The Hellion

By James Edward O’Brien

Cradock drank in the charred opalescence of the creatures’ shells; their disapproving mouth lines; their bulbous amber eyes socketed behind heavy, wrinkled lids; their broad, scaly flippers almost wing-like.

“Miraculous,” he marveled.

“He’s an artist,” she said.

“He’s a lecher with an easel.”

It’s your own fault,‘ croaked the voice in his head. ‘A woman like that’s got needs. Certain standards.

“Shut up,” spat Cradock.

Griselda froze, midway through wriggling into her skirt. “I’m not deaf, you know?”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he bumbled.

She stormed out of the bedroom.

You could’ve been talking to the jackalope,‘ the voice insisted.

“Shut up,” snarled Cradock through clenched teeth.

“I still hear you,” warned Griselda from the kitchen. “I’m late; feed the jackalope before you go.” She didn’t wait for his answer. She slammed the door behind her.

Cradock made for the kitchen. He emptied a bag of feed into Jack Sprat’s bowl. The jackalope sniffed it. He prodded Cradock’s ankles with his fuzzy antlers.

“I’d expect more gratitude from you,” he scolded the jackalope. “The dozer’s out for a long haul––won’t be back ’til Wednesday.”

You’re gonna be late,‘ croaked the voice in his head. It never told him what to do, exactly; it merely prodded him. It made suggestions––nudged him in certain directions. It reprimanded him when he failed to follow its cues: very passive-aggressive in that regard. As of late it was getting louder.

“Mind your own business,” growled Cradock.

Jack Sprat loosed a bemused quack.

“Not you,” he apologized to the jackalope. “You see my keys around?”

Jack Sprat could only blink up at him, twitching his leporine nose. But the voice in Cradock’s head had no problem responding.

You left them on the bar at Pando’s last night, remember? Alongside your dignity.

“It’s the best I can do to drown you the hell out,” snapped Cradock. He knelt down and scratched Jack Sprat behind his moth-eaten, velveteen ears. “Don’t let any unwanted visitors slip past you while I’m gone.”

Cradock palmed his lanyard and made for the door.

*

Pando’s stank of bleach and stale beer. The front door was propped open with a recycling bin and the A/C was running full blast. The walls were adorned with battered siegeball gear: helmets, truncheons, shoulder pads.

“You were in fine form last night.” Pando tossed Cradock his key ring.

“I’m pretty sure Griselda’s got something on the side.”

“Oh?” Pando set two jiggers on the bar.

“She started working as an artists’ model to pick up a little scratch during the strike.”

Pando poured two whiskies. “Nothing wrong with some extra scratch.”

“Yeah, but she fell in with some painter…a real boho type.”

“Griselda’s a nice girl. Could be innocent enough.”

Look at his face,‘ growled the voice in Cradock’s head. ‘He doesn’t believe a word he’s telling you.

Cradock’s gut tightened. He choked back the shot. “Said he’d pay her double if she’d come ’round his studio.”

“Look, Crad––far as I can tell, there’s only two reasons to pick up a paintbrush. The first is, when it’s all you know––when it’s all you can do––when it’s the only thing that makes sense, shy of shoving a barrel in your mouth and pulling the trigger. This first sort’s a rare breed.”

“And the second?”

Pando’s face darkened a bit. He poured two more shots. “The prop masters. Could be a paintbrush…a steno…hell, a siegeball truncheon…any prop to feign depth, a smoke-and-mirrors show to make them sexually desirable to the naïve. I’ve met all sorts of con artists in this biz, and trust me––prop masters are the worst.”

Yeah,‘ chortled the voice in his head. ‘You won’t listen to me, but you’ll take advice from a washed-up siegeball defenseman who threw away any chance he might have had on a thirty-year bender.

Cradock jabbed at his temples. “You never have a good word for anybody, do you?” he snarled.

“Eh––easy, Crad. Love has made fools of the best of us.”

Pando went back to cutting lemons.

“Ah, hell, Pando. I wasn’t talking to you,” Cradock apologized.

Pando peered up––and then down––the empty bar.

