The most Herculean of all tasks

One day long, long again in ancient Greece, Zeus dropped by to visit his son, Heracles. He took the form of a bear or a wombat or a rock or something. Mythologists aren’t quite certain. It was probably a bird, though, so let’s just go with a goose.

“You do far too much sitting around,” honked the Zeus goose. “You need something to do.”

Heracles, a sassy teen at the time, answered with a sigh.

“I’ve got stuff to do,” he said, thumbing down through his Twitter feed on his phone.

“Not enough, apparently.”

“How would you even know. You’re, like, barely even here.”

That really ruffled Zeus’ feathers. Literally, in this case.

“Now see here,” he said, taking a second to preen his feathers before continuing. “Whether you like it or not, I am your father. And when I speak, you will listen.”

Heracles sighed again and looked up from his phone.

“I have created for you thirteen tasks,” Zeus said. He motioned with his wing, and a series of scrolls, each rolled and sealed with a dab of wax, appeared before Heracles. “Each scroll contains one objective you must complete. When you have done so for all of them, you will have become a man in my eyes and may join me in the pantheon of gods.”

The young man scoffed.

“Really, Dad? Scrolls? Can’t you just DM me the list?”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“You wouldn’t,” Heracles said and returned to his phone.

Mythologists say a lengthy argument continued from here. In the end, this battle of stubborn insistence versus stubborn indifference ended with Heracles reluctantly agreeing to complete the tasks, but only if Zeus promised to delay his curfew to 1 a.m. on weekends and stop randomly checking his Internet browser history.

So, one by one, Heracles tackled the 13 tasks, each more annoying than the last. He had to kill the Nemean Lion, Stymphalian Birds and the hyrda; he had to shovel mountains of dung from Augeas’ nasty stables; and he had to fetch Cerberus back from Uncle Hades, who stole the multi-headed pooch when he and Zeus were heavily embroiled in some kind of disagreement over property.

One after the other, Heracles begrudgingly completed his tasks, only breaking to periodically share his misery with his Instagram followers.

But then he hit No. 13. He unrolled the parchment and read it with disdain.

“Choose an appropriate name for your unborn daughter,” he read. “Ugh.”

Now, Heracles had never even considered having kids, let alone naming one. He first consulted several popular baby-naming sites, but couldn’t find a combination of first and middle names that sounded satisfactory to his ears. For days, he marched around Greece mumbling names to himself. None felt comfortable.

Heracles turned to the gods to aid in his quest, but found their opinions of what constituted a respectable name for a child to be far too varied. All of Apollo’s suggestions seemed pretentious, and Ares’ were all too blunt. Aphrodite’s were a little too … how to put this delicately … risque for Heracles’ liking, and all Hermes offered were ridiculous gag names like Apple Blythe or Pilot Inspector or Blanket. Those who didn’t offer their own awful suggestions turned their noses up at the ones Heracles had been considering. Although he possessed strength to capture the Erymanthian Boar and wits enough to remove the Amazon queen Hippolyta’s girdle, Heracles was incapable of counting the number of times someone answered his suggestions with, “You don’t want to name a child that.”

Heracles was stuck. After whipping through the first twelve tasks like Cetus through a Trireme, it seemed the last would best him. He returned to his father humbled and ashamed.

Zeus, lounging around Mount Olympus in the form of a giraffe, nodded his long neck knowingly.

“I figured that last one might trip you up, son,” he said. “Names can be tough.”

“So what do you suggest?” Heracles asked his father.

Zeus shrugged.

“I don’t,” he said. “I think you just have to go with your heart, regardless of what others think. Besides, in the end, it doesn’t even matter. Regardless of her name, people are going to call the kid whatever the heck they want.”

“Is that why everybody calls me Hercules, Dad?”

Zeus flashed two rows of gigantic teeth and patted his son on the shoulder with his hoof.

“No, son. That’s just ignorance.”

For the first time in forever, father and son laughed together.

Advertisements

On the Inside

“I have something to tell you.”

Nervous chittering rose from deep within her. She glanced at the closed door. Would he panic? Would the nurses come running? Hopefully not. That would be unfortunate.

His eyelids fluttered open, and her mind was flooded with thousands of images from thousands of days together. But the soft rhythm of the machinery lining the room reminded her of home, and she knew she had to tell him while she could.

She took her husband’s hand in her and rubbed the tip of her thumb across his skin the way she always did when he was anxious or she had something unpleasant to tell him.

“This … this isn’t going to be easy to hear.”

His pupils dilated, and she knew he was confused, maybe somewhat afraid. This would be difficult, but needed to be done. She couldn’t let her go with secrets between them. After so many years, she owed him that much.

