[Like Home (project:northside) / Samantha Cypret]

http://projectnorthside.wordpress.com/

“What is Ocala like?”

“It’s like Rachelle’s backyard, only everywhere.”

There’s a comfort in each step I take. I walk across the millions of fallen pine needles to an outlet of water that remains the same temperature all year. A blow-up raft is being held still in the dreaded marsh near the shore. It’s the same green vegetation that used to lock my fishing line on week nights with my dad.

The pines stand tall and close to each other the way they do back home along the river.

When I think of my mom’s cooking, I crave it. Being away for long periods of time reminds me how much I miss it. She isn’t the greatest cook, but it’s hers, and it’s mine. I don’t get the pleasure of eating other’s home cooked meals and though I am satisfied in every way, it still isn’t my mother’s. She used to make home fries as a side dish to steak, hearty and heart clogging. Seeing them on my plate made me miss her immediately, and my dog under my feet waiting for the accidental drops of food. As I take in each lump of potato, I feel something else. My tongue knows the difference in the patient cooking hand of Rachelle, each added step made while cooking is one my mother may not have had time to take. In this spot on the couch with a dog sitting close by, I feel welcome.

After eating one thing, cooked the same way every single time, you either learn to love it or shudder at the thought. Eggs have made me cringe since I was about fourteen. My dad added eggs as a side dish to anything. He put them in burritos for breakfast, made them over-easy with steak, and scrambled and mixed them in the gravy on biscuits. The scrambled texture in my teeth makes me shut my eyes and force the weightless pieces down quickly. I meant to avoid them altogether at Rachelle’s breakfast feast, but with fear of offending her, I placed the small muffin like egg on my plate. I kept my juice nearby and full, ready to swallow it quickly with a smile on my face. I wasted that first bite. My taste buds chased the flavor down my throat and craved another bite, and another.

Ever since my arrival in Jacksonville, I’ve been digging for a reason to stay. I’ve been looking in every separate part of this city for a place that feels like Ocala, or smells like my mother’s cooking, and looks like the river behind my dad’s house. If my standards lie in Ocala, I’ll never feel at home. I’ll always be chasing the impossible.

In Rachelle’s living room, there are writers with minds similar enough to call them friends and open enough to feel the sense of family, like home.

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[An Open Letter (or: An Indulgence in Sentimentality) (project:northside) / Leonard Owens III]

http://projectnorthside.wordpress.com/

Most (nay, all) of my life, I haven’t been a morning person. The allure of fresh coffee and gooey pastries and people bustling their lives out into the breaking day has never infected me. Now and then, I’ve strolled down to a beach bench for sunrises over the ocean while munching Burger King breakfast, but these moments can be tallied on one hand.

In short, I hate mornings.

The distinct lack of cars joining me on this Sunday’s early morning freeway confirms I’m not the only one. But this is Jacksonville, so maybe everyone is already thumping bibles in church, soaking up the good words, utterances that also never infected me. But, though I may not see the attraction of communion, there sure are days when I crave community.

Rachelle was worried how we’d receive her house. And I can see why: it’s very much an in-process trailer-home. But I can’t poke fun or look down my nose. I still remember how the mountains of dirty clothes consumed my mother’s bedroom to the point she’d just keel over drunk on top of crumpled shirts and jeans; the last few years living at my dad’s required that I, in order to sleep, ignore the scurrying rats in the walls and ceiling; and the apartment I live in now occasionally invites in ants that I must bait out. Besides, Rachelle’s home has a warmth none of my homes had. It could be her cooking, or her welcoming smile, or the way everyone jokes about Jennifer Aniston’s cleavage as we watch reruns of Friends. Though I get the sneaking suspicion it’s something I can’t put my finger on, because it’s something I’ve never held, an object or ideal wholly apart from my life thus far. I can’t define it.

I get second servings of fresh fruit and home fries. I can’t afford fresh fruit, so I always grub down any that’s free. I can afford potatoes, but Rachelle’s home fries are, sad to admit, much better than mine, or any I’ve ever eaten for that matter.

The backyard has heaps of character. A tree house (minus the requisite nudie mags), a tire swing dangling from a creaky bough, a paintball target, a rusted machete stabbed in the ground, and a pond with ducks. I like the pond most of all. I’m a sucker for water. And ducks are groovy, too.

Castleman is hungover. We talk about HD porn, how the surgery scars look more blatant on fake titties; we talk about horror movies; we talk, we laugh, and the talking and laughing feels fine.

Samantha looks happy all the time. She’s the only one with enough guts to try the precarious tire swing. She mounts it, skids back and forth on the grass a few times, holding on tight. I don’t know her age, but in this moment she’s still a kid. It’s quite wonderful to see that. I don’t have the guts, or enough kidness, to swing after she’s done.

Allison says “Glutey Booty” a lot. The bubbly way it sounds, I chuckle inside every time. It reminds me of the way Carlin says “garbanzo beans.” Words that just sound damn fun. When I type this, I know I’ll say Glutey Booty aloud. It’s fun. Try it, don’t deny it.

Rachelle cooks for all of us. She has a good heart. She keeps throwing some ragged rope toy to the bigger dog (I’m bad at breeds), who chases it as the little one chases him. Rachelle isn’t wearing shoes on the cold grass. Somehow, of this tiny insignificance, I’m jealous. I can never walk barefoot without looking down each step.

We stand around and quip and story with each other, and I know Allison will be late for work but just can’t bring up the time: everything ends if I do.

I’ve been in ten workshops. Lately, I wonder what I get out of them all, what they’re worth to my work. I know they affect my writing positively, but I just don’t feel much anymore.

Now I know, after years in workshops, what they should be all about. Not the words: those are tangential. Workshop should be about people. Meeting them, reaching out to them, shaking hands and cracking jokes and smiling big, they should be about smiling together, one big group of grinners. Workshop should be a place where friendships are forged. Without that, what’s the fucking point?

