John Strausbaugh, Stories









 Zantara's mad at me again. No transmissions for the third day in a row. I don't know what I did or didn't do this time. I never know what she's thinking until she's screaming it at me.

This silence is so much worse. At least when she's shouting at me I know how I have failed her again. The transmission is so intense the migraine that comes after cracks my skull along all the suture lines, splits my continents apart. My brain is exposed, swollen and tender. It flinches in agony from the touch of air, of sunlight. For two sometimes three days and nights I'm so sick I can't move, my heartbeat makes me dizzy, every breath is torture.

If only she would tell me some rules to follow. I mean Zantara has many many many rules, but she never tells them to me until I've broken them. And she keeps changing them, adding new ones, contradicting old ones. I think she makes rules only so I can break them. How many times have I asked her for a simple list. It only makes her angrier. If I weren't such a worm, a glob, a crumb I wouldn't have to ask.

But these silences. Two days, four, sometimes a whole week. At first I wait quietly. Then I begin to pray. Then I start to panic. I beg, I grovel. I don't know if she's listening. She's silent and cold. I'm terrified she'll never contact me again. I have to hide the remote from myself to keep from surfing, thinking she may have switched channels without telling me, may be transmitting to someone else now. I'm terrified that if I stray off her channel for a microsecond, that's when she'll transmit. She's like that. Cruel. Capricious.

Zantara's channel is all the way up at the top, past all four thousand of the other channels. It doesn't have a name or number and I found it by accident. It's dark except when she transmits, and then you see only a faint and erratic dance of photons across it, like pale electric fireflies at a distance. When my sister brings her kids over she always asks what's wrong with the tv. I tell her the dish is broken. This has been going on for months. She says why don't I get it fixed. I say I never watch tv anyway.

"That's new," she says. "Usually I can't pry you away from it."

It's true. I am shy around the kids, but I'm shy around everyone. The truth is I was addicted to tv. First as a child and then again when I lost my job and went on disability. As a shut-in I made the tv my universe. It's why I have a dish that pulls in not just the commercial stations from all over the world but all sorts of secret and proprietary and government channels. Closed-loop security channels, satellite telemetry, global corporate conglomerates' dedicated interactive teleconferencing channels, channels that just stream mysterious data 24/7. You can't buy this system on any open market. It's completely illegal for me to have it. I got it through a man, at least I think it's a man, I started exchanging emails with after we met in an online advanced weapons research discussion group. It cost a small fortune and took six months for the various components to arrive from and through odd shipping points around the world.

When I got it all hooked up I was teleported to another universe, an alternate universe of tv. All my friends were there, all my enemies, neighbors. I was absorbed in twenty different soap operas in twenty different languages and cultures. I attended dozens of religious services a week, watched many sports I'd never seen before and didn't understand. I whiled away several days surveilling the empty Level 3 of a parking garage in Aberystwyth. I found a channel that ran all Star Trek all the time. Uhuru and Seven of Nine were as close as I ever came to girlfriends. I spent less and less time online and more and more on the couch, rediscovering the still, utterly passive existence of the tv receptor that had been my refuge in childhood.

One night I went all the way up to the last station, the one that just scrolls line after line of binary code, just light gray 0s and 1s marching from the bottom to the top of a darker gray screen. I pressed the arrow on the remote that should have taken me back around to channel number 1, the local news weather traffic station. Instead, I hit a channel higher than the highest one. Faint lights flickered on the dark screen. The only audio was the almost imperceptible hiss and pop of those photons boiling to the surface. I was about to go past when an old filling in a molar in my upper jaw, up behind my left ear, began to throb along with the hiss in sympathetic vibrations, like a tuning fork. It took a while to synchronize, like I was a cheap radio. But then she came through.


When I say that I am a shut-in I don't mean that I can't get around. I just don't. My disability is not physical. As long as I can remember I've had trouble out in the world of people. When Zantara tells me I am ugly and stupid I know it must be true because I've been hearing it all my life. I have very early, very sharp memories of other toddlers at the playground staring at me, frowning, avoiding me, shoving me down. My school days were miserable from the first class to the last. In every classroom I was that kid the others kids shun and make fun of. I was terrified of teachers and tests. Having to answer the simplest question turned my mind white and blank. I wet myself at my desk more times than I can count.

