The Face in the Clouds

sky

Our observatory received word about a meteorological anomaly in Himachal Pradesh, India. While our satellites didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary, the frequency and diversity of the reports suggested something was, indeed, amiss. Further, the crowdsourced pictures and video of the area, all taken and sent by cellular phones, were all corrupted beyond recognition. Whatever it was these people were seeing, you had to be there to get a glimpse.

As I was stationed on a military base in Afghanistan and about three hours away by jet, I was chosen to investigate. One quick flight to a local airport and a short helicopter ride later, I was on the ground at the site of the anomaly.

The meteorological disturbance was gone. The sky was clear and the late afternoon sun cast a warm orange glow on the orchards and farms at the foot of the mountains. That glow was the only warmth to be found.

The locals who’d seen the anomaly were uncharacteristically quiet. I’d heard from folks familiar with the area that the people here were normally gregarious and outgoing. These people were the opposite. They were taciturn and skittish. Moreover, they were unwilling to discuss what they’d seen that morning. They spoke about the incident as if it’d been a trauma; more often than not, their eyes teared up when my translator mentioned it.

I did my best to glean any bits of information that I could, but my success rate was low. The most I was able to learn came from a little girl, who, in the course of recalling the incident, burst into tears as she mentioned a face in the clouds. She would give us no more information after that.

The translator and I decided to call it a night and checked into our hotel. It was small but pleasant enough; the meal that was included was sumptuous, albeit a bit spicier than I’d been expecting. As we ate, it was hard not to notice the quietness of the dining room. Despite all eight tables being filled with diners, few words were spoken. Many tears, however, were shed. It felt like a great tragedy had occurred, yet no one was willing to admit what, exactly, had happened.

At my suggestion, the translator was able to eavesdrop on a few commonalities in the brief, quiet conversations going on around us. They all talked about having intense discomfort with having to wait for so long. There were nods of resignation and more tears. Still unable to put anything into a coherent, let alone meteorological, context, we decided it would be best to retire to our room and try again the next day.

Our sleep was taken from us in the early hours of this morning. It was still dark, but there was a buzz of activity in the streets. We left our room and went outside. We recognized people from dinner and from the businesses we’d stopped in the previous day. In the glow of the streetlights, I could see their faces were all wet with tears. They wept and moaned and the translator, with some alarm in his voice, told me they were conducting a slow, disorganized countdown. They had just reached ten seconds.

I stared at the translator for a moment, trying to put it all together, but there just wasn’t enough. Nothing made sense. Then, as the first sliver of sunlight crested the mountains, the screaming started. Women, children, and men, in unison, shrieked with sorrow and pain and desperation and clasped their hands to their eyes. My panic, already growing in my chest, began to bloom as blood trickled down their screaming faces.

As more sunlight filled the street, the intensity of the hideous wailing grew. When it reached a point when voices were beginning to give out and people were falling to their knees, a cloud passed in front of the sun. Every scream was silenced. Faces drenched with tears and blood began to smile. Hands were lowered to sides. Now it was I who shouted. Their eyes were destroyed. It looked as if they had burst. From what, I had no idea.

The translator, who’d been looking at the sky, gasped. I started to turn my gaze in the direction he was looking, but he grabbed my head with great force and pushed it down toward the ground and the faces of the terribly-disfigured people who still smiled with their faces turned skyward.

“Don’t!,” he shouted. He inhaled a lungful of air and exclaimed, “Now I know what they saw!”

The panic and concern in his voice was combined with something else. Something far more disturbing. It was ecstasy.

“Oh my God,” he cried, over and over and over, still holding my head in a vicegrip to prevent me from looking up. I’d lost my desire to do so. In fact, something else had claimed my attention. The gaping holes in the faces of the townsfolk had started projecting strings. Fleshy, red filaments slinked down their faces, but then perked upward and became erect. More and more length poured out and stretched outward and up. I couldn’t see where, but I had a feeling.

“They’re getting to touch him,” whispered the translator. “He is letting them inside.” His voice cracked and his next words were punctuated by sobs. “They’re tasting him with their eyes.”

I scanned the faces of the people in front of me. Their smiles were rapturous and the thin tendrils pulsed and quivered and gently pulled their heads forward.

The sky brightened. All at once, the ropes fell from the sky. They draped over me and the translator and the townsfolk fell on their faces into the street. The sun broke through the clouds. None of the fallen people moved.

The translator released my head and I spun around and looked into the cloudless sky. I directed my gaze down and saw what had to be miles of red, meaty tendrils stretched across the roads and rooftops all the way to the mountain. Finally, I looked at the translator. He was weeping. I asked him to tell me what he saw.

“The face in the clouds,” he told me. “The face that lets eyes taste him.”

He wept for a minute without interruption before speaking up. “There is so much more I wanted to see with my old eyes. So many more sights. But my new eyes will allow to taste so much more than I’ve ever been able to see. All I have to do is wait.”

Flies began to investigate the bodies in the dirt, landing on the gaping eye sockets and extruded filaments. My thoughts wandered to what I should do next. The translator sobbed next to me and began counting down from 85,000. The number of seconds until the next sunrise, I realized. More and more flies descended on the corpses and tasted the townsfolk with their feet. As the translator counted down with breathless anticipation, my fear grew into something monstrous and unexpected: curiosity.

Curiosity and desire.

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The Exquisite Pleasure of Physical Degeneration

pleasure

Funny, I never thought I’d be in a position where I could type something like that. Well, here I am! Actually – here we are. Me and my wife, Ingrid. Talk about an amazing vacation. It’s interesting, I’m going to be dead soon. I’ll be honest with you, though: I’m not even a little bit bothered. Hear me out.

When Ingrid and I stumbled upon that cave and did some impromptu spelunking, I was a little concerned we might get lost. Luckily, It became pretty obvious after the first few minutes that we wouldn’t. The cave was small. The interior, though, was unlike any cave I’d ever seen. It was absolutely brimming with mushrooms. All different kinds; some looked like portobellos, some were stringy and white and hanging from the ceiling like hair, and there were even some of those fat weird ones that smoked when you broke them open.

Ingrid and I are vegans and excellent chefs. On top of that, we love mushrooms. Ingrid’s good at picking out which of the ones in our yard are safe to eat, so I let her determine whether or not the ones in the cave were okay to bring home for dinner. To my surprise, she couldn’t tell! She’d never seen mushrooms like that before. Sure, there were lots of similar ones out there, but we didn’t want to chance it. I was disappointed; if we could’ve eaten those, we would’ve had a dinner for the record books.

Anyway, we kept walking. We got these great flashlights from my father-in-law for Christmas and they did an awesome job illuminating the path for us. As we went, the smoky mushrooms and the portobello ones started to appear less frequently. The stringy ones, though, were everywhere. They clung to the ceiling like white tendrils and we had to push them out of the way with every step we took. We didn’t know where we were going, but it felt like an adventure through an alien world.

Right when we thought the stringy mushrooms couldn’t get any thicker and we were tearing off handfuls just to keep moving forward, we came to a clearing. It was the rear of the cave. There was nothing there except one extremely large and extremely weird-looking fungus. I don’t know if it was a mushroom or what. It had a cap like one, but it was riddled with small, raised craters; they reminded me of the acne I had when I was a kid and how zits would look after I popped them.

