Drawtober

Garbage Men

Drawtober -- or "Inktober" -- is back! My friend, Bryce Huff, is creating drawings from the Drawtober/Inktober prompts provided by DeviantArt. Once again, for each of his drawings, I'm going to attempt to write a short story (emphasis on the word "short," although my definition of that word is not necessarily other people's idea of short). I'm starting with Day 3 because I also don't understand numbers, apparently. Or logic. Or order. Chaos rules! Day 3's prompt: "Collect." 

Art by Bryce Huff

The garbage men work at night. The tall one has been on the job longer. His shoulders are slumped and his back hunched, as if he has spent the last decade hoisting the brimming trashcans and dumpsters himself, instead of using the truck's hydraulic arms.

The new garbage man is short, but muscular. His hands, in particular, look very strong. Until now, his hands have been his most valuable tool. Tonight, he only uses them to press a button, steer the wheel. Signal to his partner.

He looks into the sideview mirror to see the tall garbage man wave, then eases the truck forward to the next house.

They creep through the neighborhood in this way until the new garbage man sees something different in the sideview. The tall one slashes a single finger across his throat.

"What've you got?" the new one says after he has cut the engine and lowered himself from the truck's cab.

Garbage. Bags of it, each of them knotted at the top. The tall garbage man produces a switchblade and slices one open.

"You see?" he asks his protégé.

At first, the new garbage man doesn't. He plunges a hand into the trash -- greasy fast food containers, blackened banana peels, twists of used Kleenex, toenail clippings, wads of hair -- then the tall one shakes his head. The new one takes his hand out again, wipes it on the leg of his coveralls, then regards the trash for a minute more. Then he says, "I see."

Wordlessly, he follows the tall one to the front door of the house where the trash belongs. It's a modest place. A perfect square with a triangle roof, like a child's drawing of a house. A set of stairs leading to a screenless front door.

They do not knock.

Inside, dishes are piled in the sink. More fast food containers, the kind that come with a toy, strewn across the counter. The television is on. Infomercial. The computer is on, too. Images that make the tall garbage man turn away. That make the new one's mouth fill with the taste of vomit. He chokes it down.

The first bedroom is a child's. Action figures, train set, dolls arranged around a tiny table, waiting on tea. Empty bed.

The second bedroom is the one they came for.

The man is asleep. He looks no different than any other man. His neighbors will say that he was friendly, but quiet. Kept to himself.

The new garbage man waits for the tall one to do what they came to do. Instead, the tall one takes out his knife again and offers it to the new one.

The new garbage man hesitates, then shakes his head. Wraps his hands around the man's neck. The man's eyes open; his mouth pulls at the air like a fish's. The new garbage man is patient -- he has to be, for this kind of work -- and watches the whites of the eyes go red as the vessels in them burst.

Outside, they light cigarettes.

"You understand?" the tall garbage man asks.

The new one inhales. Up the block, the houses are dark, the windows blank. Each one holds secrets. Tonight he will learn them. A woman is having an affair. A child wet the bed, hid the sheets from his mother. A teenager cheated on a test. A girl has a crush on her teacher. A man is stealing from his employer. Most secrets will be uncovered, given enough time. Or they will vanish without ever being shared. Some will be kept for lifetimes.

Others need a reckoning.

The new garbage man flicks the butt of his cigarette to the pavement. Grinds it out with a heel. He thinks of the blood in the eyes. The toys in the empty room.

Says, "I understand."

 

The Palladium

The most challenging Drawtober pictures were ones that featured already existing characters. Am I going to write a Bob's Burgers episode, or an homage to Donnie Darko? Not quite. This drawing allowed me to make good on a little idea I've had for a long time: a story set in a movie theatre at the dawn of the apocalypse.

They’re still trying to catch their breath when they take their seats. The theatre is empty. It’s an old building — Toby’s grandpa has reminisced more than once about the “nickelodeons” he used to see here — and practically soundproof. They can’t hear if they were followed, or who might be outside.

There’s no one in the theatre. Toby had a key. He’s been manager now for three weeks.

“Who the hell were those guys?” Kim asks. “Did you see — ?”

“Yeah,” Toby says. “I saw.”

He doesn’t want to admit yet what he’s ninety percent certain of. It doesn’t seem possible. This is the kind of thing that happens in the movies he shows here, in this very theatre. Up in the projector booth, Dawn of the Dead is on the reel, ready to flicker its way across the blank screen. It’s the Scare-o-Thon, brainchild of his boss, Mr. Harker; they do it every year. This year’s theme? Zombies.

Toby lets loose a laugh that borders too closely on the hysterical.

Jules whimpers.

“Hey,” Toby says to her. “You okay?”

