Tammy took a few deep breaths before she entered room 403.

“Good evening, Mr. Cartwright,” she said business-like, as polite as she could manage given the inevitable response.

“Go fuck yourself, you fat cow. I’m in pain, give me morphine.”

She was sure he wasn’t in as much pain as he should have been. According to his chart, he was probably faking. She hoped he wasn’t. If everything he said was wrong with him was correct, he had but days to live.

“Let’s see what we can do,” she said, and took the man’s arm. He tried to pull away, but she grabbed onto his wrist and held it in place. The man was weak from all this time in bed.

Taking his blood pressure and pulse, she counted the seconds on her watch, ignoring his expletives.

“Whore! Slut! Jezebel!”

She told him to hold still. Some of his IVs were coming loose, and she didn’t want to go through the fuss of sticking him again.

He swung his free arm across the bed and with his exoskeleton hand latched onto her breast. Tammy took a step back. He’d pulled out his tubes. She’d have to fix that before she left.

Taking a pair of tourniquets, she grabbed the man by the wrists and told him in no uncertain terms that he would hold still. She tied his arms to the railing, and he soon stopped resisting. He became quiet. As Tammy squirted some saline out of a needle, she did her best to ignore the man’s arousal, an incidental medical condition. She scowled.

He would get his morphine. She stabbed him in the vein, pretending she could hurt him. He would be so easy to kill.

“Goodbye, Mr. Cartwright,” she said, pretending.

As the judge passed his verdict, the accused, then the convicted, now the deceased, breathed a sigh of what looked like relief. She had seemed bored all through the proceedings, even as various men of the community recalled with torrid detail her seduction tactics. Goodman Jonas wept as he recounted the spell that compelled him to lock his children in the barn and expose himself to everyone he met.

Hers had been the only relaxed face, and when asked to verify the troubled man’s testimony, she replied with a smile and a quick, “Who am I to deny the word of a man?”

Other stories piled up. She was hollow inside, her opening a beehive, her breasts filled not with milk, but honey, which she force-fed to young boys who strayed from their homes. She was four thousand years old, occasionally a dragon, occasionally a monster made of cobbled-together human flesh, which she tailored using snake-tooth needles.

No one had ever caught her in an immoral act, but that was part of her treachery. She altered the memories of her victims, making their personal problems seem like their own faults. Alive, her skin seemed white and pure, but when it burned, it revealed her true colors as of the race descended from Cain.

The men who grabbed her later complained that they enjoyed the feeling of her body. The evil was sucking them in. Those who lit the flame were soon made to feel regret, the last of her inhuman insubordinations. We in the community must remember, she needed to go. She was the cause of our suffering, and though we may be no longer capable of future progeny, at least we are safe.

Dr. Deacon showed his bicep to the class. A couple of the football players were impressed, but most of the girls seemed embarrassed. Blushing was how teenagers showed admiration, he knew, but he was still annoyed by their evasive glances.

A nerd raised his hand. “Is this going to be on the test?” Other students laughed at the question. Dr. Deacon watched the nerd smile to himself. He thought he was smart.

“What separated lords from their vassals?” Dr. Deacon asked, writing the words ‘lord’ and ‘vassal’ on the board behind him. Answers came from around the room. Wealth. Power, but what is power? Strength.

“Exactly. Physical intimidation was very real in the middle ages. An insubordinate serf might expect a visit from the knights of the order.” He wrote the word ‘enforcer’ between the other two words, and nodded affirmatively as he curled off the r.

He continued the lecture, doing his best to get a laugh from the bored-looking cheerleaders, but they were too stupid to understand when he was making a joke. “No, don’t write that down,” he said, and they looked up to him with empty eyes that he could only pity. His voice resonated in his head. He thought he’d sounded vaguely faggy. He’d even flipped his hand limp-wristedly.

As class ended, he showed his bicep again. A couple of the girls came and felt it on their way out. So did a football player, who pointed to the blackboard and said, “Hey. Doctor D. We got the message.”

“Great,” he said. “Study hard.”

After everyone was gone, he erased his writing. He had two hours before his next class. Maybe he’d go to the gym.

Two friends of opposite genders are watching a sporting event on television. The woman is bored. The man is enthusiastic. His enthusiasm bores her more than the game itself. He looks over to her after what to him was an exciting play, and she nods to avoid corrupting his childlike wonder.

Maintaining the implicit deceit in her demeanor is exhausting. She stands up for a break.

“Hey, will you get me a Coke?” the man says, not looking from the screen. He gives a thumbs up in her direction.