“You’ve always been a loving, supportive husband. I’ve been less so as your wife. I know how I am. I can be … distant, I think is your right word. Distant? Inaccessible? I want to tell you why.”

Anxiety began to creep across his face. After so many years, she had grown astute at reading his emotions. She tried to calm him.

“No, no. It’s not that. I’ve never been unfaithful. I wouldn’t … I’ve never even desired another man. Not before I meant you. Never after. You’ve been the only one. It’s because of you I …”

She felt her husband’s pulse quicken. Not drastically, but enough for her to notice. Age had made his heart weak; she hoped it could endure this.

“You’ve never said anything, but I know you’ve noticed my appearance. I’ve tried to mask it, but it’s hard to live with someone for so long and not notice changes. Or lack of changes, I suppose. I think the glasses help. I don’t need them, you know. But they help sell the illusion that I’m much older than I …”

She paused to consider her words before continuing.

“I mean, the age I’m supposed to be,” she said, patting the top of his hand reassuringly. It was clear he was becoming more and more confused. “You found the hair coloring, so I know you know about that. Probably noticed that I’ve been using makeup to splotch my skin … add shadows beneath the eyes. But those are simple disguises. They may help fool casual friends. Acquaintances. Even the people I work with.

“But they didn’t fool you, did they?” She smiled affectionately and traced her thumb across the top of his hand, gently caressing his thinning skin, gliding over the bump of his veins just beneath it. The wavering in his eyes told her she had hit upon a truth.

“Of course they didn’t. I supposed these kinds of illusions don’t hold up under close scrutiny. It’s hard to hide not ever getting sick from someone who sees you every day. Never developing a cough … getting the flu … vomiting from too much drinking. That kind of thing. And faking the general fleshy sag of age is tricky. Which is why most choose a more solitary life.”

She furrowed his brow to show sincerity.

“But I just … I just couldn’t … When we met all those years ago …”

The words weren’t coming. She clicked from deep in her throat, a bad habit from years ago. One she thought she had broken, but kept popping up from time to time.

Slowly, he slid his free hand over hers. The rough feel of his calloused palms instantly made her feel braver. She could do this. Had to do this, now.

“I am not like you,” she said. Once again, she read the confusion in her husband’s eyes.

“No, not Catholic. Although … well, not important.

“I mean, I’m not like you. Human.”

He started to pull his hands from hers, but she kept a firm grip on them.

“I am actually part of an ancient race of creatures who have been slowly and steadily assimilating into your species since long before your ancestors ancestors. There are more of us than you can imagine … people you’ve seen on television, or read about in school, or know personally. Mrs. Farner next door; that really oddball librarian; the little shithead kid who rolls our yard every year … We’re everywhere. And I’m one of them.”

She looked him straight in the eye, leaned forward slightly to convey sincerity.

“I’m so sorry.”

She could feel her husband’s pulse rate increasing. His eyes began to widen, fill with deep confusion, anger. But she couldn’t stop now.

“I guess, if I were to have to describe us in relatable terms, I’d probably compare us … at least as far as physical appearance goes … to locusts, maybe. Really, really big locusts. Although, that’s only because I love you and I’m trying to make you understand. That comparison is pretty insulting to my people, truth be told.”

She smiled at him, hoping he would find humor in the comment … and maybe the situation as a whole. He didn’t return the smile.

“OK. And here’s … let me preface this by telling you this is going to seem really strange … but when I’m referring to ‘Me’ or ‘I’ or ‘Myself,’ I’m actually talking about several dozen individual beings all linked by a single hive mind sharing a common host. In this case, Janet McKinnley of Montgomery, Alabama. You remember when we met, right dear?”

She squeezed her husband’s hand again. He didn’t squeeze back. Her insides began skittering with concern.

“Uh … you see … when you found me out there on that hike, we had actually just completed finished … and there’s really not a pleasant-sounding word for this. Infecting isn’t right. But … I’ve got to be honest with you … ‘infecting’ probably sounds better than ‘devouring her innards, metabolizing her various muscles and organs and taking control of her squishy flesh,’ which is more accurate. There’s just not a pleasant way of describing our process.”

She snapped the fingers of his free hand.

“Co-opting. That’s pretty close.”

She smiled again.

“When we saw you … I saw you, because that’s what we are when we co-opt someone. An ‘I,’ not a ‘we.’ When I saw you, I just knew I had to be with you. You were so kind. So sweet. So concerned when you saw me lying there, adjusting to the new host. I had to see you again, and again after that. My feelings for you have always been real, and I’ve always wanted to tell you the truth. But there was just never a good way to breach the subject. To say, ‘Honey, I’m a small cadre of insect-like creatures wearing a costume of flesh.’”

