Migration Patterns

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“Well, where is it?”

Pamela shrugged, her binoculars still at her eyes. The whirr of the helicopter’s propellers was deafening, so she felt that there was no point in responding.

“Well?” Evan said again. “Where is it?”

She shushed him, aiming her binoculars left as the helicopter turned. Evan had been flying her for almost two hours now, a much longer excursion than usual. It was easy to understand his frustration. Still, Pamela hadn’t gotten a good triangulation. The elephants were traveling northeast, and the birds were flying southeast, but where would their paths cross?

“What about the fish?” Evan asked. It might’ve been a joke. The helicopter was so loud, Pamela couldn’t even be sure if she’d heard him correctly.

“What about them?” Pamela said, humoring him.

“We can’t track them, can we?”

“Plenty of aquatic life have tracking tags,” she answered. “Marine biologists love those things. We can ask them later.” It was almost a good enough angle for her to take out her camera and snap a photograph. It would’ve been marvelous, and their boss would’ve loved it, but they had to stay focused. There wasn’t time to get the camera set up and wait for a perfect shot, not with Evan in this mood.

“Can we land?” he asked her. He might’ve been begging.

Pamela aimed eastward. They were far from any cities, hanging over northeastern Egypt. There was sparse foliage, and there was hardly any color but beige to be seen.

“Has anybody figured out why this is happening yet?” Evan complained.

“Instinct,” she replied.

They were all going somewhere. It was clear to everyone in the world. It started quietly, only noticed by a handful of researchers, noticing migration patterns changing. Some animals shifted course, going due east, others going due west. Even the sea creatures, like the whales and the fish, all suddenly changed course. The birds stop flying south for the winter. The salmon stopped returning to the rivers. They were all going the wrong way.

Other people started to notice too. There weren’t so many mosquitoes out anymore. There weren’t so many ants, or flies, or bees. One by one, families found that their cats and dogs had escaped from their houses, sprinting off without any clear reason. Birds went wild, breaking free form their cages. Hamsters tried to squeeze between the bars, break free. Fish leapt out of their aquariums only to dry out and die on the hardwood floor.

They were all going to the same place. Every single animal in the world was traveling as fast as it could to one location.

The scientists worked together, comparing data, and the military donated some vehicles to watch over the bizarre migrations, and everybody seemed to cooperate thanks to this strange, inexplicable phenomenon. Everything else in the world simply… stopped. No more wars. No more politics. No more economics. It was captivating.

They were gathering in the Middle East, right around the location of the Fertile Crescent. It had long been said to be the dawn of humanity.

“Maybe it’s the whole region, and they’re already at their destination,” Evan suggested.

“It’s not,” Pamela told him. “They’re all still moving. We need to find a herd of animals that has stopped.”

“Here’s what gets me,” he said, his words almost completely lost under the helicopter’s propellers. “If all of the animals are going to the same place at the same time by sheer instinct, oftentimes even land-designed animals leaping into an ocean and drowning because the stupid things can’t swim, why aren’t humans captured by that same instinct? We’re animals too, aren’t we?”

That made Pamela lower her binoculars. She chewed on her lip as she thought. “We’re following the animals. Seems like we’re winding up at the same place anyway, doesn’t it? Maybe the others are doing the same thing, just following each other.”

Evan shook his head. “Seems fishy.”

“There!” Pamela said. There was a circle, a great circle on the horizon. “East! Due east!”

Evan was gawking through the front windshield searching for what she saw. It was very faint, but she knew. There was a massive circle of animals, all standing around one specific point.

As they flew in closer, Pamela could tell that they weren’t the first ones to arrive. There were a couple of other helicopters landed on the uneven terrain, not a long distance off. And there were tire tracks, and sounds of commotion, and cars, and vans, and it was an incredible sight to see.

“Land,” Pamela commanded.

“Let’s get closer,” Evan said.

“Land? You’ll scare them off!”

“I don’t know about you, but I get the sense that these animals aren’t going to move for anything. They came all this way to get scared off by a couple of pesky people? I don’t think so.” Nonetheless, Evan seemed to see the sense of it and started to bring the helicopter downward.

“Who do you suppose they are?” Pamela asked, shifting her binoculars. “The people, I mean.”

“Researchers like ourselves,” he guessed. “Or maybe locals around the area. We’re not the only ones who noticed the stampede. It’s all over the news.”

Pamela gave him an incredulous grimace. “They aren’t stampeding anywhere. They’re migrating.”

Evan muttered something under his breath, impossible to hear over the roar of the descending helicopter.

As the ground grew closer, there were more people visible than she’d imagined. Hundreds had gotten here before them. Pamela couldn’t help but feel a twinge of annoyance that they were far from the first to find the location.

By the time they’d landed and packed up their gear, four more vans had driven up and parked, one of which belonged to a news team. It only made her more anxious. It didn’t seem right, all of these wild animals being gaped at like they were in a zoo. Then again, she’d shown up to gape at them as well.

The circle of animals was almost half a mile in diameter. There was nothing in the center, nothing but a big empty space on a barren piece of land.

“You’re here for the show?” a grinning man asked her as she passed with Evan close behind.

“Show?” Pamela said back to him. It wasn’t the right term at all. These people had no respect. Before long, this really was going to turn into a stampede, and nobody would be grinning then.

The man took of his sunglasses, squinting. “The show. You haven’t got the news, have you? With you flying around the past hour or so, must’ve missed it.”

“What’s going on?” Evan said, catching up. He already sounded winded from the short hike.

“A new animal,” the man said.

Pamela looked back to the circle on the horizon. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He grinned again. “This place is sacred. The birthplace of all life. Mankind started here, and I suppose every other animal did too. And now there’s a new one.”

