iphigenia unclog the pipes.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.

The Island of the Centipede

They dig Mr. Schiff out of the rubble a few hours after the play. He makes protesting noises because they have woken him up.

Before they find Sid or Rahu or the imago, Martin finds Max. Max is dragging a large tumbled stone out of the way of a blocked-off room.

Martin pulls himself up on a chunk of rubble. He sits there, watching Max for a minute.

“Do you trust me?” Martin says.

“No.”

“Here’s the thing,” Martin says. “I kind of accidentally wiggled a tectonic plate by giving the wrong person a fig newton.”

Max stops pulling.

He rubs sweat off his forehead.

“I don’t believe you,” says Max.

“Eh?”

Max shrugs.

Martin thinks.

“To the west,” Martin says, “the shock’s opened up a hole in the crust of the world and there’s a fountain of good rising from it.”

“Okay.”

“I need someone to deal with it,” Martin says.

“You’d think that we could leave it be.”

“It’s difficult to improve things once they get too good,” Martin says. “An actual singularity of virtue would render fixing the world impossible.”

“Also, unnecessary.”

“Why—?” Martin says.

Then he stops himself and thinks.

“Your logic is ancillary to an inherently limited perspective,” Martin dismisses.

“So to the west there is a goodblow,” Max says, “Like God breaking forth into the world to save us all from suffering. And you want me to go stop it.”

“Yes,” Martin says. “With extreme prejudice.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ridiculous,” says Max. “It’s fighting against what we want the most.”

“I can’t make you,” Martin admits.

Max goes back to work.

“You won’t find Sid,” Martin says.

Max stops.

“He is restless,” says Martin. “And despair is forbidden to him. He throws himself against the walls of his cage and sometimes they overcome him. He is absent from these moments in which it is too much to bear. He is scuttled from the world.”

“Oh,” says Max.

Martin drops down to his feet and strolls towards away.

“Wait,” says Max.

“Hm?”

“If I do it,” says Max, “you make Sid an is.”

“You ridiculous dolt,” says Martin.

He walks away.

Continuing from the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 )

It is June 2, 2004.

Max wakes up and he already knows what he has to do.

He goes down to the catamaran dock.

He looks off to the dark and brooding west.

And Jane is waiting on the grass to see him off. And she is looking at him with her brow furrowed in thought, and she says, “You’re here.”

Max nods.

“Is that okay?” he says.

Little girls tend to like emanations of absolute virtue, so you can see why he asked.

Jane laughs. “Noooo,” she says. “I don’t mean here, at the dock. I mean, here.”

She looks at him.

“You had bad things in your closet. Then Sid chased them away. Then you were King of the playground. Then you played basketball.”

She is being careful with these words. She is slow and deliberate, even with the easy words and simple things.

“Then you were brave and saved Mr. McGruder. Then you loved Sid. Then you saw another siggort and talked Sid into helping Ronald Reagan become President. Then you fought a King. Then you ran away. Then you read a book and afterwards you went to the place without recourse. Then you called Sid there. Then you got out but he didn’t. Then you came here to help him put on plays. Then you shot him and now you want to sail west.”

“Yes,” says Max.

He grins a little. “And what does that mean to you?” he asks.

“The world’s bright and spits up super beauty everywhere,” says Jane.

“Oh.”

“And so there are things that Max. That go Max. Like you. That is what it means.”

Max grins tiredly. It’s pretty shocking to himself, that he has what it takes to grin. But he does.

“Thanks,” he says.

Jane holds out a box. It’s like a cribbage box, but bigger, with a slide-open top.

“Here,” she says.

“What is it?” Max asks.

Jane begins giggling. Max watches in perplexity.

Finally, she stammers out, “Severance pay.”

There are more giggles.

“Ah,” he says.

He takes the box. He frowns at her. But he can’t keep frowning.

She’s smiling at him so brightly that he hugs her.

Then he sails to the west.

The Extinguishment of Karma (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The sea stretches out forever. On its surface the wind chases itself about. Great bulky clouds pile in the sky. To the west the sun burns yellow. Rahu shivers in Sid’s arms, stinking of blood and sweat.

Sid walks into the tower.

He casts about. He finds a room with a light on. He opens its door. In a room of shining wooden floorboards and creaky old chairs Mr. Schiff pushes back his chair and stands.

“What have you there?” says Mr. Schiff.

“Rahu,” says Sid.

“Set him down,” says Mr. Schiff.

The reflections of the ceiling light skitter away as Sid lays Rahu down upon the floor.

Mr. Schiff walks over. He squats beside Rahu. He studies him.

“It is rare,” says the geology teacher, “to see an evil planet skewered by a siggort spike, much less in pristine condition.”

He peels back one of Rahu’s eyelids, causing Rahu’s head to shift and roll a few inches upon the floor.

“He’s a planet?” Sid asks.

“Rahu is the mystery planet that occludes the sun and moon on the occasion of an eclipse,” says Mr. Schiff. “A thing-that-is-known explaining a certain body of evidence.”

He takes a clipping from one of Rahu’s nails and holds it up to the light.

“Naturally obsolete in the Newtonian model,” clarifies Mr. Schiff.

“He might be dying,” says Sid.

“Not this one,” says Mr. Schiff.

Rahu breathes harshly, eyes rolled back, mouth drooling against the floor.

“No?” Sid asks.