Ingrid walked right up to it. She was totally fascinated. God this feels good to type. Every single key press with my raw fingers is like a tiny orgasm. Ingrid ran her hands over it. I told her to be careful; I didn’t know if there were rats or spiders in the thing. I didn’t have to worry. There weren’t any bugs or anything in the cave at all, from what we’d seen. She asked me to come feel it with her. I did. I must’ve poked too hard I can’t believe how good this feels and all this orange smoke came out. It was a little scary at first. But then, after we took a few, good breaths of the stuff, it wasn’t scary at all.

How does simple typing feel this good? We went back to the resort. People looked at us a little funny because we were covered in orange dust, but I didn’t mind. I could type forever and ever and ever. We got back to the room and took a shower. We were in such an incredible mood. The shower water against my skin created a feeling of pleasure that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Ingrid, too. I don’t know how long we were in there together, just standing still and letting the water wash over us.

After we got out and toweled off (another incredible sensation just like typing), I had a little fall. There was a patch of water on the floor. I slipped and jammed my pinky and ring toes against the door. One toe went one way, the other went another. The area between split wide open maybe two inches up my foot. I expected to scream in pain because that’s what someone normally does when they get hurt, but something else happens. I screamed, but it was a scream of ecstasy. Intense, powerful ecstasy. My body shook with pleasure. The only thing I can equate it to would be sex, but it was beyond sex. Beyond such a small, localized feeling of delight.

My entire body hummed with physical joy. Once Ingrid realized I wasn’t in pain, she bent down to inspect my wound. With a shy tentativeness I’d recognized early in our relationship and had grown to love, she pressed her index finger against the bent and dislocated pinky toe. Again, fireworks of pleasure. She grinned at me and pulled the toe. We both heard it crack and pop as she wiggled it back and forth. Ingrid studied my face, enjoying what had to have been an expression of fervid elation.

Time went by while she pulled and twisted my broken toes while I stared at her beautiful face and relished the sensations. Then she did something I didn’t expect. Ingrid took her index finger and slid it inside the slit in the flesh. I could see it inside my foot, bulging under my skin. I whimpered. She was inside me. Her body inside mine. Without giving much thought, I pulled her down on top of me and bit her collarbone until a small hole formed. She mewled her assent. Like Ingrid had done to me, I slid my finger down into the new, pristine cavity and felt the warmth within.

I will not dwell on the details of the hours that passed. I’ll merely give a highlight that still, even as I sit here with my body exposed – my real body, not that which was hidden by flesh – gives me impossible joy. It was the moment Ingrid and I were staring into each others’ eyes. We’d degloved our arms and legs and were sitting, cross-legged, in an embrace. As she stared, she ran her warm, red hand across the muscles of my cheek. Then, reverentially, she slid her index finger underneath the remains of my lower eyelid and drifted deeper, back behind my eye.

The sight of my beautiful wife blurred slightly, both from partial loss of vision as well as unfathomable pleasure. Diligently, but with obvious love, she slid the finger in and out, gradually applying more pressure from behind as she went. When I thought I would pass out from the feeling – when the joy was transcending my consciousness and I feared I might slip into heaven right there – there was a rush of relief and unwinding of tension as my eye tumbled from its socket. I felt it against my cheek, resting against the musculature. My vision was strange and lacked coherence, but it didn’t matter. My love moved her mouth to that which she’d freed and began to taste me. I saw a brief glimpse inside her before she closed her teeth against the optic nerve and incorporated that part of me into her own, radiant body.

It’s a few hours later. Ingrid passed away after she asked me to experience the feeling of her heart beating against my mouth. She was unable to reach her heart before she slipped away. I expected to feel horror and sadness, but there was only determination and excitement. I know in a few moments I’ll be with her again. Alive elsewhere. As I looked around our room at the stringy mushrooms growing from the splashes of blood and the bulbous smoky ones growing from our discarded flesh, I knew I had to tell the world about what we experienced. About what the world itself needs to experience. Imagine how life would be if we all felt this level of intimacy; this level of pleasure.

I managed to reach the switch for the bathroom fan and I popped the majority of the smoky mushrooms we’d grown. The beautiful, orange swirls of smoke drifted up into the vent. Now, as I type this, I’m praying it will reach those in most need. People need to feel this.

I’m going to go now and open my belly. I’m going to stretch out everything inside as far and wide as I possibly can. The more I am exposed, the more I will feel. Then I’m going to lay next to my love. My Ingrid. Her last words before she passed were, “run with me.” I can feel my legs fluttering in anticipation for our first run together, hand in hand, through the moist fields of heavenly mushrooms.

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Ouroboros

ouroboros

Calories in, calories out.

I used the dremel saw I stole from work to cut off the first knuckle of my left pinky. The bosses had to know I took the thing but I doubt they even cared. What’s a $100 tool to a company that’s worth millions? Besides, they were getting rid of me, and that’s what their priority was. Maybe they’ll take it out of the last check they said they’d mail.

Despite what I thought, it wasn’t easy to pull the bone out of the finger chunk. So, I peeled off the nail and then cut the remainder of the piece open with the dremel and took the bone out the messy way. I didn’t think much as I popped the fingertip in my mouth and chewed for what felt like an hour before the meat broke down enough for me to comfortably swallow. I tried to figure out how many calories were in the finger segment while also working to determine how my caloric needs have changed now that my body mass had decreased by that little bit. I don’t know why I wasted so many years cutting when I could’ve done the smart thing by cutting off.

My adrenaline was off the chart for the rest of the day and I could barely sleep. I was brimming with excitement; I’d actually found a way to beat the system. Why do we need food when we are food? This elation was crushed when I stepped on the scale the following morning and saw the familiar, disgusting number: 82 pounds. I punched myself and clawed at my face as I stared at the scarred, bloated atrocity that smirked at me in the mirror. Much too much of me. Far too much.

I bent the remainder of my left pinky backward and twisted. The mirror-me kept smiling. I twisted and twisted the finger until it was connected to my hand by a tiny, tight rope of skin before pulling the broken digit completely off. I walked into the kitchen and turned on the stove’s electric burner and pressed the stump onto the coils. No more bleeding. Back in the bathroom, I took an antibiotic and an Oxy I had left over from my back surgery last year. I didn’t want to get too sick to continue or be in too much pain and lose my nerve. I gazed in the mirror while I chewed the cooling flesh off the bone.

Did you know it’s surprisingly easy to find someone on Craigslist who will perform surgery for the promise of cash? We met in my garage. He inspected the place for cameras, closed the garage door, and slammed the hatchet into my left wrist. I fingered my collarbones and traced the craggy topography of my ribcage as he swore, realizing he’d only broken the bones without severing my hand. All the while I’d retreated into my head, watching the scene unfold from above. I felt the thud as the blade hit me and the dull popping as he carved away. The Oxy did a really good job masking most of the pain. To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

My Craigslist surgeon looked mildly haunted by what he’d done, so as soon as he seared the wound shut with the torch, he ran out. He’d be back soon enough, though. I sat in the garage and stared at the stump where my hand used to be. It smelled like the time mom burned pork chops and almost set the kitchen on fire. My severed hand sat on the table like a flaccid relative of Thing from The Addams Family. Picking it up, I was a little surprised by how heavy it felt. You never really think about the individual parts of your body having weight. Still, I was encouraged. This was an immediate loss of at least a pound or two.

I gnawed at the sinewy knuckle areas and fought through a dizzy spell. Orange juice helped get my head to stop spinning. Whether it was blood loss or excitement didn’t matter much. Things were finally going in the right direction.

