Dan

Your Number

You’re in the kitchen making dinner, listening to one of your favorite albums in your headphones because the neighbor is out mowing the lawn yet again. Chopping up the potatoes, singing along because the house is empty, still, and then the music stops.

You frown, wipe your hands off quickly, and pull your phone out of your pocket. Oh, it’s a call. Your area code, but unknown number. You shrug and pick up. “Hello?”

A woman’s voice you don’t recognize says, “Is Sandy there?”

“No, sorry, you must have the wrong number.” For some reason you’ve been getting a lot of these lately. You rattle off your number.

“Oh, shoot, you’re right. I should have known! You don’t sound like a Sandy,” she says.

“Yup, have a nice day…” And you’re about to hang up when a moment of deja vu makes you stop and wait. Didn’t this exact conversation just happen recently? You could swear that ‘You don’t sound like a Sandy’ line is just too familiar. Where did you hear that?

Then her voice breaks your reverie. “Umm, sorry. You still there?” She says ‘still’ with a slight drawl, but you can’t place the accent.

“Yeah, uhh.” You blink. “You want something?”

“What… what’s the date? I mean I know this sounds like a prank call…” But it doesn’t. She sounds earnest, and a bit stressed out.

“Uhh, I’m not sure. It’s Sunday. Like the twentieth or something, maybe?”

“But it’s… it’s 2017 where you are, yeah?”

“Look lady–” And just as you’re about to yell at her for messing with you, a strange echoing series of clicks interrupt you, rhythmic and almost musical, but loud and getting louder. They get so loud that she’s saying something you can’t hear at all beneath the noise.

“Gah!” you yell, as you rip the earbuds from your ears. Your phone shouldn’t be even able to get that loud. You stand there, weirdly embarrassed, staring at the wires as they sit placidly on the waiting pile of chopped potatoes.

The mower next door buzzes. You can hear something coming out of the headphones. Oh, right… it’s the album you were listening to before. You pop the earbuds back in, pick up the knife, and slice the onion down the center.

And then the music stops again. Another call. Same number. You have to confess to yourself that you’re kind of curious. Even if it’s a prank, she’s at least entertaining.

So you answer it. “Hello?”

“Is Sandy there?” It’s the same woman.

“No, you still have the wrong number.”

“And you still don’t sound like a Sandy,” she says.

“Well, it’s 2017 still, if that’s what you’re after.”

“Who’s president? Trump, right?” Her voice sounds like she’s almost too nervous to ask it.

You sigh. “Yeah, sad as that is, right?” Your reply comes out of your mouth before you realize how strange her question is. Then a strange whooshing noise comes across the line, and you hear what sounds like an argument in the background.

“Listen, Frank,” a man’s voice says loudly. “It’s too late, the branch has grown too long after we cut the root.”

“No, I’m telling you, we can take this upstairs.” A different male voice.

“Forget upstairs. We’re talking about fundamental laws,” says Not-Frank.

A tiny click and then you hear the woman sigh. “I’m really sorry I involved you in this.” Then she breathes your name like she knows you. “I’m sorry.” In that moment, you could swear she’s a relative. Or an old friend. But you just can’t place her.

The clicks start overriding her just as she starts to say something else, and you yell “Bye!” as you rip the headphones out.

Standing there, staring at the cutting board still, you shake your head. Then you pull up your call log and call back.

A man with gravel in his voice answers. “Hello, this is Sandy.”

“Oh, uhh, sorry. Wrong number,” you find yourself saying, feeling slightly dizzy.

“Look, we’ll try to purge and reincorporate the branch you’re on, but it probably won’t work. Things have gotten too strange. We just clipped a root of Trump branches, but we must have missed one.”

“Branches? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Now your time is isolated. You have our apologies, but there’s nothing else we can do…” He trails off, like he’s waiting for you to say something.

“Okay. This is officially the weirdest prank I’ve ever been subjected to,” you say.

“Yes,” he says. “It sure is. A prank.” He doesn’t sound real sure of himself. It’s a pretty convincing act, you think. “Again, sorry. Goodbye,” he says.

The phone clicks, and your music starts back up. You poke at your phone to go save the number, but there’s nothing in your call log. No outgoing, no incoming. None from today, none at all. Just blank. That’s weird.