By this logic, I’ve wasted quite a few workshops: I’m not friends with so many writers I’ve sat in class with. But I haven’t wasted this workshop, not this semester. I’ve met people, I’ve spent time in the world with them. I’m not leaving this semester with only another string of straight As on my transcript; I’m leaving with new and real friends.

Letters grouped together matter not as much as companions of flesh and heart.

[Whore Movies and Bug Sex (project:northside) / David Castleman]

http://projectnorthside.wordpress.com/

I was sure I’d be late, having gone to bed hardly 4 hours ago, completely hung-over, and driving all the way across town, into the heart of the north side of Jacksonville. I had never been there, and even with plenty of time my directional skills are barely above Helen Keller. However, I was the first to arrive at Rachelle’s place. We are college students after all, dragging us out of bed early on a Sunday might as well be asking a colorblind man to diffuse a bomb. But if there’s food involved, we’ll find a way. The smells of breakfast food cooking tempted my nostrils as the others found their way: First Sam, then Lenny, and finally Allison.

I couldn’t really call it breakfast; this was a meal that transcended such a concept. Perhaps a word adequate enough to describe the food had not yet been coined, and I would have to make one up. Sexfast. It’s like sex for your mouth—food sex. French toast and home fries and these little egg cup things I still can’t comprehend. And a fruit salad. Like a real fruit salad with tasty fruits, not weird shit that no one likes to eat but somehow still gets served at parties. It was a combination of flavors that beat the hell out of the Denny’s I had consumed the night before to quell my inebriation.

With my stomach full and my hangover subsiding (mostly), we all head out back to grab some fresh air and brainstorm our project. Perhaps I’m a bit twisted, but I become really excited about how cool it would be to shoot a Horror movie in Rachelle’s backyard. And we joke about how I can’t properly annunciate “horror” and it sounds like I want to make a “whore movie”. While both possibilities are equally entertaining, this yard had the makings of a horror classic. It had that comfortably creepy feel about it that the best movies know how to capture. In broad daylight among friends it felt safe, but imagine all alone in the dark, no-fucking-thank-you.

It reminded me very much of a movie I’d recently seen, “The Conjuring”. I admire James Wan for what he did with that movie, and Rachelle’s yard seemed to capture it somehow. There’s a huge tree front and center, with a large horizontal branch holding a tire swing. Sam bravely used the swing, meant for a small child, while I saw it as the tree the witch had hung herself from in the movie. To my right was a shed and an old broken down vehicle, much like the one in the movie. To my left was a tree house, and tree houses can be inherently creepy. The yard terminated in a small body of water and a dock, which could have been straight out of so many horror movies: “The Conjuring”, “Amityville Horror”, “Evil Dead”, “Cabin in the Woods”, “Friday the 13th”, I could go on and on, the point is docks are creepy. And she has dogs. Every scary movie needs dogs, even if James Wan would kill them off in the first twenty minutes.

Back inside Rachelle’s place, we relax, have conversation and admire Jennifer Aniston side-boob on the television. I love that woman.

Somehow it came up in conversation with Lenny that I had become somewhat of a bug voyeur. My Entomology class requires I capture and kill insects as part of a growing collection that I have to turn in for a grade, but in this conquest, I notice so many bugs getting it on. A few days before, I had spent about ten minutes watching this bee try and get his lady into the mood—she wasn’t having it. The much smaller male kept trying to climb onto her but she kept swatting him away, she couldn’t seem to make up her mind. At first she’d let him in close, get him all excited, and then all of a sudden it’s “No, not tonight, I have a headache.” I felt bad for the poor blue-balled bumble bee. As he made the walk of shame down the stem of the flower, I captured and killed them both without mercy.

I told Lenny about dragonfly sex, which is really fucking weird and I had also recently witnessed. The males don’t even use their “penis”, but rather transfer sperm to a secondary location on their abdomen where the female retrieves it. It’s a hard thing to picture, so I tell Lenny, “It’s basically like if you jerked off onto your stomach and your girl grinded her junk on you to get it.” It’s not exactly the same concept, but I think it got the point across. On a related note, I think I just invented “dragonfly style.”


[Attention, Jackrabbit (Therian Tales) / Jeff Jones]

Therian Tales

To respire the universe. She’d like for everyone to at least almost know what that feels like—to stand under fur-black space and be full and warm from the night’s spreading vacancy. “You are all part of that. Let it fill you up,” she preaches aloud. “Let it fill you up, or fill yourselves up with it. Either is good.”

Only cacti are present—not the kind she likes to eat, but tall, reaching-like-antennae cacti. They broadcast emotions in response to her, hormonal pulses that thump the still-warm orange dirt. She receives them fine, her nose wrinkles, and she side-eyes the cacti with suspicion for a beat.

Sometimes she knows she’s not sane. She’s become paranoid and visibly twitchy and she’s plenty aware of her absurdities and maybe it’s time she stop going out into these Christing deserts and—

Her attention returns.

[Dragonfly Summer (Therian Tales) / Kyle Peterson]

Therian Tales

Where the trees part and the water-lapped lily pads undulated before the reflections of clouds on the open lake, someone approaches.

He keeps his head low and she materializes from the leaves like four-winged fliers, but his vision wandered the paths of her. Fringed moccasin boots dance in their steps. The folds of her skirt ripple and twirl. A heavy braid ropes over her moss-green dress scattered with prints of blue flowers. Eyes like forest floor rain puddles shimmer in the cool autumn sunlight.

His heart beats like dragonfly wings.

A group of sweaty runners trample the trance.

She looks back, holding his curious gaze until she disappears again into the leaves.