A week later, I contacted my Craigslist surgeon again. I didn’t have any more cash, but he agreed to do what I wanted in exchange for a couple of the Oxy pills. I had at least 20 more in one bottle and an unopened bottle of 30 stashed in my bedroom, so he’d be happy for a while. Besides, we were almost done. I was almost done.

My surgeon said the next part would probably kill me. I agreed. He got to work. The pills didn’t do much to dull the pain this time. The feeling of a saw going through a femur right near the hipbone is a hard thing to describe. Even harder is the sensation one experiences the moment one’s femoral artery is severed. It’s like the world starts melting and going gray at the same time. Luckily, my surgeon had the torch ready and seared the gushing artery shut before finishing the amputation. When dropped the saw, the first thing I did was try to wiggle my toes. It felt like I was wiggling them just fine. Strange. I threw down another few antibiotics and painkillers.

Before the surgeon left, I demanded that he help me to the bathroom scale. It was hard to balance on one leg and get a proper reading on the scale, but when it finally registered, I was triumphant. 68lbs. The dizziness came back quickly and I yelled to the surgeon who was about to leave. We were going to finish this. It didn’t take long for him to agree to take off my other leg in exchange for more pills. Cut cut, burn burn. He carried me back to the scale where I teetered on my lopsided stumps. 59lbs. Then he brought me to my bed.

So here I am. My right arm works fine; I don’t think I want to get rid of that. It’s probably the only part of me I find useful these days. I figure I have another couple weeks of antibiotics left. They’re next to me under the pillow. I tucked my severed legs under the comforter. Over the next few days, I’ll nip at them whenever I’m hungry. My guess is the hunger pains will become less intense once my body realizes it doesn’t have as much to fuel. Until then, I’ll just keep taking little bites. Minimal intake, just like I’m used to. Just like what keeps me comfortably in control.

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Elective Surgery

“Elective surgery.” It’s a term that makes people think of botox injections and liposuction. Maybe facelifts. Breast implants, too. Well, purely cosmetic breast implants; never the implants given to people who’ve endured cancer and mastectomy. “Elective surgery” is too pejorative a term to describe the procedures undergone by those who’ve suffered. It seems suffering is a requirement for the surgeries to avoid having a negative social stigma. That same suffering determines the insurance companies’ willingness to pay for the procedures, too. When you realize they’re the ones who determine who’s suffered, then you can see there’s a problem.

My husband’s name is Brian. From the moment he was capable of self-reflection, he knew he was a man. He had to keep this knowledge to himself. It took 20 torturous years before he could safely declare himself to be the person he knew he was. When we met in 2010, Brian was four years into hormone therapy. I fell in love with him during our first conversation. He was extremely open about his transition, but I worried he felt he needed to explain himself to me, which wasn’t the case. I got the impression he’d been hurt in the past.

Fast-forward three years. Brian and I are married and we share a small apartment. Like every relationship, we’ve had our ups and downs. I’ve been growing concerned, though, because the downs seem to be coming more and more frequently. Much of it stems from Brian’s depression. I do my best to comfort him during the deepest valleys of his sadness, but it’s hard for me to understand how he feels. He’s experienced so much pain. On an intellectual level, yes, I recognize the feelings he has. I know they’re valid and devastatingly real to him. But I can’t truly empathize. And I feel horrible about it.

The dysphoria he’d felt prior to his hormone treatments was debilitating. He felt trapped inside a body that belonged to someone else; a woman who mimicked his movements and gestures but falsified his identity. Once he began the therapy, his outlook improved dramatically. The changes he saw in himself were real. The facial hair, the muscle mass, the deeper voice; all were tangible manifestations of the identity he’d been denied his entire life. He felt like a real person.

The feeling didn’t last. The physical changes plateaued. Brian was left with a body that was much more like what he believed was his, but there remained aspects of his former prison that taunted him with their presence. While he wasn’t fond of his genitals and planned to have them surgically re-assigned someday, he was able to cope with them. His breasts, on the other hand, were obvious relics of a past he wished to forget.

When Brian and I met, I’d noticed his chest was somewhat larger than average, but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. As I got to know him, I learned it was the biggest source of his many insecurities. For the first two years of our relationship, he wouldn’t let me see him shirtless. Whether at the beach or during sex or even in our infrequent showers together, he’d always kept his chest covered with at least a t-shirt. It was only after I offered to help wrap him with the thin, elasticized gauze to help lessen the protrusion of his breasts that he finally allowed me to see. He was, and is, intensely beautiful.

One morning before work, we were standing in front of our full-length mirror as I helped him wrap his chest. I was behind him, admiring the musculature of his shoulders and upper back as I pulled the wrapping tight against his skin and secured it. He’d been hitting the gym hard for the last six months and the results were really showing. I complimented him on it, which yielded a rare smile of self-satisfaction. I hoped it would stay with him for the rest of the day.

Brian came home early in the afternoon – about four hours ahead of schedule. The restaurant where he’d worked for eight years had gone out of business. The owners hadn’t told anyone there were financial troubles until that day. He was cut off with no safety net. There was a dead look in his eyes. It was as if all hope had been stripped away and there was no chance to get it back. He sobbed in my arms until I thought he’d pass out.

Money’s always been tight in our home. I work at a university bookstore for nearly minimum wage and piss-poor benefits. None of the benefits extend to my husband. Brian’s job loss meant he had no insurance. No insurance meant an interruption in his HRT unless we figured something out. Our state didn’t have laws requiring insurance companies to cover that type of therapy, so even if he found a job, there was no guarantee the insurance would offer what he needed. The policy he had through the restaurant did, but it was gone.

We scrambled over the next couple days and determined we had enough saved up to pay the retail cost of his injections for six months. After that, we’d be tapped out. I was fairly sure he’d find a job by then, but he was less optimistic. As the months went by, Brian worked harder than I’d ever seen. He scoured the city for employment, made follow-up calls, went to interviews, and everything else. Eventually, he secured a position as a secretary in an accounting firm. The pay was low, but the benefits included insurance that would cover his HRT.

For a little while, things were okay. Our relationship was strong and Brian was busy enough for some of his insecurities to be replaced by good old-fashioned work stress. On one of the rare days we were both off, we’d planned to go to the zoo together. When I woke up, Brian was quietly sobbing next to me. When I asked what was wrong, he handed me his phone. Overnight, he’d received a series of anonymous messages on his photography blog. Each one addressed him as Elizabeth – the name he’d shed the moment he was able. For as long as we’d been together, I’d never heard anyone call him Elizabeth. No piece of mail we received had his old name on it, either. Legally, his name was Brian. Whoever sent the messages knew him. And they knew exactly what to say that would cause the worst pain.

The majority of the messages insulted his appearance. Some called him an ugly girl. Some claimed he was sick and perverted. A few specifically targeted the biggest aspect of his insecurity: his chest. Those messages hurt him the most. It also gave him an idea of who might have sent them. He’d dated quite a few women before meeting me, and one in particular had a strongly negative reaction when she learned he didn’t possess the physical attributes she’d apparently needed in a partner. She abused him online for nearly a year before she stopped. These messages were certainly her style, but without proof, he wasn’t willing to confront her. Not that he would have anyway.

Brian’s self-loathing returned with a vengeance. He began walking with his back hunched and his shoulders forward in an attempt to hide his breasts. When I helped him wrap in the morning, he’d get frustrated with me that it wasn’t tight enough; that too much was still visible. He’d call himself disgusting and I started to see claw marks across his chest from him scratching at the flesh with hatred.