Tears were streaming down his face. She felt his hand trembling in hers.

“But really, that’s not what I am,” she said. “I am Janet McKinnley. Jan. Janey-O. J. On the inside, I mean. The woman whom you love and who loves you. The rest is all details. You and I have loved each other for decades. Took care of one another. None of that has changed. We are your wife, and we love you. We just … I just … wanted you to know that before …”

And she just let the words peter off because finishing them was too difficult. Besides, it was all out there now. Nothing else to say.

Silence fell between them and seemed to last forever. His eyes, red with crying and pain, both emotional and physical, said he was uncertain. Confused. Angry. The things his wife said … horrible things … couldn’t possibly be true. She read all of that on her husband’s face, and knew she hadn’t done enough to convince him.

But she had to make him understand. To let him know she was telling the truth. It was important for him see her for what she really was, at least once.

“Let me show you,” she said, and she opened her mouth. Then wider. Then wider. Wide enough that he could see …

His eyes filled with terror.

He gasped.

He wrenched his hand from hers.

Her many hearts broke.

“I love you honey … Why are you crying?”

A Worthwhile Sacrifice

You know…sometimes…there are some people who are just…ugh…I don’t know…Something I can’t express in words, only frustrated grunts, long puffs of air and sour, face-twisting looks. You know what I’m talking about, right? That’s what this little bitty story is about. THOSE people. It is called…

A Worthwhile Sacrifice

So, like, I got to the counter and told the guy behind there that I wanted a little extra butter but not too much extra butter because it makes the popcorn all soggy and stuff and that I wanted a little extra ice in my Diet Coke but not too much ice and then, like, he just burst into flames. I know, weird, huh? At first he opened his mouth like he was going to scream and stuff and I could see a bright light in there and then he just suddenly burst out in flames. Oh, and it was totally gross. It totally smelled like burning hair because, like, his hair was on fire and everybody was running around screaming because they didn’t know what to do and little pieces of his skin and stuff totally flaked off and got all over me. It was so gross. I was totally screaming about it and I could swear that dude was smiling at me as he burned up. I know! I know! Like he was happy he was all burning to death and totally messing things up for me. I know! And guess what? They totally canceled all the movies for the rest of the day because of it, even though I had already bought my popcorn and everything. Totally ruined my day.

Can't this guy, like, think of anyone but himself?

Can’t this guy, like, think of anyone but himself?

(NOTE: A slightly different version of this story appeared on the now defunct short fiction website, Flashshot.com. It was a great little site run by a single dude with way more dedication to his craft than I could ever muster. I’ll always miss my daily dosage of super-short pulp fiction. RIP, Flashshot.com.)

So, I’ve been watching a lot of 80s cop movies…

The Captain and the Equal Sign

Equal Sign leaned back a little further in the metal chair as the captain continued his verbal tirade. The seat was intentionally uncomfortable … handpicked by the captain from the worst batch of rejects the world’s most despised metal chair factory could produce so that anybody unfortunate enough to find himself seated in the captain’s office would have to suffer from a numb, achy ass right along side his bleeding ears and decimated sense of pride.

But Equal Sign’s ass had been in this chair so many times it was practically as warm and cushy as his childhood bed. It didn’t bother him one bit and the captain knew it.

That just pissed him off even more.

“Goddam it, Equal Sign! Wipe that smug grin off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you.”

Little droplets of spittle went flying right into Equal Sign’s face, but he didn’t change his expression.

“I ain’t grinnin’, cap.”

The captain loosed a curt, bewildered guffaw.

“The fuck you aren’t you piece of shit. I know water when it rains and shit when it stinks and I know a goddam smug grin when I see one and that’s exactly what you’re givin’ me right now.”

The captain slammed the palms of his hands against his desk, causing the towering stacks of backlogged paperwork stacked atop it to quiver with fear.

“I guess you’re feeling pretty damn proud of yourself, aren’t you? Aren’t you?”

Equal Sign took a sniff of air and said, “For what?”

The captain’s voice raised to a hyterical level. A dude three states over could have heard him.

“For the fuck if I know, detective! For whatever kind of grand mess you’ve made of my city. You’ve blown up half the town; arrested the daughter of one of the city’s most prominent businessmen; broke Einstein knows how many regulations; got your damn picture all over the internet news; I can’t even flip on the Facebook to check and see if my wife’s sister has dropped dead yet without seeing your goddam picture slathered all over everybody’s fucking updates. The mayor’s breathing down my neck and the pastor of every goddam church in the nation is calling me up to tell me I’m going to soaking in the warm shit of Satan’s anus for what you’ve done. You’ve made a mockery of this department detective. Made us all look like we’ve been sittin’ with our thumbs up our asses for years. Is that what you wanted, detective? Was that your fucking goal this whole time?”