Pamela didn’t understand. Everything she knew about evolution and adaptation was flickering through her brain, but she contained herself. “A new animal,” she stated.

The man pointed. “It’ll appear right in the center of that ring. Instinct brought the others back home to watch. S’pose it brought you two as well.”

Pamela glanced to Evan, who had nothing to say, likely because he was still breathing too heavily to speak.

“Well,” Pamela said, “let’s go and see the new animal.”

 

My Favorite Robot

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“I’m very sorry, Mr. Clark, but you’re dying.”

Brett swallowed. “Dying?”

The doctor adjusted his glasses. “It’s a neurological disorder. Degenerative. The longest you might live is up to ten years, but I wouldn’t get optimistic. Most people don’t even make it to three.”

Brett looked at his hands in his lap. He was clammy all over. He’d felt it in his head, in his brain, only slightly. There hadn’t been any real symptoms, just a feeling of uneasiness. He’d also been feeling dreadfully lonely, which the doctor had assured him was a classic symptom. “Is there no cure? No operation? Nothing?”

“There… is a cure,” the doctor said, as hesitant as can be. “But it is extremely difficult to, er, administer.”

“But of course I’ll do it!” Brett said. “Why shouldn’t I? Tell me what the cure is. Is it a matter of cost? I’ll pay everything I’ve got!”

The doctor was shaking his head the moment Brett had started talking. “The cure isn’t something that I can give you. It’s not medical, precisely.”

Brett wasn’t following. “Not medical,” he repeated numbly.

“Not medical.” The doctor took a breath, and then finally dropped his clipboard on the desk in front of him with defeat. “The only cure is true love.”

Brett assumed that he’d misheard. “True love?” It was silly to say it aloud. Obviously he’d misheard. Brett didn’t know much about neuroscience, but it was clearly ridiculous.

“That’s right,” the doctor said. “The only way to treat this disorder is to find true love. Of the reported cases, only five percent, maybe less, have been able to treat themselves. Despite appearances in the modern world, true love is extremely rare.”

“True love!” Brett found himself laughing. He must’ve been dreaming. “The only thing I have to do is find true love? I’ll go on some dating websites! Do some speed dating! Whatever! You said I had years to pull it off!”

The doctor coughed into his fist. “Erm, yes, I did say that you had years. Many patients with this disorder make it at least two years after being diagnosed. But you see… true love is a chemical thing. Your brain is changed by it. A very small percentage of the population actually experiences it, even if they think that they can.”

But Brett had stopped listening. There was a commercial running through his head, he’d seen it on TV a hundred times, with that stupid little jingle. “Ladybot,” Brett said. “Ladybot. You’ve seen the ads, haven’t you? Manbots and Ladybots? They’re a couple thousand bucks, but hey, that’s cheaper than cancer treatment!” He was laughing again, uncontrollably. “That’s all I have to do! I’ll buy myself a Ladybot and program her with the exact settings that I need!”

The doctor leaned forward. “It’s a possibility, but you might find—”

“It’ll work fine! You’ve seen how realistic they look these days! A good Ladybot is practically indistinguishable from a human!” Brett paused. “Maybe it’ll cost more than a couple thousand if I want the best on the market. Ah, but don’t you see?” He was grinning like a crazy person.

The doctor spread his arms. “As I’ve already told you, the treatment is not medical. I can give you recommendations, but this is out of my hands.”

Brett stood and felt compelled to shake the man’s hand. “Thanks a ton, doc. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine! I’ll be great! I’ll be cured in a month!”

Brett was not cured in a month.

“Sweetie?” he asked his Ladybot. “Can you fetch me something to eat?”

“Yes, Mr. Clark,” she said, her smile unfading.

“No, no,” Brett said, his hand over his face. “Stop calling me Mr. Clark. Brett will do just fine.”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Yes, Brett. I will get you food right away.”

Moments later, she returned with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, his favorite lunch. “Again?” he said, his shoulders slouching as he took the plate. “You gave me PB&J yesterday for lunch.”

“Of course!” Ladybot said. “You had told me that it was your favorite lunchtime meal! I can show you my data logs if you’d like.”

“No, no, no, that’s fine. It’s just… Three PB&Js in a row is a little much. Can you spice things up a bit?”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will be served no more than two lunches in a row. They will also feature spices.”

“No! No spices!” Brett shouted.

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him.

He set the sandwich aside. “Now, please, sweetie, have a seat.”

Her strangely cold flesh sat down in his lap. “Yes, Brett? How can I help you?”

“Well, ah, hm, the trouble is, you’re being a little too helpful. Do you know what I mean?”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him.

“It’s like, you know, you do everything I ask. It’s like you’re a slave, not a person. If you really want me to love you, you need to show some personality, maybe have some opinions that differ from mine.”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Brett, I do not like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They are incompatible with my software.”

“See! There we go!” Brett said, trying to make himself sound cheery. “Perfect. Just wonderful. What would you like to watch on the TV this afternoon?”

Ladybot’s head hung to its side. “It is not my opinion to watch TV, Brett. What do you want to watch?”

“Well the game’s on, you see. I’d like to watch that.” He went for the remote.

“Brett, I do not like sports,” Ladybot said. “It is not my opinion to watch this game.”

“Hm, ah, well, alright,” Brett said, his arm still halfway to the remote. “Now I feel like you’re just disagreeing with everything that I say. That isn’t quite what I meant. I think that you need to find a middle ground.”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Please enter a percentage value for future disagreements.”

“Ah, hm, well, sweetie, if I tell you a percentage value, I feel like you’re still choosing your opinions at random. I mean, I’m no expert with computers, but—”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “My opinions can be determined via a random number generator. Does this mode suit your desires?”

