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#14 What He Smelled Was Death

Frank limped through the forest. The sounds of pursuit faded, but they’d be back.

He sat down against a tree and tore off part of his shirt to stop the bleeding hole in his chest.

Crackling leaves froze his heart in his chest. But it was only a stray mutt.

“You scared me,” Frank said.

He dug with his hands while the mutt sat and watched with his head half-cocked. He buried the package. If he couldn’t have it, neither could they.

“You won’t tell them where, will you?” Frank asked the dog.

Then he crawled with the energy he had left. When he could crawl no more, he merely waited.

The mutt, who had been called Charlie before he had been abandoned, lay down next to the man. He smelled something he’d never smelled before, though he knew it was bad.

What he smelled was death.

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#13 Delicate Lover

He slipped into her carefully, gentle as any delicate lover could be.

George stood at the gas pump. The summer heat baked up through his loafers. He alternated between watching the digital readout climb and admiring her curves.

The Porsche had set him back a fair bit–more than he’d care to say–but she was worth it. The decision felt right when he stomped on the gas going around a curve or saw her waiting for him in a parking lot.

In fact, he caressed her far more often and with greater tenderness than his actual wife of fifteen years could ever remember him doing to her.

When he lost control on a turn and totaled the car against a highway barrier, it was almost appropriate that he walked away, shaken but unharmed.

Sacrifice is the ultimate expression of love.

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#12 A Helping Hand

Alan loved to help people move. If there were folks moving in or out in the neighborhood, he was there bright and early, with a cup of coffee in a battered metal thermos and a helping hand.

It wasn’t that he was a good samaritan or prided himself on helping others.

Fuck all that.

You think he liked helping people move dressers that weighed a ton? Or couches so full of acculmulated sloth that it almost leaked out when they tipped the thing over to get it through the door?

Hell no.

Alan helped people move because he was curious.

You could get a good look at people’s stuff when you help them move. Far more than you could normally, when they invite you over for dinner or to watch the game. By then, they’ve already put away all but what they want you to see.

When they move, though, it all gets lumped into boxes and crates, both the knick-knacks from the living room shelf and the stuff that’s been buried in the closet for years.

You can tell a lot about folks by the things that jut out from a box.

Alan was carrying a desk drawer full of notebooks and old photographs when Mrs. Copeland stopped him.

“Thank you so much for your help,” she said. “The movers we contracted still haven’t shown up.”

“No problem at all,” Alan said. Was that an old Waterman fountain pen poking out from underneath some papers in the drawer?

“Glad to lend a helping hand.”

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#11 Buttered Toast

The voice on the other end of the telephone was amused. “Are you sure you don’t want to know the reason why?” it asked.

Vic shrugged, though they couldn’t see him, and took a sip of orange juice. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

“You’re not curious?”

Did it matter who they are? Did it matter what they’d done?

“Not in the least,” he said.

Toast popped up, golden brown. Vic grabbed it and threw the slices onto a small plate.

“You’ll have to make her trust you,” the voice said. “She has to let you close to her.  Very close–she won’t divulge information otherwise. Can you do that?”

Vic nodded. “You wouldn’t be talking to me if you didn’t think I could.” Each piece of toast now had a large pad of butter on top. He watched it melt. Why wouldn’t they just get to the point?

“You’re prepared to live a lie?”

Vic had had enough. “I butter my toast with lies,” he said.

The line clicked and went dead. His fax machine in the other room began printing the job information.

But first, breakfast.

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#10 Synthetic Nation

Paul kicked into Operation: Pacification. “We’re a synthetic nation, Bert,” he said. Paul had weathered many such tirades since moving into management.

The newspaper article clenched in Bert’s fist argued otherwise. Chemical leaks. Diseases and mutations. Did it really matter whether it was a Chicago suburb or a field in Iowa?

“I can’t keep working here,” Bert replied. “I thought UltraChem was different.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Paul said. “It bugs everyone at first, but people will have to get used to this kind of thing. Consumers demand everything and then complain when the bill comes due.”

Bert crumpled the article into a ball and dropped it on Paul’s office floor.

* * * * *

Through long searching, Bert had found the people he needed. His finger hovered over the “Send” button.

Was he prepared to sell out his company and throw it to the activist wolves? His own future would get eaten alive, too.

He heard Paul’s defense again in his head: We’re a synthetic nation, Bert.

Bert clicked send.

“Not any more,” he said.

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