Equal Sign laughed.

“Nope,” he said.

The captain fumed and stormed across the room to the window overlooking the whole of the Mathematics Department. With a quick jerk of the cord, he pulled the blinds open … or, more accurately, pulled them from the window entirely.

“You see all those hard working symbols out there, detective? Doing their jobs, playing by the rules? That’s called mathematics, detective. Plus sign out there has put in 30 years. Division’s pulled eight more than that and lost his wife in the process. All on the level; all according to the standard equations.”

When he turned back to Equal Sign, the captain looked exhausted.

“Do you honestly think you know more than they do, detective?”

Pushing up from the uncomfortable chair, Equal Sign calmed a few waves in the sea of wrinkles rolling across the front of his aging suit. He briefly tried to recall the last time he’d had it cleaned … a fool’s errand.

He looked the captain in the eye and said earnestly, “No sir, I don’t. That just ain’t me.”

Then he turned to leave.

“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”

“To do my job, sir.”

Equal Sign had his fist on the door handle when he stopped. Even though he knew better … knew he shouldn’t poke an angry bear just as it was about to roll over and go to sleep again, he couldn’t help himself.

“Captain,” he said, “You wanna know why the folks out there like me?”

For the first time since the detective had stepped through the door, the captain’s voice was less than a full shout.

“And why is that, detective?”

It was a good thing Equal Sign’s back to was to the captain, because that smug grin had stretched across his face again.

He said, “I get results.” Then, he escaped through the door before the captain could start yelling again.

 

He may be stirring up a lot of controversy, but damn if he isn't a fine cop.

He may be stirring up a lot of controversy, but damn if he isn’t a fine cop.

Hair For Charity

I can’t count the number of times this little short story, Hair for Charity, has been rejected by mean ole publishers. Believe me, it’s a lot. Like a whole lot. 

…Well, OK. It’s four. Four times. I can count to four.

Since I’ve grown tired of the process of submitting, being rejected, weeping at the emptiness of my life and then beginning the whole thing over again, I’ve decided to just post the story here. Plus, I recently cut off my hair, so I thought the timing was right. I hope you enjoy it.

Hair for Charity

As soon as she felt the weight of her head lighten and heard the stylist, Lynn, perkily comment, “All done,” Charity realized the gravity of her mistake.

It was a strange sensation, to be suddenly relieved of five feet hair.

Charity knew when she sat down in salon chair, vinyl groaning in protest beneath her butt, that this was a defining moment in her life. Things would suddenly be different. But she hadn’t really understood its magnitude at all. Weight simultaneously lifted and fell on her.

She refused to open her eyes, despite the excited, unisonous pleas of both her mother and Lynn to “just look in the mirror.” Instead, Charity tried to adjust to the sudden release of the six pounds of hair that had been steadily pulling her head backwards for years. There was lightness to her head now, as if her hair had been ballast keeping it from floating away. Her chin struggled to touch her manubrium and she could feel the tips of her once flowing locks tickling the base of her earlobes. The sensation twisted her stomach.

“Oh, honey, you look gorgeous,” her mother said, rubbing her daughter’s shoulder with one hand. “Just open your eyes and see.”

Charity did, slowly, allowing the light and the mirror’s reflection to seep in until…there she was. Or, someone sort of like her. The girl Charity saw looked younger, like a child, with a short little golden mop of hair atop her head rather than long silk strands that floated down to her ankles. This girl lacked confidence and a sense of self. She was immature and weak.

Not me at all, Charity thought.

She heard her mother say, “This is a wonderful thing you’re doing.” Lynn — her tone chirpy and reverent — agreed.

“Charity, just look at all this hair you’re giving to those poor children. This will make five or six beautiful wigs for those kids. You’re a hero.”

Yesterday, Charity might have agreed, but now…

She swiveled in the salon chair to see. Still bound by rubber bands, Charity’s lost hair dangled limp and dead in the stylist’s hand, held up like snake beheaded with a garden hoe. It was still yellow and beautiful, but it looked purposeless, now. It was by far the saddest thing Charity had ever seen; she had to fight to keep from crying.

“I want it back,” she said, quietly though surely. Lynn frowned and leaned in closer as if she hadn’t heard properly.

“What’s that, now?”

“I want it back,” Charity said again, this time a little louder, more forceful. “I don’t care how. Glue it. Tie each strand back with little knots. I just want it back.”