“He’s one of the demons who stole into the house of the sun and drank the elixir of immortality.” He looks up at Sid. “You don’t know that story?”

Sid stares at Mr. Schiff blankly.

Sid’s jaw is turning puffy where Rahu broke it.

Mr. Schiff pats Rahu down, then straightens his body and head out so that Rahu is laying more comfortably on the floor. “I’ll get a cot and a blanket for him,” Mr. Schiff says.

“How can anything be immortal?” Sid asks.

“Well, it can’t, I suppose,” says Mr. Schiff. “Everything arises from karma, and everything dies with the extinguishment of the karma that caused it to exist. But he’s tasted the amrit so he can’t really die to anything less.”

He pauses. He smiles fondly at the fingernail.

“And here I am with a sample of him.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

Mr. Schiff walks to the door and out, his feet ticking against the floor.

Sid watches Rahu.

The hands of the clock high on the wall turn.

After about fifteen minutes Mr. Schiff returns with a cot and some blankets. He starts to lift Rahu. Sid helps. Together they place Rahu on the cot and cover Rahu’s body with the blanket.

“How can anything be immortal?”

It’s like nothing’s changed in Sid’s head since he asked that question the first time.

Mr. Schiff looks up at him.

Suddenly Mr. Schiff is grinning wider than a geology teacher should grin, and there are shadows shifting everywhere in the room.

“When he drank the amrit, he achieved enlightenment,” says Mr. Schiff. “He became rival to the Buddha. He understood everything that is, was, and will be. But he was not free. He was chained by his karma. He said, ‘Before I claim my rightful place as lord of all things I must answer the suffering of Prajapati and atone for this theft of treasure from the sun.’

“The thundering of years did not dissuade him from this course.

“The severing of demons from the world could not dissuade him.

“He has hunted the sun and devoured it through the days of the Third Kingdom and the Fourth and not anyone who’s tried has ever stopped him in his course.

“He will not stop until such suffering as Prajapati’s is no longer possible, which even the Buddha did not achieve. He will not stop until he has expiated the crime of stealing elixir from the sun, which he cannot do, as that act will forever stain the world. He is immortal because he is not finished with these basic tasks that no creature can attempt.

“That is how Rahu is immortal.”

“Oh,” says Sid.

“But don’t be afraid,” says Mr. Schiff. “It is the nature of all karma to resolve itself given sufficient time in which to work. If it is not this year, then it may be next year; if it is not, then certainly before the passage of another three hundred trillion years.”

Sid shakes himself.

“Will you watch him?” Sid says.

“Why did you bring him here?” Mr. Schiff asks.

“I didn’t know what to do with him,” Sid says. “And I figured Martin would. But you’ll do just as well.”

It is June 1, 2004.

Sid returns to the balcony. He sits on the battlement. He’s quiet.

“Aren’t you a sight,” says Max.

Sid shrugs.

Sid looks about.

“Iphigenia?”

“She’s with Jane,” says Max.

“Did she see the spike?”

“I told her not to watch the fight. I said, you’d win, but not by any way that’s good for children to see. And then you did.”

Sid sighs.

“You okay?” says Max.

“No,” says Sid.

“No?”

“We go ’round and ’round,” says Sid, “and nothing ever changes.”

“Yeah,” acknowledges Max.

“You don’t have to be here,” Sid says.

His voice is taut. His throat is sore. It hurts to talk.

But Max ignores him.

“Didn’t ask you if I did,” Max says.

“You don’t even like it here.”

Max sighs.

“Just— let it go, Sid.”

It’s getting darker now. It’s moving on towards evening. Shadows swell across the sky.

“You weren’t worth it,” says Sid.

Max’s lips tighten.

“Don’t you get it? I waited, I waited, and you’re just some damn stupid— just—“

“Just?”

And suddenly Sid is empty and the air is cold and he says, limply, “I wasted my dreams on you.”

Max looks up.

He grins tiredly. It’s pretty shocking to himself, that he has what it takes to grin. But he does.

“You wanna go?” he says.

It’s not an invitation to leave.

It’s an invitation to fight.

And for a long moment it seems as if Sid doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And then for a long moment like Sid will hold back.

Then the siggort is off the battlement and his wheel of knives is spinning and his fist comes forward and it strikes Max’s head, thok.

(Easter) That Morning (III/V)

Hanging alone on the skyway, the lens Necessity flickers quietly.

It is made of melomid skin— the kind that sees the past and shapes the chaos, as distinct from that melomid skin that sets fire to the heavens or makes a fine pair of boots.

It is generally inclined to self-preservation: to act in defense of its individual identity. Yet it is chained by its nature as an object in the world to participate in the lives of others.

How can anything survive, torn by such fierce opposing pressures?

The third of three histories regarding the cracking of the lens.

Tonight, if all goes according to plan, the lens will assist in telling the final legend of Ink Catherly.

They had all agreed, in somber gathering:

“Her legend ends here.”

Jane was crying. That can happen when you are in the business of telling legends. But she nodded.

Mrs. Schiff was taking the minutes.

“Hell is inescapable,” she wrote. “That is the condition of the world. The flesh cannot aspire to the spirit. Gross meat cannot give rise to the divine fire. Questions remain unanswerable—”

Here she held the pencil’s eraser against the corner of her mouth and paused. Humor outpaced sorrow. Grinning inappropriately, she wrote, “And suffering insufferable.”

Mr. Schiff gave her a look.

