Desires Quite as Terrible

~ Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

The witches wanted something different.

The coven had grown weary of virgin blood, which tended to bring out the immature demons; the wishes they granted were shallow: smoother skin, a minor increase in riches, or increased sex appeal. The witches didn’t want more sex. The men who lived in the town one over from theirs were easy enough to snare without the demons’ help. The witches wanted to summon a more exciting demon, one who might grant the most satisfactory of wishes: to deepen their five senses. To make the witches taste, see, smell, hear, and feel the world in more than its usual dimensions. Those types of demons required older, wiser sacrifices.

They required the last blood of a menopausal woman.

 

Sadie frowned as she scoured the forum. She wasn’t usually one for forums. She could never figure out the secret languages people used within them: OP, DD, LOTR, SAHM. Reading forums made her feel like she was staring down at a test for which she didn’t study. But she needed to feel like she was part of something bigger, like she had a whole world of women willing to respond and reassure her that she would feel better, that the madness of menopause would one day pass.

First, there was the weight gain. She had always been a hefty woman. Her thighs were muscular, her hips were wide, and her belly was a soft pillow that her cat loved to lie on. With the start of menopause, she expanded even more, filling out her size XL underwear to the point of strain, the elastic giving out under the pressure. She didn’t mind the weight—she liked taking up more space, claiming more from the world than her young-girl body had claimed—but it tipped her off to the process of something changing.

Then, there were the night sweats. She woke as wet as though she had been swimming. Sometimes, the heat overtook her in the middle of her air-conditioned office where she filled out administrative forms for a university. It was boring work, not the sort of content that usually made one hot, but there Sadie was, mopping herself with tissue after tissue in her cubicle, feeling the world spin around her.

Then there were the mood changes, specifically the anger. She had been a peaceful person when she was younger and maybe more naïve, but now she found herself bristling at every messed-up drive-through order or back-handed compliment. Sadie found herself especially angry at the people who had wronged her, the new stage in her life re-igniting grudges she thought long-buried: her stepfather, her ex-husband, her ex-best friend. When she thought of the wrongs they had leveled against her, she found her body flaming with a desire for revenge. Violent revenge.

Some mornings, she woke having dreamed of bloodbaths. She imagined the way their skin would feel trapped under her hands, or parted by her knife, or shaking as she squeezed them between her quaking thighs. She shivered as her every sense fired in a cacophony of overstimulation.

Sadie searched the forums, but no one mentioned desires quite as terrible as hers.

 

The witches searched the forums, too. They searched with more than just their eyes; they searched with their intuition, feeling for women on the other sides of screens whose final bleed was imminent.

Sophie’s post was simple enough: How have other people dealt with foul moods? And has anyone felt a lot of anger?

The responses to her inquiry were dull, women discussing breakdowns toward management at restaurants or rants against their ungrateful children. Sophie’s words and her screen name in its throbbing blue font radiated power. Her final bleed would come soon. The witches could tell just by that.

The coven’s most technologically savvy member performed her magic, plugging the screenname into a search engine and scouring the results for a name, a number, and finally an address. The witches clapped silently for her success, but inside themselves, they felt like singing.

 

Sophie logged out of the forum and moved to her window. Watching the birds hop around on the ground outside had become one of the only soothing hobbies she claimed, but today the sky was dark with an impending storm. A black cat prowled along her backyard fence. Suddenly, the cat sprung down to the ground. It captured a little brown bird under its paw, and Sadie watched as the cat tore the feathers from the creature with its teeth.

She did not look away.

Something rustled the bushes. Another bird? She scooted closer to the window to get a closer glimpse. Deep in the bramble, she saw what seemed to be a limb flopping back and forth. It looked human, disconnected from a body. Her heart sped up, and the heat overtook her. Even dizzy, she stood and rushed through the back door to the bush and knelt to peer into the shadowy space. The hand grabbed her by the neck and pulled her under the dirt.

