A long time ago there was a dreadful pirate called Hookbeard because he tied rusty fishhooks in his thick black beard. Hookbeard the pirate was the meanest, nastiest, ugliest pirate of them all. Whenever Hookbeard met another pirate, he made sure to make fun of them. Once he challenged Peg-leg Pete to a race, which of course Peg-leg Pete lost because he only had one leg and Hookbeard had two. Peg-leg Pete was so upset that he started crying, and Hookbeard called him a crybaby, which only made Pete cry more.

As you can imagine, this didn't make Hookbeard popular. Because he was so mean, nasty, and ugly all of the other pirates sailed the other way when they saw his ship, and when Hookbeard walked into the tavern to drink some grog, all the other pirates quickly paid their bills and left Hookbeard to drink alone by the fireplace.

One day, when Hookbeard was sitting alone in the Tavern drinking his grog, something happened that had never happened before. The door opened, flooding the dark stinky tavern with fresh air and sunlight, and someone walked into the tavern and sat down right next to Hookbeard at his table by the fireplace. It was a tall, pretty woman pirate with long tangled red hair. One of her eyes was as blue as the ocean, and the other one was covered with a leather eyepatch adorned with a skull and crossbones.

Hookbeard did his best to ignore the woman, but he wasn't used to anyone even being in the same room with him, much less sitting at the same table with him. Finally, he couldn't stand it anymore.

"Who be you and what be you doing at me table?" Hookbeard asked in a crude, rude voice.

The red headed pirate woman looked at him with her one blue eye and answered, "Me name be Elena One-eye, and I be drinking grog next to the fire."

"Well," said Hookbeard, "your hair looks like a mess of rusty chains, and I think your eyepatch looks silly."

Elena just laughed and drank a sip of her grog.

"You didn't think that was mean?" asked Hookbeard.

"Not particularly," said Elena One-eye. "I like me hair, it looks fiery like the fire yonder, and as fer me eyepatch, it don't look nary sillier than yer hooks in yer beard."

"Hmmm," said Hookbeard. "Ye know, I haven't bathed in a month of Sundays. Don't ye be thinkin' I'm stinky and nasty? Don't me smell make ye just want to retch?"

"Nah," said Elena. "Me daddy was the dread pirate Stinky Steve, and he never bathed a day in his life. In fact, I kind of like the way you smell. All fish and grog, just like me dear old dad."

"Hrumph," grunted Hookbeard. "Don't ye think I'm particularly ugly, what with me matted black beard all full of fish hooks and all?"

"Well," answered Elena One-eye, "it's a bit dark in here, and I do only have one eye, so maybe I can't see you very well. Why don't we go outside into the sunshine so I can see you better?"

Well, Hookbeard did something he hadn't done since he was a little boy. He smiled.

Elena One-eye grabbed Hookbeard's grimy hand and pulled him up out of his chair and dragged him out of the tavern and into the street. When they were out in the sunshine, she squinted her one blue eye and regarded Hookbeard carefully.

"Nah. You aren't so ugly," said Elena. "I mean, you might be ugly around this island, but I've seen a lot worse. If you want to see ugly, you should meet Ugly Ursula Crabsword."

Something was wrong. He looked down and noticed that Elena was still holding his hand. Hookbeard felt kind of weird. For the first time in his life, he didn't know what to say.

Elena just smiled at him and they took a walk down to the beach to watch the sunset and look for treasure. They became best friends and terrorized the seas together for many years to come, happily ever after.

Posted
AuthorBrennen Reece

A light drizzle fell upon the king and his court as they stood ankle-deep in the thick mud that covered the town square where the man, Thomas the Cooper, had come to collect his due. No one had spoken for an uncomfortable duration, perhaps the length of a good short nap, but the king’s eyes were locked with Cooper’s, the princess’s arms were locked around the king’s, her eyes red, her nose running, and several jaws belonging to men-at-arms and ladies-in-waiting still hung loose.