Oh well. You pick up the onion again and start mincing it. When the next song kicks in, you start to forget all about the calls. You love this song, so you start singing along.

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Dan

The Yummy Ducklings

No, this is a different story. Nope, not the same one your mommy read to you. Exactly! Now you see, children, the ducks of the Fairy Kingdom are a bit different than the ones we have here, in the normal realm. While their ducks and our ducks both love bread, and at a glance seem to be identical… What, Sammy? No no, not all bumpy-lumpy. Identical means the same. While they seem the same at first sight, instead of going ‘Quack, quack!’ these ducks can talk. Just like you and me!

Well, at first, when they’re tiny, they’re just learning how to talk. You know, like how your baby brother can only say ‘mama’ and ‘dada’. The ducklings are just like that. They quack ‘mama’ and ‘feed me’ and learn as they go. Except in the Fairy Kingdom, the ducks might learn different things than you. Because it’s the Fairy Kingdom, and everything there is sprinkled with magic.

Now give me just a second, why they’re yummy is part of the story I’m trying to tell you!

The first little duckling’s name was Samij. Sort of like your name, Sammy! But he was silly, Samij was, and he decided that he would try to live life to the fullest. So he ate and ate and ate the gross little grubs and fishies that little ducklings like to eat. He ate and ate until he got all fat. Then he couldn’t run, he could only waddle around. Yes, ha ha, a waddling little baby duck. One day, he was out waddling around looking for food, and a wolf ran up and ate him. Just like that. Munch munch!

Don’t cry. Samij was born in the Fairy Kingdom, so he was reborn as a log or a fish or a spider, later. Yes, that’s how it works in the Fairy Kingdom. Probably not here, but who knows? No, I wouldn’t want to be a log either. But who knows? Maybe being a log is totally great! You should ask a log sometime.

Back to the story. The second little duckling’s name was Ashanda, and when she saw the fate that befell Samij, she became very fixated on being skinny, and fast. Ashanda ran everywhere, until her wings grew out, and then she flew way up in the sky. But she didn’t eat enough, and so she couldn’t fly very fast. And a hawk swooped out of nowhere and ate her up. Yum yum, he said, as he soared through the air with Ashanda in his belly. And for a brief moment, as he dove towards his nest, Ashanda was finally as lightning fast as she had wanted to be.

That’s right, Lanny. Ashanda died in the hawk tummy, but she was reborn later, having learned her lesson. We hope. But remember, children, we may not get that second chance, because we don’t live in the Fairy Kingdom. But you have to finish everything on your plate when your mommy and daddy say so, so you grow up big and strong.

The momma duck named her third little duckling Wilbur. Wilbur decided one day that since the Fairy Kingdom was a magical place, he sat there and decided the trees and the rivers and the sky and the sun were all watched over by invisible fairies. Because fairies are magic, you see. So he made little fires and burnt grubs and fishes for the fairies. Well, he didn’t see the fairies. Right, right. That’s right. He just assumed they were there, so Wilbur went and did his thing.

And sometimes his sacrifice and his constant beseeching of the fairies — well, beseeching is kind of like praying or begging. He was constantly shouting at the sky, stuff like, ‘O great fairies! Shine your lucky, pretty light on us ducks!’ And sometimes when Wilbur shouted at the sky, what he wanted to happen came true. And sometimes it didn’t. But the other ducklings started to join in with his fairy worship, even though their momma duck warned them that they couldn’t rely on fairies.

One day, as he was leading a sacrifice and was all weighed down by his wacky ceremonial robes, Wilbur was snatched up by a fox and carried off. Crunch, crunch, yum. As the fox hopped off with his dinner in his teeth, Wilbur yelled, “Save me oh great fairies of the forest! QUACK!” The other ducklings watched him get dragged off in horror, and then they all ran in every direction screaming. Well, quacking. Quack-screaming.

That’s true, the fox probably had to spit out the robes after, but it probably thought Wilbur himself made a delicious dinner. Now one of the other ducklings, named Felis, was inspired by Wilbur, and continued to worship the fairies of the forest and the fairies of the sky and the fairies of the rivers, even though they hadn’t saved Wilbur from being dinner.