 

Sadie woke sprawled in the woods, surrounded by a circle of bones that smelled of rotting meat and burnt gristle. Deep into the recesses of the forest, eyes watched her, glowing shades of orange and yellow.

“Who are you?” she called out, coughing the dirt from her throat, but there came no reply save for an insistent hum that grew louder. Sadie tried to move, but she was stuck, restrained by some invisible force. She screamed out once, then again. The witches moved in closer, letting the forest’s sparse light trickle down onto their leering faces.

“She will do,” they said as Sadie’s uterus was wracked, at once, by cramps.

Unlike in her youth, these cramps didn’t sadden her; instead, they ignited the rage she’d grown to live inside.

The tallest witch stepped into the circle of bone, and at that moment, Sadie felt free.

She rolled with all the force she could muster, working through the fog that had of late settled inside her brain to find the will to move through whatever spell the witches had used to trap her. She wrenched free her hands and grabbed the thickest bone from the circle. The tall witch frowned. In one swooping motion, Sadie swept the bone across the ground below the witch’s feet. The witch tumbled down, onto Sadie. Sadie wrapped her feet around her waist. With the bone, Sadie beat the witch until they both were drenched with blood.

Sadie pushed the witch off like a bad lover and struggled to her feet, but the other witches were already retreating into the woods, frightened of the fire that now flamed in Sadie’s eyes. Sadie held the bloody bone aloft. As she caught her breath, rage still boiling in her belly, the demon came.

The demon was like nothing Sadie had ever seen before: a hulking mass of swinging tits, volcanic skin full of flaming fault lines, and teeth like the blunted blades of a saw. Sadie stood to face the demon; its heat pouring into Sadie was not unlike the heat she’d learned to bear.

“You called me?” the demon rasped as it crawled free from the bloody earth.

Sadie understood that it had been the witches’ will, not hers, that had summoned the demon—but she also understood grabbing opportunities that came her way.

“I did,” Sadie said.

“And you want what they all want?”

Sadie considered; she did not see her desires as too far off from what others likely asked for.

“Sure,” Sadie said. “Why not?”

The demon grinned with its metallic mouth, and with its cracked fingers, it brushed back the hair from Sadie’s face.

“Then you will have it,” the demon said. “You will sense the world in its truest form.”

 

Sadie searched the forums for clues that others may be like her, that she was not living in this state of heightened senses all alone. “Increased sense of taste,” she searched. “Hearing the humming of the earth,” she searched. “Seeing auras and shadows” then “skin so sensitive it makes me cry” then “can’t sleep,” then “hallucinations.”

But she was quite sure that the event in the woods had been real, just as felt quite sure that she had reached the end of her womb’s own road. She didn’t need it, the threat of birth, for, through the demon’s touch, she had birthed her own body anew: every sense a symphony.

The rage had found another target: as Sadie searched forums, she felt for power radiating off bright blue screen names and for posts that may not tell the truth. She searched for the witches who had meant to do her harm. She would hunt them down; after all, with her new senses, she stood a chance of finding them—and the wrongs they had done, unlike all the other wrongs from Sadie’s full, full life, could be righted by her hand.

Six of Wands

 

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is the author of the short story collection Where You Linger & Other Stories and the novella Glorious Fiends. Her Nebula-nominated fiction has appeared in over 90 publications such as LeVar Burton Reads and Popular Science, as well as in six languages. By night, she has been a finalist for the Nebula Award. By day, she works as a Narrative Designer writing romance games. She lives in Texas with her partner and a mysterious number of cats.