Thomas the Cooper’s men, for their part, locked their eyes on the king’s as well, or alternately on the princess’s comely and peach-like bosom, with their jaws set tight. They were a coarse and aromatic band of murderers and miscreants, and their outward appearance illustrated well their characters: missing teeth, eyes, fingers, and ears; scarred, burned, leathery, and pockmarked faces; the occasional peg leg or hook hand, or seeping bandages over a newly severed limb; and wearing rags, cracked leather, filthy fur, and random pieces of dented and rusty armor, all looted from the dead, be they friends or foe no matter.

I’ll not describe Thomas the Cooper, but I’ll tell you, dearest reader, that he was an amalgamation of the worst physical and hygienic qualities of the bunch and let you fill in the details of your own. Other than that, he was very tall, and his chest as broad as the barrels from which he derived his name. And in battle he wielded an executioner’s sword single handed.

It was Thomas who broke the silence.

“My king,” Thomas seethed as he unrolled the greasy parchment. “The decree clearly states that whomsoever rids the realm of Ogdred Maneater and his son Geoffard the Red, whose bands have raided our coasts, burned our villages, and fathered scores of bastards upon the widows of our men these past three winters, shall possess the hand of your daughter and titles and lands befitting his deeds.”

Thomas’s voice was gravelly and deep, but his manner of speaking and surprising ability to read the decree as well as a herald or priest hinted he was not, as his name suggested, the son of a barrel maker.

“As you see at your feet, I have delivered the head of Ogdred, and my hound chews at his son’s at my own. I have made good on my promise, for which I expect a pardon for my men, and my due as detailed in your decree. I’ll return at daybreak to collect my prize. As you are no doubt aware, I am not a man with whom you should trifle.”

Thomas the Cooper kicked the muddy head of Geoffard toward the king, to the dismay of his hound, and led his men to the tavern, where they would spend the night in drunken excess, fathering children, losing more eyes, ears, and digits, and composing ballads (many of which are still sung to this day) honoring the heroic deeds of Ugly Thomas the Cooper, outlaw turned hero.

At dawn, Thomas and his band staggered and limped their way to the town square to find the king and his court waiting. The king stood proudly, smirking, while his daughter was all but collapsed in the mud, her Oriental silks ruined, her auburn braids frizzled, and her complexion pale and sickly.

The king spoke.

“I have come to deliver your prize, Thomas the Cooper. I have made a promise, and as a man of honor, I intend to keep it.”

“That pleases me, my lord, said Thomas. “My men have been sharpening their swords all night.”

“They are all pardoned for their crimes, and will receive lands and pensions for their efforts and sacrifices.”

A roar went up among the men. Hundreds of years on, the descendants of many of these same men are among the wealthiest and most respected families in the kingdom, whether they’ll admit their humble beginnings or not.

“Thank you, sire.”

“As for you, Thomas. I hereby remove the bounty on your head, and I bestow the title…outlaw. You are banished from this land. No bastard will sire my heirs.”

“You promised. You promised me your daughter’s hand!”

“I did, didn’t I? Well, I’m a man of my word.”

The princess wailed and collapsed into the mud.

The king tossed a small object, wrapped in red silk, to Thomas. It fell at his feet, and he slowly bent to unwrap it. He held it high to show his men: the severed hand of the princess.

It was then the rain began in earnest.

And that is the story of how Ugly Thomas the Cooper, erstwhile bandit king, murdered the king, claimed the kingdom, and took to wife the king’s daughter, Ygraine the One-handed, with whom he fathered eleven children, and who died of a broken heart when she heard news of his death in battle. Under their leadership, the Northern invaders were driven back, and the realm entered a golden age.

Posted
AuthorBrennen Reece

She was overtaken by him in the forest, as she sauntered back home from her morning gathering mushrooms in the early mist. The patchwork skirt she wore clung tightly to her round buttocks and shapely hips. Her loose blouse was stained from cooking and gardening, and it was threadbare from the two sisters who had worn it before her, but she filled it out well. Her hair was a deep chestnut. Her face pale but the apples of her cheeks pink and her round jaws subtly dimpled. She carried a basket she had made herself the previous spring from green vines, and it was filled with morels. 