Brett shifted in his seat. Her skin felt a little too clammy. “Er, yes. I suppose it will do. We can work out the specifics later. But if I tell you how to act, it doesn’t make you feel all that… human?” He shifted again. “Your skin is very cold.”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Body temperature increasing. Body temperature settings will remain at near-human temperatures indefinitely.”

“Anyway, as I was saying,” Brett went on, feeling her slowly warming, “I was thinking that maybe we should have some arguments, or something. It’s normal for couples, isn’t it? We can’t be perfect. It feels too weird. So the percentage of future disagreements settings… Well, I feel—”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “I hate you. I am breaking up with you.”

“Oh! Ah! Hm. Well, that’s not quite what I meant. And you know I told you about using contractions more often.”

“Contraction frequency is set to 10%. 10% of possible contractions in the English language will be applied to my vernacular. If you wish to reconfigure the programming—”

“Ah! Hm! Oh. I think you’re missing my point. And please, can you make me something else to eat? I don’t think I’m in the mood for PB&J right this moment.”

Ladybot stood. “Yes, Brett. I will make you some tuna sandwiches instead.”

Brett drummed his fingers on his leg. “Hm! Oh! Ah. Well, I don’t quite like tuna sandwiches. I thought we’d discussed this.”

“We have,” Ladybot said. “We are having an argument.”

“That’s not, er, quite how it’s supposed to go.” Brett leapt to his feet, suddenly in a panic. “You’re supposed to make the tuna sandwich anyway, without even asking me! And then I’d get it from you and tell you I don’t like it, and you’re supposed to get offended! And then, THEN we fight! And you’ll tell me to eat it anyway, and complain about how much you do for me without anything in return, and I’ll try to defend myself, and… and…!”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “I will be in the kitchen, preparing our argument.”

Brett sunk into his chair. Just a little more tweaking was all she needed. Just a little more.

 

Bad Hair Day

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Little Timmy was just about to leave for school. He had his backpack, his Batman lunchbox, and his lucky socks. Little Timmy was just walking out the door when his mother called to him, “Little Timmy, did you comb your hair today?”

Little Timmy reached up and patted his hair about. “No, it’s fine as it is,” he replied, and headed out the door.

Halfway there, he heard a voice. “Hey! Why am I all messy and unruly?”

“Who said that?” Little Timmy cried. He looked around and saw nobody on the entire block.

“It’s me, your hair! Why aren’t I combed? That’s making me rather irritated!”

Little Timmy felt his hair and answered, “I’m sorry I made you irritated, but you look just fine when you’re messy and unruly.”

Little Timmy’s hair was not satisfied by this response. “But I hate being messy and unruly! I’m going to eat your head off unless you comb me this instant!”

“Oh please don’t be angry!” Little Timmy protested. “I didn’t bring a comb with me, and I’d rather not be late for school!”

But it was too late. Little Timmy’s messy and unruly hair started eating away at his scalp. He let out a cry of pain, dropped his Batman lunchbox, and ran around in circles screaming.

“Please stop, hair! Stop eating my scalp!” His hair only answered by eating faster.

So Little Timmy ran to the barbershop. He ran through the door and cried, “Help! Help! I need a haircut fast!”

The barber said, “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.” So he sat Little Timmy down on a chair and got out his scissors.

“No! I won’t let you kill me!” the hair yelled, and it gobbled up the scissors in one bite.

“Oh this won’t do,” the barber said. “That was my only pair of scissors left!”

“Really?” Little Timmy cried. “You’re sure you don’t have anything else?”

“Well,” the barber answered, “I do have these!” He held up a large, rusty pair of pliers as big as Little Timmy’s arm.

“Oh dear,” he said, and left the barbershop.

Now his head was really starting to hurt, so Little Timmy ran to the butcher’s store. He ran through the door and cried, “Help! Help! I need a haircut fast!”

The butcher said, “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.” So he sat Little Timmy down on a stack of decapitated chickens and got out his meat cleaver.

“No! I won’t let you kill me either!” the hair yelled, and it gobbled up the meat cleaver in one bite.

“Oh this won’t do,” the butcher said. “That was my only sharp meat cleaver left!”

“Really?” Little Timmy cried. “You’re sure you don’t have anything else?”

“Well,” the butcher answered, “I do have this!” He held up a giant chainsaw that was as big as Little Timmy’s entire body.

“Oh dear,” he said, and left the butcher’s store.

By now he was sure that his brain was being nibbled at, so Little Timmy ran to the old witch on the hill. He ran through the door and cried, “Help! Help! I need a haircut fast!”

The old witch said, “My time is but a piece of wax falling on a termite whom is choking upon the splinters.”

“That’s kind of creepy,” Little Timmy said. “But can you cut my hair?”

The witch said, “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.” So she sat Little Timmy in a large cauldron full of bones and got out her wand.

“No! You’re not going to kill me either!” the hair yelled, and it gobbled up the wand in one bite.

“Oh this won’t do,” the witch said. “New wands may only be obtained on the full moon while wearing a polka-dot sweater after eating salmon!”

“Really?” Little Timmy cried, a little confused. “You’re sure you don’t have anything else?”

“Well,” the witch said, “I could just use acid to melt your entire head, including the hair.” She held up a bottle of bubbling acid.

“Oh dear,” he said, and left the old witch on the hill.

Now he was quite certain that his cerebellum was being swallowed, which he thought was pretty far down his head, so Little Timmy ran to the master swordsman’s house. He ran through the door and cried, “Help! Help! I need a haircut fast!”

