Summertime radiates with sunny idle hours and the opportunity to feed your thinker with weird ideas, like the wack stories we have for you this time around. Thomas Grayfson's delightful "Cockalorum" is packed with wit and enchantment and James Rumpel's "Unfinished Business" presents an afterlife with surprising satisfactions.
by Thomas Grayfson
Rose traced a finger around the rim of her wine glass. In a town like Dunk, there was little to do but entertain her thoughts about the Man in the Hood. He was an outsider. Nobody had seen his face or even knew his name. For the past two nights, Rose had shadowed his every move, only to discover that he rarely left his private chambers at the Cockalorum Inn. That's why she was stuck at the bar, drinking away her youth with a bottle of red.
"I'll tell you about the Man in the Hood," said Alfred, the town’s oldest barfly. “He’s plotting to kill Mayor Dadi.”
“And you know this, how?” said Rose.
“Because he wears the hood. Don’t you know? The warmer the head, the darker the scheme.” Alfred swigged his beer, then added, “It’s the perfect day for it too. The mayor is giving a speech at the chicken-catch.”
“That’s the kind of wisdom you get from the bottom of a glass,” said Brent, the innkeeper. He poured Alfred another one.
“If that’s the outcome, I should stop drinking,” said Rose. She smirked at Brent. “Besides, your prices have crept higher than a whore’s skirts.”
Brent scowled at Rose. “You should be more excited about the chicken-catch. Everyone from town will be there, slaughtering birds to help grow the grain, or milk the cows, or whatever the old superstition is. They'll want to see Dunk’s famous witch.”
“I’m an alchemist, not a witch. And chickens are dull.”
“Beats waiting around for some hooded foreigner that won’t show.”
“I find him intriguing.” Rose downed the rest of her wine. “Why don’t you let me borrow the keys to his room? Then I won’t have to wait. I’ll even pay for my drink.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
Brent crossed his muscled arms.“ Because it’s wrong.”
“Why does everyone have to be so predictable around here?” said Rose, mostly to herself, as she reached into her bag. With dramatic flair, she flicked a handful of bronze dust at Brent’s face. The innkeeper sneezed and collapsed onto the bar. Within seconds, he was snoring louder than her past three lovers combined. She checked his pockets, but the keys weren’t there. It didn’t matter. She had prepared for this situation.
Alfred stared at her, mouth agape, so she blew him a kiss of dust. He crashed to the ground, stool and all. Her shoes padded lightly as she tiptoed up the stairs.
What would the Man in the Hood be doing? Perhaps he’d be playing the lute? Or composing a poem? Rose crossed her fingers and hoped that she’d find him in a state of undress. Then she could tease him, curl a strand of his hair around her pinkie, and dose him with her tell-no-lies dust. That would be the surefire way to get the answers she sought.
At the top of the stairs, an overweight rat scuttled across the floorboards, and squeezed under a door to one of the inn’s rooms. It was his room: the Man in the Hood’s. She snuck to the door and peeked through the keyhole.
It was almost pitch black inside.
She tried the handle. It didn’t budge. Dang.
Rose checked the bags that dangled from her belt like a bunch of old wizards’ genitals. Each one was filled with costly materials that left her perpetually broke. She found a dozen open-sesame-seeds and stuffed them into keyhole. The lock clicked open. She crept inside.
The glow from a single candle illuminated the Man in the Hood. He chanted in a soft, haunting voice. He was horribly pockmarked, like two porcupines had copulated on his face. A doll replica of the mayor lay scrunched in his hands, its body stuck with copper needles.
Alfred was right, thought Rose. She bit her lower lip to stop herself from squealing in excitement. Instead, she huffed a kind of muffled snort.
The Man in the Hood tilted his head backwards as if waking from a deep trance. He might have been an attractive man, if it weren’t for his yellow eyes that burned with hatred, and the scar where his nose used to be. He drew a needle from the candle fire and jabbed it towards the doll’s heart.