But Felis had a dream one night, where the Great Fairy came to her and said, ‘There is only one Fairy in all of the Kingdom, and I am she! I have dominion over all ducks, over all the trees, over all the rivers, over all the sky, and over all the creatures that live in them. You must worship only the one true Fairy!’

So of course, Felis told all her brother and sister ducklings about this dream. And many of them began to worship the One True Great Fairy, instead of the many fairies of the kingdom they had praised before. And one day, it just so happened that a coyote came upon Felis as she slept, and even though she had begged the One True Great Fairy for protection that night before she drifted off, the coyote ate her up. Yum, the coyote said, as he hopped off through the valley.

And when the ducks all woke up in the morning, when Felis was gone, they praised the One True Great Fairy, because they thought she had taken Felis up to live with her in the Crystalline Castle, so high up in the sky that the ducklings couldn’t see it even if they flew up as high as their little wings would go. Well then.

By now the ducklings in the Fairy Kingdom had got quite advanced indeed, as their mother looked on, quite baffled by all of this, and saddened by how many of her brood had been eaten up so far. But she remembered her own mother’s sad, knowing smile, and understood that was the way of ducklings: they would try new ugly and pretty things, and eventually they would end up as food for the forest creatures of the Kingdom. She had been lucky to survive into a big duck, long enough to have alllllll of these ducklings, but even she would be dinner for a Fairy Kingdom dweller someday.

Sure, she was sad. That’s true, Jana… But the momma knew she couldn’t save them all, because she couldn’t make them any less yummy to the wolves and hawks and foxes and coyotes of the Fairy Kingdom. So she did the best she could to protect them as they had their various adventures.

One day, another duckling, named Bisho, had a brilliant idea. He said, ‘These shiny fairy coins that we find in the forest aren’t tasty. We can’t eat them. But they’re pretty and shiny and rare, let’s use these to trade each other for food and favors!’ Exactly, Sammy. Just like money. But for ducks!

They carried the golden coins under their wings, using them to pay for things, fearful that another duckling would take their shiny coins. Some of the ducklings dug pits in the forest, to hide their treasure piles. And Bisho, who’d been the smarty-pants to start the whole idea, had been very sneaky indeed. He only told everyone after he had amassed the biggest treasure pile of them all.

But soon, when Bisho was going to check on one of his secret gold stashes, a big old bear crashed through the branches and grabbed him up and… You guessed it. She ate him right up. ‘Mmm, mmm good,’ said the bear, as she chomped up little Bisho. Next, the bear saw the shiny golden coins, and she picked one up and chomped it, but it didn’t taste yummy like Bisho did. ‘Oh well,’ she said, stomping back through the forest. ‘That was one yummy duckling!’ she roared. Oh, now, don’t be so scared, that’s just my bear voice. I’m pretending, see? ‘YUM YUM! RAAARRR!”

It turned out that one of the other ducklings was hiding in the branches. The whole time, she sat there shivering, terrified. Yup, she had been sneaky; she was following Bisho to his treasure! But now, after watching him become a bear snack, Irsa had other ideas. She’d been convinced that the gold coins were not lucky, after all. She went back to the other ducklings, and filled with terror, she told them how their money was cursed.

Irsa stood on top of a stump so her voice would carry to all the gathered ducks, and explained to them that instead of hoarding money or worshipping The Great Fairy or any other thing, they should try to make their life in the Fairy Kingdom better by small strides, and help each other. ‘Let’s be nice to each other, and try to help each other not be eaten, instead of hoarding coins or shouting at the sky.’

Her mother duck said, ‘That sounds very sensible indeed, little Irsa.’ And as Irsa preened with satisfaction atop the trunk, a giant snake came out of nowhere, shoom! And he slid right up the stump she stood on and swallowed her whole, slithering and hissing off into the trees before any of the ducks could do anything more than blink.

And then, through her tears, with a quack in her voice, the mother duck told her ducklings that surely their sister would be reborn as something nice. ‘But you should all remember and think on Irsa’s wise words,’ she said. And as their momma’s quacking quavered, they huddled together all scared, and the remaining ducklings were not quite sure what to believe.

The end!