By the third grade they judged me a borderline cretin and suggested I be removed from normal classes and placed among the "special" kids. My father was outraged. My father was put up for adoption the day he was born and never got over the insult. He went through life an angry, self-loathing man who complained he was disrespected, cheated and robbed at every turn. He argued and complained his way from job to job, drank too much, and came home to take it out on me and my mother. Only my big sister was spared. My sister was smart and pretty and popular and he basked in her positive reflection. I, on the other hand, was just another excuse for the world to dis my father, and he took umbrage at my very existence. No child of his was special. I was perfectly normal. I was just putting on an act.

When the school board disagreed he pulled me out and made my mother home-school me. My sister, four years older, was mortified that her friends thought her little brother was retarded. She tried to help my mother educate me. We soon found that I was as frightened of being tried and tested by them as by the teachers, because they were acting as agents of my father, who was determined that I would be normal if he had to beat me to death to make me so. My mother eventually gave up trying to teach me and let me watch tv and read comic books all day. My father never gave up trying to beat me normal. One night as he was taking the belt to me he suddenly froze up, clutched his chest and fell dead to the floor.

His passing was a great relief to my mother and me, even to my sister. My mother kept some snapshots, but cleared everything else of his out of the house, a kind of ad hoc ritual cleansing. As she was packing it all up she asked if I wanted to keep anything as a memento. I took one item and watched the rest of it go.

It was the end of any pretense that I was normal. Through my teen years I stayed home in front of the tv while my sister went off to college and marriage. Shifting only from my bed to the couch to the fridge, I lived entirely inside the tv, comic books and the paperbacks my mother brought home to me from her church basement's second-hand store. I devolved into a fat blob of protoplasm with eyes and orifices. As I got fatter and lazier and totally reclusive my mother fretted about my health and tried to get me out of doors by giving me errands. The grocery store, the mailbox, the dry cleaners. As my weight grew I couldn't go much farther than a couple of blocks, but I had no problem with being outside. I liked fresh air and sunlight as much as anyone. It was people that made it miserable for me. Everywhere the response was no different from my schooldays. The looks of scorn and derision, the open smirks and giggles. The only difference was I got too big to be shoved to the ground. This gave me some comfort. My fat was my shield, my protective padding. With my earphones plugged in I could pretend I was inside an invisible bubble, my personal dome of safety.

This is a funny thing: On my increasingly rare forays out of doors in the daytime, I've seen more and more people copying me. Who would have thought? More and more of them wear fat as padding, with their ears plugged in and their eyes glued to small gizmos, shambling around in their protective bubbles, avoiding as much as possible any direct contact with the world and other people. I wonder if Zantara is doing that. Maybe she wants you all like me.

For a while I still went out for walks, but only late at night, when I wouldn't be bothered by anyone. I still liked the air. I didn't go far, just around the park across the street. My legs tired. And my PTSD meds turn my knees to Jell-O anyway. After Zantara contacted me I stopped that. I was terrified of being out if Zantara sent a transmission. It's the sort of thing she'd do, wait until I'm not there so that she could berate me for it later.


Zantara is the suzerain of a planet of ghosts, which was incinerated with all its inhabitants in a flash when its sun went nova 600 million years ago. The people of this planet had no heaven or hell to go to when they died, so their ghosts, billions of them, were stuck on this miserable cinder of a planet for all time. Only Zantara's spirit can venture off the planet, traveling by wormholes and other cosmic highways on photonic superstrings that interpenetrate all the universes, of which she says there are decillions, ours being one of the puniest and poorest. She also says it's much older than the 13.7 billion years astronomers currently estimate it to be, and there was no big bang. Our universe just oozed out from a weak spot in a vastly larger and older one, like pus from a bruise or welt.

Zantara has been searching for intelligent life in the universes for the last few million years. Life there was plenty. Life organizes itself with almost laughable ease in many many universes she has traversed, from tiny organic molecules to reef colonies big as solar systems. There was life on the surface of suns and life locked in the cores of mountainous rock and life in space. Life crawled, floated, squirmed, hopped, writhed, flew, climbed, squatted, multiplied and divided everywhere Zantara's spirit roamed. But sentient life, thinking beings she can torment and enslave, she found maddeningly few. In the whole Milky Way, humans are only the seventh species she's been able to communicate with. Five of the other six are still in primitive stages. The sixth is a few million years more evolved than us. I get the impression she did not get along with them.

