Night Picnic_Cover_v4i1 eBook.jpg

VOLUME 4, ISSUE 1 

FEBRUARY 2021

2021  •  ISBN# 9781970033151  •  190 pp  •  6" x 9" paperback

Night Picnic is a journal of literature and art. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.

This issue includes:
David Capps, The Misanthrope

Colton Heitzman-Breen, Almost Inhuman

Hunter C. Koch, The Memories of Clancy Freeman

Angelica Allain, The Good Mortician
Francesca Della Bona, The Island in the Lake
Brent Holmes, Wonder
Zach Murphy, A Fair Amount of Ghosts
Elizabeth Paxson, Selkie Love
Ariel Berry, Paper Doll

J.D. Hosemann, The Poet’s Teeth
Holly Day, Desperation & other poems
RC de Winter, Almost Silent Spring & other poems
Christina E. Petrides, Recalcitrant & other poems
Mary Eliza Crane, Ashes & other poems
Barbra Nightingale, A Parliament of Owls & other poems

This issue also includes Russian translations of the above titles.

Colton Heitzman-Breen, Almost Inhuman
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Colton Heitzman-Breen, Almost Inhuman
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Colton Heitzman-Breen, Almost Inhuman
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Hunter C. Koch, Memories of Clancy
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Hunter C. Koch, Memories of Clancy
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Enjoy a selection of work from this issue below:

POETRY

HOLLY DAY

D e s p e r a t i o n

 

I don’t love him anymore, and I don’t know if I ever did.

I mourn the loss of my beauty, all those years wasted

with someone who would rather fondle a wheel of cheese

all types, all textures, out of some misguided sense of sophistication

some notion picked up from watching foreign films

and imported beer commercials.

 

Men taste like old cheese, smell like old cheese

as if something’s molded in the crevasses of flesh

something aging and curdling in there all on its own.

I lie awake at night, listening to him breathe

wondering if I will be able to tell when he finally dies

by the sudden silence, or by a gradual change

in the odor in the room.

 

 

 

F o r e w a r n e d

 

When you first have children, people tell you

how hard small children are on a marriage,

so you prepare yourself

for things to be hard, you endure the arguments

tell yourself it’s because

no one’s getting enough sleep, everything’s a mess,

there are too many things to worry about

it’s exactly what you’ve been told to expect.

The moments you have

where there is no fighting or crying or screaming

are the best moments of all, and those moments

condition you

to take all of the bad stuff

hide it somewhere in the back.

 

When the kids are older, and they fight all the time,

and everyone’s fighting all the time, you tell yourself

this, too, is something else you just have to ride out,

you have to hold onto those few, perfect moments

sandwiched in between all the noise,

that’s what it’s all about, just a few perfect moments

here and there.

 

And when it’s over, and the kids are gone

and it’s just the two of you and there’s all this baggage

piled into the dark,

regrets and arguments

and all those terrible things you said to each other

before storming off to opposite ends of the house

opposite sides of the bed, and what then?

Will it be perfect now?

Will it all smooth over and be nothing but wonderful?

Will you finally have the perfect marriage, the perfect family

just before you die?

 

 

 

T h e   G u e s t       

 

The little lady bug scurries towards me across the table

zig-zagging across the Formica as though it can’t decide

if it’s coming towards me or trying to find a way around me.

I put one finger down right in front of it

and without hesitation, it climbs up

and runs all the way up to my arm.

 

If I can get something so tiny and fragile to approach me like this

then perhaps I’m not so awkward and frightening after all

perhaps I can step out into the world

without causing havoc and destruction and make people run away

or whatever it is I think will happen

if I actually go outside.

 

The little ladybug stops at my elbow and raises its front legs

to wipe clear its eyes with two tiny front legs,

perhaps so it can see me more clearly.

I stare back at it, trying to look calm and nonthreatening

think strong, positive thoughts about how I like ladybugs

I would never hurt a ladybug

I would like to be this ladybug’s friend, if it’ll have me

 

and with a flash, it opens its little black secondary wings

and flutters away.

 

 

 

H o n e y m o o n

        

I would tell you

that he took me to the woods

wrapped in the bedcovers

my mother had made for our wedding night

kept in a wooden hope chest built by my great-grandfather

passed down, generation after generation, but

 

my family doesn’t believe in hope chests

or hand-embroidered coverlets for newlyweds

or hand-written vows, or unexpected flowers

or anything that has to do with marriage

beyond convenience and duty.

 

But at least my father never killed my mother

never dumped her in the woods by the side of the road

never rolled her into a ditch before speeding away

in a dented pickup truck with mud intentionally masking

most of the numbers on the out-of-state plates.

 

 

 

T h e   W a y   t h e   S t o r y   E n d s

 

I took my shoes off before stepping on the grass so that it knew

I didn’t want to hurt it, and in turn, it would fold back over my footprints

as though I’d never passed. When there was enough distance

between me and the house, I threw down a comb

that grew into a forest of trees, threw down a mirror

that spread into a lake too wide to swim across.

When the water filled with swans, I told them to tell the man

who would wake and come to the bank and ask

that I’d fallen into the water and drowned, he’d come too late.

 

When the cock finally began crowing and the sun had come up

there was enough distance between me and my old life

that not even a house built on chicken legs would be able to catch me

not even a deer with the heart of a man would be able to follow me

not even a wolf with a belly full of village children and old women

would be able to pick up my scent

not even an eagle would be able to fly high enough to find me

a tiny dot running against the spread of green prairie,

far away on the other side of the world.

 

I am as free as a girl raised by sparrows and butterflies.

I am as free as a girl raised by fireflies and starlight.

I am as free as my mother always wished I could be.

RC DE WINTER

A l m o s t   S i l e n t   S p r i n g

 

Meteorologically weeks late, spring is, I think, finally here.

The sun smiles. Birds sing. Chirp. Trill. Screech.

Working overtime to make up for their late return.

I poke around the flower beds bordering the yard,

inhaling a deep breath of seascented air with no difficulty.

No pain. No rattle. No cough.

 

Next door, Lucy, out on her chain, is barking the end of the world —

hoarse, deepchested woofs that in my imagination become

the universal chorus of the dying. There are no other sounds in this

dense pocket of suburbia, normally crowded with a fruitbowl full

of noises, all competing to be the loudest. The most annoying.

 

No cars on the streets. Not even the road ending at the beach. It’s closed.

No kids shouting. Whining. Fighting. Crying.

No lawnmowers, leaf blowers, power tools etc.

None of the mostly elderly trading gossip over low, manicured shrubs.

Even John, the widower cattycorner up the hill who lives

for fussing over his immaculate lawn, is MIA.

 

Listening to the oratorio of birdscreech and dogbark I imagine,

for a minute, I'm the only one left. If I were to enter

these quiet houses I'd find nothing but decaying corpses.

Lucy would become my new unwanted responsibility.

The mail truck chugging round the corner breaks that spell.

I go inside, wondering what will be left when this is all over.

s u n b u r n

 

your absence is a punishment

the way the night sky must feel

after a bright comet caresses it

then disappears without promising a return

 

thigh muscles clench

as if wrapping themselves around you

i cannot be calm

 

and throwing off the crown you left behind

for me to wear

i lose myself in the dark eyes you left behind

for me to love

 

penetrating space and time

kissing me from the inside out

 

 

i n   t h e   s h a d o w   o f   t h e   w i n d m i l l

 

i need to get away and i've always loved trains

but a train won't save me now

only take me to another station

on the road to golgotha

 

all the trains are sleeping anyway

confined in the infinite evening

of a dangerous summer adorned with

pale flowers and the leftover songs of sailors not sailing

 

even when i go out safe and alone

looking for you in the darkness

of the infinite evening

the heretic stars refuse to shine

 

love is hidden in the four corners of history

in the silence of arthropods that feast on mortality

and even as i call your name

the darkness of the infinite evening swallows my words

 

hanging in a sky clotted with tears

and scented not by the pale flowers

of this dangerous summer but the earthy perfume

of a pale rider laughing softly in his saddle

 

t h i r t y   o u g h t

 

morning veiled

in sullen mist

somewhere between

phlegm and frosty

a slow awakening

in arms

stretching across

12 million football fields

to encircle me

in a brushfire

somewhere between

safety and eros

i lie

not wanting to

break that circle

 

but the bullwhip

of obligation

snakes across my skin

razor tongue

threatening to open

hairline bleeders

so i touch myself

somewhere between

lust and resignation

just a few light reminders

of what awaits

somewhere between

now and forever

and rising

attach my wings

 

m i r a c l e   i n   h e l l ’ s   k i t c h e n

 

dark night in gotham and quiet too

the only music the humming of stray electrons

a geometric melody zizzing against the

ungiving brick of silent buildings

 

despite its cold dissonance the music lures

a dancer from the shadows leaping and twirling

in this abandoned playground of divines who

once wrote the history of arts and commerce

 

i lean further out the window to watch

the hypnotic performance of this brave

foolish pilgrim giving life to a landscape

of dead rock and the ghosts of dreamers

 

who defeated by the inattention of the world

returned to their lakes and cornfields to spend

their lives remembering brief bright stays

in the pulsing neon glow of the unattainable

 

a sudden evectional error shatters a comet’s orbit

sending it falling from the sky in a liquid blur that

hisses into the river whose cold filthy water churns

in the outraged protest of surprise

 

and as the dancer mimes applause he melts into a dream

leaving me the only witness to a questionable miracle

sparing us to grope our way to a questionable future

CHRISTINA E. PETRIDES

R e c a l c i t r a n t

 

He’s wailing like a lost soul behind the toilet,

emitting plaintive squeaks of lone desperation

that trail off into nothingness

as if he were condemned forever

to the company of the plumbing

and hadn’t toys scattered about the room,

a full water bowl, ample food, a comfortable bed,

and a human more than willing to welcome him

should he decide to emerge from his cold ceramic confines.

I’ve tried luring him with pungent and delicious meats,

talking in a calming voice, and dangling a winsome

bit of string tipped with feathers and a small bell

in front of his cave, but he’s having none of it,

and only emerges when I am safely out of

eye and ear-shot. Sometimes late at night

I’ll hear a crash as he rearranges items on the countertop

and I am reassured that he’s mobile and mischievous.

The daily shovelfuls from the litter box

tell me that his bowels are in good order.

How long must I endure these wee cries of needless complaint

and celebrate his sandy-furred company only secondhand?

 

 

 

 

A   G o l f   L e g e n d

 

Rumor has it the rich cabal which controls

the legendary local links

annually sacrifices a nubile caddy

when the moon most resembles

a pale pebbled ball.

The soul of that white-clad clubsbearer

ensures the weather continues perfect

and the grounds unnaturally exquisite

for the yearly Tournament.

In exchange, his family’s name is written

on the long-closed golden list

of those life-elect allowed to purchase tickets—

which divine reward ensures an indefinite

supply of filial votaries.

 

 

 

 

G r o w i n g   P l a n s

 

Man, hey, that’s so cool

your dad wants you to come home

to open a pot dispensary!

 

A father-son joint venture

may flourish

or the profits go up in smoke

as unbanked grass attracts attention.

You want to blunt some common ills,

but other creatures could crawl out

to eat the bowls of nectar you prepare.

 

I wish I had a crystal or a magic torch

to diffuse the future’s haze to tell

whether the strain may be an ounce too much

or if you’ll emerge solvent in a season,

oil dripping down your heirloom hippy beards.

 

In any case, bud,

wish you the best!

 

 

 

 

S i x – L e g g e d   C o n s p i r a c y

 

a bottle-green fly squatted

outside her window

on the air conditioning unit

to rub its forefeet together

 

chuckling

it buzzed off

and the enamel ladybug charm

on her bracelet grinned sinisterly

 

after five days

the fire ants that had invaded

the chocolate in her pantry

began to eat her as well

 

 

 

 

A n   A v e r a g e   M o r n i n g

 

Strumming my ribs and patting my belly like a drum

I stare at nothing through the window

before shuffling off to wash my face

with the hand soap beside the sink

and poke around in my closet to choose

one well-worn black outfit among others.

I leave the house, only to be startled at a reflection

in a shopfront glass on the short walk to work—

Who is that frumpy female carrying my purse,

and how did she forget to brush her hair?!

MARY ELIZA CRANE

A s h e s

 

No one will hand me

a box of your ashes

when you pass,

likely by the will

of your own hand.

You will ask

they be scattered

across the earth,

your true beloved.

 

But if I could sift

a few fingers

through your dust,

would I tighten

in my fist a shard

of bone or teeth,

and keep a solid

piece of you

beside my heart?

 

Would this be

any different from

a space and time

long-distance love?

 

 

 

W i t n e s s

 

Wind-worn stony hills shelve down to the river.

You find it beautiful, and do not see

the barrenness of desert, as you bear witness

to the dark hatred of occupation.

 

This is someone’s home. Are your feet naked

against the hard rock, and does a harsh wind

drive through your layer of clothes,

to parch the skin on your spare form beneath?

 

Beauty is in the light cast through shadows

illuminating every stone and rock

and fractured shard in an infinity of tones,

 

the color of the land beyond the blood.

Will life flourish in every crack and crevice,

everywhere something endures to hold?

 

 

 

 

W o l v e s

 

The forest is cold and feral,

and each of us is alone

with every wound we ever suffered.

 

Someday we will only be bones

dry, brittle, broken, and covered

with humus and verdigris.

 

Do you remember each of your lovers,

their warm and clumsy palms

sliding along your curves in the hope

 

you would unfold and open, soft

as damp moss? Some nights, overcome

by loss and dread, you withheld your love.

 

All that remains is distance and time.

Comfort is only a bowl of cooked grain

cupped in trembling hands,

 

barely up to the task of survival.

Stay awake. Listen to the wolves howl.

 

 

 

 

L a p s e

 

It took more than forty years to know

there is carnage

when you go against the grain.

 

It’s the innocents who pay

when you open up

their bodies and their minds.

 

What was her fate?

I never knew,

and it took this long to understand

 

the gift you gave me

was the knowledge

there is no such thing as truth.

 

 

 

 

U n t e t h e r e d

 

I sat on the roof alone.

Untethered I was free.

 

The sky was blue and cold.

There was no you to miss.

 

Serene.

 

If I took just one step,

untethered I could fly.

 

I was free.

BARBRA NIGHTINGALE

A   P a r l i a m e n t   of   O w l s

 

Which came first?

Parliament or owls? No doubt

the white-wigged men

in government were thought

to be wise, but really, the owl

was first, Athena’s crest in gold.

 

Who-who whoever the namer was,

St. Albans in his book on hunting — 15th century —

or some literary type seeing a simile

between members of Parliament

and touchy, screechy owls startled

to the rafters, no one seems to know.

 

Visualize this: barn owls, burrowing owls,

snowy owls, over 200 types of owls —

all bickering and hunting, claiming their space,

their territory, congressing together.

Sound familiar? Watch closely.

See how they vote.

 

 

 

A   D e s c e n t   o f   W o o d p e c k e r s

 

Drum roll, please: introducing

the Red Bellied Woodpecker

whose head, not his belly is red.

Lovelorn, he’ll hammer for hours

on some unlucky tree already dying

from blight or frustrated peckers

who never got an answer.

 

It seems females of all species

wait a day or two, even a week

to return a call, and when they do,

what a racket! Not your best

boy band drummer

but still, the call is made.

Old chisel tip

digs holes in trees for a nest,

then shows it to his girl—

If she likes him, she’ll hop right in,

make herself comfy, then head

for the nearest moss

to gather better bedding.

 

Watch him circle their nest

high in the sky, then drop like lead

to catch an ant, showing off

his sticky prowess, his tongue

like a rake, filling his beak.

Proudly, he hops to his mate,

opens his mouth and shows her

his wonderful, wriggling catch.

Satisfied, she lays her eggs

and soon, her nestlings hatch.

 

It’s an age-old story, the birds and the bees,

but bees aren’t needed here, so . . .

The male will stick around till

the hatchlings fly, even help feed them,

but soon as he can, he’s off looking

(and so is she). Serial monogamy.

Seems to work. We should give it a try.

 

 

 

A   M u r d e r   o f   C r o w s

 

When the birds fly at sunset

from wire to wire, sweeping

in harmony, lifted wing,

they most likely will be crows

or their cousins, the grackle.

The crows’ yellow eyes fix on their fellows,

seeing the signals out of the corners

of their vision, swooping up, down,

across, then land, each moving over

to give room to the other as it grips the wire.

 

The name, it seems, comes from their propensity

for gathering at death, a funeral, last rites, farewell

to the flock, a number minus one or two.

They aren’t given to murder one another,

though it is not entirely alien if one oversteps.

Perhaps they’re investigating a crime scene,

maybe an accident, one bird whose wings touched

another on the line and fried, falling to earth.

 

How do they, we, grieve our losses?

In public or in private matters not, it’s grief

nonetheless; a lesson learned. Come dawn,

all voices will rise again.

 

 

 

A n   U n k i n d n e s s   o f   R a v e n s

 

When the ravens scattered seeds

that grew into people, perhaps

they were of evil intent, knowing

the havoc men would create.

 

Some say they are witches, disguised

as any living thing, hiding in plain sight,

adorned with thick, feathered collars,

able to speak in human voices.

Perhaps those poor, unfortunates

who seem to have lost their minds

are really following orders given by a raven.

 

When Poe heard his raven speak

“nevermore” its answers were perfectly

in tune to his grief, the darkness

in his wounded heart.

Ravens are cunning, deceitful,

tricking each other as well as people.

 

No soul, no heart, no remorse.

When a raven croaks his tailored message,

take heed: it may well be

the last thing you ever hear.

 

 

 

A   F l a m b o y a n c e   o f   F l a m i n g o e s

 

Florida is known for many things:

heat, humidity, hurricanes.

Of course, there are seagulls, storks,

palm trees, and yes, flamingoes

who live mostly in parks, protected

from poachers, which makes me wonder

if our other flamboyant residents need protecting, too.

We have bars, restaurants, theaters, clubs, festivals.

They come wearing flamingo hats, shirts, Hawaiian shorts,

flip flops and painted toenails, as bright as any bird.

 

Baby flamingoes are not born flamboyant,

but grey or white, fed milk by their mothers

who spit it up and into their tiny beaks.

Depending on what they later eat,

the birds turn pink or red, even orange

and stay close to home, monogamous, content.

Though there are often thousands

in a flock, they are usually in small groups.

As any breeder knows, numbers are good for diversity,

though a shrinking pool is not good for anyone,

bird or beast or man.

 

 

 

 

 

A n   A s y l u m   o f   C u c k o o s

 

Surrogate parenting is nothing new.

Cuckoo birds have done it forever.

The eggs the females lay in seconds flat

have even evolved as look-alikes

to the warbler or magpie

whose home she commandeered.

 

She doesn’t even wait

for an empty nest but settles

right in, shoving its occupant over,

then flies off to mate and repeat,

up to fifty eggs a season.

 

This profligate isn’t all bad, though:

she often waits in a nearby tree

making sure her offspring are hatched, then fed.

The weird thing is those changelings

cry so loud, any flying bird might drop a caterpillar

in their mouths, for the sake of forest peace.

 

And the hatchlings? No wren or lark loyalty for them!

They fly off soon as they can and drop their eggs

wherever, while the hapless male, dazed and confused

by all his one-night stands, does nothing but fly

through the night repeating his name, perhaps

an admonishment for his risky behavior.

Or a strong case for nature over nurture.

 

 

A   M u r m u r r a t i o n   o f   S t a r l i n g s

 

Think young stars

streaking across the night sky

or an alien from a distant land

whose sun might be newer

or more ancient than our own.

 

Had it not been for Shakespeare

inspiring fevered minds with birds,

the starlings might have remained

in Europe, but America

had to have them and now

they’re a pestilence, a scourge

of millions darkening midday in swarms,

murmuring incessantly their secrets

to anyone who will listen.

 

Thousands, even millions in a flock

block the sun; perhaps this is

what caused the last great extinction,

the darkness and noise driving even

the dinosaurs mad, plants withering,

the water fouled, the world gone to rot.

 

Regardless, mankind

is always the cause, out of arrogance

or misbegotten plans, and now

in this Anthropocene era, perhaps

we, along with the starlings

will fly off into the blazing sunset

never looking back, never seen again.

 

 

 

 

A   Q u a r r e l   o f   S p a r r o w s

 

From window to window

across the rooftops,

hear them argue!

It doesn’t matter

who’s right or wrong,

insults flung, words hang

in the air like rotting fish.

 

You think your neighbors are loud,

vulgar, like the hundreds of sparrows

whose bickering in the eaves

settles like an earworm

and all you ever hear

is their cacophony of chirps.

 

Some think sparrows are ill omens,

ferrying souls to heaven, so many in a flock

pestering the skies, dirtying the streets.

 

But Aphrodite adored the sparrow,

made it a symbol of love—

makes sense, since lovers so often quarrel—

but perhaps it was the extra bone in their tongues

that Aphrodite admired, good for more

than breaking seeds.

 

 

 

A   S q u a d   o f   P e l i c a n s

 

The pelicans line up like old soldiers —

balding at the pate, rheumy eyes,

sharp beaks smelling something fishy

blocks away.

 

They stand in rows on piers,

seawalls, benches, breathing

heavily through their mouths.

When they’re hungry, they fly

off over the water, dive down

and scoop their dinner

into their mouths, gulping

as fast as they can.

 

The pelican harkens back thirty

million years, giving nuance

to the phrase “tough old bird.”

It’s also why they’re not eaten.

 

At sunset, you can see them saluting

each other, a scrawny wing raised

to the sky, their webby feet unbound

by shoe or boot or fishing line.

See how they fly straight into the sun.

 

 

 

 

A   C o v e y   o f   P a r t r i d g e s

 

Abracadabra! And there they fly

across the sky sans broomsticks

having their own built-in manner

of flight, their plump bodies lifted

miraculously into the sky where

they are often as not shot down

by avid marksmen on country estates

no longer only in England.

However, if not for that, these soft grey birds

would probably have died out, even though

they lay the largest clutches of all the birds,

Fourteen to a nest, the little cheepers

looked after by groundskeepers now,

all preying foxes kept at bay, till grown

they can grace the tables of those

who shot them down. Be wary,

as they have been rumored to cast spells

or hide a bone in their breasts

to choke the consumer in revenge.

FLASH FICTION

BRENT HOLMES

W o n d e r

 

               I concentrated.

               I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

               I waived my hand, first slowly, then fast, and from my hand came tiny, yellow flecks of light. I held out my hand for the audience to see.

               They were loud but not for me. They were talking, about the weather and sports and their jobs and their kids and their vacation plans. A tiny display of light was hardly what people expected from a magic show, even for an opening act.

               I smiled and sprinted from the stage, dancing with delight. “I’ve done it!” I told old man Smythe. “I’ve created light from nothing!”

               He smacked his lips and smiled. “Good for you, son.” He resettled in his chair and pulled his hat down over his eyes. Sometimes I wondered if Smythe was a charlatan, a mere illusionist parading as a bona fide magician, but he had an even temperament and could even be kind. All the fakes I knew were arrogant and aggressive.

               But the fakes drew crowds that well outnumbered mine, in spite of their mean spirits and their phony acts. They were flashy and flamboyant. Stage performance was paramount to them. They had no issue with lying and sometimes took offense to the truth.

               The crowd that goes to see a magician is a mixture of wide-eyed believers and jaded skeptics, the latter as part of a couple, because no skeptic is going to come to the show of their own volition. No amount of magic impressed the skeptic. No display of brilliance registered with them. They were the kind of people who look at a sunrise and explain rather than enjoying in silent awe.

               The magician who came after me waived his hands. The tip of a bottle rocket peaked out from his right cufflink. He struck a pose and the firework shot out of his sleeve and into the sky where it exploded. The believers cheered; the skeptics rolled their eyes. A few of them pointed to his left cuff and the bottle rocket peeking out of it. I rolled my own eyes and felt sorry for my harsh thoughts against the skeptics. It’s understandable that some people would lose their faith after so many betrayals.

               Suddenly, I had an idea.

               The next day I strode confidently onto the stage for my opening act. I rubbed my hands together, focused, and sparks popped from my hands. I smiled a large smile, and the crowd maintained their total disinterest.

               “How did I do it?” I shouted loudly, above the din of their chatter.

               “Up your sleeve,” a disinterested skeptic said in a quiet, monotone voice without looking up from his phone.

               “Up my sleeve?” I shouted and tore the sleeves off my jacket. They made jagged tears where I had cut the threads the night before; my left sleeve came off much easier than my right. “Any other ideas?”

               “Some kind of grease on your hands!”

               I stooped down and covered my hands in dirt. Silence. I focused my mind and sparks flew from my hands again. They rose a little higher even. “Satisfied?”

               “Mirrors!” a man shouted. The skeptics were on the edge of their seats, eyes peeled for the solution. The believers sat back.

               “Who cares, it’s such a boring trick,” I heard a believer say.

               “Yes, it’s where you’re standing!”

               I began walking. I lit up my palms with sparks. “Here still looks good and here and here,” I said as I moved.

               “It’s above you!”

               I picked up a rock and tossed it above me. It came crashing to the ground, unimpeded.

               “It’s magnets!”

               I rushed backstage to grab one of the charlatan’s large magnets. I turned it on, and my discarded sleeves flew towards it, the cufflinks holding flush against the magnet. I performed the trick again. The sparks grew in intensity.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

ZACH MURPHY

A   F a i r   A m o u n t   o f   G h o s t s

 

               He plays the trumpet brilliantly on the corner of Grand and Victoria. He doesn’t look like he’s from this era. He’s impeccably dressed, from his crisply fitting suit to his smooth fedora hat. There aren’t many folks that can pull that off. He’s cooler than the freezer aisle on a sweltering summer day. He performs the type of yearning melodies that give you the goosebumps. I’ve never seen anyone put any money into his basket.

               There’s a formidable stone house that sits atop Fairmount Hill. It’s been for sale for as long as I can remember. The crooked post sinks deeper into the soil with each passing year. It isn’t a place to live in. It’s a place to dwell in. There’s a dusty rocking chair on the front porch. It’s always rocking. Always rocking. I’m not sure if the chair is occupied by an old soul or if it’s just the wind. Maybe it’s both. I guess the wind is an old soul.

               This town is full of posters for Missing Cats. There’s one for a sweet, fluffy Maine Coon named “Bear.” He’s been gone for a while now. I’ve searched through every alleyway, under every porch, and inside of every bush for him. Sometimes I think I see him out of the corner of my eye. But then he’s not there. The rain has pretty much washed away the tattered posters. If he ever turns up, I worry that the posters will be missing.

               I met the love of my life in Irvine Park, near the gloriously spouting water fountain, beneath the serene umbrella of oak trees. We spent a small piece of eternity there together. We talked about whether or not the world was coming to an end soon, and if all of our memories will be diminished along with it. After we said our goodbyes and she walked off into the distance, I never saw her again. So I left my heart in Irvine Park.

ELIZABETH PAXSON

S e l k i e   L o v e

 

               When we are young we learn what not to do, and in doing so we plumb the well, listening for the ping of our attunement. Step with me from a large city to a tiny village on the meandering Maine coast. Step gingerly from your stiletto heels directly into muck boots that are too large. They smell of old rubber. Step into pure mire and mud.

               It's a world of boats and men who talk of nothing but boats and ready men all rowdy and rough.

The house was white clapboard 1840’s Greek Revival with the barn attached at the back. I understood why when winter came.

               I squatted in the September frost in an abandoned dwelling waiting to occupy the home I had just bought. The previous owners refused to leave. I heard a fox bark, cold and echoing against a wall of stars. After a month, the family of sloth and sloven finally departed. I was overcome with joy until the tap was turned and nothing came forth.  A local friend far braver than I clambered into the depths of the well, an oubliette of granite stones.

               “Bone droy,” he pronounced from the bottom.

               November brought rains and relief and on its heels a numbing cold that bit like a rabid polar bear. The pipes burst. Breaking ice daily on the well of sorrows, hands frozen, I remembered my cozy city life and wept. I slept in my clothes cocooned in down bags, hourly feeding the wood stove god who was even hungrier than I. After an eternal winter, fresh spring arrived in gossamer gowns, her Pandora arms full of redemption and surprises.

               The garden yawned in tender green perfection, quickly followed by clouds of blackflies, an advancing army finding succor in the corners of eyes and hollows of ears. Moose and elk go mad, I’m told, careening through the woods seeking ponds and shallows to escape the demon fangs. When I recover from the ten thousand bloody fang bites and the flu-like malaise that follows, I am immune to their venom.

               The scenery lunges toward Ireland; vibrantly green and wet. All is moss and mystery, balsam and cinnamon-scented fern. I grow the finest broccoli ever seen, waiting for the right day…tomorrow it will be perfect. A wily porcupine happily harvests it all under cover of darkness, leaving only thick, gaping stalks staring at the sky. I bounce across the peat bog yard, a mass of spongy sphagnum moss and find a trail amid startling green ferns and humps of miniature moss forests. Mushrooms shoot their ripened spores in a frenzied fairytale profusion of a season in heat. There's a sound in my head that calls me on, a high keening that vibrates on the wind.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

ARIEL  BERRY

P a p e r   D o l l

 

               I am made of paper. My arms and hair and shoes are paper, and when I get wet I disintegrate into pulp. I have seven dresses, one for each day of the week; I pin them to my paper body using paper tabs. On Mondays, I wear the pink one. On Wednesdays, the blue. I always lay them out the night before, so they won’t wrinkle.

               I have a paper bird: his name is Peter. My paper bird can’t fly, but he can sing. He likes to listen to our paper radio so he can pick up new tunes. Last week it was Sinatra; Peter tried hard but his notes were flat. At last, in disgust, he turned the paper radio off.

               When I get wet, I disintegrate into pulp, but the pulp can be recycled. I could become a map, or a love letter, or a piñata at a birthday party. The children would tear me apart, and I would rain candy on their outstretched hands. I don’t remember what I’ve been before, but I know what I am now.

I work at a desk, in an office. I file paper: red paper, yellow paper, and so many white papers. I file my paper carefully, and I never make mistakes. I leave every day, at five, to walk home. If it’s raining, I take the bus.

Peter listens to the radio while I’m gone, so he won’t be embarrassed if he can’t hit the right notes. When I walk through the alleyway by our apartment, I can hear music falling out of the window to the ground below. I put a paper bell on the doorknob, so it makes noise when I come in, and Peter will have time to turn the music off, or at least stop singing along.

               Sometimes, when I am tucked inside my paper bed, I hear Peter singing in his sleep. His pitch is always perfect.

               My paper bird can sing, but what he really wants is to fly. He doesn’t know how, and I can’t teach him.

               I leave for work very early each morning, before Peter wakes up. I dress quickly, in the dark; when I step outside it is light. Once, I didn’t bring my umbrella, even though rain was forecasted. I walked past the bus stop, all the way to the office. It didn’t rain until I was inside, looking out the window at the puddles below; by five o’clock the storm was over and the sidewalks were dry. When I got home, Peter was worried. I told him it was an accident. After that, I always brought my umbrella, even on sunny days. We haven’t talked about it since then.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

J.D.  HOSEMANN

T h e   P o e t ’ s   T e e t h

 

          The executioner placed the wet sponge between the crown and my forehead when I noticed a piece of roast beef caught between my first and second molars. I attempted to dislodge the meat using the tip of my tongue, though I only succeeded in rotating it clockwise, which severely increased my discomfort. What a fool I’d been to request roast beef as a last supper! Yes, the meal reminded me of childhood, of a more innocent time, but how did I forget my struggle with mother’s dry, tasteless meat chunks — how every bite was more than I could chew — how, in secret, I used to spit wads of pulverized beef into my napkin to keep in my pocket until I was dismissed from the table — how I used to watch as the chewed beef balls disintegrated in spiraling toilet water and wonder why I was burdened with the task of mastication while the toilet could simply slurp down its food in a whirling tornado of water and bacteria. And all that in a matter of seconds! I envied fish for the same reason, especially the large-mouth bass, which utilizes an impressive suction technique to inhale minnows and lizards crossing its path. The whole process of human ingestion disturbed me so much that I committed myself to a liquid diet by the age of twenty-two. The formula I used tasted like a wet tortilla, which was just enough flavor to get the substance down. People who knew me well often asked why I became a dentist. To pull teeth, I’d say. Yes, the roast beef was a mistake. A hollow attempt to conjure something meaningful in my last hour.

          The Warden tripped over a cluster of wires on his way to find his position, which brought my attention back to this whole ridiculous ceremony — the flickering lights, the sound of the generator, the thin glass between me and the spectators, the lever, and, of course, the chair. There I was, spending the waning minutes of my life in a chair not entirely dissimilar from the one in my office and what occupies my mind but a tiny piece of cud! Not at all surprising. As a man of science, I always struggled with transcendence. I found little use for words beyond necessary transactions. I often stared at those celebrated poets on TV with fascination and wonder when they spoke like puppets animated by the divine cosmos. But in those last moments, with the dripping sponge pressed against my forehead, the crown fastened tightly at my temples, I yearned for meaning. I wished to think of something, anything besides the mechanics of my demise. Sure, my rational brain propelled me beyond the average philistine of my country and afforded me a life of affluence and comfort. But I couldn’t escape the worry that I should have learned to embrace mystery, that perhaps I’d cheated myself out of a more comfortable transition into nonexistence.

          The Chaplain wore a blue, sweat-stained shirt with short sleeves and a priest collar that squeezed his fat neck. Why hadn’t he worn a coat for the occasion? The heat? A fly buzzed around his head and he swatted in vain. I was glad the fly had found a friend in the sweaty Chaplain instead of buzzing around my own head. I shivered to imagine the pest enacting its cruelty on me while I sat strapped into a chair and unable to defend myself. The Chaplain began his recitation of some sacred verse, which of course did nothing for me. I wondered if his words were supposed to bring comfort to murderers, if their purpose was to numb the reality of the situation. I thought about Nitrous Oxide. Certainly more effective. You might say I was a more generous executioner on that fateful day only a few months ago. On that day, the condemned man in my chair hadn’t asked for poetry or prayer. He asked for gas, naturally, which I provided even for a basic cleaning such as it was. But neither I nor the gas was to blame for this tragedy. His teeth were the cause of his downfall. They were like none I’d ever seen. No evidence of decay, of plaque, of periodontal disease so common among my countrymen. Not a particle of food or waste. It looked as though no food had ever passed through the mouth I gazed into. Blood rushed to my face and I had to remind myself to breathe. For a moment, dizziness. I collected myself and began my inspection. Upper right central, upper right lateral, upper right cuspid. One by one, I practiced a thorough examination and I failed to find any evidence that this man had ever ingested food. In my reverie, I lost track of time and forgot to dial back the gas.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

SHORT STORIES

DAVID CAPPS

T h e   M i s a n t h r o p e

 

Only moments which are capable of receiving direct attention, the human gaze present from the moment of birth — as when a baby in its blue bonnet leans against its mother and with its two eyes forward draws up into a vast, sweet warmth — only those moments can matter. But not really, as they are lost before they “add up” to the hours that compose the days that compose the years, and it’s a problem in general with bits of language, bits of material that compose a thing; it’s a human problem, a mereological quandary, I tell myself — and yet isn’t this to allow unreality to encroach, to be a kind of pimp to otherwise pristine events, as the act of recollection interprets and the interpretation is already warped and flustered, a piece of bad composition, a rotten prelude, indeed a beginning such as you tell me to describe in these notes, these labeled feelings (feelings overlaid with language, part of the problem), memories, when everyone has them, meaningless then, in my case the floor covered in rabbit droppings, newspaper, wet clay, and potshards next to a mechanically driven wheel, a wood-burning stove that was too hot when close and too cold far from the center, portraits on the wall of supposed family whose intergenerational rivalry burned into the walls: haystacks dotting the worked field, red barn door open with cattle, shadows and traces of the living humanity within — our vague heritage represented within a 12 x10 stone cottage! I have sometimes felt that my slight distaste for humanity stemmed from this source, for although the anonymity of city life made difficult a true identification with the other, the other did not remain impossibly out of reach, did not fail to be colored-in when one could, after all, fix on some representative entity if not from school then from the representative habits of the crowd and let them stand as proxy for everyone, whose raindrop-like pointillistic visages would otherwise blend together in an impoverished imagination that construed the mist-like rain as air and each as all; or that I wasn’t accustomed to such an environment given the series of consolidations that constituted my youth, the contractions, reductions, and you will ask me what stands out and I will say, “My mother as a dancer in our small house,” erratic in her movements, maya in her timings, her daring executions even in her waning years, as she limped across the tiled bathroom floor to retrieve a note I’d tried to flush down the toilet in my desperation. There was an elegance that thwarted my attempts — for what little praise I deserved as a self-serving being — more than anything she could do or not do, the many faces frozen in midair and her legs scissoring like a toy as we are spellbound to her, Samuel and I, mother playing, illustrating to us the black swan, the praying mantis, the gopher, while we reflected back to her just what we were: silly small humans wiggling their limbs in the middle of the floor and winding down in a sweet sweat — incapable  —  of course it was easy to leap in two bounds across a barely furnished room no wider than two men stacked end to end, of course our eyes would widen as she flared forward outstrung in gossamer rags for want of what we could do, but then she always said we should want less, wasn’t that noble? The kind of righteous nobility stretched out on a table somewhere, even though father had left us a substantial inheritance (mother called it the pension for some reason) and was, in our considered opinion, a good man, and good men were, after all, selfish and out of their selfish sense of power threw their family a bone, a positive development, etc. etc. If simple changes could be said to possess a valence — there would be, of course, times in adult life when I would think of him, as when at an eyeglass shop choosing a new pair of frames I’d look in the mirror drawn out over the plastic counter like a medieval triptych convexly tripling my view and I’d see a resemblance — the goose fat under my chin, the detached lobe of my left ear, the fleeting crease of an eyebrow — parts that never really unified into a whole face, or like something between a completed face and resemblance in a certain number of respects. While Samuel really did resemble him, although Samuel I must speak of in the past tense because he contracted meningitis and died, he was a placid child, never prone to fits or outrage at some perceived injustice, a child who would bend like a reed to my gentle persuasion which, being not much older than he, could hardly have been enforced (citing mother as a threat never carried any weight with either of us), as when Sam would peddle from the strait of the sidewalk and into the grass, as if in protection of his worthless body I could only feel distain as he fell — “Look at you, languishing in the sunshine!” mother cried in her lazy truculence and expected me to rush over to help him for the simple fact of his having fallen — what was such fact, such an intangible good, worth to me, premised as it was upon the invective of her praise? In the evening, when there was no homework, there were games because, unlike other children, we didn’t own a television. Samuel enjoyed Monopoly although he didn’t know the least about playing and if he lived would have been a blue-collar worker. He loved to be the small and silver dog and would huff and pant in anticipation of its vanishing wagging tail; he would puff himself up and garble his grubby hands over the pieces of the board and mother (the thimble) would shush him; really it’s unfortunate that there was no piece signifying no one at all. I would be the boot because it was only proper considering that this game was, technically-speaking, billed as a “fast-dealing property trading game.” Our property — ourselves! Of course it was in the nature of such games that no one would win or lose and the evening would wear on past our bedtime and we would grow tired of it, but was life more like Monopoly or Monopoly more like life? I suppose neither and it’s of no consequence. I only mention it because it was Samuel’s favorite game and when I have very few memories of him to hold onto they can’t help but arise from time to time and crowd out the more deserving parts of consciousness, which is not to say that I’m opposed to the game — not at all, in fact I believe it to be a fine study for those among us who are destined, chiefly by birthright but also by delusive self-effort — I speak of other “boot players” — to become future financiers.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

COLTON HEITZMAN-BREEN

A l m o s t   I n h u m a n

 

          Nude bodies dangled from icy chains, arranged in a hundred rows in the frigid warehouse. A subtle glow of orange came from the plaster support columns, casting a labyrinth of crisscrossed shadows. Someone had arranged them by skin tone, transitioning from albino to cream, to shades of peach and tan, then to browns and blacks. The shadows that the warehouse’s lighting cast blended into silhouettes, creating a dizzying display of human variation beneath the industrial fans and their roaring drone of super-cooled air.

          PVC pipes ran along the ceiling where paneling had been removed. Condensation dripped from blue pipes of cold water, landing on either ice-sheathed chains or pools of water that drained slowly into icy grates. In the line of bright, white light that burst in through the opening of the doorway, coming in from the sterile hallway beyond, the ice glistened below the hairless, sexless bodies. Some, toward the front, had blemishes on them — freckles, birthmarks, and other various imperfections.

Overhead lights, in long rectangles hung by thin chains, flickered to life with the entry of Inez Howes. She was a tall woman, with dark skin and frizzy hair pulled up into a loose ponytail, though a few strands had found their way free and managed to get in her face. She shivered beneath the thick, white coat she wore. Above the door behind her, a sign shouted in one-foot tall, black lettering: “DON’T LET THE COLD OUT, CLOSE THE DOOR.”

          No one who worked here needed reminding after their first week. Inez had never needed the reminder; her father ran a butcher shop back in downtown Omaha, where she helped him over school breaks and weekends as far back as elementary school. At least, she had helped him whenever she had not been studying at various programming and robotics camps. He had always threatened to take her internet away for a month if she left the door to the walk-in freezers open, and one time had been enough for her to never make that mistake again. Keeping the doors closed had become instinctual for her even before working at Pygmalion Companionship Enterprises.

          Inez curled her fingers up inside the pockets of her winter coat as she began walking alongside the bodies. She only barely glanced at them, to check the serial numbers on their holsters, before continuing. Nude felt like the wrong word to describe them; they were neuter, with no genitalia. Castrato versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and a non-existent Vitruvian Woman given flesh.

Well, not flesh. Just something quite like it.

          Inez turned to walk between another two rows of bodies, only to stop a few columns down at a body that, if clothed and animated, would have passed as a successful male athlete. A taller model, at six feet and three inches exactly, it had no hair nor blemishes upon its carefully crafted muscular frame. Inez made her way around it, careful not to brush against the surrounding bodies, so she could press a short passcode into the touchpad screen upon its harness. Her breath came out as fog, rising and dissipating into the air as the chain began to lift the body up above the others. With a soft click, it locked into place, only to begin to pull the body along a track in the ceiling.

          Inez followed the body. It was now that she was not looking for a specific one that she found it eerie again. Lifeless, glazed eyes stared as their bodies awaited a simulacrum of life to be awakened inside them. Five thousand, four hundred, and ninety-nine bodies in rows of fifty-five each. Each awaiting the spark of animation and the pseudo-sentience of Softlife Persona software.

          Inez wished she did not anthropomorphize their existence so easily. They were not waiting, but yet she could not think of them as doing anything else. Their programming was turned off, yet she imagined they anticipated existing.

          Humanity, after centuries of trying to deny the humanity of others, had created non-humans that so convincingly played at being human that many treated them like they were people. And with each step toward replicating the human ego, the more the mysteries of the natural, biochemical computer that was the brain became clearer, the more the line between humanity and inhumanity became blurrier. Perhaps, Inez wondered, such a line did not exist.

          Religious groups found the work she did an abomination. Especially after the failed lacuna amnesiac therapy treatments had robbed thousands of humans of their egos, voiding their free will and leaving them as shells that operated with no conscious thought. Certain fringe groups had even gotten violent over it.

          The security forces of Pygmalion’s factories and offices had almost triple over the past year. In particular, for the work Inez performed — sculpting companions out of synthetic flesh and metal. Inez understood why it made people uncomfortable, even if she believed it harmless. She thought her work was a gift — a gift she did not understand the desire for, but one that she gave all the same. Perhaps through her work, she might eventually understand it. Perhaps then she could help those in opposition to it come to understand it.

          Inez pushed open a set of plastic flaps that hung down at the entrance to the workstation. The harness holding the body had already lowered it onto a workbench that looked exactly like a hospital bed. Mechanical arms came out and slowly took hold of it at the hips and shoulders both, slowly rotating the body until it could be lowered flat on its back on the thin cushions.

          Inez shut the door behind her, sliding it until it sealed the room off from the warehouse. The thin handle vibrated slightly as it recognized her biometrics, and the room’s equipment began to adjust to her user preferences. A bladeless space heater whirred to life as computer monitors lit up at the desks.

Inez hung her coat on the back of her office chair as the workbench’s  robotic arms strapped the body down to the workbench. The lights in the workstation brightened and shifted on hydraulic hinges, illuminating the body in the way Inez most preferred.

          “Welcome, Doctor Inez Howes,” chimed the singsong {Voice}. “I have taken the liberty of adjusting the room’s climate control systems to your standard preference — are they to your liking?”

          “Of course,” Inez said, glancing at the monitors that showed the computers were still logging her in.           “Can you put on my French language jazz playlist, please?”

          “Certainly, Doctor Howes.” The {Voice} jingled for a few moments, only to stop mid-note. Silence followed for a moment before the sound of a bass string being plucked filled the air before more instruments joined in. “Will you need anything else at this time?”

          “No, I should be fine. I’ll let you know if I need anything else.”

          Inez tapped at the touch screen monitor as it finished logging her in. Blue light flickered to life behind her, suspended in the layer of mist that floated in the air above the workbench, an older model of a three-dimensional display. She looked over the images the clients had provided for their companion; easy changes, ones she had already begun. The Lawsons had a rather simple order, and she would have it finished tonight.

          Music kept her rhythm steady as she went through trays of surgical utensils, setting up her tools for the sculpting of this companion. The three-dimensional display hovered above the body on the table, guiding her toward tools she would need — and helping her assess how much time each alteration to its synthetic flesh would require.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

HUNTER C. KOCH

T h e   M e m o r i e s   o f   C l a n c y   F r e e m a n

 

          Clancy hadn’t been himself in some time. The problems had started about five months ago, back in March. At first, they had been small things — little quirks that were easy to overlook. Clancy would occasionally stutter when saying Ellis’s name, or miss a step and trip while going down the stairs outside the apartment. He would sometimes forget which days Ellis worked, or which movies they had already seen and which ones they still needed to watch.

          Small things. Things that might have been excused as forgetfulness in a normal person. But Clancy wasn’t a normal person, and as the months went on, the problems worsened.

          By May, Ellis Freeman had started to suspect what was really happening. Yet he never mentioned his theory until the day Clancy brought it up.

          It was a hot afternoon in early August. Ellis was sitting at his desk in his bedroom, bent over his laptop. While he worked on his thesis paper, the bracelet on his wrist read his vital signs and converted them into art. The walls portrayed moving pictures, and although he didn’t look up often from his computer, he could tell by the sounds of waves hitting the shore that the VitaWork was showing a beach at sunset.

          Something shattered in the kitchen, and Ellis sat up with a start. The music stopped, and the illusion of a sunset beach on the wall cut to a swirl of white and gray. Before it had a chance to readjust to his heightened biometrics, Ellis detached the VitaWork bracelet and left the room.

          He entered the kitchen and immediately saw what had made the noise. Bits of porcelain littered the floor — the remains of at least two plates. Clancy was standing over the mess with an apologetic look on his face. Ellis was often surprised at how easy it was to read emotions on Clancy’s face, especially since Clancy wasn’t a near-perfect human facsimile like the newer model ACs. He thought it was because of Clancy’s eyes — electric-blue orbs that lit up whenever he was happy or excited and dimmed whenever he was sad or embarrassed. At that moment, his eyes looked as dark as Ellis had ever seen them.

          “I apologize,” he said. “My fingers must have slipped.”

          “It’s no problem,” Ellis said. He moved around the broken plates to get to the pantry where they kept the broom and dustpan. When he turned back around, Clancy was hanging his head.

          “You probably just need a little joint lubricant,” Ellis said. “I’ll buy some more Endoflow at the store later and help you oil up this evening.”

          He saw that his words weren’t having much of an effect, but he still wasn’t prepared for what Clancy said next.

          “I’m dying, Ellis.”

          Clancy knew. Why wouldn’t he?

          “Let’s go get pizza,” Ellis said, putting the broom and dustpan on the counter. “Want to?”

          “Pizza sounds good. Let me just clean up—”

          “The plates aren’t going anywhere, and I’m starving. Let’s go.”

          After giving the shattered plates one last glance, Clancy nodded. “Alright.”

 

***

          They ate at Don Marini’s, a pizza parlor on the south side of the city, just a couple of blocks away from their apartment. They dined there at least once a week, never tiring of it. That day, they ordered their usual: one large pizza with sausage, pepperoni, and mushrooms. It was Ellis’s favorite. Despite not having taste buds, Clancy also claimed that it was his favorite.

          While they waited for their pizza, Ellis looked around the dining area. There were thirteen other tables, most of them occupied by more than one person. Of the groups that he saw, Ellis counted four other ACs — Artificial Companion robots. All of the ACs he saw were either Model 4s or Model 5s. With synthetic hair and skin, they could easily be mistaken for humans, which was why state law mandated that they had to wear clothes, even though all AC models were sexless. The only things that marked the 4s and 5s as robots were the metallic pads on the backs of their hands and the sides of their necks. Those pads covered their processing ports, which linked together under their artificial skin, forming the AC equivalent of a central nervous system. At least, that was how Ellis understood it.

Being a Model 2, Clancy looked far more robotic in appearance than his newer-model brethren. Around the joints of his mannequin-like body, one could see parts of the skeleton underneath, comprised of steel rods and copper wires that crisscrossed like metallic spiderwebs. Despite his appearance (or perhaps because of it), he always tried to look presentable in public. Today, he was dressed in black tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a blue flannel shirt.

          He and Ellis sat in silence. Ellis wanted to speak, but couldn’t find the words. It wasn’t until their pizza arrived that Clancy finally broke the silence for him.

          “I’ve known for some time now. I think you have, too.”

          Ellis was working on his first slice. He swallowed the bite he’d taken and was about to respond, but Clancy spoke first.

          “It’s okay. I don’t blame you for not wanting to bring it up. To be honest, it’s not something I really enjoy talking about, either.”

          Clancy took a bite of pizza and chewed it thoughtfully. Although ACs couldn’t absorb any vitamins or nutrients from food, they all had internal systems that could break down most food products and extract the raw caloric energy in the form of a superheated liquid mixture. This biofuel was then pumped into the AC’s main fuel tank, while the remains of the food were broken down into waste material and stored in a removable capsule that was accessible from a hatch on the back of all AC models. This sort of artificial digestive system meant that no AC was limited to store-bought fuel in order to remain powered and operational.

          “You turned thirteen last December,” Ellis said. He could remember Clancy’s age easily enough, because he himself had been ten years old when he’d gotten Clancy for Christmas.

          “They said I was manufactured sometime in mid-November, but I don’t remember any of that. I didn’t become aware until that Christmas, when you powered me up for the first time.”

          Ellis nodded. He still remembered the shock he’d felt when he woke up that Christmas morning and saw the large, metal pod resting on the floor next to the Christmas tree. Written in big, black letters across the front of the pod was: “MODEL 2 ARTIFICAL COMPANION ROBOT,” along with a lengthy serial code. A red Christmas bow had been taped to the top of the pod. To Ellis, that had been the best Christmas ever.

          “Lifespan varies between Model 2s,” Clancy said, bringing Ellis back to the present. “Some begin to deteriorate after as little as twelve years, while others can last for up to fifteen years before they start showing signs of mental decay. They say it has to do with the individual AC’s personality, but they still don’t fully understand it. I suppose I was hoping I might have another year or two in me.”

Ellis had read a few articles about the phenomenon. While every AC had a unique personality that developed over time, they were each ruled by a primary processor. The processor was uniform and ensured that no AC could act or think illogically. Thus, despite having a large amount of free will and free cognition, all ACs were restricted by logic. After about twelve to fifteen years, though, that primary processor began to decay. And once it started, there was nothing that could stop it.

          “I’ve saved up some money from working at the bookstore,” Clancy said. “It should be more than enough to pay for a new primary processor, once mine shuts down for good.”

          “You know you’re not going to be the same person,” Ellis said. “They can’t remove that processor without also removing the personality chip.”

          “I know, but the new personality might be like me — especially if it has you around to watch and grow from.”

          “It might be like you, but it won’t be you.”

          Clancy’s eyes went dim, and he lowered his head. Ellis didn’t know what to say. He felt hot tears building up in his eyes and had to blink them away. He was no longer hungry.

          They’ll have a fix for it in the future. Maybe in twenty years or so; maybe even sooner. Even the old AC models are new technology, and new technology is always being improved.

          There was no comfort in the thought. It was like bleeding out and knowing you were going to die just minutes before the EMTs arrived.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

ANGELICA ALLAIN

T h e   G o o d   M o r t i c i a n

 

               She smelt like vanilla in high school. Her skin was stark under the lights of my examination table, and it was harder to the touch than I had remembered. Even under my latex gloves my fingers still tripped up on the leather-like ripples of her belly, settling into their firm death. Her hair was bleach blonde when we were young, sometimes there was pink at her tips, or streaks of ocean blue. Now all of her hair was that deep brown that we saw peeking out from the bottom of her ponytail, and creeping up her side part. On my table, her hair was all that natural brown and it was losing its shine steadily every hour since she had stopped breathing.

               Her still-opened eyes glared at me and I let them look into mine for a long while before I managed to place clear mortuary caps over them, obscuring their gaze. That was the last time anyone in this life would see how blue they were. I pushed the needle up through the base of her bare eyelashes so she saw all black. I leaned into her, kneeling down on a stool that I pushed up to the table. My head hovered over her shoulder as I finished affixing her left eyelid shut. The smell of heavy preservative grew stronger. I was a good mortician, so I stood up, tore off my gloves, and poured water all over my hands from a half-empty bottle. My face felt the hit of cold and sear of pain as I slapped myself. This was more common than most morticians like to admit. I saw my dad break down a couple of times over the bodies, but oddly it was usually the people we didn’t know, it was the random dead killed in perfectly menial ways that got to him so gravely. I took a breath and coughed on the chemical-laced air, thin and astringent at the back of my throat.

               The perfume in a pink bottle with a light pink ribbon. It was the kind of ballet pink that I used to see on my sister’s tampon wrappers in the trash. It was one shade lighter than Pepto-Bismol. She puffed it on her wrists in the morning and at her locker before lunch.

               We all knew her. It was hard to not pay attention. But I had the pleasure of knowing her better than most boys. She was interested in what my family did so she would ask me to help her with her chemistry homework, on the off chance I would take her downstairs to the funeral parlor or the basement. I did bring her here, only twice while she was alive, and only after my father was done for the night, when the preparation room was cold and empty. She scanned everything, she wanted to know more she said. One day, after she blew me in my car at the pond, I took her back to the prep room, got my dad’s key out of the safe, and pulled out a body from the morgue. I only let her look for a few seconds, but she talked about it for weeks afterwards, at a whisper.

               My head dizzied the more I stared at her unfamiliarity; her large breasts, her purple stretch marks, her wedding ring. I covered her up with a stretch of plastic so I wouldn’t stare at the hacked scar that was drawn on her belly like the Joker’s smile. It looked fake, with the red skin of her abdomen puckering like pursed lips, sewed shut with thread that was now wrought with red. She didn’t deserve such a scar. She should not have died from it either.

               I admit to you, when I first saw her naked Junior year, it was the first time I’d seen bare flesh that was still alive. The warmth of her startled me. Even though I kissed her neck like I was supposed to and squeezed her thighs, it was hard for me to separate her from the many women I’d watched my father prepare.

               My hands hovered over her skin and created shadows. I removed the plastic covering her cesarean scar. The hospital had stitched it quickly when they found she was hemorrhaging, but now there was an ooze that had wet the plastic lining, and it pooled in the cup of her hipbones. I cleaned her of the blood and patted her scar that seeped in its own decomposition. I cleaned her, over and over again, scrubbing her skin that felt like leather, but it did not inflame. It didn’t turn red and raw, it just looked thin and bluer with every passing moment. I was resigned to pouring myself a cup of coffee that I lumped sugar into so that some part of this moment would be sweet.

               The memory of day I left her came back to me like a ghost, suddenly and cold to the touch. Not even the coffee could do me any good now. Don’t lose yourself. Good morticians don’t cry out. She was in my bedroom, blonde as ever on summer’s first night. I knew you couldn’t breakup with someone in their own house, that was just rude, but my home may have been worse. On the way out you had to come down the archaic stairs that overlooked the parlor. That night was a cop’s funeral and everyone must have been keeping his vigil except for the two us. It was poor timing I must say. I remember scratching at my temple every time she smiled at me. There was so many people downstairs, but mourners were not typically loud, so I could barely hear any shuffling that I could stuff my discomfort into. I couldn’t compartmentalize it. I couldn’t bear her looking at me, fumbling at my hot hands. I had to look at her straight in her eyes and tell her that I couldn’t be her boyfriend anymore. I was so ignorant to her power. I am still so stupid.

               She did not move much when I went on about Mount Ida-that, my family needs me-this, I need to focus on my career. She was patient, as I observed my own mother to be. I remember how she pushed back her blondish hair and clenched her jaw tight like a lion. I thought she was going to hug me, and I was fully ready to sink my body into hers in grief. She did not come to me, she did not leave, she did not cry, she did not do anything I expected her to do. She stood up, she went to the wall of my bedroom and with a tube of lipstick she must have stashed in her pocket she wrote: I loved you. And she stood there next to her creation. The red lipstick looked like blood on the wall and I shuddered. She went back to it in that same moment and I followed each letter as she scribbled: Now I hate you.

               I do not know why she did not tell me these things. Say them aloud instead. Though I felt the sear of anger and bitterness behind it. The silence in the room hung around me like mourning doves. It was the same feeling I get in my stomach when I am preparing a difficult body, and I repress it. The same jolt of fear, and I shove it down. This is what good morticians do, we can’t let any of this get to us. She also didn’t let me get to her, she tucked it away. She would have been a good mortician. I told her that, breaking the silence with my crackling voice. My words hung in the air like lightning static. It was the only thing I could think to say.

               This is when she left, and I could handle her slinging her backpack over her shoulder and slamming the door, because I prepared for it. I imagined her decent down staircase, her pink jeans popping into the corners of the mourner’s eyes. Past her friends, dressed up in their nicest black, our teachers, maybe even her parents.  She ran down the staircase, sobbing violently all the tears she didn’t cry in front of me, pummeled her way through the crowd in all black, and barreled out of the main double doors. She got caught in the rain halfway home, until her wet backpack was too heavy with water for her to keep going. A football player’s parents picked her up in their car and dropped her off on their way back from the wake.

               A week later there was a letter from her father shoved in the door of the funeral parlor. He wrote: If you go near her again it will be the last thing you ever do.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

FRANCESCA DELLA BONA

T h e   I s l a n d   i n   t h e   L a k e

 

               With the summer came a yearning. A sensation, emanating in waves from your chest to your limbs, possessing your thoughts. An internal fire that imitated the external heat, challenging it. A yearning that made you throw away your books, hop on your bike, and play tirelessly, all day. Summer days were mysteriously, yet wonderfully dilated, conquering secret hours that, with the arrival of autumn, fell away like leaves.

               Childhood summers are a whole different season. They are like no other and the various kinds of summer you experience later in life pale in comparison; they’re an unrepeatable cosmic event whose echo seems to last forever, like the explosion of a star. Childhood summers last entire geological eras, eternal aeons: in their red-hot core, time is distorted, becoming rarefied; irrelevant, fluttering in the heat rising from the asphalt.

               And yet they always end.

               The end of summer was a silent cataclysm, as disturbing and powerful as an earthquake, a tsunami or any other natural disaster. From the outside, however, things faded slowly, in silence: the sun, the heat, the yearning. Crowded places became deserted, friends left.

               Cold weather was something halfway between an impossible memory, made alien by its disappearance from the world, and a collective hallucination, something that could only have been imagined. From that safe distance it didn’t seem possible that such a thing could ever exist. But our realm ended when August ended, leaving us shivering in the plaintive north wind, and the world became once more an adult domain. It meant another year of school, living by their rules, forgetting we had once been wild.

               Eventually it was time for the last shower, when it seemed like we were not only washing away the dirt of the day, but of an entire era, watching it swirl down the plughole, into the black hole that, in the end, devours all our summers.

               That privileged, unique season played host to all the firsts in my life. To my most authentic memories, when things were genuine. If I look back, it feels almost like it never happened. Yet, at the same time, it feels like nothing else ever happened.

               And yet, summer came back, year after year, for that shining handful of years, always so similar to itself, in concentric repetitions of the same scenario.

               The house in the green and gold countryside, filled with the ones I loved — friends whizzing through the hot veil of air on their bikes — the shimmering lake that occupied the whole horizon — and in the lake, an island covered in trees, the dome of an ancient sanctuary towering over them.

               Childhood summers end, but what happens during those summers lives on, in endless reruns inside you, like a film on an old TV, left switched on, abandoned in an empty room. I was twelve and from then on my life would revolve around that moment, that particular moment in that labyrinthine summer.

The summer I killed you.

               “The Etruscans believed that the lake was the entrance to the kingdom of the dead.” How you loved those stories. Whenever you told them, your eyes would light up, midway between fear and excitement. You loved those stories in the way kids love things: purely, ferociously, and I loved them too, when you shared them with me — by the lake, in the woods, sitting together on a step, staring up at the night sky — and it felt like I loved anything that came from you, feeling the yearning of summer running through my blood.

               “The lake is its mouth,” you said. “It eats everything that exists, to stop it from existing.”

               That’s how it feeds. It sucks in everything. The black hole in the shower, in the lake, at the end of everything. Everything ends up here. It fed from me, from my life, from the lives of those I loved, and left me nothing. There is nothing now, just scraps.

               Going back is like an archaeological expedition. You can return to places, unearth them, explore them, treading carefully through the ruins, cataloguing your findings. But the miraculous intersection of space and time — that specific, fleeting adjustment of reality — is lost forever. When childhood ends, the places where it happened cease to exist in the world; the only material evidence left behind is a skeleton, picked clean of any living flesh.

               I returned by train, travelling backwards across the continent to find the ancient Etruscan lands, the volcanic hills cloaked in woods, the grey stone buildings dominated by the castle — and the lake, and the island in the lake. And as the landscape flew by the window, becoming more familiar, more painful, I had the impression that my life was rewinding, like an old movie, going back to that point in time.                Something I’d left suspended years ago started to move again — here, where you’ll find the linchpin around which the seasons, stars, days, and events revolve: from mass extinctions to dressed up in Sunday Best — everything that had happened to me while I was away, seemed, from this perspective, just an interlude devoid of consistency; fiction.

               Now I was back.

               Everything is the same, yet everything has changed. All I recognize of the old place are the outlines, but as soon as I begin to focus, I notice several disconcerting differences. The stores under the arches are all wrong. People walk the streets and I don’t recognize anyone; for a moment it seems there’s something familiar about their faces, but it is just a mirage, a trick of the light. There is nothing here that belongs to me anymore.

               Now summer is just a season like any other. Seasons glide into each other and I hardly notice them. They pass through me, but I retain nothing of them, and they retain nothing of me, in the slow anesthesia of the passing years. I no longer feel the childish mourning in the face of a slowly dying summer and its cold, melancholic ending. But I do know the last time I felt it, before everything was replaced by a facsimile and stopped being true.

               The house in the green and gold countryside is empty now. Of those I loved, remain only traces. On the veranda, there’s the old colonial chair, or a sad replica of it: because the one that exists in my memories, in my movie of those years, is shiny and solid, an old man’s throne — he too, shiny and solid — smoking his pipe, while this is but an empty relic, lost in the depths of time.

               In the second drawer of the desk in the entrance, I find an address book, in which a hand — a real hand, I swear — a hand that once existed, that once caressed me and fed me and which held mine so many times, I should have counted them — wrote numbers and names that no longer belong to anyone.

               Everything is covered in dust. When I walk through the empty heart of the house, the old floorboards creaking underfoot, and throw open the peeling shutters, I see, through the window that once framed my dreams of adventure, the lake. Shimmering, incandescent white in the harsh afternoon sunlight. And, at its center, the island.

               For a moment, while the air dries my sweat with a salty caress, I can pretend that this is a real summer. I feel the old yearning, flaring in my chest, spreading through me like an electric shock. The same yearning I felt back then.

               A dormant part of my brain, some ancient neural circuit, sparks back to life.

               The last days of July, belonged to the fair, exploding in the grey Medieval quiet of the village. Lights were lit and music played, tents bloomed everywhere, scents hovered in the air: toasted peanuts and cotton candy, the pungent smells of the animal stalls… The statue of the saint gliding over the water towards the sanctuary, aboard a boat loaded with flowers, mostly plastic, glowing with electric lights, fireworks lighting up both the night in the sky and the one in the lake. Stalls piled with candy promised their rich wares to anyone with a dime, and, in a large grassy area close to the lakefront, a funfair was set up.

               The funfair! A child’s most excruciating dream. Games and rides of all kinds, the Ferris wheel, chairoplanes, the house of mirrors, and bumper cars. Lights and colors and belly laughs, and in the air of the endless summer night buzzed an electricity that fueled the tingling yearning in our bodies, unripe and newly discovered.

               You held that rifle like a movie cowboy, its butt firm against your tanned shoulder while, with both eyes open, you knocked down the tin cans, one after another. You won a goldfish and you gave it to me. I held that plastic bag filled with water up to my eyes, watching that shiny little fish bobbing over the heads of the crowd, and I felt myself melt, liquefying with love.

Then, one morning, after century-long weeks, I woke to find the little fish floating belly-up in the bowl.

               That was the day I knew you weren’t coming back. That little fish was my connection to you, you see? And now the thread was broken.

That was the day they found the boat: the current had washed it ashore in a nearby town. Empty.

I’m walking through the countryside, down the dusty path we tore up on our bikes. A pale boundary between the parched gold of the cornfields and the neatly trimmed rows of purple lavender.

The old kiosks on the beach, their wooden walls peeling, people sunbathing on beach towels, children playing, their parents distracted.

               From a record stall on the lakefront, a gramophone croaks out some old song. The view from here is a picture postcard — a movie, thanks to the background music, the trees framing the sparkling water, the island looming in the distance.

On one side of the beach, half-hidden by vegetation, a narrow jetty juts out into the water, boats moored all around. A sign reads Boats for Hire.

               “You from around here?” asks the manager with the sun-baked face. Hidden inside this wrinkled man is a boy I used to know, but I’ve no idea how to find him.

“My grandparents, actually. I spent all my summers here when I was a kid. It’s been a long time since I was here...”

               He nods. “Used to be lots of folks here on holiday. Place was packed in summer. But it’s never been the same since.”

               “Nothing ever is, huh?”

               He smiles. “You must have been a kid at the time. Probably don’t even remember.” I feel it, for some reason, that yearning — I know he’s going to talk about you, and even if it hurts, the pain is sweet,  almost pleasant. “Bad stuff happened. Kid disappeared. We never did find out what happened to him. They say he drowned in the lake, but they never found the body. All that time spent looking for him… Out here we say, the lake always gives back what it takes. It never gave that child back, though.”

The rest of this story is available in Volume 4, Issue 1 of Night Picnic.

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