Tomato Eater

I knew something was off about the guy from the moment he pulled out the tomato.

Look, who eats a tomato that way?  I know, it’s the Megabus, and when you’re paying just ten bucks for an all-night bus ride between states, you get what you pay for.  There are bound to be some crazies.  But here I am, sitting on the aisle seat halfway down the bus, and across from me one row up is some dude chowing down on a tomato like it’s a freshly picked apple.

I couldn’t avert my eyes as he happily took bite after bite out of this tomato.  I did swing wildly with my elbow, however, to alert my traveling companion.

After several blows from my arm, Janie, sitting next to me, finally opened her eyes with a grumble of displeasure.  “Zach, why are you waking me up?” she complained.

“Check this out!” I whispered back.  “This guy’s eating a tomato like an apple!”

When I pulled my eyes away from the sight to look at Janie, I caught her in the middle of an eye-roll.  “So what?” she asked.  “You eat pickles, and I can’t stand those things.  Maybe the guy just likes raw tomatoes.”

I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t appreciating this incredible performance by a wild humanoid.  Now that I looked a little closer, the man didn’t seem otherwise unusual.  He was wearing a rumpled grey suit that looked as if this wasn’t the first time it had been slept in.  He was in his mid-forties, I’d guess, with a pretty significant paunch extending to catch the errant drops from the tomato.

After the man had finished devouring his snack (which took surprisingly little time), he started gazing around the bus, the food boosting his alertness.  Most of the other passengers were asleep, since it was nearly midnight.  His eyes alighted on me briefly, but then slid onward.  They stopped on Janie, however, whose eyes were already sagging again.

“Hey, how’s it going?” the man said across the aisle to us in a stage whisper.  “Where you two headed to?”

Janie pulled her eyes open with a frown.  “Milwaukee, same as you,” she retorted.  “Same as everyone on this bus, in fact.”

The man didn’t seem disconcerted.  “Meeting a boyfriend there?” he pressed.

At this point, I thought that perhaps I should step up.  “Um, no, her boyfriend’s right here,” I inserted, indicating myself.  I thought maybe this would scare off the man.

His eyes returned to me blankly, but the comment didn’t seem to have registered.  “If you need a place to stay in Milwaukee, I can hook you up,” were the next words out of his mouth.  “I’ve got a double hotel room, and I’m happy to share.”

Janie looked at me for help.  I leaned forward, making sure that I was placing myself directly in the man’s vision.  “She’s not interested,” I said flatly.  “She’s already got a boyfriend, who will kick your ass if you keep on talking.”

For a moment, I wasn’t sure if these words were having any effect.  The man’s expression stayed blank, as if he wasn’t understanding what was coming out of my mouth.  Finally, after a long and uncomfortable pause, he sat back in his chair a bit.  “Okay, man, no need to get all upset,” he said before turning to face forward, away from us.

I stuttered for a moment, but Janie’s hand on my shoulder held back my retort.  “Maybe the guy is weirder than I thought,” she whispered to me.  “Maybe that tomato should have given it away.”

“At least we know now,” I responded, settling back into the seat so she could lean against me.  “If we see somebody eating a raw tomato, we should give them a wide berth.”

100 Posts!

You may note that this is not on a regular update day.  Don’t worry, there will be a normal post tomorrow, with another little gem of fiction.  I just want to congratulate myself because . . .

I’ve now made 100 posts!

Yay!  Go me!  There aren’t 100 unique stories yet, but I’m sticking with this, and have now been updating for 200 days.