He couldn’t afford to see a therapist. The only thing that gave him the slightest hint of hope was the prospect of getting top surgery. Until his breasts were removed, he wouldn’t be able to see himself as anything other than an object of disgust and derision. No matter how often I told him how beautiful he was, and meaning it from the bottom of my heart, he simply couldn’t hear me. He was lost in a sea of self-loathing.

When Brian got his secretarial job, he went over the insurance carefully to make sure they covered his HRT. Insurance would not, however, cover the removal of his breasts. The company called it “elective surgery.” They made it sound like he was doing it out of vanity rather than survival. At the time, despite being disappointed, Brian just said he looked forward to getting a job someday that’ll cover it. Maybe even the bottom surgery, too. But that was that.

Now, though, he was devastated. It pained me enormously to see him suffer. I felt helpless. Useless. There was no way either of us could pay for the procedure out of pocket. The cheapest quote he’d gotten was over $7000 – and that didn’t even include consultation fees. It was impossible.

I was desperate to help my husband. And in that desperation – in that blind need to see the person I love experience the happiness that had been denied to him for his entire life – I changed. Rage filled me. I knew how to fix this for him. For us.

It wasn’t difficult for me to find out about the woman who’d abused Brian in those messages. He told me her name that morning, and thanks to Facebook, I learned where she worked. Claudia Denise Reynolds, corporate account manager at Credit Suisse. Brian had mentioned she was well-off and before she turned on him, she’d lavished him with gifts and expensive dinners. Most importantly, on the night before she revealed herself to be the hateful creature she is, she led him into the bedroom where she opened a small safe and pulled out a watch to give him. He told me there was cash in the safe. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Now, though, it was how I would help my husband get his life back.

I have to admit – I never realized how easy it is to sneak up behind someone as they’re walking up the front steps of their apartment, put something sharp against their back, and demand entry into their home. I thought there’d be a lot more struggling than there was. But no – I just followed her home from work and a few minutes later, I was standing behind Claudia in her bedroom. The ski mask I wore was hot and I was sweating like crazy. I studied the woman as she bent down to unlock the safe. Blonde. Slight. Maybe five feet tall on a good day. A weak little nothing. I was amazed by how someone so small could cause so much damage. My rage grew as she pulled a stack of cash from the safe and handed it to me. Her tears caused her makeup to run down her high cheekbones. As she begged me to leave and I heard her high, sharp voice, I imagined the terrible words coming out of her mouth. Words said with no purpose other than to inflict pain on the gentle, innocent man I love.

I slashed the knife across Claudia’s face twice and my other hand reached out and pressed against her mouth to muffle her scream. I held the knife to her throat as her face bled. I could see the second slash had sliced through her left eye. Tears flooded from it and mixed with the blood on her shredded cheeks. “Ugly girl,” I whispered.

At that moment, I knew I’d made a mistake. I pushed Claudia away as hard as I could. She fell backward, striking her head on the bedside table. She didn’t move. For a moment, I thought I’d killed her. I saw her chest rise and fall with shallow breaths. I left the apartment quickly; the stack of money feeling heavy in my jacket pocket.

When I got home, Brian was asleep. I took threw my bloody clothes in the laundry and took a shower. I was panicking. I knew it was only a matter of time before Claudia made the connection. Not knowing what to do, I hid the money under the sink – but not before I’d counted it. $5000. In a few months, we’d be able to afford to get Brian the surgery. I was terrified I’d be arrested before then. They’d take the money.

But the police never came. A couple days went by and Brian kept asking why I was so sad and stressed out. I lied to him for the first time, saying I’d been thinking about my mom a lot lately. She’d died suddenly the year before and I took it really badly. Brian had no reason to question it. He was as lovely and supportive as ever.

The police report in the local paper came out talking about how a woman was robbed and assaulted and they were looking for another woman, approximately 5’6”. Brown hair. I’m 5’8”. My hair is red.

Weeks passed. Then months. Brian had no idea about the money I’d hidden away. In the meantime, we’d saved $2000. His depression was no better. He still thought there were many, many thousands to go before he could get his surgery.

Six months after the incident with Claudia, I was fairly certain I’d gotten away with disfiguring her. I felt no guilt, either. Every day, I watched my husband suffer. Every day, I hoped she was suffering too. I decided it was time to tell Brian about the money. I had an explanation ready, too: it was the remainder of my mom’s estate that had gotten tied up in some bank error. After she’d passed, the bank did a terrible job managing her assets; it would be an entirely plausible lie. Still, I hating not being able to tell him the truth.

The joy on Brian’s face when he learned about the money was worth every second of stress and terror I’d felt during and after I’d obtained it. The next week, he was evaluated for his surgery. Three weeks later, it was done. Finally. His recovery was long and painful, but the glimmer of hope in his eyes had returned. I’d missed it so, so much.

It’s been a year since his surgery. Brian tells me over and over how he actually feels like himself. I could tell. His happiness is genuine. While he still has his bouts of sadness and self-deprecation, he walks around with a confidence I’ve never seen before. It’s beautiful to see.

On the night of our anniversary, following a wonderful, homemade meal, we were getting ready for bed. Brian was doing some blog stuff on his laptop and I was cursing at a stupid game on my phone. I heard an email come through the speakers on his computer. After a minute, Brian simply muttered, “wow” and passed the laptop to me. I read the message.

Dear Brian,

A while back I sent you some anonymous messages that were demeaning, abusive, and hurtful. I know they were inexcusable, but I feel I need to explain myself. During the worst time of my life, when my depression and alcoholism were beyond anything I can comprehend now that I’m sober, I lashed out at people. Once my restaurant failed, there was no one to blame but myself. I refused to accept that, so I chose to attack you – someone who’d confided in me and put his trust in me. Like I said, this is no excuse. I don’t expect you to write back and I don’t expect forgiveness. I don’t deserve it. I just need you to know, despite the cowardly attacks I unleashed on you, you’re one of the best men I’ve ever known. I hope your life is filled with joy and success.

Sincerely,
Leroy Davis

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Dilation and Evacuation

I’ve been Beth’s closest friend since we were toddlers. All throughout elementary, middle, and high school, we were inseparable. It was only after we went to separate colleges that we spent any significant amount of time apart. For me, it was borderline devastating. It wasn’t the loneliness that bothered me most. It was how Beth, in the very week she began attending school, found a boyfriend who replaced me as the most important person in her life.

We still spoke on the phone with relative frequency during the first couple weeks of school. The frequency diminished, though, as Beth dedicated more and more of her side of the conversation to gush about her love for Luke, the boyfriend. Without ever meeting him, I knew he was using her. And I was right. After a month, Beth was tossed aside and Luke was never seen again. Gradually, the conversations between Beth and me resumed their pre-Luke frequency, but I could tell something was dreadfully wrong. It was only during our Christmas vacation that Beth confessed why she wouldn’t be returning to school the next semester.

Beth was pregnant. She insisted she was on the pill and Luke had worn a condom every time, but her claims didn’t matter much. The pregnancy tests were positive and a visit to Planned Parenthood confirmed what the tests already told her. Somehow, in a terrible move motivated by fear, Beth told her parents. They responded by revoking their promise to pay her tuition and insisted that she move back at the end of the semester or she’d never be welcome in their home again.