I guess it should have depressed me to hear that it's not a Star Trek sort of universe. But I like the idea that it's relatively unpopulated. Periodically Zantara threatens to torture my brain to death so that she can free my spirit to travel the universes with her as her slave. I like knowing that we won't run into too many people out there.

It enrages Zantara. It may force her to downscale her original plan to raise an army of slaves from many planets and carve out a multi-universe empire. She takes it out on me that a miserable worm like me is about the best she can find.


When my mother died, my sister as executor of the estate sold the house and set up a trust for me, which pays the rent on the apartment she found for me. She didn't need the money. She married smartly. To pay for my food and other necessaries, she got me a job in her husband's warehouse. All I had to do was sweep the warehouse floor and empty the trashcans in the offices. It was the night shift, so I encountered only a few people. The bus drivers there and back, the night foreman, the security guard. I liked it. I felt productive for the first time in my life. It was a job even I couldn't fail in. I had all night. I could take my time, rest up when I needed to. The bus drivers barely acknowledged my existence, as with the rest of their few passengers, so that was fine. Al the foreman was actually kind and respectful, no doubt because I was his boss' brother-in-law. But he spent most of the night in his office anyway.

I liked the warehouse. It was big and empty. I could wear my earphones. I made a game of my work. I pretended the warehouse was the hold of an enormous space freighter trundling slowly across a remote wilderness of deep space. I was a robot, a lowly worker module constructed for menial tasks. A sort of C3PO only not as clever. The cardboard cartons on palettes that stood in neat rows were filled with rare cargo from bizarre planets. Most of the crew was in suspended animation for the years-long voyage across the deserted Sahara of space to our next port. Machines like me stayed awake and busy, quietly going about our routines.

The warehouse was two blocks from the bus stop. The district was desolate and deserted when I got off work at five a.m. I liked it that way. I was much more comfortable standing alone in the dark at that bus stop than on a crowded sidewalk at noon.

One morning in the middle of summer I was waiting for the bus when four youths strolled out of the dark. They were much smaller than me, not more than adolescents. I had my earphones in and pretended not to notice them. That works sometimes. People see that you're in your bubble and ignore you back. But these kids were high on something, out for an all-night lark, looking for someone to hurt. I fit the bill perfectly. It was like the Nature Channel. They were the hyenas, I was the water buffalo. They circled me, jeering, grinning, gesturing. One of them slipped up behind me and yanked out my earphones. They all began yammering at me as if in one voice.

"Yo doughboy, you deaf? You look just like the Pillsbury doughboy. Nah he ain't chocolate. What's this shit you listening to? Yo man it's broke. Here lemme fix it for you."

They dashed it to the ground and smashed it. It was just a cheap old portable radio. I always kept it tuned to a space between stations. Even in those days, well before Zantara first contacted me, I liked listening to static. It was non-confrontational and unconfusing.

"What you doing out here, chocolate? Don't you know this a bad area?"

And so on. You can imagine. The jeers escalated to pokes and shoves. I stood still, my arms at my sides, willing my bus to come. They wanted me to empty my pockets. They began to do it for me. I didn't resist, which only seemed to anger them. The punching and kicking started then, the ripping of my clothes. Like hyenas. I went down at some point. One of them was whipping me with my own belt. Kicks, laughter, insults. You can imagine.

I was still curled on the sidewalk when the bus rolled up, paused, and rolled on. A while later Al the foreman spotted me as he was driving home.

That was the end of my work life. My sister arranged for me to get monthly disability checks from the government. Between those and the trust I get by. I have few needs. The satellite and Internet hookups, the groceries she and the kids bring once a week, my pills.

My sister frets that I never "expressed my rage." Never as in my whole life. I always just took the abuse. I never spoke up for myself or fought back. This is incomprehensible to her. My sister always speaks her mind in no uncertain terms.

"You're not fooling me with this passive victim act. You never did. I know you have a mighty anger inside you, and if you don't let it out someday it's going to beat you up worse than Daddy ever did."

To get my disability checks she took me to a college pal who does victim counseling for the state. This woman said almost exactly what my sister did while I sat there saying almost exactly nothing. After the session she told my sister I was the most severe case of repressed rage she'd ever seen. She put me on the PTSD medication as a requirement for receiving the monthly checks. The pills are supposed to insure that my repressed rage remains repressed.