So they decided in their cabal the fate of Ink Catherly— that horror to which she would be left until the reforging of the world.

And then they left the lens Necessity alone to contemplate the problem of Persephone.

“Anyway,” said the lens, “it’s just, I think that Meredith needs to think about the fallacy of independent existence, not the proper application of world-destroying power.”

“. . . I worry,” Jane admits.

“Hypocrite,” the lens whispers to itself.

To the unfinished history of Boedromion it turns; to view Persephone in her Underworld it turns.

A hairline fracture is born.

If Animals Had Elemental Powers

There would be parrots with water powers.

They would live under water.

They would make raucous noises like “Squawk! bubble bubble bubble! Squawk! bubble bubble bubble!

This would be very disconcerting for the sailors.

There would be burning tyrannosaurus rexes. They would not be extinct because their fire powers would allow them to survive K-T extinction events such as the one that killed all of the non-elemental dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The burning tyrannosaurus rexes would laugh and laugh as they rampaged through American cities but in turn people would laugh and laugh and laugh at their flaming stubby little hands.

It is actually possible that the flaming dinosaurs would not survive but it is definite that any tyrannosaurus rexes with K-T elemental powers would still be around, so, anyway.

There would be at least one Metallic Hopping Vampire. He’d be like a Hopping Vampire, only with powers over metal. That’d be so cool!

And there would be sharks who could jump twenty feet out of the water, hang there, and form bullets out of the wind to devastate their enemies. To hunt these sharks you would need a bigger boat. A bigger, bulletproof, flying boat. And lasers. And even then it would be a near thing.

There would be octopi who would assemble in eight-octopus teams using their aquatic telepathy. It is arguably not so good to be able to talk to fish when one is the King of Atlantis but it is very good when one is a fish and normally unable to communicate at all.

There would be koi with the ability to disrupt bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a terrible element but it is the element that koi get and the koi are not technically to blame for its presence in the traditional Chinese six-element cycle.

Who is to blame for that, anyway?

Bees. Bees are to blame for the traditional Chinese six-element cycle and also they sting people so Hitherby Dragons will not give them any elemental superpowers they do not already possess.

There would be elephants with special elemental ninja powers. For example there would be an elephant master of snow and ice. If you asked the other elephants who the coldest elephant ninja master is, they would invariably trumpet, douse you in water, and then indicate the snow elemental master. In addition there would be a shadow elephant—an umbral elephant, as it were—who could slip under your door and then manifest and charge you.

Charging shadow elephants are very scary even if you take away their credit cards because the phone book overflows with companies willing to extend shadowy elephant ninjas new lines of credit with no questions asked. They can even do it mid-confrontation, so that it might go like this:

“Ha ha,” laughs strong-jawed Buck Williams, brandishing the elephant’s credit card and thus preventing it from charging.

“Trumpet!” trumpets the shadowy elephant ineffectually.

Then the shadowy elephant spies one of many NO QUESTIONS ASKED credit card offers on the table next to the door where strong-jawed Buck Williams, son of Giorgi, keeps his unread mail.

Swiftly the elephant seizes it.

Swiftly the elephant mails it.

Then the elephant, oh so ungraciously, looks smug.

Buck’s eyes widen. In bullet-time, he turns and lunges for his elephant gun. He fills it with buck shot. He levels it. But it is too late.

“Trumpet!” trumpets the triumphant elephant.

He doesn’t ever pay for the charges. It’s a bad debt!

The elephant isn’t the last elemental animal we will examine. There are also earth beetles. These are beetles capable of burrowing through the dirt. Right through the earth! People can’t do that. We don’t have the requisite elemental mastery of earth, which is the problem.

Earth beetles are also good at throwing gigantic rocks at their enemies and at making clever balls out of dried dung.

“What a clever ball of dried dung!” one might praise, seeing them.

Such a compliment makes earth beetles puff up with pride!

Metallic Hopping Vampire would like to clarify that hopping vampires are not animals and so his hypothetical metal powers have nothing to do with the premise for this entry. Oops!

Finally there would be owls who fly around shooting lightning at things. One of them might try shooting lightning at a K-T-powered tyrannosaurus rex.

Bam! K-T extinction event!

That’d show those elemental-powered animals.

After a while, Martin says, “Today’s insight is apparently . . . not to taunt large predators that can cause K-T extinction events.”

Solemnly observes Jane: “People needed to know.”

Dispatches from the Age of Iron

GODZILLA
Destroy All Christmas
MELEE

Round 1!

Godzilla stomps on Seattle. CRUNCH!

Christmas stomps on Seattle. CRUNCH!

Interlude: Exposition!

Christmas manifests itself here as a large Christmas tree. It has two floating gloves for hands. There’s a blazing star on top. It has blinky lights for eyes.

This is only one body of Christmas: the kaiju body. But if Godzilla can destroy the kaiju, then Christmas cannot manifest again until the stars are right—December 25, 2005!

Round 2!

Christmas charges Godzilla. Christmas steps on a power up. SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS!

Christmas breathes the SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS on Godzilla!

Godzilla blocks!

Christmas breathes the SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS on Godzilla!

Godzilla falls over.

Christmas picks Godzilla up. Christmas spins Godzilla around. Christmas jumps into the air. A giant spiky metal ball, wrapped in wrapping paper and with a steel-fanged mouth, bursts up from the ground. It roars, “BROTHERLY LOVE CHRISTMAS SPIKY BALL PRESENT!” Christmas smashes Godzilla down onto the spiky metal ball.