The master swordsman said, “Ah! Thou hath a mighty wounded scalp, I dare say! I shall see what I can do.” So he sat Little Timmy upon the dead body of a fallen foe and got out his finest blade.

“No! You’d better not kill me either!” the hair yelled, and it gobbled up the sword in one bite.

“Ah, this hath not gone well,” the master swordsman said. “My finest blade hath been swallowed. I shall be banished by the king for losing my sword.”

“Really?” Little Timmy cried. “You’re sure you don’t have anything else?

“Ah,” the master swordsman said. “Thou hath been spared, for I hath borrowed this fine, fine chainsaw from the butcher not a moment ago.” He held up a familiar chainsaw that was as big as Little Timmy’s entire body.

“Oh dear,” he said, and left the master swordsman’s house.

Now he wasn’t sure if he even had a nose the hair had eaten so much of his head, so Little Timmy ran all the way back home. He ran through the door and cried, “Help! Help! I need a haircut fast!”

His mother answered, “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.” So she sat Little Timmy at the kitchen table and got out her comb.

“Ah, yes! A comb at last!” the hair cheered, and Little Timmy’s mother carefully combed his hair. “I feel so much less messy and unruly now!” the hair said, and it spit out the rest of Little Timmy’s head right back into place.

“Wow, thanks mom!” he said happily, making sure that all of his various facial features were in the right place.

“That’s why you always should comb your hair, Little Timmy,” his mother said, and she waved goodbye as he left for school.

 

The Last Airplane

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“This is your pilot speaking. I’m afraid we’re going to have some difficulty landing.”

The passengers didn’t find this very funny at all. In fact, the majority of them were still unconscious from the Earth-shattering explosions.

Literally Earth-shattering. One moment Earth was hanging underneath them. The next it was a ball of fire.

Now there was nothing.

Earth had exploded.

The plane had been catapulted into deep space at an incredible velocity. The force was so powerful that every passenger was immediately knocked out. It took ten minutes for the acceleration to slow, and for the plane to to stop spinning so rapidly.

The copilot had been one of the first to wake. When he looked out at the ground, he saw that there was no ground.

There was black space outside. Infinite black space.

The copilot shook the pilot awake. “Sir! Sir! What happened?”

It took a lot of effort to rouse the pilot. His eyes were bloodshot when he opened them. The force of the explosion had caused serious damage to his brain, though he didn’t know it yet. His head had also slammed into the console repeatedly. “Crashed?” the pilot gurgled.

“No, we’re in the air,” the copilot said. He looked out at the blackness again. “At least… I think we are.” For a moment he thought that they were deep underwater, but the plane wouldn’t withstand being submerged. He was reminded of his night flights.

“Where are we?” the pilot moaned.

The copilot grappled with the controls, lightly maneuvering them, though he found that nothing he did could change the plane’s course. According to the monitors, they were spinning. Spinning? How could that be?

The copilot unbuckled his seatbelt, and that was when he realized something that he should have when he’d first woken up. He had been too dazed to notice, but he wasn’t completely situated in his seat. In fact, the moment that he unbuckled, his body started to rise upwards.

“Sir?” the copilot said wearily. “Sir, we have a serious problem.”

The pilot was a much older man. While the copilot was in his late twenties, relatively inexperienced, the pilot had been flying planes for three decades.

But nothing had prepared him for this moment.

That was when he had made his announcement to the passengers.

The pilot didn’t realize that Earth was gone. He considered it a possibility, but all that he knew for certain was that a massive explosion had launched them out of the atmosphere and into space.

Space. Hm. The pilot thought it over. There was no feasible way to locate Earth, if it was still out there at all. Which meant that this plane would never reach solid ground again. It was a disturbing thought, but as a pilot, he had trained himself to think objectively in a crisis. While most crashes happened while the plane was still on the ground, the pilot had experienced his fair share of close-calls in the air. Throughout his career, he’d had to make four emergency landings during cross-continental flights, either due to inclement weather or due to faulty equipment.

The copilot was not able to think so objectively. He was leaving the cockpit to investigate what had become of the passengers. However, he had only made it halfway to the door before panic set in. No gravity meant many of the plane’s controls would fail. The engines could move them forward, but it would be difficult to counteract the spin that the plane was currently experiencing.

Basically they were dead and they were never going to see the ground again.

The copilot didn’t handle this realization very well.

It was probably for the best that he didn’t make it out the door, because the situation out amongst the passengers was far more alarming. In fact, they could faintly hear the screaming and shouting from the other side, but both the pilot and the copilot were too tense to notice.

The passengers were in an absolute panic. By this point, they collectively had reached several more conclusions than the pilot and copilot combined.

For example, if they were never going to land the plane, then that meant there was a limited amount of food. Furthermore, there was an even more limited amount of air. None of them were clear on the specifics, but they were correct in believing that the oxygen was leaking out of their plane at an alarming rate. Normally they would all have about two and a half hours to live. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, several passengers had died from the massive explosion and sudden increase of velocity, and none of them were taking in oxygen. This saved the rest of the passengers approximately half an hour.

This half of an hour would actually be wasted, because almost everybody was hyperventilating, but it’s quite understandable.

In most situations that involved such a level of anxiety, the mayhem would escalate and some sort of brawl would break out. That’s what the intention was, at least. Several passengers were going to storm into the cockpit and attempt to commandeer the plane for themselves, because obvious the pilots had been flying them in the very wrong direction. Luckily for the copilot and the slightly brain-damaged pilot, the passengers didn’t get that far, as the lack of gravity made it much harder to maneuver than they’d expected. Moving without gravity is one thing, but moving through a group of flailing people, all of whom are panicking, was much different.