They're both wrong. Zantara could explain it to my sister if my sister ever sat still long enough to receive a transmission. I am not a passive victim at all. It's my fault, not my father's or the hyenas' or Zantara's. I invite the abuse, cause it, by being such a failure, a blob, a retard, a fat black bastard as the hyenas put it. How could they not abuse me? I am an offense to her sensibilities, Zantara says, repulsive, a creature built for abuse. She once told me about a planet where the dominant species has rid itself of all intraspecies violence. They did it by breeding a totally submissive domestic beast, something like a cowering dog, for the sole purpose of taking out their aggressions on it. Beating these animals mercilessly, they keep peace among themselves. Zantara says that's what I am.


With no heaven or hell to go to, the souls on Zantara's planet tried to migrate into new bodies when the ones they were in died. It was a mad scramble. The Zantarans — that's what I call them; Zantara routinely refers to them as "the scum" — cycled through seven genders over the course of their average 6000-year lives. There were two gender phases during which a single egg might be produced. It was extremely fragile and susceptible to changes not only in weather but in the moods of its parent. After it dropped it was carried with great care to the shore of a specific sea of liquid bismuth, where the parent dug a shallow nest and roosted for a little over 73 years until the child hatched. Once during that 73 years the planet's five moons would align, and it was only in that window that a soul could enter the egg. Years in advance a cloud of homeless ghosts formed around the egg and its parent, shoving, elbowing, cutting the line. The loathing in Zantara's voice when she described the scene ached my brain.

A few rare and powerful souls mastered an ancient mystical technique for migrating from body to body at will. In this way Zantara was able to pick and choose her host bodies and maintain her iron rule over the scum for some 300,000 years, until the sun burst and reduced them all to ash. She says she may teach me this technique before destroying my mortal form in the final crushing migraine. Not for my benefit, but so that my slave soul might continue to serve her until the end of this and all other universes.

Now that she has been silent for three nights in a row I am panicked that she may have given up on me, left me to find a better slave. I haven't stirred from the couch for 36 hours. I stare at the dark screen, willing the fireflies to appear. I have a terror that Zantara will never transmit again and I will sit here on the couch waiting until I die of one of those complex of symptoms that kill fat people and my body will sit here and rot and my soul will be stuck in it crying out to Zantara, who never replies.


When I retreated back to my personal universe of couch, tv and Internet after the hyena attack, I began quietly hanging around the edges of a number of online discussion groups. Not participating, just eavesdropping. I found I can handle people much better when they're just text on the screen. Not that they're any less mean, vicious and fiercely critical. In fact, they're more so. In the safe, anonymous world online they can really express their rage in ways you know they never would out in the real world. But since I don't participate and I'm not the target or cause, I don't mind. I didn't join in because I have no worthwhile opinions and no rage. But I enjoyed following the discussions. Two Star Trek groups, a few on government conspiracies, a few neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups, one on Afrogenesis, some global warming and meteor strike apocalypse discussions, one on time travel and other scientific anomalies. I learned so much.

And then, snooping on the black ops advanced military technology group, I read about the publicly unavailable super-satellite dish equipment, completely secret off the books military spyware of enormous bandwidth. I approached maddog2020 very gingerly, agonizing for a day over a two-line email. Maddog replied with the same care. Over the next few weeks we built up a tenuous mutual trust, satisfying each other that neither was a government sting. His emails were shot through with coded language I spent hours and hours deciphering. Various replacement parts for vintage automobiles were the code he used for the dish equipment. I set aside six months of disability checks in a shadow bank account and arranged third-party electronic transfers to several firms with names like Transworld Freight and Atlantic Shipping LLD. Then I sat back and waited and fretted for weeks before the first crate arrived, a wooden box the size of a steamer trunk plastered with international shipping and customs labels. More boxes and crates arrived over the next few weeks. I dismantled them as soon as they came and carried the pieces down to my building's dumpster in the dead of night. I hid the parts in the closet so my sister and kids wouldn't ask, all except the dish itself, which I struggled up to the roof. I let the cable drop down the side of the building and hauled it in the window nearest the tv. I hadn't been so exhausted since I lost my job. I spent several more days poring over diagrams and instructions in Chinese and Russian before I hooked it all up correctly. I wrote an email to maddog2020 thanking him for helping me restore my 1963 Sunbeam Alpine. He never responded.

