Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Given"

a short story
by Joe Koch

May 10, 2023
995 Words
Genre(s):

You forfeit your name, the price of entry. Mere months ago, you were attached to its suggestion of ephemeral beauty, your name like a delicate flower, too precious to be plucked. You let them, though. Those who seemed worthy, those who seemed to pinch and defoliate with studied fingers. But seems is not is. So you’re happy to give it up.

“Lily of the uncanny valley; hello and welcome, little one.” The thing at the door is some sort of puppet or automaton, programmed to make puns when you sacrifice your ID to its red-lipped slot. One further insult to top off a career of insults. You wonder if the remark is random or based on information stored during the course of your service. The last silver-white edge of your badge slips out of sight as the thing waits for you to respond before granting access.

“I’m so pleased to be here.” You use your most cordial, toothless smile, transmitting diplomacy without the suggestion of surrender. You stand patiently, without fidgeting, even though you want to scream.

Jesus Christ, you think, what more do they want? You’re locked out of your past and the future beyond the periphery of your imagination now hinges on a deal you took in a rush. Anything to get out of that middle-management clusterfuck. Maybe you’ll miss the comforts of a one-window office with your name on the desk and credentials on the wall, but you can’t grow on the ground floor, can’t remain overlooked, becoming quietly more poisonous and poisoned through every freeze and thaw like your woodland namesake.

Former namesake, you correct yourself. With no badge to swipe the security box, you’re stuck unidentified on this threshold, elevator doors locked behind, automaton clicking with cheerful guile ahead.

The sound is housed in its belly, and like a set of curtains parting, the torso of the puppet opens. Spreading at the base of the rib cage, fanning out below the blinking electronic mass of its mechanical heart, the automaton’s frame reveals a wheel of chance. It whirs in an endless circle. You try to read the choices, but the dial moves too fast.

The wheel of fortune stops with the ding of a bell hidden in some posterior organ. At the center, a button with an arrow lights up: Show Me.

Exposed above, the anatomical form glimmers in stillness, infused by lurid pigments of molded silicone, or some other semi-soft plastic. Perhaps it’s only the power of suggestion, but when you grab the handle to take your chance and spin, your fingers clamp something wet.

You hesitate. The tepid firmness of the knob seethes with increasing moisture as you reluctantly clutch, and the words on the wheel stay in motion, spinning backwards in a reverse disintegrating script.

Your hand slips with dizzy inelegance.

You hold on despite the roiling motion. You’re not superstitious, not exactly. You’ve always had faith in your good luck. Lily in the past assessed her options, saw through the confusion of hot trends with cold wisdom, and came out ahead, or at least not headless. She had to be cold and deliberate to compete. She had to be bold enough to trust her luck and make a wild guess, even with little evidence. She smiles, remembering she can usually guess right.

Now, she has nothing to go on. Now, here, Lily is nowhere. She can’t read her options on the wheel. She can’t try to predict an outcome. Lily can’t make a guess because Lily isn’t here anymore. You gave her up when you fed your ID to the electronic mouth.

Show Me.

The handle spins you when you try to turn it, yet you refuse to release your grip. You cleave with all of Lily’s skill, power, and intelligence (because it was never really luck, was it?) as the human and mechanical motion separates some other essence by centrifugal force. Then, as you and this other (so small) are flung downward into a maelstrom of sewage, you smell the fart smell of an industrial processing plant, the diesel smell of a highway forever hemmed with trucks, and the putrid animal smell of the many small corpses crushed between rubber and asphalt. You hear a child crying somewhere as the spinning slows and the black tire streaks on the highway marking an eternal history of skids and crashes write themselves forward and assemble into a new, clear, indelible script.

You read with no impediment.

You’ll forget you had a name, because where you’re going, you’re not going to need one. You’ll forget you had a name, because that’s nothing but a label for the uncomfortable pile of memories you stuffed into a black garbage bag and tossed out of the window at high speed, letting it sink unnamed into some swampy roadside ditch.

You couldn’t find him now even if you wanted to go back and look.

The wheel stops spinning. The arrow points to a slat. You read with no impediment.

Show Me: what is Incorruptible.

You pry your cramped fingers from the flesh of the handle, recognizing with sanguine wryness that it was never made of plastic. Not now or in the past. It shrivels into less significance outside the warmth of your grasp.

Warmth given and never felt. Every slat on the wheel has the same script: what is Incorruptible. You realize this was never a game of chance.

The puppet, or what must now pass for the shredded remnants of him, parts like a torn, bloodied, and bone-beaded curtain to reveal the top floor of the complex.

You step out to receive your promotion.

Up here in the dark, under the stars, your office has no windows because it has no walls. Your office has no ceiling because there is nowhere left to go after this night of forgetting. There is only now, here: nowhere. In the dark. In the sky. Where Lily gives your name to the last falling star.

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About the Author

Joe Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Joe is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and Convulsive. They’ve had over eighty short stories published in places like Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and The Queer Book of Saints. Though happiest in abandoned forests, mountains, or beaches, he currently haunts an attic in crowded Minneapolis along with several companionable ghost cats. He/They.

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Copyright ©2023 by Joe Koch.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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