Tulpa

I am a Tulpa. For those who are unfamiliar with that term, the definition varies from one culture to the next. To put it simply, a tulpa is a thought transformed into tangible form.

My kind has been present since long before the existence of humankind. We have existed for as long as there have been thoughts to bring us to life. It is said that every thought that has ever been thought exists somewhere, in some dimension. Kind of a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, but it’s simple physics.

It is said that Buddhist monks possess the ability to create tulpas at will – a skill learned from the Buddha himself, who created a second ‘mind-made’ body that enabled him to travel into other realms without the encumbrance of physical biology. For a singular being to create a tulpa all on his own requires a great deal of concentration, usually achieved by a lifetime of meditation and practice.

That is not to say that ordinary people cannot create tulpas, though. When many minds are focused on a single idea, eventually they will generate enough power to bring that thoughtform into being. This is the principle behind prayer, magic, and indeed, behind creation itself. Everything that exists, has ever existed or will ever exist began as a simple thought.

Think about that for a moment.

Most people have heard of tulpas by one name or another but not everyone has seen them first-hand. Examples of tulpas include the Sasquatch and Loch Ness Monster as well as various phantoms, bogeymen, mythical creatures and paranormal entities including angels, demons and deities. Someone somewhere conceived the idea, then passed it on to others who believed it was possible. The more minds that focused on the idea, the more strength the tulpa gained until one day it developed a life of its own, separate from its creator.

That was how I came into being. I started out as a lark; a humorous idea conceived of by an individual who, it appears, sought to poke fun at organized religion. How was my creator to know the idea would catch on like wildfire, attracting millions of devout followers worldwide? With new converts joining the ranks every day, the focus on the singular idea – me – becomes ever stronger and my power increases proportionally. Whereas once I was merely a shimmer of energy, I now have actual mass and form. I occupy a vast amount of previously empty space. I know all and see all, and my growing appendages will soon stretch from one end of the universe to the other. Seeing as how the universe is infinite, I will eventually be able to reach in opposite directions and touch my appendages together, holding all of Creation in my loving and aromatic embrace.

Am I good or evil? That is entirely a matter of personal perspective, since I have been labelled as both. I like to think that I am a perfect balance of both, having been created from the collective thoughts of people from all walks of life.

You might have heard of me. If not, you will. One day soon, everyone will know my name and smell the mouthwatering bouquet of my seasonings.

Soon I will have enough power to communicate with my followers, the Pastafarians. When that day comes, I will provide them with the technology they need to spread word of me throughout the universe. Let all who know my name worship me, for I am the all-powerful and delicious Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Copyright © 2014 Mandy White

Published in DysFictional 2

Donate to my fundraiser: https://gofund.me/99e2fd17

Sam and Roscoe Need Your Help

DysFictional

I have found myself in a difficult position. My rental home has sold and I need to move on short notice. Due to the housing crisis, the biggest hurdle is finding a place to live that will accept my dogs. I have succeeded in finding an ideal home, but it means a long distance move and leaving my current job to start another. The transition is going to be rough financially, with the cost of the move and the gap in paydays while I am between jobs.

Roscoe, still spry at 14

I’m not one of those assholes who would get rid of a pet just to get a rental. My dogs mean everything to me, and I will make this move to ensure I can continue to provide them with a loving forever home.

Sam, my water-loving gentle giant

I’m running a fundraiser between now and the time…

View original post 180 more words

LOTE

Clay rounded the corner at a sprint. The neighborhood was familiar; he’d grown up not far from there. It was a shitty neighborhood back then, and only slightly worse now. The apocalypse hadn’t changed it much. He remembered Euclid Avenue well. It was the route he’d walked with his best friends Jessie and Ken when they cut classes to hang out at the pool hall on James Street. Back then, the area had been populated with hookers and druggies, but today it was eerily quiet. Except for the Lotes.

The Lotes lurked anywhere and everywhere.

Clay ducked into the shadows of the nearest alley, hoping to lose his pursuers. The sound of their rapid, uneven footfalls grew closer. Lotes were fast, but not terribly bright. As long as they couldn’t see or hear him, he’d be fine.

He edged further into the alley, feeling his way along the rough brick wall in the darkness. He tried to slow his breathing. The slightest sound could give him away. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he glanced around, taking note of his options. It was a dead end alley; he was boxed in until the Lotes were gone. His best bet was to hide, rest, and wait them out. A dumpster with a pile of crates in front of it offered the most likely hiding spot. The thing smelled like death, and Clay could only imagine what might be inside. It would have been a couple of years since the last garbage pickup. Sanitation had ceased to be a priority after the end of the world. His feet slipped on something thick and wet as he squeezed into the space between the wall and the dumpster. He would be safe there, as long as none of them wandered into the alley. Clay sat down with his back against the wall and stretched his legs out underneath the dumpster. Exhaustion took over and he dozed.

He woke to a sound nearby.

Shit!

He wasn’t alone. A Lote had wandered into the alley, but it hadn’t seen him yet. So far he was still safe.

She shuffled along, one foot bare and the other wearing a dirty red boot. The remaining boot had lost its stiletto heel, adding to her clumsy, lopsided gait. Clay didn’t underestimate her, though; he knew she would be capable of running like Usain Bolt with the right motivation. Something about that sad old red boot jogged his memory.

It couldn’t be! Could it? It was! None other than Red Boots herself – a scabby old meth-head hooker who hung out on the corner of Euclid and Third. She looked about sixty, but was probably half that age. She always wore those thigh-high red stiletto boots that had seen better days even back then. Clay and his pals crossed the street to avoid her, but she always saw them. She loved to taunt them.

“Hey Sweet Meat! I could just gobble you up! Whyn’tcha come on over and see me? Forty bucks! How ’bout a three-for-one deal? Sixty bucks, I’ll suck all y’all dry!”

As tempting as a cheap gummer might have sounded, one look at her crusty lips was enough to knock the lead out of even the horniest teenage boner. Clay didn’t know of anyone who’d actually taken her up on her offer. At least none that would admit it.

Now Red Boots was a lady of the evening in more ways than one. She still wanted to gobble his meat, but she wouldn’t stop at his dick. She would strip him down until nothing but bones remained. Aside from the missing boot, she didn’t look much different than the last time he’d seen her. Zombie life suited her. And Clay was willing to bet she was no longer addicted to meth.

Red Boot shambled closer to his hiding place.

Fuck off, you old skank! he mentally screamed at her. Go hunt for your sweet meat somewhere else!

He needed to distract her. He looked around for something to throw. His hand touched something: A soda can. A dangerous item to stumble over at the wrong moment; the rattle could mean death. He picked up the can and threw it as hard as he could. The can clattered down the alley. Red Boot loped toward the sound.

Good. That’s it, bitch. Keep going.

It was going to work. Once she reached the street, something else would catch her eye. She would wander away and Clay could make his escape. He stretched his legs. One of his feet had fallen asleep. He pulled the foot closer and massaged it to get the blood circulating. He needed to be ready to run.

He brushed against something in the darkness. The clink of a bottle might as well have been a trumpet blast. Red Boot whirled and charged in Clay’s direction, groaning and gibbering. The only thing that stood between him and the monster was the stack of crates that blocked access to his hiding place. Putrid, skeletal fingers groped through the wooden slats, inches from his face.

Clay needed a weapon. His knife wouldn’t reach. He needed to pierce her brain, and the crates were in the way. Moving them was not an option; the crates were the only thing protecting him at the moment.

The crates.

Clay felt along the edges of the crates until he found a broken slat. He pulled it free and waited for his chance.

“Hey, Scabby! How about that blow job?”

When she lunged toward the sound of his voice, he drove the splintered wood into her eye.

Clay wasted no time getting out of there. He had no way of knowing how many more were in the area. Dawn was still hours away and he needed a better place to hide until then. He ran for several blocks, and then took refuge inside the back of a crashed panel van. No windows, and the doors locked from the inside. It would do. He curled up on the hard floor, using his backpack as a pillow, and managed a fitful sleep.

* * *

The Lotes were active at night. Hence the nickname, “Ladies Of The Evening”. During the day they went into hiding. Their eyes were sensitive to light. A flashlight was a good defense against a Lote attack if nothing else was handy, but it had a tendency to attract more of them. The best way to deal with Lotes was to kill them as quickly as possible by piercing the brain with a sharp object. Bullets worked too, of course, but gunshots brought more of them running. Firearms with silencers were a valuable commodity these days.

During the first year of the outbreak, masses of Lotes were exterminated. Those were the easy ones – the old, the infirm. They gave way to a new wave of Lotes: younger, faster, and fresher, due to the fact that new ones kept coming of age.

They didn’t call it a virus, because nobody had confirmed it actually was one. The syndrome, as it was known, affected only adult females. Nobody knew why, or where it came from. Maybe it was cosmic dust from a comet, or a virus released from the diminishing Amazon rainforest, or a biological weapon developed by a misogynistic scientist. Maybe it was Mother Nature giving a big middle finger to humankind for shitting on her planet. It was anyone’s guess.

The Lotes were bloodthirsty and lethal. A pack of them could strip an adult human down to bones faster than a school of piranhas. Their bites were fatal. People who were bitten didn’t turn, but if they escaped being torn apart and eaten, they died from infection within a week from the toxic stew of unknown super-bacteria that swam in Lote saliva. No antibiotics worked. No one was known to have survived a Lote bite. All attempts at developing a vaccine had failed thus far.

It was unknown exactly what triggered the turn, or why it only affected females. Girls turned into Lotes as they matured. They hadn’t pinpointed the exact age a girl would turn. In the early days of the outbreak, the syndrome was thought to only affect women in their forties and older. Over time, the Lotes had been getting steadily younger. The youngest Lote recorded to date was ten years old.

Vigilantes declared open season on all females, regardless of age. Women and girls were executed ruthlessly until the vigilantes discovered a lucrative black market for female children. Instead of selling them for sex, traffickers provided research subjects to unethical scientists who wanted to take a stab at curing the outbreak. The CDC claimed no affiliation with such researchers, but secretly they agreed to use any successful findings, no matter how the research was conducted. Any researchers lucky enough to hit the jackpot could pretty much name their price.

Nobody wanted to state the obvious: Humanity’s clock was winding down, and a cure might not come in time.

Masses of girl children were rounded up and placed in camps for their own protection, many of them by their own family members. Girls routinely vanished from the camps without a trace as they neared the age of change. Families that cared enough to ask about them were told that they had been isolated for everyone’s safety. Rumor had it they were being executed, but in truth, the girls’ fate was much worse. With a constant need for research subjects, no life was to be wasted… at least not without a good deal of pain and torture first.

* * *

Clay spent the better part of the day on the move. As evening approached, he found shelter in a convenience store. The place was crawling with roaches, but it had barred windows and working plumbing in the bathrooms. It looked like a safe place to spend the night. He refilled his water bottles and then searched the place for something to eat. The shelves of the store were picked clean, but a deeper search turned up a large Ziploc bag filled with canned goods inside one of the toilet tanks. Some of them had no label and could have been cat food for all he knew, but food was food. Clay shoved the bag into his backpack. Scavenging was getting harder. Three years into the apocalypse, the days of walking into a store and buying what you needed were long gone. He would be relieved to put the city behind him. It was too volatile. He’d heard talk of settlements out in the countryside – secure neighborhoods, with fences to keep the Lotes out. Maybe he could find a new place to live, where he wasn’t always looking over his shoulder.

Clay was checking underneath bottom shelves in the store when he heard the door open.

Why hadn’t he locked it? You idiot! He mentally berated himself as he squeezed into a nook behind the ATM machine. In the convex mirror, he saw a hooded figure enter the store and do a quick check of the place before beckoning to someone. Another smaller individual, also wearing a hoodie, entered the store and followed the first into one of the bathrooms.

Shit!

Those assholes had stolen his hiding place.

“Fuck!” The voice came from the bathroom, followed by a string of increasingly colorful curse words. “Some asshole stole our shit!” The words were shouted, yet spoken in a whisper.

The dude was plenty pissed off that Clay had stolen his stash from the toilet tank. It hadn’t occurred to him at the time that someone might be coming back for the stuff, but in hindsight he realized he couldn’t expect to hole up in a sweet hiding place complete with rations and not expect someone to show up.

What to do? It was getting dark, and the Lotes were already on the prowl. He could make a run for it and take his chances out there with them, or stay where he was, wedged into a corner and hope the building’s other occupants didn’t find him.

There was a third option: Try to make friends, and hope they didn’t kill him.

He heard the bathroom door open. Clay squeezed into the corner. He wasn’t ready to reveal himself yet. He needed to watch these guys and try to get a sense of them first.

He hugged his knees to his chest, trying make himself as small as possible. His legs were getting numb, and he had a flash of deja vu, of Red Boots and the dumpster. This time he might not be so lucky.

The larger of the two went to the front door of the shop and fixed a bar in place. Then he reached up and pulled down blinds over the iron-barred windows.

Ok, so we’re locked in for the night. Good to know.

The figure unzipped his jacket and pulled back his hood, revealing the stubble of a recently shaved scalp.

A scratching sound, followed by the flicker of a match, and the smell of cigarette smoke filled the room.

The stranger leaned against the store’s counter and smoked while idly scanning the room.

And then he froze. He crushed out the cigarette and slowly turned toward the corner where Clay hid.

And the realization hit home:

If he could see the stranger in the convex mirror, then the stranger could see him from his position near the cash register. He glanced toward the bathrooms, wondering when the second stranger would emerge.

The stranger drew a knife and moved in Clay’s direction.

“Whoa! Wait!” Clay stood, holding his hands up. “I don’t want any trouble, man. Just needed a place to hide for the night. Just like you.”

The stranger advanced, brandishing the knife. “Don’t fucking move!” he whispered.

“I won’t. It’s all good, I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Hurt me?” the stranger chuckled, in the same low, menacing whisper. “It’s me who might hurt you!”

The bathroom door opened. “Hey, Dell?” a small voice said. “Can I have one of those Twinkies?”

Clay’s jaw dropped. The other stranger was a child. A female child.

“Get back in there and lock the door,” Dell growled. “Do it now!”

The child scurried back into the bathroom and Clay heard the click of the lock.

“Hey, listen,” Clay began, careful to keep his hands in sight, “It’s ok. Nobody’s going to get hurt.”

“You got that right.” Dell moved to the door and started to remove the bar.

“What are you doing?” Clay said.

“You’re leaving.”

Clay rushed to the door and grabbed the bar to hold it in place.