“Maybe you need one more nip to set you straight.”

“Nah.”

Cradock hooked his keys on his lanyard.

“Thanks for the ear––and the hooch. I’ll catch you on the flipside, alright?”

“Alright. And remember––there’s plenty of fish in the sea.”

And a whole lot of nothing in space,‘ his inner voice reminded him.

*

Cradock stood at attention.

“You’re stinking drunk,” snarled Bombardier Tanuki.

“Aye, ma’am.”

“It’s bad enough we have to crew half this dozer with civvies. It’s another thing when they show up sloshed at oh-dark-hundred.”

“An oversight on my part, ma’am.”

“An oversight could cost us our lives when we’re out in the black.”

The reprimand roused the voice in Cradock’s gourd. ‘She realizes you’re a hash slinger, right? Worst case scenario, you overcook the macaroni.

“You don’t get it,” he hissed back through clenched teeth. “Procedure’s the black dogs’ backbone.”

“What’s that, Mr. Cradock? Speak up, man.”

“Apologies, ma’am.” He cleared his throat. “Domestic problems.”

“Well, for the next one-hundred twenty hours, this dozer’s your only domestic problem, so leave any other issues you might have at port.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He was sweating through his coveralls.

“Now head to the mess and dry out.”

*

Cradock lobbed potatoes and carrots into the feed of an automated mandolin.

“There’s a headshrinker on board. High time I paid her a visit.”

You threatening me?‘ croaked the voice in his head.

“I need meds.”

You’ll only be hurting yourself. Shrinks have tried to fry us out, drill us out––hell, popes and preachers have done their damnedest to burn us out––even drown us out––for eons now.

“All this hullabaloo with Griselda has knocked a few screws loose.”

I’m not just some misfire of synapses in your head. I wish it were that simple. Look, I’m not saying humans don’t go batshit crazy now and again. Look at history: your capacity for cruelty and greed speaks volumes. But you’re no schizophrenic, Crad; that’s one bullet you managed to dodge.

Cradock told himself the voice’s spiel was an advent of his own mind: a rogue tangent of his sobering consciousness.

Wrong, wrong, wrong,‘ the voice scolded.

“So what am I supposed to believe? You’re the voice of god?”

Cradock felt a tickle in his brain as the voice struggled to suppress a laugh. ‘God? There is no “god”––at least in the way your lot has misconstrued the old girl. Your religions are almost as shortsighted as your sciences. It’s all just superstitions and security blankets for you lot. Me? I’m little more than a squeaky cog in the grand cosmic mechanism that you had the good, random fortune to tune into.

*

The doctor chewed on an unlit cigarillo. “Voices you say?”

“Just one voice,” clarified Cradock.

The doctor studied Cradock’s numbers on her steno. “The scans didn’t pick up any irregularities. Your blood tests were right as rain, too. This voice––it tell you to do anything?”

“Nah,” shrugged Cradock. “More or less criticizes me when I do do something. When I do anything, come to think of it.”

“Kind of like having your own portable drill sergeant, eh?”

The Doc had kind eyes, big and dark as chestnuts.

“Suppose so.”

She handed him a jet injector and a swatch of cartridges. “I’m gonna start you on a precautionary cocktail––a mild neuroleptic. But most important, I want you on three squares a day and plenty of rest. I see a lot of nervous exhaustion among crewmembers hop-scotching between port life and long stretches in the black. Limit any gratuitous stimulation as best you can.”

Cradock peered through the office porthole, out into the starless stretch of space that lay before them. “Shouldn’t be a problem, Doc.”

“We’ve got a day or so of twiddling our thumbs before we hit the Nantuxent Belt.” She kneaded his shoulder. “Make it count and you’ll be back on your feet just in time to watch those errant meteoroids blown to kingdom come.”

The Doc fired her cigarillo as she made for the door. Cradock sat alone for a moment in his open-backed hospital gown, enjoying the silence. Until that sudden, familiar croak rippled his placid conscience.