He stood there, head a tilt. Images of a life flash in his eyes. Barefoot strolls along earthen lanes. Tall grasses wave as the two spin hand-in-hand from the fulcrum of their feet, trees and mountains beyond blur with the colors of sunrise. She lays her head on his chest, they lay on the softest grass. Breathing quiet and full as the nimbus clouds passing overhead.

[Fish (Therian Tales) / Alexa Velez]

Therian Tales

The water falling from the sky was a strange sight. Raindrops splashed into the creature’s vision as dark clouds faded in and out, blending into angry smears. Between shallow breaths, shriveled lungs ached, not knowing how to pull oxygen from this atmosphere. Limbs no longer suspended, gravity was a strange sensation. Lifting a heavy hand to its face, the creature forced its eyes to focus. Fingers appeared, no longer connected by translucent skin. An annoying itch crawled between its knuckles. Rolling over, the world tilted on its side. Confusion thickened as a long stretch of road materialized. Above, a lone traffic light swung violently in the wind. Memories surfaced of the one-eyed storm that dragged the creature from the murky depths.

Crouching low, translucent skin tightened over newly formed knees. A shiver shook its spine as its body, confused by the water that fell from the sky, craved the change. Bones wanted to shift. Organs wanted to twist. But if lungs collapsed, gills would sprout. Trapped between two forms, death would slowly choke.

The creature yearned for its home of water and salt, but the direction was lost. Human homes that resembled colorful corals stood out against gray skies. Broken, boarded, abandoned—safe.

Guiding misshapen feet through shallow water, the creature chose a house intertwined with a fallen tree. Roots snaked toward the heavens; thick upper branches created a door through the roof. Inside, a sunken mattress carried the weight of the tree’s trunk. A pale arm hung limp over the edge of the bed that reeked of a beached whale’s entrails turned inside out. Lightning struck and the shadows jumped. Thunder followed with a fist, and the house buckled under the blow. Dangling on a nail, a lone picture frame enclosed a shattered family of three.

A soft whimper spiked its hearing. In the far corner, a small human girl stared back, eyes wide as a full moon that changed the tide. Although they were the same in size, she seemed to pose a greater threat. Propeller scars burned across the creature’s back—a reminder. A lip curled, flashing rows of needle-like teeth.

The girl watched, fascinated.

A window exploded and a scream took to the skies. The creature’s body seized from the water’s touch. Gasping and thrashing in a bed of glass, red painted the creature’s flesh. Bones cracked. Lungs disintegrated. Dark currents pulled and opened wide, eager to swallow.

The girl stared at the flaps of skin expand and contract along the sides of its neck. She breathed with the creature, matching its feverish pace. It wasn’t meant to exist in a world half submerged—a world she no longer recognized. The girl approached and gently pulled the creature’s limp body through the windblown house to the pool in the backyard.

Chemicals stung on the first inhale, but the creature didn’t care. It was finally something rather than a half-thing. The girl crouched on the edge of the water, watching the creature twist in its new body. The top of its head emerged; two inky orbs reflected a face streaked with tears lost in the wind and rain. She didn’t move when it approached and extended a scaly limb. An invitation. The girl smiled and accepted.

With a violent splash, the creature dragged her under.

[Seal Skin (Therian Tales) / Katieanne Randolph]

Therian Tales

A palm reader told her once that she had salt on her skin, crusted into the creases of her hands. She remembers this, remembers the lights flashing on the fair rides and the smell of funnel cake and corndogs, the sweaty La Jolla night, the dry wind and the noise.

The palm reader told her, “See this? Every time I see this, I see the salt from the ocean, like it’s still crusted. It clings to you like a second skin, yeah?”

She still hears the bubblegum popping in her ear from the kids waiting in line behind her, still remembers the way the dust from the fairgrounds felt on the back of her throat.

So when the nurse tells her that her granddaughter is the one who left the flowers in her room, she gets angry.

She doesn’t have a granddaughter, and even if she did, wouldn’t she know that Lorena hated roses? Roses were for weddings and funerals, and she wasn’t getting married, so what did that say?

“Your granddaughter Susan, remember? She came to visit last Thursday.”

Lorena shook her head. “My favorites are marigolds.”

“You told her last week you wanted roses, yellow ones because they reminded you of your wedding.”

Married on the beach, no shoes allowed. The sand would feel nice in the evening, when it wasn’t scalding from the sun. He’d taken her quickly that night, rushed, as if he were afraid she’d leave.

She looked at her bare fingers and frowned. “Where’s my ring?”

“You don’t have a ring, sweetheart,” the nurse said.

Something loosened in her gut, chattering and making her skin prick. She covered her eyes and leaned heavily against the armrest of her chair.

She couldn’t swim in this skin. It was too loose, didn’t fit right—when she swam she struggled and couldn’t go far. She didn’t like the smell of the chlorine, it made her think of sick colors, and they wanted her to stay in the shallow end to stand with the group.

When the aerobics instructor asked if anyone had swum when they were younger, Lorena answered, “I used to race in the Rough Water Swim.” Only one other person seemed to know what she was talking about, so she added, “That’s in the ocean.”

When they were done with their stretches, she waded to the rope dividing the pool and wiggled her toes over the drop-off. The pool water was stale and the air stung her eyes. Ripples lapped with gentle claps against the cement walls while voices bounced against the tile, the sounds reverberating hollowly in her chest.

She sits on the sandy beach towel, her skin feverish with tanning and her eyes sore from squinting. Her children play by the water with nets, and she wants to get up and go to the water too, but she’s so tired that she doesn’t move.

Her children move too fast, her husband speaks too loudly, and she can no longer race in the water like she used to. She reapplies her sunscreen and sighs.

Where did all these lines come from? Whose skin is this that looks withered, like beached driftwood?