These were not the only humans left in existence. Four other airplanes had survived the explosion of Earth, with surprisingly few casualties. At the time, seven people had been aboard the International Space Station, and they had the highest chance of survival. Unfortunately, every single one of them happened to be male, so while they would last the longest, they would not be able to reproduce and save the species.

The copilot did eventually make his way out to greet the passengers. He was unable to calm anybody, because he wasn’t especially calm himself. Fights kept breaking out as people flew around the cabin, crashing into each other and throwing fists. The fights never lasted very long, as they were surprisingly exhausting, but another fight would break out only moments later on the other end of the plane.

Some people were scavenging for food already, stuffing their faces with little peanuts from sealed packets, drinking sodas and beers as quickly as possible in an effort to get an upper hand.

None of this would stop the oxygen from pouring out of the plane.

This was how humanity ended, wrestling and screaming.

The Forest

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“Your first time?” the burly man asked.

“Yes, we’re from out of town,” Richard said. His fiancé was clutching his arm. He sensed that she was getting nervous, but now wasn’t the time to mention it.

The burly man stood from behind his desk. “Desk” wasn’t the precise word for it. It was a block of wood, to be more accurate. Everything in the cabin was made out of wood. It did resemble an office, just a little, but Richard wouldn’t have known were it not for the sign.

“So what brings you to the forest?” the man asked. “The art? The trees?”

“He’s here for the art,” Richard’s fiancé said. “I’m just here for the trees.”

“She’s a chemist,” Richard explained. “The rumors about the sap…”

“Right, right, of course,” the man said, nodding along. “Come with me. Either of you have a flashlight?”

Richard hadn’t considered it. It was only a little past noon. “Is it so dark?”

The man sorted through his desk. “I’ve only got the two flashlights. You’ll have to share one of them.”

As the man passed the light to Richard, Richard noticed the thick leather gloves on the man’s hands. They were the sort of gloves that would strangle somebody in a movie. Richard shivered, considering how cold it would be in the forest.

The moment that they stepped out of the office, his fiancé grabbed his arm again. What was she so worried about? They’d looked at all of the pictures online before they’d driven all the way out here. It wasn’t that creepy.

The burly man held his flashlight at his waist, already turning it on. It seemed unnecessary, yet they were only a minute’s walk into the trees when Richard felt he needed to turn his light on as well. The canopy was thick, leaving thin beams of light, beams that were too far apart. It was unnatural.

“The trees are strong here,” the burly man said loudly. His voice should have echoed, but the sound was muffled by the thick air. “These trees grow taller and faster than any in recorded history. This place was noted by the pioneers since as early as 1740.”

As they walked, it got somehow darker. Richard’s fiancé tightened her grip, and he could feel her breath getting heavier. He was tempted to ask the man to slow down, but didn’t intend to interrupt.

“But it’s the carvings!” the man went on. “That’s what really draws people here today. They didn’t start appearing until a little over sixty years ago. Very peculiar. Very peculiar indeed.”

For an instant, the man swung his flashlight back and forth, as if searching for something. He made a grunting sound and kept forward.

“The carvings were first sighted by my grandfather. He’s the man who set up shop here, giving tours. Been passed down the family ever since.”

Richard searched between the trees with his flashlight, hunting for a carving. They had only been walking for three or four minutes, but their car felt like it was miles away. He threw a glance to his fiancé, who seemed to be calming down as she got adjusted, but Richard frowned when he thought that he could see her breath. Was it really so cold? How was that possible? Again, he shivered.

“Here we are!” the burly man announced. The light settled on a wooden pole in front of them. But as Richard grew closer, he saw that it was anything but a pole.

The wooden carving was about five feet tall. It was perfect and precise. It was the shape of a woman, with wide eyes and an open mouth. She looked like she’d been startled by something.

“Hm,” the man said. He swung his light around in a full circle, searching. “Usually this is the second one we find. Must’ve passed the other.”

Richard stepped forward. He felt his fiancé’s arm fall away from his. His pressed the flashlight up against the face of the carving. The detail was incredible. It was as if the woman had been full and alive only a moment ago.

Richard asked, “How was this carving made? With a knife? No chance it was made with a saw.”

The man shrugged emphatically. “That’s the great mystery of it. I’ve seen a lot of wood carvings in my day, and nothing as intricate as this.” His leather gloves tightened on his flashlight, and he cleared his throat. “Take as long as you like, but there’s plenty more to see.”

Richard turned to his fiancé, her arms crossed and her teeth chattering. “No, let’s keep on,” he told the man.

“Alright.” The burly man aimed his light deeper into the trees. “This way then.” He paused, then nodded. “Yes, yes, this way.”

Richard grimaced. This man had better not get them lost.

They had only gone a short distance before they found another one. This carving was a tall man, his arms thrust out as if he’d been sprinting. “It’s amazing,” Richard admitted. He reached out his free hand and ran his fingers along the hair. Then he felt the face, the cold face.

The man took a few steps back, giving him some room. Richard hardly noticed, entranced. There was some magic inside of the wood, and he couldn’t look away. His hand kept moving over the surface, trying to imagine what kind of person was capable of carving this. How long had it taken? How many were out here in this forest?

“Careful,” the burly man said, returning to his side. He fidgeted with his gloves. “Splinters. And there’s lots of sap.”

“Yes, the sap,” Richard remembered. “There was something funny about it, wasn’t there?”

“What’s funny is that it isn’t sap at all. Should be, but it’s over ninety percent water.” He laughed a deep laugh. “Like they’re crying almost.”

Richard didn’t find it very funny. He turned to hand the flashlight to his fiancé, but she wasn’t behind them.

He froze. His light whipped around in the dark. “Ashley?” he called.