She agrees. Opening the fridge, she finds the last bottle of Coca-Cola behind a number of rotten vegetables. A bag of carrots has turned into a semi-transparent ooze, and what used to be a head of lettuce has become a solid ball of maggot. She finds a plastic bag and puts it over her hand. Keeping her gaze on the floor, she pulls out groceries, plunging them out the window into a handy trash compactor. The vegetables produce a visible odor.

A jar of black mayonnaise crashes against the floor. The mold of it seems to be crawling toward her. She backs away. Snatching the Coke, she runs from the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.

She sits down and casually hands the man the beverage. He says, “Alright!” not at her or the soda, but at something on the screen. He rips off the bottlecap and pours the liquid down his gullet. “Woo hoo!” he says. “We did it!”

The wall behind them turns a greenish black. The color fills the room, but the man doesn’t notice. The woman closes her eyes and cheers for the home team, too. She might as well.

Coca-Cola: Your Only Responsibility

Research was the easy part. Some compounds produce scent and flavor when dissolved in an alcohol solution. Obvious. Which associations are triggered in test subjects depends largely, but not entirely, on the relationship between the synthetic molecule and those found in nature.

Olaf wasn’t in the mood to document. He’d done it all so many times, almost precisely the same paper. This week’s research had focused on butterscotch simulations, but the principle was the same as it had been for vanilla, peanut butter, coconut. Butterscotch. He’d done this exact research before, but the company thought it important to revisit flavors periodically.

He drank some coffee. It stimulated him, but it didn’t make him want to sit at his computer. It made him walk in the snow to his car. He started to drive to work, but he was already there. He felt foolish. He added some whisky to his coffee, and a peppermint.

He checked his email. None of the pharmaceutical companies he’d applied to had written back to him. Every few minutes, he moved from his empty document to his empty inbox.

A cigarette made him work in the furniture factory again. A few minutes playing a game on his phone made him desperate for a change, anything at all. He sniffed a failed butterscotch. What could he say about the failures, except that they weren’t quite right?

He poured some in his coffee. It smelled like late nights in college. He drank it, and though it was vile, he downed the whole mess in one go and looked back on it fondly. Listening to rock and roll music, he began to type.

Through the dark, Gerard massaged the air around his wife’s body until he found her. She was motionless, almost unaware of him, until his hand landed gently against her skin. The sensation took her by surprise, and she twitched, but his other hand brushed against her hair and smoothed her down.

He could tell she was confused, but that would pass. One kiss later, she was relaxed. He’d just learned how to kiss. With a brief and warm exhale, life-affirming saliva blessed the back of her neck. She was silent. He touched her faintly, so that the dark was touching her and not his hands. As long as she was surprised and mostly unaware of his touch, her mind wouldn’t resist. Women are taught from a young age to deny pleasure, so he had found out.

“Where did you learn to be so sexy?” she asked in slow breaths. He didn’t want to answer, since he had an answer. Instead, he chose mock hubris.

He was born this way.

In school, he’d been ashamed to admit that he had studied for tests. He wanted to be the kind of smart that didn’t require effort. He did study, always after dark, usually alone. Sometimes with a friend. He was a good student.

His hands were magic now. His wife was in another world. She was cheating on him with that world. Someday, he swore, they would make love in the same room.

Amnesia wasn’t the issue. Ezekiel remembered the last five years down to the last detail. He had had jobs and relationships. That was all.

He was in an office now. Or he was undercover for special police. A reporter for a tiny newspaper in rural Arkansas. A bartender in a pansexual strip club. A line worker in a glue factory. He corrected a nozzle if it strayed off target. He was investigating a serial murder. He’d tell everyone. His boyfriend had no idea. His girlfriend knew everything. His gender-neutral playmate had no idea. His long-lost soulmate had no idea.

He had no idea.

A man on the train asked him, “Do you know how to get to The Glass Museum?” The man expected him to know, so he knew, but the man wouldn’t follow his instructions. Ezekiel repeated them slowly several times until they arrived at the stop where the man would need to leave. Ezekiel nearly had to push him out, but he wouldn’t find his way. The man was committed to being lost.

Ezekiel was more open-minded. He could ride the train, or he could ride the bus. He could ride a Greyhound bus to a place he had abandoned. He hadn’t had a job. He hadn’t had a relationship. He’d spent the last few years planning a better future, all alone, The Count of Monte Cristo without the money or moral imperative. He could get the money. He didn’t need justification.

In film, the screen blacks out and the characters return in the future, having done what they needed to do. The last five years were not forgotten. They were blacked out, and he would be whoever he had been. He would find out after the break.