 [ issue 8 : fall 2022 ]

The Continuing (Superpositional) Adventures of Schrödinger’s Cat

~ David Hewitt

Erwin Schrödinger’s famous feline thought experiment on quantum uncertainty should require no introduction. As a quick refresher, Schrödinger himself expounded it thus:

. . . A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device . . . in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube . . . releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. [Until an observer opens the chamber] the psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

Recent theoreticians, however, consider Schrödinger’s formulation over-simplistic. Before the box is opened, the cat cannot be said to exist “smeared out” over only the two states—alive and dead. Rather, this daring hypothetical adventurer simultaneously exists, with varying statistical likelihood, in every conceivable state of its own wave function. What follows is a by-no-means-exhaustive summary of possible outcomes, and hence co-existing states of being, revealed by continuing analyses of “the cat problem”:

• An atom decays; the hammer strikes the flask of hydrocyanic acid; the cat dies of cyanide-induced histotoxic hypoxia.

• An atom does not decay; the hammer does not strike the flask of hydrocyanic acid; the cat does not die of cyanide-induced histotoxic hypoxia and lives happily and healthily to a ripe old age.

• An atom does not decay during the one hour; but in the name of thoroughness and replicability, the scientist repeats the experiment the next day. This time, an atom does decay and—hammer, cyanide—the cat dies.

• An atom does not decay on the first day, nor when the experiment is repeated on the second, nor even on the third; but on the fourth day, though the clear and present odds are still a simple 50/50 coin toss, the cumulative 15-to-1 odds against surviving four such coin tosses in sequence finally catch up with the cat and . . . hammer, cyanide—dead.

• The cat survives the first, the second, the third, and even the fourth day. On the fifth day, the scientist, who originally intended an even five experimental trials, has a change of heart. Just as the atom is decaying, she hurls open the door of the steel chamber and, as the hammer is falling, yanks the subject out and tumbles to the floor with cat cradled in her arms, saved in the nick of time from the grim clutches of cyanide-induced histotoxic hypoxia. The scientist takes the cat home, names her Princess Purrsnickitty, and the two live happily ever after.

• The scientist experiences no change of heart, but just as the cat is being placed in the steel chamber, a joint PETA/Animal Liberation Front strike team armed with crowbars bursts into the laboratory, and liberates the cat into the uncertainties and vast open spaces of the suburban wilds.

• Just as the cat is being placed in the steel chamber, not animal-rights commandos but an ASPCA lawyer sporting a stodgy suit, a questionable comb-over, and a restraining order bursts into the laboratory, and liberates the cat into the uncertain and vastly time-consuming and expensive vagaries of the United States judicial system.

• Just as the cat is being placed in the steel chamber, neither PETA/ALF commandos nor ASPCA advocate but rather two blue-tufty-haired, red-jumpsuited individuals burst into the laboratory. Running full tilt and wreaking general havoc by toppling sensitive equipment, a coffee maker, and even a fish bowl, they free the cat through happenstance from the steel chamber and flee. Because of the suspects’ breakneck speed, blurry security footage provides only one lead: a single frame in which the cryptic letters -ing 1 and -ing 2 can be discerned on the backs of the jumpsuits.

• Just as an atom is about to decay, the cat reaches into a magic fourth-dimensional pocket on his belly and extracts an “Anywhere Door”; he transports himself out of the steel chamber and into the bedroom of a young Japanese boy who, though receptive to the cat’s aid and tutelage, never masters the important life lessons the cat endlessly strives to impart.

• The atom does not decay; the cat will live another day, it seems—but wait! Just as the chamber is opened, a gleeful-looking Maya-blue mouse rushes into the laboratory, carrying a giant drill and a hose with a suction cup at one end. The mouse drills his way into the steel chamber, slaps the suction cup onto the cat’s muzzle, squeezes cartoonishly through a hole into the perforated box where the flask of cyanide sits, screws the other end of the hose to the mouth of the cyanide flask, and flips the hammer’s trigger with a white-gloved hand. The hammer smushes the flask, squeezing all the cyanide out as a visible bulge which travels up the hose, through the suction cup, and into the cat. The cat turns a grotesque shade of green and its eyes a jaundiced yellow, then its fur and skin melt from its bones, and the bones themselves dissolve into a steaming puddle of acid with a pair of yellow eyes lolling on top. The mouse kicks one then the other eye, shot-on-goal style, and scampers off in the height of good cheer.