That’s what you need,‘ it said. ‘Someone with a bit of bedside manner…some maternal in–

Cradock slapped a cartridge into the injector and dug it into the crook of his elbow.

“Sleep tight,” he chided. “G’night.”

 

*

It perplexed him why the civvies on board were required to attend the briefings. He was mess hall staff, for crying out loud. He reckoned the black dog brass liked as large an audience as possible for their daily hour of chest beating. Without a captive audience, all they’d have to show for all that chest beating would be very bruised chests.

The briefing room was congested with folding chairs. The cramped quarters stank of old sweat socks. Bombardier Tanuki and Chief Astronomer Hegazi flanked Captain Krantz, who stood, arms crossed, in front of a tattered projection screen.

There was a marked delineation between the enlisted crew and lay staff. The black dogs wore ebon cassocks––matronly things adorned with polished brass and buttons. The civvies wore drab coveralls haphazardly striped with neon piping. Like prisoners.

Bombardier Tanuki called the meeting to order as a rosary of hazy satellites blinked across the projection screen.

“Corporacon’s Folly,” she began. “At the very tail end of the Nantuxent Belt. This one’s gonna be a simple clear-and-carry. Salvage any rigs left on-world and send the remaining planetary drifts straight to kingdom come.”

“What you see on the screen cuts clear through Nantuxent shipping routes. It’s cost the privateers billions,” explained Krantz.

A hand in the crowd. Enlisted man. “What is it exactly we’re looking at, Captain?”

Astronomer Hegazi chimed in. “You’re looking at what was––in your lifetime––a habitable planet.”

“A veritable wellspring of fossil fuels,” explained the Captain. “Once. Until seismic irregularities tore the whole planet asunder.”

“You mean to say we tapped it dry?” the enlisted man snickered. “Rocked it to its core, so to speak?”

Sweat beaded the captain’s shaved pate. “Some theorize Corporacon’s…extraction methods…may have exacerbated preexisting conditions, yes. But that’s a matter open to debate––a debate that in no way illuminates our duties over the coming days. Chief astronomer?”

Chief Astronomer Hegazi bit her lip. Nodded. A face sculpted statuesque by way of gag order.

The voice in Cradock’s head shattered his momentary peace. ‘They tapped it dry, all right, right down to the core. They left little more than a brittle, osteoporotic husk. Don’t seem right.

“Zip it,” hissed Cradock. It earned him some side eyes from the civvies slumped in their folding chairs around him.

“Mr. Cradock, you have a question?” snapped the bombardier.

“No ma’am,” he replied.

“Any other questions before we disperse?” Hegazi chimed in.

Not a sound. Enlisted ranks were bred for duty, discipline, and their uncanny ability to survive every hole in every plan that the top brass ever handed down to them. Questions were someone else’s problem.

*

The divers sat shoulder-to-shoulder. They were sweat-drenched––most still clad in their counter-pressure armor–– pawing at the grub Cradock had set out for the post-op buffet. These divers were just one of the many rotating salvaging parties who’d spent a sleepless night sniffing out what intact equipment lay jettisoned amidst the remnants of Corporacon’s Folly.

Most just stared at their plates and ground their teeth; they’d all been issued methamphetamine cocktails to up their productivity and it was starting to show.

“Croquettes, latkes, pommes frites, hash browns…I’m beginning to think all you got in that kitchen’s potatoes, Cradock,” griped a diver.

Cradock peeled a julienned sliver from the half-gnawed patty on the culprit’s plate. “Carrots too,” he protested.

“You’d think the brass would spare no expense, seeing as they act like we’re Corporacon’s private repo service,” grumbled another.

“Yeah, but in name, we’re still soldiers––still on the taxpayers’ tab.”

The diver broke into a falsetto pantomime. “I duly swear to preserve the peace and security of the realm, and defend the prosperity of its citizens, et cetera, et cetera. I must have slept through the part of my swearing in about being a flunky for private interests.”

A woman with three bold chevrons down her sleeve flattened a beer can with her fist. She whizzed it at the griping diver’s head.

“Can it, Dapper––none of us did. That whinging o’yours could launch a thousand zeppelins, for crying out loud.”