We’re both from a small town in Florida. Our families are religious, but Beth’s parents are fanatics. The idea of a pregnant daughter infuriated and terrified them. In their flailing and hysterical confusion, they determined the best course of action would be to send her to a religious order where she could have the baby, give it up for adoption, and devote her life to the church. If the whole situation were on a television show, I would have found it almost funny; a parody of the most exaggerated customs of the irredeemably religious. But this was real. And Beth was going to suffer because of them.

I’d carefully brought up the idea of abortion. It was not a possibility. Beth was 17 at the time and Florida law required the consent of at least one parent to make the procedure legal. We knew her parents might react violently to even the suggestion of abortion, so we couldn’t approach them. On Christmas Eve, after we’d discussed her options for hours upon hours in hushed voices in my parents’ living room, Beth asked the question: “Do you think you can do it?”

I began shaking. As soon as I mentioned the abortion idea, I was terrified she’d ask me to conduct the procedure if all other options fell through. And the worst part was I knew I’d do it if she asked. I couldn’t let her be imprisoned by her parents’ church and be forced to devote herself to a group for whom she felt nothing but fear and contempt.

After we parted ways for the night, I locked myself in my bedroom and looked for videos of the procedure. I felt intense nausea and sympathetic pain as I watched all the necessary steps – the brutal things I’d have to do to my best friend. Gradual dilation. Violent evacuation. No anesthesia, no support. Nothing except the futile comfort I’d try to provide; comfort from the same person who was inflicting the pain. I hadn’t touched Beth yet and I already felt like a torturer.

I called her early the following week afternoon and tried to explain what I’d have to do. I was explicit as possible; part of me hoped the details would frighten her and she’d abandon the idea all together. But that wasn’t an option – not for either of us. She needed to be free from the situation that would condemn her to a life of pious imprisonment, and I couldn’t live with myself if I were to change her mind. I’d be just as bad as her parents.

At the end of the conversation, our plan was in place. It was less a plan than it was mutual resignation; two terrified and desperate people with minds made up to go through with something unavoidable. The next day, I’d collect the implements I’d need. The day after, we’d go through with it.

I purchased an assortment of smooth, wooden dowels of varying widths. I shuddered when I touched the widest one. Next, I went to the drugstore and bought a few packs of condoms. I recognized the cashier from high school and tried to ignore her stare of disgust and disapproval. At another store, I bought more innocuous-looking items: gauze, cotton, peroxide, and painkillers. The painkillers were purchased almost as a joke; I knew they’d be all but useless. I couldn’t stop thinking about the width of that last dowel.

The day after, I met Beth where we’d agreed would be the least likely spot where we’d be interrupted, and, most importantly, where she could feel free to yell if she felt the need. No one came to that part of the city anymore. It was an old industrial park that’d been abandoned decades ago. Not even the local teenagers or homeless bothered to venture into those warehouses anymore. Half of them had caved-in roofs and the other half were plagued by rats and other unpleasant conditions that made visits not worth anyone’s while. For Beth and me, though, it was the only conceivable spot. It was cold, filthy, and a little scary. These were the lengths to which we’d been driven.

We didn’t talk much in the time leading up to the procedure. There wasn’t really anything we could say. I prepared the makeshift tools to the best of my ability and Beth used her phone to watch the same, terrifying video I used a couple nights back to learn what I needed to do. She was shaking slightly. The trembling only increased when she removed her pants and wrapped a blanket around her waist.

When I was ready to start, I did my best to hide the feelings which threatened to pour out of me in a torrent of sobs and pathetic bleating. Beth needed me to stay in control. She wasn’t crying, and she was the one who’d have to endure this indignity. I admired her composure. As I was preparing to insert the first dowel, Beth’s phone rang.

“Oh my God,” she whispered, and jumped to her feet. Wrapping the blanket around her waist again, she paced back and forth while talking in a hushed voice. She was crying. I prayed it wasn’t her parents. They were so, so good at emotional manipulation.

Beth hung up and headed back to me. It wasn’t her parents. For the first time in months, it was Luke. He was on his way to Florida. He wanted to see her and take her away and they could raise their baby together. When Beth told me this past part, she whispered so quietly I needed her to repeat it. In a voice equally hushed but contained a haunted aspect I’ve never heard from her before, she said again: “I never told him I was pregnant.”

The chill I felt had nothing to do with the coldness of the dilapidated warehouse. Beth resumed her position and set her jaw. Her look of fear had changed to something wholly different. She was determined. “Do it,” she instructed. “Now.”

An hour went by as Beth exhibited a strength I never knew she had. She whimpered and winced, but not once did she cry out. I felt intense nausea as I inserted the progressively-wider dowels, having to stop more than once to look away from the bloody blanket underneath her and tried my best to disassociate from the situation for a minute or two. “This isn’t me,” I tried to convince myself. I wouldn’t do something like this. When the waves of nausea passed and I’d calmed down as best I could, I kept going.

The widest dowel was in place. Beth had removed the condom from of the previously-used dilators and had the wooden rod clenched between her teeth. I didn’t know if it was doing her any good, but she hadn’t cried out. Tears flowed from both of us as I removed the last one and took the thin forceps from the jar of rubbing alcohol where they’d been soaking. Before the instrument could touch Beth, a crash echoed through the cavernous warehouse. It was the door we’d been unable to unlock. We’d used the broken window to climb in. But it was undoubtedly the door we’d heard, and from across the football field-sized building, we saw a person striding toward us.

Beth again jumped to her feet, this time yelping when she moved. She scrambled to wrap the blanket around her as the figure moved toward us. “No,” sighed Beth, as she finally recognized who it was. “Luke,” she breathed at me. I’d already figured it out. The closer he came, the more frightened I grew. He was massive. At least 6’6”. And muscular. He moved with the heavy, effortless grace of a of a silverback gorilla. The sunlight coming in through the holes in the roof flashed off his pale skin as he got nearer.

I tried to stand in front of Beth as Luke barreled toward her, but I was pushed away and landed hard on the filthy floor. He reached Beth, who’d huddled against the wall. Luke grasped her shirt in his enormous right hand and lifted her from the ground. Beth flailed and landed weak, futile kicks on his body. Luke stared into her eyes for a moment, then he looked around at the bloodstained instruments on the towel next to where I’d sat.

“No,” Luke hissed into Beth’s face as she hung limply from his grasp, not bothering to fight him anymore. I tried rushing at him, but again he pushed me away and I fell hard on the floor.

“No,” he repeated. “You don’t get to do that. I need him.”

As the words left his mouth, something happened. Luke left arm, which had hung at his side, began to twitch. His hand deformed. Sharp cracks rang out as the shape changed. His fingers elongated and moved with a dextrous articulation I can only associate with tentacles or tendrils. When the fingers were nearly twice their original length, he moved his hand between her naked thighs.

“Give him to me,” Luke growled. For the first time, Beth screamed. I watched helplessly as she tried to clamp her legs together, only to have them wrenched apart by the impossibly strong thumb and pinky of Luke’s reshaped hand. The middle three digits pushed upward as Beth’s scream rose a full octave.

“Mine,” Luke whispered, as he slowly withdrew the fingers. Clasped delicately between them was a red lump no bigger than a lemon. It writhed his his grasp. Its shape was vaguely fetal with a distinct head and body, but the rest was alien. Tiny arms and legs split over and over, fanning out like progressively-thinner cilia. They gripped Luke’s fingers.

Luke dropped Beth to the floor. I heard her ankle snap when she landed and she cried out and grasped the injury as she stared up at the creatures in front of her.