“No!” shouted Rose. She hurled a bag towards him. It bounced off his nasal cavity and fell into the naked flame. She had just enough time to brace herself before the gold dust exploded.
A myriad of enchanted shellfish spiralled from the blast. They smashed against the walls, and shot fluorescent lights from their antennae. A pink beam ricocheted off a vanity mirror, blinding the Man in the Hood. He dropped the Mayor Doll into a pool of molluscs. Rose leapt forward to retrieve it, but tripped on an overweight rat, and smacked into an eerie pendulum clock.
The Man in the Hood drew a curved blade from his cloak. “Your entrails shall decorate my bread basket,” he hissed.
Rose sprang up and jump-kicked him in the chest. She revelled in the look of shock upon his face as he stumbled backwards, his dagger plunging into a floorboard between two crabs. She grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. “What have you got against the mayor?”
“He raised our taxes.”
Rose frowned. “Isn’t that what mayors do?”
“Yes! All mayors must die!” said the Man in the Hood. He cackled as the clock struck its doom bell. The jarring sound beat against Rose’s skull.
“Behold! The harbinger of death awakens!” He pointed a crooked finger towards the pool of molluscs. The Mayor Doll cut through their ranks in a shower of sea meat and shell fragments, a needle grasped in each mitten.
“Go forth, my servant, and kill the Mayor!”
Rose headbutted the Man in the Hood, knocking him out, and then reached for one of her more volatile bags. But she was too late. The Mayor Doll gave her a cursory glance. A sinister grin spread beneath its moustachio before it crashed through the glass window.
Brent lumbered through the door. His eyebrows trembled as he surveyed the room’s aquatic wallpaper. “Rose, what have you done? Who’s going to pay for all this?”
“Charge it to the Man in the Hood.” Rose offered Brent the smile that won her Dunk’s Most Buxom Burgess award for three years running, then dove through the window, and dropped into the street below. Her legs absorbed the impact with more grace than a bardic swan. She made out the Mayor Doll in the distance as he scooted around a corner.
The nearby townsfolk continued their daily slog in spite of the assassin racing past their feet. They were, however, far more observant of Rose, and bleated popular phrases like “It’s the alchemist!” and “By the Gods!”
Rose waved graciously and invited them all to visit her store. The Mayor Doll had gained quite a lead until she noticed a farmer holding the reins of a sleek horse.
“Do you mind if I borrow that?” asked Rose.
The horse whinnied amiably as she threw her leg over its saddle. The farmer stammered a reply. “Anything for you Ms. Rose. You healed my boy.”
Rose felt a great warmth swell in her chest. One day, she’d earn enough of a name to entice paying customers. “Thank you kindly, and remember,” she threw out a handful of rainbow dust to cries of admiration, and proclaimed in her most theatrical voice, “a powder from Rose will cure your woes!”
She kicked the horse with the side of her boot, and gripped it with her thighs as it galloped through the busy street. Rose shouted “Move aside!” as she closed on the Mayor Doll, who couldn’t outpace her on his miniscule shanks. The assassin vanished into a crowd of armed peasants. Rose pulled on the horse’s reins to stop at their periphery. All were gathered around the fountain: a bronze structure that stood taller than an oak, with three bowl-shaped basins that led up to a statue of a mermaid-goddess.
Mayor Dadi stood at the base of the fountain. He gestured in a puffy blonde vest, while three jets of water sprayed above his head. “Welcome,” he said in a croaky baritone, “to the fifty-seventh annual chicken-catch.”
The crowd burst into wild applause. Rose’s horse startled. She just managed to dismount before it upended her onto the muddy road. Picking her way through the assembled bodies, she reached the front of the fountain, where an enormous flock of chickens dawdled in a pen. Rose gasped as she spotted the doll, poised on a fowl, with a needle aimed at Dadi’s head. She vaulted into the pen, and kicked her way through the poultry ensemble.
The Mayor Doll drew the needle back and prepared to hurl it like a javelin…
“Dadi, get down!” shouted Rose from amongst a sea of yellow feathers. The Mayor Doll propelled the needle through the air, tearing the stitches in its arm. The missile sailed over the pen. It would have impaled Dadi through the jugular, had he not flopped into the fountain at the last possible moment. It deflected off a basin and disappeared into the crowd.