The diver shot to his feet. The legs of his chair whinnied against linoleum. “Yes, Sarge,” he saluted, standing at attention.

A woman after your own heart,‘ croaked the voice in Cradock’s head. ‘Always telling whoever’s making the most sense to shut the hell up.

Cradock held his tongue just to spite the bastard.

All this time you’re wasting pining over Griselda…a woman with no vested interest in whether you live or die––scratch that––I’m guessing she’d err on the side of you dying at this juncture. It would make the impending breakup a hell of a lot more streamlined on her end.

It was as if the thing squatting in his conscience was trying to provoke a verbal lashing. But Cradock wouldn’t bend.

I’m a staunch skeptic when it comes to fate, predestination, providence, or any divine hand of intervention, more or less,’ the voice prattled on, ‘but come on, of all the mess halls on all the dozers in all the multiverse, this bewitching Shar Pei of a drill sergeant walks into yours?

Cradock knuckle-punched himself square in the left temple. Stars blistered up across his line of vision.

Must’ve hurt,‘ heckled the voice.

Chief Astronomer Hegazi’s sudden entrance dampened the enlisted ranks’ boisterousness. Those finished eating swept up their fishbowl helms and quickly dispersed.

Hegazi sipped some tea and stared at the planetary flotsam that drifted past the bay window. She nodded toward Cradock as the last of the divers filtered outside.

“Beautiful night,” she conceded.

The whole hall shook as the dozer dropped anchor on the chiseled slab of planetoid passing beneath them. The aftershock capsized Hegazi’s mug. She cursed as she shook the drippings off her hand. She beckoned Cradock over to the window.

“Refill, Chief Astronomer?” he gestured.

Hegazi hushed him. “Just look.”

He pressed his face against the glass. The rock below looked ripe for pillaging. A crooked lighthouse beacon winked up at them, illuminating the sprawl of abandoned apparatus littering the ridged, polished boulders of the planetoid’s crust. A lazy mist snaked across the surface––the whole rock no longer than a siegeball field.

“There’s some semblance of atmosphere down there.” Hegazi almost sounded giddy.

“If you don’t mind me asking, ma’am, how long you been off terra firma? You seem awfully juiced over a wayward rock, begging your pardon.”

“The thing I find most discomforting about spending so much time in the black, Mr. Cradock, is being forced to become at ease with myself––to see myself stripped of all the agreed-upon make-believe we flummox through back home. I never realized how much distraction we create for ourselves until I became a dog in the black; I reckon it’s a never-ending struggle.”

See?‘ croaked the voice in his head, ‘it’d be a long, lonely haul if not for me piggybacking on your conscious.

“Ma’am?”

Hegazi tapped on the glass. “An eggshell of ceramic, plastic, and alloys is all that stands between us and the soundless, endless black.”

Cradock nodded.

“It’s one hell of a mirror to be faced with, the way we’re faced with it out here––it’s not for everybody. Things would be a lot less terrifying peppered with the little green men and flying saucers from the old midnight movies, don’t you think?”

“I’m afraid I’m not following, ma’am.”

“I supposed the alien that comes from the great beyond is an easier pill to swallow than confronting how alien we are to ourselves.” Hegazi’s eyes lit up with a child’s wonder. “Always wondering if we have the patience and fortitude––the fearlessness––to look into the void until something looks back.”

She talks a good deal of shamanistic poppycock for a woman of science,‘ chimed the voice in his head. ‘I like her.

Cradock ignored the gibe. He followed Hegazi’s gaze. The planetoid’s surface wavered like a sea of charred, timeworn marbles. The rocks were moving. But they weren’t rocks at all. They were shells.

Turtles,” breathed the Chief Astronomer.

“Turtles?” puzzled Cradock.

“Almost,” she affirmed.

“Almost?” asked Cradock.

“Isn’t that what science is for––what they keep me around for? To label things––categorize them––so we can wrap our worried little heads around them?”

Alarmingly similar to clergy in that regard, don’t you think?‘ quipped the voice.

