Danika

by Angela Kempe

Marlene felt her skin stretch and pain shoot through her stomach into her groin. She shut her eyes and forced another breath before bearing down hard. The distinct feeling of her skin tearing sent her into a panic.

“My skin is tearing! My skin is tearing!”

“Breathe!”

A sudden fog surrounded her. Was it the pain or the lack of oxygen? She wasn’t sure, but she new there was only one way to end this misery.

“Give her oxygen.”

A nurse placed a plastic mask over her face. She struggled to open her eyes. Struggled to sip one last breath before fainting.

“Don’t faint. Breathe, Marlene!”

Feeling someone squeeze her hand, she screamed a horrific cry. A strange hard thing crowned. She imagined its head at the edge of light and could not hear her own voice filling the room any longer. There was only time, paused like a dream. She could see her connection with it like a band of light as it slipped from her body. And all was over.

When Marlene came to, the doctor brought her baby close to her face. She could smell the blood on it. Smell its innocence. She reached to take off her oxygen mask and give the young flesh its first kiss.

Smiling, she touched the fat little arms and kissed her.

“Danika,” she announced.

The doctor repeated, “Danika,” to the nurse who recorded the name as Danika Lee. Then the doctor carried the baby to a large machine and nestled the child tightly in its grasp. Strapped the little arms and legs. Brought down the lid over the baby. Marlene had fought against tears, but her baby’s cries were too much.

Marlene felt her first pang of maternal instinct. She told herself this was necessary as she listened to the shrill sound of a saw blade spinning. Her baby stopped crying. Marlene closed her eyes. This pain was even more intense than the first.

“Body is severed.”

Marlene felt a numbness come over her as she realized it was too late to stop. She waited for an answer and the seconds moved like years. It was too much for her to take, so she struggled herself up from the bed, fighting against the nurses and her husband, and stumbled across the room. The staff held her back as she stood before the machine that held her baby prisoner, tears rolling down her eyes as she waited.

“It’s okay,” her husband said, placing a gentle hand over her arm.

She discovered a new hatred for him. The wait seemed like hours. It was only seconds.

“Spinal connection is successful!” the tech said.

Slowly, the lid opened and there was her baby sleeping soundly.

“Now Danika will lead a healthy life,” the doctor smiled.

Marlene reached into the incubator. The fat little arms were gone. She touched the soft new artificial limbs. It felt similar to the original but lacked of something. Realizing Marlene’s own fingers were in fact not original, she found a new bond between mother and child. Something she would now be able to enjoy for several hundred years.

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The Magic Trick

Sam places his hand lovingly on my shoulder, then whisks it away, tasseling my blonde curls.

“Hey Babe, you look beautiful.”

“Thanks Sam!”

“Look, there was something wrong with the box, so I borrowed an old one from my friend. I checked it out and it’s all good. It works exactly the same. Do you think you’ll be okay?”

“Sure Sam.”

“That’s a girl!”

I fix my hair and look over my body as he walks away. I’m only wearing a bikini with fishnet stockings and high heels and it’s cold behind stage. Normally, I get a coat to wear, but this gig is cheap. Only special treatment for Sam. The rest of us have to share an old dressing room with one measly bathroom that has rat traps laying around the toilet bowl. The rest of us are just pretty faces. But I think Sam’s the pretty face. Us girls are the ones who do the real work.

I can hear the audience rustling before the show. Then they get quiet and I know it’s about to begin. Now it’s only a waiting game. The other girls usher me to my position. Music starts playing and the stage manager gives me a thumbs up, so I flash him a smile. I walk on stage with the girls. Sam is juggling his blue rings. I ready myself to catch one and he tosses it at me. My position is set perfectly. My smile is set. Everything about me is perfectly polished and the audience thinks I’m a natural beauty. But reality is I’m completely staged and it actually hurts standing like this.

Finally, the trick is over. I walk off stage and wait for my next cue. It seems to take forever, but I’m not one to leave the back of the stage once the show begins. I like listening to the audience laugh. Like listening to Sam’s voice. I kind of like him. I think I would date him if we weren’t working together. But if we weren’t working together, I’d be nothing to him. Just another pretty face. And Sam wouldn’t settle down anyway.

The music dies down again and I listen for Sam’s voice. The stage manager is whispering something to my friend, Jenny. I get that jealous feeling, but try to shove it down and get my smile ready. Jenny walks onto the stage. I wait.

“And now for my beautiful assistant!”

That’s my cue. I walk on stage. Perfect smile again. Everything about my body is steady and gentle, but my heart is racing madly.