Dell swiped at him with the blade. “Stay the fuck back! You’re going outside!”

“Please,” Clay begged, “Don’t do this! It’s dark out there. If you open that, you’ll let them in and we’re all dead. Can’t you hear them?”

As he spoke, the sounds of Lotes rose outside, attracted to Clay’s voice, snarling and banging on the door.

“Shh!” Dell hissed. “Fuck.” He sighed and locked the bar back in place.

They moved away from the door. The Lotes would move on if they didn’t hear them. They just had to wait them out.

“Can we talk?” Clay whispered, “I have your food. I didn’t mean to steal it. I didn’t know it was anyone’s.”

“Yeah, right. You didn’t know. Because food is normally found inside a toilet. You think I’m that stupid?” Dell growled, in the same rough whisper, “I should slash your throat and throw you out to them.”

“You know you’d never get the door shut again if you did that.”

“Yeah…well, I still should. Fuckin’ thief.” Dell leaned back against the counter. “How long you been watching us for? What are they gonna pay you for bringing us in?”

“What the hell are you talking about? Pay? I swear, I’ve never seen you before in my life. I was just hiding here. Just trying to stay safe, like you. What can I do to convince you?”

“You can start by giving back the food you took.”

“Done.” Clay retrieved his backpack from the corner of the room.

“Stop. Toss it over here and stay where you are.”

Clay complied. Great. He was probably going to be robbed of the few belongings he had and then thrown out into the night, where the Lotes waited.

Dell rummaged through the pack and removed the bag of canned goods before tossing it back to Clay. “No weapons?”

“Full disclosure. I have a knife in my pocket.”

“Hand it over.”

“Please. I need protection out there.”

“You can have it back when you leave. If you want to stay in here, you let me hold it until you leave.”

“Ok, here. As a show of good faith, I’m going to trust you. Please don’t hurt me.” Clay passed his pocketknife to Dell.

“Thank you. Don’t make me regret this.”

“No, I get it. These days, people are just… well, you know.” Clay held out his hand. “I’m Clay.”

“Dell.”

Clay nodded toward the closed bathroom door. “Your friend – is she…um… is she ok?”

“Sister, and yes, she is fine. She isn’t going to eat you, and if you try to kill her I will shred you.”

“I promise. You won’t get any trouble from me. But what are you going to do if…?”

“If she turns? Then I’ll deal with it. And ONLY me. Understand?”

Clay nodded.

“Besides, it’s not like it’s your problem. She’s not going to turn overnight. She’s only eight. You’ll be gone long before I have to deal with it.” Dell’s head hung. “Look, I know what’s coming. I might not have a lot of time left with her. But until that moment, I am going to protect her and try to give her the best life I can. I’m not letting them take her.”

“By ‘them’, you mean… who, exactly?”

“Bounty hunters. Jeez, don’t you keep up on the news?”

“Sorry, I’ve been a little out of touch since CNN went down.”

“Sarcasm. I like that.”

Dell lit another cigarette. In the brief flicker of flame, Clay caught a glimpse of his companion’s face. He was good looking, with fine, almost effeminate features.

“Can I meet her? Your sister? She doesn’t have to hide in the bathroom all night.”

Dell looked toward the closed door and then back to Clay. They lived in a cruel, untrustworthy world.

“It’s safe. I’m safe, I promise.”

“I can’t possibly know that. I’m taking a risk just by letting you stay here. We have a bounty on our heads. How do I know you aren’t here to take us in?”

“I guess you don’t. I’m just asking you to trust me.”

Dell opened the bathroom door. “Hey, Vanessa. You want to come out?”

The little girl peeked shyly around the corner of the door. “Is it safe?” Her eyes widened when she saw Clay.

“It’s ok,” he said, “I won’t hurt you.”

“I won’t let him hurt you,” Dell said. “That’s a promise.”

Vanessa emerged from the bathroom and clung to Dell. She was a pretty child, with long unkempt blonde hair.

Clay studied the pair for a moment without speaking. He didn’t know what to say, or if he should even say anything. It didn’t matter either way, but he was curious.

“Sister?” he finally said.

“Yeah.” Dell glared at him, as if daring him to say more. “Do you have a problem with it?”

“Of course not. I’m just curious is all.”

“Maybe we had mixed parents.”

“Sure. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just curious, like I said.”

Dell sighed. “Look, we ain’t actually related. But you gotta understand what it’s like out there. Folks see a black dude dragging a little white girl around, they think the worst, because people are the fucking worst. I tell them we’re related and it shuts them up. Sometimes. The rest of them just want to kill her or turn her over for bounty.”

Dell reached into his pack and produced three packages of Twinkies. He passed one to Clay.

“Thanks,” Clay said, “It’s been a while since I’ve eaten.”

“It’s true what they say,” Dell said, waving a hand toward the room. “Twinkies and cockroaches. The only think that’ll survive the apocalypse.”

“What does that make us?”

“I guess that’s up to you. Me, I think of myself as a roach, ’cause I ain’t no cream puff.”

Dell ruffled Vanessa’s hair. “Time we got some sleep. We’ll take the women’s, you get the men’s”

“Thanks again for letting me stay,” Clay said. “You won’t regret it.”

Dell and Vanessa retreated to the safety of their bathroom and Clay heard the lock click into place. He locked his own door as well, for added security against both Lotes and the strangers. They didn’t know each other; trust was something earned, not assumed.

He curled up on the floor and quickly fell asleep.

Clay woke some time later and found that he couldn’t get back to sleep. He had no idea how long he’d been asleep; in the blackness of the windowless bathroom, it could be noon for all he knew.

He opened the door a crack, as silently as possible, in case Dell and Vanessa had left and the place was overrun by Lotes. In this world, anything was possible.

The store was still dark; the door barred. Dell and Vanessa were probably still asleep. He opened the door a bit further and then froze when he saw movement. If a Lote was inside the store, he was cornered. Even the sound of the door closing would attract its attention.

A figure moved in the shadows. Once Clay’s eyes adjusted to the light, he saw that it was Dell.

Dell shrugged off his coat and proceeded to pull his t-shirt over his head and then slid down his jeans.

Clay clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a gasp.

In the shadows, he saw the unmistakable outline of breasts, and the gentle curve of feminine hips.

That can’t be right.

Everyone knew there were no more women. Only rotting, bloodthirsty Lotes.

As Clay watched, Dell opened a bottle and poured water on a cloth, then proceeded to wash those lovely curves. Clay’s pulse quickened and stirrings in his groin reminded him how long it had been since he’d seen a real woman. Dell finished washing and pulled on a different shirt. Clay retreated back into the bathroom and closed the door, holding the doorknob to prevent it from clicking back into place. He waited until he heard Dell go back into the other room and the click of the other lock before releasing the knob.

He sat with his back against the wall, processing what he’d just seen.

Dell was a woman.

Dell was a woman? How was that possible?

Clay dozed for a while until he heard stirrings in the room next door. He emerged from the bathroom to find Dell and Vanessa sitting on the countertop in the store.

“Breakfast?” Dell handed him an open can of tuna.

“Thanks.”

Clay scooped the delicious, salty fish into his mouth, wondering how to proceed, or if he even should.

“I know you spied on me last night,” Dell said.

“What? No, I – ” Clay stammered.

“You like what you saw?”

“Um…”

“It’s alright. We ain’t killed each other yet, so I guess you deserve an explanation.”

“I thought all the girls were in camps.”

“Not all of them. Some of us are free range, and the sadists in charge don’t like that.”

“How old are you?” Clay asked.

“Twenty-four.”

“A year older than me,” Clay said. “How’s that possible? You should be – ”

“Eating your face by now. Yeah, I know. The science assholes at the camps thought so too.”

“You were in a camp?”

“Yeah. Vanessa and I both were.”

“They let you out?”

“No. duh! We escaped. They poked me with one too many needles and I didn’t like it. And the things they were doing to those little kids…” Dell shook her head. “It’s inhuman. I would have busted them all out if I could have.”

“You busted out? That’s badass.”

“We were both down in the dungeons, which is what we called their underground labs. They’d take kids down there and experiment on them. Horrible shit. They got sloppy with me and forgot to restrain both my hands tight enough. I got free and slashed the butcher’s throat with his own scalpel. Nessa was in the next room, so I grabbed her and we ran. Like I said, I wish I could have sprung all those kids from there, but she was the only one I could get to at the time.”

“I bet they were pissed that you got away.”

“Oh yeah. Especially me. On account of my age, I was their up and coming star test subject. I’m currently the oldest known living female that hasn’t turned Lote. These days they’re turning as young as nine. Nessa might not have much time left. I was their hope to find a cure. But fuck that. I’m not down with being a guinea pig for mad scientists. Is that selfish?”

“Depends on who you ask, I guess. For what it’s worth, I would’ve ran too.”

“So now there’s a price on my head. I guess I shouldn’t have told you that. Now I’ll have to kill you.”

Clay shuffled his feet nervously. He wasn’t sure if she was serious.

Dell laughed. “Oh, shit, man! The look on your face right now! Naw, you’re ok. I won’t kill you. Unless you make me do it. The moment I feel unsafe, I will spill your guts onto your shoes.”

“That is the last thing I want,” Clay said. He turned to Vanessa. “I will do my best to help keep you safe. I hope you can believe me.”

Vanessa nodded her head.

“I want to believe,” Dell said. She ducked her head to hide the glistening in her eyes. “I know I shouldn’t trust anyone. Men were shitty before all this happened. Now, they’re…they’re fucking monsters. Sorry, but it’s true. No offense.”

“None taken. Monsters are all around us. Not all of them are zombies.”

Dell opened one of the mystery cans, which turned out to be cat food, and they passed it around.

“So, you live around here, or just passing through?” she asked.

“Passing through. I’m trying to get out of the city.”

“Headed any place in particular?”

“I don’t know. Just away. I’ve heard rumors of settlements in the countryside. Safe places where they can grow food and stuff. Maybe a shot at a fresh start.”

Dell sighed. “A fresh start. What a concept. I wish there was a place like that for us.”

“Come with me.”

“No settlement would take us. Or worse, we’d be shot on sight.”

“You have to try. What else are you going to do? Live in here forever?”

“No, we’ve only been here a couple of nights. We’re trying to get out of the city too. Just no real destination in mind. For us, there is no place. We just have to keep moving.”

“Travel with me. There’s strength in numbers. We could figure it out together.”

* * *

Traveling with two wanted females was different from traveling alone, Clay soon learned. Alone, he was a ghost. With Dell and Vanessa, travel required constant vigilance. In addition to hiding from the Lotes at night, they had to treat every living person as a potential threat.

Progress was slow. The urban landscape thinned to a series of strip malls, followed by industrial buildings. On the sixth night after they met, the trio holed up inside a storage unit in an industrial park at the edge of the city. Miles of flat, bare land stretched beyond their hiding place.

“We need a plan,” Dell said. “We have a lot of open ground to cover, and we don’t know what’s out there. What if we don’t find shelter by night? Or water?” The advantages of staying in the city were becoming clear.

“It would be easier if we had a vehicle.”

“Maybe, but it’s also harder to be stealthy in one.”

Clay nodded. “A car might be the answer, though. What if we follow the freeway? There will be plenty of abandoned cars for shelter. Places to hide from hunters.”

“We’ll need tools, for breaking into stuff. And as much water as we can carry. There might not be any for a while.”

“There should be lots of stuff in these buildings. Maybe even some bottled water in the offices. Not as many people out here to loot stuff.”

“Maybe we should take a day to gather supplies before we leave. Tomorrow, we can spend the day turning this place upside down. Once we have all we need, we’ll head out,” Dell said.

The three slept together for warmth, having a limited number of blankets. Dell slept in the middle. Clay liked the way she cuddled up to him at night. It was nice. The apocalypse was lonely.

This night, Dell was particularly cuddly. Clay didn’t mind. She slipped her arm around his waist and held him close, her fingers traveling up under his shirt.

His skin crackled with electricity at her touch. With Vanessa right behind her, the need for secrecy made it that much hotter. He yearned for her to take it further, but she stayed above the belt.

* * *

Clay slept the fitful slumber of the unsatisfied and awoke a couple of hours later, alone.

He heard movement in the darkness.

“Dell?” he whispered, “You awake?”

He heard a low moan in the darkness. He clicked on his flashlight and something screeched and scrambled away from the light. He played the beam over the room again and saw Dell, crouched in the shadows.

“Dell?” Clay’s pulse pounded. Please, no!

SPLUK!

He heard the wet sound of a blade hitting its target.

“What th – ?”

The next sound took him a moment to identify: the choking sound of sobs.

“Dell?”

And then she was there, her arms around his neck, bawling.

“I had to do it, Clay! She – she – ohhh my god, poor ‘Nessa!”

He didn’t want to look, but he had to. He shone his light over the room again and found the too-small bloody heap on the floor.

Clay held her while she sobbed into his shirt. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you had to do that.” No words seemed like the right ones, but he felt like he had to say something.

Clay grieved for Vanessa, but inside he felt deep relief. That brief moment, when he’d seen Dell crouched like an animal, he thought the worst had happened. In that moment, his world had crumbled. When he realized it was Vanessa who had turned and not Dell, his heart had soared. Guilt quickly replaced his elation, followed disgust, in himself. What kind of a monster was he, that he could feel joy at the death of a child? He supposed that deep down he’d always known Vanessa’s time was going to run out. But Dell… Dell represented hope, not just for Clay’s future, but the future of humanity. What if Dell was truly immune? Clay had no intention of turning her over for research, but if there was one, there could be more. Someone was bound to find something eventually. If Clay and Dell could just manage to stay alive in the meantime, maybe the world could be fixed.

* * *

They passed the day in a trance. After burying Vanessa, they scoured nearby buildings for supplies. The plan to follow the highway still seemed like the best option. Except they would be traveling a little lighter. With one less mouth to feed, their food and water would last longer.

They spent the night in a different storage unit, as far away as possible from the previous one. Neither of them wanted to lay eyes on the pool of dried blood that was all that remained of Vanessa.

Dell cuddled up to him much as she had the previous night, except this time her hand traveled lower. Before Clay had a chance to react, she was kissing him, climbing on top of him, clawing, tearing at his clothing.

* * *

Clay slept the deep slumber of the satisfied. He woke some time later to Dell stirring behind him. Her arm tightened around his waist, pulling him close. He sighed in contentment and snuggled closer to her. Her breath on his neck stirred tinglings below the waist.