Rose reached for her bags. They were empty. Savaged from below. She peered at her ankles and witnessed several chickens bolt down a cocktail of spilt dust. Her heart pounded in her chest. She didn’t know what effect that much product would have on them.
The Mayor Doll ran up to Rose and kicked her in the shins.
“Hey, stop that!” Rose tried to punt the doll away. It evaded her easily. Grains of rice-stuffing spilled from its torn arm. The hens looked up from their hedonistic guzzling. Their pupils dilated, and several of their plump bodies began to vibrate.
Rose took a step back as the ravenous chickens descended on the Mayor Doll. They devoured it with the same malicious joy she felt while eating a bowl of pistachio nuts. She turned away in disgust, and clambered over the edge of the pen, back to the safety of the outside world.
The waterlogged Mayor Dadi approached her with his charming smile. “You saved my life. How can I repay you?”
Rose felt her cheeks blush. “Well, there’s a debt at the Cockalorum that you could—”
Someone in the crowd screamed as the Man in the Hood emerged from their ranks. Rose ushered Dadi behind her and rummaged through her bags for any trace of powder she could find.
“I hoped we’d meet again,” said the Man in the Hood. “Prepare to die.”
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask,” said Rose, pinching a grain of silver dust between finger and thumb. “What happened to your face?”
“Maybe I can help.”
The Man in the Hood broke into hysterical laughter. “That’s not possible. I was disfigured in a workshop fire. I moved here to get away, but it’s all the same!” He shook his fist at Dadi, then motioned to the crowd. “Don’t you see? He’s just like the rest of them! We till the land, work in his kitchens, fight his wars, and for what? So he can raise taxes on us again, and again! So many taxes that we can’t even afford flame-resistant helmets! We should rise up, start a militia, and demand our—”
Rose flicked dust in the Man’s peepers, and his face scrunched up like a milk-deprived baby. The crowd stared in wonder as he began to change. She yawned, having seen it all before: the way his scars healed, the regrowth of his nose from hard bone, to sinew, to a layer of porous skin. Even his visibly-reduced wrinkles didn’t solicit a reaction from her.
But when the Man in the Hood beamed at Rose, his beauty fully restored, she couldn’t help but smile back.
“Another day, another violent rebellion strangled in its infancy,” whispered Dadi, before addressing the crowd. “The town of Dunk owes Rose its sincerest gratitude, and we shall honour her by erecting a statue in her own likeness, upon this very fountain!” The villagers cheered, and he nodded in agreement. “Her idol will reside next to our water goddess, what’s-her-name, and she will never be forgotten.” His face darkened as he turned to the Man in the Hood. “As for this cretin, he shall be publicly hanged for the attempted murder of a public servant.”
“Go easy on him,” said Rose.
“But he’s a rebel!” shouted Dadi.
"Not anymore," said the Man in the Hood. "This alchemist has shown me true compassion, and I will never do anything against her wishes.” He clutched his hood, and cast it aside, revealing a mass of brown hair. “Long live the municipal government!"
“Don’t worry, I’ll keep a tight leash on him,” said Rose, grinning from ear to ear.
“Well, isn't this all tied up in a neat little bow?” said Mayor Dadi. “I guess I can let it slide. Now let the chicken-catching begin!”
With a flourish of his hand, Dadi opened the pen. A gang of psycho-birds charged onto the streets, squawking for blood. The townsfolk battled them well into the evening with net, knife, and pitchfork, while Rose sat with the Man in the Hood on a carved bench, and got to know him a little better. The following night, a great feast was held, and they ate together under the warm glow of the loving moon.
* * *
by James Rumpel
Jophiel, dressed in a black business suit, a white shirt, and a gray tie, sat behind an oversized oak desk. He finished perusing a paper and placed it into a nearby basket, adding it to a pile that was already overflowing.