“In a moment, I’m going to ask my gorgeous assistant to climb into this box. As you can see, it is completely solid.”

Jenny and Suzanne are helping him roll the box around for the audience to look at while I stand waiting. My feet are getting sore standing in my heels. He gives me the cue to climb into the box. Now is the first time I’m really getting a look at the box. It’s a different color, metal plating on the outside, but that isn’t a concern to me. The real concern is on the inside. I climb into the box, large enough for me to lie on my side with my legs bent, and flash a smile at the audience. They get silent. I can’t see them beyond the hot stage lights, but I know they’re searching the stage for the trick. It’s up to me to make them believe.

Sam closes the box. I struggle to get the velvet covered trap door on the bottom open and push my legs under it like a sleeping bag. Take my first relieved breath while he talks to the captivate audience and push the rest of my upper body into a spandex side. I know Jenny is standing on the outside obstructing the view just encase someone is looking too carefully.

The audience rolls with a series of oo’s and awes. He opens the box as I hide and the loudest gasps come and music is still playing. Everyone is waiting. I’m waiting in my position with the other spandex wall against my face now. I can smell that it’s a bit mildewed. I can’t wait for him to shut the box again, so I can position myself back inside more comfortably.

“And wala!”

The audience gasps again. I’m not sure if I should wait any longer. Somehow the timing is off. I get that panicked feeling in my heart again. I press my hand on the spandex. I know Sam is looking for me.

I can feel them turn the box round again. This isn’t part of the plan. Jenny and Suzanne close up the box. The music has run out, but they aren’t beginning the next cue. I want to cry, but I’m still hopeful that the show isn’t lost. I just hope I don’t get fired over this.

“Okay,” Sam says to the audience. “It looks like our assistant might have really disappeared!”

Everyone laughs. He has a way to settle even me. I like him so much. I press my hand to try and remove the second wall but it seems to be stuck. They open the box up again, but it’s still empty. I can tell that the mood has changed. The stage manager isn’t sure what to do. The audience rustles in their seats uncomfortably. Sam looks inside the box now. I can feel the fear spreading in the room. I decide to reveal the secret. It’s done. The trick was messed up. I try to push hard on the wall. It seems to be stuck.

“Jenny,” Sam whispers. “She’s not in there.”

This time I start freaking out.

“Sam!” I say. “I’m here. Let me out!”

They don’t seem to hear me. My heart is racing. I can’t breathe. The spandex on my face is suffocating. I scream again.

“Sam!”

“Close the curtains,” he says.

The audience grows louder. Music begins playing again and a voice comes on the speaker to calm the audience down. I’m not listening to them though. I’m listening to the panicked voices of my friends gathered around me. They can’t seem to hear me. They can’t seem to see.

“Guys! I’m right here. I’m in here. Let me out. It’s stuck.”

No use. I can feel the box moving. Listen to their conversations. Other people come to look at the box. I can feel it move again.

“She’s not there,” someone concludes.

“Where did she go?”

“I don’t know, but I think we need to call the cops.”

“Call her house first. Call her cell. Maybe she left.”

I begin crying.

“I’m right here!”

My tears flow down my cheeks. I scream. I scream until my throat hurts. I cry until the spandex is sopping wet.

Hours later the stage is empty. There are only three voices now. I know the voice of Sam and the owner of the hall. The other is a cop.

“You say she just disappeared?” the cop questions. “Can you show me the box?”

I can feel the box moving. I begin to shout again at the top of my lungs. I beat my hands against the spandex. It’s moving, stretching. They should be able to see me. They don’t.

They all have a long conversation about me. I hate the smell of mildew. Then the conversation becomes distant. I want to scream even louder, but my voice has started to go. I lean my head against the fabric. I can hear the loud lights turning off. I can hear the stage doors closing and the voices disappearing leaving me alone, screaming in the dark.

The Challenger Deep

by Angela Kempe

The day James lost Suzy to cancer was the day he gave up on life. But he hadn’t given up on his dreams of exploration. He vowed to go back to The Challenger Deep before he died and solve the great mystery of the abyss. It was the deepest part of the ocean; seven miles deep. More than the height of Mt. Everest turned upside down with an equivalent of three SUVs of pressure squeezing every square inch of his submarine. James’ final adventure would be to go back to that dark place and find what every explorer dreamed of: New life.

James plunged his green submarine down into the abyss and waited hour after hour for the first sign of the ocean floor. At three thousand feet there was no light left from the sun. He sat in his black cap and shirt, balled up in a sphere that was his only safety from the extreme pressures of the sea.