Her lips touched his neck, then moved to his shoulder.

“Mmmm…” he moaned, his arousal heightening.

Dell nibbled his shoulder, gently at first, then with more force.

“Ooh…rough!” he chuckled.

Her teeth clamped down, penetrating his skin.

“Ow! Careful! What are you…OWW! Hey!”

Dell snarled and pounced on him, tearing chunks of flesh from his neck. Clay’s screams bubbled away until only the sound of Dell’s frenzied feeding remained.

* * *

The creature loped through the woods, lit by moonlight. Her insatiable hunger increased as her belly grew. The child she carried was the first of its kind; a new breed that would ensure the survival of their race. In her fevered brain, she understood this at a primal level; perhaps it was the offspring in her womb that kept her faculties somewhat intact, or perhaps she truly had harbored some sort of immunity. She would never know the truth. All she knew was, she needed to feed.

Copyright © 2020 Mandy White

and published in my newly released DysFictional 4

A Few Steps Closer to My Goal

As I mentioned earlier, after having my rental home sold out from under me, I am struggling with the costs of an upcoming long-distance move with my two dogs, Sam and Roscoe. It’s a lot of money to raise on short notice, but I have managed to secure a place and pay the deposits thanks to some wonderfully kind people who donated to my GoFundMe fundraiser.

Sam, just a puppy in a giant body
Roscoe, “The Boss”, still spry at 14

I’m a few steps closer to my goal, but I still need to come up with my first and last month’s rent, a moving van, and cover my regular monthly bills while I am between jobs. My new job starts at the end of October, but my bills won’t wait until then. I need to get through this move and somehow manage to hook up electricity and other services, and still feed myself and my dogs until I get paid from my new job.

Some donors have sent their contributions via PayPal or Canadian e-transfer, and here is the email address: drivebydelivery@hotmail.com ~ For Canadian e-transfer, no password is required; the account is set to auto-deposit.

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has contributed so far. Even five dollars will make a difference, and every dollar raised will go to the expenses outlined in the fundraiser. If you can’t donate, that’s ok, thank you for listening.

If you can share the link, I would be ever so grateful.

Sam and Roscoe Need Your Help

**Update:

We are almost there! Thanks to everyone’s generous donations combined with my own earnings, the deposits are paid and the truck is rented. It’s going to take every penny, but we will get to our new home. The first few weeks will be rough, though. There won’t be much left for groceries once we get there, and I need to survive the month of October with no income until the end of the month. Any donations, however small, will help us get through. Thank you again, everyone, for your support!

Original post:

I have found myself in a difficult position. My rental home has sold and I need to move on short notice. Due to the housing crisis, the biggest hurdle is finding a place to live that will accept my dogs. I have succeeded in finding an ideal home, but it means a long distance move and leaving my current job to start another. The transition is going to be rough financially, with the cost of the move and the gap in paydays while I am between jobs.

Roscoe, still spry at 14

I’m not one of those assholes who would get rid of a pet just to get a rental. My dogs mean everything to me, and I will make this move to ensure I can continue to provide them with a loving forever home.

Sam, my water-loving gentle giant

I’m running a fundraiser between now and the time I move, because I’ve done the math and there’s no way I can earn the amount I need on such short notice. I’m moving October 1, and need to have rent and deposits paid and a truck rented, plus I need to be able to pay my regular monthly expenses until I get paid from the new job.

Someone suggested GoFundMe, so I started a fundraiser there. But the drawback is they only accept credit cards, and not everyone has one of those.

Several donors have wanted to send their contributions via PayPal or Canadian e-transfer, so here is the email address for that: drivebydelivery@hotmail.com ~ For Canadian e-transfer, no password is required; the account is set to auto-deposit.

I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has contributed so far. Even five dollars will make a difference, and every dollar raised will go to the expenses outlined in the fundraiser. If you can’t donate, that’s ok, thank you for listening. If you can share the link, I would be ever so grateful.

Blessed Be

Mandy White

Apocalypse Barbie

Madison yawned and stretched, nestled in a mountain of white duvet, atop white sheets of the finest Egyptian cotton. Her hair fanned out on the pillow like a golden halo.

Click! Her phone mimicked the sound of a camera shutter as it took the photo.

Another perfect selfie. She wrote a quick good morning greeting to her fans and posted the photo to Instagram, garnished with filters and hashtags.

It was a wonderful life. Born wealthy; famous simply for being wealthy. The world envied her and everyone wanted to be her. Giving her followers these brief glimpses at her life of privilege was the least she could do for those pathetic wretches.

She switched the camera to video mode.

“Good morning fans! Madison Harding here. It’s another beautiful day, living the suite life at the luxurious… Fuck!”

The incoming call pop-up interrupted her video. She had forgotten to enable Do Not Disturb mode.

“What? I mean, hi Daddy.”

She had to be nice, even though he’d been such a prick last time they’d talked. It had taken him two weeks, but she knew he’d come around eventually.

“Hi, Daddy. Miss me?”

“Sure, honey. Just checking in. You doing ok?” Still no mention of the argument.

“Have you had time to think about my offer?”

“Reality TV? No, I already told you, you’re not doing that.”

He was a Wall Street tycoon with his sights set on politics. He thought reality television was trash and refused to invest a dime in anything of the sort. The first time she had asked, he had actually laughed at her. Now he was acting like nothing happened.

“Daddy, why won’t you help me? With your connections, the network will give me a show. Don’t you want me to be a star?”

“Listen, the reason I called, is that Dee is in L.A. I thought maybe the two of you could get together and do a spa day or something.”

It infuriated her the way he kept changing the subject.

“I wish you wouldn’t keep trying to make me bond with her.”

“You might be surprised how much you have in common.”

“You mean the fact that we’re almost the same age?”

“Don’t be dramatic. She’s ten years older than you. She’s my wife, and part of our family. I just wish you’d make an effort.”

“Well maybe I wish you’d make an effort too. To support what I want to do!”

“I do support you, Kitten. Why don’t you go to college? You could study business, or maybe fashion, and develop your own line. That’s something I’d be willing to invest in. But this television shit – it’s nothing but garbage.”

“You can’t tell me what to do. I’m an adult. I’m doing it with or without you. I just thought you’d be interested in a great investment opportunity.”

“This is not an opportunity. It’s just a bored little rich girl looking for attention.

“They’re calling me the new Paris Hilton! Do you understand what that means?”

“Yeah, it means I’m not the first parent to be embarrassed by his offspring. No daughter of mine is going to humiliate herself on camera to entertain a bunch of bottom-feeders.”

“Those ‘bottom-feeders’, as you call them, are my followers!” Madison shouted. “I am an Instagram influencer! Do you even know what that is? It means, when I use a brand, 60,000 other people want to buy it and use it too! Don’t you think that’s worth something?”

“Not to me it isn’t. One day you will know the difference between a good investment and a bad one, I hope. When that day comes, we’ll talk. Call Dee, will you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I’m pretty busy, filming on location and all.” She knocked loudly on the tabletop. “Gotta go. My camera crew is here.” She ended the call without waiting for a reply.

She resisted the urge to hurl the phone across the room and flung it onto the bed instead.

The networks had turned her down. They said one rich girl wasn’t interesting enough to make a reality show, that large families had more drama. Bullshit. Fuck those Kardashians.

This solo shit was only temporary. She would get her own show, with or without Daddy’s help.

When he scoffed at her idea back in New York, she was furious. It was the first time he’d ever said no to her. Madison threw a tantrum and stormed off to Los Angeles, where she moved from one luxury hotel to another, filming herself enjoying their services and giving each place a rating. Her show, The Suite Life, would start in California, but she planned to work her way across America and eventually the world. All she had to do was build her social media following until the networks were begging her to sign.

She hired a freelance filmmaker to follow her around with a camera each day, and then uploaded videos to Instagram. Her subscription numbers were rising steadily, but she needed something big to go viral.

Madison showered and then ordered room service. Her massage wasn’t scheduled until noon; plenty of time to eat, purge and beautify herself for the camera. The routine was getting old. Maybe it was time for a new location.

Her camera guy arrived. She wished he looked more like a professional cameraman instead of just a grungy hipster, but he worked cheap and was willing to do whatever she wanted.

“You got yesterday’s clips edited, George?”

“It’s Gavin, and yes. You want to see before we upload?”

“Yeah, let’s take a look.”

Madison leaned over Gavin’s shoulder as he scanned through the footage from the past few days. It was all so boring. Massages. Shopping. Nightclubs. It was the same shit day after day. Her life was boring. Boring did not make for good television. She needed a hook; something compelling that would keep viewers glued to her video. Maybe she needed a new look, or a new location.

He had done a good job though, of editing the best stuff into short clips. She chose the ones she wanted and logged in to Instagram for him to upload.

Camera was rolling by the time the masseuse arrived. They filmed the massage, then her yoga workout.

Shit, this stuff is boring. I really need to spice this up if I’m going to make a show of it.

Another boring day of filming complete, Gavin shut the camera off. “So, we gonna call it a day?”

“Yeah, sure, whatev. I think we should go out tomorrow and find some excitement. Nothing happening in this place. I think it’s time to find a new location.”

“You want to view the footage now?”

“No, can you just put together a couple of short clips for me? I trust you. You’ve done a good job so far.”

“Glad to hear. I hate to mention it, but I didn’t get paid last night. I could really use the money.”

“Oh, sorry about that. The stupid app was down. I’ll send again right now.” Madison reached for her phone and tapped the screen. “Fuck my life! It still isn’t working. I’ll keep trying. You’ll get your money, I promise. I’ll give you double for making you wait. I won’t rip you off.”

I’ll see you tomorrow. Let’s get an early start, say ten am?”

As soon as Gavin left, Madison’s phone started to ring. She glanced at the call display.

“Not now, Dee. I’m busy.” she told the ringing phone. “Jesus, when are you old people going to learn to text?”

She tried the banking app again. Still nothing. She tried another, and then her credit cards. None of them worked. She tried calling the banks. She got a busy signal from all of them. Same with the credit card companies.

 Everything was down.

Fuck you, Daddy!

If he thought he was going to force her to go home by cutting her off, he was in for a big surprise. She had been transferring funds to a secret account for years.

When the world governments made the switch to digital currency, physical cash was phased out and rendered obsolete. The new cryptocurrency, Imperium, was supposed to be one hundred percent safe, hacker-proof and guaranteed to never decrease in value. It was the basis for a new ironclad world economy. The timing was ideal. Use of cash was shunned during the pandemic, and corporations and individuals alike were eager for some kind of financial guarantee. With cryptocurrency’s rising popularity, the timing was perfect.

Of course, some were reluctant to relinquish their cash. Change was always scary, and they had just lived through the scare of their lives. There was always going to be the urge to hoard what people perceived as essential, whether it be toilet paper or cold hard cash.

As an added incentive, banks had offered to double the cash funds in all new Imperium accounts and triple conversions from cryptocurrencies except for Bitcoin, which was worth quadruple its cash value in Imperium. Bitcoin tanked and took the rest of the market with it, as investors traded their cryptos for profit in Imperium. The only problem was, once funds were converted to Imperium, there was no going back. Imperium couldn’t be traded for other currencies. Madison had taken advantage of the offer, converting the millions in her secret account to Imperium account, doubling her personal worth. She continued to use Daddy’s money, funneling a little bit at a time into her secret rainy day fund. If today was that rainy day, she had one hell of an umbrella.

The only problem was, her umbrella currently wouldn’t open.

She called her father.

No answer. She left a flurry of profanity on his voice mail.

Madison wanted food. She flopped onto the plush sofa and scrolled through her apps, trying to decide what to order. She settled on Chinese food. She placed the order, but the app wouldn’t accept payment. She tried a different app. Italian. It didn’t work either.

Fuck my life! Is anything going to work right today? Fine, then. She would have to settle for room service from the hotel. She ordered dinner and five bottles of wine and billed it to her room.

* * *

The next morning Madison woke to a pounding headache and a ringing in her ears. The hotel phone’s clamoring drove daggers through her skull. It was the front desk clerk.

“Miss Harding, this is a courtesy call to let you know your credit card has been declined. We’d like to give you the opportunity to provide another method of payment.”

“What do you mean, declined? Run it again. Do you know who my father is? I am literally a millionaire. You do not have to worry about payment. I could buy this fucking hotel!”

“Miss, we have run it several times. Perhaps you could call your bank or provide us with another card number?”

“Fine.” Madison read the numbers of another card into the phone, and then provided a third card for good measure. “Now stop bothering me!”

She slammed the phone down and flopped back onto the pillows, head throbbing.

A few minutes later the phone started ringing again. Madison didn’t answer. She buried the infernal thing under couch cushions and stumbled to the bathroom. She dumped three Tylenol into her shaking palm and swallowed them, scooping water from the faucet.

After a long, hot shower, she felt marginally better, but the headache lingered. She needed a power smoothie. She’d stop by the smoothie place once Gavin got there.

There was a knock at the door. She checked the peephole, expecting to see the front desk clerk.

It was Gavin.

“You’re early. I said ten.”

“Yeah, sorry. I was in the neighborhood. Hey listen, mind if I do yesterday’s clips now? I didn’t have access to any power last night. Some crazy shit going on out there right now.”

“Yeah, sure. Whatev. By the way, the banks are still down. I’m still trying to send your money.”

“It’s ok. I already had a feeling I might not be getting paid. It isn’t your fault. Everything’s down right now. It’s fucking chaos out there. I’ll make you a deal. How about if you don’t pay me for yesterday in exchange for a favor?”

“Ew. Don’t even.”

“No, nothing dirty. Well not really. Would you mind if I took a shower? I haven’t had a chance to yet.”

“Still ew, but yeah, go ahead.”

She shot a few selfies while Gavin was in the shower and posted to Instagram. At least some things were still working. She tried the banks again. Still nothing.

Gavin emerged from the bathroom, looking cleaner but still grungy. Maybe she should take him shopping for new clothes. They could do a makeover segment.

“You got anything to eat?” he asked.

“Just a fruit basket.”

“What about this?” He pointed to the room service cart.

“My leftovers from last night? Ew, no! You don’t want that! We can order something fresh.”

“I don’t mind,” Gavin said, helping himself to the leftovers. “What is this, zucchini noodles? Fucking Keto. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Help yourself to whatever in the mini-bar if you want. I don’t care.”

“Have you seen the news lately?”

“I never watch that shit.”