As a hawk, he had followed her trail from above. As a snake, he had sniffed the sweet perfume of her girlhood with his flickering forked tongue. As a toad, he hopped along as she skipped, admiring her fair ankles and attempting to look up her skirt. As a rat, he nibbled her dirty toenails as she slept on a bed of ferns. She awoke when he bit her too hard, and she wondered at the bleeding toe she hadn't noticed before. As a shadow, he licked the blood from his intangible lips.

As a cat, he enticed her farther and farther into the forest. The creature looked remarkably like her childhood pet, orange and stripes, and she followed it through brambles calling a name she only half remembered. 

He led her down paths that she inexplicably didn't know, paths which he created with his infernal magic, and which disappeared again as soon as they curved and curled out of sight. 

He came at her from behind, knocking her off balance as a strong wind and blowing her skirts away from his target. She fell to the ground face first, scraping her palms bloody as she stopped her fall. She smelled the sulfur even before she felt his burning skin against hers, and where he touched her, he left welts and blisters. Her hair sizzled and curled where he caressed it, and when she saw the black skin of his hand from the periphery of her left eye, it clouded over and went blind.

When he entered her, she felt as though she had been pierced with a red-hot poker, branded from the inside out. He sang songs to her in an ancient demon tongue, and they sounded like thousands of souls being rent into pieces, and she was driven mad. When he was finished with her, she felt as though her womb had been penetrated by a jet of boiling water.

Her brothers found her that afternoon. They were hunting a rabbit, and found their sister burned and bruised and splayed out on the trail. The smell of sulfer and brimstone made them both nauseous, and they wet their kercheifs with wine and covered their noses and mouths to stay the scent. Her arms and legs were red and blistered in the shape of a pair of hungry six-fingered hands, much larger than human hands had been. Between her legs, which was prominently displayed, looked as if it had been sliced with tiny razors. Black spirals grew from her womanhood down her thighs. The spirals smoked as if they were trying to burn their way out.

"We can't just leave her."

"We can't take her, brother. What if it isn't she that we're bringing back? It's obvious what has happened here. If either of us were real men, we'd kill her as she sleeps."

They turned away from each other in shame, both at their lack of spiritual certainty and at the idea that they'd kill their beloved sister for the name of any God who would allow such a thing to happen.

"Father Petrovic will know what to do."

But he said it weakly, and his brother knew he wasn't sure.

They left her where she lay and ran for the priest.

A couple of hours later, her brothers returned with her father, the priest, and a farmer who lived nearby. The girl was sitting against a tree, whistling, and smiled as she recognized the party that was approaching her. She ran to her father and embraced him. Her burns had disappeared, but her eye was still white and bits of her hair were still scorched. Her breath smelled of sulfur. 

When the priest approached, she hissed and bared her teeth. He presented his book to her, and she bounded away into the forest. They pursued her until darkness fell, and then, at the cleric's request, they returned home to the village. He instructed them to say nothing.

The next morning, a cow was found slaughtered, its throat mutilated and most of its blood drained. Wolves were suspected and a hunting party was formed. That afternoon, the party returned with several rabbits and a deer, but no wolves. No traces of wolves could be found.

Each morning for a month, another animal was found slaughtered. One morning, a farmer out to milk his cows caught the culprit in the act. The girl jumped on him, knocking him to the ground, but the symbol of his faith worn around his neck warded her off. She ran into the forest. The farmer awoke the village, and soon the woods were filled with torches, and muskets and flintlocks.

It was her own father who found her. He had been a prize-winning archer in his youth, and he shot an arrow into her shoulder, an arrow which had been blessed by the priest. She fell to the ground immediately, and her father slung her over his shoulder along with his quiver and carried her back to his home.

She was chained to the bed. The priest blessed the chains and the locks. When she awoke, her wound had already been dressed, her fever had already been broken, and the walls of the room where she was imprisoned were covered with crucifixes. Some were ornately carved, donated by the church or neighbors. Some were nothing more than two sticks tied together with vines or rattan. Others were painted on the wall with mud, or animal blood, or whatever was handy. The dirt floor surrounding her bed was covered with broken glass in case she might possibly break her bonds. She would shred her soles on the glass and bleed to death before causing any more harm.