The fetus-thing crawled up Luke’s hand and arm, leaving a trail of slime as it went. It nestled in the crook of his arm and remained there. I could’ve sworn I heard it coo with contentment.

Luke looked at both of us. “Tell whoever you want,” he said with bemusement. “Let them laugh at you.”

He turned, and as he walked away and I scrambled over to help Beth, he turned to face us again. “In a year, they’ll wish they took you seriously. Everyone will.”

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Dial Tone

oldphone

There’s a land line phone in the cabin where I’m staying to finish my novel. Cell service is practically nonexistent and God knows we won’t be seeing any major broadband providers stringing lines around here for another 50 years. I can get online using a 56k modem and connect to a shitty long-distance ISP, but I’ll be damned if I’m getting more than 14.4 speed whenever it’s windy out. It’s always windy out.

My plans for the days were pretty simple. I’d get up around 7, have breakfast, and start writing by 8. I’d make lunch around 1, call my wife at work during her own lunch break, then go back to writing until 6 or 7. Then dinner and bed.

On Saturday, when I picked up the phone to call Tasha during her lunch, the dial tone sounded off. It was pitched differently. You know how all the land line phones in the US have the same tone and you get used to hearing it every time? Well, it wasn’t that tone. It was pitched higher. It was as if the normal tone is an A note on a piano and the strange one Saturday was A#. The difference wasn’t big, but it was definitely noticeable. At first, I was fairly certain it meant there was a problem with the line. But when I called Tasha, the call went through without any problem at all. The sound quality was no different, either.

I forgot about the dial tone until last night when I went to call Tasha before bed. Again, the pitch was off. It wasn’t merely the difference between A and A#, though. It modulated slowly, as if sliding up and back from A to A#. The tone wasn’t as pure, either. There was static in the background. The wind outside had picked up, so I assumed it was affecting the ancient copper lines that crisscrossed the woodland county. The static waxed and waned with the modulating tone. I pressed my ear to the receiver, suddenly intrigued. There were voices in the static. I couldn’t make out what they were saying over the interference and the tone, but they were unmistakably voices. There must have been some wire crosstalk over at the switching facility.

I dialed Tasha and we talked for a little while. While we spoke, the wind outside intensified. Earlier, when I’d gone into town to get some groceries, the locals told me we were in for some snow. I assumed it was starting. Tasha and I were saying our goodnights when the power cut out. The room was utterly pitch black.

We finished up and I fumbled in the dark to hang the phone up. With a sinking feeling, I remembered I’d forgotten to get new batteries for the two flashlights I kept in the kitchen. I carefully walked over to the desk and opened my laptop. Weak, pale light filled the room and cast bizarre shadows against the walls. Despite being 42 years old, I felt scared. I wanted to make a fire in the fireplace, but I’d neglected to bring any wood inside. It’s rare that I make a fire; I’m always paranoid about accidentally burning the place down. Still, it was a risk I was willing to take in the face of the impending stygian blackness of the cabin once my laptop died.

I bundled up and went outside. It was somewhat brighter out there than in the cabin, and I could see snow was beginning to fall. There wasn’t much, but with all the wind it still looked and felt like a blizzard. I grabbed an arm full of wood from under the awning on the side of the cabin and headed back inside. As soon as I opened the door, I heard it.

The phone had fallen from its cradle and the receiver was emitting extremely loud, dissonant tones. This time, the sounds were entirely unlike anything I’d heard from a telephone. The tones swept through octaves like a damaged siren, frequently punctuated by bursts of static and, beneath it all, the unmistakable timbre of human voices. The hair on the back of my neck stood erect and my skin’s topography was reconstructed by gooseflesh. Buried inside the wailing of the dial tone and the blasts of white noise, I could make out individual words:

“DECLENSION.” “NEW.” “LUNATION.” “NEURULATION.” “GOD.”

The light from my laptop faded into nothingness. I gasped and dropped the wood I’d been carrying. I rushed forward to hang up the phone, but I stumbled and fell, landing heavily on the floor with my head inches from the screaming receiver. The wailing and static stopped. Wind buffeted the wooden exterior of the cabin. Terrified and not knowing what to do, I reached for the receiver to hang it up. When my hand touched the plastic, an enormous crash rattled all sides of the cabin at once, knocking dishes from the cabinets and causing them to shatter on the kitchen floor. I screamed.

The phone began making noise again. It started with a normal dial tone, but quickly warbled and warped into a shrill cacophony of sirens, static, and voices. Somehow, I was impelled to put the shrieking receiver to my ear. I fought the impulse with all my strength, even pushing my left arm against my right to stop it from moving. It was futile. The receiver touched my ear and the sounds were replaced by a single, hideously loud voice:

“YOUR HOURS.” “YOU ARE HOURS.” “YOU ARE OURS. “YOU ARE OURS.”

A needle of indescribably cold pain pushed through my ear. I felt its frigid length puncture the eardrum with a horrible “snip” sound, changing the the blaring voice to a distorted buzz. Still, I felt the pressure of the intense volume against the destroyed membrane as the pain traveled deeper and deeper into my head. Everything went white.

I woke up on the floor this morning with a splitting headache and pool of dried blood in my right ear. The events of the previous night flooded back and I scrambling to my feet in terror. The wreckage of the kitchen was strewn across the floor. Framed pictures of Tasha and me had fallen off the walls and shattered on the hardwood. Desperate for fresh air, I hurled myself toward the door and opened it. Surrounding the cabin, contrasting against the sunny snowscape, were thousands of dead birds. Each one had its head smashed with such force that its eyes had burst and its beak was splintered into unrecognizable fragments. Vertiginous nausea caused me to sway and nearly fall into the carcasses. I stumbled backward into the house and slammed the door.

I looked over at the phone. It was neatly placed on its cradle and looking as innocuous as any telephone in any house. I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up and dial 911. Not after what happened. I pored through the fallen debris and found my keys. The legs of a drunkard carried me through the bird corpses to my truck. I pulled away from the cabin and somehow made it to the hospital without crashing.

Right now, I’m writing this with a borrowed laptop from a bed in the hospital. My right eardrum is ruined. They told me I’d experience vertigo for quite a while, but I was given medication to make the sensation less nauseating. The injury to my ear was not enough to keep me hospitalized. In fact, it was hardly enough for the ER staff to take seriously and they seemed irritated by my presence. That changed when they asked me how it happened. I explained it to them as best I could, but all I could see in their faces was bewilderment. Over and over they asked me to repeat myself, but after a while, I started to get frustrated.

One of them handed me a pen and paper and I simply wrote, “What is so hard for you to understand?” A young nurse asked me to tell them again what happened. She held her phone out in front of her and I saw she was recording a video. Again, I explained. They listened intently as I spoke, then the nurse stopped the recording. I shrugged my shoulders, wondering if recording me somehow got my story through their thick skulls. The nurse turned the phone toward me and I pressed play. I watched for a few seconds and started sobbing. On screen, when I opened my mouth to speak, all that came out was the shrill siren of the warped dial tone.

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Cracks in the Foundation

cracks

Things turned sour between my wife and me before we were married. Before our marriage was even recognized by our state, in fact. There was too much mistrust; too many incidents from our respective pasts had bubbled up to demand our attention. But we soldiered on. The gesture of our marriage, we agreed, was more important than the fraying of our bond.