“Suzy,” he whispered as he brushed his fingers over the wrinkled portrait of his beloved.

Before, he had reason to fight for his life in the deep, but now everything on the surface seemed trivial. Kids were grown and had seemingly forgotten about him. The ex-wives hated his guts. No, today he would push his submarine to its limit.

As he descended to five thousand feet, he saw a school of amphipods swim passed the lights of his camera. Their bodies glowed neon pink as they passed the submarine. He observed the occasional deep sea fish whose bioluminescent bodies glowed in the dark distance. But as he fell deeper, so did every sign of life vanish one by one until he was finally truly alone.

Suddenly, the controls began to flash. It was nothing new to him. He examined the alarms. An oil leak brought him up early before. The oil looked good this time, but he could hear the creaking of the sub walls as they began to crush like an aluminum can. He started tapping his fingers in his lap nervously, reminding himself to breathe. Breathe. Just breathe.

Then the submarine grazed the bottom of the sea floor. He brought it down ever so gently, knowing that if he landed too hard, it would surely kick up a storm of loose sediment that would fog up the sea around him like thick milk.

“I’ve reached the bottom,” he said over the radio.

“Roger that.”

He looked earnestly at the camera, the repetitive sound of alarms pinging in his ears.

“I don’t see much of anything yet. Just the same things as last time.”

He scanned the sea floor for life, but the bottom of The Challenger Deep was as desolate as the surface of the moon. The light of the submarine gave off a hazy blue glow. He missed Suzy’s voice on the radio. He could have used it right about now.

Hours passed and still nothing. Then, that same cloud of oil came up from the side of the sub. This was the end. He hadn’t any time left.

“I’ve detected an oil leak. I’m going to have to ascend soon.”

“Roger that.”

The voice of the marine was monotone and casual. Just a soldier doing his job, not Suzy, who would have been excited or worried for him.

“I’m going to bring her around one more time before I go.”

James brought his sub around and pointed the camera into the dark behind him. That same underwater desert he knew so well stretched before him. He took some last soil samples and pressed a few buttons to begin his ascent.

Then, he noticed a glimmer of light in the distance. James perked up in his sphere. He tried to move his legs that had gone numb hours ago and were aching horribly, but he couldn’t move them enough to ease the pain. Didn’t help that he was seventy-years-old.

“What was that?”

A few minutes later he saw another flash of light. He read the sonar anxiously. He couldn’t believe it. What he thought was a large rock formation was something hiding against the steep wall of the trench, and as it came towards him it flashed a yellow light in the water.

James didn’t have time to think. He stuttered at the radio in horror. If his instruments were right, that creature was five times larger than his submarine. He tried to gather himself as the creature swam towards him.

“I see something. It’s big…” he gasped.

Sweat began to drip from his hat down into the white of his trimmed beard. His hands were clammy with fear. The creature came into the light of the camera. Its body became a wall of flesh in front of him.

“Dear Lord,” he mumbled.

Suddenly, the animal flashed another light. This time the light was so blinding that James had to squeeze his eyes shut in pain.

All that was left in the end was the deep lonely ocean, and another mystery of the great Challenger Deep.

One Hundred Seats

by Angela Kempe

Sylvia clutched the tattered picture of her eight-year-old son to her breast. She closed her eyes and imagined her boy, long and gangly, smiling up at her. He wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. She bought him a telescope so they could gaze at the stars and they spent their summer nights imagining what life might exist beyond their solar system, studying the great scientists who dreamed like them, of uncovering the mysteries of the universe.

“You can be whatever you want to be,” she used to tell him. “Life is a blank canvas and you can paint any picture you want on it.”

But he already felt a feverish passion in his heart for science and decided that he was an astronaut as true as one could be. And so they embarked on a journey together, discovering every book they could, learning about physics, chemistry, and astronomy. Turning their house into a laboratory of science experiments and engineering projects.

Her seat shook violently. She remembered the call. The pain of hearing that his friend’s mom’s car had crashed on the way to the movies. The emptiness of knowing he was gone.

If he wouldn’t be one of the hundred travelers aboard the SpaceX shuttle to Mars, she was going to be.

“Here’s to your dreams, my baby boy.”

Mother

by Angela Kempe

Jan and Melissa reclined back on the leather sofa and crossed their legs casually. I bent to sip my Frappuccino when Jan’s toddler snatched Faren’s plastic dinosaur from her. Faren let out a high pitched shriek and tears started gushing from her eyes like geysers.