“Put a sock in it,” mumbled Cradock.

“Pardon?” said the Chief Astronomer.

“Turtles, is it?” fumbled Cradock.

“Or some ascendant of. Distant cousins of the terrestrial order who’ve adapted to much harsher climes than their relatives have.”

“That mist,” noted Cradock, “it’s rising off their backs.”

Hegazi nodded. “I spotted a few others nesting among the other flotsam chunks. They must have some means of hop-scotching from one planetary fragment to the next––their shells seem to shield them from entry and reentry.”

Cradock drank in the charred opalescence of the creatures’ shells; their disapproving mouth lines; their bulbous amber eyes socketed behind heavy, wrinkled lids; their broad, scaly flippers almost wing-like.

“Miraculous,” he marveled.

“Blown to kingdom come like all the rest––once the divers clear that planetoid in a day or two. It’s a shame, really.”

“In a better world, we might be stewards of all this.”

“I agree, Mr. Cradock. You see––science is a divining rod for some, a crutch for most. Good science springs from good questions––questions we oft fail to ask ourselves as a people.”

“How do you mean, ma’am?”

“I’ve got this theory.” She nudged him playfully. “That throughout the bulk of history, we’ve boiled things down to the wrong question.”

“And that question is?”

“Since we shivered out of the primordial muck, we look at everything––the land, the sea, the stars, even our fellow sentient travelers, and only seem to ever ask, ‘What good are they––what use are they to us?‘ Rather than asking, ‘What good do we serve? What is it that we bring of use to the whole starry dynamo?

She’s losing you, I can feel it,‘ heckled the voice in his head. ‘You’ve always been one to dodge the big questions, haven’t you?

“Can I ask you a question, Chief Astronomer?”

“Speak freely, Mr. Cradock.”

“So you do believe there are certain things…certain occurrences…that can exist outside any scientific boundaries?”

“Infinitudes,” she conceded. “If anything, the more we learn and the more knowledge we amass––the more we discover we don’t know. Why do you think the scientific community ceded deep space exploration to zealots and pilgrims centuries ago? Our compass is knowledge, while theirs is faith. Which would you prefer as your copilot through uncharted territory?”

Cradock shrugged. “My question––”

“Your question,” Hegazi reiterated.

“I’ve been hearing things out here…voices…”

“This might be an issue best raised with the headshrinker, I’m afraid.”

“I did––she whipped me up one of her zombie cocktails. I’ve been dosing on an as-needed basis, but it doesn’t seem to do much. I can still hear–-”

“The little devil on your shoulder?”

Cradock hesitated, embarrassed by the absurdity of it at first. Then he nodded.

“Pull up any random history on your steno,” said Hegazi, “and you’ll find they’re all overpopulated with psychotics and saints. Which is which too often depends on who’s doing the telling. Just see the Doc, kid.”

He watched the turtles down below––flippers paddling across beds of black silt––a bale of reptilian bumper cars squaring off for their small share of terra firma. It made him feel so damn hopeless––so damn helpless.

“I wouldn’t sweat it too much,” affirmed Hegazi. “Like I said, all this nothing can do funny things to a person’s insides. And that devil on your shoulder? There’s a fighting chance it might turn out to be an angel.”

This one’s starting to grow on me…‘ chirped the voice.

“Me, though?” she continued. “I don’t believe in either one. And there’s not much you can do about it anyway, is there?”

…like a case of trench foot.’

*

On the last night of any big job, enlisted ranks and civvies traditionally congregated in the torpedo bay and drank themselves blotto. In lieu of a proper bar, shots would be lined up along the shaft of the torpedo that would be affixed with a warhead, loaded into a tube, and launched at whatever it was the top brass deemed an appropriate target the following morning.

Tomorrow’s target was the lone fragment of unnamed earth drifting just beneath the dozer, and the bale of turtles upon it. Cradock couldn’t take his eyes off them. His nose stayed glued to the torpedo bay porthole as the black dogs and civvies caroused and let loose around him.