Without looking up, he grabbed another sheet of paper and examined it as he called out, “Next.”
Garret Martinson sheepishly approached the desk. He stood behind the chair for a few seconds, waiting for some signal that he should take a seat.
“Thank you,” said Garret. He sat and crossed his legs and then immediately uncrossed them.
“So,” began the man behind the desk, “what brings you here, Mr. Martinson?”
Garret cleared his throat. “Well, you see, I died recently and have been waiting for my permanent assignment.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Sometimes it takes a while for that decision to be made. It is pretty important, you know.”
“I know. Believe me, I get that. While I’ve been waiting, I’ve taken some time to look over the pamphlet I was given.” He offered a folded sheet of paper.
“Ah, 'The Beginners Guide to the Afterlife.' I helped put it together. I hope you found it useful.”
“Definitely,” replied Garret. “The thing is, I noticed that it says that sometimes people are allowed to return to the living world if they have unfinished business. I was thinking that I might fall into that category.”
Jophiel opened a file cabinet and pulled out a packet of papers. He handed them to Garret. “If you wish to apply for reinstatement, you’ll need to fill this out.” He took a feather quill from his desk drawer and offered it to Garret. “You might as well do it right now. That way I can help answer your questions and fill you in on some of the finer details.”
“I would appreciate that,” said Garret. He laid the form on the desk and began to fill it in.
“Your name goes on line one,” stated his host. “On the second line, you need to put your exact age when you passed. Make sure you’re accurate. Age is very important.”
“Why?” asked Garret as he counted the months since his birthday.
“We don’t send many people over the age of sixty back. If you have unfinished business after that much time, it’s your own fault.”
Garret continued working his way down the application. “Line four asks how I died. It was an unfortunate accident. How much detail do you need there?”
“Quite a bit, please. Look at it from our perspective. If someone dies because they were stupid enough to drink two bottles of whiskey in ten minutes or try and trim the hedge by lifting their lawnmower, do they really deserve to get to go back and finish something? If it was that important to them, they should have been more careful.”
“My accident was not my fault. The car that hit me ran a red light. I know I was in the right.”
“You should be okay then,” said Jophiel. “We’ll run a complete check to verify, but I don’t think it will be a problem.”
After completing the first page, Garret flipped to the next.
“This next section is very important,” said Jophiel. “It asks you to list up to three things that you need to return to Earth to finish. Let me save you some time and give you a little guidance. First, don’t even think about trying to beat the system. Don’t put down something that will never happen just to get extended time. For example, if you say that you need to see the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl, you aren’t going to be accepted. That is clearly an attempt to stay on Earth forever.”
Garret slowly started crossing out the second item on his list. “So, what kind of things will give me a chance?”
“There are quite a few good choices: being close to finding a cure for cancer, needing to say goodbye to a loved one, revenge, wanting one last Big Mac.”
Garret looked up from the paper. “Really? A Big Mac?”
“Well, the guy in charge has a thing for McDonald’s.”
“God likes fast food?”
“Who said anything about God?” After a pause, Jophiel continued, “Remember though, whatever you put down will be double-checked. We had a guy in here last week who said he needed to take care of his family. It turned out they were goldfish.”
“I don’t understand the next section,” announced Garret. “It says to write down my preferred method of returning. Is there more than one option?”
“Quite a few, actually,” Jophiel handed a plastic card to Garret. “Here’s the official list. You can write down what you prefer, but make sure it fits what you’ve put down as your ‘unfinished business.’ If you’re going for revenge, we could send you back as a vengeful spirit. You know, your basic chain-rattling ghost. To say goodbye to a loved one, you should probably pick angelic vision.”
“Is there one that lets me go back and be alive again?”
“Oh sure, there are a couple of options. Look at the back side of the card. I must warn you, though. We don’t send people back to resume their former lives very often. That’s very complicated. It involves changing memories and resetting timelines. Even then we mess up once in a while. I remember the whole Mark Twain fiasco. You’d have thought someone would have remembered to take the obituary out of the newspaper. Luckily, he was witty enough to make a joke about it and people just let it slide.”