“She hasn’t said a word since those guys —”

“Don’t say it,” he cuts Kim off.

“Say what? That I just saw four guys in Adventure Time costumes tear Bart Simpson’s arms off and eat them?”

“Fuck!” Jules says. She’s drawn her knees up to her chest and started to rock back and forth. Her bunny ears tremble.

Toby can’t help it; he has to smile, looking at her. He also can’t help the pride and strange sense of satisfaction that wells up in him. He was the one who noticed the Adventure Time guys first, and he was the one who had snatched Jules by the back of her shirt and whispered in her ear, “Run.” If it weren’t for him, they’d all be — well, who could say? Dead? Undead? He has no way to know what they're dealing with yet. Only that there are things out there, things that tear people limb from limb and eat what's left.

Jules sniffles, and Toby sees that she's crying.

“Hey,” he says.

She shakes her head, and her bunny ears wobble wildly.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just —” She falls silent, shaking her head again.

“I know,” Toby says. He can’t quite bring himself to put his arm around her, even though this is a movie theatre and if there's any best time to make a move like that, it has to be in a dark movie theatre at the dawn of what could very well be an apocalypse.

Kim stands up, tears the glasses from her face. They're fake; she only wore them for the evening, to complete her Tina look. She throws them to the ground.

“For fuck’s sake,” she says. And storms up the aisle.

“Where are you going?” Toby shouts after her.

She lets the door to the lobby swing closed behind her.

Toby sits back in his seat, his arm brushing against Jules’s. It's almost like the date he never got around to asking her on. But tonight was never a date. The three of them had agreed to go to the Halloween party at the Rec Center together. Come as your favorite cartoon! the flyer had instructed, and they’d barely even discussed it. After all, they watched Bob’s Burgers every Sunday together, cramming for Monday morning classes during the commercial breaks.

Jules pushes her ears back and rubs her eyes. Toby has to smile again. She hadn’t been able to find the right ears for her Louise costume, but leave it to her to take a can of pink spray paint to her Frank mask from last year’s Donnie Darko party and call it good. When she pulls the mask down over her face, it looks like an Easter-themed Frank is trying to eat Louise’s face off.

The notion of someone eating someone else’s face makes Toby’s stomach drop.

“Toby?” Jules speaks up.

Her eyes are huge, and they tug at him, begging him to know what to do in this situation. To be the hero.

“Wait right here,” he says.

He passes Kim in the lobby, where she's trying to raid the snack bar. “Everything’s locked,” she complains when she sees him.

Toby produces his key ring, a bulky thing he initially balked at — how could he be expected to keep so many keys on his person all the time, as Mr. Harker had directed? (“You never know when there might be a movie emergency!” the old man had claimed; for once, he hadn’t been wrong).

Now, Toby selects the snack bar key and unlocks the glass case with a flourish. “All yours,” he says, and Kim dives in, grabbing Reese’s and Mars bars by the handful.

Another key lets him into the upper reaches of the theatre, and a third key unlocks the projector room. He turns the projector on, readies the film, moves about the room almost automatically — he’s been working at the theatre since he was thirteen, back when all Mr. Harker would let him do was sweep floors and count the inventory. Once the film is running, he stays in the projector room long enough to make sure the picture is synched up with the sound, then he descends the stairs.

“They don’t build ’em like this anymore,” Mr. Harker has said more than once of the Palladium, and it's true. The new 16-screen theatre out by the mall has a glass facade that lets the daytime sunlight stream into the lobby. The Palladium has no windows, except  two tiny portholes in the grand-entrance doors — thick doors, and heavy, and wide, meant to make coming inside the theatre an experience, which it would have been, back in the day when Toby’s own grandpa forked over his nickel and lined up to see the latest cliffhanger. The Palladium, Mr. Harker had claimed, could probably withstand a bombing or an earthquake, its walls were so sturdy.

Toby draws close to the doors, which he’s made sure are locked. He has to stand on his toes to see what's happening outside.

When he sits down next to Jules again, he's shaking. His hands tremble so hard, he dropped his keys half a dozen times on the way back to his seat.

“Everything okay?” Jules asks between handfuls of peanut M&Ms.

She seems calmer. Normal, almost. On the other side of her, Kim is contentedly nibbling on a Mars bar. Up on the screen, Stephen and Francine have already decided to steal a helicopter to escape the city overrun with zombies.

But there are no helicopters. There’s no help coming, Toby knows, and no escape. There’s only this theatre, the Palladium, and its thick walls separating them from what he saw in the streets of the city, through the window, tonight.

“Everything’s fine,” he says, and takes the Snickers she offers him. They sit in the flickering light, watching actors flee a horde of monsters, while outside, the world crumbles.