The man rotated slowly. “Hm. She didn’t have a flashlight, did she?”

Richard called again. “Ashley!”

The burly man tucked his flashlight under his arm and rubbed his leather gloves together, huffing out the cold air sharply. “Alright,” the man said. “You go that way. I’ll check over there.”

Richard nodded unconsciously. “Yes. Sure.” He cleared his throat. “Ashley!” How could she have gotten lost so suddenly?

The man disappeared into the dark so fast the Richard was sure he’d vanished into thin air. Shaking his head, Richard took cautious steps forward, waving the light around wildly. “Ashley! Ashley!” It was impossible that she had gotten so far that she couldn’t hear him. Then again, he’d noticed how the thick air seemed to muffle sound. There was something wrong with this forest. Something very wrong.

For a moment, he thought he’d spotted her, and Richard’s heart skipped a beat, but it was only another carving. He inched closer to get a better look at it.

Richard felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. The carving looked precisely like his fiancé.

He took another step forward, numb. The face, the hair, the posture, the clothes… Richard’s jaw chattered uncontrollably.

This wooden carving was identical.

There was movement behind him, and Richard swung around. The burly man was there. His breath made a mist in front of him.

“Sorry about this,” the man said.

“How… How is this possible?” Richard stammered. “This carving—” He couldn’t speak. He was petrified.

The man took off one of his leather gloves. Then he stared down at his hand as if he didn’t quite know what is was.

“Look at her!” Richard shouted, but the sound was so swallowed by the forest, it felt like he’d barely whispered.

The burly man stepped up to him, reaching out his bare hand.

Richard glanced over his shoulder, taking one last look at the wooden carving. By the time he’d turned back, the man was inches away from him, his hand at Richard’s cheek.

The man’s bare skin met Richard’s, and Richard felt… wrong. He felt stiff.

He felt like he was solidifying.

The look of panic never left his face.

 

The Envelope

Standard

It was a small town. It was a boring town. But boring was the way that Kevin liked it.

His life was fine until he’d gotten an envelope that couldn’t be opened.

He was a person who liked routine. He craved routine, to be more precise. Every morning he woke up, went to work, had lunch at the same café, and went home.

Kevin worked at a grocery store, working the checkout line on weekday mornings. Mornings were easy. The movements were so repetitive, the swiping of the barcodes, the sorting through the register… For hours at a time, Kevin could live with his eyes closed. He didn’t need to think. It wasn’t that he didn’t like thinking, he just never had much of anything worth thinking about.

After work, he went to the café. Everybody there knew him. It was a run by a family, the mom, the dad, the three daughters. They would share some small talk, but they weren’t precisely friends.

There was somebody new in the café that day. Kevin knew all of the lunchtime regulars. It was a young boy, probably still a student. He was sitting at the table next to Kevin’s, examining a crinkled white envelope.

Every once in awhile, the boy would look up, and their eyes would meet. Then he’d look back down at the envelope, flexing his fingers, making the paper crackle with every movement.

Kevin was eating a tuna salad sandwich. He almost always got the tuna salad sandwich on weekends. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were typically days for grilled cheese sandwiches, while the Tuesdays and Thursdays were for bacon cheeseburgers. The only reason that he would ever break from this tradition was if the café had run out of ingredients for his preferred meal. Often when he came in, he wouldn’t have to bother ordering. One of the daughters would simply gesture to a seat and bring out the day’s lunch.

He hadn’t noticed, so absorbed in his food, and so absorbed in trying not to think of anything, but the boy at the other table had stood up and wandered over. Suddenly the boy was sitting across from him.

Kevin looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t have a clue what to say.

“Hey,” the boy said. The envelope was tight in his hand.

“Hello,” Kevin said.

The boy tilted his head, as if searching for something on Kevin’s face. “Can I ask you a favor? It won’t be any trouble.”

Kevin’s eyes were on the envelope. “I suppose not. Who are you?”

The boy shifted in his seat. He was anxious about something. “My name’s Bryan.”

“Kevin,” Kevin said, reaching out a hand and shaking his. He did it automatically, feeling that he had no choice. “I’ve never seen you here.”

“I don’t live in town,” the boy told him, shrugging slightly. His eyes were on the envelope too. “I’m from a couple cities over.”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “How old are you?”

Bryan smiled, like it was a joke. “Seventeen.”

“What are you doing out here?”

His smile grew. “I don’t quite know, to be completely honest. This morning I stole my dad’s motorcycle, and I started riding down the highway. No direction, no destination.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “You ran away from home.”

“I did,” Bryan said, flapping the envelope against his open palm.

“You have a license? You allowed to ride a motorcycle?”

“I suppose not. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Kevin studied his face. Bryan’s tone seemed politely cheerful, but there was still an ounce of disappointment hidden behind it all. “Why did you leave?” Kevin asked.

“I had some problems with my dad. Nothing special. But… anyway, I have a favor I need to ask you.”

Kevin said nothing.

Bryan lifted the envelope to eye level. “I need you to take this. I don’t want it anymore.”

“You don’t want it,” Kevin repeated.

“A few years ago, my mom was in the hospital, sick. The docs gave her a one in ten chance of living.” He flapped the envelope again, the paper crinkling. “My mom always liked handwritten letters. She said there was something nostalgic about them, something… melancholic.” The word sounded strange coming from his mouth.

“That letter is from your mother,” Kevin concluded.

Bryan looked at it again, as if he hadn’t realized he was holding it. “My dad didn’t like to visit her in the hospital. I wanted to go alone, so I could talk to her without him looming in the back of the room, listening and judging…” He sighed deeply. “About a week after we last visited, my mom sent this letter. But she was dead before the letter arrived.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say.

Again, Bryan flapped the envelope against his palm. “My dad never saw the letter. I got it out of the mail, and I hid it in my room.”

“Why?”

He sneered. “My dad didn’t deserve to see it, didn’t deserve to know her last words.” His face fell a moment later, like a deflating balloon. “I didn’t deserve to read it either. So I never opened it.”

“Why?” Kevin asked again.

Bryan looked away, his gaze on anything but the envelope. “I don’t know, really. I had a fight with my dad last night. Not a big fight, or at least no bigger than any of the others. But I was done with him. It was the last time. So I left, and the only reason I stopped here was because the bike was running out of gas.”

He set the envelope on the table and slid it over to Kevin.

“I need you to take the letter. I don’t want it anymore.”

“Why?” Kevin asked for a third time. He felt foolish for repeating himself. “Why me?”

Bryan smiled, puffing air out of his nose. “You’re somebody. As long as it’s not me or my father, I don’t care who reads that letter.”

Kevin picked it up. He’d expected it to feel special, have a certain weight to it, but it was just crinkled paper. He didn’t want it. It was difficult to say precisely why, but it seemed that this letter wasn’t meant to be read. “Do you have any idea what it says?”

“I have no idea. I keep thinking about the kind of ink she used. Black ink? Red ink? Blue ink? Maybe it was written with a pencil. Maybe it’s written in perfect calligraphy. Maybe it’s meaningless scribbles, a desperate message from a dying mind. Maybe the pages are blank, one last crazy joke to infuriate my father.” He shook his head. “I have no idea. And I have no intention of finding out.”

Kevin stared at the paper, at the address on the front. The address was typed onto a sticker, likely printed off by the hospital. There really was no way of knowing what sort of ink had been used. You couldn’t see through the paper. “The town on the address,” Kevin said. “You really have come a long way.”

Bryan stood up. “I have.” Then as he turned away, he added, “I’m sorry.” It sounded like he meant it.

The boy returned to his table, eating the rest of his meal quickly. He was finished within a matter of minutes. He stood up, paid at the register, thanked the staff, and left. Kevin could hear the motorcycle revving outside.

Kevin wanted to open the envelope right there, right that instant. But something held him back. After he ate his lunch, he brought the envelope home, but still he didn’t open it. He decided to sleep on it, and save it for tomorrow.

Still, he didn’t open it.

This Is How The World Works

Standard

She was leaning against the vending machine when The Teacher saw her.

“Shouldn’t you be in class?” The Teacher asked.

The Student shrugged. “Probably.”

The Teacher chuckled. “I’d like you to come with me.”

She stared at him for a moment, but then decided that resisting was useless. “Fine,” she exhaled, and she started to follow him.

“How have your classes been?” The Teacher asked.

“Boring,” The Student admitted, though she immediately regretted her honesty.

But The Teacher only laughed. “I understand how you feel.” They turned down a hallway, a hallway of the school that The Student had never walked down before. There were no doors lining the walls, and at the end of the hall was only a lonely elevator.

“Am I in trouble?” The Student asked, feeling confused.

“I don’t think so,” The Teacher shook his head. “I think it’s time that you learned how the world works.” He pressed the down button on the elevator, yet as far as The Student knew, there were no floors below them.

The Student asked, “Where are we going?”

The Teacher smiled. “Downstairs. There’s something that I’d like to show you.”

The elevator doors slid open. The Teacher beckoned The Student to follow him inside, and he pressed a button for a floor labeled “E”.

“What does the E stand for?” The Student asked.

The Teacher looked at her with another smile. “Everything,” he said simply.

The Student stared forward at the closing elevator doors, uncertain how to respond. She still wasn’t sure if she was in trouble or not.

“Why is it that you skip classes so frequently?” The Teacher asked. “Why do you suppose it is that you do so poorly in school?”

“Because I don’t care about grades,” The Student said. “Everybody just assumes that if you do well in school, then you’re going to do well in life. But I know that even if I were to ace all of my classes and go to a great college, I’m not guaranteed a good job. Academics don’t correlate to success.”

The Teacher laughed. “What do you want to do when you’re older that you feel academics can’t guide you towards?”

“I’m interested in the arts,” The Student told him. “Art doesn’t make money. It doesn’t matter how much people appreciate artistic talent, because it’s always the businessman that gets all of the profit.”

“If there’s anything that I can say about you, it’s that you’re very intelligent. Obviously grades aren’t equivalent to smarts. But aren’t you at all curious about the things that you could learn from your classes?”

The Student shook her head. “Anything that I learn in class, I can just as easily learn on my own. Besides, the other kids don’t like me. If I’m so smart, then why am I not even remotely successful?”

The Teacher smiled. “Just because a person is born intelligent, that doesn’t mean that they are assured success. That wouldn’t be fair to the lesser people out there. If you’re intelligent, then you have to prove it. You need to earn your success, just like everybody else.”

The elevator doors slid open, and The Student was overwhelmed by the sound of drilling, and power tools. Before her was a large factory, an unreasonable size for something hidden underneath a school. “What is this?”

“This is our factory,” The Teacher said. “Follow me. I’ll show you around.”

The two of them moved down sprawling assembly lines, and past hundreds of workers diligently constructing objects of all sorts. “What is it that they’re making?” The Student asked.

“Everything,” The Teacher told her. He pushed open a set of doors, revealing rows of people all working over benches with fine tools. They were clearly building something, but there was nothing on the benches to see.

“What are these people doing?” The Student asked.

The Teacher led her down a row, watching the workers with his face alight. “These people are building particles. Every particle in the world is created down here, and each individual one is given hours of thought and energy.”