Interlude: Exposition!

Godzilla is a large radioactive lizard. He breathes radioactive fire and hits things. He is an aspect of Shiva who fell to Earth in prehistoric times and now mostly sleeps in the ocean.

This is only one aspect of Shiva. But if Christmas can defeat Godzilla, then Shiva cannot destroy Seattle until the stars are right—December 25, 2005!

Round 3!

Godzilal roars!

Godzilla hits Christmas with his tail! Christmas staggers!

UFOs blast Christmas from above!

Christmas falls!

But is Christmas defeated? Or will it rise to crush Godzilla?

Exposition!

You can help save Christmas! Hold on to Christmas in your heart. Declare: “I know you can win, Christmas-sama!”

Or you can help save Godzilla! Hold on to Godzilla in your heart. Declare: “The power of a giant lizard knows no bounds!”

It’s going to take every one of you to decide this legendary battle! GO!

StalaCtites hang from the Ceiling

Mr. Schiff hits the ground hard.

There is dirt in his eyes. There is a swell of nothingness. He passes out.

When he wakes his body aches and his wrist is broken.

It was a single misstep, but a spelunker cannot afford missteps. Now he is in a hopeless place. Now he is buried forever in the caverns beneath Death Mountain.

StalaGmites grow from the Ground.

He fumbles for his flashlight. He turns it on. The rocks around him are gray and slick with bumps and mottles and veins of something sparkly. He plays the light upwards.

He is in an oubliette of stone. The ceiling is ten feet above him, with a narrow chimney leading from it towards safety. There are stalaGmites and stalaCtites but they do not allow him a way up.

And there is a stalaKpite.

StalaKpites love to Kill.

“I don’t want any trouble,” says Mr. Schiff.

He stares at the stalaKpite. He watches it warily. It does not move. Its serrated edges are cruel and its eyes are cold but it does not move.

After a time, he realizes that the stalaKpite is asleep.

“Oh,” he says. “Heh heh.”

StalaNthites love only Stalin.

He is bleeding onto the tiny, pebbly stalaNthites of the floor. He ignores them. He feels at his chest, his stomach, his neck; the wounds are too shallow to bother with, when other factors make him certain to die.

The stalaNthites ignore him. He has nothing to contribute to the Party. He is not a communist but he is not a threat to their dominion. He is simply Mr. Schiff.

StalADdites view Aaron with Disapproval.

“What am I going to do?” he asks.

He’s trying not to cry.

“I shouldn’t have spelunked below Death Mountain,” he says. “Nobody ever returns from Death Mountain. Not even Aaron, and Aaron was a god.”

There’s no real answer.

StalaLwites Love you forever.

He calms himself. He begins to play the light over the surfaces of his tomb. He is looking for something—anything—that could save him.

“I could make a ladder out of . . . stone,” he says.

It’s a feeble hope.

StalaMPvites enjoy Mashed Potatoes.

He is going through the list of rock formations in his head. He is muttering. “L for love. MP for mashed potatoes. R for rocket . . .”

There are no stalaRjites.

With a sudden shock of hope he says, “C for Climbing?”

But C is for stalaCtites. There are no Climbing stones. After a moment, Mr. Schiff laughs at himself, because that idea was just dumb.

His light comes to settle on a stalaAeite. Slowly, Mr. Schiff relaxes.

He sits back in the dark and begins to think, in the time he has remaining, of all the beautiful and wonderful things that in his life Mr. Schiff has known, and now and then the bitter ones.

StalaAeites bring you Acceptance.

“Sometimes geology sucks,” Mr. Schiff admits.

Containment

The candy man lives alone.

He lives in the house on the hill. It is surrounded by a great shadowy lawn, and around that lawn a gate of cold black steel.

Guards patrol the premises.

Every year Mr. Schiff pays off the local municipal and state authorities to make sure that nobody bothers the candy man.

1

The Candy Man

“He’s full of candy,” says Jane, conspiratorially.

“Huh?” Michael says.

“Full of it! Like, a giant sock full of chocolates in the shape of a man. And cherry candies and butterscotch.”

Jane and Michael are breaking into the candy man’s estate. It’s a rite of passage for kids in the city, breaking into the candy man’s estate. For most kids, the rite is actually getting caught trying to break into the candy man’s estate. But Jane’s as clever as three tacks and Michael’s not so bad, so they’ve actually made it onto the grounds.

“I don’t like candy much,” says Michael.

Jane laughs.

“It’s okay,” she says. “There’s more for me.”

This is a horror story, just so you know. It’s got a man made out of food and a bleak dark estate. So if Jane doesn’t act quite like herself, that’s the reason why.

Jane and Michael creep across the lawn.

There’s a camera whirling to track their movements. But Jane throws a handful of flour into the air.

“Huh,” says the guardsman who’s watching the camera. “I’ve seen that trick. She’s trying to spot someone invisible by their shape in the air—or their footprints.”

He starts scanning the cameras for someone invisible, and he never quite gets around to warning the house that Jane and Michael are on their way.

That’s exactly like Jane planned.

Later, there’s a Doberman growling at Jane from the topiary.

“Michael,” says Jane. “Doberman.”

Michael pulls out a gun. He points it at the Doberman. He says, “Freeze.”

The dog goes very still. It doesn’t want to get shot.