Toby slips his arm around Jules without even thinking about it.

***

A Well-Dressed Man

Arty by Bryce Huff
Arty by Bryce Huff

When you're writing stories about someone else's art, sometimes you get a nice landscape or a really moving scene. And sometimes you get this:

When Dave Grohl woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed. Before he even opened his eyes, he tried to scratch an itch on his cheek. But his hand had no fingernails and, in fact, he had no hand. Instead, he had a sort of nub. A nub covered in slime, he discovered when he made contact with his cheek — which was also covered in slime.

He opened his eyes to find that his vision seemed different. Elevated, somehow. He reached with his nubs and discovered not eyes, but stalks, upon which his eyes were mounted.

“What the holy hell?” he muttered, and the sound he heard was not his voice but a sort of thick, gravelly garble.

He tried to raise himself onto his feet, but of course he had no feet, and instead slid out of bed into a gelatinous puddle. At first, he merely quivered where he was, unable to stop himself from trembling, a great mound of lime jello with nubs and eye stalks. Once he had calmed himself, though, he found that by concentrating very hard, he could inch forward. He pulled himself toward the full-length mirror on the wall and beheld what he had become.

“A slug?!” he garbled. “This can’t be!”

“Oh, but it is.”

The voice, smooth as silk, came from the corner of his room. Dave swiveled his head as fast as it would swivel, a motion that more accurately resembled the final movements of a wound-down wind-up toy.

“You —”

“You recognize me, Dave?” asked the well-dressed man who sat regarding him.

Dave’s mind reeled. The man was familiar, he realized. He remembered a summer day, the year he turned twelve. He’d gotten a guitar for his birthday and his mother had signed him up for lessons. But he’d hated them. He hated the lessons, but he loved the guitar. He loved the music he heard over the radio from the nearby college station, and he loved the idea of standing on stage, rocking out to an auditorium full of screaming fans.

That summer day, he’d been walking home from his most recent lesson — a debacle, he had absolutely no instinct for chords or rhythm, and his fingers were thick as sausages, and about as graceful. He’d dragged the guitar behind him in the dirt, no longer caring if it got broken. If he couldn’t play it, he didn’t even want to look at it.

“Oh, dear, that’s a terrible way to treat such a fine instrument.”

It was the well-dressed man. He wore an elegant linen suit and shoes that somehow had not a speck of dust on them despite the dirt road and the clear fact that the man must have walked to this spot, since there was no car in sight and the bus didn’t run this far out of town.

“You want it?” Dave asked the man. “I can’t play for shit.”

“Would you like to change that?”

Dave frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, what if you could play that guitar like a god?”

And then the well-dressed man told him what was possible. The gift of music, flowing freely from his fingertips. The success of a rock star. Auditoriums full of screaming fans.

“You can have it all,” the well-dressed man said.

Dave scoffed. “In exchange for what? My soul?”

It was the well-dressed man’s turn to scoff. “Please. Souls are passé. I’m interested in something more…entertaining. Let’s just say that when your bill is due, I will collect.”

Now Dave regarded the well-dressed man and remembered what day it was. He was to be honored tonight at the Billboard Music Awards with a lifetime achievement award.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he said. The well-dressed man seemed able to understand him, despite his strange voice. “My bill is due now?”

“Like I said.” The well-dressed man stood and straightened his tie. His suit was silk this time. “I love entertainment. So entertain me, Dave Grohl.”

The well-dressed man doffed his cap, revealing a pair of small, jet-black horns that complemented his pointed goatee. He bowed, returned his hat, and vanished in a puff of smoke.

“What the devil?” said Dave, then realized what was happening. “Oh. Duh.”

*

It had been a long afternoon. And he wasn’t sure it had been worth the effort. But there was only one way to find out.

It wasn’t hard to convince the limousine company that was sent to pick him up to instead take the large box on his doorstep and put it in the back of the limo. After all, he was the third-richest drummer in the country; if he wanted to parachute into the venue, someone would have made it happen for him. And it mustn’t have seemed terribly irrational to event coordinator when Dave requested, over the phone, that the box be placed on stage just before he was to go on. Rock stars were always making strange requests, and famous people always got what they wanted in situations like this.

Still, he wasn’t sure what would happen.

He trembled slightly as he listened to the announcer list his many achievements:  drummer for Nirvana, founder and front man of the Foo Fighters, member of Queens of the Stone Age, numerous awards. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been nervous to play the guitar. That summer day, perhaps.

“Ladies and gentlemen…Dave Grohl!”

The audience screamed and, with all his strength, Dave slipped the lid off the box and raised himself onto his gelatinous belly, then wobbled at his full height, his guitar around what approximated his neck.