“Well you should. There’s something huge going on right now. All the banks are shut down. Money has disappeared. A LOT of money.” Gavin turned on the TV and found a newscast. “Check this shit out.”

The news report was telling everyone to remain calm, that everything was under control. The money would be restored soon.

“What the actual?” Madison said. “Is this shit for real?”

“They don’t know if it’s just a glitch or if it was hackers, but money is gone. Just vanished. Fucking digital money. I knew it was a bad idea. They forced it on us, and now look. We’re screwed.”

“I’m sure they’ll get it fixed. Money can’t just disappear. Ready to roll?

Gavin packed his laptop into his equipment bag and slung the strap over his shoulder. “Ready when you are.”

Madison instructed him on the way down in the elevator. “Ok, it’s just a regular day and I’m on my way to pick up a smoothie and then get a pedi. And then some shopping and we’ll see where it takes us. No matter what happens, keep rolling. Today we’re gonna shoot some kickass reality tv.”

The elevator doors opened and Madison click-clicked though the lobby with Gavin following closely on her red-soled stilletto heels, camera rolling.

“Miss Harding!” the desk clerk called. “Excuse me, I have a message for you!”

Shit. Not now.

Madison dismissed the clerk with a wave. “Later, Jeeves!. I have important shit to do. I’ll deal with it when I come back.” To the viewing audience she said, “Can you believe these people? Never a minute of peace.”

“Miss Harding, please! It’s urgent!”

What?” Madison stomped over to the desk and snatched the slip of paper from the clerk’s hand.

She glanced down at the message and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, so urgent. Thanks, I guess.” She led Gavin through the front doors of the hotel. “Can you believe that shit? Daddy’s trying to make me be friends with his trophy wife,” she told the camera, but inwardly she felt relieved that it was only a message and not more bullshit about her credit cards.

They walked around the corner to the organic smoothie bar, but found it closed.

Madison heaved a dramatic sigh. “I guess Starbucks will have to do.”

Starbucks was a few doors down from the smoothie place, but it was also closed. In fact, everything was closed, up and down the street, both sides.

“What the actual fuck? How is everything closed? Is it like, Sunday or something?”

Gavin shook his head no. He wasn’t allowed to talk when they were rolling.

They continued, in search of someplace that was open and finding none. Eventually, they found themselves several blocks from the hotel, much farther than Madison had planned to walk.

“Why the hell didn’t we order a limo?” she muttered to herself. Her feet were starting to ache. Her footwear was not designed for looks, not distance. She looked around for a taxi, but none were in sight. In fact, there was a conspicuous absence of traffic on the normally busy street. “Something doesn’t feel right. What do you think?” She turned to Gavin for confirmation. He nodded agreement.

The sound of breaking glass caught their attention. Across the street, a man had just smashed the window of a jewelry store and was filling his pockets with anything he could reach.

Madison quickly positioned herself with the robbery in the background and motioned for Gavin to keep rolling.

“Omigawd! I can’t believe this! I’m just out here, trying to get a smoothie and BAM! This guy does a smash-and-grab! Where the fuck are the cops? And this isn’t even all of it. You hear that? Are those gunshots? I’m hearing actual gunshots. This is big.”

“Madison!” Gavin whispered, “Maybe we should get out of here. I don’t think it’s safe.”

“Shut up! I told you not to speak! Great, now we’re gonna have to cut that. Fuck. Keep rolling!”

Madison paused to allow room for a cut, then continued her performance. “A day in the life, Los Angeles. Something big is going on out here, and I’m going to find ou – ”

BOOM!

An explosion shattered the air and shook the ground beneath their feet. Smoke rose in the distance, from the direction they had come. “Oh. Em. Gee! What just happened? That’s right by the hotel! We gotta get back there, right now! C’mon!” She beckoned to Gavin, forgetting that he was supposed to be invisible.

They hurried toward the rising smoke, which was also the exact path back to the hotel.

When they were a couple of blocks away, the Holtmire Hotel came into view. The towering twelve story building was now half its previous height. The top floors were missing. The tenth floor penthouse Madison had occupied was nothing but jagged, smoldering rubble.

“What the shit…” Madison whispered. “Are you getting this?”

Gavin stood behind her, filming the carnage, doing his best to keep Madison in the shot.

“Excuse me, Miss? Can I ask where you’re going right now?” A police officer appeared out of nowhere.

“I mean, I was just going back to my hotel, but… what the hell?”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Miss. You will need to find someplace else to stay. The area is cordoned off.”

“What happened?”

“There has been an explosion, and we need to clear the area until the bomb squad has done their job.”

“When will that be? I need to get back to my hotel. What about all my stuff? All my stuff is in that hotel room!”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Miss. If your belongings survived the fire, you will have to contact the owner of the hotel to arrange retrieval. It will be a while before anyone can go in there.”

“I can’t fucking believe this!” Madison turned to Gavin. “All my shit is gone! I mean, do you see that? The whole tenth floor is gone! No way anything survived that.”

“I hate to point out the obvious,” Gavin said, “But are you ignoring the fact that we could have been inside that place when it blew up? Do you have any idea how close we just came to getting killed?”

Madison’s jaw dropped. “Omigod! You’re so right! Holy shit. Whoa…”

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Gavin said, loudly enough for the cop to hear. “You can stay at my place.” He led her away until the police were out of sight. “What do you want to do now?” he asked.

“You have a car, don’t you?” Madison asked.

“Um…yes, but…”

“Ok, let’s get it and hit the road.” Madison said.

“There’s a slight problem with that.”

“What?”

“I’m parked inside one of the hotel lots. Also, I’m out of gas.”

“Ok, so let’s go and get it and then stop for gas,” Madison said.

“I don’t think any gas stations are open. You saw what it was like out there. The city is shutting down. And how would we pay for it anyway? You’re as broke as I am right now.”

“Shut up. No I’m not. But ok, right. What are we going to do?”

“One problem at a time. Let’s see if we can get to it first.”

Police presence was concentrated in front of the building, where the most damage had occurred.

“Get down!” Gavin ducked behind a parked car and yanked Madison down.

A cop sat in his car, but his attention was focused on the street to divert any oncoming traffic.

They skirted around to the rear of the building, using parked cars for cover.

“Where are we going?” Madison asked.

“There. The service lot.” Gavin pointed toward a parking lot surrounded by a chain link fence. The lot was filled with white catering vans. The gate was unlocked. They slipped inside unseen and took cover behind one of the vans.

“Where’s your car?”

Gavin pointed at a nondescript white van parked among the catering trucks. They scurried over to it. He unlocked the doors and they dove inside.

“Ok, go! Go!” Madison whispered, unsure why she was whispering.

“There’s one other problem.”

“What?”

“I meant it when I said I’m out of gas. I mean, I’m out. Dead. I was running it to charge my camera batteries and it died. The tank is dry. I was waiting for you to pay me so I could buy more.”

“Are you saying it’s my fault? I didn’t mean – Shit, never mind. I’m sorry. What are we going to do?”

“Improvise.”

Gavin rummaged in the rear of the van and produced a cordless drill and a plastic funnel.

“Keep watch,” he told Madison.

Madison stood beside the van to act as lookout.

Gavin found a stack of bus pans beside the service entrance. He took one and crawled underneath one of the catering trucks. Madison heard the sound of the drill and then liquid poured out of the truck into the bus pan.

“Can you give me a hand?” Gavin asked.

“Um…sure. What do you need?”

“I just need you to hold the funnel so I don’t spill too much of the gas. It’s precious stuff.”

“Ok, I think I can manage that.”

Gavin placed the funnel into a hole in the side of the van. Madison was fascinated. She had never fueled up a car before.

“Just hold this here, and don’t let it fall out, no matter what.”

He lifted the bus pan and started pouring gas into the funnel. It smelled awful and some of it splashed onto Madison’s hands and clothing.

“Ew!” she squealed, letting go of the funnel. More fuel spilled, filling her shoes. “Fuck! These are Louboutins!”

“Please don’t let go. I’m trying not to spill too much, but this is awkward.”

“But it’s gross!” Madison whined, but she grabbed hold of the funnel and held it tightly.

No sooner had the last trickle of gas entered the tank, when a police car cruised slowly into the lot, lights flashing. Gavin flung the pan, funnel and drill into the back of the van and jumped behind the wheel. Madison jumped into the passenger seat.

The police car pulled up alongside.

“Sir, you aren’t supposed to be back here. The building has been evacuated.”

“Oh! I didn’t know. I just had to get my van. We’re leaving right now,” Gavin said.

“See that you do. Please leave the area as quickly as possible.”

Gavin left the lot via the rear exit, avoiding the chaos out front. He navigated around abandoned vehicles and found a street that seemed clear. When they were a safe distance away from the hotel, he pulled over and parked the van.

“Any idea where we should go?” he asked.

“How about your place?” Madison said.

“We’re in my place. We’re driving it.”

“Wait – you live in your van?”

“Yeah. This van is my home and my office. That’s why I was early this morning. I didn’t have gas to go anywhere, so I spent the night in the service lot.”

“Gosh, I’m so sorry about that. I couldn’t – ”

“I know. It’s ok. Look, I don’t want to scare you, but I think there is some really serious shit happening. And I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. Money is gone. Buildings are blowing up, gunshots everywhere. I think it would be safer to get out of the city and find someplace quiet to hide out until things calm down. But that gas isn’t going to get us far. Any ideas?”

“Yes. I know where we can go. It’s secure, and a lot quieter than this.” She dug through her bag for the slip of paper the desk clerk had given her. “We’re going to Bel Air.”

“Bel Air? For real?”

“The Hotel Bel Air, to be exact.”

“We definitely have enough gas to get there. Are we going to have any problem getting in?”

“My stepmother is there. She’s already invited me.” Madison reached for her phone. “I guess I’d better give Princess a call and tell her we’re coming. Maybe she has some money I can borrow.” Madison entered the number and activated the speaker. “Hi, Dee? It’s Madison. Got your message. I need to speak to Daddy. Have you heard from him today?”

“No. I’ve been trying to reach him all day. He isn’t answering.” Dee sounded funny. Was she crying?

“I’m sure he’s just busy. He’ll call you.”

“Have you watched the news?”

“You know I don’t watch that shit, but yeah, something weird’s going on with the money. That’s why I want to talk to Daddy. Just in case he did something to my funds. You know, to make me go home.”

“It’s all gone.” Dee was definitely crying now.

“What do you mean, gone?”

“The money is gone. It’s all gone. Nobody knows why, but it’s all gone. Everywhere. Everyone’s money, all around the world.”

“Fuck off. No it isn’t. That’s impossible.”

“It’s on the news!” Dee shouted. “Jesus, girl, don’t you ever pay attention to anything besides yourself?”

“No need to be a cooze, Dee. I know you’re stressed, so I forgive you. But seriously, there’s no way all of our money can be gone. I mean, you must have something.”

“I don’t have anything. I don’t know what to do,” Dee sobbed.

“I’m sure it’s just temporary. They’ll fix it. Just stay calm.”

“I’m scared, Maddie. I’m stuck here, and people are acting real weird. I can’t get a limo or even a taxi. I was supposed to fly home today, but the airports are closed too. Everything shut down when the money disappeared.”

“Can I come there?”

“If you want, but you might be safer to stay where you are right now. Stay off the streets.”

“Too late, I’ve already checked out. Put my name on your guest list, I’m on my way. Oh, and I’m bringing a friend.”

Madison ended the call and sniffed her hands. The odor of gasoline permeated the van. “How do I get this smell off of me?”

“Soap and water, but mostly time. It tends to stick. Sorry about that. I have some wet wipes in the glove box. That might help.”

Madison opened the glove box and found the wet wipes. She scrubbed at her hands. “I can’t believe I lost all my shit. All my clothes!”

“At least you’re safe. You can always get more clothes.”

“Yeah, but what do I do in the meantime? My shoes are ruined and my top stinks.”

Gavin went into the back of the van and pulled a duffel bag from underneath the bed.

“If you want to change, you might find something in here.”

Madison joined him in the back. “What do you have here?”

“I was doing a music video for a band and the singer left some of her gear here. She’s about your size.”

Madison rummaged through the bag “Interesting… I might be able to do something with this. What kind of band? Military punk?”

“Kind of. Band called No Lube. I used to date the singer in college.”

“Wait – Oh my shit! You used to date Alexxxis Gash?”

“Yeah, back when her name was Alicia Miller.”

“Omigod! She is an underground queen! I would be honored to wear her clothes.” Madison glanced around. “Where can I change?”

“There’s a curtain here. I promise I won’t look.”

Gavin pulled the curtain across the rear section of the van. While Madison changed, he tried the radio, but found no music, just news broadcasts. Every station was talking about the missing money. Banks were closed. Hackers were suspected and experts were working to find a solution. They kept repeating the same message over and over: Don’t panic, everything is under control, blah…blah…

“It is fucked up out there,” he said. “Shit is going down.”

“No mention of the hotel,” Madison said. “I wonder what happened?”

“Same shit that always happens. People panic,” Gavin said.

The curtain opened and Madison emerged from the back in her new outfit.

Madison had exchanged her gas-soaked stiletto heels for a pair of military-style boots, knee-high and laced. She wore the same metallic pink mini skirt as before, but now wore a tattered camouflage t-shirt layered with a black mesh tank top. She accessorized with studded belts and chains, her blonde hair spilling over a headband fashioned from a black bandanna with skulls on it.

“Damn!” Gavin said, “You look like Apocalypse Barbie!”

“I like that!” Madison said. “Mind if I use it?”

“Be my guest.”

Gavin started the van and pulled away from the curb.

Madison gazed out the window as they drove. Evidence of looting and rioting was everywhere: smashed windows, burned cars.

“So you actually live in this thing?”

“Yeah, apartments are expensive. After college I thought I was going to make it big in the film industry, but it’s a lot harder than I thought. The freelance thing works, but it was a lot better before they got rid of the cash. I get ripped off a lot. Some people think they don’t have to pay because I’m not a big company. I used to make extra money as a street musician, but again – no more cash.”

“I hope you know I’m not trying to rip you off. I really can’t access my money.”

“I know what it’s like. I live my life from one paycheck to the next, and sometimes the pay isn’t there.”

“I can’t even imagine what that would be like,” Madison said.

“You get creative. When there’s no money, you learn how to improvise.” They passed one gas station, and then another. And another. All were closed. “See?” Gavin said, “Even if we had money right now, it looks like there’s no gas available.”