Divers had spent the last forty-eight hours risking life and limb to salvage every last shred of Corporacon metal they could glean from that rock, and now their worries extended no further than the shots of bathtub gin laid out before them.

It’s an enviable life they have, turtles,‘ rasped the voice in Cradock’s head.

“How do you figure?” asked Cradock. “They’re about to be blown to kingdom come and they don’t even have a clue.”

Not much different than your lot, really––when you stop and think about it. They lack the wanderlust of you shaven primates, though. Turtles never stray from their homes. It must be comforting. No need to drown out their longing with rotgut…like your compatriots here.

“Maybe it’s just their lack of fingers that prevents them from holding the glass.”

Even if that is the case, they’ll never tell. They’re a voiceless species down there, frowning up at you like it’s your fault they’re in this predicament.

“Isn’t it, though? Look at us––the rabble stowed away below board––while the brass chart our course from their armchairs up above.”

History is peppered with rabble-rousers …saboteurs…saints––

Cradock could have sworn the voice abandoned him for a moment. The world became hushed. He turned and swiped a shot glass, and then choked back the shot.

“What’s the good of them?” he winced. “Saints never hold up too well in the face of our basest instincts. That’s when heads start to roll. That’s when the boys upstairs start to fire up the pyre. What’s the use? Think those turtles are praying to their patron saint? Think they got one?”

Just then, a gin-addled black dog knocked Cradock face-first into the porthole. The diver tripped over an apology. “Looks like the joint’s clearing out,” he hiccupped. “Need a hand cleaning house, Crad?”

“Naw,” said Cradock. “Once the stragglers filter out, I’ll just round up the glasses and drop them by the mess. Get some shuteye. Busy day tomorrow.”

*

The bridge was abuzz; Captain Krantz, his navigator, and his copilot huddled around the control console. Bombardier Tanuki sat beside them astride the targeting mechanism. The crisp blue light radiating from her monitor made the sweat beading her forehead look like a field of miniscule sapphires.

The torpedo tubes on these old dozers were fixed, so the clunker had to be positioned just right for the warhead to find its mark. Torpedoes didn’t come cheap; just one carried a heftier price tag than a whole dozer. A misfire commonly cost a captain his or her bars. There was no room for error or oversight.

“A little more torque and we’ll be locked on target,” Tanuki bellowed.

“Back her off,” barked the Captain. “Way back. Nice and easy.”

Cradock watched the planetoid shrinking in the distance from the glass bottom belly of steerage. It smelled like a tin shack after a rainstorm down there. Cradock’s coveralls were striped with silt off the salvaged machinery, packed so tightly he could barely make his way from one end of the deck to the other. The ship’s guts groaned with every unseen button-punch and keystroke upstairs.

From the bow, he had a panoramic view of the dwarfish world in front of him, its charred, rippling surface a living mosaic of turtle shells. He could not make out much else from his vantage point––the celestial reptiles moved as one great, sweeping organism, anonymous as pedestrians observed from atop a starscraper.

The dozer ranged backward, steadying its position just outside of harm’s reach, should the strike produce an inordinate amount of debris. Krantz now hovered over Bombardier Tanuki’s shoulder, eyeballing the monitor.

“Locked and loaded, Cap’n,” Tanuki affirmed.

The Captain gave the go-ahead. “Sink it.”

Tanuki squeezed the trigger on the targeting mechanism. There was a whirring sound, but absent was the roar that normally followed: the growl from the guts of the ship that preceded the torpedo being shot out into the soundless hollows of space.

“Odin’s balls,” cursed the Captain. “I said, sink it, Bombardier.”

Tanuki mopped her brow, eyes still trained on her monitor. “There’s been a malfunction,” she warbled.

“We got a grease monkey in the bay?” snarled Krantz.

“Cady, sir.”

“Get him on the horn––and Colibrí,” he growled at his copilot, “keep the old girl steady while we get this sorted out.”