The audience screamed.

He’d practiced all afternoon. His nubs flew across the strings as he began to play. And was it him, or was he playing better than ever?

The audience gasped.

The were terrified, he could see, but he kept playing, and slowly he began to win them over. They swayed and sang and danced. He still had it. He was still the greatest guitar player in the world. He played the two songs he’d been scheduled to play, and then he played an encore. And then he should have stopped, but he kept playing.

Five songs. Ten. Twenty.

His nubs began to bleed.

Thirty-five.

The other musicians left the stage. The audience began to filter out of the room.

Fifty.

Someone shut the lights off, save one spotlight that shone directly on Dave.

Seventy.

They weren’t even songs anymore — just one endless guitar riff. His nubs moved so fast, they were a blur. Could slugs sweat? He felt something pouring down his forehead. He gasped for breath. His soft limbs ached and he longed to stop. But he couldn’t.

He looked into the audience, hoping there was someone there, someone who could help him, stop him, tackle him to the ground and make him stop playing.

There was a figure. Seated in the front row. Dapper in his silk suit, still wearing his hat.

Smiling.

“Please!” Dave howled. “Let me stop!”

“Now, Dave, why would I do that?” the well-dressed man said over the music. “I told you I love to be entertained.”

Dave’s whole jelled body began to quake. He had no control, yet he kept playing. He never would, he realized. There had been no concert, no award. He’d never spoken to anyone at the venue. When he’d gotten into that limo, it had transported him, but not to the auditorium.

“Entertain me, Dave,” the well-dressed man said. He smiled. “I want one hell of a show, you hear?”

Dave screamed.

***

By the Light of the Moon

Another Drawtober story, this one a little shorter, and creepier, than the last. Here's the inspirational drawing.

When I was a very small child, it never occurred to me to wonder why my mother drew the drapes — heavy, black lengths of cloth that fell to the floor in puddles — over every window of the house every night. Nor did I question why I had to be indoors long before dark, long before the other children. I would sit at the kitchen table, spooning mother’s hearty stew into my mouth, and listen to the other children of our town laugh and shout as they played outside. I longed to go to the window to watch them, but the drapes were already drawn.

At age eight, I finally asked.

Then came the stories of a gang of madmen who had roamed the countryside looking for families reckless enough to leave their windows open. The men would creep through villages, their knives concealed inside their clothes, until they came upon a house where the curtains had been left withdrawn, the window open the tiniest crack. Once inside — my mother shook her head.

They did awful deeds.

And then they would vanish into the night, wiping the blades of their knives on their thighs, leaving streaks of red that looked black in the moonlight.

But this was a word I had never heard. Moonlight?

Mother sighed.

There is an orb, she said, much like the sun, which illuminates the sky at night. But the light which emanates from this orb is different. Dangerous.

We lived at the end of the village road, on the edge of the great wood. By day, I would stand at the window and watch the trees for sign of the men. Somehow, despite their reputation, I did not fear them. Instead, I was fascinated by them — by the way they roamed the earth, homeless yet resourceful, and by their comradeship. I had no friends. No siblings. Father had left the night I was born.

I was fascinated, too, by moonlight. I murmured the word as I tipped the bowl and drank the dregs of the stew’s thick red broth.

By day, I did my chores and played with the neighbor children until their mothers told them to come inside. I heard them scold their children and couldn’t understand why. After a time, the neighbors wouldn’t play with me anymore.

I gathered our chickens’ eggs and harvested the last of the potatoes. I milked our goats, then watched as mother slit the throat of the oldest one, drained it and collected the blood in a bucket. I asked what she did with the blood, but she didn’t answer.

I drew a curtain back the tiniest bit and looked for the madmen with their knives and dark purpose.

Come away from there, mother said.

I dreamed of moonlight. I imagined standing outside in the middle of the night and the moon showering its light down upon me, and my skin glowing with it. When I woke, it was in darkness, until mother came and drew the curtains, and harsh sunlight poured itself into every corner and banished the shadows from every room.

I heard the clatter but I was not there to see it. I came running into the kitchen, where mother had been placing jars of the red stock she had canned onto the high shelves. But the ladder had fallen, and so had mother. Her head cocked at a strange angle. Her eyes open but unseeing.

Mother, I said.

I sat with her that day and into the night. At some point, I must have fallen asleep, for when I woke, I realized the curtains were open. There was no mother to close them, and I had not thought to do so.

Moonlight poured into the house from every window.

It drew me across the room. My hands against the glass, I gazed upon the great white orb in the sky, heavy with its own light. It painted everything in the yard with silver. Wanting to touch the light, I opened the window, reached out.