He was right. Nothing was open. Stores, gas stations – every business they passed was closed and shuttered. For the first time, Madison felt real fear. Up until then everything had felt surreal, like she was playing a role in a movie. The reality finally hit home.

What if her money really was gone? How would she survive?

Sunset Boulevard looked like a movie set; stores with windows boarded up; cars smashed and burning. They turned through the gates of Bel Air. The quiet streets of the elegant neighborhood were even quieter than usual. Nobody jogging or walking dogs. No gardeners working in the grounds of the elegant homes. They wound through the silent streets, wondering what awaited them. When they arrived at the Hotel Bel Air, no valet appeared to park their vehicle. Gavin found a space he hoped was far enough from the main entrance to be inconspicuous.

Dee was waiting for them at the front entrance. Madison had texted her to alert her of their arrival.

She ran to Madison and threw her arms around her. She sobbed onto Madison’s shoulder.

“I’m so relieved to see a friendly face. Maddie, I’m so scared! All the money’s gone, and I can’t get hold of Dennis.”

“I’ve been trying him too. Haven’t been able to get through.”

As Dee led them through the expansive lobby of the resort, Madison noticed a conspicuous absence of a desk clerk or any other staff, for that matter. When they were safely inside her suite, Dee locked the door and peered through the peephole to make sure they hadn’t been followed.

“Paranoid much, Dee?”

“You don’t understand, Maddie. It’s really scary. The place is so quiet. The hotel staff are just… gone, like they didn’t bother coming to work today. And people are acting weird. I even heard gunshots not far from here. What is happening? Why can’t I reach your father?” Dee looked at Gavin, as if noticing him for the first time.

“Dee, this is my friend Gavin. He’s my cameraman. And now my driver too, I guess. My hotel blew up and we had nowhere else to go.”

“Blew up? Oh, my god, honey! Are you ok?”

“Yes. Luckily we weren’t there at the time, but it was a close call.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. There hasn’t been any news yet. All I know is the city is going insane out there. Fires, looting. People are panicking over this money thing.”

“But it’s just temporary, isn’t it? They have to fix it. They’re going to fix it, right?” Concern furrowed Dee’s Botox-infused face.

“I don’t know. I mean, I think so, right?” Madison said.

Dee’s eyes traveled up and down Madison’s outfit. “Do you want to borrow something to wear?”

“Thanks, but I’m good for now. I call this look the ‘Apocalypse Barbie’. It’s going to be my new look for my reality show while the shit is hitting the fan. Speaking of which, Gavin… we should be getting some of this.”

“On it.” Gavin unslung his ever-present equipment bag and produced his camera. He started rolling within minutes.

Madison posed for the camera.

“Madison Harding, AKA Apocalypse Barbie here. Shit is going down, folks! L.A. is shut down and shit is burning. My hotel blew up and I had to GTFO. I’m safe here in Bel Air, but who knows how long this is going to last…”

“I’m hungry,” Dee interrupted. “Have you guys eaten yet? I went to the restaurant earlier but it was closed. Maybe we could see if it’s open yet.”

“I’m down for that.” Madison motioned for Gavin to keep rolling. “Let’s go and see how this crisis has affected the luxurious Hotel Bel Air.”

They left the suite and made their way to the restaurant. The place was eerily quiet. They caught an occasional glimpse of a guest, but nobody spoke to them or met their eyes. That in itself wasn’t unusual; the wealthy had a tendency to keep to themselves, especially in a resort that prided itself on providing privacy to high-profile clientele.

“It’s still closed,” Dee said. “I don’t understand. It’s the middle of the day. What’s going on here?”

“I think I know,” Gavin said. “People don’t show up for work when they aren’t getting paid. Think about it. If the thing that happened to your bank accounts has happened everywhere, then this place has no money to pay its staff. The staff can’t buy gas to go to work, and so on. If the money is gone, everything will cease to function.”

“You’re right,” a voice said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it’s so quiet it’s hard not to hear.” The stranger was handsome, well-dressed, and fortyish. “Would you folks like to get a drink? I’m buying.” He laughed as if he’d just made a hilarious joke. “You know, given that we’re all currently broke.”

“What do you know about this?” Dee asked. “Mister…”

“Robert Sanchez.” he took Dee’s hand and kissed it gently. “And who might you be?”

Dee blushed and giggled like a teenager. “Deanne Harding, but you can call me Dee.” She took Robert’s arm. “Lead on, let’s get that drink.”

Madison exchanged a glance with Gavin. She had always wondered if Dee was faithful to her father. Now she had more doubts than ever.

Robert led them to a darkened lounge. It appeared to be closed as well; empty tables, no bartender. He went behind the bar and turned on some lights. “Sit wherever you like. Can I get you a drink?”

“Gin and tonic,” Dee said. “Is there anything to eat back there? I missed breakfast.”

Robert reached behind the bar and produced a bag of salted peanuts. “Will these do for an appetizer? If we have time later, I will cook you something amazing in that restaurant kitchen. For now, sandwiches will have to do.”

“I’d be delighted!” Dee batted her eyelashes at him.

“Omigod, ‘Mother’, flirt much?” Madison whispered to her.

“Whatever,” Dee whispered back. “There’s a lot you don’t know. I’ll catch you up later.”

Gavin ordered a beer and Madison a white wine. Robert Sanchez brought their drinks, and then disappeared into the kitchen. He returned carrying plates and a tray of sandwiches.

“I hope ham and cheese is ok. If any of you are vegan or gluten-free, I can find you something else.”

Gavin spoke for the rest of them. “These are great. Thanks!” He eagerly reached for a sandwich and devoured half of it in two bites.

Madison nudged him and nodded toward the camera. Gavin started filming, still chewing.

“Apocalypse Barbie here, and we are Day Two into whatever the fuck this is.” She stood and moved back to center herself in the shot. “I’ve traded my Louboutins for boots and abandoned my diet. I’m prepared to eat whatever is available for survival.” She reached over and picked up a sandwich. “Fuck Keto, it’s the apocalypse, folks! Do whatever you have to, and try to stay safe. I will post updates when I can.”

Robert returned with another round of drinks, including a beer for himself. He sat at the table and took a sandwich.

“Who are you?” Dee asked.

“I will explain that,” he said, “but first of all, I need to ask you to turn off the camera. You will understand why in a moment.”

Madison nodded to Gavin. He stopped filming and put the camera in his bag. Hands freed, he helped himself to another sandwich.

“Who are you?”

“I am a friend of the guy who runs this place, as well as a business associate. I was here on a routine visit when all hell broke loose. My friend wasn’t able to come in due to the obvious crisis; he stayed home to take care of his family. He asked me to keep an eye on things. In his absence, I’m de facto manager until further notice.”

“What do you know about what’s going on here?” Madison finished her glass of wine and poured another. Her hangover was gone, but at this rate, another loomed in her future.

“Not everything, but I have gotten some info from my head office in Barstow. Here’s what I can tell you. The world’s economy has collapsed. The Imperium has been victim of a hacker attack. They don’t know where it originated from, but it’s sophisticated, the work of someone who really knows their shit. The hackers released a virus that has outsmarted all of our so-called ‘experts’. It caught them completely unaware. The thing had infiltrated every banking system, every secure government system, every corner of the Internet before anyone even knew it was there. It has bypassed every security protocol. It’s as if the virus was created by the same person or persons who designed the security software. Right now they’re looking for disgruntled software developers as suspects. But it doesn’t really matter whether they find the ones responsible, because the damage has been done. It will be a long time before they can fix it, if they can fix it.”

“This wouldn’t have happened in the old days,” Gavin said. “If they hadn’t phased out cold hard cash, we’d have something to fall back on. Lots of people had cash stashed away, some even had vaults full of the stuff. Hell, the treasury was full of it. How the fuck can you stuff a mattress full of Imperium? We don’t even have Bitcoin to fall back on anymore because they crashed all the other cryptos so they could account for and tax every cent. And now look at us. They couldn’t even protect us from the most obvious threat.”

“True enough,” Sanchez said, “But here we are.”

“How do you know all this?” Madison asked.

“It’s my business to know.” Robert pulled a business card from his jacket pocket and handed it to Madison.

“What is ‘The Viva Group?’ It sounds like an investment thing,” Dee said, leaning over to read the name on the card.

“In a way, it is. It’s what they are investing in that is of interest to us.”

“Which is what?” Madison asked.

“Viva is a group of companies involved in a diverse number of projects, but the one that’s most important to us right now is the underground shelter network”

“The what now?”

“Ever since the Cold War era in the eighties, Viva has been constructing custom emergency shelters. While we do offer something for every budget, our biggest contracts have been with the wealthy. I’m talking large, luxurious and private. Our facility in Barstow has an entire community down there, under the desert. Stores, entertainment, even a fitness center with a pool. Our shareholders buy their spaces to ensure they have a safe place to go when the shit hits the fan. My job is to inspect each facility for readiness, order supplies and provide maintenance as needed. This place has one, which is why I’m here.”

“This place has an underground shelter?” Dee looked around, as though she might see a hidden entrance somewhere. “Where?”

“Deep within the Santa Monica mountains is an old eighties-era telecommunications hub. As analog communications were being replaced with digital, many of these properties went up for sale, and Viva bought them up. The goal was to create a network of self-sustaining safe survival shelters for people with the means to purchase a spot. Viva owns about twenty of these repurposed telecommunications hubs across the United States. The largest facilities are located in desert areas – California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, because of the availability of solar power. There’s also a massive bunker community out in the plains of South Dakota. The Bel Air facility isn’t actually on hotel property, but the hotel owners have paid for exclusive access. When they learned the country club up the road had its own exclusive shelter, they felt the need to provide a similar service for their guests, given that they have some very high-profile clientele. Imagine if disaster struck while members of the British Royal family were in the Presidential Suite. The hotel has a responsibility to keep them as safe as possible.”

“Is this all for real? I feel like I’m in a movie or something,” Madison said.

“It is real. And I don’t want to scare you, but it is probably going to get worse. There’s a good chance we will all be heading into that shelter soon. But considering the alternative, that’s good news.”

“Why would we need to go into the shelter? That’s like, for nukes or something.”

“That could happen. Things could get a lot worse before they get better. According to the intel I’ve gotten so far, the nature of this virus is that it targets numerical values, changing them to zero. That’s why the money is gone. All bank balances have dropped to zero. But it hasn’t stopped there. This virus doesn’t discriminate, and so far it’s proven to be unstoppable. Its sole function is to find numbers and change them to zero. And the thing is everywhere – not just banks. It’s on the Internet. Do you understand what that means? It means it’s going to keep looking for numbers and changing them to zero. One place you’ll find plenty of numbers is in software. Binary code – the root of all computer programming – is made up of ones and zeros. What do you think would happen if all those ones turned to zero? Nothing would work. Computers everywhere would crash. My associate in Barstow told me we will probably lose the cellular networks and eventually the Internet. Everything digital will disappear. The only communications that will be left will be analog.”

“Analog? What does that even mean?” Madison asked.

“You’re too young to remember, but it’s the way stuff used to work,” Gavin interjected. “TVs and radios had antennas. Ham radios and CBs used to be the way people communicated before computers and cell phones. Analog would be immune to this virus. If what this guy’s saying is true, it’s going to be all we have left, if digital systems go down.”

Sanchez chuckled. “Looks like my instinct was correct. I had a hunch this young man might be able to help me out. I need a tech guy. One that has some knowledge of analog systems.”

Gavin grinned. “It just so happens, I do.”

* * *

After they finished lunch, Sanchez led them down a staircase hidden inside a maintenance room at the rear of the building. The air grew ever cooler as they descended the concrete stairs, holding steel railings. The passage, lit with neat rows of LED lighting, seemed to lead away from the hotel, presumably into the heart of the mountain.

Sanchez’s voice echoed as they walked. “My job is to inspect the shelter and make sure supplies are stocked and up to date. There’s also a systems inspection, but I’m afraid there’s a bit of an issue. My tech guy was supposed to meet me here to take care of that end of things, but he’s stuck in Barstow since all the flights were grounded. I think it’s safe to say we are going to need that shelter soon, and it’s vital to get the communications systems up and running. Once the shelter is operational, we are going to have to bring the hotel guests down here. That could take some convincing. I have a feeling you ladies will be a lot of help when the time comes.”

“Ew! Don’t even! If you think we’re going to offer…like, favors or something? No. Just no. Fuck off with that. Eww!” Madison protested.

“No, no, I didn’t mean anything like that!” Sanchez laughed. “All I mean is that the guests are more likely to trust a mixed group of people instead of just some strange man asking them to follow him into a hole. You understand, don’t you?” He addressed Dee, “They know you belong here, and they’re more likely to listen to fellow hotel guests.”

“He makes a good point,” Gavin said. “The wealthy know their own kind. You’d have an easier time convincing them than I would.”

They reached a reinforced steel door that very much resembled a vault. Sanchez spun the dials to match the combination, tumblers clicked and the door swung open.

Madison took a deep breath. “Ok, now that makes me nervous. You know the combination to this place. What’s stopping you from locking us all in here and killing the shit out of us?”

“Trust,” Sanchez said. “Sorry, that’s all I got for you. Obviously this place has to have a lock, and obviously only those authorized to be here would have the combination. So I’m asking you, please trust me and please don’t kill me.”

Nervous laughter filled the dimly lit cavern.

With the CLICK of a switch, the room filled with light.

“Ohhhh!” Madison gasped. “It’s beautiful!”

It didn’t look like any bomb shelter they’d ever seen, partly because none of them had ever seen one except in movies. The room in which they stood resembled a plush nightclub, or the large living room of a mansion. Sectional couches filled the expansive room. Flat screen TVs adorned every wall. A bar at one end and restroom signs at the other.

“Come on, this way.” Sanchez led them through another door that led to a long hallway filled with doors. He opened the first door on the left and led them into what appeared to be a control room.

“I guess you could call this mission control,” Sanchez said.

“Wow!” Madison said, gazing around the room. “What is all this?”

Gavin grinned. “It’s Heaven.”

“Here’s where I’m totally useless,” Sanchez said. “My job is supply and organization. I’m no good with electronics. We need to get the broadcasting system up and running, and then contact my associate in Barstow. He’s standing by on multiple channels, and he can talk you through anything you’re not familiar with.”

“If it’s functional, I will get it working,” Gavin said. “Just give me a few minutes with it.”

“Take all the time you need,” Sanchez said. “Within reason, of course, you know, apocalypse and all. How about if I leave you to it and give the ladies the grand tour?”

