Pitter-Pat

Ksenia lay in bed, not wanting to get up. She could indulge that feeling for five minutes, at least. Maybe as many as seven. Burying her face in her pillow, a position she never fell asleep in, she enjoyed the warm cocoon of her bed.

She became aware of her heartbeat. She'd tucked her arm under her body for maximal coziness, and she felt the blood flowing through the veins of her elbow pit as it beat against her ribs, ba-dum, ba-dum. It soothed her. Tension seeped from her shoulders, and she smiled.

Other places where her pulse neared the surface made themselves known. She felt the beat of her wrist against her hip, and the pianissimo rhythm of her other hand's thumb tucked against her shoulder, bi-dip, bi-dip.

As she relaxed, she opened to ever more sensations, becoming increasingly attuned. She felt it in her knee pit against the blanket so warm, and in her one ankle crossed over the other, and where her neck pulsed strong, deep in her pillow, thrrrrum, thrrrrum.

Where she felt a different rhythm, rapid and shallow: bidibidibidibidibidibidibidibidi. She surged up onto her elbows and stared down, relaxation forgotten.

"Oh, shit," said the pillow.

A Moment of Frustration

Gabriela had a five-year-old, which meant she had a problem making her brush her teeth. When asked, in a moment of frustration, why in all the faiths on Earth did Zahra fight so hard, she said,

Because when I brush my teeth the toothbrush cleans down and down until it's brushing inside out and it'll suck me in if I don't stop in time.

Well, that was too impossible to be true and too detailed to be a lie. Next time Zahra brushed her teeth, Gabi was there to watch. She watched as the toothbrush slipped deeper and deeper into Zarha's mouth and almost panicked, fearing choking, but stopped when

She saw a different angle in the mirror This one showed her the toothbrush disappearing in a spiral that grew small with distance, surrounded by a yawning void so absent of all quality it could not even be called black.

Gabi pulled Zahra's hand away from her mouth. Dimensionality returned to rightness, and she blinked away an afterimage that held as much as the void had held nothing

"Those are all baby teeth, anyway." She led her daughter out of the bathroom. "Now about why you don't flush the toilet..."

This Meat Market

"Hey." Alicia quirked an eyebrow and a smile at the half-naked man. "How you doin'?"

"Miss?" An older man approached, sounding concerned.

She glanced over. "A bit young for you, doncha think?"

His eyes widened in confusion. "Miss, are you... flirting with Jesus?"

Alicia looked up at the man on the cross with a smile. "Is that your name?" She bit her lip. "Strong, silent type? You really hit all my buttons. Bingo!" She laughed, a little self-consciously.

"Miss, this is a church." The priest gently turned her toward the door.

"Did I say you could touch me?"

"Wuh.... No."

"Next time I'll scream." She turned back to Jesus. "Now how about you and I get out of here?"

"Miss, I..." He tried to herd her without touching her, so his hands hovered around her shoulders. She ignored him.

"Don't worry, Jeezy, I may be looking 'cause you're smokin', but I want to know the man behind the muscles. Maybe we fit, maybe we don't, y'know?"

"Thank God," Jesus said, pulling free of the cross. "Most of the time I just feel so objectified, y'know?"

"Let's get outta this meat market."

Gasping in a pew, the priest watched them leave.

They're All Right

Hakim opened his eyes on a stunning scene: clouds glowing ivory beneath the shining sun, a man wearing flowing robes and a kindly smile, and a tall, golden gate.

Hakim's mouth opened, his legs wobbled, and he fell to his knees on the impossibly comfortable clouds. "The Christians were right." He looked like he might weep.

"Oh, no," the man said. "Everyone's right.

Hakim looked up at the man. "What? I.... What?"

The man sat cross-legged in front of him. "Your beliefs are true. So are theirs."

"But where is the paradise of heaven? Where is the ecstasy of knowing Allah? Are you an angel?" His panic nearly boiled over.

The man pointed over Hakim's shoulder, and he turned to see the heaven he had always imagined. Fear left him like air escaping an inflatable snowman.

"Oh, thank—wait." His murmur of relief transformed. "What's with this Western Christian bullshit?" He swept his arm to include the clouds, the gate, and the bogus St. Peter.

"Yeah, western Christianity's snuck into a lot of subconsciouses. Well, see you when you get to stage two." He waved.

"Stage... what?" Hakim had been gazing at paradise. When he turned back, everything else was gone.

Got Any Oil?

It was a cold night and I was out of sorts as I left the theater. My box seats had been sticky, and an understudy replaced the famous Miguel Dornados, whom I'd gone to see. "Hey, brother." The voice oozed to my ears as though too tired to properly leap. "Brother, got any oil?"

Against decades of trained reflexes, I stopped. "What?" He was gangly, up on his elbows to address me. Moonlight shone off a slick of sweat that made me lean away. If it wasn't the shakes, it might be contagious. These people lie about, take whatever they could beg off soft-hearted passersby who worked for a living. God, it was like they were a different species.

"Anything. Olive. Veggie. Mineral. Machine. Anything, brother. Don't need much." I swallowed my revulsion. Even my disciplined mind had to imagine what it was for. I skipped the thought of dense calories straight to a sex thing I tried and failed not to contemplate.

"No. Uh, no." I quickly left him behind. When I was block away, I called my car and looked back. The sidewalk was empty. Except for a dark, spreading stain that I could only believe was oil.

Such As It Is

"Nothing more to do here?" The severe woman in the crisp, black business suit looked unsmilingly on her partner.

"Nothing." Her partner, a bearded man of sizable girth looked around the small living room with a look that approached wistful as near as it dared. His suit was red and of a much more generous cut, but otherwise in the same style as hers. "Everything's in place. Such as it is."

"Excellent." The woman tapped something on a tablet. "On to the next."

"But..."

"We have a schedule to keep, Nick. No time for a nightcap." The man's gusty sigh soughed through his beard. He made a tired gesture toward their egress with a winter-gloved hand. She ducked in ahead of him and he, pausing a moment, took one last look at the scene: a plastic tree by the fireplace, beneath it a slim binder detailing available rewards for virtue points earned through the year.

"Tick tock, Nick." He closed his eyes and remembered a happier time. "Tick tock." He stepped beside her at the mantle and laid a finger on his nose. As they whisked up the chimney, he wished for a time before the hostile takeover of Christmas.

With Twilight Behind the Hills

My thumb felt frostbitten, I'd held it out so long. I wasn't surprised. A big man, scruffy and unwashed? I wasn't a safe bet, especially with twilight disappearing behind the hills. I saw a flicker of light far down the road. Maybe my last chance.

A lot of things brought me to this moment. Some good choices, maybe more bad ones, and bad luck mixed with bad timing. I'll still swear up and down the Hudson that any other year, my business would've done just fine. But with the economy...

I kept my thumb out. No telling how far ahead the driver was looking. The lights looked colder than normal. Those new, blue-colored lights?

So maybe quitting my job was a bad idea. And telling my boss just how much he smelled may have burned a bridge. But how was I to know that the investments I liquidated for funds were about to leap in value?

The closer the lights got, the more I could see a wobble, like the driver was palsied. I took a step away from the road.

I tried a dozen jobs, anything that'd keep me afloat. They only wanted pliable teenagers and immigrants.

A carriage pulled up, transparent with a ghostly blue lanterns hanging from the front. The driver flickered like a bad special effect. He asked if I wanted a ride to the front. General Washington would take any body he could get, he said.

It wasn't like I had any other job offers.