As the months dragged on, we worked to rekindle the essential elements of our relationship. For the most part, we were successful. Janelle’s sharp edges, honed by the coarseness of our interactions over our most difficult times, began to dull. Mine, too, softened. For a while, things felt good. Comforting. Familiar.

Familiarity, though, would beget slothfulness. It’s what I’d worried would happen. Every night, when we were curled up together in our bed, Janelle would snore and I’d be plagued by fear. It was the fear of inevitability. No matter how well things were going, once we got our wheels back in the familiar rut of our old routines, I knew our foundation would resume its inexorable deterioration. There was only so much damage it could endure before everything we’d worked to build would topple.

We both felt pangs of stress before either of us articulated our concerns. Janelle started drinking again. She wouldn’t stumble around drunkenly, but not a day went by when I didn’t smell it on her breath. She made no attempt to hide it. I, too, regressed. I was overeating – just like how I’d done before we met, when food was the only way I could escape the reality of my depression. When Janelle and I started our relationship, I was elated. My self-loathing melted away, taking 25lbs with it. But each time our connection felt like it was weakening, the first thing I turned to for comfort was junk food. Now I down a pint of ice cream every night while she polishes off a bottle of wine.

If it wasn’t for our sex life, I think our relationship would have ended after our first fight. But I freely admit – we’re hedonists. We escape reality through physical gratification, whether it’s food for me, alcohol for her, or sex for us both. The pleasure we give one another has always purged the most toxic of the venom from our respective battle wounds. We both knew it was escapism. Neither of us cared. We needed to feel good and we had the ability to provoke that feeling in one another.

This morning, we were sitting at the breakfast table and drinking our coffee. As I’d always expected but never anticipated, Janelle announced her intention to leave me. I didn’t say anything. I just stared into my coffee; the black liquid and the white mug defocusing and hazing as tears filled my eyes. I asked her if she’d finally chosen Alana over me. She nodded and began to sob. We didn’t talk much after that.

A few hours ago, as Janelle was packing, she came over to where I sitting and hugged me. She held me for a long time. I sat, motionless, doing my best not to bawl. But she wouldn’t let go. I hated her. She kissed my cheek. My ear. My jawline. I felt warmth between my thighs. I hated my body. I turned and met her kisses. After less than a minute, we were undressed. Her tongue explored me and I writhed beneath her ministrations, despising her cowardice and antipathy toward our relationship while I clutched her head and ground against her mouth. I shuddered and saw flashes of our earlier life together as I came; my pleasure decaying into oversensitivity as I pulled her by the hair to stop her rough tongue from scraping over any more of me.

Janelle’s face wore a rictus of self-satisfaction and wanton lust. I could smell her arousal and knew it would be my only opportunity to finally give her what she needed. My final opportunity to get what I craved. I wasn’t gentle with her. It was what she’d always asked for but I’d refused to provide. This last time, though, she could have it all. I scratched. Bit. Pulled her hair. She arched her back and mewled in mindless pleasure which only infuriated and further-motivated me. Mewls became moans. Moans became screams. And screams became gasps as her muscles tensed and she collapsed on the sofa, wide-eyed and sweating. She lay on her back, splayed, dripping, and utterly exposed. I kissed her forehead and watched, transfixed, as warmth drooled from her inviting slit. Throat.

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Charles Robert Olevsky

charles

If you do a Google search for “Charles Robert Olevsky,” nothing will come up. Well, maybe by the time you read this they’ll have indexed this particular content, but aside from that, my name has been absent from the Internet. I lead a dull life. I’m a daytrader. Upper-middle class. No family, few friends. To be honest, I’m a homebody. Life’s just easier that way.

Last night, on a whim provoked by boredom, I did a Google search for my full name. I expected the usual nothing. But that’s not what I encountered. There were hundreds of thousands of results: news articles, Wikipedia entries, social media mentions – even pictures. But they weren’t pictures I could ever remember taking part in. And I looked much older; at least 20 years. I was surrounded by uniformed men carrying weapons. In a confused and moderately terrified frenzy, I clicked the top article. My blood ran cold.

“Charles Robert Olevsky, founder and leader of the New White Dawn Militia, announced today the successful completion of his campaign to eliminate the ‘immigrant threat’ from the Southern United States. This was the largest of the NWDM campaigns, resulting in the deaths of 250,000 immigrants or perceived immigrants. Following the overwhelming successes of the most recent NWDM actions and the lack of intervention by the US government, it is believed Charles Robert Olevsky will continue pushing south into Mexico.”

With trembling hands, I zoomed in on the photograph of me. On my wrist was the same watch I always wear. The one given to me by my father. Minutes ticked by and I read more and more about the atrocities I’d been accused of committing. Mass murder. Systematic rapes as terror tactics. Torture. Every victim was innocent.

There were videos of me from the early days of the NWDM. Propaganda videos. Someone recorded while I walked down the street with an assault rifle slung on my back, intimidating and beating everyone who looked like they didn’t belong in that particular area. Each video featured me committing different acts of violence. I performed the acts with a calm demeanor and spoke to the victim like a patronizing father explaining to his child why he had to be beaten. As the videos went on, I began killing them. When the families ran to the corpses of their loved ones, I shot them, too.

Before I could finish the video, my Internet connection died. I felt unbearably nauseous and dizzy. Guilty, too. That man couldn’t be me. When my connection reestablished, I tried to resume the video. It wouldn’t go. I closed the browser and tried again. When I typed in “Charles Robert Olevsky,” nothing came up. All Google showed me were other people who had either “Charles” or “Robert” or “Olevsky” in their names. Nothing mentioned me.

I opened my browser’s history and clicked the links from the last half hour. Each one was a 404. There was nothing. I started to think I was losing my mind. But then I remembered the pictures of me wearing the exact same watch I’ve worn for the last 30 years. The videos, though, were what shook me to my core. Nothing about my actions in them was anything like who I am as a person. I glanced over at the side of the desk where my printer stood. The package housing Rosetta Stone’s “Learn Spanish” sat on top. I thought about the scenes of those hideous videos. I started to cry. Every time I talked to one of the people I brutalized – every time I mocked them as they bled out, I spoke in perfect Spanish.

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Bluefin

bluefin

It was getting harder and harder to get Pacific bluefin tuna. Yeah, I could get other varieties, but everyone knows Pacific bluefin is the best. Especially for sushi. I contacted supplier after supplier, and all of them told me the same thing: they were being pressured to phase out the product and the prices would continue to rise because the demand was higher than ever.

My customers are well off. They can afford the best, so they demand the best. If I can’t give them what they demand, they’ll go elsewhere. In this competitive restaurant environment, if that happens, I’m done for. You can imagine my growing panic as the prices for bluefin rose and the supplies dwindled. Sure, my customers would pay whatever I charged when I could get it in, but that was becoming less and less frequent. The bigger restaurants would get first dibs. Why sell one to me when you can sell three or four to the guy down the street, especially when he had enough cash on hand to outbid me?

I was getting ready to give up hope. My sales were at an all-time low as the customers sought a better, more high-end selection from my competitors. In my desperation, I realized I’d be willing to circumvent the law if it meant staying in business. Staying in business meant my girls could stay at Yale. It meant my wife could continue receiving top-quality nursing care in our home while her Alzheimer’s worsened. I wasn’t ready to take that all away from them.