“Now,” says Michael. He squats down. He looks the dog in the eyes. “You attack us, maybe I get bitten, maybe you get shot, it’s no good for anybody. So maybe you’d just better be on your way, and pretend like you never saw us.”

The dog shakes itself vigorously. Then it makes a little gruff bark of acknowledgment.

“Good boy,” praises Michael.

He scruffles the dog’s head.

The dog skulks away. Nobody gets bitten. Nobody gets shot.

Finally, Jane’s reached the lower window of the house. She’s looking in. She can see the candyman sitting by the fireplace. He’s brooding and reading Vampire: the Requiem. Perhaps he is brooding because he is sad, or perhaps because the game has no mechanics for vampires made of candy.

“See?” says Jane. “See? He’s all lumpy with tasty treats!”

“He’s brooding,” says Michael. “Let’s just go. I hate breaking into angsty people’s homes.”

“He’s just lonely,” says Jane.

She knocks on the window.

In the room, the candy man rises. He turns his face towards the window. His face is like a man’s, but lumpier.

He walks to the window. He opens it. He blinks out at Jane.

“. . . yyes?”

“Please, sir,” says Jane. “Might I have some candy?”

There is an alarmed sound from inside. Someone is getting up from another chair—not a chair visible to the window, but a chair nevertheless. It is Mr. Schiff, the butler.

“No,” Mr. Schiff says.

Mr. Schiff is stiff and formal.

“The master does not give candy to intruding children,” he says.

The candy man opens his mouth. His marshmallow teeth shift about. He says, “But they seem kind,” he says.

“Your dear parents,” says Mr. Schiff, “may they rest in peace, did not make you to be fed to children, sir.

“I’m sorry,” says the candy man. “But I can’t feed you. You’ll have to go to the hole.”

So they do.

2

The Pinatas

Shelley and Sid could never have children.

Slowly over the years of their marriage Shelley grew wan and tired. Her eyes sank into dark circles. Sid grew brusque and distant. His stomach ulcerated.

Their love became a chain.

Then, 30 years ago last May, Sid found out that radiation leaking from one of his defective nuclear power plants had animated the pinatas in a nearby manufactory.

“They’re giant mutant pinatas now,” said Mr. Schiff.

“Contain them,” said Sid.

“Sir?”

“I want them locked up. I don’t want any evidence of it. Bury them in a hole and cover them over and burn the records of the plant.”

“As you wish, sir.”

And Sid retreated to his office, and there he drank for many a long night.

When he came home for the next time his eyes were clear and tired.

“Shelley,” he said, to his wife. “We will never have an heir of our flesh.”

And Shelley nodded.

“But we will make a tiny candy man,” said Sid. “And then nuclear radiation will bring him to life, and give him unnatural human size.”

“Is human size unnatural?” said Shelley, her brow pinching. But after a moment she understood.

They made the candy man, and life was happier for a time.

Then the pinatas got free somehow and found them.

Stomp! The pinatas crushed Shelley. Sid shouted, hoarse. He tried to run.

Stomp! The pinatas crushed Sid.

“Hey!” realized Sid, after a bit. “I’m surrounded by candy. This isn’t so bad.”

But he never said anything after that, not ever.

So it probably was.

3

Buried

Mr. Schiff takes Jane and Michael to the hole. It’s a hole in the ground covered with planks.

“Are we under arrest?” says Jane.

“Heavens,” says Mr. Schiff. “No.”

“Oh,” says Jane.

“Jolly good,” says Michael.

“You’re vanishing,” says Mr. Schiff.

Briskly he pulls aside the planks and then he shoves them in the hole.

This, Jane thinks to herself, would be an excellent time to scream.

Jane opens her mouth to scream. Then she realizes that while she was thinking she’s already fallen the whole way and landed on something soft and yielding.

“Huh?” Jane says.

She looks around. Michael is also there.

“You, too?” Jane says.

“Too much thinking,” Michael says.

Great fabric eyes blink at them.

“Hey,” Michael says, poking the softness on which they sit. “Pinata.”

Above them Mr. Schiff is putting the planks back in place, one by one. The light above is fading.

The pinata rumbles, “I am the last.”

“Pardon?”

“I am the last of the giant mutant pinatas to reside here,” it says. “I helped the others up, but they could not free me. It is because my leg is torn.”

“Oh,” says Jane. Then she blinks. “What?”

“If I leave this place,” says the pinata, “I will fall apart, delighting children everywhere with the river of candy that spills forth.”

“Heh,” says Michael.

“What?”

“People are scared of giant mutant pinatas,” Michael says. “You’re too adaptable. There’s too much of a risk that you’d displace humanity. No, children wouldn’t be delighted at you.

Jane’s eyes are very round as she contemplates the river of candy. She does not appear to have heard Michael’s speech.

“Alas,” sighs the pinata.

Then Jane snaps out of it. She shakes her head firmly. “We’ll help you,” she says. “We’ll fix your foot. Then you can burst out of here and free us!”

“No call to be lawless, child,” says Mr. Schiff, up above.

“It’s not lawless!” Jane protests.

Michael points out, “It’s got to be violating some kind of code.”

“Oh,” says Jane, deflated. Then she perks up. “But I’m naturally lawless!”

“It’s okay, Mr. Schiff,” says Michael. “We won’t help the pinata.”

But they do.

Late that night, when the sky is black and the moon is fuzzy white, the planks erupt away from the hole. There is the high-pitched shriek of a pinata on the hunt.