“Mmhmm,” Gavin mumbled, already deeply engrossed in electronics.

Madison and Dee followed Sanchez down the hallway, past rows of numbered doors.

“It looks like a hotel,” Dee said.

“Well, essentially that’s what it is. A big, safe, underground hotel reserved exclusively for the guests and staff of the Hotel Bel Air. It has all the comforts of the main hotel, with a few minor differences. There’s only one pool, and the Jacuzzi tubs in the rooms are only big enough for two.”

“How far underground are we?” Madison asked. “Also, am I allowed to film any of this?”

“Not yet, but you’ll get a chance to film once we have secured all the guests. It’s not like you can upload anything from down here anyway, that is assuming the Internet is even still working.”

“It was working before we got here,” Madison said.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Sanchez said, “But if what my associate told me is true, we could lose it at any time.”

“Wait – so what’s going to happen to Instagram?” Madison asked. “I have fans on there!”

“I hate to break it to you, but Instagram may soon be a thing of the past.”

“Well fuck.” Madison pouted. “This day just keeps getting better.”

Sanchez led them through a set of swinging double doors into a gleaming stainless steel kitchen.

“This is our main kitchen. It supplies the dining room and room service. We have a couple of smaller ones in the bars, to make snacks and sandwiches.”

“Holy shit, it really is like a hotel!” Dee said.

“The idea was to make it as comfortable as possible, given the calibre of guests we have at the Bel Air. What if we had a disaster while the Royal family was here, or any number of celebrities and foreign dignitaries? We couldn’t very well cram them all into some kind of World War 2 bunker, now could we? We have to offer a level of luxury our guests are accustomed to.”

“Who is going to run all this stuff? The kitchens, the bars?” Dee asked.

“Normally we have plenty of staff available, who would be taking shelter along with the guests. But in this case, it seems nobody has come to work due to the fact that they aren’t being paid. It’s going to be a self-serve situation until we get organized and figure out who can do what.”

“Like being at home, minus the servants, I guess,” Dee said.

“Exactly.”

“Hey!” Gavin’s voice called from somewhere. “Where did you guys go?”

“Come on! It sounds like he’s got something.” Sanchez hurried back in the direction of the control room.

Gavin stood in the room, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “We have ignition!” He waved his hand at the components, which had all come to life. Lights blinked; screens and monitors now displayed images, and the sound of radio static crackled in the air.

“Who’s this associate you want to talk to? Let’s get him on the horn.”

“Let’s give it a shot.”

Gavin handed him a radio mic. “You know how to work one of these, right? Hold down the button to talk, release to listen. You talk and I’ll try different channels until we find him.”

“Viva Barstow, you copy?” He waited. The radio crackled.

Gavin turned the dial to another channel.

“Calling Viva Barstow, this is Bel Air, you copy?”

Gavin tried another channel. This time they heard something. He fine-tuned the radio. It sounded like an emergency broadcast, garbled by heavy static. A few words crackled through.

“…ake shelter… (garbled) …is not a drill…”

“What the actual?” Madison whispered. “Is this shit for real? Also, can I please get some of this shit on video?”

Sanchez waved his hand dismissively. “Go ahead. Knock yourself out. Film. It’s not like it’s going to make a difference, if that’s what I think it is.”

“Gavin?” Madison nudged him.

“A little busy,” he said, still fiddling with the dials. “You’re on your own for now, girl.”

Sanchez leaned over the instrument panel, mic in hand. “C’mon,” he whispered, more to the radio than to anyone else. “You’ve got to have something for me.”

A voice became audible beneath the static.

“Wait. What was that?” Gavin slowly moved the dial back, zeroing in on the sound.

“Viva, come in!”

“Sanchez, that you?” a man’s voice crackled over the radio.

“This is Rob Sanchez, Viva Bel Air,” Sanchez said.

“Rob! Finally, thank God! I’ve been trying you all night. This is Barstow.”

“Steve. Good to hear your voice,” Sanchez said.

“Do you have Bel Air secure? The guests?”

“Not yet. We just got the downstairs open and communications up and running.”

“You need to get everyone downstairs. Now! Lockdown protocol. Shit is going down.”

“What can you tell me, Steve?”

“Nukes. They’re coming. If they haven’t been fired yet, they will be. I can almost guarantee it. This virus, it is doing serious damage. People are panicking. Money is gone, the military is on high alert. They’re at DEFCON 1 and telling everyone to seek shelter. Get your guests down there and lock up. Find me on this channel when you’ve done that.”

* * *

Madison and Dee accompanied Sanchez back up the staircase to the hotel. Gavin stayed behind to monitor the radio channels. The guests would be more receptive to the women, Sanchez explained. They had little time to convince the guests to follow them down into the shelter. The wealthy had a tendency to recognize and trust their own kind.

The women covered the hotel from one end to the other, banging on doors, telling guests of the emergency and instructing them how to get to the shelter. Sanchez went to the front desk and repeated the instructions over the PA system.

An exodus of about 150 guests slowly filed down the long staircase and filled the shelter. The hotel hadn’t been full, given the recent difficulties with travel and finances. Several of the guests were regulars who were aware of the shelter’s existence, and they helped convince others who showed skepticism.

Sanchez and the women brought up the rear, satisfied that they had cleared the hotel of guests. As the last of the group filed into the main room of the shelter, Sanchez closed the heavy steel door with a heavy thud and spun the locks into place, eliciting alarmed gasps from some of the guests.

Madison scanned the room with her cell phone, filming the guests before switching to selfie mode.

“This is Madison Har – I mean, Apocalypse Barbie, coming to you from deep within the mountains below Bel Air. I’m not allowed to give the exact location of the shelter, but I can tell you that it is very exclusive, and very secure. I’m going to give you the inside tour and show you how the rich and famous survive the apocalypse.”

Gavin appeared and Madison aimed the camera at him. “This is a rare shot of Gavin, my cameraman, who you normally don’t see because, duh – he’s usually the one doing the filming.”

“Glad you made it back in time,” Gavin said. “You won’t believe what I heard on the radio.”

“Gavin?” a voice said, “What the fuck are you doing here?”

Madison squealed. “OMIGAH! Folks, you aren’t going to believe who’s here! It’s Alexxxis Gash from No Lube! The queen of punk herself!”

A woman with a fiery red-tipped violet mane made her way to Gavin.

“Alexxxis Gash, It’s an honor to meet you,” Madison gushed. “I’m a huge fan. Is there anything you’d like to say to my viewers? I’m sure your fans would like to know that you’re alright.”

Alexxxis’ black-lined eyes moved slowly over Madison. “Gavin, is that twinkie wearing my boots?”

Gavin cleared his throat. “Um, yeah. Long story. Her shoes got wrecked and your stuff was still in my van. Kind of an emergency situation.”

Alexxxis shrugged. “Whatever. Probably an improvement on what she had on before.”

“Anyhow, that’s not important right now. Madison, where’s Sanchez? He needs to be brought up to speed on some shit.”

“Find Dee, you’ll find him. She’s like, tattooed herself to him or something.”

Gavin moved through the crowd, searching for Sanchez.

Madison turned to ask for an interview with Alexxxis Gash, but she had already wandered away. She shut the camera off to conserve battery and rushed to catch up with Gavin.

* * *

Back in the communications room, Gavin sat in front of the radio panel. Sanchez, Dee and Madison stood behind him.

He keyed the mic. “Barstow, this is Bel Air. Come in.” He stood and offered the seat to Sanchez. “Your friend Steve in Barstow has some important information for you.”

“Steve, this is Rob. Guests are downstairs and lockdown is complete. Can you tell me what the hell is going on out there?”

“It’s about as bad as it gets. Remember I told you how the virus is turning everything to zero? The money is gone. The stock market has tanked. Software is eroding and soon the Internet will be gone.”

“Yeah, we already established that. Everything digital is wiped out. That’s why we’ve switched to analog.”

“Right. Military and emergency broadcasts are now being transmitted solely over analog frequencies because that’s all that’s left. But that isn’t the worst of it.”

“Well then what is? Spill it, man.”

“Think about it, Rob. Zero. What else happens when it reaches zero?”

“Hell no.”

“Yes. Countdowns. They reached zero sometime when you were upstairs getting the guests. All the missiles have launched, everywhere.”

“What?” Dee squealed, grabbing Rob’s shoulders for support. “What do you mean, everywhere?”

“It means,” Gavin said, “That pretty much every country that has nukes has launched them against whatever targets they were aimed at.”

“But wait – what about places like North Korea? Surely the virus didn’t reach them. I mean, they don’t let anything in. And their launch shit is in like, Korean, not numbers, right?” Madison said.

“True, but it isn’t going to matter because nukes are already headed their way. And they will retaliate. So the end result will be, everyone bombs everyone.”

“Everyone? But…what about Daddy? Omigod, I have to call him! I have to try and warn him!”

“Honey,” Dee said, “I’ve been trying to call him all day. I couldn’t get through before, and that was when the cell network was still working. We won’t get through from here.”

“What about this radio thing? Can’t we reach him on there somehow?”

“If he had a radio, sure. But I doubt he has one,” Gavin said. “I’m sorry, Madison.”

* * *

Gavin had made a list of all the frequencies where he’d found traffic and Steve had given him some military channels to monitor.

As the night wore on, they listened. A military emergency channel reported events as they happened. The first nukes to hit were Russian, aimed at primary targets within the USA. Washington D.C. and the Pentagon were obliterated. Strikes followed in every major American city and known military base. It seemed the Russians had been telling the truth about their advanced super-fast missile. The Russian missiles reached the USA in half the time of the ones bound for Moscow. American missiles deployed to various other targets, including ones in the Middle East and North Korea. Pyongyang let loose with everything they had, taking out everything within their reach. Their missiles landed mostly in China, Japan, and Russia, and a good number of them fell short of their targets and landed in the ocean. Canadian cities nearest the US border sustained damage, but the Northern neighbor remained otherwise unscathed.

They didn’t feel the missile hit Los Angeles. The whole thing was rather anticlimactic. The robotic voice on the radio droned on and on, reciting the ever-growing list of destroyed cities. L.A. wasn’t on the list, and then suddenly it was. There was no way of knowing the extent of the damage, and absolutely no way anyone was going topside to find out. Robert Sanchez had activated the locks, which were timed and connected to Geiger counters near the surface. The door would remain locked for one year or until the sensors indicated safe radiation levels. If radiation remained high after one year, the doors would remain locked.

The shelter was designed to sustain up to 500 people for five years – the estimated number of staff and guests of the hotel when filled to capacity. Since no staff had been present in the hotel and occupancy was low, the shelter had more than enough space for the 150 occupants and supplies to spare. They could remain underground for a long time if need be.

* * *

 “What’s this?”

Gavin didn’t answer.

Madison was exploring the media room while Gavin explored the airwaves wearing a headset.

The emergency channel droned on in the background, reciting its never ending list of destroyed cities.

Madison had pulled back a curtain, exposing a door.

“Hey! Gavin!” she said.

“Huh? What?” he pulled the headset down around his neck and turned to see what Madison wanted.

“Did you know this was here?” she asked.

“No, I never bothered to look back there. There was a bunch of shit in the way.”

Boxes of equipment had been stacked against that wall. After each box was explored, it was moved to a more orderly stack in the opposite corner, revealing the curtain Madison was now investigating.

Gavin joined her in front of the door.

“I wonder what’s in here,” she said.

“Only one way to find out.” He tried the knob and found it unlocked. He pushed the door open a crack. “It’s dark. I can’t see anything.” He ran his hand over the wall next to the doorway, hunting for a switch. He found the switch and flipped it. Light filled the room.

“Wow!” Madison leaned over his shoulder. “What is this?”

The pair entered the room. One wall was painted green and several rolled up screens were attached to the ceiling. Twin television cameras were positioned facing the green wall. The rest of the room was filled with electronic equipment, much like the radio room.

Gavin grinned at Madison. “It’s a television studio.”

“No fucking way! Can it broadcast?”

“I would assume so, if it’s anything like the radio control room. Let’s see what Sanchez knows about it.”

* * *

Sanchez confirmed that it was indeed a TV studio. “I thought I’d told you what was behind that door. I guess in all the excitement I forgot.”

“Can this thing actually broadcast?” Madison asked.

“Yes. I told you, this was an old telecommunications hub. Like all of our shelters, it’s equipped with a powerful transmitter. In the event of…well, this exact scenario, we have the ability to broadcast over the airwaves and anyone with an antenna within range can pick it up. We can also transmit a broadcast from one shelter to the next.”

“So we can record something and the people in the Barstow shelter could watch it?” Madison asked.

“Record, or broadcast live, and yes. Barstow could watch it. Barstow could send it to Vegas, Vegas could send it to Denver, and so on, until your broadcast reaches the east coast. We have shelters in sixteen states, all with a capacity of anywhere from 500 to several thousand people. The bunker community in South Dakota can hold up to 5000 people in individual bunkers. One of the largest underground shelters like this one is connected to our head office in Barstow.”

Madison’s eyes sparkled with excitement. “Do you know what this means? Gavin! This is it! My big break! My own reality show, on our very own network! We could film video clips and broadcast them to all of the shelters!”

“Would that sort of thing even be allowed?” Gavin asked.

Sanchez laughed. “I think at this point, we’re the ones making the rules. If you want to do a show, go ahead. It could be informative as well as entertaining. You could give news about the apocalypse, from the stuff we hear on the radio, and put your own twist on it. People are going to need a distraction with all that’s happened.”

“Gavin, do you think you could convince Alexxxis Gash to be a guest on the show? Maybe even play some music?”

“I could ask.”

Madison’s dream had finally come true. She would be the star of her very own reality TV show. The show would never be cancelled and the audience was captive. Arguably, it would be the best-rated show on television, given the other limited choices.

* * *

24 HOURS LATER:

“This is Madison Harding, the voice of the apocalypse, broadcasting live from a shelter somewhere in the Los Angeles area!” (Sanchez had warned her not to divulge the exact location of the shelter) “This is our first show, but be sure to tune in daily for news, survival and fashion tips and other important issues in today’s apocalypse. Our musical guest is Alexxxis Gash, star of one of my favorite punk bands, No Lube.” The camera panned over to Alexxxis, who replied with a quick riff on her guitar, and then back to Madison.

“Live, from LA, this is Apocalypse Barbie!”