“The card says that reincarnation is a possibility. How does that work?”
“Reincarnation can work for many different scenarios. If your unfinished business is to share affection with a loved one, we could send you back as a puppy. If you’re looking to annoy someone, then we can send you as their cat.”
Garret thought for a moment. “After my weird cousin Robert died I got a cat who never used the litter box. Do you think he...?”
“That’s very likely. I could look it up if you want.”
“No. That’s okay. I do have one more question. What if the type of return I pick isn’t the one you think is best for my reason?”
“Don’t worry. If we think it is worth sending you back, we will adjust the technique so that you can finish your business in the simplest way possible.” Jophiel paused and chuckled to himself. “I wish I had a nickel for every time we sent someone back as a mosquito to get some sort of petty revenge.”
Garret scratched out the third item on his list. He looked over the form before handing it over. “I think I’m done.”
“Very well,” replied Jophiel. “You can go to waiting room 3, the one labeled Purgatory, and we’ll get back to you as soon as a decision is made.”
The sound of laughter roused Garret from his slumber. He opened his eight eyes and watched three teenage boys settle onto a worn sofa.
“Man,” said one of them, “your basement TV room is a mess. When’s the last time you cleaned up down here?”
“You sound like my mom,” replied another. “I’m supposed to clean it up this weekend. But I’m going to wait until we finish watching the last season of Stranger Things.”
“Yeah,” added the third boy, “it’s going to take all night to binge every episode. Let’s get started and Timmy can worry about cleaning up all the trash and spiderwebs after we leave."
None of them noticed the spider hanging out on the web in the corner. Garret considered making a run for it but he stopped when he heard a familiar theme song. If spiders could smile, he would have. He was going to get to see how his favorite show ended.
* * *
About the Creators
Thomas Grayfson lives in Melbourne with his laptop and a tiding of magpies.
The robot overlords have gifted you with the choice of one cybernetic module that will make one of your existing skills or traits all bionic and stuff. What do you choose to buff up, and what would be the unexpected plot twist?
Let me take a look at ye olde skill tree. Hmm, I'm tempted to buff my buffness so I'm bionically buff. Or I could weaponise my teeth so I can eat tuna without opening the tin. Yeah, that'll do, one set of chompers please!
If, due to some very poor logistics, you had to survive several days in some random tropical wilderness, what would you do to find food, and what species would your imaginary companion be?
Who needs to find food when you can eat your own arm! It's right under your nose, or left, depending on which limb you find the tastiest. My spirit animal is a multi-coloured snake; I'm sure he'd be slithering around. Can I eat him too?
James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher whose main hobby is finding ways to avoid the household chores delegated to him by his wonderful wife, Mary. When successful, he finds himself hiding in his little corner with his laptop, trying to turn some of the many odd ideas circling his brain into stories. His story "The Alien Among Us" was published in Mythic and included in The Best of Mythic. "Madam Savva's Magical Emporium" appeared in the November 2020 issue of Metaphorosis.
If you had to sing the plea of humanity for continued survival, what would the chorus be and what existing melody would you use?
Another one bites the dust
Another one bites the dust
Another one bites the dust
And another one gone and another one gone
Another one bites the dust
Please, somebody fix this mess
*For some reason I think I would use the melody from Queen's Another One Bites the Dust
If you were to write a ten-volume epic fantasy starring a punctuation mark, which would it be and why? What would the one-sentence plot summary be?
I would choose the question mark. I've always felt sorry for the question mark. By its very nature, it never gets to have the final say. When you see a period or exclamation mark, you're happy to stop. When you see a question mark, you always find yourself waiting for some sort of reply. Isn't that true?
Plot Summary: A hunchback exclamation point is ridiculed and harassed by all of its kind so it goes on a quest to find the Great Wizard Caret in hopes of finding a cure but instead of answers he only finds questions.
About the Artist
Our very own D.R.R. Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and you can get a free demo of his janky retro JRPG, which was formerly on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.