Yup, sorry, that’s the end of the story. Well, no, Bo… I guess you can’t say they lived happily ever after, really. All the ducklings were beautiful and ugly in their own way, but they were all yummy food for sneaky wolves, or yummy food for scary bears, or yummy food for speedy snakes.

Now it’s time for you all to go to bed. No no, don’t cry now, that was a fairy tale. Wolves and bears and snakes don’t eat human children in real life. The creatures of the Fairy Kingdom’s forests just eat tasty little ducklings.

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Dan

Subcutaneous

Greg yawned as he leaned into the butterfly stretch, feeling the knots in his lower back whine, squinting in the morning sunlight with the stale taste of sleep lingering on his teeth. Everything was just a normal, annoying Monday. Then he saw something black slithering up his inner thigh.

“Oh, fuck!” he yelled, his brain interpreting it as a giant centipede. And then the perception shifted and he laughed at himself. It was just a bruise.

Wait. No. It was a dark bruise a second ago, but now it looked an awful lot like text. He blinked, and tried to stretch closer, feeling his hips start to whine. Definitely text, but… can’t… quite read it.

Greg scrambled to his feet, knocking over an empty water glass as he rummaged for his glasses. “Mrph glumph,” went his mouth involuntarily.

Then he saw it. HELLO DONT FREAK OUT GREG, it said, in tiny little block letters. Is it a tattoo, or sharpie? Friend playing a really out-there prank?

Poking at it with a finger, bent over, staring at a part of his thigh that he never looks at, Greg started giggling. “Gotta be sharpie.”

He licked a thumb, and rubbed it on the inside of his thigh, willing the black to blur. “Nope.” Greg stared at his thumb, clean. Then back at his leg. The text didn’t dull or move at all. It’s really on there. “What in the hell…”

He picked up his phone and took a picture, to solidify it somehow. A way to try to prove it wasn’t just his eyes wigging out.

All day at work, Greg wondered about it. It sat there, invisible. He couldn’t feel it, but it was a strange kind of mental itch.

When he sat on the toilet, he had to stretch down to read it, suddenly embarrassed all over again, even though he was alone in his kingdom of the echoing stall.

HELLO DONT FREAK OUT GREG, his leg said.

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Dan

Spike

Have you ever had a loved one lose their mind? I hope that you never do. Growing up, I was lucky. I didn’t have any family suffer that way. My father’s parents passed when I was too young to remember, and my mom’s folks when I was just out of college. I remember Kevin coming along to my grandfather’s funeral, right after we had officially started dating. Even though we both felt so strange in the run-down church, he helped me stay grounded, my anchor even then.

Gramps had been whip-smart right up to the end, always giving me advice about college and career and life. Kev consoled me, sitting on the end of a pew, telling me that it was okay to cry. Honestly, I felt lucky that time took Gramps as it did. Memories lost only with the ending, not slowly seeping away from his grasp.

Losing someone as they became unmoored from themselves was supposed to happen less and less, these days. My ma used to tell horror stories about her great-grandfather. How he had gradually drifted away in a swamp of angry forgetfulness. Died not knowing his name.

But now they have all those treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s, all that promise. It couldn’t get that bad again, my mom’s memories were just… horror stories.

So. Where to begin?

I don’t even know who I’m writing this for. Perhaps just so I remember. Or so that you might understand how I feel. I’m not a monster for leaving. Maybe I’m writing it for Kev, in case he finds a way out of the maze. Or to help him remember the real story, in case he doesn’t.


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Dan

Prizoner

Bumbling along, I wibble wobble my way through the delicious sunny day. Flyin’ up and down, scootin’ in and out, drinking in the tasty treats of the Pattern Gods. Gotta fill up my baskets with all the fuzzy fruit the Gods have gifted us.

Bloop boop bloo, here’s the flags of a nice shining Purple Tower Temple. Get up, get up! Get on up. I fly along up and amongst its purple walls. I’m a-lookin’ for the goodies, where are the golden goodies?

Oho! A massive altar of shining fruit for me. I sing out my big ol’ song of praise to the Pattern Gods, and shake my fuzzy booty as I load up my baskets to the brim. “Bloop bloo dee boop a bzz,” I sing, giving a bow to the altar as I dip my way back out of the Purple Tower God’s palatial temple.