Ten years ago, I met a man named Satoshi. He was the nephew of one of my suppliers. He’d gone into business for himself and got into quite a bit of trouble for poaching some endangered sharks to sell their fins to the Chinese market. I think he spent a couple months in jail and had to pay a pretty big fine, but rumor had it that he’d emerged a new man. He reformed his business and appeared to be extraordinarily successful. It was that extraordinary success which caused me to get in contact with him.

To me, it appeared Satoshi was too successful. His business was small compared to the other suppliers in the area, but he was living a life of luxury. He drove a Bentley when the other guys drove BMWs. He had three houses in the most expensive areas of the city when the other guys had one. That kind of thing. I had a feeling he was into something extra.

Within an hour of our meeting, Satoshi said he could get me Bluefin for 80% below market price. To say I was surprised was an understatement. In fact, I laughed in his face. He remained serious, though, and insisted he wasn’t making it up.

Apparently, there was an area off limits to fishermen where Bluefin congregated in massive numbers. They were attracted to the warm water or something. Satoshi’s connections were in the Japanese coast guard, and they’d been planning a pretty big scam where their patrol boats got rigged with fishing gear and they could haul up Bluefin at night and sell them off at dawn. All they needed was a buyer.

80% below market price. I didn’t ask any questions and just said yes. I was fairly sure the police would break in through the windows and arrest me as soon as I shook Satoshi’s hand, but they didn’t. Satoshi just smiled at me as I wrote him a check. He told me I should expect the first delivery in the morning.

True to his word, at 5am, an unmarked truck pulled up in front of my restaurant. Two men got out, opened the back of the truck, and pulled three gorgeous bluefin from the icy compartment. Two were flash-frozen, one was ready for preparation. They brought them into the kitchen, helped me put two in the freezer, and left without saying a word.

I broke down the unfrozen one. It was perfect. The meat was firm and succulent. The samples I tasted were as good as the expensive stuff. I say “good” despite the fact I’m not actually a huge fan of the fish. Go figure. But I could still tell when I was tasting the real deal, and this most certainly was the real deal. I went and drew a huge advertisement on our sidewalk chalkboard. I was going to sell the bluefin dishes for half what my competitors were asking for. Then I went into the kitchen, started to prepare the fish, and felt relieved for the first time in as long as I could remember.

Dinner service was the busiest in the history of my restaurant. Word spread on social media and the place was packed from open to close. People who’d never been able to afford bluefin showed up once they learned how low the price was. The night was spectacular. So was the following night. And the night after.

I was delighted to take home many, many bluefin dishes to Aiko. She’d been having a rare, multi-day stretch of lucidity, and it warmed my heart to see her eating her favorite food and relishing her time spent with me. If I could feed her the food she loved most and could actually afford to do it, I was going to. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her happy.

I received delivery after delivery from Satoshi’s guys and was making money hand over fist. I was tight-lipped about where I was getting my supply, and the competitors were scrambling to keep up. Aiko drifted in and out like those with Alzheimer’s do; but no matter how far gone she was on some nights, she always perked up when I served her the bluefin she adored.

I started to grow a bit concerned, though, because it looked like Aiko had developed a skin condition. She’d bruise very easily and her skin was so delicate. Her nurse would have to be extremely careful when brushing her teeth because her gums would bleed badly. I was told it was a nutritional deficiency. Aiko was given some injections to help bring her levels back to normal.

The customers kept coming to the restaurant but Aiko got worse every day. Her nurse said if she didn’t start to show signs of improvement soon, she’d have to bring her to the hospital. When I stroked my wife’s hair, I was dismayed to see that some came out in my hand.

On a busy Saturday night, the nurse called me in a panic. Aiko had developed terrible, bloody diarrhea and was vomiting blood. She’d been rushed to the hospital and was in intensive care. I told the restaurant manager to take over and I sped to the hospital as quickly as possible.

Aiko was in a room by herself. She was stuffed with tubes and plugged with wires. Monitors displayed countless readouts that meant nothing to me. I stared at her from behind the glass and told the doctors I needed to go in and sit with her. They refused. I protested and fought, but I couldn’t get through the door. It was locked. Behind the glass, a torrent of blood erupted from Aiko’s mouth. It filled the tube and poured out over the sides of her face. A door on the other side of the room opened and doctors wearing yellow suits and masks ran in. They closed the curtains and I was left with Aiko’s nurse. We cried together.

My cell phone rang. Satoshi. I don’t know why I answered, but I did. He was beside himself with what sounded like terror. I barely could make out what he was saying, but in his panicky outbursts, I realized he was telling me something was wrong with the fish he’d been selling me.

I demanded that he calm down and speak clearly. “What about the fish, Satoshi?”

“You have to stop using it,” he choked out, panic still tainting his voice.

“Why?,” I asked, as pinpricks of dread rose along my back and neck. All I heard on his end was weeping. “Satoshi!,” I yelled, causing the nurse to jump.

His voice trembled. “I didn’t know they were getting it from there.”

“Oh no,” I breathed. I closed my eyes. “Satoshi…where are they getting the bluefin?”

An eternity passed as I listened to the man sob weakly into the phone.

I screamed his name with such violence I felt something in my throat tear.

In a tiny, almost childlike tone, Satoshi answered me.

“Fukushima Bay.”

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Bluebirds

Allow me to wax poetic about these tiny newborn birds. Never before have I felt such softness. As I reach for them, gentle prickles of static electricity cause strands of their avian gossamer to stand at attention before my fingertips trace whispers through their feathery down. My ears fill with the cooing of birds; two angels with wings outstretched. Two beacons of my newfound tranquility.

I sat, terrified, as they hatched the night before. Each one fought so hard to enter the world and battled to escape the confines of their once nurturing, but now worthless, container. But the fight went well for them. At the end of the battle, two strong, white doves met this world. Two porcelain baby birds. I watched, spellbound, as their mother expressed her thoughtless, impelled teleology to feed them before they could start to cry. And as the last bits of nourishment trickled down their throats, the warm body of their mother kept them protected against the dangers of night.

When I woke up this morning, the two baby doves greeted me with stares of admiration and love. I felt how hot the room was and noticed the dampness of sweat in my armpits and crotch. I shrugged away the discomfort. The little white doves needed warmth more than I needed clean, dry clothing.

The mother cared for the needs of her two white babies as I gazed at them with satisfaction. I brushed the belly of one with the back of my knuckle. Its down ruffled against my touch and stuck straight up as I traveled against its grain. Time passed and I stroked each of the tiny white babies for hours, savoring the sensation of their delicate fluff against my sensitive skin.

With each stroke, though, dull panic began an inexorable metastasis within my chest. These baby birds were growing. Even though part of me knew it was impossible to notice growth after only a day, its very prospect was abhorrent. No longer would they be soft, delicate, and tiny. They would be coarse. Thick. Bulky.

I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. I cried for so long I expected the two white babies to have grown up and flown away by the time I stopped. When I opened my swollen eyes, though, there they were – soft and tiny as ever. But their mother was gone.

I placed my tear-soaked hands over the faces of the tiny, white birds. I could hear their muffled coos of protest through my palms, but I remained resolute. My eyes closed and I imagined the quiet beauty of bluebirds; the birds of happiness. Minutes passed. Then hours. And then I knew I could let go.

The wide eyes of two bluebirds gazed adoringly at their mother, who had finally returned to care for them. I put their legs together and stretched their arms wide, as if they were perfect, angelic wings. Wings that would always be small, delicate, and soft. Glowing cheerfully in the nurturing warmth of the room, I stroked the downy lanugo dusting their tiny blue faces, chests, and bellies.

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