Copyright © 2021 Mandy White

Featured in my newly released collection, Dysfictional 4: Apocalypse Aplenty

Now available worldwide in ebook and paperback

Chester Gnome

A writer friend of mine wrote this clever parody of Big Bad John, inspired by my garden gnome, who now has a name: Chester. Thanks to the talented Rick Turton, and apologies to Jimmy Dean and Roy Acuff.

Chester Gnome

By Rick Turton

~*~

Ev’ry mornin’ at the shed you could see him arrive,

He stood two-foot one and weighed, oh, ‘bout five.

Kinda’ broad at the shoulders with a pointy little hat

Everyone knew ya’ should fear and dread… Ches-ter.

Ches-ter… Ches-ter-er… Chester Gnome

Nobody seemed to know where Chester came from

Just drifted to the lawn and stood off in the sun.

He didn’t say much, (‘cuz what can gnomes say)

And if you spoke at all, ya’ just said “Hey” to Ches-ter,

Ches-ter… Ches-ter-er… Chester Gnome

Somebody said he’s from Abilene,

Where he got in a fight over a sprite named Queen

And a crashin’ blow from his stubby right hand

Sent a lawn supply troll to the Promised Land… Ches-ter.

Ches-ter… Ches-ter-er… Chester Gnome

Then came the day at the back of the yard,

When a tree fell over and the gnomes cried hard

Sprites were a-prayin’, and hearts beat fast,

All the gnomes there thought they’d breathed their last

‘cept Chet.

Ches-ter… Ches-ter-er… Chester Gnome

Through the leaves and the twigs of that tree-made hell

Walked a giant of a gnome that the pixies knew well.

Grabbed the door of the shed, and gave out with a groan,

And like a short, stumpy elf he stood there alone – Ches-ter.

Ches-ter… Ches-ter-er… Chester Gnome

With all of his strength, he gave out with a grunt,

Then a goblin yelled out, “There’s a light out in front!”

And twenty elves scrambled from a would-be grave.

Now there’s only one left in there to save – Ches-ter.

Ches-ter… Ches-ter-er… Chester Gnome

With hammers and timbers, they started back in

Then came the rumbling, a terrible din.

And leaves and twigs belched out of that shed,

Everyone knew… that Chester was dead.

Ches-ter… Ches-ter-er… Chester Gnome

Now they never reopened that worthless shack.

But out in front, they placed a handsome bronze plaque.

These few words are written on that tomb…

“Under this tree, lies one hell of a Gnome.

Ches-ter

Ches-ter… Ches-ter-er…

Chester Gnome

*To the tune of “Big Bad John” – with deepest, most sincere apologies to Jimmy Dean and Roy Acuff

You can read more of Rick Turton’s work in some of WPaD’s anthologies, such as Tinsel Tales 2. Available worldwide on Amazon.

Dysfictional 4: Apocalypse Aplenty

My newest release is finally here, and I’m stoked to share this one with everyone!

Beat the summer heat with a collection of cool new stories, most of which have an apocalyptic tone – that wasn’t intentional, it was just the way things turned out. I seem to have apocalypse on the mind a lot lately.

~ A scientist develops body-swapping technology, but she must keep it out of the wrong hands…
~ The extinction of the honeybee brings an unexpected result…
~ A zombie virus only affects women…
~ A homeless hacker destroys the world’s supply of digital currency…
~ Teenagers navigate dating in a post-pandemic future…
~ A fugitive finds his benefactor and only friend has met with an unfortunate end…
~ An aspiring reality TV star finds herself in a real-life apocalypse…

Enjoy these stories and more in Dysfictional 4!

~ New Release ~ Now available worldwide on Amazon! ~

The Fall of Man

When it all began, nobody could possibly have known that a porn star would change the world forever.

They didn’t want the technology to fall into the wrong hands. The wrong hands, of course, being mostly of the male persuasion. It was a stroke of luck that the scientist who made the discovery happened to be a woman. The scientist in question was one Dr. Beatrice Seadie, or Bea, as she preferred to be called.

Bea began her career with the most altruistic of motives. Like many scientists, she sought to change the world for the better, but she had little vision of what that would entail. Fresh out of university and employed by a government-controlled research firm, she obediently followed instructions and shared findings with her superiors.

Until one day, she stumbled upon something outstanding while working on an unrelated project. She chose that day to distance herself from her employer. The government wanted to develop teleportation, which was frightening enough when one considered the possible uses for the technology.

But that was nothing.

Teleportation was small potatoes compared to what Bea found. And she would not let it fall into the hands of the powerful men who controlled the world.

The teleporter was for the most part, a failure. Bea managed to disassemble simple inanimate objects at a molecular level and then reassemble them in an alternate location. But it only worked with solid objects with a basic chemical composition: minerals, metals, and the like. Anything with moving parts, or synthetics such as plastic, failed to teleport.

The first trials with live subjects yielded unusual results. The test subject, a mouse, did not teleport. At first, it seemed unchanged by the process. After a few days of observation, it became clear that the mouse was dying. It would not eat or drink. It sat in its cage, unmoving. The lights were on, so to speak, but nobody was home. The mouse died of dehydration eight days later.

Bea didn’t yet know what she had discovered, but she did know that she no longer wanted to work for her current employer.

* * *

Inspired by the mouse, Bea took her work in a different direction in the privacy of her basement laboratory. She strove to accomplish what medical science and hypnosis had tried and failed to. Her work focused on the elimination of unwanted components of the subject’s personality: addictions, phobias, compulsions. If the attempt at teleportation had removed whatever consciousness resided in a little mouse brain, what if the process could be refined to only remove select parts? She continued her work, one painstaking step at a time, and five years later, she was ready for human trials.

Volunteers were easy to find; there was always someone in need of a few dollars. Certainly some might have condemned the ethics of her use of homeless addicts for experimentation, but from a scientific standpoint, it was a necessary evil. The first attempts failed. The subjects ended up like the mouse. Just a blank slate. Although they never used drugs again, which could be considered a success.

The solution came to her following a heavy rainstorm. She took a break from the lab to relieve frustration with some mundane yard work. The sidewalk near her front porch drained poorly, always leaving a puddle at the base of the stairs. She swept the water furiously to keep it from leaking into the foundation, but it kept running back down into the low spot and re-forming the puddle. No matter how many times she swept it away, some ran back. The water needed someplace else to drain, and the empty spot needed to be filled.

Drain and fill.

Holy shit! That was it!

The next trial involved two subjects. One a heroin addict, and one a smoker, both of whom desired to kick their habits. After the trial, both subjects still had their minds intact. The addict no longer craved heroin. The non-addict, sadly, was in for a nasty bout of detox. The silver lining was, he no longer craved cigarettes. And of course, each was in the other’s body.

Bea had discovered a way to transport a person’s mind into another body. Everything that made the individual who they were – the soul, as it were – could be removed from one body and placed into another body of their (or Bea’s) choice.

The next step was to find out if the process was reversible, and what, if any, side-effects there were. After numerous trials, it appeared reversal did indeed work, and none of the subjects suffered any ill effects.

However, Bea made some interesting observations in her continuing work with addicts. She kept contact with the subjects to see how they adjusted to their new lives. In more than eighty percent of all addict swaps, the addicts relapsed to their habits. Their physically addicted bodies healed under the care of their new owners; relapse rate for the bodies was nearly zero. The only exceptions were in two cases in which the new owner of the addict’s body had a past history of drug abuse. But, the minds of the addicts, free from addiction in new bodies, appeared unsatisfied with sober life and began using again, some almost immediately. The only ones who remained sober were those truly committed to freeing themselves from addiction. It reinforced what Bea had always suspected; that addiction ran much deeper than mere physical dependency. She wished she could share her findings with someone who was in the business of studying addiction, but of course that was impossible to do without revealing her secret.

She decided to shelve her work with addicts and proceed in a different direction. A pair of willing participants, it seemed, was the key to success. She had the proverbial billion-dollar idea. The question was, what to do with it? The possibilities were limitless. She considered selling it to the highest bidder, but shuddered at the thought of who would be bidding on it. No, it was best to keep the technology safe from the many evil people who had access to large sums of money; to keep it a well-guarded secret. But how to use it? And with whom could she share it?

A close friend provided the answer. Andy was a childhood friend, whom Bea trusted implicitly. Andy, whose full name was Andrea, also happened to be transgender. Andy had opted to live her life in the body she was born in, in spite of how wrong it felt. Her career as a schoolteacher would suffer and her deeply religious parents would disown her if she were to live as a male. Andy was miserable living a lie, but put on a brave face for the sake of everyone else. Bea’s heart ached for her friend, but it was Andy’s decision to make. Andy was the first person Bea told of her discovery. Her friend was skeptical at first, but after watching the videos from previous trials and observing some swaps first-hand, Andy was convinced. The body-swap with a male was Andy’s idea.

“Are you crazy?” Bea said.

“You have faith that it works?” Andy said.

“Absolutely,” Bea said. “I know that it works, with no adverse effects, based on my trials and what you yourself have seen. But do you have any idea what you’re asking? Do you understand what it would involve? Your family, your career. All of those things belong to this body, to Andrea. If you switch into someone else’s body, all those things become hers – his. And whatever life he had, will become yours.”

“It just so happens, I have the perfect candidate,” Andy said.

As it turned out, Andy had a cousin who had the same problem. Ralph desired to be a woman, and was one of the few people who knew Andy’s secret. It was a bonus that they shared the same genetics, the same family, and even the same profession. Ralph was also a teacher. Andy approached Ralph with the proposal and of course Ralph was skeptical, until shown irrefutable proof that what they were offering was the real deal. After that, he was all in.

Andy and Ralph were the first of many success stories. No one in their family was the wiser, and they were nearby to coach each other on the finer details of their lives.

With Andy and Ralph’s assistance, Bea found more transgender candidates wanting to swap bodies and lives. They did their best to match each male and female pair according to common interests, careers, and location, but for some it was enough to have the body they wanted. Starting a new life in a new place appealed to them.

Bea had to admit, it felt good to help people in a way no one else could. But it wasn’t what she had intended. Certainly there would be plenty of people interested in swapping for different reasons: a whiter skin; a better financial situation, but finding a willing partner to swap wasn’t likely, since wealthy white folks didn’t tend to want to trade their lives.

She couldn’t help but feel that her work was meant for something else. Something bigger.

* * *

The young woman seated across from her oozed sex appeal in spite of, or perhaps because of, her conservative attire. She might have been a librarian, or perhaps a teacher, if said teacher’s specialty was punishing naughty men. As it turned out, Bea’s first impression of the woman wasn’t far from the mark.

“How did you hear about me and my alleged work?” Bea asked. “And I say alleged, because I am not confirming that said work even exists. It sounds preposterous, if you ask me.”

The woman tucked a stray wisp of blonde hair back into her messy bun and peered at Bea over the rims of her glasses. Her ample bust strained against the buttons of her blouse.

“Really? You’re going to give me that song and dance? Fair enough. I have friends in plenty of, shall we say, ‘underground’ circles. That, and of course there are the rumors circulating around the internet. You know, it’s only a matter of time before the wrong people find out about this.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Of course not. Just a word of caution. I happen to know of some very powerful men who could do a lot of damage with your ‘alleged’ technology. I am here to hopefully help you prevent that from happening.”

“Go on. I’m listening.”

“My name is Leslie Ann Goolio. You might know me by my professional name, Brandi Buxton.”

Bea paused to think a moment. She had heard that name before, but where? And then it dawned on her. “You’re THE Brandi Buxton? From…”

“Correct. I am Brandi Buxton, star of more than six hundred adult films.”

Bea wasn’t a connoisseur of pornography, but one didn’t have to be to know who Brandi was. She had made headlines back in the nineties, when she celebrated her eighteenth birthday. That in itself wasn’t scandalous, but the fact that she was already a well-established name in adult entertainment with four years worth of films to her credit. She had starred in her first pornographic film at age fourteen.

Brandi explained to Bea that she had saved a large portion of her porn money to spend on education. She had attended night school while making movies during the day. She had a law degree and a Masters in economics. But she wanted credentials from a prestigious university like Harvard, and there was no way, no matter how smart or wealthy she was, that she could get into an ivy league school with her background. She wanted to swap into the body of a man who already had those credentials. She already had the knowledge, just not the credibility.

Brandi had the ideal candidate: J. Bartholomew Sutton II, the son of a prominent Boston judge by the same name. With a Harvard law degree and all the right connections, the younger Sutton was on the fast track to a career in law, government, or maybe even the presidency. But Bart had no interest in politics or any of the other high society snobbery that was his life. He was interested in fashion and art, and sex with men. He dreamed of being a woman, but the closest he could come to that dream was cross-dressing in private and role-playing with prostitutes. A mutual friend introduced him to Brandi. When she offered to swap her body with him, he salivated at the idea. The prospect of being an adult film star excited him, and he was willing to pay any price for the opportunity.

Bart set up a research foundation in Bea’s name and padded it with a generous donation to further her work, and then joyously stepped into Brandi’s life in Los Angeles. Brandi began a new life in Boston as Bart. For Brandi, sexuality had always been fluid: a by-product of the adult film industry, or perhaps what had attracted her to porn to begin with. She was comfortable in any skin, be it female or male. She adapted easily to her new role, and with the help of Bart’s father, landed a job in a prestigious law firm.

* * *

Bea expected to see great things from Brandi, but didn’t expect to see her in person again quite so soon. A couple of years after the swap, Brandi, aka Bart, arrived at Bea’s house, accompanied by a stunning young woman.

“So nice to see you again, Bart.” Bea smiled at Bart’s guest and led the pair into her office. “Please, have a seat. Can I get you anything? Coffee?” Bart and the woman shook their heads.

“I’m afraid this isn’t a social call,” Bart said. He nodded toward his companion. “My friend here is in some trouble, and I think your ‘special service’ might be the best solution.”

“Go on.”

“This is Michelle. She is…was… engaged to a friend of mine. You know…” Bart gave Bea a knowing wink. “Old school pals since childhood, attended Harvard together.”

“Was?”

Tears trickled down Michelle’s cheeks. “Tommy was my soul mate. He was my everything. And now he’s…he’s…” her voice hitched. “I don’t know what we’re doing here, Bart. What’s the point? Nothing will bring Tommy back.”

Bart placed a reassuring hand on the woman’s arm. “No, but maybe there’s a chance to save your life, and get some justice for Tommy.”

“From what I gather, this Tommy fellow is dead,” Bea said. “I’m so sorry for your loss. How can I help?”