If I live as long as Zantara has I will never forget the awe and terror of that first transmission. The vibration in that tooth started as an ache that drilled its way through my jaw to my inner ear, where it became a voice, a voice I don't hear so much as suffer from, a voice of pains and twinges that when Zantara is angry with me, as she so often is, rises to a symphony of skull-cracking agony. I thought at first it must be some effect of the satellite equipment, maybe some kind of ultra-high frequency audio transmission that the filling in my tooth was somehow picking up. But Zantara addressed me, directly and specifically. "Worm! You doubt me?" Immediately followed by what felt like a bolt of lightning to my brain, casting me to the floor, blind. In our first few moments of contact I'd already failed her and she was already punishing me.

Later, when the pain had faded, I doubted again. Maybe it was a hallucination, something my PTSD meds caused. When Zantara transmitted the next night, she started right out with a searing pain that shot right down the cleft between the halves of my brain. She was outraged that I could even think her magnificence was something my puny worm brain might have created. I never doubted again.

In the course of the next few transmissions Zantara showed me as much as she thought a blob like me deserved to know or could possibly comprehend. I saw her enthroned in a hall with walls shiny and black as polished obsidian that seemed to go all the way up to the alien constellations. The Zantarans revered and feared her as a demon-goddess, not just their supreme deity but the unique deity; Zantara had slaughtered all the other gods and demons, smashed their temples down to the tiniest particle of dust, and forbidden even the fleeting memory of their names. I saw a vast plain stretching to far horizons in every direction under a scarlet sky, and on this plain millions of Zantarans hung dead from pikes and posts. I saw the wild and bestial ceremonies her priests officiated to appease her wrath, where many more Zantarans were massacred until the blood and gore lapped at the foot of her throne. I saw their star explode in the sky, and felt the tsunami of fission that melted the flesh from their bones and then their bones.

I saw Zantara alone, a restless ghost prowling from universe to universe, searching a million billion galaxies for new worshippers and slaves. She showed me galaxies of galaxies pinwheeling around her, galaxies of all shapes and sizes, some orderly solar nurseries birthing new stars at predictable rates, others ragged and threadbare and blown misshapen by ancient catastrophes. I saw vampire suns siphoning off the energy of other suns, stars with hundreds of planets surrounding them, planetless rogue stars galloping across immense oceans of void to collide with others and destroy all the life they sustained. I saw frozen planets, planets of boiling metals, giant gas planets with no cores just swirling patterns of massive storms, desert planets without a drop of liquid, ocean planets with continents of kelp. I watched as Zantara crossed shrinking universes where time ran in reverse, universes where the laws of physics did not apply but the laws of metaphysics did, universes mad with howling chaos, cemetery universes cold and still where all life and light and intelligence and energy had been sucked down the well of entropy to come seeping up into some other universe. I felt her frustration and boundless rage as she discovered, over eons of travel among all these universes, the scarcity of sentient life forms.

Zantara explained she was showing me all this so that I understood the wonders and horrors my spirit would experience if I proved myself worthy of being her slave. When I asked what I might do to prove myself to her, she struck me down with another blinding migraine. A born slave wouldn't need to ask.


I suppose it's disturbing that a person of my background would beg to be a slave. My sister would be appalled. My sister celebrates Black History Month every month. She is raising my niece and nephew to think of themselves as descended from proud Nubian warriors and princesses. My brother-in-law jokes that she would have named them Kunta and Kinte if he hadn't put his foot down. She also inherited some of our father's hair-trigger touchiness about perceived slights and disrespect.

Zantara, whose knowledge of earth history is startlingly deep, has mentioned my ancestry, only to denigrate it. She says that my "subspecies" made very poor slaves, lazy and shiftless and forever conniving against and thieving from their superiors.

Zantara is no plantation cracker. She reigned over an entire planet and will one day rule universes. I have promised her many times that if she sees fit to have me I will rise above my heritage. She usually punishes me for my presumption.