“I am the night,” says the candy man.

He is considering holding a live-action Vampire roleplaying game on his estate. He has already contacted a gaming association. He is practicing his roleplaying now, wearing a black cloak and a pale shirt and two fake fangs of white chocolate Hershey’s kisses.

“Fear me,” he rumbles. One hand gestures, indicating his use of a supernatural fear-inducing power.

The pinata does not fear him. The pinata squishes him. The candy man’s skin is the first to burst, and candies pour from him like insects from a corpse.

He falls, and the pinata moves on.

There is candy everywhere, and a copy of the gaming association’s bylaws fluttering half-open on the ground. Jane and Michael, the guards, and scattered children from the city gather over his empty flesh. They feast on his innards.

And Mr. Schiff is there—too late, for once, but there nevertheless.

“What is this?” he demands, through clenched teeth.

He flails his hands.

“Get away from that! That’s my dear departed master’s son!

Candy falls from Jane’s nerveless fingers. Mr. Schiff is terrifying when he flails his hands.

“But I said they could,” mumbles the vacant mouth of the candy man crushed. “When they found me. I said they could eat.”

Mr. Schiff’s eyes are flinty. He does not approve.

“Oh,” he bites out. “Oh, sir.”

Tantalus Looks for Work (1 of 1)

A handful of dust fell from his hand.
“This is a season of metal,” he said.

Tantalus walks into Burger Land. He knocks on Sharon’s door. At her signal, he enters. He says, “I would like to apply for a job here.”

“Do you have fast food experience, Mr. . . .”

“Tantalus.”

“Mr. Tantalus?”

“No.” He shakes his head.

Sharon looks around in her desk. She passes him a form. She says, “Fill this out, and we’ll check your references, and then you can come in again.”

Tantalus begins to fill out the form.

“It’s a funny name,” Sharon says. “It’s like that guy, what’s his name—”

“Tantalus?”

“Yeah. The guy who stood in a land of plenty, but had nothing to eat or drink.”

“Yes,” Tantalus says. “That was me.”

Sharon laughs nervously.

“It was everything that Burger Land is not,” Tantalus says. “This is a land where food and water flow freely.”

He passes the form across the desk. He looks apologetic.

“But I don’t have any references,” Tantalus says.

“That was really you? I mean, in Hell?”

“I cooked my son and served him to the gods,” Tantalus says, “so I spent roughly three thousand years starving in the Underworld. Now my sentence is up and I would like to become a productive member of society.”

Sharon’s face has gone curiously blank. There is a silence. Then she stands up. She indicates the door with a nod. “Not in Burger Land,” she says.

So he goes out.

Tantalus applies for work as a secretary.

“Can you take dictation?” asks Mr. Swenson.

“I cannot,” says Tantalus, “but I know the secret of the gods.”

“Right!” says Mr. Swenson. “Right! You’re that guy.”

Mr. Swenson leans in. He winks conspiratorially. “How did you get out?”

“A boy named Martin was leaving,” Tantalus says. “And he looked at me. And he reached out to me. And a handful of dust fell from his hand.”

“Was it important dust?”

“‘This is a season of metal,’ he said.”

Mr. Swenson grins. “You know,” he says, “there are a lot of old myths running around these days. You might not want to pull pranks like this, or someone might think you’re actually the real thing.”

“The real thing?”

“Well, Tantalus is kind of a distinctive name, you know? And it’s got this huge burden of guilt on it.”

“I have a huge burden of guilt,” Tantalus agrees.

“Get lost,” Mr. Swenson grins. He gestures towards the door. “But thanks for bringing a little humor to my day.”

Tantalus wanders out, and it’s the most beautiful city street he’s ever seen, because the cars that zip past don’t pull away when he reaches for them, and the trash bins he rummages in are full of food even when he touches them, and he can drink from the drinking fountains and quench his thirst. And the sidewalk is nearly always white, and not the color of dust; and the asphalt is nearly always black, except for the yellow and white in the middle, and not the color of dust; and the wind has been a bright and happy caress ever since it changed in April.

“I love this,” he says.

He is in one of the richest countries in the world, and he is terribly thin. He is mostly water, and he is very thirsty. There is usually a few days’ growth of beard on his face. His suit smells of Goodwill.

“I love this,” he says. “But starving to death would be a terrible irony.”

So he walks across the bridge, out across the sea of chaos, and to the door of a tower, and he knocks, and he says, “I’d like to apply for a job.”

“You can’t use the name Tantalus,” Mr. Schiff tells him. “No one would ever be able to suspend their disbelief.”

“It’s all right,” Tantalus says. “I’ll use the stage name Saul.”

King Cole

It’s 3975 years before the common era, and there isn’t any sun.

People back then are pretty much like they are in our day. They try to live good lives. They try to live happy lives. Sometimes these conflict.

Everybody back then hopes to go to Heaven when they die. But it’s not rightly the Heaven people talk about now. It’s not a Heaven of unity with God, or, leastaways, if it is, nobody says much about that side of it. It’s not a Heaven of perfect joy for those who do good deeds, which is another pretty popular concept of Heaven in the modern day. Maybe it relates to one of those two Heavens. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it don’t even intersect.

People don’t get into the old-time Heaven by faith or by good deeds. Those things might matter to a modern Heaven, but they don’t matter much back then.