There was a frantic exchange over the intercom, followed by dead static as the resident grease monkey flew into action. Then, a sound like a radiator being played with a tire iron: the sort of ruckus that seldom presaged good tidings. Followed by more dead static––a brittle tension that lingered long past its welcome. Until Cady’s befuddled voice rose above the crackling:

“Uh, Bombardier? There seems to be an obstruction in the torpedo tube.”

“Obstruction?” seethed Tanuki.

“Yeah, some sort of caulking. Appears that when we loaded it up this morning, we essentially vacuum-packed the torpedo right up with whatever’s causing the blockage. I’m afraid nothing’s getting in or out without some serious prying and prodding, ma’am.”

The Captain howled up at the intercom. “Caulking? Is that your professional assessment, Airman Cady?”

“Not caulking, per se. Appears to be an organic compound of some sort. You’re gonna think I’m crazy, sir, but it looks like spuds.”

“Spuds?”

“Taters.”

“Taters?”

“Mashed, whipped, julienned, whole…every which way but loose, sir.”

A trembling vein sprouted across Bombardier Tanuki’s temple.

“I need a team of squaddies to sniff out that drunken hash-slinger Cradock,” she snarled. “I want him in the brig by the time I get down there.”

*

Cradock didn’t know exactly how long he’d been in the brig’s mindbender. It could have been minutes. Or days. The cell was rigged to do to one’s sanity what a microwave does to last night’s leftovers: cook it from the inside.

The air was humid and still and carried the sharp stench of urine. The cell was pitch-black, save for a peephole in the door through which Cradock could see the room beyond, flooded in bile-yellow light. There was another door beyond that room flanked by two expressionless squaddies.

Look at them out there,‘ tsked the voice who’d declared squatter’s rights in Cradock’s head. ‘Black dogs. Sheep is more like it. The wolves are gonna come for us all sooner or later. Better a fawn running free until that moment than a sheep, don’t you think?

“Shut up.”

Cradock drifted in and out of consciousness. He’d been bled across a canvas: a still life strung across an easel. Griselda supine. Some paint-slinger rutting against her.

The thing I find most discomforting about spending so much time in the black, Mr. Cradock, is being forced to become at ease with myself.‘ Hegazi’s words haunted him.

“Shut up.”

He could hear the squaddies outside his cell. “He’s talking to himself again.”

The voice in his head joined the mad chorus. ‘There are certain holy orders who adhere to the idea that rapture can only be attained after having traversed the depths of despair. I’m not sure I’d agree with them. Masochists. I’m sure all those divers who’ve left their bits and pieces spread across the Nantuxent Belt for the sake of some rich men’s scrap metal might see the world differently, too.

“What I did was stupid. All I bought those blasted turtles was an afternoon––at best.”

“He’s still yapping away in there. Hit the lights. That might shut him up.”

The voice continued, unabated. ‘There’s no winning. In the end, there’s no nothing.

“I might as well string myself up and be done with it, then.”

You’ve got it all backwards. You can be a living testament to the fact that we’re all only as alone as we consign ourselves to be. A reminder that sometimes, one simple, stupid, courageous act, on the most rare occasion, triggers a powder keg. A reminder that there’s a little god-stuff festering in each of our bellies, whether we know it or not––a squadron.

“Squadron? Of what?”

There was a buzz and a whiff of ozone as the lights flickered on in the cell. The voice stood before him, the word made flesh. Velveteen antlers plain as day, like some devilish faun, framed against a halo that burned like a dwarf star.

It came as a whisper. “Saints, of course. A squadron of saints.”

© Copyright 2016 James Edward O’Brien

obrien_photo

James Edward O’Brien lives in Far Rockaway, NY with his wife and three rescue dogs. Jim’s fiction and poetry appears in Cyclopean, Nerve Cowboy, Bathtub Gin, and Black Bear Review, with a story forthcoming in Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits. You can find him on Twitter @UnagiYojimbo.

2 Comments

  1. Lynn Eickhoff

    Excellent read, Mr. O’Brien.

    Like

  2. Lynn Eickhoff

    “…confronting how alien we are to ourselves.”
    …“Always wondering if we have the patience and fortitude––the fearlessness––to look into the void until something looks back.”

    Like

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