Zantara is ruthless and merciless, but I know she always had to be. As a young princess she had to outwit and defeat several blood relatives to attain the throne. They included her own egg brother. Zantaran twins were extremely rare, came only to royal families, and were automatically assumed to be gods. Developing together over the long gestation period, twins competed fiercely for the limited space and resources inside the egg. Often one triumphed and the other was stillborn. Always one emerged dominant, though both were often born deformed in some way from their long years of conflict in the shell. In the case of Zantara and her egg brother Zantag, she won all the physical and intellectual strength, leaving him weak in body and mind. Zantara's "deformation," although I would never call it that if she is listening, was to be born without a speck of morals, conscience, guilt, empathy or sympathy. Of course, these defects turned out to be strengths in her competition with Zantag and other family members for the throne. By the time she was crowned suzerain Zantag was the only blood relative still living. She kept him as a kind of pet, chained to the foot of her throne, fed scraps, kicked more often than petted. She let him survive not out of compassion but because his pathetic state was a graphic display of her supreme power.

She has told me on occasion that if it pleases her to keep me I might at some point in the unimaginably far future attain the position Zantag once held at the foot of her imperial throne. But in the near term she is not at all pleased with me, miserable lump that I am. I have asked her countless times to let me prove myself to her. I know that I will probably fail. I always have.


My sister and her kids surprised me today. In my extreme agitation over Zantara's continuing silence I'd forgotten what day it is. My sister was startled by my condition. In the five days since Zantara's last transmission I have hardly left the couch. My apartment stank. I stank. I'd stopped taking my medication, thinking that somehow the pills displeased Zantara.

My sister sent the kids down to the dumpster with my garbage. She threw open a window and stood between me and the tv with her fists on her hips.

"What's the matter with you? You look terrible. You stink. When's the last time you took a shower? Why are your eyes all piggy? Did you stop taking your pills? Bobby I swear to you if you're off your meds. What's wrong with you? Don't do this to me now. I do not need you going off the deep end right now. If you're losing it tell me now I'm taking you right to Alyson."

Alyson is her friend the victims counselor. There wasn't anything to say. Zantara had forbidden me in no uncertain terms from ever revealing that she was in contact with me. I felt sorry for my sister. It couldn't be easy having me for a brother. Since our mother died she'd been more like a mother than a sister to me. She already had two kids of her own. She didn't need the added burden. She took it because she thought it was her responsibility. That's just how she was.

"Answer me. Are you having some kind of breakdown? I will put you in the car right now and drive you over there. How dare you let my children see this. What are they supposed to think? Look at me when I'm talking to you."

I had shifted my considerable weight a little to the side, so I could see the screen past her elbow. This was exactly the sort of moment Zantara would choose to get back in contact with me.

My sister produced her cell and stabbed numbers fiercely.

"Go get in the shower. You stink like a dead whale. Alyson Tracter, please. Tell her it's urgent."

I didn't move, of course. How could I? I knew Zantara was observing and testing me. I heard my niece and nephew come back into the room behind me.

"Go wait downstairs," she told them. "Alyson? It's Bobby. He's gone off his meds and having some sort of episode. No, the opposite. Almost catatonic. But if I can get him out the door can I bring him to see you? Thanks."

She snapped the cell shut and glared at me.

"Bobby, if I have to go over to the warehouse and bring back a front-end loader you are getting up."

Past her elbow, the screen flickered. Just a single wink of a dot of light, then it went blank again. Zantara toying with me.

"All right that's it," my sister said. She turned and reached down for the on/off button on the tv.

What happened then I can only think was Zantara's will and force charging through me, because I have never moved so fast in my life. Without knowing I was doing it I was on my feet and shoved my sister to the floor. She wasn't hurt, but she lay on her back staring up at me with an expression of complete stupefaction. I had never done anything like that, ever, to her or to anyone else.

Behind me, I heard my niece start to cry. Simultaneously, in the lower corner of my vision, the screen flickered to life, photons dancing erratically, and my tooth ached with Zantara's cruel laughter.

I turned to face the screen. I felt sad about my sister and my niece and nephew, but my heart was pounding with joy.

"All right Bobby," my sister said, elbowing back from me across the floor. Her voice was placating on the surface but vibrating with rage underneath. "You stay and watch your tv."

When my sister had left, Zantara instructed me to bolt the door and drag the couch against it. She sent me to the closet. Then I sat on the couch as ordered.  