She was cold and suddenly felt vulnerable, like she’d forgotten to close a window overnight. Naked in open water, not able to see any deeper than her toes, and a greatness, she felt, was just below that, a yawning mouth, and she didn’t know when it would decide to snap its teeth together.

Where is it?

“Lorena? Speak up a little bit, I didn’t hear you.”

Where did she leave it?

“You left your clothes in the locker room, remember? Don’t scratch your arms like that, you’ll hurt yourself. Let’s get you dried off.”

There was a paintbrush in her hand, a dollop of blue teetering on the fine hairs at the end. Jazz music crackled with staccato pops from a pair of busted speakers on a boombox, but mostly she heard the thrum of murmured conversation and running water.

She lost her grip on the paintbrush and it spattered against the tile floor.

“Hey, Lorena? Is everything okay?”

Her throat felt tight, making it hard to swallow.

“Here’s another brush. Don’t give up, it’s looking great!”

She took the brush from the nurse’s hands but it didn’t feel like she was holding anything, or maybe it was that her fingers were so stiff that she couldn’t get a good grip. She put it on the table in front of her, afraid she’d drop it again.

The tables and people and crafts and the music felt connected to her by a gossamer web that just barely held the weight of the moment. If she moved too quickly, she thought it might snap and be lost like an earring she dropped in the ocean once.

She likes the ocean. Her Auntie takes her there every other weekend, when it’s her mom’s turn to watch her. Her mom moved back in with Auntie, but mom doesn’t like the beach. She doesn’t like the sand getting under her nails and drying out her skin, and she says the sun will be the death of Auntie, who is teaching her to swim while they’re at the beach, and she’s really nervous but also comfortable with the way the open water makes her feel. She can’t see into it, and sometimes she imagines a shark coming at her from the empty space, mouth open and teeth scissoring like a chainsaw.

But that’s only a little bit of it. Mostly she feels fast, like the little fish that dart around in the tide pools. The water is always cold, makes her feel clean and like she’s what Auntie calls finfolk, not two-legged Lorena. Who needs dirt and concrete and moms and dads when there’s swimming?

A paintbrush fell from her fingertips and splattered against the tile floor. There was blue all over her hands, caked to her cuticles and the creases of her wrinkles. She frowned and tried smoothing out her skin, thinking of the sleekness of polished furniture right after it’s been sanded. There was sandpaper across from her, next to a wispy-haired man working on a birdhouse, and the texture of the paper brought her back again to sand on her arms and thighs, and the saltwater clumping her hair. But she likes the way it feels when she rolls down a dune after coming from the water; sticky with sand powdering her hair and face. She pretends she’s reborn from the sand, and when she’s back in the water, she swims with her legs pressed together, knobby ankles jabbing together. Like a mermaid.

“Hi Grandma.”

Lorena was looking out the window, at the Queen Palms and at the way the heat shimmered off the pavement of the parking lot. When she stared outside long enough, she could feel the heat soaking into her, and the sound of her heartbeat in her ears could be mistaken for the sound of waves. “I don’t like roses,” she whispered.

“I know. Karen, your nurse, told me. I brought you marigolds this time.”

When Lorena looked at the girl speaking to her, she smiled. “Maria! I miss you, why don’t you come more often? Where’s your brother?”

The girl arranged the flowers next to her bed and then came to sit with her at the table before she spoke. “Dad passed away, remember? And I’m Susan, Grandma. Maria is my aunt.”

“Yes, yes, but where is Edwin?” The girl breathed and bit the inside of her cheek, and for a second Lorena thought she knew her.

“Dad had a stroke, he passed away. Four years ago.”

“No, no, when did that happen?” Lorena squeezed her fingers in her lap and felt heavy within the folds of her skin. That greatness was beneath her again and she felt like she was slapping uselessly to keep afloat. “Why didn’t anyone tell me? He’s my son, no, I would know if he died.”

“We did tell you. He died four years ago, you were at the funeral.” The girl sighed and got up to hug her. She didn’t know whether to push her away or stay still, and the indecision in her and the not-knowing and—her own son’s funeral—and the salt on her skin felt stiff, cracked, like it might break her worse than the arms squeezing her. “Don’t scratch,” the girl muttered, pulling Lorena’s hands into her own.

“I would have remembered,” Lorena told her. “He’s my son.”

The girl nodded against her hair. “I know, I know that you try. He’d understand.”

She’s swimming, but it’s like swimming in honey. Her gut pulls her down, and each stroke is exaggerated and weak. By the time she makes it back to shore, she feels like the race is already over.

But there’s shouting and a trophy and music and she’s happy, god she’s so relieved, and people are slapping her back and congratulating her. She doesn’t understand why she’d felt so sticky in the water, so heavy in comparison to her usual swiftness.

Her husband kisses her on the cheek. He rubs the beginning swell of her belly—and she remembers.

The jaw snapped shut.

“Oh my god.”

Lorena had remembered the way she sanded down garage-sale furniture to make it smooth. All it needed after that was a new coat of paint and it would look store-bought.

“Get her other arm, and—Jesus, she did her legs too. Has someone called the doctor yet?”

She felt like she was going into labor again, being wheeled around everywhere. She hurt a lot, but it wasn’t the same kind of hurt, and more than anything she felt a keen sense of disappointment.

“Where did she even get the sandpaper from?”

“Maintenance or Crafts, but she’s never done this before. We’ll make sure to keep it out of her reach from now on.”

Oh.

Her arms were wrapped and felt sticky. Her legs too. There was a girl sitting next to her bed, reading.

“I want to go back,” she whispered. The girl startled.

“What?”

She was supposed to be swimming in the sea.

The girl put her book down and ran a hand down her face. “Grandma? What are you talking about?”

Lorena tasted the salt in her tears and felt homesick.