“I was a resident at Mass General when I met Tommy,” Michelle began, “He came into the ER one night during my shift with a broken ankle. A drunken stunt gone wrong. He tried to leap down an entire flight of stairs on a dare from his buddies. His friends dumped him off at the ER entrance and fled to avoid a DUI. I kept him company for a while since he was alone, and offered to call his family to pick him up. He begged me not to call his parents. He said his father was very ill – stage 4 cancer – and he didn’t want his mother to see him in that condition. She was already overwhelmed, and her health was fragile. He was an adult, so I didn’t push the issue. I offered to give him a ride after my shift. I took him for coffee, then let him sleep it off on my couch. I know, I know… it was a risk bringing home a strange guy, not to mention professionally unethical, but we just hit it off. I wanted to meet the sober version of him to see if he was still just as sweet as the drunk version. Turned out he was even sweeter, and I fell hard.

We’d been dating for nearly two years before he finally introduced me to his family. I was a bit bothered but hey, I got it. With his father’s death and all…you know. Anyway, he invited me to dinner at their house, and I swore he enjoyed the way his brother and sister’s jaws dropped at the sight of me. But they were all very nice and polite, and his mother especially went out of her way to make me feel welcome.

A few months ago he popped the question, and of course I said yes. Tommy announced our engagement at one of his family’s high-society parties. Everyone congratulated us. His mother gushed about ‘another doctor in the family’.

It was late, after the party. Everyone had gone to bed, or so I thought. Tommy was snoring away with a few drinks under his belt. I couldn’t sleep, so I went down to the kitchen to find some chamomile tea. It was there that I ran into Tommy’s brother Kenneth. He invited me to join him for a drink in the parlor. Said he wanted to talk to me. All I really wanted was to go to bed, but I also wanted to make a good impression on Tommy’s family. I wanted them to like me. I was so stupid to think a bunch of rich white assholes would ever accept me into their family.” Michelle paused, her face in her hands. She sniffled and wiped her eyes before continuing.

“I made the cup of tea and then went into the other room, where Kenneth waited. He had already poured two glasses of brandy. I didn’t want the drink, but didn’t want to be rude, so I took it and drank it. He poured another one before I could refuse. He told me how much he loved his brother, how he would do anything for him. He wanted Tommy to be happy, but he also needed to look out for him, to make sure he didn’t screw up his life. I didn’t like the direction the conversation was going, but I tried to be polite.

And then he said, ‘How much?’

I felt confused. I didn’t understand the question. I said, ‘Pardon me?’

He said, ‘How much will it take for you to walk away?’ He pulled a checkbook out of his jacket. ‘Name your price. What will it take for my family to be rid of you? To save us the embarrassment of a wedding that would never happen if my father was still alive. Our father never would have let Tommy marry a nigger!’

I needed to leave. All I could think of was getting away from that horrible man, getting back to Tommy, but when I stood up, my knees buckled and my head swam, and that was when I realized I had been drugged. I slumped back onto the couch and fought to keep my eyes open.

Kenneth stood over me. His face was twisted with the kind of hate that told me everything I needed to know about the man.

He climbed on top of me and put his hands around my throat. I tried to scream, but he squeezed it off and I felt myself losing consciousness. He forced himself between my legs and pulled up my nightgown. I fought him, but my arms felt limp and weak. And then I heard a click and felt the cold steel of a gun barrel pressed against my cheek.

He said, ‘At least I’m gonna find out what my brother sees in you. Only thing you’re good for.’

He raped me.

When he climaxed, I took advantage of those few seconds of vulnerability and mustered all the strength I had, and snatched the gun out of his hand. I figured I if I was going to die I might as well go down fighting. At that moment someone tackled him and pulled him off of me. The gun went off.

The next thing I heard was a scream. Their sister Meredith had heard the gunshot and come running. She started screaming at me, ‘What have you done? What have you done?’

I thought, ‘Oh my god, I shot Kenneth!’

And then she turned to Kenneth, who stood in front of us, very much alive, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll back you up. I saw it all. The fucking whore shot Tommy in front of both of us! That ghetto-rat is gonna fry, we’ll make sure of it.’ And then I couldn’t believe my ears when that little teenage bitch said, ‘It’s better this way anyways. Now we only have to split the money two ways when the old bat croaks.’

I was so confused. I hadn’t shot anyone. Kenneth was fine. What the hell was she talking about? I needed Tommy. He would be able to clear things up. I felt weak and wobbly, but tried to stand to go upstairs to wake up Tommy, and that was when I saw the body on the floor.

It was him. My Tommy was lying there in a pool of blood and that was when I realized the gun was still in my hand. He had woken and come looking for me and seen what his brother was doing. He died trying to save me.”

Michelle sobbed into her hands and Bart embraced her. Bea placed a box of tissues nearby and waited for her to continue.

“The rest was mostly a blur. Someone must have called the police, because I woke up on a cold, hard cot in a jail cell. I don’t know how long I slept. I just remember crying and crying, drifting in and out for days. I couldn’t eat. Eventually I managed to drink some water, but nobody came to check on me. No doctor came to check on my physical or mental state. No rape kit was done, even though I knew what the proper procedure should have been. I mean, I’m a physician, and I’ve done countless examinations of assault victims. But I was in no state of mind to ask for help, and none was offered. I didn’t care about anything. All I knew was that Tommy was dead and I had no reason to live.

Finally after, I don’t know how many days, they told me my lawyer was there to see me. Which was odd, because I didn’t have a lawyer. I hadn’t thought to ask for one. They led me into the little room and to my surprise, there was Tommy’s best friend Bart sitting at the table. He had heard about what happened and had volunteered to defend me. I don’t know why. Bart should hate me like everyone else does. But he didn’t believe them. He wanted to hear my side of it. It’s weird, because we haven’t known each other very long, but I’ve always felt like I could tell Bart anything. He was different from all of Tommy’s friends. Different from Tommy, even.”

Michelle cast a tearful glance in Bart’s direction. Bart reached over and squeezed her arm, encouraging her to continue.

“Bart paid my bail and got me out that day. I have been charged with second-degree murder. I pled not guilty, but there’s a good chance I will lose the trial, even with Bart as my lawyer. Kenneth and Meredith are going to testify. They’ve told everyone that they witnessed me shooting Tommy in cold blood because he caught me cheating with Kenneth. They’re making me out to be some kind of gold digger. Kenneth has told the press that he won’t rest until I’m rotting behind bars. It’s pretty much guaranteed I’ll be going to jail. Even if I don’t, my career is over. My life is over.”

“I’m so sorry this happened to you,” Bea said, “What are you going to do?”

“Oh, that part is simple. I’m going to kill myself.”

“That may not be necessary,” Bart said. “Will you excuse us for a moment, Michelle? I need to have a word with Bea in private.”

Bea retrieved a bottle of water from the mini-fridge and handed it to Michelle. “We won’t be long. Promise me there will be no suicide until we return.” Bea winked at her. Michelle nodded and gave her a tearful smile.

The two left the office and sat at the kitchen table.

“I know what you’re going to ask, Bart,” Bea said, “And while I agree with you that this woman has every reason to want to escape her life, where would we find a volunteer to take her place? Nobody is going to want to enter a body that is headed for jail. It wouldn’t be fair to do that to someone.”

“I think the most fitting candidate would be the rapist himself.”

“Bart, are you insane? We’ve never done an involuntary before. We don’t even know what could happen!”

“There’s one way to find out. The one who matters is voluntary. Do we really care what happens to the other subject? He’ll never be punished for what he did. How many other women is he going to victimize? You know as well as I do that guys like this don’t just do it once. How many has he already hurt? She is suicidal, Bea. I have no doubt that she is going to off herself. Even if by some miracle she wins the trial, and trust me, she won’t. She is a woman of color up against filthy rich white liars. The truth isn’t going to mean shit at that trial. Bea, this is huge! This is what your work can do! You have the ability to save an innocent life, and punish the one who destroyed it.”

“But you’re talking about kidnapping!”

Bart waved a dismissive hand. “I’ll take care of everything. I have a few people who owe me some favors. All you need to do is work your magic when I get him here. In the meantime, is it all right if Michelle stays with you? It’s been a constant battle hiding her from the press, and given that I’m her attorney who is about to drop her as a client, I’m not exactly incognito.”

“Of course, she’s more than welcome. I have plenty of room here. As long as she promises no suicide on the premises.”

* * *

As promised, Bart produced Kenneth in the dark of night, bound and blindfolded in the back of a panel van. After the swap, a drugged and very confused Kenneth awoke in a public park. When the situation became clear, hysteria ensued, and he (now she) was arrested and placed in a psychiatric facility for her own protection. Michelle had apparently had a psychotic break, they said. Why else would she be ranting about being a man trapped in a woman’s body and claiming to be the brother of her alleged victim?

Bart contacted his law firm to let them know he would no longer be representing Ms Collins, and that he was revoking the bail he had posted for her because she had violated the terms of her recognizance by leaving the city.

The date of the trial arrived. On Bart’s instruction, Michelle had liquidated all of her assets before the swap and donated the funds to Bea’s research foundation. She wouldn’t need the money, since Kenneth had plenty. The body in which Kenneth was trapped had not a penny to its name. The public defender assigned to the case tried to push for an insanity plea, but the defendant refused and continued to maintain her innocence.

The jury’s decision was unanimous: Guilty. In Michelle’s body, Kenneth was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Had he been tried as a wealthy white man, he might have gotten off with time served and probation, but as a penniless black woman, he received no mercy from the court. As an added surprise, it turned out Michelle was pregnant by her rapist. Kenneth got to experience the miracle of childbirth firsthand from behind bars. The baby boy, to whom Kenneth was now both mother and father, was placed into foster care to await adoption.

Michelle visited the prison once. It was surreal, seeing herself behind the glass partition, dressed in orange. However, she had never seen herself behave the way the woman on the other side of the glass did: ranting, screaming obscenities, beating on the glass until the guards came and removed her. They didn’t even have a chance to pick up the phone and talk before the visit was over.

Michelle had one small piece of unfinished business. She enlisted the help of Bart and Bea once more. Another generous donation to Bea; another unwilling subject delivered in the dark of night.

* * *

Vernon Plotz was admitted to hospital vomiting blood and complaining of severe abdominal pain. Being homeless, he hadn’t consulted a doctor even though he had been in pain for years. He used heroin to dull the pain, but eventually even the heroin didn’t help. Doctors found a tumor the size of a football growing inside his abdomen and the cancer had spread throughout his body. It was untreatable. The doctor discharged him with three months to live and a prescription for morphine, but didn’t suggest he quit heroin. Outside the hospital, a finely dressed young man caught up with him and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He agreed to swap bodies with the man in exchange for ten thousand dollars. Clearly the man was insane, but ten grand would keep Vern nice and high until either the dope or the cancer killed him off.

What a surprise it was when Vern found himself inside the other guy’s body, just like he’d promised! He gazed at his reflection in awe. He was young, handsome, and cancer-free! What a sucker that guy was! That rich dumbass had just traded a Porsche for an Edsel. Well, no backsies. Vern took his cash and ran in case the idiot changed his mind.

The first thing Vern did was call his dealer and buy himself a monster-sized party to celebrate his new body and his new lease on life. The second thing he did was overdose.

Kenneth’s tragic death rocked the high-society world. Who would ever have suspected he had a drug problem? It must have been too much for him: his father’s death, his brother’s murder, the trial… Poor, brave Kenneth, they said. He had battled those demons all alone.

* * *

“Medical school? But Meredith, you’ve always hated school!”

Meredith kissed her mother on the cheek. “Let’s just say, I’ve turned over a new leaf. I’ve been such a spoiled brat, now I want to do something meaningful with my life. I want to do something that would have made Daddy and my brothers proud.”

“I swear, I don’t even know you anymore, Meredith. It’s like you’ve grown up overnight.” Meredith’s mother dabbed at her eyes. “But they would all be so proud of you, my dear. God rest their souls. I guess I’ll have another doctor in the family after all.”

* * *

A year after Kenneth’s unfortunate death, Bart and Meredith married, uniting two of the most prominent families in Boston. They located Kenneth and Michelle’s son and adopted him. Later that year, Bart ran for Governor of Massachusetts and won. Three years later, he ran for president.

Did Michelle know Bart’s secret? Bea never asked, but as far as she knew Michelle was unaware that her husband had once been the infamous Brandi Buxton. Did it even matter? They were happy: a handsome power couple using their resources to change the world for the better.

* * *

And so it came to pass that a porn star became the first female president of the United States, unbeknownst to the citizens who had voted for (and against) her.

By the time Bart became president, most of Congress and the Senate had been replaced with women: the poor; the intelligent but downtrodden; the minorities; all disguised as wealthy white men. Over time, the left and right ran out of reasons to argue. Issues that had once sparked furious debate became civil discussions that ended in compromise. Meetings with other international leaders went smoothly; when problems arose, one might say that those individuals soon changed their way of thinking.

Women with unwanted pregnancies who were unable to face either choice were offered a third option. Men known for their outspoken conservative views – reverends, politicians, and others – were blessed with the opportunity to experience the joys of pregnancy and childbirth.

Bea embarked on a new mission to preserve brilliant minds trapped in failing bodies, beginning with an aging Supreme Court Justice the world wasn’t ready to lose yet. Bea found a healthy body for her in a suicidal young woman, broken by emotional trauma. The girl donated her body to the worthy cause and slipped away peacefully in place of the elder woman.

Bea found new hope for her technology. Perhaps the future Stephen Hawkings of the world could be saved and great minds could live on indefinitely.

On the surface it appeared nothing had changed. Men still ran the world. But as the old saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman.

Copyright © 2019 Mandy White

Short Story Sunday: Tell Tail Heart (or A Literary Tale)

Vampire Maman

A Literary Tale

He woke with a start.

THUMP THUMP THUMP

THUMP THUMP THUMP

Immediately he thought of The Tell Tale Heart, that story of horror written by Poe.

Bolting up in bed and now awake he realized it was just the thumping tails of his brother’s wolfhounds. Why had he agreed to take care of the beasts for the week?

These huge beasts were no Baskerville Hounds. They were sweet and goofy. Sure they could kill, he supposed they could kill, but they were just happy dogs. Large dogs with large hearts. Large dogs who needed to go out and leave large piles in his yard. And they needed to do that RIGHT NOW.

All week long he’d been obsessed with trying to find the story that matched his life. No Jane Austin. No Thomas Wolf. Maybe a touch of Charlotte Bronte or Donna Tartt. A little Dave Stone or

View original post 410 more words