One afternoon when she'd been bedridden for six months my mother sent the visiting nurse out of the room to ask for me. At first my sister had tried to make me responsible for my mother's pills, but of course I was terrible at it, couldn't keep the schedule in my mind. So she hired the nurse to come by a few hours every afternoon. The nurse, who was almost as big as me, went into the kitchen to root around in the fridge, and I went into my mother's bedroom. The nurse had dragged my father's old armchair in there so she could sit with my mother. The only other chair, the one where my mother used to sit to do her hair and makeup, would have splintered under her. Or me. I did not sit in my father's chair. I sat on the edge of the bed instead. It groaned and almost capsized under me.

"Bobby I'm so sorry," my mother said. "I'm sorry to leave you. You know I would stay if I could, don't you."

She put her hand in mine. Her hand looked tiny and fragile in my big fat paw.

"I'm sorry I let your father do what he did to you," she went on. "I should have stopped him. I could have taken you and your sister away. But I didn't know how. I was raised that a wife stood by her husband and served him no matter what kind of man he turned out to be. And I felt sorry for your father too. He didn't mean to be mean. It was how he came up. That man had a deep emptiness inside him he could not fill. Still."

She searched my eyes.

"You don't hate us for it, do you son? You could. You probably should."

She turned her face away on the pillow and let go of my hand.

"Don't you worry about a thing. Your sister will look after you. She's a good girl. And you've been a good boy."

The nurse came back in, licking mayonnaise from her mustache.

That night after work my sister came to visit. She went into my mother's bedroom. I heard her give a little cry. A few minutes later I heard her on her cell. Then she called me. A commercial came on. I got up.


"Bobby, open the door," my sister calls.

"Unlock the door now sir," my father calls. "No one is going to hurt you."

He sounds drunk. Once when he came home drunk and angry he decided to beat me for no other reason than my existence. He told me to get into my room and prepare, which meant to pull down my pants and lie face down on my bed. My earphones were lying on the bed and on impulse I slipped them on. He was too drunk to notice when he came in and was soon taxing me with his belt. But I wasn't there. I didn't hear myself screaming, which somehow meant I didn't feel the beating. I was somewhere else, or nowhere really, a void, suspended in static. When it ended and my father closed the door behind me I was lying alone across the bed, my bottom and the backs of my thighs burning and stinging terribly. But I had missed the beating itself. From then until he died I wore my earphones whenever he beat me and he never seemed to notice.

"Sir don't make us break it down."

"Bobby please. They only want to help."

Zantara is showing me a vision of the future. It is her coronation as empress of the seventeen universes she has subjugated and united into the empire of Zantarania. The throne is made of writhing bodies intertwined and piled at least a mile high. Seated at the top, she herself is a giant figure of flame and smoke. Floating above her are her seventeen crowns. Some look like heaviest lead or iron, inlaid with teeth and fangs. Some are lacy filaments of gold, with spinning galaxies hanging from them like pearls. One is a crown of diamond thorns, one a crown of silver nails, one a crown of interlaced double-edged razor blades, and so on. In her right hand of flame she holds a twisting bolt of lightning, and in the flaming palm of her left hand rests the severed head of some kind of beast I've never seen before. It has the face of a man, the horns of a ram and the hanging tongue of a snake. The face is vaguely like my father's as he lay dead on the bedroom floor, his tongue bulging.

A huge crowd of subjects and slaves kneel far below her. Millions of them, creatures of many species, filling the vast throne hall. Zantara has scoured a million billion universes to collect them. I scan the faces of all shapes and colors and descriptions, and then I spot me. A big quivering blob chained by the neck to the foot of her bloody throne, cowering, collared. Happy.

My tooth aches fiercely. My skull cracks open along its suture lines and exposes my flinching brain. They are pounding on the door behind me now with something heavy, trying to break it down. Each bang explodes in my brain. But I can hear Zantara calling me, instructing me. This is the test. My final test. If I fail she will never contact me again.

I must not fail. I take my father's belt and fasten it around my neck. Zantara tells me how to hold the end of it in both hands and pull. The door is cracking behind me. Photons dance before my eyes. My tongue bulges.

The door crashes inward, capsizing the couch. I tumble to the floor but I still hold the belt, pulling with all my strength. Her face floats above me, shouting. My ears are stuffed with static. My eyes roll into my head. I see my brain quivering, cowering.





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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh

All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh