Our Beloved Dictator is a serial I wrote that ended in early 2017. This page contains the complete story. I hope you enjoy it!

benevolent

George mumbled a string of cursewords under his breath as he turned on his blinker and cautiously made his way through two lanes of traffic to the slender shoulder of I-95. Blue lights swirled in his rearview mirror. Twenty minutes outside of North Carolina and his day was already ruined.

The sound of rocks crunching beneath tires usually soothed George. It reminded him of rain on rooftops; a gentle auditory massage that left him relaxed and hopeful. He’d made many detours in his life just for the pleasure of that sound, but now it did nothing to lighten his mood.

George shifted into park and opened the packed glove compartment. He riffled through old receipts, fast-food wrappers, and his Academic Publishing Convention materials, until he located his registration. His stomach jolted and threatened to release the half-digested bagel he’d had for breakfast as his fingertips slipped over a hardened, brown banana peel that he’d left there who-knows-when. He had just retrieved his license from his wallet when he heard a tapping on his window.

Hi Offic…Oh my god!” George yelped, unable to stop himself. Before him stood a four foot woman whose saggy skin and moles paled in comparison to the pink wetness of her missing upper lip. Gums and teeth showed huge beneath a narrow layer of wrinkled skin just below her nostrils.

Lishensh and Regishration,” the cop said, her voice gravelly and wet.

Absolutely officer.” George pulled his own lips back until it looked like a reasonable approximation of a smile. He swallowed hard and forced his eyes to lock with her impenetrable shades.

Exshpired,” the cop said, handing his registration back.

Sorry about that.” He flipped through a stack of forgotten napkins in his glove compartment until he found the current registration. George ignored a wave of nausea that twisted his stomach into knots. He took a deep breath as he mustered his strength. It took an act of will he did not think himself capable of to not stare at the woman’s mouth when he turned back to face her.

What was the problem officer?” he asked as he handed her his crinkled registration.

You were shpeeding.”

Was I?” He glanced at his speedometer, hoping it could help his denial. He’d been passed twice in the last five minutes, once by a mini-van.

Yesh, 82 in a 70.”

George blinked his baby blue eyes at her as if trying to clear them from sunspots. He had to clench his jaw to keep from saying, “But this is I-95.” Anything less than 90 wasn’t really considered speeding.

Okay. Well, sorry about that,” he muttered instead. “Is this a warning type of situation?”

The cop turned her head slightly and spoke into the walkie talkie attached to her shoulder. “Dishpatch, we’re gonna need a tow at mile marker 23. Copy.”

Copy that. Tag and bag on the way,” the tinny voice squawked from her shoulder.

George held up his hands in protest. “Whoa. Tow truck? My car’s fine.”

Shtep out of the vehicle, shir.”

But I have no priors, no speeding tickets, no parking tickets even. I pay my taxes early every year.”

I’m gonna need you to shtep out of the vehicle shir. Pleash do not make me ushe forsh.”

George undid his seatbelt, hoping he wouldn’t be late for the convention.

He walked back to the cop car, asking for an explanation on the way.

“Shtand with your handsh on the hood, pleash.”

What?”

Shir, handsh on the hood.”

But I haven’t done anything…”

The cop didn’t wait for him to finish. She grabbed him and slammed him onto the hood, his head bouncing off the shiny blue metal before coming to rest at an odd angle.

Even dazed, George was amazed by the strength of the ancient officer. He flinched as she cinched cold metal cuffs around his wrists.

You can’t do this!” he screamed.

Shir, I shuggesht you shut up.”

Are you reading me my rights now?” he asked as she pulled him off the hood.

Shir, thish ish Greenville. You have no rightsh.”

She shoved him into the back of the car and started the motor. “At leasht you’re here at the right time of year. Winter’sh hell.”

The officer pressed the gas pedal and pulled into traffic, cutting off a tractor trailer.

Where are we going?”

Shentenshing. Now shut up.”

They pulled off at an exit with a faded green sign for Greenville. George tried to open the backdoor but it was locked shut. He searched his pants for his phone, but then he remembered he’d left it in his car.

He stared out the window as they wound their way through tree lined streets, stopping finally at a large white building with a marble sign that proclaimed it to be the Greenville Courthouse.

George was still reeling in confusion when the cop, much stronger than her ancient appearance implied, dragged him into the courtroom.

Well now, traffic case is it?” the Honorable Henry J. Long said from behind the bench, jowls shaking as he spoke.

I think there’s been a mistake your honor,” George said. “I was only going twelve miles over the speed limit. I’m on my way to a conference in DC. Just passing through. Surely I can pay a fine.”

Six months mandatory citizenship,” the Judge said pounding his gavel.

George stood, his face grown flush with anger. He wanted to throw something at the judge but nothing was handy, and his hands were firmly cuffed. “What? Six months? Six months of what?” he asked the cop, the bailiff, the judge and everyone else in the room.

A young man at the table opposite stood up and cleared his throat. He ran a shaky hand through his loose, black curls. “Umm, Your Honor…” His voice faltered as he picked up a piece of paper, dropped it, then picked it up again. The man’s eyes did not leave the paper as he spoke, delivering the address in fits and starts. “Your honor, I’d like to throw my client on the mercy of the court and the mercy of our benevolent dictator. This young man is new to our town and unaware of our ways. It’s clear he meant no harm.” At the end of his speech, the man looked up, his smile almost bright enough to cast away the shadows under his eyes. Almost.

The judge’s cheeks wobbled as he thrust a finger at the man. “This court shows no mercy as you very well know Quint. Not another word out of you or I’ll hold you in contempt.”

The man folded his skinny frame into his tiny, wooden chair and averted his eyes from both the judge and George.

Our benevolent what?” George asked.

Thish way,” the cop said. “Prosheshing.”

 

fear of the youth

The antique Cadillac chugged its way down the sprawling drive until it came to a sputtering rest in front of the southern-gothic behemoth that had been the Long’s family home for generations. Judge Henry J. Long ignored the graying, weathered paint and overgrown bushes as he scanned the yard, spotting his daughter’s upturned tricycle near the front porch. A heavy groan escaped his lips. Maybe Independence was in the house, maybe she was at the neighbor’s, but she definitely wasn’t in school. The pop of the briefcase echoed in the car as he double-checked to make sure the Bersa Thunder was there, loaded, and that the safety was set to “off”. Henry closed the case, grabbed his robe for Mabel to wash and headed into the house.

The door gave easily, something Henry failed to notice due to his rumination about the upturned tricycle. He’d endured weeks of Mabel nagging him to sand down the bottom of the door where it stuck to the frame. He had a mind to sue the installers, but one of them was a distant cousin of the Beloved Dictator. Judge Long was no fool. If he’d been able to forget about the tricycle long enough to realize that the door hadn’t stuck this time, that it had in fact been left open a bit, then he might not have walked into his home so casually.

Oh shit, the judge is here.”

Henry jumped at the sound of the pre-pubescent voice.

The two youngest Higgins kids, JT and Fishy, stood in his kitchen, eating the coffee cake his wife had made that morning. A juice-stained pillow case sat on the counter near them, stuffed with his family’s belongings. He could just make out Independence’s teddy bear peaking over the lip of the case.

Henry sized the boys up. Neither one had crested puberty yet. Their awkward, gangly bodies lacked the muscle of men but their dark, hungry eyes were wild with adult desperation. He held his briefcase close to him, readying to tear out the Bersa and unleash justice.

Henry fought to keep his voice even. “You boys better leave. I’m armed.”

Fishy broke into a savage grin, made all the more feral by the gap where his front teeth should have been. “Man, I really wanted to finish my cake first.” He grabbed the crowbar from its resting place at his feet.

Nah,” JT said around a mouthful of food. “We’ll just work up an appetite and enjoy it more.”

Henry tried to open his briefcase but Fishy knocked it out of his hands with one swipe of the crowbar.

Dammit, he was at their mercy now.

Come on boys, if you leave quietly, I won’t call the cops,” Henry said, backing toward the door with his hands held in the air.

Fishy laughed at the Judge’s pleading. “The police? No-lip and the Dimwits?”

JT made a big show of swallowing his coffeecake. “The more the merrier,” he said, raising his fists.

Just a few more steps, Henry thought. I can make it to the door.

Now, Judge, you wouldn’t be trying to run away would you?”

Henry turned to run but Fishy moved faster. He hit the judge on his left hamstring with a resounding thwack.

Pain spiked up Henry’s body as he crashed to the ground.

JT circled quickly behind him, placing himself between Henry and the door.

Is it money you’re after?” the Judge grunted, pulling himself up to a kneeling position. “I have some cash in the safe. I’ll give you the combination.” He tried to stand but his leg gave out and he fell back down to the linoleum floor. He lay quivering in a mound like a jello casserole.

Fishy glared at JT. “I told you there was a safe. All these big houses have ‘em.”

And I told you I wasn’t spending all day trying to find the damn thing. But now we don’t have to, do we Judge?” JT placed a calloused hand on Henry’s shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze.

Henry let out a whimper. “No.”

He knows how to coop…oof!” JT howled, grabbing his testicles. He dropped to his knees revealing the Judge’s six-year-old daughter, Independence, who stood clutching an aluminum baseball bat.

Independence grabbed JT by the hair and pulled with all her might. “What the hell do you two boys think you’re doing?” she asked. “Trying to prove you still got it?” She held the bat to JT’s head, letting him and the rest of the room know what she’d used to bang his grapes.

Fishy set his crowbar down on the floor. He took two big steps back form it, his hands raised in the air. “We don’t want any trouble, Indy.”

You should have thought of that before you entered my house,” Independence said, shoving JT to the ground with a thud.

We thought you was at school. We’ll just leave.” Fishy reached behind him for the pillowcase of goods, keeping his eyes on the small girl with the big bat.

Independence swung and hit Fishy on the knee, dropping him quickly to the ground. “Oh you’ll leave, but you’re not taking anything with you.”

Henry tried like hell to melt into the floor as Independence patted down the two boys, taking a small wad of cash from JT’s back pocket.

Awww, Indy, that’s ours.”

Was yours,” Independence said, pocketing the cash.

Fishy pulled JT to his feet and the two limped out of the house and down the long drive, supporting one another as they went.

Thanks, Independence,” Henry said, his voice barely audible.

Independence tapped her bat to Henry’s belly. “Seems to me like we need a new coffeecake for dessert. Mom’s apron is hanging in the pantry. Get to work.”

Henry kept his eyes averted as he strapped on the apron. He cursed silently under his breath. Did the boys have to eat Independence’s cake?

check-in

George left the courthouse in a state of panic. He’d been taken to the police station next door and photographed, finger printed, strip-searched and fitted with an electric collar. All for twelve miles an hour over the speed limit, on I-95!

You have an electric fence around the town?” he asked the ancient officer as she led him out to the lobby of the station.

Of coursh, how elshe would we keep in criminalsh?”

A jail? And I’m not a criminal.”

Jailsh are for weak shoshietiesh, sho shayeth our beloved dictator.”

George wasn’t sure what to say back to the officer. He’d never heard of a town ran by a dictator before. He felt fairly certain that dictatorships were completely and totally illegal.

And you broke the law, ipsho facto, you are a criminal.” She sucked the spit back into the her mouth, using her bottom lip to wipe at her top teeth.

George’s stomach lurched. He’d started to grow used to speaking with a woman with no upper lip but the sucking sound hollowed out his insides. He choked down bile and asked if he could call his lawyer. He didn’t have one, but even this town had to have a phone book and a decent lawyer.

Your trial ish over. The beloved dictator doesn’t allow lawyersh anyway.”

What about the one in the courtroom?”

Dictator’sh nephew. Judge letsh him in the court to keep him buishy. Lasht time he had too much time on hish handsh, there wash a cat-killing shpree.”

The cat-killer was begging the court for mercy for me?”

It’sh hish knew shtich. Shaw it on TV, I think. Now, thish collar, if you try to leave town, itsh gonna zhap you pretty good.”

George ran a finger over the smooth metal encircling his neck. “This can’t be legal.”

It’sh legal in Greenville.”

I’d still like that phone call.”

The officer smiled, and the site nearly sent George to his knees. “Shoon ash you find a phone, you’re welcome to call who you like.”

The chuckling that came from the other officers sitting behind their desks did not give him hope. There were two other cops in the room, both far younger than the one who had arrested him. One was a woman, rail thin and short. She wore a brown Sheriff’s Department baseball cap and yellow plastic eyeglasses that housed two of the thickest lenses George had ever seen. The other was a black man in his fifties who had not looked up from his Sudoku puzzle since George had been hauled into the station.

George stared at the three officers until the chuckling died down.

Well?” his arresting officer asked.

Where am I supposed to go?” George asked. He’d thought he’d be lead down a hall of some sort, given a room and maybe something to eat. He’d skipped lunch hoping to make it to DC a little early, fat chance he’d make it there before the conference started, or ended, for that matter.

The bed and breakfast is a couple of blocks up the road,” the young female officer said.

George slid his gaze to the giant blue eyes behind the glasses. “Bed and Breakfast? I’m going to have to pay to stay in town?”

Nothingsh for free,” the ancient one said, snapping her teeth at the end.

Which way?” he grumbled.

The cop with the yellow glasses peered out the window and scanned the street in either direction. She reached underneath her baseball cap and scratched her head, then scanned the street once more.

It’sh that way,” No-lip said, pointing over her shoulder. “Go out of here and take a right. Can’t mish it.”

Thanks,” George said, sure to pronounce the ‘s’ sharply. He left the station and made a show of heading in the correct direction. Better to rent a room and call a lawyer from there. Once he got himself free and the collar off, he was going to sue the entire town of Greenville. Forget the promotion to senior editor he was after, he would never have to work again.

George walked down the street aways, puzzling over his predicament. The buildings thinned out and turned into a neighborhood. He kept walking, keeping his eyes peeled for anything that indicated a Bed and Breakfast. He glanced at a large, brown sign that stood before an open field, and stopped in his tracks. He read the sign again, just to make sure.

Here Lies the Plot for Future Mass Graves:

One day, there will be a sign here that says “Never Forget”. Keep that in mind.

Your Beloved Dictator

 

George read and reread the sign. Future mass graves? Who was this dictator planning to kill? The entire town?

He pulled himself away and began walking again, trying to ignore his trembling hands. Next to the future mass graves sat a lovely brick home with cheerful pink curtains and roses in full bloom. A sign on the lawn proclaimed it “Becky’s B&B.”

George stared at the lovely home then looked over at the empty plot of land that might, one day, be filled with rotting corpses.

Oh, you must be George,” a woman said, seeming to appear out of nowhere. In truth, she’d been watering a large boxwood and George had failed to notice her. She was so short that the watering can she held looked enormous in her hands.

Yes. You were expecting me?”

Sure. Phyllis said that she had a new one for me. Good timing too. Our last batch of speed demons just left.”

They got to leave?”

Becky smiled brightly and placed the watering can on the ground. She removed her floral-printed gardening gloves to reveal two perfectly manicured pink-nailed hands. “Of course they did. Six months goes by in a flash.”

Six months?” George felt his stomach drop. “What about their lawyers?”

Becky’s cute features scrunched up in confusion. “Lawyers? There are no lawyers in Greenville, silly. Who would want to oppose our glorious dictator?”

George licked his lips. “The plot of land, next door…”

Yes, I know. It gives you pause, right? That’s what it’s supposed to do. How good of our dictator to give us a warning instead of slaughtering us in our sleep. The generosity of that man knows no bounds.”

Yes,” George nodded. His head felt as if it were full of cotton instead of brains. “How kind.”

Now, don’t be shy. Let’s get you in the house and get you fed. I’m sure you’re bone tired after the trial.”

It wasn’t much of a trial.”

Long’s a good man. His justice is swift.”

And completely lacking,” George mumbled.

He walked down a little further to the driveway, not wanting to trample the lush green grass of the lawn.

I’m Becky Lee, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” She held out her hand for George to shake.

It’s nice to meet you as well,” he said, surprised to find that he actually meant it. Becky Lee looked like a nice person. She reminded him of his own mother, well, what he’d wished his mother had been at least. George could picture Becky Lee holding a plate of cookies as easily as the watering can.

She took his arm as she led him into the cheerful home. “I have two empty rooms, one on the first floor and one on the third. First floor’s bigger, third floor’s more private.”

Which one has a phone? Both right,” he said, feeling silly after asking such an obvious question.

Becky Lee’s face grew very serious very quickly. Her voice came out cold and calm. “I would never break a direct order from our benevolent dictator. You will find no phones in this house.”

Really? You have to have a phone. How else did the cop let you know I was coming?”

Phones are prohibited.” Her glowing smile had become a straight-lipped glare.

Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that was a rule.” George didn’t want to offend Becky Lee, she was the first person that day who had been nice to him, including his girlfriend. Dammit, he thought. I have to call Tara, too. Maybe he wouldn’t mention the arrest to her, their fight that morning had been epic and he was in no rush to give her any gloating fodder.

It’s not a bother,” Becky Lee said, her face brightening once again. “Which will it be?”

The third, I guess.”

Let’s get you all fixed up.” Becky Lee started walking toward the porch.

George felt a touch better as they walked into the cozy home. At least he wasn’t buried next door.

bug zapper

Thankfully, Becky Lee’s B&B did have a bit of breakfast left over, coffee and hearty home-made donuts. George ate four and chatted with Becky Lee as he did so. She kept her conversation polite and refused to say much about the Beloved Dictator, though his portrait hung just above the fireplace. The Dictator was a short man with square shoulders and a thick black mustache that hid most of his upper lip. Pockmarks littered his cheeks and forehead, making a rough topography of his tanned skin. He stared out of the portrait in defiance, as if daring someone to tell him that the green uniform he wore was from no branch of service they had ever seen.

After George had eaten all he could, he took a peek at his room on the third floor. It was larger than he’d expected and covered in floral patterned wallpaper, curtains, and bedspread. Cozy was not the right word to describe the decor. A gardener’s distorted paradise, maybe.

Even though he inspected the room thoroughly, checking under the bed and in every inch of the closet several times, he could find no phone. He had done a quick check of the kitchen and living room as well, but found nothing. He figured Becky Lee had hidden a phone somewhere, maybe a cell phone in her purse, but she was too clever to reveal it. He headed downstairs, determined to escape this town. If he couldn’t call for help, he would go and find it.

Stepping out for a while?” Becky Lee asked from her stooped position in the garden. George didn’t see any weeds but it seemed as if Becky Lee was intent on weeding anyway.

Just thought I’d take a look around town. I’m not under house arrest, am I?” he asked, genuinely scared.

No.” Becky Lee grinned broadly. “I like your company but you’re not forced to stay. Just be careful. You new people always seem to want to test out your collars the first day for some reason.”

I wouldn’t do that,” George said, tapping his collar. He’d already tried to remove it with a butter knife, a screwdriver, a steak knife and his own raw strength. Nothing doing.

That’s good. Enjoy the town!”

George waved and then made his way down the short path to the sidewalk. “Um, Becky Lee, which way is town?” he asked after a brief pause during which he looked up and down the house-lined street.

A few blocks that way,” she said and pointed the way he had come from the courthouse a few hours ago.

He’d hoped that it lay in the other direction. He thanked Becky Lee and started his stroll toward town. George made a mental note to send the B&B owner a thank you card and a $100 bill when he got back home. Lunch with her had been the only pleasant experience he’d had all day. He averted his eyes as he passed the open field that was being set aside for use as a mass grave. The dictator likes to plan ahead, George had to give him that.

George kept his head down as he passed the police station. He’d been inside earlier that day. He had no interest in meeting any of them again.

His plan: get out of town, get to a phone, call a lawyer and a taxi, or get a rental car or a train, or even a damn horse but put as much distance between himself and Greenville as possible. Then, sue the balls off this town. Clearly the people here were under some sort of mass delusion. A dictator? Mandatory citizenship for speeding? No phones? It was all too crazy.

Focus,” George told himself as he walked down the main street, careful to keep his head down and eyes averted from the locals. “Step one, get out of Greenville.” If there were any phones here, the locals hid them well. His best shot was to just keep walking until he got to another town.

He heard a few people say hello as he passed them on the street, but he ignored them. No eye contact, no chance of being slowed down. Just walk. This wasn’t even an escape, he was a political prisoner, a man wrongfully accused. This was justice.

The main street led into another neighborhood, this one not quite as nice as Becky Lee’s. The houses were smaller and the colors duller, but he only noticed this the one or two times he glanced up to get his bearings. What stuck out more in his limited view was how the sidewalk had become more cracked and choked with weeds the farther he walked.

Eventually, the houses petered out, the road widened. George pushed forward, betting the road would lead him out of town. His feet, used to relaxing under desks or hooked into the inner workings of barstools after long days at the office, were aching. Blisters formed on the backs of his ankles and the bottoms of his feet. “I’ll add that to the lawsuit,” he said, chuckling. This town had no idea how much trouble they were in.

After what seemed like forever, though his watch told him only a couple of hours had passed since he’d left the B&B, George finally reached the edge of town. A sign, a glorious golden sign, stood next to the road and proclaimed in big white letters:

Citizens of Greenville:

Wallingford Welcomes You. HURRY!

The pain left George’s feet, and an all consuming desire to run took over. He took off at a sprint, every step taking him closer to his salvation. The sign grew bigger, majestic in proportion. Thirty feet away. Twenty feet. Ten. Five. One.

And ZAP!

From the outside, it looked as if George had hit an invisible wall. His body bounced backward and landed with a hard thud on the ground. He lay there, twitching, his collar buzzing and glowing red.

George did not know any of this. Once he hit the wall, all he felt was a blinding pain as he slipped into unconscious oblivion.

 

oh you

Agnes ran her liver spotted hands over the rumpled sheets, smoothing the wrinkles as she went along, careful to lightly caress the man beneath. Her perfume did little to cover up the slightly charred stench of his flesh. He had no burns except a pink mark around his neck where the collar had delivered the shock. Agnes was glad the Dictator had approved Dr. Ankler’s suggestion for a more humane electric fence collar. The old ones used to leave the poor saps a blistered mess; hell to take care of when you weren’t allowed to remove the collar. Well, you could, but then the Dictator would chop your hands off and that was far too high a price to pay to alleviate someone else’s agony.

The man on the bed let out a long, low moan.

You shush now, honey,” Agnes said, placing her candy apple lips next to the patient’s ear. “The pain isn’t forever.”

The moaning was a good sign, they usually woke up soon after they started moaning.

Don’t get too attashed,” Phyllis said from the doorway.

Agnes didn’t have to glance over her shoulder to know that her sister would be dressed in a baggy brown policeman’s uniform, or that her face would be completely disapproving, missing upper lip and all.

Aren’t you supposed to be on patrol?”

Thought I’d shtop by, shee if he wash ready to leave. Becky Lee doeshn’t like late vishitorsh to the B&B.”

That’s never stopped you,” Agnes said, turning her smoldering blue eyes on her sister. Even seventy years of living, uncountable wrinkles, sixty-plus years of a daily make-up regimen that would make a clown weep, had done not one bit of damage to Agnes’ eyes. Her baby blues were just as bright as the day she was born, even if her body had become overripe.

I shtop by to check. Becky Lee’sh all on her own.”

And how many burglars do you find in her bed?”

You are jusht filthy.”

Agnes opened her mouth to quip back about filthy habits, but Phyllis sped out of the room and into the night before she could. It wasn’t that Agnes didn’t approve, it was just too fun to watch Phyllis squirm. Plus, she didn’t want her sister around when George woke up. After the shock he’d got, he could use a little kindness.

She patted George’s arm before strolling back to the main room. The Greenville “Hospital” consisted of eight patient rooms, one birthing room, an operating room and a front desk. Agnes had worked there since it opened. The current Dictator’s father ran the show then and he did not like his citizens going to other towns when they got sick. Sometimes they didn’t come back.

Agnes sat behind the front desk and reapplied her lipstick, her eyes straying from her mirror to the TV in the corner of the room. Her favorite show was on, a drama set in the ER of a metropolitan city hospital. She insisted on watching it every week but always felt a little confused and befuddled by the program. She could keep up with the medical jargon but the pace made her whoozy. Years ago, the Hollister twins had each given birth and the Rhoads family had brought their little boy in for stitches and little Grace Garcia had accidentally bitten her tongue all in one night and it was all Agnes could do to remember not to tell the Rhoads boy to push.

The little bells hanging from the door jingled as Down On Your Luck Dan walked in, his pants singed and smoking.

Agnes let out a gasp. “Dan. What have you gotten yourself into now?”

I’m okay,” Dan said, his mopey face indicating otherwise. “Pants caught on fire.”

Agnes stood and placed a hand firmly on her hip. “How did that happen?”

Dan shrugged his large shoulders. The movement seemed to take considerable effort. “I was walking down the street, heading toward Moe’s, and somebody flicked a cigarette from their car. Caught my pants on fire, I guess.”

You are such a mess. Come on,” she said waving him down the hall. “I got one room occupied, I’m putting you in there. I don’t want to clean up more than I have to.”

It’s okay Agnes. I was just stopping in to see if anyone had left some pants behind.”

Agnes pursed her lips and gave Dan her best don’t-argue-with-me face. “Daniel Davis Brown, you get your big body down this hall and into that room this instant. Do not make me call up all the force of your dearly departed Momma, cause so help me God, I will get a switch and make you wish that fire had burned off your buttcheeks.”

Okay,” Dan said and shuffled down the hall.

I don’t know if you are the luckiest or unluckiest person I have ever met,” Agnes said as she examined Dan’s legs under the harsh glare of an LED lamp. “Pants caught fire, damn near burned the whole way off, and all you have are a few first degree burns.”

I guess that is pretty lucky.”

Agnes did not trust Dan to take a cold shower, knowing that even if he attempted to the water would come out hot simply because he was the one who had touched the knob. She soaked towels in ice-cold water and covered his legs.

This sure is cold,” he said, his teeth chattering.

It’ll keep the swelling down.” Agnes gave him two aspirin and a glass of water. “Take these, for the pain.”

Are you sure there aren’t any extra pants lying around here?”

This isn’t the lost then found, Dan.”

He swallowed the pills and made a face. Dan had choked on pills five times that year. Thankfully, this wasn’t time number six.

I might have something, but let’s get some gauze on your burns first.”

What’s his story?” Dan asked as Agnes removed the towels and started wrapping his legs.

Dan, can’t you tell? He’s wearing a collar.”

Oh.” Dan bent over to examine the bright pink flesh of the man’s neck. “Phyllis get him?”

Yep. On her monthly duty.”

Speeding?”

Yep. Let that be a lesson, slow is always better,” Agnes said, winking at Dan.

He looked at her confused, but then his eyes grew wide. “Agnes, you are terrible.”

Don’t I know it,” she said and giggled. “Stay right here and I’ll find something for you to wear. In the future Dan, invest in new underwear.”

Dan looked down at his faded blue briefs. He thought about saying the holes were from the fire, but thought better of it. The fire hadn’t spread past his thighs and Agnes knew it.

George stirred on the bed. He opened his eyes slowly, looked around the room, and then let his head drop heavily back down on the pillow.

Hey, buddy, are you okay?” Dan asked.

No,” George said, “I think I’m stuck in the third ring of hell.”

No sir, this is Greenville.”

I know,” George said. “Trust me, I know.”

moe’s and joe’s

George’s nose wrinkled at the smell of his own singed flesh. The cool night air did nothing to alleviate the odor. Nurse Agnes had rubbed a soothing gel underneath his collar, before giving his butt a good pinch and sending him on his way. “Shouldn’t I stay here for observation?” he’d asked her. She’d merely winked and told him he could observe her out of the hospital as well.

Hey buddy, wait up,” Down on Your Luck Dan called, lumbering down the street after him.

Dan wore a pair of faded blue scrubs and a brown jacket that had seen better days. His stubbly, fleshy face and deep set eyes made him look sad and uncared for.

Do I know you?” George asked.

The man shrugged. “No. But I bet we’re going to the same place. I’m Dan, but people call me Down.”

Down?”

The man shrugged again. “It’s short for Down on Your Luck Dan.”

George let his eyes sweep over the man. “Having a rough time?”

Dan shrugged and started walking again, keeping up with George’s pace. “Not too bad. I mean, my bills went down when I lost my house, which is good because I didn’t have a job to pay for them anyway. I miss the wife and kids but I’ve had plenty of alone time since they left. It’s nice to have some quiet. My car caught on fire but that’s probably for the best. I’d wrecked it a bunch of times before that anyway. All in all, I think I’m doing okay.”

George nodded but refused to comment. Who was he to burst this guy’s bubble?

Which bar are you headed to?” Dan asked.

I’m not headed to a bar.”

Sure you are. Becky Lee’s is back that way,” Dan said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of Becky Lee’s B&B.

George swiveled his head. “Dammit.” He let out a loud sigh. Was it his imagination, or did this town look the same no matter which way you turned? “I’m new in town.”

Dan pointed to the collar. “But you’ll be here long enough to learn your way around.”

George tapped the collar and felt the nurse’s burn gel squish against his skin. “Don’t I know it.”

Look,” Dan said, offering the saddest smile George had ever seen, “you guys are always really upset at first. But it gets better.”

Wouldn’t you be upset?”

Dan shook his head, his eyes growing wide. “Not if the dictator decreed I stay here. He’s never wrong.”

George set off toward the bar. “I guess I could use a beer,” he called over his shoulder.

Dan half-jogged to catch up. “Now you’re talking.”

Two and three story buildings littered the streets of Downtown Greenville. They passed the Greenville Hardware Store, the Greenville Post Office and Map Emporium, which Dan told him offered a variety of maps of Greenville. George tried not to stare as they passed the Dictator’s Torture Pavilion.

Is that place real?” he asked quietly once they’d passed.

Dan nodded his large head. “Oh yeah. The beloved dictator believes in being transparent.”

Why do you all stay here if you can be tortured at any moment?”

He only does it when we break the rules. Plus, taxes here are really low. They’re almost non-existent.”

It’s hard to argue with low taxes.”

The streets were mostly quiet but a guy wearing a dark blue shirt and jeans left the bank farther down the block, carrying a blue deposit bag. George noticed his short dark hair and big, brown eyes. The man was muscular, wore a bit of stubble that made him look rugged, and walked with such athletic ease that it made George feel clumsy. This is the exact type of guy his girlfriend had pointed out time and time again as the kind of man she would like to date.

Hey Down,” the man said as they passed. “Made a new friend?”

Hey Joe,” Dan called out, wearing a sheepish grin. “He’s okay. Deposit day?”

Joe nodded as they passed, giving Dan a knowing look.

What was that look about?” George asked.

Dan’s face grew guilty, something it did a lot. “That’s Joe. He own’s “Joe’s”. It’s a bar a little bit back that way.”

Why didn’t we go there?”

The guilt grew deeper. “I owe Joe a couple of bucks. I figured we’d go to Moe’s. It’s just up another block.”

George nodded his head, keeping his feet moving forward, toward a beer and a little peace after a crazy day. “There are two bars in town that rhyme?”

Yeah. I guess you’re right. They do rhyme. And they’re the only two bars in town.”

Why not?” With this town, you could expect anything.

They opened the door to Moe’s to find a dark room with plenty of tables, a couple of games, and a wooden bar with faded red barstools. A few young men sat around a table video game, their empty beer bottles resting on the floor beside them. George took a seat at the end of the bar.

The bartender was busy tapping a keg. George waited patiently. He used the time to relive the moment he was arrested. He wanted to be able to recount the incident fully when he had his day in court, suing the Dictator of this town for all he was worth. When the bartender finished, George went to order, but all he said was “I’ll have a…” before he stopped talking. “Didn’t we just pass you on the street, going the other way?”

The bartender looked at him blankly, then he threw a glance at Dan.

Dan raised his hands in a gesture meaning no offense.

What’s he talking about?” the bartender asked.

Dan’s grin grew so sheepish that George was surprised he hadn’t sprouted wool. “We passed Joe on the way over.”

The other patrons at the bar grew quiet, suddenly forgetting their game and becoming very interested in the newcomers.

Is that a joke?” the bartender asked.

What?” George glanced from the bartender to Dan. “We just passed this guy on the street.”

The bartender turned slowly to George. “No, you didn’t. You passed my brother.” The bartender turned on his heel and walked through a swinging door into the back of the building.

George shot Dan a confused look.

You better apologize.”

For what? Mixing him up with his brother?”

Shhhhh,” one of the game players whispered. “He might hear you.”

Dan lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper. “You just said he looked like Joe.”

He does. They have to be twins.”

They are. They’re identical twins. But Joe is the ugly one.”

George blinked, as if he could wipe away the stupidity of that comment with his eyelids. “But they’re identical.”

I know. Poor Joe. But you can see why Moe is so upset. You just said he was ugly.”

Moe came back out through the door, carrying a case of bottled beers. He tore open the box and began to stack the bottles in the fridge, setting them down so roughly that he was bound to shatter one eventually.

Hey,” George said, trying to get the bartender’s attention.

Moe didn’t turn to face them, but he did stop stacking bottles.

George took it as a good sign and continued. “I’m really sorry. I ran into the fence earlier. I must not be over the shock yet, no pun intended. Plus the lighting in here isn’t super bright. Also, I’m slightly near-sighted.”

Moe turned to face them. He smiled brightly and George knew his girlfriend would have fallen in love in that moment. “No worries. Now, what beer can I get ya?”

Dan let out a relieved sigh. “My usual for me.”

I was going to order a scotch.”

Two light beers, coming up.”

But I wanted…”

Dan gave George a quick kick on the shin. George grabbed his leg and made to yell at Dan but Dan shook his head vigorously, only stopping when Moe returned.

Thanks,” Dan said with a smile as Moe set the beers back on the table.

Moe nodded and returned to the refrigerated case and the chore of stacking the bottles.

Dan lowered his voice again. “Moe and Joe used to own the same bar but they fought all the time. The dictator told them they had to split and open a second bar. This one only serves beer and the other only serves liquor. Dictator’s orders.”

That doesn’t make sense.”

Dan’s eyes grew wide. “Everything the dictator decrees makes sense. Plus he’s gluten sensitive and wanted a place to drink without being reminded that he can’t have beer.”

Well, why didn’t Moe just open a bar in another town?”

I told you, low taxes.”

Are they really that low?”

Dan shrugged. “Yeah. You guys pay them for us.”

You guys?”

Forced citizens. Thanks.” Dan raised his beer in salute.

George took a sip of his own beer, then a large gulp. What the hell was wrong with this place? He glanced up at the TV, hoping it would give him some news of the outside world.

What show is this?” he asked Dan.

Dan squinted up at the television. A woman in a pink track suit with big, blonde hair stood tapping her feet and lifting her arms. “It’s Erica’s Exercise Hour.”

Why’s it on in a bar? Isn’t there a game on or something?” George didn’t watch sports but he’d been in enough bars to know that’s what they played on their TVs.

The dictator decreed that the citizens were becoming lazy and fat, so he ordered an exercise show on once a day.”

George looked at the screen again and noticed a big green G in the corner. “Is this local?”

Yep. It’s our very own Greenville channel.”

George cleared his throat, hoping to get the bartender’s attention. “Excuse me, Moe? Can we watch the news?”

Moe tore down the empty box and folded it. “News comes on in an hour.”

No, I meant like CNN.”

C What What?” Moe asked.

CNN,” George repeated. “You know, the news channel?”

Ohhhhh,” Moe nodded his head. “We don’t get that here.”

You don’t have cable?”

Sure, but it’s just the one channel.”

Greenville Cable Company only has one channel,” Dan said as way of apology.

Of course they do. And there’s no other cable company in town?”

They both shook their heads.

Dan shrugged. “The Dictator’s the only one with cable, and the hospital. In case of emergencies. The Dictator hasn’t figured out to control the weather yet.”

But he will soon,” Moe said quickly.

Damn right!” Dan agreed.

George chugged his beer and slammed down an empty glass. “Better set me up with another. And keep them coming.”

it’s local

Erica bent down to touch her toes, raised up slightly then lowered down again. “One, two, three,” she said and stood up, a fake smile plastered on her face. Her lipstick was cracked by now, she knew that, but the cameras weren’t HD so the viewers wouldn’t be able to tell. She smiled harder. “And that completes our workout for the day. Hope you all feel as good as I do! See you tomorrow!” She faced the camera waving until Bobby gave her the signal that they had cut off.

She dropped the smile immediately. “Feel as good as I do. What horseshit.” Erica grabbed the towel the PA handed her. What was the PA’s name? Jessi? Jenny? Samantha? It didn’t matter. The high school provided new volunteer PAs every few weeks, so why bother learning their names?

You were wonderful Miss Erica,” the PA gushed.

Water.”

The PA rushed away to fulfill her demand. Erica rolled her eyes. She had never rushed when she was a PA, but then, that’s what had set her apart from the pack. She toweled off her dry forehead, more for show than anything, then threw the towel to the floor. She nodded at Bobby, “You, don’t let me linger like that again. I was waving like a moron at the end.”

You could always not wave,” Bobby said, repositioning his camera for the next show shoot, ‘Late Night Luggage’. Erica hated the show. It was nothing but a bunch of old people complaining about how the kids were taking over the town.

When you’ve won four Greenies, you can tell me how to close the show,” she shot at Bobby.

I’ve won 16.”

Yeah, but that was for camera work. How much skill can that take? You just point and shoot.” Erica rolled her eyes, not giving Bobby a chance for rebuttal. She crossed over the tangle of wires that connected the lights and cameras to a shared power source and squeaked her way over the linoleum floor. Stupid sneakers. She hated the damn exercise show and her starring role. She was an actress, dammit. She’d studied at the Greenville Academy for a summer after high school. She’d done a Shakespearian monologue. She was better than this.

Erica pushed open her dressing room door to find Gloria yanking up stockings over her cottage cheese legs.

Dammit, Gloria. Lock the door when you’re changing,” Erica said and shut the door behind her.

No need. Everyone here’s seen all this already,” Gloria said, giving the stockings one last tug. “Quick changes. Who knew you’d need them in TV too?”

Erica sat at the vanity she shared with four other hosts. She held it from 6 – 10 pm Monday through Friday, but it was infested daily with her colleagues. Sponges smeared with foundation and dead cells littered the little table. Erica wiped dark brown powder off the base of the mirror, Dee’s from the early morning hours. The woman had perfect skin and Erica was hard pressed to figure out why she bothered with make-up at all.

You going out tonight?” Gloria asked, leaning in close to her mirror, applying mascara.

Not sure.” Erica glanced at Gloria’s reflection. She was laying on the mascara thick tonight, definitely planning on crying. A good thick mascara would run all over her face and make her look like a clown; it was great for ratings. Gloria was extremely popular with the kids she complained about. They loved to mock her. Kids ran around in floral print dresses with thick mascara trails dripping down their cheeks every Halloween.

You aught to give Joe a call. I’m sure he misses you,” Gloria said before beginning the application of her three lipsticks. Her theory on make-up was that you could never have too much.

There was a quick knock on the door and then the PA walked in, a sweaty bottle of water clutched in her hand. “Here you are Miss Erica,” she said, blushing slightly as she handed the water over.

I needed that ten minutes ago. I’m damn near dehydrated.”

Sorry. We were out. I had to run to the corner store. I used my dinner money, well, part of it.”

Next time, sprint.”

Erica opened the bottle and began to drain it of its contents. She could see the PAs eyes watering. Good. She’d never cried as a PA. This girl needed to toughen up.

Gloria stood up and straightened her dress. “Jennifer, dear,” she said in her sweetest voice. “Be a sweetheart and wait for me outside. I was hoping we could go over a few cues before the show. I brought in some video I’d like to show.”

Jennifer nodded her head knowingly. “The new guy getting zapped by the fence.”

Gloria clapped her hands and smiled brightly. “You’ve already seen it?”

The guys in the booth have been playing it on a loop for the past hour.”

Fantastic,” Gloria said. “Be a dear and let them know we plan to use it during the show. It’ll be the uplifting moment at the end.”

Sure thing.” Jennifer slit her eyes at Erica before leaving.

You should be careful, dear, Jennifer isn’t quite old enough to be an adult yet.”

Erica shrugged. “Some kids are tame. She seems like one.”

Gloria shook her head. “I swear, sometimes, it’s like you don’t even watch my show. None of them are tame. None of them.”

I’ll take my chances.” Erica ignored Gloria’s heavy sigh. She set about removing her make-up as Gloria left to tape her show. Her mind traveled to the meeting she’d had that afternoon. She’d pitched another brilliant half hour soap opera that could be shot cheaply in the smaller studio during downtime, and had been rejected, again. The Dictator did not like soap operas. He didn’t like sitcoms either. She was beginning to think he didn’t like her.

She stood, face mostly cleansed of foundation, lipstick, and eyeshadow. What was left was pale skin, adult acne, and too much mascara. Screw it, it would do until she could get home to shower.

Erica grabbed her bag and her keys and headed out the door. She stomped through the studio to the main exit, making sure she was loud enough to be picked up by the mics. Gloria had already started tearing up. The opening credits couldn’t have rolled more than a couple of minutes ago. It was gonna be a gusher of a show.

Erica slipped out the door and headed to her VW Bug. There was plenty of time left in the night to shower, get cleaned up, and head to Joe’s to flirt with other guys in front of her ex.

Miss Erica,” she heard the PA call.

For Dictator’s sake Jayla, don’t you bother me enough at work?” she asked as she turned to face the girl.

WHACK!

Erica’s head rocked back as Jennifer’s fist connected with her cheek.

Erica fell against the car, clutching her face.

Jennifer grabbed her by her jogging jacket. She pulled Erica close enough that Erica could smell the coffee on her breath.

If you ever talk to me like that in front of another person again, I will destroy you.”

Erica kneed the girl in her crotch. Jennifer let go of her jacket, pain smeared across her face. Erica punched the girl in her stomach and stomped on her foot. The girl doubled over, whimpering softly.

Erica grabbed her by the hair. “You’re going to have to do better than that.” She gave the girl a good wallop in the kidneys before hopping into the driver’s seat of her bug and pulling away.

I beat up a star when I was a PA.”

only in my dreams

George woke with a splitting headache. He opened his eyes and tried to take in the room through a heavy hangover fuzz. The incredible floral presence of the wallpaper and bedspread insisted on being seen. That meant he hadn’t been able to drink his way out of town. George fell back onto the pillow and winced. Even the cushiony plush of the bedding hurt his pounding head.

Uuuughhh.” His voice was dry and cracked. A glass of water and two little white pills sat on his nightstand, along with a note from Becky Lee.

Hope this helps you feel better. Please remember to try to be home by midnight in the future.”

George struggled to swallow the pills, drinking the entire glass of water as he did so. He fought the urge to vomit, then sat up and tried again to face the day.

How had he gotten home? He didn’t remember. He knew they drank beers at Moe’s, then moved on to Joe’s for shots. He vaguely remembered speaking to the woman from the TV show. She’d had quite the shiner. But the rest was a blur. Only one thing was certain, he hadn’t escaped Greenville.

George ran a finger along the collar on his neck. The flesh beneath still hurt. Maybe he could score some more gel from the creepy nurse. His stomach clenched. The thought of seeing her while hungover was not a good one.

George looked out past his bed to the rest of the room, choosing to focus on things besides his body, like a way out. He remembered Dan, and a plan began to hatch in his head. If only he could get dressed.

He put his feet on the floor and stood shakily. This was not a good start. He took in a deep breath and nearly choked when something large and green moved in the corner of the room.

George sat back on the bed, grabbing his head with both hands. This town had done it, it had driven him crazy.

The alien that had been clinging to the wall detached itself with a sticky slurp. It stood to face him, its bulky body standing well over six feet. Its head looked like something between a praying mantis and a person, though its skinesque covering was more of a dark British Green. The alien gurgled at George, its opal eyes glittering.

Help,” George muttered, barely audible.

The alien took a tentative step forward, the gurgling growing louder. It extended a four fingered hand toward George.

HELP!” George screamed and continued screaming as the alien drew back to the corner. “Someone help!!!!”

He scooted toward the headboard, his knees pulled up to his chest. This was how he was going to die, eaten by an alien in a crazy town far from home. There went his chance at a promotion.

The alien tucked itself into a tight ball in the corner, gurgling. Its voice grew louder until it filled the room. No mouth could produce that much noise. It sounded as if it was coming from the being’s entire body.

Becky Lee burst into the room, a broom clutched in her hands ready to strike.

What is it? Who’s dying?” she called, glancing around the room hurriedly.

George, still screaming, pointed at the alien.

Becky Lee approached the being, the broom held high above her head. “What do you see? Is there a rat?”

No it’s a giant goddamn alien!” George yelled at her.

Becky Lee put down her broom and gave George a disappointed smile. “Is that all?”

George fell silent, his body shaking. He watched as Becky Lee stooped over and stroked the alien’s back. She whispered softly in its ear.

Be careful,” George said.

It’s fine. It’s just Leonard. He gets curious about you newbies sometimes.”

Leonard?”

Yes, and we don’t use the ‘A’ word by the way. It’s considered rude.” She helped Leonard to his feet, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. “Leonard, this is George. He’ll be staying with us for six months.”

No I won’t,” George said.

Becky Lee smiled at him knowingly. “George, this is Leonard. He’s a member of our community. We are honored to have him among us.”

Am I dreaming?”

No dear. You’re not. You are, however, intolerably stinky. Please shower before coming downstairs.” She turned to Leonard. “You should come with me. It’s not nice to sneak into guests’ rooms. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.”

Leonard waved as he left the room, escorted by Becky Lee. George, stupefied, waved back.

He hopped in the shower and gave his body a good scrub but nothing could rid him of the images of the alien standing over him, reaching for him. He dressed quickly and headed downstairs, his bare feet chilled by the cool wooden floor.

I do not allow bare feet in the house,” Becky Lee said as she bustled around the foyer, feather duster in hand.

George stopped. “Is it still here?”

Becky Lee turned to look at him, her duster busy on the lamp. “It?”

You know. The giant green guy.”

Leonard is a he not an it. I believe we’ve been over this. And no, he’s headed to the bar. Poor thing, either he’s an alcoholic or he needs to drink to live. Guess there really isn’t any difference between the two.”

George nodded though doing so hurt his head.

Socks. Shoes. Now.”

Don’t have any.”

What?”

I had a bag but no one ever got it out of my car. And I guess I lost my socks and shoes last night.”

Well, I suggest you go find them.”

Can I get breakfast first?”

No.”

only in my dreams

George woke with a splitting headache. He opened his eyes and tried to take in the room through a heavy hangover fuzz. The incredible floral presence of the wallpaper and bedspread insisted on being seen. That meant he hadn’t been able to drink his way out of town. George fell back onto the pillow and winced. Even the cushiony plush of the bedding hurt his pounding head.

Uuuughhh.” His voice was dry and cracked. A glass of water and two little white pills sat on his nightstand, along with a note from Becky Lee.

Hope this helps you feel better. Please remember to try to be home by midnight in the future.”

George struggled to swallow the pills, drinking the entire glass of water as he did so. He fought the urge to vomit, then sat up and tried again to face the day.

How had he gotten home? He didn’t remember. He knew they drank beers at Moe’s, then moved on to Joe’s for shots. He vaguely remembered speaking to the woman from the TV show. She’d had quite the shiner. But the rest was a blur. Only one thing was certain, he hadn’t escaped Greenville.

George ran a finger along the collar on his neck. The flesh beneath still hurt. Maybe he could score some more gel from the creepy nurse. His stomach clenched. The thought of seeing her while hungover was not a good one.

George looked out past his bed to the rest of the room, choosing to focus on things besides his body, like a way out. He remembered Dan, and a plan began to hatch in his head. If only he could get dressed.

He put his feet on the floor and stood shakily. This was not a good start. He took in a deep breath and nearly choked when something large and green moved in the corner of the room.

George sat back on the bed, grabbing his head with both hands. This town had done it, it had driven him crazy.

The alien that had been clinging to the wall detached itself with a sticky slurp. It stood to face him, its bulky body standing well over six feet. Its head looked like something between a praying mantis and a person, though its skinesque covering was more of a dark British Green. The alien gurgled at George, its opal eyes glittering.

Help,” George muttered, barely audible.

The alien took a tentative step forward, the gurgling growing louder. It extended a four fingered hand toward George.

HELP!” George screamed and continued screaming as the alien drew back to the corner. “Someone help!!!!”

He scooted toward the headboard, his knees pulled up to his chest. This was how he was going to die, eaten by an alien in a crazy town far from home. There went his chance at a promotion.

The alien tucked itself into a tight ball in the corner, gurgling. Its voice grew louder until it filled the room. No mouth could produce that much noise. It sounded as if it was coming from the being’s entire body.

Becky Lee burst into the room, a broom clutched in her hands ready to strike.

What is it? Who’s dying?” she called, glancing around the room hurriedly.

George, still screaming, pointed at the alien.

Becky Lee approached the being, the broom held high above her head. “What do you see? Is there a rat?”

No it’s a giant goddamn alien!” George yelled at her.

Becky Lee put down her broom and gave George a disappointed smile. “Is that all?”

George fell silent, his body shaking. He watched as Becky Lee stooped over and stroked the alien’s back. She whispered softly in its ear.

Be careful,” George said.

It’s fine. It’s just Leonard. He gets curious about you newbies sometimes.”

Leonard?”

Yes, and we don’t use the ‘A’ word by the way. It’s considered rude.” She helped Leonard to his feet, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. “Leonard, this is George. He’ll be staying with us for six months.”

No I won’t,” George said.

Becky Lee smiled at him knowingly. “George, this is Leonard. He’s a member of our community. We are honored to have him among us.”

Am I dreaming?”

No dear. You’re not. You are, however, intolerably stinky. Please shower before coming downstairs.” She turned to Leonard. “You should come with me. It’s not nice to sneak into guests’ rooms. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.”

Leonard waved as he left the room, escorted by Becky Lee. George, stupefied, waved back.

He hopped in the shower and gave his body a good scrub but nothing could rid him of the images of the alien standing over him, reaching for him. He dressed quickly and headed downstairs, his bare feet chilled by the cool wooden floor.

I do not allow bare feet in the house,” Becky Lee said as she bustled around the foyer, feather duster in hand.

George stopped. “Is it still here?”

Becky Lee turned to look at him, her duster busy on the lamp. “It?”

You know. The giant green guy.”

Leonard is a he not an it. I believe we’ve been over this. And no, he’s headed to the bar. Poor thing, either he’s an alcoholic or he needs to drink to live. Guess there really isn’t any difference between the two.”

George nodded though doing so hurt his head.

Socks. Shoes. Now.”

Don’t have any.”

What?”

I had a bag but no one ever got it out of my car. And I guess I lost my socks and shoes last night.”

Well, I suggest you go find them.”

Can I get breakfast first?”

No.”

 

the independence gang

There weren’t many alleyways in Greenville, but Independence knew every single one of them. It had only taken her all six years of her life to develop her mental map of the town. The one between Glorious St and Dictator Lane, tucked away just a few blocks from Moe’s, was definitely her favorite. The buildings on either side were four stories tall, red brick, and spaced just far enough apart for a good game of tag. There were two big dumpsters at the end and a chain link fence that separated the alley from the back of the Greenville Shopping Center, which made a nice barrier to trap opponents and victims.

Independence stood at the edge of the alleyway, looking at the passerby on the street as her crew played tag behind her. She could hear their scuffling feet and shouts of “Got you” and “Not it” and “Suck it loser”, but her eyes were busy taking in the local color. The townies knew to walk on the other side of the street, but still they hurried by, averting their eyes from Independence.

She clocked a woman crossing to the opposite side of the street a block before the alleyway. The woman gave Independence a cautious glance and hugged her worn leather purse tighter to her body. She scurried along, not crossing back until she’d reached the light at the far end of the block. Independence could’ve gone after her, could have caught up to her and taken her purse. She’d done it before, but today, she didn’t feel like it. What would be the point? The woman would only have a few dollars, no one in town carried much cash, and no stores would take credit cards from her or her crew any longer. Last time she’d tried, Terry at Greenville Grocer threatened her with a coconut. That was one group of adults she could respect. Store owners took no shit.

Independence stretched her back, yawning. She scratched her thigh where a mosquito had taken a blood sample the night before. She sucked all the saliva from her mouth and spit it out on the ground. The tag game had started to heat up and she thought about joining when she spotted Leonard making his way down the street.

Independence kept her gaze trained on the alien. She always thought of Leonard as an alien, no matter what the Dictator decreed they should call him. She got called a girl all the time and she was so much more than a child. Why should he get special treatment? Leonard’s dark green skin intrigued her. It looked tough, like alligator skin. She’d only touched his hand once, when handing him a piece of paper he’d dropped, and his skin had scratched her own like a rough cat’s tongue. No one knew where Leonard kept his ship. She’d tried to follow him a few times but on those occasions he’d just wandered around aimlessly. Independence suspected that he knew he was being followed, though he’d given no outward indication of such. She nodded at him as he walked by, but his opal eyes didn’t even glance her way.

Her mind traveled to her favorite daydream as Leonard headed on down to Moe’s for a morning beer. In her dream, she approached Leonard, took his rough hand in hers and asked him if it was time for them to go. Leonard would nod, and lead her to his ship and they would take off, leaving Greenville far behind. Where would they go? Independence didn’t much care as long as it was far out of this teeny tiny town and her parents and her friends. She didn’t like them anymore, maybe never had, and she was tired of telling them what to do all the time. She didn’t want to make their decisions. She didn’t even want to make her own. It would just be her and Leonard, in a ship, with stars and suns and planets all around them. Nice and quiet, cause they’d never need to talk.

Excuse me, have you seen a pair of shoes? Brown, leather. With no laces?”

Independence turned slowly to face the man who had dared to interrupt her daydream. Leonard had already disappeared into Moe’s, trying to find his own silence for the day. And before her was this sloppy, stinky, stubbly, collared man.

What did you ask me?” she said. Her voice had that angry edge she knew so well. Her vocal cords always reacted before the rest of her could.

Shoes? I lost mine,” the man said, pointing down to his wiggling toes.

This man had snuck up on her. She hadn’t heard him approaching over the game behind her. She’d been too distracted by Leonard, by her own dreams of escape. That simply wouldn’t do.

Independence stomped on the man’s toes, ramming down the sole of her Crocs as hard as she could.

Hey!” the man said, giving her a shove. “Careful, that almost hurt.”

Get him!” Independence yelled. She jumped on the man, clawing at his face with her glittery pink nails. Her crew swarmed around him, hitting and kicking and jumping on him, trying to force him to the ground. If they got him down, then they could really inflict some damage.

Independence flew back and hit the ground hard. She looked up, seeing the man swatting away other kids. He took off running. Independence launched herself up. She stood on the sidewalk watching him. “Run. You can’t go but so far.”

Should we chase him?” Hector asked from beside her. He was the tiniest one of the lot, four years old and short for his age, and completely savage.

Independence spit again, this time there was a little blood mixed with her saliva. “Naw,” she said. “He has moxie, I’ll give him that.”

We can catch him.” Hector pounded his tiny fist into the palm of his hand.

She grabbed Hector by the collar of his shirt. “I say we let him go. Got it?”

Hector’s glare softened under Independence’s withering gaze. “Got it,” he mumbled.

Independence tousled his hair. “Good. You’re it. New game,” she said, and turned her back to them once more. She ached from where she’d fallen. It had been a long time since an adult had gotten the best of them. Losing was good. It meant they could lose, which meant they had to try harder. You had to stay sharp, or little kids like Hector would take over.

Feet scuffled behind her, and Independence returned to deep space and the quiet and Leonard.

shoeless

George ran into Moe’s bar, his heart thundering in his chest. “Help,” he yelled as he entered.

Light from the open door burst into the dim room. He pushed the door shut and leaned his weight against it.

You okay?” Moe asked from behind the bar. He set a beer down in front of Leonard who sat staring at George with opal eyes.

George looked back at the door, waiting for it to open and hordes of blood-thirsty children to pour through. He turned back to Moe. “Kids,” he said between big gulps of breath. He could still feel their sticky little hands clawing at him, grabbing his hair, trying to pull him to the ground.

A few blocks down?”

Yeah.”

You must’ve run into Independence’s gang,” Moe said, wiping down the bar. “Tough break. That collar makes you an easy mark.”

Gang?”

Moe shrugged his broad shoulders. “Ahhh, it’s just a term. They don’t have guns or anything, I don’t think. You need a beer?”

Good god yes.”

Adrenaline coursed through George’s body. He walked to the bar, hands shaking and knees wobbling. Leonard patted the stool next to him with his green, leatherish hand, but George chose to sit a few seats away. The alien scooted closer, emitting a soft purr from his chest.

Hey, easy there,” Moe said, putting a mug of frothy beer in front of George. “He’s had a hard day, Leonard. Give him some space.”

The alien sat back on his original stool but kept his gaze on George.

Foam rolled over George’s lips as he took a long pull of the beer. Even the alien sitting near him didn’t seem that strange at this moment. He’d just been attacked by a group of little kids, and they’d nearly beaten the crap out of him. “Can I use your phone? I need to call the cops.”

Moe shrugged. “No phones. Dictator’s orders. Besides, the cops won’t do anything.”

Why not?”

They’re just kids being kids.”

George pointed to his torn shirt and the red scratch marks on his face and neck. “Is ‘kill your neighbor’ the friendly game they were playing?”

We just avoid them. They’ll grow out of it, they always do. I was quite the hellion in elementary school. I took a man’s eye out once. No big.”

I’m sure it was a big deal for the man.”

Moe cocked his head to the side like a curious dog. “You know, I guess you’re right. I never thought about it that way before. Wow. I almost feel kind of bad about it now.”

Why did you take out his eye?”

Because his tongue was too firmly attached. You want another?”

The beer glass sat empty before him. George didn’t remember drinking the whole thing. Nerves. His nerves were shot. “Uh, yeah. I guess. Look, did I leave my shoes here last night?”

Moe poured him another beer and nodded his head. “Sure did. They’re in the lost then found.”

Where’s that?”

My safe.” Moe placed the mug in front of George.

Leonard waved two of his long fingers at Moe.

You want two more?” Moe asked.

Leonard shook his head and nodded at George.

Oh, you want to buy his two?”

The alien nodded.

A smile erupted on Moe’s lips. “Looks like someone’s sweet on you.”

Is it female?” George asked.

No one knows. Leonard might be both or neither. We say him though, cause we don’t know and he doesn’t look particularly feminine. At least not in the human sense of the word.”

George took another swig of beer. He raised his mug to Leonard and offered him a smile. He wasn’t super happy that an alien was buying his beers, but he also didn’t want to piss him off either. Being beaten up once today was more than enough.

Can I get my shoes?”

Moe gave him a confused look. “No.”

What? Why? Do you need me to prove that they’re mine or something?”

No I know they’re yours, or they were yours, but you left them here, so now they’re mine.”

But they’re in the lost and found.”

The lost then found. You lost them, then I found them.”

Are they even your size?”

Too small. But I’m sure I can put them to good use.”

How?”

I don’t know yet. Maybe the base for a lamp? I’m kind of a tinkerer. I don’t want to brag though.”

Blood surged through George’s body. The beer had finally settled his headache, but now his body hurt from the beating from tiny fists and his feet hurt from running on concrete. Leonard wouldn’t stop staring at him, he could still smell his own singed skin and his only set of clothes was ruined. “I just want my shoes,” he said in an incredibly even voice.

Well, you can’t have them. Sorry. I’d give them back to you if I could.”

But you could. You definitely could.”

Rules are rules.”

But they’re your rules.”

Moe shrugged. “It’s the system.”

George slammed his mug on the bar. “I want my shoes!”

Keeping his eyes on George, Moe reached beneath the bar and pulled out a lead pipe. It made a dull thwack has he smacked it against the palm of his hand. “We all want something. For instance, I’d like to give this pipe a workout. But I can’t. Unless someone provokes me, by asking for his shoes again.”

George’s heart sank. He could probably get beaten to death in this town and not one person would care, not even a cop. Hell, by the rules of the bar, his body would then belong to Moe.

He sat back down on his stool. “I’ll just drink my beer then. If that’s okay?”

Moe broke into a grin. “Of course. This is a bar.”

Leonard scooted closer to George.

Just the beer big fella. I got nothing else to give right now.”

double trouble

Moe switched the sign from open to closed. The morning beer rush was over and though there were a few who would be content to sit in his bar all day, he insisted they leave at least for a few hours for what he deemed a “Siesta”. Dimness flitted to darkness as he flicked off the lights. Moe liked the room best this way, with all the taps and tables hidden. This way, the room could be anything, not just the same place he’d worked every day for years. He locked the door and headed down the street, nodding to Independence as he passed her. She and her gang had tried to take him down once but he was too strong and full of inner youthful vigor. The razor he carried in his back pocket had helped out as well.

Independence met his nod with a steely glare. Age had hit her hard over the last few months. Her hair had lost some of it’s baby-blonde tinge and was now flecked with a dull brown. She’d hit a growth spurt during summer and the few added inches had stretched out her baby fat, making her look lean and bony. But it was her eyes that really gave her away. They had taken on the tired look of adults.

The most vicious burn out the fastest, Moe thought. The same had been true for him and Joe.

He ambled along, offering a smile to all he passed.

Looking good, Moe,” the slender waitress from the Dunkin Hut said as he passed.

You too,” he mumbled. He couldn’t remember who had slept with her, him or Joe. He thought he remembered a night of passion with her, but it could have easily been a story Joe had told him and he’d relived in his mind again and again.

He turned sharply and headed away from the main street that was growing crowded now with those seeking a little company for lunch. The Dunkin Hut would get a few breakfast stragglers, looking for donuts and hash, but the majority would be heading to Eddie’s Fine Dining, which was owned by Sam and was anything but fine. Moe had only eaten there a few times and always at someone else’s request. He could only stand so much grease.

Six more blocks and he stood in front of a small green cottage with faded yellow shutters. He tried the doorknob and felt it give; Joe had already beaten him home.

Hey,” Moe called as he entered the house, welcoming the coolness of the air. They’d had to keep their relative bars toasty for their older patrons but both brothers preferred their surroundings to be on the chilly side.

Back here,” Joe called.

Moe headed through the living-room and down the dimly lit hallway until he found himself in the kitchen. The curtains were pulled shut. Moe moved to open one, the one that hid the view of the street.

Joe put his hand on his brother’s arm. “Keep it closed.”

Shit.”

Yep,” Joe said, taking off his apron.

Is it that day already?”

Yep. Grab the toast.” Joe put down two big bowls of chili on the table.

Moe jerked the pieces of bread out of the toaster and smothered them with butter.

Hey,” Joe said, taking away the butter knife. “You trying to make us fat?”

Doesn’t matter for me, now does it?”

Don’t be sore,” Joe said. “You get like this every time. Always being a big baby.”

I do not.” Moe threw the toast onto two plates and put them beside the chili bowls. He and Joe took their seats and began to eat.

You like the chili?” Joe asked. “I added cinnamon this time.”

Yeah, it’s fine.” Moe took another bite, not tasting any damn cinnamon.

Well, if that’s your attitude.” Joe reached for Moe’s bowl but Moe pulled it away.

I like it. I like it.”

Joe watched as Moe took another few bites. “Good. Now, what do I need to know?”

Moe shrugged. “I got a date with Denise tonight.”

Oh good, I really like Denise.”

Moe nodded. “Yeah, so do I.”

Attitude.”

I know. I know. Okay, I got the new guy’s shoes.”

He put up a fuss?”

Yeah, but my old friend Bessie convinced him to stand down.”

Lead pipe’s a good friend, though I’m still partial to bats,” Joe said with a wink. He kept “Slugger” beneath his bar for rowdy customers. He’d only had to use it once.

Yeah. And Leonard’s on to light beers now.”

Okay,” Joe said. “Am I taking Denise to Eddie’s?”

Moe shook his head. “Lou’s. She wanted Italian.”

That’s good. I ate at Eddie’s yesterday and my stomach still isn’t right. Seven?”

Seven thirty. She has to shut down the shop tonight.”

K. Well, Down On Your Luck Dan owe’s me seventy bucks and I got a liquor shipment coming in tomorrow morning; order’s on the clipboard so you can mark it off when you check it in.”

I know how to do a liquor order.”

I know, I know. You ready?” Joe asked eyeing Moe’s empty bowl.

I guess I have to be.” Moe stood and took off his red T-shirt and handed it to Joe. Joe stripped off his blue button down and handed it over to Moe. The two put on each others garments.

Well, maybe it’s the color blue that makes you ugly,” Joe said, winking at his brother.

Live it up this week. I’m aiming to be back to being the good looking one next week.”

Joe smiled. “I guess we’ll see what the Dictator says about that.” He’d had two cases of vodka delivered to the dictator’s house a few days ago and got the go ahead to switch places with his brother. It would be at least a few weeks before the dictator got through that batch, then Moe could see how he could bribe the great man to get his place back. Until then, Joe had every intention taking advantage of being the handsome twin.

the others

Well, it’s not much but it’ll have to do for today.” Becky Lee gave the string holding the newspaper bunched around George’s foot a good tug. It held and she gave a satisfied, “Hooray!” Lots you could do with good twine, and Becky Lee always made sure she had some on hand.

Don’t you think it’s gonna rip?” George asked. The newspaper crinkled against floorboard as he shuffled around the room.

Nah. I used a ton for each foot. Even if it tears a bit, you’ll have layers and layers to go before your feet are exposed. Might not hold up to hiking but it should get you around town just fine.”

George wiggled his toes. He knew it was impossible but he swore he could feel the ink from the newspapers seeping into his bloodstream. “And you’re sure I can’t just go buy some shoes?”

Becky Lee shook her head, her eyes wide. “Not without permission from the Dictator. Shoes are a very important part of your appearance.”

What does he care what shoes I wear?”

Becky Lee held up her right hand and recited, “What I wear is who I am and who I am is what I’m told. So sayeth Our Glorious Dictator.”

George literally bit his tongue to keep from saying how stupid he thought the Dictator’s rules were. He’d never met the man but he was pretty positive he’d hit him if he ever did. Well, he’d think about hitting him if nothing else.

A sheepish grin crawled across his lips. “Hey, Becky Lee, do you think you could give me a ride into town? I’d like to petition for some shoes.”

Becky Lee offered him an apologetic smile. “I’d love to hon, I really would, but today’s going to be very busy for me.”

Why?” George didn’t mean to sound incredulous but he’d been here for two days and all he’d seen Becky Lee do was garden and cook. There were only so many things you could bake or plant.

New arrivals today. There was a delay in the courts, some sort of incident. Apparently someone brought in a cat and Quint went a little…Quint-ish. Poor kitty. On the more pleasant side, you’re going to have new housemates!”

George’s jaw dropped. New housemates. That meant Phyllis the cop had captured other unsuspecting souls. “There’s more speeders?”

Becky Lee shrugged. “Speeders, aggressive drivers, people with warrants out. She really does pull in a nice mix. You never know who you’re going to meet.”

Huh. I guess I can walk to town.”

Good thing you got here first. That top floor room is usually in demand. You got the pick of the lot.”

I must just be lucky.”

Oh, dang it, I knew I was forgetting something.” She took two envelopes from the side table and handed them to George. “They came for you this morning.”

Okay.” George looked down at the envelopes in his hand. He ran his finger over the silver one with embossed gold letters. All that appeared on the face was his name, “George Hoffstadt.” The other was plain white and a bit tattered at the edges. His name wasn’t written on the face, only “Miserable Prisoner and Needer of Hope.” George held them up for Becky to look at. “Who delivered these?”

Archibald. The mailman. Nice man. Bit of a philanderer though.”

But how?”

He has sex with many women.”

I mean how did he deliver the letters, not the other part. There’s no address. And this one doesn’t even have my name.”

Becky Lee patted George on his arm in a way that indicated that he was a confused child. “Oh hon, we’re a small enough town to know each other’s names. Archibald didn’t recognize yours so he dropped it off here.”

And the other one?”

Becky Lee shrugged her shoulders. “Where else would they send a letter to a prisoner?”

To the jail.”

Becky Lee let out a little laugh. “No one stays there.”

Of course not.” Why would anyone stay in a jail when they could pay to live in a B&B?

Well, I don’t want to pry. I’m going to tidy up the other rooms. There’s some more coffee in the percolator. Help yourself.”

She grabbed her broom and dustpan and headed up the stairs, chuckling to herself. “Stay in the jail, what folderol.”

George sat in one of Becky Lee’s comfortable chairs. He thought for a second about the new prisoners. He still had his plan but if that failed then maybe he and the others could ban together and take down Phyllis and her feeble cronies. But first, he needed shoes.

George was tempted to shove the letters in his pocket and head out to the town hall directly, but he couldn’t resist the mystery. He opened the silver envelope first since the sender at least knew his name.

Dear Mr. Hoffstadt,

I hope your stay in Greenville thus far has been pleasant. Our little town here should be able to accommodate you within reason. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to keep it to yourself. No one likes a complainer.

Tomorrow morning, please report to the Greenville Grounds Crew. Becky Lee will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. Tomorrow, your work detail begins. We can’t have loafers in this town.

Sincerely,

Emmanuel J. Thorp

Greenville’s Gracious Dictator

A sinking feeling came over George. Grounds Crew? He hadn’t been told he’d be given a work detail. Why couldn’t he work in some office somewhere? His hands were meant for typing, not tilling. He shoved the note in his pocket, resolved to lodge a complaint at the town hall.

He opened the second envelope and a piece of notebook paper fell out. George peeled it open and a found a coupon stuck inside. The scratchy handwriting read:

Dear Beaten and Abused Prisoner,

We are a group of concerned citizens. Fear not, your plight has not gone unnoticed. Please accept our humblest apologies for your ordeal and this coupon for a free biscuit at Eddie’s Fine Dining. We know it will fix nothing, but biscuits make everything a little bit better.

We are making plans to alleviate your pain. Be strong.

Annoyance to the Dictator!

Best Wishes,

The Resistance.

George glanced over the note a second time, not actually sure what he was reading. He pocketed the coupon. He was from the south after all and biscuits were practically a way of life in North Carolina.

A van pulled up outside the house. George shuffled to the window, careful not to allow too much friction between his padded feet and the floor. The van was blue and gray and painted on the side in bold letters was: “Church of the Almighty Dictator.”

You’ve got to be kidding me,” George mumbled. Not only did they follow all his rules, they worshipped him as well?

A short, nebbishy man in a plaid overcoat stumbled out of the van followed by a tall man with a thin beard and thick eyebrows. The last was a woman who had clearly seen better days. Her red dress was torn at the hem. Her hair frizzed out from her head. She wore not only the now familiar collar of the prisoners but also handcuffs.

Phyllis struggled out of the driver’s seat, her teeth glistening in the sunlight. “Thish way,” she called out, leading the group up the driveway to the door. The woman in the red dress tried to hit Phyllis but exactly what George expected to happen, happened. Phyllis, quicker than her million year-old appearance would indicate, moved deftly to the side. She grabbed the woman and forced her to the ground, a knee in her back. “It’sh okay. Everyone freaksh out at firsht. Jusht relax.”

George took a deep breath. Life here just got more interesting.

 

the quiet woman

The road stretched out before her like a thick black snake, curling and twisting, its striped back slithering into the eternal sunset. Leslie fingered the leather satchel that lay on her front seat. It’s copper zipper was closed, making it seem more like stitched skin than a bag. But that was okay, she didn’t mind her Frankenstein-esque traveling partner. He was carrying over a hundred thousand dollars in cash, after all. What was there to be frightened of?

She glanced from the road to the rearview mirror, her smoky eyeshadow making her bright blue eyes seem even brighter. She ran her fingers through her raven black hair. Paying $150 at the hair stylist’s had definitely been a good choice. Any half-priced hack could’ve cut and dyed her hair but she’d needed to look elegant, and the small investment had more than paid off.

The car purred as Leslie pushed harder on the gas pedal. She rolled down the windows and cranked open the sunroof, wanting to feel the wind streak through her hair, loosening the hair spray and pushing her back to her normal self. The job was done and she no longer needed to appear as the sophisticated socialite. She could go back to being the same cheeseburger-eating-beer-chugging chick she’d been for the past thirty-two years.

She revved the engine, forcing the car faster toward the horizon. It would be at least another hour until Walker realized she wasn’t going to show with the cash. Another hour until he knew he’d been duped by the pretty black haired sex bot he’d thought he’d programmed to obey. That’s what was wrong with men, if you showed them the least bit of compliance, they thought you actually meant it. Walker’d been easy to fool, so sure of himself that he never thought anyone could or would take advantage of him. Those types were always easy to manipulate.

The car glided past a Charger and Leslie pulled into the right lane and sped up, eager to pass the pick up ahead of her. It was only going a few miles over the speed limit and she would not be impeded, not today.

She swung the car back over to the right lane, only inches between her back bumper and the pick up. The honking horn blared behind her but she paid it no mind, turning up her radio instead. Sweet sounds soothed her ears. She closed her eyes for a second, crooning along with the radio. She opened her eyes for the chorus and was shocked to see the truck behind her coming up fast in the rearview mirror. His bumper hit hers and the car jerked forward.

Leslie fought to keep the wheel straight as it pulled hard to the right. She only caught a glance of the pick-up truck speeding past her, the portly woman in the passenger seat giving her the finger.

Her car pulled hard, careening into the right lane, ending up on the gravel shoulder, kicking up dirt and rocks. Dust filled the car, working its way down her throat. Leslie coughed hard and waved her hands in front of her face. She stepped out of the driver’s seat and away from the dust cloud, hacking and wheezing until the dirt finally settled back down again. She stared down the road but the truck was long gone.

Asshole!” she yelled at no one in particular. The truck was gone and she should be, too. She stepped one spiky heel after the other into the shallow gravel as she made her way back to the car. She had to keep her cool. No more driving fast, no more weaving. The last thing she needed was to be pulled over and have to explain a bag full of cash. She had just opened her door when the cruiser pulled up behind her.

For fuck’s sake,” Leslie mumbled. Cops. Now. Great.

She stood beside the car, attempting to smooth her hair out as the police door swung open. What stepped out looked neither male nor female, just short, old, covered in moles and missing its upper lip.

Exchushe me, are you in need of ashishtanche?” it asked.

Leslie stared blankly at the cop for a moment as she fought to keep her composure. “Um,” she said, shaking her head, trying to send away the vision of the miniature police imp. “No. I’m fine, thank you.”

Car trouble?”

No. Just needed a moment to myself.”

The cop pointed up the highway. “Resht areash two milesh up the road. Thish ish a weird plashe to shtop.”

Leslie offered the cop her most seductive smile and she hoped there was no dirt in her teeth. “I’m fine now. Thanks.”

Why don’t you go ahead and hand me your lishenshe and registhtration?”

For what?”

Sushpishoush behavior.”

Maybe her adrenaline was still going from the accident or maybe it was the sight of the cop licking the spit off her exposed top teeth, but for one brief second, Leslie forgot all about the cash in the front seat of her car and about the angry jerk she’d been banging for two months to earn his trust to steal it from him, and she ran. The woods behind her were thick and images of the cop’s gnarled tongue chased her as she weaved her way through the woods. She felt her dress catch, pull and tear as she passed a bush, but she didn’t care. Something from a nightmare had made it into the daylight and she had no desire to tango with it.

A heavy weight hit her in the back and she went sprawling onto the ground.

That’sh a pish poor call. I hate running,” the cop said, drilling a knee into Leslie’s back. “Gonna have to arrresht you. Pity, nishe looking girl like you I ushually let off with a warning.”

Leslie let her face fall in the dirt. She had no idea what was coming, a night in jail at the very least and if Walker didn’t find her, then hiring a lawyer and trying to get off quickly or with just a ticket. And if Walker found her? A shudder ran through her body as the cop lifted her into air with what seemed like super human strength.

take it to town hall

George skirted past the three convicts being led into Becky Lee’s B&B, eager to skip any immediate introductions. The trio of prisoners stared at his collar and the newspapers wrapping his feet, but George refused to engage with them, at least not in front of the one-lipped cop. He fingered the letter from the Resistance in his pocket. If his plan with Dan failed, then maybe he could enlist the Resistance’s help, or maybe even the new prisoners.

But he had to wait until he saw Dan first. The Resistance might not be real and none of the new prisoners looked exactly reliable. For now, he needed to get a pair of shoes and find a way off this stupid work detail. Grounds Crew was for convicts. He was a political prisoner. Even if Dan succeeded, it could take days for help to reach him and there was no way newspaper shoes were going to hold up for that long.

He shuffled past the plot of land reserved for the future mass graves of Greenville’s citizens. Several minutes and a few newspaper tears later, he found himself in downtown Greenville walking along Main Street. He glanced warily down an ally and was happy to find that there were no gangs of children ready to pounce on him.

Hey,” a woman in a silky pink gown called from in front of Dorothy’s Prom Shop.

Hey,” George said. He nodded to her as he hurried past.

You hear about the other newbs?” she asked.

Damnit. He stopped walking and turned to face her. “They’re at Becky’s. I’m sorry, I really need to go to the Town Hall.”

Uh-huh,” she said, readjusting the tiara in her hair. “Any of them single?”

I don’t know. Maybe? There were two guys and a woman, that’s all I can really tell you.”

Yeah, but did you see a wedding ring on either of the guys’ hands? Or the woman’s?”

I didn’t look. I’m really in a hurry.”

Sure. But what about you? Single? Married? Widower? Double-widower? I don’t see a ring. I don’t date triple-widowers, just so you know. Three dead wives sets a bad precedent.”

I’m not a widower. I have a girlfriend and I would like to return to her shortly.”

Uh-huh. But how committed is that relationship? I mean, are you faithful, kind of faithful, unfaithful, unfulfilled, unhappy or do you see life as a meaningless void?”

Who are you?” George asked, genuinely flummoxed.

The woman pointed up to the sign above her with one of her silky, pink gloves. “Dorothy. This is my place.”

George read the sign again. He’d only glanced at it before and figured he’d somehow read it wrong. But no, this was indeed Dorothy’s Prom Shop. “Isn’t prom only once a year?” he asked.

Dorothy shrugged her slender shoulders. “Life is what you make of it. Sometimes we have prom once a year, sometimes once a week. It’s whatever the kids want. Plus there’s the Seniors Prom for citizens over 70, the Lucky Ones Prom for new parents, and the Unlucky Ones Prom for the recently deceased. That one’s kind of a snooze fest though.”

Who goes to that one?”

Corpses and their mates. Former mates. It really only happens when we have a few people pass away at once. I guess we’re due for one as soon as Mrs. Henderson finally passes. She’d make the fourth one this month. Mr. Henderson was just in buying a tux for the occasion. Everyone likes a good dance. You didn’t answer my question.”

George fought through the image of an old man in a tux dancing with his rigamortis-stricken dead wife. “What question?” he asked, dreading the answer.

Are you faithful, kind of faithful, unfaithful, unfulfilled, unhappy or do you see life as a meaningless void?”

Faithful.”

Dorothy raised a disbelieving eyebrow.

Mostly,” George stammered. “I mean, I am faithful, but I have looked at other women.”

I pegged you for the meaningless void type.”

George shrugged his shoulders. “I might be if I have to stay in this town for much longer.”

Dorothy gave him a sly wink. “I knew it.”

George waved goodbye and hurried away, not wanting her to stop him with more inane banter. Didn’t she see he needed shoes? He shuffled the last few blocks to the courthouse, careful to keep his eyes down so as not to catch the attention of any other unwanted company.

The town hall was nothing more than an old log cabin surrounded by institutional looking buildings.

Stale air and the stench of rotting papers slapped George as he walked into the tiny shack of a government building. He stood in the doorway a moment, afraid to enter the dreary little room with its saggy roof and repellent odor.

Close the damn door,” a voice called.

George walked in, allowing the heavy wooden door to fall shut behind him. He stood blinking for a moment, trying to force his eyes to adjust to the dark room.

Anyone here?” he asked.

Don’t you have eyes?” the voice called again.

The owner of the voice sat behind a long wooden counter that cut the room in half. George couldn’t believe it. It was the black cop from the station, his sudoku puzzle in hand.

Aren’t you a cop?” George asked.

From two to six Monday through Friday, yes. But from nine to one I’m in the employ of the Town Hall. Split shifts, you could call it.”

That’s a weird split.”

The man shrugged. “I work for the government and I go where they tell me. Works for me.”

George waited for a second, expecting the man to offer to help him. When a moment passed and the man still didn’t look up from his puzzle, George said, “I need to petition for new shoes. Is there a form to fill out?”

With a heavy sigh, the man stood up from his chair and reached into an ancient filing cabinet against the far wall. He riffled through a few folders finally pulling a piece of paper out of one. “Fill this out,” he said, handing George the form.

Then I leave it here?” George asked, taking the paper.

You can,” the man said. “But Archibald doesn’t pick up mail here for another few days.”

Archibald, the mailman?”

Mmmhmmmm. Nice fellow. Don’t let him into your house though.”

Why? You know what? I don’t want to know. Where does it need to be mailed?”

Dictator’s house. He makes all the footwear decisions. We don’t have a fancy shoe committee or anything,” the cop said with a smirk.

Okay, but you don’t have interoffice mail or a fax or email or anything to get this to him sooner?”

We have mail,” the cop said.

But I need new shoes.”

Well, you could walk the petition up to the Dictator’s mansion. Slip it into his mail box. It’s up the top of Follower Hill. Good view of the town.”

He just lets people onto his property?”

The cop snorted. “Sure. He’s a man of the people.”

And I’m not going to get electrocuted?”

No fence there.”

No guard dogs or clouds of mace or anything else?”

The cop pulled his eyebrows tight in an incredulous stare. “Our Dictator encourages visits from the townsfolk. He lives and breathes for us.”

Huh. Okay, I’ll take it up. Oh, I need to know who to talk to about getting off this work detail.” George pulled out the letter from the dictator and showed it to the cop.

The cop sat straight up in his chair and rested his hands on the counter. He glanced over the letter and let out a little laugh. “You don’t want to work on the grounds crew?”

Not really. I mean, I didn’t agree to work here.”

We work or we die, slowly, so sayeth our Glorious Dictator.”

George swallowed the extra saliva that had just collected in his mouth. “Um, that might be but I’m not a citizen of Greenville.”

The cop pulled out a gun and turned off the safety. He aimed it at George. “I tell you what,” he said. “I’ll do you a favor. If you really don’t want to work on the grounds crew, I’ll shoot you now, save you a trip to the Torture Pavilion. It’s kind of against the rules but those screams keep me up at night.”

The petition in his hand rattled as George looked down the barrel of the gun. “You know what, I love the sun. A little bit of manual labor will do me good.”

The cop shoved the gun back into his holster. “Good. I hate cleaning up blood. Get on out of here. Some of us have work to do,” he said and picked up his sudoku puzzle again.

George backed out of the town hall, not eager to let the cop out of his sight.

dead man’s prom

Dorothy leaned against the wall of the school gym, her pink taffeta dress scrunched up behind her like a butt pillow. The lemonade in her glass tasted tart so she poured in a little spiced rum from the flask that she kept tucked in her bodice. The next sip went down smoothly.

Mrs. Montgomery sashayed by in a slim-fitting, black and white striped dress that trailed into an all black train. She stopped in front of Dorothy and raised her arms high, did a twirl and then kicked one of her finely sculpted legs into the air. “This dress moves like a dream!” Mrs. Montgomery exclaimed, launching another Rockets-style kick.

Dorothy gave her a thumbs up and watched as Mrs. Montgomery danced over to the table where her her husband sat propped up. “Take me for a spin, Harold!”

The undertaker and his assistant raised Harold from his chair and straightened his legs. They stood on either side of Mrs. Montgomery’s deceased husband and carried him over the dance floor, moving him in time with his wife.

Oh Harold! You’re as graceful as a swan. Dip me!”

Mrs. Montgomery leaned backward and the undertaker struggled to grab her before she fell, leaving his assistant to keep Mr. Montgomery erect.

You big, strong, man.” Mrs. Montgomery stood and kissed her husband on the cheek. “Keep up those moves and you might get lucky later.”

That’s not in the contract,” the undertaker said. “And it’s illegal.”

Oh pooh, you’re no fun.”

Dorothy watched as Mrs. Montgomery danced around her husband, hips gyrating in rebellion to the Doris Day song that played over the loud speaker. Dorothy hoped she felt that alive after her own husband passed, if she ever found a man who would propose to her.

Mrs. Montgomery’s demands for post-mortem coitus reminded Dorothy of her empty bed at home. She scanned the room for widowers. There were only two in attendance, Bill Straw and William Grass, neighbors and bitter enemies. The rumor was that they’d poisoned each other’s wives after a row over the new sprinkler system William had put in. The joke was on each of them. Neither man had particularly loved his wife and both now felt free to explore other options, namely, each other. Or so Dorothy guessed by the longing looks they gave one another over the shoulders of their dead wives as they dragged them around the dance floor. No great loss there. Dorothy had no interest in either man. One was too willowy and the other tended toward a dry sense of humor she’d never cared for. She didn’t like to think when she laughed. She found the sensation confusing.

But she had hoped that maybe either man would bring a relative from out of town as a guest or perhaps a long lost brother she’d never met. The dating pool in Greenville was shrinking to a puddle and Dorothy had already been through the eligible bachelors in town. She wanted to meet someone new, someone dreamy, someone without a collar around his neck but that she hadn’t grown up with.

She chased her drink with the contents of her flask and let out a sweet belch. She’d be drunk by the crowning of Mr. and Mrs. Cadaver. Best not to stay that long. Better an early exit than getting caught vomiting on a corpse…again. She took one last look around the room and seeing nothing she liked, she walked briskly to the double doors and out into the night.

Watch it,” she said as she nearly ran into Leonard.

The alien lowered his opal eyes to hers but did not gurgle in response.

Did you bring any friends with you? Any more aliens touching down?”

He stared at her with a blank expression, or what she took for a blank expression.

“’Cause you only have eyes for guys. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Don’t think I haven’t thought about putting on a pair of jeans and trying to fool you neither. At least it would be different.”

She let out another belch and stumbled past Leonard who stood staring at the double doors as if he expected them to part and show him the true nature of humanity. Well, Dorothy thought, maybe they would. If the true nature of humanity is an odd combination of loneliness, regret and celebration, then Leonard was in luck.

Don’t waste your time,” Dorothy said. “There’s nothing in there.” Leonard could figure out being human on his own, the way the rest of them had to do it.

She walked out to the road and threw up her thumb. The rum had left her too bleary-eyed to walk home and her cousin drove the only cab in town. She was not up for one of Gail’s lectures on sobriety; they always made her want to drink more and another shot would send her over the edge.

Dorothy made up her mind, whoever stopped to pick her up would be her paramour. She was tired of trying and just decided to take whatever fate gave her.

A rusted-out Chevy screeched to a halt in front of her. Down on Your Luck Dan sat behind the wheel, a silly grin spread across his lips. “Hey Dorothy. Need a ride?”

I didn’t know you owned a car, Dan.”

Phyllis said I could have this impounded one ‘cause the owner didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t ask any questions.”

Best not to.”

Dorothy hiked up her dress and half sat, half fell into the junker. She decided to forget her promise to herself. She’d be lucky if Dan didn’t wreck the car on the way to her place. She was bad off enough on her own, she didn’t need him bringing her down.

message runner

The hill didn’t look too steep, but it felt like hell on George’s legs. Not to mention that the newspaper sheathing his feet was crumbling away against the asphalt. He’d already made it through the sports section, Becky Lee’s choice for outer layer. She’d sworn that would be good luck since the Greenville High School Varsity men’s basketball team had managed to beat its JV team for the first time in three years.

George mumbled as he climbed. “I haven’t had good luck since Phyllis dragged me into this damn town.”

His lungs were on fire by the time he crested the hill. A sign greeted him at the top:

Greenville Memorial Park for The Hysterically Loyal

Of course. Only the Dictator would put his house in the middle of a park dedicated to his followers. George shuddered as he took in the landscape. A nice playground sat on one side of the park, replete with rocking horses and jungle gyms. The other half housed a gallows and two guillotines marked “His” and “Hers”. George tried not to think about the many couples who had been offed together in this very spot. He hadn’t loved anyone enough to want to be killed with them, he knew that for sure.

In the distance, he saw the mansion that must surely belong to the Dictator. The sprawling brick building caught his eye. Something didn’t look right about it. The building seemed awkwardly shaped, but George couldn’t tell exactly how.

He watched his step as he got closer, sure there were booby traps somewhere in the grass, just waiting for him to grow careless. He passed through decorative topiary and a prim rose garden that made him think of Alice in Wonderland. He felt like Alice, except the “off with his head” here was a real threat.

As he neared the house, he realized what felt wrong about it. Only the center portion was real. The house itself was made of old, worn brick and stood three stories tall. A grand facade of painted brick had been added to either side. 2D windows and shutters had been painted on, giving the already large house the appearance of a palace.

George rolled his eyes as he slipped his petition into the mail slit on the door. He’d asked for one pair of dress shoes and one pair of work shoes, whatever that meant. He’d never owned work shoes before, just loafers that he could’ve worn anywhere. His office job did not require any certain footwear.

He thought he heard a moan as his letter dropped into the house. He hoped it was some sort of recording. The alternative was ghastly.

George made his way quickly down the garden path and out into the park. The view of Greenville took his breath away. He hand’t bothered to look at it when he’d first climbed the hill. He’d been too intent on delivering his letter and returning to Becky’s B&B.

From up here, Greenville looked like any quaint American town with its steepled churches and well kept homes. Trees lined most streets and he hadn’t noticed the lake behind city hall before. If the place didn’t make his skin crawl, he might even think it was beautiful.

George took a seat on the bench by the playground, content to watch the town for a bit from the distance. He could use a little peace. Besides, his feet were killing him.

He sat with his back to the mansion, his eyes surveying the town below. Posts for the invisible electric fence were scattered around the perimeter of Greenville. George ran his finger over his collar, as if to remind himself of the blast he’d felt when he’d tried to escape. He let his hand drift to his pocket where he fingered the letter he’d received today by Greenville Post. A summons. A work summons. It wasn’t enough that he’d been trapped there for days and might be for months to come, all for speeding on I-95, but these bastards were going to put him to work as well. Digging ditches. Digging Goddamned ditches. George had spent the last six years in an academic publishing office. He hadn’t even lifted weights since leaving high school. How the hell was he going to dig ditches?

Could a helicopter land here?” he mumbled to himself. The land had been cleared for the public park. It looked big enough. He let his mind roam to thoughts of rescue. But that was silly. No one would come looking for him in this tiny town.

The clouds overhead rolled in thick and gray and George could swear that they were there only because they matched his mood. Gloomy. It had finally happened. They’d broken him. He felt defeated.

No phones. Electrically secured fence that ran the length of the town and would shock his collar the moment he touched it. The only computer he’d found so far was in the police station and no way would No Lip and the Numb Nuts help him. Especially not No Lip. It was probably her entire job to pull in suckers from I-95 to help pay the bills in the town.

How do I escape?” he wondered. “A tunnel?” God no. Dig ditches all day and then dig a massive tunnel at night that would probably collapse on him the moment he crawled into it? No thank you. But the collapsing tunnel probably wouldn’t be enough to kill him, with his luck. They’d probably just add more months to his sentence.

George sighed as he watched Down on Your Luck Dan struggle up the steep incline of the trail to reach the park.

Thought…you’d…be…up…here,” Dan said through large puffs of air as he stood hunched over, his hands on his knees, catching his breath.

Yeah? How’s that?” George asked. He hadn’t told anyone he was coming here, didn’t even know he was until it’d been suggested by the town hall clerk.

Stopped by, hold on.” Dan walked a few paces away to a trash can and emptied the contents of his stomach in a loud release. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his tattered shirt before heading to the bench. “Man, sometimes the best part of my day is vomiting. I always feel like a new man after. Well, not a new man, but a much lighter one which could be just as good. Well, not as good, but lighter. Less nauseated at least. Yeah.”

George waited for the rambling to be over. He was getting used to Dan’s awkward way of talking.

See you found the Dictator’s mansion. Pretty sweet huh?”

What’s with the weird facade?” George asked.

Oh, that was a generous gift His Greatness gave to us. We had a surplus of government funds a few years ago, you know, when Big America was in recession.”

Big America?”

Yeah, the land surrounding Greenville. His Greatness gave us work putting up the two extra wings.”

They’re not wings, they’re just walls painted to look like wings.”

Tomato, tomato,” Dan said, only saying the word one way. “Everyone who worked on it got a little extra cash. It was a good deal.”

George tried to take in the new information and then gave up. “Dan, have you ever been to Wallingford?” he asked, pointing to the stretch of land just past the Greenville boundary.

Walling Fjord?”

No. It’s not in Norway. Wallingford. The next town over.”

Oh,” Dan nodded knowingly. “No.”

You’ve never been to the town next to yours?”

No need. Greenville’s got everything that I’ve been told that I require.”

George had to wait a moment for the statement to fully hit his brain. “You have been out of Greenville before, haven’t you?”

Dan sat down on the bench and leaned back resting his hands on his plentiful belly. “No,” he said after a while. “Maybe once as a boy. I think we played a little league game out of town but they played by different rules and it didn’t go well. That’s the only time I remember.”

Different rules?”

We make our own balls. We had a cow surplus for a while. Lots of leather. Our balls were lighter and went farther. We tried to get them to use our ball but they said no. We got slaughtered.”

Right,” George said. “Look, we’re friends right?”

Dan smiled broadly and clapped George on the back. “You bet we are. I’m glad you see it that way. You out-of-towners are always slow to accept friendship. I’m really proud of you George.”

Thanks. Look, friends help each other out.”

They sure do. But I can’t loan you any money. Not that I don’t want to, I’m just a bit tapped right now. I’m into Moe for a few bucks and Joe for more. Not to mention that I haven’t paid my rent in a while. Or bought groceries. When did I last eat?”

I can spare a few bucks for you if you do me a favor.”

Sure! What do you need?”

I need you to go to Wallingford.”

I don’t have a passport.”

It’s the next town over.”

Oh, right, gotcha. How do I get there?”

George pointed at the gleaming town just beyond the electric fence posts. “You walk.”

Wow. Yeah, I guess I could do that.”

Great,” George said. “Let’s go.”

George led the way through Greenville to the edge of the town. The “Wallingford Welcomes You” sign stood as it had before, entreating all those from Greenville to hurry as fast as they could.

Wow,” Dan said, “traveling really changes your perspective.”

You haven’t gone anywhere yet.”

I’ve never been on the edge of Greenville before. It feels strange.”

George shook all the incredulous thoughts from his head. “All you have to do is walk to the nearest store. Ask to use the phone. Offer them the five dollars I gave you and use the number I wrote down. Call my girlfriend. Tell her I’ve been taken prisoner. Ask her to call a lawyer and have him come down here. Tell him to bring back-up. Got it?”

Okay. But the Dictator doesn’t allow lawyers in Greenville.”

Don’t worry about that. Any lawyer worth his salt will know how to handle it.”

Well, here goes.” Dan hugged George then took a tentative step beyond the electric fence post. He turned and waved goodbye with a solemn expression. “I’m a world traveler” he called far more loudly than was necessary. The two men stood only a few feet apart.

Keep going,” George called.

He watched as Dan strolled out into the plains, heading for a subdivision in the distance. The cute little houses looked better than any he had seen in a while, because beyond them was freedom.

George’s heart sank when, after a few minutes had passed, Dan turned and sprinted back into Greenville.

What happened, did you see a snake?” he asked.

No,” Dan shook his head, his body trembling.

Did you lose my girlfriend’s number?”

No. I have that.”

Then what’s going on?”

I can’t do it,” Dan said. “I’m not made for this kind of thing. I got closer and it all looked so different than Greenville.”

George looked past him at the plain houses in the distance. He’d passed ones like it countless times in countless towns across the country. They looked like the houses in Greenville.

What are you talking about?”

What if they don’t speak English over there or use the same money? What if the Dictator tells me that I can’t come back? People don’t return to Greenville, except Phyllis.”

Tears streamed down Dan’s cheeks.

George felt something inside himself break. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. You don’t have to go. You don’t have to leave Greenville.”

Thanks George. I still want to be friends.”

We’re friends, Dan. I promise.”

Great,” he said, wiping away his tears. “Could you use a beer?”

Or ten. Yeah, let’s go get drunk.”

 

sewing circle

George grew more bleary eyed and weary the closer he came to Becky Lee’s B&B. The alcohol in his system seemed to gain in potency with every step, which was quite likely. He’d pounded two shots just before leaving Joe’s to stumble back home. Well, to his Dictator-appointed-home.

His key didn’t fit in the lock, or, more precisely, he couldn’t find the lock with his key. He thrust the key at the door several times, tapping it against the handle but never finding the welcoming crevice. “Story of my life,” he mumbled.

The door opened to reveal a short woman with yellow hair and rosy cheeks.

Wrong house,” George said and turned to leave. Even with beer goggles, he could see that this wasn’t Becky Lee.

You get your bones back here, mister,” the woman said with a fire in her voice that could intimidate an angry dragon.

George turned to face her, caught off-guard by her anger. Had he offended her in some way?

Her eyes bulged behind bubble-shaped glasses. “Miss Becky has told us all about you. Get in this house, right now Mr. Hoffstadt.”

George didn’t argue, just went where he was summoned. He stepped into the house and recognized it immediately as the B&B. “Right house. Wrong woman,” he slurred.

I imagine that’s not a new experience for you,” the little woman said. “Come on, everyone’s in here.” She led him down the dimly lit hall.

George followed, his gaze glued to the bottom of her dress. It was so long compared to her legs that he thought she might trip over the hem at any moment, but her legs continued their furious stride, unimpeded by the length of the garment.

They turned into the last room on the left, a room George had never been invited to enter before. It was a small room but warm and cozy. Rocking chairs sat in a semi-circle around the fireplace.

Nice place,” George said. He pulled off his jacket and tried to hang it on the door knob but it slipped off and fell to the floor. “Needs a coatrack.”

Looks like you’ve had a few,” Becky Lee said from her rocking chair. Her hands were busy knitting, purple and green yarn piled on her lap.

The other rocking chairs were taken up with ladies, most of whom were Becky Lee’s age. George didn’t recognize many of the women, only Becky Lee, Phyllis the cop, and Leonard the alien who now wore a blonde wig haphazardly on his head and a ghastly polka dot house dress. “Gang’s all here,” George said.

The diminutive woman who had shown him in took her seat in the last rocking chair by the door. Her feet didn’t touch the ground as she sat down but swung in the air.

It’s our weekly knitting circle. I was going to ask if you’d like to join,” Becky Lee said. “But you’re in no shape to hold needles.”

Course not.” The words flew out of his mouth in short bursts. “I am sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo drunk. That’s what you get when you try to convince…” George paused for a moment, trying to remember what he wanted to say. He licked his lips and stared at the fire. Fire. It burns. His neck burned. Shock. Wallingford. “When you try to convince a Greenvillian to go to Wallingford for help.”

A collective gasp escaped the women.

You did what?” Phyllis asked. She stood, dropping her mangled half-knit blanket to the floor. Her cheeks burned red beneath her moles.

Yesh,” George said. “And it didn’t work.”

Within a second he was face down on the ground with Phyllis’ knee digging into his spine.

How dare you try to corrupt a shitishen!” she yelled, her missing upper lip making it impossible to pronounce the letter “s”.

I wasn’t corrupting him!” George called. “I just want to go home.”

Get off him, Phyllis,” Becky Lee said with a quiet sterness.

What?! You’re defending him?” Phyllis asked.

You’re upsetting Leonard.” Becky Lee nodded to the alien.

George turned his head and saw Leonard standing over Phyllis. His opal eyes were glowing. A steady hum throbbed from his chest.

George felt the weight lift off his back. Leonard’s lanky arms picked him up off the floor and set him down on feet made wobbly from drink.

Thanks.”

Leonard held him steady. The alien’s arms felt warm under George’s pits.

Hair suits you,” George said, giving the alien a wink.

Your shtill in trouble,” Phyllis threatened, though now she now did so at a remove.

George raised his foot so she could see his that his feet were wrapped in newspaper. “I’ve been incarcerated, bar-b-qued, threatened, and I probably have cancer from the ink in this paper. What else ya got?”

Leonard lifted George and carried him like a bride on her wedding night.

Be careful with him,” Becky Lee called. “We’re fragile.”

George wanted to ask if she meant humans in general or the ladies in the room, but his head fell against the alien’s chest and he felt himself drifting off to sleep.

i can dig it

The morning came at George harsh and loud. A blaring alarm rang out from the clock on his nightstand at four AM, prying him from a dream and thrusting him back into the harsh reality of Greenville. George clicked off the alarm and in the early morning silence, fell back into a gentle sleep. That’s when the recording started:

This is your Glorious Dictator. Sleep is for citizens. Rise, and report to work or catch a few more winks followed by a few lashes at the Torture Pavilion.

George’s eyes snapped open. He’d been by the Pavilion before but he had no interest in ever going inside. He rolled over to face the alarm clock, waiting for the message to repeat, not quite believing that the threat hadn’t been a part of his dream. He didn’t have to wait long. Only thirty seconds passed before the directive played again.

George couldn’t believe his ears. He’d expected the Dictator’s voice to be deep and gravelly to match the weathered face he’d seen in the great man’s paintings around town. Instead, the Dictator spoke in a rich baritone–smooth as silk and sweet as honey.

George shut the alarm off before the message could repeat a third time. He had no idea how the Dictator knew he hadn’t gotten up after the initial alarm, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find that his room had been bugged.

Four AM. He hadn’t been up at four AM since…ever. He shrugged on his shirt and retrieved his pants from the floor. He had to ask Becky how he could score some new clothes. He probably had to buy them, thereby supporting the local economy. His credit card had to be nearly maxed out already.

As George tied the newspapers around his feet, his mind drifted off to the night before. He had a vague recollection of Leonard carrying him up the stairs and putting him to bed. The alien’s skin had felt softer than George had expected. It bothered him that he couldn’t remember taking his clothes off and yet he’d woken up naked, but he decided to shove that thought from his mind. He didn’t think Leonard had done anything untoward, though he knew the alien liked him for some reason. He remembered waking in the middle of the night and seeing the alien sitting in a chair beside his bed, his fingertips resting on George’s forehead.

George stood and stretched his back, only then realizing that he should’ve felt incredibly hung over, if not still drunk. Why wasn’t his head pounding? He hadn’t vomited either. He’d drank enough the night before to ensure a full day of misery, but he felt fine. Actually, he felt more than fine. He sank into a squat and held it for a full minute. Neither of his knees creaked when he stood back up.

Whatever Leonard had done to him overnight had been helpful, George had to admit that. At least something good had come from having the alien spend the night.

The house was quiet as he made his way downstairs.

Becky Lee sat in a recliner in the living room, knitting the blanket she’d been working on the night before. Her hair was tucked away under a bonnet and a fuzzy robe mostly hid her plaid pajamas. “Don’t forget to grab some breakfast,” she called out to George.

Why are you awake?” George asked. “It’s nearly the middle of the night.”

Idle hands get chopped off, so sayeth Our Beloved Dictator. I got my five hours of rest. I’m off to work again.”

Uh huh,” George said as he walked toward the kitchen. Becky was only mildly surprising. He assumed she slept with a gardening catalogue tucked under her pillow.

An assortment of freshly made donuts, bagels, orange juice, sliced watermelon and coffee lay on the table. George drank a cup of coffee as he ate a few donuts. He wrapped a bagel in a napkin and tucked it into his pocket. Who knew what lunch would be like wth the Grounds Crew, or if he’d even get lunch?

A breathy voice said from behind him, “You want to blow this joint?”

George turned to find the woman from the prisoner van staring at him with her large, blue eyes. She still wore the torn red dress and the dirt smudges on her face.

I have to go to work,” he said. Something in her crazed look put him on his guard. It had been hours since she’d arrived, why hadn’t she at least showered?

I’m busting out of here today.”

How?”

Walking.”

George shook his head. “It’ll only get you burned. These babies are for real.” He gave his collar a good tap, remembering his own run-in with the electric fence that surrounded the town.

Becky Lee hurried into the room, dragging her blanket behind her. “You two cannot talk,” she said in a hushed whisper. “If the Dictator catches prisoners talking, he slices their tongues.”

George gulped. He didn’t need to hear anymore. Vertical, horizontal, short, long, into two, he didn’t need to know how his tongue would be cut. He gave Becky Lee a crisp nod and then headed into the early morning darkness.

The grounds crew was easy to find. The Dictator had decreed that an underground maze be built just behind his house. He wanted a chance to set rebellious prisoners or ungrateful citizens into a dark tunneled labyrinth filled with little surprises. No one had told George what those surprises would be, but he assumed the worst.

Two boys stood smoking against the back of a pick-up truck, their shovels resting next to them. George couldn’t quite place their ages, but he guessed by their height that they weren’t quite fifteen.

Look at this rat’s ass,” one boy said.

Do you mean me?” George asked.

If I didn’t mean you, then I must’ve meant Fishy here, and I certainly wouldn’t call my brother a rat’s ass.”

Okay,” George said. He stopped a few feet away from the boys, not trusting the glances they were giving their shovels. “Aren’t you two a little young for the grounds crew?”

Fishy took a last drag from his cigarette and flicked the butt into the dewey grass. He let the smoke leave his lungs in one long exhale. “JT and I often make an appearance here. The grounds crew is practically our home away from home.” He grabbed the shovel next to him and shoved it with one hard thrust into the ground. “I guess you could say we’re the outlaw types.”

George took a step back and was about to outright run but a pair of headlights peeking over the hill stopped him. The two boys stomped on their cigarettes and took their shovels in hand.

Phyllis pulled up alongside the truck. She rolled her window down and George was surprised to see that she’d already donned her sunglasses, even though there was no hint of sunlight. “Who drove?” she asked the boys.

Awww, Phyllis. Come on,” Fishy said.

I asked a question.”

JT cleared his throat. “It was me. Dad’s sick today. He said we had to go on in though.”

You just earned yourself another two days on the grounds crew for underage driving.”

But I thought it was a one day penalty,” JT whined.

You gotta drive back, don’t you?”

The boy huffed but said nothing else. He seemed to have a long relationship with Phyllis.

The cop poked her head out of the car window and eyed George. “You’ll have to get started in those newspapers, but I’ll send up some shoes for you later. Those things won’t last more than a few hours.”

Thanks,” George said, more because he feared how Phyllis dealt with rudeness than because he meant it.

You’re not staying?” Fishy asked, suspicion in his voice.

Nope. I got a ringer.”

The passenger door opened and Independence Long stepped out. Six years old and a complete terror. “You boys ready to work?”

what’s in the bag

Get out of my damn way,” JT said as his backside bumped against George’s for the fifth time that hour.

Sorry,” George mumbled, keeping his gaze on the ground.

The deeper they dug, the harsher the tension had grown between George and the brothers. They’d taken to stabbing the earth with their shovels, emitting grunts as they worked. Sometimes, the boys’ grunts came out as words. “Kill…him…kill…him.” But George thought maybe that was his own imagination. His last water break had been over an hour ago and he’d sweated a good deal since then. He wasn’t sure how long dehydration took to set in but he had a good start on it at least.

I said watch it.” JT turned to face George, holding his shovel above his head like a club.

And I said to shut the hell up,” Independence called down from the ground above them. She only stood a few feet higher than them but every inch of her was itching to hit something with the billy club she held in her hand. A ring of red circled her mouth from the thermos of juice she’d been sipping on all day. George had had one run in with Independence and her gang a few days back when they’d attacked him, but he’d never seen her on a sugar high before. He didn’t like the way she tapped the club against her thigh. “Ain’t no talking amongst the prisoners. You know the deal.”

He keeps bumping into me,” JT said, not able to keep the anger from his voice.

Independence spit a red glob of sticky goo to the ground beside JT. “You talk again, and I’ll break your jaw.”

Awww, come on Indy,” Fishy said. “You’re one of us. Why you working for the law anyway?”

The question seemed to catch Independence off guard. The anger slid from her face as she stared past them into the middle distance. “Can’t run from the law forever. Sometimes, you gotta see the bigger picture.”

Uh oh,” JT said as Independence headed back to the truck for another slug of juice. “Indy’s losing it.”

Fishy shook his head as he watched her retreating back. “The most vicious lose it young.”

Lose what?” George asked. He was eager to take any break offered to him, even if it was to hear illicit gossip.

Independence poured herself another sugary shot and gulped it down in one go, slamming the empty cup on the tailgate of the pick-up truck.

He glanced back at JT and Fishy to find them giving him an incredulous look. “What?”

What do you mean what is it she’s losing?” JT asked. “She’s losing herself. Fishy and I are real lucky we stayed who we are. You grow up and you start giving in. Once the world starts making sense to you, it’s over.”

What?” George had no idea what they were talking about.

Fishy shook his head. “Kids see the world as it is, a nest of vipers. But something happens to ‘em as they get older. They begin to follow rules and play nice. They lose the magic that makes them them.”

JT grew excited. “No more cussing or fighting. No more beating up someone just cause they look at you wrong.”

It’s a shame,” Fishy said. “Independence was one of the greats. She broke my dad’s leg in three places once because he asked her to say please.”

Damn, I’m gonna miss who she was,” JT said.

You two are gonna miss the feeling in your legs if you don’t shut up over there,” Independence called out.

The boys, no matter what they thought of Independence’s waining violent streak, clammed up and returned to shoveling.

George pushed his shovel into the dirt. He didn’t want to anger Independence. He was too tired to fight anyway. His back wasn’t aching and that was something to be thankful for. Six long hours had passed since he’d arrived and set to work. The blisters on his hands pulsated as he leaned the shovel against the side of the truck. By all rights, he should’ve been in agony. After years of sitting behind a desk and avoiding exercise, his muscles should’ve torn like tissue paper. Did he have Leon to thank for that as well as his missing hang over?

The minutes passed slowly as he heaved small mounds of dirt over his shoulder, stopping to rest after each new shovelful. The day was nearing end and he couldn’t be happier. The newspapers he’d had wrapped around his feet had torn away in the early afternoon. Thankfully, the churned up dirt was cool and soft against his skin.

You,” Independence called from the truck.

Who?” Fishy asked.

New guy. Don’t know his name.”

George peeked up at her, not wanting to make eye contact for too long. The ring of red around her mouth had grown darker. She’d been hitting the sauce pretty hard. Was she looking for a practice dummy for her baton?

Yeah?” George asked, his voice weak.

Independence nodded her head to the truck. Just beside it stood the young female cop, her hair tucked under a baseball cap. George remembered her bright yellow glasses and the slightly lost look on her face. “You got a visitor,” Independence said.

I’d like to visit her,” JT whispered.

Independence moved like lightening. JT didn’t expect the blow from Independence’s baton. It thwacked against his arm and sent him reeling into his brother. The two fell to the ground in a heap, JT hollering in pain and Fishy hollering for his brother to get the hell off him.

Go on now,” Independence said. “You deserve a break from these two.”

George didn’t hesitate to climb out of the trench. Fishy had just pushed JT off of him and JT was raring back to punch his brother. Independence had settled in for the show.

The grass felt good underneath his bare toes though his arches ached. He hadn’t stood without shoes for more than a few minutes since he’d started to walk as a babe.

Hi,” the cop said as he approached the truck. She held a large paper sack in her hands. “This is for you.”

George stared at the bag suspiciously. It could’ve been a very large Chinese take-out order, or it might have housed a human organ. In this town, both were likely. “I didn’t order anything.”

The cop shrugged. “Phyllis said to bring it so I brought it.”

What if I don’t want it?”

Well,” the cop said, putting the bag down on the ground. “Phyllis don’t offer much up and I know she had to call His Graciousness to get approval for this. You can turn it down, but Phyllis isn’t someone you want to piss off. You know how she’s missing a lip?”

George barely nodded his head, afraid that somehow that was a trick question.

Yep,” the cop looked him over. “Man who did it is still alive. He was a prisoner she brought in a few years ago. He took her lip in a fight, and she took something of his. I guess we could’ve sowed it back on but the Dictator’s funny about some things. So that man’ll be sitting when he pees for the rest of his life. He was about twice your size but I guess if you’re feeling frisky, you can risk making Phyllis mad.”

George grabbed the sack from the ground. “Thank you. And thank Phyllis. Please. Please tell her I said thank you.” Hearing himself plead made him cringe but the thought of doing without a certain part of his anatomy was far worse.

Smart man,” the cop said before turning and walking back down the hill.

Where’s your cruiser?” he asked.

I forgot to drive,” she called back.

George shook his head. She hadn’t seemed like the brightest bulb when he’d met her in the station. Not necessarily dumb but lost in her own thoughts. Well, it was a nice day for the walk at least.

Go ahead and open it,” Independence said from behind him. She stood bouncing up and down a few feet from the trench. The two brothers were throwing punches at each other behind her.

George opened the bag and breathed a sigh of relief. He pulled out a pair of sneakers that looked to be almost his size. Beneath them, he found two pairs of jeans, three T-shirts, two pairs of sox and two pairs of boxer shorts.

I hate clothes as gifts,” Independence said.

George barely heard her. He was going to have shoes again.

Independence pulled a whistle from her pocket and gave it one long blow. “It’s quitting time.”

The brothers stopped fighting and climbed out of the trench.

You need a ride home, Indy?” JT asked.

Naw. My Dad’s got a meeting with the Dictator. Something about Quint and a fresh batch of cats. You two take the Newbie. Drop him off at The Place,” she said.

JT and Fishy froze, half out of the trench. They glanced hurriedly from George to Independence.

The Place?” JT repeated.

Independence nodded. “It’s time.”

I’d really like to go home and shower,” George said. Between sweat and mud, he looked like a cheap movie monster.

Independence took another swig of juice. “Did you just tell me no?” she asked when she’d drained the last drop.

Nope. The Place sounds great,” George said.

Good.” Independence jumped up and grabbed him by his collar and pulled him down so they were looking eye to eye. “Cause I’m not feeling very merciful right now.”

George licked his lips. He glanced quickly over Independence’s shoulder and saw that the brothers had made it out of the trench. They were waving their hands in front of them, trying to tell George not to push it.

I’ll go where you tell me,” he said, returning his gaze to Independence.

She let go of shirt and patted him on the cheek like a child. “Good boy.”

resistance is futile

The brothers told George he had to ride in the back of the truck with the dirty shovels, but that also put him closer to the cooler full of beer. JT, a few years too young to drive legally, refused a drink for himself. He was gracious enough to allow George to have one.

Just don’t get used to it,” he said as he handed George a can. “It’s only ‘cause Indy said we had to take you to The Place.”

What’s The Place?” George asked. He sat huddled in a corner near the rear window, his bag of new clothes and shoes cradled in his lap. The beer unleashed a welcome warmth in his belly. He liked beer, as a rule, but seven hours of manual labor had made it tastier.

JT only snarled at him before climbing into the driver’s seat.

You’ll see,” Fishy said from the front cabin. “Now shut up. JT’s got driving to do.”

George stayed silent and sipped his beer as they drove down lonely back roads. This was a whole side of town that he hadn’t seen. Vast swaths of farm land, rolling hills, live-stock, and air that alternated between fresh and acrid, depending on the proximity to live-stock, left him feeling nearly giddy. Seen this way, he could almost like the little town, minus the stinky manure-tinged parts.

The truck pulled onto a dirt road and George held the bag tight to his body as they travelled over rocky terrain. They turned again down a narrow path. A branch whacked him on the arm, causing him to spill his drink. George slid down into the bed of the truck, nearly laying flat, so as to avoid being hit by another branch.

Two turns later, the road widened again and George risked sitting back up. The farm fields they had passed were long gone. There were only trees now, as far as he could see. They were driving deeper into the forest. He peered between the brothers and caught site of a cabin at the end of a long, dirt path. The roof had seen better days, slumping here, missing parts there. The wood itself looked rotted out.

Where are we?” he called to the boys.

It’s The Place,” Fishy called back then turned to his brother, “We said we were taking him to The Place. Where did he think we was going? I am speakin’ English, ain’t I?”

JT parked the truck behind a line of cars. George counted four total, five including the old pick-up. Whatever this place was, it was far more popular than its appearance would suggest.

He climbed down carefully from the truck, his body stiff from the day’s hard labor and from the uncomfortable ride. What he needed was a hot bath, a big meal, and about three more beers.

Come on” Fishy said as the two brothers picked their way past cars and bramble bushes to the sagging front porch.

George held his bag to his chest as if it were a shield able to protect him from whatever was headed his way. He inspected the wooden stairs for splinters. His feet were caked in mud and he hadn’t wanted to ruin his new socks by putting them on and he definitely didn’t want to risk his new, beloved shoes.

JT wrapped on the cabin door three times then stomped on the porch and let out a scream like a rooster. They waited several seconds and then Fishy yelled, “Open the damn door, we have a guest.”

The door opened slowly and Dorothy stood before them in a glittery prom dress. “Sorry, I thought there was an owl hoot in there somewhere, too.”

Awwww, crap,” Fishy said, slapping JT on the arm. “You forgot to hoot, dummy.”

JT swatted Fishy on the back of the head. “It’s not like you remembered it.”

Calm down you two and get in here. I see Indy got our message,” Dorothy said, running her eyes over George.

I still have a girlfriend,” he said, lowering the bag so it covered his crotch.

Huh.” Dorothy scooted to the side of the door to let them in. “You’ve been here long enough. If she loved you, she would’ve paid for you by now.”

George stopped just outside the door, mere inches from Dorothy. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

A cruel smile played on her lips. “I’m not surprised no one told you. They don’t usually tell the ones who aren’t ransomed. Once your caught, His Generousness sends a letter to your loved ones offering to let them pay so you can leave. Your letter hasn’t garnered much of a response, so far.”

My girlfriend knows I’m here?”

Dorothy shrugged. “Phyllis says she called to check on the letter, but your girlfriend didn’t want to pay.”

George’s spirits sank lower than the trench he’d spent all day digging. “She knows?”

That’s a low blow,” JT said, pushing George gently into the cabin. “You got a cruel side, Dorothy.”

Dorothy shut the door behind them.

The inside of the cabin was as cheerful as the outside was grim. Fresh wood paneled the walls and the room glowed in the bright yellow light of many lamps. Three people sat wooden rocking chairs. George recognized Agnes, the nurse that had treated his burned neck, and the rosy-cheeked short woman from Becky Lee’s sewing circle. He had no idea who the woman with sharp features was, but the coldness in her eyes warned him not to push her.

Agnes gave him a lurid smile, her wrinkles creasing around her lips as she spoke. “Dorothy, don’t be rude. Offer our guest a beer. You did just crush his spirit after all.”

Sure. Why not?” Dorothy said and headed to a small refrigerator in the corner of the room. “See, I’d make a great girlfriend.”

I don’t know why we must drink at every meeting,” the rosy-cheeked woman said. A beer sat sweating in her hands.

Because,” Agnes answered, “We are only supposed to drink at Moe or Joe’s. This is a sign of our defiance.”

Well,” the rosy-cheeked woman huffed. “His Greatness doesn’t allow us two slices of cheesecake either. I wish we could do that instead.”

George, who had only heard the conversation as white noise, his own thoughts filling his head instead, mumbled, “She left me here. She left me here.”

Fishy patted him on the shoulder. “It’s okay, man. Lots of you guys have to serve your whole sentences. Buying your freedom ain’t cheap.”

I was going to ask her to marry me,” George said. One day. Several years from now. But that still counted.

She saved you from buying the ring,” JT said. “At least you didn’t spend thousands of dollars on the wrong wife.”

Dorothy handed him his beer. “Still plenty of time to find the right wife.”

The woman with the sharp features cleared her throat with a crisp cough. “Can we knock off the ransom talk?”

Sorry Mrs. Smiley,” the brothers said in unison.

George eyed the woman. He felt sure he hadn’t seen her around town. “Who are you?”

Mrs. Smiley bore into George with her sharp, blue eyes. “I am Mrs. Smiley, the town librarian.”

Nice to meet you.”

Hmmm. I’m not sure I feel the same.”

I don’t care,” George said, taking a healthy swig of beer.

That’s all of us?” Mrs. Smiley asked.

Yes,” Dorothy said.

Let the meeting of The Resistance begin.”

George searched their faces. The Resistance. This was it. His rescue. Forget his girlfriend. Forget the ransom. He was going home! “I got your note,” he said. “I’m ready.”

Ready for what?” Mrs. Smiley asked.

To go. You sent me the clothes and shoes, right? I knew it couldn’t be Phyllis. You got me here. It’s time to sneak me out. Are you putting me in a trunk and driving me over county lines? Or maybe you’ll fly me out in a hot air balloon like the Wizard tried to do with Dorothy. It’s not a bunch of helium balloons like in UP, is it? I don’t think that’s stable.”

Mrs. Smiley stared at him with dead-eyed disinterest until his enthusiasm petered out. “Mr Hofstadt. What are you talking about?”

Breaking me out of Greenville.”

The room erupted in laughter. George glanced from face to face, searching for an answer.

We can’t break you out of here,” Mrs. Smiley said.

Why not?”

The Dictator don’t like it when you guys escape,” Fishy said. “Helping you out is a good way to get one of us killed.”

But you’re The Resistance.”

Yeah,” Dorothy said. “We certainly are. You got our coupon, right? For a free biscuit.”

George nodded dumbly.

Did you use it?” Dorothy asked.

George shook his head. “I was going to go tomorrow.”

That’s good,” Mrs. Smiley said. “The free biscuit initiative worked. I’ll have to tell His Graciousness.”

His Graciousness?” George asked.

Yeah, stupid.” JT shook his head in disgust. “The Dictator. Who else?”

Why would you tell him about the biscuit?”

Mrs. Smiley raised an eyebrow at George. “He’ll want to know our progress. We used to send money but one of the prisoner’s used it to buy a gun from a pre-schooler. That almost turned ugly. Our Genius Dictator then decreed that we could only send coupons.”

The Dictator knows about The Resistance?” George asked.

He started The Resistance,” Mrs. Smiley told him.

George opened his mouth to speak then closed it very quickly. He did this several times until his brain finally caught up with the conversation. “He started a resistance movement against his own government?”

Of course,” Mrs. Smiley said. “You wouldn’t want that kind of thing springing up on its own. It’s very difficult to control an organic resistance. Now,” she said opening the book on her lap. “The coupon worked. Our next move will be to get you something you need. I believe you need shoes.”

Phyllis got me a pair. I guess it really was her.”

Mrs. Smiley snorted. “Old softie. Well, let’s see,” she said, consulting a list in the book, “we can start a letter writing campaign on your behalf to the Dictator. Try to get you an early release.”

Will that work?”

No. But he likes getting mail so it’s kind of a win/win for us. Dorothy, can you start that tonight?”

Sure. I have some nice new stationary I want to try out.”

Mrs. Smiley ticked off an item from her list. “We can also egg Becky Lee’s house in protest of your imprisonment.”

What good would that do?” George asked.

It’s been ages since we’ve had a good egging. It might make the news.”

I vote no,” the rosy-cheeked woman said. “Becky Lee is nothing but kind to these hooligans.”

That’s true,” George said. “Hey! I’m not a hooligan.”

The woman glanced at his muddy feet and shook her head. “You’re not civilized, that’s for sure.”

We can ask Jessica to do a piece on the conditions at the trenches,” JT said. “She’s been itchin’ to do a news story.”

No, dear,” Mrs. Smiley said sharply. “No footage of the labyrinth, His Abundant Goodness made that very clear in our meeting earlier.”

Stupid maze,” Fishy said.

The room fell silent. All eyes turned to Fishy whose face had grown bright red.

Mrs. Smiley closed her book with a sigh. “I’m sorry, Fishy.”

I didn’t mean it. I’m tired. I’ve been digging all day. It slipped out.”

I loved you like a brother,” JT said with tears in his eyes.

I am your brother.”

Mrs. Smiley shook her head. “JT, drop your brother off at the Torture Pavilion on the way home, please. And don’t doddle.”

Why is he going there?” George asked.

You can’t criticize the Dictator,” Dorothy said.

But this is The Resistance. You’re supposed to criticize the Dictator.”

It’s twice as important that we do not criticize him,” Mrs. Smiley said with a cold grin. “We are the barometer of rebellion. We let the people know what they can get away with.”

And what can they get away with?”

Absolutely nothing.”

 

crooner

Agnes slipped off her flats and slid her feet into faux-fur lined slippers. She would’ve loved genuine rabbit but the Dictator had outlawed fur fifteen years before, not for humanitarian reasons, but because a fur coat he’d ordered for his then-wife had been delivered with mites. They’d chewed her up leaving a rash on both her arms. While the rash had been temporary, the Dictator’s disgust at her ability to track mites was not. He banned furs so his future wives wouldn’t face the same problem and he promptly banished his then-wife to the Chicken Farm. Agnes wasn’t sure what happened on the Chicken Farm. She didn’t dare ask. All she knew was that three of the Dictator’s ex-wives lived there as did all his younger siblings. His Magnificence was no fool. Uprisings couldn’t happen if you kept all the potential threats under guard.

The day melted away from Agnes as she padded her way into the kitchen to scrape together dinner. The smell of vinegar hit her hard as she opened a new jar of pickled vegetables. Phyllis was a prolific pickler and kept her sister in a steady supply. The smell should’ve grossed Agnes out, she knew that, but it was refreshing after a day spent in an overly antiseptic environment. Their hospital might be small, but it was damn well clean. She scooped out several heaping tablespoons of vegetables onto her plate and plopped a piece of boiled chicken from a tupperware container in the fridge. This had been her diet for the past 32 years and had kept her in a slim size six. She stood staring out of her kitchen window, eating and wondering if she should bother watching TV. She decided against it. Greenville Cable was doing a feature on Dorothy’s Prom Dresses and Agnes had no intention of watching that.

A movement just beyond her fence caught her eye. She turned the lights in her kitchen off and let her eyes adjust to the dark. Whatever was out there, she didn’t want to scare it with outside lights.

Agnes let out a little snort when she saw the collar catch the moonlight. She recognized it because she’d seen it before. Her yard butted up against the electronic fence, the closest point to downtown where one could hope to escape Greenville, if one were so inclined. She’d bought the house because it was cheap–no one wanted to seem even remotely interested in escape, but Agnes had dated the Dictator when he was in high school and while the two had never married, she’d retained a soft spot in his heart. She’d gambled on buying the house. The gamble had paid off. She hadn’t been killed, maimed or even threatened.

She watched as the collar moved desperately up and down, up and down. It never failed. First they ran through the fence and then they either tried to go under it or over it. She’d treated many broken bones of forced-citizens who’d tried to launch themselves over the fence only to be sent back with a resounding wallop to the Greenville ground. The Dictator had made sure the electronic fence reached well into the sky.

When her dinner was done, she put the plate in the kitchen sink and breathed a heavy sigh. She’d dealt with enough people today, but it looked like she would have to deal with one more. Agnes flicked on the flood lights as she swung open the her back door. “Don’t run,” she yelled as she made her way through the tall grass of her back yard. “I know it’s you, George.”

You don’t know that,” came the voice just beyond the edge of her light.

Agnes placed her hands on the cool metal of her fence. “You’re the only one stupid enough to dig all day and then all night. Come on over.”

She heard him drop his shovel as he shuffled over to her fence. He made a sorry sight in the porch light. There were dark circles under his eyes and the clothes Phyllis had bought him drooped off his skinny frame. It wasn’t her fault, Phyllis was so short that everyone looked like giants to her. She’d bought Agnes overly large Christmas sweaters for years.

You’re just going to get shocked again,” she said. “And I’m not fond of the goo that I have to rub on your neck when you do, so skip the midnight digging.”

George slumped, resting his arms on the fence. “The fence goes down into the ground?”

For quite a while. Look, honey, just get through your sentence. That’s all you can do.”

But it’s not fair.”

Agnes tapped him on the hand and he lifted his baleful brown eyes. “You think I wanted to be a nurse? Being born in Greenville leaves you with few options. In six months, you get to leave. I’m here till I croak.”

George looked embarrassed but he only nodded and shuffled away back into the darkness. Agnes shook her head as she watched him go. He could be anything in Big America. Here, she would always be Agnes the nurse.

She refused to look at her yard as she crossed it. She needed to pay the neighbor kid to cut the grass again but she’d have to make sure her gun was clean and loaded first. That damn brat had tried to take a pair of gardening shears to her the last time.

The yard fell back into darkness as she turned off the porch light and locked the door behind her. She unzipped her dress and let it fall to the floor, walking to her spare room in just her bra and panties. There she slipped on a short, black dress and sat before her vanity, applying a thick layer of make-up. She turned on the disco light and dimmed the house lights before taking up her microphone. The karaoke machine was already queued to Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way”. The audience of mannequins and poster board “people” sat behind scavenged tables in her make-shift night club. Agnes belted out her song pretending she was performing in a smoky New York jazz joint. She’d never pretended to be famous, only to sing nightly in a place that would appreciate her talents. The song ended and she hadn’t loaded another one. Agnes stood in front of her fake audience, the lights not dim enough to hide the domestic vibe of the room. She hit a few keys on the machine, loaded another song and slid into her own world as she sang.

in the big house

The trench grew another few yards that day. George wiped the sweat from his brow as he looked over their progress. At this rate, they’d be done digging in a mere five years.

You know,” George said as he climbed out of the trench, “this would go much faster if we used a track hoe.”

Down On Your Luck Dan leaned against his beat-up car, sipping beer. Independence had returned to school which made George happy. She’d been a demanding boss who was a little too free with the truncheon. Dan wouldn’t hit him, or at least George didn’t think so.

Dictator thinks manual labor builds character,” Dan said before taking another sip.

Yeah, but I never wanted any character,” George said and he and Dan chuckled.

George helped JT climb out of the trench. He felt bad for the boy. JT was lost without his brother, Fishy. Dan had asked about Fishy that morning and JT had teared up and mumbled a reply about no longer having a brother. He’d been silent for the rest of the day. Occasionally, JT would stop digging and stare off into space as if lost in a memory.

Is your dad coming to get you?” George asked as JT loaded his shovel into Dan’s trunk.

Nah, I’m walking.”

Awww, you don’t have to do that,” Dan said. He drained the rest of his beer and let out a loud belch. “I’ll take you home.”

JT shook his head. “Nah. I got some thinking to do.”

The two men watched as JT headed down the hill toward town. He’d had to drop Fishy off at The Torture Pavilion the night before. George hoped he didn’t have to walk past the creepy building on the way home.

I’ll take a ride,” George said, stretching his aching back. “Maybe we can stop by Moe’s or Joe’s?” He was hoping to run into Leonard at one of the local watering holes. Whatever the alien had done to him was starting to wear off. His muscles ached something fierce.

Dan’s grin turned sheepish. He cracked open another can and handed it to George. “Sorry,” he said, opening a beer for himself. “No can do. The Dictator wants to see you.”

What?” George glanced over his shoulder at the “mansion.” He’d seen pictures of the Dictator and had heard tales, but he’d never seen the man.

Yep,” Dan said between swigs. “He didn’t say why, though I heard you tried digging outside Agnes’ last night.”

She told on me?” George asked, fear growing in his belly.

Dan shook his head. “Agnes wouldn’t tell. She’s the only one who doesn’t live in fear of His Bodaciousness. But Our Beloved Dictator seems to know everything.”

George took a huge gulp of his beer. “What should I do? What should I say?”

Dan scratched at the stubble on his chin. “It won’t do any good to lie. That just makes him angry. You’re not the first to try to escape. Most of you tend to do that. So, really, I don’t know why he wants to see you especially. Just try to not to tell him no or disagree with him.”

Do I have to go?”

Dan shrugged. “You could skip the meeting, I guess.”

Relief flooded through George.

Just be ready to say goodbye to your toes. The Dictator’s awfully fond of toes for some reason.”

And the relief drained out of him just as fast. “Okay,” he mumbled. “Will you come with me?”

Can’t. I’m not allowed past the park. Dictator’s afraid my bad luck will spread to him and burn down his house. He’s probably right.”

George chugged the rest of his beer and handed the empty can to Dan. “Well,” he said, hiking up his jeans, “I better get this over with.”

Dan clapped a hand on George’s shoulder. “It was nice knowing you.”

What?!”

Dan shrugged his heavy shoulders. “Just in case. I don’t want you to die without me saying goodbye. I mean, it’s not likely to happen but if it did, I’d want to be covered.”

George tried to think of an appropriate response but quickly gave up. He gave Dan a curt nod and headed through the Dictator’s gardens and up to the house with big, brick facades on either side. He had just approached the door when it swung open. Mrs. Smiley stood in the doorway, her cold eyes gleaming in the dimming light.

Mrs. Smiley?” George asked. He’d only met the librarian yesterday, during a meeting of The Resistance, which was anything but effective.

Mr. Hofstadt, trust me when I say that it is not a pleasure to see you again. But His Graciousness gets what His Graciousness wants. Please, take off your shoes and come in.”

Will my shoes be okay out here?” he asked, eyeing the porch. He’d just gotten his first pair of shoes in days and he was reluctant to let them go.

I trust it will not surprise you to learn that no one steals from Our Most Revered Dictator.”

Of course not.” George pulled off his shoes and took a step into the house. He wanted to be in awe of all the splendor, but the ornate wallpaper and faux-marble floors did little to impress him. It felt like a mansion designed at a discount store.

Breathtaking, isn’t it?” Mrs. Smiley said, her eyes dancing over the many cement lawn statues that had been placed on pedestals.

Sure is.” He stood quietly, waiting for her rapture to pass.

Our Most Egalitarian One is waiting for you in the dining room. I suggest you stop at the bathroom and wash up before going in.”

Are you joining us?”

No. I do not join the Dictator in his business meetings. That is what got wife number five sent to the Chicken Farm.”

George studied Mrs. Smiley’s face. Her look of disdain was unflinching, though he knew that look was for him and not the Dictator. “You’re his wife?” he asked.

Lucky Number Seven. One soon grows tired of beauty contest winners and twenty-year old girls. Our Benevolent Dictator has reached an age where he desires a wise companion.”

Who leads the resistance against him.”

Who better to do so? You need someone you can trust to fight you, especially when you can banish that person at any second.”

George nodded and followed Mrs. Smiley as she led the way down the hall. He had no idea what she’d meant but if there was even a chance that Mrs. Smiley could influence the Dictator’s opinion of him, then he wanted to play it safe.

Wash up here,” she said pointing to the open bathroom door. “The dining room is through the door at the end of the hallway. Don’t dawdle. He hates to be kept waiting.”

George rushed through washing his hands and face, scrubbing himself hard and quick. He had no idea what landed you in the Torture Pavilion, but he believed that a messy appearance at dinner could do just that.

His legs trembled as he walked down the hall. His pants and shirt were still dirty and he knew he smelled of sweat, but the Dictator had waited until after he’d dug ditches all day before calling him in, so what else did he expect?

George heaved a huge sigh before walking through the door. The dining room was not large. Becky Lee’s was far bigger. But a long table sat in the middle of the room none-the-less. At one end sat a short man. His feet dangled inches from the floor. The man looked up from his soup and George recognized his pock-marked face.

George,” the Dictator said in his sweet, baritone voice. “Have a seat.” He pointed at the chair to his right, in front of which sat a bowl of piping hot soup.

Thanks.” George slid the chair out carefully and sat down. Steam rose from the bowl and George could smell the heavenly scent of chicken broth.

Don’t be shy,” the Dictator said, taking a spoonful of soup from his own bowl. “It’s meant for you.”

George dipped his spoon into the bowl and blew on the soup. When he finally took a sip, it tasted like liquid gold.

Good?” the Dictator asked.

Very much so.”

We do strive for quality. Now, George, we have a problem, you and I.”

The spoon rattled against the bowl as George lowered it back into the bowl. “Oh,” he said, his voice gone high.

Yes. It’s unfortunate, your many escape attempts. I thought meeting with The Resistance would give you comfort, but it only seems to have made you stupid. Digging a tunnel? Why does every prisoner think their first ideas are the best ones? Surely, they must know that every other Forced Citizen has tried the same thing.”

Do you meet with all of them when they fail?” George asked. His throat had gone dry. He feared a round in the Torture Pavilion but maybe this was just standard operating procedure for The Dictator.

But he knew that couldn’t be true, because The Dictator’s face fell. His slicked-back salt and pepper hair and his thick gray mustache hadn’t aged his baby-face, but the disappointment he expressed now, did. “No,” he said firmly. “I’m sure you’ve noticed that Leonard has taken an interest in you.”

George shuddered remembering the alien’s hand on his forehead. “Yes. I thought he did that with all the prisoners.”

Forced Citizens,” The Dictator said. “No one is a prisoner here. All are free to leave.”

But my collar.”

Is your own fault. Leonard is very special to us. He’s lived among us longer than my lifetime. He’s part of the reason we were allowed to separate from Big America.”

At least that makes sense,” George mumbled. He’d wondered often why no one from Big America interfered with Greenville.

Yes. Leonard receives special treatment and, for whatever reason, he’s grown very fond of you. So, I want to make you a deal.”

George’s heart beat faster. “A deal?” he asked. This was it. He was going home. And he was breaking up with his girlfriend, immediately.

Yes. I will remove your collar and allow you to become a regular citizen. I will find you a job and give you a home.”

But I have a home and a job and I want to go back to them.”

The Dictator did not move a muscle, only stared at George. His brown eyes glowed with anger under his bushy eyebrows.

I’m sorry,” George said, lowering his gaze to the table. “I didn’t mean to cut you off.”

Of course you didn’t. In exchange for this, you will become a Citizen of Greenville. You will follow our rules. You will do as you are told or, Leonard be damned, you will face the consequences.”

George put down his spoon. “May I take some time to think about it?”

The Dictator nodded. “You can leave now. I’ll expect your answer by this time tomorrow.”

And if I choose to do my time here and go home?”

The Dictator let out a loud belly laugh. “Then I’ll let you leave in six months. I’m not a monster.”

George thanked the man and made to leave.

Of course,” The Dictator said as George put his hand on the doorknob. “You’ll have to do double shifts digging the trenches if you refuse my offer. And I’ll take away all your clothes, not just your shoes. What you wear is who you are and who you are is what I say and if you defy me, then you are nothing.”

George nodded and left the dining room.

for the record

It’s an easy gig,” the cop told George. “Sit behind the counter, keep yourself entertained, and hand people the forms they need. You don’t get much traffic. No one likes to ask much of His Awesomeness.”

George sat down in the solitary seat in the building. “Who do I call if I have any questions?”

The cop tucked his puzzle book in his pocket and leaned against the counter, giving it some thought. “Well, I’m the only one who’s worked here for the past decade, so I guess that would be me.”

You’ll be over at the station?”

The cop nodded. “Guess I’ll be there most of the time now. Yep. The station’ll work. I’m going to miss this place,” he said, patting the formica countertop. “Lots of memories over the past decade.”

Do you get used the smell?” The mix of mustiness and wet wood was already giving him a headache.

No.” The cop plunked down a ring of keys on the counter. “You’ll be staying open till five now. Plenty of time to learn which key goes where.” With that, he turned and walked out of the small, dim cabin that served as the town hall.

George leaned back in his chair. He scratched his neck where the collar had been. The skin was still pink but it no longer hurt.

It was ten a.m. and he had seven hours to kill before he could lock up and go back to the B&B. Starting tomorrow, it would be eight hours. He’d had to report to the courthouse that morning to be sworn in as a Citizen. Becky Lee had baked him a special cake. She’d gushed over him; he was the first new Citizen in over a decade. He’d sworn to abide by the laws, even when they changed without warning, to not contradict the Dictator, and to be all the things a good Greenvillian was meant to be, mainly loyal and unquestioning.

George picked up the keyring and headed to the back door. He took a piece of paper, a pen, scissors and tape with him. An hour passed during which he’d meticulously labeled every key. There were separate keys to the front entrance, the back entrance, the bathroom and every filing cabinet. There were six leftover keys that probably went to the jail, but he’d leave those be.

George searched every inch of the cabin for another hour, hoping to find a phone, but with no luck. Instead, he found forms for clothing requests, housing requests, cars, bikes, marriage approval, and a few he didn’t quite understand, like the requisitioning of a new child in case yours went too feral. He decided to wait for that one to be requested before trying to understand it. All he had to do was hand over the form, nothing more.

He sat back in his chair, another five hours stretching out before him. He rocked back and forth, trying to stay awake. The room was dark and he desperately wanted a nap. He’d spent half the night before trying to decide about the Dictator’s offer. Then he’d realized that Citizens don’t wear collars. All he had to do was lay low for a few days and then he could just walk out of town, just like Dan had. Except he wouldn’t turn and run back to Greenville. He’d break into a sprint and not stop until he’d found help.

About two o’clock, the door opened and light flooded the room.

Shut the damn door!” he yelled out, covering his eyes against the harsh glow of the sun.

The door banged shut and George blinked hard, willing his eyes to adjust to the dimness once again. He’d have to buy a few lamps or new shades for the windows. He didn’t want to turn into a vampire.

Oh, hey,” he said to the woman in the torn red dress. Dirt still smudged her face. She hadn’t showered, but she’d tried to run through the fence. The pink skin around her collar spoke of a recent burn. “Told you that fence would get you.”

Must be nice,” she said, jutting her chin out at his neck.

It’s a start. I have to prove myself here for a few weeks before I get more clothes and an apartment.”

Sell out.”

Tension filled the space between them. Her scowl surprised him. Had he ever looked so angry? Maybe. He wasn’t sure. He hadn’t felt that angry. Just lost. She looked furious.

What do you need?” he finally asked, wanting to break the silence.

New clothes. These aren’t “appropriate,” or so Becky Lee says.”

Appropriate for what?”

The woman shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”

George headed to the filing cabinet and did a quick scan, finding the proper form after only a moment. He handed her a copy.

You make me sick,” she said as she took the sheet of paper. “Becoming one of them.”

George shrugged. “The alternative wasn’t particularly appealing.” A shudder ran through him as he thought about spending quality time in the Torture Pavilion.

She looked at him with fire in her eyes. “I’d rather die than become brainless scum.”

I’d rather live.”

She continued to bore into him until he looked away. He sat down and pulled a clean sheet of paper from a stack on his desk and began drawing a cat. He’d have to remember to bring something to entertain himself with tomorrow. He’d heard rumors of a library hidden somewhere in the town. Becky Lee had told him it wasn’t very big and there was nothing there newer than 1945, but it was something.

What do I do with this?” the woman asked.

Fill it out.”

Then what?”

George looked up at her. Irritation scratched against his every nerve. “Archibald comes on Wednesdays. If you want clothes before then, I suggest you take that up to the Dictator’s house and drop it off.”

Why don’t you do it for me?”

George took off his keyring and grabbed a key marked “EM” for emergency. He unlocked the drawer by his right knee, never taking his eye off the woman. She backed away as he pulled a revolver out of the drawer. “Because I have things to do.”

Her shoulders fell. “Ok,” she mumbled as she slunk out of the building.

Were all Forced Citizens this rude?

heavy is the head

Emmanuel J. Thorp, also known as Greenville’s Beloved Dictator, sat looking out his office window, pondering his role in the town. An empty glass, once full of Scotch, rested on the table beside him. One drink per night, that’s all he allowed himself. The last time he’d gotten drunk…well, not all of the Citizens had survived that night.

His body felt warm and his nerves relaxed, but there was no liquor powerful enough to rid him of his ever-present fear. Emmanuel J. Thorp was terrified of Greenville. His town. Handed to him by his father on his deathbed.

Don’t be too hard on them,” his father had whispered moments before he’d died, spittle collecting in the corners of his mouth.

Emmanuel hadn’t known what his father had meant at the time. Why bother being a dictator if you couldn’t be hard on the people? Not that he enjoyed sending his old classmates to be tortured or worse, but that was his job. You had to have order in a dictatorship.

You need them to love and fear you.” Those were his father’s last words. Emmanuel thought of them often. The fear, that was the easy part. It was the love that was difficult. He’d had to work on that. Giving presents here, allowing for less regulations there. And the taxes. Greenvillians LOVED not paying taxes. That was a true stroke of genius on his part; a system his father had never imagined. Emmanuel had started the Forced Citizenship Program. He’d built the fence. Not personally, but he’d ordered it to be done. And now all of Greenville loved him, at least enough.

The soft knock at the door tore him from his reverie.

My dear,” his wife said in her cold voice. “It’s time for bed.”

Of course. I’ll be there shortly.”

She lingered by the doorway for only a second before retreating back into the hall. Sylvia Smiley had been an excellent choice for a wife. Stern and unyielding to everyone but him. A pit-bull by his side for his declining years. Someone who could keep enemies and well-wishers at bay. He’d had the beauty queens, now he had a companion and a guard. She adored him, that was certain, and he could tolerate her. It was enough.

Emmanuel gazed down at his town once more. How many of these people did know? All of them. Who could he count as a friend? Maybe Agnes, but only maybe. She would at least level with him, tell him when he’d pushed too far. He’d thought of sending her to the Chicken Farm with his exes, but Agnes was good to have around. You needed one person you could trust to tell you when you were wrong. And she knew the limits of her position. After Agnes, there was no one. Not even Sylvia. His wife, above all, had to be loyal to him. He’d never had one of his wives killed, but he always left that option open.

All of his other friends, the ones he’d been raised with, could barely look at him. They gave him furtive glances, too scared to allow their gazes to linger. He couldn’t blame them. In his worst moods, he’d have them arrested for staring.

And any day, the Citizens could choose to overthrow him. That’s what they never seemed to realize. Leonard made it possible for Greenville to stay hidden from Big America, but he would never interfere if the town decided for a change in management. And it was the thought of this rebellion that plagued Emmanuel. No matter how they claimed to love him, no matter how many parades they threw in his honor, he knew it could all come to a violent end.

But they never figured it out, or if they did, they chose not to act. Maybe there was comfort in making no decisions. He didn’t know that for sure. He’d spent his entire life making decisions. He made his own and everyone else’s as well. Still. Emmanuel was one man. He had no private security team and there were only three armed police officers in the town. And yet, everyone did as he said. They’d always done as he said. Probably because they were used to it.

Emmanuel broke his own rule. He refilled his glass with Scotch.

Quint was his one and only heir, a cat-killer and miscreant, but a blood relative. He might enjoy sending people to the Torture Pavilion. He wouldn’t put it past Quint to send half of the town at once. Maybe then the citizens of Greenville would realize that the only thing holding the Dictator in power was their will. But that was a problem for a different man. Emmanuel could only worry about ruling through his own death. Whatever happened after that was someone else’s problem.

bigger and better

Two weeks had passed since George had become a Citizen and had started working at the Town Hall. He’d spent eight hours a day behind that counter with nothing to do and no one to talk to. Besides the prisoner in the red dress, he’d only had two other visitors. Becky Lee had brought him a sandwich at the end of his first week and Down On Your Luck Dan had stumbled in on accident. Dan had cut his leg while trying to change the oil in his car and had forgotten where the hospital was. George had been forced to lock up and walk a heavily-bleeding Dan to get care. Agnes had not been happy. Nor had George. He’d had to clean the blood off the floor of his office.

The apartment the Dictator had given him was nice-ish. It was a clean, one bedroom flat above Dorothy’s Prom Shop. Other than having to dodge Dorothy whenever he entered or left the building, it served him fine. Small. Nothing like his place back in North Carolina. It was devoid of everything that made it his own, but it was clean.

George locked up the office at the end of his shift. Another mind-numbing day. He’d read for five hours–We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. The town in that novel was…George had a hard time putting his finger on it. Evil? Angry? Human? He wasn’t sure. But something about the novel and about Merricat and her sister’s need to stay in the run-down house had created a deep sense of unease in him.

He looked down the street to Dorothy’s shop and his new home. The walk only took a few minutes. He had some leftover meatloaf and a six pack of beer to get him through the night. He pictured himself sitting in his little apartment, watching Greenville cable and getting ever so slowly drunk. It’s what he’d done most nights since moving into the apartment.

His started walking in the opposite direction.

George nodded to his fellow Citizens as he made his way through the town. Everyone had grown a lot friendlier since his collar had been removed. He followed the path he’d taken his first day in Greenville and made his way past the nice houses and into the more rundown area. He stopped just short of the electric fence. This is where he’d gotten zapped as he’d tried to escape. Wallingford’s sign still stood in the distance, urging the Greenvillians to run.

The sun set as he stared at the houses in the distance. There was no collar around his neck, nothing stopping him from going. All Citizens were allowed to leave but they mostly chose not to.

George felt Leonard before he saw him. Whatever the alien had done to his head before he’d started on the Grounds Crew had stayed with him. Leonard felt like a tingle on the back of George’s neck.

What the hell are you doing?”

That wasn’t Leonard. George knew that voice. He swallowed hard and turned to see Leonard strolling toward him and Independence Long hobbling by his side. Child-size crutches were shoved under her arms and she wore a neon pink cast on her leg.

What happened to you?” George asked. His confidence grew as he realized Independence wasn’t mobile and probably couldn’t hurt him. Probably.

Fight. Hector finally got the better of me. ‘Bout time. I’m getting too old for this shit.”

A squishy, clicking noise started in the back of Leonard’s throat. His opal eyes shined at George.

He’s saying he wants to know why you’re leaving,” Independence said.

You can understand him?”

She spit a huge glob of phlegm onto the ground. “Sure can. All us kids can.”

Is that why you’re violent?” George asked.

Don’t matter why.” Independence nodded her head toward Leonard. “He’s not interested in hearing about that right now. He wants to know why you’re leaving.”

George turned his wet eyes back to Wallingford. “Big America is my home,” he said, nearly choking on the words. He turned to face Leonard, searching the alien for disapproval. “Will you stop me?” he asked.

Leonard shook his head no.

Leonard wouldn’t do that,” Independence told him. “You’re going to leave him awfully lonely though. He’s really taken to you. More than to the rest of us,” she said, her voice growing pained.

If I leave,” he asked Independence, “will the Dictator send for me? Will he kill me, have me killed?”

Independence shrugged, nearly dropping her crutches. “Not sure. Probably not. He never has before.”

Okay.” George tried to think of something special to say, something that would encapsulate his entire experience in the crazy little town. He decided on a wave.

George turned and ran toward Wallingford and Big America.

death and taxes

Moe’s Tavern was its typical dreary self. Too dark, music too quiet and only beer to drink. Down On Your Luck Dan sat on a barstool, sipping a cold one and staring bleary-eyed at Jessica on the TV screen. She was performing mild calisthenics, her green jumpsuit looking suspiciously like the old sanitation uniforms. It hung loosely from her body leaving her a shapeless, sweating heap.

Leonard sat next to him, nursing a beer and ignoring the other patrons. He’d been awfully quiet since George had fled town, and that bothered Dan. Hell, it bothered everybody. No one was too sure what the alien was capable of and they weren’t eager to find out.

Dan missed George as well. He took another sip from his mug. Best not to live in the past.

You alright, big guy?” Moe asked Leonard.

The alien signaled for another round in response.

Moe set a cold beer in front of him then ambled down the bar to Dan. “You seen him drink this much before?” he asked.

Dan shook his head. “Not really. Not beer at least.”

Moe nodded. “Don’t seem right. But I can’t cut him off. Leonard’s about the only person in town I can’t cut off, besides His Delightfulness.”

You’ve cut me off plenty of times.”

And I’ll do it again if you get mouthy,” Moe said, reaching under the bar for the bat they both knew he kept there.

I’m good.” Dan held his hands up in supplication.

Glad we have an understanding.”

Dan sipped his beer and returned his attention to the TV. Moe had been in a sour mood all week. He’d heard a rumor that the prisoner in the red dress had hit on his identical twin, Joe. Moe hadn’t taken it well. As the better looking twin, it was customary for all women to hit on him. Dan decided to finish his beer then head over to Joe’s bar. Leonard and Moe were freaking him out and he wanted a shot of liquor.

Well,” Dan said, setting down his empty glass. “I guess I’ll–“

But he never got to finish the sentence because just then, George burst through the door.

George!” Dan cried. He got off his stool and moved to hug the man but was pushed out of the way by Leonard. He watched as Leonard picked up George and held him in his arms.

Too tight,” George choked out.

Leonard loosened his grip but refused to let George down.

George!” Dan said again. “What are you doing back here?”

Let me down please,” George said softly to Leonard. He patted the alien on the shoulder once he’d been released.

You’ve been gone for weeks!” Dan continued.

George offered him an embarrassed smile. “I went home. Hitched all the way back to North Carolina.”

Is that in Europe?” Dan asked.

Don’t be stupid,” Moe said from behind the bar. “You can’t drive to Europe. North Carolina is in Big South America.”

Ooooh.” Dan slapped his forehead, not believing he’d been so dumb. “What happened?”

George took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. He took a long pull and continued with his story. “I went home and found out my girlfriend had kicked me out. She’d gotten a new roommate who owns not one but four cats. She said I hadn’t paid rent and she was mad that I hadn’t called since I left for my trip.”

But you were here,” Moe said. “Didn’t she get the letter asking for ransom?”

She thought it was a hoax. So, okay, my girlfriend dumped me and I had no place to live so I went to my work and it turns out they fired me.”

They can do that?” Dan asked. No one in Greenville could get fired unless His Greatness approved it.

Yep,” George said, wiping foam from his lips. “They didn’t believe me either.”

Man,” Moe said, shaking his head. “No job, no home, no girlfriend. I can see why you came back.”

Oh, that’s not why I came back,” George said, his eyes widening. “Hell, that’s how I spent my first two years out of college. Nope. I moved in with my mom again and spent the day watching the news while searching for jobs.”

That doesn’t sound too bad,” Dan said. “Greenville news only lasts a half hour or so and I search for a job every few weeks. All you gotta do is head to the town hall and fill out a form.”

It’s a bit more complicated than that in Big America. But that’s not why I came back either. Searching for a job is a pain in the butt but it was watching the news that really did it. I came back because Big America has changed. The whole place has gone crazy.”

Crazy how?”

The Election. We have a new president.”

Oh,” Dan said. “Not a dictator?”

Not yet. But it might go that way. Even now though, the world’s gone screwy. Up is down. Black is white. Science isn’t real and facts don’t matter. People are burning flags, sewing flags, protesting, counter-protesting. Companies are scrambling to meet the demands the president makes from his Twitter account.”

His what?” Dan asked.

Don’t even worry about it. And worst of all, families are fighting, threatening to disown each other over their viewpoints. Some like the president, some hate him. Some think he’s the second coming of Jesus and others say he’s the new Hitler. Hell, my mom’s threatening to divorce my dad because he voted for the guy.”

Why doesn’t your new dictator just make them stop?” Dan asked. Greenville’s dictator had put an end to more than one family squabble.

Moe agreed. “Yeah. Joe and I would’ve killed each other if it weren’t for His Benevolence.”

Big America’s too big,” George said, shaking his head. “Way too many people for him to get personally involved.”

Dan thought about that for a moment. “Maybe that’s the problem.”

Besides, the fighting’s only part of the problem. Nothing there makes sense anymore. People are either terrified or jubilant. I barely have an opinion because I’ve been stuck here. Big America didn’t feel like home anymore.”

I thought you hated Greenville,” Moe said.

George took another sip before talking again. “You can be punished here at the Dictator’s whim. You aren’t really free to pursue a career of your choice and even your clothes get decided by His Amazingness. There’s no media here and if there’s another branch of government besides His Magnificence, I haven’t seen it.”

True,” Dan said, looking down at his own holy jeans. He needed to visit the town hall and fill out a clothing requisition form.

Big America looks like it’s turning the same way. But,” George said, “at least here, you don’t have to pay taxes.”

True,” Dan said.

Can’t beat no taxes,” Moe offered.

George broke into a wide grin. And, we all get along.”

Leonard raised his beer. George clinked his glass against the alien’s. Dan did the same. And they spent the rest of the night drinking and watching TV.