3975 years before the common era, everybody has a gem. And they keep it with them always. That gem is their value and their virtue. And when they die they take their gem to the gates of Heaven, and they slam it down on the counter, and the guards give that gem a good long look. And if the gem is pure enough, and pretty enough, and big enough, and worth enough, the guards’ll let ’em in.

And if it’s not, why, no one’s really sure what happens to the lost soul then.

You can always know who’s better’n you, or who’s worse. You just have to take a gander at their gem. If it’s pretty big, if it’s pretty clear, if it’s just plain prettier than yours, then they’re better’n you. If it’s not, they’re not.

It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a curse. It’s just how it is, back then.

Now, Cole starts out just an ordinary guy, but the thing is, his gem’s the best. Not the biggest in the world, not the brightest in the world, but it’s clear as the sky on a perfect day. It’s full of glitters like the stars. It’s deep and it’s beautiful. It’s jaw-dropping, and everyone who sees it knows it.

So he says to his friend, “Hey. You should give me your gem.”

And his friend Saul doesn’t like this much, but he knows it’s the right thing to do. He does. ‘Cause you just have to look at Cole’s gem to know he’s always right.

So he does it. He gives Cole his gem. Now Cole’s got two.

And Cole says to his other friend, Mr. Schiff, “Hey. You should give me your gem.”

And Mr. Schiff does, ’cause Cole’s got more worth in his pocket right then than the Princes of the Sky.

And now Cole’s got a cluster, and he goes from place to place, and he takes the gem from everyone around.

People don’t want to give him their gems. But it’s pretty clear by now it’s right. Cole is more important than everyone else. He’s righter. He’s purer. He’s better. He’s the verr’ definition of good.

So people start sending him their gems without even being asked. They pour into his trove by the hundreds, by the thousands.

He’s King of the World, Cole is.

And he lives for a long time that way.

In thirty years, Cole’s got seven wives and he’s got three daughters. He’s got some male lovers too, ’cause Cole ain’t too particular when it comes to anatomy. He lives in a palace and it’s up on a hill and he sends his edicts out to the world.

And there’s no one in all the world who’s worth two seconds of your time, save Cole.

And there’s no one in all the world worth the trouble to feed ’em when they’re starving, save Cole.

And there’s no one in all the world who’ll go to Heaven, of course, save Cole.

And one day, Cole’s out in the moors and he sees the wolf, and he knows he’s gonna die.

That’s the way it is, back then. When you’re gonna die, there’s a wolf who comes for you. And it looks at you once, one day, with its piercing eyes, and that’s when you know. And it looks at you a second time, another day, and you’d better be drying the ink off on your will. And it looks at you a third time, and maybe you’d been afraid before, but you’re not afrightened then, and you get up, and everything’s clear, and you say your last words and testaments to your friends, and you walk up to the wolf, and you go, and that’s how you die, back 3975 years before the common era even starts.

So Cole knows he’s going to die. And he goes home. And he writes some more proclamations, and he writes his will. And then he looks in the mirror and he sees the wolf again. And he goes outside, and he calls for his pipe, and he calls for his bowl, and he calls for his fiddlers three.

“Bring me my pipe,” he says.

And his old friend Saul brings it out.

“Light it for me,” Cole says.

And Saul sets a fire in the pipe. And Cole puffs and puffs and after a bit the fire rises, and rises, up into the sky, and there’s a sun now way up there high.

“Wow,” says Saul. He looks at the sun. He looks at it hard ’cause he’s never seen one before. His eyes start to sting, in a while, so he’s got to look away.

“Too bright,” says Cole. “Bring me my bowl.”

So Saul brings him his bowl. And Cole flicks his wrist and throws the bowl up into the sky, and there’s a moon now way up high.

“Wow,” says Saul. He stares at the moon. It’s white and it’s shining and it’s prettier than Cole’s eyes.

“And my daughters,” says Cole, “and their fiddles.”

And his daughters come out. And they’ve got their fiddles. And Cole says to them, “Play.”

Meredith’s his oldest daughter. She’s a painter. She kind of hesitates.

“I’m not any good on the fiddle,” she says.

“Oh?” says Cole.

Claire is his middle daughter. She’s got a serial killing problem. Just a bit of one. And she’s a doctor on the side. She hesitates too.

“I’m not any good,” she says. “Either.”

“Oh?” says Cole.

Iphigenia’s his third daughter. She’s a whore.

“Nor I,” she says.

Cole grins at them, just a bit, at the edges of his mouth.

“Play like you’re worth something,” he says, “though you ain’t.”

So they play. And they play. And they play.

They’re still playing as the wolf comes. They’re still playing as Cole goes away to Heaven with every last gem on Earth.

They’re still playing now.

You can’t get into that Heaven any more, and people aren’t getting born with gems these days. Prolly someone changed the rules, and it’s prolly for the best.

They’re still playing, though, ’cause Cole told them to, and he’s the only person they ever met worth one damn thing.

Jane’s Terrifying Story of Near-Halloween Horror

Two girls meet at the gates of the dead. They’re mirrored, those gates. One girl steps into the mirrors. The other steps through the gates.

Mr. Schiff is on a plane. He’s going to go skydiving.

Jane and Martin are on a green, green hill. They’re eating a picnic. It involves bread, pickles, and cheese. There’s a girl sitting with them. She’s quiet, since she’s dead, but she still munches on bread and cheese when Jane offers.

“Her name’s Iffy,” Jane says.

“Where’d you meet her?” Martin asks.