She felt the weight of her mother’s hand on her shoulder.

“Charity…you can’t have it back. It’s been cut off. It’s going to be made into wigs for all those poor children with cancer. Just like you planned, remember? That’s why you grew it all these years. You remember, don’t you? Why you wanted to grow your hair out in the first place?”

Sure, she remembered — remembered seeing the commercial with all those bald and dying children, as pale as the hospital walls that surrounded them; remembered the four-year-old version of herself telling her mother, “I want to give those boys and girls my hair. They’re so sick;” remembered the little tingle she felt after that first year when her mother measured her hair with a ruler and said, “Good job, honey. Your hair’s grown six inches.”

But after so many years…well, things changed. People loved her long, golden hair. Everyone petted on it like it was some rare, gorgeous animal. They said things like, “Look at all that lovely hair,” and “I wish mine was so soft.” Boyfriends’ fingers twisted the strands while kissing her, and her best friend would carefully braid it when staying over. Memories were tangled in that hair, twisted among the strands. It was her diary.

Sure, everyone would think her kindness great, would commend her generosity. But it would all be said in faraway tones, their commendations preceded with “Oh, well,” and trailing away in wispy sighs that suggested Charity’s altruism was nice, but that hair sure had been lovely.

It was the most unsatisfying feeling she’d ever experienced. All this time — twelve years — she had been building toward a moment; letting her hair grow long and strong for the benefit of other people. But now that it was all over and done with, she felt nothing but loss. Suddenly, she didn’t want a bunch of sick, bedridden little children wearing her hair atop their flaky, bald heads like awkward hats, or running their bony fingers through the golden locks she had strived so long to grow. The thought nauseated her.

“I…I don’t think I can just…reattach it, Charity,” Lynn told her in between confused glances to her mother. Charity just shook her head.

“I don’t care,” she said. “I just want it back.”

Charity kept the rope of hair curled on her lap like a sleeping cat for the duration of the ride home, subtly stroking it while sniffling through her mom’s impassioned lecture about disappointment. Upon arriving home she rushed upstairs to her bedroom and placed the tail on her trophy shelf, snaking it around her recognitions from the local branch of Habitat for Humanity and her school’s Young Philanthropist Society.

There it sat, always drawing the attention of visitors, their faces awash with fascination or disgust when they examined it.

“I just couldn’t bear to part with it,” she’d tell them, feigning an innocent giggle while eyeing them defensively.

Of course, it wasn’t really the same. Although the rope of hair never lost its length or golden luster, the soft strands were different somehow. Unnatural. Dead. Like the mounted head of a trophy kill, Charity’s hair had become the corpse of something once beautiful, important to none but she who killed it.

 

Special Thanks…

Special thanks to the special guy or gal who purchased a copy of Strange Beasts in a Small Town yesterday. You are clearly a good person and I genuinely hope you enjoy the book. Thanks again…

…That is…Well…That is unless you aren’t clearly a good person and are, instead, some kind of psychopathic kitten-murderer or malevolent granny-kidnapper or something else of that ilk. If that’s the case…well…if that’s the case, I hope you DON’T enjoy the book. Customer service be damned. In fact, I hope the book somehow leads to your destruction. That’s right. And it’s perfectly capable of doing such, believe me. I proofread that thing four times and it damn near made me melt into a puddle of fleshy goo. So I know it can do it.

…I mean, come on. They’re kittens. How could you?

…monster.

Go ahead and imagine this photograph in negative color. I know...right. Naw, it's cool; go right ahead and cry. It's sad.

Go ahead and imagine this photograph in negative color. I know…right. Naw, it’s cool; go right ahead and cry. It’s sad.

A Small Victory

Strange Beasts just received its first ever rating on Goodreads: 3 Stars! That’s the kind of “I sort of like it” mediocrity to which I aspire.

In all honesty, it’s really awesome to see some simple feedback, even if it’s just a rating without comments. It gets me pumped up about writing stuff. And writing’s my job, which means I’m never…ever…pumped up about it. That’s just not the American way.

By the way, said Goodreads user rated Strange Beasts higher than Catcher in the Rye (which he gave 1 star) and The Grapes of Wrath (2 stars). So, based on that info, I feel fairly comfortable in making the following gross exaggeration:

Goodreads user(s) found Adam Armour’s Strange Beasts in a Small Town to be equal to the masterpiece works of JD Salinger and John Steinbeck combined! Pick up your copy today!

Too  much hyperbole? Nah. Not enough hyperbole, I say.

Don't be sad, John. I'm sure you'll make it big someday.

Don’t be sad, John. I’m sure you’ll make it big someday.