“Mine!” Faren yelled, stomping her feet on the ground.

“Faren share!” warned her mother, Melissa.

Melissa flashed an embarrassed smile.

“Give that toy back!” Jan ordered her son.

Jan’s son looked down at his dinosaur, snot dripping from his nose into his mouth in a continuous stream of clear boogers. He was already sad because although he was two, he was old enough to know the outcome; Give it back or Mommy would take it back. Either way was bad news for him, so he slurped up his boogers and threw it on the ground, running towards the blocks.

I looked at my daughter. She was playing contentedly with the giant legos.

“You’re so lucky, Cindy.”

Jan took a sip of her latte.

“Your little girl is always good. I never see you have any problems with the kids. And look at you. You are like perfect looking.”

Melissa stole a quick look at my flat stomach, enviously. Then, cast her eyes back towards my face and smiled.

“How’s potty training going?” Melissa asked me.

My kids had potty trained themselves. Wasn’t that normal?

“Good,” I said. “I haven’t had any problems.”

“Isn’t Freddie in kindergarten now?” Melissa interrogated. “How’s that going? Must be hard getting him ready for school. Does he throw any temper tantrums?”

“Um,” I said, sipping uncomfortably. “It’s good. I mean, I don’t have any problems really.”

“See!” Jan yelled. “You are the perfect mom. Too perfect! Gain some weight or something. There must be some issue with the kids. I mean, nobody has a perfect time raising their children. You don’t really enjoy motherhood that much, do you?”

“Well…”

They both shot up from their seats and were staring at me with fake smiles. I didn’t know what to say.

“I’ll tell you what, I’ll think about it and get back to you.”

Everyone laughed.

“I’m sorry, but I have to go, girls.”

I stood up and began cleaning up the big legos.

“So soon?”

“I forgot I have to do groceries before Ted gets home. Let’s do this again next week, okay?”

I couldn’t wait to get home. I put my daughter in her carseat and spiraled down the mountain road towards our house playing the conversation in my mind over and over again hysterically. I decided to try my husband at work. I commanded the car to dial Ted Johnson.

“Hello?”

“Teddy.”

“Yup.”

“Something happened at coffee today. I think we’ve been found out.”

“Why’d you think that?”

“Because I was talking with Jan and Melissa over a Frappuccino and we were just watching the kids play. You know, like usual. When Jan started saying how perfect I am. I did a horrible job acting human. We are going to have to leave as soon as possible.”

“We have another ten years left on Earth.”

“They are going to find us out! I can’t do this, Teddy.”

“So, you’re under confident about your ability to be a normal mother?”

“Yes. I’m not home yet, but I’ll start packing.”

“Cindy, I think you’re more human than you think.”

The Keeper

by Angela Kempe

The Keeper struck her spear hard against the rocks three times, lifting her magic compass into the sky as the hot waves crashed against the cliffside. The old wise mystic gazed out at the ocean seething and blustering before her, and gave thanks to the three moons of Roon which stood like giant jewels in the sky and to the great planet of Vela whose gravitational pull kept their moon in place.

The wind blew through her long gray hair as she stood on that high mountaintop. Roon’s highest peak; a sacred memorial to the days long passed which had since dried and cracked and succumbed to the raging sea. It was a world ruined by the greed and hatred of her people.

In the distance, she could see Vela’s hot gases collecting into a white halo around the planet. And she could just make out Roon’s twin cities floating in the water in a hazy fog. Those cities, bustling with life that were the last civilization of Roon, incased in bubbles of Methiesium to protect them from the harsh storms that daily ravaged the city walls.

The Keeper recalled her youth five hundred years before, when the land had once sprawled out in endless waves of lush rippling mountains. It seemed that only yesterday, her people inhabited the green hills in numbers as sundry as the stars. But now, standing on the sacred mountain was a testament to itself; the highest and most holy act of courage which could only be performed by the holy Keeper.

She lift her head up to the sky and muttered her prayer to the universe:

As they feel the wind, may they remember God.

As they take a step, may they remember home.

As they look upon the world, may they dream of their future.

As they listen to life, may they hear their children.

And may they never diminish the power of the universe to restore its balance,

When balance does not bend to our whim.

It is the prayer of this Keeper that they listen,

To the dust,

To the wind,

To life,

To the world,

And that they may make peace.

Then, the Keeper closed her eyes and found quiet in her own soul.

And in her silence she heard the soft murmuring of a song.