“But there are billions of particles in the world,” The Student said in amazement.

“Billions of billions of billions. And every single one was built down here in this factory. Every mote of dust hanging in the air. Every stone along the sidewalk. Yet nobody ever stops to think about how long of a journey every stone has taken throughout the history of our planet. Some stones have traveled around the world twice over, and hardly a single person bothers to dream of the incredible places that a stone has seen. Even the air that you breathe was created down here, air that has traveled across the planet and back countless times.”

“I’ve never wondered about any of this,” The Student said.

The Teacher smiled. “Nothing in this world should be taken for granted. These workers have all put a lot of effort into making our planet.”

As The Teacher led her down more and more rows of conveyer belts and machinery, The Student asked, “Why do you suppose it is that people don’t like me? No matter how hard I try, I’ve never been able to feel like I fully belong somewhere.”

“People are liars and manipulators. People do bad things all the time, and often without regret. You shouldn’t feel a need to rely on them so much.”

“I understand that,” The Student said. “Sometimes I even dislike myself.”

“I can’t personally refute any of your flaws, but I can certainly question whether they are flaws in the first place.”

The Student narrowed her eyes. “How can you be sure of that?”

The Teacher opened another set of doors. “Let me show you what people are made of.”

Hanging from the wall was an enormous blueprint, taller than a building, depicting the human form. Beneath it, workers were busy drawing diagrams and typing at computer screens.

“Are they designing people?” The Student asked.

“They are,” The Teacher said. “Each person is assembled from the individual particles that were built in the previous room. In here, the humans are constructed piece by piece.”

“That sounds very difficult.”

The Teacher said, “It is. Humans are unbelievably complex. It would be easier to build humans as simple beings, beings that are able to go throughout their lives without a problem in the world, but complexity is more fun.”

The Student tilted her head. “More fun?”

“Yes. The humans that we build down here are designed to be flawed. If they didn’t have flaws, then what obstacles would they have to overcome throughout their lives? How could they grow if they didn’t have problems that needed solving? Without their flaws, people would only be walking calculators, and that wouldn’t lead to a very interesting life.”

“But flaws make life so much harder!” The Student disagreed.

The Teacher shook his head. “Think of all of the books that you’ve read, and all of the films that you’ve seen. The hero of the story always has an obstacle to overcome, a challenge to rise against. Would a story be worth your time if there was no conflict? Such a story wouldn’t be interesting. Fortunately for us, the world is interesting.”

“I suppose I can understand that,” said The Student.

The Teacher raised a finger. “Let me show you one more thing.” He guided her towards another set of doors.

In the next room, a tall computer screen stood before them, glowing with numbers and diagrams. The Teacher stepped up to a small console, and he tapped at the keys.

“What does it mean to be happy?” he asked her.

The Student took a moment to consider the question. “To not have any sadness.”

“But then what does it mean to be sad?” The Teacher asked.

The Student couldn’t think of an answer.

The Teacher pressed a button on the console, and a diagram appeared on the computer screen, a wavy line moving up and down. “Happiness and sadness coexist. You can’t have one without the other. How can you truly appreciate your happiest moments if you’ve never had any sadness to compare it with?”

“I guess you couldn’t,” The Student said.

“The way that we design our humans doesn’t allow for consistent happiness. If a human is happy for too long, then his or her emotional state will return to neutral.”

“But why would you do that? Why would you make everlasting happiness an unreachable goal?”

The Teacher gazed up at the graph on the computer screen. “How can a person grow and learn if they are happy all the time? They would have no motivation to improve themselves. Do you see this chart?”

The Student examined the graph. “It’s a wave function, constantly going up and down.”

“And that’s what life is. Constant ups and downs. For every moment of happiness, there is a moment of equal sadness. We wanted to be fair when we were designing humans. If the happiness and sadness always balance out, then no one person lives a happier life than another.”

“But I don’t want to feel sad in order to feel happy,” The Student said.

The Teacher replied, “As I said before, you can’t appreciate happiness without a proper comparison. Do you appreciate your ability to breathe?”

The Student shook her head. “I don’t think that I’ve really thought about it.”

“Hold you breath,” The Teacher said.

The Student held her breath.

“The longer that you hold your breath, the longer that your lungs wish to have more oxygen, and the better you will feel when you finally inhale again. Do you understand?”

With her cheeks puffed out, The Student nodded.

“So the next time that you have a very good day, take a moment to think about what you went through to be in such a state. For every good day, you have to suffer. You have truly earned your happiness.”

Again, The Student nodded.

The Teacher told her, “Breathe.”

And The Student did breathe. As she felt the air reach her lungs, she felt that she understood everything.

The Teacher led her through another set of doors, but this time there was only another elevator at the end of an empty hall. “The tour is over,” he told The Student. “I hope that you have learned something.”

“I have,” she told him.

The Teacher pressed the up button on the elevator. “This is why the world can’t be perfect. Perfection is no fun. If everything in the world were built to be flawless, then there would be nothing for us to fix.”

The elevator doors opened, and The Teacher sent them back up to the school.

“Flaws are wonderful things,” The Teacher told The Student. “So many great things have happened on this planet because people wanted to fix our problems. Without these problems to solve, people would have nothing to do, and nobody would lift a finger for anything.”

The Student nodded. “The world sucks because there’s no better way to have it.”

The Teacher laughed. “Yes, the world may suck, and your life may seem like a mess, but you can at least appreciate that it’s a wonderful mess, and it shouldn’t be traded for anything else.”

The elevator doors opened, and they were back within the school.

“I suppose you should get going to class, then,” The Teacher said to her.

In response, The Student smiled.