Here’s a cool picture:


Author’s note: I wrote this for the Lascaux Flash Fiction contest, but then decided I didn’t like it.  At least, not enough to consider it worthy of submission.
It was love from my first glance skyward. She danced along breezes above my head, her smile beckoning. I climbed to the top of the tallest oak in our yard, but still couldn’t reach her.
I built my first flying machine at age eleven. It barely passed the farmhouse roof before the gears slipped and I plummeted. It took three months for my broken arm to heal. Trapped in bed, I saw only her delighted smile as I had ascended.
We couldn’t afford college. I would spend my life tilling our fields. But I spent every free moment in the barn, tinkering. Our neighbor’s crop duster gave me hours of happiness, dancing in her contrails. But I was sealed inside, and the engine drowned out her words.
I took out the engine, rebuilt it and strapped it to my back, the fuel replaced with clockwork. While my village watched, I turned the key. Up I flew, high into the sky! She came, dancing, with reaching hands and welcoming smile.
I don’t know how long I stayed aloft, lost in her eyes. But there was a screech of metal on metal, and I was falling, watching her concerned face fall away. I knew I would not survive. I closed my eyes.
I felt a soft touch against my skin. I opened my eyes and saw her, lifting me as my heavy body fell away, encumbered with machinery. I needed it no longer. “Come,” she said. We danced away, two intermingled zephyrs.

[Outworld] Salvation’s Danger

Previous chapter in the Outworld saga.  First chapter in the Outworld saga.


After the first of the two moons reached the horizon, I woke Cain for his guard shift, albeit with great difficulty. The man was a very sound sleeper. I was forced to roll him off his makeshift bed platform onto the cold sand.
Despite borrowing Cain’s blanket, the night was long and cold, and I awoke feeling miserable. From the depths of his pack, my companion managed to scrounge up two bars of some unidentifiable protein, disguised in a shiny plastic wrapping with language I didn’t recognize. “Everything ends up in Outworld,” was the only response I received when I inquired as to their origin.
We resumed walking through the desert, past the abandoned ships. After several hours of plodding through thick sand, I finally asked where we were going.
Salvation,” Cain replied over his shoulder. I paused to consider this response. As a newcomer to Outworld, I hadn’t given up on hope that all this wilderness had an edge, that civilization waited just around the corner. “It’s a dump, of course,” Cain continued, dashing my meager hopes. “Desert town, mainly just folks drinking away their days out here. But it’s better than the wilds, at least.”
The next couple of days passed in a blur. The days were spent hiking, keeping our eyes open for game, and the nights were spent shivering in the shadows of ruined ships. Soon, dust still swirling around our boots, we stood at the outskirts of Salvation.
I stared in dismay at the collection of ramshackle wooden buildings, seeing walls made from salvaged plates of corrugated steel and wooden roofs sagging inward. “It looks abandoned to me. It looks like it has been abandoned for years.”
Cain merely grunted. I watched him unshoulder his rifle with apprehension. I followed closely behind him as we entered the town, scanning the boarded windows for any signs of life or movement. I saw nothing.
The largest building, at the center of the town, was the first to show signs of life. The shutters on the doorway swung slightly in the dry breeze, and the wind bore the faint sound of an out-of-tune piano to our ears. Still holding his weapon in one hand, Cain pushed through the shutters. I hurried to stay near him, hiding in his shadow.
Inside, I had to blink several times before my eyes adjusted to the dim interior. A long bar ran the length of the room, across from us. Behind it, a wiry man in a dirty apron polished the stains on the bar with a rag in one hand, while the other hand gripped something hidden below the bar. I had little doubt that it was a weapon of some sort. Several other grizzled men, seated at the bar on wooden stools, had also turned to watch us. Their hands rested on the pistols in their belts. In the corner, the small fellow seated at the upright piano had stopped plinking the keys and was eyeing us over the lid.
Cain only gave the spectators a passing glance, his eyes sliding over them without pause as he headed for an open bar stool. He nodded to the barman, who didn’t change his suspicious glare. “Drink?” Cain said quietly.
The other didn’t move. “What brings you back to Salvation, Cain?” he asked. “Last time you were here, you made your intentions plain. We weren’t sad to see your backside.”
Cain nodded over to me as I pulled myself onto a stool with difficulty. “Newbie. Just looking to get him on his feet.”
The barman’s judging glance pinned me to my seat. “Doesn’t look like much. Bill’s gonna be here soon.”
In response, Cain merely hefted his rifle, placing it sideways across the bar. He also reached down and removed his sidearm, placing it on the bar in front of me. He opened his mouth to say something more, but was interrupted by a loud bang as the shutters on the front door were thrown violently open.
Cain, you son-of-a-bitch!” came a yell from the entrance, as the outline of a man filled the doorway. “I warned you what would happen if you showed your face around here again!”
I watched as my companion’s fingers tightened on his rifle. “Our score is even,” he replied. I could hear the undercurrent of tightness in his voice. “I’m just bringing in a newcomer. Nothing to do with you.”
P’ah, it’s too late for that!” came the cry from the door, and the shadowy figure in the doorway raised the outline of a gun and pulled the trigger.

Next chapter in the Outworld saga.

[Outworld] Food in the Dry Ocean

First chapter of Outworld.  Previous chapter of Outworld.


I picked my way through the sand of the dry ocean after Cain, sweating and staring up at the rusted wrecks that littered the sands. I had to ask. “How did they come here?” I wondered.
Ahead of me, Cain merely responded with another shrug. I had discovered that a shrug was his default, and indeed preferred, method of answering. “The same way everything gets here,” he replied. “Magic.” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not. “They’ve been here ages, though. You can tell by how they’ve settled. Picked clean, too, unfortunately for you.”
I had another question, but Cain suddenly held up his hand, a universal sign for quiet. I obediently shut my mouth, watching as he unslung his rifle and raised it to his shoulder. He fired a single shot, and I saw something small jerk in the sand, maybe sixty or seventy feet ahead.
Cain lowered the rifle, a rare smile passing briefly across his scruffy features. He hurried forward, with me close behind. He reached down and scooped the carcass of a desert hare up off the sand. “Dinner,” he said triumphantly.
That evening, camped in the shadow of a battered derelict that might have once been a battleship, we built a fire from salvaged scrap wood and cooked our meal. Cain had bagged two other hares during the afternoon, and the smell of them roasting made my mouth water uncontrollably. We eagerly devoured the meal; my first food since arriving in Outworld.
The sun had nearly vanished beneath the horizon when we finished. Cain dragged a couple long stringers of wood over, laying shorter cross pieces on top. Platform complete, he stretched out on top, somehow looking comfortable. “You’ve got first watch,” he said, passing me his rifle. “Wake me up when the first moon hits the horizon.”
First moon?” I asked, confused, but he merely waved a hand at me dismissively – his second favorite gesture, I would soon learn. He closed his eyes, and I was astonished to hear the faint but unmistakable sound of snoring within minutes.
I looked up at the sky. Sure enough, I could see two moons rising against a backdrop of twinkling stars, one of them decidedly larger than the other and moving more rapidly across the sky. That must have been what Cain was talking about. Something about the two moons didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t remember what was off.
Picking up the rifle, I examined it, locating the safety and figuring out how to position it against my shoulder. Clutching it to my chest, I crept closer to the guttering fire, staring out into the darkness of Outland.  

Next chapter.

[Outworld] Cain’s Primer on Outworld, Lesson 1

Author’s note: Previous Chapter.  First Chapter.  And, of course, your musical accompaniment: 

After this lovely introduction to Outworld, the other man turned and began making his way back into the forest, away from the clearing. I considered letting him leave, but he seemed to have a vague idea of where we were. That was more than I had. Ignoring the growls now coming from my stomach, I began hiking after him.

We proceeded a couple hundred feet before he turned to look back at me. His expression was unreadable, but he seemed to be waiting for me to get closer. I made my way to his side, trying to keep down my panting. The man moved surprisingly fast for his bulk and load of weapons.

“Do you mind if I accompany you?” I asked, once I had regained some semblance of breath. “Sorry to impose, but I don’t have any real idea where I’m going.”

“No one does,” the man scoffed, but there didn’t seem to be any malice behind the retort. “Yeah, try to keep up. I’ll take it a little easier, maybe try to explain this place a little.” I nodded, and thus began my first primer on Outworld.

The man introduced himself offhandedly as Cain. When I asked if it was his real name, he smiled humorlessly.

“First rule of Outworld,” he said, sticking up a stubby finger. “Whatever you were before here, it doesn’t matter. Not that anyone has a clue. None of us remember our past, or anything beyond this place. And knowing what I can do, I don’t think I want to remember,” he added, looking down at the ground. I wisely didn’t probe this topic.

“Us?” I asked instead. “Are there other people here?”

My newfound companion started to nod, changed it to a shake of his head, but ended with a shrug. “There’s a few,” he said. “Outworld turns you into a survivor pretty fast. I bet there were probably more out there at first, but most of them don’t survive the first encounter with the wildlife.” He winked sardonically at me, and I remembered the horror that had been disguised as a little girl.

“But there are some that manage to get by, fight them off,” he continued. “Take me. And a few of them have tried to settle down, make some sort of settlement, but those don’t often last too long. A Stomper comes wandering by, that’s the end of that.” I wondered what a Stomper was, but I was fairly sure I would be more distressed by the answer than by not knowing. “I come across newbies like you, occasionally. Most of the time, they’re already face down in the dirt, though.”

“Well, thank you for saving me,” I responded automatically.

He shrugged one shoulder. “Just delaying the inevitable,” he said. “This place gets everyone, eventually. ‘Outworld – where you’re already on the way out.’ But it does get lonely out here, with everything always being foreign. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone to talk to.”

He sounded uncomfortable about expressing so much sentiment. I decided that it was time to change the subject. “So, where did you get those?” I asked, gesturing to the rifle slung over his shoulder and the automatic strapped to his leg.

Cain ran a hand over the butt of his pistol. “Found them,” he replied. “Salvage. There’s a lot of that out here. Probably the best way to get your hands on things in Outworld, at least if you don’t want strings attached.”

I was about to inquire what he meant by salvage, but then I remembered the half of the sailing ship where I had first awoken. I mentally kicked myself for not searching the wreckage for a weapon. “Are they all boats?” I asked instead.

“Boats?” Cain glanced back at me, surprised.

“Yeah. I woke up on a boat. Well, half of a boat. An old sailing ship, I think.”

To my surprise, Cain chuckled. “Man, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” he commented, his voice taking on a Western drawl. “Eventually, everything ends up here in Outworld. Most of it I don’t remember until I’ve found it, but we get it all. In fact, you’ll see in just a few minutes for yourself.”

What? I looked at him, puzzled, but he merely nodded forward. I pulled my gaze up from the path to look ahead. I had become accustomed to the sight of the gigantic trees, stretching on endlessly into the gloom in all directions, but in front of us they seemed thinner, and rays of light were shining through. We were reaching the edge of the forest.

We climbed one last ridge, stepping around the large boulders sunk deep into the mossy peat, and the landscape opened up in front of me. At the ridge’s top, Cain paused, gazing forward expressionlessly. Hands on my knees and sucking in breaths of air, I blinked as I stared into the brightness, trying to understand.

On the far side of the ridge, the mossy earth gave way to sand, and rolling dunes stretched out towards the horizon. From where we stood, it looked almost like an ocean of sand, shimmering in the sunlight. Scattered among the dunes were the wrecks of dozens of ships of all sizes and types. Off to our right, I could see the stern of an aircraft carrier, rusting and half-buried in the sand. Atop another dune stood a lighthouse. It was listing alarmingly and the red barber-pole stripes painted on it were so faded as to be nearly indistinguishable, but the building was still unmistakable.

Beside me, Cain chuckled dryly. “Outworld,” he said simply. He waited a minute longer, and then began slowly descending into the dry ocean. I followed carefully, trying to keep my footing in the treacherous sand.

Mis-Filing has Serious Consequences . . . Part II

Part 1.

As he followed the tall, bony form of the angel through the gala, Salamon wondered what he was getting himself into.  He had managed to sneak into the party by posing, quite convincingly, as the under-duke of Southern Bohemia, and had even sold one especially wealthy guest on purchasing five hundred acres of what he assured the man were “only the highest grade oil sands, the next big thing in global energy.”

Of course, Southern Bohemia didn’t actually exist, much less have under-dukes, but Salamon was confident that he could have a down payment in hand before the man realized his error.  Also, the food at this event was excellent.  As he chased after Callador, he patted his pocket.  The angel was a fool to turn down such an opportunity for free food.  But that was angels for ya, always with their wings all ruffled over something, he mused to himself.

Callador dashed through one of the back doors, and Salamon only barely caught the handle before it swung shut.  He pulled it all the way closed behind himself without a thought, and then looked up and stopped short.

“Whoa,” he said honestly.  Rather than emerging into the bright light of the hotel’s kitchens, as he had expected, they had emerged into the bright lights of a museum exhibit.

“This is the National Museum of Ethnology, in Leiden,” Callador proclaimed, as Salamon cautiously opened the door he had just passed through.  He stared at the mop and bucket inside the broom closet on the other side.

Callador noticed that his companion wasn’t listening to his proclamation.  “Archangel, remember?” he said dryly, waggling his thin fingers.  “Even though I’m only a minor class, I’ve got access to ephemeral gateways, as long as I fill out the paperwork later.”

Closing the door, Salamon shook his head.  No wonder Hell was having such a rough time of things, he thought to himself.  The angels were running around throwing open ephemeral gateways whenever they felt like it, and he was still waiting to be reimbursed for the last three months of public transport fares.  Pulling his mind back to the present, he gazed around the museum.  He withdrew a shrimp from his pocket, calming himself with the snack.  “So why am I here?” he asked.

The archangel shrugged, looking both sad and slightly confused.  “This is where the Covenant was last seen,” he explained.  He gestured towards an empty podium.  “Right there, in fact.”

Salamon examined the podium closely.  There was definitely a distinct lack of tablet.  The podium looked sad without anything to display.  The devil helped alleviate this problem by depositing the shell of his shrimp on the empty space.

From behind him, he heard the angel sigh.  “Look, I thought maybe you could figure out where the Covenant went,” Callador groused.  “You’ll be saving your own skin just as much as mine.  Clearly I was wrong.”

“Oh, you want me to find the thing?” Salamon retorted.  “I thought you were just trying to seem like a sophisticated date.”  As the angel sputtered incoherently, Salamon passed a grubby hand over the pedestal and muttered a few words under his breath.

Callador’s attempts at a comeback were cut short as he saw a ghostly image of a large stone tablet appear on top of the stand.  “What did you do?” he gasped.

“Just tracing bad deeds,” Salamon said absently, focused on maintaining the image.  “Just watch.”

As the two supernatural beings looked on, a figure dressed in black covertly approached the podium.  The figure’s head was covered by a ski mask, concealing its identity.  The figure looked both directions, and then reached out and lifted the stone carving off of its pedestal.  After pausing for a second, listening for alarms, the figure straightened up, snapped its fingers, and vanished.

“Where did he go?” Callador gasped.

Salamon frowned at the once again empty podium.  “He vanished, just like that,” he said.  “That’s gotta be supernatural, right?  One of your people?”

“Ours?  Why would we want to bring about a flood?” scoffed Callador.  “No, it has to be a devil!  One of you lot out there, sowing discord and discontent!”

“We’re doing plenty of that without needing to start over, thank you!” the devil snapped back.  “Your side is the one that would want another flood – we’re winning!”

“No, we’re winning!”

“Are not!”

“Are too!”

“Sez you!”

Salamon clearly wasn’t backing down from the argument, but Callador paused before yelling back once more.  “Okay, so if it wasn’t either of our sides,” he wondered, “then who’s responsible?”

“And more importantly,” continued Salamon, with self-preservation close to heart, “Where’d they take the tablet?”

Ooooooh!  Mystery!  To be continued in Part III!