I began to change.

I felt my organs shift. My skin burned and tore. I shed the hair on my head, grew something matted and coarse to replace it. My teeth rearranged and sharpened themselves.

With the change in me, I felt an insatiable hunger. I do not remember deciding to run across the grass and into the street. I do not remember coming upon the home of a girl I’d once considered a friend, or peering into her window. Discovering that her mother had neglected to close the curtains completely. I worked my fingernail, now as long and sharp as the blade of a knife, under the window frame.

I left only minutes later. Dropped from the open window, sated now, my stomach no longer gnawing at me. I wiped my long claws against my thigh, leaving bloodstains that looked black in the moonlight.

***

Funnily enough, I wrote this story to go along with the illustration at the top of the page. Then, twenty-six days later, Bryce — who had no idea I was writing these stories at the time — drew this for Drawtober Day 30:

Coincidence?

Imagination

If this Drawtober story were a T.V. show, it would be an episode of The Twilight Zone. Here's the drawing that inspired it.

Sheffield tossed the iPad onto Danny’s desk. It clattered across the surface, and Danny winced. He didn’t know how much an iPad like this one cost, but he knew he couldn’t afford one.

“What the fuck is this supposed to be?”

Danny glanced at the screen before it went dark.

“What you asked for,” he said. “Bears.”

“I asked for photorealistic bears that also look cuddly and appealing to children,” Sheffield said. “And you gave me monsters!”

“They’re not monsters…”

But a swipe of the screen told Danny that it had happened again. He’d drawn something without realizing it. The bears — which were to be the stars of Pixel Entertainment’s newest short film, Grin and Bear It — had started out fitting the description Sheffield had emailed that morning. Danny had drawn Papa Bear as an overstuffed grizzly with a dopey grin; Mama was his match, with eyelashes and a softer, more feminine face. The kids were roly-poly black bears, and their neighbor, an adorable panda. Danny was especially proud of Petey Panda. Once the film hit theaters — attached to Pixel Entertainment’s feature film, Sideways Sam — he knew that the stuffed version of Petey would sell like hotcakes.

But not this version of Petey. This version of Petey had fangs. Instead of front paws, he had mechanical claws, and one eye had been replaced with a metal eyepatch capable of firing a laser. He was half bear, half machine — a steampunk bear. Truth was, he looked kind of cool.

The rest of the bears had their own problems. Papa Bear peered from the screen with clouded eyes, his fur a white shroud; he looked like some sort of ursine sorcerer. Mama’s fur was gone completely, replaced by a coat of live rabbits that hung over a bear skeleton. And the bear kids? Danny didn’t think America’s parents would be too happy about their kids seeing a short film about zombie cannibal bears.

“Shit,” he muttered.

“‘Shit’ is right, my friend,” Sheffield said. He dropped into the chair on the other side of Danny’s desk. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s gotta stop. What were you thinking?”

Truth was, Danny hadn’t been thinking. It happened every time he picked up his stylus and began to draw. At first, he felt in control, knew exactly what lines to put down, where to shade, how to make the pictures he saw in his head come to life. As he worked, though, he always fell into a sort of trance. This was what flow was like, he’d learned from his favorite art teacher. That moment when you no longer felt in control, and the thing you were creating just flowed through you, like a gift from the muses. Inspiration came straight from them, bypassed your brain, coursed through your hand and onto the page. Or iPad screen.

It was when that flow took over, though, that Danny got into trouble. He couldn’t seem to control what happened when he was under that spell. But surely he hadn’t emailed these bears gone wrong to Sheffield? That was career suicide.

“…career suicide,” Sheffield was saying. “It’s not just your reputation on the line, here, kid.”

Danny tried not to resent Sheffield calling him “kid,” and failed. After all, they’d gone to school together. In the same grade. There was a time Danny had called him “Joey,” not Mr. Sheffield. Just because Joey “Fartface” Sheffield’s daddy owned the country’s most successful independent animation studio — something Joseph Senior had actually earned with his own talent and hard work — Joey Fartface had landed a position as lead animator, despite a monumental lack of real ability and exactly zero imagination. He’d kept his position by farming out the most difficult jobs to his underlings. Guys like Danny, in particular, who had actual skill and an expansive imagination.

Still. Danny wouldn’t have taken the job if he hadn’t needed it. If it wasn’t at least a foot in the door. He wouldn’t work for Sheffield forever. Already, the higher-ups had started to take notice of him, even despite Sheffield’s attempts to take credit for Danny’s work. Why, Joseph Senior himself had stopped by Danny’s cube only a week ago to compliment him on the robot character he’d developed. Said it showed that Danny had “real imagination.” Joey Fartface had deemed the robot “too scary” for kids, so Danny had no clue how Joseph Senior had ended up seeing it. But he’d liked it; that’s what mattered.

“…even listening?” Fartface Sheffield was saying. “I’m going to do the generous thing here, Danny-boy — ”

Danny stabbed a sharpened pencil into his own thigh to keep himself from telling Sheffield to fuck off.

“ — and give you one more chance. Because like I said, I’m the one who got you this job, and I’m lead animator. So it’s my hide that’s gonna get tanned if I have to bring Psycho Bears to the table tomorrow. Do it again, and do it right this time.”

“Joe — Mr. Sheffield, I mean.” Danny grimaced. “It’s already after five. I told my kids I wouldn’t be late tonight.”

“Should’ve thought of that before you drew this garbage.” Sheffield was already out the door, his words fired back over his shoulder. “Do it again.”

So Danny did it again, after the phone call home. After the explanations and apologies. He could hear his kids in the background, giggling, playing. He’d been planning on drawing with them tonight — his favorite kind of drawing, when the kids would scribble a shape, and then Danny would create something from that shape. Those drawings, he never lost control of. Those drawings flowed, too, but not like the stuff he came up with for Pixel.

He drew the Bear family again. Drew the friend, Petey. Drew their neighbor, ungainly Mr. Moose. They all started out right, but they ended wrong. Who wanted bears with horns? A panda with the scaly wings of a dragon? Who wanted a moose that looked like a monster from another dimension altogether?

Danny’s cell phone buzzed, and he glanced at the clock as he answered. Midnight? Shit.

“You missed bedtime again,” his wife said.

“I’m sorry, I really am.” Danny swiped the Bears and their friends away. Mindlessly sketched as he talked with his wife. “I didn’t realize the time.”

“I know you said you were going to be late, but Danny — this is nuts. You’re not a surgeon or a firefighter.”

He drew a bulbous head with one great eye. Tentacles.

“I know.”

“I don’t get why you let that Fartface guy push you around.”

“I told you, Annie. He’s my boss.”

The octopus took shape on the screen almost independent of his hand.

“It just doesn’t seem worth putting up with so much bullshit. Especially when you’re the one with the real talent. What did Sheffield Senior say? That imagination like yours is what started Pixel in the first place?”

The suckers on each tentacle were huge, almost like giant mouths themselves.

“Listen, I’m leaving now, okay?” Danny said. “Be home in twenty.”

He stood and pocketed his phone. On the iPad screen, his octopus glared up at him, covered in neon zebra stripes.

Danny shook his head. “What’s wrong with me? Some imagination.”

He tapped the screen dark and left his cubicle. If he drove fast, he could be home in ten.

*

The next morning, Danny arrived to discover the flashing lights of several squad cars reflecting off the exterior of the Pixel Entertainment building.

“What’s going on?” he asked the receptionist.

She shook her head. “I’m not sure.” Then lowered her voice. “They say it’s Mr. Sheffield.”

Danny grimaced and hurried down to his cubicle. But his cube was blocked by a crowd of suits and uniforms.

He tapped one of the officers on the shoulder.

“Excuse me. This is my cube?”

“You’re — ” The officer glanced at his notepad. “ — Daniel Wong?”

“That’s right.”

“Any idea what Joseph Sheffield, Junior, might have been doing at your desk last night between one a.m. and three a.m.?”

“What? No. What’s going on?”

He pushed his way past the officer to find Sheffield Senior in a corner, holding his head and surrounded by secretaries and more police. Plainclothes detectives swarmed his cube, each of them careful to step around the body in the floor:  Joey “Fartface” Sheffield, his face a purple-blue shade that only an absence of oxygen could account for, his neck wearing a red ring of welts.

“This him, Mr. Sheffield?” asked the officer Danny had just spoken with.

“Yes, yes,” Joseph Senior said. “It’s just awful, Daniel. My son — it seems you were the last to speak with him?”

“I guess I must have been. I left around midnight — ”

Joseph Senior waved a hand. “Yes, there’s no concern that you — the security cameras show you leaving at midnight, just as you say. It’s just — ”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Sheffield.”

“Listen, son.” Joseph Senior took him by the shoulder. “We’ll need someone to take over Joey’s projects. Immediately. I know, given the circumstances, it’s asking a lot of you. But you’re the only animator I can think of who would be up to the task. Are you?”

“Uh — oh. Yes,” Danny said. “Yes. Thank you — thank you for the opportunity, sir.”

The officer gestured to Danny. “This is technically an active crime scene, but I know it’s also your office. You want to gather up whatever you need and see if you can find another space to work?”

Danny grabbed his essentials and let himself be led down the hall — to Joey Sheffield’s office, it turned out. He let the secretary who’d shown him there close the door, then let out a trembling sigh. It was too much. It was awful. And yet —

“No more Fartface,” he murmured as he swiped his iPad’s screen.

His stomach dropped.

There was his octopus, its huge tentacles curled beneath it. Its silly neon stripes practically glowing on the screen. It gazed out at him with one huge, knowing eye. But it wasn’t the octopus he’d drawn — it wasn’t in the same position he’d drawn it. He swiped away from the screen and found the Bear Family, their moose neighbor, earlier drafts of the Bears, the robot Mr. Sheffield had liked so much. There was no other octopus. Just the one he’d drawn. Yet not the one he’d drawn.

Except.

He thought of Sheffield’s purple-blue face. The welts on his neck, just the size and shape of —

“No,” Danny said to the screen. “Impossible.”

The octopus on the screen dropped its eyelid. Gave him a wink.

***

One Hundred

Here's the very first Drawtober story I wrote, along with the picture that inspired it. The prompt for the drawing, "A Medieval robot, along with its operator," helped set the tone.

One hundred turns of the handle. By the time he was finished, his legs trembled beneath him and his breath came in short, wheezing gasps. Merek lowered himself from the platform and gazed up at what he had created:  a man. A sort of man, hewn of wood, bolted and wired together, carved by his own hand. Crude, but magnificent.

Merek nodded, satisfied.

“Come,” he said to the wooden man.

The wooden man wore the pack Merek had prepared, while Merek carried a rucksack and leaned on his walking stick. At the edge of his modest property, which was marked by a small stone upon a larger stone, Merek looked back, once.

One hundred turns of the handle would power the wooden man through one entire day. The wooden man easily kept pace with Merek as they moved across the fallow field, toward the village.

At the end of the first day, they camped. In the morning, Merek hoisted himself into the low branches of a small tree and cranked:  one hundred times.

They detoured around the village, a longer route but necessary. Merek did not want to be stopped or questioned about his companion.

On the third day, he looked back. He could no longer see his home and wondered if he was making a mistake. In sixty-three years, he had never left. He’d been born there, grew up there, learned his trade. Took care of his father and buried him under the willow tree when old age took him. Merek had married his love young, and they had shared his home. She was gone now, too. Had taken with her the children they never had, ghosts of their own hopes. Still, it had been a happy place. At night, after the sheep were in their pen and the work of the day was done, he would take out his knife and carve by the fire, while his wife knitted and sang. Curls of wood fell onto the floor. He held up the object he had made.

“A bird!” his wife said, delighted.

He placed it in her hand and she fingered the handle.

“Turn it,” he said.

She did so, counting under her breath. “…ninety-nine, one hundred.”

The bird flapped its wings, turned its head to and fro. Its tiny beak opened and closed.

“It’s brilliant!” she exclaimed. “Will it sing?”

Merek shook his head. “It has no tongue,” he explained.

“Then I shall sing for it.”

And she did, her lovely voice warmer than the flames that blazed in the fireplace.

He made other birds. He made a furless dog, able to wag its tail but unable to bark. He carved creatures no one had ever seen, and they roamed the yard until they wound down, and then Merek turned their handles again — one hundred turns for each.

He never showed her the child he made. Instead, unable to bring himself to disassemble it, he left in the night and buried it in the center of the fairy ring that sprouted each spring, out by the willow tree where his father rested.

Now, Merek pulled himself onto the top of a fence. Balanced as he turned the wooden man’s handle.

They walked side by side. They crossed the river, Merek riding the wooden man’s shoulders. At night, under the stars, when Merek grew cold, he drew the arms of the wooden man around him.

He crawled onto a boulder and turned the handle. Once finished, he sat at the base of the rock, breathing heavily. Regaining his strength.

He dreamed of his wife. Of her laughter, often heard, as sweet as her singing voice. Of her body, warm against his in the bed they’d shared for more than forty-five years.

In the foothills, as they climbed, Merek’s walking stick broke. He took the wooden man’s hand and continued to climb.

The rain came, and Merek sat beneath a tree to wait out the storm. He fished in his rucksack and found the oil can he’d brought along, and when the sun returned, he oiled the wires and bolts that held together the wooden man’s joints.

Higher up, the air grew thin. Merek labored for breath. He ate the last of the bread he had packed, drank the last of the water. Above the treeline, the mountain was covered in scrub brush and stones. No trees to climb, no fences upon which to balance. He moved slowly, hunched over, and slowly gathered stones. Piled them. Wobbled as he turned the handle. “…ninety-nine, one hundred.”

Together, they climbed.

Sometimes when the wind picked up, he heard her voice, singing.

On the fifth or sixth day, Merek stumbled. His legs were finished. His stomach moaned, the sound of a wind blowing through a hollow tree.

The wooden man lowered itself to the ground, its handle turning more and more slowly, until it stopped.

“We are finished,” Merek said.

He fell asleep dreaming of the mountaintop.

In the morning, he found himself floating. Hovering several feet above the ground. He opened his eyes and discovered that he was being carried in the arms of the wooden man. Its joints creaked as it walked. Its face and shoulders were chipped, its body weathered from the journey. Its handle turned, and somehow, the wooden man climbed.

Merek drifted to sleep as he was carried, lulled by the gentle movement of the wooden man. He dreamed of a giant wooden man, even larger than the one he had made, one whose strides spanned whole cities, whose arms could carry entire families.

He woke when the wooden man stopped. It had finally happened — the handle had stopped turning, and the wooden man would move no further. Merek steeled himself, searched inside himself for the strength he would need to drop to the ground, gather stones, climb them, and turn the handle again. He searched, but could not find it. He had no strength left.

He opened his eyes. They had reached the top of the mountain.

Merek gazed out from the pinnacle. It was a clear day, the afternoon sun blazing. He could see everything. The forest where he and the wooden man had gotten briefly lost, where he had played as a child. The river they had crossed. The village they had bypassed — Merek had sold his sheep’s fur there, had bought flour and sugar and a scarf he knew would please his wife. His own home, a tiny speck. The land he had tended all his life. The place where his wife was buried, not far from his father, not far from the child he had made.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice barely a rasp. “Thank you,” he told the wooden man.

The sun began to set. A gentle wind rose. Merek’s eyelids fluttered, and he struggled to keep them open, to keep his gaze on the rivers and trees and village and home. Shadows on the mountaintop grew longer as the swollen sun sank lower.

Merek rested in the arms of the wooden man. He heard singing. The wind had died and carried no tune, and there were no birds at this altitude. Yet he heard it:  a wandering melody, punctuated by a faint creaking, as if the wires and bolts of the singer’s jaws were rusted, as if the singer himself had never before given voice to the song inside him.

The sun dipped behind the mountain, and the people in the village below lit their fires.

***

Last Supper

Last year, my friend Bryce participated in Drawtober, a Deviant Art challenge to draw something new, based upon a prompt, every day in October. Unbeknownst to him, I decided to participate in my own challenge: to write a story about every picture Bryce drew. But then I got a book agent (yay!) and suddenly all my writing activity focused on the revision of my novel, and like so many writing projects, "Write-tober" (ugh, not a good name) had to die. But I had a lot of fun writing the few stories I managed, and looking back at them, some are kinda nice. So I thought I'd stick 'em here on the blog, in no particular order, over the next couple weeks. Here's the first one. And here's the drawing that inspired the story.

Last Supper

They’d heard about this day.

“There goes another one.”

“Where?”

“There. Building on the corner, window on the tenth floor. Where Buddy likes to sleep?”

“Oh, snap.”

There’d always been rumors. End of times. Loss of power grid. Riots, chaos. Mass hysteria. Like the movie said, Dogs and cats, living together. As if.

“You think Buddy’s okay?”

“He knows the drill.”

One by one, the lights of the city went out. They watched it all from their window.

“How’s Doug?”

A quick glance over the shoulder. Doug hadn’t moved in at least twenty minutes. His phone, still lit — he never remembered to set it to Power Save Mode, even in times like this — showed the last number he’d tried to call:  911.

“Not good.”

Another light flickered, went out.

“That’s Slinky’s place.”

That lucky bastard. You ever seen the size of his lady? He’ll be in hog heaven.”

“You are so insensitive.”

“Oh, come on. Like you haven’t had the same thought. Meanwhile, here we are, living with the world’s most committed runner. Nothing but muscle.”

They perched on the sill until the last light went out and the entire city was plunged into darkness. Still, they had no trouble making out shapes in the darkness.

“Well, that’s it. Next the riots begin.”

“They’ll do each other in and leave nothing.”

“Just like our parents warned us.”

The phone went dark.

“You hungry?”

“I could eat.”

They leaped from the sill. They’d known Doug all their lives, but still, it never paid not to be cautious. He was changed now; he no longer walked, or talked, or sat on the couch yelling at the television. They approached one step at a time, their backs low, shoulders hunched. Sniffed.

“Where do you want to start?”

“I’ve heard the eyes and cheeks are good and soft.”

Later, they licked their paws clean.

“You were right. That was much better than the dry food.”

“I’m so stuffed, I could take a nap.”

And while the riots began and the world below their twentieth floor apartment tore itself apart, that’s exactly what they did.

***