The Pig Who Wants to Be Beaten

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 People asked us why our approach is better than using robots. Naturally, we cite expense, and availability. 

 In our experiment, volunteers agreed to a week of intense hard work. They logged their emotions on tablets every hour. From this, our scientists identified the standard brain patterns of people who felt oppressed, overworked, or exploited.

 Within a few months of fine-tuning our product, exhaustion released endorphins. Patients smiled when told they’d been given an extra shift with no breaks. Being woken in the middle of night to bring canapes brought on fits of spontaneous laughter.

 We hope to make the deep-brain stimulation devices available to employers and families later this year. Trials for our prison reform variant were awarded government approval this morning.

Meager Hein

 In these sands men had died hundreds of deaths, most of them formulaic. Some parched by the long gaze of the desert sun. Some shot by the enemy. Some consumed by sudden torrents of earth and water.

 Little Jerry Sanford’s mother tried to have him play outside as much as she could now. From his favourite position in the sandpit, he looked up from his army men to regard a pair of shoes he had not regarded before. Laces done tight. A dark face haloed by the sun. 

 “Must they always die?” the figure said, gesturing at the toys. 

 “Yeah, they kinda have to,” Jerry answered. He entombed one with another handful. 

 “Well,” the figure paused. “That’s a pretty good understanding.”

Jerry ground the last surviving private into the grit, but felt like there was something he was forgetting. He wondered how long the man had to wait for what he wanted. 

The High Priestess

 “I’m afraid this is just the truth,” she said with cool resignation. I looked at the conjurer’s tricks on the table. Bags of pebbles scratched with sigils strewn about at odd angles. A pendulum tied to a frayed bootlace.

 “I’m going to turn out a murderer?” I scoffed. I mean, of course, I’d thought about those kinds of things. Everyone has. I got up in protest. “You wouldn’t even bet on it.”

 “I’d wager two quarters and a 1973 dime your late father gave you,” she called out. I stopped cold. Fingered the coins in my pocket. I slowly moved back into my seat. 

She picked up the cards, and something stirred inside her eyes that made me feel excited in ways I hadn’t yet known.  “Listen to me, child,” she said, showing me the image of Death, “and I will show you how not to get caught.”

Upir

 Mr. Charleston’s work was unmistakable. The village’s only major celebrity, he’d mixed his paints himself from pigments he found in the neighbourhood. Charcoal foraged from the woodburners’ remains. Ochre dug out from deep in forest reserves, his brushstroke as good as a signature to all who lived in that antiquated hamlet. 

 It was this the locals had in mind when the record-breaking work had been shown on the national news, sold at auction. The date on the painting just last year. They gathered spades and cut old fence posts for the pyre. Poured gasoline into the excavator.

Votive Deposit

I was nine when the first dream of an old god took me. I was the third of eight children to be contacted in our village before they found the shrine, and burnt it. I did not know it at the time, but everyone’s dream is different. 

 I dug a trench in a forest clearing, the drifts as deep as my thighs, far from any light but that of the moon. I kept digging but finding nothing, though I knew there was supposed to be something here. That nothing came the more I dug only turned into mounting distress. 

 It was not until I collapsed from exhaustion that I understood what I was looking for. For the first time in hours I felt calm. I laid very still, and waited. The kiss of the freshly falling snow felt like a benediction.

Window Shopping

 They hung images of their children’s achievement in the stairwell, while in my parents’ there hung only mirrors. They had been having lunch when I arrived. After I’d eaten, I noticed myself standing too long in that skylit hallway, staring ever closer at pictures of birthday parties. Of someone else’s dark and remote past. 

 Peering down at my hands I know that I can never go back there. The hole I made in the photograph collage will be apparent to everyone with eyes. For the display in my own stairwell, however, I will be lucky if anyone says a word. 

Innate Nurturing Behaviours

 Mice have certain neural pathways associated with motherhood. A chemical receptor in the brain allows them to do things like risk themselves for their offspring. They isolated it. Found it in humans. Made it into a drug and offered it up to women suffering from post-partum depression.  After the change of government, it didn’t take long for people like me to be rounded up. We childless affronts to god.

 All the years I spent explaining to my parents that I don’t want kids. What they said never left me. “There must be something wrong with you.” “Why don’t you see a doctor?” and “Why can’t you be normal?” Normal is productively miserable, living for others’ expectations.

If I stop picking up my prescriptions, or fail to administer a dose, the ParentGuard app notifies the police. Now, I am so very normal.

Plenty More Fish

  She had a list of rules. That I may look at her sketchbook, but only when she is around. That I may hit her, but only when she is awake and asking for it.

 “Will you be my boyfriend?” is a hell of a message to get from someone before your first date. Before you have even met. If that’s a red flag, then loneliness leaves you colourblind. 

 I can tell you the colour and size of her shoes and the tattoos on her breasts but I cannot tell you where she is now or if she is even still alive. We walked around the museum, among dead things, until I found myself alone with the bones.

The Inspection House

 Five minutes until they make you go to the room again. The windows hold a view of the mountain you cannot reach. In the summer it is too hot. In the winter, too cold. But you have to be there. You have to be there for the gathering.

 Four minutes until they make you go to the room again. The instructions printed on A4. Forever the same typeset. They always greet you but never want to hear your voice. The room is an extension, a hearing aid for someone else’s thoughts. 

Three minutes until they make you go to the room again. The tables face one another but there is only one place we are permitted to look. The seats too low for comfort. The chairs older than most of us. They will be all that’s left. 

Two minutes until they make you go to the room again. The building is unheated. Only this room gets warmth, and not much. Only this room needs human presence.

One minute until they make you go to the room again. The years pass but you are no closer to understanding. That may be their intent.

Keepsake

 Ms. Sheridan adored the Ordnance Survey map in her glove compartment because it had aged with her. She touched her fingers closely to its deep creases, ran a thumb over all its dog-eared corners. Her daughter said she should upgrade to something new, but every option lacked the character, the history, the bookshelf smell. 

 She looked out the car window to the tree she planted, the one thing that got stronger as she grew old. She had marked it on the map in blue ballpoint. That too had faded, now nearly illegible. She knew it would be safer if she had kept nothing, that she’s just holding on to a secret. That secrets only ever grow larger.