After the Worms Destroy the Skin

By Andrew Sharp

Richard Magee had sometimes wondered what it was like to die. But when he actually did, during what he had thought was going to be the middle of his life, his mind was too clouded to analyze and understand it. Does anyone know the moment he falls asleep?

They’re going to be celebrating the Fourth of July, and I’ll be gone, Richard thought as he lay in the hospital two days before he died. Thinking was about all he could still do. Without the ability to act on his thoughts, he felt increasingly as if he were living in an imaginary world, his bed a tether that kept him from roaming as far as he wanted to.

Yesterday, he had been worried about paying the gas bill, whether he could talk his wife out of a European vacation, whether he’d get caught for fudging his time sheets at work, and whether the Phillies’ pitching was really this bad.

He’d been looking forward to watching the fireworks this weekend.

Now he was watching the ceiling in the hospital, and it seemed likely the fireworks would go off after his grand finale. This was not a morbid gut instinct. He had heard the doctor tell his family the end would be soon. That was a relief. He wouldn’t want to linger on for years asking for more pain medication with eye blinks. They kept asking him if he understood, and he blinked at them, and then they still talked as if he wasn’t in the room. Why don’t you ask me if I feel horrible and want to die? he thought. I’ll blink yes for that.

And where would he be, while everyone watched the fireworks? He used to think that life must go on in some way after death. He had been raised believing in God, and had taken comfort in the chance that, assuming he got a passing grade after his expiration date, he had more future than as a skeleton in a coffin.

But that hope had gone down with the loss of all hands years ago. He saw the random disaster that destroyed innocent children and saintly grandparents alike, while criminals enjoyed wealth and happiness. He learned how hurtling space rocks changed the futures of entire planets with chance impacts. He grew to accept the hard scientific understanding that consciousness is just a complex organic computer program. Religion, he realized against his will, was a masquerade. It was useful in that it gave color to the lives of ordinary humans, a structure to order their short lives around, but it was not a truth that provided real hope. Despite all the prayers, struggles, and faith, the pious were just nasty ordinary people underneath. There were no miracles.

He remembered the day he finally knew, against his will, deep down to his very core, that when he prayed, no heavenly being heard it. That his father was not “safe in the arms of Jesus” but very literally becoming a worm, or rather a worm’s feces, his atoms redistributed to the eager benefit of the life that was still lucky enough to be squirming.


The doctor was right. Richard’s last day did not procrastinate. He recognized it when it came, and knew the light streaming in through the cracks in the curtains was his last sunrise, which he had missed because he was flat on his back. He watched the light crawl up the opposite wall, and he breathed disinfectant fumes instead of the foggy morning air that was a few feet away on the other side of the drywall and brick.

Death stripped away sentimentality like a nest of beetles. For the victim, anyway. His wife and two of his children were gathered in the room, ready to send him out with tears and ceremony.
He wished they would just go to work like usual. They would die too; why make such a fuss about his passing and waste the time they had left? This sentiment was too complicated to blink, so he let it be.

It became hard to form thoughts. He knew his wife was holding his hand. His chest hurt, even through the drugs. There was a baseball game. A bowl of oatmeal. A commotion on a highway with yellow stripes, and he was tripping on something. Wings flapping. He was falling. A weight pushed down on his chest and he tried to grab it and push it off. He worked to remember something important. Then he felt as if he were in tiny pieces, specks spread far, spread everywhere, a great horrifying gap, too much distance, too much space. Everything was a mist that was rushing inward, growing tighter and more solid. His perception was not a thought, but a restless knowing, like a dream during sickness.

Something is pushing all over my body, he thought. The weight. Then he knew what he had been trying to remember. I’m dying. I don’t want to die.

He fought to breathe and tried to thrash his arms. No one came to help. Suddenly the weight gave way and he sat up, gasping in breaths of air. He was up to his waist in black, leafy dirt in a patch of ferns. A mosquito whined at his ear and bit his neck. He crushed it.

He brushed a long tendril of moss out of his face and looked around.

“Christ!” he said.


The Walkers

By Ben Herr

Tree spinI crouch between two holly bushes, breathing heavily. My hiding spot is nestled between two houses within the sprawling development I’ve spent this wild night in. I may not be in the best hiding place, but at least I can clearly see the only two ways to get to it. The coast is clear on both, yet I can’t escape the feeling of being watched. But it’s probably just paranoia. As much as the movies love the jump scares and surprises, they never capture the feeling that every bush, corner, tree, building, or garbage can hides a nemesis. At least, not to the level you actually feel it when you find yourself dead center in the first known, real life zombie outbreak.

I hear the dreaded music again, and I hit the deck, scooting as close to the wall as I can. I can picture what is coming perfectly, for I’ve seen it at least a dozen times tonight. Yet I feel the need to get another look, that somehow, this is also the first time. I crawl along the wall to the house’s front corner and crouch behind another decorative holly, peering around the corner to get a better view.
The well-paved, marking-free road is empty, but not for long. As the tinkling music box tune becomes more audible, he rides around the corner. It’s one of what I call pipers. The zombie pedals a rickety bike around the community, ever so slowly, and ever so unsteadily, an old music box playing a repetitive, eerie tune from the basket in front. The music is accompanied by a mild chorus of growling from the ever growing crowd of walkers not far behind. The music seems to draw them together; avoid the pipers and you can avoid the zombies, I’ve learned. But I notice a hobbling figure come out of the darkness on the far side of the street to join the crowd. My heart pounds as I twirl around, having forgotten to check behind me. There are still more out there who haven’t yet joined to packs.

I think about how I got stuck in this disaster. I suppose it’s no different than Little Red Riding Hood. A simple trip to Grandma’s house landed me in great peril. And now I’ve been running around for hours, lost and disoriented in the development, unable to find a way out, and turned back by a piper whenever I get close. Perhaps this is why I can’t shake the feeling of being watched.
With the pack almost even with my hiding spot, I realize it’s time to get out of there. I scurry to the back of the house and scan the terrain. A joint system of back yards, with the next row of houses about 50 yards away. An old shed stands about halfway through the open space. I’ll make it there first.

I take a few more breaths, then dart to the back of the shed. My head goes on a swivel, looking to see if I drew any attention, but the night remains still. I creep to the front of the shed, ready to run to the next row of houses. I take a few breaths, trying to keep my breathing quiet and under control, when the shed door flies open, slamming into my forehead, and a growling zombie stumbles out.

“Why was there a zombie hiding in a tool shed?” I wonder, losing precious moments as the creature closes the few paces separating us. I frantically backpedal to stay out of reach, creating enough space to turn and run. Yet as I turn, my feet tangle and I start to fall. My head turns forward just in time to grab onto the tire swing directly in front of me. I hold on as I swing forward, then start to spin as gravity pulls me back. I’m heading straight for the zombie. Fortunately, the swing rotates my legs forward, and I’m able deliver a strong kick to the thing’s chest, knocking it down. I let go and drop to the ground.

For the first time, my thought is not to flee, but to fight. Though I have nothing to fight with apart from the tire I regain control of as I stand up. The zombie is coming back. With no other option, I push the tire over its head and down around its arms, forming more or less of a straight jacket. Then with a strong shove, its feet leave the ground and it starts swinging back and forth. I give it a strong kick to add a spin to the zombie pendulum. Inspired by the weak growl that escapes its lips at the peak of each swing, I take mental note to patent an idea for an undead grandfather clock.

I’m not sure what to do with the zombie now. This is the first one I’ve encountered and dealt with, instead of simply running away. I haven’t yet considered the ethics of killing a zombie. I don’t even know what’s making them zombies. Virus? Supernatural miscue? I think of the pipers. Hypnosis? I understand nothing of the situation, nor can I formulate any guesses that make logical sense. The whole situation reeks of an elaborate explanation that will never be made clear.

I figure the zombie won’t be going anywhere soon, especially if zombies are still affected by inner ear function, so I decide to check to the shed for anything useful and leave poor creature in its swinging prison. I am surprised to find a well stocked tool shed. Rakes, hoes, shovels, sledgehammer, pickax, screw drivers, crow bars, hedge clippers, machete, rope, weedwhacker, and chain saw. My hand hovers ironically over the chain saw for a few moments of consideration, before I pass over it and choose the pickax.

After dashing away from the shed and the immobilized zombie, I find a dark corner to hide in. I spend some time trying to retrace my steps, trying to regain a sense of direction, but I am irreversibly lost and confused. The roads loop around too much and end in too many dead ends to make any sense of where I have gone. What was a large housing development before now seems like an endless jungle of identical buildings, with legions of chiming pipers patrolling the paths. There is but one option: Keep going. I look around once again, searching for the invisible pair of eyes that I keep sensing, but see nothing.

Pickax over my shoulder, I move forward, now more deliberately, trying to track where I was going and where I had come from. For the next 10 minutes there was neither sign of life nor unlife. I follow roads, cut through properties, and double back when I suspect I’m going in circles. But I still feel no closer to finding my way out by the time I see another piper.

This time, I see them even before I hear them. A massive pack is scattered along the road in front of me, walking from my left to my right. The piper is already so far past, he disappears from view shortly after becoming visible to me. I think through my options to go back, but it is a long way. I would try to wait it out and let them pass before I keep going.

I drop to the ground and crawl the remaining 30 feet from my vantage point in a cluster of trees to the nearest house, ending behind the glass-enclosed back porch. I then follow it to the back corner where I can watch what is happening without risking much visibility. From my spot, I watch them file past like an unending row of stumbling ants. Again, I wonder, what were they? Was there anything human left? Were they animal, lower than animal, or still almost human?

A twig snaps behind me, throwing my heart into a frenzy. Involuntarily, I spring up and spin around. I am frightened by one thing, and terrified by another. I am frightened by a lone zombie hobbling toward me, no more than 20 feet away. I am terrified, however, by the sound of shattering glass. The pickax is still over my shoulder when I spin.

Surprisingly, the lone zombie stops in its tracks. Startled? Scared? Or just distracted? I am frozen, still tense, still kicking myself for blowing my cover. I sneak a glance over my shoulder. The parade has stopped following the music box and has turned off of the road and toward the houses, approaching in a wide, sweeping wall. Going forward, or even sideways, is no longer an option; I have to, once again, turn back.

But the lone zombie still stands in my way. I would do my best to make quick work of it, but we seem mutually frozen. It stands there, staring at me, looking almost uncertain, and I stand still because I don’t understand why. I look into its vacant eyes and see nothing flicker, no gleam of humanity as I had hoped. A few moments later it again starts forward, coming for me with a growl. I lift the ax and give it a broadsided blow, knocking it off balance enough to run by.

It doesn’t take long before I have once again put good distance between myself and the zombies. I no longer have a plan for where I am going. I no longer feel I can do anything but aimlessly wander. I can only think about what is really going on, and about that lone zombie. It looked completely unlike a human, yet did not look completely brainless and dead. It looked somewhere slightly in between, or at least, like it was battling to become so. What was it?

For that matter, what am I? How do I know I am fully human? I think of the events of the evening. They seem far from sane. I look at the pickax in my hand. I have ended up with far from the most practical weapon from the tool shed. Had I made the selection because it seemed awesome, or was there some unknown factor in the decision? I think of how I was seemingly blocked at every turn in my attempt to escape from a place that makes a corn maze seem like Alcatraz. Either I am the unluckiest of unlucky survivors, or I am doing, thinking, or perceiving something wrong. So something, perhaps, is working to keep me in.

What did the movie characters do? When things went wrong, they always found a way or a reason to keep going. But this brings another thought to mind. In the movies, they often have the same pop culture knowledge of zombies as the real world. They reference the knowledge of zombies, but act as though they are seeing them for the first time. It seems scripted to us, the viewer, but seems real to them.

I think again to unshakable feeling that someone or something is watching me. I realize it’s not just the fear that zombies are near that I just don’t see. It’s something bigger. The puzzle pieces fall together. Am I just a character being written, or more likely filmed, into existence?

Soul Train

train tracks

By Andrew Sharp

I don’t believe in teletransport,” Marcus Byrd said, leaning forward over the table and speaking quietly. A coffee grinder cut into the silence that followed his statement, and the bell over the coffee shop’s door jangled as another customer walked in.

Randy Allan was not the kind of man who allowed himself to show undue surprise. A less controlled person might have jumped up and knocked the chair backward, or pounded the table, or let his jaw hang open. Randy just drummed his fingers on the table and frowned. But he couldn’t keep all the agitation out of his voice.

“Besides the fact that you own a giant share of Teletransport Inc., how can you not believe in teletransport? It happens. It’s foolproof. It’s how we travel. It’s how we got downtown today.”

“It’s not how I got here,” Marcus said.

“How did you get here?”

“I drove.”

“Expensive. Bad for the environment. Why?”

“Can you transport a soul?” Marcus asked.

“What are you talking about?” Randy said, frowning.

“You can transport a copy of me, but is it me?”

“Listen here,” Randy said. “You’re half owner, and I’m on the board. We’re supposed to be talking marketing strategy. We’ve already invested 500 billion dollars in this company and in the infrastructure all over the country. It is a very, very bad time for you to suddenly be expressing doubts. What are you doing, turning into one of these fundamentalist religious people who believes that the teletransport machines are evil?”

“Maybe they have a point.”

“LISTEN,” Randy said. The baristas glanced over at them. “It’s been demonstrated over and over. You know that. You step through, you leave point A, you get to point B with all your memories, your body, exactly the same down to the atom. This is not a marketing ploy. We’re not pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The demonstration tours settled everyone’s doubts except for fringe conspiracy theorists and religious wackos.”

“Maybe I’m a fringe conspiracy theorist then,” Marcus said. “There are all kinds of serious implications that people like you, people who should be thinking about them, are ignoring.”

“Like what, exactly?”

“In the micro-moment between deconstruction and reconstruction of your atomic configuration, are you dead?” Terrance asked.

Randy shrugged. “I’m practical. If I get from point A to B, what does it matter? If I can come back from death, who cares? I feel like me.”

“Maybe you can’t come back from death. Maybe you’re just gone.”

“Listen, it’s just like they say — like we say,” Randy corrected himself. “Your ‘soul’ is all your memories and thought patterns. Your desires, your fears, that’s you. It doesn’t matter which atoms you’re using. That’s the whole point. I’ll switch atoms all day long, I don’t care. You’re doing it even if you never go near the machine. Your body is always replacing those cells. Are you the same you 10 years from now when your body has replaced half your cells?”

“Listen,” Marcus said, “I have a very good reason to doubt. Only a couple of people know this, but I was the first one through.”

“So?” Randy said. “I thought it was Walter Franklin, but OK, he got scared and made you go first. Inventor can make the assistant go first if he wants. So what?”

“We started the testing with rats.”

“I know that.”

“ A bunch of them just disappeared. Early on.”

“Maybe in some other dimension somewhere huh?” Randy said.

“That’s not how it works, you know that. Their atoms shredded apart and never reassembled. They’re dead.”

“But you fixed it.”

“Did we? It still shreds atoms the same. You’re just as dead as those rats when you walk through.”

“But unlike them, Marcus, I come back. I don’t care, I’m back.”

“The one time, it malfunctioned with a human.”

Randy was quiet for a few moments. “I didn’t know about that. Killed?”


“What?” Randy clutched the table edge with both hands. “Are you kidding me? And you never told anyone?”

Marcus was breathing faster now. “That machine was flawless, and I knew it,” he said. “I stepped into that machine in a New York lab, and I stepped out in Tokyo microseconds later. But — when I stepped into the booth in New York, nothing happened. Or so they tell me.”

Randy didn’t say anything, so Marcus went on. “It was only fair that as the inventor, I take the terrible risk of being the first person. When I stepped into the machine in New York, I must have thought that it hadn’t worked. But I don’t know. Because that’s when ‘I’ became ‘we.’ In Tokyo, I was celebrating like crazy, handshakes all around with the lab assistants. But then we got a call from New York asking what went wrong. Imagine arguing with yourself on the phone.”

Randy didn’t say anything.

“So which one of us is the real Walter Franklin?” Marcus asked.

“If I believe you — not saying I do, but just for the sake of argument,” Randy finally said, “logically, he’s the real guy, right? He kept all his atoms. Nothing shredded. I mean, that would make you, you’re a …” He couldn’t finish.

“A copy? But his — our company is claiming there’s no question it’s the real you when you step out. Won’t even acknowledge any alternative. You were very eloquent about it a few minutes ago. ‘Your soul is all your memories’ and all that.”

Randy was silent again, drumming his fingers on the table.

“He’s sleeping with my wife!” Marcus said, violently. “I courted that woman. I remember our first kiss. I told her my wedding vows. I remember. I miss her and the kids so badly!” He started to cry.

Randy stopped drumming his fingers and stuck his hand awkwardly in his pocket, and looked around the coffee shop. A man reading the Seattle Times a couple tables over was watching them. Randy flushed.

After Marcus got control of himself, he went on. “She doesn’t want anything to do with me. He convinced her he’s the real deal. She was really upset but she agreed with you and said I was just a copy —” Randy flinched “— and she never wanted anything to do with me. And of course the kids couldn’t see me. I understand that of course, that they couldn’t see both of us.”

“You have leverage,” Randy said. “Hell, you probably had his passport and driver’s license. And you look just like him. You could have ruined him.”

“Why do you think I own half the company?” Marcus asked. “In exchange, of course, for plastic surgery, assuming a new identity, and keeping my conscience pangs to myself.”

“Well …” Randy said slowly. “I mean, why not embrace it? You’ve got a good life. Say you’re a copy, is that so …” he trailed off. Marcus looked like he had been eating bad fish. “Yes, I see what you mean,” Randy finished lamely.

They sat staring at the table.

“Marcus … or Walter …”

“Marcus is fine,” Marcus said.

“Marcus, what exactly do you expect me to do about this? Besides the investment, we’ve got millions of people who have gone through this thing. If you shatter their confidence and they all get some kind of identity crisis, we are finished. Ruined. You, me, and Walter in Europe. And your … kids.”

“I guess I just wanted to tell someone,” Marcus said. “I’m sorry. But … I couldn’t go on like this, watching people incinerate themselves. I don’t know what we can do. I guess, if you’re OK with it, if it doesn’t bother you, go on ahead. Maybe you’re really Randy. Maybe you don’t care if you are or not. But it bothers me. ”

“So what are you going to do?” Randy asked.

“Nobody would miss me.”

“I would,” Randy said. “God, I mean, we’ve been working together for years.”


They walked down Pike Street to the teletransport machine and stopped beside it. A young couple with a corgi walked up, and the man swiped a credit card and punched some buttons. All three disappeared.

“Are you going to get in?” Marcus asked.

“I think I’ll take the light rail,” Randy said.

Tornado! Or, a Boy Gets His Chance


By Hans Shenk

O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks! Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.
— Phillips Brooks, “Going Up to Jerusalem,” from “Twenty Sermons,” 1886

The day that first set Caleb Peckerman on the long road to adulthood began much like all the other field trips the freshman class had taken: Mrs. Hunning, their homeroom teacher, scrambling to make sure that everyone’s permission slips were turned in, that everyone had lunch money, and that everyone was on the bus, for the ride to the farm.

Caleb spent most of the ride half asleep, staring at the passing suburbs, while cliques carried on all around him. He spent most of the farm tour staring vacantly at animals, daydreaming and drawing circles in the sawdust-y dirt with his sneakers. Throughout all of it, whenever he thought no one was looking, Caleb watched Harper Flegel.

As the fog of a long night of video games and caffeine cleared on the bus, he’d watched her laughing with her softball teammates, sunlight shining on her teeth that were straight without braces, white without bleach. At the farm, he watched her pet the horse and shrink back laughing and wrinkling her nose when it bared its teeth.

Caleb watched her lean against the horse’s fence with the other softball girls, craning to hear the things the handsome tour guide was saying. She was leaning forward, eyes sparkling, anticipating a laugh. Watching her, Caleb’s chest burned with a weary melancholy. All he wanted, he told himself, was to feel the focus of her sun-like glow on his face. To perform some act of valor on her behalf, or to drift into her social sphere and showcase a sparkling wit, anything. All he needed was a chance, to capture her gratitude, her admiration, or just her attention, for a moment.

He sighed, and kicked dirt through the circle he was drawing with his toe. A cloud, borne on strong spring winds, slid effortlessly across the space between Caleb and the horse enclosure, covering the yard in shade.

By the time the tour wound to its conclusion with a “special farm lunch” in a refurbished red barn, the sunny morning had been washed away by sheets of rain. Fluorescent lights hanging off of rustic rafters shed a cold glow on wooden picnic tables. On one end of the cavernous room, cattle stalls had been replaced by a steel-and-glass cafeteria line. The opposite wall was untouched save for educational murals painted on the bottom half, where cows and horses offered advice and facts in cartoon word-bubbles. The side walls of the room were 10-foot-tall sliding doors. The doors on the windward side were pushed shut to keep out the rain.

Lunch was almost over. Some kids were still finishing up their straight-from-the-dairy ice cream, but most of the class was sitting in circles around and on top of the tables, trying to yell to each other over the roar of the storm.

Caleb was sitting alone, close enough to the open doors to feel errant patches of mist. Harper had disappeared — he guessed she was using the restroom —so he was watching the storm, instead. Outside, he could see small branches whip off of the trees in the yard and go whirling away into the maelstrom. The trees themselves bowed and churned in a greenish twilight.
The lights flickered. In his mind’s eye, Caleb was wrapping an arm around Harper’s shoulders as she stared terrified into the storm. He was telling her that it would be alright. They would outlast the elements, they would be fine…

“CALEB!!! CALEB!!!” A hand on his shoulder roused him from his daydream. Mrs. Hunning was grasping at him and bellowing, “CALEB, THERE’S A TORNADO ALERT! WE’RE GOING TO THE BASEMENT IN THE FARMHOUSE.”

Caleb blinked, nodded, and got up. Everyone else was already neatly lined up, walking back past the cafeteria line and into the kitchen. Some of the kids were whispering to each other and giggling, but most were silent and pale. The lights flickered again as Caleb and Mrs. Hunning trotted after the rest of the class. From outside, Caleb heard metal scraping and crashing. Ahead of him, the other students walked in tight, tense rows. They passed into a hallway behind the counter, and the storm became a muffled booming, like heavy machinery in another room.

The class, kitchen staff and chaperones were pressed together against the linoleum walls, and the dirty fluorescent lights made them look like horror movie extras. The tour guide from the morning was standing at the front of the line, his hand on the knob of a door to the outside.

“Alright,” he said, over his shoulder, “When I open this door, I need you to try to stay in your lines, but I need you all to run straight ahead to the house. Don’t walk, run. OK? Stay together as much as you can, but I need you to keep moving.” He stared gravely at them. Someone in the line snickered.

“Hey! This is serious. OK? OK. Ready?” He said, turning the knob.

“What’s going on?” asked Harper, appearing behind Mrs. Hunning, brown eyes wide.

“Ohmygod. Harper. We almost forgot you,” said Mrs. Hunning. She turned back to the door, her face white, skin taut. “Wait!” she screamed, pushing past Caleb, and waving a hand at the tour guide, “We haven’t done a headcount!”

It was too late. The door was flung back on its hinges with a splintering crack, and the tour guide charged out into the storm. Then the whole line was moving, stumbling toward the door.

Mrs. Hunning had pushed ahead of Caleb in her attempt to get a count of her students, and now the motion of the crowd carried her out in front of him and Harper. Acting on a foolish sense of chivalry, Caleb stood aside to let Harper pass. She stared at him, confused, and also standing still. Then she said “OH!” and ran.

The delay had been no more than a second, but already, Mrs. Hunning was gone. Caleb and Harper were alone in the hallway.

He was watching her when it happened. A gust of swirling wind swung the door back violently, just as she crossed the threshold. Harper yelped in surprise, and tried to throw herself out of the way, but the door slammed with a sharp crack, crushing her ankle against the frame. Caleb was too close to stop. He careened into the door, and toppled over Harper out into the storm.

It hit him with a howl. The wind was pushing him down, tearing at him from all sides. The rain stung his skin like hail. He had landed staring up into a sky almost as dark as night, lit with a sickly green. He rolled over, and looked back. His fall through the door had freed Harper’s foot, and she was beside him on the ground, curled around it, shaking.
“Harper!” Caleb struggled onto his knees and crawled to her. She was holding her ankle, eyes wide, lips twisted down in pain. She tried to get up, and toppled back down. A metal barrel went clanging past them, end over end like a Pepsi can.

“Hey!” she screamed, from 6 inches away, “Get me up! Get me up!” She grabbed his shoulders, and as he straightened up, she lunged up onto her good foot, the other hanging awkwardly. Caleb turned toward the house. It was shut up, and dark. He took a heavy step forward, into the rain.

“No,” said Harper, her lips on his ear, “I can’t make it that far. Get in the barn.”

Caleb hesitated. Harper pivoted on her foot and drove her weight against him. “Get in the barn!”

They stumbled back into the yellow hallway. Harper hopping along, her arms wrapped around his shoulders. Caleb was trying to think of ways to get to safety, and of things to say to impress Harper.

“Close the door.” Harper gasped, letting go of him and falling against the wall. The lights went out. Behind Caleb the wind slammed the door again.

“Never mind,” she said, “Oh, god. My ankle.”

Outside, the thunder and wind had gathered into one roaring voice, growing ever louder. Lightning danced like a strobe light across Harper’s grimace, and there was another crash from outside. She looked up,

“We’ve gotta find someplace solid,” she said. Caleb nodded. His stomach was twisting, and icy trails of rain were rolling through the small of his back.

“Let’s go,” said Harper. She lurched away from the wall, put an arm over his shoulder, and they hobbled back into the heart of the barn.

When they reached the cafeteria, the massive sliding doors were clattering angrily against their runners, and rain was whipping in through the doors that had been left open. Caleb stopped, standing beside the cafeteria line. Steam was still curling up from the dishes. He couldn’t comprehend that three minutes ago, he’d been staring out those same doors, lost in thought.

“There might be a closet or something in the kitchen!” yelled Harper. “There’s no way this room is safe.”

Her hands tightened on Caleb’s shirt. He nodded, annoyed at himself for not having thought of it first. They started sideways, past the counter and into darkness of the kitchen beyond. Caleb fished out his phone and by its pale glow they found a sort of janitor’s closet, next to the refrigerator on the back wall of the kitchen.
With a bang, one of the sliding doors on the windward side ripped away from its runners in the cafeteria behind them. Cold, wet wind came shrieking into the barn, grasping at them like the fingers of ghosts.

Harper pulled open the door of the closet with her free hand, and Caleb used his to throw the mops, brooms and bucket out into the middle of the kitchen. They tumbled inside, and Caleb reached up and closed the door behind them.

It was dark, and eerily quiet. Caleb tried to swallow his loud breathing, and failed. He was wet and gasping, and his legs and shoulders ached from supporting Harper’s weight.

“Gosh,” she said, laughing, a little hysterically, “it’s crazy out there. Do you think there’s really a tornado?”

“I don’t know,” said Caleb, “That’s the worst thunderstorm I’ve ever seen, at least.” He checked his phone. There was no reception.

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait it out, either way,” said Harper.

It suddenly occurred to Caleb that their legs were tangled together on the floor. Embarrassed, he pulled his back, brushing against her ankle.

She gasped, and flinched away.

“Oh, sorry, sorry,” he said.

“It’s OK. I’m OK. It just hurts,” she said. For another moment, there was no sound but breathing, then Harper said,

“I just hope I can still play softball.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” said Caleb, trying to think of something to say. “You really love softball, huh?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I guess so. It’s just … what I’ve always done. It’s what all my friends do. I dunno.”

She let out a long breath, deflating in the dark,

“Is it —” started Caleb, but before he could finish, Harper stiffened,


She reached out in the dark, and grabbed Caleb’s shoulders again, dragging him close with the strength of sheer terror. A noise was pulsing through the walls. It was like a roll of thunder, a roll of thunder that never ended. Harper curled into a ball, her arms locked around Caleb’s shoulders like vises, her face crushed against his chest, sobbing in fear. The noise rose on all sides, deafening, all-consuming. Caleb braced himself against it. The sound grew louder. Suddenly, he was cold, unimaginably cold. His breath caught. The air was gone from the closet. I’m dying, he thought, This is it. This is how it feels to die.

The noise, and the cold and his fear blended together into a white pain that spread his whole mind and body, driving out conscious thought. He forgot where he was, or what was happening. He was alone, impaled on the point of a pyramid, suspended on the peak, and a howling malevolence was pushing him over, and down into an edgeless void. He was slipping, slipping, down into oblivion, into a darkness that had no borders, and no bottom. The noise drove him downward into nothing.

His eyes opened, and he saw a slender ray of light, shining on dustmotes. The noise was gone. Before he remembered himself, before he remembered his name, well before he remembered anything he’d ever felt about Harper, he felt two things: a terrible pain in his back, and a joy welling from the profoundest depths of his chest. He was laughing, and crying, all at once, for the beauty of the needle of light and the glory of the pain in his back. He moved his head sideways, and the light fell across the face of a girl, pinned beneath him.

“Harper,” he said. He could not believe how beautiful she was. How the ray of light penetrated just beneath her skin, and made her glow from inside.

“Harper,” he said again. Now he felt himself filling up the corners of his body, returning to life. He said her name gently. Her eyelid fluttered.

“Harper,” he said a third time, struggling a little to find the air to speak.

She looked up into his eyes. Hers were rimmed in red from tears.

“Good morning,” he said. He wasn’t sure why he’d said that, “I’d move if I could, but I can’t.” He coughed a little, and it hurt. He drew in another breath, working hard.

“Are you OK?” she asked, staring up.

“No, no I don’t think so,” he said, slowly. “My back hurts a lot.”

Only when she moved them did he become aware that her arms were still wrapped around him. She ran one hand slowly down his back and stopped just above the center of the pain.
She swallowed hard, and spoke in a small voice.

“There’s something in your back.”

“Like, stuck in my back?”

Harper swallowed again,


He didn’t know what to say. Nothing in the first 15 years of his life had prepared him for this. It occurred to him that she would see that he was crying, and he wanted to make sure she understood the reasons.

“I’m not scared,” he said, abruptly, almost angrily.

Harper blinked.

“I was,” he said, hurrying, trying to fit the words into one painful breath. “I was scared when the tornado hit, and I thought I was dying. But now, I’m not scared. I’m, I’m just glad to be alive.”

Harper nodded, but he saw that she was biting her lower lip. His shirt was still damp from the rain, but a new warm wetness was trickling across it. Crushed up against Harper in the crumpled ruins of the closet, breathing laboriously in the darkness, Caleb felt such elation and clarity that he knew he was dying. No one could feel this way, and then go back to normal life. He must be dying.

“I’m not scared!” he said again, “Because death is just an edge. You know? Everything has edges — I’m only scared of empty space, with no edges. That’s all I’m scared of.”

“Caleb,” said Harper, “Caleb, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Harper,” he said, “Harper, you have to understand. You have to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“All of it, Harper! All of it.”

“Caleb, you’re scaring me,” she said. Her eyes were welling up again.

“Don’t be scared.” he said, “Don’t be scared. Death is just another edge.”

Caleb’s euphoria was mingling with light-headedness. He still felt as though he understood, and saw everything, but the particulars of the moment were starting to swim.
Everything was dark, again. He couldn’t tell if the shaft of light was gone, or if his eyes just weren’t working. He’d been trying to hold himself up so Harper’s head wasn’t pinned against his chest, and now he found that he was resting on her forehead again. Even through his shirt, her skin felt warm, almost hot. He shivered.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, and tried to straighten up, again, but found himself sinking down.

He was ambling down the bank of a clear, green river. I’m dreaming, thought Caleb, I’m falling asleep. At a time like this.

“Harper,” he said, swallowing twice. His mouth was so dry. “Harper! Hey, Harper,” he said, into the darkness.

“Hey, I just, I want … I just … I used to think that if, if sometime, for some reason, you and me were, if we were trapped together, then — I just wanted to be cool, and brave.”
“Sorry,” he said, “Sorry, I’m not making sense. Look, just so you know, I would’ve given anything to get trapped together with you. I thought that if something, if something like this happened, that I’d, that I’d be brave, and I’d save us, and we’d just wait it out, and we’d be OK, and you’d … you’d ….” He ran out of air. He drew another breath in, struggling to fill his lungs,

“Look,” he said again, “Look, just so you know, I think you’re beautiful, and you’re smart, and you’re brave, and you know, you know …” he stopped, and closed his eyes, and when he closed them, he could see the river again, and now it was up past his ankles. He knew it wasn’t wide, but the far shore was dark, and hidden from him. He felt a sudden desire to cross.

“You know,” he said, “I can’t be the only one who thinks that.”

Harper said nothing. Caleb couldn’t tell if she was trembling, or if it was just the ripples in the river, gently shaking him as he waded out into it. Suddenly, as though from far away, he saw the shaft of light again, and heard Harper say something in a deep, garbled voice that he couldn’t understand.

Caleb cracked two ribs, suffered a concussion and lost between 25 and 30 percent of the blood in his body. For two days, he drifted through dream worlds and fog, and when he came to himself again, his survival was already old news. He and Harper appeared on only three front pages, all local, and were mentioned on two regional television programs.

Each time the media inquired, Harper told the same story: she was late catching up to the class; the door slammed on her and broke her ankle. She told the reporters how Caleb had stopped to help her, how he’d carried her to the closet, and protected her with his body, and it had almost killed him. She said she didn’t blame the tour guide or Mrs. Hunning for leaving them behind, and she didn’t think it was right that they were both losing their jobs because of it. She said she was looking forward to when Caleb woke up, so she could thank him properly.

Shared trauma often forges a lasting bond between survivors, who have known each other in states of mind and extremities of situation that reveal secrets the closest friend or loved one cannot hope to discover. But circumstance is a careless craftsman, and the weld is haphazard. The ties we didn’t choose often take on shapes we wouldn’t choose.

When Caleb woke, he found that he and Harper could not make eye contact without a deep understanding passing between them. But then, he also found that every time he met her eyes, or heard her tell the story, he was left staring at his hands or changing the channel, or putting the newspaper down. Not once did she mention that she — hobbling on a freshly broken ankle had been the mastermind of their survival — nor did she mention his ravings about death, edges and edgelessness, and not once did she mention, even to Caleb, his last passionate speech. He was grateful for her silence, but even his gratitude made him feel ashamed.

During the week he spent in the hospital after he woke up, Caleb discovered that he could not even daydream about Harper without replaying the tornado. In memory, his few, mild failings that day seemed to him to be the work of a coward, and a madman, and he lay wracked by shame and regret. And sometimes, as he lay, miserable and completely still, he felt the surging energy of life and joy of living pulsing through him, and throbbing in his fingertips. And he would stare at the ceiling, and try to make sense of the anguish and the exultation.

Harper missed the rest of her freshman year of softball because of her broken ankle, and when softball started up the following year, she chose not to participate. For the whole of that school year, she kept a note that read, “You’re beautiful, you’re brave, you’re smart … and I can’t be the only one who thinks that,” taped to the inside of her locker, and especially on days when the softball team was playing, her gaze would linger on it.

At the end of the year, it was the last thing she took down when she cleaned her locker. She read it again, and stood, staring at the empty space where it had hung. Then she took a red sharpie out of her backpack, circled the words “I can’t be the only one who thinks that,” and stuffed the note into her pocket.

A little over a year after his brush with death, on the second day of summer vacation, Caleb was exploring a pile of boxes in his parents’ basement, and came across a box in which his mother had preserved all of the newspaper articles written about the incident. For the first time, he discovered that he wasn’t repulsed by the very thought of reading them. It had been months since he’d last spoken to Harper, and the shame had finally begun to fade. So he took them out, and sat down on the floor to read.

Initially, he was amused by how very different Harper’s story was from what he remembered. And then, at the bottom of the second story, he read,

“I know he saved my life. If he hadn’t been there, I couldn’t have made it inside, and if he wasn’t shielding me, that beam would’ve hit me in the head. I just can’t wait until he wakes up, so I can really thank him.”

He sat and stared at the quote, and then he read the other two articles again, focusing on the quotes from Harper.

When he was done reading, Caleb leaned back against the stack of boxes.

“Oh, my gosh,” he said. “I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot.”

He got up, put the newspapers back in the box, and walked upstairs.

His mother was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a book. She looked up,

“Hey,” he said, “does the library do first-aid classes?”

“I think so,” she said. “I thought I saw a poster about it last time I was there.”

“OK.” He moved toward the door. “I’m going to the library.”

“Alright,” she said, “but the car’s in the shop, so I can’t give you a ride until your dad gets home from work tonight.”

“That’s fine,” said Caleb, “I’ll walk.”

The Noble Savages

By Andrew Sharp

“It’s miserable,” the knight said. This seemed logical. It was about noon, 85 degrees or so with no breeze, and he was completely encased in steel armor that must have felt like a frying pan after hours in the sun. He was trying to chew on a greasy leg of lamb, but his visor kept slipping down. Sweat rolled down his face and disappeared down somewhere inside the armor, where it was free to go wherever it wanted.

“Hot as hell,” the knight said.

“What is hell?” I asked.

“Where bad English go after they die,” he said. “Fire. They burn up I think. I’m a little hazy on it myself. You’ll have to ask one of the elders. Anyway, it can’t be any worse than this.”
His costume looked authentically English, and he had the characteristic low cheekbones and pale skin of his race. The effect was so genuine that he looked perfectly capable of getting on a horse and using his long sword — currently leaning up against the water fountain — had an Army company come sweeping in just then.

I asked him how he got into doing the knight act, and he said he was born on the reservation. He got a college degree and worked in a city a few hours away but he liked to come back and reconnect with his heritage and catch up with his friends.

At that point Emerald came back and dragged me off to look at some displays.

I’m not sure why I went to the English fair in the first place. Mostly because of Emerald, who is a little weird but balances that out with being very good looking and fun to be around. One of her many interests is a fascination with English culture, which complements her enthusiasm for weird Eastern religious ideas. She feels they are simple and noble.

I’m not interested in the simple and noble religion but I like history too, especially in the right company. I had never thought much about the indigenous people here in New Mexico — there aren’t many of them left anyway. Nobody in my family ever went to a fair. I only remember my dad talking about the natives once, after a riot way up in the mountains on one of the smaller reservations. He scoffed at their outburst and said they should move on, quit trying to hang onto their dying culture, quit being alcoholics and join the modern world, that it’s not 1490 any more. My dad isn’t very politically correct but I guess most people would agree with him, although probably with more tact. What happened, happened, and feeling guilty isn’t going to bring the old times back.

I wished the knight luck surviving the heat, and Emerald and I wandered through the display stalls. There were rolls of old-fashioned linen and wool cloth, and weaving displays, and pottery stands, and a man with an impressive collection of antique iron tools.

Most of the stalls weren’t selling traditional items at all but cheap miniature replicas, little sword toothpicks and miniature knight statues like the ones you see guarding the entrance to people’s driveways, and shirts with coats of arms on them, and chess sets, and keychains with crosses.

We had to push through the crowds of tourists, who were kicking up a lot of dust and all seemed to be shouting to each other. It was very slow going. There were a few people covered from head to toe in flowing gowns, and these were supposedly the natives, although some of them had suspiciously dark skin. The English style seemed to have been built heavily around the gown theme. It was either a robe that covered every inch of skin and then some, or, bizarrely, men wearing close-fitting tights that left little to the imagination.

You had to talk loudly to be heard, because it wasn’t just the people shouting; they were having a livestock sale of some kind with native English animals like pigs and sheep, and they were bleating and squealing like there was a riot going on. The dust they were contributing to the cloud had too many overtones of feces for my taste. I hate to say it, but I see where the old stereotype of the English being dirty and undisciplined comes from. They seemed completely unbothered by all the chaos and sweat and manure.

The smell of the English animals once they reached the cooking stage was much more pleasant, and, I thought, refreshingly more quiet. We bought a leg of lamb to split and it was good, if a little basic. Just a hunk of meat on a bone, without a lot of spices added. Emerald bought a dense pudding of some kind that I tried one bite of. One bite was enough. She ate it all and pretended to enjoy it.

Judging from the available fare the English had a mostly bland and simple diet back then, with some basic meats and smoked cod and lots of heavy, grain-based foods. Now, like everyone else, they’ve adapted their cooking to foods the settlers brought, like potatoes and tomatoes and chocolate.

Emerald had the connoisseur’s scorn of the baubles on sale for the tourists, but was absorbed with the genuine displays and delighted by the acrobats and jugglers who set up in more spacious areas.

I was interested too when we stopped to watch the archers. According to their legends, which Emerald shared with me in detail, the English archers of old could shoot 100 yards or more, so accurately, it seems, that they would routinely shoot one arrow and then split it in half with their next one. Their skill seemed to have fallen off somewhat in modern times, and their first arrows had nothing to fear from later arrivals. But I was impressed with the strength it obviously took for the archers to pull back bows that were as tall as the archers themselves, and the power of the arrows as they buzzed off to the distant targets demanded attention. I would not have liked to have been in the suit of chain mail one archer was shooting at. Maybe their technology was more sophisticated than we realize now.

We were also both intrigued by the display case we found when we moved on from the archery exhibition, which had a few scraps of manuscripts and books. The woman in charge of the display, not an English herself but a professor from a local university, told us the scraps were extremely valuable and rare. Most of them were copies of the originals, she said, made by a few visionary priests who had tried to preserve some of the history and lore even as the rest of the conquerors and settlers had burned all they could find.

“But why did they burn them?” Emerald demanded, shocked.
The professor shook her head. “They saw them as dangerous lies, religious heresy. Also, they wanted to destroy the culture of the natives so they would be easier to enslave. It was a tragedy.”

“They thought they were so much better,” Emerald said. “Unbelievable.”

Emerald seemed to be forgetting that she was one of the conquerors herself. I could see why an archeologist or a professor might get upset about some ancient books being lost, but there were a lot of scrolls burned in the sack of Mexico City, too. These things happened before our more enlightened modern times. The world would keep on turning without some old English folk tales. I refrained from pointing this out to Emerald because I didn’t want to get into a long argument or be called a racist.

I dragged Emerald away from her mutual indignation fest with the professor to go see an exhibition of medieval farming. She was still grouchy when we got there, but she cheered up quickly as we watched a poor man dressed in rags trying to break up packed soil with a “plow” pulled by a team of oxen. The plow was more of a pointed stick with an iron point. The man looked like he was working about as hard as the oxen, and he didn’t have a great view while he did it, either.

Emerald explained to me how simple and environmentally friendly it was, without any artificial fertilizers, and how the peasants only grew what they needed to live in simple, small plots of land, which they farmed together. This built strong communities, she said, not like our disjointed society today with its industrial agriculture.
I was getting tired of this constant knocking of modern Western culture by now and I said it was no wonder they only grew what they needed, with that kind of brutal labor required to scratch up a little loose dirt, and they probably lived miserable lives and died young.

Emerald looked at me with sympathy. She explained that they weren’t afraid of hard work, they loved it, and they got strong and healthy from the exercise. I looked dubiously at the man struggling with the plow. He did not look like a man who was loving what he did and getting healthier doing it. He looked like a man who needed a tractor.

Before we left Emerald wanted to see one of their religious rituals. She dragged me over to the ruined temple, where, the program informed us, there would be a genuine religious ceremony held by indigenous practitioners who still “practiced a simple and beautiful faith, in harmony with god and their environment.” This was just the kind of mystical stuff that Emerald loved. For her, a religious idea only had to be Eastern in origin and it was profound.
The crumbling walls and pillars of the temple cut sharp shadows out of the afternoon sun across the lawn where a large crowd of tourists was gathered around a few natives and their priest and a collection of idols.

The priest, dressed in the obligatory flowing robe, this one of appropriate religious soberness, began chanting in a language that the program informed me was not English, but a more ancient sacred language used for religious rites. It was a little like our veneration of the Toltecs, I thought.

The priest sprinkled some water and read out of a book, and then said some more sacred words, and then several of the natives started singing a wild, pagan kind of music. I might have been unimpressed anywhere else but standing there among the old stones the music had an ancient weight, an almost dangerous power as if we could hear the voice of the English god, mourning. I glanced at Emerald and her eyes were partly closed and she was swaying a little. I realized I had let myself get sucked into the mood and scolded myself for my superstition.

After the music the proceedings went on with a lot of prayers and incantations and burning of incense. The priest did a little ceremony with some bread and wine and hand waving, which I had trouble following. At this point, for the benefit of us outsiders, he explained in Mexican that the supreme deity was now physically present in the bread and wine. From what I could understand, the natives were going to partake in his power by eating the deity. I almost laughed at the absurdity. They combine all the gods into one supergod, and then, they put him in a piece of bread and eat him. They must think they were turning into little mini-gods themselves. But after I thought about it, it struck me that the ceremony had its similarities with the ritual cannibalism we used to do centuries ago, and was even more like our ritual eating of meat as a stand-in for the human sacrifice now. Just different ways of trying to access the power and keep the universe balanced.

They wrapped it up with another song and then the crowd got noisy again and went off to buy some keychains.

I had to admit that it had been an interesting day, probably good for me. It almost seemed like a shame that this culture had been reduced to little pockets of survivors stuck between the past and the modern world, on tiny reservations. Despite the burst of cultural color in the re-enactments, it’s mostly all gone, boiled down into souvenirs, stories about bows and arrows, and old ax heads that turn up when they plow the fields.

We were back in England City by evening. I dropped Emerald off at her house, drove to my building and took the elevator up to my 11th floor apartment. I had a wonderful hot shower and relaxed on a soft couch with a bottle of pulque, with the air conditioning helping me forget the summer heat. Out my window I could see the busy downtown with trains running through and headlights making square patterns through the streets, and the Great Pyramid looming up over everything.
Despite the mistakes, I couldn’t wish that New Mexico had never existed or that we lived in some kind of primitive natural state.

The progress of history is inevitable.