• An atom decays; somebody erred, however, and, in place of hydrocyanic acid, filled the flask with rye whiskey. When the hammer strikes the flask, the cat, goaded by the stress of its captivity, laps up the rye. Outside the sealed steel chamber, the scientist, who can know nothing of all this, takes a glass flask from his pocket and sips. He could swear he’d filled it with rye this morning, but the mouthful he sips has a distinctly non-whiskey, almond-like flavor.

• An atom decays, but rather than triggering the hammer, the ionizing radiation flies in another direction and collides with a spider which, unbeknownst to anyone, crept into the steel chamber before the experiment began. Bitten by this spider, said cat gains the spider’s proportional strength and agility (the latter resulting—since arachnid agility rates much lower than that of family felidae—in a net agility loss). The cat uses this super-strength to break free from its captivity, and goes on to fight for cat-truth, cat-justice, and the Siamese way.

• An atom decays; the cat is poisoned and dies, and is buried unceremoniously under a rock. On the third day, though, the rock is miraculously rolled aside—the cat, licking itself, rises from the grave as savior to all catkind, having paid with its suffering for the original sin of the first cat-ancestors, Muffin and Max, who selfishly tasted of the catnip of the Tree of Sloth and Hyperactivity.

• An atom does not decay, but neither does the cat live to a ripe old age. Instead, loose in the neighborhood, it is run over by a car the very next day—but the bereft scientist inters it in an ancient Native American burial ground. Two days later, the scientist hears a scratching at his door, and either does or does not open it; in either case, his own story ends in a manner that may with 93.2% probability be described as “bloodcurdling.”

• Just as the cat is being placed in the steel chamber, not PETA/ALF commandos, not ASPCA advocates, not red-jumpsuited hooligans, but rather a wealthy private benefactor arrives at the laboratory to rescue the feline, offering a generous research stipend in compensation. This benefactor, an older gentleman in tweed jacket and wrinkled trousers, brings the cat home. Soon after, a meeting is arranged with an editor from a major publishing house. The result is Eight More Lives: My Journey Through the Steel Chamber (ghostwritten). The hardcover release hits #6 on The New York Times Best Seller list and paves the way to the cat’s starring on the popular but horribly ill-conceived reality show Pussies and Pitbulls. Against all odds, our hypothetical feline hero emerges victorious, leaving a trail of savaged canine bodies in her wake. But she is a changed cat—hardened, unstoppable, eyes blazing with plutonium potency and heart hell-bent on revenge. Against all her benefactor’s protestations, the cat gives herself over once again to science, this time volunteering for a ludicrously improbable time-travel experiment. The experiment succeeds, transporting the cat a century into the past. Through hard-won cunning and craft, this survivor among survivors, this titanium-willed tiger among tabbies, makes her way to her target. The next morning, a young Erwin Schrödinger is found dead in his bed—of histotoxic hypoxia. No evidence of forced entry or a struggle is found. In fact, Schrödinger’s demise, mere days before he formulated his famous paradox, renders the existence of the thought experiment, the cat, and this story alike—

(With a 99.967% probability, very likely) The End

Six of Wands

 

David A. Hewitt was born in Germany, grew up near Chicago, and spent eight years in Japan, where he studied classical Japanese martial arts and grew up some more. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in Popular Fiction, he currently teaches English at the Community College of Baltimore County, but has at various times worked as a Japanese translator, an instructor of martial arts, a cabinetmaker’s assistant, a pizza/subs/beer delivery guy, and a pet shop boy.

His hobbies include skiing, writing, meditation, writing, disc golf, travel, and writing.

His short fiction has appeared in Kaleidotrope, Metaphorosis, and Mithila Review; his novelette “The Great Wall of America” is also available from Mithila Press as a standalone book. As a translator of Japanese, his credits include the anime series Gilgamesh, Kingdom, and Kochoki: Young Nobunaga.

 [ issue 1 : winter 2021 ]