“I know you are, but you have to stay here. Do you remember why you have these?” The girl gently ran her hands down the gauze on Lorena’s arm. “I’ll take you to visit the house when these get better.”

No, no houses. The ocean, she wants to go to the ocean.

Sand scattered and flaking off as she itches her skin; yellow petals trailing behind her, clinging wetly to her heels and calves; the sunscreen smell hot on the back of her neck; her hair stiff and dry from the salt air, her scalp itchy and sore. She’ll bend her arms and her skin will feel too tight, and as she wades into the chilly water, she’ll feel that word she doesn’t know, the one that may not exist in English, the one that means a yearning for a place you’ve never been. She wants to be pulled under the water, daintily by her toe, and taken to the reefs and grassy beds she knows exists deep in the ocean, in a place she cannot reach.

But Susan is calling for her from the shore. Her granddaughter is too intimidated by the waves to venture in on her own, and so Lorena trudges back onto land to take her by the hand. They cannot go too far because Susan is scared of the deeper water, so she stands with her son’s child in the frothy shallows. She is forever stuck there, holding that child’s hand, always holding a child’s hand in the shingles and shallows of the sea, where the water only reaches the ankle or the thigh.

The girl next to her bed moves from her gauze to hold Lorena’s hand, she thinks, in comfort. She doesn’t know this girl. There is no comfort here.

[Beasts of Bullion (Therian Tales) / Alan Barrera]

Therian Tales

The Goldman-Lynch Financial Bank was considered the epitome of financial institutions. A neo-classical beauty, the bank was decorated with painted murals, ancient architecture, and a giant golden bull outside of its doors. It handled numerous services. Many customers dropped off bundles of cash, entrusting the tellers to keep their funds in a safe place; a few patrons deposited their jewels and precious metals, requesting that their treasures be secured under lock and key within the steel vaults.

Not all the patrons at Goldman-Lynch wanted to drop off their money. Many people withdrew a small amount just to pay for groceries; others requested large sums in order to put a down payment for a home.

One group wanted to take all the Bank’s funding.

Everyone in the bank heard of the Beasts of Bullion. The group gained infamy through their unique approaches on heisting. During the Bull Runners Ceremony, several of the members led the bulls to a nearby bank, which bought enough time to steal the keys, loot the vaults, and get away. Maybe it was their way of calling out to the world, a form of cockiness against the criminal justice system. Perhaps their absurd tactics were backed by luck or divine intervention. Regardless of the reason the group managed to escape, baffling police on how a band of robbers can disappear after causing such a ruckus.

The patrons paid no heed to the news stories. They scoffed at the group attempting to rob this place due to the building’s stalwart history: one of the eldest banks in the nation, held Pre-Grand Skyfall gold, issued the Matriarchs first paper currency. And not once has it ever been knocked over. Successfully, that is. The patrons embraced in their history; in turn they refused to acknowledge that history always changes.

Their wake-up call occurred when a black big rig crashed through the red front doors. It plowed through the lobby carting a livestock trailer large enough to carry two to three cattle. Each obstacle slowed the big rig until the vehicle emitted a black smoke, and its wheels slowly spun to a halt.

The truck’s front doors were kicked open. A hulking individual emerged wearing a black EOD bomb suit used to dispose of military explosives. Leaning on his shoulder was a battle rifle with a drum magazine. The driver resembled a demonic space marine ready to conquer this unknown territory. Horns protruded the helmet; a steel plate, with two holes for eye sockets, covered the face. He moved toward the tellers, pointing the rifle at the denizens.

Two other individuals popped out of the trailer’s curbside doors: one individual had a dog mask, another person wore a termite mask. Both men wore heavy tactical armor which overlaid their two piece suits. Each robber possessed their own weapons: the dog wielded his light-automatic rifle, the termite had a machine pistol holstered on his side.

“Billdozer’s here!” The driver said with a modulated voice. “Lay your ass on the floor! If you pull out a phone I’ll put a hole in your ass!”

Many of the patrons obeyed and lied down on the bank’s black marble. The dog and the termite used cable ties to wrangle the civilians. The guards ran over and drew their pistols. Billdozer turned, firing several bursts. Each round pierced though their bodies, leaving behind several red blotches on their uniforms. The civilians screamed as they fell to the ground like sacks of meat.

“Everyone remain calm.” The dog-masked robber commanded. “We are only recovering money that has been stolen by Goldman-Lynch from the citizens of the Matriarchy. They took your money to line their pockets and convince you it’s for your own benefit. We do not wish to harm you. Think about your families, think about your friends.”

One citizen raised their head.

“I said stay down!” The patron went back to the floor and stuck up his hands in surrender. “Don’t act dumb. Just play the silent game, and everyone is a winner.”

The termite-masked robber walked over to one of the tellers. He ordered her to get up. He noticed a teller reaching for the panic button. He fired into the teller’s face. The worker slapped the red button. The piercing alarm echoed in the bank’s vaulted lobby. Everyone screamed in the response. The robbers were briefly startled before regaining composure.

“Five minutes,” the dog-masked robber barked. “Bank vault. Now.” The termite told the teller to take him to the vault. “Bill, Front door. Hold off the cops. Tim and I will loot the vault.”

“Shit just got real!” Billdozer said as he moved toward the front door.

The dog took a teller with him while venturing off into the back. Billdozer exited the building, overlooking his path of destruction. Chunks of concrete and bent iron bars scattered on the tarred pavement, tire tracks paved the way toward the entrance of the bank, and the golden bull – the symbol of Goldman-Lynch’s financial might – laid on its side. The Billdozer walked over to the golden bull and planted his foot on the beast’s head like a conquistador.

“There’s difference between you and me, cow,” The Billdozer said propping his rifle on the ground. “You are nothing more than meat. You live docilely over your territory and accept your fate when they decided to massacre you. Is that how you want to live? To be something that fattens others so that they live to see another goddamn day?” The Billdozer turned to the street, noticing the flashing sirens moving closer. “Not me. I have horns, and I am not afraid to use them. I will pierce every motherfucker that tries to take me down. I will teach them that messing with a bull will get you gored.”

The police parked near the bank. The Billdozer pointed his rifle.

It was a pristine steel vault door large enough to fit a semi-truck. The dog growled at the door as he walked to the small padlock nearby the door. He reached into his pocket, pulling out a steel tube covered in cold condensation. A small twirl and an angled tilt revealed a pinkish and slightly wrinkled middle finger. Pressing the finger on the pad, the dog shook his head; he didn’t want to know how his colleague got the finger.

“Another day on the job, huh?” The termite asked.

“Everybody needs a job; everyone needs a payday,” The dog replied.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m just here to help us escape. I’ve been experimenting with a new type of thermite, and this is the perfect opportunity to test it. This bank prides itself on its unbreakable foundation, but isn’t it odd how right below us is an underground garage. They did not think things through, did they?”

“Their pride is their folly. We got a dump truck waiting right below us, and we’re the janitors. We’re helping them clean up the place, and that vault is going to be so clean you can see yourself on its metallic walls.”

The dog masked robber chuckled.

“The plan seems flawless.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you honestly think that Bill will hold out that long against an army of cops? He’s not some action hero with goddamn plot armor; he’s just some guy with a personal vendetta–”

“Bill can hold them back. Fucker lives for that shit, and he’s still standing because of his animosity towards cops. Ignis chose him for this job because it had the highest chance of running to them; we are simply giving him an opportunity to – reacquaint – with his former colleagues.”

“I hope you’re right, Sabo.”

“You’re goddamn right I’m right, Timothy,” The vault door beeped. “We know our jobs: I bag the loot, you make the hole.”

Sabo turned the vault handle and tapped a few buttons on the keypad. The mammoth door creaked as it revealed its treasured contents.

Blotches of red stained the uniforms of the Matriarchy. Many lied on the concrete, staring aimlessly at their destructive surroundings, their bodies outlined with a red paste. Others officers were maimed: arms and legs ripped off or dangling with a muscle fiber, holes riddled their bodies, heads resembled bruised deviled eggs.

Billdozer roamed the destructive landscape like a bully in a playground. Riddled with bullet holes and dents on his metal visor, he nodded in approval. The onslaught aftermath was his picture perfect image, a masterpiece that he crafted with his two hands. He searched for more red paint to spray on the concrete canvas.

He found a straggling officer crawling over to a nearby cruiser. He was a snail leaving a trail of sanguine from his legs. Billdozer trotted over to the officer and loomed over the body. The officer turned around.

“Move.” The armored robber jabbed the rifle butt into the ribs of the officer. “You’re going to give me paint to play with.”

The officer reached for his pistol. Billdozer pointed his rifle at the injured cop. The cop turned his pistol toward his own head. The robber smacked the gun away.

“No no. Don’t kill yourself – or anything. That honor’s mine.”

The armored robber thrusted his rifle butt into the injured officer’s ass. The officer crawled toward the flashing cruiser. He reached for the radio and called for reinforcements. Billdozer transformed the injured officer’s head to a chunky visceral blotch.

The Goldman-Lynch bank vault resembled a pristine prison. Two floors of wrought iron bars sealed away the stacks of bullion and bundles of cash. Rows of deposit boxes locked away other treasures in a solitary confined space.

Sabo approached each door with a ring of metallic keys. “Too easy” he thought as he unlocked each cell with the corresponding key. He unlocked every cell. The dog-masked robber walked into the row of deposit boxes, searching for the boxes reserved by their inside man. They always reserved the boxes A1, C4, F2, E2, L2, and O3, for all their heists; the officers never caught on to that pattern. The deposit boxes held folded duffel bags laced with heat-resistant polymers and spare rigs of Timothy’s custom thermite. Sabo passed the thermite to Tim as he bagged the treasures.

Tim established a two-foot wide circle composed of boxes of thermite in the middle of the vault. While Sabo bagged the loot, Tim lugged his equipment from the truck trailer over to the vault. As he did his rounds, he ensured the hostages safety by dragging them to a reinforced bathroom. The termite eventually finished his chemical outline. He handed Sabo a gas mask consisting of an air filtration system and auto-darkening filter lenses.

The two men swapped their masks: Sabo was a young man with blonde wavy hair. He would have been a fashion model – if it wasn’t for a large burn scar across his left eye; Tim was an older man with a desert landscape as his hairstyle and his pinkish eyes gave the impression he was inebriated on his own drug supply.

“How does it feel,” Tim asked. “Using a mask not your own?”

“A bit odd.” Sabo straightened the mask. “With the dog I have a commanding presence, and I can breathe easier with it. Wearing this almost feels claustrophobic.”

“It’s only temporary. Once the thermite dies out, then you can switch back. The last thing Koala needs is a husband who went blind for refusing to wear the wrong mask.”

“I’m not too worried. You should be the one worried if we manage to live through our injuries.”

“Hold on a sec. Get behind one of the cell doors.”

Tim walked over to his bag. He pulled out a box of matches. He lit the red match head, and sprinted to the cell. The lit wooden stick descended on the powdered trail. The reaction resembled a fuming dragon breathing fire in its own den. A bright light engulfed the vault followed by a brief expulsion of heat. The two men briefly saw the black outlines of their surroundings before the visors adjusted their vision.

“We got a couple of minutes before the thermite wears off,” Tim placed one of the bags near his feet. “I always wanted to know: how did we end up getting Bill to work for us?”

“I thought you knew?”

“I know very little about you guys. We may have worked together for quite some time, but we never “bonded”. I know you from the bits and pieces of your life, but Bill – he is nothing but a ticking time bomb. Knowing more about him will help steer away from his aggressive tendencies.”

“So you want to know about Bill?”

“I do.”

The compound sliced through a quarter of the flooring. Sabo took a deep breath.

“The three of us, Koala, Ignis, and I, were on route to an airport hangar to retrieve a cashe of weapons. All we had to do was go there, get the guns, and split. As we hauled the weaponry over to the Winnebago we heard an inhuman scream; it sounded like a bull at first, then it changed to a human scream. The three of us brought some of the guns and went to the hangar.

“We went inside. The warehouse was filled with men dressed in office attire with brass stars hanging on their waists, playing cards with a mound of items in the center of the table. Near the back was Bill; his boxer-clothed black body was tied near the back wall, drenched in water. Jumper cables and a car battery were nearby his bruised rotund frame. His head was bend to the floor, wheezing as he took his breathes, blood dripping out of his orifices like a waterfall.

“I can never understand Ignis’s logic: one moment he wants the stealthy approach, the next moment he wants to go as loud as possible. He riddled their heads with holes, never going for center mass for some reason. Koala and I unlocked the cage and freed the from his torture cell. Ignis commented we have more loot than expected.

“We bound Bill in one of Ignis’s spare rooms. Ignis read his dossier and requested a reinforced EOD bomb suit and deliver it near Bill’s bed. When the rotund man awoke, Ignis waited near Bill’s bedside, holding the suit’s helmet. The black man was offered the armor if he worked for us. Bill accepted – on the condition that he only does jobs with the highest chance of running into the cops.”

The bright light ceased. The concrete circle sunk down before free-falling onto the garage floor, shattering the slab into small chunks of rock and shaking the earth with tectonic force. The men approached the hole. A dump-truck reversed over the rubble, parking underneath the artificial hole.

“Now I know how to kill time,” Sabo inquired.

“How?”

“Just tell a story.”

SWAT teams and HRT arrived on the scene. Armed with assault rifles, ballistic helmets, kevlar vests, flash bangs, ammo magazines, and riot shields, they were prepared to handle situations involving heavily armed criminals, counter-terrorism operations, and high-risk arrests. They approached the bomb-suit cladded criminal, crouching down as they swerved in their small squads.

“Fucking amateurs! Time for some payback.” Billdozer shot one shield-wielding cop in the ankle. The cop tripped. The SWAT officers scrambled for cover. Bill blasted them down. Their bullets were nothing but water on the Billdozer’s puffy suit. The Billdozer dismantled each squad that approached him, dropping each person like a line of dominos. Only piles of injured cops stood before the black bull-horned robber.

“Aww. All over.”

The armored man reloaded his rifle. Sniper fire rang out before he could realign the cocking lever. Billdozer stumbled back. He felt his stomach bruised by the suit’s metal plating, a trickle of ooze coming from his abdomen. Billdozer spotted a red laser line swerving up and down near his torso.

“Impressive,” he said, rubbing his wound. “But futile.”

Billdozer hobbled over to an abandoned cop car as the red laser swerved, blowing off chunks of concrete with each shot. He shot back, but was suppressed by sniper fire. The suited man wobbled when he attempted to stand. His vision blurred as he leaned on the police cruiser.

The dump truck drove near the battle zone. Out from the back came out the Sabo wearing his dog mask and Tim with his termite mask. They spotted the Billdozer leaning against the police cruiser, clutching his wound with one hand and his rifle in another. The two advanced forward.

“Bill,” Sabo yelled. “Get the fuck up!”

“Sniper,” Bill droned.

The red laser creeped closer to the dog-masked robber. Sabo leaped back. The bullet missed. Sabo tossed his rifle over near the dump truck before diving over to his armored comrade.

“Dammit, no wonder you got downed,” Sabo inspected the wound. “How bad is it.”

“A graze. Most of the suit took most of the blow. Hurts like hell though.”

Tim grabbed the rifle, taking cover behind the dump-truck. The termite aimed through the iron sights. The blurred blue sniper was preoccupied with suppressing Bill and Sabo near the cruiser. It took Tim one shot. The laser scribbled the concrete before disappearing. Tim left his hiding spot, running toward Bill and Sabo. The two men escorted the lumbering man over to the mammoth truck. All three men entered the truck and shut the hatch. The dump-truck drove away, leaving the Goldman-Lynch Bank in financial desolation.

[Darkness Ensues (Therian Tales) / Jomaris Rodriguez]

Therian Tales

The day was dark, bleak and carried a pungent odor not familiar to any of the residents of the area. A stench clouded the air, its sharp and sour nature leaving a trail that wilted everything it hovered over. One by one, each formerly blossomed flower bent as it shriveled in defeat. Grass was no longer green and prosperous; it now looked stripped of youth and health as one typically is in late adulthood. But this was not the result of the normal cycle of life and death, this was something far more sinister. Something unfamiliar, scary.

The entity, as it came to be known made its appearance only a few days ago. Before that, everything in the field was as serene as could be. The foliage was long and radiant, offering an abundance of sustenance for residents and flowers bloomed continually, no matter the season. Sources of food and water constantly renewed so shortages were never a concern. Most importantly, everyone got along and always made sure to exchange kindness whenever they could. In the field, good things were always possible and nobody ever questioned why.

If thirsty, a resident could find a water source with no problem, as it magically appeared. These magical ponds were scarce nowadays and it never even seemed to rain anymore. A drought was inevitable and the residents would have to find a way to adapt or simply move on. How would they adapt and just where would they go? These were the very two questions that prevented anyone from taking action.

Trees, laced with thick ribbons of vibrant green vegetation once scattered the entirety of the landscape. Large leaves dangled from each thick branch, offering shade to residents on a particularly sweltering day in the field. All that remained in many patches of land were long lifeless vines wrapped around trees, their weight tugging with an almost audible snarl.

The residents of the field consisted of an array of birds, insects and grazing animals. There was one human who inhabited the field, however. Her name was Jane and she had lived there her whole life. She had no known history and considered herself just like everyone else. It was as if she suddenly appeared in the field one day and was welcomed graciously by the residents.

Jane’s long mousey hair complimented her large doe eyes perfectly. It reached her waist, the strands collectively piling into thick locks coursing down the length of her back. Her life revolved around cohabiting with the residents and grazing just as they did. She never knew why she was the only one of her kind in the field and every now and then she would internally question it, only to later dismiss her doubts as unimportant.

It wasn’t until one day that Jane took notice of a cloud of hazy smoke rising from across the field. As she walked closer to the fumes, brown decaying plants became visible, with scattered bits of a tough grey substance on top of them. A stench accompanied the smoke, causing Jane to gag and take a few steps back. The smell was like nothing she had experienced before and made her wince with disgust. At that point the smoked decay was contained in that particular area and had not yet made its destructive presence known to the rest of the field. That would change shortly, however.

The landscape decayed more as the days passed and no matter how hard she tried to ignore it, Jane could no longer act like nothing was happening. Four days of destruction had passed and the patches of rot became larger. The putrid smoke now created a cloud of fog that encompassed most of the field. As she walked towards it, Jane felt light-headed and was about to retreat to where she came from but stopped as soon as she heard a shuffling noise. It sounded like it was coming from the other side of the haze and became louder. Jane instinctively reached towards the smoke and felt a similar sensation to that of her own skin. She gripped whatever it was and pulled it towards her.

#

Anna walked through the rough pavement towards the precipice. Beyond the cliff there was only a bright green color that could be seen and she was always curious as to what it was. Every day she thought about making her way towards the division and crossing, finally discovering what lay ahead. The cliff wasn’t far from where she lived and the long grass that grew from it made it hard to ignore. Each time she mentioned her thoughts to her family they instantly shut her down and prohibited her from investigating.

“Itʼs really not a good idea for you to go there,” her father would always say.

“All in due time,” her mother followed up.

Anna always wondered why no one would allow her to see what lay ahead. Her parents always stiffened their posture each time she mentioned it and constantly warned her not to go. The conversation always ended abruptly with a forced change of subject. Her friends on the other hand, displayed the same desire to know more about whatever was on the other side yet they never attempted to cross. Ana had pondered it far too long, she needed to know.

Anna’s life consisted of the same mundane routine of waking up and going to school, only to be surrounded by countless electronic devices that performed tasks a human could easily undertake. Everywhere she turned, technology flourished. Large robotic apparatuses carried books for anyone who had enough money to acquire such luxuries and if hungry, one only had to press a button available on most tabletops for convenient ordering. Whatever you wanted, you could get and with just a press of a button, it would come in a matter of seconds.

The world in which Anna lived was bleak and gray, with buildings and endless mounds of pavement sprawled in every direction. The buildings were of either a black or gray color and the sun was always covered by a dense fog that never cleared up. Every so often a slight ray of sun would show through the clouds, only to be covered once more by the dust the constant construction caused. Piledrivers and bulldozers were the norm as new buildings rose and old ones were demolished, only to be replaced by more industrialization.

In order to distract herself from the monotony of life, Anna watched a lot of movies. In these movies, she could always find the stimulation she never could get in real life. The world these movies portrayed was much different from her own, with green grassy fields and bright skies. Animals of all sorts also appeared in these films, making Anna wonder how the filmmakers recreated these sceneries and animals if none of that truly existed where they lived. She craved a world just like the one from the movies and the green color beyond the division was precisely what made her want to know what that other world really was.

As Anna walked, the pavement gradually wore away, revealing lush green grass that seemed to grow longer the more she stared at it. She walked until she felt the grass grow past her waist. The blades of grass tickled her and made her itch. She soon noticed a weird odor coming from behind her and turned towards the direction the stench came from. The landscape behind her was no longer green, but brown and lifeless. A cloud of smoke rose from the wilted landscape, its fumes shooting through her nostrils. The further she walked, the stronger the smell grew. Anna had not even crossed the line yet and she was already regretting her decision.

There was no turning back at this point, however. She had walked much too far to turn around. She had been walking for what seemed like days and was sure her family was already wondering about her.
The division was finally visible and looked even more jagged from up close. Annaʼs breathing became shallow and she felt her heart rate elevate to the point she swore her heart would burst right from her chest. As she lifted one foot over the line she heard the rustling of leaves and hollow footsteps become distant; someone or something had heard her. She tensed and decided the best thing to do would be to leave. She hadnʼt the slightest clue of what could be waiting for her.

She swallowed her fear, however, and slowly approached the line. A hand suddenly reached from the other side, violently tugging Anna in its direction. She looked into the girl’s large doe eyes, then noticed her long thick hair, which reached all the way down her back. Her skin was smooth and resembled that of a porcelain doll’s. Before she could open her mouth to say anything, fumes began to float from behind Anna, instantly decaying everything in sight.

In a split second, the landscape went from green to brown and trees began to litter the barren landscape as they tumbled over and smashed onto the ground. Various animals lay on the ground, all apparently struggling to cling to life. The doe girl let go of Anna’s hand and attempted to run off before the smoke hovered over her. She inhaled the haze and fell to the ground, here glued to the Anna the entire time. She took a few staggered breaths before closing her eyes; the life she once carried now withered just like the field. Anna had unwittingly destroyed this landscape. Before she set foot upon it, it seemed to carry an abundance of life that remained uninfluenced by urban decay. What had she done?

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