“She was over there,” Jane says. Jane points at the grass. “She was eating ice cream. So I invited her to a picnic.”

“Hi,” Iffy says.

Martin smiles a little. “Hey.”

“Your turn!” Jane says. “Tell me a story.”

Martin ponders. “A scary story? It’s almost Halloween.”

“Okay,” Jane agrees.

“A long time ago,” Martin says, “the luminiferous ether and the atmosphere were sisters, and the best of friends.”

Iffy frowns at Martin.

“They did everything together,” Martin says. “They played. They worked. They laughed. But sometimes things go bad.”

“Like mayonnaise!” Jane suggests.

“Mistakes were made,” Martin says. “Recriminations issued. Regrettable events were insufficiently regretted. And one day, while they were arguing with one another in the shape of two little girls, the atmosphere stabbed the luminiferous ether right through the heart, and through both eyes, and to the death.”

“With a pickle?” Jane asks.

“With a knife,” Martin says.

Jane frowns at him severely. At first Martin looks suave. Then he caves.

“Fine,” he says. “With a knife carved from the deadliest of Vlassic pickles, dripping with its horrid brine.”

“Yay!” Jane says. She takes a pickle out of the picnic pickle jar and bites it happily.

“Which of them do you identify with?” Martin asks, curiously.

“I’m the horrified onlooker,” Jane says. “Gasp! This one little girl has killed the other! We must fetch a doctor immediately!”

“It wasn’t like that,” Iffy says. Jane hands her a bit of bread and cheese. “It was more about how scientific concepts evolve.”

“I’ve always thought,” Martin says, “that if scientists could establish their theories by stabbing one another with pickles, they probably would.”

“Some kind of peer review thing?” Iffy asks.

“Yah.”

Iffy considers.

Martin shrugs.

“They did fetch a doctor,” Martin says. “But it didn’t help, because, you know, the luminiferous ether was dead. And the atmosphere wasn’t even one little bit sorry, either.”

Jane frowns. “Not even a little?”

“Well,” Martin confesses, “maybe a little.”

“Just a little?” Jane says.

“Well,” Martin admits, “after a while, the atmosphere felt really bad about it. But what could she do? The luminiferous ether was already dead.”

“She could go to the other side,” Jane says. “And bring her sister back!”

“It’s not that easy,” Iffy says.

“It’s hard to revive someone killed with a pickle,” Martin agrees. “You have to make an especial appeal to the King of the Dead.”

Jane waves a hand airily. “Being the atmosphere opens a lot of doors.”

“That’s true,” Martin admits. “But it closes others.”

Jane thinks. “I’ve seen that happen,” she concedes.

“So what would the King of the Dead do?”

Jane frowns. “You’re telling this story,” she says, severely. “But I guess that he’d probably make some kind of deal with her. Like, maybe, she has to do three incredible tasks to get her sister back.”

“Or maybe,” Martin says, “she can get her back, but not all the way.”

Suddenly, Iffy frowns. “Ack,” she says. She pushes upwards at the air as if trying to hold something up.

“You okay?” Jane asks.

Iffy shakes her head. “It’s too hard!” she says. “I can’t provide enough friction!”

“See,” Martin says, gesturing around broadly, “the King of the Dead was willing to let the luminiferous ether back. It can play. It can touch the world. It can run in the grass and eat ice cream. But it can never see its sister again. Because when the luminiferous ether is here, conducting light and providing a breathable environment, the atmosphere must hide from the world, behind mirrors and under the glass. That’s the bargain that the King of the Dead made. And today, just a few weeks from Halloween, is one of the days when the luminiferous ether is here, and the atmosphere is gone.”

Mr. Schiff hits the ground, hard, next to them.

“It makes it a bad day to sky dive,” Martin admits. “The ether has low resistance and doesn’t hold parachutes up very well.”

Iffy sags. “I did my best,” she says.

Jane stares at Mr. Schiff in horror. “Is he dead?”

Martin takes a pickle from the jar. He pokes Mr. Schiff with it. “Dunno,” he says.

Jane straightens her spine. She looks firm. “I don’t believe in dead people,” she says.

“What?” Martin asks.

“I’m hoping he’ll hear me,” Jane says.

“Why?”

“Every time a child says that,” Jane says, “a dead person comes back to life.”

“Just like that?”

Jane nods. “It used to be that there was one dead person for every living person. But children stopped believing in death, and dead people started coming back to life, and now the world’s all overpopulated. I don’t believe in dead people.”

Martin frowns. “He’s not responding,” he says.

“I don’t believe in dead people! I don’t! I don’t!” Jane shouts.

There’s a pause.

Martin sighs.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” he whispers.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane says.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” Iffy concedes.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane demands.

There’s a silence. Slowly, Mr. Schiff drags himself upright.

“I don’t believe in dead people,” Jane says, again.

“I can fly,” Mr. Schiff says, “you know.”

“That’s good!” Jane says encouragingly. “I don’t believe in dead people.”

“You can stop now,” Martin says.

“Oh,” Jane says.

“You know,” Martin says, “we should go to the graveyard on Halloween, and do that.”

“That would be mean,” Jane says. “Most of those people are done.”

It is the end of that day. One girl waits behind the mirrors for her freedom. The other walks down to the gates of the dead.

“You can’t go through,” says the King. “Not today.”

Iffy pauses. “Why not?”

“You can’t be dead,” says the King, “if people don’t believe in it.”