A boo dee boodle doop, and away I go to meander through the towers and the temples of our great green city. Now wait, what in the world? The city’s edge, it’s a big boring wall, has some delicious-looking White Hanging Temples climbing up its side. Bleedle dee doo, and away I go!

A Grand Wing King swoops by me and whispers a hello, and as I turn to shout a greeting at him, I stumble off course. And wait, what the, my wings fail me and a big breath of the Gods is… oh no, it’s done pushed me too far! In a blink, before I could scrabble for purchase at the strange straight lines, I suddenly stare around in a vast alien city. Nothing is green. Everything smells weird. Oh dear.

Gotta get out, gotta get out, must GET OUT OF HERE! It isn’t safe. This may be a dwelling of the Meat Giants. What’s that color? Weird. Everything is hard and unmoving. But I can still see the sunlight, that bright glorious sunlight. It’s not completely obscured by the walls of this sick place.

There’s some kind of warped slice of clear, hard honey by the portal I got whisked in. I bash my head against it, I taste it, but all I taste is dust and my desperation. Gotta get out. But to do that, I’m going to have to explore this strange place.

I bumble my way along. In my state of abject fear, I hear someone singing a tuneless “boodle boot” number, and I look around quickly before realizing it’s me.

Skirting a massive mountain of skin that has been tortured into an ugly maroon, I suddenly spot the palaces of the great green city. I’m not far from it! So I thrash my wings hard as I can and jet my way towards it.

BAM. Ouch, my head. It’s more of that damned clear honey. Hard as a rock. This is a gigantic tower of it, and it’s not warped, I can see straight through it. The sun is shining on my body, warming me, almost laughing at me. I can see the Wing King, he’s right on the other side! Is he mocking me or somehow gesticulating at a possible escape? Can’t hear his whispers. Damn, gotta get out!

Gotta get out so bad, I ram my poor body into the frozen honey over and over. What the heck? This stuff is impervious. I fly the edges, seeking an opening in it, testing it. Getting more and more frantic with each passing minute.

Then I turn, and true horror falls over me. A Meat Giant is stomping towards me across the vast dead space of this horrible city. Practically fainting, I tell you, I steel my resolve and bang faster along the edge of the clear honey.

In a blink, in a buzz, before I can shout or sting or do anything at all, I’m inside a cold cage of tiny hard lines. “No!” I shout. “Let me out of here! I just want to return my green city! You can see it, right on the other side! Please return me there, oh wise Meat Giant!”

But I know the Meat Giants do not comprehend the language of bumblebees. In my fear, I forget, and I keep begging, as the terrible cage buffets me. I refuse to think about what might happen.

Then suddenly, I feel the sun on me again. I turn, and one side of the cage has opened. Before I can even react, the Meat Giant flings me out of its prison, and out into the lovely-smelling temples of the Pattern Gods.

Shaken, I can’t help but immediately land on the closest God. I eat some of its fruit to sturdy my shaking legs, and then I sing a song of relief. “Bdee boodle bree diddle bzzz!”

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Dan

Mr. and Mrs. Lyapunov

 

Mr. and Mrs. Lyapunov wake with the bright white sun peeking over the hilltops, jumping through their window, warming the walls and the bed and their golden skin.

Lola wraps her arms around him, and buries her head in his neck. “Mrrnu beneewe medit dissarh?” she says, all muffled.

“What’s that?” Eddie asks.

She laughs, and bends her neck back to look up at him. “Can you believe we made it this far?”

His eyes felt like morning dew. “I can.”

“It feels new again.”

“Well, it certainly helps to be reborn.”

Eddie stretches a bit under her, feeling the muscles breathe, and basks in the luxury of no aches or pains as he wraps her in new arms.

“So what is it this year?”

“What is what? Where am I? Who are you?” He feigns confusion, and she has to bomp him on the head with a pillow.

“Your yearly promises. Got your surprise?”

“Maybe you don’t get your secret right away in the morning.” He yawns. “Sheesh.”

“Maybe you ran out, finally.” She pokes him, playfully. “Maybe I’ve finally stolen the last of your mysteries.”

“I doubt it,” he says, drifting back over the years, lost in thought.

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