Night came, and when the sun set the spell came over her. She spoke in voices not her own. Using words no one in the village dared speak. She struggled against her bonds. But she was a weak girl, and the faith of the priest was stronger than the power of the demons working inside her, so the chains held strong.

A group of villagers approached the priest, who was sitting in the garden outside his rectory. They were anxious.  "We should kill her, Father. We should exorcise this demon."

He looked up from his book and closed it slowly. His eyes revealed patience and sadness. "She is not a demon, just an unfortunate girl. You've all known her all her life, and now you want to kill her? All that has happened to her is God's will, as is everything that happens and will happen. If she dies, it will be by the hand of God and none other, as long as I shall live."

She carried his seed for thirteen months. 

Daily, the priest would visit her, and attempt to feed her. She would have none of his blessed bread, and seemed to draw her nourishment from some infernal source. He read scripture to her, to which she'd reply in riddles which the priest never bothered trying to decipher.

When she gave birth to his bastard, she was alone, but her family and neighbors waited outside the door of the squat stone house, holding their hoes and pitchforks and knives, waiting to rush in and kill the child should it live. It didn't. The screaming stopped, and the girl's parents crept in and found their daughter had hemorrhaged. Her lifeless eyes open and staring at the thatched ceiling, her cold stiff hands grasping a crude wooden cross. Her child, actually two children joined at the chest and sharing one heart, lay still and gray on the dirt at the foot of the bed.

The girl's father and brother collected the stillborn brothers in a bag, and walked for days to the Keep, from where the babies' father no doubt hailed. The crooked spires rose over the hills like the claws of a crow, their shadows spreading like fangs over the farmland surrounding it. The men, satisified they had traveled far enough, hurled the bag into a refuse pile outside a pathetic little village. And then they turned and ran until they were holding their ribs and wheezing.

Posted
AuthorBrennen Reece

There was an old woman who lived just outside the village, as close as her neighbors would allow her. Her long gray hair dragged on the ground as she walked, collecting leaves and twigs. Her nose was long and hooked like the beak of a bird and covered with warts and blackheads. Her back was crowned by a large hump, and her fingers were long and knotted with longer, even more knotted yellow fingernails. She wrapped her feet with rags and covered her hideous form with amorphous coverings that were pieced together from clothing the other villagers had cast aside. 

As a girl she had been raised by her grandmother, who had been the village midwife and herbalist. A valued and respected member of the community. Her parents died when she was a child, but no one, not even her grandmother, would tell her the details of their deaths, or even their names.

She had been a singularly ugly girl, and few of the attributes that marked her as a hideous old crone had not been present when she was a young woman. The young men in the village weren't remotely interested in her, not even when drunk, not even when she offered herself to them in several embarrassing episodes. None of the old men would have her either, and it was soon clear to her that she would never be loved by man, so she turned her attention to the only things that didn't insult her when she offered them love: the ghosts, the herbs, the hexes.

Her grandmother taught her the lore that had been passed down to her by a thousand years of mothers and daughters. She learned which plants were good for medicine, and which were good for poison. She learned simple hexes to make a woman's daily life easy—strange words to light a fire, boil water, tiny winds to sweep a floor. She learned how to deliver a baby, and how to use a razor and leeches to drain ill humors and how to lance boils. She lived with her grandmother, assisting her in her profession, until the old woman died peacefully during the night after the harvest festival (some said the old woman had died years before her body showed signed of obvious decay, and her soul was so strong and filled with magic that it still animated her mummified body),

She was lonely, torturously so. Her only friends were the crows that ate the corn in her garden, and the ghosts that haunted her humble little shack. When she was a girl she had only one friend, a little traveler girl who had run away from her family. She showed up barefoot and tangle-haired at her grandmother's hut, begging for money and food. Her lip was split, and the emaciated girl was covered in bruises and welts. The grandmother took her in, treated her wounds with poultices of herbs, fed her and then asked her to stay until she was in better condition to travel. The girl stayed for a couple of years, until the ghosts started to gather, and then moved on.

The villagers tolerated the old woman because she was skilled in necessary practices that none of them dared learn out of fear of damnation. But she was not welcomed. The villagers were afraid of her, so her visits to the village were infrequent, and requests for her help were a last resort. 

To keep her away from the village, the villagers kept her supplied with the necessities of life such as food and clothing, and they filled her strange requests for the items which allowed her to practice her trade: baby teeth, toad bones, rare herbs. They left them in a certain spot on a flat rock near the rubbish pile, and she would walk there twice a week to collect her supplies and leave for the villagers a piece of parchment with crude drawings of what she required of them. 

The old woman made it her habit to dig through the rubbish pile and salvage what the villagers had thrown away but could be made good again through a minimum of effort. She found clothing that needed nothing more than patches, socks that needed to be darned, pots that needed scrubbing, and she hauled them back to her little house on the edge of the village and with a mixture of hard work and her country hexes, made them as useful again. On lucky days, she'd find refuse from the noble family itself, such as broken dolls and slightly worn gowns. Sometimes she would sell these repaired items back to the villagers, or to peddlers on the way to the Keep.

One morning when she was searching through the garbage, she found a leather bag closed with a drawstring. Opening it, she discovered something that she'd never seen before: the corpse of infant twin boys, joined at the chest and sharing one still heart. She looked around to see if anyone was watching her, and knowing that she had no witnesses, she slung the bag over her hunched shoulder, collected her basket from the flat rock, and scurried home as the shadow of the middle spire from the Keep eclipsed the sun.

Returning home, she set a large glass jar on her kitchen table and filled it with vinegar. She took the tiny body from the leather bag and immersed it in the jar, sealing the lid with wax. She sat for hours looking at the strange little dead thing with its two heads and four arms and four legs, and then she placed it on a shelf in her cupboard where it stayed until her loneliness became unbearable again.

The old lady would set the jar on her kitchen table whenever she did her housekeeping, and she sang to it, and told it stories from her childhood. Her singing scared away the crows, and she had a great crop of corn that year as a result. Her stories made the ghosts jealous, since she had never told them any stories at all.

Two of the ghosts were particularly mischievious, and as a result they could do things the other ghosts could not, such as knock over glasses and blow out candle flames. In life, these ghosts had been powerful magicians, but those lives were long forgotten and the disembodied souls of these somber, serious, and perhaps evil magicians were now as silly as kittens and couldn't remember from one day to the next.

The two ghosts decided to fool the old woman into telling them stories instead of the dead child, and so they decided to take up residence in the child's body. When the old lady began her chores, she set the jar on the table and started to tell a funny story concerning a cow. The ghosts found the story so humorous that they smiled using the childrens' lips, and would've laughed had the childs' lungs not been filled with vinegar.

The ghosts were startled that they could move again, and began experimenting with the little body. They moved the arms and then the legs, they listened with the ears and watched with the eyes. They attempted to swim around in the vinegar, but the jar was too small. Instead, they caused the jar to fall off the edge of the table and crash onto the floor. The sound of breaking glass startled the old woman, and she stopped her sweeping in mid sweep and turned to the broken jar on the floor with eyes filled with terror.

The ghosts tried to leave the body to escape the wrath of the old woman, but they had stayed inside too long. As they struggled they caused the babies' four little legs to kick and their four little arms to move. When they realized what they had done, how they had imprisoned themselves in the dead childrens' tiny body, the little lungs took in air and the mouths began to cry.

The old woman was overjoyed that her little child had magically come to life and she scooped the strange little thing up in her feeble arms and held it close to her as tears of joy ran down her lined cheeks. The ghosts hadn't felt such love in many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and they soon forgot they were ghosts at all, since ghosts have such short memories. The little dead eyes looked up at the old woman and lit up again with a strange new life. The babies smiled.

The old lady loved the children as if she had birthed them from her own old hips. And through experimentation, she found foods to nourish them, foods that no normal baby would eat. She nursed the babies with cows' blood, and occasionally would cut her own finger and put it  in the babies' little gray lips. When the babies grew larger, she fed them locks of hair, and pages from discarded books. Soon they were boys, and when they had learned to talk and listen, she taught them the little hexes she'd learned as a girl from her own grandmother.

The brothers remembered their previous lives in dreams, and the nightmares kept them awake and afraid. The old lady listened to their dreams and told them at first that they were only dreams and weren't real. Eventually though, the dreams paralleled tales and legends she had learned as a child regarding the two evil magicians, lovers, who had been executed nearby over a thousand years ago.

As the children grew, their behavior started to alarm the old woman. They showed signs of cruelty, killing mice for pleasure and reanimating their corpses and commanding the murine zombies to torture and eventually kill the old woman's aged cat. The villagers would from time to time collect in crowds outside the old woman's house and demand reparations for mutilated livestock or withered crops that they believed were caused by the pallid-skinned conjoined twins she was raising.

The old woman knew that her beloved sons would grow into horrible, evil men, capable of destruction beyond her imagination. She knew that the only right thing to do would be to kill them, if it were even possible to kill a being that had already died numerous times. She imagined terrible fates for the villagers if she died and could no longer dissuade her sons from their foul acts. Then, she thought of her life of sorrow and loneliness. She thought of the way children had been taught to keep their distance from her, how she had been kept at arms length from the village except when it was convenient. When she thought of the horrible strife her sons might cause the village who had treated her so coarsely, she smiled.

Posted
AuthorBrennen Reece

As I am now rather old, and my health has taken a turn for the worse, this may very well be the last letter I ever write. You might think me silly to waste my little remaining energy on a subject that you'll no doubt consider fantasy, but I must relate this story before I die. Perhaps there is some lesson to be learned from it, but be assured my intent is not to instruct, nor is it to entertain. I simply desire to inform you about the strange life of Emmanuel Johnson, being the name he claimed when I knew him, which is notable only for the fact that there is nothing particularly notable about it other than his peculiar longevity.

Johnson began letting an apartment in the building my family owned when I was a boy of eight or nine. He was a vaguely unattractive man in his mid-thirties with a complexion that I can best describe as Mediterranean. He was not tall, nor was he athletic, and his most remarkable physical attribute was a small pot belly that is common among sedentary men of his age. If not for the scores of crates he slowly moved up the stairs into his small apartment, it is unlikely I'd have noticed him at all.

Being a curious boy, I offered to help him transport his boxes. After lecturing me on the fragility of their contents, he allowed me to carry a few of the smaller ones. When I asked about their nature, he replied only that they contained a "bunch of crap" that he'd collected over the years and didn't want to dispose of because it might be valuable to someone one day.

It was summer. School was out. There were ponds to swim and woods to explore, girls to chase and boys to fight. Indeed, I spent the majority of my time killing squirrels and birds with the air rifle my father had given me for Christmas—much to the dismay of my poor mother. Needless to say, I promptly forgot about Emmanuel Johnson. That is until one evening at dinner my mother brought up the subject of his source of income and seeming lack of occupation.

"He doesn't seem to work, or even leave his apartment except for a couple of times a week, and then it's just to sit on the stoop and watch people passing in the street," my mother said.

"I don't care what he does," said my father, "as long as he pays his rent on time and doesn't destroy the place or make too much noise."

"He's a bit creepy," my mother whispered, looking at me for support.

"What single man of that age isn't?" replied my father.

That conversation seemed to resolve the issue for my parents, but it reignited the flame of my own curiosity, and I determined to discover Mr. Johnson's secret by the end of the summer.

Being endowed with both the confidence and loneliness of an only child I marched right up to his door armed with the formidable weapon that was my mother's homemade lemon pie. I knocked, and heard some shuffling, but Mr. Johnson didn't respond. I waited a moment, then knocked again, this time imitating my father's technique which I had observed when he intended to collect late rent from a tenant. More shuffling, more waiting, and then the door cracked open.

"Whatcha got?" asked Mr. Johnson.

"Pie."

"Alright," and he opened the door as wide as he could before it was blocked by a stack of wooden crates. This was just enough for a man of his size to squeeze through, but for a curious boy, it was an invitation.

I slid through the door before he had a chance to stop me.

His apartment was filled from floor to ceiling with boxes. Some of them constructed from hardwood I hadn't then seen, which I imagine were teak and koa. Some of them were quite old, the boards being milled by hand and fastened with handmade nails. A bare mattress rested in the corner, and an overstuffed chair faced the window which overlooked the woods behind our building.

The single decoration, other than the hideous Victorian floral wallpaper, was a small painting on the mantle. The subject was an attractive, if somewhat plump young woman wearing ringlets in her hair. Her complexion was similar to his own. The medium used was unfamiliar to me at the time, but I noted a that the finish was waxy rather than the shiny varnish that I had seen on the century-old heirloom portraits of my mother's aristocratic ancestors.

"Who's that?" I asked, pointing at the picture.

"Oh, she's just someone I knew a long time ago."

I waited while he finished his pie. He didn't make any effort to converse, and answered my questions in such a way that I felt I knew less about him than previously. For the next several years, other than occasionally running into him on the stairs, Emmanuel Johnson was no more a part of my life than he wanted to be.

When I was twelve, my great uncle died and left a good deal of money to my mother. As the family was already well provided for due to the income from our building and various of my father's business ventures, it was decided that the best investment was in my education. I was sent to Pemberton Preparatory Academy, a reputable boarding school, the next fall, and returned home only for summers and holidays. My family would often spend our summers vacationing in various state parks or in Europe, so sometimes an entire year would pass and I wouldn't visit my family home.

I did well in school, but not exceptionally well, and this was true through college as well. I graduated from Pemberton Preparatory Academy just before I turned 18 and I decided to summer at home with my family before attending Pemberton University as a history major that fall. As the chair of the History department had taken an especial interest in me, and I in her daughter, Magdalena, Pemberton University seemed only a natural choice for my continued education.

Emmanuel Johnson was sitting on the stoop as the taxi pulled in front of our building. He was exactly as I remembered him from my childhood, which at first made no impression on me, but soon bothered me exceedingly. It was as if a decade had made no dent in him whatsoever. A man with a total absence of lifestyle, as such Mr. Johnson possessed, should have quite a lot of weight, some gray hairs at the very least. When I mentioned this curiosity to my father, he remarked that one doesn't notice such things when he sees a man on a regular basis.

One afternoon, I answered the doorbell to find a delivery man with a package for Mr. Johnson. He apologized for the state of the package, as the wrapping was ripped and the contents were partially exposed. I signed for the package and let him know that Mr. Johnson was a very laid-back sort of fellow and to think nothing of it.

After the man left, I'm ashamed to say that my curiosity got the best of me. I was bewildered by the address on the package, as it was that of a bookstore located near Pemberton that sold rare and valuable books. I ripped the package just a bit further to read the title of one of the books: "Erotic Art in Pompeii and Herculaneum."

There is nothing odd about a man such as Emmanuel Johnson subscribing to a gentleman's magazine, or even purchasing pornography. Indeed, it's to be expected. I believe you'll recall my collection of erotic postcards from the Victorian era that I showed you the last time you visited me at my apartment in Pemberton? I'll admit they're pretty tame by modern standards, but for a man of my age they're racy enough!

What I found strange is that a man Mr. Johnson had such obscure and esoteric tastes.

With my heart pounding, I mounted the stairs and ran to Emmanuel Johnson's door and knocked vigorously. Mr. Johnson opened the door with a quizzical expression and I explained how his package had been slightly damaged in shipping. I told him that I although I didn't intend to invade his privacy, I noticed the title of his book. As a history major, I was very interested and could I come in for a bit and have a browse through.
Mr. Johnson hesitated for the first time since I'd known him. I could tell from his apprehensive expression that he desired more than anything to send me on my way. But such an action was far from his nature, so he simply opened the door (as far as it would open) and stepped aside.

The only change I noticed in his apartment was that the quantity of boxes had diminished, and there was a small bookcase in the corner that was filled with a number of volumes of classical literature (in the original) and collections of photographs from archeological sites.

The portrait of the woman was still on the mantel. It also had not changed, but I had. Rather than a naive nine-year old boy, I was now a young man who had been educated at one of the finest college preparatory schools on the East coast. I recognized the portrait as being in the manner and medium of Coptic funerary encaustics from the first century, such as those I'd seen both in my history texts and in the collection of the Pemberton Museum of Ancient History.

"Is this real, Mr. Johnson?"

He looked at me and nodded an affirmation.

"How did you get this? Do you have any idea how much this must be worth?"

Emmanuel Johnson looked at me with a grave expression that was so out of character that I was taken aback. "I think you should leave," he said. "I'm not feeling very well this afternoon."

The next morning I awoke to the din of men moving Mr. Johnson's boxes out to a truck parked in front of our building. I looked out my window, and saw him hand my father an envelope and shake his hand. Mr. Johnson stepped into the truck and it drove away. My father stood on the sidewalk with his hands on his hips and stared in the direction of the truck for a long time.

After dinner, I went up to Emmanuel Johnson's room. It was empty except for two objects. In the center of the room was a small crate crowned with a piece of paper bearing my name. On the mantle was the encaustic portrait of the woman.
You've probably guessed the contents of the crate by now. They're displayed at the Pemberton Museum of Ancient History in the collection bearing my name. I suppose you'll think I'm a fraud, not that it really matters, but you should know that because of those items which I was supposed to have discovered over the years I was able to make some very real, very important, archeological discoveries of my own.

About a decade ago, fifty years after I watched Emmanuel Johnson drive away from my family's building, I received a letter. It was very brief, and written in cuneiform—albeit with a ballpoint pen. It informed me that there was a hotel being built in the city of M___ and that if I were present in the city while the crew was digging the foundation, I might find my fame and fortune secured, which as you know, is exactly what happened when I was near the site when they unearthed the entrance to that now famous tomb.

While I was there, observing the workmen, a horrible accident occurred. A crane dropped a bundle of steel beams onto one of the construction workers, and he was crushed to death immediately. In the panic, I rushed to the man to see if there were anything at all to do for him. It took me some time to make my way through the crowd, but when I did I regretted my action.

Upon seeing the man's bloody face, I nearly fainted. It was Emmanuel Johnson, aged not a day in sixty years.

Posted
AuthorBrennen Reece

When the world ended, out of all the things that were lost, music was the best and the worst. I feel horrible and elitist saying this, but when the lights went out and the grid went down, decades of anemic music suddenly died, and some of us were glad. Without electricity to power the smartphones and laptops and mp3 players and satellite radio, the watered-down, the inbred, the manipulative commercialized bubblegum pablum that was the soundtrack for latest great dead culture just disappeared. Lots of great stuff was gone, too. Maybe one day they'll be talked about in hushed, respectful voices, half-remembered legends, twenty-first century Buddy Boldens.

For awhile, for a long time, no one cared about music. Not even us. We chopped wood and looted gun stores and hoarded canned goods just like everyone else. We ate feral house cats and made meals of redhots and expired tins of sardines. We stole cars and left people to die. We stayed up at night ashamed and sobbing just under the threshold of earshot, because the only real sin was not being tough.

And then things stabilized a bit. Not much, but a bit. There were settlements. There was trade. There were places you could drink the water again. There were whores and dog fights. There were places for the faithful to go and be manipulated and exploited. It was almost like civilization.

I'll never forget the day we dug down deep into the wreckage of the university. It had, like everywhere else, been well looted. But we came with crowbars and sledgehammers and full bellies and tenacity, working for the sake of working, just the handful of us, not knowing what we were looking for or why we were looking, but knowing that something might be down there, maybe not something that would give us purpose, but something we might trade for a can or two of beans.

And we peeled away layer after layer until we found the door.

The professor, we called him that anyway, lay half rotted at his desk next to a half bottle of 23-year old Pappy Van Winkle and a tumbler in his skeletal hand. One of the shelves of his bookcase was filled with a selection of vinyl records. Steve put the whisky and the tumbler in his bag while I fingered though his selection. He wasn't an afficionado, but most of what he had was worth preserving: some B. B. King, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, a bunch of forgettable old hippy shit. Steve looked at me and I looked at him. The smart thing would be to trade them as firestarters, he said. Our eyes locked. We knew that neither of us would do any such fucking thing.

So that's how it all began.

Posted
AuthorBrennen Reece